The Last Conqueror


Kamouraskan and Lariel

For disclaimers and credits, please see part 1

Chapter 16 - Conclusion

Gabrielle awakened with a sense of well-being simmering over a slight hangover. She stretched languorously in the deep mattress, and winced as the sunlight struck her closed eyes. She covered them with one hand while reaching to pull the soft blanket over her head with the other.

"I'm sorry, my Queen. We can close the curtains if you wish to sleep longer."

Startled by the unexpected voice, Gabrielle pried one eye wider to see who was making fun of her, but there were only two young Amazons in the room and their cheerful faces beamed with sincerity as bright as the sunlight. Surprised but grateful, Gabrielle sank back into the deep mattress and wallowed in the sensations. The slight headache brought on by the alcohol drunk in celebration the night before wasn't enough to conflict with the glories of the soft, warm bed.

What a night! The songs, the toasts...

She shouldn't have been so surprised at the respect that she'd just received. She'd seen it in the eyes of the generals and servants; the respect that she'd earned. 'And I did earn it, didn't I?' Her chest warmed with pride. She'd stood up before every important person in the Empire and told them all what she thought of them. Lectured them all, and she'd... well, not all by herself. Xena...

How did she feel about Xena now? The vision that she'd stolen from Alti after the slaughter of Potadaia was burned into her mind; the warrior drunk, her sense of any honour stained by what she had done. But so was the vision of Xena standing proud and strong before the remnants of the throne...

"There's your empire, Alexander. That's what I think of power and ambition. Now, are you in or out?"

Alexander stared at the scattered remnants of the throne with his mouth hanging open. He blinked and looked at Xena, then at his fellow generals. All stood in shocked silence, as though mesmerized by the wooden fragments that had rolled down the stairs and along the floor. "What is it you want of me?" he asked eventually.

Gabrielle let out a long held breath "When we first mentioned the treaty with the Dragon, you must have thought how ridiculous it was."

"You mean, the fact that a trading treaty with a country on the other side of the world is useless? Of course."

Gabrielle nodded. "But let's say it wasn't impossible. Just highly improbable."

Alexander dragged his gaze up to meet the girl's. He shook his head, as though trying to clear it. "You'd need to somehow create a trade route, but that would mean dozens of treaties... agreements with governments, most of them hostile. Caravans protected by troops, ships that are larger than anything we have now..."

"A thousand problems, all impossible for the average mind," added Xena as she moved down from the dais, carefully sidestepping the scattered splinters. She smiled at him. "But what if a genius of logistics was in charge of it?"

"You would have me become a merchant?" he bristled.

"No," interrupted Gabrielle hastily. "We're offering you the greatest challenge possible. One that will use all of your talents, and isn't that the most anyone can strive for? And if you'd taken the time to read the treaty, you'd have seen that it's only for twenty years. You'd still be young enough, with contacts around the world and wealth beyond any other man..."

"Why twenty years?"

"I told you we weren't being naïve. No system will sustain itself forever. But twenty years would mean that one generation will grow up with peace as the normal way of life. One generation will grow up with choices and freedoms impossible during the constant warfare we've all known. Twenty years might just plant a seed to keep that state."

Again there was that pointed examination. Another glance to the remnants of the throne strewn about the stairs. And one long, searching stare at the body of the former Empress, whose silken gown was now stiff with drying blood... she was merely another piece of garbage to be swept away. Then, with all the confidence that was his trademark, Alexander of Macedonia strode to the table and demanded, "Why isn't there a pen here?"

Several of the generals moved to his side, mainly offering quills. One by one, as Xena and Gabrielle watched, they moved to line the table, and one by one affixed their names to the scrolls.

It was more than she had ever dared hope for. And of all the people in the world, she had done it with Xena. Could there be a more insane choice of partners? And yet somehow, it had worked. They had worked. She stretched again, luxuriating in the feel of soft woolen sheets brushing against her skin.

A wry voice interrupted her musings. "Hate to tell you this. The Queen may get her own hut in the Village, but the bed is straw, like everyone else's." Ephiny reached out to yank back the blanket, but was slapped away by the small hand that snaked out from under the covers.

"If I stay there, I'm sure it'll be fine," replied the said Queen, burrowing deeper into the down mattress.

"If you... Gabrielle?" Gabrielle could feel Ephiny's glare even through the blankets.

"Where's Xena?"

"Packing to leave, last I knew."

Gabrielle sat up with a start. "Packing? Why didn't you tell me sooner? What time is it?"

"Just after daybreak. Gabrielle, what are you doing? You can't just take off; didn't you see the faces of those two girls? They think the sun shines out of your..."

Terreis entered, interrupting Ephiny. "Which is only one of several reasons she should go with Xena." The Amazon ignored Ephiny's stunned look and turned to address her Queen, who was hurriedly pulling on her clothing.

"Gods, hasn't anyone around here heard of knocking?" grizzled Gabrielle as she dragged her shirt over her head.

Terreis ignored that, too. "Gabrielle, you are one of the fastest studies I have ever seen, and I have few doubts that with training you will be one of the best Amazon Queens. But..." The staff in Terreis' hands whirled about with a speed Gabrielle's eyes could not follow until it stopped abruptly, just as it seemed about to strike her face. Instead, it gently tapped the tip of her nose. The young Queen let out a slow, ragged breath. "Those girls who just left have spent years practicing their arts. And tactics, weapons, defense. Offence. You spent only a month."

"But Alti...."

"You beat Alti with your mind, not your skills. And before someone with more skill than she had decides to challenge you, we need you out of here and off getting the kind of training that will ensure your mind and heart will be around long enough to make a real difference." Terreis twirled the staff again, and then tossed it to Ephiny, who almost fumbled the catch.

"With Xena," Gabrielle said, her eyes kindling.

Terreis nodded. "Xena."

"Terreis, are you now joining the Xena fan club?" Ephiny growled.

"Before Xena beat Melosa, she did what she always did. She studied her opponent. She learned our rituals and challenges, our ways and our lore. She's trained thousands of soldiers and her skill is unquestioned." Her face relaxed into a smile, and she curled her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. "We'll expect you to respond to our calls, we'll pack you some scrolls on our traditions, but right now your place is not with us."

Gabrielle beamed. "You're telling this to Ephiny, right? Because you don't have to convince me. Just pack me up, cause I'm out of here."


A few candlemarks later, Gabrielle had finished most of her self-appointed calls. The market place had been bustling, partly with wares but mostly with rumours. Many wrong, but most accurate enough to create a sense of optimism. A few merchants had recognised her and called out but she'd smiled and slipped away, glad to be back in such familiar haunts, if only as a visitor now.

Perdicus had given her a cautious greeting, though she'd been nearly crushed by the children's hugs. But once she'd made it clear that he was in charge, and that all future visits would be to help and not check up on him, they'd both been able to relax. He'd listened to her suggestions about the future and Solon, and had brought up several ideas of his own. But it was with very mixed emotions that they'd hugged and she'd left him behind; he was all that remained of her childhood and had been her lifeline for so many years.

But now, she faced her most difficult stop.


The guards were still posted outside of the gardens, and they bowed respectfully as they let her through. It was strange after so many years of hiding from authority to continually receive such notice, but she merely smiled again and passed through the gates. She had expected the garden to seem empty in some way, but it was still full: ripe with the scents, the riot of late summer colour and the rich aromas of earth and growth. She took a deep breath and lowered herself to the ground to sit cross-legged. She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on this last message.

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

There was no response at first and she was readying herself to rise when she felt her hair stirred by a breeze that brought with it a rich perfume of rosemary and damp loam. She felt words forming in her mind... perhaps it were just her conscience or imagination, but they were clear nevertheless, and she spoke out loud.

"Arminus? I know now. You were captured by your worst enemy. You watched as her evil spread. You waited for death, hoping only that you would live long enough to see... me." Tears began to trickle slowly down her cheeks. "Was I a disappointment?"

There was silence, save for the whispering of the wind as it caressed the branches and leaves that surrounded her. She listened to the soothing murmurings, finding some tranquillity in the rustling and whispering of Arminus' garden. She sat quietly until she felt confident enough to answer the question.

"No, I wasn't, was I? Because I'm here now. Alive, and whole." Her fingers moved to caress the stems of the rosemary bush that hung just above her shoulder. She touched the wooden stalks and the needle-like leaves and breathed in the heady scent, letting it fill her nostrils. "I swear by your name, and by my Mother, my Father, Lila... I swear, I will live and I will make a difference. You'll be proud of me." She plucked a sprig of the herb and tucked it carefully into her belt. "I'll be proud of me."

At this affirmation, she stood and rubbed the tears from her eyes. She took another long, shaky breath until she felt her certitude returning. "Acceptance," she said to herself.

The night before, she and Xena had been drinking and laughing their tensions away. She had risen to get another cup for both of them and Xena had made some casual comment that it was her turn; that she was responsible. And at that word, so laden with meanings for both of them, the laughter had stopped. Xena had looked at her from under hooded eyes and muttered sadly, "We'll never get past that, will we? There are some things that can never be forgotten, or forgiven."

She'd filled their glasses and then, surprising herself at how much urgency there had been in her voice, challenged Xena to raise hers and swear with her, "Forgiveness for all that can be forgiven. For the rest; acceptance."


"Acceptance," muttered Xena. Well, that was one thing to say, but it was damned hard to live, she thought as she stood outside the door.

"What do you mean, you're not going to see him?" Gabrielle had demanded as she'd drained another cup of wine.

"It's such a mess," Xena had replied gruffly. "What do you expect me to say? He can't help hating me for what he's always believed was the truth, and he's angry because I abandoned him. I can't stop thinking about that cell, he feels guilty about that, and I feel guilty about leaving him... Damn!"

"Xena," Gabrielle had continued. "Do you want to let guilt stop you from knowing your son? Is that fair on him or you?"

"He may not want to know me. He's been told things... most were probably true. I can't wish a mother like that on him."

"Isn't that up to him to decide? If you want to know your son, this could be your only chance, Xena. Are you going to waste it?"

Xena hesitated in preparation of knocking on the door to the healers, then in a more characteristic mien, finally pushed the door and walked in. Solon was there, seeming so small in the confines of the cot. She cringed as she saw him pull the covers up around his chin as if to protect himself from his visitor. She attempted to project a confidence she in no way felt, but Gabrielle's words came back to her, "This isn't a battle. He's your child and you'll just have to go in without armour this once."

Now she stood in front of him, feeling naked, with the invisible prodding hand of Gabrielle on her shoulder. "So... they tell me you're doing better."

Solon just shrugged.

"That's good." She fidgeted with her chakram a little as she looked about the room. "Gabrielle's going to talk with Perdicus about getting you a place once you're up and around. With all the new things going on in the city, there should be lots of jobs. Some of the kids in the shelters might go back to their families, but more will be staying, and he's going to try to make sure they aren't taken advantage of... that they can get work or schooling, you know. He'll need help, and friends. Especially ones who know everybody in the palace. So, it's up to you, but at least it's a place to stay..." she trailed off, aware she'd been babbling under his level, merciless stare. 'Must be Gabrielle rubbing off on me,' she thought.

She was finally rewarded with a quiet, "It sounds okay."

Solon was silent for a long moment, staring at the floor with an intensity she wasn't sure she liked. "Why did you come?" he asked, gripping the edge of the blanket with small, nervous fingers.

"Because I wanted to see you. Make sure you were okay." She paused, then stumbled on under the force of his gaze. "Because... It was because of me you got hurt..."

"Yes, it was. All my life, because of you." He cast the blanket aside and struggled to sit up.

"Stay still, you're not well enough to be out of bed yet." Xena gently pressed him back down onto the bed and tucked the blanket around him again. "I'm so sorry I hurt you, Solon. I thought I was doing what was best for you..."

"You let Alti take you prisoner because she would've hurt me, didn't you?" He was looking at her again, with that unnerving blue stare that was the mirror image of her own.

"You were a kid. I had to protect you and the best way I knew..."

Solon's alert eyes brightened. "I meant, in the cellars. Alti captured you because of me."

Xena shrugged, knowing she'd been caught out. "Yeah."

"But I hurt you," Solon said wonderingly.

Another shrug. "We hurt each other. But that can stop now, if we want it to."

Solon swallowed. "There were times, a lot of times, I needed someone. But there was nobody there."

Fighting a storm within, Xena simply nodded.

"I hated you. I think I still do." Solon sank back into his bed, his eyes turned to the wall.

"I don't hate you," replied Xena quietly. "I never did. We've both done things that have hurt the other, things that can never be taken back. Gabrielle and I promised that we'd forgive all that could be forgiven. For the rest, we'd have to accept it, live with it and move forward. Can't we try to do the same?" He didn't answer, just kept staring at her, but she persisted. "What have we got to lose, huh?"

Her heart pounded furiously as she held out her hand to him. He eyed her warily... and then he took the proffered hand quickly before tucking his own back under the covers with a sheepish grimace. His hand had felt warm, and his skin soft in that briefest of touches. She closed her eyes, and could almost smell that long ago sweet baby scent and feel the weight of him in her arms again.

They sat in a companionable silence for a while.

"Anyway..." Xena broke the silence awkwardly. "I was thinking, well, hoping, that maybe when I get back..."

"You're leaving then?" His tone was neutral, his eyes expressionless.

She cursed herself and began again. "What I'm trying to say, is that I'll be in and out sometimes, and I'd really like it if I knew I could drop in on you. Maybe spend sometime with you?" He made no reply, save for a brief nod of the head.

She was almost beginning to relax when he asked, "Do you think we look like each other?"

Xena's eyebrows shot up at the unexpected question. Right to the point. Just like his Mom. Right now she found herself thinking of all the places she would rather be, than wait for this one boy to ask his questions. She nodded and gingerly moved to sit on the edge of the cot. Giving him a crooked grin, she replied, "Well, I guess the eyes are the same, and thank the Gods, the head is just as hard." She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw a small smile appear on his face, and felt her own lips crease in response.

There was a long pause while Solon tried to get the words out. He raised his face to hers and said quietly, "I'm not going to call you Mom."

Her smile didn't falter. "S'okay. I'm not really the Mom type." She shrugged at the same time as he did, and they both caught the identical motion. A smile appeared on his lips. "What would you like to call me? I guess if we are going to spend time together, you have to call me something?"

His answer was quick. "I'll call you Xena. Then we'll see what happens. If that's okay?"

He gathered his courage and for the first time looked directly into the eyes of the dark woman of his nightmares, and saw in wonder that they were glistening. "That would be a lot more than okay," she said softly.


Xena was in the stables inspecting travelling gear when Gabrielle finally made her way there. She paused briefly from strapping saddlebags onto her mare and eyed the girl. "Busy day?" she asked.

Gabrielle nodded. "I hear you're off early?" she said, as casually as she could, while reaching up to stroke the velvet skin of the horse's neck.

"I need to get out, get some fresh air. It's been so long since I was on the road, I kind of missed it."

"Where are you headed?"

"Not sure," Xena shrugged. "I figured I'd stop by and see Darius, tell him what's been going on. He thought he was going after a crumbling empire, not a rising, what did you want to call it? The Greater Good Group?

"Commonwealth," Gabrielle said with a grin.

"Commonwealth. Anyway, I can meet up with a few troops on the Persian Border. A few soldiers and me alive and kicking should be enough to get some sort of talks started." Xena picked up a bridle, and looped it over her mount's head. "Last thing we need is the Persians marching in while we're working out a new politic with Alex and the others."

Gabrielle continued to stroke the horse. "Makes sense. Have you spoken to Alexander today?" she asked.

"He said he's going to be busy working with Ming Tien for a while before he leaves on his mission. There are still a few matters to sort out with the trade agreement." Xena tightened the harness and fastened the buckles securely.

"I know. I was speaking to the Dragon this morning. He seems satisfied with the arrangements we've made. How many soldiers do you think Alexander will take with him when he goes?"

"A few thousand, nothing to worry the Amazons. At least, not this year," Xena grunted, her lips quirking with the dry statement.

The horse stamped its hooves and snorted; its harness snapped and jingled as the leather and buckles slapped its skin. Gabrielle backed hastily away, earning a grin from Xena. Gabrielle picked up another saddlebag from Xena's small pile against the wall and handed it to the warrior, who accepted it with a smile and fastened it to a loop on the saddle.

"I think Alexander will be okay," Xena offered, tying the bag securely in place. "He's been asking around for the best ship builders to come with him to work out designs. He has some ideas for long haul and transport. I think we were right about him. It's the problem solving he loves as much as the battles to win."

Gabrielle smiled in response. "We were right about a lot of things."

Xena's fingers stilled. "Yeah. I guess we were, in the end." She offered the girl a slight, hesitant smile, which Gabrielle returned in full.

"So.... Have you talked to Solon?"

There was a short silence. "Yeah. He'll be up and about soon," the warrior said with an unmistakable expression of relief on her face.

"Good, I'm glad he's okay. What did you say to him?"

Xena shrugged. "Nothing much. Told him I was going..."

"And?" prompted Gabrielle.

Her fingers stilled. "It's better," she admitted with the briefest of smiles. "Thanks for pushing me to go. When did you get to be so wise?" Xena's lips quirked again

"One of the few advantages of going through tough times is that you pick up some wisdom along the way. I know how I felt when I lost my parents. I had to deal with it on my own. You have each other." The girl softened the words with a smile and another squeeze of the warrior's shoulder.

Xena seemed about to say something, but visibly changed her mind. "Anyway, you'll be keeping an eye on him too." Nonchalantly, she turned back to her stirrup straps. "With you being Amazon Queen and all, you'll be needed here."

Gabrielle's cheeks turned rosy as she muttered, "Ah, well... not exactly. They sort of told me I needed serious training before I was ready for the job, and I should start immediately. I don't think they actually said, 'don't let the palace door hit you in the ass as you go', but..."

"So...?" prompted Xena, hiding her smile in the horse's flank. Gabrielle finally blew up.

"Look! Are you going to ask me to go with you to the Persians or not?" she demanded, shoving her bulging pack at Xena. The warrior took it with a grin and started making room for it on the horse, between her own supplies.

"You sure you don't want to stay here and be Queen?"

"Gods, no! I've gotten used to being where the action is, and that's with you. Besides, you know you need me," finished Gabrielle airily as she expertly dismantled her staff and stashed it away in her pack as if she'd been doing it for years. "But I do have a question. Do you want me along because of the prophecy?"

"Hey, you invited yourself along."

"Be serious."

"No, of course I don't want you along because of some damn crazy prophecy. Are you kidding?"

"It's because we are... stronger, together, because we like each other, maybe even need each other, right?" prompted Gabrielle, sighing at Xena's typical recalcitrance.

"Maybe," agreed Xena. "But you don't know what's ahead. It's not all sunlight and adventure, and there will be choices that are not going to be much choice at all. Not to mention sleeping on the hard ground when you could be in a soft bed, cold streams instead of hot baths, food burned over a campfire..."

"You seem to forget that I walked with six kids from Macedonia to Corinth. I've made some hard choices. And I've already seen Tartarus on earth."

Xena turned to her, and laid her hands upon Gabrielle's shoulders. "Then you deserve peace," she said, earnestly, "and that's not what being with me will be about. I wouldn't wish this life on anyone."

"I'm not anyone. I'm your partner. And you aren't wishing this life on me. I'm grabbing it with both hands."

There was silence again, as Xena finished preparing the mare for their journey. Eventually, she mounted the saddle, and reached down to hoist her first travelling companion up behind her. "So, are you ready?" she asked, her arm outstretched.

"I've been ready for a long time," Gabrielle beamed, then grabbed the outstretched limb and allowed herself to be dragged aboard their mount. She settled into place, snaking an arm around Xena's waist and gripping the warrior's belt tightly. "Let's go."

Xena pricked her heels into the horse's flank, and they trotted gently out of the stable and into the bustling palace courtyard. She hesitated a moment, taking in the merchants and their colourful wares, the convoys of produce and grain which would soon be rumbling in and out of the city, the soldiers and hawkers and travelers and other citizens of a busy, prosperous place like Corinth.

"Taking a last look around?" asked Gabrielle.

"No, it's not that," she replied. "It's just... I don't think I can remember the last time I set out without at least a thousand soldiers behind me."

Gabrielle recognized the effort this admission had cost, and didn't hesitate. "You're not alone."

Xena took a last look around the city. "I know. Neither of us are, any more." She squeezed Gabrielle's hand gratefully, and started the horse moving.

"I haven't left the city since I first came here," Gabrielle offered as they started moving towards the palace gates. "I guess it'll be strange for both of us, at first."

"We'll do it together," replied Xena as she steered her mount through the palace gates, waved on by the Amazon sentries and Palace Guards. "I was thinking..." she said hesitantly, once they'd cleared the Palace's perimeter, "... that I might pass by Amphipolis on the way. See my family. My Mom runs the tavern there. I haven't seen her since... well, for a long time."

"That sounds nice. I bet she'll be pleased to see you."

Xena tugged the reins and steered the horse through the bustling marketplace, trying to ignore the sales cries of the hawkers and merchants who lined the main highway through Corinth. "I wouldn't bet on it. I haven't exactly been a daughter she could be proud of. In fact, I have a lot of making up to do... I just wish I knew where to start."

"You'll find a way. I think you're becoming the person you were supposed to be. Your mother will see that. I bet she's been waiting to get her daughter back all these years."

Xena snorted. "Don't get all romantic on me. There are things I've done - you know better than anyone." She paused briefly. "Just don't pretend I'm a good person."

"How are you with friends?" Gabrielle clung tighter as the horse pranced, startled by a dog snapping at its hooves. "You likely to torture them?"

"Only if they talk too much. Or mess up my horse."

"Oh, then I'll look forward to it." Gabrielle smiled, and they both rode on in amicable silence for a short while. "If we're going to Amphipolis, we'll have to make good time. We'll need time to rest if we're going to face the Persians in strength."

"I was also thinking..." Xena spoke hesitantly. "It was just an idea but if we were going that way anyway, we wouldn't be far from Potadaia..."

There was a momentary, awkward silence. "I know."

"Bad idea," Xena cut in hastily as she felt the girl's arms tighten around her waist. "Forget I mentioned it. It's just that..."

"You're worried it will always be between us," finished Gabrielle.


"I don't need you to stand in what was the main square of Potadaia and ask for forgiveness, Xena."

"It's not something you can forgive."

"No, it's not," agreed Gabrielle quietly. "But it is something we both have to accept if we want to go on. I thought we'd agreed this?"

"Then what about, if you, we... leave some flowers, or put up a marker or something?"

There was a short silence. "I think that would be a good idea," came the reply, in barely a whisper. "Thank you for thinking of it. I'd like to make sure... we left so quickly. There might be people that weren't properly laid to rest. And I think I'd like to say something. Say I'm sorry."

Xena twisted around in her saddle, amazed at the girl's words. Her heart lurched when she saw plump tears glistening on her lashes. "You're sorry? Gabrielle, I'm the one..."

"You were the tool. I was the cause." Gabrielle shook her head, sending long blonde hair bouncing off her shoulders.

Xena brought the horse to a stop, and turned in the saddle to face the girl. "You were innocent in all this, Gabrielle. We can talk about what might-have-beens all the rest of our days, but it won't make any difference. What's done is done. Forgiveness, and acceptance, remember? And that includes forgiving yourself." She brushed a tear from Gabrielle's cheek, earning a small smile and a nod from the girl.

"Maybe it's something we both have to work on?"

Xena half shrugged and bent her head almost imperceptively, and Gabrielle shook her head in mock frustration. Xena urged the horse into motion again. She steered the horse past the wagons and carts that were clogging up the road, waiting to be cleared for exit by the guardsmen at the City Gate. They were waved on by the City Guards, and they passed quickly through the gates.

They were brought to an abrupt stop at the gruesome sight of a head mounted in a niche of the portal. The air was suddenly filled with the raucous screaming of disturbed birds, and the beating of wings as they pounded the air. The flock settled on the city wall, and cawed their protest while keeping a careful eye on their meal. The carrion had been making short work of their food source; although the head had recently been placed there, already much of the flesh had been stripped, and the eyes picked out and burned away by the naked sun.

"I thought Yakut said they would separate her bones and scatter them?" Gabrielle asked, quietly, turning her eyes away from the grotesque sight.

"I guess they wanted to keep the best part for a reminder." Xena rode closer and stared for a long moment directly into the empty eye sockets, imagining for a moment the black pupils that had once looked back at her - eyes that had shone with malevolent greed, and entranced with their promises of power. She spoke directly to the empty hollows. "You told me once that you wanted to be the Face of Death." She was silent for a long moment before adding quietly, "Congratulations."

The skull grinned mirthlessly back at them.

Gabrielle reluctantly dragged her gaze back. "All her powers, her desires... and yet, when you strip it all away, she was just the same as the rest of us," mused Gabrielle as she stared at the remains of her former Empress; the yellowing whites and ivories of the skull and shreds of flesh stood out sharply against the cobalt brightness of the sky. The endless blackness of her eye sockets cast shadows in the sunlight, and for a moment, Gabrielle felt like she was being drawn inside. She shivered. "We should take her down from there."

"Mercy? Even for Alti?"

Gabrielle shook her head in an attempt to clear her vision. "That could have been us."

Xena shook her head. "Me, maybe. I was headed that way, thanks to her. But not you, Gabrielle. That could never be you."

"Sure it could. We're not that different. What made Alti who she was, is in all of us. What saved us were the choices we made. And the people who helped us make them."

"Then all the more reason that we might need a reminder of what can happen when you make the wrong choices."

"So you think we should leave her up?"

Xena cast the death's head a last look, then prodded her horse forward. "We leave it up."

The warrior nudged their mount into a gallop, and soon they were clear of Corinth and on the open road. Gabrielle shifted her position in the saddle. "So, where to, once we've seen the Persians?"

"I don't know," mused Xena, lulled by the rhythm of the horse's hooves as they pounded the earth. "I'm not very good at following orders, and I don't think I'm cut out for working for a council. And I've been tied down for so long now - in prison, as Empress... I need to get out. Besides, if I'm to help enforce the treaties, I need to be on the road - it's where I can do the most good. I was thinking that maybe I could just travel around, you know..."


"Well, we..."

Gabrielle's eyes lit up. "Righting wrongs, rescuing the downtrodden? We have so many wars to stop and despots to foil. You're gonna need my help."

"Why does this sound like one of the stories you plan to write?"

"Who says I'm writing again?"

"I saw the scrolls in your bag."

"Oh." Xena could feel the girl's shrug. "I'm just listening to my muse again, that's all"

"And what do you hear?" the warrior asked dryly.

"What do I hear? I hear a land in turmoil, crying out for a hero..."

"That would be, two heroes."

Gabrielle ignored her and with a giddy grin continued. "A mighty princess, forged in the heat of battle...the power.... the passion...!!"

There was another pause before Xena grumbled, "Oh, give me a break..."


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