DISCLAIMER: The use of characters and situations belonging to RenPic and MCA is for my own pleasure, and is without permission.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I have been blessed with the help of some the most talented women in the Xenaverse. I am indebted to them all; Unfortunately, I was still the one to write it. I am very grateful to Eve Ng, Maribel Piloto, Barbara Davies, Advocate, Lariel, IseQween, Georgia, Verath, Mary Morgan, Lawlsfan, and Archaeobard. Quite a list, because I am very fortunate.
FEEDBACK: Mail is always appreciated and answered Kamouraskan[at]yahoo.com
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
You with the sad eyes
Don't be discouraged
Oh I realize
It's hard to take courage
In a world full of strangers
You can lose sight of it all
And the darkness inside you
Can make you feel so small
Xena moved through the underbrush cautiously. The branches brushing against the cuts and bruises received from the stoning in Amphipolis went unnoticed. Her mind was too occupied with trying to understand her motives for still being in the Amazon territory to really be aware of her injuries. She halted and froze at an unexpected sound and waited before advancing closer to the break in the trees that signaled the outskirts of the Amazon village
This was insane. Risking her life, and for what? Because of something she felt in a moments glimpse into some little girl's eyes? Could it be simply admiration for that nutter's foolhardy bravery? She'd left the girl's still breathing body at the edges of the tribal grounds, and that should have ended it. 'Damn her and her God's be blasted 'Destiny.''
A hut door opened and a very frail looking blonde princess was carried out by two Amazon warriors. She saw that they were taking her towards the Queen's hut, where Melosa's body would have been laid out. Xena inhaled abruptly when she saw the discoloured welts that she had inflicted on the girl from the staff fight. How could she risk being here? Gabrielle still couldn't walk. She was assuming that the girl she had almost beaten to death wouldn't order her killed on sight. What was she doing? What WAS it about this girl?
Once the guards had carried their burden inside, she crept noiselessly to the side of the hut, just as the guards were ordered out. Through the thatching she heard Gabrielle's clear soft voice, trying to make her peace with the dead Queen, trying to apologize for her failure.
"My Queen...You accepted me when no one else...When my own family rejected me. You gave me a place where I was whole for the first time in my life. You tried to teach me what I could become, and let me travel, and learn, and you gave me a home. And my sisters." Her voice trembled slightly. "You punished me, and loved me, and I wanted nothing more than to make you proud. And now...."
Xena was not even aware that she had moved to the doorway. Somehow she was now standing there in full view of potential enemies. It was as though she was being forced to acknowledge that only she could ease this pain.
Gabrielle continued, blind for the moment to the empathetic presence behind her "I am so sorry, Melosa, I was wrong. Sometimes there is no way, sometimes no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try...because I really tried, I swear I tried, but.. I'm so sorry, I failed you, myself, and most of all I failed Xena....and now, The Amazons will lose everything, and I have lost you, and now....I am so alone..."
Xena swallowed. It was then that the young princess sensed her somehow, and even though it hurt, she slowly turned her body to face the intruder. Finding her tongue, Xena heard the words in her own mind before they were spoken. Knew that they were important. That they were right. That she was committed. She found the tear filled eyes glistening in the darkness and promised them:
"You're not alone anymore."
Gabrielle was unable to fight the exultation she felt. "You came." The thought flew through her mind, 'I WAS right. This IS supposed to be!'
Both women unaccountably smiled. 'Stunning, she's stunning,' Gabrielle thought. Why hadn't I realized that before? Momentarily enraptured, she lost her grip on the coffin, and began to slide downward. In a swift movement, Xena caught her before she touched the earthen floor, but even that gentle capture was painful and the Amazon princess couldn't stifle the groan. She saw the regret in the warrior's eyes and wishing it to go away, managed to get out, "You should see the other guy."
Xena grinned and shook her head, saying, "What am I going to do with you?" Lying there in her arms, a hundred potentially agreeable suggestions flashed through Gabrielle's mind. Xena laughed at the blush that followed.
The mood was broken when a voice interrupted angrily from the doorway. "Move away from her, and face me." Xena glanced up to see a grim-faced Amazon holding a dagger, preparing to throw. Her smile died, and she looked to Gabrielle. "Velasca?" she asked.
Gabrielle sighed. "No. This is Ephiny. My closest friend. Ephiny, Xena is here to help."
Ephiny snorted. "Like she's already helped you? I SAID... stand away."
Xena didn't move. "Only if you take her. She's too weak to stand."
"And whose fault is that?" She called over her shoulder. "Guards! Get in here!" As the two Amazons entered, they froze at the sight of the warrior holding their princess. Ephiny immediately laid into them. "That's right! You allowed the woman who almost killed her to walk right in and have a second chance! If you think border patrol is the only punishment you'll be getting, you're even more stupid than you already look. Now go and help the princess."
Gabrielle started to explain. "Ephiny, you don't understand..."
"What don't I understand? That you had some crazy notion to challenge this bitch to stand as your Champion? And now she returns to finish brutalizing you? No, Gabrielle. I think I do understand."
"No, you don't." Gabrielle voice was firm. "Xena has agreed to stand for me against Velasca." There was a quick but uncertain glance to the warrior to confirm this. With a slight flicker of her eyes, Xena corroborated. Gabrielle felt the exhilaration she'd felt earlier, return.
Drawing on as much dignity as she could manage, the young Amazon princess rose with the help of the guards as Xena stood back. "For now at least, I am the ruling member of this tribe, mask or no mask, and I order you to treat her with respect."
Gabrielle saw Xena stiffen, and she followed her eyes to the doorway. A tall dark haired Amazon stood there smiling. "Respect?" The newcomer took a moment to enjoy the tableau her entrance had created. "I don't think so. I don't think you're aware of all the facts about this woman, Princess." The last word dripped with condescension.
"Velasca?" Xena's body was on full alert.
Gabrielle slumped slightly. "Oh, yeah."
Leaving her entourage waiting behind her, Velasca sauntered into the hut, savouring the increase in tension. She stared with open appraisal at the dark warrior.
"Something about me you find interesting?" The warrior growled.
"Wanna tell me about it?"
Velasca chuckled. "I've made it a point to know all about you, Xena. I always considered you to be a role model. A true Amazon. Leader of the greatest army this part of the world has seen. So I studied you carefully. Methods and tactics. And when I heard that our beloved Princess was intending to ask for your help, I was tempted to stop her. But I suppose growing up is fraught with all sorts of unpleasant learning experiences." She smiled condescendingly at the Princess. "Glad to see you're up and around, dear."
"Is there a point to this interruption?" Gabrielle asked angrily
"Of course. Once again, you've proven your incapacity for being the leader of this tribe, Princess. You've just gone and allied yourself with the greatest enemy the Amazons have ever known."
Gabrielle felt the warrior beside her stiffen. "Say what you have to say, Velasca."
The dark Amazon gestured to the warrior. "Ask Xena, she knows. Ask her about the Northern Amazons. Ask her how they died. Ask her if she gave them a chance to pray for their souls before she betrayed them. Go ahead. Ask her."
Gabrielle didn't need to look. It was as if she was attuned to every change in breathing of the woman beside her.
"It's a pity, Xena, that your legend ends like this." Velasca smirked. "The girl should never have gone to you. A true Queen should fight her own battles. As I will. I even have the schedule worked out. I challenge for the mask tonight, kill her, and then we can have the execution of the Warrior Princess to celebrate my induction as Queen. Barring rain, we should be able to declare war on the Centaurs by the next day. What do you think?" The warrior remained silent but Gabrielle was aware of the tension coiling inside.
Ephiny interposed, snarling, "you can't challenge her now, she's barely able to walk."
Velasca chuckled. "Queens can't choose when to fight, Ephiny. Wars happen at the most inconvenient times." She laughed again "As if her being healthy would make any difference. Anyway, my schedule is pressing, and I'd like to get this part over as soon as possible. Oh, and Xena? You'll notice she didn't propose to ask anyone else to stand for her. She wouldn't want to sacrifice any of her precious followers. She was just using you, and that's the only intelligent move she's made. So..." She turned to Gabrielle. "... instead of making her your champion, Princess, I believe it's your duty to arrest this murderer."
Gabrielle said uncertainly. "Xena...?" The two princesses stared at each other. "She has to have a trial...." Gabrielle began.
Velasca shrugged, unperturbed. "I agree. One that has to be presided over by the Queen. And until the challenge is complete, she'll just have to wait, locked up, in chains. Amazon law is clear."
Xena struggled with herself for a moment. She mumbled to Gabrielle. "I can't... Gabrielle, I can't...not again."
Velasca turned and stared angrily at the motionless guards behind her. "What are you waiting for? I just told you, this woman is a killer. Take her! Or do I have to do it myself!" and she rushed at the warrior.
As Velasca leapt for her, Xena pressed down her shoulders and brought up one knee, and they all heard the sound of ribs cracking like dry wheat. Xena dropped the challenger to the ground as the two guards moved towards her. She was preparing to take them when Gabrielle cried out "No! Please... Xena," and the warrior froze and turned to give one anguished look to Gabrielle. "I'm sorry," was all she said, before she sprung sideways, crashing out through the wall of the hut..
Gasping in pain, fighting to breathe, Velasca tried to rise but collapsed again. "After her!" she wheezed. The guards hurried outside at the command. Ephiny stood over the challenger, evaluating her impaired condition. With more than a hint of her inner satisfaction, she said "Looks like your schedule will be have to be delayed, DEAR.. Maybe for a moon?"
Gabrielle rubbed her eyes, still filled with dried tears, still smelling the smoke from the funeral pyre of her adopted mother. She had been installed in the Queen's hut in deference to her rite of caste, but she knew she was there only by that technicality. She tried to focus on the scroll again in the candlelight but her mind wouldn't let go of the memory of Xena's escape the night before. She tried again to study the Amazon tribal regulations. There had to be a way, some law, some loophole she could use. There was always a way. She had already given up once too soon; she vowed never make that mistake again. But what was she going to do? Velasca had only been delayed until she healed. She refused to believe that Xena had truly abandoned her, she still believed that the Fates meant her to be with her now.
It was with relief that she heard the familiar steps approach outside.
"Come in, Eph." The Amazon entered and knelt before her. Gabrielle grimaced and took her friend's hand and hauled her up. "Don't. Just don't."
Ephiny spoke seriously "There are things you're going to need to get used to."
"Well, my best friend kneeling to me isn't one of them." The Princess sat back down and waited for her confidante to tell her why she was there. She noticed the uncharacteristic hesitation.
"We need to talk...privately." Gabrielle nodded, trying not to show her curiosity. Ephiny returned to the doorway and called out: "Eppy, go ahead." then returned to sit beside her young friend.
"What was that all about?"
Ephiny spoke in low voice. "Eponin is moving the guards back a few lengths, and keeping on eye on them. This isn't a conversation I want overheard, and Velasca seems to have ears everywhere."
Gabrielle continued to wait.
"I spoke to Xena." Ephiny said slowly
Gabrielle did not hold back her surprise. "What? And you didn't arrest her on the spot?"
"She made that ...rather difficult." The princess' lips twitched at that, but diplomatically she did not ask for details. "She wants to meet you tomorrow on the far eastern border near the trout stream."
"Meeting with her might be considered treason..." Gabrielle began.
"She suggested that if you wanted to arrest her, she was willing to let you try....every day for the next few weeks, in fact..."
Gabrielle couldn't help but giggle. "What?... I can't just... are YOU trusting her?"
"No, but this is clearly an offer to train you for the Challenge, and, " Ephiny's shrug indicated her resentment, "she moves around here so easily, if she meant to do you any harm she could already have done it."
"So, she hasn't killed me yet, and that's a reason for you to go along with this?"
Ephiny stood up and looked towards the walls. "Gabrielle. Despite your age....well, you know how much I respect you now. I think you could grow to be a great Queen... not a good queen, a great Queen. And because of that, I've always supported you in your travels in order to learn. I've agreed to lead the Amazons while you're gone, because as much as I am a warrior, I want my son to grow up in peace and I believe you're our only hope for that ever happening. Your proposal for a treaty with the Centaurs is just the start. But there are some things that every great queen has to do...."
She sat again and took Gabrielle's hands.
"Xena is a murderer. Her death is inevitable, accept that. But until then..." She stopped again to choose her words.
"Until then, she is useful. Queens have to use what they are given, because they have a higher responsibility. YOU... have a higher responsibility, to use whatever tools you're given. Xena is a tool, a very powerful one, but a tool."
"How do you suggest I use this tool?" Gabrielle's voice showed none of her distaste.
"I'm not the strategist, Gabrielle. But I know that mind of yours. You could come up with a dozen ways that Velasca could be killed or lose the challenge with Xena's help. I'm asking you to do exactly that. Plot, scheme, do whatever you have to, but don't sacrifice the peace of this Nation, or the lives of your sisters for a fair fight you can't win, or because of misplaced loyalty to a killer."
"Would you do this, Ephiny?"
Her friend dropped her eyes. Then raised them and stared directly into Gabrielle's. "It doesn't matter what I would do. All that matters is what the QUEEN does."
Xena found herself, once again, waiting in a tree for the young Amazon. Though it was daytime, she was reminded of the first time she had seen the princess in a clearing only a few nights before. It was another admonition of how ridiculously short a time she had actually known this girl for all the trust she was placing in her. She watched as three Amazons approached several lengths away. The small blonde took a bundle and two staves from the other two and gestured that they should withdraw. Gabrielle waited for a moment until they were a distance away and then advanced towards the stream. She stood in the centre of the glade, searching through the leafy canopy, when she felt the warrior's presence suddenly behind her.
The low voice sent a shiver through her. "You never seem to react when I surprise you. That could be an asset in disconcerting your opponents." They turned to face each other.
"Are you an opponent?" Gabrielle asked softly.
"Are you?" Xena countered..
Gabrielle hesitated before answering. "Xena, I have a responsibility, and an obligation, to arrest you."
The warrior shook her head. "I'm not going to let that happen. But I'm willing to meet you here each day, and if you beat me, I'll stand for trial."
The princess laughed. "Right. Been there, didn't do that." Gabrielle looked at the warrior in front of her. "Do you think that's what I'm worried about? All I can think about is how glad I am that you're here." Both women smiled and relaxed. "Anyway," Gabrielle continued, "it's the Queen who has to judge you, not the Princess. I know in my soul who and what you are now. I know the woman in front of me. The Princess will never judge your past." she finished solemnly.
The Warrior felt her heart stumble at the words. Was this just another ruse? After all she had lived through, had she finally found the person who would not betray her? Xena stared at the young, open face in front of her, and knew she had no choice in this. What else was there? She was without an army, without a home. Her only child did not know who she was. All she had left was the desire to help this girl, and she was committed by her word to do so. But she could at least pretend that she had some options, some control. Her mask firmly in place, she narrowed her eyes and demanded, "You wouldn't turn me over, right now, if you could?"
The mask seemed to have no effect on this one. The Princess gave a coy grin. "I didn't say that. In fact, I think you've set the rules. I have to beat you, right?"
Did this girl know what she was asking? Fighting another smile, she felt compelled to lay it out before her. "Gabrielle. You have your obligations, and I promised to help. But you seem to be forgetting that I was put though a gauntlet by my men. I was stoned by my townspeople while my own mother watched. I won't let that happen again. I can't let myself be caught. I'll die fighting, or by my own hand, but I won't ever let myself be helpless ever again. No matter what the cause, no matter who is asking. Accept that, or we quit now."
The young princess considered what she was really being told. Behind the assertion of independence, one thing was very clear. Xena had lost everything and every connection she had with this world. She was standing here only because of one last thread. A thread Gabrielle held in her hands. After all of the betrayals this woman had known, she was putting herself in these young inexperienced hands.
Ephiny had been right. The greatest warrior Greece had ever known was Gabrielle's to use.
Assuming that the discussion was over, Xena took a stave from Gabrielle and opened the bag and looked inside. "What's with the sword?"
Gabrielle shook off her deliberations "Ah, as Challenger, Velasca has the choice of weapons. I think she'll choose either sword or staff."
Xena withdrew the weapon from the sack and began examining the edge and balance. "Why?"
"Because she sees the sword as THE weapon of the warrior, and seeing me flail around with one will merely confirm to the tribe how inadequate I am, or would have been, to lead warriors. It's either that or she'll want to defeat me in what is considered my area of expertise. The staff is my best weapon, so it'll be one or the other."
Satisfied with the weapon, Xena moved to weigh the fighting staffs and passed one the princess. "Sound tactics. But I can't make you an expert with the sword in a moon's passage."
Gabrielle took the staff and leaned on its familiar length. "You won't have to. I just need to know one drill, but be able to do it perfectly. We'll work out mainly with the staff. I need to know every trick, every cheating move she might try to pull on me. "
Again, Xena felt the need to explain to this innocent exactly what she was facing. "Gabrielle, none of this matters if you still refuse to kill. This is a fight to the death, yours or Velasca's. That's all the Amazons will respect. And I can't teach you that. I'd prefer not to. And if you're not prepared to commit yourself, then you should leave the Nation now."
Without hesitation came the earnest response. "I was destined to play this part, and I'll do what I have to do, to accomplish it."
Xena shook her head, doubting that this girl truly knew what she was saying, when she was distracted. Something was wrong with the bandaged arm, and she bent over to examine it.
"Let me look at that splint, there's something..." She began to untie the bandage, surprised at the way it was wrapped. "It's not bound properly. You should have told your healer that you would be sparring. You could have reinjured yourself with even a light hit."
A shadow passed over the princess' eyes, but she stood quietly and stoically still as Xena expertly realigned the bone. Only a small cry escaped and then the warrior began to redo the wrapping. As her breathing returned to normal, Gabrielle very aware of the closeness and strength of the woman, and as a cover for her feelings, she began to examine the stitches in the broad shoulders in front of her. Stitches she had put in only days before; and so she was surprised to see the wounds had already closed.
"You heal quickly."
"Comes in handy in my business." The warrior shrugged.
Gabrielle's fingers lightly traced the scarred flesh. "I'm sorry I wasn't there for you in Amphipolis. I think I was supposed to be, and I wasn't."
Xena looked at her with amusement. "Supposed to be...? Oh yeah. I didn't know it was possible to be late for Destiny. Anyway, I wasn't expecting anyone. So why did you miss your moment?"
Gabrielle smiled at the memory. "I got stopped by a blind Cyclops. He said he knew you, but he didn't seem to like you very much."
"It happens. I get that a lot." They both grinned.
"So, we start." They moved to their starting positions, both women remembering the first time they had done this. Gabrielle couldn't resist. "Will you be my Champion?" she called. She was again amazed at the brilliance of the smile that answered her question.
Two candlemarks later, a very tired Amazon Princess watched as the warrior slipped away effortlessly through the trees.
As soon as she rejoined her sisters, the princess abruptly turned and vented her anger on her best friend. "Ephiny, Rasas was told very clearly that I was going to be working out today, and apparently she deliberately left my arm so that it could be reinjured. I think that she was willing to break her healer's oath to support Velasca."
Ephiny was shocked. Such a betrayal of a calling by a fellow Amazon was unheard of. "No."
"Oh yes. I want her watched from now on. And Ephiny? I 'm going to need a confession from her before this is over. Can you do that?"
Ephiny stared at the unfamiliarly hard-eyed young woman in front of her. The words 'By whatever means necessary?' went unspoken.
"Yes, your Highness." For once Gabrielle didn't interrupt to reprimand her on her use of the title, and Ephiny continued. "Velasca has chosen the day of the full moon for her challenge. She intends to send you to Artemis when She is clearest in the skies."
The Princess nodded. "That means that the arrest will have to take place the day before. Can you guarantee that you can take Xena without anyone being hurt?"
"No, your Highness."
The three walked in silence for a moment. Finally Gabrielle spoke. "Then I'll have to make sure that she gives herself up."
Ephiny nodded. "Yes, your Highness."
But I see your true colors
I see your true colors
And that's why I love you
So don't be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
True colors are beautiful,
Like a rainbow
Show me a smile then,
Don't be unhappy, can't remember
When I last saw you laughing
If this world makes you crazy
And you've taken all you can bear
You call me up
Because you know I'll be there
Gabrielle lay on the ground; still blinded by the dirt, her eyes tearing furiously, but still not as furious as the woman above her.
"Dammit, Gabrielle. You weren't watching. When I threw that earth, I had to take my eyes off yours. It was the perfect opportunity for you get through my defense. Instead, if I was Velasca, you'd be dead right now!"
Xena went to the water skins and returned still glowering, yet she knelt down and ever so gently tilted the princess' head back to flush out the grit.
Shielding her eyes from the bright sunlight, Gabrielle mumbled, "I'm sorry, Xena..."
The warrior wasn't about to stop venting her frustration. "Sorry won't help. Just Improve. How many times...? The Challenge is tomorrow, and you may be technically good, but you still have no...no fire! This is your life on the line, and the one who cares the most tomorrow is going to win."
"I'll try harder..." she pleaded softly.
Xena shook her head and sighed. Gabrielle began to rise, but the warrior stopped her, saying, "Let's take a break." and with a groan of relief Gabrielle collapsed against Xena, ending up resting her head against her shoulder.
Strangely enough, it was several heartbeats before either of them realized what she had done. Astonished blue eyes met terrified green ones. So frightened was Gabrielle, that she was unable to move, and it was only when she felt the warrior relax did she begin to breath again.
More bewildered than angry, Xena muttered "It's okay, Gabrielle."
"You're sure?" she asked hesitantly.
"I said it was okay, so relax." 'After all, 'rationalized Xena. 'Look at the pressure she's under. She's a kid, trying to rule an Amazon village while half the tribe is watching and waiting for her to make a mistake. Coming here everyday to have me shout at her, and push her to her limits, and if this little thing makes her happy, I can bear it.' Anyways, it wasn't an unpleasant feeling....
Meanwhile a somewhat round-eyed Gabrielle was trying to adjust to how cozy this particular shoulder was, while attempting to fit this latest facet into the portrait she was forming of this complex woman. 'Half the time I'm frightened she's going to take off my head, and the rest of the time it's as though we've been friends all our lives. I'm never going to stop learning about her, am I?'
Still trying to ignore how comfortable she was, Xena took a long drink from a skin, and then passed it to the semi-prone girl. "I know you're trying. That isn't the question. You couldn't try any harder. You are one of the best staff fighters I've ever seen, but you're gonna have to find that killing stroke inside of yourself, or Velasca is gonna take your head off. It's you or her, got that?"
Instead of the water skin, Gabrielle seized on the only thing that mattered to her. "You think I'm really good?"
The warrior rolled her eyes. "Yes. You're very good. Did you hear the rest of what I said?"
The princess tilted her head and asked earnestly, "Maybe I need more incentive. I need you to be there."
"Gabrielle..." There was an edge to the voice that had not been there a minute before.
"Xena, I'm just no good at doing things for my own sake. Oh, don't roll your eyes at me." She stopped, surprised at her own temerity. "I'm sorry, I don't have the right..."
"Gabrielle, you are fighting to become the Queen of the Amazons. Stop apologizing to me." A smile played around the corner of her mouth, "And I don't believe this shy act all of a sudden. I'm only here because of your pure cussedness.."
Gabrielle returned the growing smile. "I can be selfish and pushy, I know that. But if I didn't know there was reason for all this, I'd never have done anything. I believe..."
Xena recognized a story coming and rolling her eyes again, fell dramatically back onto the grass beside the girl, who giggled and shook her fist in mock anger. Xena grinned and waited for her to continue. Gabrielle rolled on her side with her chin resting on her hand, propped up on her elbow. It still took a moment before she became serious and resumed.
"I left my home village because I knew that I didn't fit in there. I knew I was destined for something else. It felt like I was spending my whole childhood waiting, until I couldn't wait anymore. So I ran away and found the Amazons. When I received the rite of caste, I thought 'this is it. This is why I left.' But it wasn't. I was still...waiting. But I've used this time to try to learn, to work to be whatever I was supposed to be."
Gabrielle felt the warrior tense beside her. "Becoming what you're supposed to be, isn't all that great." Xena muttered sadly.
Gabrielle turned those verdant eyes to her. "How would you know?"
Xena tried to ignore the affect, but that gaze was hard to shake off. "How would I know? You know what I've done."
"Nothing that really matters. Nothing like what you could do. I think you've been waiting too."
The warrior laughed. "For you?"
Offended, Gabrielle retorted, "Yes! We're together for a reason. There are things that I know we're supposed to do together. Important things. Things that will change the world. Maybe I don't know what they are. Yet. But I've always known that I was different, that there was someone who would...complete me, ever since I was a child, Xena. I need you to believe that."
The warrior was nearly overwhelmed by the intensity with which the girl spoke. "Gabrielle, I want to believe. To just believe in something, but I'm not sure that I can anymore."
"I don't believe that." They both smiled at her quip. Then the young Princess became cautious. "Will you, can you trust me?"
Xena sighed, and looked away. Finally she returned her gaze to the resolute girl beside her. "Yes."
Sounding like a mother speaking to reluctant child, Gabrielle affirmed, "Then you have to give yourself up."
Xena startled her by leaping up, with clenched fists. "Why does it always come down to that? Have you ever seen an animal trapped in a corner? Or tried to force one into a cage? That's what I am. Not this noble creature that you've imagined, Gabrielle," she spat out.
Somehow managing not to be frightened by this metamorphosis, the girl reached up to hold one hand, opening it until she was holding the callused palm with her fingers. "You're not an animal," Gabrielle stated with conviction. "Even at your worst you were never that. You took your skills and your body and you shaped it and drove it, and created the warrior you became. If you were just a collection of killing skills you would never have commanded an army, you would have always been someone's hired thug."
Xena couldn't look at her. "But that's exactly what I was! Ares' hired thug."
"It was all for a reason, Xena, so that you would be here, at this moment. I know that. What can I say or do that'll make you believe it? Xena, for once in your life, you have to surrender, and trust. You have to trust in this Destiny. Please, Xena. That's your Challenge. Can you meet it?"
Xena seemed to be listening, but not to the princess. She had become completely still and her hand went automatically to her chakram.
The Princess stood as well, and her eyes began to search the horizon. "They're coming?"
There was no acknowledgment.
Gabrielle grasped the warrior's arm. "The swords, Xena, we have to begin the drill."
Xena was still frozen, staring at the trees. Now that the moment was here, her mind was racing in near panic. 'At least ten of them, but they're not covering the breach by the rocks, I could still...'
"Xena? Xena, please?" Gabrielle entreated.
Xena turned to face her. Her face showed none of the inner turmoil, but she looked down to the firm hand that was still holding hers. "This is what it comes down to?" she asked.
Gabrielle held her breath before speaking. "Yes."
There was only one thing left, the last secret, the last part of herself to entrust with this girl. "Gabrielle. I have a son..."
Gabrielle dropped her eyes. "I know, Xena. Solon."
The warrior's eyes widened and she stared, shocked, at the young girl. "How?"
She haltingly offered her explanation. "I go to the Centaur village often. I always wondered...He has your eyes. They're unmistakable, and I asked some questions...".
Pressed for time, Xena swallowed that revelation, and continued. "If there's a war, he's so young...Velasca doesn't take slaves or prisoners..."
Gabrielle knew that she had won. This arrangements had already been made. "Xena, I promise. I will make sure that he lives, even if I'm defeated tomorrow, I'll make sure that someone has him taken from the battle zone, I swear it."
Ignoring the alarms that were going off inside of her, Xena unsheathed her sword. She gave a quick shake to settle her armor and then the two faced one another and began their choreographed dance. Each movement had been planned, built upon Gabrielle's surprisingly natural talent with the sword. The sounds of the approaching Amazons were soon blocked out as they concentrated on their roles.
Valesca drew her mount to a halt a few lengths away and watched in astonishment as the despised little girl seemed to be fighting the great warrior on equal terms. When she had gotten word of this supposed confrontation she had hoped to use it to prove Gabrielle's treason, and instead it appeared that the weakling was actually attempting to capture the warrior on her own. And whether it was true or not, she only had to see the admiring expressions on the faces of the warriors accompanying her that her swordmanship was having an effect. Perhaps humiliating the princess with the sword would not be possible. It looked like some bargaining might be necessary.
But Dammit, how could she be this good?
At the last moment, Xena relaxed her grip on the pommel, and the sword was swiftly removed from her hand by Gabrielle on an upstroke. There was shocked silence from the now gathered Amazons as Gabrielle put the tip of her blade to the Warrior Princess' throat. "Ephiny" she called back. "Are the archers in position?"
Ephiny came out of the trees and called out. "Yes, your Highness."
Still holding the sword's point to her throat, Gabrielle spoke for the crowd. "Then Xena, there is no escape. I charge you with crimes against the Amazon Nation. To be tried and convicted by the Queen of our Nation. Yield your weapons, NOW!"
The warrior was cautiously surrounded. Velasca noted with curiosity the very real anguish that flitted across the face of the warrior for a moment before her weapons were removed. She looked at no one, simply stared straight ahead, and allowed herself to be escorted off with head high, surrounded by a dozen very nervous Amazons.
Velasca rode over to the Princess, who stood quietly, still holding the sword, as the warrior was led away . There with almost no expression that the challenger could read. How much HAD she underestimated this girl? Almost as an after thought she called to the guards. "Make sure she is chained. Heavy chains. Find ones strong enough to hold a fully grown Cyclops, and then double them." For once the guards looked to Gabrielle for confirmation. The Princess nodded.
Velasca mused on that as well. She had grown used to them automatically obeying her. She dismounted and spoke to Gabrielle. "That was very impressive, but how real was it?"
Gabrielle raised her sword defensively. "As real as it needed to be."
Velasca laughed at that. "I could almost like you, Gabrielle, and actually, I don't want to kill you. Not that it wouldn't be enjoyable for me. But you have your followers. Quite a few of them. The question is, how long would they fight me after you were gone? I don't need that. The Nation doesn't need that. So, let's talk about the facts for a moment. All right?"
Gabrielle didn't lower her sword. "I'm listening."
"I know that you were never planning to rule as Queen, you were going to continue on with your little journeys. So I suggest that you do that. Walk away. Now. Then your followers would fall in line. That way, you save the lives of your friends and stop a civil war. You'll save their lives and your own, and the Amazons will be united. It won't help anyone if you're stupid or selfish, Gabrielle."
"United in war, united in killing, until they're all dead."
"We're warriors, little girl, you never seem to grasp that. I'll fight and we will win. The Nation will be stronger, greater, under my leadership."
"I don't think so."
"Then try this. I can have Ephiny made a member of council, and with Eponin already there, you will leave a strong core supporting your ideals. The war will still take place, but there will be a, shall we say, a tempering influence. You can't ask for any more."
Gabrielle considered. Ephiny had powerful support. She could influence the other members. The war and Velasca might be moderated. This was a major concession. But...."What about Xena?"
Velasca just snorted. "What about her? I don't know how you did it, but now she's ours. So Xena dies either way for her crime. If I choked to death right now and you became Queen, no one would allow you to free her. And I'm not going to die, today or tomorrow. You're a smart girl, Gabrielle. You have other people to consider. Walk away. Go home or start a new life. Because your time here is over."
But I see your true colors
I see your true colors
And that's why I love you
So don't be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
True colors are beautiful,
Like a rainbow
Xena looked wearily around the cell. It was actually a captured slaver's cage, with a hut built around it. Once out of the chains, she had begun pacing. Three strides back and forth, combined with stretching exercises. The fact that she could escape at any time was not relieving any of her tension.
She caught the sound of her guards moving away from the hut, and she reached automatically for her chakram, halting just before she touched the vacant loop. There was another noise and she felt her stress levels instantly and magically drop, and she almost smiled as she heard the hesitant footsteps outside.
Her smile grew at the concern she heard in the quiet voice outside. "Are you okay?"
Xena looked around her cell and couldn't resist teasing the princess. "Why? Is there something else I can do for you?"
Standing in the night air, Gabrielle's head slumped foreword. "I don't know what to say...."
"Gabrielle. If this is making you uncomfortable, I can always leave."
That earned a reluctant giggle. "I'd like to talk, if that's okay"
Gabrielle continued to smile on hearing the exaggerated groan, followed by, "Why am I not surprised?" There was silence for a moment, broken by an almost plaintive, "Why don't you come in?"
The princess moved closer to the side of the hut and whispered "I have to look out, so that we're not overheard." Now it was the girl's turn to be silent before continuing. "Anyway, I really don't want to see you in chains."
"I'm not in chains. I don't like them."
"Oh? So you just... took them off? But they were the biggest we have."
She seemed almost disappointed, and Xena nearly felt like apologizing. "I was spending too much time in other people's dungeons, so I took a short course from this expert. He showed me that the larger the chain is, the more pry points it has. The longer it is, the more chances of finding a weakness. And you know, that works with people and armies as well."
"This expert wouldn't have been named Autolycus, would it?"
"Ah. You've met."
"He, well, he knows Hercules."
Xena thought for a moment of the Princess' time with Iolaus and the demi-god. "What was that like, traveling with them?"
"Does this mean I can tell you a story?" Gabrielle didn't disguise her eagerness.
"Why not? I wasn't going anywhere for a while...."
So, taking a moment to get comfortable, and separated only by the bars and thin wood and thatch, Gabrielle finally got her chance to tell the story of the Titans. How she had tried to show off to some villagers, and nearly destroyed them and their town. Xena sat back with her eyes half closed and listened to the clear voice. Neither could have said how long the tale took to tell. They both were aware that the circumstances should have prevented it, but for whatever reason they both forgot about the next day, and there was no one else they wanted to be with. Both could feel the warmth of the other's back, as well as the absurdity of their situation, and yet neither had felt so at ease for such a very long time. Xena laughed occasionally in places that Gabrielle hadn't intended, but that was okay too.
When the story concluded, Xena asked, "I can't believe Hercules even let you tag along. What did you have to do to him?"
"Well, they sort of put up with me more than anything else. And I kept getting in trouble." Gabrielle halted suspiciously. "You're nodding at that, in there. Aren't you?"
Xena immediately stopped that exact motion. Both women laughed. Another comfortable silence fell
Gabrielle stared up at the stars above her.
"Xena? Could you see the two of us together like that?" she asked. "Like Hercules and Iolaus? Traveling around the country, righting wrongs, saving and helping people who can't defend themselves?"
Xena snorted. "Gabrielle, I am many things, but I am not Hercules."
Gabrielle ignored the derision. "That's the point! You'd be Xena, the brave Warrior Princess, with her Amazon Bard by her side."
There was more laughter from inside the hut. "Nope, sorry Gabrielle, Can't see that. The bard part though, that I can see."
"It's something I've always dreamed of doing." She added, "and it's not like this Queen business is working out all that well..." There was another shared laugh.
"There are advantages to you becoming a bard. Maybe if you were telling stories you could keep your mouth shut the rest of the time. You might be almost bearable then."
"I thought about that...Hey!"
"Sorry." But there was still laughter in her tone
Both were lost in their own thoughts for a moment.
"Xena." Gabrielle whispered.
"I don't think I can do this." Finally she'd said it. There was a small rustling, and Gabrielle was astonished to feel a firm hand rest itself on her shoulder. It was almost with wonder that she reached across and laid her own hand on it.
"You aren't talking about the fight to the death now, are you?" Came the voice inside the cell.
"Most people would have thought that getting me in here would have been the hardest part."
Gabrielle tried to swallow the lump that suddenly appeared in her throat. "It was." She took a deep breath. "Velasca offered me some concessions."
The warrior perked up. Strategy and tactics, this is what she knew. "Then the plan's working? She'll pass on swords now. She'll just need another little push to pick staffs."
"Xena. She offered me safe passage, protection for my friends, and their voice on council."
"I said no."
"I thought you didn't want to be Queen....?"
Gabrielle interrupted. "You still die."
The princess could hear, anger? in that low, velvet voice. "Gabrielle. I defend myself."
"No. Not ... not anymore. You've done your part. Friends stand beside each other."
"Friends?" There was a movement in the brush, and Gabrielle looked up to see the guard motioning to her.
"Xena. It's the change of the guard's shift. The replacements aren't..."
"...aren't with you?"
"Yes, so I have to go. But Xena, I want you to know. I can't let you die this way, I've got to make sure that..."
"I die for the right reason?"
Annoyance crept into the princess' voice. "How many times have I told you, there's always a way, and if there isn't, there's a reason."
The voice inside the hut seemed lost. "I've accepted the reason, Gabrielle. And I don't need a 'way' anymore."
"NO! Don't talk like that. There are people who need you... I need you...The things I have to do tomorrow.... it would just be so much easier if it wasn't all dependent on me. I need you there, Xena, because I need to see you,...I need to be like you. I wish I was."
The response was quick, and firm. "No, you don't."
But so was the rejoinder. "Yes, I have to be. I have to be, for everyone's sake, at least for tomorrow." There was a rustle, her hand was released, and then the Warrior was all alone again.
Velasca had awakened with the greatest anticipation for a day that she had ever known. As she dressed she could hear her people getting ready for the escort, and her heart beat faster. All the seasons spent watching, planning. All for this day, the first day of her reign. She put on her leathers with a growing sense of purpose, a visceral pleasure so great she could not hold back her own laughter. She thought about how her group was going to descend on the practice grounds scaring those sheep that followed the princess. Then there would be the look on Gabrielle's face as the life eased from her body, when she finally realized her true destiny. And the Amazons would cheer her name and kneel to her as she stood over the body.
It was going to be good to be the Queen.
Velasca's group had created their own compound within the village, and when she stepped outside she saw to her satisfaction that over one hundred warriors were masked and mounted, in full battle armor. She felt an adrenaline rush that was fueled by her follower's excitement and basked in it. She held her hands up, and waited till all eyes were on her. "THIS is the day. THIS is the beginning!" she exulted. "YOU, each of you.... is the beginning! YOU... are my hammer! And with YOU... I will rebuild this Nation! It all begins today!"
Amid the whoops and war cries, she mounted her horse. "Little girl," she thought "You have so much to learn about leadership. Too bad you don't have any time left."
They halted below the rise that led to the grounds and grouped into formation. Velasca raised her hand, and then threw it forward as the command to charge. Then they reached the top.
What they saw there, caused those in front to draw up their mounts up so abruptly they came close to colliding with those behind them.
The practice grounds seemed to have been overtaken by some sort of circus. There were musicians playing and children everywhere. What was really confusing was the predominance of the colours red and gold. Everyone, children and adults seemed to carrying some sort of flower, or grain, or wearing clothing with those shades. The ersatz war party froze there, slack jawed until Ephiny and Gabrielle, looking disgustingly confident in tanned Amazon leathers, rode up to them.
Velasca had some blistering comment almost prepared when Gabrielle angrily blasted the war party first. "What do you think you're doing? There are children here!"
While the challenger was still trying to get her tongue to work, Ephiny continued, "Ardia, Vivia! Your nieces and nephews are down there! Are you trying to scare them to death?"
Shamefaced, the named Amazons removed their masks.
"What," hissed Velasca to her opponents, "do you think you're doing? Are the kids supposed to watch?"
Gabrielle answered smoothly. "Of course not. But the official period of mourning is over, and today they'll have a new Queen. So we decided to have a Festival of Life to celebrate. Before we escort them away, we thought they should have some fun. I'd have thought with your confidence in the outcome, you would appreciate it?" The princess wrinkled her nose.
Ephiny asked with a straight face. "Did we spoil something?"
The Challenger smiled thinly. "No. Of course not. What's with the wheat and Roses?"
Gabrielle shook out her hair, and let it catch the light. "My colours. Gold and Red. I'm hoping to have them adopted as colours of the Nation. Do you like them? Oh, sorry. Guess you're not the best person to ask." Then the two turned their backs and their mounts and rode down to the party. Their laughter carried back to her on the wind.
Velasca turned to her warriors, her face like stone. "Dismount. Remove your masks." 'One more for you, little girl, but it won't count for anything by the time this day is done.'
Velasca felt she'd had enough surprises, but then she saw the warrior princess. Tethered almost casually to a post, she was occupied with showing a young Amazon how to throw a spear. The Challenger finally exploded. "What is SHE doing here!"
Gabrielle looked over nonchalantly. "Xena?"
"Yes. XENA. What is she doing out of her cell?"
"Well, with everyone here, there really weren't enough people to guard her." Gabrielle deliberately raised her voice. "Anyway, when they went to check on her this morning, she had removed her chains and opened the door."
Velasca dismounted and strode over to the warrior. "What kind of game do you think this is?" she demanded angrily "Why didn't you escape?"
Xena called out as loudly as Gabrielle had. "I gave my word to the Princess. I'm her prisoner. I just don't like chains." she shrugged casually, but there was a smile fighting to get onto her face.
Velasca looked about the grounds. Gabrielle's supporters were acting like this was a celebration. With the children and the colours dominating everything, her own group had been absorbed like a rock into a stream. And now, here was the infamous Warrior Princess brought out like she was the princess' personal trophy. Velasca fumed at being out-maneuvered by this child. Incensed, she turned to Xena and demanded, "You're doing this for her aren't you? Don't you understand that she can't release you? She doesn't have the law, or any authority to help you. She's just using you to screw with my head!"
There was pronounced smirk in the reply; "Lately, I can't resist a good cause."
Velasca reached back to slap the smile off the prisoner's face when the glint in Xena's eyes warned her. She pulled back her hand quickly, and smiled at the warrior's obvious disappointment.
"I nearly fell for that." She shook her head. "Another scam. No. That's not going to happen. I think it's time we got this show on the road."
The challenger moved to her Weapons Master and once more evaluated each of the weapons she had been practicing with as her ribs healed. Just as she assumed the Princess had. Her eyes passed over the chobos and the sword, resting finally on the fighting stave. The princess had become much too strong in the minds of her Amazons. She had to be made small. There was only one way to make sure that cult of Gabrielle would be broken now and that was to take her on with her own weapon. She went over to the musician's stand and tore a lyre from the player's hands and smashed it against a table, stunning the crowd.
In the ensuing silence she called "I demand the Queen's challenge! I choose..." She drew out the pause to watch the expression on Gabrielle's face. "... Fighting staffs". She was rewarded only by a relieved smile that gave her another chill. Shaking her mind free of that, she called to her warriors. "Clear this field of all but the warriors and the council!"
Velasca watched as Gabrielle reached over to Xena, and took her hand for a moment. She caught the glance between them and laughed ruefully. 'So that's it. Why didn't I see it before? Princess! I offered you everything you could have wanted, and still you're here to fight. This isn't about the Amazons at all, is it? You've become XENA'S Champion!' She tilted back her head and began to laugh.
Velasca looked about the crowd that now encircled the two fighters. She twirled her staff and gave a mock bow to the girl across from her.
"So, Princess, let's talk about Destiny, shall we? That seems to be a favorite subject of yours. Here's MY Destiny. I'm supposed to take that mask from your cold stiff hands, execute the second greatest female warrior of all time, and then take this nation to its greatest heights. And it all starts with your blood."
There was no submission in that set young face. "That's not what's going to happen. You end here, Velasca."
Velasca laughed loud and long. "Tell it to Artemis. Oh, I forgot, tell it Hades. Because you've got as much chance of making it to the Amazon Fields as Xena here does."
Gabrielle gripped her staff tightly, feeling its familiar strength through her palms. "Enough talk, Velasca."
"Couldn't agree more, Princess. I'm eager to begin."
Velasca made a few feints, laughing as Gabrielle moved to block them. Finally she made a backhanded sweep and the first blow was struck. Gabrielle was relieved to note that it lacked the sting of Xena's strikes. Another cross swipe and then an undercut, which Gabrielle easily avoided. Another strike and another. Each blocked. The watching Amazons grew restless.
Aware of her audience, Velasca taunted. "I already knew you could spar, Princess, but can't you ever take the offensive?"
Gabrielle gritted her teeth and ignored the jibe, watching as the dark Amazon circled her. Another strike and then she saw an opening. But it was a false one and she barely avoided the counter strike.
"Good move, Princess, but..." then a full attack was launched. Straining to respond, Gabrielle was out of position and Velasca managed to get inside her defenses and strike her injured arm. The padding did not absorb all of the impact and Gabrielle felt the pain run up her shoulder. She looked over to the warrior, and Velasca took that moment to strike a blow to her cheek that almost stunned her, but she managed to stumble out of each in time to raise her staff to block the next blow.
Still keeping an eye on Gabrielle, the challenger glanced back at the stoic warrior watching in chains. "Eh Xena? How does it feel? Having to let this little girl fight for you? It's almost romantic! Pity she'd have to put a sword in your heart tomorrow." She continued to laugh, turning back to her opponent. "But don't worry, little princess. I won't be doing that. No, I intend to savour that precious heart. I'm going to have it cut out and served to me on a platter the night before we march on the Centaur's village to destroy every one of those animals and their friends."
She smiled, as a flush of anger appeared on the Princess' face. Then Gabrielle rushed forward.
It was clear that the two were evenly matched. Gabrielle was swifter, but that was not enough to balance Velasca's greater height and weight. The warrior watched with her mask firmly in place. No one could have told from her stance or expression how she agonized with each strike, or that she felt each hit.
Exactly as Xena had predicted, Gabrielle's chance finally came. The Princess saw the flicker of the eyes to the ground before the move was made. Then Velasca dropped her eyes and rolled to snatch a handful of earth to fling into her face. But the princess was a move ahead of her and as Velasca wheeled, she was struck heavily on the head and then again on the shoulders as her body reacted to the strike. She managed to stagger away before a third stroke made contact. She stood and tasted the pain, and stared at the grim girl across from her.
"Tell me again about your Destiny now, Velasca!" Gabrielle was panting, hazily aware of the blood in her mouth.
Velasca advanced warily, but continued to taunt the wounded girl, speaking softly, but with confidence, "I said, I will kill your supposed Champion, cut out her heart and eat it on the night before our first battle."
That was enough to break Gabrielle's concentration. She growled and moved in, and Velasca countered, found the opening and struck another blow to her head, and Gabrielle tottered for a moment. Somehow, finding a core of strength she had never tapped before, she brought up the staff, and struck the challenger with all the force she found there. She was barely aware that she had finally managed to strike a solid blow to her opponent's ribs and though she didn't hear the crack, she knew they had been broken again. Velasca cried out, and even half unconscious, Gabrielle's body remembered the drills, and she reversed her grip and brought the other end up to catch Velasca's forehead solidly as she was bent over gasping. The dark Amazon tottered, and fell on her side dazed and barely able to breathe.
Gabrielle swayed, and though she really needed time to clear her head, she staggered over to the fallen woman, shoved her body flat with her foot, and placed the tip of her stave against her throat. Velasca gasped for air.
"Tell me about your destiny now!" The crowd grew silent.
Velasca stared up with defiance burning in her eyes. "Go ahead and kill me, Princess. Please, go ahead. Let's see you draw your first blood. I promise you, it'll make the sentencing of Xena easier."
Gabrielle ignored her, and called over her shoulder, "Ephiny! Bring out Rasas."
There was a murmur as the healer was dragged through the crowd, and released, swaying, beside the two fighters.
"Tell your sisters what you did. Tell them!" Gabrielle commanded.
The healer collapsed on her knees. "I broke my oath..." she muttered.
"I BROKE MY OATH! I set your arm so that it would crack under the strain of practice, Velasca... Velasca, she forced me, she told me..."
"Enough. We don't need your excuses..." Gabrielle turned from her in disgust, and addressed the warriors. "AMAZONS!" She pointed at her fallen foe. "This is your great warrior? This Cheat, who couldn't be sure of her victory, and then tried to have me crippled? What honour does she have?"
There were mutterings, and the challenger's supporters lowered their eyes, unable to meet the fierce stare. Gabrielle turned again to Velasca.
"Stand up. Show us how a true Amazon fights."
Velasca stared into the eyes of the girl above, She didn't move.
Gabrielle called to her supporters. "Stand her up."
The closest Amazon blinked in surprise. "Your Highness?"
"Stand her up!" Gabrielle repeated.
Gabrielle withdrew a blade from the sheath of the Amazon nearest her and tossed it negligently at Velasca. The Challenger caught it, shook off her supporters, and stared balefully at her opponent.
"Fight." Gabrielle taunted. "Fight or slit your own throat. Because I'm not going to stain my hands with the blood of a beaten cheat."
She turned her back, and Xena held her breath. Unlike in practice, her timing was perfect, and she whirled about to strike down the knife with her staff as it was thrown at her unprotected back. Changing hands, she struck Velasca on the side of the skull sending her to the ground.
"Coward AND Cheat," she shouted. "Stand up!"
"No." The words were groggy, but clear to all.
Gabrielle once again placed her stave on the throat. She stood over the body of the vanquished challenger and faced the abashed Velasca supporters. She called to them, "Who is the Queen?" Without hesitation, they each dropped to their knees.
"I demand your oaths of loyalty. Swear them, NOW! " she ordered.
As if they had one voice, they chanted. "We swear by almighty Artemis, by our sacred names and oaths that we will follow our Queen Gabrielle."
Turning to the spectators behind her she asked. "Council, are we united?"
The elders knelt and were quickly followed by the rest of the assembly.
Gabrielle looked about her, at the hundreds of warriors kneeling before her, and searched within herself to find any satisfaction. There was only exhaustion, and pain. She looked again to her source of strength, and held the pale blue eyes for a moment. 'I can do this. I must do this.' She returned her attention to the broken warrior at her feet.
"Velasca. This is the last time your name will be spoken by any Amazon." Gabrielle reached down, and steeling herself, not letting any see her distress, tore the upper portion of the leathers of the injured woman, exposing her Amazon crest tattooed into the challenger's shoulder. She brought the edge of the blade to it. Velasca closed her eyes, and Gabrielle carved the tattoo off of the shoulder, while the now former Amazon screamed in pain. Stone faced, Gabrielle discarded the palm size piece of flesh with forced disdain. Blood gushed from the wound. The crowd was frozen in surprise and shock, staring at the Princess as though a changeling had hatched in front of their eyes. Gabrielle put the blade to her victim's throat. She closed her eyes, and considered her action and its consequences one more time.
She spoke in a clear yet quiet voice that was heard by all.
"Velasca, I can kill you. BUT..... I don't have to now. Do I?"
She withdrew the knife and stood supported only by her staff.
"Do you understand? For me, you're better than dead. You're nothing now. I don't need to kill you... so I won't."
She raised her head and addressed her warriors. "Do you understand? I can kill, Artemis knows I want to, but I don't have to. So I won't. That's all. Nothing more."
She gestured with her free hand to Rasas. "Healer, tend to this...woman. She and you are no longer Amazons. You will be taken to the border, given a few coins, and your names will never be spoken by us again. You know what will happen if you ever are seen on any Amazon territory." She called to the Guard. "Get them out of my sight, and off of our land."
Xena watched, wondering at the sadness she felt. Everything had happened as they had planned. Why was there no exhilaration? Why was she staring at this fierce warrior she had helped create, and finding herself almost overwhelmed with the desire to comfort her? So much pain and strain. How much longer could she maintain this?
Gabrielle straightened once more, and Ephiny and Solari rushed to aid her. She waved them off, and they both knelt again as she began to walk off the grounds on her own. She caught Xena's eye, and saw the pain and sympathy there. She called to the guards. "Take the prisoner back to her cell. Make certain she is fed and is given a chance to clean herself before her trial. I only ask that she gives me her oath that she will not attempt an escape."
Xena spoke across the field of still kneeling Amazons. "I give my oath," She hesitated. Suddenly the plans seemed secondary. She only wanted this to be over. To be able to walk over to this girl and comfort her. For her to walk away from her now, was causing a churning in her guts that she knew would end only if...she wasn't who she was... "I ask to be sentenced now. There is no point in a trial. I freely admit to the charge of murder. I would like to be judged by the Princess, and not by the Queen."
Gabrielle closed her eyes wearily, and fighting tears, gestured to the still prostrated assemblage. "It's too late for that. There's only the Queen now... The taking of the mask is just a formality."
Xena scanned the masses of bowed heads, and acknowledged the truth of that statement. She felt embarrassment at her momentary weakness, and committing herself, drew herself to her full stature. "Nevertheless, I ask for a judgment now."
The Queen took a deep breath. The two women, the only ones standing in the open field, gazed at one another. The distance had never before seemed so great between them. But the Queen's voice was firm.
"Then, I find you guilty, and responsible for taking the lives of my sister Amazons, for which you will pay. Your exact sentence to be announced after the masking ceremony. Guards. Take the prisoner back to her cell."
Their eyes held for a moment, and Gabrielle saw only acceptance there. She walked away, followed closely by her seconds. There was a silence, until one voice began a chant. Then another, and another until finally it had spread throughout the crowd. "Gabrielle! Gabrielle! GAB-ri-ELLE!"
It seemed to have no effect on the girl. In her daze, the walk to the Queen's hut seemed to take an eternity. She turned to her friends, and quietly said to them. "Send the healer in half a candlemark. I need time to be alone. Please." They nodded and watched as she slowly entered the hut and closed the door.
Once inside, the new Amazon Queen emptied the contents of her stomach, and continued to retch long after there was anything left in it.
When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we see
I won't be afraid
I won't be afraid
Just as long as You
You Stand By Me
-Ben. E. King
Eponin approached the prisoner's cell with a great deal of trepidation. Gabrielle may have had complete confidence that Xena would still be inside, and that there would be no need of a full escort of guards, but the Weapon's Master had serious doubts. It was one thing for Xena to stick around to watch her pupil win her match, it was another for her to remain after she had been sentenced to death. And sure enough the cage door was open.
To her surprise it was still occupied by a prisoner whose charisma dominated the cramped space. Xena had taken the opportunity to clean and polish her armor and stood waiting as if she was a dignitary looking forward to the Royal Summons. The Amazon noticed that once again that the chains with which she had been bound the day before were neatly coiled in the corner.
She nervously cleared her throat. "You ready?"
Xena gave a short nod and moved out of the hut ahead of her. She looked about the village and noted the scattered remnants of the celebration that she had listened to throughout the night.
"Quite a party." she commented.
" Ah, you know, Amazons."
"The guest of honour didn't seem in the mood...the Queen didn't stay up very late..."
Eponin looked to see what was going through the warrior's mind, but there was no expression she could read. "Yeah, she took the mask. The treaty with the Centaurs is ready to be signed, too."
"Good," was all the warrior said. "I hope she keeps the mask. She'll make a great queen."
Curiosity drove the Amazon to ask "What do you think she's going to do?"
There was a shrug. "Doesn't matter. I agreed to accept her judgment."
This was the woman who had driven armies by the sheer force of her will across the breadth of Greece? "Even...?"
Xena turned her pale eyes on her. "Yes."
They continued to walk along in silence, until Xena asked, "I thought Ephiny was to take the mask."
Eponin nodded. "Ephiny says that if Gabrielle has changed her mind, even if she played each of us like pawns... that's what a great Queen has to do, that's what the Nation needs. And I've sworn to follow her whatever she does."
In the Queen's hut, Gabrielle rinsed her face one more time. She called to Ephiny in the next room. "Where's Va...where's the challenger now?"
"The healer took her to a tavern in town. They had enough money to stay there for a few days. We'll keep a watch."
The Queen took a towel and mopped her face. "Keep up the watch, but don't waste too many women on it."
"We haven't heard the last of her," Ephiny warned.
Gabrielle sighed. "I know, but at least she no longer has any support inside of the Nation."
"That's true. After she embarrassed her supporters, they're now your most fervent subjects. And they'll do anything to prove their loyalty."
"Good. That was the idea," Gabrielle said coolly. She made a final adjustment to her leathers and joined Ephiny in the main room.
"You were a long time in the Temple this morning...any luck?" Ephiny asked.
Gabrielle shook her head. "I was hoping that..."
"...if you showed enough respect for Artemis, the priestesses would support your decision? I don't think you have a chance in Tartarus of getting them to go along. You're just going to have to accept that not everyone will agree with what you do."
"This is different. The challenger said I had neither the Law nor the authority. I think I can find the law, but did yesterday give me the authority?"
Ephiny smirked. "Just take a step outside, your Majesty."
Gabrielle took the proffered mask and opened the door of the hut to stand out on the porch overlooking where the Amazons were already gathered. The talking and bustling about in preparation stopped immediately. In the sudden hush, all of her subjects were immediately at attention, and several dropped to their knees. Dazed, Gabrielle returned to the safety of the room. "Whoa!" she managed.
Ephiny grinned. "Ah, don't worry. In a week they'll be blaming you for the lousy food in the mess tent."
It was then that Ephiny caught sight of several objects in the woodpile, recognizing them as Gabrielle's story scrolls. "What are they doing there?" she demanded angrily.
Gabrielle's face seemed as firm as her voice. "After yesterday, I knew that... I decided they were the things of my childhood, and that part of my life is over."
Ephiny stared long and hard at her Queen before ordering her, "Sit down."
There was a moment of rebellion, before the girl lowered her eyes and sat on a chair.
Ephiny began by pacing about, and then squatted, facing her queen. "Gabrielle. There was a king, a wise man, and a mighty warrior. There are many stories of his victories and his wisdom. But what made him special, what made him a great King, is that he was also a poet. A dreamer. Gabrielle..." she said, retrieving a scroll. "... these are not your childhood, these are who you are, a part of your soul. Don't exchange a part of your soul for the mask. You'll end up with neither."
She placed the scroll in Gabrielle's hands. There was a moment of silence, and then everything that she had been holding inside burst, and Ephiny found herself holding a sobbing Queen in her arms.
Soon after, the Queen and her Regent stood on the platform, the throne behind them, surrounded by staves and emblems of office.
Gabrielle, masked and looking every inch the rightful Queen, addressed the assembly. "Amazons. Sisters. We are here to sentence a woman for the horrific slaughter that she committed ten winters ago. I have received a communication from what remains of the Northern Tribe detailing the events which occurred and I have been given the authority to pass sentence upon her.
"I ask, is this woman present?"
Xena strode forward, halting only when the spears were crossed in front of her. "I am."
All eyes turned to the tall warrior in the centre of the commons.
"You have already admitted to these crimes?" The Queen asked.
Gabrielle turned to the stocky weapon's master. "Eponin, the prisoner is not bound. Why is that?"
Stonefaced, the Amazon shrugged. "There seemed to be little point. I found her unchained with the cell door open again."
Gabrielle looked back to the warrior. "Prisoner. Why didn't you escape?"
"I was bound by my oath."
"Please speak so that all can hear you. You have agreed to submit to Amazon Justice, regardless of the outcome?"
Gabrielle appeared to contemplate the answer for a moment. "You present a puzzle to many of my sisters. Your recent actions are in sharp contrast to your reputation. You nearly destroyed an entire generation of leaders, and yet you are willing to submit to our authority.
"Would the woman who committed these crimes have submitted?"
There was a moment's hesitation, then, "No."
"Would she have spent the past moon's cycle teaching another in order to prepare her for an Amazon challenge?"
Xena didn't like where this was going and interrupted. " Gabr... your Highness, I may have changed...somewhat... but I am still Xena, I AM the woman who committed those crimes."
The Queen's eyes seared her through the mask. "Do not contradict me. I was speaking."
The Warrior muttered just loudly enough for the Queen to hear. "Oh Gods... could you just kill me now?" and Gabrielle had to bite back a laugh. Pursing her lips, she continued the interrogation.
"You were nearly killed by the men of your own army over the saving of a child."
"You allowed yourself to be stoned by the people of your home village?"
There was only the hollow answer. "I have no home."
Shaken by this statement, Gabrielle needed to collect herself before continuing. "In the last moon's cycle, you were intending to take your own life, when I interrupted you?"
There was no answer for a moment. There was a slight flush, but no change in expression. "Perhaps."
"Then we would be giving you what you ask for, if we were to execute you?"
Xena clearly resented this questioning, "I don't know, perhaps."
The Queen then pointed to one of Velasca's former lieutenants.
"Ardia, you are our best swordswoman? "
The tall Amazon steeped forward confidently. "Yes."
"You have been very vocal in your demand that this woman be executed?"
Looking both ways to her fellows, she said slowly, "Yes, my Queen."
Gabrielle gestured towards the warrior. "Then, go ahead." Ardia turned to face the warrior, and certain parts of her anatomy began to tighten involuntarily as the warrior only acknowledged her with a smile.
Noticing the discomfort, Gabrielle made a show of being solicitous. "Oh, I see. You're not an executioner?" Ardia nodded gratefully. "Perhaps if you had some of your sisters to help shoulder your burden? Select the ten best fighters after you."
Xena's shoulders slumped slightly as Ardia began to select a squad. But she kept her eyes on the girl on the platform.
When the selection was completed, the Queen spoke to her. "Oh Xena? You WILL defend yourself." At this the warrior seemed to grow taller, and Ardis and her squad noted with alarm that the smile had returned with even greater force, and that the blue eyes fairly glowed with anticipation.
Ardia wavered. "She is unarmed."
The Queen tossed a padded practice staff towards the prisoner who caught it, examined the padding and looked to the Queen questioningly.
The Queen explained, "Wouldn't want anyone to get hurt." Though her face was hidden by the mask, Xena somehow knew that it covered a smirk. At that moment, Xena knew for the first time that no execution was planned, and almost to her surprise, some of the weight she had been carrying was removed. The Amazons were startled to hear the unfamiliar sound of deep rolling laughter coming from the Warrior Princess.
"Oh boy." Ephiny muttered to Eponin who stood guard to her left.
"All this started when Gabrielle asked me why warriors seemed to respect each other after they'd fought one another. That led to her challenging Xena. Looks like now she's gonna try her theory on a larger scale."
The Amazons cautiously approached the warrior, but not cautiously enough. Two were struck and disarmed before they could blink. At this, the remaining 9 rushed her. There was a momentary crush, but then, with a shout, they were all thrust back. The warrior stabbed the stave into the ground, and using it as a pivot ran horizontally around the circle they had formed using her left foot to kick away their blades and the right to batter their skulls. Then springing above the group she landed outside the circle, half of whom collapsed. Leaving her with four very nervous Amazons. Who again tried to rush her.
Gabrielle had lifted up her mask in order to watch the fight, and her eyes were gleaming with excitement.
Meanwhile Ephiny and Eponin had moved their heads close together and were making a running commentary.
"Our peaceloving queen seems to like a brawl," observed Eponin
"I don't think it's the brawl, more the brawler...."Ephiny replied, as they both continued to enjoy the spectacle.
"Ooh, that one hadda hurt."
"Our Queen's not the only one who's enjoying themselves; look at Xena's smile."
"As long as it's not facing me in combat, sure."
"But is this going to work?"
Well, let's see. " Ephiny mimed an imaginary abacus. "Gabrielle already had her own supporters," she slid a series of illusory beads to the right with her index finger. "Now she's going for all of Velasca's people and the warriors...that'll just leave the legal sticklers and the priestesses."
The last Amazon was disarmed and sent flying, and Xena casually spun the staff one more time before tossing it to land neatly with the others on the stage.
"Show off," whispered the Queen.
Xena's lips quirked slightly, but she waited for the Queen to continue.
"Xena, could you please explain to your opponents what their errors were?"
So, for the next quarter candlemark Xena painstakingly recapitulated each parry, each strike. Illustrating to each of the Amazons where they had made the wrong approach, and what alternatives they had missed. At the end, there was a light in each of their eyes that spoke of something more than admiration.
"What is it with warriors?" Gabrielle muttered to Ephiny who shrugged, but smiled.
Standing again, Gabrielle took a breath and addressed her tribe.
"Amazons. Do you see what we have here? This is the greatest warrior in all the known world! A woman. Clearly meant to be an Amazon. Stolen from us by Ares. My friend Ephiny said that Xena was a powerful tool and I agree. How can we let such a tool be wasted? This woman spent only a few days training me for my match, and I was able to defeat a master with the staff. Imagine if she were to teach our training programs regularly?
"Can you imagine her at the head of our forces? A woman who knows every warlord and has beaten most of them in the field? Imagine having her commanding our warriors, defending our land from raiders, Persians, Romans...?"
Ephiny surveyed the warriors as they stood rapt, entranced by their sovereign's pictures. "Imagine?" she whispered. "They're creaming their leathers." Eponin slid a few more imaginary beads over.
"But...." Gabrielle interrupted their reverie, "it appears that her crimes are too great. A great tragedy, because she's shown that she can be trusted. That she's willing to follow Amazon law, even if her own life is forfeit.
"A great loss...
"However. I note that the scrolls state that she must PAY for their lives. Money, of course, would only cheapen their loss, but killing this fantastic asset would not bring their lives back either."
"Perhaps..." and several faces now looked to her hopefully, "Perhaps, there is a suitable punishment, that would allow us to spare her. I would first have to consult with our Patron.
"Before I pass this sentence, I call upon Artemis to validate or dispute my decision."
There was no expectation in the crowd. They had seen the ceremonial invocation of the Patron before and this was thought to be no different. So there was a sharp intake of breath throughout the crowd when in front of the stand there was suddenly a tall dark form in leather, armed with a bow and quiver.
Another sparking flash and Artemis was facing Gabrielle on the podium. The Queen began to lower herself to join the rest in kneeling, but the Goddess stopped her. Placing her forefinger under her chin, she stared into the girl's eyes.
Gabrielle voice trembled. "I didn't know if you would come. You didn't respond in the temple..."
"I told you before, Chosen." Gabrielle cringed slightly as she felt the shock wave that word caused in the kneeling Amazons, particularly the one by her side "...that until you take that mask, I will not protect you, or interfere when others endanger you."
"Consider yourself lucky," grunted the prisoner, earning a flash of anger, and the Goddess vanished and reappeared suddenly in front of Xena.
Artemis stared into the former warlord's eyes. "I don't like you very much."
Xena's only response was to fold her arms across her chest. The Goddess continued. "And you weren't supposed to be mine. You were supposed to be Athena's, but you let my brother seduce you. So I'm not about to do you any favours. But for her..." The Goddess didn't complete the statement, and merely gestured towards Gabrielle.
"There's a lot of that going around lately," the warrior deadpanned.
That merited a twitch around the lips from the Goddess. She turned and addressed her Nation. "I will not dispute the decision of my Queen in the matter of this woman." She acknowledged the bow that Gabrielle made to her, then glared once more at Xena before glancing again at Gabrielle. In exasperation She said, "I am going to go and kick Aphrodite's ass for this, you know that." and then she vanished. As the stunned silence drew on, green eyes stared into blue, as both considered what those last words might have meant, then they both found something else to look at.
Eponin reached into the air and slid the rest of Ephiny's imaginary beads over. "That would be game, set and match, I think," she said dryly.
Ephiny ignored her, and simply stared at Gabrielle for a moment, before roughly yanking her aside, and trying to find her tongue. She finally blurted out, "CHOSEN! Just how long were you planning to keep that a secret? All those years that I assumed that Terreis had just gone nuts when she passed her right of caste to you..." Slowing down rapidly when she saw the expression in the Queen's eyes. "Well... maybe not nuts, but Gabrielle! Why did you even fight the contest if you were the God's be blessed Chosen?"
"I didn't know. Not really. I thought...Anyways, She wouldn't have helped. I had to win it honourably. She doesn't believe in shortcuts."
Pulling away from Ephiny, the Queen turned, and again addressed her subjects. "I am now prepared to pass sentence. I hereby order that Xena be indentured to the Amazon Nation and its tribe, until she can replace those lives she has stolen. Until she has saved two Amazon lives for every one she has taken. Until then, she remains under the sentence of death. I think that this is a far more appropriate form of repayment. The irony and justice of the Destroyer of Amazons being charged with the task of helping us to protect and rebuild the Nation is only fitting."
She turned to look at her teacher.
"Xena, I sentence you to servitude, to be given the opportunity to repay the lives which you brutally stole. To be at the call of this nation for its defense, and for the training of its young. To be its sword, no matter what the personal cost."
There was a slight pause as Gabrielle once more gathered her courage.
"Her first assignment will be to accompany me as bodyguard for my mission to the Northern Tribe, in order to try to help them rebuild, or if necessary, bring them to a new home. And because this tribe needs a full time Queen, I cannot let this tribe stand leaderless. Therefore as planned, I hereby pass this mask to a more experienced ruler, to hold it until I am capable of leading this tribe as it deserves to be led."
She removed the mask and with both hands presented it to Ephiny.
Ephiny shook her head. "Gabrielle! What about Artemis? What about your Destiny?"
Gabrielle placed the mask in her friend's hands. She stared out across to the warrior in front of her, and found her to be smiling.
"Eph, I'm just going on a journey. I accept my responsibilities, and I'll be in your hair more than you may want. But part of that responsibility is knowing that I still have much more to learn. But you know? One thing I've been learning lately, is that you shape your destiny. With your own hands."
Xena checked Argo one more time so make sure the saddlebags were secured She threw one arm around the golden mare and spoke gently to her. "Bet you'll be glad to get away, eh girl? After hanging around here for so long, huh? And we have a new friend..." Argo pulled back slightly. "Don't be like that, you'll get along fine..." but Xena noticed with chagrin that it was half command/half plea. She tightened the stirrups as she continued to stroke the horse.
So was it really that simple? All of those years of darkness and bloodshed, papered over by a sentenced blessed by a God?
That wasn't even remotely true.
Gabrielle still had no idea who she really was. And what would happen when she learned? Well, if she was determined to enforce this sentence, she'd learn soon enough. Her rapidly growing depression was distracted by a strange sensation that she had begun to associate with the young Queen's presence. She turned to see the blonde approaching. She was struggling with a large satchel, and wearing the most hideous green top that Xena had ever seen on a living mammal. Xena tried to ignore the glowing smile and green eyes, and crossed her arms sternly. Time to get things clear.
Gabrielle stopped short. "What?"
"You are not putting that on my horse," she said flatly.
"These are my scrolls. They go where I go. I also have the laws we may need for renewing an Amazon tribe."
The two stared at one another. Frowning, Xena took the bag with ill grace and began to carefully store the cases. "Gabrielle, I don't follow orders very well, so I think we're going to have to establish a few rules. Most important being, when we're on the road, everything that I do better than you, I'm in charge of."
Gabrielle was taken aback. "Well, that's like... Like what?"
"What we do, when to fight, how we hunt, our general schedule..."
"What does that leave me?"
"I don't think so."
"Look. You're under a sentence of death. On a mission of redemption. Supposedly my bodyguard for this trip north. I should be ordering YOU around...But we both THAT'S not going to work either. I'm willing to compromise...maybe we could consult about the schedule, diet, and the rest we'll work out as we go along. Okay?"
"And as for fighting...."
"No. Definitely. I am not having you..."
"....I am not going to sit back and watch..."
When did this start getting away from me again? Xena thought. Mounting the horse, she pulled Gabrielle up behind her and prodded Argo ahead. As they began to move along the trail, Xena asked, "Gabrielle? When you said I had to save two Amazon lives for every one I took, were you talking about individual Amazons, or the same one, over and over and over...?"
"I thought so..."
"I can look after myself."
"And over and over and over "
"Like you don't attract trouble just as much "
"And over "
And I'll see your true colors
I see your true colors
And that's why I love you
So don't be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
True colors are beautiful,
Like a rainbow
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