See Part 1 for disclaimers and a full description of this installment in the My Lord Conqueror series.
Julius Caesar stood on the balcony of his private seating area and watched the activity in the arena with casual interest. He felt a surge of exhileration flow through him as a gladiator in a silver helmet and matching armor plowed through several opponents and then turned with a fist to his chest in Caesar's direction.
Caesar merely nodded in acknowledgment, his expression remaining completely unreadable. The crowd cheered as the silver-clad gladiator raised his hands high in the air. He still held a large ax in one hand and shook it over his head. The crowd cheered louder.
“A perfect day for the games, Caesar. One could not ask for a more beautiful day.”
Caesar turned slightly to glance at Pompeii standing just behind him in the shade of the canopy overhead.
“I see you survived the catacombs,” Caesar commented with a wry smirk, as he returned his attention to the arena. “Such a pity, Pompeii. I was rather hoping the rats would take care of you for me.”
“Funny. I did what you asked, Caesar,” Pompeii's expression sobered. “It wasn't easy, either.”
“Nothing worth doing is ever easy, Pompeii,” Caesar remarked. “You should know that by now.”
“I really thought you would leave me down there in that hole.”
“Don't think it didn't cross my mind,” Caesar turned a scowl on the man. “I don't tolerate insolence from anyone, Pompeii.”
“Insolence? Or rivalry?”
“There's a difference?”
“I suppose it depends on one's perspective.”
“Hm,” Caesar stepped back under the shade of the canopy and sat down on his cushioned chair. He then glared up at Pompeii through hooded lids. “Did you learn anything of importance while down in that so-called hole of yours?”
“Not really. The little blonde isn't exactly a trusting sort and the boy knows nothing.”
“She's with them now. Tried breaking them out and ended up being captured along with them. I believe you'll want your architects to take a look at the passageways down there after all this is over. There was an explosion that did some damage.”
“An explosion? From what?”
Pompeii shrugged. “I don't know, Caesar. I couldn't tell from inside my little cell. But several of your guards were killed. The smell was very unpleasant, let me tell you. Nothing like the odor of burnt flesh to really make your day.”
“So, you're saying your time spent down there with Xena's little blonde friend was all for naught?” Caesar's scowl deepened. “Didn't she give you any indication what Xena's up to?”
“The only thing they really talked at length about was the boy and his parentage,” Pompeii replied. “Oh, by the way, you're not the father, Caesar.”
A dark brow quirked wryly. “I had no doubt of that, Pompeii. So, who is the boy's father? Is he still alive? Do I need to send men to take care of him, too?”
“Nope, dead,” Pompeii said. “Died the day the boy was born—or the night. Xena wasn't really clear about the details. Other than to say the boy's father was a man named Borias.”
“Ah,” Caesar nodded.
“You know of him, Caesar?”
“Just the name and a few rumors,” Caesar replied. “A Mongol from the north who supposedly helped defeat a tyrant in Chin. Some say he kept company with a ruthless warrior princess who could fight as well as ten men. I guess we know who that was, now, don't we?”
Pompeii scoffed. “Apparently the rumors were greatly exaggerated. From what I heard down in the catacombs, she couldn't stand up against five men.”
“Don't underestimate Xena, Pompeii,” Caesar warned. “She is not a woman to be trifled with.”
“Well, you won't have to worry about her for much longer, Caesar,” Pompeii said confidently. “The gladiators in the arena will take care of her for you. An unarmed woman against more than twenty armed and well-trained gladiators doesn't stand a ghost of a chance.”
“And the others?”
“We captured two Amazons amongst the spectators in the crowd, Caesar,” Pompeii replied easily. “We threw them in with the others.”
“Only two? Are you sure there aren't more? Those men I sent to the inn were sure there were at least a dozen, if not more.”
“The two we caught were wearing guard uniforms when we spotted them. We checked the rest of the guards and didn't find anymore Amazons among them.”
Caesar's dark eyes scanned the crowd. “Then they are disguised as spectators and waiting for their chance to strike.”
“No worries, Caesar. We'll be ready for whatever they throw our way.”
“Your confidence in your men is admirable, Pompeii,” Caesar turned his head so the man wouldn't see the sarcastic expression on his face. “And greatly misplaced.”
Both men turned to find Brutus standing behind them with a fist to his chest. He wore his customary maroon tunic and pants with silver armor and a white cape draped over one shoulder. He was a full head shorter than Pompeii and Caesar, but muscular and stocky.
“Brutus,” Caesar stood to greet the man by clasping arms with him.
“Pompeii,” Brutus nodded to the man in blue.
“Brutus,” Pompeii gave him a wary smile. “I thought Caesar sent you to Gaul.”
“I had business to attend to and had to return home early,” Brutus explained. “You're looking well, Pompeii.”
“A little thinner than I was before Caesar had me locked in a cell in the catacombs,” Pompeii shot a wry glare in Caesar's direction.
“What news, Brutus, my dear friend?” Caesar patted him on the shoulder and motioned for a steward to serve them. “Wine, gentlemen? It's the finest Rome has to offer.”
“None for me, thanks,” Brutus refused. “I need to keep my wits about me today.”
“Well, I'll take his, then,” Pompeii quickly grabbed two goblets and downed one in one long gulp. “Ahhh, that hit the spot.”
Caesar raised his goblet in a toast. “Here's to loyal friends, good drink and the prosperity of Rome!”
“Here! Here!” Pompeii raised his own goblet.
Brutus picked up the empty goblet and held it up. “To Caesar!”
Caught in the act of taking a drink, Pompeii raised his cup again. “To Caesar and to Rome!”
Brutus leaned in close to Caesar. “Might I have a private word with you, Caesar?”
“Right now, Brutus?” Caesar scowled at the man. “Can't it wait until later? I'm about to make an important announcement.”
“No, it can't, Caesar,” Brutus crossed to Caesar's private passageway. “This is of the utmost importance.”
Caesar set his goblet aside with an annoyed glare and moved to follow. “Excuse us for a moment, Pompeii.” As he brushed past Pompeii's shoulder, he stopped and said in a conspiratorial tone, “And try not to drink all the wine before I return. We'll be toasting more than my good health when I return.”
Pompeii raised his goblet in mock salute. “Hail, Caesar.”
Ducking into the cooler passageway, Caesar slowly caught up to Brutus. “What is this all about, Brutus?”
The man stopped in front of one of the chambers and opened the door. He motioned for Caesar to proceed ahead of him into the chamber, then entered and closed the door behind him.
They weren't alone.
“What is the meaning of this?” Caesar spun around to confront Brutus. “Why are the senators here, Brutus? What's going on?”
“We came because Brutus confided something quite disturbing to us just this morning, Caesar,” one of the gray-haired men stepped forward. “He has it on good authority that you wish to proclaim yourself emperor on this day.”
“But he isn't the only one who warned us this day would come, Caesar,” another senator stepped up next to the first. “I received a written missive just two days past that we should all beware the Ides of March.”
Brutus went toe-to-toe with his taller friend. “I have one question for you, Caesar.”
“And what question is that, Brutus?” Caesar's brow quirked. “After all these years, don't you trust me? Can you seriously stand here and listen to these lies?”
Brutus held Caesar's gaze. “What is this big announcement you plan to make at the conclusion of the games, Caesar?” Brutus asked, point blank. “Are you going to declare yourself Emperor of Rome?”
Caesar's dark eyes narrowed, as he kept his gaze locked with Brutus'. “We've been friends for how long, Brutus?”
“Answer the question, Caesar.”
Caesar broke eye contact and looked accusingly at the men surrounding them. “You're my closest friend, Brutus. And close friends don't betray each other.”
“You sent me to Gaul to die on the battlefield, Caesar,” Brutus hissed. “Are you seriously still calling me your friend? Our friendship is a farce and you know it.”
Caesar put a hand on Brutus' shoulder and leaned in close. “Don't do this, Brutus. Not in front of them. You have no idea what you're getting yourself into or who you can trust.”
Brutus took a step back and pulled a dagger from his belt. “You're right, Caesar. I don't know who I can trust, anymore.”
Caesar was completely taken by surprise when several of the men around him suddenly produced deadly daggers, too.
The first attack happened so fast that Caesar barely registered the pain that shot through his side. A roar from the arena above drowned out his grunts of pain from each subsequent attack as senator after senator plunged a dagger into the white-clad would-be ruler.
It was a miracle that Caesar managed to remain on his feet throughout the entire attack. The pain was so intense that he cried out as each blade penetrated his body. His lungs were on fire and his breathing became shallow as he willed himself not to fall to his knees.
Then Caesar's gaze locked with Brutus'. “You, too, Brutus? Will you betray all that we've worked so hard for in the name of Rome?”
Brutus stepped forward with the dagger held in front of him, a gleam of deadly intent in his gray eyes and plunged the dagger right into Caesar's midsection. He watched the man's eyes widen in shock, as Caesar glanced down at the bloody blade sticking out of his belly. Then his mouth filled with blood and he choked it out. Some of it splattered in Brutus' face, but the man barely flinched.
“This is for the good of Rome, Caesar,” Brutus jerked the blade higher, opening a large gash in Caesar's belly and spilling his guts out onto the stone floor at their feet. “And you were never fit to rule as emperor. Until we meet again in the afterlife, Caesar. May the demons torment your soul for all eternity.”
Caesar's eyes rolled back in his head. His life quickly drained away as the darkness consumed him. More blood gurgled up into his mouth and he choked on it as his knees gave way and he collapsed to the stone floor in a bloody heap.
Brutus stared down at Caesar until he breathed his last. Then he met the gazes of the men around him.
“It's done,” he said on a heavy sigh.
He then turned away from them and left the chamber without a backward glance. No one stopped him and no one seemed to notice the blood on his hands as he ducked down a long side passage and eventually emerged outside the Colosseum.
He didn't get very far, however. As soon as he set foot outside the stone structure, he was met by a wall of flames so high that he couldn't see the sky. Centurions were frantically trying to throw buckets of water onto the flames that were quickly consuming everything in sight.
And then the unthinkable happened.
A deafening noise pierced the air and thick smoke billowed up around him. Brutus tried to see beyond the blazing inferno that was rising higher and higher. It was so high, in fact, that flames licked the wooden portion of the Colosseum above where the stone walls ended.
Something enormous suddenly collapsed on top of him and the last thing he heard was his own scream as the flames consumed him.
That single horrifying shout was all it took for chaos to send everyone scattering. The crowd erupted in a screaming and stampeding mob, as flames licked the sky and the fire quickly spread throughout the upper sections of the Colosseum.
The tunnels on the east side were filled with thick, black smoke and many were overcome the instant they tried to escape. The body count quickly rose to staggering proportions as more and more people shoved their way through to the other side.
But there was no escape and the body count rose exponentially.
“What is that sound?”
“I don't know. It kinda sounds like…”
“Ares' balls!” Eponin exclaimed.
“It's coming from over there!” Ephiny pointed toward the door to the catacombs.
“Then we head toward the arena!” Xena quickly grabbed Gabrielle and Solon, shoving them toward the double doors of the arena. “Break down those doors!”
Every one of the gladiators suddenly burst into action as they collectively threw themselves at the two wooden doors to the arena. The doors groaned from the effort but remained steadfast.
“Again!” Xena ordered.
The men heaved themselves at the doors again and this time the wood splintered a little, but the doors still held.
“It's getting worse, Xena!” Gabrielle saw smoke billowing in.
“Put everything you've got into it, men!” Xena shouted above the roar of the flames behind them. “Or we're all cooked.”
“Let me try,” Malieu motioned for the men to stand aside.
When they were clear, he lowered his shoulder and charged toward the middle of the two doors with all his might. The doors budged slightly, but still didn't give. So he tried again. Others joined in, but the doors still wouldn't budge.
The fire quickly spread throughout the wooden rafters of the chamber and thick acrid smoke filled the entire room. They were all hacking and coughing from their efforts and the smoke that quickly filled their lungs.
“This ain't workin'!” Eponin choked out. “We're gonna die in this lousy, stinkin' hole if someone don't do something quick!”
Gabrielle felt an unreasoning panic take hold of her as the rafters above her head creaked and groaned. Red-hot embers glowed and the smoke grew thicker still. Even with Xena right there beside her and a strong arm wrapped firmly around her shoulders, Gabrielle couldn't stop from shaking with fear and dread.
“We're going to die,” she said, as she looked up and met Xena's gaze.
“At least we'll die together, love,” Xena squeezed Gabrielle tightly. “There isn't anywhere I'd rather be than right here with you.”
Smoke filled their lungs with every breath and the heat was becoming unbearable. The gladiators succumbed first to the choking smoke. They all collapsed onto the stone floor and gasped for air.
Gabrielle felt Xena's knees give out and knew the end was near for all of them. Her life literally flashed before her eyes and she felt an overwhelming sense of regret wash over her. She didn't want to die just yet. Not when she and Xena hadn't even had the chance to make a life together.
As she collapsed beside Xena, she looked over and saw Solon. He was already unconscious. Her heart ached and another stab of regret hit her as she realized Xena would never know her son. So many wasted years. So much regret.
And then her thoughts shifted and she wondered if she would spend eternity without Xena by her side. Would they both end up in the Elysian Fields? Or would Xena end up in Tartarus for all the blood on her hands, leaving her in Elysia all alone? Gabrielle felt rage building inside of her. The rage quickly grew so intense that she would never remember exactly what happened next.
One moment she was wrapped in Xena's arms and the world around them was being consumed by fire and smoke. And the next she was charging toward the doors on all fours like a demon possessed.
She barely heard the wheezed shout as she slammed head-first into the doors and burst through them with a resounding crash. Both doors collapsed outward onto the sandy floor of the arena, as Gabrielle felt a rush of smokey air fill her lungs.
Then she turned and bolted back inside the chamber. She hoisted an unconscious Solon onto her shoulder and dragged Xena by an arm. Once outside, she dropped her burden and rushed back inside the chamber to pull Malieu's unconscious form out into the bright sunlight.
Gabrielle managed to drag the Amazons out of the chamber before the rage ebbed and her sudden burst of energy left her. She made it out just in time and collapsed in a coughing and choking heap next to Xena.
“Don't you leave me,” she put a hand on Xena's face and leaned in close. “Please don't leave me, Xena.” Her voice was hoarse from the acrid smoke. Her words barely came out above a whisper. “I need you. Do you hear me? I can't go on in this life without you.” She brushed her lips against Xena's and opened her mouth, tasting the salt of her own tears on Xena's lips. “Come on, Xena. Don't you die like this! Do you hear me? Don't you dare leave me!”
Another wave of anger swelled up inside her and the world around her tunneled into an eerie shade of red. With a renewed burst of energy, she sat up and rolled Xena to her back. She then slammed a fist against Xena's chest with all her might. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she pressed her lips against Xena's slightly parted ones. Then, without thinking, she took a deep breath, pressed her lips firmly against Xena's and blew a steady stream of air into Xena's mouth. The air escaped Xena's nostrils, so she tried again. This time she pinched Xena's nose shut so the air wouldn't escape.
With her fist pressed firmly against Xena's chest, Gabrielle felt Xena's lungs fill with air. She repeated the same action two more times with the same result.
“Breathe, Xena!” Gabrielle slapped the pale motionless cheek. “Breathe, dammit! Come on! You can't die on me now! I won't let you.” She pressed down on Xena's chest several times and then repeated the breathing technique. Her vision started returning to normal as she focused all her energies on resuscitating the still woman beneath her. “Come on, Xena.” Her tears fell unheeded as she rested her forehead against Xena's for a moment. “Please don't cross over and leave me here all alone. Please.”
She felt a flutter beneath her fist and pressed her palm firmly against Xena's chest. With a renewed sense of hope, Gabrielle sat up again and slammed her fist harder against Xena's chest. She then breathed several more times into Xena's mouth.
Just when it seemed that all hope was lost, Xena suddenly gasped and her eyes shot open wide. Gabrielle quickly lifted her into her arms and held her tight.
“That's it,” Gabrielle pleaded with tears streaming down her cheeks. “Come on. You can do it, Xena. Breathe. Just keep breathing.”
Xena coughed and sputtered as the world quickly came into focus around her. Her face was wet and Gabrielle was holding her tightly. Gods, those arms wrapped around her felt so good. If only her chest and throat didn't burn so much.
“Ungh,” Xena groaned. “Wha' happened?”
“You almost died,” Gabrielle couldn't seem to stop the tears that rolled down her cheeks, as she lifted her head and smiled down at Xena. “Gods, you scared the life out of me, Xena. Please don't ever do that again.”
Xena coughed a few more times and then glanced around in confusion. “We in the arena?”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle nodded with a slight smile.
Xena sat up with Gabrielle's help. She quickly took stock of their surroundings and the others lying unconscious around them. Then she met Gabrielle's expectant gaze.
“We should all be dead,” she said quietly. “How…”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I don't know. I can't explain it. One moment we're lying on the floor with flames and smoke all around us and the next…” She finished with a shrug. “I couldn't save them all,” she said regretably, as she glanced around.
Gabrielle watched Ephiny help Eponin sit up. The two Amazons were covered from head-to-toe in black soot and they were coughing. Other than that they appeared to be none the worse for wear.
“I'm fine, Eph,” Gabrielle felt Xena move away from her. “Xena?”
She watched as Xena crawled over to Solon and lifted him into her arms. He appeared to be sleeping, except that his face was dealthly pale. Xena pressed her fingers against the side of his throat, shook her head and then burst into tears.
“Nooooo!” The single word came out as a wail and Xena pulled Solon closer.
“Oh, gods, no,” Gabrielle instantly joined her grieving partner. “Is he…” Xena sobbed over her son. “Oh, Xena. I'm so sorry.” She let her forehead rest against Xena's shoulder and wrapped her arms around her. “I was so busy trying to save you that I didn't…I'm so sorry.”
“Uh, my queen?” Ephiny's voice broke into their shared grief.
“What is it, Eph?” Gabrielle snarled.
Ephiny almost jumped back at the strange look she saw in Gabrielle's eyes.
“We don't really have time for this,” Ephiny recovered her composure quickly. “This place is about to go up in flames. Literally.”
Gabrielle pushed the sudden burst of anger down and felt the world suddenly spin out of control. “Whoa!”
“Hey, I got ya,” Xena let go of Solon and quickly wrapped her arms around Gabrielle to steady her. “Easy, there, Gabrielle. What is it?”
“What's the matter with her?” Eponin's voice was full of concern.
“We really don't have time for this, people.” The alarm in Ephiny's tone had them all on their feet in an instant. “We need to get the hades out of here and fast.”
“Ephiny's right,” Xena pulled Gabrielle to her feet. “We can't stay here. This entire place is going to collapse around us.”
“But there's no way out,” Eponin turned a circle and surveyed the tall walls that surrounded them. “These guys meant business when they built this place. It's a freakin' fortress.”
“Yeah, but where did everybody else go?” Ephiny spun a circle.
“Over there,” Xena pointed to an inconspicuous door at the other end of the arena. “Let's see if we can get out that way.”
“What about Solon?” Gabrielle glanced down at him sadly.
She no sooner got the words out, when the door Xena had pointed at suddenly burst open and guards started pouring out into the arena. The men spotted them immediately and headed right for them. The bloodlust in their eyes made it perfectly clear they weren't there to rescue them.
“Oh, Ares' left nut!” Eponin exclaimed. “This just got worse.”
“Spread out,” Xena suggested. “Don't let them surround us.”
Several of the guards raised their swords high and yelled loudly. Xena immediately went into action with a loud battle cry of her own. She ducked under the swipe of one Roman's blade and crashed headlong into the man behind him. The second man barely had time to react, much less counter her attack. Xena knocked him flat on his back and grabbed the sword from his hand. Then she went into full battle mode.
Not to be outdone, Ephiny and Eponin did the same. Both Amazons managed to wrestle swords from unsuspecting Romans, as the fight grew heated. Their swords clashed with Roman blades as they fought for their very lives.
A loud roar from behind them caught several of the Romans off-guard, as Malieu sprang to his feet and grabbed the two Romans closest to him. He squeezed their bodies together then bashed their heads in and took their weapons with little effort.
With a sword in each hand, he charged toward the mass of Romans still pouring into the arena. Swinging the swords like a berserker, he plowed his way through the soldiers like a man possessed. Arms, legs, heads and blood flew in all directions as Malieu continued on tirelessly.
Catching sight of the big black man just to her left, Xena felt a renewed burst of energy rush through her. She took down several Romans at once in a spray of blood. Grabbing a sword from the lifeless hand of one of them, Xena launched herself into the air and somersaulted over the heads of several more. She landed on her feet and spun around in a tight circle with her arms outstretched. The two blades in her hands sliced easily through several more Romans who charged toward her. And still she didn't stop.
Gabrielle stood to one side and watched the fighting with a sense of wary detachment. She still didn't know what was happening to her or why she kept having bouts of uncontrollable rage. Her head was spinning from the last episode and it was all she could do to keep standing.
Everything was happening so fast. It was almost too much for her to take. And then she saw several Romans pounce on Xena all at once and something inside her just snapped. The rage burst forth and the world around her suddenly went dark-red. A low growl escaped her as she sprang into motion.
And that's when she saw a blur of orange to her left that set her nape hairs on end. A huge cat roared loudly and suddenly sprang at her with its deadly claws and fangs ready to tear her to shreds. A surge of white-hot pain seared her hand and nearly brought her to her knees as the tiger attacked. But Gabrielle somehow managed to tuck and roll underneath the beast at the last possible moment.
She reached out and her hand found a battle ax buried in the sand that she quickly swung in a wide arc with all her might. The tiger roared again, but this time in agony as the sharp edge of the ax opened a gaping wound in the beast's side. The bloody wound didn't stop the tiger from swinging a paw around and swiping at Gabrielle's legs. The tiger's claws caught her calf and her leg collapsed beneath her.
Gabrielle watched the world spin out of control again as she landed face-first in the sand. Everything seemed to slow down as she caught a brief glimpse of Xena in the distance. Then the tiger came around for another pass. Her calf was on fire as agonizing pain radiated up her leg. And then another surge of uncontrollable rage washed over her.
The tiger pounced right on top of her with its fangs dripping saliva.
Xena's shout seemed to come from far away just as she reached up with both hands and grabbed hold of the powerful jaws that descended toward her. Her vision narrowed to a red pinprick as she gave in to the rage that washed over her.
With muscles straining and her entire being on fire from within, Gabrielle did the unthinkable. She kept the tiger's jaws from tearing her flesh apart and used every ounce of strength she possessed to pry the beast's jaws completely apart until she heard a sickening crack.
The tiger howled in agony and jumped back in terror as its jaw suddenly hung slack and the wound in its side streamed blood. Gabrielle watched in wide-eyed horror as the tiger staggered away and collapsed in a lifeless heap next to her.
She managed to take a deep breath as the world spun out of control around her once again. The dizziness was overwhelming and she blacked out for a moment. When she came to, the sounds of clashing swords was ebbing.
And then she looked up to find a Roman standing over her with deadly intent and his sword held high above his head. His movements slowed again and she watched as he suddenly jerked, stiffened and collapsed on top of the tiger's carcass. Then Xena was standing there.
“Gabrielle?” Xena's tone held a mixture of emotions, the foremost being panic. “Gabrielle? Can you hear me?”
“Y-yes,” Gabrielle managed to utter breathlessly.
And then she was lifted into strong arms and held tightly against Xena's chest.
“Gods be damned!” Xena sighed in relief. “I thought I lost you.”
“You almost did,” Gabrielle hugged Xena. “That tiger…”
“Don't know,” Gabrielle felt the tears spill down her cheeks. “Gods, Xena.”
“I know,” Xena stroked her face and held her tight. “I know, sweetheart.”
Then they were surrounded by others. Ephiny knelt on the other side of Gabrielle and looked expectantly at Xena.
“Is she okay?”
“She will be.”
“We need to get outta here,” Eponin added. “This place is just nuts. Who knows if anymore of those guys are coming. And part of the building has already collapsed.”
Xena leaned in close to Gabrielle. “Can you walk?”
“I…” Gabrielle moved her leg and winced in pain. “Tiger got my leg.”
Ephiny quickly examined Gabrielle's calf. “It got her pretty good, Xena. She isn't walking out of here.”
“Okay,” Xena lifted Gabrielle into her arms and stood up on unsteady legs.
“Why don't you allow me the honor of carrying the little one, Xena?” Malieu stepped forward. “That way you can keep your sword arm free, just in case.”
Xena nodded and handed Gabrielle over to the big man without hesitation. Then she headed for the small door where the Romans had emerged. She didn't look back to see if the rest of their small group was following her. She merely plowed on ahead and through the door. A few torches lit the way as they descended into a dank and musty passageway beneath the Colosseum.
“Any idea where this passage leads?” Ephiny asked.
“None whatsoever,” Xena replied.
They moved deeper into the tunnels and suddenly came to a room with several tunnels that veered off in different directions.
“Damn!” Eponin exclaimed as Xena pulled up short. “What the hades is up with these people? Can't they just build something without having to add a bunch of tunnels?”
Xena sniffed the air around them and came to a decision.
“This way,” she said as she took the passage to their left with Malieu right on her heels.
Ephiny and Eponin exchanged shrugs and followed them.
“You think she has some sixth sense or something?” Eponin commented as they hurried after Xena and Malieu.
“I think she smelled smoke in the other passages,” Ephiny replied. “This one just smells musty and wet.”
The passage veered to the right. Xena turned a blind corner and nearly collided with several individuals who came hurtling around the corner at the same time.
“My queen?” The Amazons exclaimed in unison.
“What are you two doing down here?” Ephiny stepped forward. “What happened to the others? And how in hades did that fire get started up there?”
Margalene stepped aside and pulled a soot-covered Zea up next to her.
“Hello, my queen,” Zea greeted Ephiny shyly.
Ephiny's brow quirked in surprise. “Zea? What are you doing here?” She looked past Zea. “Where's Briesse? I thought you two were inseparable.”
“Zea started the fire,” Rayna said.
“As a diversion,” Margalene added.
“Briesse is waiting for us outside, my queen,” Zea replied. “She isn't quite up to traipsing around in all this chaos.”
“Um, hate to put a damper on this little reunion,” Xena interrupted. “But we really need to get out of here, people.”
“We'll go on ahead and make sure the way is clear,” Rayna volunteered. “Most of the centurions were busy with that blazing inferno Zea started, but who knows if they're still at it.”
“You started the fire?” Eponin looked at the horse wrangler with a new sense of respect.
“It was Briesse's idea,” Zea replied. “She said we should create a diversion to help move things along. Why is that man carrying Queen Gabrielle?”
“Long story,” Eponin replied. “Tell ya about it when we're clear of this lousy stinkin' place.”
“Okay,” Zea kept pace with the rest of them. “I'll hold you to that.”
Braes stood on a hill that overlooked the enemy camp. He watched a dark-haired woman emerge from a tent in the center of the camp and his heart constricted. He knew exactly who the woman was. When she joined young Giles and they walked back through the camp unescorted, it was all he could do not to rush in there and wisk Cyrene away to safety.
“General?” One of his soldiers approached from behind and waited for Braes to turn around.
“Yes, Alexander?” Braes didn't move.
“The men are ready, General,” said the young man. “They await your orders.”
Braes kept an eagle eye on the two individuals navigating swiftly through the crowded camp. He waited another few heartbeats as they cleared the edge of the camp and ducked into the trees.
“Tell them to go ahead with the attack, Alexander,” Braes said. “And if anyone happens upon my wife and Giles, bring them to me immediately. Understood?”
“Aye, General,” Alexander bowed and made a hasty retreat.
“Damnable woman,” Braes grumbled under his breath, as he returned his attention to the quiet camp.
He then watched someone else emerge from the tent and knew exactly who it was. Toris moved swiftly through the camp and ducked inside another tent. Braes couldn't hear a thing from his perch on the hill, but he knew from some former reconnaissance that the second tent belonged to one of the Roman commanders.
It wasn't long before the Roman commander and Toris emerged from the tent and stood there for a moment. What they were discussing, only the gods knew. But then the Roman snagged a passing soldier and said something to him. The soldier hurried away and returned several moments later with another Roman commander. The first commander must have issued an order to the second, because the second man saluted and hurried away.
Moments passed slowly as Braes continued to watch the camp for any further activity. Then more than a dozen Romans on horseback headed for the trees in the same direction that Cyrene and Giles headed earlier.
“Oh, for the love of the gods!” Braes exclaimed, as he left his perch and raced back down the other side of the hill toward his own mount. He grabbed the reins that were wrapped around a tree branch and mounted, kicking the horse into a swift gallop.
Cyrene heard the pounding of hooves on the road behind them. Fear shot through her, but she managed to keep her composure.
“We have company,” she commented to Giles.
“What should we do, your grace?”
Cyrene searched for a place to hide and came up short. “Damn.”
“There's nowhere to hide, Giles,” she said. “And it sounds like those men are in an awful hurry.”
Giles pulled his sword from the sheath at his hip and motioned for Cyrene to get behind him. “I'll protect you, your grace.”
“Don't be silly, Giles,” Cyrene pushed past him. “My son won't hurt me. He probably just had a change of heart and sent someone to come fetch us.”
A group of mounted Romans suddenly came into sight ahead. They all wore armor that gleamed in the late-afternoon sunlight.
“They don't look like they're here to provide a friendly escort,” Giles said, just as the lead rider drew his sword and kicked his mount into a full gallop. “Get down, your grace!”
Giles pushed Cyrene to the ground and stood there waiting for the Romans to approach. His sword clashed loudly with the lead soldier's and the sound echoed as the other Romans pulled their mounts to a halt.
“Run, your grace!” Giles shouted to Cyrene. “Don't let them take you!”
Cyrene decided not to argue. She had seen the bloodlust in the eyes of the Romans and knew an instant of panic. They definitely weren't there to provide an escort back to the Roman camp and her son. They were there for one purpose and one purpose only—to kill her.
She ran as fast as she could and managed to make it to the trees before the first Roman had a chance to overtake her on horseback. She could still hear the clash of steel behind her, but didn't stop to see if Giles was okay. It was his duty to protect her, after all. Wasn't that what he had said only a few candlemarks ago when she set out on her ill-fated mission to talk sense into her son?
Cyrene was definitely regretting her insistence on leaving the city walls as she continued to move through the trees. Her lungs burned with the effort to keep running, but she ignored her discomfort. She could still hear her pursuers as they guided their mounts through the trees.
Looking for a place to duck and hide, Cyrene heard a sound behind her that made her heart leap into her throat. Hooves crashed through the foliage right behind her and were quickly catching up. She didn't dare glance back to see how close he was to her. She just plowed on ahead until something caught her eye.
Veering to the right in a move that caught her pursuer slightly off guard, Cyrene headed straight for an opening in the trees. The sound of rushing water drew ever closer with each step she took and she hoped she would make it in time.
The horse was so close to her that she could feel its breath on the back of her neck. She didn't slow her mad flight, even though her heart was sinking with each moment that passed. And then she stopped and let the horse and rider pass her by. The Roman soldier tried to grab for her, but Cyrene just managed to duck out of his reach. She then darted for the sound of rushing water was quickly getting louder and louder.
Hiking her skirt up to her knees in an effort to gain some extra speed, Cyrene spotted her destination. She almost smiled with relief as she realized she was nearly there. But then she heard her pursuers closing the distance again.
“Get her before she jumps!”
The shout came a moment before she reached her destination at a dead run. Cyrene didn't slow down or even check her strides as her foot found purchase on sturdy rock and she launched herself into the air. She plunged to the icy water below and disappeared below the surface in a spectacular splash.
Afraid that her pursuers wouldn't give up the chase so easily, she remained underwater for as long as possible and managed to reach the safety of a small nook behind the deafening waterfall that spilled into the pool. She watched warily from behind the splashing water and a small boulder. Several Romans searched the water's edge, but none seemed inclined to enter the icy water.
Cyrene's lips quivered uncontrollably after only a few short minutes in the water, but she remained in her hiding place until she was absolutely sure the Romans were gone. Then she ducked back under the icy waterfall and swam stiffly to shore.
Her skirts weighed her down and it took her several tries for her to finally climb out of the icy water. Once she was on dry land, however, the shivering intensified. She knew she needed to get back to the city immediately, especially since it would be dark soon. She sent a silent prayer to the goddess to protect Giles, then slowly got to her feet and headed in the direction of the secret passage.
It was all she knew as she was carried through the dark passageways beneath the Colosseum. Pure agony. Each jarring step Malieu took sent wave after wave of excruciating pain up her leg and throughout her entire body. Her head was pounding in time with her racing heart and her leg was on fire.
Gabrielle tried to remain conscious and aware of her surroundings. But it was becoming harder and harder to do so. Each passage looked like the one before. She heard voices around her and occasionally recognized Xena's. But she couldn't help swimming in and out of consciousness.
And then she was no longer moving—no longer in Malieu's arms. She was leaning against a stone wall and her body shook, adding to her agony. Blurry shapes moved in front of her. The loud clash of steel echoed around her. It was loud and confusing. She was dizzy and let her eyes drift shut.
Something bumped her and she cried out in pain. Something else moved just in front of her and her eyes shot open. A Roman towered over her with a gleaming sword in his hand. He smiled wickedly as he lifted the sword. Then he stiffened and his eyes widened. As he dropped to the ground in front of her, she saw Eponin standing there.
But the Amazon was gone before Gabrielle could make sense of what was happening. The noise continued and her vision blurred again. A moment later the darkness washed over her and she sank gratefully into it.
That single shout echoed across the entire camp as the queen's army converged from all sides. Men scrambled in all directions and grabbed for swords. Arrows soared through the air and found their marks. Swords clashed. And smoke billowed up from several fires set along the perimeter.
Greeks and Romans alike clashed in a bloody battle. The legions of Rome were unprepared for the attack that came. It was unexpected and they were taken completely by surprise. Battles were fought on the fields of battle, not within one's own camp.
Xena's army poured down on the Romans and Athenians like a scourge. There was no escape. There was nowhere to run.
“Kill them all!”
Grenella stood just within the safety of the trees with a bow and arrows, as the other Amazons picked off any Roman or Athenia who tried to flee. There was no escape. Not for the legions of Rome or Athens.
Dusk was the perfect time to attack. The sun had just dipped below the horizon and cast eerie shadows over the land. Soldiers all over the camp were just sitting down to their evening rations when the attack came. They had no warning. Many soldiers were caught without their armor. And even more were unarmed as Amazons, Corinthians and Xena's men converged on them unexpectedly.
“My queen!” A young Amazon warrior in full battle paint and dress approached. “The east flank is secure! Our warriors are concentrating on the south and west now. We have them on the run!”
“Well done, Drea,” Grenella kept a wary eye on the field beyond. “Tell our warriors to give no quarter. Take them out to the last man.”
“Yes, my queen!” The young warrior bowed quickly and scurried away.
“To the last man? Is that really necessary, Gren?”
Grenella glanced to her left. “It is if we want this to end, here and now, Aeriella.”
“I don't remember General Braes issuing the order to kill them all, Gren,” Aeriella argued.
“As I recall, we don't answer to anyone but ourselves,” Grenella countered. “Would you like these dogs to seek their revenge against us for our part in all this?”
“No,” Aeriella shook her head.
“We are at war, Aeri,” Grenella's expression softened slightly. “This is for the good of the Nation.”
Grenella took aim and released an arrow. It found its mark and an Athenia went down in a spray of blood with the arrow protruding from his neck.
“Nice shot, Gren,” Aeriella said. “You can still hit your mark, even at this distance.”
“Target practice,” Grenella replied with a slight half-grin. “It's the only way to stay sharp.”
“You'll never grow dull, Gren,” Aeriella replied with a wry grin.
“And you'll never…”
Both women heard a rustling in the bushes a few yards away.
“Did you hear that?” Aeriella whispered loudly.
“Of course,” Grenella groused. “I'm old, not deaf, you old coot.”
“It sounds like something is in those bushes over there,” Aeriella pointed a gnarled finger.
“What are the chances it's a wild boar?”
“Slim to none?”
Grenella knocked an arrow and took careful aim just ahead of where the bushes continued rustling. Before she let loose of the arrow, however, something popped up from the bushes.
Grenella lowered her bow slightly and scowled. “Oh, for the love of the gods.”
The both watched as the head popped up farther and revealed broad shoulders. Then the individual made eye contact.
“You'd better have a really good reason to be out here, young man!” Grenella said.
“Aunt Gren?” Toris got to his feet and made his way over to them. He was covered from head to toe in prickly weeds and burrs. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same, Toris,” Grenella lowered her bow to her side. “I almost put an arrow between those beady eyes of yours.”
“Thanks,” he smiled. “I'm really glad you didn't.”
“Yeah, well, don't think I won't change my mind and do it anyway,” Grenella added. “Where's your mother?”
He pulled up short. “Mother?”
Her brow shot up. “You know. So tall. Dark hair. Eyes almost the same color as yours.” She looked closer at him. “No, check that. Her eyes are a little greener than yours.”
“I haven't seen her,” he answered quickly.
“Really?” Grenella put her hands on her hips. “I heard differently.”
“Well…” He shrugged.
“Where is she, Toris?”
“I don't know. Honestly.”
She raised her bow and aimed for his chest. “You want to revise that answer, young man?”
“Aunt Gren,” he raised his hands in surrender. “Please don't do this. I'm not the enemy here.”
“Okay, that's two consecutive boldfaced lies out of your mouth, mister,” she said. “Why don't you try telling the truth for a change?”
His shoulders slumped and his chin dropped to his chest. He looked like a little kid caught in the act of stealing his family's only milking cow.
“She was there,” he said. “I met with her and she tried to talk me out of going forward with this whole business with my sister.”
“She left,” Toris shrugged. “She walked out of camp on her own volition. I swear.”
“That's it! I swear!”
Grenella pulled the bowstring back and set her shoulder without a word.
“Okay! Okay!” Toris held his hands out in front of him. “Please don't shoot!”
“Then tell me what you said to that Roman commander, Proctor Toris,” Grenella didn't drop the bow.
His face fell. “You know about that?”
“I have my sources,” Grenella's tone was icy. “Now, tell me why you sent those riders after your own mother.”
He slumped onto a nearby boulder with his head in his hands. “I didn't know. I didn't know. I swear I didn't know. This has all just gotten so far out of hand.”
Grenella and Aeriella exchanged confused glances, as Toris broke down into a fit of tears.
“Why don't you start from the beginning?” Aeriella gently prodded. “Tell us what happened.”
Braes prodded his mount to go faster. The trees slowed them down, but Braes didn't care. He was a man on a mission. And he had no idea where this particular mission would take him.
The woods were swarming with Romans on horseback, but, so far, Braes had managed to avoid any confrontations. And then there was the sound of a horn blast and the Roman horsemen suddenly fled back toward camp.
Braes broke through the trees into a clearing at that moment. He could hear the rush of water somewhere close by and slowed his mount to a trot.
“Cyrene?” He called just loud enough to be heard above the sound of the rushing water. “You here?”
Braes dismounted and ran toward the place where her voice had come from. He made it to the edge of an overhang and looked down. Sure enough, there was Cyrene standing in sopping wet clothing at the edge of a stream.
“What in the world are you doing down there?” He called.
“Freezing to death!” She called back.
“I'll be right there, hon,” he called back.
He grabbed his horse's reins and led the animal to a narrow path that led down into the valley below.
“About time you showed up,” Cyrene shivered with her arms wrapped protectively around her. “I'm soaked to the bone.”
He tied his mount to a tree and pulled a cape out of a saddlebag.
“Here,” he draped the cape over her shoulders. “Before you catch your death.”
“Glad to see you care,” she leaned into him and he wrapped his arms around her.
“Oh, I care,” he said with the hint of a smile. “Watched you march right into the enemy camp and march right out again. I thought I told you not to do that.”
“He's my son,” she argued half-heartedly.
“And he sold you out to the Romans,” Braes scowled. “No son would do that to his mother, Cy.”
“He's your son, too, now,” Cyrene let his warmth seep in as she pressed herself closer to him.
“That worthless ignoramous is no son of mine,” Braes growled. “And if I ever get my hands on that…”
“Can we just go home?” Cyrene stopped him before he could say more. “I'm tired and wet and…”
“Sure,” he escorted her to his horse and helped her into the saddle. After untying the reins, he hopped up into the saddle behind her and kicked his mount into a trot. “Let's get you home and out of these wet things.”
The battle was quickly winding down. There were still pockets of resistance, here and there, but things were pretty well-contained, for the most part. The surprise attack had done its job. The few Romans still alive were being herded into the tent in the center of the camp, while the Athenians were sent home without their weapons or armor. In disgrace over their sound defeat, they wouldn't soon forget the beating they had taken or the numbers they had lost.
No one would soon forget the Battle of Corinth. And the city itself would not soon forget the catapults that had shattered lives and left half the palace in ruins. But the citizens would rebuild. Of that there was no doubt. The citizens of Corinth were a persistent bunch and would not let a little setback like war stand in the way of growth and prosperity.
Grenella prodded the tall man walking in front of her in the back with an arrow tip. “Move it, Toris.”
He didn't argue with her, nor did he turn around to see if she was really holding an armed bow at his back. He just kept right on walking up to the main gate of the city of Corinth.
“Halt!” A guard in purple and silver stepped out in front of the closed gate. “What business do you have here?”
“Tell General Braes we've brought him a prize,” Grenella shoved a bound and gagged Toris toward the guard. “Tell him Proctor Toris wishes an audience with their majesties.”
Toris fell to his knees in the dirt, while the guard ducked back inside the city gate and returned a moment later. The gate slowly opened enough for them to walk through. Grenella prodded Toris in the back and he got to his feet. Once through the gate, they were escorted through the city streets and to the palace by four members of the palace guard.
Their heels clicked on the marble floor of the entryway as they made their way through the palace.
“Grenella?” Agatha came out a door and turned to find the group marching toward her.
Grenella left the group and veered toward Agatha.
“Hello, Aggie,” Grenella lowered the arrow and tucked it into a fold of her cloak.
“Was that Toris?” Agatha continued watching the group until they turned a corner and disappeared.
“Yes,” Grenella figited a bit in Agatha's presence. “How are you?”
“I'm well,” Agatha replied, as she looked Grenella up and down. “What brings you to Corinth? Besides escorting my nephew here, that is.”
“I helped unite the tribes and escort them here to provide assistance to Xena's army. General Braes sent word that he needed able-bodied warriors.”
“Ah,” Agatha nodded. “And you're well?”
“Fit as can be for a woman of my advanced years,” Grenella shifted and her joints protested slightly. “Not quite as young as I used to be, though. These old joints tend to protest when I overdo it.”
“I see that,” Agatha smiled wryly. “So, will you be staying the night? We have plenty of room in the palace. This place is large enough to house an army. Your Amazons would surely be more than welcome.”
“My Amazons?” Grenella scoffed. “Just goes to show you how long it's been since you lived among us, Aggie.”
“It has been a while, Gren,” Agatha's smile faded. “I miss you.”
Grenella met her steady gaze. “Me, too. A day doesn't go by that I don't think about you, Aggie.”
“Would you like to share a cup of tea?” Agatha offered. “I can put a pot on to boil.”
“I don't want to impose.”
“It's no imposition, I assure you. I always make myself a good cup of tea after I finish my chores for the day.”
Grenella studied the woman for a moment. She noted the slight stoop to Agatha's shoulders and her gnarled hands.
“I'd love a cup of tea, Aggie,” Grenella said with a small smile.
“Good,” Agatha moved to a stairwell and descended the stairs slowly. “I spend most of my time in the kitchens. There's so much to do to keep people fed around here.”
Grenella followed in silence. She noticed that Agatha shuffled slightly as she walked through the halls of the lower levels of the palace. They passed several servants who stared in wide-eyed awe as they passed.
“They don't get out much, do they?” Grenella commented.
“Most of them live within the city walls,” Agatha entered a large room with two open fireplaces. She went about stirring the embers of one of the fires and set a kettle of water on a hook over the flames. “For some, this life is all they've known their entire lives. They don't know about Amazons, except for a few stories they hear in the local taverns.”
Grenella took a seat in one of the chairs in front of a huge wooden table. She was grateful for the chance to sit down for a while.
“And you?” She asked as Agatha brought the steaming kettle over and poured water into two cups. “Why do you stay, Aggie?”
Agatha sat down and waited for her tea to steep. Grenella almost thought the woman wasn't going to answer her, until Agatha looked up and locked gazes with her.
“This is the world I know,” Agatha finally said. “I'm useful here. And we were never meant to be together. We're just too different.”
“We were in love once, Aggie,” Grenella wrapped her hands around her cup and savored the warmth. “Deeply in love.”
“That was a long time ago, Gren,” Agatha lifted her cup and blew. “A lifetime ago. Things changed when we parted ways.”
“I never stopped loving you.”
Agatha let the hint of a smile touch her lips. “We were so young.”
“Did you ever love me enough to reconsider your decision to leave the tribe?”
The question hung between them in a silence that seemed to go on forever.
“I did what I thought best under the circumstances,” Agatha set her cup on the table between them. “And you had a nation of women to keep you busy.”
“I never said how much I regretted what happened between us, Aggie,” Grenella studied the liquid in her cup as tears sprang to her eyes. “I…” She lifted her head and met Agatha's steady gaze. “I'm sorry, Aggie. So sorry.”
Agatha sighed. “Did you love her as much as you say you loved me all these years?”
“I never loved anyone as much as I loved and still love you, Agatha,” Grenella let the tears fall. “I made a terrible mistake and I've regretted it ever since.”
“Do you regret doing it? Or just getting caught?”
“I never meant to hurt you.”
“But you did,” Agatha looked away as tears sprang to her own eyes. “Seeing the two of you together in our bed…” She shook her head. “It took me years to even consider forgiving you. But by then it was too late. You became queen and were just too busy to listen.”
“You left without a word,” Grenella countered. “I had no idea that you saw me in bed with…with her. I didn't even put two and two together until Salinia reported that the patrol had returned. When you weren't with them I assumed the worst. And then everything changed when we were attacked. Queen Batile was killed in the attack and I suddenly found myself next in line for the queen's mask. I didn't have a choice.”
“We all have a choice, Grenella,” Agatha said. “I chose to leave you when I caught you in bed with another woman. You chose to accept the queen's mask. We both made choices that kept us apart.”
“So,” Agatha continued, as she finished her tea. “Where does that leave us now?”
Grenella considered that for a moment. “I still love you, Agatha.”
Agatha studied her silently for several long moments. “I can't go back to being just another Amazon who shares your bed.”
Grenella put a hand out onto the table with her palm up. “You were never just another Amazon to me, Aggie. And no one has shared my bed since the day you walked out of our hut and didn't return.”
Agatha looked at Grenella's hand for a moment. She noted the the lines and wrinkles that hadn't been there all those years ago. Then she met Grenella's expectant gaze and saw the tears swimming in eyes full of hope.
“I'm not doing any cooking or cleaning once we return to the village,” Agatha took Grenella's hand. “And you'd better figure out a way to get running water close to the hut.”
“I'll have the youngsters build us a new hut,” Grenella smiled. “And you'll have a bed fit for a queen.”
“And curtains over the windows, instead of skins?”
“Anything you want, my love. Anything you want.” Grenella squeezed the hand in hers.
So hot. Voices everywhere. Muffled words she couldn't make out. Excruciating pain. So hot.
The voice was so close she almost jumped. Then the other voices and pain faded into the distance and she felt herself floating. The pain ebbed. And the darkness faded until she was standing in the middle of a beautiful field of fragrant wildflowers.
She turned to find a woman standing beside her. The woman was dressed in a white gossamer gown and wore a gold circlet around her forehead. She smiled warmly at Gabrielle.
“Who…” Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief. “Am I dead?”
The woman shook her head. “No, you're not dead, yet.”
“Who are you?” Her voice sounded strange to her own ears. “Why am I here if I'm not dead?”
“It really doesn't matter who I am,” the woman's voice was silky and smooth. “What matters is that we don't have much time. You have to go back with a message for someone.”
And then Gabrielle turned to find a young man suddenly appearing out a mysterious fog. He looked familiar, yet…
“Hello, Gabrielle,” he smiled and she knew him instantly.
“Yeah,” he nodded shyly. “It's me.”
She looked him over and couldn't believe what she was seeing. He wasn't the skin and bones waif she knew in that tiny cell. He wore a clean tunic and plain pants and there was an aura around him that glowed with a golden light. And his face radiated happiness and peace.
“Dead? Yeah,” he nodded. “But I'm okay now. I'm at peace here.”
Gabrielle stepped forward and hugged him. “I'm so sorry I couldn't save you, Solon.”
He stepped back and smiled. “It's okay, Gabrielle. Really. This place is amazing. There are other kids here and we get to play all day long. It's great. I don't have to worry about anything here.”
Gabrielle felt her chest tighten and tears sting her eyes. “Xena…”
He took her hands in his and held her gaze. “Can you tell her I'm sorry? And that I love her? I always have, even when I was angry with her for all those years. I never stopped loving her.”
Gabrielle placed a palm against his cheek. “You look so much like her.”
“Will you tell her that I don't blame her for anything that happened?”
“I'll tell her.”
He pulled her into another hug. “Thanks for everything, Gabrielle. My mother is so blessed to have you in her life.”
“I'm the lucky one,” she said as she pulled back to smile at him. “Your mother is the best thing that ever happened in my life. And I'm so in love with her that it hurts when we're apart. She's an amazing woman, Solon. I just wish…”
“Are you ready, Gabrielle?” The woman's voice intruded on their private moment. “It's time.”
Gabrielle gave Solon one last hug and then stepped back. “I'm going to do my best to help redeem her so she can come here and spend eternity with you. You deserve to have your mother with you here, Solon.”
The world around her suddenly shifted and swirled.
“You need to understand something before you return to the mortal realm, Gabrielle,” the woman said next to her. “You have been given the rare opportunity to catch a brief glimpse of your afterlife.”
“You mean I'm to spend eternity in the Elysian Fields?”
“As long as you do nothing to jeopardize your chances, yes,” the woman turned and looked pointedly at her. “Gabrielle, the path you are currently on is not the path you were meant walk.”
“What?” Gabrielle couldn't believe what she was hearing.
“You and Xena were never meant to rule Greece, Gabrielle,” the woman said. “This was not the path you were meant to follow.”
“Wait, what exactly are you saying?”
“I'm sending you back to change your destiny, Gabrielle,” said the woman. “If you continue on your present path, both you and Xena will change the course of history and destroy everything that is good and right in the world. Is that what you want? Do you want your children and your grandchildren to live in a world of darkness—a world without hope?”
“Of course not, but…”
“It's time, Gabrielle. Go back and change your destiny before it's too late.”
The woman's voice faded and everything went dark. Gabrielle felt herself sinking into the darkness that closed around her. So many questions raced through her mind, but she had no idea how to ask them. And then everything went completely black.
“How is she?”
“I think she's coming around.”
The voice was oh so familiar. But she didn't want to leave the darkness. There was no pain in the darkness. It was peaceful there. Quiet.
“Come on, Gabrielle,” the familiar voice pleaded. “Don't leave me again, sweetheart. Please don't leave me. I need you.”
As the darkness faded and the world came rushing back in, so did the pain. Everything hurt. Every bone in her body ached unmercifully. And her head pounded in time with her heartbeat.
“Open your eyes for me, sweetheart. Please. Show me those beautiful green eyes of yours. Please?”
Her lids fluttered open and a blurry figure slowly came into focus. Xena's face was right there and her brow was furrowed in worry. She was so beautiful that Gabrielle almost burst into tears.
“Hey,” Xena suddenly smiled in relief. “Welcome back, love.”
“Hur's,” Gabrielle managed a weak croak.
Xena pressed her forehead against Gabrielle's and just held her face in her palms. “I know. I know.” Tears rolled down Xena's cheeks and splashed onto Gabrielle's face. “I thought I lost you,” Xena said quietly. “Gods, I almost lost you.”
Gabrielle just lay there with Xena's warm hands on either side of her face. It felt wonderful. She could actually feel Xena's love wash over her. Then she realized she was lying on something soft. The smell of smoke was gone and in its place was the sweet smell of pine.
“Where…” Gabrielle's voice was hoarse and cracked before she could finish the question.
Xena raised her head and swiped the remaining tears away from her cheeks.
“Sorry,” she said with a shake of her head.
“'Sokay,” Gabrielle placed a hand on one of Xena's and squeezed. “Di'n't mean to scare you.”
“It's okay. I'm just glad you're awake.”
Xena moved back enough that Gabrielle could see her surroundings. A ceiling of pine boughs acted as a makeshift roof overhead. She was lying on a blanket with another blanket covering her.
“Where are we?” Gabrielle managed to croak out through her scratchy throat.
“A day's ride south of Rome,” Xena replied, as she ran a hand through her dark hair. “We've been here for two days. It's been touch and go since we got here.” Xena gently stroked Gabrielle's cheek with the backs of her fingers. “You were out of your head with fever by the time we reached Briesse and the others. We rode as far as we could before you were so far gone that I thought…” She choked on a sob, as fresh tears spilled unheeded down her cheeks.
“The last thing I remember is the tunnels and fighting and…” She scrunched her face as she tried to remember and winced when her head throbbed painfully. “I think I passed out.”
“You did,” Xena sprawled out next to her. “We ran into a Roman patrol and things got dicey. Malieu had to put you down in order to help out. When he went back for you, he found you slumped next to a dead Roman. Eponin said she barely made it there to get the guy before he had a chance to kill you.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle nodded. “I think I remember.”
“We made it out shortly after that,” Xena continued. “It took us a while to make our way through the city streets to where Briesse and the others waited with the horses. The fire spread quite a ways and nearly took out half the city.”
“And the Amazons?”
“All present and accounted for, my queen,” came Ephiny's voice from just beyond the opening to the lean-to.
“And mostly in one piece,” Eponin added with a wry grin. “A few burns, cuts and bruises, but we'll live.”
“How's Briesse?” Gabrielle asked hopefully.
“She's doing a lot better,” Ephiny replied. “She'll be wearing a patch over the eye for the rest of her life, but I don't think she's any the worse for wear than the rest of us. And Zea is taking good care of her.”
“Mother-henning her, ya mean,” Eponin snorted and got an eye roll from Ephiny.
“You had us pretty worried, Gabrielle,” Ephiny continued. “We really thought you crossed over to the other side.”
“Yeah, that sucked,” Eponin added. “Scared the crap outta all of us, especially Eph. She really doesn't want to be queen all by herself.”
“Can you two give us some privacy, please?” Xena shot them both an annoyed glare.
“Right,” Ephiny grabbed Eponin and they quickly retreated.
Xena returned her attention to Gabrielle and noticed a few tears swimming in her eyes. “Hey,” she reached out and caught a tear on her thumb before it slid down Gabrielle's cheek. “It's okay, love.”
“I'm so sorry,” Gabrielle sniffed. “I don't know what happened. It's all such a blur and…”
“That tiger got ahold of your leg, Gabrielle,” Xena explained. “Gave you some pretty deep gashes that got infected. It got so bad that I actually thought I was going to have to remove your leg.” Gabrielle glanced down at the blanket covering the lower half of her body and then back at Xena. “The leg's still there. Your Amazons found the herbs I needed to make a healing poultice. It drew out the infection and your leg is on the mend.”
“I wasn't really talking about the tiger,” Gabrielle sniffed back her tears. “It's the other stuff.” She then looked over and met Xena's confused gaze. “Something's inside me, Xena. Something that scares me because I can't control it.”
“What are you talking about, Gabrielle?” Xena studied her closely.
Gabrielle lifted her hand and stared in confusion at her smooth palm. “Wait. What happened to…”
She raised her other hand and looked at that palm, as well. Both palms were smooth and unscarred. The gash was gone. There was no trace of the mark that had been there after her encounter with the strange dog-beast that fateful night.
Xena took her hands and kissed each palm. “Nothing there. See?”
“I don't understand, Xena,” Gabrielle shook her head slightly. “There was a gash on my palm from one of those beasts that was running loose in the city.” She flexed both hands and felt nothing. “What happened to it? Where did it go?”
Xena examined both palms closely. “There's nothing here, Gabrielle. Are you sure about the gash?”
Gabrielle stared up at the pine bough ceiling for a few moments as her mind spun with possibilities.
“How did the tiger die?” She finally said in a small voice.
“How did the tiger die?” Gabrielle met Xena's gaze. “It did die, right?”
“Yeah, it died,” Xena said. “But I didn't go over to examine the thing closely. I think I saw blood covering the fur on its side. But I was a little preoccupied with you to give it much thought.”
Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I killed it.”
“How is that possible?” Xena finally asked. “That tiger was huge, Gabrielle. One of the largest cats I've ever seen.”
“I killed it with my bare hands,” Gabrielle said. “I tore its jaws apart after I sliced its side open with a battle ax.”
Xena studied Gabrielle silently for a few moments.
“You killed a tiger with your bare hands?” Xena's tone was skeptical. “A grown man couldn't kill something that big with his bare hands.”
“I told you there was something inside me,” Gabrielle met Xena's gaze. “It's something I can't explain or control.”
“No,” Gabrielle cut her off. “Just listen to me, Xena. I know what I felt. Rage. Uncontrollable rage. When we were in that chamber and the fire was everywhere. I felt it and I somehow used it to break us out of that chamber. Then I pulled everyone I could reach to safety. I pulled you out of there. I carried Solon…”
Xena shook her head in disbelief. “I don't…How?”
“I felt the same thing in the arena when the tiger attacked me,” Gabrielle continued. “The rage welled up inside of me as soon as the tiger attacked. And then I was fighting like a berserker. I grabbed a battle ax and sliced the tiger's side, but it turned on me and got me in the leg with one of its paws. I went down and it pounced on top of me. I managed to grab its jaws and…” Tears sprang to her eyes and spilled over. “I'm a monster, Xena. Or a demon.” She raised her hand and showed Xena her palm. “It was one of the hounds from the Underworld, Xena. I think its tooth grazed my palm that night.”
“But there's nothing there, Gabrielle,” Xena insisted.
“Maybe…” Gabrielle shook her head as her mind raced. And then a vague memory tickled the edges of her consciousness. “She said I had to change my destiny.”
“Who?” Xena's expression was full of confusion.
Gabrielle's brow furrowed. “She couldn't have meant…”
“Gabrielle, you're not making any sense,” Xena said. “Who are you talking about?”
Tears sprang to Gabrielle eyes again. “What if we're not meant to be together? What if that's what she meant?”
“Shhh,” Xena gently caressed Gabrielle's cheek. “I love you too much to give up on what we have together, Gabrielle. I came all the way to Rome to prove how much I love you. That's gotta count for something.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Okay.”
“Now,” Xena pulled Gabrielle tightly against her. “Tell me who this woman is you keep talking about.”
Gabrielle snuggled into the embrace and relaxed into the arms of love. She let the memories wash over her as she reveled in their closeness.
“I don't know who she is,” Gabrielle finally admitted softly. “Solon was there.”
“Solon?” It came out in a hushed, pained whisper.
“I was in Elysia,” Gabrielle continued. “And Solon was there.” She moved back enough to look up into Xena's eyes. “Oh, Xena. He was so happy and looked fantastic. He told me to tell you he doesn't blame you for anything that happened. He's at peace now.” A single tear slid down Xena's cheek, as she kissed Gabrielle's forehead. “He knows you love him, Xena. He told me so.”
More tears streamed down Xena's cheeks. She didn't bother wiping them away and just rested a cheek against Gabrielle's head.
“Thank you,” Xena whispered into Gabrielle's hair. “I love you.”
“I love you, too, Xena,” Gabrielle said.
They just lay there in each other's arms as a rumble of thunder sounded far off in the distance. Dark clouds moved slowly across the sky and it wasn't long before the first raindrops fell onto their little shelter. Moments later, the skies opened up and let loose with a heavy downpour.
The world around them disappeared and they were suddenly the only two people on earth who mattered. Gabrielle shifted until her face was even with Xena's and then she slowly kissed her. Putting all the passion and love she had managed to keep bottled up for weeks and every ounce of her being into the kiss, Gabrielle felt the world narrow to a single pin-prick. The kiss deepened and soon their tongues were dancing in a rhythm as old as time.
Gabrielle waited for the rage to surface. She waited for her vision to go red. But the pinprick remained and Xena's lips on hers kept her grounded. No rage. No red. Just…
Sweet. Passionate. Instense. Good. Right.
A cool wind rustled the pine boughs overhead. And the rain continued to pour in heavy sheets that obscured everything. Rome burned itself out and the rain doused the last dying embers. A country mourned the death of a great leader.
And two souls came together as one. One in spirit. One in love. No longer lost in a world full of lost souls.
Three moons later…
“That's the last of the repairs.”
“Are you sure?”
“Are you going to argue with me every time I say something, woman?”
Cyrene smiled up at Braes and he smiled back. He then leaned down and kissed her soundly on the lips from his perch on the roof.
“The inn never looked so good,” she said as she climbed down the ladder and stepped back to survey the work they had completed. “That roof is as good as new.”
Braes climbed down after her and joined her. “At least it won't leak anymore. I don't really enjoy waking up to water dripping on my head.”
She patted his stomach. “But you sure don't mind my cooking.”
He kissed her on the forehead. “Or waking up in your arms.”
“Even when that rooster crows at the crack of dawn?”
He chuckled. “He keeps me on my toes.”
“That he does,” Cyrene smiled. “And the hens are very content to keep laying those eggs you enjoy so much, just as long as he sticks around.”
They both turned as a rider approached and dismounted before them. He smiled warmly as he approached.
“Ho, Giles, what news?” Braes clasped arms with the younger man.
“General…er…” He blushed. “Braes. Cyrene.”
Cyrene's brow shot up and a smile split her features. “He's learning.”
Giles blushed a deeper shade of red and Cyrene decided to give him a break. She kissed Braes on the cheek and headed inside the inn.
“If you boys are hungry,” she called over her shoulder, “you know where to find the kitchen.”
Giles and Braes watched Cyrene disappear inside. Giles was smiling.
“What's that look for, Giles?”
Giles ducked his head. “Nothing,” he was still smiling.
“That look isn't nothing. Out with it.”
“You shoud see your face, General,” Giles couldn't help but chuckle. “You're in love.”
Braes cleared his throat uncomfortably and then composed his expression into an unreadable mask.
“What news, Giles?” Braes gave the younger man a stern look.
“Not much to report, General,” Giles dropped all pretenses. “Word from out spies in Athens is the Romans set sail as soon as news of Caesar's death reached them. No one has stepped up to take charge of the Athenian Council, either. Proctor Toris is locked safely in the dungeon of the palace and receiving three square a day on your orders.”
“All is quiet, General,” Giles replied. “Life seems to be returning to normal.”
“Any word from Xena or the Amazons?”
“None. The Amazons returned to their respective villages as soon as the war ended.”
“I wasn't talking about the ones who joined in the fight here at home.”
“Oh,” Giles shifted nervously. “The ones who went with Xena returned over a fortnight ago. They reported that Caesar was dead and they managed to rescue Queen Gabrielle. Other than that, they won't say.”
“Not a word from either her or Queen Gabrielle.”
“They haven't yet returned to Corinth?”
Braes shook his head. “Okay. Thank you, Giles. You're a good man.” He patted Giles' shoulder and turned to head inside the inn.
Braes stopped and turned back. “Yes?”
“How is her grace taking all this?”
“In stride,” Braes replied. “She hasn't talked much about what she thinks about it all, but I know she misses them a great deal.”
“Living peacefully with the Amazons and happy. At least that's what her last message to Cyrene said.”
“The servants miss her at the palace,” Giles said with a sad smile. “She kept them in line, but she was also well loved.”
“And she misses them, too.”
“I'll tell them when I return, General,” Giles moved to follow Braes inside the inn. “They'll be happy to hear that she is happy.”
“Let's get in there and eat before my wife decides to toss our breakfast to the hogs,” Braes slapped Giles on the shoulder. “It's not a good idea to keep the woman waiting. She has one hades of a temper.”
“Wouldn't dream of it, Gen…” Giles caught the glare Braes was giving him. “Er…Braes.”
“And don't slip up and call her ‘your grace',” Braes warned as they ducked inside. “She's liable to cut your tongue out and feed that to the hogs, as well.”
“Well? How's it going? You were up and going a little early this morning.”
“It's going and I had help.”
“Mmmm,” Ephiny slipped up behind Eponin and hugged her from behind. “Good help, I hope?” She brushed the dark hair aside and nibbled an ear playfully.
“Er…” The weapons master was suddenly dumbstruck as little shivers raced through her.
“Maybe you should just come back to bed and start the day over again,” Ephiny whispered seductively into Eponin's ear. “I can show you just how much I miss waking up a second time with you beside me.”
“Not really,” she blew softly into Eponin's ear, eliciting yet another shiver from her lover. “You?”
“Buh,” Eponin did her best to stay focused on the sparring match in front of them. It wasn't working. An incoherent squeak escaped her lips as Ephiny's lips moved lover and her libido kicked into overdrive.
“Do you yield, yet?”
“I…er…buh…” Eponin swallowed. “Uncle?”
Ephiny chuckled and decided to giver her lover a little space. They were, after all, standing right there for all to see. Not like she cared, though. Being queen had certain privileges, one of which was that most of the tribe respected her privacy and averted their gazes when she was…er…occupied?
“Thanks,” Eponin breathed an audible sigh of relief as she regained a little of her composure.
“Yeah, well, don't think we're done, yet,” Ephiny stepped up beside her and gave her a sidelong glance. “I'm still not quite satisfied with your performance this morning.” She turned her head so Eponin wouldn't see the playful smirk on her lips. “How's practice going?”
“Good, for the most part,” Eponin knew she was being tweaked and decided not to rise to the bait. “This bunch is still a bit green, but they'll eventually get there.”
“And our latest batch of scouts?”
They both turned to watch a small group at the far side of the practice field. A tall blond towered over most of them as they stooped to study the ground. The blond wore a leather patch over one eye and stooped next to a smaller, dark-haired Amazon.
“You'll have to talk to Briesse about that,” Eponin said. “But I think they're making progress. At least they can tell deer tracks from human.”
Ephiny snorted. “Oh, that's progress all right.”
“Hey, ya gotta start somewhere” Eponin shrugged.
They stood there in companionable silence for a while, watching those on the practice field run through drills and spar with each other. Life in the village really hadn't changed all that much since their return from Rome. The only thing different was that Ephiny was the sole ruler of the tribe.
“Any word from you-know-who?” Eponin was first to break the silence.
“No,” Ephiny shook her head.
“You think they're doing okay?”
Ephiny shrugged. “I hope so.”
“Do you think they'll ever come back?”
“I'm sure they will, eventually,” Ephiny replied. “I just don't think they'll ever return to Corinth and sit on those thrones of theirs. Their days of ruling Greece are over.”
“You sure about that?”
“Positive,” Ephiny scanned the distant horizon. “I had a very long conversation with Gabrielle before we all parted ways. She told me a few things that made me realize those two were never cut out to just sit in a palace and play monarch for the rest of their lives.”
“So, what are they going to do, then?”
“I don't know,” Ephiny shrugged again. “Wander around and help people, maybe? Be heroes?”
“And you're sure you're okay with Gabrielle abdicating the mask completely and leaving you in charge with no questions asked?”
“I'm good,” Ephiny replied wistfully. “Besides, do I really have a choice?”
“We all have choices, Eph,” Eponin put a hand on her shoulder.
“Yeah, and some of us are burdened with great responsibility.”
Eponin heard the bitterness in her lover's tone and decided to throw caution to the wind. She got behind Ephiny and wrapped her arms around the woman, resting her cheek against Ephiny's.
“You can share that burden of responsibility with me anytime you want, hon. Don't ever forget that.”
Ephiny sank back into the welcome embrace and just savored the sweetness of the moment. She knew Eponin wasn't a big fan of showing affection in public, so she was grateful for this rare opportunity.
“Thank you,” Ephiny turned her head enough to place a kiss on Eponin's cheek. “I love you.”
“Yeah, me, too,” Eponin blushed.
Ephiny lifted a hand and placed her palm against Eponin's cheek. “I'm really glad we made it home, Pon.”
“Me, too,” Eponin sighed.
They stood there in each other's arms and just let go. Their love was all that mattered as they shared a passionate kiss right there on the edge of the practice field. No one noticed. No one interrupted them. The world just seemed to leave them in peace for once and that was fine with them.
“Yes!” Briesse stood up and beamed at Zea. “And that one over there?”
“That's easy,” one of the youngsters said. “It's a rabbit.”
“No, it's not,” the girl next to her crossed her arms over her chest in triumph. “It's a deer track. Right, Briesse?”
“You're both incorrect,” Briesse gave Zea a raised-browed look. “Well, my star pupil?”
“That's not fair,” a girl next to Zea pouted. “She's older and should already know this stuff.”
Briesse turned a stern look on the girl. “That's enough, Metrille. Zea is as much a student as any of you are. She wasn't born an Amazon like the rest of you.”
“But she's older than us,” the first girl argued. “How is that fair? She hasn't gotten a single one wrong and we've been out here for candlemarks.”
“You're all just slow learners,” Zea gave them all a satisfied grin.
“All right,” Briesse narrowed her eye at Zea and then gave the rest of them a tolerant half-smile. “Why don't the rest of you go on over to Eponin and do your practice drills. We can continue our lessons tomorrow morning, while the ground is still fresh and hasn't been stomped on by all your feet.”
The girls took off with yelps and shouts of glee across the practice field.
“You'd think they hated this stuff,” Briesse watched them wistfully. “I was always glad to get the chance to learn what all the tracks in the woods were from. I think I drove my teacher nuts because I was always bringing her dried mud impressions of the tracks I'd find in the woods.”
Zea wrapped her arms around Briesse's waist and hugged her. “Aw, my poor widdo baby. Can I kiss your ego and make it better?”
“You can sure kiss something,” Briesse smirked. “I'm just not sure my ego is that close to my…”
Briesse didn't finish as Zea's lips found hers.
“Mmmm,” Briesse savored the feel of Zea's lips and tongue on her own.
“All better now?”
“Good,” Zea grinned. “'Cause I found a little spot back in these woods where we can find a little peace and quiet.”
Zea took Briesse's hand and pulled her deeper into the woods.
“Where are we going, Zea?”
“Shh,” Zea kept right on going and then stopped in front of a thicket.
Dappled sunlight filtered through the bushes, but the thicket had thorns the size of a finger all throughout it.
“I'm not going in there, Zea,” Briesse eyed the long thorns warily.
Then Zea ducked down and started crawling through a narrow opening at ground level.
“Come on,” Zea waited until Briesse was following her, then she continued on through the small tunnel. “Sometimes it pays to be one of the short people. You can find nice little hidey holes that no tall person can see.”
Briesse was nearly crawling on her belly as she kept pace with her smaller companion.
“Watch out for those low-hanging branches,” Zea said. “We're almost there.”
“I sure hope so,” Briesse grumbled. “This is really…”
They emerged into a small glade with a stream running through it. Trees and the thicket surrounded them on all sides, but the middle of the glade was open to the sky and sunlight above.
“Oh!” Briesse stood up and stared in awe.
“Like it?” Zea hugged her again. “I don't think anyone knows about it. And if they do, they don't know how to get in here.”
“It's…” Briesse watched a rabbit scurry across the stream and through the thicket on the other side.
“I was gonna say beautiful, but those work, too,” Briesse wrapped her arms around Zea and gave her a peck on the lips. “Almost as beautiful as my lovely wife.”
“Mm,” Zea leaned into the taller woman. “I thought we could use a little private hideaway every once in a while. Someplace we can be alone and away from prying eyes for a change.”
“Well,” Briesse glanced around. “I think this definitely fits the bill. I don't see any other way in or out of here, except that little tunnel of yours.”
“Yeah,” Zea let her head rest against Briesse's chest. “I've only seen rabbits and birds in here.”
Briesse guided Zea toward the middle of the glade where the stream gurgled over smooth rocks. The grass was green and inviting.
“I want to make love to you more than anything, right now,” Briesse took Zea's face between her hands and kissed her slowly and passionately.
“Good thing we're Amazons, then,” Zea smiled between kisses. “Not a lot of clothing to remove.”
Zea lowered her head and traced her tongue along the swell of Briesse's breasts. She then reached up and quickly untied the top and let it drop to the ground at their feet.
Not to be outdone, Briesse lowered Zea to the grass and went to work removing her clothing with slow, sure fingers that found every sensitive spot on her lover's body.
Heavy bootsteps on stone and the jangling of keys echoed in the dark passageway. A few torches in wall sconces were spread evenly apart and provided just enough light to see by. The passageway was clean, for the most part. There was no debris and the walls were relatively dry, unlike some dungeons.
A guard in purple and silver livery carried a wooden bowl and cup on a small tray. It was the same gruel that was served twice a day to the prisoner being kept in an isolated section of the dungeon.
The guard stopped in front of a lone wooden door with a hinged slat at the bottom. He placed the tray on the ground, unlatched the slat and shoved the tray through the small opening.
“Here's your dinner,” he called to the cell's occupant.
He then stood back up and opened another slat at eye level. Nothing moved within the dark cell.
“Didja not hear me? Your dinner's here.”
Still nothing moved within and then he noticed something dangling from the ceiling. Alarm bells suddenly went off in his head, as he reached for the keys at his waist and quickly opened the door. He grabbed a torch from the wall before stepping inside the cell. As he stepped inside and raised the torch, he knew instantly that he was too late.
“Damn,” he gazed up at the swollen face, bulging gray-blue eyes and purple tongue protruding from blue lips.
Dead. The guard knew it as surely as he knew who their prisoner was. A shiver of dread raced down his spine at the implications.
“I need help in here!” He called through the open cell door.
More booted feet echoed up the hallway and stopped at the cell door.
“By the gods…”
“Help me get him down from here,” the first guard ordered, as several more poured into the cell and went to work lifting the dead man high enough that the first guard could remove the noose from around his neck.
After a few tries, they finally managed to get the stiff and lifeless body down from the rafters. They laid it on the sparse pallet and someone covered it with a blanket. The blanket was much too short to completely cover the body from head to toe and a fringe of greasy dark hair peeked out at the top.
“We gotta report this to the general,” said a heavyset guard who stood by the door.
“You kidding? We can't tell anyone about this,” a skinny guy added. “The Conqueror finds out and we're all as good as dead.”
“So, what do we do?”
They all looked at the first guard.
“What are you all looking at me for? I have no idea what to do with his sorry carcass.”
“That's it!” The skinny guard exclaimed. “Exus, you're a genius?”
“How is he a genius?”
“Yeah, Batrus, how am I a genius?”
“Don't you see?” Batrus pointed at Toris' corpse. “We get rid of the body and if anybody asks, we just say he escaped. They'll never find out what really happened.”
They all looked at each.
“But what do we do with the body?” The big guard said.
“Burry it in the woods?”
“No,” the skinny guy smiled and revealed crooked and stained teeth. “We send him to Athens in a box. Let them deal with disposing of their own garbage.”
“Yeah.” They all said in unison.
“It's decided, then,” Batrus nodded. “Let's go, gents. We have some celebrating to do after this.”
“Aye!” They all cheered.
Then they wrapped the body up in the blanket and carried it away.
“How's the leg feeling?”
“It's fine, Xena,” Gabrielle swam over to a lounge-shaped boulder and hoisted herself up onto it.
The sun was warm on her skin and chased away the chill of the water. She propped her knee up and examined the four pink welts on her calf. They were healing nicely, but still a little tender to the touch. The cold water of their little hideaway helped and was doing wonders to strengthen her calf muscles. She still had a slight limp when she walk, though.
“Fine, huh?” Xena splashed up half onto the rock and shook her hair out over Gabrielle's nude body.
Xena grinned her Cheshire grin and snickered. “What?” Her expression turned innocent. “Did I do something wrong? Thought you needed a little cooling off.”
“Brat,” Gabrielle lay back on the rock and let the sun bake her already-tanned skin.
“You won't say that when I catch two juicy trout for dinner,” Xena lifte a hand and wriggled her fingers. “With my bare hands, no less.”
Gabrielle turned onto her stomach and rested her chin on her crossed arms. “As long as you don't plan on cooking them. Last night's fiasco was quite enough for me, thank you very much.”
“You volunteering?” Xena cocked her head with a challenging half-grin.
“You want to be able to eat them or wear them as boots?” Gabrielle countered with a grin of her own. “We can do this until the sun disappears behind the trees or you can go catch our dinner.”
“Now who's being a brat?” Xena gave her a mock scowl.
“Watch it, warrior,” Gabrielle growled low. “Or I'll burn your fish and cook mine to perfection, just to spite you.”
“I'll just steal yours,” Xena splashed Gabrielle playfully.
“I'll eat it before you get the chance to steal it.”
“I'll…” Xena froze.
“What is it?”
“You might want to get dressed,” Xena said as she launched herself out of the water and onto the short. “We're about to have company.”
“Oh,” Gabrielle sat bolt upright and climbed awkwardly down from the boulder.
Gabrielle limped over to her discarded clothing and quickly pulled on the brown skirt and green top they had purchased in a little fishing village on the coast. Her hair had finally grown past her ears and would eventually be long enough to braid. The sun had turned it a golden blond.
“Thought you said your leg was fine,” Xena was already dressed in dark-brown leathers. “Doesn't look fine to me.”
“It's fine, just stiff,” Gabrielle sat down on a log and pulled on a pair of supplie leather boots that covered her calves. “Please don't go there right now, Xena.”
“Did you put the salve on the scars this morning?”
“Yes,” Gabrielle sighed in annoyance. “Didn't you say we were about to have company?”
They both turned to find a woman in a white gossamer gown with a gold circlet in her dark-red hair standing at the edge of the water. The woman was slender and fit with chiseled features and warm brown eyes.
“I know you,” Gabrielle got up and moved over to stand next to Xena.
“Yes,” the woman nodded with a small smile. “Hello again, Gabrielle.”
“What are you doing here?” Gabrielle wrapped an arm around Xena's waist. “Who are you?”
“Do you remember what I asked you to do?”
Gabrielle's brow furrowed. “You told me I needed to change my destiny in order to save the world from darkness.”
“And so you have.”
“Wait,” Xena shook her head in confusion. “You still haven't told us who you are or what you're doing here. I'd really like to know how you know Gabrielle, while you're at it.”
“Always the impatient one, Xena,” the woman smiled. “Never one to wait for your destiny to unfold in its own time. You always have to charge into the unknown, no matter the consequences. Impulsive. Head-strong. Everything that Ares admires in those he chooses as his special followers.” Her expression darkened. “Julius Caesar was everything that Ares wanted in a leader, too. But, alas, his days on this earth are over.”
“Yes,” the woman nodded. “And Zeus discovered what Ares tried to do. He forbade Ares from meddling in the mortal realm from this point forward.” She met Xena's gaze. “Of course, we all know Ares isn't one to follow orders. Oh, he'll pretend to play the good son for a while, but eventually he'll grow tired of playing Zeus' game and then he'll return to his old ways.”
“What does any of this have to do with us?” Xena's impatience showed as she wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulder.
The woman addressed her next words to Gabrielle. “I gave you a task and you fulfilled it. I'm proud of you, Gabrielle.”
“You weren't really very specific about what you wanted me to do,” Gabrielle countered. “I pretty much had to take a leap of faith that you weren't asking me to give up on my love for Xena.”
“I would never ask a mortal to give up on love,” the woman said and then her visage shimmered and changed. “The Goddess of Love is all about bringing the love, sweetpea. So I don't give up on it. Not ever.”
“In the flesh, so to speak,” the curly-haired blond twirled around in her sheer nighty and heels. “Shh, don't tell anyone.”
Xena crossed her arms over her chest and gave the goddess a wry look. “What's going on, Aphrodite? What's with the disguise?”
Aphrodite snapped her fingers and a couple of beach chairs and an umbrella appeared. She sat down and motioned for the other two to do the same. Only Gabrielle sat down. Xena remained standing behind her.
Aphrodite crossed her legs and swung one casually, like she didn't have a care in the world. Which was true.
“You've been played,” she said bluntly. “That's all I'll say about it. Ares. Athena. Artie. They all had a hand in what's been going on. Mostly Ares, though. He wanted the whole enchilada and thought like egocentric Roman toga-boy would be able to give it to him.”
Xena's expression darkened. “How so?”
Aphrodite shifted in her chair so she could address Gabrielle directly. “You really did do what you were supposed to do, sweetpea. Totally rocked it by turning the tables. I'm proud of you.”
“Wait,” Gabrielle shook her head in confusion. “What are you talking about? I don't understand.”
Aphrodite suddenly shot to her feet with her hands on her hips. “You tamed her,” she pointed at Xena. “Don't you get it?” Then she rolled her eyes in exasperation, turned away and turned back again. “Like, duh! This was never about wars and Romans and stinky warlords and all that. It was about one thing and one thing only—love.” She beamed. “After everything that the two of you went through. After all the darkness, despair, hopelessness and pain. The one thing that stayed constant throughout it all is your love for each other. It never faltered, never wavered. It remained true.”
Gabrielle got up and went to stand with an arm around Xena's waist. “You're telling us this was all a test to see if our love would fail?”
“Nope,” Aphrodite shook her head and her blond curls shimmered in the sunlight. “I'm telling you that despite everything you went through, you two stayed true to each other and to the love you share. We don't do tests. Trials, maybe, but not tests.” She snapped her fingers again and the beach chairs and umbrella vanished. “Well, peeps, it's time for me to jet. I got places to go and waves to surf.” She winked and raised her hand to snap her fingers.
Aphodite froze in mid-motion. “What is it, sweetpea?”
Gabrielle walked right up to the goddess and hugged her. Aphrodite was a bit taken aback by the unexpected gesture and smiled crookedly.
“What was that for?” Aphrodite asked.
“For telling me to change my destiny,” Gabrielle replied. “For making me realize I have everything I need right here.” She reached back and Xena came forward to wrap her arms possessively around Gabrielle.
“Awww,” Aphrodite gushed. “You two are just so cute together. I'm so proud.” She clasped her hand together next to her cheek and grinned. Then she sobered. “Later, girls.” She raised a hand, snapped her fingers and disappeared in a shower of heart-shaped sparkles.
Gabrielle and Xena just stood there silently staring at the water and the waterfall beyond. A slight breeze shifted the air around them, but otherwise all was quiet and peaceful. No birdsong. No animal noises. Just the rustling of the leaves in the trees.
“Let's just stay right here for the rest of our lives?” Gabrielle's quiet words pierced the silence as she reveled in the feel of the body behind her and the arms wrapped around her waist. “I don't want to ever move from this spot.”
A low rumble in the distance broke the silence completely.
“Or I can catch our dinner, we can eat and then we can spend the rest of the night making mad, passionate love in our little shelter while it rains,” Xena nibbled Gabrielle's ear.
“Mmm, that sounds even better,” Gabrielle turned her head and met the lips so close to her own.
Turning in Xena's arms, Gabrielle reached up and wrapped her arms around the tall woman's neck. The kiss deepened and grew more heated. Then Xena gently lowered them to the sandy ground as her hands caressed the bare exposed skin of Gabrielle's midsection.
“Or we could just…”
Xena's lips found hers again and cut off any further words. A louder rumble of thunder announced the approaching storm just seconds before dark clouds passed in front of the sun and raindrops fell. Quickly divesting each other of their hurriedly donned clothing, the two lovers didn't seem to notice the first fat drops that landed on their bare skin. They were lost in each other and the heat of their lovemaking.
“You go, girls,” Aphrodite watched with a wide grin from behind a tree across the pond.
She then raised her hand and snapped her fingers, disappearing in a shimmer of sparkles that were lost in the downpour.
And they lived happily…ever after.