Autolycus took his turn at rest and when I sat down next to Eponin, she had an expression on her face that told me something was up.
"Okay...what?" I asked after a few more heartbeats passed.
"You were making some rather interesting noises in your sleep. Kind of like...uhm..."
"Like I was getting laid?" I finished for her.
"Yea...exactly like that." she admitted with a grin.
"Well, Ep, you get married and you'll be dreaming like that too." I responded.
She laughed at that. "Don't need to get married. I have those dreams all the time."
"Yea, well, you get married and you get to make them come true." I arched an eyebrow as I finished the sentence.
Eponin just lowered her head and shook it back and forth, a large smile on her face. "Marriage is good for you, Xena."
"Keeps me out of trouble." I quipped.
"I mean it...Gabrielle's been good for you." she said seriously.
I wasn't prepared for this serious turn in the conversation and I wasn't sure how to respond. "Yea, well...she's an incredible girl."
"You're probably the last woman I know who stills calls her that." Eponin commented.
I thought about it a moment and agreed. Aside from Hecuba, Gabrielle's mother, I was probably the only woman around who thought of Brie that way. She was a grown woman, Queen to the Amazon Nation, yet part of me would always remember the young girl I met outside of Poteidaia. No matter what she will ever look like or how old we will grow, when I close my eyes I will still be able to picture the long blonde hair, blue peasant blouse, and dirty brown skirt.
"I might add that the opposite is just as true. You've been good for Gabrielle as well." Eponin added.
"Oh, yea, I'm sure getting kidnapped and having her life threatened continually has done wonders for her."
"You know what I mean. Gods, I remember when she first came to the village. She looked like a refugee from a camp somewhere. We all thought she was your--"
She stopped abruptly. "I mean...it's just that the two of you..."
"I know," I interrupted, "that's the way I wanted it. Hey, give a warrior a little credit for having a brain cell functioning...a pretty blonde virgin? There was no way I was letting any of you know she didn't belong to me."
"And now she does." the Amazon stated.
"Now she does." I repeated softly with a smile that I knew gave away what was in my heart.
"Come on big tough warrior. Let's wake up Auto and get moving." Eponin rose and lifted her pack.
"Hey, come on, I've got a reputation to think of." I joked.
Once again I thought of my beautiful bard as we packed our meager supplies and pushed on, the memories of our lovemaking still fresh in my mind, even if it was in a dreamscape. The memory was the sweetest one I would be able to afford my wife for quite a while.
"Apollo called her the Oracle of T an." I told them as we walked along the narrow path toward the bridge.
I didn't sound pleased. Like it was any big surprise to anyone that I would enjoy confronting a prophet. It's not that I didn't respect true seers and oracles, it was that I wasn't a big fan of anyone telling me that my future was going to go a certain way and there was nothing I could do about it. When I commanded an army, I watched as many of my men based the way that they fought, even the days they would fight, on a soothsayer's predictions. It usually turned out that they ended up getting their heads lopped off, not because of fate, but because they refused to believe they could command their own future.
"We're supposed to pay a price to the Oracle before we can cross the bridge. Let's just hope that Hera's men didn't have the fee." I continued.
"How much will it cost us for passage?" Autolycus asked.
"Apollo would only tell me that whatever the Oracle asked, it would never be more than we had. I have a sneaky feeling he wasn't talking dinars, however."
"Well we're about to find out." Autolycus chimed up as we rounded a large column of rocks.
The rope bridge seemed sturdy enough from this distance. It was about thirty feet long and spanned the gap, high over the Black Lake, and there, in what looked almost like a throne, was the Oracle of T an. I knew it was the Oracle, but I had to admit that she looked wildly out of place. First of all a throne in the bowels of the earth was not something you saw everyday. Second, she was quite elderly, yet looked as regal as some dowager queen.
"You are the Oracle of T an." I stated without question.
"Very good Warrior Princess. Perhaps you should be an Oracle." she commented with a small smile.
I sneered slightly in reply.
"There is something about me you do not care for, warrior?" she asked me.
She worried me a tad. She was unlike any Oracle I ever met before and she had a sparkle in her eyes that looked strangely like amusement.
"I don't much go in for fortune tellers." I replied.
"That is because you do not care to know what your future holds, do you?"
"I'd rather make my own future...I don't like relying on fate, or giving up control." I could see my two companions watching me out of the corners of my eyes.
"Perhaps that's because you haven't yet learned the difference between your fate and your destiny." she responded.
"And, the difference is?" I asked.
"You can change your fate. Your whole life you were expected to take the left fork in the road, but when you arrive, suddenly you take the path to your right. In doing so you have changed the fate that awaited you."
"And, my destiny?"
"Your destiny was simply to be on the road in the first place." She leaned forward in her chair, her elbows resting on her thighs. "Try as you might, you cannot change your destiny, Xena."
I was growing tired of her word games and was anxious for us to be on our way.
"We need to cross the bridge. Apollo said there would be a price." I said shortly, my legendary patience already wearing thin.
"Young people are in such a hurry, never time to talk with an old woman." the Oracle replied, shaking her head back and forth.
I was about to reply, my tongue getting ready to throw a few barbs her way, when Eponin saved me from myself.
"Forgive us, Grandmother, but the quest that we are on is of the greatest importance. Hera's men may have already beaten us to the other side."
"Ahh, Hera...she is nothing to me." The Oracle said with a wave of her hand.
"She is a Goddess of considerable strength." Eponin stated the obvious.
"She is a petulant child." The Oracle exclaimed and drew and unexpected smile from all of us. "Hera feels this world is hers and all those in it, her playthings. She has not seen all that I have seen, not traversed the universe as I. I was here long before the Gods decided to make this world their toy, when everything was quite new. My sisters and I have always been here, shaping the universe's fortune."
She seemed to be lost in her own thoughts as she told us of her life. That's when I took a guess at who the Oracle's three sisters might be.
"That's right, warrior...Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos." She responded to my unasked question.
"The three fates." I explained to my companion's stares. "They're her sisters."
"You are a quick one, warrior. Apollo's daughter chose well." she smiled.
She unnerved me with that one. "Do we get to pass or not?" I responded brusquely.
Again she lowered her head and shook it slightly. When she raised her eyes, her age suddenly manifested itself through her gray eyes.
"So much strength and pride, Xena...if only you could reveal your heart, half as well as you control the physical world around you. You may pass to the other side. The price of your passage I demand from you."
"How much?" I asked quickly. This woman was starting to freak me out and I wanted to put some distance between us.
"The price is your past and your future. Two questions will I ask of you and only if you answer honestly and listen to my words will I allow you safe passage."
I didn't like what she was asking. Frankly, I didn't want to answer anything an Oracle might ask me...if they were a seer, shouldn't they already know the answers?
"Hey, why don't you ask me...my life's an open scroll." Autolycus finally spoke from his spot to the left of me. Leave it to Auto...always trying to be gallant.
The old woman laughed and suddenly her eyes were sparkling again.
"Autolycus, you are indeed known to me, and in other circumstances, I would enjoy hearing about your amoral experiences, it would make my heart young again." Her face grew serious once more. "But, the payment I seek is from the warrior." she finished, looking at me.
I folded my arms across my armored chest and looked at her, my lips raising into a sneer.
"Allright," I hissed, "what do you want to know?"
"Come here...take my hands. I want to see the truth of it in your eyes." she requested, but it felt more like an order and I bristled.
I extended my hands and she took both of them in her own. I was rather amazed at how smooth her skin felt against my own worn and callused palms.
"When you were a young girl, who was your best friend?" she asked.
It was a strange question and I wasn't prepared for it. I thought about that for a few moments and thought of my brother. "My brother, Lyceus." I finally answered.
She seemed to think about that as she watched my eyes and I stared back, my blue gaze unwavering.
"Do you love your Gabrielle?"
"With all that I am." I shot back immediately. I didn't need to think about that one at all, the response was natural.
The Oracle smiled at my reply and nodded her head. Then her brow furrowed and if I didn't know better I would say there were tears in her eyes.
"Xena...a great sadness is going to come upon you." she began.
All of a sudden I knew I didn't want to be here, in front of this woman, and I didn't want to hear what she had to say. I could feel my body going into fight mode and my eyes searched for a way to pass her by. I tried to move around her. I didn't want to hear that I was going to lose Gabrielle...how could this old woman be so cruel?
"I don't want to hear this!" I rasped, trying to pull myself from her firm grasp.
She held tightly to my wrists and I found that her frail appearance was deceiving. She easily held me solidly in place. There was nothing I could do but listen to her words.
"Calm yourself, child. It's true that from this sadness will come a heartbreak that will be so great that you will wish for your own death. But, from this pain will come a miracle for you Xena...you will begin a new chapter in your life that will make you curse the day you thought to choose death over life."
Without warning she released my hands and I pulled away fiercely.
"You may pass," she said to all three of us, waving her arm.
I moved first and didn't even look back to see if my companions followed me. I was unnerved by the Oracle's statement and all I could think about as we traversed the swinging bridge was how thoroughly empty my life would be without my bard in it.
I looked over the edge of the rope and peered down. The Black Lake was two or three hundred feet below us. It wasn't just dark because of lack of light. It was truly as black as ink. Having crossed the bridge we made our way across a ledge that seemed physically impossible to exist the way it did. We were walking across it, but it sure didn't seem to be attached to anything much for support.
Perhaps a hundred feet ahead, the ledge fell away into an endless pattern of stairs. The steps were hewn from the cavern rock itself, making their way down to where I knew was the entrance to the Stone Palace. It took a while to make our way down. We were at a disadvantage, not knowing if Hera's soldiers waited at the bottom and we didn't want to announce our coming. The second reason we were going a little slow is that the steps had no rails of any kind between their surface and the depths below. It wasn't a problem for me, but my friend Autolycus, not usually afraid of heights, blanched a little at the task. It was hard to blame him. The air was close and muggy the lower we got, unusual for a cave, and it made breathing a bit more difficult. Plus water and erosion had done their part and some portions of the carved series of steps were tricky.
We reached the halfway point and I remembered from Apollo's drawings that the rock ledge we now stood on was actually the top of the Stone Palace. We took a moment to prepare our weapons in case of a confrontation at the bottom and pressed on. Only about five hundred more steps, I thought to myself.
Nearing the bottom, it surprised me that Hera's soldiers were making so much noise. As silently as possible we made it to the base, behind the huge stalagmites swelling from the ground. The large rock formation surrounded the Palace gates and effectively hid the three of us from the soldier's eyes. Crouching down I saw two men playing a dice game and six others, leaning wearily against the Palace doors. They looked like a motley bunch, not up to Hera's usual standards. That's when I realized that if Hera was waging war against the other Olympians, then chances are she was suffering some losses too. Maybe these guys were just plain tired, or maybe they were simply replacements. Whatever the reason was, it was to our advantage.
We moved closer, keeping low to stay covered by the rocks. Now, we could have charged them and easily won, but why expend the energy? I motioned to Autolycus and Ep, and pointed to the two men playing dice. They each quietly freed their crossbow. They would take care of those two, now the other six were my problem.
I was working on the logistics of how to slit their throats with one chakram toss when I looked over their heads. Overhead, just above the Palace Doors hung a huge, narrow block of stone. Thick chains that disappeared into the palace, through the stone wall, suspended the slab of rock. The block of stone could apparently be lowered from the inside to block the doors of the Palace. Since it was on the outside and the doors opened in I could only surmise that it was to keep someone from getting out of the Palace, not to stop someone from getting in.
I hoped that my chakram was up to it. I motioned for the others to wait and let the metal disc fly. It hit two rocks before settling itself between the two chains that held up the block of stone. It bounced rapidly back and forth between the heavy chain, cutting gouges into the strong metal. The sound of metal striking metal and the resulting groan as the slab of stone readjusted its weight, caused the six soldiers to look up. Just as they did, a few tons of granite came down on them. As that was happening, Autolycus and Eponin took out the dice players with an arrow apiece.
"You know I thought we were trying to keep a low profile." Autolycus said, stepping over the large slab of stone. "Why do you think we used arrows?"
"Yea, well, I like to keep my methods fresh." I answered and we pushed the heavy doors open.
Inside was a medium size foyer, two regular size doors just ahead of us.
"It's probably locked." Autolycus said, pulling a lock pick from his pouch.
"Ya think?" I responded sarcastically.
"Here," Ep said, getting ready to kick the doors in.
"What's with you two and these destructive tendencies?" Autolycus asked, pushing Eponin aside and getting down on one knee to examine the lock. "Ahh, Corinthian steel. These are some of the finest locks made in the Known World. Why the spring mechanism alone...look, let me just--"
Ep and I rolled our eyes and took one look at each other. The silent message was passed and just as Auto bent to have a closer look at the metal lock, we each raised a leg and kicked hard against the solid wood. The door went swinging open, leaving the thief on his knees in front of the open passage.
"Or," Autolycus drawled.
"Don't sweat these, Auto," I reassured my friend. "The finesse part comes when we enter the maze."
"A maze...well, doesn't that sound like fun." Eponin bantered.
I didn't have time to explain to my companions, but they followed me without a word down the twisting castle halls until we stood in front of another door made of solid wood. I motioned for the both of them to stop behind me and, standing about three feet away from the doorway, I drew my sword. I stretched my arms forward and thrust the tip of my sword against the wooden door. I heard a faint click and suddenly a portion of the brick floor in front of me fell away to reveal a yawning hole leading into who knows where.
"Think you can reach the lock from here?" I asked Autolycus.
"Just stand back and watch the master." He replied.
Sure enough it took him less than ten heartbeats before the door swung open. We hopped over the trap door and into the next room. I stopped as we came to a wall with a long hall running to the left and to the right. I closed my eyes until I could see Apollo's map in my mind. Left, left, right, left, right, right, left, left... I had the sequence burned into my mind, so when Autolycus piped up with one of his usual quips, he got nothing but a hard glare from me.
We walked carefully down the stone corridor, taking in every detail around us. I told my friends that Apollo instructed me on the traps and pitfalls that were a part of the Palace, but there was no way of knowing how many little snares Hera may have set up for us.
I slowed down, staring at my feet, then stopped completely. I bent to one knee and scooped a bit of dirt and sand into my palm and tossed it into the middle of the corridor. The dirt revealed a thin filament, intricately tied into a grid-like pattern, the squares of the grid large enough to place my foot through. Eponin kneeled down beside me to get a closer look.
"I've never seen anything so fine. It's like human hair."
"You'd never even know you were running into it until it was too late." I said.
I motioned them back a step and gave a slight tug to one of the strands of fiber. Immediately, small holes opened up an each side of the stone passageway, short arrows hissing from the openings. The feathered shafts hit the walls and fell harmlessly to the floor.
I stood up and explained how we needed to cross the twenty feet of mined corridor.
"Just remember to lift your foot up high enough to clear the line, the slightest pressure will spring the trap and there's a lot more arrows where these came from," I said, examining the shaft of one of the fallen darts.
As I stood a smell that was a cross between rotting eggs and decaying flesh assailed my nostrils. I looked to my right to find Autolycus suspiciously eyeing me.
"Don't look at me." I drawled.
"Then where is that coming--"
I heard a shuffling noise behind us and we all three quickly turned, swords drawn.
"What in Hades are those?" Eponin said as disgust filled her voice.
"Xena, please tell me those are not giant rats underneath that armor." Autolycus said and I heard the fear in his voice too.
"Skaven." I hissed.
There were at least six of them; they never traveled alone. They were in every way like their four-footed brethren, quick, vicious, and cunning. These creatures weren't your everyday big rats with beady eyes and long worm-like tails, though. These creatures were bipedal man-sized killing machines. My one and only encounter with them was when Hera sent a few of them after me when I was in a castle a lot like this one. I was after the sword Hercules and I eventually used to free Prometheus and I rounded a corner and found these guys staring at me.
I found, that on their own, they were ill-disciplined and complete cowards, but together, in large packs, they become fanatically over-confident and bold. They wore filthy rags and scraps of armor, some brandishing crude weapons and others with more sophisticated gear. On everything, helmets, shields, or shoulder armor, they painted their standard, the Great Horned Rat, the dark god of the Skaven.
So, I attempted to do now what I did back then.
"Turn around and start moving...carefully, and when I say run, you better be able to high step or you'll end up full of arrows." I said in a low voice. "I'll keep them busy for as long as I can."
I didn't fully have it in my mind what I was going to do yet, but I sure hoped it would come to me. My companions turned, slowly at first and began to maneuver through the trap. The Skaven hissed and sniffed the air at our movement. Two of them rushed forward in a false charge to see if I'd cower in fear. I did just the opposite. I twirled my word with a flip of my wrist and started screaming at the top of my lungs. It scared the shit out of them, which was evident by the floor around them.
There was only one major flaw in my plan. Skaven don't like to be afraid. It unnerves them to the point that they'll do the last thing you could think of. In this case that meant charging right at me. They were in an absolute frenzy now and I didn't want to be anywhere close to those rabid fangs. I turned around to see my friends were almost there.
"Run!" I shouted and took my own advice.
It only took a heartbeat and they were nearly on top of me. I could hear them chittering and feel their hot breath on my neck. If one of them had been smart enough to reach out a paw, he could have dragged me to the ground. Actually, I was surprised the smell alone didn't knock me out. I figured that since they were right on my back I'd see if I had any of Apollo's infused power left.
I saw that Auto finally cleared the trap and when Eponin saw me barreling down the corridor, she dove the remaining few feet. I ran through that passageway like my life depended on it, which it did. I never bothered with trying to avoid the hair-like filaments; I just barreled on through, setting off the traps. The arrows made a sharp hissing sound as they passed me, but I twisted, turned, and dodged until I skidded to a stop in front of my friends who were still standing there, a look of open-mouthed wonder on their faces. I turned around and all six of the hideous creatures were riddled with arrows, breathing their last. One other thing about Skaven...they're not notoriously bright.
Two more lefts and a right and we found a secure room where we could take a break. Apollo said it was a storage room for the priests. We found it mostly empty, a number of baskets and other paraphernalia lined up against one wall. I closed and bolted the door; it was the only way in and out, according to my father in law.
We sat and caught our breath, eating some dry rations; the only sound was our own breathing. I heard a sound outside the bolted door that caused the skin at the nape of my neck to prickle. It was a Gods awful racket like a man half-yelling, half moaning in agony. Whatever it was, it was from Hera's back of tricks. Either that or Apollo forgot to tell me something.
Suddenly something crashed against the locked door...something big. The pounding continued as I realized we were trapped in here with no other way out. Whatever it was, we were going to have to confront it to escape. The hinges on the door began to rip apart and finally chunks of the wooden door flew to bits. When the door was flung into the room what stood in the entrance was the most powerful looking warrior I'd ever seen, and believe me, I've gone up against the biggest and the baddest.
He came straight for me, no preamble, no "I'm gonna kill you, Xena." He was making a ghostly moaning sound that could only mean he was a Beserker. Once men, they were trapped within their armor, usually by Gods or sorcerers. They, like the Skaven we just encountered knew only one thing, how to destroy your enemy. They never slept or ate, and never got tired. They simply fought until they were killed or killed you.
Killing a Beserker was a challenge in itself. This one had on massive amounts of black and white armor over a coat of chain mail. His gloved hands came down into gauntlets that were all hard leather and metal. Over his boots and up to his thighs was the same leather and metal combination. His face was covered completely in a metal helmet, a long slit cut into the device for him to see through. In the very top of the helmet was a sharp curved spike the color of bone, covered in dried blood from some other unfortunate victim.
I met his charge against my blade with my own battle cry. Soon I was in full fight mode and could only hear my own blood pounding in my ears as instinct took over. I could occasionally feel myself grunting or shouting as I wielded my blade, but for the most part I was lost inside the part of me that is a warrior. Nothing existed for me beyond those boundaries.
Unfortunately, even with Apollo's strength, I was not a Beserker and I began to tire. That's when I came to an awareness of my companions. Eponin and Autolycus both entered the fray with their swords, but even with three of us combining our strength, the creature could not be brought down. Finally, he tossed his sword aside and pulled what looked like a huge sledgehammer that he was carrying on his back. The wooden-handled hammer was a big thick block of metal at its head with spikes sticking out of it. He swung the weapon in a wide arc, fending off our blows with a large round shield held securely in his other hand.
Stepping back to catch my breath, my companions charged in to give me a moment. It was then that I saw the area I needed to attack. The Beserker's gauntlet came almost to his armored elbow protector, but there was a gap of two or three inches between the elbow protector and where his shoulder armor came down onto his upper arm. It was just about the only unprotected area on his body.
Eponin was slammed against the wall, the spikes from the creature's hammer slicing open a thick cut on her arm. I stepped in front of the fallen Amazon to try to draw the creature's attention away, but he smelled blood now. That turned out to my advantage because while he was totally focused on the fallen warrior I stepped in. I would only have one chance and the timing had to be perfect. The only time the gap in his armor showed was when his arms were raised. I waited until he brought his weapon hand up, to finish off Eponin, then I saw it. I raise my sword and with all my strength, brought it down, just as his arm was striking downward in the Amazon's direction.
I could feel the difference in texture immediately. Instead of striking hammered metal, my sword felt like it was slicing through a soft melon. The howl the creature let loose made my ears ring as my blade sliced the arm from his body. Still he wouldn't quit fighting and I knew he wouldn't until he was dead. Autolycus and I took turns harassing him and he swung at us with the shield in his remaining arm. Seeing an opening, I severed his other arm just as I had the first. I kicked him in the chest and he toppled to the floor.
I moved to Eponin who had already staunched the flow of blood from her arm with a tourniquet. The wound was wide, but not nearly as deep as I first thought.
"I'll sew it up for you as soon as we get out of here." I said and she nodded as I pulled a clean cloth from my pack to put around it in the meantime.
The Beserker was still moaning and howling on the floor, but without his arms he couldn't go anywhere. The loss of blood was finally causing him to grow weaker and he lay there panting. Autolycus went near him and I could see the kind-hearted thief was going to try to get the creature's helmet off, in an attempt to help him breath.
"Don't touch him." I said quickly and Auto jumped back like he was just exposed to swamp fever.
"If you remove a Beserker's helmet and look into his face, you end up condemned to take on his fate. You trade places with him." I said, which caused Auto to back up even further.
"Are we just gonna leave him like that?" Eponin asked.
"Beserker's were once warrior's just like you and I." I explained, wrapping the clean bandage around her arm. "Then one day they gave in to the seduction of a God or a sorcerer. The promise of power and strength that would be theirs forever was what turned this one into what you see now. They have no recollection of their previous lives, they only know of death and conquest."
I looked over at the fallen creature as I spoke and knew that it was taking its last breaths. "He made his choice. He'll have to see it to the end." I answered.
We helped Ep to her feet and she told us she was fine. We left through the destroyed doorway and I realized that Hera was playing for keeps this time and I wondered how long our strength and our luck would hold out.
All three of us were in need of a little sleep and some warm food, even myself, yet we pushed on through the semi-dark corridors of the Stone Palace. I could feel the very slight downward slope that the passageway had and whether my companions realized or not, we were descending lower with every step. Ultimately, by the time we reached the Diamond Chamber we would be fifteen levels further below where we entered the Stone Palace.
I heard footfalls behind us, obviously not someone trying to cover the sound from us. Actually, it sounded like they were trying to keep quiet, but they were failing miserably.
"Keep moving," I said to my friends as we rounded the next corner.
I flattened myself against the wall and waited as Ep and Autolycus moved on. The stranger's footsteps grew nearer and just when they were about to round the corner, I reached out and grabbed the man's collar. He wore priest robes and carried no weapons. By the time my two companions heard the noise and rushed back, the priest was on his knees after I'd interrupted the flow of blood to his brain.
"Who are you?" I questioned and he struggled to speak.
"T-The...strength of...Apollo...f-flows in y-you." he gasped.
I quickly recognized the safe phrase Apollo gave me and released the pinch from the terrified priest. He fell to the floor, sucking in great gulps of air. My father in law told me that any priests that were loyal to him might aid us along the way. He gave me this phrase as a way I might be able to recognize them from any that were turned to Hera's cause.
I helped the man to his feet and apologized, but we needed to be sure. He bowed slightly at all of us.
"I have been told to bring you to a safe place where you may rest for a time." He said.
"The Trias?" I asked.
"Yes...you will follow me?"
I looked at Ep and Autolycus and indicated that we should follow the priest. The Trias was one of the two places in the Stone Palace where immortals could not go. Well, they could but Apollo's exact words were that they would be, "rendered powerless." I knew we'd be safe there. With a wave of my arm, I bid the priest lead us. I knew round about where the Trias was according to Apollo's map, but only the priests knew the secret passageways into the sacred temple. Even Apollo himself was not privy to this mortal shrine in his honor. Delos was set up this way by Apollo himself to protect the Elixir of Life from just the sort of thing we were going through now.
Lying in a soft palette, a warm stew filling my belly, I thought I could sleep for a week. I knew the half a dozen candlemarks we agreed on would be more than enough, however. After we ate and I stitched Eponin's arm, we were each shown to a separate room, probably one of the many priest's quarters. A steaming tub of warm water awaited me and I reveled in its soothing heat, thinking that I was getting far too old for all of this.
Now, nearing sleep, I remembered the last time I was in a temple that belonged to Apollo. How strange to revisit that memory and know that now Gabrielle was the God's daughter. I was so in love with her then. If I could have known then that I was to lose my bard when she tried to bring Hope to her death, just a few moons later, I would have surely told her what was in my heart.
Keeping my wife and Tara apart was a little tricky since Tara was convinced she would be my next partner. If only the girl understood what Gabrielle really meant to me. Tara later admitted that she initially thought Gabrielle was merely my body slave, a girl that I kept around to meet my physical needs. I almost laughed out loud when I heard that. Seems most of Greece thought that about Brie. Someday I'll have to ask her if she knew that. I set the youngster straight, and told her that Gabrielle and I were just friends. She looked rather like she didn't know whether she should believe me or not.
I remember trying to stay in between the two of them. I loved Gabrielle and no one could have ever come between us, but I saw something in Tara. It was like looking at a younger version of myself. I knew, right off, that bad girl image was a lot of bluster on her part. The first night we spent together, when Tara sidled herself up to my bedroll in Gabrielle's usual spot, I was in a fix. I didn't want to make too much of it for fear my bard would think I was getting a bit too possessive and wonder why her best friend simply had to sleep by her. So, I blew it off and Gabrielle settled further away from me than usual and the loss I felt at the mere few feet was immediate.
I was just losing myself to sleep when I felt the small hand on my thigh. I don't think I knew what was going on right away, since my sleep fogged brain was trying to register the fact that Gabrielle usually slept beside me and sliding her hand up the inside of my thigh was certainly not one of the things my bard usually did. Then the fingers on that hand began to slide under my breeches and my eyes shot open as sudden realization flooded over me.
I grabbed Tara's wrist and, without a sound, I gently pushed her hand away from me. I could already hear Gabrielle's deep, even breathing telling me she was asleep, thank the Gods. I felt the young girl's insistent hand return and this time I roughly stopped her wandering fingers and leaned up on one elbow, glaring down at her.
"Stop!" I hissed quietly, trying not to wake Gabrielle.
"But, you said you two were just friends." Tara whispered in response to my glance over at Gabrielle's bedroll.
"It doesn't matter, Tara." I replied, and suddenly I wanted to be honest with the girl. "Gabrielle holds my heart and this would be a betrayal of that affection.
"Doesn't she even know...I mean, that you love her?"
"No, and I would rather keep it that way for now. Tara, someday I hope you find someone that will open their heart and be willing to forgive all the wrong things that you've done in your past. Someone that will love you no matter what you've done or who you've been. Gabrielle is that person for me and I will never again do anything to jeopardize that love." I finished.
"I'm trusting you with this knowledge, Tara, I hope you won't let me down." I finished.
"I won't, Xena." Tara said finally, turning over to sleep.
Of course, I should have known that Tara was too immature to process what I told her that night. She proceeded to push Gabrielle, in her jealousy over me, until my wife had no choice left but to pummel some sense into the girl. It was an act filled with an odd, almost bizarre satisfaction from all parties concerned. Tara found out that she wasn't so bad after all and that just because a person was long-suffering and tolerant, it didn't mean they were weak. Gabrielle learned that some heads are hard, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are a lost cause. Then there was me.
Once we returned the Urn of Apollo to the temple, Tara and Gabrielle stayed for the cleansing ceremony. I heard Tara's question to Gabrielle loud and clear.
"Doesn't she want to be forgiven?" she asked.
My bard simply turned and looked at me. She alone knew the thoughts that ran through my head. I would not, could not allow myself forgiveness. I was determined to earn my place in Ellysia by trying to atone for every life I took. Nothing could bring back those people from my past and no amount of forgiveness could absolve me from the shame and the guilt. I would give back one day at a time until Hades came for me.
My words to Tara reminded me that forgiveness for my crimes against humanity would have to come from Hades himself at the end of my time in the mortal realm, all other forgiveness I received from my bard. Through trial and tribulation, she forgave me all my past misdeeds. How did I know this to be so? Because she told me so everyday, in a thousand little ways.
There would never be any need for another's forgiveness...I had Gabrielle.
My internal clock woke me just shy of the time we were to wake. The priests fed us a morning breakfast of bread and cheese, although it only felt like morning since I slept uninterrupted for six candlemarks. In truth I had about lost track of whether it was night or day in the world above us.
I sat inside the temple, a most interesting place, architecturally speaking. The Trias was set up with three altars, for reasons I hadn't yet learned from Apollo. He said it was a place of great strength and that the three altars were aligned so that they literally drew energy from the forces of nature. Because of this, the priests explained to me that it was a place with great healing powers.
"Xena..." Eponin came into the room, "you have got to see this," she said.
She removed the bandage from her arm and showed me the thin line of stitches I put in earlier. Underneath the suture line the skin was completely healed. I pulled my breast dagger out and cut away the light twine I used to hold her wound together.
"Well, Ep, it looks like you're living proof of the power of this place."
"Now we know why they keep it such a well guarded secret." She responded, still amazed at her body's miraculous ability to heal within the confines of the temple.
Autolycus entered the room we sat in, rubbing his shoulder and stretching his back. "I didn't even know I had this many muscles that could ache." He said.
I chuckled at my friend and realized that life's little everyday pains must not be on a grand enough scale for the Trias to play a part in healing. We munched on our food and spoke with a few of the priests, but they couldn't give me much more information than I already knew. I explained the rest of our journey, drawing some simple sketches on a piece of parchment one of the priests gave to me. The rest of the maze turned into a spiral, circling down, lower and lower until we would enter the Great Hall. Across from the Great Hall lay the Diamond Chamber.
"Look, what we've experienced so far has just been a taste of what Hera can throw at us," I began. "Actually, a lot depends on how the battle on Olympus is going. If Hera's is busy enough, she may lose track of us. Even better would be if the battle is going badly for her, then she may ignore us completely."
"But, we can't depend on that, right?" Autolycus stated.
"Right. We have to plan for the worst, though. That's why if either of you want to stay here with the priests until this thing is over with, I'll understand." I added.
They both looked at each other, then at me.
"I think you know what my answer is, Xena. I'm here for my people and if I have to die to prove my worth to Artemis, then so be it." Eponin responded.
Autolycus had his head lowered and when he raised his eyes to mine I could see that there was no jest in them. "Xena, this just isn't about Gabrielle or even the Amazons anymore. It's about all of us...humanity. Hey, I'm the first guy to admit that there are a few unsavory types that I could do without, but I don't think we should all get dumped on because of it." he finished with a grin.
"Allright then...let's get on with it." I replied, standing up and shouldering my pack.
The priest that originally led us to the Trias again led us out through hidden, twisting and turning passageways. He never gave his name and so I respected his silence. He explained where we would end up and I was happy to know that we would be avoiding the level where Apollo said they kept the Serpent of the Undead. Now, I am no coward, but I was in no hurry to confront anything with a name even remotely similar to that. Apollo tried to ease my worries by saying the serpent was nothing compared to what followed him around.
I took a moment after the priest left us to get my bearings. Two, maybe three candlemarks passed as we walked in silence, carefully avoiding the traps that were in place. It seemed like there was a door every ten feet and Autolycus was sure doing his part with his trusty lock pick. The corridor started widening and soon we were walking through passageways nearly forty feet across. I realized, noticing the numerous doors that lined the corridor's walls, had we not had Apollo's instructions, we could have wandered this castle for years. I knew which doors to take, however and we plodded along, anticipation increasing the closer we got to the Great Hall.
A familiar odor wafted through the corridors to engulf us and I begin searching the passageway with my eyes, trying to figure out which door would make a good direction for a hasty exit.
"Do not tell me it's the rats again." Autolycus stated.
I wasn't sure, but for the smell to be that powerful this far away; it would have to be a whole platoon of Skaven. If that was the case, we didn't stand a chance. The roar we heard coming from the passage ahead caused me to freeze in my tracks. A moment of panic, something I am unaccustomed to feeling on a routine basis, clutched at me. Had I turned the wrong way somewhere? Apollo warned me that the Serpent of the Undead had an ear splitting roar that could cause an otherwise fearless warrior to cringe in fear. We were not supposed to be on this level, had the priest lied?
My brain searched for these answers in the few heartbeats that passed before we saw the huge beast shuffling toward us.
"By--the--Gods!" Eponin enunciated each word severely.
"Oh, this can't be good." Autolycus responded to the approaching serpent.
I drew my sword, mentally going through the items Apollo loaded in my pack, wondering if one of them was meant for this creature. Well, nothing was coming to me so I drew my sword and headed toward the beast. It was a sickly, rotting green color; it's skin hanging off its body in tatters, completely exposing the bone in some places. When he attempted to roar again a portion of his lower jaw simply fell off. The thing was big and lumbered along slowly, causing me some concern at what would back this thing up.
"Careful, keep your eyes open. Apollo said something worse backs this thing up." I shouted over the monster's din.
"Worse? Worse than an undead dragon?!?" Autolycus shouted, his voice raising an octave.
"It's dead, how dangerous can it be?" I responded and immediately moved forward to cut a deep gash in the monster's belly.
Now, I'm a seasoned warrior. I've seen sick horrible things, watched them happen, Hades, I've done some of them myself, but never have I ever felt as sickened as when I stepped back from the rush of, Gods know what, that spilled from that creatures belly. A mixture of maggots, worms, and black beetles poured from the wound, followed by the thumps of human body parts as they hit the ground. Autolycus promptly turned around and threw up his breakfast.
As disgusting as this mass of unliving flesh was, it wasn't much of a threat. It snapped it's jaws, but bits of him kept dropping off all over the place. Along his long neck, the skin had fallen away, revealing some loose bits of muscle. What was most prominent was the cream color of the two lengths of vertebrae than ran to the dragon's head. I stepped in and with one strong blow I severed the creatures head. Of course, that didn't stop him, he was already dead after all.
The beast's body still flailed about, huge wings flapping, trying to impale one of us with the large claws on the end of each joint of his tattered wings. Eponin thought quickly and, removing her crossbow from her back, she notched an arrow and let it fly. I was about to shout a warning that it would do no good to fill it with arrows when I saw where the first shaft struck the creature. Eponin shot it's wing, just as the animal was raising the limb and the appendage was pinned to the wall, as the Amazon's arrow was imbedded into the mortar. Autolycus took the warrior's lead and let fly with his own arrows. Another few heartbeats and they succeeded in pinning the animal to the wall, at least enough for us to pass.
Auto and I went closer to examine the beast.
"Well, when Hera wants ya dead she sure doesn't skimp, does she?" Auto deadpanned.
I realized then that it wasn't I who made a mistake. We were in exactly the spot I thought we were.
"Somehow, Hera let this thing loose on this level. I guess that means she's here...and she's not happy." I said aloud.
"So, why doesn't she just nail us herself, and I thought you said the Gods didn't have powers down here?" Auto asked.
"First of all it's that direct intervention thing. Zeus prohibits Hera from interfering directly in the lives of humans. Her answer is to kill us or slow us down with these things." I kicked some of the still crawling bugs from my boots. "And, the Gods do have their powers down here, but they're limited. I would probably be on equal terms when it came to fighting them, but I seriously doubt Hera's going to challenge me one on one down here. There are only two places the Gods can't go down here...or two that I know of, the Trias and the Diamond Chamber. Actually, they lose all their powers if they enter one of those places."
I felt an odd warmth against the back of my neck and a drop of wetness struck my shoulder armor. When I turned my head slightly I was looking into the face of a salivating hydra. I grabbed Autolycus and we dove just as two sets of jaws snapped into the air where we had been standing.
We all drew our swords and carefully prepared to fight off the advancing five heads. Long and low to the ground its body appeared to be like a big lizard. Well-muscled and protected by heavy scales a few of the creature's heads turned toward the still bound dragon and sniffed the beast. It used one of its short legs to push at the dragon as if it were an injured pet. That's when it turned and headed in our direction. If it was possible for a hydra to look pissed, then this one definitely was.
"Remember to ask me on this kind of adventure again, Xena...it just keeps getting better and better." Autolycus quipped.
I got ready to see how many of the heads I could take off with my chakram, but the problem with a hydra was unless you cut all five heads off at once, they would grow back. I remembered my pack and Apollo's words. I would know when I needed them. I fell back to where it lay on the ground and grabbed for it while Eponin and Auto distracted the hydra. Feeling the smooth metal I pulled out a disk that looked suspiciously like my chakram. It had five layers to it, which seemed perfect for this little problem, but I wondered if it was meant to act like a chakram. Well, if it looks like a chakram, feels like a chakram...I used all my strength, and some that Apollo gave me, to fling the object in the hydra's direction.
The metal object split apart into five separate disks, just before slicing through each one of the five necks that reached for us. The beast writhed for a moment and then was still. We were all breathing hard and I suspect it was more from adrenaline than actual exertion. Leave it to Autolycus to break the silence.
"I just want to know one thing...how come you get all the cool toys?"
I laughed so hard tears came to my eyes.
We again made our way into the depths of the Stone Palace, traveling for what seemed like candlemarks. Thank the Gods, we didn't run into anymore of Hera's little monsters, but I didn't want to let down my guard in case she planned it that way. More likely than not the other Olympians were giving her more than she could handle up on Olympus.
We stopped to rest our legs for a while and to share some of the water the priests filled our skins with. I sat on the ground, my back situated against the wall, my eyes closed as I rested. The musty smell of the Palace and the caves reminded me of another time. I lost Gabrielle to death more than once during our travels together, but by far the pain I remember the most was that day in a bombed out temple in Thessaly. The musty smell of the Stone Palace reminded me of the temple we chose to take refuge in.
It took me so by surprise, Gabrielle dying that day. That wasn't supposed to happen...couldn't happen...not to my Gabrielle. When those around me told me to ease up, to let her pass over to the other side, I was in shock. There are no words to describe what I was feeling, mostly because I didn't take the time to examine my own feelings. I only know that I absolutely refused to let Gabrielle leave me. I acted on instinct alone and my sole reaction was anger. I was angry with the Gods for stealing away the young woman that I knew I was in love with even back then. We had only been traveling together for just under a season, yet I already knew there was something different about this girl, something that would save me.
I grew angry with myself for a hundred different reasons. It was my fault we were there in the first place; I led the woman I cared for; who depended on me, right into the arms of danger. My damnable pride led us into again, yet I should have been thinking more of Gabrielle than my own abilities. I was angry because I never told Gabrielle of my feelings for her, and because I wasn't able to save her from death. Lastly, I was angry with Gabrielle. She had no business going out into the battle zone; she should have known her own limitations. Mostly I was angry with my beautiful bard because she died. She had the audacity to die, to die on me...I was the Warrior Princess for Goddess sake!
I didn't say any of these feelings of anger would make sense or were in the least rational, but it's all I can remember going through my mind at the time. To tell the truth I didn't even remember half the things I said until, in privacy, I asked Ephiny to go over it with me.
"She is not dead...I wouldn't let her. Come on, Gabrielle, wake up. Come on, wake up. Come on, wake up. You're scaring me. Wake up. Wake up. Gabrielle, breathe. Come on. Come on, breathe, breathe. Maybe she just needs air. I need to get some air in her lungs. Come on, breathe!"
"No. No... Come on, Gabrielle. Come on. Come on. Don't leave me. Don't you leave me! Don't leave me! Don't leave me! Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!"
Funny, but she never asked why or looked like I was asking her anything odd at all. I think she always knew how I felt about Gabrielle and I'm sure she suspected why I asked her. There are very few times in my life that I have truly "lost it," been so whacked out that I couldn't remember all my actions. Up until that day, when I lost Gabrielle on that altar, the last time it happened was when I became a true killer. It was the day M'lila was killed and I swore I would kill Caesar...kill all Rome to balance the scales.
What got me through the incident with Gabrielle in Thessaly was the time we spent together after, once her body began to heal. I was ecstatic that my bard was alive and I should have shown her how much, but what did I do? I ran off and hid. For days I helped the villagers rebuild and played healer until I dropped down at night next to Gabrielle's pallet exhausted, falling instantly into a deep slumber. I was guilty and wondered if Gabrielle blamed me, but I was also ashamed at myself for failing to protect her. Finally she caught me one night and, like always, Gabrielle had to speak up first.
I wandered down to the small lake beyond the temple and took a real bath. My skin and hair hadn't seen soap in a while and when I was through I was so clean I almost squeaked. I returned to the temple clad only in my leathers, still toweling dry my damp hair. I found a comfortable spot in one corner of the temple earlier on for Gabrielle and constructed a palette so she wouldn't have to lie on the floor. I fastened one of our blankets up as a makeshift wall and my bard was able to rest and enjoy a slight bit of privacy.
Hippocrates stopped me on my way in and pushed a bowl of warm stew into my hands, saying something about not taking care of myself. I had to admit I was a little lost in that arena. Gabrielle usually took care of me in those little ways. I eased my tired body down onto the blanket on the floor beside Gabrielle's pallet. I just settled down when I heard my bard begin to moan as if in pain. It wasn't a sharp cry, but Gabrielle's body tossed back and forth restlessly, small sounds of discomfort coming from her throat. I knelt beside the bed and raised a hand, brushing back the hair from her face.
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle, are you allright?"
"Xena? I'm sorry I guess I just hurt."
"I know, your body's not used to being so banged up. Let me fix you something." I stood and rushed off, but it didn't take me long to fix some willow bark tea with a pinch of painkiller.
When I returned Gabrielle was awake, leaning up on one elbow. She looked uncomfortable as all get out and considering what happened to her in the last few days it was no wonder.
"Here, drink this, it will take the edge off your aches and pains." I wrapped her fingers around the warm mug and she just continued to look at me, not yet taking a drink.
"Xena...would you sit up here with me?"
"I didn't make that pallet for a warrior, Gabrielle, I made it bard sized." I returned lightly, trying not to meet her eyes.
"Please?" Gabrielle pleaded.
When I looked up I was trapped. The combination of soulful green eyes displaying a combination of trepidation and pain and the plea from her voice. I simply couldn't refuse.
"Move forward a little." I said, moving to sit at the head of the pallet. I stretched one long leg on the pallet and one foot remained flatly on the floor. I eased Gabrielle's sore body so she was sitting between my legs, her back resting against my chest.
"How's that?" I asked, knowing it felt like Ellysia to me.
"Much, much better, thanks. Xena?"
"Sshh...drink your tea first." I ordered gently. I wasn't sure I was ready for what Gabrielle wanted to say.
My bard finished the warm drink and I placed the mug on the floor. There was continued silence and I thought that Gabrielle might have dropped off to sleep.
"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered my name,
"I'm glad you brought me back," was all she said.
"It was you that came back," I answered as I brushed my fingers through her honey colored hair. Gabrielle leaned her head back and rested it on my shoulder so I continued to stroke her hair and face. "I'll bet you would have rather woken up in Ellysia than still here with this old warrior."
"Don't say that...I came back because of you. I love you, Xena." Gabrielle responded and the words rendered me speechless.
Gabrielle meant that she loved me as a friend and a piece of my heart broke, longing for more, but most of my heart was flying high. Even as a friend...she loves me. After all we go through, all that she knows I've done...and still.
"I love you too, Gabrielle." I surprised myself by saying, with a catch in my voice.
We just lay there together after that. I continued to stroke my friend's face and hair, running a gentle hand along her bruised arm. I could feel Gabrielle snuggle into my body further and I wrapped my arms around her tighter and held her.
"Does this warrior pillow feel better than a hard pallet?" I teased with a whisper.
Gabrielle chuckled and I felt her head nod. I kissed the back of her hair and held her, moving very slightly in a rocking motion. I began to hum softly into her ear and the combination of all of this, plus the effects of the tea, soon had my bard sleeping peacefully.
I suppose I could have removed myself from the pallet. Certainly the painkiller would allow Gabrielle to sleep through the night, but I had no wish to be anywhere else in the world. This was my best friend and she loved me enough to postpone Ellysia to be with me. I held the bard closer and knew that whatever the two of us would encounter in our future, we would always be best friends.
I jerked awake at the sound of boots next to me. Eponin was rising and stretching her back.
"Ready?" She asked.
I nodded, realizing that I hadn't been asleep long, just enough to dream of my bard. As I stood and stretched, working the stiffness out, I thought about how much my wife always sacrificed for me. Starting down the corridor once again I wondered if Gabrielle would have enough strength to forgo Ellysia for me one more time.
We prepared ourselves for the final leg of our journey. We were now on the fifteenth and lowest level of the Stone Palace. Walking along the wide corridor I felt my apprehension grow waiting for Hera's next move. It was a bit unsettling not to know whether there would be an attack or whether she had her hands already full on Olympus. I didn't need to think along those lines for long, though. When we rounded the next corner we ran right into our friends with the flashy armor.
There wasn't much time to think of anything beyond staying alive. The soldiers outnumbered us three to one, but each of us fought our hardest.
"Ayah." I grunted, my blade slicing into another soldier. Each time I killed or incapacitated one of Hera's soldiers it seemed that another came in quickly to take his place. I'd been in bloodier battles against more dangerous foes than this, so I acted on instinct alone.
Cutting…stabbing…punching…another soldier came at me and I parried his first blow, kicking out behind me like a mule to take out a sneak attack. My battle cry rang out and the more I fought, the less aware I became of my surroundings. The blade in my hand and the opponent before me became the only things I could focus on. My brain absolutely refused to focus on anything else. Perhaps that was why I lost track of Eponin and Autolycus so easily.
I looked up for a fraction of a moment and Eponin and Autolycus were fighting side by side, suddenly the floor opened up as they backed onto a trap door and both of my companions went sliding out of sight.
"Noooo!" I heard myself scream, which only brought more soldiers my way.
I was quickly becoming outnumbered as soldier after soldier charged to take a chance against my blade. More often than not he found himself impaled against it, but they were coming closer and closer to taking my head. I backed off further down the corridor, and then with a cry and a front flip, I sailed over their heads. Before they had time to turn around, I kicked in the only door available and rushed through. Fate was with me, a large gate lock hung above the door. I jumped up and slid the wooden bar in place. The door held securely as the soldiers on the other side pounded a few times then gave up. I thought that a little curious until I heard her voice.
"Hello, Xena…how good of you to join me."
I cursed my own lack of foresight to have fallen for her trick. I let myself be herded exactly where she wanted me. I turned and put a look of casual defiance on my face, realizing that I stood in the Great Hall.
"Hello, Hera." I answered.
"Now, there are two ways to do everything, Xena--"
"Yea, yea…the easy way and the hard way, yadda, yadda. Get on with it."
"You should take care with that tongue of yours warrior, it's liable to get your throat slit." Hera hissed back at me.
"Hera, let's not fool ourselves. If you wanted me dead I'd already be that way…not that you haven't tried since I've been on this little holiday. You obviously need me for something, so let's cut to the chase, shall we?" I replied.
Her plastered on smile disappeared and her demeanor became a little less intimidating. I kept looking around the huge empty hall, but saw no one beyond the Goddess and myself. I felt that weird nagging feeling that something was wrong, though. It was that tingling that I get down my spine, when the bad guys are just around the corner. Carefully scrutinizing the expansive room with its high stone walls, I could see nothing out of the ordinary so I returned my focus to the Goddess. Hera sat, in what appeared to be, a makeshift throne of some sort, her elbows resting on the arms of the chair and the fingertips of each hand lightly tapping together.
"Allright, Xena...let's talk, shall we? There is something I want, but as much as it pains me to say it, I need your help to get it." Hera finished, her pale eyes watching every move I made.
"Keep talking, Hera, but if you ask me to get the Elixir of Life for you the answer will be one you won't want to hear." I replied coyly.
"I could make it worth your while, warrior."
"Hah. What could you possibly offer me that would make me turn my back on the rest of humanity?" I questioned.
"Gabrielle's life." She said easily and I knew that she read my mind before I could attempt to hide my thoughts.
"What makes you think I could even do such a thing, trade Gabrielle's life for the lives of every single man and woman in this world?"
"Xena," she smiled, and I didn't like the smug attitude she displayed. "That's probably the most ridiculous question you've ever asked of anyone. Even if I couldn't read your thoughts, it doesn't take a seer to know that you would do absolutely anything to ensure your young Queen's health."
I became more careful and quickly slid a mask down over my thoughts.
"How would you save Gabrielle without healing Artemis?" I asked.
"All it takes is one drop of the Elixir. Gabrielle would be healed and you could go your own way."
"With the rest of humanity dead?" I stated more than asked.
"Oh, I'm sure we can come to some kind of arrangement..." she trailed off.
She thought she had me over a barrel and in a way she did. I would do anything for Gabrielle, go anywhere, face any foe, but there is one thing that I would never do and that is to place Gabrielle in a situation like that. If I saved Gabrielle's life at the cost of the lives of, not just the people we love and care about, but the lives of every other human, what kind of life would she have? It would be an existence filled with pain and incredible emptiness. I loved my wife more than my own life, surely, but I would have to say goodbye and hope to meet her in the Fields if this was to be our only choice. I know Gabrielle would not only applaud my decision, she would love me all the more for it.
"No deal, Hera. Not now, not ever...the cost is too high." I answered, realizing that if she had her full powers down here she would have used them by now.
She stood up so fast she almost knocked the makeshift throne backward. It took her a moment to calm herself, I could see she just wanted to blast me with a fireball right then and there. Finally, she smiled, and that worried me more than anything.
"You are a fool Xena. We shall see how quickly you change your mind once you see Gabrielle's life wane slowly and painfully away. Trust me, I'm sure I can get you to change your mind." she finished.
"You and what army?" I snorted.
"Well, it's rather amusing that you put it like that..." the Goddess motioned into the air with one of her hands
I raised my sword, which I hadn't yet placed back in its scabbard. I turned in a complete circle, and didn't immediately see anyone, but that sense I had was raising the hairs on the back of my neck. Suddenly, my eyes widened in surprise, as the walls seemed to come alive. I think I even shook my head a little to shake the odd hallucination from my field of vision.
Unfortunately, Hera has played me again and once more I find myself cursing the fact that I am only mortal. Hera's immortal army stepped away from the walls; their armor painted the same color, in the same stone design. When they were pressed up against the walls their armor blended so well that I couldn't tell that there were even beings standing there.
Now, I had a hundred swords pointed in my direction just waiting to plunge themselves into my body. I ground my teeth together and tried to be smart, which isn't always in my nature. I am a warrior by nature and sometimes walking away from a battle is a difficult feat to accomplish. I lowered my blade and chakram to the floor and stood glaring at Hera. This time I was taking the advice I had so often given my wife...sometimes it's best to be able to live to fight another day.
"Chain her." Hera said.
She was smart. I could only wonder if Hephaestus fashioned these locks for her. I was shacked by my ankles with metal cuffs and a bar that held my legs a shoulder's width apart. My arms were raised above my head and the same, shackles with a bar in the middle, was attached. A length of chain was lowered from the ceiling and was attached to the top bar, fitted through a metal ring in the middle of the solid rod. I was left standing, but I'm sure hoisting me up would be part of the entertainment she had planned.
I gave her a look that told her she'd have to do better than this, to which she responded with a slap to my face. I found myself grinning back at her when I felt the strike. Being down here definitely sapped a God's power. She struck me and the force of it wouldn't didn't even make me think twice.
"You won't have that smirk for long, warrior." She commented.
I understood what she meant. She needed me. I was mortal and could retrieve the Elixir for her, but that didn't mean I needed to have all my body parts to do it. I knew she would torture me, and that just came with the territory, of being a warrior on this kind of a mission. I already knew I would die before I would help her, but I wondered how much blood I would lose and how long it would take her to realize that fact.
The first strike is always the hardest, when you see your own blood or hear your bones break. After that it's all down hill. To tell the truth I think she told her guy to go easy on me. When he backed away, signaling that the first round was over, I felt sore and generally beat up, but nothing nearly like I anticipated. I have to say the worst pain was the sting of my split lip. I knew it could and probably would get a lot worse as time went on.
"I'll give you some time to think it over, Xena," Hera said.
I wondered if her powers were waning further or it was my mental blocking that kept her from reading my thoughts. She dematerialized and was gone and the soldiers filed out of the great hall. I stood there, suspended but with my feet still touching the floor. I thought of Eponin and Autolycus for about the hundredth time that candlemark and could only hope that they were still alive. I looked up at my manacles and realized a good thief would be just the thing to have right about now.
I leaned my head back and raised up onto my toes to ease the ache that was beginning in my shoulders from having my arms raised so high. Better than a thief...I'd give my chakram for one of Gabrielle's back rubs, the kind where she can ease the kink out my left shoulder, the one I always seem to dislocate.
Of course, now I am remembering the time I was in Ellysia during one of my wife's massages, the time that ended up with me in a position much like the one I was in right now. I thought of Thalassa, a young woman much like my bard, and a silent pain swept through me at the memory. I wronged the woman...terribly, but just like Gabrielle, Thalassa eventually forgave me and was more concerned about when I would forgive myself. I will always remember her words to me before I left that island.
"My ability to do good had been crippled...the evil Xena, she did that to me...don't let her do it to you."
This latter became a great deal more difficult to accomplish. As a matter of fact...have I yet? Brie had it right when we said goodbye on those docks before they hauled me away to the island prison. She knew there was more going on inside my head, but she accepted my answer, if not my decision. I was no longer looking for redemption when I accepted incarceration; I desired only punishment. When I looked into Gabrielle's face, standing there on the dock, waiting for me to be shipped away, I realized this was my real punishment. If only they all knew that all they ever had to do to me to make me pay for my crimes, was to take me away from my bard. I tried to tell her, tell her how much I loved her, how much I would always love her. I wanted her to know, but just when I reached out to her, they grabbed me and dragged me to the ship. I know my bard didn't understand why I let them take me. Her cries echoed in my ears for a long time as I sat huddled in the hold of the ship, until I clamped my hands over my ears to drown out the still lingering pleas.
"Xena. Xena! Xena, listen to me! Xena, please don't do this! Xena!"
I hadn't forgotten Alti's vision. Somewhere, deep inside, past all my pain at the knowledge that I would never see my Gabrielle again, was the realization that if I were not in my bard's life, I would not end up leading her to her death. The vision of the snow covering the top of Mt. Amaro and Gabrielle and I being crucified began to haunt my waking as well as my sleeping moments. If this were the price to pay to keep Gabrielle safe, to live out the rest of her life, then I became willing to pay it.
I didn't even realize that Gabrielle and Thalassa kept in touch with one another, until after my wife and I were married. We stopped at the Amazon village while on our way to visit Jordan, the young heir that became such a close friend to both Gabrielle and I, during the young Princess' stay in the village before our wedding. Gabrielle always fit in time for a little paperwork when we visited the Amazons. Friends that my wife corresponded with knew that if they sent their scroll on to the Amazons, Gabrielle would eventually see it.
Brie told me that Thalassa and her new friend hadn't been able to make it to our joining and sent regrets. I was shocked. I had no idea Gabrielle stayed in contact with the woman from the small fishing village in the Saronic Gulf. My wife explained that Thalassa was no longer Commandant of the prison on Shark Island. She left the place that was as much a penitentiary for her own soul, as for the criminals that were sentenced there. She did go about making some wonderful reforms to the place, and although it is still a penal colony for hardened criminals, the treatments are more just and the facilities somewhat more humane. It was working with a commission from Athens that lead her to her friend, who in truth, Gabrielle said, was her lover.
When Brie first mentioned paying a social call on Thalassa and friend, I balked at the idea. Of course, the Queen does have a way about her and when she read me some of the scrolls that the redhead sent her, I was a goner. I was rather impressed at the healing process that Thalassa finally allowed herself and the brightness to her letter to Gabrielle. She told my wife of the love she found with a woman who saw her for who she was and thanked Gabrielle for explaining the concept of looking through "love's eyes". She spoke of me in a friendly, an even joking manner, and I could tell that I must have been a source of conversation between the woman and my wife on more than one occasion. I was especially suspicious when Gabrielle insisted on reading the scrolls to me, refusing to let me see them myself.
"Brie...come on, let me read them." I pleaded.
"Xe." She looked at me with exasperation. "These are private letters."
"So you have been telling her about me."
"Only...some things...I mean, we talk." Gabrielle hedged.
"What kind of things...Gods, you don't tell her what we do in bed, do you?" Now I was worried.
"No! I mean...well...not...a lot..."
"What? Gabrielle! Give me those scrolls." I demanded.
"Xena! They're my letters and we really don't talk about you...much. I mean, they're, well they're...you know woman to woman stuff."
Gabrielle was doing a pitiful job at getting herself out of this one. My usually eloquent bard was digging this hole deeper and deeper, so I thought I'd have a little fun.
"In case you haven't noticed lately, my lovely bride, but I am a woman too."
She smiled as her face took on a beautiful blush. "Yes, I know. You proved that fact quite well last night."
"And, again this morning." I added.
I reached for the scrolls and she backed up just out of my reach.
"Xe...it's a wife thing."
"And, I would be?" I folded my arms across my chest, tapping my boot against the floor.
By this time my poor wife was in a frazzle. She didn't know whether I was teasing or serious and she looked as if she didn't know whether to giggle or cry.
"It's just not a warrior thing, okay?" She finally admitted, somewhat near tears.
I smiled and kissed her forehead. "Well, why didn't you just say that, my heart?"She smacked me in the arm and reached up to kiss me, finally realizing I was teasing. I wrapped my arms around her, intent on proving to her for the second time that day that I was indeed a woman.