(and legal stuff): No, this isn't about someone overcoming a drug
habit. <G> Although I wish I could say Xena and Gabby are ours,
they are not. They belong to MCA/Universal last we heard. This story
however is ours and ours alone. There's a lot of violence but not too
graphic. Alt sex, you bet! If you are too young, read no further. If
you live some place where this may not be kosher, read no further.
However, if you are open-minded, old enough and live in a progressive
neighborhood . . .enjoy! Nothing poetic is our’s, belongs to unknown
author. Thanks to Kamouraskan, Jlynn, Mary and the Bardic Circle for
the beta. Email the author's at CNWinters@hotmail.com or MurphyCG881@aol.com
"The cook is dead?"
There had to be some mistake. But since Gabrielle asked the question, she didn't believe it either.
"I came down to begin the breakfast preparations. When Cyrene wasn't up, I knocked on the door – no answer." The man paused to get his breath.
"Then what?" Gabrielle asked shaking him a little harder than necessary.
"I-I-I thought she might be ill, so I went inside. She was on the floor. Her throat cut."
I didn't want to hear anymore. I raced to her quarters. He had to be wrong. He had to be mistaken. Maybe she fell and hit her head. Maybe she was just unconscious. I was barely aware that Gabrielle was following me. Once at the door I paused and took a breath, trying to steady myself for what might be on the other side. Gabrielle however didn't stop. She pushed past me and into the room. I couldn't see much except for Gabrielle's hand that shot to her mouth. Next came her cries.
"Oh dear Gods! Nooo!"
I felt frozen. Should I go in or should I stand outside? Without any further thought, I held my breath and entered. I still wasn't prepared for what I found.
Blood in a large puddle encircled my mother who lay on the floor. Silently I cursed the assistant cook for being correct. Gabrielle was now kneeling at her side examining her body, the red of my mother's blood soaking up into Gabrielle's white sleeping shift.
"Why didn't you listen to me!" Gabrielle shouted at my mother's corpse. "You should have come with us! You stupid, pig-headed woman!"
I jumped at every word in her rant. I knew Gabrielle was angered. Not so much by my mother's objections to come with us but by the fact someone had taken her life. But she had to blame someone. She had to have some outlet for her anger.
I was in shock. I couldn't cry. I told myself it wasn't real and, in truth, that was the case. None of this was real. My first instinct was Ares. Ares made this world and perhaps this was his way to get my dark side to come out and play for his amusement. Gabrielle was still in a puddle of tears on the floor as I started to look around the room. Looking for something, anything that could tie Ares to what happened. But nothing looked out of the ordinary . . . in fact . . .
"Gabrielle," I call down to her. "Look around this room."
I started to examine things closer as she came to her feet wiping her eyes. Slowly her hysteria began to subside and she was taking it all in like I was.
"It's as clean as when we left it," she said.
"Cleaner. There was no struggle here. That means…"
"Cyrene must have known her killer," Gabrielle finished for me.
That ruled out Ares. My mother mentioned him, but she had never met him face to face. With the events that transpired earlier that evening, she would have fought any man, or woman, that appeared in her room unannounced. But everything was in its place. No overturned furniture, nothing thrown toward the door in defense. Her quill and ink sat upright on the edge of her nightstand. I looked to Gabrielle and suddenly her eyes filled with concern.
She raced out of the room and I quickly followed. Within moments we arrived at Ephiny's door, pounding for her to let us in. Solari opened the door quickly.
"Where's Hope?" Gabrielle asked.
"She's here in bed," Solari nodded behind her. "What's happening?"
Gabrielle nearly blurted it out but quickly caught herself when she saw Hope sitting up in bed wiping the sleep from her eyes. She couldn't say anything in front of the young girl. Obviously the callus conqueror still had a heart somewhere inside her chest as to spare the young girl's feelings by simply announcing it.
The cook, Gabrielle's keeper and the woman that had raised Hope, was now lying dead. She was the same woman that raised me, I remembered although she hadn't known the experience. At that moment, it hit me. She was dead. My mother was dead. I was going to lose my composure and I quickly turned away and walked a few paces down the hall. I began to cry as a sickening feeling swept over me. I couldn't hold it together. I bent over and heaved, the contents of the prior evening’s meal expelling from my stomach. Solari and Gabrielle watched. Solari was now growing more unsettled.
"By the gods, what's happened?" she whispered.
Hearing Gabrielle whisper the cook was dead to Solari, came to my ears like a fog. I tried to take a couple steps to get away. I just wanted to run. Be anywhere but here with them watching me. My legs failed me, buckling, slamming my back into the wall and I slid down, letting out a wail that surprised even me. I should have known better, I should have made her come with us, and I failed my mother again. I hit my head into the wall and screamed again. I didn’t care who heard or was looking.
I guess me being out of it and Gabrielle and Solari in shock, no one heard Hope walk up.
"Why you crying, Xena?" My head snapped up to see a concerned face that looked like my bard, but in a tiny form. I couldn’t form any words, and the more I tried, the harder the tears came.
She came over and crawled into my lap and held me.
"Najara hurt Grandma, didn’t she?"
Perceptive child. So much like her mother. Unfortunately, more perceptive than her mother since Gabrielle allowed Cyrene to be alone. I feel a twinge of anger at Gabrielle. She should have put up more of a fight, let her stay with us, anything. But I realize quickly it wouldn't have mattered. I knew Mother. And obviously, so did Gabrielle. Instead of dwelling on it or saying anything to Hope, I just nodded and pulled her closer.
"Is she dead?" The tiny voice in my arms quivered as I nodded again.
"Are you sure?" she asked. "Maybe she's just pretending. Maybe she's-."
"She gone Hope," I told her. "I'm sorry but she's dead."
She pulled back from me a bit to study my watery eyes. Recognizion seems to take hold for her.
"She was your mama wasn't she Xena?"
I nodded slowly.
"I’m sorry your mama’s gone. You just found her like I just found my mama. That's not fair."
"Life isn't fair sometimes," I tell her.
"You have her eyes and smile, you know? When I see you, I see Grandma." She started to sob. "Why does she have to be dead? I want my Grandma."
"Me too, little one, me too." I held her close again and rocked her. I became aware that Gabrielle and Solari were still watching. Hope turned her head and looked right at her mother.
"I don’t care if anyone wants to hurt me, I want a mama. Please say you want to be my mama." That broke through Gabrielle. She dropped down on her knees and opened her arms. Hope flew out of mine and into hers. Gabrielle scooped her up and placed kisses all over her face.
"I’m so sorry, Hope, so sorry," she kept saying over and over to her baby.
I knew what I had to do; first things first. I stood, leaving Gabrielle and child, making my way back to Mother’s room. If anyone was going to clean her up and ready her for the pyre, it would be me.
I picked her up and carried her into the kitchen, laying her on the table. I went outside and told the guard nothing was to disturb me until I was finished. I got rags and filled pots with water.
Starting with her face, making sure I got off all of the blood.
"Oh, Mother. This is the second time I’ve lost you, and both times I never got to tell you how I feel." I rinsed the rag out, telling myself this wasn’t real. Still in either world, she was gone from my life.
"The dead can hear our thoughts, so I guess this is good enough time as any, huh?" I found a healer’s kit my mother kept in her room for emergencies. I started to close her neck wound as I talked to her. Odd doesn't begin to cover the feeling of the sensation that went through me.
"It took a long time for us to heal our relationship. You were so angry for the loss of
Lyceus and I held so much guilt." The tears were forming again in my eyes, making my task harder. "And then later, after I realized my true place at Gabrielle's side…I spent all that time helping people, saving people, traveling village to village. And the ones that mattered most – you, Joxer, even Gabrielle's family – I couldn't save them. I wasn't there. Just like I wasn't here last night."
"I never had much time to tell you how much I loved you. I was hoping in this world, I could make you feel it since I failed in the other. After all, every kid needs their mom." I swallowed hard and wept. I missed my mother, I missed my son and I missed my old life. Gods, in all these moons, I never thought I would ever think that.
In my other world, I was fine as long as my bard was there. She is my light, the person who taught me I was still human. In this dark world I had to watch the very same people suffer, people I have grown to care about here. In this world, how long would it be before LaoMa, Ephiny and Solari were dead? Sure, Hope was in this world and existed as a normal child and not the spawn of an evil, tormenting god. But Eve never would exist so was it worth the pay off? Is watching Gabrielle drowning her sorrows in rage and alcohol worth the price? No, it's not. And I just wanted to go home. It wasn't perfect but it was right. Right for Gabrielle and right for me too. Somehow I had to get us back there. Back to Eve, back to Lila and back to Sarah and Virgil, whom I considered my niece and nephew. Not by blood but by love; just as my mother had laid claim to Hope.
I finished my task and heard the door open. I was ready to take whoever’s head off, but…
Gabrielle made her way in, giving me a weak smile. She knelt down by Mother’s head.
"Gods, I‘m going to miss you." Suddenly I felt like I was intruding, so I tried to make my way out of the room.
"Xena, don't go?" It came as a question. As if I wouldn't stand beside Gabrielle if need be. Like I could just walk away from her of my own free will. I couldn't leave Gabrielle but I could respect her wishes to share private time with my mother. I stopped by the far table and sat giving her some space yet never leaving. She turned back to Mother.
"You were more then a cook to me, you were the mother I lost years ago. I can’t remember how many times you stopped me from making mistakes because my mind was clouded with my anger." She sniffled.
"How many times did I take you for granted?" She gave a sad sigh. "I didn’t tell you enough how much I love you. You took such good care of Hope and I. I’ll make you proud, Mother." She stood and gave Cyrene a kiss, turning towards me. "I promise from here on out to do the right thing – for everyone my life touches."
Gabrielle called toward the door, "Guard!"
Quickly a man darted inside to stand by the door. "Yes, Your Highness?"
"Is Caesar still alive?"
"I'm not sure your Highness. He's still in holding. We know you had plans for him last night that got cut short but-."
"Have him released."
"But your Highness…"
"You heard me. See to his wounds the best you can. We won't endanger our people by taking him to Rome ourselves. So be sure to hire a service to deliver him back to the Romans. I want him out of Athens by nightfall. Understood?"
The guard looked confused but nodded anyway. "Yes, Your Highness."
The guard briskly left to see to Gabrielle’s commands and a guilty grin hung on her face. "Do you know what I was going to do to him last night?"
I simply shook my head, not sure if I wanted to hear but knowing I had to anyway.
"I was going to put his death on display at the victory celebration. I was going to start by cutting off his fingers. Then his limbs and finish with his head after I showed him his heart . . . When I was finished, I was going to have his remains shipped back to Rome."
I found myself tongue-tied for a response but in all honesty I wasn’t surprised by the admission.
"Somehow I think Cyrene would disapprove," she said with a grim chuckle. She walked to the other side of the table, folding her arms across her chest. "Somehow I think I do now too."
I wasn’t sure what to say so I decided being silent was best for the moment.
"You know," she continued, "when Cyrene gave me the brief reason on how she was your mother, it didn’t add up. I was going to question this later, but Hope saw something that I’m just now seeing. Those beautiful eyes of yours and that smile are from the only person who really loved me, especially at my worst. I’m so sorry, Xena, I should have known better, I should have protected her, and now it’s too late." She hung her head and I rose and walked over to her. Without asking, I wrapped my arms around her.
"It’s not your fault. She was a stubborn woman and you were respecting her feelings. Neither one of us thought there would be another attack, not this soon." I didn’t think the nut would have the guts to do it herself. After a few moments of just holding Gabrielle, I cleared my throat and spoke. "I have her ready for the pyre."
I looked at her strangely for the sudden outburst.
"Can you carry her body and come with me?"
I nodded and lifted her weight. It was difficult to carry her as I followed Gabrielle along the hall to several flights of stairs going down towards the dungeon area. I had no idea where we were going or why. We got to the end of the stairway, and Gabrielle reached up, taking the torch on the wall, then pulling the torch mount. The wall slid open and there was another room there.
We walked for a bit until we came to another room, a huge one. Inside, there were six stone coffins; the very last one, open. The tomb was well kept from what I could see, but I was still unsure. I think Gabrielle sensed this.
"This is my family’s burial chamber. When I finished conquering what I could, one of the things I had made in the castle was this. I went with some of my soldiers back home and unburied my parents and sister and brought them here. Didn’t want some petty thug digging at their bones, trying to make a profit."
She motioned me over and I placed my mother, our mother, inside. I wasn't sure what to say as I watched Gabrielle playing with the stone lid. She cleared her throat and spoke in a soft voice.
"When I met Cyrene, she was in a bad way. Those soldiers who betrayed me, killing her sons…" Her eyes had more sorrow. "Your bothers." She took a deep breath.
"I loved Cyrene from the start and one of her wishes was for me to bury them here. So I did," She added as she pointed to three coffins, noting each. "Lyceus. Toris. And the last coffin here for her when it was time. I was praying it would be a long time before I had to place her here. I have to admit – there were times I hoped I never lived to see this day, wishing she'd bury me first." I walked to the last coffin, and gently placed my mother in it.
I looked over to the two beside her. One had Lyceus’ name and the other was Toris’. Emotion struck me again and I couldn’t hold it back. A simple "Thank you," was all I could muster.
I looked past Gabrielle to a woman standing in the doorway. An Amazon priestess came into the room to purify it and make sure my mother was blessed. Gabrielle walked up to mother and placed a dinar in her hand.
"Safe passage, Cyrene, I love you." She kissed her head.
Word must have gotten out, as a few of mother’s close friends came in said their good-byes. As the last member left, Gabrielle and I spoke before we had the lid closed.
"Bye Mother. Take care of Joxer for us." I gave her a kiss. As the soldiers placed the lid on, Ephiny came in.
"Any sign of my bond-mate?" Gabrielle asked coldly. Right then my sorrow turned into anger. I wanted Najara’s blood.
"No signs yet, Conqueror. It’s going to be tough since she knows the ins and outs of the whole castle."
Gabrielle sighed. "Make sure every soldier is on alert. The ones who favor my Consort, kill them."
"Gabrielle?" They both turned to look at me. "When we find her, I want her. She’s mine in the arena. I'm issuing a challenge for her seat as Consort if you'll have me." There would be no debate on this and my voice made that clear. Gabrielle said nothing as we left. I turned, giving my mother’s resting place one last glance.
"First things first, Xena. We need to take today to mourn, then the issue of Najara will be dealt with." Gabrielle broke the silence. "Ephiny, you have your orders. If I’m needed for anything, I’ll be in my chamber." Ephiny nodded and left. Gabrielle turned to me. "I would like for you to spend time with Hope and myself, but I would understand if you need to be alone."
"Umm, I need to be by myself for a couple candle marks, I’ll stop by later. Besides, I think you need to be alone with Hope for a bit."
She nodded. "I know. I’m just not sure what I can say to her, Xena."
"Just listen to her, comfort her and let her know you’re there. That’s probably the best you can do for her right now."
Then she did something I wasn’t ready for. She pulled me into her arms and held me. I buried my face in her hair and for a small moment in time, I felt like I was home.
"We’ll be waiting for you." She gave me a peck on the cheek and left. As I watched her leave, I had that feeling again.
"Show yourself, Ares."
He materialized in front me, shaking his head. "Damn, Xena . . . I didn't expect this."
Was that actually remorse I saw on his face? "Oh really?" I asked in a ho-hum voice.
"Yeah, I didn't think she'd do it. I didn't think she'd kill your mother. That was cold."
"So Najara did do it?"
Ares chewed on his lip and then nodded. "Yeah . . . When I chose her for Gabrielle I figured it would really get your goat, you know?"
"Yeah I know."
"Well, I forgot she's . . . a bit nuts."
"Hey! I've got a stake in this too, you know?"
"Well, why don't you explain?" I told him with a push to his chest.
"The wacko is making a mess! I liked Gabrielle the Conqueror and truth be told, Xena, I wouldn't care if you stay here and live out your life at Gabrielle's side. I have the world right now. But with that nutcase around, she's put things in motion that . . . well, things I don't like."
I grinned. "Like the fact that Gabrielle is tearing down her walls with the loss and the threat that Najara now poses. Like the fact that I'm getting closer and closer to Gabrielle's heart and buying a ticket out of this world for us? Give it up, Ares. I know love is the key. That's something you don't understand and could never understand."
Ares took a step closer to me. "Are you really going to challenge her in the arena?"
He paused. "I wish you wouldn't."
I laughed out loud. "Now there's a shock."
"Seriously, Xena. You haven't seen this woman fight."
"I've battled Najara before," I told him as I started to walk away.
"Not this Najara, you haven't."
I stopped and turned around. "Why are you telling me this?"
He gave me a grin. "Even though Gabrielle's now my Warrior Queen, keep in mind you'll always be my Warrior Princess. It's a fact – I gotta thing for ya . . . Just watch yourself out there."
"You know, I almost believe you care, Ares…Almost."
"Yeah, I know you've got good cause to doubt me," he nodded. "I don't blame you. But consider this, Xena. Whenever you needed me to do the right thing…when it came right down to the wire…didn't I try my best to do right by you? Like I said, watch yourself."
He vanished before my eyes and before I could issue a retort.
I spent the rest of the day combing the castle with no luck. I realized that, other than the fact nothing was disturbed, we had no true means to tie the events back to Najara. I knew she did it. Gabrielle knew she did it. Even Hope knew she did it. But in a land with laws like Gabrielle had, we had to prove that she did it and that was something we just weren't able to do.
I could however, challenge her hand as Consort. That was within the law and it was one way to eliminate her, even if Ares didn't want me to challenge her in the arena.
Eventually, I had to get back to Gabrielle's chambers. There was a ceremony of some sort and I had to declare before Greece that I wanted and deserved the Conqueror's hand. When I arrived at her room I was surprised to find her alone.
"Where's Hope?" I asked upon entering, expecting to find the young girl there.
Gabrielle turned and instead of her daughter, I saw a wine flask gripped in her position. She'd chosen the drink over her daughter. I knew that Gabrielle found solace with a wine glass many nights but it wasn't until looking at her, this very moment that I realized just how much.
"I let Ephiny take her," she said as she poured herself a glass, another of many I assumed by the sway of her body.
"Do you really think it's wise to be drinking at a time like this?" I asked her.
"Do you really think I care?"
My anger boiled over. I darted over and knocked the glass from Gabrielle's hand, spilling the contents all over both of us and shattering the glass in the process.
"You should care," I hissed. "Moth-…Cyrene took care of that child night and day and now you just push her off to Ephiny when you should be the one here for her?"
"You don't understand!"
"Yeah, I do," I replied, lowering my voice. "You're hooked. On the drink. And you'd rather spend your life in a blurry haze than see things for what they are. I've seen great men ruined by it. Obviously great women are susceptible too."
"Stay out of my affairs, Xena. It is not your place to tell me how to live."
"You call this living?" I said, starting to get angry again. "It's not living. It's running. Running from your past, running from your present. Did you plan on getting so drunk that you're seeing two of me right now, or was it just going to be one glass to 'calm your nerves' that ended up being ten?"
"I could have your head-."
I grabbed her by the hair and tackled her to the floor. I grabbed my breast dagger and raised it to strike her. With my other hand I covered her mouth. "I could have your head too," I told her. "So could Najara if she walked into this room right now. Anyone could. Don't you see? If you want to keep living you have to stay sharp right now."
Gabrielle glared, turning her head, forcing my hand to move away.
"Maybe I don't want to keep living," she whispered. "Maybe I wish it would all be over. No more betrayals. No more battles. No more losses. No more anything…Go ahead, Xena. Do it….Slash my throat. Stab my heart…You pick…Just end it."
I dropped the dagger and bent over, placing a searing kiss on her lips. "No," I told her after I pulled away, "I'm going to conquer you instead."
I saw the fear in her eyes. It wasn't fear of me. It was the fear that so many others had been telling me about – that fear within Gabrielle herself. I moved away slightly and tugged her into a sitting position, my lips reconnecting with her. She pushed me away but I refused to give up. This time my whole body returned and covered hers. We hit the ground with a loud thud. I continued to kiss her lips and her neck under her weak protests. She pulled me by the hair, trying to get me off of her and that's when I heard her start to cry.
"What are you afraid of?" I whispered in her ear, nearly crying myself.
"Everything!" she sobbed. She tried to move but I refused and she cried even harder.
"Why are you afraid of me?" I asked. I shook her body when she didn't answer. I knew either I would break down another wall or be on the chopping block by sundown. But I decided being passive wasn't getting me anywhere. "Tell me!" I ordered her with another shake.
"You promise too much," she answered.
Promise too much? I didn't know what it meant and a paused just a moment, but enough for Gabrielle to flip me over on my back. She snagged the dagger and swiped toward my neck but I quickly lifted my hand letting the wrist bracer take the blow. I grabbed her own wrist and twisted it nearly to the breaking point. She winced in pain but it was myself that truly ached. I didn't want to hurt her but I had to make her see.
"What's too much?" I asked. When she didn't answer I moved her wrist just a bit more. "Tell me what's too much!"
"Loving me forever," she answered. I felt the fight drain from her body and the dagger fell from her fingers. "No one will ever love me and if I'm lucky enough that they do, it certainly won't be forever…Ask Najara, if you can find her."
I let go of her wrist and instantly I received an uppercut across my jaw that snapped my head back. She stood up with a wobble as I rubbed my cheek and tried to shake it off.
"I'm not Najara," I told her, moving to a sitting position. I watched her chuckle as she stumbled toward the bed.
"No, Najara has more sense than to disrespect me the way you have tonight."
"No," I argue as I rise to my feet. "It's not about disrespect. Najara doesn't love you enough to point it out. Najara doesn't care about anything more at this point than getting your throne."
"Oh and you do?"
"I do." I nodded.
"Prove it," Gabrielle challenged.
How do I prove I'm not after her power? Instantly it comes to me and I give a small grin. "Leave with me. Tonight. We'll get a wagon and we'll take Hope. We'll go and not look back."
"You're crazy," Gabrielle replied, shaking her head. "And do what? Travel the countryside? Oh, here's an idea! We'll go from town to town helping the yokels with any little problems that might come up. We can survive on their charity. Or even better, I could get a few 'gigs' at a couple of taverns telling stories. I am a bard you know." She started to laugh again.
"It would be a better life for you. I'm sure of it," I answered sincerely. "And it sure beats the hell outta sitting here and watching you drink yourself to death. What are you afraid of, Conqueror? Finding a better way, maybe? Finding out that somewhere in your shallow heart there really is a free spirit and lover of humanity tucked inside? You say everything scares you but the truth is there's only one thing that scares you…and that's yourself. I know. I've been there."
"So what turned it all around, Xena?" she asked me flippantly. "Love?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. And a smart, young woman, brilliant beyond her years, actually."
"And where is she now?"
"She's dead," I answered, honestly. My Gabrielle was dead. "But she lead me to you," I added. "I can't explain it. And you wouldn't believe me if I told you because I remember your words. Trust isn't a luxury you can afford. But know this, Gabrielle: We are two halves of one whole and I know that together our courage could change the world."
"Now that was a mouthful," I told her, surprised by my own wordiness.
She gave me another ‘she’s lost her mind’, look. All I could do was sigh and drop my head in frustration. She walked to her desk grabbing another flask of wine.
"No!" I smacked the wine out of her hand. She released a back-hand, sending me flying backwards watching in slow motion as she jumped and landed on top of me. In my mind I thought for sure that this would be my end, but she leaned over, crushing her lips against mine.
"What are you doing?" She pulled back, raising an eyebrow.
"If you don’t know, I must be doing it wrong." She tried to kiss me again, but I jerked my head away.
"What, Xena?!?" She slammed her fists on the floor by the sides of my head.
"Not like this. Not again. I can’t, Gabrielle."
"Oh, come on, Xena, you know you want this. Want me." She tried again to kiss me and I pulled away once more.
"Yes, I want you, but not like this. I want your love, to make love with you. Not another fuck session."
"Can you love me?" I asked. "No bondage. No…walls. Just you? The real you?"
I watched as she hung her head then rolled off of me. I had my answer.
"I didn’t think so," I muttered. All I felt was utter defeat.
"I can’t give you something I don't understand." We both fell silent; my heart was being ripped into pieces. "Xena?"
"Would you hold me?"
There, on the Conqueror’s bedchamber floor, in the middle of the broken glass and wine I turned and held her close. The abundance of alcohol clamed her, she was out not long after I pulled her near.
"I love you." I whispered into her ear letting the night claim me too.
The nightmare of this life must be over soon.
Morning came too quickly, and a loud knock woke us both up. I felt stiff and by Gabrielle’s groan, she was as well and quite hung over. We both slowly stood, and Gabrielle stumbled towards the bed. "Come in."
Ephiny popped her head in to peek at us.
"It looks like you can use this." She came in holding a skin of water and I bet it had herbs to help with her headache.
"Oh Gods, thank you." She took a long drink, making a face at the taste.
"This tastes like shit."
"You play, you pay." Ephiny pointed out, getting a growl in reply.
"Did you want something, my smart-assed friend?"
"Hope is calling for you. She didn’t sleep well at all last night." Ephiny looked at me. "You look like something ran over you." She smirked.
"Gee, thanks." I walked to the full-length mirror to see the bruise on the right side of my chin from a well-placed backhand.
"Tell her we’ll be right in after we get cleaned up," the body on the bed spoke.
"I’ll do that." Ephiny chuckled and left.
I started for the door when the body spoke again.
"Where do you think you’re going?"
"To my room for a bath and fresh clothes."
"Why don’t you stay here and bathe?" It sounded like a plea more then an order.
"I don’t think that is very wise. I’ll see you soon." I didn’t give her a chance to reply. I closed the door behind me. I just needed time to think.
By the time I was cleaned and changed, I made my way back to Gabrielle’s chamber. I heard Ephiny talking with the Conqueror, and it made me stop in mid-knock.
"Are you really going to let Xena challenge Najara?"
"No, I can’t chance Xena getting hurt. So, my friend, I want you to carry out my wishes." I heard a scroll being unrolled.
"Gabrielle, I can’t do this. Don’t ask me to do this." Ephiny sounded very alarmed.
"You have to, it’s the only way. Xena’s a good warrior, but Najara’s better." I clenched my jaw tight.
"She deserves better then this life, she’s so full of love." There was a pause. "I’m asking you as a sister, please fulfill my wishes."
"Please." Gabrielle sounded very desperate.
"Alright. So when does this happen?"
"Dawn tomorrow." I couldn’t take it any longer, so I knocked.
"Come in." I looked in to find Ephiny staring at the floor and Gabrielle fighting back tears.
"It looks like someone lost their best friend. What's wrong?"
Very low Ephiny said, "She just might." I caught the words along with the fact Gabrielle was quickly covering her words up.
"We were just talking about past memories, that’s all." She strained to smile.
"You’re dismissed, Regent." She bowed to her Conqueror then walked past me, never looking me in the eyes. My gut was telling me something was very wrong here. Before I could question, a scream shook my soul to the bone. We both ran into her bedchamber. Hope was crying, rocking herself in comfort.
"I want Grandma!" Gabrielle scooped her up and held her tight.
"So do I little one. So do I."
I sat on the bed near them, taking in the sight of mother and child. It took some time but her tears stopped.
"Can you tell me a story, Mama?" Gabrielle and I both swallowed the lumps in our throats.
"Sure." She moved Hope to where she was cradling her.
"I have a tale to tell you about a lone Warrior tired of her ways. This Warrior was ready to give up on life when she ran into a young woman who would change her forever. I call it ‘Sins Of The Past.’
If I hadn’t been so enthralled in the story I would have passed out. She was telling the tale of our life. Word for word on how we met. I'm sure Ares had some role in seeing that our stories were nothing more than Gabrielle's imagination in her eyes. He was quite the bastard.
"Are you alright, Xena?" I was pulled out of my haze to see concerned green eyes and a sleeping child.
"You’re a very good story teller, Gabrielle." She just looked down, kissing Hope on her head. "How did you think of a story like that?" She smiled.
"I can still dream, Xena." She reached out, taking my hand, giving it a squeeze.
We spent the day just talking. It felt like old times with my best friend, still I knew something wasn’t right. By the time Hope woke up, we had a brunch in Gabrielle’s garden. We played, laughed, just like a family. Nightfall came and we tucked Hope into her mother’s bed.
"Night, Xena." I was beginning to love this child as though she was my own. With Gabrielle watching us, I gave Hope a quick kiss and turned to the best smile I’ve seen the Conqueror give yet.
"Mama?" Gabrielle gave me a peck on the cheek then kneeled beside the bed.
"Can you, Xena and I be a family?" She turned to look at me. I had a huge grin on my face.
"I’ll see what I can do. Now you get some sleep, I’ll be here soon." She gave her a kiss and hug.
"Will you really?"
The child wasn’t dumb.
"Yes, little one and I’ll even hold you if you want." Hope seemed to like that. She raised herself slightly to give her mother a kiss.
"Night, baby." We waited until she was fully asleep, then we went into the other room.
"Xena…" She paused. "I wanted to thank you for giving the best day ever in my life." She then gave me the sweetest kiss. The gnawing in my stomach came back in full force, but right then I didn’t care. I’m not sure what was so odd, her words or the look in her eyes.
"These past few months have been up and down for us both, but you are probably the only other person on the earth that I trust."
"Why are you saying all this? Are you coming away with me?" A girl could wish.
"No, Xena. Just remember this day when you think of me."
"Don’t talk like that." I pulled her close.
"Please, forgive me." I was ready to ask why when Ephiny and a few guards barged in.
"Xena, we’re here to escort you to the brig." Ephiny had a hard time meeting my eye.
I looked from her to Gabrielle.
"What’s the meaning of this?" I was upset more then angry.
"It’s for your own good," Gabrielle reasoned.
"What is? Locking me up like a criminal? This is the trust you spoke of?" Now I was angry.
"Please come with us, Xena." Ephiny touched my shoulder.
"Get your hand off me before I break it." I turned to glare at the Regent. Then I felt a sharp blow to my head. Before my world went black I heard Gabrielle ask for forgiveness once more.
I woke up with a blaring headache in a dark cell.
"Right back to where I started." I growled.
"She’s doing this because she falling in love with you." I jumped slightly, only then noticing Aphrodite standing outside my cell. Magically she walks through the bars to stand in front of me.
"Doing what? Locking me up?"
"Saving you from a fight with Najara," she answered. "She believes Ephiny can win but…"
Aphrodite didn't want to say the words. I could tell. "I know she won't," she finally answered softly.
I watched as Aphrodite started to pace the cell. "Ares really messed things up Xena. We can't let Ephiny battle Najara. Any way we look at it's…it's bad."
I've seen many expressions on Aphrodite's face over the years – joy to anger, coy to insightful. But this expression…it's one I've never saw. One I never thought I could see on her. It's hopelessness.
"Find a way to get me out of here," I told her. "I'll battle Najara."
"And do what? Lose Gabby forever when Najara kills you. Okay you'd be dead and that would be bad too but…Damn it Ares!" She's angry now and I watch as she slumps down on my excuse for a bed. "You know something Xena?…I've been around for what seems like forever. Many mortals and immortals have passed in and out of my life, always wanting something from the goddess of love, always asking for something I could give them…Gabrielle never asked for a single thing. Ever. But she gave me her friendship anyway. It's ironic in a way. I don't have many friends even though I'm the goddess of love. But I had Gabby. Our Gabby. Not this booze hound, short tempered, arrogant, pig-head-."
"I get the point," I said cutting her off in her rant.
"Sorry. I'm just so totally pissed right now. Ares has done some pretty low down deeds in our time but this…Not only did he take away your bard but he took away the only true friend I ever had Xena."
"Yes he did," I told her. "Question is, are you gonna stand for it? Or are you gonna find a way to get me out of here so I can help bring her home?"
I watched as that coy grin came to her face. Next, the door of the cell opened.
"Don't forget to write." She grinned as she nodded toward the exit.
"Thanks Aphrodite," I replied honestly.
She walked over and pulled me down, giving me a soft kiss on the cheek. "Bring her home Xena. Find a way and bring her home."
"I will. I promise."
I left the cell determined. Today it ends. One way or another.
My eyes have to adjust to the change in light. The brig was so dark and dank so I took a few moments to let my eyes settle into the brightness of the morning. I made my way to the arena, following the crowd that's walking down the streets to assemble there. I heard the chattering from spectators on who will win – the regent or the consort.
I entered the stands with the other spectators to see Gabrielle at her throne, looking quite regal dressed in her battle armor. Instead of Najara seated next to her, it's Ares. It reminded me of the day I battled to join her royal guard. But this time it's Ephiny who's in the practice ring warming up and not me.
Her swing is quick – much quicker than I remembered. For a moment I think she may come out of this triumphant but I remembered what Aphrodite said. She knows different. I also know that losing Ephiny might just be the end of Gabrielle and I'll never win her back. She'll draw into herself even more and I might be trapped here forever. I looked at Gabrielle when suddenly I heard the crowd give a loud boo. I leaned over the rail to see that Najara has made her way inside. Seems word of her deeds traveled quickly in this town.
She seemed unaffected by the crowd's reaction, focusing on Ephiny, as she started to warm up and get her arms and legs limber for the upcoming battle.
"You need to take a seat," I heard someone say behind me.
I turned to see a bruiser of a guard pointing me to the benches. Being sent back to the brig is the last thing I needed so quietly I complied, walking three rows back to sit down. I still had a good view and I was close enough to make my move when it's called for.
It seemed like forever as I sat and waited for the arena to fill up. Once the majority of the seats were occupied I watcedh as Gabrielle stoos up, taking a place on the speakers platform. A loud ring of applause went up and she held her hand in the air to quiet them.
"Friends and Greek countrymen. Thank you for joining us on this historical day. As many of you know my consort Najara is accused of crimes of treason against the State of Greece."
A loud ‘boo’ washed over the area, which made Gabrielle grin slightly. Even from this distance I could tell her lips curled.
"She challenges the throne here today…Over seeing this challenge is my champion and regent Ephiny of Amazonia."
With that a cheer went around with a few whistles and thundering applause. At least Ephiny had the crowd to her advantage. Now if only her skill could hold out long enough for me to make my move.
"As the flags fall the competition will begin. Are both contestants ready?"
"Yes my conqueror," Ephiny yells with a bow to Gabrielle. She seemed fearless and determined, unlike the woman a spotted just recently filled with self-doubt when Gabrielle made her request.
Gabrielle then turned to Najara. "And you consort?"
"Yes conqueror," she answered but without the bow. The crowd began to boo yet again for her obvious display of defiance of Gabrielle's reign.
Gabrielle raised her arm before suddenly dropping it. The flags around the arena unfurled and I watched as Ephiny and Najara head toward each other to square off. I watched the guards spread out around the guardrail. I've got the space and time I needed to make it into the arena so I made my move.
With a powerful war cry, I started to run and somersault into the arena before the guards can stop me. When my feet land, I know I have to move and move quickly. Just as I expected the crossbow bolts come flying in my direction. I weaved left and right, stopping occasionally to let the arrows pass by me before traveling onward. I glanced to Gabrielle to see her shocked expression as I made my way over to Ephiny. Both combatants saw me moving toward them and they lower their stance against each other, waiting for my arrival. From the ring Ephiny called off the guards attack.
"How did you-?" Ephiny remarked, as I get close enough.
"Doesn't matter. Get outta here Ephiny. This is my fight, not yours."
"I have my conquerors order Xena," she argued.
"Let her fight too," Najara announced. "I'm willing to take on two of the conquerors own to see justice is dealt."
"Justice? You don't know the concept Najara. You live by the voices in your head and nothing more."
"Shut up and fight," Najara saed taking a swing at me.
I jumped back just seconds before she could connect with my head and Ephiny swung. Najara moved too and backhandsed Ephiny.
Blood flies from the regent's mouth as she falls to the ground. Najara goes in for the kill but I deflect her sword. She's strong. Stronger than the Najara I battled in my world and I felt my sword being pushed closer to the regents neck.
It's slow going but Ephiny regroups quick enough to roll out from under our crossed blades. Once she was to her feet I relaxed and it's enough for Najara to drive my blade into the ground. She kicked me soundly in the chest, knocking me on my backside, the sword falling from my hand.
With me on the ground she engaged Ephiny. I'm amazed but Ephiny trades her blow for blow although it's obvious she's on the defensive. I regroup and rise to my feet again taking my blade with me as I darted over to engage Najara again.
Najara heard me approach and pulled another sword off her back. As I took my swing to slice her head off she blocked my blow while continuing to fight Ephiny head on. Damn it. Ares wasn't lying. She is good. Maybe too good. I realized that Ephiny was becoming a distraction to me and I had to get her out of the ring. I couldn't fight Najara and worry about Ephiny at the same time.
"Get out," I yelled to Ephiny again.
She ignored my warning. I realized I had to buy some time to talk to Ephiny. I reach down and grab a handful of sand. It was a dirty play I know but I didn't have time. I ran toward Najara and when she turned to face me, I threw the dirt in her eyes. She lowered her sword just for an instant but it's enough to kick her in the chest, knocking her flat on her back. I grabbed Ephiny's arm and raced away to the entrance.
"Please let me handle this," I begged again.
"Look, if I don't survive Gabrielle will need someone she trust. Someone that will help her go on. You can give her that - I know it. Please let me do this. Gabrielle will be angry you've left but she would never kill you."
"How can you be so sure?" Ephiny asked as she watched Najara move to her feet, wiping her eyes.
"Just trust me. I haven't lied to you before, have I?"
Ephiny considered it for a moment and I know I'm getting through. "Please. For Gabrielle. Leave this ring and let me handle Najara." With a deep sigh I heard Ephiny call toward the gatekeeper.
"Open the gate," she yelled. Quickly, they complied. "Ares be with you Xena," she told me, resting a hand on my shoulder.
I grin at the expression. "Are you kidding? The less Ares, the better. He's the reason for this mess."
She looked unsure of what I was talking about but I couldn't explain. I didn't have time. Najara made her way toward us.
"Go on," I nodded to her. I paused to see if she was truly leaving and felt when I watched her walk out of the arena, closing the gate behind her.
"Now I've got what I want," I growled at Najara as I charged ahead.
"You don’t want me," Najara said as our blades cross again. "You want my wife. But you'll never have her."
I realized I had an opening here - someway to psych her out. "Oh no," I egged, "your wife wants me," I smirked. "Pretty convenient huh?"
Najara growled in anger and started to advance but I didn't retreat I traded her blow for blow, pushing her away. We started to circle each other. And I continued to taunt her, trying to throw her off.
"She's sexy isn't she Najara? Worth dying for? Especially those sounds she makes. Those little sighs just before climax. The way her body hums with electricity when she wraps her thighs around your shoulders. Of course it's been awhile since you've been that close to her. You've probably forgotten. Just so you know. It hasn't changed. As a matter of fact, last night I've never seen her wilder."
Najara screamed and charged but her swordplay was sloppy and I took full advantage of it, knocking the weapon from her hands. Her sudden surprise turned into anger and she tackled me before I could strike the deathblow. My sword dropped too and soon we're both rolling on the ground. She delivered a strong blow to my jaw and I tasted the acidy flavor of my blood in my mouth.
Nah ha. Not again. I'm keeping all my teeth this time.
Before she can deliver another blow, I backhanded her, sending her flying off of me, as I reached back for the sword next to me. When she rolled to a stop I straddled, her standing above her. I glanced up to see Gabrielle literally sitting on the edge of her seat, a look of regret in her eyes. I realize in that instant I can't do it. I can't kill Najara. If I did a part of Gabrielle would never trust me. Never love me.
Yes Najara was a psycho. Yes she killed my mother. Yes she wanted Gabrielle's throne.
But a part of Gabrielle still went out to her. Najara's life wasn't mine to take. Najara closed her eyes waiting for me to send her to Hades but instead I dropped the sword on the ground and walked toward where Gabrielle was seated. I listened to the crowd boo because I didn't go for the kill they wanted to see.
Gabrielle would need to make the choice. It was either Najara or I. She would have to decide who lived and who died. I took a deep breath and remembered my resolve – one way or another it ends today.
Either Gabrielle would choose me or she would let Najara kill me in the ring. Either way, as I said, it ends today.
"I love you Gabrielle."
I looked up into the stands and I smile. No worry. No fear. If I died then I died knowing that she would finally believe me. I am truly hers and not for her power or her crown but for her. I heard Najara stalking me from behind. I'm sure she has the sword now and at any moment it will be finished.
Gabrielle's eyes went wider and before I realized it she hurdled the rail, jumping into the arena. A cheer goes through the crowd this time as the conqueror herself pulls her sword from her back, pushing me out of the way. I fell to the dirt and watched as Ares screams.
I turned back to see Gabrielle bury her sword in Najara's chest. Shock washeed over Najara's face as her body slid off the blade and tumbled to the ground. Gabriele looked shaken but only for a moment as she rushes over, coming to knell beside me.
"I love you Xena," she whispered before her lips descended up on mine.
The kiss is magical, intoxicating. I closed my eyes and I felt as if I was flying, moving at breakneck speed but I don't stop the kiss. I couldn't. It felt too wonderful. When I finally opened my eyes I look at Gabrielle who seems slightly confused. As I glanced around I notice there's no arena. No Najara.
We're in a clearing, on our bedrolls alone as the whinny of a horse caught my attention. I looked to my right and saw Argo starting to drink from a nearby stream.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked. She looks down at her body. The armor is gone, replaced by the red velvet and leather garments I'd come to love. "Are we home?"
I felt myself start to grin and I couldn't help but pull her closer to me. "We're home," I told her.
Suddenly she began to cry. "I'm so sorry Xena. Everything I did to you-."
"Was an illusion," I told her. "Ares illusion. Nothing more. And in the end you made the right choice. The only choice."
She seemed to calm a bit and I looked up, the feeling of being watched overpowering me. Aphrodite was smiling at the two of us holding each other.
"Thank you," she mouthed silently. A look of sincere gratefulness was plastered to her face.
"No," I mouthed back. "Thank you."
She smiled with a crinkle of her nose and disappeared allowing us some privacy.
A flash of light and a chuckle I know all to well fills the small clearing next. And I felt Gabrielle pull back. I know the look on her face means trouble as she darted to her feet coming face to face with Ares.
He grins and shakes his head. "Damn. You two are something else," he chuckled. "I never know what to expect. I gotta admit – I like it."
Gabrielle marched over to Ares and started to poke him in the chest. "You self-centered, devious, manipulating bastard."
He wore a look of mock confusion. "Your point?" he asked sarcastically.
Gabrielle reared back and punched Ares square in the jaw, making him stumble back about two feet. At first I'm scared of what he'll do to her but when Ares started to chuckle I have to admit I'm a bit relieved.
"Cut it out," he told her. "That tickles."
"You son of a bitch," Gabrielle hissed.
"Well you got me there," Ares answered. "I am. I really am. Hera was real pain sometimes."
Gabrielle started her march again, poking him all over again. "If you EVER pull something like that again I will find me another hind's blood danger. I will bloody your body so bad even Athena in all her wisdom won't be able to figure out or distinguish which god I killed. Do you understand me?"
"Yeah. Yeah," he answered in a bored voice before looking back at me. "I'll say it again. She's gotta lot a spirit Xena." He looked down at Gabrielle, checking out her cleavage. "You've certainly got your hands full," he replied to me before clearing his throat and starting to vanish.
Gabrielle took another swing but it's too late. All she hit was the air as he disappeared before our eyes.
"Arghhh! I hate that man!"
"Well technically," I told her, "He's a God."
"True. Men have more sense than God's and my apology to all men in the world for the comparison."
I grinned and moved to my feet. I walked over and pulled her into a tight embrace. Her heart was beating fast. Her skin was flushed. "I know it was a pretty frightening experience at times," I told her. "But it wasn't all bad, was it?" I wiggled my eyebrows and she starts to blush.
"No," she admited. "Not all of it."
"And it was nice to see Ephiny again."
She had a somber look. "I know. But it wasn’t nice to see that loon again." She smiled.
"But forget about her. I know of some much better things we could remember." She looked up and saw the lecherous look in my eyes. She blushed again and looked away; knowing what I was thinking.
I felt her relax as my fingers started to smooth over her hair. "You know that shackle thing out in the woods-."
"Xena!" Gabrielle blushed again.
"What?" I asked. I couldn't hide my grin.
"I was a heartless warlord at the time. I didn't care about love or commitment or trust. I was driven by sex and lust and…and shackles huh?"
"Remember Gabrielle. The God's can't give us anything we aren't already capable of," I teased her.
"Then that means you can be the submissive once in awhile?"
Okay she got me. "Well I can…I just need a little dominance now and then."
She grinned and started to follow a lazy pattern on my breastplate with her fingertips. "Hmm. Now and then. How about right now?"
"Gabrielle!" I answered in surprise. "You little vixen."
Gabrielle gave me that come hither grin that always set me on fire. "You find a tree. What will we do for shackles?"
Who am I to say no to an eager bard? "We’ll think of something."