~The Curse of the Conqueror~
Chapter 18 - Rise and Shine
As she slowly woke, Gabrielle smiled, feeling the strong arm wrapped around her.
"Good Morning," Xena whispered softly and kissed the bard's temple.
"MmmHmmm" Gabrielle agreed and turned onto her back to find her lover with her head propped up on her hand, watching her. Xena had been like that since dawn.
The two looked into each other's eyes and small smiles were exchanged.
Gabrielle reached up and pulled Xena down for a morning kiss.
"Do you think they'll at least make it to lunch?" Solari asked, glancing back in the direction of the princess' hut as they stood in the lunch line. "You can't live on love alone."
Ephiny leveled her with a glare. "What the hell is with you and being naked all the time?!?"
"Look, my clothes-burdened friend. You can either choose to be a grump or you can be happy for her. She is obviously happy with Xena. And Xena is happy with her."
"Obviously. They were happy all night. Happy all morning. I'd say they are disgustingly happy," Ephiny snarled, prompting Valeska to chuckle as she walked up.
"It won't last," Valeska offered.
"Why do you say that, Princess?" Solari asked.
Valeska smiled. "For one thing, the hotter the flame, the more quickly it burns itself out. They'll tire of each other."
"Something tells me you are not a romantic," Solari responded.
"Or I might accidentally kill her during our match," Valeska added with amusement, ignoring Solari.
"You can't beat her, Valeska. She's . . . " Ephiny said with concern.
"Just because she bested you, Ephiny, does not mean she'll best me," Valeska said evenly, controlling her anger at the insult.
"If she knows you are going for blood, you'll die," Ephiny said with conviction.
Valeska laughed. "You are way too serious, Ephiny. I only want to have some fun out there." The princess winked and walked to the front of the line.
The two Amazons looked at each other with concern, then stared at Valeska, who sat down at the royal table with Melosa and her very good friend, Cyrene.
"You know, it might not be such a bad thing if Xena does. . . ." Solari said quietly, then jumped when she felt someone suddenly behind her.
"If Xena does what?" The Empress asked with an amused smile.
"Uh . . . "
"Good morning," Ephiny muttered, glancing over the tall woman, who sported her leather battle dress but not her armor.
"Yes. It is, isn't it?" Xena said with a big smile as she glanced around the camp and took a deep breath of fresh air. It was a beautiful day too, she considered. "Now, what is it that might not be such a bad thing?"
"Uh . . . I was just saying that if you should happen to kill Valeska, it wouldn't be such a bad thing," Solari said in a hushed tone.
"Even thinking about the death of an Amazon princess would be treason and punishable by death," Ephiny reminded Solari, who rolled her eyes.
Xena smirked. "Don't worry. I've already promised Gabrielle I'm not going to kill her," Xena said with a dismissive wave of a hand. "Excuse me, I've got a hungry bard to feed."
Ephiny and Solari silently looked at each other then the Empress, who happily gathered food on a large tray and headed back to the hut.
"Why doesn't that give me a warm and fuzzy?" Solari said, noticing Valeska's cold eyes following the Empress.
"I don't want to make you late for your match," Gabrielle said as her arms wrapped around the tall woman and she kissed Xena's neck. They had almost made it out of the hut before the bard decided they should share a private kiss, or twelve, before they were seen in public.
"You know, that's really odd. Your actions seem to be telling me something entirely different," Xena said thoughtfully as the bard kissed her chin.
"Uh huh. You know, Gabrielle, the sooner I get this over with, the sooner we can come back and . . . you know."
Gabrielle pulled back and eyed her lover. "Xena, I think you can say SEX now."
"I didn't mean SEX."
"Don't tell me you wanted to play poker."
Xena laughed. "You still need to learn, but no. I meant to say, make love."
Gabrielle responded with a big smile as Xena leaned down to kiss her.
A knocking at the hut door interrupted the Empress, who growled.
"Xena, you're scaring her," Gabrielle scolded softly as they walked behind their nervous escort, Solari, who had been told by Princess Valeska to remind the Empress of their match.
"I don't like being interrupted," Xena growled, continuing to coldly stare at the Amazon. An eyebrow suddenly rose. Interesting birthmark.
"She was only following orders, Xena," Gabrielle said, gently touching the Empress' forearm. "And you were making us late."
"Me?!?" Xena blurted as they arrived at the practice field, which was full of Amazons.
"Wow. Amazing how everyone in the village needs to practice at exactly the same time, isn't it?" Gabrielle remarked dryly.
"Do you always change the subject like that?" Xena asked.
"Only when I'm finished discussing something," Gabrielle informed her and looked for Valeska. She found her at the side of the sparring ring, sitting on a bench next to the water bucket.
"And if I'm . . . ?" Xena said with a raised eyebrow.
"Empress, so nice of you to make it," Princess Valeska said with a smile and put down the ladle in the bucket of water.
As much as Xena disliked interruptions to her time with Gabrielle, she really looked forward to kicking her. . . .
"Finally," the Princess added flatly. Gracefully, she stood and walked proudly to her opponent.
With irritation, Gabrielle noticed Valeska didn't acknowledge her. As much as the bard hated interruptions to her time with Xena, she really looked forward to her partner kicking Valeska's . . . .
"Valeska," Xena greeted her tiredly, managing to wipe the smile from the princess' face. "Why don't you choose the weapon."
"What is your best weapon, Empress?" Valeska asked, surprising the Conqueror.
"I'm not really sure," Xena answered honestly, being an expert at so many. "But the chakram is a favorite."
"Yes, well, as I don't have one, yet, why not swords?" Valeska said, gaining a nod from the Empress.
Silently, Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other a moment before Gabrielle glanced at Valeska and joined a very tense Melosa and Cyrene. As Gabrielle sat down, she smiled at Xena.
For me. Xena grinned, feeling incredibly happy.
"Well?" Valeska said flatly, standing in the center of the ring.
Returning her focus to the irritation at hand, Xena unsheathed her weapon. Now why did I promise not to kill her??
The opponents faced each other and the crowd grew quiet. Valeska whirled her sword in an impressive flourish.
Xena feigned boredom as she briefly looked at her nails, amused at the annoyed look it brought to the Princess' face. The Empress waited for the Princess' attack, which didn't take long. With a flurry of motion, Valeska's sword furiously sliced through the air . . . not once contacting her intended target. Xena had gracefully avoided the Amazon's sword.
Xena smiled at the Princess, who sneered back.
"Gabrielle?" Cyrene softly spoke to the bard, whose eyes were riveted on the tall woman in the ring.
"I hope someday, you'll find it in your heart to forgive me and we can be friends again." Cyrene said softly, getting Gabrielle's attention.
Valeska attacked again and like before, Xena swiftly dodged the attempted strikes and left the Princess tired and her sword swooshing the air.
After another vicious attack of the air, Valeska taunted between breaths "Hard to believe you are afraid of my sword, Empress."
"Hard to be afraid of something so slow, Val," Xena responded with a smile, irritating Valeska more.
"Cyrene, I'd like to think we never stopped being friends," Gabrielle said warmly. "And now that your daughter and I are . . . " the bard paused, thinking of the appropriate term. "Involved" was entirely too inadequate. What they shared was far deeper. It was truly profound, the bard considered and smiled. They were . . . .
"Sex partners?" Cyrene offered helpfully.
Xena smiled and waited for another attack which came quickly.
"You're dropping your guard on your left," Xena pointed out helpfully as she slapped the Amazon on her left side with the flat of her sword, getting amused chuckles from the crowd.
"Oh, look, now it's your right," Xena said, slapping the infuriated Amazon on her right.
"I want you to know, even though she is my daughter, I think of you as one too," Cyrene said warmly.
Gabrielle smiled, knowing if she had a mother that cared half as much as Cyrene did, she would have had a much happier childhood.
"You two make such a perfect couple," Cyrene continued, pleasing the bard, who wholeheartedly agreed.
"And, you know, it's fortunate for you that I am your lover's mother. Because if you have any questions about her, you can just ask," Cyrene said with a conspiratorial smile and wink, getting a furrowed brow from the bard, who nodded weakly, hoping the older woman was finished.
"And if you have any problems or concerns about sex . . . . " Cyrene discreetly informed her, briefly smiling at Melosa, who patted her hand.
"UH . . . thanks," Gabrielle quickly interrupted with a cringe. "But we're fine."
Enraged at the insults and the humiliation in front of her people, Valeska growled and charged the Empress, who finally parried the sloppy blows with her sword.
"You anger too quickly, Val. Have you tried to count to ten? I'm told it helps."
"Oh, sweetie, just fine?!?" Cyrene said with great concern, getting a startled look from the bard. "I thought from the sounds of things last night, then all this morning, it was much better than fine. But then, even I've been known to fake a few or. . . "
"Cyrene!" Gabrielle said in a shocked whisper, looking around to see if anyone had overheard the unwanted conversation.
"Gods know, I had to when Xena's father was still alive."
"But . . . "
"Don't worry, it happens sometimes, honey."
"But . . . "
"And I'm sure Xena has no idea. She really isn't as worldly as people might think. Well, you probably already know that," Cyrene said sympathetically, shaking her head.
"There's nothing wrong!"
"Of course not, Gabrielle. Just be patient with her, she never did care much for reading. But you'll find she's a quick study," Cyrene relayed helpfully and offered "and don't worry, I won't tell a soul," she quietly vowed, motioning locking her mouth shut and throwing away the key.
"Cyrene, there's nothing to tell!"
"Tell what?" Cyrene said innocently with a conspiratorial wink. "And sweetie, don't you think it's about time you called me Mom?"
Taking the Empress' advice, the Amazon waited to attack and found her strikes more effective. Though even with her anger under better control, Valeska was clearly no match for the Empress. When the Princess attempted to sweep the Empress off her feet, she found her legs swept out from beneath her and her back hitting the ground.
She jumped to her feet and angrily thrust her sword as she flung the dirt into the Empress' eyes.
"HEY!" Gabrielle jumped up onto her feet angrily, seeing Xena cringe at the painful sting in her eyes as she deflected the Princess' blows.
"Do not interfere, Gabrielle," Melosa said evenly.
"She's not fighting fair!!"
"Honey, Xena will be fine," Cyrene said uneasily.
"Ugh!! And Valeska considers herself worthy to be QUEEN?!?" Gabrielle snapped.
Melosa silently looked at the angry bard, then her adopted daughter. The same question had plagued her for years.
The Amazon crowd murmured uneasily, concerned the Empress might punish them for Valeska's actions.
"Sorry about that," Valeska said insincerely. "Let's take a break. You need to take care of your eyes."
Xena blinked at her, gripping her sword, ready to fight blind if the Amazon made one move. Even now, she knew she could beat the Amazon.
"I mean it. You were right about my anger being a problem. That was uncalled for and I apologize." Valeska motioned to the water bucket on the bench. "I'll be here when you get back."
Prompted by the pain in her eyes, Xena carefully moved to the side of the sparring ring. Exhaling with irritation, she scooped up a handful of cold water and splashed it into her face to remove the stinging dirt. She glanced over to the Amazon waiting in the center of the ring with annoyance then splashed another handful of water into her watering eyes.
"Are you ok?" Gabrielle asked with concern as she jogged up to her lover's side.
"I've had far more challenging fights, Gabrielle," Xena snapped with frustration, rubbing water over her face again. She should have anticipated dirty tricks from the Amazon. And she was still up to something, Xena considered, glaring at her opponent.
"Oh," Gabrielle said in a small, hurt voice.
Xena's attention quickly returned to the bard. "I . . . I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I'm not used to anyone caring," she said with guilty cringe.
"Well, I do care, Xena. And you're just going to have to get used to it," Gabrielle said firmly.
"Thank you," the Empress said softly with a smile.
"Yes, well, you should hurry up so we can . . . " Gabrielle said and glanced back toward the hut.
"Play poker?" Offered Xena, who sipped a handful of water.
"If that's what you really want," Gabrielle said with a weary sigh, causing a smirk from the Empress.
"Well, we could play for something a little more interesting than points," the Empress suggested.
"Oh? Well, carry on," Gabrielle said with a smile and motioned her lover to continue with sparring. "Quickly."
Xena returned to the center of the ring, stifling a yawn as Gabrielle sat back down with Melosa and Cyrene.
"Am I boring you, Empress?"
"Boring isn't the word I'd use."
Xena rolled her eyes and stifled another yawn. "Go ahead."
With new confidence, Valeska grinned and whirled her sword in a flashy display before she attacked. Xena blinked, feeling oddly sluggish. Her eyelids also felt incredibly heavy.
Shaking her head, she continued to spar with the cocky Amazon who seemed to put up a better fight now. In a swift attack, Xena blinked trying to keep her opponent in focus. Something was wrong.
Valeska grew more bold in her attacks and nicked the Warrior Princess' arm, drawing a trickle of blood.
"Do Amazons usually go for blood when they spar!" Gabrielle stood and snapped at Melosa, whose attention was on the match.
"Melosa, something's wrong," Cyrene said, concerned the Queen was doing nothing except quietly watch the fight.
Valeska swept the feet from beneath the Empress, who quickly got back on her feet, surprising the Amazon.
The Amazon knocked the sword from Xena's tired grip and delivered a round-house kick to her head. The Empress's head snapped back as she collapsed to the ground. Sensing her need to move, Xena summoned her strength and rolled away from a blow meant to kill.
"Stop this!" Gabrielle yelled to Melosa. "Valeska is trying to kill her!" Seeing no action from the Queen, Gabrielle bolted from the older women to the sparring ring.
Feeling her sword by her hand, Xena instinctively grabbed it. Rolling on her back, she thrust up and felt a heavy jolt. Blinking her opponent into focus, Xena saw wide eyes of surprise as Valeska looked down at the blade sticking into her gut.
"Pleasant . . . dreams," Valeska snarled before collapsing to the ground, dead.
"Xena!" Gabrielle rushed through the crowd to the Empress' side.
Xena fought to remain conscious and looked up into the bard's face with great concern. "I broke my promise," Xena whispered, blinking to keep the angelic face in focus.
"I don't care! Xena, Xena what's wrong?" Gabrielle said, trying to remain calm.
"Water . . . must have been . . . drugged," Xena said, fighting to stay awake.
"Get the Healer!!" Gabrielle urgently commanded to the crowd hovering around them, and returned her attention to Xena. "The healer will be here soon, you'll be ok." She said nervously. "Do you hear me? You'll be ok!"
"Gabrielle?" Xena said weakly as her eyelids shut.
"What is it, Xena? Xena?!?"
Chapter 19 - The Awakening
The bard's kiss consumed her. The Empress pulled her closer, relishing the contact that she hungered for and could never get enough of. Their bodies melded together perfectly as they once again reached the edge of release.
"Xena." A faint voice called out. The startled Empress broke away from her lover's kiss and looked around the darkened bedchamber, unnerved by the familiar voice. She shivered as a cold breeze blew across her skin.
The warm bard pulled her back into a heated kiss, which made the Empress wonder if she had imagined it.
"I need you," the voice said more loudly as a chill swept over Xena.
"Who's there!" The Empress jumped out of bed and demanded as she pulled a robe around herself.
"Xena, come back to bed, I need you," the bard said reaching out for the confused Empress, who looked at the dark corner of the room with concern.
"I don't know what to do," the familiar voice admitted despondently.
"Don't you hear that?" Xena asked, quickly glancing back to her lover with irritation. The cold made her shiver and tie her robe around her.
"Hear what? Xena, I'm getting cold. Come back to bed."
"I need you, Xena," the voice called out, drawing the Empress deeper into a dark, cold, corner of the room.
"Gabrielle??" Xena asked in confusion, squinting into the blackness, finally recognizing the needful voice.
"Xena, come back and help me warm up," her lover said with a smile, moving the covers down, in invitation for the Empress to return. Xena glanced back at the bed, where a beautiful, naked bard was waiting for her.
The great temptation to return to bed was countered by the disturbing voice, pleading in the darkness. "I need you."
The confused Empress' heart started to pound, knowing there was a problem. A huge problem. One that involved Gabrielle.
"Please come back to bed, Xena. I need you."
Xena looked back at the bard in her bed in helpless confusion as Gabrielle's voice called to her again from the darkness. "I need you more than ever. . . ."
The cacophony of pleas swirled through her throbbing head, tearing Xena from her warm cocoon and into the cold, frightening darkness.
"UGH!!!" She growled as she sat up and clenched her head. A thin veil of material fell from her face and torso. Angrily, she ripped the material from her body, tossing it to the floor as she blinked and tried to focus on her surroundings. But she was in complete darkness. She shivered, the chill in the air going straight to the bone.
"Gabrielle?" Her voice cracked as she called out and awkwardly got up from her pallet. As her voice echoed, her sluggish body stumbled over something and into a rocky wall. Her body had never ached so much.
She tried to remember what happened and how she got to this cave. She remembered killing that Amazon . . . Valeska . . . then . . . nothing. She shook her head, trying to clear the cobwebs clouding her mind. It didn't help. Still shivering from the cold, she groaned with irritation.
Recalling she just tripped on something, she slowly knelt down. Her hands searched the ground and knocked over a few containers. She felt a few scrolls and continued searching until she found something that she really needed right now, a torch. She smiled with relief when she also found what felt like a flint stone near by.
After a few unsuccessful sparks that were quickly swallowed by the blackness, her unsteady hands finally ignited the torch, causing her to cringe at the sudden light. She continued to shiver as she wedged the torch in a crack in the cave wall. Holding her hands near the flame, she slowly started to warm up.
Inspecting her surroundings, she spotted a deep, narrow crevice. The exit, she hoped, though she couldn't see any light at its end.
Her stomach growled, prompting her to examine the containers, correctly guessing that whoever thought enough to supply a torch, would also supply some food. Gabrielle, she thought with a smile. Her smile disappeared when she noticed mold covering the food in one cracked container. Tossing it aside, she looked for more food in the vessels and found dried fruit. After ensuring it didn't have fur on it, she sniffed it. Concluding it was OK, she popped a piece in her mouth.
As she chewed, she sighed heavily and rubbed her temples, still feeling very groggy. Now needing water, her eyes lifted to a large barrel against one wall of the cave. She smiled. After drinking her fill of water, she curiously looked around, still wondering why she was there. Her eyes dropped to the scrolls. There were a number of them. Her eyebrow rose with interest.
The first scroll she unrolled contained a sketch . . . of her. She laughed. "Wanted: Xena's head - five thousand dinars," she read with amusement. "Hey! What about the rest of me??" She said with mock irritation, shaking her head as she read on. "For crimes against Cirra."
Her amusement died as she recalled how that horrible fire consumed that village and its people. A fire she caused, she thought guiltily.
Daumas had handled that problem for her, just like the others. It was better for people to think she deliberately destroyed the village, he said, reminding her they were behind on their taxes. He told her that her ability to rule would be severely damaged and the people would laugh at her if they ever found out the fire was a result of a disastrous roll in the hay with that farmer's daughter.
Those candles seemed like a good idea at the time. Who knew it was going to be such a dry season?? Xena shook her head with regret, wishing those people had thought enough to run away from the fire. That only made the tragedy that much worse. Not only did she kill a bunch of people that day, she killed a bunch of dim-witted people. Oh the shame, the warrior thought with great guilt.
But those kinds of horrible experiences were a thing of the past, she thought with a sense of hope. And no longer would she be obsessively looking for a good lay. She didn't have to. For she found so much more when she stumbled upon that passionate bard, who happened to be her soulmate, the Conqueror thought, shaking her head with amazement. Glancing around the cave, she wondered where her soulmate was, feeling uneasy at her absence.
She picked up another scroll and unrolled it. More beautiful than the handwriting was the greeting, Xena noted with a smile.
My Dearest Xena,
I knew one day you would wake to read this letter. I wish I was at your side, holding you and telling you everything that has happened. But I can not be with you and still ensure your protection from the many bounty hunters that now roam the land. Would you believe they only want your head? What fools.
Xena chuckled, recalling Gabrielle's unabashed appreciation of her body. Her smirk faded as she read on.
You have been in a deep sleep. Valeska drugged you in an attempt to kill you during a sparring match. She did not count on how stubborn you are. Even drugged, you were able to kill her. Please do not feel guilty. I was naive to ask you to make a promise not to kill her. Her death was justified and much more merciful than the punishment I would have demanded had she lived, for she stole something very precious that can never be returned. Our time together.
Xena's eyebrows furrowed. Gabrielle, who wouldn't harm a soul, wanting a punishment worse than death for the Amazon? How much time are we talking here, Xena wondered.
The healer said you would not wake, but I knew she was wrong. So, I sat with you, read to you, talked to you, and tried everything I could think of to rouse you. But you didn't wake. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into horrible months.
Months? Oh Gabrielle, Xena thought with a heavy heart, amazed anyone would have been so devoted or cared that much for her.
It only took a few months before greedy and power-hungry people took advantage of your mysterious absence. Battles were fought. Lands were lost and gained. Many innocent and not so innocent people died. The Amazons fought nobly, attempting to restore peace where we could. But we were foolish to think we could defeat the new Empress, Callisto, in a head-to-head conflict. She has an amazingly devious mind which we all underestimated, not to mention many spies and a very large army. I only wish the cost of that lesson had not been Queen Melosa's life.
Xena worried how her mother was handling Melosa's death and quickly read on.
Cyrene is strong, as I knew she would be. I eventually convinced her to return to the tavern. She'll be much safer there than roaming the country-side with us. She agreed only after I promised to call her 'Mom.' I hope you don't mind. She was rather persistent and it somehow made the brief time we had together more real.
We will continue to fight Callisto however we can, until the day she is defeated. She must be defeated. She is insane, killing the innocent, even children, who pose absolutely no threat, just because it amuses her. Oh Xena, I wish they were just bards' tall tales, but I have seen these heinous acts and I will have nightmares for a very long time. I wish I could have done something, anything, to stop it.
A sinking feeling in Xena's stomach grew. Gabrielle was living through this horrible time . . . alone. The Conqueror silently vowed her soulmate would not be alone for long.
Callisto has no honor, promising to discuss peace, then slaughtering those who dare seek it. We all had great hope that our friend, Najara, who I found to be a kindred spirit, would help us conquer this evil.
Xena's eyebrow rose. Najara?
Amazingly, with her army, we broke Callisto's hold on the Eastern kingdom. That, and Najara's enlightened way, instilled many with hope - a precious thing we were beginning to lose, including me. When Najara spoke of opening hospices across the country for the poor, I actually started to think of the future again, instead of the horrible present. The country will need rebuilding and it will be a great challenge. It will need farmers, carpenters, teachers, and healers of both the flesh and the soul. But sadly, as I had reminded Najara, until Callisto is defeated, we must continue to face reality - the country needs warriors, today and for the foreseeable future.
Against my pleas for caution, Najara met with Callisto on supposedly neutral land, confident she could bring peace once and for all and start on our future.
This Najara must have been nuts, Xena thought. Our future?? Hey . . . .
When she didn't return to camp, I went to find her. I discovered Najara had been burned at the stake.
Stupid is as stupid does, Xena considered.
I was told by a man who saw the whole thing, that at the very end Najara kept begging for gin. I can only imagine how horrible the pain must have been. Najara never drank alcohol.
I lost a good friend that day . . . and many other days, because of Callisto. But we will fight on. We must. And even though the once-proud Amazon nation has been reduced to a small band of warriors, we have still managed to be a thorn in Callisto's side.
Xena smirked with a bit of pride for her bard's accomplishment.
In fact, Callisto has placed a bounty on our heads too.
Xena's smirk faded, not thrilled at the result of her beloved's accomplishment.
As far as Amazons go, my head fetches the most, four thousand dinars.
Well at least Callisto realizes the Conqueror's head is more valuable, Xena thought, reminding herself to point that important fact out to Gabrielle when she saw her next.
But I would like to note that your head only brings more money because it is so much larger than mine.
The Conqueror laughed.
You might be interested in knowing that even though people feared you and blamed you for their troubles in the past, I hear many of those same people now say they wish you would return. That is my wish every night.
As much as it hurts, I can no longer visit you. I put you at risk every time I give into my weakness. I wasn't thinking and two bounty hunters followed me this time. They are no longer a threat to either of us, but I was lucky. I know one day, there will be someone better when I make another mistake. I can't risk them finding you too.
Great sorrow washed over the Conqueror, who couldn't imagine what Gabrielle must be going through.
When you leave this cave, be very careful, my love. Everything has changed. Except my love for you. My heart aches every moment we are not together. Hurry up and come home to me. I need you.
Xena stared at the writing, trying to digest the incredible news. A horrible, sinking feeling grew as the plea for help that roused her from the deep sleep haunted her.
As the sun set, the Amazon Queen sat alone on a hill, overlooking the camp of Amazons as they prepared for one of the few peaceful evenings they had left. Soon, they would be joining with the Centaurs for a real chance of defeating Callisto. But with that chance, would come the death of many, regardless of the outcome. The young Queen's heart weighed heavy for what she had to do.
"Xena." Tears fell from her eyes as she softly spoke to her long-missing lover. "I don't know how much more of this I can take."
Taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, Xena slowly rolled up the scroll and placed it on the pallet. Her fingers and eyes lingered over the parchment a moment before she sought her weapons.
Spotting her sword and chakram, she went to them with purpose in her stride. She was going to return to Gabrielle and rid the land of this monster Callisto! As she knelt, she found in the midst of the weapons, a deck of cards with a note wrapped around them. Opening the note, she read its contents.
I learned more about that "fascinating" game called poker. Did you know you could use clothing instead of points?
She laughed softly, picturing Gabrielle asking her that. Taking a deep breath, she stood with determination.
"I'm coming, Gabrielle."
Chapter 20 - Empress Callisto
"Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the most powerful Empress of them all?" Callisto said melodically as she looked at herself in the mirror and carefully shifted some blond strands of hair. "Don't be shy, Daumas. You can speak up."
"Why, you are, Empress. Of course," he said.
Callisto was the most powerful ruler - currently. She had more land and military might under her control than any king or queen that had sprung up since the Conqueror's disappearance, thanks to him.
He knew the Empire was in trouble after Xena's extended absence. Besides the outbreak of skirmishes, that grew into bigger and bigger battles over land and power, revenue was way down. Daumas needed someone to reestablish order and was smart enough to realize it wasn't him. After Callisto took over, he knew Xena must have finally died on one of her outings, for she would certainly not have allowed this woman to take over unchallenged.
Still looking at the mirror, Callisto watched the advisor bow his head respectfully. "Of course," she hissed with a thin smile and swirled around to face the bearded man. His eyes widened slightly at the sudden movement.
"Do you tell that to all your Empresses, Daumas?" She asked airily, pushing a strand of his red hair behind his ear as if they were intimate. But Callisto was too smart for that.
"No, your highness. Just you," he responded, knowing it was the truth - Xena never asked him questions like that. But even with the truth, Callisto still might decide to cut his throat and he wouldn't be able to stop her. He was not a warrior, only a master manipulator . . . well, until Xena disappeared. Now he was living day-to-day wondering whether he'd survive Callisto's unpredictably violent personality. And she had seemed like such a good replacement at the time . . . .
"Are you saying Xena was more powerful?" She snapped.
"No, Empress," he answered her specific question truthfully, though Xena was much more powerful in her day. The Conqueror's army was much larger and protected far more land than Callisto's ever would and most importantly, the Conqueror's empire brought in much more revenue. Ah, those were the days, he recalled fondly.
"So you are saying she wasn't more powerful?"
"No, Empress," he answered nervously.
"What are you saying, Daumas?" Callisto crossed her arms and tapped her foot impatiently.
"At this point, your highness . . . I'm not sure," he said with forced calm.
Callisto looked at him, suddenly cackled, then stopped. "You amuse me," she said flatly, causing a brief sigh of relief from the advisor.
"So when is that little Amazon getting here?" She asked with irritation. "I really hate to be ignored. It's like she doesn't know her parents are in my dungeon," Callisto complained then suddenly asked with concern, "She does know I have them, doesn't she, Daumas?"
"Yes, Empress. My spies have reported she knows."
Callisto nodded, abruptly turned, walked across the room, and sat on the throne. She took a deep breath and glanced around the room, which was still full of paintings of Xena and her grand battles, though now they all sported large, black moustaches on each of the Conqueror's likenesses.
She would never get the satisfaction of crushing the Empress, Callisto thought with great disappointment. She believed the rumors that the woman, who destroyed her hometown, killing all but a few citizens, was indeed dead. But at least this Amazon Queen was providing an interesting challenge. If she'd ever get around to making her next move, Callisto thought with a heavy sigh. It had been very quiet since she took the Amazon's parents.
Impatiently strumming her fingers on the arm of the throne, Callisto sighed again.
"I'm tired of waiting!" Callisto finally blurted. "Just what does it take to get the Amazon Queen's attention these days? Maybe, I'll just go find her!" Callisto stood up with enthusiasm for that idea and marched to the door.
"NO Empress!" The blond halted in her tracks and turned slowly with a cold glare. "Uh . . . I wouldn't advise it," he quickly added uneasily, causing her to smile sweetly.
"Daumas, Daumas, Daumas," Callisto said silkily as she circled the nervous man. "Tell me why, before I get really annoyed and kill you." His eyes grew wide. "Quickly, quickly," she briskly commanded.
"Uh, I have heard a rumor she was heading towards the Centaur camp yesterday," he said with concern. "Their numbers are large and. . . ."
"What?!?" She screeched, making him cringe. "She's actually trying to persuade the Centaurs to join her?"
"Uh . . . so I understand. My spies are working to confirm this," he said with a cringe.
"Oh this is excellent news!" Callisto relayed with joy.
"But . . . with the Centaurs, she will be a serious threat," Daumas said with concern.
"Yes! Isn't that delightful? She might be planning to visit. Hmmm, I wonder what I'll wear."
"Do you think she might actually be planning to attack the castle and rescue her family?"
"One can only hope," Callisto gushed, then frowned, looking down at her black leather battle dress. "Do you think this makes me look fat?" Callisto asked, getting a concerned look from Daumas, who quickly shook his head no when she glared at him.
"But I wear this all the time. Maybe I should go with something new? It can't be too restrictive for our fight. Something in silk, perhaps? Oooo, I know! I'll go all natural, like that one Amazon of hers!" Callisto giggled.
"Surely, she must know we'd kill her family as soon as she attacked," he noted with concern, fearing he had incorrectly assumed the Amazon Queen could be controlled through her family.
"It must be just eating her up, not knowing what will happen. Will I kill them now? Will kill them later?" Callisto said with relish. "I am so ashamed of myself!" The Empress blurted suddenly with irritation. "How could I doubt her? Just when I think she's being too inattentive, she does something like this!" Callisto smiled happily.
Daumas eyed her with unease then continued. "Uh . . . the Northern army is between us and the Centaur camp. If she decided to forfeit her family and attack, she'd have to go through them first. We should minimize our losses by warning them she might attack soon. And if we call back all our regiments from the West, we might even be able to capture her and crush the Amazons and Centaurs for good!" Daumas said with enthusiasm. He was tired of all this battling, longing for the day when things settled down and he could focus on increasing the Empire's revenue.
"Now that would be rude, Daumas," she scolded him. "And I really don't want to scare her away after all this time. If we alert the Northern army or call back any regiments now, she'll know we know of her plans. She isn't above using spies, you know," Callisto said thoughtfully and went back to the throne.
Daumas rolled his eyes and exhaled with frustration as she sat and brushed off some invisible specs of dust from her leather outfit.
"Be a dear and keep an eye on her movements, Daumas," Callisto reclined back in the chair. "She'll want to move before we find out what she is planning and call in reinforcements. She will move within the next few days," Callisto said insightfully with a small smile.
Daumas listened to the woman who spoke with disturbingly obscure thoughts one minute and amazing clarity the next.
"And when she does, I want to be there to personally thank her for all those little inconveniences she's provided over the years that have weakened my hold on the East and South."
"But if we do nothing, they'll have a chance to . . . uh . . . " he started to complain but noted her eyebrows rise as she curiously looked at him. "We could sustain heavy losses on the battlefield . . . which we could avoid if . . . ," he added nervously, interrupted by her amused laugh.
"Daumas, Daumas, Daumas. What kind of hostess would I be if I spoiled her plans now?" She said and leaned back contentedly on her throne, wearily adding "Besides, this Empress gig can get really tedious without a real challenge."
"So I understand, Empress."
The Centaur general and his son, Phantes, looked at each other then back to the Amazon Queen, who explained her plan as she pointed out the key parts on the map covering the large table.
Lila stood nearby in the tent, watching her sister with great concern. Gabrielle had changed so much since they lived in Poteidaia.
It had been ages since Gabrielle told those frivolous romantic stories. And she no longer wore that ugly blue dress, instead electing more flattering, and her Father would say indecent, red leathers. She even broke Mother's heart and kept her beautiful hair short after it was partially hacked off in a battle with Callisto. Though Gabrielle had said it was better for fighting, Lila wondered if it wasn't because Najara had short hair.
But it was much more than the change in occupation and physical appearance, Lila considered with great concern. Gabrielle had become . . . cold.
"She has the advantage," the Centaur general said bluntly. "She has a big castle and a big army."
Gabrielle looked up at her ally and smiled thinly. "It's not always size that counts, General."
The Centaur general and his son grumbled. "The Northern Army should not be dismissed. They are formidable," the general noted.
"There are weaknesses even in the strongest armor, Tyldus. And we will exploit them," Gabrielle said wisely. "And we have surprise on our side."
"Gabrielle, what about Mother and Father?" Lila said uneasily, drawing a sharp gaze from her sister.
"She has a point, Gabrielle," Tyldus noted.
"Attacking the Northern army will risk your family," Phantes added with concern.
"Not attacking the Northern army now, when we are finally strong enough to beat them and take the castle, will risk everyone's family. Callisto must be stopped once and for all. And we have a chance NOW, before she can gather all her troops," Gabrielle argued as she pointed to the map, where the other armies were a few days ride away. "Am I the only one who sees that?" Gabrielle barked with frustration.
"You can't attack the Northern army! Mother and father will be killed!" Lila yelled as she paced in Gabrielle's tent, finally alone with her sister.
Gabrielle sighed and sat down on her cot. "That's a risk I'll have to take," she noted wearily, rubbing her temples.
"A risk YOU'LL have to take?!? I know you never got along with them . . . "
"They never got along with ME! They never tried to hear me once! NOT ONCE!"
"Gabrielle, do you hate them so much to sentence them to death?!?"
Gabrielle sighed wearily and blurted sarcastically. "Works for me."
"Stop this madness!"
"I'd LOVE to! Just tell me what I should do, Lila. Perhaps we should just ignore everything and settle down. Yeah. Maybe Callisto will just let our parents go. That's it! But let's hope the town we choose isn't one Callisto decides to destroy. Oh, better yet, how about I just go to her and plead for peace? Now there's a bright idea. Well, wait a minute, the peace idea didn't work out so well for Najara now, did it?" Gabrielle said, feigning deep thought.
"Najara was a nutcase! Callisto probably got tired of hearing her talk to herself," Lila responded.
"Oh wonderful, Lila. Blame the victim."
"Well she was odd. Even you have to admit that!"
"I can't believe you are speaking ill of the dead!"
"UGGGG!" Lila growled back in frustration. "You just can't do this!!"
"I have to," Gabrielle said coldly, her eyes hard.
Lila shook head with disbelief. Who was this woman who looked like her sister?
"I can't stand to be around you any more!" Lila said in a huff, turned, and bumped into Ephiny. "Ugh!!" Lila growled and went around the Amazon, pausing at the tent opening. "I'm going home to Poteidaia, or what's left of it."
The two watched as Gabrielle's sister stormed out of the tent.
"Shouldn't you . . . ?" Ephiny asked softly.
"Solari will," Gabrielle briskly interjected, then changed topics. "Did you get it?" She asked with hope in her voice. Ephiny grinned and pulled out the parchment from her belt.
"I knew you could do it!" Gabrielle said and hugged the Amazon, allowing herself to feel encouraged by the small victory.
Chapter 21 - Catching Up
Xena had seen poor people before. She saw quite a few before she became Empress. And even after she became the Conqueror, she'd occasionally spot a few when she ventured out of the castle on her outings. But never had she seen so many gathered together in so many places.
She slowly rode through one of the smaller camps she passed that day. They were all the same - depressing. And like in the other camps, many frightened eyes, peaking out of tents and from behind trees, followed her and her horse. Argo whinnied with displeasure. "Easy girl."
Xena noticed a small child, unhealthily thin, sitting dejectedly in front of a tent, holding a dangling rag doll by an arm as she stared at the ground. The curious Warrior Princess slowed to a stop and watched an old woman emerge from the tent and shake her head at the child.
"Mamma!" The girl bawled as a very thin, old man came out of the tent and attempted to comfort the girl. The cry tore at Xena's heart.
"Sex for food."
Xena's attention was quickly diverted to the scruffy young woman, who had boldly marched up to her. "Excuse me?"
"You got any food?" The gawky brunette asked directly, putting her hands on her ample hips.
"Uh . . ." Xena responded, glancing around the camp uneasily.
"Minya, get away from her!" A boyish looking man rushed up and attempted to pull her back, away from the dangerous looking stranger. "Don't you see, she's one of the Empress' soldiers!" He hissed nervously, eyeing the stranger in a battle dress and cape that emphasized her regal bearing as she sat on her mount.
"You think I'm a soldier of the Empress?" Xena laughed with amazement.
"You saying you're not?" Hower challenged, nervously stepping behind Minya when the stranger's cold blue glare fell on him.
"Hower, it never mattered before," Minya snapped. "So how about it? I've got good teeth," she said, pulling her lips back with her fingers to show her.
Xena's eyebrows furrowed. "Uh . . . I'm fine, thanks."
"Aw come on, we haven't had anything to eat in days," Minya pouted, motioning to the camp.
Xena pulled out a small bag of jerky and tossed it to the woman, who grinned and eagerly opened the bag as a few peasants emerged from the tents.
"Hey!" Hower said, eyeing the tall, beautiful stranger with concern as Minya passed out the food until it was gone. Minya returned to Hower's side, eyeing Argo with interest then elbowed Hower, who got the hint and valiantly stepped up.
"How many nights of unimaginable bliss would it take for your . . . ?" Hower offered with bravado, standing tall, willing to make this huge sacrifice with this beautiful woman for his beloved . . . what's her name.
"Touch my horse and die," Xena growled, her sword already unsheathed and at the peasant's throat.
"Okie Dokie," Hower said and stepped back away from the horse. Minya eyed him with disappointment. "Can I help it she prefers women?" Hower explained defensively.
"Can you blame her?" Minya said, shaking her head. "Ok, I got the food and I always keep my word. Where do you want to do it??" She said gruffly, looking around the camp.
"I'm not interested," Xena said bluntly, but saw the hurt look on the peasant's face. "Uh . . . I'm already involved," Xena offered with a weak smile and shrug.
Minya glanced at her boyfriend with dissatisfaction, then the beautiful woman rider. "So?"
"She's very possessive."
"Oh," Minya said with disappointment, then tried "But a deal's a deal . . . . "
"What if you pay me with information, instead?" Xena offered with a thin smile.
Xena sat at the campfire with a group of the peasants, including the old woman and the old man she saw by the tent earlier, and Hower. She was rather relieved that Minya hadn't joined them.
"So, tell me about this Callisto," Xena asked pointedly, provoking disturbed looks from the group.
Xena cringed uncomfortably when Minya finally joined them. The gawky brunette had washed her face, combed her hair, and changed into a dress without as many holes. Hower's eyebrows furrowed with irritation.
Attempting to be graceful when she sat but not quite succeeding, Minya flattened out the wrinkles in her dress then smiled coyly at her guest, who returned a weak smile and redirected her gaze to the fire, scratching the back of her neck.
"It's hard to believe you don't know, Callisto," the old woman and apparent leader of the camp said skeptically. "How do we know you aren't a spy for her?"
"First, I'm a soldier for her, then a spy?" Xena responded shaking her head with amusement.
"You haven't answered my question," the old woman said.
"No, I haven't. And as I see it, you owe me information, not the other way around," Xena said tightly, eyeing the old woman, who swallowed uneasily.
"Or we could go back to the original conditions," Minya suggested helpfully, suddenly tossing her handkerchief to the ground and leaning over to pick it up, pausing to display her attributes.
"I am not a spy nor a soldier for the Empress," Xena blurted quickly to the old woman. "I am the Empress," she added firmly.
The peasants burst into laughter. "I am!" Xena blurted with anger, making them laugh more.
"Your hair is not blond," the older woman countered.
"And you certainly are not skinny like her," Minya said, eyeing the stranger's build appreciatively.
"So you're saying you're Callisto?" Hower asked with amusement.
"Ugh!" Xena growled as she pulled out a coin from her pouch and tossed it to the old woman.
"My eyesight cannot be bought, warrior," the old woman said with irritation.
"I can," Minya blurted with a smile and added "Callisto," and fluttered her eyelashes.
"Minya!!" Hower snapped.
"Look at it," Xena commanded, startling the old woman, who inspected the coin.
Xena really wished Gabrielle was here to talk with these people. Talking to people was not her strong suit. Commanding or threatening them . . . sure. Why in Tartarus was she even bothering to be nice to them anyway?!? Because it's what Gabrielle would want her to do.
"So, I haven't seen a BC coin in a while. What is this supposed to prove?"
"BC?" Xena asked curiously.
"BC . . . Before Callisto," the old woman responded with surprise at the tall woman's genuine ignorance.
"When Callisto took over, she had her image placed on all the coin. Just like Empress Xena did," she noted, then eyed the likeness. She glanced between the coin and the stranger curiously. When she saw the stranger's eyebrow rise questioningly, she gasped. "By the GODs."
Suddenly the old woman fell to her knees, trembling. "I beg you forgive this old fool, Empress Xena."
"Please get . . . " Xena said wearily, interrupted when the old woman gasped, clenched her chest, and fell over.
Xena quickly placed the old woman on a cot inside the healer's tent as the peasants waited nervously just outside, except for Minya who hesitantly entered.
"Is she dead?" Minya asked as Xena checked for a pulse.
"No," Xena said with a relieved sigh. "Where's your healer?"
Minya pointed to the unconscious old woman. "Wonderful," Xena said, rolling her eyes. "Bring me the pouch of herbs out of my saddle bag and some hot water."
"How long have you lived like this?" Xena asked Minya, while she opened the pouch and inspected the herbs.
"About three winters, your highness," Minya said shrugging. The startled Conqueror looked up at her with surprise, which was quickly masked as she returned to gaze at her herbs.
"What happened three years ago?" She asked evenly and mixed together a few herbs in a cup.
"Callisto destroyed our town, your majesty."
"Why?" Xena asked as she poured the hot water into the cup.
"We had rebelled, oh great one."
"Minya," Xena exhaled with irritation, then took a patient breath and forced a smile. "Do me a favor and just call me Xena. Ok?"
"Ok," she said hesitantly and added with a shy giggle "Xena."
Xena stared at her. The pinch would be so much quicker. "And why did you rebel?" She asked the giddy peasant tightly.
"Well, Xena," Minya said with a grin and another giggle. "After you disappeared, no one wanted to be stuck with another selfish, oppressive dictator with high taxes, uh, what I mean is, uh . . . " the peasant said nervously.
"Minya," Xena snapped with irritation, then let out a long exhale. "I just want the truth. I've had enough ass-kissing for a life time."
"Oh," Minya said with disappointment then continued. "Well, like many other towns, we thought we'd finally be able to live free, under our own rules. So we declared our independence from the new Empire and stopped paying taxes. The next thing we know, Callisto arrived with a huge army. The only reason anyone from our town is alive today is because the Amazons came to help," Minya said, provoking a small smile from Xena, who stirred the herbal tea.
"But many were lost, even children," Minya said uncomfortably, Xena nodded sadly, recalling Gabrielle's disturbing account in that scroll.
"The Amazons even lost their Queen and their Princess was seriously injured. The town was quickly leveled after that."
"Seriously injured? What happened?!?" Xena blurted with concern.
"She was plowing through the soldiers, whacking them silly with her staff. You should have seen it! Bam, bam, bam. She was amazing! They couldn't touch her," Minya recounted enthusiastically. "But after Callisto killed Queen Melosa, she nailed Princess Gabrielle with her cross-bow, right here," the peasant pointed to her shoulder and shuddered.
"But instead of finishing her off, Callisto dragged her behind her horse, into the center of town," Minya relayed, making Xena grit her teeth and want to cause Callisto ten times the pain she had caused Gabrielle. "The Empress made her watch the town's destruction, threatening the Princess that more destruction would come if anyone else dared to rebel," Minya said. "Then Callisto left. I can still hear her laugh," the peasant woman said and cringed, shaking her head.
"The Princess almost died right there. She was bleeding really bad. But two Amazons, got her to Cumae in time," Minya relayed, eyeing the older woman.
Xena looked at the healer with amazement, then gratitude.
"We never could figure out why one of them was buck naked though," Minya said thoughtfully then added with a shrug "I guess it did distract a lot of the soldiers during battle but you'd think it would . . . "
Glancing up from her ample breasts to seeing Xena's irritated gaze at her tangent, Minya continued. "Anyway, Callisto made her biggest mistake. Her actions that day created her worst enemy - Queen Gabrielle. She has vowed to stop Callisto. The people want her to and eventually, she will," Minya said with confidence, which was quickly replaced with concern.
"But what will you do?" Minya suddenly said, disturbing Xena from her thoughts.
"Yeah, now that you're back, what are you going to do??" Minya said uneasily.
"I'm going to help your healer," she said, glancing at the older woman.
"Go to sleep."
Minya suddenly grabbed a small knife and nervously pointed it at the former Empress. "Queen Gabrielle is fighting for us. She is our only hope. I won't let you kill her," Minya said defiantly, bringing a pleased smile to Xena's face. "I mean it!" Minya added with irritation.
"I know," Xena said softly. "Put down the knife, Minya. I would never harm, Gabrielle."
"Why not? She would be a great threat to you if you regained the throne," Minya challenged the former Empress.
"Well, I guess I'd have to get her one too, so we don't fight over it," Xena offered with amusement, confusing the peasant.
"But . . . she wouldn't just sit around on a throne and allow you to dictate like you used to," Minya argued heatedly.
"No, I don't expect she would," Xena said with a smile. Her eyebrow rose as she looked at the loyal peasant then the knife still clenched in her hand.
"Oh, put the knife down, Minya. Before you stab yourself," the old woman said with a gravely voice, shifting in her cot. "Gods, the only thing worse than an old fool is a young fool," she grumbled.
"Good, you're awake. Sip this," Xena said, handing the mug of herbal tea to the old woman, ignoring Minya, who stood with the knife, still confused.
"Ah, you know your herbs," the old woman said approvingly as she sipped the mug of tea. "You wouldn't mind leaving a little behind for us when you go?" The healer asked, eyeing the bag of herbs.
"They're yours," Xena quickly said, making the old woman smile.
"Wait a minute! How do we know you won't just go after Queen Gabrielle and Empress Callisto to get your Empire back?" Minya challenged, still holding onto the knife.
"Minya, she helped us. Why would she do that if she was an enemy? Queen Gabrielle isn't in any danger from this woman," Cumae said.
"How do you know?" Minya argued, still holding onto the knife.
"Because it seems that this woman loves her," Cumae said, looking at Xena, who smiled and glanced down feeling suddenly shy from this woman's comment.
"She could be a stalker," Minya said knowingly and added ominously "they claim to love, but as soon as they are rejected . . . ."
"Minya, quiet! I don't believe that will happen," Cumae said with a smile. "When I treated Queen Gabrielle, she said she loved Xena. Though, I thought she was just delusional with that high fever she had," the old woman admitted sheepishly.
Chapter 22 - Bended Ear
At night, Xena made camp by the river, away from the peasant camp, though she was invited to share a tent with Minya, a number of times.
After placing a few branches on the fire, she lay on her bedroll. Her mind was too busy sorting through the incredible news to let her sleep. So, she stared at the stars, thinking.
War changes people, she knew. What if Gabrielle's claim in the scroll was no longer true. What if, like everything else, the bard's love for her had changed? So much time had passed. Almost five winters . . . .
Why did this have to happen just after finding happiness with Gabrielle, she wondered angrily, gazing at the heavens with a furrowed brow. Because she was still cursed, she concluded as loneliness welled up within her heart. Hearing a twig break, she knew she wasn't alone anymore.
Heavy, shuffling footsteps and muffled grunts clearly announced the intruder's every movement. With shut eyes, Xena waited, listening as he came closer and closer. When the footsteps finally stopped, she jumped up, unsheathed her sword and pointed it at the intruder, who dropped a heavy rock onto his foot with a deep thump.
"Ahhhh!" Hower screeched and clenched his foot, hopping around on one leg until he fell over. "Ooff."
Xena eyed him and sheathed her sword, shaking her head. "So what's the rock for, Hower?" She asked flatly, crossing her arms across her chest.
"Please don't kill me," he pleaded into the dirt.
"Why not? I'm usually not too receptive to people trying to bash my head in."
Hower shifted into a sitting position on the dirt. He looked pathetic and lost. "Your head is worth five thousand dinars. That would feed us for a very long time."
"And if you actually succeeded in bashing my head in, how would they know it was mine?"
"Oh," Hower said dejectedly, not having really thought about that. He had spent all day just coming up with the rock plan.
"You need to cut it off," she said helpfully, pulling out a dagger with a smile as she slowly crouched down next to him. "Nice and clean, so the face is recognizable," she explained pointing to his neck with her dagger exactly where to cut. ". . . and the trophy can be presented."
"Please don't kill me," he whimpered, eyeing the dagger with fear.
Xena sighed. "Have you ever thought about hunting for food?"
Hower looked at Argo, who neighed with irritation.
"Think about her again and I will kill you," Xena said evenly, causing the man to quickly avert his gaze from her prize horse.
"The land seems to have some game," Xena offered, putting her dagger away. "And there's a stream that's bound to have a few fish."
"Callisto killed most of the men in our village. I'm no good at hunting or fishing," he said dejectedly. "I'm no good at anything, ask Minya."
Xena rolled her eyes.
Xena sat staring into the small fire that Hower kept feeding with branches while he talked. And talked. And talked. . . .
"When we first met, she only had eyes for me," Hower said, smiling fondly at the memory.
I don't recall inviting him to talk my ear off. But here he is. She glanced at him with a weak smile.
"Then her eye started to wander," he said with amazement at that possibility.
How did "You need to learn how to hunt and fish. I'll teach you in the morning," give him the impression I wanted him to stay and chat??
"Sure, I was starting to gain a little weight . . ."
Well, at least I should be able to sleep now. Xena yawned.
". . . but I wasn't fat," he said defensively.
I wonder what Gabrielle is doing right now. Probably something fun, like planning a battle . . . .
After long hours of debating over the Queen's plan, the Centaur General had enough.
"Let us sleep on it," the General said tersely.
Gabrielle would not be put off easily. "You know as well as I do there will never be an opportunity like this one. She has her troops scattered about the lands. She has never been as vulnerable as . . . "
"Queen Gabrielle, I am not arguing. But we will not settle all the details this evening," Tyldus said with a yawn.
"But . . . "
"I am tired. We will work with you - tomorrow. Goodnight, Queen Gabrielle," the Centaur general said briskly and left the tent with his son, who paused and smiled at Ephiny before he left.
Gabrielle sighed heavily and suddenly slapped her hand against the map table with frustration. She wanted the details to be ironed out quickly, certain they didn't have time to waste. Callisto must know that with the Centaurs, they had a chance of defeating the Northern army. So she would obviously call for reinforcements, Gabrielle thought. Then the advantage, and a real chance of victory, would be lost in only a few days.
Ephiny looked at the tent opening, then back at her Queen uneasily.
"Go ahead, say what's on your mind before I beat it out of you," Gabrielle said with irritation, rubbing her temples.
"I really like him."
"Oh?" Gabrielle said hesitantly.
"What do you think of him?" Ephiny asked expectantly.
"Uh . . . I, really don't . . . uh, he seems to be really . . . sharp. A good head on his shoulders," Gabrielle said with a smile for her relieved friend.
"We've been seeing each other," Ephiny relayed shyly.
"He's a great dancer," Ephiny offered wistfully.
"Centaurs dance?" Gabrielle's eyebrows furrowed curiously.
"Not all of them. But Phantes is a really great hoofer."
"My mother used to tell me it's very rare to find a man who will dance with you," she added, recalling her mother's little talks fondly. "And if she had ever found one, he would have been a keeper."
"A keeper? That sounds rather serious."
"Phantes and I have actually talked about getting married."
"You can do that?!?" Gabrielle asked with amazement.
"Sure, why not?"
"I . . . uh, no reason."
Ephiny smiled. "We wanted to tie the knot before the attack. Just in case things didn't go so well."
"So soon? But you only just met him, Ephiny," Gabrielle said with surprise.
"I've known him a week!"
"But how can you really be ready for a life-long commitment after such a short . . ." Gabrielle blurted then paused, realizing she was the last person to question knowing one's heart after such a short time. "You're sure, aren't you?"
Gabrielle nodded with a small smile and looked at the map. She sighed and felt obligated to offer her best friend an option. "You don't have to lead them into battle, you know. You and Phantes could . . . . "
"Queen Gabrielle, I am an Amazon," Ephiny said testily. "I have had many sisters die because of Callisto. I will not shirk my duties and dishonor those who died or risk those who remain, including my Queen, who happens to need my help!"
"And I certainly do," Gabrielle said and nodded at her friend, expecting no less from her.
"Once we bring peace to the land, we'll settle down and have a family," Ephiny said with confidence looking at the map.
The Queen never saw a scroll on that. How on earth . . . ?
Ephiny continued to study the map. "It will be difficult," the regent said, pointing to the area where the army was.
Gabrielle nodded thoughtfully. No doubt . . . .
"But I know we'll succeed," Ephiny continued with confidence, glancing to her Queen.
"Or die trying," Gabrielle offered with a smirk, glancing back at the map.
"Well, that would be better than dying of old age in a rocking chair."
"If you say so," Gabrielle said flatly. "I happen to be a big fan of old age and rocking chairs."
"If you say so," Ephiny said skeptically.
"Hey! Thanks to you, I now have a map of the castle, Ephiny," Gabrielle responded defensively. "I am planning on coming back, WITH my parents."
"I'd argue with you, but I know that wouldn't do any good."
"My plan will work. And I can handle myself, Ephiny," Gabrielle said with irritation, crossing her arms over her chest.
Ephiny looked at her friend, who had become a force to be reckoned with. Her skills had dramatically improved. She could beat any Amazon now with almost any weapon. But the bard Queen's most formidable weapon was her mind, which was perfectly suited for strategy. She had won many small battles against Callisto and was successfully eroding away her power. And now she was on the verge of a monumental victory.
But still, Ephiny worried, Callisto was an insane, unpredictable wildcard that Gabrielle was trying to predict. And she had Gabrielle's parents.
"This is Callisto, Gabrielle. She's not your typical evil bitch."
"I know," Gabrielle said with a weary sigh.
"I still wish you would take us with you," Ephiny grumbled.
"She has spies, Ephiny. I know the moment any of my Amazons are noted missing from the camp, she'll figure out what I'm trying to do. And I need you at the front, Ephiny. Now more than ever. Once you punch through the Northern Army, we'll be ready for you at the castle. There will never be another opportunity like this. This will work."
Ephiny grunted unhappily.
Gabrielle chuckled at her friend. "I bet you never imagined any of this happening when we were by the river with Terreis."
"No, can't say that was anything close to what I was imagining," Ephiny said with a smile finally filling her face. "So . . . will you marry us?"
"I can do that??"
"Sure, why not?"
"Uh . . . no reason. I'd be happy to marry you, Ephiny."
"Then she started dropping hints about trying new stuff," Hower continued as Xena blinked numbly at the fire.
I could still kill him. After all, he did try to bash my head in with a rock.
"I don't know any new stuff, you know?" He said with great frustration.
And it would get me out of my promise tomorrow.
"So I was thinking . . . "
Can't teach a dead man to fish . . . .
"Do you have any special . . . techniques you could share with me?"
But he seems like a nice guy . . . kinda. Did he just stop talking?
"Hmm?" Xena said, looking up from the fire.
"Techniques? Do you have any techniques that you could share?"
"Look, I know you have a reputation for being . . . well, amazing in the bedroom and I was . . ."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!"
"Come on, Xena, please! I want to please her. I'm desperate here."
"You sure are, if you're asking me."
"From all those stories I've heard, you must have something you can share that will help me satisfy her."
Xena cringed when she heard a pathetic "please."
With a sigh, she shook her head wearily and eyed an expectant Hower, who quickly blurted "Please, please, please, please. . . ."
"Ok!" Xena sharply interrupted and rolled her eyes, getting a huge grin from the man. "I'll share a few things," she relented. Her new student eagerly leaned forward to hear every sage word from the infamous Empress.
"Let's see," Xena scratched her chin, thinking through her list. "You already know her name. . . ."
Hower's eyebrows furrowed curiously.
"Uh, she's not married, right?"
Hower shook his head hesitantly.
"You don't seem so sure. You don't want to be surprised about that, Hower. That certainly will ruin the mood. Trust me," Xena said wisely. "And when your mood is ruined, her mood will be ruined. . . ."
"She's not married," Hower said with irritation.
"And you aren't either, I hope."
"Hey, you're the one who asked the question," Xena said with irritation.
"Sorry," he grumbled softly.
"Ok," Xena said and looked up at the stars and smiled. "Do you trust her?"
"What? Aren't you going to tell me about any techniques?"
"Answer my question."
"But," Hower said, then saw the stern look on the Empress' face. "Yes," he answered hesitantly. "But what has that. . . ."
"Really trust her?"
"Yes. I do," he said with irritation.
"Good. That's very important. You need to trust her. Trust her to tell you what she wants when you ask her."
"You mean I have to talk to her about this?" He blurted with surprise.
"I know, it's scary, Hower. But you said she has already mentioned she was interested in new things. Did you ever let her actually show you what she wanted?"
"But I'm the man. I'm supposed to lead and know things!" He said with frustration as Xena rolled her eyes. "Are you going to tell me about any techniques or not??"
"You are looking for a quick fix . . . "
"Hower, there aren't any. If you aren't comfortable talking with her about this then it's no wonder you are having difficulties with . . . you know."
Chapter 23 - Dearly Beloved
The atmosphere was tense in the Amazon and Centaur camp. All knew that tomorrow, history would be made, regardless of the outcome.
But for today, the focus was not on battles but on unions as the Amazon sisters and Centaur brothers gathered, taking a short break from their war preparations. Years ago, no one would have imagined an alliance between the Amazons and Centaurs. Their history had been one of distrust, at best. But times had changed. And thanks to the Amazon Queen, who stood before a crowd in her ceremonial leathers, a new age of cooperation had begun. One which Gabrielle prayed would last well beyond tomorrow.
As the happy couple approached the Centaur General and Amazon Queen, Gabrielle raised her hand to hush the murmuring crowd. After a pleased grin at the couple, the Queen spoke, looking out over the gathering.
"Since I have become Queen, the ceremonies I've performed have been to honor our noble sisters who have died in our struggle against evil. But for today, I am truly pleased to be part of a ceremony that celebrates life, love, and hope for our future," Gabrielle smiled down at Ephiny and Phantes, who grinned and glanced at each other.
"Love is a precious gift. And as Ephiny and Phantes know, time with a loved one should not be wasted. So, to not waste any more time, let's get down to business, shall we?" Gabrielle said with a grin, eyeing the couple as chuckles erupted from the audience.
"Please face each other," Gabrielle said. After the couple stood hoof to toe, the Queen continued.
"Ephiny, do you promise to love Phantes, above all others and cherish each day with him?"
"I do," Ephiny said, glancing at the General, who nodded happily.
"Phantes, do you promise to love Ephiny, above all others and cherish each day with her?"
"Yes," Phantes said confidently to Queen Gabrielle, though his tail whipped about.
"As Amazon Queen, I pronounce Ephiny and Phantes married. May your life together be lived with honor and purpose, and be full of love," Queen Gabrielle said with warmth. "You may kiss."
Phantes smiled and leaned over, kissing Ephiny gently as the crowd cheered.
Solari stood at the front of Gabrielle's tent and softly called out "Gabrielle?"
"Solari! Come in," Gabrielle said happily as she finished changing out of her ceremonial leathers into a dark green tunic. "Tell me, did my angry sister go to Poteidaia like she said?"
"No. She went to the castle again, like you said," Solari said with irritation.
Gabrielle nodded thoughtfully and eyed the angry Amazon. "She's doing what she thinks is right."
"By spying for the enemy?!?"
"She's only trying to help our parents. I didn't give her much choice," she said guiltily for having used Lila and in doing so, endangering her.
"Do you really think Lila will be able to just walk away from the castle with your parents, Gabrielle?"
"No," Gabrielle said and exhaled wearily. "This time, I expect she'll be put into the dungeon with them. She won't be able to give them any more information before the attack," the Queen added, almost as if she were discussing the weather.
"My family will be fine as long as Callisto thinks she can have fun killing them in front of me. They're all just pawns in Callisto's game," Gabrielle said, desperately wanting this game to end. She was always aware that, like in the game of King's men, the Queen might have to be sacrificed to secure the victory. But she prayed the sacrifice did not have to include the Queen's family.
"Gabrielle?" A soft voice called from the back of the tent.
Solari's hand immediately grabbed the hilt of her dagger. Gabrielle waved off her tense Amazon friend and knelt by the tent wall. Pulling up the edge, the Queen allowed a blond Amazon to enter.
Solari's eyes widened, then she grinned. "You found them!"
"Shhhh," Gabrielle said as she helped the Northern Amazon up.
"Yakut, did you have any trouble?"
"Nope," she said with a shrug. "They are by the river with Otere, waiting for you."
"Wait a minute. By the river? Waiting for you?" Solari snapped.
"SSSSSSHHHH!" Gabrielle said, clamping her hand over her friend's mouth.
"I need your help, Solari. We can't have anyone knowing about the Northern Amazons or our mission tonight," Gabrielle said with urgency.
"Toodngmpft?!?" Solari looked at Yakut, who nodded, then noticed a very interesting birthmark.
"I know, but I didn't want Lila, or anyone else, overhearing any conversations or picking up that something was going on besides the attack with the Centaurs. I couldn't take that chance. Do you understand?"
Pulling her hood over her head, Xena emerged from the night and entered the busy Poteidaian tavern. Some things never change, she thought, glancing around the room full of people trying to escape their troubles.
Two uniformed guards wearing leather tunics, entered the tavern, eyeing the suspicious cloaked figure that sat quietly at the bar. Rubus, the bartender came up with a tired smile. "What will you have?"
"Coming right up," Rubus said, glancing at the guards uneasily as he quickly poured the port and served it to her. She pulled out a dinar and tossed it on the bar as he placed her mug in front of her.
He picked up the old coin and looked at it with surprise.
"Barkeep, two meads," the smaller guard ordered.
"Yes sir," Rubus blurted and quickly got them their drinks. They took their mugs and headed for a table, which was immediately vacated by three nervous patrons.
"Excuse me? I think you forgot to pay," Xena said politely. The chatter in the tavern suddenly quieted as the guards halted in their tracks and turned around to the cloaked figure.
"Who dares question us?" The smaller guard snapped and pulled out his sword.
"Please, please, we don't want any trouble," Cyrene called out nervously, quickly descending the stairs.
Xena glanced at her mother, startled at the grey that now streaked her hair.
"Then teach your customers to respect the imperial guard," the large man snarled.
Not likely. Xena sipped her port as her hand rested comfortably on her chakram.
"Of course. Please, take your mead and enjoy, please," Cyrene said wearily with a forced smile. The guards grumbled and sat down.
The tavern owner turned to the hooded woman. "Please, I don't want any more. . . trouble," Cyrene finished absently, noticing the familiar round weapon at the customer's side peaking out from beneath the cloak.
Xena said in a low, quiet voice. "I'm afraid the trouble is just really starting, mother."
Cyrene blinked, struggling to believe her eyes. Xena had come home.
"Do you have rooms?" Xena said loudly as she stood, causing the lazy guards to briefly glance her way, satisfied the hooded patron would not challenge them again.
As they entered a room, Cyrene immediately hugged her daughter, who gratefully returned the embrace. "Dear Gods. Look at you!" Cyrene said as she laughed and cried, wiping tears from her eyes as she pulled back and inspected her daughter. Xena looked as if no time had passed. "No one thought you'd wake. Except Gabrielle," she added with wonder.
"Where is she?" Xena asked softly, searching her mother's face.
"I don't know," Cyrene said, guiltily cringing at the disappointment on her daughter's face. "The last I heard from her, she was going to recruit help to attack the castle. She's an Amazon Queen now, Xena."
Xena nodded as she paced. "She wants to attack my castle?"
"It's Callisto's castle now. And yes, she wants to attack the castle and stop that mad woman."
Xena looked at her mother, concerned Gabrielle's desire to stop the new Empress had clouded her judgment. "You don't just go and attack a castle without major losses," Xena blurted with frustration. "Why do you think I built those big stone walls with turrets around the castle?!? She'll be a sitting duck!"
Cyrene cringed at the outburst and Xena's unsettling point.
The Conqueror exhaled her frustration as she sat. "How is she?"
Cyrene smiled, heartened to see the concern and love her daughter expressed for the young woman.
"It's been almost five winters," Cyrene said. "Gabrielle is . . . ok, considering," she said hesitantly. Seeing her daughter's expectant gaze, she continued. "You don't know what she's been through," she relayed uneasily, sitting with her daughter at the small table.
"Tell me," Xena urged her mother softly.
"She's seen much death. So many have died, including Melosa," Cyrene said, glancing down and pausing a moment.
"I'm sorry, Mother," Xena said sincerely, grasping Cyrene's hand and squeezing it. "I heard she died honorably, defending a town from Callisto and her army."
Cyrene nodded and sighed heavily. "The town was destroyed. Melosa was killed. And Gabrielle was seriously injured."
"I've heard she was shot with a cross-bow," Xena said tightly.
Cyrene nodded. "After she regained her strength, the Amazon resistance increased. The Southern and Eastern lands are no longer under Callisto's control."
"It sounds like Gabrielle is doing . . . well," Xena said cautiously.
Cyrene laughed derisively. "No, Xena, she's not. That sweet, young bard has been scarred by all the bloodshed. I don't know if those wounds will ever get a chance to heal. And now, Callisto has her parents. They are in the castle's dungeon."
"She must know they'll be killed if she tries to storm the castle," Xena said with worry.
Cyrene frowned. "I don't know if it really matters."
"What? What do you mean?"
"When Callisto came for Gabrielle's parents, they claimed they didn't know her," Cyrene cringed guiltily. "The blacksmith and his wife heard everything. The news, all of it, quickly got back to her."
"Look, Gabrielle might have been hurt, but she wouldn't just let them die."
Cyrene sighed. "She's changed."
"But she wouldn't let them die," Xena repeated with irritation.
"She'll do whatever it takes to defeat Callisto, Xena."
Shortly after the sun set, no one saw the Amazon Queen leave the camp, as was intended. Gabrielle paused, looking through the trees, back at the small camp fires with a heavy heart. She knew that even with victory, there would be fewer fires the next evening.
Saying a small prayer that Artemis would watch over them all, she continued her journey.
Gabrielle arrived at the river, which calmly rolled along in the moonlight, blissfully unaware of the turmoil that would soon erupt. A breeze rustled through the leaves and Gabrielle paused to listen, enjoying the precious moment of peace while she could, for she knew peaceful moments never lasted very long.
Hearing the faint call of her sisters, Gabrielle looked up to the tree tops. Pleased they were still well hidden, she clasped her hands above her head and responded with the ancient reply, "Quack, quackquack, Quack, Quack . . . ."
"Quack, quack," responded her sisters as they quietly emerged from the trees. There were only a dozen of them, Gabrielle included. But a dozen was all that she needed to penetrate the castle and do the job they needed to do.
"Patrols will come through here soon. We must go," Otere said as she clasped Gabrielle's forearm in greeting.
"Let's go then."
Chapter 24 - Towards Destiny
Moving through the tree tops, the dozen Amazons carefully watched the Army camp in the distant clearing. Soldiers sat around their fires, just like in the Amazon and Centaur camp, Gabrielle noted with a heavy heart.
Hearing footsteps crunching through leaves, the nervous Queen glanced at her sisters in nearby branches, who had stopped their movement. They silently waited as the muscular guard stopped just beneath them, stood tall, and looked around. Gabrielle held her breath, hoping he hadn't heard something that would betray their position.
Everything depended on them getting past this army undetected.
As she watched the guard, she noted he seemed familiar. She cringed, as did the rest of the Amazons, when he pulled his manhood out and relieved himself in the bushes.
"Perdicus, where in Tartarus . . . there you are!" another guard said as he jogged up.
"Just taking care of business," Perdicus said with a sigh.
"Can't hold your mead?" The other guard said with a snicker.
"I didn't have any," Perdicus said with irritation.
"Hold on," the other guard said tensely, grabbing the man's arm as he looked around.
The Queen shut her eyes and prayed they had not been discovered.
"What is it," Perdicus whispered nervously, whipping out his sword.
The other guard chuckled at Perdicus' gullibility.
"You're an ass, Talbot, has anyone ever told you that?"
"You, my friend," he smiled proudly. "You'd better put that thing away, before someone gets hurt," Talbot looked down at Perdicus and chuckled.
"Jerk," he growled and quickly put his sword and himself away.
Gabrielle looked at her old friend with mixed emotions as the men walked away from the area. He had joined the army because they recruited him. But he had a choice, either join or die. The kind of choice Xena used to give people, Gabrielle thought with a sinking stomach.
Hearing the soldier's continued chuckling at her friend, her eyes narrowed. She felt like kicking that jerk's butt. But she was well aware she couldn't indulge in that pleasure at the moment. At least she'd have more than enough opportunity to release her pent-up frustration soon, she considered. And after five winters, she had a whole lot of frustration, she sighed.
The other sisters curiously watched as their preoccupied Queen looked up and uncomfortably realized their eyes were on her. Before she could signal for them to move, another commotion captured their attention. A lone rider raced into camp on her black horse and pulled on the reigns hard. The horse stopped, neighed wildly as he reared up on his hind legs. When he settled down, Callisto dismounted.
Gabrielle's heart pounded as a cold chill spread through her, like someone had walked on her grave. But realizing the Empress had done exactly what she had expected - left the castle - a slow, satisfied smile emerged.
"Empress! We didn't expect you," the senior officer said nervously after rushing from his tent to greet the blond ruler.
The tired camp suddenly seemed to liven up. Soldiers stood more alert and the sound of whet stones sharpening swords increased.
"Apparently," she said flatly. "Bring your perimeter patrol here," she ordered and dismounted. Seeing everyone standing frozen, she sighed. "In my lifetime?" She added impatiently, prompting two soldiers to rush off to find them.
"S . . . so to what do we owe the pleasure, your highness?" Captain Faulks asked, poorly masking his fear.
"I thought it was a nice night for a visit," she said, glancing around the camp, then smiled at him. "Don't you think?"
"Uh . . . if we had known, we would have had a royal tent prepared."
She looked at him with narrow eyes. "Luxury makes one weak, Captain. I'm concerned my troops have had it too good. Do you think they are ready for battle?"
After glancing quickly around the camp uneasily, he answered "Of course."
"Really?" She purred.
"Yes," he said with a firm nod.
"How about tomorrow? Oh, let's say . . . against Centaurs and Amazons?"
He looked at her. "Huh?"
"Huh? Huh?" She mimicked, then spat "Imbeciles. Well, I did say I like challenges," she said and exhaled wearily. Suddenly, she perked up. "So, where are those crack perimeter guards of yours?"
Perdicus and Talbot jogged up to the Empress and stood at attention.
"These are the men who've been on patrol for the past two candle marks," the captain informed her uneasily.
Callisto walked up to Perdicus and slowly circled him, looking him over. He trembled, thankful he had just relieved himself earlier. When Talbot became the focus of her attention, Perdicus began breathing again. Slowly, the Empress walked around the other soldier, stopping just behind him.
"What's your name, tiger?" She spoke softly in his hear.
"Talbot, your highness."
"What a nice name," she said sweetly.
"Thank you, ma'am," he said and added proudly "It was my great grandfather's."
"Uh huh. Now Talbot," she said and smiled. "Tell me what you've seen on your little patrol."
"Are you asking me or telling me, son?" Callisto asked, placing her hand on his shoulder in a fatherly manner.
After she punched him in the gut, he huddled over gasping. She grabbed his head and violently twisted it, causing a loud snap and a few muffled gasps from the surrounding soldiers. Releasing the limp body, she dusted off her hands as she watched the body crumple to the ground.
Her eyes darted to Perdicus and she smiled.
"Can I count on you to do a better job on the perimeter?" Callisto asked Perdicus sweetly as stepped over Talbot's body.
"Yes, Ma'am!" Perdicus blurted as he trembled.
"Good boy," she said with a warm smile that disappeared when she added "Captain get your men ready to move at dawn."
"Where are we going?" The captain asked.
"Towards destiny," she said vaguely, staring out into the trees.
With ceremonial masks donned, Solari and Ephiny rode beside Yakut, as the Amazon troops started to assemble for the dawn march towards the enemy.
"Are you saying she already told you about all of this?" Solari asked Ephiny with surprise.
"Yeah?" Ephiny said. The sore Amazon grimaced as she shifted in her saddle.
"Why did she tell you and not me?!?" Solari snapped.
"Because you can't keep a secret?" Ephiny offered, shifting in her saddle again with a cringe.
"Now wait a minute. You're the one who . . . !"
"Would you two stop arguing?" Yakut said with irritation. "We need to focus on the battle."
"Just because you get to wear the Queen's mask, don't be thinking you can order us around," Solari warned.
Yakut sighed and shook her head. Looking over Solari, she asked "Are you really sure you don't want to wear something besides your mask?"
"No, I don't want to wear anything besides my mask!" Solari responded heatedly as the Centaur general trotted up with his son. "If the Gods wanted us to wear clothing, we would have been born with it! Don't you agree, General?" Solari asked the Centaur, who looked curiously at the only three Amazons in masks.
"Actually, I've always wondered why humans were so preoccupied with clothing," Tyldus said honestly.
Solari looked at Yakut and triumphantly said "Ha!"
"And I didn't realize Amazons fought in masks," the General said, looking at them curiously.
"We do it all the time," Solari said as Ephiny blurted, "It's for special occasions."
The General and his son looked confused as Ephiny nervously added "which we have all the time," as Solari blurted "occasionally."
The Centaurs looked at each other.
"Actually, they're for good luck," Yakut explained in a deep, stilted voice, which made her cough and the Amazons cringe.
"Are you all right?" Tyldus asked with concern.
"Bad cold," Ephiny said as Solari blurted, "Just a sore throat."
"From her cold," Solari added as Ephiny blurted "and sore throat." The two Amazons glared at each other. Yakut rolled her eyes.
The General looked at his son, who shrugged.
In the forest by the castle, the small group of Amazons searched for the entrance to the tunnels. Gabrielle had anticipated getting inside the castle before dawn, but dawn came and they had not yet found the markers. Each moment they searched in the daylight, Gabrielle grew more concerned her map was wrong.
"Queen Gabrielle! Over here!" An excited young Amazon called out in an urgent hush, prompting the group to gather about a small pile of stones, buried beneath years of growth.
"Good eyes, Celeste," Gabrielle said to the proud young Amazon. "All right, this is the way in and it may be our only way out if we can't secure the castle. I need two volunteers to guard this exit."
The Amazons looked at each other not exactly thrilled with that job. Finally, two Amazons reluctantly raised their hands.
"Thank you," Gabrielle said with a warm smile for them that made the others wish they had volunteered.
Racing through the forest, Xena pulled on Argo's reigns as she came upon a caravan.
On foot, on horse, and in various dilapidated wagons, a large group of people traveled with assorted clothing, furniture, pots and pans, which were haphazardly tied down to whatever would carry their belongings.
"What's going on?" Xena asked an old man and woman as she pulled Argo up next their wagon.
"Fighting. It just moved into our village," he said, shaking his head and glancing over his shoulder to the road behind them.
"I haven't seen a battle like that in years," the old woman said with amazement.
"Yeah, one of them Amazons was buck naked, wielding a sword," the man said with a little too much amusement and got an elbow from his wife.
"She wore a mask," the wife clarified.
"She did?" he asked, getting elbowed again.
The old woman was about to say something, but noticed the dark woman race away, kicking up a cloud of dust.
"How rude," she huffed.
Chapter 25 - A Call to Arms
Bodies littered the blood-stained streets as swords frantically clashed in the struggle for the future. As the battle waged on, both sides continued to suffer losses without either gaining a clear advantage.
Putting her foot on the Amazon's chest, Callisto yanked out her sword in time to deflect a Centaurs' blow as he galloped by. He turned around and watched her mount her black horse.
"Hey, big fella!" She smiled and charged him. After a few traded blows, she sliced a deep gash across his chest. His legs buckled and he crashed to the ground.
She pulled her horse around, eagerly searching the various conflicts for the elusive Amazon Queen. Having spotted the masked queen only a moment before, Callisto got the distinct impression she was avoiding her. "You can run, deary."
Finally spotting the masked Amazon she was looking for, she grinned. "Yoo hoo! Over here!" Callisto called out, waving her fingers delicately at the Amazon, who gasped just before blocking a soldier's sword blow with her staff.
"I wondered where you disappeared to," Callisto said with great relief, momentarily distracted by the Centaur that started to charge her. She pulled out her cross-bow and aimed it at his stomach and fired. The Centaur clenched the bolt sticking out of his gut and stumbled to the ground.
Felling her attacker, Yakut backed away nervously as Callisto reloaded her weapon. She thought of running but expected Callisto would just shoot her in the back. Facing her enemy, she believed, she had a chance - however slim that might be.
"You have been busy, haven't you?" The Empress said with appreciation, looking at the soldiers on the ground around her.
"We have so much to catch up on, Gabrielle. It's been, like forever," she pouted, then suddenly fired the crossbow at the Amazon's leg.
Yakut let out a cry as she crumbled to the ground clenching her leg.
Callisto smirked and slowly walked towards her prey and reloaded her weapon. "And I have to tell you, it's so much easier to catch up if you're not running away."
"Gabrielle!!" Perdicus ran over and knelt beside the injured Amazon curled up in the fetal position, clenching her leg. He looked up angrily at the approaching Empress, ready to protect the Queen.
"So you know the Amazon Queen? My, my, my. I didn't give you enough credit, did I? Now step away little boy. I might even let you live," she said, pointing the crossbow at the downed Amazon to finally put her out of their misery.
He looked at her with cold eyes and stood up slowly.
"Good boy. Back away. Come on boy, you can do it. You can do it," she cheered him on.
He growled and charged her. Without hesitation, she fired the crossbow and watched his eyes widened as the bolt hit his chest. Perdicus tumbled to the ground.
"So you had some backbone after all," she said thoughtfully, tossing her cross-bow to the ground next to the dead soldier. "What an unfortunate time to find it."
"Now, where were we?" Callisto said with enthusiasm as she unsheathed her sword in a flourish, looking down at the Amazon, who struggled to sit up and pull off her mask.
"Queen Gabrielle sends her regards," Yakut said defiantly through gritted teeth, knowing her pain would end soon.
"Noooooo!!" Callisto screeched at the ruse. She angrily raised her sword above the Amazon. Growling, she powerfully brought down her blade for the killing blow when it was knocked from her hands by a metallic disc that soared through the air.
The livid Empress quickly sought the person who dared to intrude.
Sitting regally on her pale horse, a stunning raven-haired warrior caught the amazing object with a feral grin.
"Oh," Callisto said with great appreciation. ". . . my."
The dark warrior let out a battle cry as she rode into the struggle, startling many of the soldiers, who remembered that chilling sound. Many fled into the woods as the Amazons and Centaurs continued to fight those left, pressing their sudden advantage.
Callisto laughed with delight at this unexpected return of the legendary Conqueror. Now that she was alive, she would be able to kill her, Callisto thought happily. Hearing the injured Amazon shift below her, the Empress glanced down. Her eyes narrowed with incredible anger. She still had the rude Amazon Queen to kill, who was likely trying to save her family at this very moment, she thought with irritation and admiration. Dismissing the felled Amazon as insignificant, Callisto vaulted onto her horse.
As the Empress raced away, Xena somersaulted off of Argo, landing near Perdicus. As she glanced at the man who earned her respect for trying to save Gabrielle's life, two soldiers charged at her. Grabbing one soldier, she thrust his sword into the chest of the second and kicked the first soldier in the head. They didn't even hit the ground before she spotted a Centaur struggling under a net held by two soldiers. With a swift throw, her chakram knocked over the soldiers and returned to her hand in time to clash with a sword. Grabbing the soldier's dagger from his belt, Xena buried it in his chest and pushed him away.
The fighting continued around her as she glanced to the injured Amazon, curled up in pain. "Gabrielle?" Xena called out with concern as three soldiers circled with their swords carefully trained on her.
"The Conqueror's head for five thousand dinars," the bearded soldier said with a greedy glint in his eyes. Xena's eyes rolled. "And four for the Queen," another added, leering at the injured Amazon. Xena's eyes grew hard.
"Not a bad haul, all-in-all," the bearded man said, making the others chuckle.
"You shouldn't count your heads before they're severed," she said with a chilling smile.
In a burst of deadly force, she unsheathed her sword and thrust it into one soldier's chest. With a morbidly elegant, economy of motion, she rapidly pulled the blade out, sliced the second soldier's chest, decapitated the bearded soldier, then the second soldier, then the first, and released a high pitched cry "Sheeeee Yah!"
Xena looked up from three heads to see stunned faces of soldiers, Amazons, and Centaurs, who stood frozen, having witnessed the brutal slaughter or its aftermath. When Callisto's army regained the ability to move, they quickly fled, handing the victory over to the Amazons and Centaurs, who still stood stunned as the Conqueror swiped her sword on a soldier's tunic.
After returning her sword to its sheath, she was quickly at the downed Amazon's side. "Gab . . . ," she said with concern as she knelt down, stopping when she recognized with great disappointment it wasn't her bard.
Yakut looked up from the severed heads with concern.
"We'll need to get the bolt out," Xena said softly, looking down at the injury. "I'm afraid it will need to pulled away from the bone and pushed through. Pulling it out will cause more damage. Do you understand?" Xena said, looking at the young Amazon with a sympathetic grimace.
The Amazon nodded hesitantly, feeling uneasy as she glanced back to the three heads, despite the current help being offered from the deadly woman. Looking back up, her eyes widened with concern.
Xena jumped up and unsheathed her sword in time to meet General Tyldus' blade with a resonating clang.
"We were victorious over Callisto, and we will be victorious over you!" he said with venom as he swung his sword at Xena again.
"Tyldus, I have no desire to fight you," the Warrior Princess said with irritation as she deflected his powerful blow.
"Then you will just make it easier to kill you, Conqueror" he spat as he continued to attack his former enemy. As Xena easily parried his blows, Ephiny, Solari, and Phantes ran towards them.
"NO!" Solari shouted. Ephiny, hobbling awkwardly behind Solari, called out "General, stop. Xena's a friend!"
The General hesitated, eyeing the Amazons, then the Warrior Princess, who stood tall and looked him in the eye as she lowered her weapon. Certain he would never have another opportunity like this, he lifted his sword to strike down the Destroyer of Nations.
"No, Father! Please. She saved my life with her round thing!" Phantes called out, standing beside his wife.
Tyldus looked at Phantes with shock at the impossible claim, but his son never lied. The General hesitantly lowered his sword, praying it wasn't a mistake.
"Xena," Ephiny exhaled with wonder as she hobbled closer to her long-missing friend.
"Ephiny! Are you all right?" Xena asked her limping friend with concern.
"By the GODS, Xena. No one thought you'd ever wake," Ephiny said with astonishment. "Except Gabrielle."
"Where IS she???" Xena asked uneasily, looking around the battlefield.
"That's a very good question," the General asked, glaring at the Amazons.
Chapter 26 - To The Rescue
Gabrielle and her nine Amazons entered the damp and cold tunnel that led to the Castle. They were making swift progress until they came to a fork in the tunnel which split into three branches. Holding a torch over the map, Otere watched with concern as the Queen looked between the map and the three tunnels a number of times.
Finally, Gabrielle pointed to the tunnel to the right. "That way to the dungeon."
Otere eyed the Queen then looked at the creepy blackness in front of them. Jumping when she saw a pair of rats scurry across their path and disappear into the tunnel, she asked "Are you sure?"
"Now you ask?"
As the Centaurs and Amazons got ready for their march to the Castle, Xena pulled Ephiny aside.
"I can't wait for the army. Callisto is heading towards the castle."
"I'm going with you," Ephiny said firmly.
"Uh, I'm going to ride hard," Xena warned, glancing at her friend with concern.
"Fine," Ephiny said with a shrug, hobbling over to her horse. "We'll ride hard."
"Ride hard where?" Solari asked as she walked up to them as Xena and Ephiny mounted their war horses.
"To the Castle," Ephiny offered with a slight grimace as she shifted in her saddle. "The troops will be too slow. Callisto is probably already there by now."
"Count me in. Are you sure you're ok to ride?" Solari asked.
"Ephiny?" Phantes trotted up to his wife as Solari mounted. "Aren't you going to ride with me?"
"No, Xena, Solari, and I need to ride ahead. We can't ride with the troops."
"You just made that decision, without talking with me first?" Phantes said with irritation.
"Look, Phantes, sweetheart," Ephiny said then leaned over and whispered something into his ear.
Xena looked at Solari curiously, then back at Ephiny and Phantes, who were now kissing. The surprised Conqueror looked back at Solari, who shrugged. "Newlyweds, what can I say?"
Newlyweds? Xena's eyebrows furrowed as Ephiny rode up with a grin that matched her husband's.
Crawling on hands and knees in the small tunnel, Otere tapped one of Gabrielle's sais.
"What?" Gabrielle turned back with exasperation.
"See anything yet?"
"No. And would you stop asking me that? I'll tell you as soon as I see something." Gabrielle snapped and turned forward, and abruptly stopped her crawling.
"Hey . . . " Otere said, almost colliding into the Queen.
"I see something."
"What?" Ephiny said with irritation, catching Xena staring at her again. The ride was hard enough. She didn't need someone reminding her of it.
"Nothing," the Conqueror quickly said with a shrug as the three rode towards the Castle.
Otere and Gabrielle looked through the small window of bars into the dark dungeon below. The orange glow of the torches cast enough light to see a walkway, with a row of solid metal doors on each side.
Otere watched the Queen grab the bars. Pushing as hard as she could, Gabrielle couldn't budge the bars.
"Ugh. If we just had a rope and pulley . . . " Gabrielle said, noticing a wooden beam in the dungeon that would have been a perfect pivot point, had they been on the other side . . . with a rope . . . and pulley. She rolled her eyes and shook her head with frustration.
"I've got an idea," Otere said and motioned for the Queen to move back.
Gabrielle curiously gave Otere the requested space. The younger Amazon got on her back and braced herself in the small tunnel. Taking a breath, she pushed her feet against the bars, making the metal grill move slightly. Gabrielle smiled at the Amazon's ingenuity. With another push, then another, the bars were almost out.
"Otere," Gabrielle suddenly said with concern.
"Almost there," Otere said, gritting her teeth, and pushed again.
"But O . . . ," Gabrielle said as the Amazon finally freed the metal bars, which came crashing down to the stone floor. Loudly.
The Amazons froze.
"You think anyone heard?" Otere whispered, then cringed as she heard two guards run into the area.
Gabrielle eyed the young Amazon, smiled, and grabbed her sais.
The Warrior Princess, Ephiny, and Solari crouched behind the bushes and spied the castle.
"A frontal assault now will cause significant Amazon and Centaur casualties," Xena said, eyeing the closed gate and the guards in the turrets on either side. "We need the gate open."
"We'll have to go in through the tunnels then," Ephiny replied, getting a nod from the Warrior Princess and Solari.
As they carefully backed up from the bushes and stood up, Ephiny caught Xena staring at her again.
"What is it!" Ephiny snapped. "Don't be such a coward, Xena. Spit it out. You're appalled I married a Centaur, aren't you," Ephiny said angrily.
Within a blink on an eye, Ephiny was slammed and pinned against a tree, looking into frighteningly blue eyes as her feet dangled beneath her.
Solari sighed and looked around, scratching the back of her neck.
"No one has ever called me a coward and lived," Xena growled then let the Amazon drop down. "Consider this your wedding present."
Ephiny gasped and rubbed her throat.
"I don't know about you, Ephiny. But in my family, we take marriage very seriously. Until death do you part," Xena said eyeing the Amazon, who nodded.
"That's the way Phantes and I feel," Ephiny said, getting a small smile from the Conqueror, who nodded.
"I'm sorry I missed the ceremony. I'm sure it was a sight to see."
"A day earlier, and you would have seen it . . . Gabrielle married us," Ephiny offered softly.
Xena nodded and smiled sadly. "I've never been very lucky with my timing," she said and looked back at the castle with concern.
"She's waited for you, Xena," Ephiny offered. "Just remember that."
Xena nodded, clinging onto that truth.
"Ladies!" Solari finally hissed with impatience. "Unless you have something important to discuss, like the kind of draperies Ephiny will need, would either of you care to take a little time out of your busy day to save our Queen??"
The two women looked at each other. "Still no interest in clothing, huh?" Xena asked Ephiny as they walked past Solari, towards the tunnel entrance.
"Nope. Not even after that nasty bout of poison ivy."
"Ugh," Xena said with a grimace.
"Yeah, wasn't pretty."
"You know, it's really rude to talk about a person when they are RIGHT HERE!" Solari huffed.
After quickly subduing the two guards, the Amazons looked at their Queen.
"Otere and Renna, check the guards for keys. Shawna, Ursula, Melina, and Talut," Gabrielle said, looking at each eager Amazon, poised and ready for action. "You know your jobs. Make sure the front gate is open for our troops," she said with a grin, receiving enthusiastic nods. "Be careful."
"Artemis be with you, Queen Gabrielle," Ursula responded with a smile and quickly left the dungeon with her sisters.
"Gabrielle?" A timid voice called out through a small slit in one of the metal doors.
"Lila?" Gabrielle turned, unable to tell where the voice came from. Quickly, she looked through a small opening of a door, then another. "Lila?"
"Over here," Lila said, wiggling her fingers through the opening. "Thank the GODs," she said with relief when her fingers where grasped by the Queen.
"Are you OK?" Gabrielle asked with concern, squeezing her hand.
"Yes," she said wearily. "I'm so sorry, Gabrielle. I didn't think you cared anymore," she said guiltily and started to weep.
"Queen Gabrielle, we've got them," Otere said with a triumphant smile, holding up the keys as she joined Gabrielle at Lila's cell.
"It's OK, Lila. Where are mother and father?" Gabrielle asked as Otere tried a key, then another.
"Father is two cells down, and mother's is right next to his," Lila informed Gabrielle as they heard a click. Otere looked at Gabrielle and waggled her eyebrows, making Gabrielle grin as the Amazon pulled the heavy door open.
As Gabrielle opened her mouth, Otere interjected "second and third cells down. We're on it."
Lila rushed out and hugged her sister as another click echoed through the dungeon.
"One down and one to go," Otere said happily as she moved to the last cell as Renna and Darla helped Gabrielle's weakened father out of the cell. "Gabrielle?"
The Queen quickly went to her father's side, startled by how much weight he had lost.
"Gabrielle, your mother . . . they brought her back only a candle mark ago," Herodotus blurted with concern, glancing at her cell as the Amazons tried to open it.
"Damn it," Otere said, sifting through the keys, and tried another one. The two eager Amazons behind her looked over her shoulder, then crowded her as they tried to peek through the slot.
"Something's wrong. I hear her, but she hasn't spoken one word," Herodotus said nervously. "I think she's injured."
"Would you guys give me a little space here?" Otere said with irritation, causing the Amazons to back up a step. "Thank you!" she said as she tried another key.
"What happened to her?" Gabrielle asked, looking between Lila and her father, who shrugged helplessly.
"We don't know," Herodotus said with worry. "She was taken about two days ago . . . I think . . . the days run together down here," he rambled guiltily as his hand combed through his thinning hair.
A metal click sounded. "Finally," Otere said and started to open the heavy metal door.
Gabrielle felt her skin crawl. Something wasn't right.
"Gods, please let her be all right," Lila said, sniffing through tears as she hugged her father.
Gabrielle turned with fear as the two eager Amazons entered the dark cell. "Don't . . . " she tried to warn them, but was too late. After horrified gasps and sickening grunts, two Amazon bodies hit the cell floor.
"Surprise!" Callisto burst out of the cell, knocking Otere across the walkway with the heavy swinging door.
"I thought you'd appreciate this, Gabrielle, since you seem to enjoy surprises so much. And I have another one for you," Callisto eagerly revealed, sheathing her blood-stained sword as the Queen stood protectively in front of her family with her sais. "But you have to catch me first," she said with a grin, beckoning the Queen with a single finger before retreating into the darkness, laughing.
"Get my father and Lila out of here," Gabrielle quickly ordered the remaining Amazons as she anxiously kept glancing back to the darkness.
"You can't be serious," Otere argued as she got up from the ground.
"She's luring you into a trap," Otere protested.
"Here," Gabrielle said, handing the map to the Amazon. "Take the tunnels. You'll have a better chance of leaving unnoticed."
Otere stood still, clearly not pleased with her Queen's recklessness.
"Are you going to disobey me?" Gabrielle snapped at Otere, who cringed. Gabrielle let out a breath to gather patience. "Please, Otere. Keep them safe. For me," she said, looking into the young Amazon's still uncertain eyes. Reaching out, Gabrielle briefly caressed her cheek, crushing any further rebellious thoughts.
Otere hesitantly nodded, getting a reward of a warm smile from her Queen before she left to find Callisto and disappeared into the darkness.
"Which way?" Ephiny asked as they arrived at a fork in the tunnel.
Xena pointed to the right. "The dungeon is that way, the main hallway is the center tunnel, and my . . . the Empress' chambers are to the left."
"Are you sure?" Solari asked, getting a raised eyebrow from the Conqueror. "Uh, I mean, you've been asleep for five winters. Your memory might not be as sharp as . . . "
"Otere! Lila!" Ephiny interrupted as the group emerged from the right tunnel and entered the chamber.
"The Conqueror," Lila said with a horrified gasp, stumbling back into her father as they stared at Xena fearfully.
However, Otere pulled out a knife. She lunged towards the Conqueror, who quickly disarmed the girl and tossed her onto her butt.
"Otere!" Ephiny called out in shock.
"She killed Queen Cyane and most of my tribe!" Otere said angrily, looking up with eyes of hate.
Otere had heard of the horrible losses her tribe suffered years ago at the hands of the Conqueror, who first killed their Queen when she dared to refuse her advances. Then, in a legendary killing frenzy, almost obliterated the rest of the tribe.
Ephiny quickly looked to Xena for an explanation.
"It's true," Xena said, awash with guilt, recalling that horrific day.
About fifteen winters ago, she had found the Northern tribe on one of her outings. When the impressive Queen confronted her, Xena found her exhilarating. She was certain she had found someone who could please her. She was blond, strong but feminine, had a great body, and was intelligent and articulate. But the Queen deflected her clumsy advances and only seemed interested in lecturing the Conqueror about how she should change her ways and be a better ruler to her people.
The longer Xena was around the woman, the more her frustration grew. She even stooped to stealing glances at this woman while she bathed, which only frustrated her more. On the positive side, though, during that frustrating time she had become an expert of the chobos.
Her voyeurism expanded to include the steam hut, where the beautiful Queen stripped out of her leathers to relax in the soothing heat. The last time she had gazed upon that beautiful body, Xena was amazed to see the Queen doing something she had never witnessed before - a woman caressing herself. The Queen's hands kneaded and squeezed her ample breasts, then teased her hardened nipples before slowly traveling down over her stomach.
Needing to get a better look, the eager Conqueror quietly climbed closer. In one tragic moment, the mesmerized voyeur focused on the writhing Queen as she moaned with pleasure, instead of her hand, which went right through the thatch roof. The Conqueror came crashing down and landed on top of the Queen.
Xena scrambled off Cyane and nervously checked her neck for a pulse. Two guards rushed in, seeing her hands at the dead Queen's throat. The Conqueror had to fight her way out of the village or be killed. And she almost was. Getting hit in the side by an arrow, she stumbled through the forest and upon a traveler, who hid her from the remaining Amazons. He successfully diverted them the wrong way with the most convincing lies. And from that moment on, Daumas had been the Conqueror's advisor.
Otere jumped to her feet and angrily launched herself at the Conqueror again, but was intercepted by Solari and Ephiny.
"Otere, Xena is helping us now," Ephiny said.
"Where's Gabrielle?" Xena asked, pushing aside the guilt.
"Are you going to try and kill another Amazon Queen, Conqueror?" Otere snapped, ignoring her Amazon sisters.
"Otere, enough! Xena is a friend. She helped us win the battle today. She even saved Yakut's life," Ephiny informed her, successfully defusing the confused young Amazon's anger. "She's here to help Gabrielle."
"Where is she?" Xena asked again, looking at Gabrielle's father. He noticed genuine concern in her eyes.
"She's gone after Callisto to get her mother back," Herodotus offered. "We don't know where they went."
"Gods!" Ephiny blurted with frustration, glancing over to Xena, who had already disappeared into the tunnels.
Gabrielle didn't need to see the blond blur when she darted into the throne room. She could easily follow the Empress' amused cackle. Callisto was obviously enjoying the chase, Gabrielle thought with irritation as she stopped at the doorway and slowly entered the room. With her sais at the ready, she glanced around the large room with huge paintings on the wall and a throne proudly elevated a few feet on an intricately carved platform.
"So you wanna play, little girl?" Callisto purred, jumping in front of her with her sword ready.
"Where's my mother, you bitch!"
"Oh, Gabrielle, such language," she said with great disappointment. "Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?"
"Where is she?!?"
"Hanging around," Callisto said with amusement, then saw the color drain from the Queen's face. "Oh, cheer up. Just killing her would be no fun at all. She's alive. For now."
"What have you done to her?!?"
"Well, she's in the kitchen, hanging by a thick rope over some really pointy knives," she said melodically. "Oh, did I mention? You don't have much time. The rope is being burned through as we speak."
The panicked daughter made a mad dash towards the closest exit.
With a somersault, Callisto landed in front of the Queen. "But we're not finished visiting!" She pouted. "Or you could be rude and just defeat me, Gabrielle," she said silkily.
Gabrielle growled as she lunged with her sais. The Empress' blade and the Queen's sais clashed in a fury of motion. The clanks and clinks of each violent strike echoed through the room.
Breaking the volley with a feigned sweep of her legs, Gabrielle spun around and kicked Callisto in the stomach, knocking the surprised Empress back onto the floor.
"Ugh . . . nice," Callisto said, shaking off the hard hit. Quickly jumping to her feet, she launched another furious attack with great enthusiasm.
The Empress' deadly sword moved through the air in a blur. But practiced sais blocked and countered each and every thrust and slice.
The Empress backed away a bit winded, eyeing the Amazon Queen with a smile. "You've improved."
"I've had practice."
"It's a shame your improvement isn't enough to help your mother."
As Gabrielle eyed the doorway again with worry, Callisto's blade snuck through the slow defense and nicked the Amazon Queen in the arm.
"Oh, you're hurt! Let's take a time out and clean that. Infections can be such nasty things," Callisto said with a chuckle. Gabrielle's eyebrows furrowed as precious moments quickly passed.
"Concentration is important, isn't it? I'm sure your mother would agree."
Struggling to focus, Gabrielle launched a rapid round of kicks and lunges.
Xena ran down the hall towards the sounds of a furious fight. Entering the throne room, she abruptly stopped, watching the two warriors trade quick and solid blows that resulted in occasional sparks as the metal weapons clashed.
She almost didn't recognize the bard with her short hair and more muscular build. But she was still breathtaking, Xena noted, mesmerized by each move, which was performed with grace, agility, and a strength that only comes from much practice.
"Oh look, Xena's here for the fun!" Callisto said, pointing behind the startled Queen, who felt an odd tingling at the mention of her lovers' name. "I'll kill you after I finish with her, OK?" Callisto called out happily.
With a snarl, Gabrielle was determined to not allow Callisto's insane taunting to distract her. She was driven to continue the attack, well aware her mother's time was running out. But the wild, brown eyes of her enemy continued to glance over at the doorway behind her. Unable to resist, the curious Amazon Queen finally glanced to the doorway.
"Xena," Gabrielle gasped with uncertainty. The brief moment of distraction was enough for the Empress' blade to pass her defenses and slice deep into her side. Reacting on pure instinct, Gabrielle captured the blade with one sais and buried the other into the Empress' chest.
"Ow!" Callisto said with annoyance, stumbling backwards onto the floor.
"Gabrielle!" Xena ran towards Gabrielle, who stood, holding her bleeding side a moment before Xena's arms were around her, gently helping her to the floor.
"Xena?" Gabrielle said in confusion.
"I'm here, Gabrielle. We need to stop the bleeding and . . . ," Xena blurted with worry.
"No! My mother," Gabrielle called out, her panic giving her a boost of energy. "She's in the kitchen. She doesn't have much time!!"
"Decisions, decisions. Help the Queen, help the mother, help the Queen . . . ," Callisto said and coughed, wiping the blood from her lip and looking at the uncomfortable sai jutting out of her chest.
"Is she always that annoying?" Xena said.
"You could use a coin," Callisto suggested helpfully.
"Please, Xena," Gabrielle begged, grabbing Xena's arm. "I'll be ok. Save my mother. Please," she pleaded. Xena looked into the panicked eyes a moment before briskly nodding.
"Keep holding your side, just like you are doing. I'll be right back," Xena promised, gently cupping Gabrielle's cheek and kissing her forehead before leaving for the kitchen.
When the Queen glanced to Callisto, the Empress grinned.
Bursting into the kitchen, the Conqueror startled two cooks. One dropped his tray and the other said "Empress Xe . . . ," and fainted.
"Where's the woman?!?" Xena asked the cook, who shrugged and shook his head. "Hecuba?" The cook shrugged.
"Damn!" Xena growled and started back towards the throne room. Hearing the claxon ring, she glanced out the window and saw the Centaurs and Amazons charging through the front gate. She never thought she would see the day where she would actually welcome someone overrunning her castle.
Knowing the longer she delayed helping Gabrielle, the more likely the Queen would not survive to enjoy this day, Xena sprinted back to the throne room.
"Knock, knock," Callisto said again with some difficulty, stroking the sai sticking out from her chest. "You know you're . . . supposed to say . . . who's there," she wheezed with irritation.
"Why do you do that?" Gabrielle asked wearily, her breath belabored.
"Because I know . . . it annoys you," Callisto said with a pleased smile, then coughed.
"And you made that your life's work?" Gabrielle responded as she carefully wiped the hair off her forehead with the back of her hand since her hands were full. One hand nervously clenched onto a sai and the other pressed against her throbbing side.
"Well, one should choose . . . a career . . . doing what they're good at. And I'm . . . very good at it . . . don't you think?" she wheezed reasonably.
"Yes. Yes, you are," Gabrielle admitted and sighed, knowing better than to have expected any better understanding of her enemy. She briefly moved her hand away from her side, noting it was pretty deep and continued to bleed. More stitches, she thought as she reapplied the pressure on it, feeling as battered inside as she did on the outside.
"Heh. I knew . . . we could finally agree . . . on some . . . thing," Callisto said drowsily, and closed her eyes with a grin on her face.
Finally, there was a peaceful silence. After a few moments, Gabrielle looked at the blond Empress, who lay still, unable to hurt anyone else. She had thought this long-awaited day would bring her relief and a sense of satisfaction for the hard-fought victory over evil. Even Xena was here to see it, she thought with amazement. But she felt no satisfaction or relief.
Perhaps she would be able to celebrate the victory and Xena's return later, after she knew her family was safe and after she learned how many friends had sacrificed themselves this time. Yes, perhaps later, when she was able to actually feel something other than fear and frustration, the Amazon Queen considered. Closing her eyes with a weary sigh, she tried to remind herself that the nightmare was finally ov . . . .
Xena ran into the throne room and found an unmoving Gabrielle sprawled out on the floor next to the dead Empress, who had two sais sticking out of her chest. Fear flooded the Conqueror's heart.
Gabrielle's eyes blinked open as she felt herself quickly lifted from the floor. Attempting to focus on the worried eyes gazing at her, she asked "My mother. . . ?" before passing out.
Chapter 27 - The Flesh and Soul
The castle quickly fell after the wave of Centaurs and Amazons rushed through the front gate. Swarming the grounds, the Centaurs and Amazons met with little resistance as the overwhelmed guards immediately surrendered.
Ephiny, Solari, and Otere quickly entered the castle to search for their Queen. The three stood in the middle of the grand hallway for a moment, uncertain where to start. "Wow" Solari uttered looking around, impressed at the opulence, though years of neglect were apparent.
"We'll cover more ground if we split . . . ," Ephiny said as the Conqueror burst out of the throne room with a bloody Queen in her arms, causing the Amazons to gasp.
Before Otere could blame Xena for harming her Queen, the unstoppable Conqueror stormed past them without a word. From the intense aura of determination and the urgency in Xena's stride, she knew Death had a formidable enemy if it dared claim Gabrielle. All thoughts of accusation were immediately replaced with questions of how and why this terrifying force of nature had suddenly appeared to become her Queen's champion.
Hesitating a moment from the shock, the Amazons quickly followed after the Conqueror. When they entered a very large bed room, Solari stopped at the door as her mouth dropped in awe. An irritated regent grabbed her arm and pulled her into the room.
The three Amazons watched the Conqueror carefully lay Gabrielle down on the bed. When the hard blue eyes lifted from the injured woman and focused on them, all knew better than to dare waste time with questions.
"Make a fire," the Conqueror commanded Ephiny, who nodded and promptly went to the fireplace.
"Get two large pots of water from the kitchen," she ordered Solari, who nodded and promptly left.
"Come here," Xena ordered the young Amazon, who looked at her with suddenly wide eyes. "NOW!" she barked, startling the girl to her side. "Press here, like this, until I tell you otherwise."
"But I'm not a healer . . . " she blurted.
"Do you want her to die?" Xena snapped fiercely.
"Then press here," Xena growled, getting the girl to nervously apply pressure to the Queen's wounds as instructed.
"Where are you going?!?" Otere squeaked with panic as Xena turned away.
"I'll be right back," Xena said and went to the wall by the fireplace. After tracing her fingers over a few stones, she focused on one and pressed it. To Otere's surprise, a compartment the size of a breadbox opened up.
"What's that?" Ephiny asked, having completed her task of building a fire.
"Things I need to treat the wound," Xena said as she promptly returned to the bed. Seeing Ephiny's curious gaze at the wall then the box, Xena sighed. "I kept this here, so I could take care of my wounds." Ephiny nodded in understanding.
"Didn't you have healers?" Otere asked with surprise.
"The best in the Empire," Xena said flatly and pulled out a needle.
"Then why would you . . . ?" The younger Amazon was confused.
"It wouldn't do for an invincible ruler to be running to her healers all the time," Ephiny explained as the Conqueror threaded the needle.
"It wasn't all the time," Xena muttered as Otere nodded thoughtfully then stepped back as directed when Xena inspected the wound.
With precision and skill that had the three Amazons mesmerized, Xena cared for her Queen. Long, nimble fingers swiftly tended to the injured flesh with a gentleness that amazed Otere. She knew of the Conqueror's legendary strength and deadly grace on the battlefield, but she had never heard one story about the tenderness or compassion, which was being displayed with each small stitch.
When the wound was finally sewn up, the Amazons looked at the Conqueror expectantly.
For the first time, they saw weariness in Xena's eyes. "We wait," she said. The three quietly watched as she pulled up a chair, sat down, and took Gabrielle's hand.
"We need to be prepared for the remaining regiments. They might want the castle back," Ephiny said to Otere and Solari, as they watched Xena lift Gabrielle's hand to her lips and gently kiss it.
Otere got her answer as to why Xena had become Gabrielle's champion, but still wondered about the mysterious how.
"Ephiny's right," Xena said softly. "The tunnels should be blocked from another invading force and food stores should be replenished while we have a chance."
As the Centaurs and Amazons busied themselves with preparations to fortify the castle, rumors flew about how the Conqueror suddenly appeared on the battlefield after all this time to help them and Queen Gabrielle. One popular one was that the Gods had made her return from the dead because Tartarus was afraid of her and she had not yet earned a place in the Elysian fields.
Herodotus paced as the healer, Ashea, inspected his daughter's stitches. Lila stole glances of the Conqueror, who had not budged from Gabrielle's side for many candle marks.
"Your stitches are the neatest I've ever seen," Ashea said as she placed a fresh bandage on the wound. Xena looked at her blankly, then returned her gaze to the unconscious woman. "She'll still scar. And infection is still a concern," Xena noted, making the healer nod and feel the Queen's forehead and cheeks.
"Her temperature is normal, no sign of infection so far," Ashea said, glancing up at the concerned father, who sighed with relief and resumed pacing.
"What do you think happened to her?" Lila finally stepped up and asked the Conqueror uneasily. Herodotus stopped his pacing and listened.
"She got sliced open by that bit . . . ," Xena responded with irritation.
"No, to mother," Lila interrupted.
"Oh," Xena said, then thought a moment and offered "Well, the mother of the person who defeated Callisto would be valuable."
"So you think Mother is still alive?" Lila asked with cautious optimism.
"Yeah," Xena said, hoping she was right. But Callisto was twisted enough to have Hecuba killed just to taunt Gabrielle with the hope, then devastate her with the truth that there never was any hope. Xena prayed for Gabrielle's sake that wasn't the case as she gently brushed the hair off of Gabrielle's brow.
Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open.
"Gabrielle?" Xena said with surprise as Lila and Herodotus stepped closer.
"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered, blinking her eyes to focus on the beautiful woman of her dreams. Her happy smile faded when she saw her father's and sister's faces appear by Xena's shoulders.
Gabrielle's eyebrows furrowed in confusion as the memories of Callisto and their fight flooded back. "Mother!" She said with panic and tried to sit up.
"Gabrielle, no," Xena said, unable to stop Gabrielle from causing herself excruciating pain.
"Ugh! Oh Gods," she groaned in pain then gasped "Mother's in the kitchen," still trying to get up. But strong arms kept her pinned down. "Let me go!" she growled.
"Never!" Xena shouted, causing the Queen to pause. "Gabrielle, please. Listen. She wasn't in the kitchen," the Conqueror quickly said as Gabrielle looked at the door with concern, weakly trying to move again. "She wasn't in the kitchen," Xena repeated firmly. Green eyes focused on her as the words sank in.
"Where is she?" Gabrielle asked tightly, preparing herself for the worst.
"We don't know," Xena said, watching the anger slowly dissolve.
Gabrielle lay still and stared blankly at nothing. She had been prepared for two outcomes this day. Even with the worst one, she had expected closure, not this.
Will this ever end?
The dejected look tore at Xena's heart.
"Who were Callisto's ranking officers?" Xena asked softly, knowing Gabrielle would know no peace unless her mother was found.
"Why?" Lila asked when Gabrielle failed to respond.
"It's possible they have her as protection against the new Empress' punishment," Xena said, surprising Lila and Herodotus.
"I don't want to be Empress," Gabrielle said hollowly.
"It doesn't matter what you want, Gabrielle," Xena said honestly, getting Gabrielle's irritated attention. "People will see the person who defeated the Empress as the new ruler," Xena explained softly and asked again. "Who were Callisto's advisors?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena, who was offering something she desperately needed right now. Strength.
"Captain Turks," Gabrielle said softly. "He's new, just replaced Palimon as Captain of the Castle guard."
"Palimon?!?" Xena snapped, feeling sick the once-loyal guard would have served that blond bitch.
"He was a good man, Xena," Gabrielle said defensively. "He was executed for spying," the Queen said weakly, her eyes dropping guiltily.
Xena sighed. "Then he died for something he believed in, Gabrielle. Not everyone gets that chance," Xena said, knowing that was small consolation to the burdened Queen.
"Hundreds already have, Xena," Gabrielle countered firmly, surprising the Conqueror, who began to guiltily wonder, what if . . . .
"Turks isn't shrewd enough to have anticipated Callisto's defeat," Gabrielle said thoughtfully as Xena watched something spark within the Queen. Hope?
"Who else?" Xena asked, watching Gabrielle with concern as she shut her eyes and exhaled heavily.
"There's Faulks, the commander of her Northern Army, he's . . . ." Lila suggested.
"Dead," Xena said, feeling Gabrielle's forehead for a fever.
"The battle went well?" Gabrielle asked as she swallowed hard and fought her battle with pain. Xena reached for a cup of water.
"Not for the Northern Army," Xena responded, pleased to see a small smile on Gabrielle's parched lips. Lifting her head, Xena carefully helped Gabrielle take a small sip. As Xena started to take the cup away, Gabrielle's hand guided her back for a longer sip.
"You might leak if you drink too much," Xena warned with a smirk. Green eyes quickly rolled as Gabrielle held the Conqueror's hand firmly in place as she took another sip. Xena's eyebrow rose with amusement which faded as the smaller hand caressed hers and green eyes gazed at her with wonder.
"Her Southern Army commander is Draco. They are a day's ride from here," Lila offered helpfully, startling the preoccupied women.
"But Hecuba was taken only a day or so ago. How would he know what was going on here?" Herodotus interjected as Xena placed the cup down and quickly reclaimed the Queen's hand.
"Then someone at the Castle?" Ashea chimed in as Gabrielle gently squeezed Xena's hand and looked troubled, which concerned Xena.
"Daumas," Gabrielle said with sad certainty.
Chapter 28 - The Return of the Conqueror
As they rode South, Xena glanced at a very annoyed Solari, who fingered the large, uncomfortable, leather collar around her neck. "Thanks for doing this," Xena said, jiggling the long chain that attached to the collar.
"I didn't have a choice," Solari growled, looking straight ahead.
"Sure you did." Xena smirked, jiggling the chain again, because she could.
"Exactly when did we have the conversation "Gee Solari, do you want pretend to be my slave or perhaps help me figure out another way to get close to the bad guys and rescue Gabrielle's mother". . . Hmmm?" she snapped.
"You had another idea?" Xena asked with surprise.
Solari glared at her.
His senior officers stood next to Draco in his tent as they looked at the map and assessed their unexpected situation.
"Messengers have confirmed that the Amazons and Centaurs have defeated the Northern Army and taken the castle. We even heard . . . " the lieutenant said and stopped uneasily.
"What?" Draco blurted with irritation.
"We even heard that the Conqueror was back and helping the Amazons," a lieutenant said with concern.
"The Conqueror?" Draco laughed. "They'd say anything to explain such an overwhelming defeat. We should be more worried about how to defeat Queen Gabrielle than a ghost," he scoffed.
"Boo," Xena said, startling the men as she entered the tent.
"Xena," the men gasped with fear, watching the Conqueror tug her reluctant slave's chain to get her to follow behind.
"Here, hold this. Tightly," she said, handing over the chain to the uneasy soldier. "She likes to run away," Xena explained and added "Oh, if you touch her, I'll let her kill you," Xena smiled as Solari growled at the trembling man.
"Xena, I am . . . "
"Draco. I know," she said with an unimpressed sigh as she looked around the tent. "I've heard about you and your pathetic battle record," she said, making the proud soldier pull out his dagger and lunge at her. Grabbing his arm, she quickly spun him around, and held his knife at his throat.
"Well, you have spirit," she offered. "But that's not enough for victory, Draco. Captain Faulks learned that."
"They said you were dead," he snarled.
"Beaten by a ghost. Now that's really pathetic," she said into his ear as he struggled futilely in her vice-like hold. "And who has been spreading these rumors about my death?"
"Lord Daumas. But . . . you were gone for five winters!" Draco said as she pushed him away from her.
"Well, I'm back. And it looks like there is a big mess to clean up, Draco. Why is that?" She asked, sitting down in his chair, running her thumb over the blade as she glared at him.
"Callisto . . . ," he tried to explain.
"Is dead," she interjected flatly.
"You killed her?"
"No. I didn't get the chance. Queen Gabrielle beat me to it. Two sais. Right in the chest. Rather impressive handiwork," Xena offered.
"Are you . . . with the Amazons?" He asked cautiously, looking at the naked slave, who looked uneasily between Draco and Xena, then suddenly growled. Xena rolled her eyes.
"We heard you beheaded a dozen of the Northern Army," Draco continued.
Solari's eyebrows furrowed curiously, only recalling three.
"Apparently some of the Northern Army thought they could profit by severing my head. I taught them otherwise," Xena said with a cold smile.
"Have you come back to take over?"
"What do you think?!?" She boomed as she stood up and drove the dagger deep into the map table, making Draco and his men jump.
"Queen Gabrielle won't let you," he offered.
"Perhaps I should ask you, whose side are you on, Draco?" She asked with a smile.
"Yours, Conqueror. Of course," Draco said with a weak smile. For a long, silent moment, Xena stared at him. He swallowed hard.
"We need to start by regaining the Castle. And rebuild our strength from there," Xena broke the silence as she sat down and leaned comfortably back.
"I have a few ideas. Where's Lord Daumas," Xena asked nonchalantly, noticing Draco's eyes dart around uneasily.
"He's still alive after all this, isn't he?" She asked, looking at her nails then him with boredom.
"Of course," Draco blurted then cringed.
"I know he's here, Draco," she said with a sigh, daring him to argue. She smiled when he didn't. "Just tell him I want to see him within a candle mark to discuss something that will be beneficial to both of us."
After the last soldier left the tent, Xena leaned back and shut her eyes for a few moments, disturbing Solari, who paced.
"How can you can rest around here?" Solari whispered, shaking her head.
"Gotta get rest while you can. Every warrior knows that, Solari," Xena offered, her eyes still closed.
"Yeah, but you had five winters of rest," Solari said, still pacing.
"Well, some of us need our beauty sleep more than others," Xena said, making the Amazon roll her eyes.
"Uh huh," Solari responded and shook her head.
"So, are you seeing anyone?" Xena asked, surprising Solari.
"No," Solari blurted with irritation.
"Ah," Xena said, her eyes still closed.
"Ah? What does that mean?" Solari said defensively.
"Nothing. Didn't mean to upset you."
"WHO SAID I WAS UPSET??"
"Ughh," Solari said. "I want to meet a nice girl, have a good relationship, share a hut and all that . . . but I can't seem to get past "hello." I don't know," Solari said wearily. "Do you think I might come across a bit too strong?" She asked earnestly.
Xena opened her eyes and looked at the naked woman standing before her. "Well . . . now that you mention it. . . ."
Daumas interrupted as he nervously entered the tent. "Empress! You are alive!" He gushed.
"You haven't changed a bit, Daumas," she said with a smile, looking him over. Though a little older, he still was a striking figure in his fine clothes. He had done well even under Callisto's rule.
"Where have you been? We all thought you had died after Callisto took over."
"It's complicated, as you probably can guess," Xena said and sighed wearily, Daumas nodded sympathetically, his mind racing with possible lurid scenarios. "Rumor has it you worked for Callisto."
"Under the most extreme duress, I can assure you," he quickly blurted.
"She also recruited many of your soldiers the same way. Join or die," Daumas continued uneasily.
"I'm not interested in reliving in the past. We have the future to think about. And I don't care how much time it takes. I want it all. I hope I can count on your help."
"I would be honored," he said, visibly relieved at the offer.
"As you should be, Daumas," Xena said pompously, making Daumas smile.
"Oh indeed. I have to say, after being subjected to Callisto's chaos, we need a leader who can bring order to the land. One who cares about the law and collecting a fair tax to help the people rebuild. And you can do it, as you did so brilliantly before."
"Yes, yes. You worry about those details, as you did before, Daumas," Xena said with boredom, making Daumas grin with delight. "But that bard Queen will be an obstacle," Xena sighed shaking her head. "You remember her, don't you Daumas?"
"Who would have thought that young bard I hired would end up as the Amazon Queen?" Xena said, shaking her head.
"Certainly, not I."
"She is tough, I understand. It will be difficult to convince her I should be Empress again," Xena said as the advisor nodded.
"An extended conflict will not only be tough on the spirit, but on the purse as well," she said with a sigh. "There should be sufficient funds in Callisto's war chest to cover us a while. And when we run out of that, I'm sure we can sell off a few assets," she said, making his brow furrow. "Life will be hard and many sacrifices will be needed, but in the end we shall be victorious. I hope I can count on you for the long haul, Daumas."
"Uh . . . of course. But I do not think we have to endure too long of a haul," he offered.
"You've got a plan already, Daumas?" Xena asked with a pleased smile.
When they entered the prisoner's tent, they found a woman lying in a metal cage. Solari glanced at the Conqueror with concern.
"She's a lot tougher than she might appear," Daumas explained with a shrug as they approached the hooded woman, whose wrists and ankles were bound in metal shackles.
"Is she in good health?" Xena asked with forced nonchalance.
"Certainly," Daumas said, getting a nod from the Conqueror, who handed Daumas Solari's chain, then opened up the cage. The noise alarmed the prisoner, who scooted back in the cell.
"Conqueror, what are you doing?"
"Just checking for myself, Daumas," Xena said, then paused. "You don't object, do you?" she said with a cold smile.
"Of course not, your highness," he said uneasily.
"I'm so glad to hear that," she said with a smile.
She entered the cage and carefully removed the hood from the prisoner's head. The older woman's familiar green eyes widened, making Xena smile. If she had any lingering doubts about the prisoner's identity, they were quickly forgotten when the prisoner started yelling what Xena could swear were profanities though her thick gag.
Exiting the cage, Xena took Solari's chain back from Daumas, then handed it to the Amazon. "Go get the horses," she told the startled Amazon as Daumas eyed her curiously.
"If you run away, I'll kill you," Xena added with a smile, making Daumas smirk as the slave rushed off as ordered.
As Daumas walked over to the cage to lock it, Xena placed her hand on his shoulder. "I'm not going to kill you, Daumas," Xena said with a smile before jabbing the confused man in the neck.
The advisor gasped and crashed to his knees.
"Though the thought of killing you is amazingly tempting," she added as she entered the cage and pulled the stunned prisoner out. "However, that's not nearly enough to repay you for all your years of service," she relayed as she threw him in the cage and released the pinch.
"What are you doing?" He gasped, rubbing his neck.
"Well," Xena offered thoughtfully. "Without your prisoner, you have no more leverage against the Queen. With your track record with Empresses, I really don't think anyone will want your advice. And there won't be anyone to protect you from the Queen, who has quite a chip on her shoulder these days - thanks to Callisto and you."
"But I . . . I saved you, from those Amazons! I protected you! I helped you!!" He blurted in panic.
"No, you controlled me and I was stupid enough to let you. But not anymore. And just as you wanted to keep me, Daumas, you'll be alone. And that is the most horrible punishment I can think of," she told him, her cold eyes seeing the man for what he was. A greedy leech.
"Guards!" Daumas yelled before Xena knocked him unconscious. She pulled out her dagger and swiftly cut his fine silk clothing into a fine silk gag and rope.
As she left the cage and locked it, Solari returned. The Amazon cringed with embarrassment as she entered the tent at sword point.
"What's going on here?" Xena barked, her eyebrows furrowing at Solari.
"That's what I want to know," Draco said looking at the new prisoner in the cage.
"Daumas and I had a disagreement on where to keep the prisoner," Xena said. "I don't like it when people argue with me."
"Where do you want to take her?" Draco said suspiciously eyeing the frightened woman whose eyes darted between Xena and Draco.
"Who are you to question me, Draco?" Xena growled angrily.
"I'm the one with the sword, Xena," Draco said boldly, pointing it at Xena's chest.
Xena looked down at the sword. "Surrender your weapon or die."
Draco smirked. "I think you don't realize that your days of ruling have long gone, Xena. It's time for a new ruler. One who would make the kingdom prosperous," he said confidently.
"And who would you have rule this "prosperous" kingdom?" Xena asked, wondering if the Amazon Queen's allies could possibly include this annoying man.
"Me, of course," he said with a smile as he lunged his sword. In a blur of deadly motion, Xena turned, blocking the blade with her arm bracer, grabbed his sword and impaled him on it.
After Draco collapsed to the ground with a heavy thud, a second thud quickly followed. Solari and Xena looked down at ground where the prisoner had fainted.
Chapter 29- Handle with Care
The sun began to set over the mountains as the Conqueror, Solari, and Gabrielle's unconscious mother quickly rode away from the Northern Army's camp. After a candle mark, the riders finally slowed.
"No one seems to be following us," Solari said, looking back over her shoulder.
Xena nodded as they came to a small clearing. "Why don't you gather up something for us to eat. I'll make a fire and take care of Mother," Xena said with a smirk.
"Rabbit?" Solari asked as they dismounted.
"I could go for some oysters," Xena said as she carefully pulled the older woman off the horse and lay her gently on the ground.
"I'll keep that in mind," she said and jogged out into the woods.
Xena quickly gathered branches and built a small fire, then tended to the still unconscious woman.
Inspecting the heavy shackles on her legs, Xena sighed. After placing the leg irons on a flat stone, she inspected a couple of nearby rocks. Finally picking one, she went to work on freeing the older woman.
After many strikes, Xena could finally remove an ankle cuff. Smiling at her handy work, she started on the other ankle. With more pounding of stone against metal, the cuff finally gave way. Tossing the leg irons to the side with a heavy thunk, the Conqueror eyed the wrist shackles. Tired of pounding stone, she inspected the lock closely. Pulling out her small breast dagger, she heard a gasp and glanced up to find frightened green eyes looking at her.
"I won't harm you," Xena said softly with a smile as the older woman sat up uneasily and scooted back, keeping a close eye on the dangerous woman's dagger. "Oh! This is just to help pick the lock, Hecuba," Xena said, startling the older woman by using her name.
"I'm a little rusty," Xena offered as Hecuba nervously watched her attempt to pick the lock. When the frightening woman suddenly stopped and looked towards the horses, Hecuba panicked.
Without a second thought, Hecuba swiftly clobbered the Warrior Princess on the side of her head with the heavy metal shackles. When the dazed warrior stumbled over, the older woman jumped up and ran away from camp.
"UGH!" Xena growled as she shook her head, wishing she had worked on the wrist shackles first, and awkwardly got up.
When three soldiers came into her camp wielding their swords, Xena sighed heavily and drew her sword.
Solari came running back into camp with her sword drawn. She frowned with disappointment when she found Xena already sheathing her sword and three dead men on the ground.
"Where's Queen mum?" She asked with concern and received a cold glare.
"Once I bring HECUBA back, we will be heading back to the castle," Xena snarled and started to march out of the small camp.
"No dinner?" Solari asked curiously but just earned another cold look. "Ok. No dinner," Solari said holding her hands up in defeat as Xena growled and disappeared into the forest.
Xena's head ached and she was not amused. Standing perfectly still, she listened for the older woman, but only heard a persistent ringing in her ear.
"Hecuba! I will not harm you! I am here to help!" Xena called out, cringing at the loudness of own voice as she touched the side of her throbbing head. Xena's eyes narrowed as she quietly approached a suspicious sound. To her surprise, she heard a noise behind her, right before the older woman jumped on her back and started to choke her with the chain of her shackles.
"Ack!" Xena blurted as she struggled to loosen the chain around her neck before she blacked out.
When the tall woman collapsed to the ground hard, Hecuba nervously waited. Seeing no movement for a few moments, she slowly loosened the chain and removed it from the Conqueror's neck.
Suddenly, the older woman was on her back, pinned beneath a very irritated Conqueror. "I am here to hel . . . ." Xena said as the older woman's forehead slammed into her face.
"Oh GOBS!" Xena cried out as her hand shot up to her now bloody and painful nose.
The older woman attempted to wiggle out from beneath Xena's strong hold but the Conqueror's weight and other hand kept her pinned, until she felt teeth sink deep into the flesh of her forearm. "Uhhhhgtt!" Xena retracted her throbbing arm and found herself pushed to the ground by the surprisingly strong older woman, who got up, grabbed a large branch, and waved it menacingly at her, daring the Conqueror to try something.
Xena looked up at the woman, her hand still covering her nose.
"Go ahead," she finally said with a sigh. "Just make sure you tell Gabrielle I never hurt you," Xena said wearily, confusing the older woman.
The two of them turned towards the heavy laughing as the Amazon approached them. Solari opened her mouth to say something but she barreled over with laughter.
"Could you hurry up? You'd be doing me a favor," Xena said and glared at the Amazon, who was gasping for air between the annoying laughter.
"You really are here to help me." Hecuba said. "Oh my Gods!"
After the Warrior Princess silently unlocked the manacles from Hecuba's wrists, she silently walked over to Argo, silently mounted, and silently rode out of camp . . . alone.
Solari looked at the worried older woman with a shrug, trying not to chuckle.
"How was I supposed to know?" Hecuba said guiltily as the Amazon smirked and mounted her horse.
When Solari held out a helping hand, the older woman looked up disapprovingly.
"For Gods' sake, don't you have any clothing?!?"
"I should apologize," Hecuba said uneasily to the Amazon walking in front of her. She winced as she watched the proud woman riding ahead gingerly touch her cheek and lips.
Solari bit her lip but that didn't help prevent the chuckle that escaped.
"Your laughing is only making it worse!" Hecuba hissed.
Solari nodded, then snorted again.
"Someone should really take a look at her nose . . . and face . . . and arm," Hecuba rattled off with concern, making Solari laugh aloud.
With irritation, Hecuba yanked the reigns from the nearly incapacitated Amazon, who continued to laugh as she trotted up next to the proud warrior.
"I'm so sorry," Hecuba gushed guiltily.
"How's your . . . "
"I've had worse," Xena responded, continuing to look ahead. "Granted, not by much."
"I'm really . . . "
"You didn't know," Xena said. "And you fought for your life. I respect that," Xena said, making the older woman nod and feel much better.
"Why don't we stop so I can take a look at . . . " Hecuba offered.
"No," Xena said.
"Are you s. . . ?"
"You are not to touch me," Xena informed her firmly as she thankfully spotted the castle on the horizon.
As Xena rode through the gates with Hecuba, Amazons and Centaurs cheered loudly, startling the Conqueror. She hadn't heard such genuine support since the early days when she picked up the sword and cleaned up the streets of Amphipolis. It had been a long time since she had felt this good about something.
"Things have changed, haven't they?" Hecuba said with amazement as Xena nodded absently, seeing warriors nod to her out of respect as they rode past.
General Tyldus trotted up to the Conqueror and took her arm firmly in greeting. She winced. The tooth marks still bothered her. "Ah, it looks like you had a little trouble along the way," he said, glancing at her arm and face. He slapped her in the arm with a chuckle.
"Yeah, well," she said with a weak smile.
"There must have been thirty or forty men! You should have seen her," Hecuba quickly volunteered, lying through her pearly white teeth. Xena stared at her, shocked.
"Oh I have, Hecuba. I have seen what this woman is capable of, both as an enemy and a friend. And I have to say, I prefer her as a friend," the Centaur smiled. Xena looked at the General and nodded, preferring being a friend as well.
"I think the Queen might be interested in your return. And I know the warriors are ready for a well-deserved celebration," he said. "And tonight there will be a celebration worthy of these warriors!" He yelled out, causing the Centaurs and Amazons to whoop and holler.
As the General trotted off, Xena dismounted. Going to Hecuba's side, the Conqueror offered her a hand to dismount.
"I thought you said no touching," Hecuba said, looking at her hand uncertainly.
"We won't make it a habit," Xena countered with a raised eyebrow and further extended her hand. Hecuba smiled, and gladly accepted the offer.
Otere and Ephiny jogged up to them with smiles. "We knew you could do it!" Otere gushed.
"How's Gabrielle?" Xena asked.
"Stronger," Ephiny said, gaining a curious look from Hecuba. "Your face looks like you were kicked in the head by a Centaur," Ephiny noted to Xena, who sighed.
"You said she's stronger? What happened to my daughter?" Hecuba asked with concern.
"She was injured when she defeated Callisto," Ephiny informed her.
"Xena saved her life!" Otere gushed. "She knew exactly how to treat and sew up the wound. The stitches are the best Ashea, our healer, had ever seen. In fact, there really shouldn't be much . . . "
"Uh . . . Let's go see Gabrielle," Xena interjected uneasily. Hecuba nodded, needing to see her daughter.
"Hey. Where's Solari?" Otere asked, looking around.
"She should catch up shortly. She was walking," Xena offered before they left.
Chapter 30 - Celebrations
As they walked down the long hallway, Hecuba looked around with amazement. "This is all yours?"
"It's Gabrielle's," Xena said, getting a surprised look from Hecuba. "She's in there." The Conqueror pointed to the bedroom door. Hecuba nodded and nervously entered the room, not knowing in what condition she would find her daughter.
"Mother!" Lila called out happily as she jumped up from Gabrielle's bedside as the tired Queen sat in her bed, watching with a relieved smile.
After getting a hug from her daughter, Hecuba found herself in her husband's arms. "Oh Hecuba!" He said emotionally before kissing his wife soundly.
Xena grinned, better understanding why Hecuba had fought so hard to live. She had someone she had to live for. Her eyes drifted to Gabrielle, whose beautiful smile was something she hoped to see every day.
"Should we leave you two alone?" Gabrielle asked from the bed with amusement, causing the parents to break off their intimate display and cough with embarrassment.
"Uh . . . it's been a while," Hecuba shrugged. Gabrielle nodded wearily as Lila winced.
"Eww. Too much information!"
Hecuba shook her head at her youngest daughter and went to Gabrielle's side. Concern immediately flooded the mother's face as she looked over her unusually pale daughter.
"I'm OK, Mother. Thanks to Xena," she said, eyeing the warrior who was curiously lingering in the shadows.
"Ashea could have . . . " Xena offered uncomfortably, stepping further away from the candle light.
"But Ashea didn't. And you did," Gabrielle quickly countered. "Why are you standing way over there?" Gabrielle asked with frustration.
"I uh, should leave you all alone," she mumbled and started for the door.
"HALT!" Gabrielle said causing Warrior Princess to cringe. "Turn around." Xena sighed heavily and turned around. "Now march yourself over here."
Hecuba looked between the two women curiously. Why was her daughter bossing the Conqueror around? And why was the Conqueror letting her?
"Oh my Gods, Xena! You look awful," Gabrielle said with worry.
"Lila, go get Ashea."
"No! That's ok. I'll be fine. Looks worse than it is," Xena said. "This is family time, I should be going."
"Xena! Sit here, right now," Gabrielle snapped and the Conqueror sat on the edge of the bed, reluctantly. The Queen reached out and gently inspected Xena's now puffy face, then the red chafing at her neck with a cringe of sympathy.
Hecuba's eyes widened with understanding.
"What happened?" Gabrielle asked softly.
"Well . . . " Xena said and hesitated uncomfortably, glancing up at the older woman, who quicky interjected "Well, I'll tell you if she's too embarrassed."
"It was a huge fight. We thought we had escaped the Army camp without anyone following but we were mistaken. We were followed. It was a blur as forty or fifty soldiers jump out from the night," Hecuba relayed with enthusiasm, making Xena roll her eyes. "Fists flew, swords clashed. But they were no match for Xena. I'm here today because of her," Hecuba finished with a smile and a shrug, noticing all eyes on her, including narrow blue ones. "Thank you," Hecuba said softly to the Conqueror, who nodded uncomfortably.
"Wow," Lila said in awe. "Thank you so much! You saved Gabrielle, then my mother," she said and started to tear up as she hugged Xena, who couldn't take it any longer.
When Xena opened her mouth to explain what had happened, Herodotus put his hand on her shoulder. "I don't know how to thank you, Xena."
"Don't mention it," Xena said flatly, eyeing Hecuba, who smiled uneasily and quickly offered. "Well, it's been a long day for us all. We should all get some rest," Hecuba said, and yawned.
"Good idea," Xena said and started to get up but Gabrielle's hand covered hers, preventing the attempted escape.
"Good night, Gabrielle," Hecuba said, kissing her daughter's cheek. "Night, mother."
"Good night, Gabrielle. I'm very proud of you," Herodotus said and kissed the startled Queen on the forehead. Xena smiled.
"Yeah. Not bad for a former bard," Lila said and hugged her, getting a weak smile from Gabrielle.
As the family left, Xena looked uneasily at Gabrielle, whose hand still covered hers. "You need your rest too," Xena offered, trying to leave, but the expectant look in those demanding green eyes pinned her in place.
"So . . . how was your day?" Xena asked with a weak smile, her eyes darting around with a sudden interest in the room.
"Oh, typical. Recovering after having defeated an evil Empress and waiting for my missing lover, who just returned after five winters and brought my mother safely back to me, to stop trying to run away from me . . . ," she said.
"I'm not running away from you! You just need . . . " Xena said uncomfortably.
"And just tell me . . . "
". . . rest. . . "
". . . why her face looks like she used it as a battering ram."
"People have always said I had a hard head," Xena shrugged.
"Spill what?" Xena asked with a weak smile.
"And you actually win at poker with that face? You are such a horrible liar."
"Hey! I was not the one who lied," Xena said then saw a satisfied look on Gabrielle's face. "Damn it," Xena blurted, sighing heavily.
"Just promise me . . . " Xena said hesitantly and sighed again.
"What?" Gabrielle asked, starting to get concerned.
"You won't get mad at your mother."
"Why would . . . ?"
"Just promise me?" Xena said.
"Ok. I promise."
"And promise me . . . " Xena continued.
"More?" Gabrielle asked with surprise, getting an annoyed look from Xena. "Ok, ok, what else?"
"You won't laugh at me," Xena said firmly.
Gabrielle eyed her and nodded hesitantly.
"I mean it. No laughing."
"Must I write this all down and sign it for you to believe me?" Gabrielle asked with irritation.
"No, that's ok."
When Gabrielle rolled her eyes, Xena quickly blurted "your mother beat the crap out of me."
"My mother . . . did what?" She asked, knowing she had heard incorrectly.
"You mother did this," Xena said, pointing to her nose, which still had traces of dried blood caked around one nostril. Gabrielle's eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
"And this," Xena pointed to the side of her puffy face which was starting to bruise. Gabrielle's eyes widened.
"This," Xena pointed to her neck which now sported a chaffed skin at the base of her throat. "And this," Xena displayed the half-crescent bite marks on her forearm.
Gabrielle's mouth dropped. "My mother beat you up?"
"She thought I was the old me and . . . " Xena explained as the horrified look transformed into a huge, annoying smile.
"She really likes you," Gabrielle said happily.
"Then I'm relieved she doesn't love me," Xena said flatly. "You don't happen to take after her that way, do you?" she asked with narrow, suspicious eyes.
"No silly, she lied about it," Gabrielle explained the obvious.
"Yeah, well, I guess she felt guilty and wanted to spare me the . . . "
"No, you don't understand. . . ."
"I'm beginning to realize that."
"She never thought . . . well, she always thought that . . . Well, I mean, she . . . " Gabrielle sighed heavily, struggling for the right words.
"Much clearer, thanks."
"Ugh." Gabrielle slapped her arm.
"Hey!" Xena said with annoyance. "Oh, wait a minute, does that mean you like me? Or not," she frowned. "This is getting complicated," she sighed wearily.
"Xena!" Gabrielle growled. "My mother always thought that being a bard wasn't an honorable profession because bards just told lies and lying is a sin."
Gabrielle shook her head. "And yet, she lied about beating you up."
"So that's a good thing?" Xena asked hesitantly, not quite understanding.
"YES!" Gabrielle smiled happily.
The beat of Amazon drums marked the start of the celebration to end all celebrations. Around the castle grounds, Amazons and Centaurs ate, drank, sang, and told loud, incredible tales, which mainly focused on the Conqueror and the Amazon Queen's noble deeds during the past few days.
After standing in line and swapping exciting stories of her own with a bunch of warriors, Otere finally made it to the barrel of ale. Pouring two foaming mugs, she smiled as she eagerly brought one to her lips. A hand stopped her from taking a sip.
"You be careful with that," Ephiny warned, eyeing the two mugs with disappointment.
"This is my first one! And Yakut wanted one too!" Otere responded with irritation, pointing to her friend, who was sitting on a bench with her crutches.
"Calm down. She's just doesn't want you to wake up with a hangover and a brand-new birth-mark," Solari interjected as she poured herself a mug.
"Solari! When did you get back?" Otere asked with surprise.
"I've been standing next to you in line for the past half candle mark!" Solari said indignantly.
"Nice leathers," Ephiny said, looking over the Amazon's new clothing approvingly.
"Uh . . . thanks," Solari said self-consciously.
"Hi guys," Lila said as she approached them nervously.
"Hey," Ephiny said with a nod. The Amazons looked at the young woman uneasily.
"Here, you look like you could use a drink," Solari offered, feeling bad for the young woman who had been put in a tough spot. Lila gratefully accepted.
"Thanks. I'm Lila," she said, holding out her hand.
"Ugh!" Solari growled and stormed off.
"Why is she so mad?" Lila asked as Otere shrugged.
"Solari! Wait up!" Ephiny said, jogging after her.
"Solari?!? Wow. She really has pretty eyes, doesn't she?" Lila said with amazement, sipping the mead.
"I suppose you'll want to go," Gabrielle said glancing to the window, hearing the lure of the Amazon drums. "It will be a historic celebration."
"With historic hangovers. I can do without, thank you," Xena said as she gently finished wiping her face with a damp cloth and rolled her eyes at her battered reflection in the mirror. "Besides, the only person I'd want to celebrate with isn't participating."
Gabrielle smiled as Xena returned and sat on the edge of the bed.
"I wish I could celebrate with you tonight. We have so much to celebrate," she said warmly, squeezing the Conqueror's hand. "But I'm afraid what I want and what I am physically capable of, are not exactly compatible right at the moment."
Xena looked at her with a big smile. "I'm not exactly in top form at the moment either. But I promise you, when we're better. . . ."
Unable to resist, Gabrielle leaned forward with a slight groan and kissed her on the lips.
"Ow," Xena said, touching her tender lip as her heart soared. "It works," she said happily, getting a curious look from the Queen. "It feels much better. Try this," Xena offered her throat, considerately getting up and leaning close so Gabrielle didn't have to move much.
Gabrielle chuckled before gently planting a kiss on the warrior's chafed neck. "Oh . . . yes. Much, much better," Xena said, clearing her throat as she sat back down. "Though, interestingly, my legs are starting to give out."
Gabrielle laughed. "Well you're in luck. The bed is big enough for two. You should stay, so I don't have to worry about you falling and hurting yourself further," Gabrielle said and grinned as Xena quickly took her up on the invitation. After shedding her armor and boots with a few "ows" and pained groans, the safety-minded warrior claimed what would, from that day forward, be known as her side of the bed.
Silently, the warrior removed unnecessary pillows and helped the happy Queen lay back for an evening of slumber. Rolling on her side with a grimace, Xena looked at the beautiful woman, whose emerald eyes for the first time in many seasons started to fill with tears. Silently, Xena offered her injured forearm with a raised eyebrow. Gabrielle chuckled as she rolled her eyes then gently kissed the offered limb, making Xena smile.
When Xena leaned over and pointed to her nose, Gabrielle drew the line.
"Xena, you're my soul-mate and I love you. But I'm not kissing your nose."
The retreating pout made Gabrielle crumble. "Xena . . . " Gabrielle said, prompting the Conqueror to smile with victory and move closer to collect her kiss as Gabrielle started to sit up. The Conqueror's nose collided with the Queen's chin.
"Uuughkt!" Xena's hand shot up to her nose as she retreated to her pillow.
"Xena!" Gabrielle rolled on her side with a pained grimace. "Oh Gods, I'm sorry! Are you all right?" She asked.
"I'm find," Xena repeated with irritation.
"If you're fine, why are tears falling from your eyes?!?"
"Joy. Tear of Joy," Xena said, blinking rapidly.
"I don't suppose you want to see Ashea?" Gabrielle said uneasily.
Xena shook her head no and gingerly touched the bridge of her nose.
"Xena, do you want some water? Perhaps something stronger?" Gabrielle asked, starting to move.
"Don't move," Xena ordered firmly.
"It's ok, Xena, I'll be right . . . ow . . . back." Gabrielle said, slowly moving.
"STOP!" Xena commanded. "Don't move. Don't even think about it. Stay perfectly still."
"Can I breath??"
"Yes. But not heavily."
Gabrielle lay on her back with irritation. She could have gotten her water or something.
After a quiet, pain-free moment, Gabrielle smiled when her hand was gently taken by Xena's. After another moment, four of the most soul soothing words she had ever heard were softly spoken to her.
"I love you, Gabrielle."
"I love you too, Xena."
Bards, who dare speak out and risk embarrassing the Conqueror, sing tales of how darkness was cast from the land. Those most romantic claim it was the day that the Conqueror lost her heart. But the Conqueror strongly disagreed, for she knew exactly where her heart was. It was safely residing with her Queen, who had found her atrophied organ buried beneath years of heartache and neglect, and nurtured it back to health.
The Conqueror's declaration brought a smile to the Queen's lips.
Others, believing in the higher powers, claimed darkness was vanquished by the Fates, who had sealed the Warrior and bard's destiny long ago. The Conqueror, who never before believed anything good would come from the higher powers, begrudgingly admitted she felt blessed for the first time in her life.
The Conqueror's admission brought tears of joy to her Queen's eyes.
And those bards who were skeptics claimed their love was not fate but dumb luck. The Conqueror did not disagree, stating that she would never look a gift horse in the mouth.
The Conqueror's statement brought a furrow to the Queen's brow, which quickly prompted profuse apologizes to reassure the Conqueror's beloved she had not just been equated to a beast of burden.
A rare few, who claimed to have divine insight on right and wrong, had warned that a more insidious evil now suffocated the land. A great threat to all that was good loomed as the masses accepted that which should be spurned. The rare few declared that the supposedly life-altering love between the Conqueror and her Queen was not to be viewed as a sacred gift but an abomination! The people were warned not to be fooled by the extravagant commitment ceremony, where vows of love and promises of patience and understanding were publicly made, for it was nothing more than a gross mockery of the holy institution of marriage!
Those rare few owed their lives to the sage Queen, who reminded her wife of her vow of patience and understanding, though the Conqueror quickly reminded her Queen that vow of patience and understanding was for the Queen alone, not the scum-sucking morons who wouldn't know true love if it bit them in their fat, hairy ass. But the reluctant Conqueror finally promised not to waste any more energy on those blinded by their righteousness, thanks to the adroit persuasion by the Queen's advanced oral skills, which provided many, exhaustive examples of where their energy was better spent.
Then a rarer few, who did not grow tired of condemning the happy couple, claimed that Evil was spawning when the Conqueror and Queen bore twins. The rarer few declared the birth an obscenity and a devious attempt to undermine the last pillar of family values which the Conqueror and Queen had yet to grossly mutate for their own nefarious purposes. Those rarer few urged the people to shun the children of that unnatural union for should they embrace the poisonous offspring they too would be destined to rot in hell!
Those rarer few quickly vanished and were never heard from again.
But no bard's tale or historian's fact could truly capture how happy or full the lives of the Conqueror and her Queen were with their children, now numbering four but were not going to become five then six like the Conqueror wanted, unless the Conqueror got off her large royal throne and had another one, because as the Queen declared, fair was fair.
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