The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Diana and King Lias from the TV show 'Xena Warrior Princess' belong to Studio USA/Renaissance Pictures/Universal or whoever actually owns them now. No infringement on their rights is intended. Ares is a mythological character, and therefore doesn't really belong to anyone. All other characters are created by myself, and belong to me.
This story depicts several scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
Caution - this story is more violent than a typical episode on the show.
This story depicts a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Written: February - March 2009
This story is a sequel to Reunion, and you'll find a few references to that story scattered here and there - so if you haven't read that one yet, you might find yourself scratching your head once or twice. Revenge works fine as a stand-alone story, but I suggest you read Reunion as well to get the big picture of this Post-FIN tale.
Korkyra - As usual, thank you very much for your help!
Teaser - In this sequel to Reunion, Xena and Gabrielle travel to Treus to be guests at the wedding of Princess Penthea, Queen Diana's daughter - but the joyous event turns ugly when a band of merciless and bloodthirsty thugs interferes, forcing our two heroines to once again embark on a dangerous mission.
The Eastern sky gradually changed from black to gray to pink, heralding the arrival of a new day. As the sun rose above the horizon, the birds started to sing and the animals came to life.
In a clearing in a small forest, a campfire had burned down to glowing embers. A fur bedroll was next to the fire, with tufts of thick black hair and shorter blonde hair sticking out of one end.
Xena stirred and yawned. She wanted to scratch her jaw, but Gabrielle was sprawled across her body, pinning down her arms.
"Wakey-wakey," Xena whispered, and kissed the top of Gabrielle's head.
"Yep. C'mon, we have a lot to do today."
"Don't wanna..." Gabrielle said, on the verge of falling asleep again.
"Well..." Xena said, and managed to get one hand free from under Gabrielle's body. She ran her fingers up and down Gabrielle's back, making the younger woman squirm and giggle.
"Oh, all right..." Gabrielle said, and sighed dramatically for good measure.
"Your turn to cook," Xena said, and wiggled her way out of the bedroll. She checked the camp thoroughly, but nothing was out of the ordinary. She took her nightshirt off and got into her leathers.
"I always cook," Gabrielle said, and sat up. She stretched, making her vertebra pop audibly. Xena smirked, admiring the bard's bare, muscular back and her dragon tattoo.
"Well, I cooked yesterday, remember?"
"That doesn't count, we had to throw it away."
"Yeah, yeah, rub it in, will you," Xena said, chuckling.
"Is that an offer?" Gabrielle said, and winked.
"... maybe later."
A little later, a small wild chicken was cooking over the open fire, and Xena was busy sharpening her sword.
"Expecting trouble at the wedding?" Gabrielle said.
"Gabrielle, it's us. Where we go, trouble follows," Xena said, stopping momentarily.
"True. You know, it'll be interesting to see Diana again. We haven't seen her in..." Gabrielle started counting on her fingers, but had to give up after a little while.
"... in a long time. Too bad we missed King Lias' funeral. He was a kind King compared to so many others."
"Yes. He was all right."
"... and now Diana's youngest daughter's getting married. Ever had the feeling the world's just passing you by?" Gabrielle said, and laughed quietly.
"Meh," Xena said, and shrugged. She inspected her sword. Satisfied with the results of the sharpening, she put it in its sheath.
"In any case, it was nice of Diana to invite us to the wedding. Do you think she knows about the things we've been through since we saw her last?" Gabrielle said, stirring the fire with a stick.
"I don't know. She probably doesn't. It was pure luck that we even got the invitation. As I recall, I didn't want to swing by Amphipolis, but you talked me into it," Xena said and chuckled.
"Which reminds me... it's been a while since we've had a visit from... you know," Gabrielle said, whispering the last two words.
"Long may it last," Xena said decisively.
"Perhaps he's finally given up on us."
"Well, anyway, it's been two nice and quiet months since that terrible business with Vivella's Amazons. Since you came back to me."
"It has," Xena said, and went over to sit next to Gabrielle. She kissed her on the neck, and put an arm around the younger woman's waist.
"Breakfast's ready," Gabrielle said, pulling the wild chicken out of the fire. She used a small knife to cut the drumsticks off and handed Xena one of them.
"Here ya go."
"Thanks," Xena said, and greedily stuffed the sizzling hot meat into her mouth.
"It's so odd seeing you wolf your food down like that. Earlier, there were days where you hardly ate..." Gabrielle said, furrowing her brow.
"I know, but I can't say why it is that way. It's almost like Aphrodite didn't get all my specifications right when she resurrected me," Xena said through a mouthful of chicken.
"Yeah, well, thank the Gods she got the most important things right," Gabrielle said to herself, the incredible rush of sensations from last night's lovemaking still fresh in her mind. Xena's hands roaming all over her, knowing exactly where to pull, where to squeeze, where to...
Gabrielle turned her head towards Xena, who had a cheeky look on her face.
"I'm sorry?" Gabrielle said, staring blankly.
"I said... do you want to spar after breakfast?"
"Oh... sure... hey, don't you smirk at me!" Gabrielle said, and slapped Xena's thigh playfully.
"Well, I don't know where you'd gone off to, but you weren't here, that's for certain," Xena said and got up, just evading another slap directed at her backside.
"Now where are you going? I haven't finished my food yet," Gabrielle said after Xena's retreating form.
"Nature's calling!" The Warrior said, and walked out of sight of the camp.
"Half or full speed?" Xena asked, as she rolled her shoulders to warm up. She twirled her sword a couple of times.
"We never do anything by half," Gabrielle said, busy sliding her gauntlets on.
"You got it," Xena said, and suddenly lunged her sword at Gabrielle.
The blonde woman expertly bobbed out of the way and jumped up to kick the sword out of Xena's hand. The warrior lost her sword, but moved her hand quickly enough to intercept the kick, catching Gabrielle's boot. Gabrielle made a salto in mid air, successfully breaking free from Xena's grip, and landed on her feet.
She ducked and tried to sweep Xena's legs out from under her. Xena jumped and easily avoided the sweep, but didn't count on Gabrielle coming back the other way, and she was caught off-guard. Xena found herself on her backside, and was briefly stunned. She used her legs as leverage to get up in an instant, and grabbed hold of Gabrielle's arm, flinging the smaller woman over her hip.
She was surprised to feel that Gabrielle had wrapped her hand around Xena's right knee, and was pulling hard. Xena's knee buckled, and she landed with a thud next to Gabrielle.
Both women were flat on their backs, panting, and neither really wanted to continue the stressful exercise.
"Well, I guess that was a pretty good sparring session..." Xena said, and rubbed her sore knee.
"Yeah. I bet we could fetch a pretty dinar if we performed at festivals..." Gabrielle said, chuckling.
"You do that, I'm getting too old for this sh..."
"Oh, Xena... I didn't hurt you, did I?" Gabrielle interrupted, sounding worried. She rolled over to inspect Xena's knee.
"I bumped it on the ground. It'll be all right in a few," Xena said, swatting Gabrielle's hand away.
"All right. Let's get the horses so we can make it to the castle in time," Gabrielle said and got up, dusting herself off in the process.
Xena and Gabrielle still owned the two horses given to them by the Amazon Queen Vivella, and they made good time on their way to the castle - until they reached the main road. Royal weddings have always attracted huge numbers of spectators, and judging by the countless wagons congesting the road, this one wasn't different.
They were going at a far greater speed than the heavy wagons, and when they passed them, Gabrielle looked at them with great interest. Most of them had entire families inside, the younger children playing with each other and the old folks watching and laughing.
Gabrielle felt something was wrong, and she turned in her saddle to look behind her. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, apart from a large amount of soldiers. It looked like there was a contingent of cavalry after every fifth wagon or so.
"Xena, did you notice all the soldiers? That's not like the Diana we knew."
"I've seen them. They're all heavily armed," Xena replied, her hand resting near the Chakram.
"We'll reach a group very soon if we keep up this speed. Look," Gabrielle said, and pointed ahead of them.
"Yeah. No need to draw attention to ourselves. Let's slow down and keep pace with the wagons. It'll take us a little longer to get there, though."
"Doesn't matter. I have a bad feeling about this. There's something wrong here," Gabrielle said, and again looked behind her.
Many miles later, they finally reached the outskirts of a town. This was all new to Xena and Gabrielle - when they had last visited Queen Diana's father, the castle had been by itself on an open field. Now, a large, sprawling town had been built in its vicinity. The castle loomed in the background, blocking the sun and rendering everything in shades of grey.
Xena and Gabrielle veered off from the wagons and rode through the cobbled streets, heading towards the castle. There were soldiers everywhere, and Xena felt her nape hairs stand on end.
"It's probably a good thing we're supposed to stay at the castle. I don't think we could find a single room here," Gabrielle said.
They both stopped suddenly when they heard a female voice shout something they couldn't quite hear. Xena looked at Gabrielle who nodded in return. They quickly guided their horses down a narrow alley, the clip-clop of the hooves drowning out everything else.
They arrived at a small square where three soldiers had captured a young man. A woman was standing next to them, crying, and an old matron was shouting obscenities at either the soldiers or the man they were holding.
Xena quickly dismounted her horse and tried to assert the situation.
"What's going on here?" she said.
"Official business, I'd advise you to stay clear," one of the soldiers, an officer, said.
"What has this man done?"
"He attacked my daughter!" the matron roared. The younger woman nodded, and nursed her left arm. Xena went over to her to take a look.
"Let me see," she said, and put out her hand.
The woman released the grip she had on her arm, revealing a set of purple bruises.
"I know it hurts right now, but you'll be all right. What happened?" Xena asked.
At the same time, a prison wagon came into the square, followed by several more soldiers. Gabrielle began to reach for her sais, but Xena shook her head, so she settled for controlling her horse, which had become quite spooked by all the loud noises.
"He wanted my purse," the young woman said, and showed Xena a leather pouch with a few coins in it.
The man was dragged towards the prison wagon and thrown in, joining several other thieves and muggers.
The matron went over to the patrol officer and grabbed his arm.
"Thank you so very much, Lieutenant! We're eternally grateful. Please tell our Queen how much we appreciate her efforts in keeping the town free of crime!" she said and pumped his arm up and down.
"I will, Ma'am. We have many more bandits to capture today, so, please let... go... of... my arm!" he said, finally pulling away from the woman.
Xena went back to Gabrielle and shrugged.
"A thief trying to take advantage of the many strangers in town for the wedding?" Gabrielle asked.
"Looks like it. But there's still something odd going on here," Xena said, and mounted her horse. She clapped its neck a couple of times to get it to calm down.
"I agree. Those soldiers are giving us the evil eye," Gabrielle said, and pointed her thumb at the patrol and the guards on the prison wagon.
"Hmmm. Let's continue on to the castle," Xena said, and turned her horse around.
A few hundred yards from the castle, the road was blocked by a wooden bar, vigorously guarded by a detachment of heavily armed guards.
An officer came out of a sentry box to meet them. He was in his early forties, and Xena's trained eye immediately saw by his stance and the impeccable uniform that he was a man who wore his rank with pride. His hair was hidden under a metal helmet, but his neatly trimmed beard was in a light brown color with a few strands of gray.
"Greetings, strangers. I have to ask you to turn around and head back to the town," he said, wearily eyeing the many weapons the two women were carrying.
"We're Xena of Amphipolis and Gabrielle of Potaideia, and we have an official invitation from Queen Diana," Gabrielle said, and presented the officer with the scroll they had received.
He walked over to her horse and took the scroll. After reading it quickly, he saluted them and signaled to the guards to pull the bar to a side.
"My name's Trakonis of Treus. I'm Queen Diana's watch commander. I'm sorry for the confusion, but we can't be too careful in this day and age."
"Indeed we can't," Xena drawled, earning her a curious look from Trakonis.
"You'll find the stables on your left when you enter the courtyard. The entrance is..." the Commander said, but Gabrielle quickly interrupted him:
"Thanks. We've been here before," she said, and nudged her horse into a slow trot.
As they left, Commander Trakonis followed them with his eyes, and a few things started to fall into place in his head.
Xena gave the young, sandy haired stableboy a long, appraising look. It appeared that Queen Diana treated even her stablehands well, as his clothes were whole, and his shoes were new.
"She likes carrots," Xena told him, and he nodded enthusiastically.
"Please, none of that 'Mistress' nonsense. I'm Xena. This is my friend Gabrielle," she said. The stableboy turned to each and bowed deeply.
"I'm Petrus. And I'll take good care of your horses."
"We know you will, Petrus," Gabrielle said, and mussed his fair hair.
She took their saddlebags and started walking towards the large building in the center of the courtyard. Suddenly she noticed Xena wasn't following her, and she turned around to see where she had gone to.
Xena was standing in the middle of the courtyard, looking up the tower.
"Gabrielle, now I know there's something wrong here. Look at those banners," she said and pointed upwards.
Gabrielle took a few steps back and looked up. Three very large banners were draped on the side of the tower, one red with a black dragon in the center, one white with a red rose, and the third was all black. The black banner was covering the white one, but the wind had caught one of the corners, partly
exposing the white banner underneath.
"The white one's Queen Diana's coat of arms," Gabrielle said.
"Yes. And I believe it's a tradition here in Treus to fly a black banner whenever the Royal family is in mourning."
"We need to get to the bottom of this," Gabrielle said, and strode purposefully towards the entrance of the building. Xena stayed where she was for a few more seconds, pondering the latest development, but then she followed Gabrielle inside.
The halls of the castle were awash with soldiers and Xena and Gabrielle were stopped four times on their way to the Queen's chamber. When they finally arrived, an aide of indeterminate age came out to meet them. He was a large man, wearing sandals and a heavy cloak made of a dark brown cloth. Xena eyed him suspiciously. She knew she had seen him before, but she couldn't remember where that might've been...
"You've come at an inopportune moment. My Queen can't see you now," he said, his voice curiously squeaky for such a large frame.
"Is Queen Diana ill?" Gabrielle asked concerned.
"I'm not at liberty to speak of My Queen's condition with strangers," he said curtly.
"Oh, we're not strangers," Xena said and barged past him, entering the chamber. Gabrielle followed her as the aide tried to retake control of the situation.
"I beg your pardon! I'm... you can't...!" he said, but was ignored by both women.
Queen Diana was resting on her bed when she heard the commotion at the door. A damp cloth was covering her eyes, but she pulled it aside and sat up in bed so she could see what was going on. She could hear her aide, Magnamus, debating loudly with someone, but the voices all mixed so she couldn't understand what was said.
The door to her sleeping chamber opened, and Diana expected it to be Trissa, her handmaiden. Instead Xena walked in, looking barely a day older than what she had several decades ago.
Diana's eyes grew wider and wider as Xena was joined by an equally young looking Gabrielle. The Queen felt the room spinning and she fainted, falling backwards onto the bed.
As she came to, Trissa was standing above her, looking very concerned and waving a large piece of cloth to give her some fresh air. Diana turned her head and looked at her two guests... they were still there, so it hadn't been a dream.
"I'm so glad to see the two of you again... I see you've been granted immortality," she said, as she slowly sat up in bed.
Xena involuntarily ran a hand around her neck and cleared her throat.
"Well, not exactly, but it's a long story, Queen Diana. We'll tell it to you when you've recovered a bit more," Gabrielle said, and sat down on the bed, taking the Queen's hand.
"Trissa! Pull the curtains apart! It's so dark in here I can hardly see my guests!"
"Yes, Mistress," the handmaiden said, and hurried over to the window to pull the heavy velvet curtains apart.
When the daylight filled the room it revealed that while Diana had aged more than 30 years since they had seen her last, the years had done nothing to impair her beauty. Once identical to Xena, her hair was now gray, and her face and body had become a bit fuller, but it was easy to see that she had lost none of her vigor. Her eyes briefly sparkled, but they soon lost their luster.
"Thank you. Now please leave us," Diana said.
Trissa bowed, and left the room quietly.
"What's going on here, Queen Diana?" Xena said, and pulled out a chair for herself.
Just as Diana was about to open her mouth to explain, Commander Trakonis burst into the chamber with his sword drawn. Magnamus was right behind him, a terribly smug grin plastered on his face.
"Get away from the Queen!" he roared, attacking Gabrielle. Xena jumped up from the chair and reached for the Chakram. Gabrielle rolled across the bed and easily evaded the Commander's attack. She drew her sais and was ready to pounce when...
"STOP!" Diana shouted angrily. Everyone froze and stared at each other.
"Put your sword away, Trakonis. Have you gone mad? How dare you insult my guests!"
"My Queen, these two... bitches," he said, spitting the word out like a rotten tooth,
"... are nothing but common thugs, and they're probably in cohorts with the kidnappers!"
"Kidnappers?" Xena said to Diana.
The Queen nodded sadly, but her face turned red as she looked at the Commander.
"Leave this instant!"
"My Queen, I'll only leave you if these women hand over their weapons."
"Not a chance," Xena said.
"Trakonis, you fool! Don't you know who they are? They could kill you with a flick of the wrist!" Diana shouted.
Trakonis sheathed his sword but continued to stare evilly at Xena and Gabrielle. Finally, he turned around and pushed Magnamus through the opening and back into the larger room where they had come from. When the door closed behind him, Gabrielle relaxed her stance and went back to sit on the bed.
Diana's eyes were closed, and she was breathing heavily.
"I'm so sorry, my friends. Commander Trakonis is a good soldier, but he doesn't know when to stop."
"It's all right, Queen Diana. We've heard worse," Gabrielle said, and picked up the Queen's hand to squeeze it.
"Kidnappers," Xena repeated.
"My daughter's missing," Diana said, and started to sob.
After calming down a bit, Diana showed them a letter she'd received the day before.
"This was delivered to Trakonis by a peasant who had received it in one of the taverns. You better see for yourself," she said, and handed the letter to Gabrielle, who read it out loud:
" 'The princess is ours. Have Magnamus bring 500,000 dinars in gemstones to the Cave Of Despair in three days' time. He must be alone and unarmed, or you'll never see your daughter alive again' The note's signed 'Tyro'," she said.
"Tyro's a local warlord," Diana explained.
Xena crossed her arms in front of her chest.
"That's tomorrow. You're lucky we arrived when we did. Are you going to follow the instructions?" she asked.
"But of course! What else can I do?" Diana said, and wiped her eyes.
"Where's the Cave of Despair? I've never heard of that before?" Gabrielle said.
"It's a few hours away to the North," Diana said and sat down heavily on a chair by a dresser.
"Who's Magnamus?" Xena asked.
"He was the one who met you at the door."
"In the cloak?"
"Hmmmm. How long has he been with you?"
"Three years. Since my husband, Prince Philemon died."
"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that, Queen Diana," Gabrielle said.
"Thank you, Gabrielle. It was a heart attack. I still miss him, but I take comfort in knowing that he's waiting for me in the Elysian Fields," Diana said with a sad little smile.
Gabrielle nodded, and patted the Queen's hand. She looked at Xena. The warrior was chewing her lip, and she appeared to be deep in thought.
"Yesterday morning, my daughter didn't show up at the breakfast table, which is most unlike her, and I sent a handmaiden to see what was going on. She came back and told me the horrible news that Princess Penthea's chamber in the tower had been turned upside down, and that my daughter and two of her handmaidens were missing," Diana said.
"Queen Diana, pardon me for even thinking this, but is there a chance your daughter has eloped with this Tyro?" Gabrielle said hesitantly.
"Hardly. Tyro is an uncouth, unwashed son of a... peasant. No, I'm sure my daughter didn't elope with him. And besides, she loves Prince Eteocles. I can see it in her eyes."
"I know what you mean," Gabrielle said.
"Do you have enough gemstones to cover the 500,000 dinars?" Xena asked.
"Oh yes. Easily," Diana said, and waved her hand dismissively.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other, both of them raising their eyebrows.
"Final question - Is Prince Eteocles here?"
Diana looked at Xena with a puzzled look on her face.
"...Yes. He's here with quite an entourage. I've had them installed in the east wing, but surely you're not suggesting that he's involved somehow?"
"Of course not. I meant that we should talk to him. Perhaps he knows something," Xena said.
"Oh. Well, ah, he's a... how can I put it... he's a charming lad, but he's as soft as velvet. He couldn't hurt a fly," Diana said, her voice slowly trailing off.
After a little while, she looked at Gabrielle, her face pale and drawn.
"He's a poet, you know. Penthea always fell for the creative types." A few tears started running down her cheeks.
"We'll find your daughter, Queen Diana, and we'll bring her safely back to you. And that's a promise," Xena said vehemently.
Later that evening. After a refreshing warm bath to wash away the dust and the grime of the road, Xena and Gabrielle had decided to get their dinner served in the chamber they had been given, instead of going to the formal dinner in the big hall downstairs.
Gabrielle was sitting by a table, updating her journal, and picking the last meat off the fowl they had eaten. Xena was sharpening her sword again, the metallic sounds echoing off the stone walls.
On the far side of the chamber, a fireplace was burning merrily, filling the chamber with a flickering orange light and the soothing sounds of crackling logs.
Gabrielle put her quill away and turned around to face Xena.
"What do you make of this?"
"Well... I've seen Magnamus before, that's for certain. I think it's a safe bet to say he's in on the act."
"I agree. Half a million in gemstones is a fair amount of money. That could corrupt anyone."
"Yes," Xena said and put the sharpening stone away. She took her gauntlets off, and then started to unbuckle her breastplate.
"Do you think we'll find Princess Penthea alive?"
"I don't know, Gabrielle. I honestly hope so."
"Yeah... so the plan for tomorrow will be to follow Magnamus and then take him and the warlord down when the gemstones have been handed over?"
"That's what I had in mind, yes."
"Good. I don't like scum who take advantage of good people like Queen Diana. We'll make them pay," Gabrielle said, her face a mask of determination.
"That we will. Come, it's time to go to bed," Xena said, sitting on the plush covers, only wearing her nightshirt.
Gabrielle looked at the enticing sight. A cheeky grin spread out over her features, and when she got up from the chair, she reached behind her back to untie her halter top.
For the second day in a row, Xena forced Gabrielle to get out of bed at the crack of dawn, but unlike the day before, the blonde woman didn't object. They quickly got dressed and were soon ready for the day's events. Somebody knocked on their door, and Gabrielle opened it.
"Mistress Gabrielle, Queen Diana requests your presence in the main hall," Trissa said, and bowed.
"We'll be there shortly, Trissa. Thank you."
Trissa bowed again, and Gabrielle closed the door.
"Are you ready for the charade?" she asked.
"Oh yeah. Magnamus will never suspect we'll be following him," Xena said, and pushed her brand new breast dagger down her cleavage.
A little later, Xena and Gabrielle made sure that everyone at the breakfast table knew they were there. Doing their absolute worst to appear loud and obnoxious, they were telling lewd jokes and chugging down wine by the bucketload - which was actually redcurrant juice.
The other esteemed guests at the table all wore identical, horrified expressions, but Diana had a hard time keeping a straight face. She knew that Xena and Gabrielle were deliberately trying to appear drunk so that Magnamus would be lulled into a false sense of security. Xena's assurance of them retrieving her daughter had comforted Diana, and for the first time in days, she allowed herself to smile.
Magnamus was sitting at a smaller table, trying not to appear suspicious. He only had to endure this nonsense for a little longer, and then he and his brother Tyro would be richer than any of them had ever imagined. He laughed to himself - masquerading as a royal aide had proven far more profitable than he had predicted in his wildest dreams. Half a million dinars' worth of gems! He glanced over his shoulder at the Queen's two drunken guests. Pah, those two fools would not get in his way... now or never.
He excused himself from the other people at the table, and turned around to bow to the Queen.
"My Queen. It's time. I pray for the safe return of your precious daughter. I shall pick up the ransom from Commander Trakonis, whom I know has personally guarded the gemstones all night, and then I'll make my way to the rascal Tyro's cave."
"You're a good man, Magnamus. And I know you'll give your life if you have to, to protect the Princess," Diana said.
"But of course, my Queen," he said, and bowed deeply.
"Then go... and bring my daughter home."
"It shall be done," he said.
Xena eyed Magnamus as he left the main hall. Even though the main culprit had left, he might still have allies in the hall, so she made a big show of trying to stand up. She swayed this way and that, and laughed loudly. Gabrielle joined her, and soon the two women were swaying like a pair of weeping willows. They staggered towards the exit without even saying goodbye to Queen Diana, causing several of the other guests to protest loudly.
Gabrielle turned around and waved half-heartedly in the general direction of the Queen's table, but nearly fell over doing so.
As soon as they were out of sight of the tables, they straightened up and suddenly looked far more menacing.
"How long should we wait?" Gabrielle whispered.
"Only a few minutes. I know he's prepared a fast horse, no doubt to escape any of Trakonis' cavalry if they should go after him."
"Do you think Trakonis is in on it as well?"
"I can't say yet. Let's go," Xena said.
"Here we go again..." Gabrielle said, and shook her head.
Magnamus exited the courtyard and rode through the sentries, heading North. Xena stuck her head out of the door to check if anyone was waiting for them. Satisfied the coast was clear, they left the tower and ran towards the stables. They untied their horses and led them out into the courtyard.
"You know, when this is over, the first thing we're gonna do is to go to Scythia so I can find another golden mare," Xena said, trying to get into the saddle of her skittish horse.
"These are fine Amazon horses," Gabrielle said, already sitting comfortably on her steed.
"Yeah, yeah. I guess that's why they love you and hate me."
"The Amazons don't hate you, Xena..."
"Tell it to my horse," Xena said, finally getting up on the mare.
Not long after the rumbustious scenes at the breakfast table, Queen Diana was attending her daily meeting with the senior members of her staff and the officers. Her mind wasn't in it - with her daughter still missing, it seemed of very little importance to discuss such trivial matters as the well-being of the tax inspectors.
They were in her throne room, and she continuously tapped her fingers on the wooden armrest of her throne to get her mind off the things her daughter might be experiencing.
Commander Trakonis stepped forward from the line of people waiting to talk to the Queen, and bowed.
"Your Majesty, I must make a severe protest over this morning's utter lack of respect displayed by your most esteemed guests," he said, and continued:
"They were loud, they were obnoxious, they were insulting the other guests, they were..."
"... acting," Diana said flatly.
"I'm sorry?" Trakonis said, shocked.
"They were acting, Commander. It was all part of a charade to flush out the rats."
"But... why wasn't I told?"
The Queen looked at him, but didn't speak.
"Are you insinuating that I had a hand in the disappearance of the Princess?" he said, his voice gradually increasing in volume as he said the sentence.
"At this point, no one is above suspicion. And I do mean no one," Queen Diana said, stressing the last words. She looked all the people in the room in the eye. Trakonis stepped back into the line. His cheeks were flushed, and he looked like he was about to erupt.
A man walked hurriedly into the throne room and bowed before the Queen.
"Queen Diana, Prince Eteocles kindly requests an audience with your Majesty," he said. Diana sighed and closed her eyes. All she wanted was to be alone. She didn't know how much longer she could keep up this facade of calmness when her insides were all twisted into a knot from the uncertainty of her daughter's fate. But she also knew that it would be an insult to let the Prince wait.
"All right. We are done here, so tell him to proceed to my waiting room," Diana said, and rose from her throne. The people in the line bowed at her as she walked out of the throne room. Trakonis looked after her with a murderous expression in his eyes.
Prince Eteocles arrived a few minutes after Diana had returned to her waiting room. He bowed to her.
"Queen Diana, I'm so worried about Princess Penthea."
"I know you love her very much, this must so be hard for you," Diana said and sat down on a chair, her legs suddenly weak from the stress.
"It is, your Majesty. I love Princess Penthea madly."
Despite of the seriousness of the situation, Diana couldn't help but smile at the young man. She vividly remembered how she and Philemon had been when they were that age.
"I know, Prince Eteocles, I know," she said, and put her hand on his shoulder for comfort.
"I fear that I've brought this terrible ordeal upon her by asking for her hand," Eteocles said sadly.
"No, it's not like that. This would've happened regardless of her marrying the fairest Prince of all our neighboring kingdoms, or the son of the blacksmith."
Eteocles blushed from the praise, and he cleared his throat that had suddenly become quite dry.
"I thank you, your Majesty," he said, and bowed. He looked like he wanted to say more, but he hesitated.
"Yes?" Diana said.
"These two warriors... are they to be trusted?" he said, looking down so he didn't have to face Queen Diana's stare.
"I would trust Xena and Gabrielle with my life. And I have, actually. Several years ago, they saved me from a conspiracy that would've destroyed our kingdom."
"Really? I wasn't aware... I apologize, your Majesty."
"It's all right, you couldn't have known. It was years before you were born."
"But... how is that possible? The blonde warrior looks barely older than I...?"
"It's a very long story, Eteocles. Let's leave it at that," Diana said.
"Yes, your Majesty. I shall pray to Hera for Princess Penthea's safe return," he said, and bowed again.
"Thank you. Now, please leave me. I'm feeling so very tired."
Eteocles bowed again for good measure and left Diana's waiting room. She got up from the chair and started pacing. After a few minutes, she slowed to a stop. Her shoulders started shaking, and she finally allowed the tears she had been holding back to come.
Trakonis slammed his fist down onto a wooden table in his chamber, making a ceramic bowl fly over the edge. It broke into three pieces when it hit the floor, and he violently kicked the remains around the room.
He couldn't believe that Queen Diana had given him such a public dressing down. He had served loyally at her side for years, and for her father before that. He had spent his entire adult life in the service of this kingdom, and yet she treated him disrespectfully.
Everything changed when those two warriors arrived. If he hadn't seen the invitation himself, he never would've believed it. He vaguely remembered hearing their names years ago, where they had allegedly fought and defeated the Olympian Gods. What utter tripe - no mortal could ever win a battle against a God.
He took off his gloves and his belt that held a thin rapier and threw them onto his bed. He unbuckled the ceremonial armor he was wearing, and took it off. Still fuming, he went over to a closet and grabbed his regular outfit. After wiggling his way into it, he adjusted it so it was comfortable. When he was satisfied, he tightened the laces on the sides.
Then, he re-strapped his belt around his hips, and took another sword from a cupboard. He put it into a scabbard that he clicked on his belt. He took his silver dagger, given to him by Queen Diana when he was appointed Watch Commander, and slid it into a sheath next to the sword. He sighed deeply, and sat down on the chair.
He decided there and then that the only way for the situation to be restored to normal, not to mention restore his status with his Queen, was to expose those two women, and the true nature of their visit. He was certain they worked together with the kidnappers, or perhaps even *were* the kidnappers, but he needed proof.
As an experienced officer, he knew it would be certain suicide to present his suspicions to the Queen without strong evidence, so he took a new scroll, a quill and some ink, and quickly jotted down a few details about the two women, and a request for all known information regarding them.
After signing the scroll and waving it in the air to make the ink dry faster, he rolled it up and put it into a scrollcase.
He left his quarters and headed for the barracks, where he ordered an orderly to deliver it at once to the head magistrate in Athens, and then return as quickly as he could with a possible answer.
Nearly three hours after he had left the castle, Magnamus arrived at the entrance to the Cave of Despair. He dismounted his horse and grabbed the small bag that held the gemstones. For the tenth time since leaving the castle, he opened the bag and peeked in, and was once again excited by the sight of dozens of rubies, emeralds, and many stones he didn't even know the names of. The greed sparkled in his eyes as he counted the many rocks.
"Tyro! Tyro! I'm here!" he shouted into the cave. No reply.
"Tyro! Where in Tartarus are you, man!" he said, and started to walk in. A few minutes later he came back out and put his hands on his hips.
"Tyro! Stop fooling around! I have the gems right here!"
Suddenly he heard a sound he couldn't recognize. He turned his head left and right to try to find out where it came from. He heard the sound again, and now he was sure it came from somewhere off to his left.
He started walking towards the sound. Carefully, he threaded his way through the tall grass, walking around the rock formation the cave was in.
Suddenly, he came to a full stop. The scene in front of him was so horrible that he dropped the bag of gemstones and went into a state of panic. He started screaming and spun around, running away from the destruction as quickly as he could. He had never run so fast in his life, but he needed to get away, and get away quickly! His screaming startled a large flock of birds in the nearby trees, and they took off, scattering this way and that.
Xena and Gabrielle were following Magnamus at a safe distance when they heard his screaming. Gabrielle looked concerned at Xena, who furrowed her brow.
Magnamus came running past them like a demon was on his tail. His eyes were rolling insanely and he didn't even notice the two women. He was soon out of sight.
"What in Tartarus is going on here..." Xena whispered, and signaled to Gabrielle that they should move ahead.
"I don't like this, Xena... something's wrong," Gabrielle whispered.
"Go right, I'll go left," the warrior replied. They slipped silently into the undergrowth, going in opposite directions.
It didn't take them long to discover that something was in fact very wrong. The smell reached them before they could see what caused it. Both women knew instantly what it was, as both of them knew the source of that smell all too well from the battlefield. Death.
From each side of a small clearing, they could see seven decomposing bodies littering the ground around a campfire that had long since gone out.
They got up from the undergrowth and walked closer to the carnage.
"By the gods... what has happened here...?" Gabrielle said and covered her mouth with her hand, trying not to breathe in the terrible stench.
"I can't see the princess among them," Xena said.
"No... This one's clearly a woman, but her clothes are too shabby. She must've been one of the handmaidens. It looks like her neck was broken," Gabrielle said, gently pushing the corpse with her boot.
"Here's the other handmaiden. Her throat's been cut," Xena said, looking at the mutilated body. She shook her head and sighed.
"The rest are all thugs. Look, their swords are all clean. Whoever it was that attacked them, none of them were able to get even a single hit in," Gabrielle said.
"Yeah. And not one of them have arrow wounds, either. This was all done in close combat."
"Creepy." Gabrielle started scanning the surrounding forest, but she couldn't pick up anything.
"Xena, I don't think we should stay here long." No answer.
"...Xena?" Gabrielle said, turning around.
"Come take a look at this. Judging by the outfit, this one must've been the leader, Tyro. Look at the marks on his neck," Xena said.
"He's had the pinch put on him!"
"Yeah," Xena said, and suddenly noticed a note sticking out of the dead man's vest.
"What's this?" she said, and opened it.
'Hello Xena. The time has come to finish what was once begun. I have the princess - meet me in the abandoned fortress near Arktoros. Catarina LePeyn.'
"Catarina LePeyn!" Xena said out loud.
"Someone I should know?" Gabrielle asked.
"No. I knew her a long time before I met you. Cat LePeyn... unbelievable. How could she have survived?"
"You fought her?"
"I crucified her."
After Xena and Gabrielle had searched the cave for survivors, and finding none, they wrapped the bodies of the two handmaidens in a tarp they had found, and put them across the back of the horse Magnamus' had left behind. According to Xena, the thugs didn't deserve such a treatment, so they left them to rot.
Recovering the bag of gemstones, they started the long trek back to Diana's castle. Slightly less than a mile later, they found Magnamus' dead body. His hands were clutching his chest, and fear and pain were etched into his face. Gabrielle stopped her horse next to the body and briefly looked down.
"Greed kills," she said, and nudged her horse back into a canter.
"Xena, what's the story between you and that Catarina woman?" she said some time later.
"A few years before I met you, my army was campaigning in the North, over the mountains into Noricum and the southern parts of Germania. We had heard a kingdom there held a large quantum of gold... well, it might have once, but when we got there, the war chest was empty."
"Catarina was one of my Lieutenants. She was originally from Gaul, and she had a murderous temper. She didn't hesitate to kill prisoners if they looked at her the wrong way. She was angry, very angry..." Xena said, and remembered a few more details.
"And, well, she was dissatisfied with my leadership, let's call it that. Actually she wanted to kill me and take control over my army."
"And you fought her?"
"Yes. She challenged me to a fight to the death. She was good, no doubt about that... but back then, I used every dirty trick ever invented, and I defeated her. I wanted to make an example out of her, so I didn't kill her at once. Instead I ordered my men to erect a cross in the middle of the camp, and I crucified her for everyone to see."
A pregnant silence filled the gap between them for a long time. Diana's castle slowly came into view, and they could see a cloud of dust on the horizon, no doubt a welcoming party sent out by Trakonis.
"I can't understand how she could have survived... people generally don't survive crucifixions," Xena said, breaking the silence.
"True, but you did, remember?" Gabrielle said.
"Well, I had help back then."
"Catarina might've had help, too?"
"We did leave camp the next day, but... no... I can't understand it," Xena said, and rubbed her brow.
"We'll soon find out. I presume we're travelling to Arktoros immediately?"
"This is a whole new situation. There's more here than meets the eye," she said thoughtfully.
A large group of riders thundered across a grassy field, heading for a ruin that centuries ago had been an outpost of a long forgotten kingdom. The fortress was the highest point in this region, built on the edge of the cliff so it could overlook and control the ocean below. It was perfect as a stronghold for marauders, and many highwaymen had made it their home over the years.
The riders came to a stop in front of a very solid wooden gate. The leader, a fearsome looking man, pounced on the gate using the hilt of his sword. The door was forced open by two thugs, and the men rode inside. A man took care of the horses while the marauders cheered over the success of their raiding party.
The leader untied a sack of loot and walked up a flight of stone steps leading to a large room that had once been the main hall. He quickly crossed the floor and threw down the heavy sack on a table.
"How much, Yiannis?" the woman at the end of the table asked him.
"Nearly two thousand gold coins. Roman gold," he said. He pulled out a chair and sat down, grinning broadly.
Even though he was tall and muscular, Yiannis was an ugly man inside and out. His body was scarred and he had no teeth and very little hair. His face was tattooed with ancient symbols of war and death, and it was clear by the look in his eyes that he was someone who killed for the fun of it.
He stared with his beady eyes at the woman at the end of the table. Unlike some of his brothers in arms, he didn't have a problem working for a woman. She had promised him great wealth, and that was all that mattered.
"How many did you kill to get it?"
"Five... but for that much gold, I wouldn't have minded killing fifty," he said and shrugged. He got up and went over to a keg of ale and poured a healthy amount of the dark brown liquid into a mug. He emptied it in a single gulp, and refilled the mug.
"When are we going to see that treasure you promised us?" he said as he sat down.
"Soon. A couple of days at the most," the woman replied.
"Good, 'cause my men are getting impatient," he said.
"I know. They'll soon be rewarded."
"Good," he said again, and emptied the mug for the second time. He nodded at the woman, got up, and left the large room.
The woman rose from her chair and went over to the windows overlooking the ocean below. Four of the five openings had been blocked by tarps, leaving only a single window free to get the daylight inside. Even in the middle of the day, the room was so dark that six torches were needed to provide light.
The woman calling herself Catarina LePeyn stood with her hands behind her back and looked out of the window. A cold smile creased her lips. Soon, very soon, she would face the woman who had humiliated and abandoned Cat's mother, and left her to die a horrible, lonely death. She had been seven years old when she had heard of her mother's death on that cross, and she had waited 35 years to get her revenge. Now it would finally come.
She heard the familiar crackle of ozone and turned around to greet her influential friend.
"You look marvelous," Ares said. He let his eyes roam up and down the woman's figure. Muscular legs, slim hips, an ample bosom and broad shoulders - and dressed in black leather from top to toe... just the way he preferred his women to look. If she hadn't been so angry and dead set on revenge, her features would've been more relaxed and prettier. Her long, golden hair and cobalt blue eyes framed an angular face, with premature lines around her eyes, a sharp nose and thin, colorless lips that rarely smiled... and when she did, it never reached her eyes.
"My Lord Ares," she said and bowed.
"Oh, you don't have to bow for me, Cat. You're far too good for that. Let's cut to the chase. Xena has found the letter."
"Good. I can't wait. Her blood will coat my blade when I'm done with her."
Ares raised an eyebrow and looked smug.
"Well, let's see."
"Do you doubt me, Lord Ares?"
"No. But you shouldn't underestimate Xena. She's more powerful than you're aware of."
"Oh?" Cat said, and moved closer to the God.
"Yes. And she has a friend with her. Another former student of mine," Ares said, and put his hands on Cat's backside.
"Really? Then I'll have two heads hanging on my wall."
"Mmmmm. Let's see. Let's see..." he said, and leaned down to kiss the woman.
She stopped him by putting her hand on his chest.
"You do doubt me. Why?"
"Oh... I'm just worried that your hatred might blind your senses, Cat."
"Won't happen. When I'm facing Xena, my focus will be perfect."
"Good. Let's... continue this conversation in your quarters, shall we?" he said, and tried to kiss her again. This time she didn't stop him, and their lips touched in a heated kiss.
Some time later. Cat put on her boots and adjusted her clothes after the rewarding encounter with the God Of War. She got up from the bed and strapped her sword on her back. It was time to go and intimidate a princess.
She left her quarters, which were located a further floor up from the main hall, and walked down the stairs towards the dungeons. Once she was there, she opened the large metal door that led to the prison cells. The stench was vile in here, all sorts of human odors mixed with the scent of the horses who were placed next door.
She had put a guard outside the cell where they kept the princess, but the drunken fool had fallen asleep. Cat woke him up by kicking him in the ribs.
"Get out of here, you pathetic fool!" she hissed. He nodded and hurriedly left the dungeon.
She picked up a set of keys the guard had left behind, and unlocked the cell door. Princess Penthea was resting on an old cot, disheveled and with a few cuts and bruises, but mostly all right.
"Wake up, oh dearest Princess," Cat mocked. Penthea turned over and spat at Cat.
"How nice. Well, that little show of defiance will ensure you won't be fed today, either."
The princess was about to talk back to her jailer when Cat grabbed the tattered remains of Penthea's once pristine dress, and lifted her off the cot, slamming her into the stone wall.
Cat studied the younger woman. Penthea's features were very much like how Diana had looked when she was that age, long black hair, sky blue eyes, high cheekbones... a pretty, young woman.
"How old are you, child?" Cat said.
"I can't see how that concerns you, you murderous harlot," Penthea said, her voice cracking up from disuse.
"You're right. It doesn't," Cat said, and slapped Penthea across the face. The princess moaned loudly, and her cheek flushed red.
"I don't... I don't understand why I'm here...?" The princess said, and started to cry. The tears drew lines down her slightly filthy cheeks, and she wiped them away with her sleeve.
"Your part in this game is quite simple, actually. You're bait," Cat said, and let the princess go. The young woman slipped down the wall, holding her cheek. Cat turned around and left the cell without ever looking back at her.
Tired and dusty after the day's events, Xena and Gabrielle arrived at the Queen's quarters only to meet a scowling Commander Trakonis at the door.
"I hope you're satisfied with yourselves. First you implant a false sense of hope in Her Majesty, and then you weren't able to deliver on your promise," he hissed.
"Not now, Trakonis," Gabrielle said.
"Mark my words, your time is running out! I'm on to you!" he said, and strode off down the corridor. Gabrielle rolled her eyes and looked at Xena.
"He'll be trouble sooner or later."
"Undoubtedly. Let's go tell the Queen the bad news."
Unfortunately, the news of the failed attempt to rescue the Princess had spread like wildfire through the castle, and Diana's handmaiden Trissa had already relayed the message to her.
When Xena and Gabrielle entered the waiting room, Queen Diana was sitting in a chair, looking heartbroken. Her eyes were bloodshot from the stress, and her personal physician was busy preparing a sleeping potion for her.
"My friends, please tell me the rumors were wrong..." she whispered.
"I'm afraid there were correct, your Majesty. We didn't get your daughter," Xena said.
Diana slumped down even further in the chair, and the physician cast the two warriors an evil eye for upsetting his patient so much.
"Doctor, leave us. I need a moment alone with my guests," Diana said.
"But, your Majesty, I can't recommend that. You may need medical assistance..."
"Do as I say."
"Yes, your Majesty," he said, and made a hasty exit.
Xena watched him leave, waiting to speak until she was sure he had closed the door.
"Queen Diana... when we arrived at the Cave of Despair, we found the bodies of the warlord Tyro and his men. Unfortunately, we also discovered the two missing handmaidens, they'd both been killed..."
"I'll pay for their burials," Diana said despondently.
"Magnamus is dead, but we've recovered the gemstones," Xena added, and moved closer to Diana. She took the scroll out of her cleavage and showed it to the Queen.
"We also found a letter addressed to myself, where a warrior claims to have taken your daughter to a fortress near Arktoros. It's on the coast. I know this woman. She and I have a history that goes back several decades, and I have no doubt that she's serious."
"How big will the ransom be?"
"She isn't after a ransom - she's after me."
Queen Diana looked at Xena. A few tears escaped her bloodshot eyes and ran down her cheeks.
"Will you go?"
"We'll go. Both of us," Gabrielle answered.
"Take as many of my men as you need. I can't let you go unprotected," she said.
"Queen Diana, we appreciate the sentiment, but... Gabrielle and I need to go alone. A cavalry escort will only slow us down," Xena said.
"But... I insist!"
"By ourselves, the journey will take us slightly more than half a day, but with soldiers accompanying us, it'll be closer to a full day," Gabrielle said.
Diana looked worried, and not quite convinced, so Gabrielle continued:
"We'll leave tomorrow at noon so we can attack them at dawn. It'll be much easier for us to approach and sneak into the fortress if we don't have a large group of soldiers around," she said.
"Oh... all right," Diana said, and wiped some tears away.
"There's one more thing, your Majesty. I believe Magnamus wasn't working alone. Remember back to when Commander Trakonis was given a scroll by a peasant? Is this peasant working in the castle?"
"Why... yes... he's one of the stablehands, but surely you don't think..."
"It's too early to draw conclusions. We'll need to talk with him first," Gabrielle said.
In his quarters, Trakonis tapped his fingers impatiently on the surface of the wooden table. The orderly he had sent to Athens wouldn't return until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest, and that might be too late to detain the two warrior women, especially considering the recent, and very unexpected development.
He took off his riding gloves and slapped them on the palm of his hand. He started to pace back and forth between the bed and the table. He knew the goal he wanted to achieve - protect the Queen at all cost, but how... After a while, he had gone through the many different permutations, and he knew what to do.
He left his quarters and went straight to Queen Diana's waiting room. Once there, he knocked on the door, and waited for it to be opened.
"Commander Trakonis to see the Queen," he said to Trissa.
"I'm terribly sorry, Master. Queen Diana is indisposed."
"... all right. Please inform the Queen that I shall return later on, with solid proof that the two warriors are indeed enemies of our Kingdom."
Trissa looked at him like he had grown a second head, but finally she curtseyed, and said
"I will, Master."
Trakonis went down to the library, intent to find the answers he was looking for.
"Pantorra! Wake up you old fool! You have work to do," Trakonis roared to an elderly man who was sitting in a chair in the library, taking a nap. Pantorra had been the castle's librarian since the days of King Lias, and if anyone could help Trakonis find an old scroll, it would be him.
Pantorra blinked a few times and scratched his chin underneath his long white beard. It took him a little while to regain his senses, and by the time he noticed Trakonis, the Watch Commander was fuming.
"I meant *today*," he said, and crossed his arms over his chest.
"Haste makes waste, young man," Pantorra said, and slowly got out of the chair.
"How would you know?"
"I'd love to trade insults all day, Commander, but I doubt that's what you're here for," Pantorra said surly.
"You're right. I'm here to find any scrolls written around the time of the attempted conspiracy to depose King Lias."
"Oh, that was many years ago..."
"I know when it was! Where are the scrolls, and how many do we have?" Trakonis said.
"Where...? In the storage, I presume. And how many...? No idea."
"Well, get on with searching for them, then. I need them at once."
Pantorra was about to give Trakonis a piece of his mind when the color of the Watch Commander's face convinced him not to.
"Follow me, young man," he said instead, and started walking towards a darkened corner of the library.
Pantorra opened the door to a small storage room, and pointed at a wall of shelves. Hundreds, if not thousands, of scrolls were placed in chronological order along the shelves.
"They're in there somewhere. Knock yourself out," he said to Trakonis, and started to walk back to his chair.
"But.. wait, you can't be serious!"
"I never joke about my work, young man. There's a ladder you can use right over there," he said, and left the storage room.
Trakonis turned around and looked at all the shelves - and sighed.
After digging through dozens of useless scrolls, and discovering a family of mice living in one of them, Trakonis finally arrived at the correct time period.
He had found a few scrolls detailing the immediate aftermath of the failed conspiracy, and how the two main conspirators had been sentenced to many years in prison, but he wanted to know exactly how the plot had been unraveled, so he dug further into the pile of scrolls.
Finally, he found one that claimed to have been written as the conspiracy unfolded. He unrolled the scroll and began to read it. It didn't take him long to notice the two different colors of ink used, nor the slightly strange meter.
This wasn't written in the regular hand used by the chronicler of Treus, Trakonis knew that one well from the many military scrolls he had borrowed from the library over the years... no, this was written by someone else. He checked the bottom of the scroll, and his eyes nearly popped out of his head.
"Trissa, I really need to see the Queen," he said to the handmaiden after knocking on the door again.
"My Mistress has just awakened from a nap, Master. Her physician has said that our Queen needs plenty of re..."
"I'm sure he has," Trakonis said, and forced his way past the handmaiden.
Queen Diana stood in the doorway, tying a belt around the waist of her silk rope. She looked up in surprise as Trakonis barged in.
"What's the meaning of this?" she said.
"My Queen. I have found irrefutable evidence proving that the two women calling themselves Xena and Gabrielle are impostors."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Please read this scroll, my Queen. This will explain everything," Trakonis said, and handed Diana the dusty, old scroll.
"Is this really necessary?" she said.
"I'm afraid so. I have a detachment of soldiers standing by. On my word... I mean, on your command, they'll apprehend the two warriors."
Diana didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so she settled for reading the old scroll instead. The scroll told the story of yet another Diana look-alike, a woman named Meg, who was used in a scheme to depose King Lias.
"I already know this scroll, Trakonis. I was there, remember?"
"Indeed, your Majesty, and that's exactly the essence of the whole matter."
"Stop talking in riddles, and give me a straight answer - What's going on!"
"The two warriors are far too young to be the real Xena and Gabrielle. Xena was an identical twin to yourself, your Majesty. The women who's your guest now clearly isn't. This scroll is written by her companion, Gabrielle of Potaideia - that's what the blonde warrior is calling herself. Don't you see?"
By now, Diana had worked up quite a temper, and she tried to restrain herself... without much success.
"What I see, Trakonis, is a soldier who's obviously been working too long. How dare you insult my guests... my friends! For your information, they are the real Xena and Gabrielle!"
"Are you questioning your Queen's word?" she said calmly, her voice suddenly gaining an icy undertone.
"I... well... listen, your Majesty, I don't know what spell they have put on you, but they are too young to be the real Xena and Gabrielle," Trakonis implored.
"I have lost patience with you, Commander Trakonis. Trissa!" The handmaiden came running in when she heard her name.
"Please go to the barracks and fetch Lieutenant Thaddeus. Tell him to hurry."
A few minutes later, Lieutenant Thaddeus arrived in the chamber, out of breath after running from his quarters.
"Lieutenant Thaddeus, I'm giving you a field commission to the rank of Watch Commander. The former Commander Trakonis has been relieved of his duties, and is to be escorted to his quarters where he'll be confined until further notice. Do I make myself clear?" Diana said in a tone of voice she hadn't used for years.
"Perfectly, your Majesty," he said, and grabbed Trakonis' arm. The old soldier didn't resist, but allowed the Lieutenant to lead him out of the royal chamber.
Diana felt the room start spinning, and she walked with unsteady steps over to a chair. She hadn't experienced such a strain on her nerves for years, not since her oldest daughter had the coughing illness many years ago, and it was really taking a toll on her.
Frightened, Trissa noticed the Queen's paleness and quickly ran to get the physician.
After spending a frustrating amount of time explaining that they weren't the bad guys in this mess, Xena and Gabrielle were finally allowed to dine in the main hall with the rest of the guests. Dinner had been a very quiet affair, the Queen hadn't been able to attend it, and nary a word had been spoken the entire time. They had left early, much to the relief of the dignitaries.
Gabrielle sat at a table in their chamber and tried to update her journal. The words wouldn't flow tonight, so she was chewing on the quill instead.
"Are you thinking about those bodies we found?" Xena said from her position on the bed.
"Among other things. Death is always hideous," Gabrielle said, and jotted down a few words.
"Yes. It is."
"And now we have someone else out there who knows about the pressure points."
"Cat must've picked that up somewhere else, I didn't teach her that, Gabrielle," Xena said, and climbed off the bed.
"I didn't say you did."
"No, but you were thinking it," Xena said, and put her hands on the blonde woman's shoulders.
"Heh," Gabrielle said, chuckling. She leaned into Xena's touch and reached up to take a callused hand in her own.
"I didn't mean it that way," Xena said apologetically.
"Yes you did."
Xena leaned down and kissed Gabrielle on the neck.
"Sorry," she whispered, and was rewarded by two sparkling green eyes.
"I feel really bad about not rescuing the Princess," Gabrielle said.
"Yeah. Me, too. But it wasn't to be."
"I can understand killing the warlord and his men... but why both handmaidens? Just as a statement to show that she's not to be messed with?" Gabrielle said.
"Could be. I would've left one of them alive. Cat was lucky the note hadn't been swept away by the wind, or even eaten by an animal."
"Xena, do you really think this is the same woman you dealt with all those years ago...? It might be someone who's heard about the story, and who's using the name for personal gain. I mean, how old would this LePeyn woman be now?" Gabrielle said, turning around in her chair.
"She's the same age I am," Xena said and winked, earning her a slap on the thigh.
"Around 60, then?" Gabrielle said, smiling wickedly.
"Ouch... and yes."
"There's something fishy going on here..." Gabrielle said, and scrunched up her face in deep thought.
"We'll find out soon enough. Tomorrow at lunch time, we'll set off for the fortress. We better get some rest," Xena said, and started to open the laces in the sides of her leathers.
"Oh, great. Up at the crack of dawn AGAIN..." Gabrielle said and rolled her eyes. She turned back to the table and looked at the unfinished entry in her journal. She sighed, rolled it up, and put it into her scrollcase - she'd update it later on.
The next morning.
Kalios, the man who every morning rang the bell to wake up the workers living in the castle, slowly descended the stairs that would lead him to the courtyard. His old bones weren't fond of the long, winding staircase, so he had to put his hand on the wall to keep his balance.
When he reached the bottom, he turned to the right like he had done for the last thirty years, but this morning, he was greeted by an unexpected sight: a fearsome looking blonde warrior, waiting outside the peasants' quarters. He looked at her with some trepidation, but she nodded at him to proceed, and he took a clapper and struck the brass bell like he always did.
Gabrielle was there to ask questions, and she was carrying the Chakram to look even more intimidating. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared menacingly at the peasants walking towards her from the barracks where they slept. Most of them looked at her with fear and anguish, but a few showed some defiance.
One man in particular was interesting to Gabrielle, and she quickly spotted him. Unlike nearly all of the others, he didn't meet her eye, and was looking distinctly uncomfortable.
"You!" she said, and pointed at the man. He looked up in a panic, and it appeared like he could bolt at any moment.
"I need a word with you," she continued. He swallowed and stepped over to her. She put her left arm around his shoulders and moved him out of earshot of the other peasants. He was a good four inches taller than her, but her fiery intensity canceled out his advantages. His eyes darted this way and that, and he seemed to be getting very agitated.
"The letter you gave Trakonis... who gave it to you?"
"I... I... I... I don't know who he was," he stuttered.
"I think you do. Come on."
"I'm telling you the truth, Mistress. I don't know him! I've never seen him before!"
Behind them, two other stablehands moved quietly across the courtyard, trying to stay in the shadows. At first, Gabrielle didn't sense them, but their heavy footsteps gave them away. She quickly turned around to face them, still holding onto the peasant.
"Yes?" she said, keeping her eyes on the biggest of the two other men.
"Let him go," one of them said.
"Or else we'll hurt you, bitch."
"What makes you think you can do that?"
"'Cause your warrior friend isn't here!"
"I see... well, you shouldn't judge a scroll by its cover."
Gabrielle moved her hand as quickly as lightning and knocked out the peasant she was holding by thumping him on the back of his head. He fell to the ground in a boneless heap.
"I've let him go. Now what," she said, her eyes shining in anticipation of the coming fight.
The two men looked at each other, and suddenly rushed her. She easily avoided the first one, but the second was faster than he appeared, so he captured her arm. She stomped on his foot, making him scream in pain, and spun around to deliver a roundhouse kick to his jaw. He went out like a snuffed candle.
The last man grabbed her from behind, but she effortlessly drove an elbow into his belly. He let her go with a groan, and she took a step forward to get out of his reach. She turned around and kicked him in the crotch, and when he doubled over, she grabbed his head and violently drove her knee into his face. His eyes rolled up in his head, and he fell to the ground to join the two other men.
Gabrielle felt the adrenaline pumping through her veins, and she was prepared to take on the whole castle if needed. She spun around as she heard the familiar sound of ozone crackling behind her.
"Marvelous. You just seem to get better and better in hand-to-hand combat," Ares said, wearing a huge smile on his face.
Gabrielle sighed and put her hands on her hips.
"Yes... very impressive, my young apprentice," Ares said, looking at the three men.
"Stop calling me that," Gabrielle said angrily.
"But you are," he said and chuckled.
"I should've known you'd have a hand in this mess..." she said, and rubbed her knee, sore from hitting the last man. The only reply forthcoming from the God was a wide grin.
"But why?" she said.
"Ares..." Gabrielle growled.
"I get to see my two old girlfriends and my new girlfriend doing what you all do best, kick ass."
"Don't call me your girlfr..."
"And even better, this time you're up against an opponent unlike any you've ever fought," Ares said, and stroked his goatee.
"So she's one of yours?"
"She is. And she's sensational. This won't be such an easy battle like the one you had with Callanus."
"Many Amazons lost their life in that war, Ares."
"Well, I suppose," he said and shrugged nonchalantly, making Gabrielle snort in disgust at the God's blatant lack of interest in human life.
"Ares, if you just wanted to see us fight her, why didn't you create a world like you did with Mavican? Why drag Princess Penthea into all this?"
"Oh, the actual fight's a big part of it, no doubt, but what I really want to see is the two of you applying *all* your many skills," he said.
Xena came sprinting around the corner with her sword drawn, stopping with a jerk as she saw the scene in front of her.
"Oh, I was wondering where Xena was. Well, I'll leave the two of you to sort this out. See you very soon, my young apprentice," Ares said, and disappeared into thin air.
"Stop calling me that!" Gabrielle roared after him.
"What happened?" Xena said, putting her sword back in its scabbard.
"These two morons jumped me... or tried to, at least," Gabrielle said, and pointed at the two men, still out cold. She reached down to the man she wanted to talk to and pulled him up by his collar. He had regained consciousness, and he was still looking just as terrified as he had been the whole time.
"Now's a good time to have that talk, wouldn't you agree?" she hissed right in his face, receiving a frantic nod as a reply. Gabrielle dragged him behind a shed in the middle of the courtyard, and made him go down on his knees. Xena felt a little worried over Gabrielle's fiery temper, but she followed them, and acted as a lookout in case there would be further trouble.
"My patience has worn out. Tell me what you know, or I'll kill you," Gabrielle said.
"I haven't been lying to you, Mistress, the man was who gave me the scroll... I... I don't know who he was! He... he was dressed like a thug!" he said.
"But you were working with Magnamus?"
"Y-yes. I gave him the fastest horse we had, and in return, he g-gave me a few gold coins now and then... I paid my bills in the tavern with them..."
"He's telling the truth," Xena said, putting a calming hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Probably. All right... let's hand him over to Queen Diana. Let her decide what to do with him," Gabrielle said, feeling the anger slowly recede.
A little later on, they were back in their chamber. Gabrielle untied her halter top and put it across the back of a chair. She climbed into bed and made herself comfortable, face down on the silk-like sheets. Xena was kneeling next to her, massaging the aching muscles in Gabrielle's neck and upper back. Her capable fingers made the hardened knots melt like butter, and the blonde woman was soon in a blissful state.
"Ares told me a few interesting things," Gabrielle turned her head and said.
"Like, Catarina is one of his."
"Figures," Xena said as she went to work on a particularly hard knot, making Gabrielle groan with pleasure.
"From reading between the lines, I got the feeling that he was trying to tell us to... no, it's nonsense," Gabrielle said, and chuckled.
"Well... that he was trying to tell us to be careful, actually."
"Hmmm. Interesting," Xena said, and gently traced Gabrielle's dragon tattoo with her index finger.
Gabrielle turned over onto her back and put her hands behind her head.
"I think this one's going to be tough," she said, and sighed.
"Probably. But we've been in tough spots before. We can handle it."
"I hope so. I'm not going through all that again," Gabrielle said, and thought of the many sleepless nights on the boat that brought her back from Jappa. A chill ran through her body, and she shivered. Xena put a hand on Gabrielle's bare stomach and gently clawed the impressive abs. She smiled reassuringly at her partner.
"Come on, get dressed. We'll be leaving soon," Xena said, and handed Gabrielle the halter top.
Ares materialized in a meadow just outside of the fortress. Cat was sparring with her men and he didn't want to miss the spectacle. He watched with great interest as she sliced through the thugs, not letting a single one of them get a hit in. They were using wooden clubs instead of swords, but she still inflicted severe damage on the men. One after one, they fell down or simply ran away from the warrior.
Yiannis and three others rushed her, but she brushed them off easily by ducking the first swing and then rolling to her right, leaving the three men to bump ungracefully into each other.
"Come on you cowards, give me a real challenge!" Cat shouted angrily.
"I believe that's my cue," Ares said, and stepped into view. He took off his leather vest, revealing his hairy chest and his large muscles. His ego enjoyed the sparkle in Cat's eyes as she saw him, and he found himself looking forward to the fight... and the sex afterwards.
Cat responded by taking her own body armor off, leaving her torso relatively unprotected by only wearing a black sleeveless undershirt. She swung her arms a few times to loosen up her shoulders, and she rocked up and down on the balls of her feet to get the circulation going.
"Real swords?" she asked.
"Yup. You can have one of mine," Ares replied, and conjured up two nasty looking blades. He gave Cat one, and started twirling his own.
"I have to warn you, Ares, I'm feeling very feisty today," Cat purred, and charged ahead.
They engaged in a set of impossibly fast sword drills, the two blades reduced to blurry streaks in the air. As she had expected, and actually hoped for, Ares had an answer to all she could throw at him. A moment's lapse of concentration saw him kick the sword out of her hand. He raised his own sword high in the air, ready to pounce.
She rolled out of the way and evaded the blow. When he saw she wasn't interested in picking up her sword, Ares threw down his as well and they went ahead with hand-to-hand combat instead. He was far stronger than she, but she was quicker, so on occasion, she managed to trick him and get a hit in.
Ares restrained himself and pulled his punches, because he knew that if he hit Cat with full force, it would prove fatal for the woman. The only mortal who had ever lived to tell the tale after being hit by him using his full strength was Xena.
Thinking about the dark haired warrior made him hesitate for a split second, and Cat used the opportunity to move in and punch him in the face. He nearly lost his temper, but caught himself at the last second. Instead, he grabbed her arms and pulled her close.
"Don't. Push. Your. Luck," he hissed through clenched teeth, applying pressure to Cat's arms.
"I'm sorry, my Lord Ares," she said, wincing from the pain.
He sneered and let her go. With his good mood ruined, he disappeared in a blue cloud.
Xena and Gabrielle left Queen Diana's castle when the sun was at its zenith. The Queen had been so ill she had hardly been able to say goodbye to them, and both warriors understood what was at stake.
Today was supposed to be the day of the wedding, and as they rode through the town to get to the open land, they could feel the mood had changed. Gone were the peddlers and the masses of happy people they had seen on their way in, replaced by an oppressed silence, and a general sense of disbelief.
Xena and Gabrielle turned their horses off the cobbled streets and headed for the dirt roads. When they reached the grassy fields on the outskirts of town, they let their horses stretch out, and they were soon clear of the settlements.
They rode in silence for several hours until the horses needed some water. They soon found a stream, and while Xena tended to the horses, Gabrielle decided it was high time to take a lunch break.
Soon, she returned from a nearby cluster of trees, carrying two quails and some berries. She built a small campsite and started to pluck the birds.
"Smells nice," Xena said, as she came back a little while later after filling their waterskins.
"There aren't any herbs around here, so we'll have to eat them plain," Gabrielle said, slowly turning the birds over. She offered Xena some berries, and the warrior popped them into her mouth.
"I'll live," Xena said, munching on a mouthful of the juicy berries. She sat down on the blanket that Gabrielle had spread out next to the fire, and took out her eating knife. The blade was dirty, so she wiped it off on the blanket.
"Hope so," Gabrielle said, looking at her partner.
"Have you ever been to Arktoros, or the fortress, Xena?"
"No. I only know it's on the coast, and it's a ruin," the warrior said, ripping a piece of meat off the roasted quail and putting it in her mouth.
"Hmmm. It'll be difficult to create a strategy for attack when we don't know the layout."
"Especially since they know we're coming... and... we don't know how many they are," Xena added thoughtfully.
"You're not improving my mood, you know?" Gabrielle said and chuckled.
"We'll be fine. Aren't we always?"
"Mmmmmmmm... not always, no," Gabrielle said, remembering a few times over the years where it didn't go quite to plan for them.
"At least they aren't Romans," Xena offered.
"No, but unless my geography skills are slipping, it's about a two-three hours' ride south of the beach at Helicon," Gabrielle said, and threw the carcass of her quail into the fire.
"... and we all know how that went," she continued.
Ares was in his chamber on Mount Olympus, using his portal to the world to observe Xena and Gabrielle while they ate. The mortals didn't know they were being watched, so they acted less defensively. With both of them having the skill to sense his presence, he needed to be further away when he wanted to check up on them - which was often.
He had seen thousands of warriors come and go in the millennia he had been the God of War, but none of them had the spirit or the impact of those two. Even Catarina LePeyn, though very good indeed, was just a pretender compared to Xena and Gabrielle.
At first he'd been angry with his sister for bringing Xena back because it undermined much of the work he had been doing with Gabrielle, but it soon dawned on him that together, they would be the ultimate warriors, and that was on top of his wish list after all.
Through his portal, he could see Xena and Gabrielle had finished eating and were now engaged in a sparring match. Usually, he loved to watch a good fight, even if it wasn't for real, but now he had more important things to do.
Ares stepped away from the portal, and stood in the middle of his chamber. He cleared his mind and created a blood red globe of energy in his hands. Arms of lightning stretched out from the constantly expanding globe, and sounds of a battle filled the chamber. The globe exploded in a bright red flash, and the chamber disappeared.
He found himself standing in the fortress watching a big battle. Off to the right, Xena was fighting Cat, and on the left, Gabrielle was pinned down by Yiannis and his men. He felt the blood coursing through him as the battle went through its motions and into the final phase. He watched everything with great interest; this was where he wanted to be, and to be able to watch such magnificent fighters was just the icing on the cake.
The battle ended like he expected it would - almost. Almost... but not quite. He hadn't expected to hear the strangled cries of a woman praying for life and only finding death... nor the sound of a heartbeat slowing down, and then stopping.
His concentration lost, the scene disappeared, and he found himself back in his chamber. He sat down on his throne and pondered the unexpected development.
The afternoon slowly changed into evening, and the shadows got longer. Simultaneously, both Xena and Gabrielle picked up a scent of something that shouldn't be there. They slowed their horses down, and Gabrielle moved hers to be right next to Xena.
"You smell that?" Gabrielle whispered.
"I do. Unwashed men."
"Yep. Common marauders or Cat's men trying to cut us off?"
"Does it matter?"
"Meh," Gabrielle said and shrugged.
"Let's stop. That'll confuse them," Xena said, and pulled on the reins. Gabrielle did likewise, letting the horses slowly dance about on the spot.
Up ahead, three highwaymen were hiding in a cluster of trees. They had their swords drawn, but didn't make a move.
"Why did they stop, Dengas?" the first robber, Parlas, said.
"How in Tartarus should I know!" Dengas said. He was the leader of this little gang, and quite proud of their accomplishments so far.
"They must've heard us," Parlas said, grumbling.
"They don't look like merchants... are you sure they are, Dengas?" the third robber, Rufius, said.
"Why don't you go over there and ask them?" Dengas growled.
When Rufius started to get up, Dengas pulled him back down.
"No, you fool!"
"But you said..."
"Too late, here they come," Parlas said, his voice trembling with excitement.
His excitement lasted for exactly five seconds, because as soon as the two warriors spurred their horses into a fast gallop, Xena belted out her warcry. She took her Chakram, and held it high in the air, the evening sun glinting off the metal surface.
"That's..." Parlas shouted, and pointed at the two riders.
"Xena!" Rufius said, terrified.
"Get down, you fools!" Dengas roared and pressed himself and the two other highwaymen down into the undergrowth.
The two riders came to a stop right next to them. Dengas almost didn't dare look at the warriors, but he was forced to when Xena let her horse stomp its hooves very close to him. He looked at the two intimidating women, at Xena's legendary ice blue eyes and feral sneer, and at the taut muscles of her companion. The blonde woman was holding two pointy things that Dengas didn't want to get too close to. She leaned down and started talking.
"I'm Gabrielle, this is my friend Xena. Perhaps you've heard of us?"
"Y-y-y-yes!" Dengas stuttered.
"Were you going to rob us?"
"Oh, n-n-n-no, we were... no."
"You know what that thing is, right?" Gabrielle said, and pointed to the Chakram in Xena's hand. She moved her arm like she was about to throw it. Dengas nodded frantically, and tried to press himself even further down.
"We'll be back in a little while to check up on you. I'd suggest you aren't here when we do," Xena said menacingly, and drew a deep breath.
"SHEEEEE'YA!" she howled, and the two warriors rode off.
Dengas followed the two riders with his eyes until they were out sight in the fading light. He breathed a sigh of relief and sat up.
"Hey, I thought you said they were merchants...?" Rufius said. Dengas looked at him for a split second, and then punched him in the gut.
"Cousins..." he said, and rolled his eyes.
The two women rode on for a few more miles until they found a suitable site to spend the night. This time, Gabrielle tended to the horses and Xena went hunting.
Gabrielle put down an armful of firewood next to a small pile of rocks she had collected. She spread out their bedroll and sat down on the soft fur to arrange the firepit. Just when she was about to use their flints to start the fire, Xena returned with a small rabbit.
"I'll skin this critter while you get the fire going," Xena said.
"Did you see the look on that thug's face when he realized who he was dealing with? Priceless," Gabrielle said, laughing.
"Yeah. I think he wet his pants."
"He probably did," Gabrielle said, and used a stick to stoke the fire. The fire was soon burning merrily, and she took the opportunity to remove her gauntlets and her boots.
"Who takes the first watch?" she asked.
"Rock, dagger, parchment?"
"Oh, not that silly game again," Xena said.
"It's not silly... come on," Gabrielle said, and moved her hand up and down three times, ending in a clenched fist. She looked at Xena, who wasn't playing.
"Oh, all right," Xena said, and moved her hand too. Parchment.
"Parchment wraps rock. I win," she said, and brought the skinned rabbit over to the fire. She forced a stick through it, and hung it at a safe distance over the flames.
"But first we eat," she said.
Several hours later.
Xena stopped what she was doing and strained her hearing. Something had alerted her, but now she couldn't pick up anything. She left the camp and slipped silently into the night. The forest was dark and quiet, apart from Gabrielle's muffled snoring.
She peeked through the trees to observe the camp. Nothing moved, or seemed to be out of the ordinary... but suddenly the hairs on the back of her neck stood up.
"Show yourself," Xena said, and sighed.
Ares materialized in his customary blue energy cloud.
"What now, Ares?" Xena growled.
"I have some information that I thought you'd find interesting."
"I thought Hermes was the messenger god?" Xena said with a smirk.
"Cute. Let's get to the point. Do you know a man called Yiannis?"
"... no. Why?"
"He's the leader of the gang currently running with Cat."
"His men are degenerates, but apart from that, they do have one unexpected skill - they're expert marksmen. Nearly all of them can hit the bullseye from a hundred paces."
"I don't understand what it is you're trying to tell me, Ares. This Yiannis, is he one of yours, too?"
"No. He's a loose cannon. I require discipline in my army."
"Then what..." Xena said, but Ares interrupted her.
"I have foreseen the battle."
The God moved a couple of steps closer.
"It'll be a very bloody affair..."
"I'm not afraid of dying, Ares, you should know that by now."
He moved closer still, now standing face to face with the warrior.
"Gabrielle hasn't learned how to catch arrows yet, has she?" he half-whispered in her ear. Xena stepped back, clearly shocked.
"Tell me what you know," she growled.
"At one point your blonde companion will resemble a pin cushion. Four arrows will hit her."
Xena growled again and grabbed hold of Ares' leather vest, but he calmly tore it out of her grip.
"The one that kills her will slash the vein on her neck. Right there..." he said, and put his hand on the side of Xena's neck. Angrily, she swatted it away, but it didn't seem to faze him.
"She'll watch her own blood pool below her as she dies. She won't die at once. She'll live on for a few more minutes, in terrible agony. But I do have some consolation for you, Xena. On her dying breath, Gabrielle will whisper your name," the God continued, very matter-of-factly.
Xena violently swung a fist aimed directly at Ares' head, but the God vanished in a blue haze before it hit him.
"BASTARD!" Xena roared loudly.
Gabrielle jumped up from the bedroll and drew her sais. She quickly scanned the surrounding forest without finding any obvious problems.
"Xena! What's wrong?"
The warrior came back to the camp, looking pale.
"It's nothing, Gabrielle," she said, and looked at her younger companion. Should she tell her...?
"Ares was here, wasn't he?" Gabrielle said.
Xena sighed and nodded. Gabrielle rolled her eyes and re-inserted the sais into her boots. She grabbed the waterskin and took a long swig.
"He was here. He wanted to warn us about... something."
"Again? That's not like him," Gabrielle said. When no answer was forthcoming, she looked up, and found Xena staring at her. The warrior was ghostly pale.
"Did Ares hurt you?" Gabrielle asked with a confused look on her face.
Gabrielle sat down on a log next to the fire. Xena was still standing, so Gabrielle moved a bit left and patted the wooden seat.
"C'mon." Xena sighed again, but didn't move.
"No more secrets, please, Xena. We learned that lesson a lifetime ago."
Xena sat down and put her arm around Gabrielle's waist.
"Ares told me that we'll fight a brutal battle with Cat, and that... you'll die," Xena whispered.
"And you believed him?"
"He was telling the truth this time, Gabrielle. I can tell when he's lying and when he's not."
Gabrielle looked down at her hands and shook her head.
"I know what his game is. He knew you'd tell me, and he wants me to start second-guessing myself. This is just one more of his tests of my strength and determination. And my skills."
"I'm not sure..."
"Well, I am. I'm beginning to know him as well as you do, Xena. He wouldn't have told you what he knows unless there was a way out," Gabrielle said, and turned around so she was face to face with Xena.
"He wants me to overcome this situation by tapping into my anger. By using brute force instead of the finesse you taught me. I'm not about to give him that pleasure."
Xena looked at Gabrielle and ran a hand through the blonde hair.
"Look at us. Now you're the one with the clarity, and I'm the emotional one," she said, and leaned in to tenderly kiss Gabrielle on the lips.
"We've come a long way since that day in the clearing on the outskirts of Potaideia, huh?" Gabrielle said after they separated.
"Yeah. Let's go to bed, I'm sure nothing more will happen tonight. We need to save our strength for tomorrow's battle," Xena whispered. She took Gabrielle's hand and led her to the bedroll.
At roughly the same time in the dungeon below the fortress, Princess Penthea was becoming desperate. She knew she had to at least try to do something to get out of this mess, so she started going through all kinds of plots in her mind - but quickly realized that none of them would work.
The thug guarding her cell was the same drunkard from the other day, and as he snored, she started paying attention to him. Torches were attached to the outside of each cell, and Cat's men had ignited half of them, so the narrow path between the cells was well-lit.
She soon noticed the large ring with the keys to the cells had slipped from the sleeping guard's fingers, and was now lying on the floor next to him. She tried to put her arm through the bars, but the keys were just out of reach. Cursing under her breath, she looked around to see if anything else could be used.
The cot she had been sleeping on had a loose plank, and she quietly moved over there to try to yank it off. With a little effort she managed to do so, and she went back to the drunken guard. She extended the plank through the bars and reached for the keys. The first two attempts weren't any good, but by the third try, she snagged the tip of the plank through the ring and pulled it to her. She wanted to jump for joy, but at the same time knew that her escape was
far from over.
Very carefully, she inserted one of the keys into the lock, praying to all the Gods she knew that it wouldn't make a metallic sound and wake up the guard. She tried first one, then another, then another, and then she finally found the right key.
She forced the heavy cell door open and looked up and down the narrow hall. The sound of the drunken guard's snoring changed slightly, and her breath hitched. He coughed twice, and then went quiet again.
She slipped out of the cell and debated with herself which way she should go - She could go left, through the main gate to the dungeon, but she had no way of knowing how many men would be on the other side, and that would be far too dangerous - If she went right, through the manure at the far end of the narrow path and then climbed up the poop chute, she'd get to the stables, but then what? She shuddered at the thought of how disgusting that would be, but anything was better than staying here, waiting for certain death.
She quietly ran through the hall and put her legs over a low fence. She found herself ankle-deep in the waste, and sloshed over to the chute used by the thugs to shovel the horse manure down into the dungeon. It was slippery and outrageously disgusting, but she had to do it.
'Oh Gods, if mother could see me now..' she thought, as she got a firm grip on the bricks, and pulled herself up.
A few minutes later she emerged among the horses, who started moving about a bit when they noticed they weren't alone anymore.
She quickly saw she was at ground level. A group of men noisily played some kind of game down the other end of the large area, and they didn't pay any attention to her end of the fortress.
She kept to the shadows and looked outside a window for the first time in days. It was night, and she hoped that it would help her escape. She followed the outer wall towards the main gate. The large wooden doors were slightly ajar, and it looked like she could squeeze through the gap.
She was startled by a strange sound behind her, and she held her breath. Everything seemed quiet - but suddenly, a strong arm was wrapped around her neck.
"Trying to escape, are we?" Yiannis said right next to her ear, his breath stinking of cheap ale. He pushed her into the light and dragged her down to where the other men were.
"Cat! I have a surprise for you!" he shouted on his way there. She got up from the card game and put on her leather gloves.
"Oh, Princess. I'm impressed, I didn't think you had it in you. Did you kill the guard?"
"He's drunk again," Penthea hissed, and tried in vain to get out of the iron grip Yiannis held her in.
"Arlennius, go down there and slit his throat," Cat said to one of the other thugs. He nodded and went over to the door leading to the dungeon.
"Now, Princess. What should we do with you? You obviously have a lot more initiative that I thought," Cat said, circling the Princess.
"Oh, I know. How about we put her in the cage?" she continued.
"Good idea, Cat," Yiannis said, and laughed evilly.
"The c-c-cage...?" Penthea repeated, suddenly terrified that she had made a mistake in trying to escape.
"The cage," Cat said again, and pointed upwards at a large wooden cage, suspended at least 70 feet off the ground. It was held in place by a very thick rope which went through an eye and then down to the wall, where it was tied around a huge mechanism that looked like a windlass on a ship, just upright.
It took four strong men turning the windlass to lower the cage to the ground. Cat checked the lock on the door, and kicked out several bones from an old skeleton.
"Oh dear, it was occupied," she said to her men, and they duly laughed.
"Get in there," Cat growled, and pushed the Princess inside. She tried to resist as much as she could, but the thugs were too strong for her. The door was slammed shut behind her, and Cat signaled the men to start lifting the cage.
The sturdy wooden frame was slowly lifted off the ground, and the Princess started crying. She tried to tug at the bars, but they were rock solid. She sat down and put her head in her hands.
"Have fun up there," Cat mocked her from below.
After having rested for a few hours, Xena and Gabrielle had continued their trek to the fortress. When they arrived at a cluster of trees a little more than a mile from the ruin, they took their saddles and the saddlebags off the horses and set the two beasts free.
"It'll be dawn soon," Gabrielle said, observing the brightening sky to the East.
"Yeah. Leave the saddlebags here. We'll retrieve them when we have the Princess."
"Or Cat will retrieve them after we're dead and share our belongings with her men..."
"Well, who knows. Let's go," Xena said, and started to walk towards the fortress.
A little later they were in place, hiding among some trees opposite the main gate and looking intently for any activity - there weren't any. The Eastern sky had grown very blue now, and Xena reckoned they only had a few minutes to get inside. She couldn't see any sentries, but that didn't mean there weren't any. She knew that Cat was a very smart woman, and she wouldn't leave the fortress unguarded, especially not when she had such a valuable hostage.
"It'll be too risky to try to get through the main gate," Gabrielle said.
"I agree. It's a perfect place for an ambush - they've set a trap for us for sure."
"The other side is built directly on the edge of a cliff," Xena said.
"Oh. Hmmm. Kitchen entrance?"
"Good idea. It's not on the left side, so it must be on the right."
"Should I scout ahead, or should we both go at the same time?" Gabrielle said, and drew her sais.
"Hopefully there'll be fewer guards there, but we'll both go - you first," Xena said, and patted Gabrielle's backside. The blonde warrior winked at her before she left the hideout and quickly ran across the meadow in front of the fortress.
Within a few seconds, first Gabrielle and then Xena stood up against the stone wall. Gabrielle proceeded to peek around the corner. She spotted two thugs guarding a small wooden door - one of them was sitting on a barrel, and the other was standing, picking his teeth. She showed two fingers to Xena, and they switched places.
Xena unhooked her Chakram and calculated the best angle of attack. She pulled her arm back and let the lethal weapon fly. It went straight for the first guard, cutting him down. It ricocheted off the barrel and dug into the second guard. None of them had had time to make a sound.
"Let's go," she whispered to Gabrielle, and they started running towards the kitchen entrance. Once there, Xena pulled the Chakram out of the dead guard, and wiped it off on his pants.
Gabrielle tried the door, but it was locked from the inside. She cursed and stood up on tiptoes to look inside a smallish window that had long since lost its frame. Making a quick decision, she grabbed hold of the window sill and hoisted herself up and through the opening. Landing silently, she pulled aside a sliding bolt, and the wooden door opened without creaking too much.
Xena slipped inside and smiled broadly at the blonde warrior. She drew her sword, and began to scan the kitchen area. There weren't any guards in here, so they went deeper into the kitchen. Soon, they could hear the easily identifiable sounds of snoring coming from the other side of another door. Xena nodded to Gabrielle, and they quietly opened the door that would lead them to a large, open room.
They looked around. Not far from where they were standing, several chairs and tables were placed randomly, some of them destroyed, but most were in working order. Down the far end of the open room, they could see and smell the stables.
A thug was sitting on the floor, using the wall as a backrest, and Gabrielle quickly finished him off with the Pinch. Xena looked with some worry at the cold and remorseless expression on her partner's face, even after killing a man, but she knew there was a risk Princess Penthea would be executed if they were exposed too soon, so it had to be done.
Suddenly her sixth sense picked up a presence, the way it always did when a God was nearby. Ares was here. Xena scanned the open room they were in, but she couldn't sense him any further.
'He's here to watch, the bastard,' she thought.
Gabrielle touched her on the arm and pointed at a door that could lead to the dungeon. Xena nodded, and they started moving rapidly towards it.
Suddenly, the game was up. A thug, unseen to Xena or Gabrielle, woke up and rubbed his face. He yawned and was about to go back to sleep when he saw the two warriors running along the wall headed for the door to the dungeon.
"Intruders!" he yelled several times, waking up all the marauders sleeping in the large room. Upstairs, Cat heard the yell and drew her sword. A nasty smile spread out over her face, and her eyes darkened.
Xena let the Chakram fly, permanently silencing the man who had cried out. When it returned to her, she expertly hooked it on her belt without even looking.
"No way out but through," she said to Gabrielle, who reached down to her boots and pulled out her sais. Xena drew her sword and twirled it slowly. They ran out in the middle of the large room and waited for the inevitable attack.
Seven thugs came out of the woodwork ahead of them, and another five came at them from behind. Most of them were carrying swords, but one particularly ugly brute held a large axe which he started to swing to show off his strength.
Gabrielle started bobbing up and down on the balls of her feet. Xena noticed that her partner was as taut as a bowstring, even her breathing had changed.
Gabrielle couldn't wait any longer, and jumped forward to intercept the first thug, the one with the axe. She effortlessly evaded his clumsy swing, and caught the axe with her sais. She kicked his right knee out and the ugly brute went down screaming. In one, fluid motion she re-sheathed the sais, and picked up the heavy axe. She kicked him again, in the face this time, and he was knocked out. Her eyes appeared to be on fire as she attacked the other thugs with extreme aggression. Within moments, the remaining four men were dead.
Ares materialized next to her, choosing to remain invisible. He lapped up all the anger oozing out of the blonde woman, and he looked forward to the rest of the fight.
Xena had observed Gabrielle's brutal fight, and the men charging her had too. They had all stopped, just out of reach of Xena's sword. She was swinging it lazily in a figure of eight, daring the men to approach her, but she had no takers.
Suddenly Yiannis appeared at the other end of the large room.
"Attack her, you cowards!" he roared, and the words spurred the men into action.
The thugs moved forward, and Xena let out her warcry. It echoed between the stone walls, creating the impression that a pack of banshees was attacking. The first man tasted Xena's sword when he his chest was sliced open. Gabrielle threw down the heavy axe and picked up a sword from one of the dead men. She twirled it and entered the fray.
"Cool, I didn't even know she could do that," Ares said to himself, grinning like a maniac.
Above them, the Princess was watching the two women slash their way through Yiannis' men. She shouted several times to draw their attention, but her voice was drowned out by the sounds of fighting.
It didn't take more than a minute for Xena and Gabrielle to kill the remaining thugs, but as soon as the last one had fallen, half a dozen fresh men came running around the corner.
Gabrielle ran ahead and sliced through their ranks like a knife through butter.
"Oh yeah, kill 'em all!" Ares roared.
One after the other fell to the blonde demon, her sword moving so fast it was almost invisible. She hacked, slashed and thrust her way through the thugs, and they all wound up dead or severely injured.
Yiannis and a group of his best men used the chaos to quietly slip away, heading for a secret pathway that would lead them to a hideout located adjacent to the cage the Princess was in.
Xena disposed of two more with her Chakram, and started to look for the Princess. She finally found her, waving frantically at her from inside the cage. Xena was working on a plan to get her down from there when she sensed movement behind her.
"Enough!" a voice cried out. All the remaining thugs stopped fighting and looked towards the staircase. Gabrielle withdrew and went over to Xena's side.
"Get ready for round two," Ares said, as Cat slowly descended the stairs with her sword drawn and pointing at Xena.
Xena wiped some sweat off her face and furrowed her brow in confusion.
"Who in Tartarus are you?" she said.
"Oh, Xena, I'm disappointed, don't you know me? I'm Catarina LePeyn."
Xena looked closely at the woman descending the stairs. She couldn't be more than in her early 40's, far too young to be the real Cat.
"You're not Cat. Who are you?"
"Oh, all right. I'm not Cat. But for 35 years I have been. My real name's Maleena LePeyn. Cat was my mother. Do you know why I'm telling you all this?" she said, as she stepped onto the floor.
"I have a feeling you'll fill me in," Xena said, and hunched over slightly so she was ready to intercept an attack.
"I'm telling you because you'll be dead in five minutes, and you deserve to know the name of the person killing you," Cat said, and swung wildly at Xena, who easily evaded the strike.
"Charming," Xena said, and jumped forward to fight the warrior woman.
"Give me the Chakram, I'll go rescue the Princess!" Gabrielle shouted, and bolted towards the door to the kitchen, remembering she saw a staircase leading upwards in there. In between a thrust and a parry, Xena threw the Chakram in the general direction of her partner - Gabrielle deftly caught it, and clipped it onto her belt.
"Decisions, decisions..." Ares said, looking back and forth between Xena fighting Cat and Gabrielle running along the wall. He licked his lips, and disappeared.
With a grunt, Gabrielle cut down a thug waiting for her in the kitchen. She quickly ran up the stairs, first one flight, and then another. She reached a gallery where she could look out at the cage. The Princess appeared to be all right, but she looked shocked. Gabrielle glanced down - the thick rope holding the cage was immediately below her position.
She stepped up onto the narrow ledge between two stone pillars and judged the distance. She was ready to jump down onto the rope when her sixth sense kicked in. She heard several bows being pulled, and she looked up just in time.
Yiannis and three of his men were standing on the other side of the large room, in a gallery similar to the one she was in. All of them had their bows pointed straight at her. She tried to hurl herself back from the ledge, but the archers had already released their deadly arrows.
Ares appeared moments later and watched the scene unfold. He nodded, and then disappeared again.
Xena was engaged in a violent fight against the woman she had thought to be Cat LePeyn. Even though Maleena was a few years older than Xena, she was almost her match. Their swords clanged together furiously, throwing sparks everywhere. Both of the warriors would try to outfox the other by rolling away or by throwing in a kick or two, but they were so evenly matched they were able to block all the moves the opponent could come up with.
Ares appeared again, and this time he was visible to both warriors. His face was flushed, and he looked like he was enjoying himself.
"Xena, remember the scene I talked about with the archers and Gabrielle?" he said. Xena just growled at him.
"Sorry, sorry, bad time," he said, and put his hands in the air. He stepped back to watch the fight.
Gabrielle was flat on her back on the stone floor, breathing heavily. One of the arrows had grazed her flesh just below the ribs on her right side, and she touched the tender area to ascertain how bad the wound was. Satisfied with feeling that it was only superficial, she moved her attention to the more serious wound: an arrow was sticking out of her left shoulder. Fortunately, it hadn't gone in very deep, and she was able to pull it out without breaking the shaft off, which kept the pain to a minimum. It bled quite a lot, and her left arm was tingling, but she'd be all right.
She looked up at the two arrows embedded in the wooden wall behind her. At least one, maybe even both, would have hit her in the neck or the head, and she breathed a sigh of relief over the fact that she had fallen to the right instead of to the left.
She crawled over to the small balustrade and peeked over. Yiannis and his archers were still there, and as soon as they saw her, they released another volley.
She quickly ducked back down, and the four arrows impacted harmlessly into the wooden wall behind her.
"Enough of this nonsense!" she said out loud, and unhooked the Chakram. The wound in her left shoulder bled a lot, but fortunately, her throwing arm was her right. She calculated the best angle of attack and let the weapon fly. She could clearly hear at least three different people cry out as the circular blade slashed through them. It returned to her, and she clipped it onto her belt again.
She peeked over the balustrade and saw two of the archers hanging over the edge of their little hideout, and another sitting against the wall, all clearly dead. Yiannis wasn't among them, and she cursed quietly.
She tried to clench her left fist, and the motion made the wound bleed even more. Irrelevant, she thought, she had a Princess to save. She stepped onto the balustrade and jumped off the edge.
Ten feet below, she caught the rope with her hands. She was so far off the ground that she didn't even dare look down. Using her stomach muscles, she swung her legs up and over the rope, and started to inch closer to the cage.
Down below, Ares had his feet up on a table, eating cherries from a bowl, and generally looking very pleased with the world. The fight had moved into a new phase, with the two formidable warriors circling around each other, each waiting for the other one to make the next move.
Maleena was surprised how strong Xena actually was. She had tried everything she knew, and still the dark haired warrior stood firm. Perhaps it was time to try something Xena'd never expect. She calmly put down her sword, and appeared to surrender. When Xena stepped closer, Maleena jumped towards her and grabbed her around the waist. Both women fell hard to the ground, knocking the wind out of Xena and making her drop her sword. Maleena rolled away, scooped up a handful of dirt and threw it into Xena's eyes.
She turned away at the last possible moment, but some of the dirt hit her in the face. She jumped up, executed a flip, and kicked Maleena in the back of the head as she passed above her. The blonde woman was stunned, and took a few staggering steps before her head had cleared sufficiently. She roared in outrage and attacked Xena again, intent on winning this battle.
Xena feigned left and when Maleena took the bait and went in that direction, she took hold of the blonde woman's arm, and flipped her across her hip. Remembering the lesson learned when she sparred with Gabrielle, Xena made sure Maleena didn't snag her foot around Xena's knee as she flew through the air.
Maleena landed hard, but quickly recovered. She jumped to her feet, and swung her fist at Xena's face. To Maleena's great surprise, she actually hit her, and blood started running from Xena's nose. She acted quickly, and moved in to jab Xena twice on the neck.
The muscles on the dark haired woman's throat and neck became taut, and she briefly blacked out. Xena moved her fingers up to undo the Pinch, and as soon as she had done so, she rolled away from Maleena. She used her hand to wipe away some of the blood from her nose, and she flicked it at the blonde warrior.
"Nice," she hissed.
Gabrielle climbed off the rope and put her feet on the roof of the cage. It wasn't a flat surface, so she had a bit of a problem keeping her balance, but she managed.
She looked down the thick rope, and saw that it stretched down to the ground. She scanned all she could see from her vantage point, but couldn't spot Yiannis anywhere. Far below her, she could see Xena flipping Maleena over her hip, but forced herself to concentrate on one thing at a time.
She went down onto her stomach, and put her head over the edge of the cage.
"Princess Penthea, I'm here to rescue you!" she said to the shocked looking woman in the cage. The young woman could only nod in return.
Gabrielle swung over the edge, and placed her feet on a very narrow ledge. She stepped around the outside of the cage until she found the lock on the door. Using the Chakram, she quickly cut through the metal lock, and the door opened.
"Come on," Gabrielle said to Penthea, and stretched out her hand. The young woman appeared to be frightened out of her wits, and only stared blankly at her. Gabrielle moved over to her and took Penthea's hand.
"I'm going to get you out of here, do you understand?"
"All right, wrap your arms around me. Like this..." Gabrielle said, and showed the Princess what to do.
A few seconds later, Gabrielle was again standing on the ledge, but this time with the Princess wrapped so tightly around her that she could feel the royal ribs poking her in her back.
"And whatever you do, DON'T LOOK DOWN!" Gabrielle stressed, and pulled them up to the roof of the cage. With the weight distribution changed, she almost lost her footing on the curved roof, and the Princess let out a small scream.
"Oh great, don't faint... please," Gabrielle said, and reached for the thick rope.
Even after spending what seemed like an eternity working their way down the rope, hanging by her hands and with her feet dangling in the air, they still had a long way to go. Gabrielle's arms were numb from the strain, and she could feel the blood loss was beginning to have an effect on her. She forced herself to move her arms again, and she continued down the rope with her precious cargo wrapped around her back.
When they finally reached the ground, Gabrielle collapsed in a heap on the floor. Her arms were throbbing and every breath made her lungs feel like they were on fire. Her left arm was slick with the blood that pumped out of the wound with every heartbeat.
The Princess released her grip, and crawled away from the bleeding woman. A shadow fell over her, and when she looked up, she screamed in wild panic.
Gabrielle opened her eyes just in time to see Yiannis' boot coming straight towards her face.
Xena's joy of seeing Gabrielle safe was short lived as she watched Yiannis' boot impact squarely on her partner's face. She could hear the sickening thud and Gabrielle's cry clear across the large room, and the sounds magnified her anger.
She charged Maleena harder than she had done before, and the blonde warrior was soon on the retreat. Her eyes stung from the sweat and the blood seeping from many cuts and wounds, but she ignored the pain, and pushed Maleena hard against a wall.
"Surrender now, and I'll spare your life," Xena hissed through blood-stained teeth.
"Never!" Maleena shouted, and headbutted her opponent across the brow.
Xena was momentarily blinded and she stepped back. Maleena came closer and was about to give Xena the Pinch again when the dark haired warrior first cannoned off a right hook that snapped Maleena's head around like that of a ragdoll, and immediately after grabbed her belt. Xena lifted her opponent high in the air and released her to crash down on the table Ares was sitting at.
"Hey, new move... lovely," he said, and spit out a cherry stone.
Gabrielle saw stars after the kick to her head. Fortunately, she had managed to move her body slightly, but she was still hit on the cheekbone, and even worse, on her shoulder.
Yiannis moved to kick her in the stomach, so she clenched her abs which deflected most of the blow. She kicked out with her legs, hitting Yiannis in the gut, which made him grunt. She rolled over to her right and got up. Her left arm was aching but she forced herself to ignore it. He charged her again, but even with her injuries, she was quicker, so she evaded him easily. As he sailed past her, she elbowed him in the kidneys.
He turned around and swung his huge fist at her, but she ducked, and instead punched him in the ribs. When that didn't seem to have much effect, she gave him a vicious blow to the throat that made him choke and cough.
A wave of pain from her injured arm made her lose concentration, and he exploited it by jumping at her and wrapping his hands around her neck.
"Now you die!" he shouted hoarsely, and started to squeeze hard.
She fought with all her strength, but his height advantage made it impossible for her to get out of his grip. He pushed her down on the floor and put even more pressure on her throat. Instead of giving up, she looked inside herself and found the pure, unadulterated anger and hatred needed to kill him.
Ares felt it at once, and quickly left Xena's fight. This, he didn't want to miss. He arrived just in time to see Gabrielle savagely kick Yiannis in the crotch.
The thug screamed and let her go. She jumped up and hit him with a right hook that made him stagger backwards. She hit and kicked him again and again, and he finally fell down. She unhooked the Chakram and raised it in the air.
"Come on, Gabrielle, just one more kill..." Ares said, trying to spur her on. Gabrielle roared to get rid of the excess anger, but didn't move in for the kill.
"All right, time out," Ares said, and snapped his fingers. Everything froze, and Ares went over to Gabrielle and put a hand on her shoulder.
"Your conscience is preventing you from killing him, but it's quite all right, Gabrielle. He was going to kill you, so it's only fair you return the compliment. Let go... I promise you that you'll feel immensely satisfied afterwards," he whispered into her ear.
He snapped his fingers again, and reality was restored.
Xena heard Gabrielle's roar and looked away from Maleena. It was only a split second, but it was enough for the blonde warrior to pull out the dagger hidden in her belt and bury it hilt-deep in Xena's thigh. The injured leg couldn't hold Xena's weight, and she collapsed on the ground.
Battered and bloodied, Maleena rolled off the table Xena had thrown her on, and grabbed the sword she had dropped earlier.
"Revenge is mine!" she screamed, and raised her blade high in the air.
Gabrielle fired off the Chakram harder than she ever had. Twelve inches of steel whistled through the air on its way to a target.
Intent on skewering Xena, Maleena brought the blade down. At that exact moment, the Chakram sliced through her spine and her ribcage, cutting her heart in two, before continuing through her to explode out of her chest in a cloud of blood. Its flight ended when it became embedded in the stone wall behind the two fighting women.
Maleena only had time to blink twice before her dead body fell to the ground, landing next to Xena. A pool of blood slowly spread out from the horrible wound.
Xena slowly sat up and looked at the corpse, and then across the large room at Gabrielle.
"Oh, wow, I didn't see *that* one coming at all. Well done," Ares said, and patted Gabrielle's back.
"Stay away from me, you creep," Gabrielle said and shook his hand off her. She went over to Yiannis, who was still on the ground.
"Your leader's dead, do you want to follow her?" Gabrielle said. He shook his head.
"Then I suggest you leave pretty damn quickly," she said, and walked away from him. She took Princess Penthea by the hand and led her over to Xena.
Ares stayed behind and eyed Yiannis suspiciously.
"Well, if I were you, I'd do what she said..." he said, and winked at the thug. Yiannis got up and shuffled off, nursing his hurting privates.
Still sitting on the ground, Xena pried the dagger out of her thigh and threw it away. Her wound bled less that she had feared, so the dagger must've missed all the vital bits. She rubbed her face and wiped her brow free of the sweat and the blood. She got up from the cold ground and stood on shaky legs, leaning against the remains of the table.
When Gabrielle reached Xena, she hugged her passionately and ran her thumbs over the cuts and bruises on her partner's face.
"We made it," she whispered, and allowed a few tears to escape her eyes. Xena leaned down and lovingly kissed Gabrielle on the lips - the relief of seeing their partner safe was an effective shield against all the horrors they had witnessed and participated in during the battle.
"Are you hurting much?" Gabrielle said when they separated.
"I'm one big bruise."
"Me, too. I need you to take a look at the wound in my shoulder. It's throbbing like there's no tomorrow..."
A concerned look flashed across Xena's face, and she moved closer to inspect Gabrielle's bleeding wound.
"It looks clean, I can't see any infection. Was it an arrow?" she said, remembering Ares' vision.
"Yeah. I got nicked in the side, too, but that one's all right."
"Come on, sit down."
Xena pulled out the last surviving chair and pushed Gabrielle down on it.
"You look terrible. You're going to have a black eye," Xena said, and caressed Gabrielle's left cheek where Yiannis' boot had struck her.
"Won't be my first... nor my last," Gabrielle said, and shrugged.
"Shouldn't we get out of here...? There might be more of them..." the Princess said in a trembling voice.
"We'll be all right, Princess Penthea. I don't think anyone would be stupid to fight us now, after seeing what we can do," Gabrielle said.
"I don't even know who you are," the Princess continued, slightly hysterical.
"I'm Xena, this is my partner, Gabrielle. We're helping your mother."
"... Oh. I thought you'd be... older..." Penthea said and blushed.
"Well, we are, but it's a very long story... which reminds me," Xena said, and shouted:
"Ares! Where are you?"
The God appeared next to Maleena's body, and he was clearly impressed over Gabrielle's handiwork.
"Un-be-lievable. Well, I guess that's why I like the two of you so much," he said and laughed.
"How about doing something useful for a change and zap the three of us back to Diana's castle?" Xena said.
"... don't forget the horses the Amazons gave us," Gabrielle interjected.
"... and the horses. How about it?" Xena said to the God.
"How about I just send the Princess home? You know, I was planning a small victory party back on Mount Olympus, just for you, me, and my best student..."
"Don't call me that!"
"I don't think so, Ares. Gabrielle needs to have this wound seen to. You don't want to her lose the use of her arm, do you?" Xena said.
"What wound?" Ares said, and moved his hand. Gabrielle's shoulder stopped throbbing, and the wound healed instantaneously.
"Oh, and for good measure..." he said, and made Xena's thigh wound disappear too.
"Don't worry, it's on the house. Call it a victory bonus."
"Thank you, Ares," Gabrielle said, clenching and unclenching her fist a couple of times to check if the wound was really gone - it was.
"So... party?" he said.
"Forget it," Xena said, and turned away.
Ares chuckled, and disappeared in a blue cloud, only to return a few seconds later with the two horses.
"Rest assured, I'll be paying very close attention to both of you. But for now... enjoy your ride home, girls," he said and left them for good.
Xena went over to calm the frightened horses, and rummaged through the saddle bags to find the medical kit for the many cuts Ares didn't heal, and for something to drink for the three of them.
"Was that really the God of War?" Penthea asked with eyes as big as saucers.
"Unfortunately, yes," Xena said, and yanked her Chakram out of the stone wall.
"I've never seen any of the Gods before."
"Well, there aren't many left, but if you're lucky, perhaps Aphrodite will visit you on your wedding night," Gabrielle said, and and greedily drank from the waterskin Xena presented to her.
Penthea blushed the cutest shade of pink and looked down at her feet.
"Well, actually... Aphrodite has visited us already..." she said quietly. Gabrielle stopped gulping down the water , and looked down at Penthea's stomach. It was hidden by her dress, but on closer inspection it was possible to see a small bump.
The princess nodded.
"Does Queen Diana know?"
The princess shook her head vehemently.
"Don't worry, we won't tell. Congratulations," Gabrielle said, and patted Penthea's knee.
"Thank you. That's why the wedding should take place soon. I do hope Prince Eteocles still wants me... I love him so much," Penthea said quietly.
"Of course he'll want you... why wouldn't he?" Xena said.
"Well, I don't look... or smell like a princess right now..." Penthea said, and held up a lock of her hair, greasy and filthy.
"Not to mention the smudge marks on your face, yeah, I see your point," Gabrielle added. Penthea looked shocked, but relaxed when she saw their smiles.
"Trust me, Princess, love doesn't care about greasy hair or dirt on your face... you'll be fine," Gabrielle said.
Many hours later, after sunset, three very exhausted riders arrived at Queen Diana's castle and rode into the courtyard.
Princess Penthea was sitting behind Xena with her arms wrapped around the warrior's waist. The young woman had long since fallen asleep, and her snoring had proved contagious for Xena, who had nodded off several times.
Gabrielle dismounted her horse, feeling every single one of the hits she had received today. Her bones were aching, and she had muscle cramps in places she didn't think it was possible to have them.
"Queen Diana better have a hot tub somewhere in this castle, that's all I'm saying," she complained as she helped Penthea off from Xena's horse.
"Yeah, I hear you," Xena said, rubbing her neck.
The Princess woke up and yawned. She looked around with bleary eyes that lit up like stars when she recognized where she was.
"We're home! Thank you so much!" Penthea said excitedly, and gave first Xena, then Gabrielle a crushing hug.
"Where does she get the energy?" Gabrielle asked when she had recovered.
"That's a byproduct of being young," Xena said flatly.
"I wanna be young again..." Gabrielle said, and tried to get a kink out of her back.
"You're only four years older than her, you know."
"Yeah? Well, it feels like fifty..."
A stablehand came out to take care of the horses, and the three women went into the castle.
Penthea knocked on the door to her mother's chamber, and Trissa opened it, draping a dark brown cape over her shoulders as she did so.
"Who in Tartarus is knocking at this ti... PRINCESS PENTHEA!" she shouted, and clapped her hands together.
Queen Diana was at the door in two seconds flat, not even bothering to cover up her red silk nightgown. She looked at her daughter's battered appearance and then at the equally bruised warriors.
"By the Gods, is it really you...?" she exclaimed. Penthea threw herself into her mother's arms, and both women started crying.
With Penthea still sobbing loudly into her shoulder, Diana looked at Xena and Gabrielle with heartfelt gratitude.
"Thank you..." she said, her voice breaking up from the strain she had been under for the last few days.
The two warriors suddenly felt they were intruding in a very private moment, so they nodded, and left the chamber.
"All's well that ends well," Xena said, and put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder as they walked down the hallway towards their own chamber.
"Yeah. And now... it's hot tub time," Gabrielle said, and brushed some dust out of her hair.
The wedding was finally held three days later, and it turned out to be a very big affair with dozens of jugglers, court jesters and assorted other artists entertaining the distinguished guests at the seven-course banquet in the main hall. Six large tables had been set up, and every single member of Queen Diana's staff was at work serving the more than 120 guests - one corner was reserved exclusively to the children of the guests, and only the bravest of the servants dared go over there.
At the high table, Princess Penthea and Prince Eteocles were seated to the Queen's right, and the newlyweds were smiling and almost giddy from happiness - and the wine.
Xena and Gabrielle were on Queen Diana's left, and they had managed to restrain themselves a bit better than most of the other guests, even though more people than they could count had offered a toast to them.
As a fire-juggling act came onto the stage built next to the tables, Xena nudged Gabrielle and they left the table after thanking Diana thoroughly.
They went out onto a balcony, separated from the main hall by a heavy velvet curtain. Out there, the noise level was less painful to Xena's sensitive ears, and she let out a long sigh. Gabrielle looked up at the full moon and the many stars, and put her hand on the small of Xena's back.
"It's a beautiful night," Gabrielle said.
"Xena, have you noticed that every time we get into trouble, there's nearly always a full moon above?"
"They'll have a name for that one day," Gabrielle said and chuckled.
Xena smiled and leaned down towards her partner. She gently turned Gabrielle's head in her direction and kissed her on the lips. The green eyes sparkled in the moonlight, asking for more, and Xena complied by kissing her again.
"Thank you for saving my life back there," she said when they separated.
"Well, you're welcome. I couldn't stand idly by when you were in such a position. I'm just glad I had the Chakram, but... I'm sorry the Princess was there to see it. She's too young to see such horrors," Gabrielle said and sighed.
"...But anyway, let's not spoil this wonderful evening with all this talk of death. The artists were interesting, don't you think?" Gabrielle said.
"Yep. Especially that all-woman dancing troupe."
"Ah... yeah. Especially them." Gabrielle put her thumbs inside her belt and grinned to herself.
"I don't think that Queen Diana knew they're famous for dancing in the nude. I'll bet you ten dinars that she was embarrassed out of her skin," Xena said, and took a deep breath to clear her lungs.
"So, you know them from earlier, huh?" Gabrielle poked Xena in the side, and grinned even more.
"Oh... I've never heard of them before," Xena said and whistled.
"Perhaps you've *seen* them before..." Gabrielle said with a smile, poking Xena again. The warrior put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder, and gave her a squeeze.
"Why should I? I've got everything I need right here." Gabrielle chuckled, and put her arm around the warrior's waist.
Someone cleared his throat behind them, and they turned around to see who it was.
"I've come to give you an apology," Trakonis said.
"Apology accepted," Xena replied coldly and turned around again.
"I know I've been behaving like an idiot, but you have to understand that protecting my Queen is the only thing I live for."
"Look, we understand that perfectly, but... never mind. Case closed," Xena said.
"I... sent a request to the central magistrate in Athens asking for... well, I guess I wanted to see if you were wanted for anything," Trakonis said sheepishly.
"I beg your pardon!" Gabrielle said in a hard edged voice. Xena put her hand on her partner's shoulder to calm her down.
"... but they didn't have any recent records. Again, I'm sorry."
"What would you have done if they had? Do you think you could have arrested us?" Xena asked.
"... not after what the Princess has told me about her experiences in the fortress, no."
"A very wise move, Trakonis. Good day, Sir," Gabrielle said icily, and demonstratively turned away from the soldier. He nodded awkwardly and stepped back into the main hall.
Under her breath, Gabrielle rasped off a few curses and then shook her head.
A few minutes later, Queen Diana joined them on the balcony.
"Ahh, peace and quiet," she said and laughed.
"Your daughter seems to be in high spirits after her ordeal," Gabrielle said.
"Yes, she's... well, she's not fully back to normal, which is understandable considering the dreadful things that happened to her, but she's improving all the time."
"We're glad to hear it, your Majesty."
"Did you hear the news?" Diana said excitedly.
"Which news would that be, your Majesty?" Gabrielle said, trying to appear like she had no idea what the Queen was talking about.
"Don't lie to me, young lady. You'll be sent to bed without dinner!" Diana said in a mock threat, waving her index finger at Gabrielle. Xena guffawed which led to Gabrielle giving her the Evil Eye.
"Pardon me, Queen Diana, but that's the absolute worst punishment you can give my partner," Xena said, chuckling.
"I'm going to be a grandmother... isn't that scary?" Diana said, and laughed out loud.
"Indeed it is, your Majesty," Xena said.
"I mean, it was only last week she was a toddler, and now she's pregnant..."
"So you're not angry that she became pregnant before her marriage?" Gabrielle said.
"No. Oh, I'm sure that some of the elders are, but not me. After all, that would be quite hypocritical of me... you see, I was pregnant with my first child before my marriage, too," Diana said, and winked at the two warriors.
"Oh..." Xena and Gabrielle said in unison.
"There you are, mother," Penthea said, and joined the three women on the balcony.
"The crowd's bigger out here than in there," the Queen joked.
"The minstrel choir isn't as good as their ad claimed them to be - they're scaring away more guests than they're attracting," Penthea said.
"Where's your husband, dear?"
"He thought they were ruining one of his favorite songs, so he's singing with them to show them how it's really done," Penthea said with a broad smile.
"Perhaps we should ask the nude dancing troupe to make an extra appearance," the Queen said. Xena guffawed again, and Gabrielle covered her mouth so she wouldn't laugh.
"What? The female body is Zeus' greatest creation, there's nothing wrong with showing it to the world," Diana said.
"Very true," Gabrielle said and put out her hand. Xena looked at it with a quizzical look on her face.
"I do believe you owe me ten dinars," Gabrielle said. Xena's left eyebrow slowly crept up her forehead, and she had a cheeky grin on her lips.
"... I'll pay you back later," Xena purred.
They could hear enthusiastic clapping from the main hall, and Penthea excused herself to be with her husband.
"So..." Diana said, looking at the two warriors.
"It's time for us to leave, too," Xena said. Diana nodded, and hugged both women.
"Please stop by for a visit now and then.... preferably some time within the next 30 years!" the Queen said and laughed.
"We will, you Majesty. You won't be able to keep us away," Gabrielle said, and bowed. Xena was about to do the same when Diana stopped them.
"No bowing, please... we're all equals here."
A short while later, Diana observed the two warriors as they walked across the torchlit courtyard far below her, carrying their saddle bags and travel gear. Their horses were retrieved from the stables and prepared for the journey.
After they had mounted the horses, both women looked up at the balcony and waved goodbye to the Queen. Diana waved back, and a tear fell down her cheek. As she watched Xena and Gabrielle ride out of the courtyard and disappear into the night, she wiped her eyes on her sleeve, and whispered,
"Goodbye my friends... and thank you..."
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