This is the final chapter of my story. Thank you for your patience and your constant feedback!
Storm


The Leader
Storm




Chapter 26


Gabrielle heard the guards snap to attention and lifted her eyes. Xena had just entered the throne room. She stood and bowed, hastily wiping away the tears from her cheeks, then looked the Conqueror straight in the eye, fists closed at her sides.

Xena scowled seeing the young woman's tear streaked face and asked, "Gabrielle, what's wrong?"

"What's wrong?" The blonde woman asked, with disbelief. Anger added volume to each word. "You ask me what's wrong? You killed my friends, that's what's wrong!"

"Oh. You weren't supposed to see that," Xena said, dismissing the guards with a wave of her hand.

"Yeah, maybe, but I did."

"Gabrielle, listen..." Xena softly started, reaching for her friend's hand, but the blonde woman backed away.

"Please, don't. Not now. I know they attacked you, I know you're the Conqueror, but damn, they were my friends, and now they're dead! Gods..." she sobbed, "Ephiny, Eponin, Perdicus... all dead!" She fell heavily on a nearby chair, shaking her head.

Xena tentatively smiled, "Gabrielle, I told you I can't look weak and--"

The younger woman interrupted the Conqueror, "You don't have to explain, I understand. But understanding doesn't make me feel any better."

Xena sighed and ran her fingers through her wet hair. Then she went to a nearby table and hit a gong. "Call Martinus," she ordered the guard who immediately entered. She poured some water in a golden mug and knelt beside Gabrielle, offering her the mug. "I'm sorry you're hurting. I hope you'll feel better soon," she said with an enigmatic smile.

Gabrielle nodded silently, still trying to control her anger. After few moments the soldier who had escorted Gabrielle to Poteidaia entered.

"My liege," he said, frowning as he saw the crying woman.

Xena stood. "Gabrielle saw her friends die," she calmly explained. "I think some hours in the dungeon will help her calm down."

"As you wish, my liege," he replied and approached a stunned Gabrielle.

"Follow me," he ordered with a cold voice. Speechless, the blonde woman stood, leveling an accusing glare on Xena.

"Use the passage," the Conqueror instructed. Nodding, Martinus went to the fireplace and with practiced ease pushed a stone. A small section in the nearby wall moved, and Gabrielle's eyes widened in surprise.

Xena smiled as she walked the younger woman toward the passage holding her arm. "Clever, isn't it? This way I can move through the palace as I please. I can listen to what is said and nobody sees me."

"Yeah, great," Gabrielle said, sarcastically, and Xena chuckled.

Martinus lit a lamp and entered the passage first. Xena gently pushed the blonde woman in then followed, closing the entrance after her. The passage was thin and dark and smelled of dust. Martinus' body blocked almost all the light coming from the lamp, and Gabrielle had to use her hands to feel what was around her.

"Watch your step going down," the soldier warned, and the young woman noticed the first step of a narrow spiral staircase.

The staircase was low and the blonde woman could barely stand upright without hitting the ceiling with her head. They descended for several moments and still the staircase continued. Gabrielle swallowed hard, wiping the sweat from her forehead. The dark, the cramped space and the dizziness caused by the neverending spiral made her feel terribly at unease, trapped, suffocating.

She closed her eyes and stopped, calling weakly, "Xena..."

"I'm right here," the ruler of the world immediately answered, placing her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "It's all right."

"No, I have... I have to go back... I need to get out of here. I .. I can't breathe," the younger woman said, nearly in panic.

"It's just a few more steps, Gabrielle, then it's larger. Go on." Xena explained softly, urging the small woman gently forward.

"No, I can't," The blonde woman insisted, her voice quivering.

"Yes, you can," Xena said, matter-of-factly. "Going back is much farther than going forward. Trust me, just a few more steps," she encouraged.

At the thought of walking all the staircase again to get back to the throne room, Gabrielle found some courage. She took a couple of deep breaths, closed her hands until her knuckles were white, and slowly resumed walking. Xena's hand on her shoulder somehow reassured her and distracted her from feeling as though the walls were closing in. This is really ironic, Gabrielle thought. The first time I met her she lead me in this same way, and even then it didn't scare me. When was it? Months ago. So many things changed since then, she changed, too... yet it wasn't enough to save my friends.

A few steps ahead Martinus was waiting for the two women at the end of the staircase, the lamp in his hand. "Problems?" He asked.

The blonde woman looked around and noticed that the passage was much larger and higher now, and she managed to relax a little. "No," she answered.

The soldier nodded and resumed walking. Every now and then Gabrielle could see new divisions of the tunnels, but they always followed the one going down.

Xena now was silently walking beside her and was gently rubbing Gabrielle's back, with a soothing effect. This isn't good, the blonde woman thought, hating herself. That's the hand that pushed Solari and the others from the walls! My skin should crawl at her touch! Why am I enjoying it?

Xena's voice woke her from her thoughts. "Here we are."

Martinus had opened a hidden door and now they were in the dungeons. The corridor they were standing in was high, clean, and received light from a few small windows closed with iron bars, high on the left wall. This must be the topmost level of the dungeon, Gabrielle thought.

"Why didn't you tell me you're claustrophobic?" Xena softly asked.

"Because until now I didn't know it," Gabrielle replied.

"Well, I believe you'll be better soon," the raven haired woman said, gently guiding Gabrielle towards a closed door.

"Yeah, I'll be better, but I wouldn't bet on soon, if I were you," the blonde woman retorted, sarcastically.

Xena smirked, opened a peep-hole hidden in the wall near the door and signaled Gabrielle to look in.

"Gods!" Gabrielle gasped, covering her mouth with both hands.

"Never bet against me," Xena whispered in her ear. "I only bet on sure things."

Gabrielle threw her arms around the Conqueror's neck, exclaiming, "You spared them! Ephiny... Solari, Perdicus... they're all alive! Oh, thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" Then, frowning, poked Xena hard in her chest, "I should strangle you! Why didn't you tell me? Do you have any idea of how I felt?"

"I know, and I'm sorry Gabrielle, but I did try to explain, if only you would have listened..." Xena shrugged apologetically.

"Yeah, sure, like I could have listened after what I had seen!"

"As I said, you weren't supposed to see that. I summoned you in the throne room to explain my plan. I didn't want you to see that."

"Then, who were they?"

"Common criminals sentenced to death some time ago."

"Are you sure that nobody will suspect anything?" Gabrielle seriously asked.

Xena turned to watch the soldier standing a few feet away, "Absolutely. Martinus is the only one who knows, and I trust him with my life. All my generals are outside Corinth for the maneuvers. I told them I was bored of simple training and wanted some real blood. When they return they'll see the corpses dangling from the walls, and I believe it'll be enough for them."

Gabrielle nodded and looked straight in Xena's blue eyes, "I'm sorry that I didn't trust you, that I didn't let you explain."

The raven haired woman put her hands on the younger woman's shoulders and smiled, "It's okay. You couldn't know."

Gabrielle nodded towards the huge door. "May I talk to them?"

Xena gently pushed a lock of blonde hair behind Gabrielle's ear, "Actually I'd like to talk to them alone for a moment. You might not like what I'm going to say, but please don't interrupt," Xena smiled. "Trust me?"

"Always," the younger woman promptly replied.

"Good. Then stay here. Martinus, follow my lead, okay?"

"Sure, Xena," the soldier replied.

The Conqueror removed the big bar closing the huge door and whispered something in Martinus' ear. The soldier squared his shoulders and frowned studiously, then entered, yelling harshly, "On your knees, scum! The Conqueror is here to see you!"

Darius, the younger prisoner, hesitantly complied. The others stood defiantly, except Solari, her injured leg preventing her from standing. The prisoners' wrists were secured to a chain around their waists and Martinus harshly jerked them on their knees one by one, while repeating, "Down, I said!"

Apparently amused at the sight, the Conqueror slowly descended the few steps leading into the cell. She waited until the heavy door closed behind her before she addressed the rebels, her voice dripping sarcasm, "Well, well, well, how are my honored guests?"

Eponin spat towards her, and the soldier promptly chastised her with a blow to her back.

"Go on, hit an unarmed enemy, you coward!" Solari hissed at Martinus, directing him an hateful glance.

Xena laughed, shaking her head mockingly, "My, my, is this the best that the Resistance can offer? You should remember that you attacked me all together when I was alone. Now who is the coward, hmm? Yet your plan was good. You tricked me out of my palace alone, right in your ambush. What better opportunity to kill me? But I survived, and you'll never have an opportunity like that again. You couldn't kill me this time, and you never will. You failed." She paused for effect. "I don't consider failures such as you dangerous enemies. Besides, people know someone tried to kill me, and I can't let it go as if nothing happened. It would be a sign of weakness, don't you think?"

"Then get over with it, execute us! At least we won't see your damn face any longer!" Ipheus retorted and was rewarded with a slap.

"Oh, I was going to do it a few minutes ago, remember? Then I had second thoughts. After all, as I said, you aren't the real threat. The true menace to my power is the one who created your plan, the one who risked most to put it into action, the mind of the plot--- Gabrielle."

"What!" Perdicus exclaimed and immediately Martinus kneed him at his back, silencing him.

Xena sighed. "What does it take to let you understand that you can speak when I say you can?" She said with a bored voice. "Yes, Gabrielle. Why does that surprise you? She's your leader. She's the one who lied to me, the one able to get my trust, the one who tricked me into leaving Corinth, making me fall into her trap."

"She's the one who took the arrow aimed at you!" Ephiny managed to say before Martinus kicked her in the ribs.

"Do you think I'm blind, Amazon?" Xena asked contemptuously. "She acted as if she was surprised at your attack, so that I didn't think about her as a threat. Then she slowly moved around me, to hit me at my back! When you released the arrow she was behind me, ready to strike; she heard the hissing and turned around. You are just a bad shot. That's why she was hit."

"It's not like..." Eponin's words were interrupted by the soldier's hand across her face.

"Then why did she admit to being the only one responsible for your actions? She denied nothing, did she, Martinus?"

"No. Nothing, my liege," the man replied smiling wickedly. "It wasn't even necessary to torture her that much before having a complete confession."

Ephiny jumped on her feet, "You tortured her? You bitch!!" She yelled, launching herself against the Conqueror.

Xena easily sidestepped the angry Amazon's attack, then grabbed the screaming and thrashing woman and threw her back as easily as if she were a puppet, while Martinus kept the other stunned prisoners at bay. "I'll kill you, even if it is the last thing I'll do! I promise!" Ephiny angrily repeated, panting hard as the soldier held her pinned on the floor with a foot on her back.

"Good. It will be amusing to see you try," Xena said with a bored voice. "You'll have plenty of opportunities, since I'll set you all free. As I said, you're not a threat, Gabrielle is. She'll pay for you all. Tomorrow morning she will be whipped on the main square, then crucified. That will serve as an example to all my enemies."

"No! You can't be so cruel!" Perdicus tried to speak, and so did the other prisoners, but Martinus silenced them with few blows, under Xena's unreadable look.

"Maybe you're right... then I'll shorten her agony by breaking her legs," the Conqueror mused after a while smiling ferally, and the prisoners gasped in horror.

"May I speak, Conqueror?" Ipheus asked, barely containing his anger and horror. The Warrior Princess gave him permission with a distracted wave of her hand.

"My liege, Gabrielle wasn't the mind of the plot. In fact, she didn't even know our plan! We knew where you were going, and we acted accordingly. But she didn't know, she's innocent, I swear!"

The other prisoners nodded, but Xena smirked, "Really? Then who is your spy? Who told you of my intentions?"

The captives watched the ground and remained silent. Gar hadn't been arrested, and they couldn't betray him to try to save Gabrielle... Xena probably wouldn't believe them anyway. After a while she shrugged, "Just as I thought. It had to be Gabrielle, no one else knew."

"She's innocent, you've got to believe us! We have no reason to lie now." Solari pleaded.

"Nonsense. Should I believe she really didn't know of your plan?" She slowly circled the prisoners. "Should I believe that you were ready to sacrifice your beloved leader? Because you knew she would have been the first I would suspect if I survived! You knew she would have to face my wrath, didn't you?" The prisoners didn't answer and Xena continued, with a mocking voice, "No, I really don't believe you were ready to let an innocent die just to kill me! And not an innocent as anyone else, but your leader, your friend! I would use someone who trusts me to get what I want, but you, the rebels? You, who always blamed me for my actions? Oh, no, you're just trying to protect your leader. After all, if she wasn't part of the plot and her life was worthless to you, why would you try to protect her now?"

The prisoners hung their heads, desperately trying to think of a way out for Gabrielle.

"Tomorrow I'll set you free and execute her," Xena said matter-of-factly and slowly walked to the door.

Ephiny managed to rise on her knees and spoke, hurt clear in her voice, "Conqueror, wait, please! I know it's hard to believe, but it's the truth. Gabrielle didn't know! We were ready to sacrifice her. We've been selfish fools. It seemed it was worth it, back then, but now that we hear you say you'll crucify her, for something she didn't do...." The Amazon's voice cracked. Shaking her head, she continued, "Why can't you believe that we betrayed our ideals? That we acted as you would have? We're humans, and we were wrong! But now that we see our mistake, we can't be silent while you say you'll kill her! That's why we're trying to protect her, because she's innocent! You know her. She's the gentlest soul in the world. She doesn't know the word Žbetrayal'. Please, don't hurt her... If you need to make an example out of someone, take me and do whatever you want!"

"If she isn't enough take me too," Solari added.

Ipheus silently surveyed her friends, who nodded in agreement, one by one. "And if she isn't enough, take us all, but spare Gabrielle. We are the ones who ambushed you. If you kill an innocent and let go those who really tried to kill you, what example will that set?"

"Is this your decision?" Xena asked, seriously.

"Just save Darius... he's only a child," Ephiny said.

"Then I've found you all guilty of treason." Xena passed judgment with a wicked grin. The captives shuddered knowing the usual punishment was a gory death, but they nodded in acceptance. She flashed an incredibly beautiful smile and continued, "And I sentence you to exile."

The prisoners' jaws dropped in surprise.

"Th... That's all??" asked a stunned Perdicus after several moments.

"Yes, that's all." Xena reached for the door and pushed it open. "You're lucky that a friend of mine cares for you."

The prisoners watched each other, puzzled. Then Ephiny asked, as Martinus helped her to stand, "What about Gabrielle?"

Xena looked outside the door, "Yeah, what about you?"

The blonde woman appeared in the doorframe, and put her arm around Xena's waist. "Me?" She looked into twinkling blue eyes. "Do you think I could stay here, with you?"

"I think that can be arranged," Xena replied, smiling.

"Great! Then I'll be fine," Gabrielle exclaimed, hugging the raven haired woman for a moment. "Now will you give me a moment with them?"

"Sure," Xena said and nodded at the soldier, "Martinus, let's go get the keys." The man left the cell as Gabrielle entered.

"That ambush was a really stupid thing, you know?" Gabrielle seriously told her friends.

"Yes, it was. I still can't believe we did it," Perdicus said, lowering his eyes.

"Can you forgive us, Gabrielle?" Ephiny tentatively asked.

"I already have, you silly," the blonde woman replied, hugging her friend. "but this will change everything. I'll be here, and you won't. Nobody must see you in Corinth again."

"But you don't have to stay here. You could leave with us," Perdicus said, lowering his voice. "Or is she still holding you captive?"

"Perdicus! How can you even think that after what she has just done?" Gabrielle exclaimed indignantly. "She's risking a lot on this. If anybody knew she spared you, her reputation would be ruined, and she'd be in great danger! She's willing to risk it because she's changed, and that's why I won't leave. It won't be easy for her, and I'll give her all the help I can. I wish you a lot of happiness, but I'll stay with her."

"But everybody knows you're a rebel, Gabrielle. How is she going to explain your presence by her side?" Eponin asked.

"I don't know, and I don't care. If she has to keep me chained to dispel suspicions than that's all right by me," the blonde woman replied, determination clear in her green eyes.

"But not by me," Xena's voice startled everyone. She entered the cell with a heap of keys in her hand. "You are no longer my enemy, Gabrielle. You risked your life to save mine." Tossing the keys to Ephiny, Xena looked into Gabrielle's eyes. "I will make sure no one questions my right to forgive your previous crimes against me. I promise you."

"Thanks," the younger woman replied. She could feel the tears gathering behind her eyes.

"You're welcome." Xena smiled. The sound of Ephiny's manacles falling to the floor pulled her attention back to the prisoners. "Do you have any ideas on where you want to spend your exile?"

"Actually, I don't. We have friends in Athens, but I don't think we should let them know we're alive," the Amazon replied.

"Probably not," Xena pretended to think about it for a moment before suggesting, "Why don't you go back to the Amazons' hunting grounds? I'm sure several Amazons still live scattered around there. You could rebuild a village."

Eponin's jaw dropped. "Could we really?" She asked, hope growing in her heart.

"I don't see why not. If Queen Ephiny gives me her word that the Amazons will recognize my authority by paying a tribute and supplying scouts for my army as soon as they can afford it, I won't touch the village."

"How... how do you know I'm a queen?" the curly haired Amazon was amazed.

"When you were first arrested one of my soldiers remembered you from the last battle with the Amazons." Xena actually felt a pang of sorrow at the memory of that battle. "He said the Princess Terreis gave her right of caste to you. I killed Melosa myself and know she didn't have time to pass the leadership to anyone... so..."

"Wow!" Darius exclaimed. "You're a queen? Why didn't you ever tell us?"

"Because I am not that much of a queen. I have no throne, no people and no kingdom," Ephiny sadly replied.

"But now you will!" Gabrielle exclaimed happily. "You can rebuild the village and reunite the remaining Amazons."

Martinus cleared his throat from the doorframe. Xena approached him, but continued to speak to Ephiny, "As for the throne, you'll have to carve one yourself, but at least you won't need to kill dozens of birds to make... this." Turning, she showed the huge feathered mask that Martinus had just retrieved for her.

"Sweet Artemis!" Solari gasped.

"That's the royal mask! How..." Ephiny was stunned.

"I always keep something from the best warriors I defeat. And queen Melosa was one of the best," Xena explained, and offered Ephiny the mask. "The Amazon nation will live again."

Her hands shaking with emotion, the Amazon took it. "I... thanks..." she stuttered at last, overwhelmed with joy.

"Don't make me regret this decision," Xena said.

"I won't. You have my word."

Xena nodded and addressed the men. "And you? Where will you go?"

"I think I'll go to Egypt," Ipheus said. "I know a couple of merchants working there. They keep inviting me over there, I guess it's time to accept their offer."

"Do you think they could find a job for me, too?" Perdicus asked, sadly. "There's nothing for me here in Greece anymore."

"Sure! They say they always need people to escort the caravans."

"What about the boy?" Xena said, indicating Darius.

"He's an orphan," one of the other prisoners said. "He's alone. I used to look after him the best I could, but I've never been very rich, and now I think I'll move to Egypt, too..."

"Where would you like to live, Darius?" Xena asked, smiling. "You can go to Egypt with them or live here in the palace. Which do you prefer?"

"Egypt," he immediately replied, the fear of living close to the imposing warrior clear in his eyes.

"You could also stay in our village," Ephiny suggested. "You're a friend, after all."

"No, thanks. Egypt will be fine," he insisted.

"All right. Martinus will arrange everything," the raven haired woman said, and left the cell after whispering something in Gabrielle's ear.

"So... is it time to say goodbye, Gabrielle?" Ephiny asked.

"Yes... but it's not a farewell. I'll come visit you, I always dreamed of seeing a true Amazon village," the blonde woman replied, smiling.

"I'm counting on it, after all we owe it all to you." The curly woman said.

Gabrielle hugged her fiercely and did the same with all her friends. Sad and happy at the same time, one by one they all saluted her, then Eponin and Ipheus helped Solari stand, and the rebels followed Martinus out of the cell and into the dark dungeon corridors.

After some moments Gabrielle left the cell, too, and tentatively called, "Xena?"

"I'm right here," said a voice close to her ear.

"Gods!" The blonde woman exclaimed. "You scared the life out of me!"

"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," Xena said emerging from the darkness like a panther in the night.

"Another of your many skills?" Gabrielle asked, teasingly.

"A very useful one, yes."

"Well, I'm looking forward to discovering all your skills, O Warrior Princess. You're a constant surprise," Gabrielle said, then took Xena's hand and added, smiling with admiration, "What you just did for the Amazons was wonderful."

"It was the least I could do. In my quest for power I did horrible things to them..." Xena remained silent for some moments, absorbed in memories of blood and betrayal, then continued, "Now I have all the power I could want and they're a disbanded people. It's time I start righting the wrongs I did."

"Forgiving them and the others for their attempted murder was a marvelous start. I will never forget it."

"Good, because I'm going to constantly remind you of it," the raven haired woman said, teasingly.

"Oh, are you really?"

Xena nodded, grinning wickedly.

"I see. Then I'll have to distract you somehow..." Gabrielle mused.

"I'm a very focused person," Xena chuckled, confident she could withstand any distraction.

"Oh really?" Gabrielle advanced on the chuckling woman, pressing her back into the cell and down one step. Now Gabrielle could look directly into the amused blue eyes. She smiled and ran her fingers through the dark hair. "Well, I can be very determined." She raised an eyebrow at the warrior. "Focused huh?"

"Ummm..." Xena could feel her confidence slipping. "Yeah..."

"Wanna bet?" Gabrielle smiled.

Circling the small woman's waist with her arms, Xena slowly shook her head and whispered, "No, I only bet on sure things, remember?"

Nodding, Gabrielle drew the dark head to her and returned the whisper. "So do I." Their lips were so close now that their breaths mixed as Gabrielle spoke. "I bet on you, didn't I?"

"I guess you did." Xena knew the risk, the gamble that Gabrielle had taken. To come to her in the first place was extreme to say the least. Suddenly she couldn't think anymore as the young woman closed the distance between them.

Xena couldn't remember a kiss any sweeter and, after a moment, couldn't remember any other kisses at all. Pulling away slightly, Xena studied the trusting face before her. "The priest said there were two reasons for someone to do what you did." She smoothed the woman's blonde bangs from her forehead. "Madness.......or..." she almost couldn't say it. "...or Love."

Resting her forehead against the warrior's, Gabrielle tried to steady herself from the dizziness the kiss had started in her and chuckled. "Xena, don't bet on madness."

"He also said that love is a precious and rare gift and when you find someone that loves you, all you should do is thank the gods and start loving back."

"He sounds very wise," Gabrielle grinned. "Although I think, wisdom comes from following good advice, not giving it."

Xena rested her head on the blonde's shoulder, enjoying the feel of Gabrielle's arms around her for a long moment. Pulling back a bit to look into loving green eyes, the warrior smiled, "Then I intend on getting wiser every day."

"That sounds like a pretty safe bet to me." Gabrielle moved in for another kiss.

"Yes," Xena whispered as her lips were captured as definitively as her heart. "It's a sure thing."
The End

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