The arrow hit Gabrielle above her left breast. Stunned, Xena let her sword go and ran forward, wrapping her arms around the swaying woman and gently helping her to the ground.
"Xena..." Gabrielle said weakly, her eyes unfocused.
"Shh, don't talk," Xena commanded and assessed the wound.
"No... listen..." wincing, the blonde woman insisted, trying to fix her green, pain filled eyes on Xena's. "I didn't tell them... I promise... It wasn't... it wasn't me..."
"I know. Don't think about it Gabrielle," the raven haired woman replied, with a shaky voice.
Ephiny shook off the paralysis that gripped her when she saw her arrow sink into Gabrielle's chest and ran toward her fallen friend. "Gabrielle!"
At her voice Xena scowled and unhooked the chakram from her belt. "You bitch!" She screamed, throwing her weapon in a flash, hitting Ephiny in the head. Satisfied with her revenge for the moment, Xena didn't watch the Amazon fall before she turned back to Gabrielle.
"My liege!" A manly voice yelled behind the Conqueror. The outpost's soldiers had reached the bridge and moved the cart enough to open a small passage. "Are you injured, my liege?" the closest soldier asked, seeing Xena covered in blood.
"No," she replied. "My horse. NOW!" She briskly ordered, seeing that Gabrielle had passed out. The soldier hastily scrambled to do his bidding.
"My liege, what about this scum? Some of them are still alive," another one asked, indicating the rebels.
"Tie them up and take them to the outpost," she replied, not averting her concerned eyes from her friend. "Hold on Gabrielle," she said while gently stroking the young woman's golden hair, because if you die your friends will regret the day they were born, she mentally added. Then she lifted the unconscious woman and slowly moved towards the horse. The soldier made the beast kneel and Xena mounted, careful not to hurt the blonde woman. Signaling the horse with the heels, the animal rose and Xena moved with slow purpose toward the outpost.
Three soldiers rushed to assist Xena as she entered the outpost. The Conqueror asked the oldest one, "Is there a healer here?"
"That's me, my liege," a grey haired soldier replied, "Are you injured?"
"She is," Xena replied softly, gazing at the pale woman she cradled in her arms.
The healer nodded and approached as if to take Gabrielle in his arms. "Don't worry, I'll take care of her."
"I will." The Conqueror growled, stopping the man with an icy glare.
"Umm, sure, as you wish," the grey haired man swallowed his fear and indicated a nearby door. "The infirmary is this way, everything's ready. Bandages, water..."
Xena nodded her approval and, with infinite gentleness, she dismounted the horse and purposefully went towards the door. The healer ran to open it and entered first. "What's your name?" Xena asked as she gently lowered the unconscious woman to the table in the middle of the room.
"I'm Potus. He's Lucius," the healer replied, indicating another young soldier ready to help.
The raven haired woman slowly cut Gabrielle's green top around the protruding shaft and frowned seeing how deep the arrow had gone. Then she instructed, masking her inner turmoil with a calm voice, "Well, Potus, I need disinfectant, water, soap and bandages. Put a dagger in the fire to heat it and come here." Don't die on me, Gabrielle, Xena silently pleaded. Hang on, please!
The healer quickly returned with the requested items and stood at Xena's side, silently awaiting orders. "I'll push the arrow through," the Conqueror explained, while washing her hands. "Move her so that her chest is off of the table, and hold her up."
The man did as instructed, slowly and carefully, doing his best not to hurt this girl who obviously meant so much to the ruler of the world.
Xena liberally poured disinfectant on the wound, frowning at Gabrielle's moan. "Gabrielle, this is going to be painful, I'll be as fast as possible. Hang on," she whispered while brushing her knuckles on the blonde woman's pale cheek. She grabbed the arrow and broke it, thanking the gods for Gabrielle's unconsciousness. Then, holding the shaft with both hands, with a single, powerful thrust Xena pushed the tip of the arrow out of Gabrielle's back. The young woman moaned louder, and Xena whispered, "Hold on, Gabrielle, we're halfway through."
The healer winced as he turned the fidgeting blonde woman on her side. The blood stained arrow jutted out from Gabrielle's shoulder and trembled with the girl's every breath. Xena took it with her hand, and extracted it completely, slowing the profuse bleeding with a cloth.
"The dagger," the raven haired woman ordered. The young soldier ran to the fireplace and retrieved the red-hot weapon for the waiting Conqueror. "Hold her still."
The two men did as instructed. They grimaced in pain as Xena cauterized the wound. The smell of sizzling flesh permeated the air and the young soldier looked away from the flinching girl, disgusted.
"It's over, Gabrielle, it's over now," the dark haired woman said with a soothing voice. With a clean cloth she gently cleaned the blood and sweat from Gabrielle's skin. She applied a healing salve and wrapped the wound in bandages.
"Shall we move her to a bed, my liege?" The young soldier asked hesitantly. Without answering, Xena easily lifted the young woman and carried her to the cot closest to the fireplace. She gently removed Gabrielle's boots, covered her with a blanket and sat on the bed beside her.
Silently, the soldier and the healer left, wisely leaving the Conqueror alone with the girl. After some moments the infirmary's door opened again and the healer entered, followed by several soldiers, carrying the injured rebels. "Out!" Xena yelled, rising from the bed.
"But, my liege... these men..." Potus stuttered.
"Out." Xena repeated, her voice low and angry.
"There's plenty of room for everyone..." the healer offered, a bead of cold sweat forming on his forehead.
"I don't think so," the Conqueror snarled, advancing menacingly. The soldiers hastily dragged the moaning rebels out of the infirmary.
"May... may I at least treat their wounds?" The grey haired man asked, while retreating towards the door.
"Sure, I want them alive," Xena hissed, a wicked gleam in her eye. A shiver ran down the healer's spine. Hastily, he bowed and left, trying not to think about those young fools' destiny.
Xena sat motionless in the big oak armchair. She had been watching Gabrielle sleep all night. Now, the first rays of the sun filtering through the velvet curtains into the rich bedroom made the girl's face, already pale because of her injury, look even more ethereal. So little yet so brave, and I doubted you, after all you have done for me, Gabrielle, the Conqueror thought sadly.
The blonde woman stirred in her sleep, and called weakly, "Xena..."
The Conqueror immediately took Gabrielle's hand in hers, sitting on the bed, "Shh, Gabrielle, I'm here. Try to rest."
The blonde woman slowly opened her eyes and looked around, confused. "Xena? Where..."
"We're in Corinth, in my bedroom. How do you feel?" Xena asked softly, pushing an errant lock of golden hair behind Gabrielle's ear.
She took a moment to consider the question, "Fine, I guess... just.. tired, weak."
"It's normal. It's an effect of the pinch I used to keep you unconscious during the journey from the outpost. It'll pass." Xena explained, while reaching for a golden mug. "Here, drink this." She gently lifted Gabrielle's head to help her.
"It's good," the woman smiled weakly, after draining the cup. "Thanks. For... caring."
"It's the least I could do, Gabrielle."
The younger woman swallowed hard and looked the Conqueror in the eye, "I didn't tell them, Xena... It wasn't me... I didn't betray you... I promise..." she said seriously.
Xena saw pain and sadness in those green meadows, but most of all she saw fear. The possibility of losing Xena's trust troubled Gabrielle greatly. The raven haired woman smiled, reassuring her, "Don't worry, I know." Then she lowered her eyes, "I'm sorry I didn't trust you immediately."
"Sorry? Why?... What... else could you think?" Gabrielle replied honestly. She saw that Xena was still doubtful. "Really... don't feel guilty, please. I don't blame you. Gods... it's so good... to know you're still my friend... I thought I lost you..."
"Me too," Xena whispered, amazed at her friend's forgiveness. They just looked at each other for several moments, then Gabrielle hesitantly broke the silence.
Shifting on the bed she asked, "Where are... they?"
"I took care of them."
"How??" Gabrielle jerked. Xena's matter-of-fact tone did nothing to calm Gabrielle's fears, the last thing she remembered was Xena smashing Ephiny unconscious, and she feared the worse. "What happened? Did you hurt them?... kill them?"
"What if I did?" asked the Conqueror, then, seeing Gabrielle's eyes widen in horror, she continued with a gentler voice, shaking her head, "No, no, I didn't kill them. Yet. But Gabrielle, they deceived you. They used you to reach me..."
Gabrielle tightened her hold on Xena's hand, "Xena, you can't... hurt them!"
"Why can't I? I have to! Gabrielle, they tried to kill me, betrayed your trust... How can you still care for them?"
"Because they're my friends!"
"Well, friends are not supposed to betray friends. I could have killed you in anger, and they knew... and didn't care."
That thought made Gabrielle feel sick, but she ignored it, "It doesn't matter, Xena. They were wrong... but did what they thought was right..."
Xena snarled, "What they thought was right... Didn't you say you didn't want my death?"
"Didn't they know it? Weren't you their leader?"
Suddenly Gabrielle saw a way out for her friends. "Yes. I'm their leader. I'm responsible for their actions."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Now don't play the hero with me, Gabrielle. I won't punish you for a guilt that's not yours. You spoke to them, didn't you? Explained them that I was doing my best to be more... human?"
Gabrielle couldn't believe she had heard Xena actually say those last words. "Yes, of course I did."
"So they knew I was starting to trust you. That I was trying to change... They didn't believe you when they had the chance. They've made their last mistake."
"They didn't believe us, Xena. And you... really... can't blame them for that."
Xena didn't like the sound of that. "Oh, really?" She asked, her brows furrowing.
"Yes. They don't know the real you. They just know your past deeds... and your mask. Is it so strange if they believed them, rather than my words, if they thought your recent actions were just an act, a plan or whatever?"
Xena froze. It was reasonable... she thought people had to believe her change was real because it was. But after all... why should they? She was doing her best, but those were still just a few acts of mercy compared to years of cruelty. She hadn't done anything special to earn people's trust. She really couldn't blame the ones that still didn't trust her. In their place, Xena would have done the same. She heard Gabrielle's voice calling her.
"Don't kill them... please..."
Xena sighed. "Gabrielle, I understand your feelings, but you have to understand mine. If you want to forgive your friends for their betrayal, you're free to do it, but I can't. I can't ignore anyone who attempts to kill me. People would start thinking I'm going soft! Your friends knew the risk of their actions."
"So they will die thinking they were right--- hat you have no heart and that nothing can change it."
"I'm sorry Gabrielle," she rose as Gabrielle still held her hand.
"Please, Xena, spare them... promise me you will."
She sadly looked in the pleading green eyes, "You shouldn't ask for what I can't promise Gabrielle, as I won't ask you not to hate me if I execute them."
Gabrielle fixed her sad green eyes in Xena's. "Do what you want, Xena, but know that I will never hate you. I won't blame you for your decision. You've already done so much..." she whispered, "maybe this is too much for you, too soon." But gods how I want you to spare them... she thought, and a lonely tear rolled down her pale cheek.
Xena realized Gabrielle meant every word she said. Speechless, she freed her hand and left the room.
The elders of Ephesus were explaining their problems, but Xena wasn't paying attention. Sitting on her throne, her jaw clenched, fists closed, her mind repeated Gabrielle's words, again and again.
"...and the northern route should..."
She tried to listen to the speaking man, but simply couldn't. These men, she thought, surely don't believe I'm changing. They still see the Destroyer of Nations on this throne. But Gabrielle... she surrendered to me when I was her greatest enemy. She had to do it to save a friend, but she didn't have to speak to me the way she did. She could've insulted me or could've remained silent... instead she tried to justify my actions. She believed I had a brain and a heart and spoke to them, while all the others always act as if I was a stupid, cruel monster with no feelings... When I set her free, she didn't run away; she came back to me. She bet her life on me. Why? What does she see in me, that nobody else sees? Why did she do it?
"... and even Athena's temple needs repairs..." the speaking man nodded to one of the others, the elder one, who was dressed differently from them.
Xena stopped the speaker with a wave of her hand and briskly asked, "Is there a priest of Athena among you?"
The elder took a step forward. "Yes, Conqueror, I'm Eric, priest of Athena."
"Fine. We'll see if the goddess cares about her temple. Out. Everyone, but you." Shoved by the guards, the surprised men left the room, leaving only the old man and a scowling Xena.
"So, priest, here's the deal: I have a question. Give me the answer I seek and your precious temple will have the repairs it needs. Fail, and it will need a new priest," she said coldly.
The man swallowed and bowed, trying his best to stay calm. "I... I'll do my best, Conqueror," may Athena help me... he silently prayed.
"Fine. Think about the cruelest person in the world."
Done, the man thought. She's right in front of me.
"This person is also the most powerful in the world"
The priest nodded. Definitely the Conqueror, he thought.
"This person has many enemies, and obviously, being so cruel, treats them with no mercy."
"Of course," replied the man, unsure of what the Conqueror may ask.
"Well, one day the most dangerous enemy of this person comes to his castle and willingly surrenders, with no conditions. Just asks to speak to his enemy, to try to persuade him to leave his bad habits and change his life. The question is: why?"
The old man smoothed his white beard and asked, "Did this person ask anything for himself?"
"No, absolutely nothing. Just wanted to talk."
The priest's brow furrowed. "Did yo... I mean, was he forced in any way?"
"No." Maybe in the beginning, Xena thought, but then she came back...
"It wasn't a trick of some sort?"
"No. Not at all," Xena answered, thoughtfully.
Then, the priest thought, the question is: why should he surrender to the Conqueror when she's one of his greatest enemies, when there's nothing that forces him to do it, without a plan to escape, just to try to persuade her to do good?
Xena was fidgeting on her throne, impatiently.
The old man took a deep breath and answered, "Well, your Majesty, it seems to me that only two things can lead someone to such an action."
"What?" Xena asked, tapping her fingers on the throne's arm.
"Madness..." He said, and paused. "... or love."
The Conqueror nodded thoughtfully, and the priest silently thanked the Goddess of Wisdom.
Gabrielle isn't a crazy fanatic, Xena thought. And love surely makes people act like she did, risking life for others... but how could she love me?
"Very good, old man," she said at last. "Then the question becomes, what's to love in the cruelest person in the world? How can you love someone who hurt you, your family, your friends?"
The old man shrugged, "Love is the greatest mystery of the universe. Nobody knows why one is drawn to a person at first sight, or why one finds another antipatethic, even if one has never done anything to deserve it. You can say it's fate, or say it's chance..." Xena remained silent, absorbed in her thoughts, as the old man gathered his courage and continued, hesitantly, "But in my opinion the cruel man shouldn't bother thinking about it. Love is a precious and rare gift. If he found someone that cares so much for him to be ready to risk his life to help him, well, all he should do is thank the gods for this, and start loving back."
"Love is weakness," Xena retorted, contemptuously.
"No, my liege. Love is the greatest force on earth."
The Conqueror rested her chin on her close fist, her brows furrowing in thought. I don't need love. I lived without it for years. Why should I change anything, risk everything I built, to have something I can live without? Suddenly, she rose from the throne and unsheathed her sword. She slowly advanced towards the trembling priest, twirled the deadly weapon nonchalantly in her hand, and leaned the tip of the sword in the hollow of the man's throat. "You've been very useful, priest," she said, freezing him with her icy stare. "Now tell me, what was our conversation about?"
"I beg your pardon, my liege?" He asked, confused.
"Are you deaf, old man?" She growled. Then she softly asked, with a smile that didn't reach her eyes, "I asked you if we talked about anything."
"Oh, that... well... I'm so sorry, my liege, but umm... I'm old and my memory isn't what it used to be..." his eyes begged to know what Xena wanted to hear.
"And..." the raven haired woman encouraged.
"And I swear on Athena's shield that I don't remember ever having a conversation with your Majesty?"
The Conqueror nodded approvingly and the man lowered his eyes and finished in a rush, "Yes, I think my memory stopped working altogether when your Majesty granted the repairs for the Temple. Too much joy, I suppose."
Xena started laughing and removed her sword from the priest's neck. "I see that Athena's priests are wise, after all. And brave, too. That's a first. Very well, your temple will have the repairs it needs and a new marble statue of the goddess. But," she put her arm around the old man's shoulder, and started walking with him towards the door, whispering in his ear, "...should your memory return, or if I ever hear that we talked about anything, your temple will be destroyed and all the priests of Athena, in Ephesus and in the rest of Greece, will die a sudden, gory, painful, death. Ya got that?"
The man swallowed his fear and managed to answer, "Yes, yes, perfectly, my liege."
"Good," the Conqueror purred, and opened the door. "Have a safe journey home, Eric."
A shiver of terror ran down his spine, and he hastily bowed and left the palace as fast as his wobbly legs allowed him, fervently praying for Athena to erase from his memory every word, the voice and even the image of the ruler of the world.
Gabrielle was more and more concerned. Xena had studiously avoided her for days, not even sleeping in her own bedroom. The healers always came and cleaned her wound without a word. The servants, although very kind, refused to answer any question about the Conqueror, and knew nothing about her rebel friends or their destiny. The guards didn't allow her out of the rich bedroom and Gabrielle, almost completely healed, was restless.
She went to the door again and, when she was again told he couldn't let her out, she asked the enormous guard that blocked her way a very familiar question. "Why?"
"Because I can't!" He growled, rolling his eyes. "Listen, she knows that you're here. When she decides to talk to you she'll come here, okay? Now stay put!" The blonde woman was driving him crazy. Why couldn't she wait?
"Okay, okay, but will you at least give her this note?" she said, offering him a small piece of parchment.
"I don't think she's in the palace right now. She left Corinth a couple of days ago with all the generals and a lot of troops. They're training, doing military maneuvers, stuff like that."
"With this weather?" Gabrielle asked, surprised. For the previous three days it had been raining continuously and the sun was just now peeping through the dark clouds.
"Yes, with this weather. You can't always fight with the sun and the troops must be ready for everything. Now go back in!" Exasperated, he shoved the young woman in the room and closed the door after her with a sigh of relief.
Gabrielle sighed and went back to the big round table in the middle of the room. The servants had brought her several scrolls from the empress' library, but she wasn't in the mood to read them now. She needed to talk to Xena, she had to know...
Suddenly the door opened and two guards entered. "The Conqueror is waiting for you. Follow us."
At last, the blonde woman thought, and promptly complied, her heart beating furiously in her chest. The steps of the silent trio echoed on the marble floors as they passed by corridor after corridor in the maze that was the palace. Slowly, Gabrielle recognized the sound of drums rolling somewhere outside the palace. As they entered a room whose windows faced the main square, she realized that the sound was coming from the main square.
"What's going on?" she asked, puzzled.
"I don't know, probably an execution." A guard shrugged.
"An execution? Oh, no!" Gabrielle exclaimed, and immediately ran to look out the closest window, a knot forming in her stomach. She saw the palace's main entrance, where the Conqueror usually sat in judgement, but nobody was at the top of the staircase. She looked to the left, but could only see the soldiers rolling their drums rhythmically.
The two guards grabbed her angrily, "What do you think you're doing? Let's go!" but she held on to the window.
"Please, just a moment, let me see!" she pleaded and frantically scanned the main square. There's no execution down there, she thought, perplexed.
"The Conqueror is waiting for you, move on!" the guard repeated, grabbing her by the arm.
"Wait!" She insisted, realizing that everybody on the square was looking up. She followed the people's stares and gasped in surprise. On the other side of the palace, on the walls, were standing eight people. Their hands were tied behind their backs and a black hood was covering their heads. A noose was tied around their necks. It looked like five men and three women. They were quite a distance away, but the blonde woman could see they had several bruises, and one of them had a badly injured leg and stood precariously on top of the wall. Gabrielle's blood froze in her veins. "Oh, no, gods, no!" she screamed as the truth dawned on her, but the drums easily covered her voice.
At that moment, the Conqueror appeared next to the first prisoner. In her black armor, with the same wind that moved the dark clouds behind her wildly tossing her hair and cape around her, everyone in the crowd knew, at this moment, they were witnessing death personified. The drums rolled louder and faster, until Xena pushed the man next to her forward. The roll stopped. The crowd gasped. The man fell until the long noose, tied to the ramparts, stopped him in mid air, audibly snapping his neck. Reflexively, his legs kicked weakly for some moments while he undulated grotesquely, then slowly Death's icy grip took over and soon the only motion he made was dictated by the buffeting wind.
fell on her knees, resting her head on the window sill. The drums rolled
again. The guards grabbed the crying woman and dragged her forcibly to
the throne room.
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