See disclaimers in Part I.
The Conqueror walks out of her quarters. After the previous day's rain the sun shines brightly to The Conqueror hailing her on her good fortune. 'Everything couldn't have gone more smoothly,' she thinks as she heads off to the prisoner's area. Two guards salute Xena as she approaches the entrance of the tent.
"Any problems?" their commander asks.
"None at all Conqueror," the head guard reports.
The dark warrior pushes aside one of the flaps of the closed entrance and steps in. Her eyes adjust quickly to the shaded holding area. Her prisoner is standing, one ankle enclosed in a manacle. A chain snakes from it to an iron stake driven into the ground at the center of the tent. Xena observes the Amazon as she strides toward the blonde.
The queen holds her chin up, full of dignity even after what The Conqueror did to her days ago. Her hands are tied behind her back, the result of an attempted escape. The chains rattle as Gabrielle shifts her weight from one foot to another. Fully extended the chain allows her five feet of freedom, enough to reach a small cot that has been her bed for the past two days.
"I'd thought you might like to know what has been going on," the dark woman arrogantly states. When her prisoner doesn't respond she continues. "It seems that Velaska was successful in convincing your council that she is the rightful heir to the throne. And as her first act as the new queen, she suggested the Amazon Nation accept my invitation. It didn't take too much convincing. She shared her fears of my retaliation because of the attack on my army." Green eyes regard The Conqueror but still no response comes from the smaller woman. "As a gesture of good will, I released you yesterday escorted by a few of my men." The green eyes narrow. "Unfortunately there was an accident while crossing the river. The axle broke on one of the wagons and you and a few of my men drowned. What a shame," Xena brushes a finger under her eye as if wiping away a tear. "Oh not too worry. We recovered your body so there will be a proper Amazon burial for you in a couple of days."
Finally the Amazon speaks. "They aren't gonna believe that the body is mine."
"No? Why not? After the punishment you took from the rocks and being in the river for such a long time… well let's say that it's pretty hard to tell. But the corpse is about the right size and the strawberry blonde hair is just the right length. I'm sure Velaska will confirm that it is your body."
"I'm sure she will."
"And I'll personally escort your body so we won't have anymore unfortunate accidents. Anyway I want to be there to give my condolences… and to check out my new troops."
"A new army for The Conqueror to continue the destruction." Gabrielle shakes her head sadly. "What caused you so much pain to direct you to this path? I've heard a little about the compassionate woman that you were." More to herself she wonders out loud, "How did that woman become The Conqueror?"
The anger flashes in Xena's eyes. "You don't know anything about my life!"
"No, I don't," Gabrielle quietly agrees.
"Well let me enlighten you…I was born in Amphipolis, a place of simple shepherds. One fateful day a warlord came and attacked my village. Somehow we were able to fight back and defeat him but at a great cost. Many of our families lost love ones. Our fields and homes were burned, our livestock killed. We had won the battle but our village lost so much of its livelihood. We rebuilt but our fears of other warlords kept us on edge. I couldn't live like that. So I convinced the men and woman that we needed to protect our land, our homes with an army of our own. We were so successful that other villages around us began to do the same calling us to help them in their efforts. One of those places was a town called Cirra. We were helping them organize their defenses when The Nightmare of Cirra came. We were caught by surprise. Small fires appeared everywhere, started by the vermin of this warlord's army. A strong wind swept in and soon the flames consumed the entire village. People were trapped in their homes. We tried to save as many as we could, but there was little we could do. My brother Lyceus went into one of the burning houses. I remember calling out to him to stop, but his fearless heart wouldn't direct him otherwise. I thought he had died when the roof collapsed and the thought of it shook my very soul. But by some miracle he survived. He even managed to rescue a young girl. That is how I meet Callisto. From that point on I kept an eye on my brother, making sure he was safe. But after Circa, I realized that no matter how hard we tried to defend ourselves, it wouldn't stop another warlord from attacking. So I began to seek them out to destroy them. One by one they fell. And every time it gave me great satisfaction knowing that they could not hurt another family again."
After finishing her story, The Conqueror turns away from her audience of one. Moments pass before either woman speaks.
"Where is your brother now?" Gabrielle softly asks.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle sincerely tells her.
"He never should have been there in the first place." Holding back her tears she mutters, "I failed him." The warrior pauses. She is not sure why she is telling any of this to her prisoner but she continues her explanation anyway. "If it wasn't for Callisto, I would have died that day too. The grief would have killed me." She recomposes herself. "Callisto convinced me to stop them. To use my hatred to conquer them all… for Lyceus."
"You accomplished what you wanted, but in the process you've dishonored your brother's memory." She had spoken the words before realizing she shouldn't have. A vicious slap rocks Gabrielle and sends her tumbling to the ground. She immediately finds a sword at her throat.
"I should kill you right now!" Xena snarls at her.
"So do it," Gabrielle challenges.
'You're my little ace in the hole in case things don't work out with Velaska. And you know it.' The storm behind the steely blue eyes is replaced with an eerie calmness. "No. But that's what you want, isn't it?"
"I don't want to die."
She backs up and circles the Amazon. "I was planning to sell you as a slave to a friend of mine." She comes around and looks down at Gabrielle. "I'm sure I'll fetch a handsome price for an Amazon queen, and a pretty one for that matter."
The flap to the tent parts once more as Callisto walks in on The Conqueror and her prisoner. "The men are bored and frankly my dear so am I." She eyes Gabrielle. "We haven't had anyone in The Pit in a while. What do you say Xena? The men need their entertainment." She turns to The Conqueror, her eyes twinkling with excitement. Both warriors turn and look at Gabrielle.
The Amazon swallows. 'Why do I feel like I'm the prize canary for the cat?'
After unlocking Gabrielle from the manacles, Callisto retrieves a collar and leash from one of the guards. With her hands already tied behind her back, Callisto easily slips the collar around the Amazon's neck. Tugging on the leash, Callisto pulls the prisoner through the camp toward The Pit. Whoops and hollers fill the air as word spreads about the day's featured attraction.
The Pit is a hole in the ground, roughly ten feet deep, fifty feet wide and forty feet long. A roped ladder is piled near one of the edges, its purpose to allow those in the hole a way up. Weapons lie along the opposite edge. Created where ever The Conqueror's army made camp, The Pit was used in the training of the men. Its original purpose have long since been forgotten and replaced. It has now become a place where prisoners battled for their lives against stronger and more skilled opponents.
Standing on the edge, Callisto removes the collar and releases Gabrielle's hands from their bonds. While trying to rub the feeling back into them, Gabrielle takes a quick look around. She sees Darin standing by the weapons. Suddenly she is pushed and she tumbles in but rolls to her feet as she hits the ground.
The men are rowdy with anticipation as they call out their commander's name. "Xena. Xena. Xena."
Meanwhile, Callisto has made her way to a chair like throne where Xena sits high off the ground. "The men are calling for their leader," the blonde states.
There is a long pause before Xena even turns to look at her second. Slowly she rises and walks to the weapons. The soldiers cheer loudly for her. There she unties her scabbard and releases the chakram and whip from her side. Darin immediately takes them. As Xena ponders which weapon to use, Darin takes a chance and whispers to her. "Conqueror, please. She is still healing from her wounds." He quickly adds, "You want her to last since we do not have any more prisoners to entertain the men with." Xena considers his words for a long time and finally points to a fighting staff. Darin picks up two staffs and waits for Xena to enter. The men began to chant out again, their voices louder than the time before. Xena raises her hand for silence. Then looking down at the Amazon queen, Xena speaks loudly so all can hear.
"For the benefit of our guest here, we need to go over some of the rules." Someone calls out, "There aren't any!" The Conqueror shakes her head but smiles at the sounds of the laughing men. "The winner decides the fate of the loser," Xena declares and with an acrobatic flip she lands softly behind Gabrielle. Gabrielle immediately spins around to face her. After a signal from his commander, Darin tosses the staffs to the combatants.
Both women begin to step cautiously around each other, waiting for the other to make her move. With the men calling out her name, Xena makes a show of thrusting her staff, taunting the blonde. She is confident that she will win and thinks of what she will do to the smaller woman. Lunging forward, she swings out at the Amazon, aiming at the still bruised side. Gabrielle is able to block The Conqueror's blow and returns a swing of her own. They continue to exchange blows with the Amazon usually on the defensive end. Any attempt by the blonde to strike The Conqueror is meet with a quick and efficient counter block. Xena continues to play with her, allowing Gabrielle a way out each time it looks like The Conqueror has her. Slowly Xena begins to push her opponent back into one of the corners.
With determination, Gabrielle holds her ground, barely able to block each powerful blow. Her mind flashes back to the field where she was protecting Tessa. Xena had been observing her while she was fighting the soldiers and Callisto. 'That is why she has been able to anticipate my every move.' As Gabrielle begins to spin to her right, a favorite move of hers, The Conqueror brings the staff down. But instead of continuing, Gabrielle fakes and goes left instead. With two quick and precise blows, the blonde disarms the over confident warrior and sends her stumbling forward. A hush falls among the men.
As Xena rolls to her side, she finds the end of the staff against her throat. With one thrust, The Conqueror knows the Amazon can deliver a deadly blow. She looks up at her opponent's face and sees the anger in her eyes. But in a moment's time, the eyes soften and the dark warrior watches as the blonde steps back and tosses the staff to the ground.
"I won't take a life. Not even yours."
At first confused by the Amazon's actions, Xena realizes what has been given to her. The words spoken to this dark soul speaks of the prisoner's regard for The Conqueror's life. That even hers is a valuable one. And of all the people that deserved it the least, mercy was given to The Conqueror. In that instance, a little piece of the barrier that has guarded her heart for years has been chipped. As she watches the blonde walk away from her, anger surfaces at what she feels is a weakness. She jumps back to her feet and grabs the discarded staff.
"You think you are better than me because you don't kill!" she screams. Long legs cover the distance between her and the target of her fury. Launching herself at Gabrielle, she swings the staff down and makes contact causing the Amazon to fall to the ground. Before Gabrielle can get up to defend herself, Xena spins her onto her back. Straddling the blonde, she brings the staff against the woman's neck. The sounds of the men calling for the Amazon's death fill her ears. As she starts to apply the pressure one voice calls out to her above the roar of madness.
It was the one word used in the training of the soldiers to let the other know that they conceded to the better fighter. That same word was used in these death matches to spared the defeated opponent's life. No one but The Conqueror had ever spoken the word until now.
Looking up, Xena sees Darin leaning over the edge, his eyes pleading for the Amazon's life. Finally he lowers them, showing his submission to any decision she makes. All is quiet as the men wait for their commander's response. Xena removes the staff and slowly gets up. A wheeze comes from the blondeð as she clutches her throat and tries to fill her lungs with air. "The winner decides the loser's fate," Xena repeats loudly. She then instructs one of her men to come down to take the prisoner back to her confines. Realizing the spectacle is over, the men begin to leave. From where she stands, Xena flips herself out of The Pit. A seething Callisto greets her.
"What is the matter with you! You should have killed-"
Before the blonde warrior can finish Xena's hands are wrapped around Callisto's throat. "Shut up!" she snarls. After releasing her, she tells the thin blonde, "Bring Darin to me."
Relieved her armor, The Conqueror paces the length of her quarters. An internal storm has been brewing and is waiting to be released. She stops when Darin enters, hesitation and fear written on his face. He greets her and then braces himself for his pending punishment. Upon seeing the look on his face, she is reminded of the little boy she found in the hayloft and so she releases some of the anger she holds. She seats herself and then motions for him to come closer.
"Darin, I've been good to you."
He gives her a slight nod. "Yes Conqueror."
"And you in turn have been faithful to me."
This time, he only nods in response.
"But today…" she drops off. "I don't ever want you to do anything that would cause me to hurt you. Understand?"
He answers quickly, "Yes Conqueror."
"But please, I want you to speak your mind. I want to know why. Why did you stop me from killing her?"
Darin carefully considers his words. "When I was tending to her injuries, she expressed no contempt for you. Only sadness."
"I don't want her pity," the dark woman declares forcibly her eyes boring into him. She gets up and walks to the table to pour herself a goblet of wine.
"It wasn't pity," Darin tells her. "I don't know what your plans are for her but know this. She forgives you." A slight shift in the warrior's shoulder is seen giving Darin some hope. He continues to plead with Xena. "With all the things that you have done to her. She forgives you. A person like that only comes around once in a lifetime." Xena takes in his words as she sips the wine. "I've watched you become a cruel and heartless woman…but today I saw a change take place. You could have killed her but you didn't. I won't dare venture a guess why… The path you are on will only lead to your downfall, maybe even your death. It's not too late to walk away from all of this." After a long silence, Darin begins to worry that he has said too much.
He nods to The Conqueror and begins to walk away but stops. "You can change your path and leave this destructive life. Do you have the courage to?" With those last whispered words, Darin leaves the dark warrior to think about what he has said.
An anxious figure hurries toward The Conqueror's tent. After finally gathering the courage, Lasaria enters the quarters fully intending to tell The Conqueror the truth. Instead of finding the dark warrior, she finds The Conqueror's blonde second.
"Lasaria. Come to share another vision with our dear Commander?" Callisto inquires.
Ignoring the blonde's question, the oracle asks, "Where is she?"
"Who am I? Her sister's keeper?"
Because of the cutting remark, Lasaria turns to leave.
"Perhaps I can be of assistance," Callisto calls out.
"No that is all right. This concerns only The Conqueror."
Before Lasaria can exit the tent, Callisto moves quickly and steps in front of her, blocking her path. "Oh really." She puts her arm around the oracle's shoulder and escorts her out. "I think we should have a little talk," the blonde smiles.
The wind whips through the long raven hair as The Conqueror rides her horse away from the camp. Away from a world that she has known for the past three years. Away from the feelings that threatens to explode to the surface. Feelings she is afraid that will leave her vulnerable and not in control. Hoping the exhilaration of racing this powerful mare will ease her mind, she continues to ride Argo hard. Only when she approaches the forest does she ease up. Deeper and deeper into it she travels. Finally she dismounts and walks fifty yards to a base of a small hill. Hiking up on a trail that has not seen human footprints in a while, the warrior reaches the top. She continues walking for another forty yards until she reaches her destination.
Her sanctuary. Their sanctuary. In the days of innocence so long ago, Xena and her younger brother would come to this peaceful place where memories were created. A quiet place that was quickly filled with sounds of sibling rivalry as brother and sister raced across the crystal blue lake to see who could reach to the other side first.
"Hey that's not fair!" Lyceus sputters out. "You said you would give me a head start!" he whines as he emerges out of the waters eyeing his much bigger older sister.
"I did give you a head start squirt."
"Too!" Xena playfully wraps her arm around his throat and proceeds to ruffle his wet hair. "You're the one who decided to give me a push," she reminds him and begins to unmercifully tickle her sibling. They both fall to the ground and begin to wrestle each other.
"Okay! Okay! Uncle! Uncle!" Lyceus breathlessly calls out.
Smiling at her squirming brother she stops and gives him a hand up. "Besides, competing with someone better than yourself only helps to make you better."
"How does it help you? You're the best there is in everything."
She thinks before answering. "I have an incentive to improve when I know that there's someone who may be better than me… one day." She gives him a wink.
"That's okay. I don't mind being second best. I like having my sister around, even though she's a girl." He gets somber and asks, "You'll always be around, right?"
"Of course. I wouldn't have it any other way. Who else is gonna look out for ya squirt?"
She stores the feeling of happiness as she imagines she is there again with Lyceus. But as the childhood memory fades from her mind another takes its place.
"I thought I told you to stay back," Xena chides her brother. A war is going on between the Thessalonians and Mitoans. The villages nearby were afraid that the battle would spill over to their lands and had asked for Xena's assistance. Xena and a few men from the village had set out to check on the process of the battle and to find out where the fighting was heading.
"You did. But I thought I could help..."
"There is a war going on out here and there are mercenaries everywhere," she tells him in a harsh whisper. "They wouldn't know us from the enemy and wouldn't hesitate to kill. Please, return to the village."
"All the more reason to have me here," Lyceus insists.
In the next moments, the course of Xena's life changes directions and heads toward the darkness. A group of ruffians lead by The Nightmare of Circa finds them and attacks. Clearly outnumbered, the villagers are cut down one by one until only Xena and her brother remain.
"Xena, we meet once again."
"There was no reason to attack us."
"I'm sorry, I thought you were the enemy. But it doesn't matter. I get paid by the number of bodies I bring back," he laughs. "Kill them."
Xena easily handles the men who come at her from all sides. Lyceus is able to hold his ground but soon he finds himself in deep trouble.
She turns to the voice calling her name and her heart drops. She sees her brother on his knees. The tip of The Nightmare's sword rests against his throat. Before Xena can say anything or give herself up, The Nightmare whips his sword back and plunges it into her brother, stabbing him in the heart.
The anguished voice fills the air as the darkness descends. With strength fuelled by grief and pain Xena lashes out at all around her. Moments later all of The Nightmare's men are dead. She then turns her anger to their leader. Back peddling he tries to get away from her. Like a tormented woman out of control, she repeatedly strikes her sword into his body. She yanks the bleeding man up and wraps her arms around his neck and head, her intentions unmistakable.
"For Lyceus." With a swift and powerful twist she breaks his neck. She releases her hold and drops the warlord's body.
Going to her brother's lifeless body, Xena drops to her knees. She brushes the hair from his face as she utters the words 'I'm sorry' over and over. She lifts his body and embraces him tightly and begins to weep.
"I've never felt so empty in my life as I do now," The Conqueror confesses to her brother. "We've accomplished what we wanted. There's not a warlord out there who would dare step foot a mile within Amphipolis' borders. But why! Why doesn't it make me feel better?" She moves closer to the water's edge and continues her conversation. "I can't begin to tell you what has been going on… I've captured this Amazon queen. If only she wasn't the enemy… I think you would have liked her. She has a lot of spunk. Just like you did… There's just something about her that I can't put my finger on. I've never met anyone like her… And I don't know what to do with her."
An inner voice whispers to her. She is confused by the thought and wrinkles her forehead. 'Of course.' She mounts her faithful horse and begins her ride back. The thought takes shape and within a heartbeat, she decides to remove the Amazon from her life.
Making good time, Xena maneuvers Argo expertly through the forest. Finally making it to the clearing, she spots a lone rider. The warrior urges Argo forward and directs her toward the figure. It is Callisto.
"Where in Tartarus have you been? I've been looking all over for you," Callisto asks as Xena stops Argo in front of the blonde.
"It doesn't matter. I needed time to think."
"Care to share?"
"I'm going to release the Amazon prisoner."
Callisto is clearly surprised by Xena's comment. "You're too late. While you've been out thinking, there's been trouble. Velaska has double-crossed us. The Amazons have attacked and released Gabrielle. They have Darin. I saw them take him to the forest."
Xena's blue eyes harden. "Show me."
Once again the dark warrior enters the forest as she follows Callisto's lead. They quickly pick up the trail, clearly visible because of the rains from the night before. Stopping, both warriors dismount as the hoof prints stop abruptly. Xena's keen eyesight locates three sets of human footprints. It appeared as if someone was resisting as he was being dragged upward. The tracks lead them to an area hidden by over grown bushes. Sounds of a waterfall nearby slightly mask the sounds of nature. Senses on alert, they cautiously enter. Immediately Xena sees Darin. He lies in a pool of blood. Satisfied that no one else is in the immediate area, Xena swiftly moves to his side. Her fears quickly turn to sadness as she closes his lifeless eyes.
"Look," Callisto calls out. Xena directs her eyes to the area where Callisto points to. A staff lies partially hidden in the over grown shrubs. As Xena moves towards the staff, a thousand thoughts run through her mind. 'Why? Why did they have to kill Darin.' She picks up the staff and sees the blood covering one end of the lethal weapon. 'I was a fool to believe…'
As the rage blind Xena to her surroundings, she doesn't see that Callisto has slowly backed away. Suddenly a large net falls on the dark warrior. The surprised woman struggles a bit but the net holds fast. A cackle directs Xena to its owner.
"My my Xena, you seemed to be trapped. That's a first." Callisto frowns. She tilts her head and draws her eyebrows closer together as if trying to figure out how to release the warrior. "This day is full of surprises." She looks down at Darin's lifeless body. "But first let's give credit where credit is due. I confess. I killed him. Too bad, I was going to let him live. But his death gave me that extra advantage."
"But enough of poor little Darin. Let's talk about the more important surprises, shall we?" At this point Callisto begins to pace back and forth. "I had a heart to heart with Lasaria. I never did trust the witch, thought she was a two-bit fortuneteller." She stops and smiles eagerly at Xena. "I got a chance to practice my new technique. The wrench actually had three visions." She begins to pace again. "You already know about the ring of fire and Apollo's chariot vision." Stopping again she smiles as if pleased with herself. "Let's call it The Conqueror's destiny. Now let's call the next one, the Amazons' destiny. Something about an emerald stone and a river of blood… you don't need to know the details about that one. But her third vision… vision number three. She saw that one a few days ago. Let's call this one Callisto's destiny." Smiling brightly she continues. "Do you know what she saw?" She waits for Xena's answer but there is none. "Me in command of your army." The blonde woman laughs. "But there's more. Let me start from the beginning. As per your instructions, your little Amazon insider tried to make up a vision to tell her harlot sisters. Shelia wasn't it? But being new to the oracle world she wasn't sure if she could come up with the right mumbo jumbo. So she sought out advice from Lasaria. Personally she wouldn't have been my first choice." Disappointed in seeing no reaction from Xena she continues, most of the excitement gone from her voice. "So Lasaria gives Shelia the Amazons' vision. Oh and for The Conqueror's vision, she made up the part about seeing an Amazon oracle predicting your downfall. Now why would she do a little thing like that? Was she afraid of what you might do to her?"
Xena watches as the blonde walks across the clearing and disappears into the bushes. She reappears and drags a bound and gagged Gabrielle into view.
"Maybe she thought you would beat the stuffing out of her like you did to this harlot here. Again I can't give you all the credit. I had a little fun myself with our little prisoner."
Xena sees the results of the beating that Callisto obviously gave Gabrielle. Fresh bruises decorate the Amazon's body and a trail of blood snakes down from the left side of her face. The stitches on her arm have come apart and the look of pain and exhaustion can be seen on her face.
"Or maybe the witch was afraid you'd kill her. That's okay. I already took care of that." Callisto frowns, concern etched on her face. "Poor Xena. You thought you were in control of your destiny." Her frown disappears. "You gotta love those Fates. I was wrong about Lasaria. You are about to lose your empire. And when I am through I will be the new Amazon queen."
"Over my dead body," Xena replies.
"Oh that can be arranged." Callisto reaches into some nearby bushes, pulls out a crossbow and points it at Xena. "Say hello to Hades for me."
Xena rolls away and she frees herself by using her chakram to slice through the netting. Launching the disc, she disarms the blonde of the crossbow. Callisto quickly pulls out her sword. Xena draws hers after catching her returning weapon. The sounds of the colliding swords ring loudly as the warriors fight.
"Do you know how The Nightmare found you?" Callisto calls out as she avoids one of Xena's swipes.
Pausing in her attack Xena asks, "What are you talking about?" They circle one another. The blonde has a crazed expression, the raven-haired woman a cautious one.
"At Thessaly, where your brother died. I told dream boy where to find you," Callisto gleefully tells her.
"Why?" Xena asks her in exasperation as she realizes what she is being told.
With a cold voice Callisto replies, "To take my revenge." Lowering her sword, she pours out her story void of any emotions. "Remember the first time we meet? You thought you lost your brother then. I remembered your pain, your grief. And I remembered mine. The hatred for the monster that took my childhood, my family away grew and grew. A little part of my soul died each passing day, emptying me of all that I had left. But only one thought kept me going. And from there a plan formed. I saw your anger the first time. So I told him that Lyceus was your weak spot. I told him to kill Lyceus, so you could in turn kill him. I thought that in your anger you would give that monster a torturous death... I guess I can't complain about the results."
"All of this for revenge," Xena asks in disbelief.
"Yes. I've watched you destroy those sniveling warlords, taking anything you wanted. I benefited greatly from your reign of terror. You were unstoppable. But then this busy body comes along and you then begin to change. Your fire is gone. You've become weak," Callisto states with disgust in her voice. "It doesn't matter. I created you then and I'm going to destroy you now." Callisto quickly brings her sword up and charges at Xena. The Conqueror just has enough time to step aside and tackles Callisto taking them both down. With their swords no longer in their possession, they engage in hand to hand combat. The blonde spots the crossbow makes an attempt to retrieve it.
Gabrielle had been quietly working on her bindings during Callisto's monologue. Finally freeing herself, she rips off the gag. With the two warriors occupied with each other, she takes her chance and starts to slip away but she sees Callisto reaching for the crossbow. Callisto grabs it, aims and pulls the trigger. In those seconds, the Amazon had raced the short distance, lunged forward and now pushes The Conqueror out of harm's way. Callisto stares in surprised disbelief. Her arrow had missed her target. Using the moment of hesitation, Xena flips herself up and releases her chakram. A shriek comes from the blonde as she throws down the damaged weapon. Unarmed and seeing no other options, Callisto makes her escape.
The Conqueror catches the returning disc and starts to go after the fleeing blonde when she sees the smaller woman struggling to get up. She is lying on her right side with her right forearm supporting her upper body. The arrow meant for Xena had passed through the queen's back. Xena quickly makes her way to Gabrielle. Following the shaft of the arrow, she comes around and finds the arrowhead protruding in the area just above the blonde's heart. "Why?" Xena asks the anguish evident in her voice as she stoops down to the injured Amazon.
"Because I couldn't just stand by and let you die," Gabrielle grits out.
"And because of that you almost lost your life. Is my miserable existence worth dying for?"
"Yes." Seeing the incredulous look on Xena's face Gabrielle asks, "Is your life worth any less than mine?"
Not knowing what else to say Xena tells her, "We need to get this out." She leaves the Amazon and sets about to gather wood. A fire is started and Xena places a dagger in it. After whistling for her horse, the warrior retrieves a bag and a water skin. She is dreading what she is about to do but her mind stays focused. Pulling out some herbs and a small bowl, she begins to mix a salve. She then pulls out a cloth.
Gabrielle watches the warrior go about her task and observes the grim face. Seeing the cloth Gabrielle says, "Look, I've already fixed my spitting problem."
This brings a slight smile to Xena's face. She approaches the Amazon. "This is gonna hurt. I need to push the arrow through."
"I know. I've seen our healer do this before."
Xena nods. She gives Gabrielle a drink from the water skin. Knowing she can no longer stall, she breaks the tail end of the arrow off. This brings a short grunt from Gab.
Before Gabrielle can reply Xena pushes it through. The Amazon tries her best not to scream and releases a long hiss instead. Xena pulls the blonde up and then proceeds to pull the arrow out. In the few seconds the deed is done. Both know the worst part is not over. Xena moves quickly to sear the wounds. She takes the sterilized dagger and rolls Gabrielle on her right side. She holds the queen's shoulder and with a steady hand places the dagger on the entry wound on her back. A scream pierces the air. Already weak from her ordeal with Callisto the blonde passes out from the pain. Grateful that she is unconscious, Xena gently turns the smaller woman and sears the front wound. Xena carefully lays the blonde on her back after finishing up with the arrow wound. She turns and her eyes fall on the lifeless body of the boy she saved in what seemed like a lifetime ago. Her heart aches not only for the loss of Darin but also at the thought that he was the only true friend that she had all these years and that she had not realized this until now. She moves to his side and strokes his face. 'Callisto will pay for your death. I promise.' She gathers more wood and begins to build a funeral pyre around the body. She had experienced and had caused the deaths of so many that her heart no long felt any sadness or remorse. She stands solemnly and lights the pyre. As she watches the flames consume the body, she says her farewell. 'Goodbye my friend.'
With the darkening of the skies Xena comments to herself, "We need to get you to a place where I can tend to your other injuries." Using the materials she had gathered from the surrounding area and a thick blanket from Argo, she makes a liter. Carefully she lifts the Amazon and places her in it. While securing the injured blonde and wrapping her up with another blanket, Xena notices that Gabrielle has a slight fever.
She mounts Argo and directs her into a slow trot. Tiny droplets of rain fall from the sky. Over in the horizon, Xena spies the thunderclouds and knows she doesn't have much time before a heavy downpour comes. She turns around to check on the Amazon queen. 'I'll get us to shelter in no time.' With a last look at the burning pyre she directs Argo forward.
The skies flash with lightening and are filled with the sounds of thunder. Xena stands without her leathers just inside a cave, hidden from the eyes of the world and watches the rains pour out from the heavens. She had come back from gathering wood when the heavy rains began. In a short amount of time, she had a fire going. She was on her way to retrieve a water skin to heat up an herbal tea for Gabrielle when the thunderous sounds drew her to the cave's entrance. Lost in the memories of the last time she was there, the sound of the crackling fire brings her back to the present. Her thoughts turn to the Amazon.
'I better see what else I need to take care of.' She walks to the unconscious woman and stoops down. Carefully removing the blanket, she begins her examination. She sees the many cuts and the bruises that have formed. She prepares a salve and then begins her task. One by one she cleans the cuts and smoothes the salve on. She bandages the wrists that struggled against the ties that bound them. She removes the old stitches on the arm, cleans the wound and then stitches it up again. Finally she proceeds to take care of the angry cut above the blonde's right eyebrow making sure that the stitches will not leave a scar.
Remembering that she needed to make the tea, Xena retrieves and tosses a water skin next to the hot stones. While waiting for the water to heat up, Xena checks on herself. 'Not too bad.' She stretches her body testing it for any injuries. 'I should get out of this shift.' Rummaging through the leather satchel, she finds a clean one. As Xena pulls it out, a piece of paper falls out. She unfolds it and silently reads the words.
Xena sits back and looks over to the fair-haired woman. The slightly propped up body shifts in a feverish unconsciousness. Worried the dark warrior goes to check on the fever that is obviously starting to rage. With a cool damp cloth she wipes above the furrowed blonde brow. Guilt begins to set in as she thinks about what this brave woman has done and all that she has gone through. A single tear slips as she closes her eyes remembering why and how she had caused some of those injuries. A few moments pass before a gentle touch to her check causes her eyes to open, meeting green ones.
As the blonde brushes away the stains of the dark woman's sadness she whispers, "I'm sorry."
With the many years of shutting off her feelings to all around her, those words open the floodgates and The Conqueror becomes human and seeks out the blonde's comforting embrace to soothe her troubled soul.
Xena had cried until she had exhausted herself, falling into a deep sleep. Gabrielle looks down at the warrior whose head is settled comfortably on her lap. With the dark emotions released, a look of peace covers Xena's face. Gabrielle thinks as she smoothes the dark tresses. 'Such a beautiful face to be marred with so much anger and pain.'
Slowly Xena wakes to the gentle stroking of the smaller woman. A little embarrassed, Xena sits up and admonishes the Amazon. "Why did you let me fall asleep? I still need to take care of your fever."
"Because… you needed it," Gabrielle replies as she fights her weariness.
Feeling the Amazon's forehead, Xena gives herself a mental lashing. She retrieves the heated water skin and selects the herbs needed to bring the fever down. After a few minutes of letting it cool, Xena pours the hot water into a cup and stirs in the healing leaves. She helps the blonde lean forward and urges her to take a sip while holding the cup for her.
"What… what is it?"
"Just an herbal tea. It's for the fever."
The Amazon accepts the offering and takes a long sip.
"Easy. You don't have to finish it right away."
"Can't help it… thristy…tastes too good to be medicine."
Xena tells her about the tea. "I added some honey to mask some of the bitterness. I guess it worked."
Gabrielle nods. "Thank you."
"For taking care of me."
Trying to hide the shame on her face, Xena turns away from her grateful patient. An uncomfortable silence hangs in the air between them. Finally Gabrielle speaks. "What are your plans now?"
"I need to make sure that your fever doesn't get any higher. Your body has been through a lot." Xena shifts uncomfortably at her own words. "Here, finish up the rest of the tea." Gabrielle complies with her request. "Once the rain stops, I'll be able to hunt for some food. I need to get some nourishment into your body so it can heal itself. Then I'll take you backð home."
"Sounds like a good plan… What about you?"
"For one you need to get out… of that wet shift."
"Oh, right." Xena takes off her damp shift and replaces it with the clean one that she had pulled out earlier. "Mission accomplished," she reports in a mock tone. 'Why in the world did I do that?'
'Did I hear her correctly?' Gabrielle thinks.
Silently pondering on what just happened, both women are lost in her own thoughts. Gabrielle breaks the silence. "What are you going… to do… about your army… about Callisto?"
The warrior takes a long while before answering. "I plan to go back. I'll stop her from taking over your Amazons. I'll kill her and as many men as I can."
"No… I can't let you do that." Gabrielle tries to get up but the pain in her shoulder and a wave of dizziness washes over her. Immediately Xena is by her side and eases her down.
"It's the only way to stop someone like Callisto."
Gabrielle realizes the meaning behind the words as she sees the expression on Xena's face. "No. I know what you are going to do." Trying to clear her clouded mind, she shakes her head. "Just when… did you become a coward?"
"I haven't. I'm just trying to make things right."
Gabrielle closes her eyes. She tries to think of the right words to say but is having a difficult time forming her thoughts. 'Focus Gabrielle, focus.' The words finally come. "And going on a suicide mission is going to accomplish that?"
"Yes. Whatever it takes."
"You have the power…and the ability to change things." Gabrielle swallows and softly speaks. "In life there are easy ways and hard ways… to do things. I've found that the hard ones are usually the right ones… You can make things right… face up to your deeds. You'll become a better person as a result of it." Looking deeply into the blue eyes, she quietly challenges her. "Do you have the courage to do it?"
The women look at one another for a long time. Finally the blonde closes her eyes and releases her struggle with consciousness. Moments later, she is asleep. The sleeping herbs have finally taken effect. Xena quietly gets up, gathers her bag and puts more wood into the fire. Settling down near the Amazon, she retrieves the note and reads it again. Refolding it she places it back into the bag. All through the night as she keeps vigil over the Amazon, she thinks about her future and makes her plans.
To be continued in Part IV.
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