DISCLAIMER: You know the drill: Xena, Gabrielle, Hercules, Ephiny, and all the others appearing in the show don't belong to me but to TPTB at Renaissance Pictures and Universal. This is a work of fan fiction. No copyright infringement is intended. No profit will be made. However, the story itself still is mine and may not be reposted or reproduced without my written consent for official use. Any copies for private uses must include all disclaimers.
VIOLENCE: There's a lot of violence--implied or graphically described. Some scenes may offend the tender-stomached reader.
TIMELINE: The timeline follows the show up to season three's all time classics 'Bitter Suite' and 'One Against an Army' (still one of my favourites). So, adding to D 3, there also will be some hurt/angst elements. There are also some allusions to events revealed in season 4 to 6 (i.e. spoiler alert).
BIG THANKS go to my beta readers Wendy, and Nancy. I'll never be able to thank them enough for all the effort they put into my story. Believe me, they really made all the difference. I'm proud working with them. So should there still be some mistakes left, please, blame them on me, and me only!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The Chosen's Prerogative
4. Out of the frying pan
Early the next morning, Gabrielle reluctantly left for her hut. At Xena's insistence, she secured the cage door. She settled down on the back porch, the only luxury her simple hut possessed, and broke the seals of the second scroll. She was relieved to read that before the punishment could start Xena had to be physically at peak efficiency. It even contained a detailed training schedule consisting of running, weight lifting, and combat drills. To her dismay, it also made clear that her lover had to spend the remainder of her time in the cage, albeit unchained.
The training started rather slow, but within a fortnight Xena ran faster than the fastest scout and was able to outfight a whole squadron of warriors. It was time to declare her submission to the punishment before Artemis' altar. The words she had to use were in the scroll as well as a description of the clothing she had to wear. The difficult part began only then, for both of them.
To the uninformed, there was barely a change in the routine. Xena continued with her runs and the drilling sessions with the army though she limited herself to one-on-one fights most of the time. She also worked as a teacher to the scouts and held battle strategy classes.
Those who knew had a hard time understanding how she even managed to take a single step. They knew that in the evening, alone in her cage, the proud woman curled into a ball and bit on a leather covered steel bar to keep from crying out in pain. At least the pain subsided during the night giving her a few candlemarks of undisturbed sleep.
In the morning, when the first rays of dawn reached the village, it all began anew. The cage door was unlocked, Xena knelt near the centre and her wrists were cuffed to the roof. Gabrielle gave her a gentle kiss and washed her body with a soft sponge; she then donned the thin leather gloves and began to apply the salve on the tall woman's body, from the forehead to the soles of her feet, only leaving the palm of her hands untouched. Only heartbeats later the pain started not slowly claiming one part of her body after the other; but suddenly and all encompassing. The wrist cuffs helped her to stay still for the three or four candledrops the salve needed to completely sink in. Most of Xena's friends at one time or another had insisted on trying the horrible concoction on their own bodies, and they all had to wash it away after only a few candledrops. Xena wasn't allowed such a luxury.
The effectiveness of the salve was astonishing; not even the torturers in Chin, famous for their clinical cruelty, could rely on such a powerful tool. A tiny part of the ex-warlord couldn't help being impressed with the simplicity of the ingredients. It held no secrets for her because she had to mix it herself. The village's healer, Erymma, had adamantly refused to prepare something designed to bring pain instead of taking it away.
From experience, Xena knew that one could get accustomed to pain but this time it didn't work. It had not been an exaggeration when Artemis wrote that she would have to withstand more pain than ever before in her life. Every day it was as if it was for the first time, and no amount of mental preparation was able to ease her suffering though somehow she was grateful that it was only physical pain.
The first part of her sentence was through, twenty days of pain, followed by a three-day period of rest, well, sort of. The tall woman didn't allow herself any illusions.
With the rising sun, Gabrielle and Ephiny fastened the wrist and ankle cuffs, as well as the waist restraint, firmly in place. The Amazon Queen kissed her eyes and put the blindfold on while her regent prepared the earplugs. Xena expected to be assaulted by memories stemming from her dark past or at least by images showing off the dark consequences of Hera's death. Instead she found peace, real peace, thus giving her the opportunity to regain her inner strength. She was calm and well rested when the second phase of her punishment began.
She also found her state of mind surprisingly changed and longed to let Gabrielle know about it, but part of the goddesses' instructions were that she wasn't allowed to talk to anyone outside of her duties as a warrior and teacher.
For the first time, she didn't see the pain as a mere whim of the gods but foremost as a chance to be purged of all the dark and evil aspects of her past, a temporary stay in Tartarus with the promise of a new chance at life in all its different layers. The desperation she had barely been able to contain before was gone, and she somehow learned to smile through the pain.
A few days before the end of her second twenty-day period, rumours about a huge army of Romans and Persians marching towards Amazon and Centaur territory reached the village. Scouts were sent to evaluate the threat They came back at the break of dawn, and the council met to talk war and defence. Instead of Gabrielle, this day Ephiny opened the door to Xena's prison. "Stand up and put your leathers on, Xena, the Queen expects your presence in the council's hall."
"Didn't you forget something, Eph?"
"The Queen's orders were unambiguous. She said immediately, and she said, and this is a quote: 'don't bother with this senseless punishment'. Hurry up!"
"All right, tell her I'm on my way. I'll join you in a couple of candledrops."
"Don't do it, Xena."
"I don't have a choice, Ephiny, and you know it. I have to see this punishment thing through to the end. Gabrielle may be able to defy the will of the gods but for once in my life, I can't. The Queen doesn't have to know about it."
"I understand, Xena. I'll help you, but don't even try to fool the Queen. She will see the difference. We have to hurry."
A quarter of a candlemark later, Ephiny and Xena entered the hall, effectively silencing the crowd of elders, warriors, and craftswomen by taking their places to the right and the left of Gabrielle's throne. The young woman turned her head and whispered only for the leather-clad warrior to hear: "We have to talk. Stay here when the session is over."
Addressing the assembly, she stood and without raising her voice easily reached the back part of the huge room. "My sisters; as you all know by now, the scouts confirmed the presence of an army marching toward our joint borders with the Centaurs. It is lead by Marc Anthony and combines Roman and Persian forces. On their way, they already destroyed half a dozen villages. We and the Centaurs will be next."
The room erupted in shouts and questions, and it took some time for discipline to reaffirm itself. One of the most repeated questions was, "Why do Romans ally with Persians?"
Gabrielle simply answered. "We don't know."
"But based on what we do know, the Queen came to an informed guess," Xena continued, ignoring Ephiny's surprised look. "Since Caesar was murdered, his nephew Octavian and Marc Anthony are fighting for dominance in Rome and the Roman Empire. Octavian has on his side the better part of the Senate and the legions around the city of Rome under Brutus' command. Marc Anthony is backed by a large part of the army and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. While Octavian is firmly established in Rome, Marc Anthony is trying to get there from the outside. He's trying to gain control of the provinces with the side effect of making life in the Capitol as uncomfortable as possible. With Egypt, he controls the grain storage of the Empire. It only would be logical to use Cleopatra's connections with Persia to form an alliance. With Persia on his side, he can cut off all the import of luxury items such as silk, exotic slaves, pepper, mustard, and other things. This would be a hard blow for the Patricians supporting Octavian. Should he manage to put his foot on Greece, they would have to rely on Roman wine only, and as we all know, one day it may be great but as long as the Romans are not ready to learn, their wine isn't worth the effort needed to grow it."
"Why not take on Athens or Corinth or any other of the city states?"
This time Gabrielle answered. "It should be obvious, my sisters. Amazons and Centaurs together form the most powerful military force in Greece. Defeating us will discourage any other opposition, and the last thing he wants is to destroy the wealth of the city-states. He'll need their taxes, first to take Rome, and then to get rid of his allies. All right, we don't have time to thoroughly discuss Roman politics. I already exchanged carrier pigeons with Tyldus. We will meet with the Centaur army at the edge of the forest. With our combined forces, the enemy army will still outnumber us three to two. We will have to rely on strategy as well as on strength and speed. That's why we both decided that Xena, as the most experienced among us, will lead our armies. This isn't open to discussion. I also decided that the punishment imposed on Xena by the gods is suspended until this threat to the Nation is eliminated."
Again, a chorus of voices uttered dismay, surprise, and support. Finally, all eyes concentrated on the tribe's priestess who stood in front of the Queen. "Queen Gabrielle, you can't disregard the will of the gods this blatantly. It will endanger the whole Amazon Nation if you do so. I know, it's a great opportunity to spare your lover the pain but "
"You speak out of turn, priestess." Ephiny bellowed. "The Queen's decision is not to be questioned."
One of the elders proposed to have a vote considering this point. Gabrielle once again took her seat and waited for the calm to return.
"There will be no vote and also no further discussions. I wanted to avoid it, but you leave me no other choice." The blond woman slowly stood and put on her royal mask. "In the name of Artemis, goddess of the hunt and the moon, patron goddess of the Amazon Nation, I, Queen Gabrielle, invoke the Chosen's Prerogative, effective from this moment on to the end of this crisis." She lifted the mask up on her head and continued. "This meeting is adjourned. Eponin, Solari, Ephiny. See that the army is ready to leave the village tomorrow at first light. Leave enough warriors behind to protect the elders and the children. I want a preliminary report during the midday meal, and I want two guards stationed at the entrance of this hut. No one is allowed to enter, under no condition whatsoever."
Finally, when Xena and Gabrielle were alone, the tall woman quietly said, "Perhaps the priestess is right, Gabrielle. I can command your army and continue the punishment including the restraints at night. This way we don't risk angering the gods."
"No, she's not. I need you at peek efficiency, my love. This has nothing to do with my desire to see this punishment end, regardless of how it may look to the priestess or whomever. This is all about you and your special touch in leading an army. You never were one to lead from behind the scenes, sitting atop your horse surrounded by a bunch of bodyguards, conveying your orders by messengers only . My warriors as well as the Centaurs will follow you because you fight as one of them, as the best of them, because you're always where it is most dangerous. You can't do this when you're hurting all over. I spent a lot of time observing you during your drills and classes. The others probably aren't aware of it, but you and I both know that the pain somehow dulls your senses. No, don't. I know you won't admit to it. I sent them all away to prove it you, away from prying eyes. Grab this, and defend yourself."
Gabrielle tossed a staff towards Xena, picked up her own, and took a defensive battle stance. "Gabrielle, please stop it. I don't want to hurt you."
"You first have to touch me, my warrior, so put your staff where your mouth is and attack; or is the great warrior princess afraid to face off against a small storyteller from Potedaia?"
"You know I never could resist a challenge, but I promise I'll go easy on you."
"Yadda, yadda, yadda. I'm getting tired of waiting."
Xena was well aware that with a staff the Amazon Queen could easily defeat even the fiercest of her warriors. She knew she was in for some serious sparring, and she also knew that the pain indeed was slowing her down some. Still, she was confident in her abilities and wanted to put a quick end to what she regarded as being nonsense.
A fast combination of blows aimed for the chest was blocked and immediately followed up by some undercut swings at thigh level. Gabrielle simply jumped out of range and countered by using the length of her own staff to her advantage. Its end stabbed Xena's midriff and knocked the wind out of her. She saw it coming but wasn't fast enough to prevent being hit. In a real fight, a blow to the head would have disabled her adversary.
The brass-armoured warrior soon regained her composure and now was more careful with her attack moves. The bout lasted considerably longer, nevertheless, it ended with Xena sitting on her butt, taken out by a backhanded reverse sweep she should have been able to hear coming. She still wasn't ready to give in, so during the next couple of quarter candlemarks, Gabrielle continued to prove her point, and finally her opponent conceded defeat.
"Perhaps you should take command of the army, Queen Gabrielle. You're more than capable of leading them. My timing is off, my balance is off, my senses are dulled, and my reflexes are far too slow. If this had been for real, you could have hurt me pretty badly."
"If this had been for real you would have put more force behind your blows. If this had been for real, you would have tried to outmanoeuvre my staff and go for hand-to-hand combat. Xena, except for the first bout you still were all but easy to defeat, and without your handicap I still wouldn't stand a chance. I just had to prove a point. And I may be able to hold my own one-on-one, but you're the only one I trust with the lives of my sisters."
"What about Artemis and the other gods?"
"Artemis reminded me to refer to the Chosen's Prerogative should it become necessary. It's a good way to avoid senseless debates with the elders, and it also puts the responsibility for interrupting your punishment on my shoulders only. The Gods can't hold you responsible for it. No, don't, don't tell me that you'll go to the temple and try to convince Artemis otherwise. She knows my heart. And now, we will take a bath; I need you in top form as soon as possible. There's a lot to do. And tonight you will stay in my hut."
Xena answered with a kiss. She knew the Amazon Queen was right concerning her abilities, but she also knew that she couldn't let her take the sole responsibility for suspending the punishment.
During the day she kept busy with preparations, choosing a special squad of scouts and archers to serve as her personal messengers, selecting the members of the royal guard to have the Queen protected, and helping with the supplies of the field hospital Erymma was putting together. In the evening the village gathered for a party to celebrate the community and the courage of the warriors. As the designated leader of the combined army, Xena also had to attend. After dinner, she spoke a few words of encouragement, and while Gabrielle prepared to tell the story of their encounter with the Persian army at Tripolis the tall warrior sneaked away to Artemis' temple.
The Amazon Queen and her general left the festivities early, just after Gabrielle had finished the story of how they had outsmarted Caesar and Crassus to free Vercingetorix. "Take your clothes off, my warrior. I intend to savour these last peaceful candlemarks we have together. I want to feel your skin on mine, your heartbeat raging with desire and mine responding alike."
Xena didn't have to be told twice, and was standing before the younger woman mere heartbeats later. Her hands clasped behind her back, she was desperately trying to resist the urge simply to claim as her own the beauty sprawled out on the bed. Gabrielle called to her with a crooked finger, and she obeyed the unspoken command. She gently pushed some of the blonde's hair aside when her hand was captured in a firm grip.
"Xena! I want the truth."
"It's the truth. They are as effective as my other ones, perhaps even more so. But that's not all that they are. They are also a reminder that my punishment isn't over yet." Gabrielle's annoyed and impatient look prompted her to tell the whole story of her visit to the temple. "I went there to tell the gods that you only acted in the best interest of your people and that the cessation of my punishment was only meant as a temporary reprieve. I, I told Artemis that I'm ready to start all over with the punishment, right from the beginning to make amends. No," a long finger sealed Gabrielle's lips, "please, let me finish. They didn't take me up on it. There was a voice coming from the small wooden statue. It told me that the gods know your intentions, and that I would be allowed to resume my punishment with the third set of instructions as soon as the threat to the Amazon Nation has been eliminated. Then I felt these new bracers around my arms. The voice said that they have to stay on until I'm back in the cage to face the remainder of my punishment. It may sound odd or even presumptuous, but I'm sure that the gods are content with your decision."
Gabrielle's fingers gently traced the intricate jewelled inlay of the bracers, looked into the sincere eyes of the raven-haired beauty, and decided to change the subject. When they finally finished playing and exploring, the first hints of dawn were colouring the sky and instead of getting some sleep, they voted for a leisurely breakfast.
Ephiny and Solari already were in the dining hut, quietly consuming cereals and tea, but they too obviously hadn't had any rest. Solari's eyes immediately fell on the new bracers, and Xena had to explain how she got them. "You know they're made of the same steel as the cage is, don't you."
"Yes, it's too bad their colouring doesn't go with her armour, Eph." This answer told the Amazon regent clearly that her Queen wasn't at all happy with the way things were going, but she also knew her well enough to keep her mouth shut in situations like this.
Gabrielle reluctantly travelled by horse while Xena and the main force of the Amazons chose to use the treetops. They met with the Centaur forces in the early candlemarks of the afternoon. The enemy was still three days away, so the joint army had the advantage to choose the battlefield. Just a day outside of both Amazon and Centaur territory, there was an area where small stripes of forest were interspersed with smooth plains of grassland. It was perfect for using the special skills of both groups to their advantage, with the Amazons as at home in the forest as the Centaurs were handicapped in the thick underbrush.
Marc Anthony was a good soldier, but he definitively would have been better off following orders instead of giving them. His deployment of troupes was fairly predictable, and he didn't have the faintest idea of what his opponents were capable. The first day Amazons and Centaurs had about ten dead and a score wounded. His losses were at least five fold, and his superior numbers were already running low.
Gabrielle insisted on giving them the opportunity to surrender or retreat. In the company of two scouts, Xena sneaked near the command tent and sent an arrow straight into the middle of his desk; but as soon as they had entered the perimeter of his camp the former warlord knew that it wouldn't do any good.
Like a cook could smell a single rotten onion in a cellar full of them, Xena could feel Ares' presence in the enemy's camp. She was tempted to let the others know but finally opted to keeping it quiet. There was a part of her that didn't want to discourage her fellow fighters by letting them know that the god of War was supporting the other side. There also was a part of her that thought she personally could take on Ares and come out victorious, but there was also a part of her that was convinced that, considering Marc's ineptitude as a commander, he soon would change camps of his own accord.
The next morning, a barrage of arrows almost hit the young Queen, answering Gabrielle's message. This day the Roman warlord was more aware of the things going on around him and even managed to avoid yesterday's mistakes, so Xena didn't feel half as bad as the day before when he lost another three score of soldiers to one or the other of her traps.
The following days brought no further strategic improvement on the enemy's side. Now they were outnumbered, and still they kept on attacking. Day after day, the opposing army was reduced to half its original size while the allies had fewer losses to mourn then the unpredictable happened.
Around midday, a Centaur runner found Xena in the midst of dispatching a group of Persians. He told her that Gabrielle had disappeared from the infirmary where she was assisting the healers.
"Did you search the camp and check the perimeter watch?"
"Erymma said that suddenly a man appeared in the middle of the tent, grabbed Gabrielle's arm, and they both were gone in a crack of blue lightning."
"Ares! I knew I never should have let her out of my sight!" Xena's deep voice never before so much resembled the growling of a huge predator as it did now. She took a deep breath to calm herself. "Go tell all the others to retreat to the tree line. Tell them to defend themselves if necessary but not to start any kind of new attack, regardless of how tempting it may be. There will be a messenger soon from Marc Anthony. Send him to my tent."
Though they still were facing about a dozen enemy soldiers, not one of them tried to attack the tall warrior from behind when she turned and stalked back to her camp. The Amazon war council was already waiting to discuss their options, but she dismissed them with a few words. "There are no options. The Romans now have Gabrielle. Otherwise, Ares would have come to me personally. We'll wait for their conditions."
She entered her tent and was hard pressed not to act on the dark wave of anger and rage trying to consume her soul. Part of her was tempted to leave the camp and fight her way through the enemy lines to get to her lover. Part of her knew that in this case, all she would find was Gabrielle's dead body and that Ares' ploy would have worked.
About a candlemark later, when the flaps of her tent were opened and a grim looking Ephiny and Eponin escorted in Marc Anthony, she was calmly sitting on her bed, meticulously sharpening her sword.
"Anthony, what a surprise, please take a seat. Eponin, please go and get hold of Tyldus. I hope you don't mind waiting, Marc Anthony; I want all the parties concerned present. Feel free to pour yourself a drink or eat some dried dates. Our cook prepared them the same way Queen Cleopatra prefers hers. She's a really remarkable woman, as you surely know."
"That's what she told me about you, Xena. She also told me never to underestimate your skills. So, what do you think you'll achieve with this polite chit-chat?"
"Decide for yourself, there could be a number of reasons. It could be that I'm talking to keep myself from beating the stuffing out of you." Xena for the first time raised her head, and the Roman Patrician found himself faced with pale blue eyes colder than the snowfields at Mount Amaro and deadlier than the waters of the river Styx. "It could be that Ah, there's Tyldus coming. Would you please let him in, Regent Ephiny."
"My pleasure, General."
Xena waited another candledrop for the tall Centaur to get settled and then once again addressed the Roman, still with the schooled voice of a skilled negotiator hiding an iron fist behind gloves of silk. "And now, Marc Anthony, tell us what your master ordered you to demand in exchange for the Amazon Queen. Ares, or do you prefer to call him Mars? Anyway, the God of war took a great risk by abducting his sister's Chosen. What does he want?"
"Surrender, complete and unconditional."
"Where would be the fun in this? No, oh mighty Roman, that's not his style. I suppose he'd rather want to even the odds, I suppose, it's me he wants."
"How did you "
"There's one thing you should have learned from Caesar, and that's know your enemies at least as well as you know yourself. Less than five years ago, I was ruling more than half of Greece, and I commanded an army twice the size yours was. I was Ares' Chosen, and I walked away from him."
"To fight for those not able to defend themselves. That's what Cleopatra said. I'm starting to see the wisdom of her words. She warned me. You're right; it's you he wants. I was to tell you that I was ready to make an exchange, you for the Amazon Queen, then I was to kill the Queen with you in chains and helpless to prevent it. He said it would dishearten the Amazons and destroy your spirit. He told me that you would be nothing more than a babbling idiot, and would no longer be a threat to anyone."
"Babbling idiot, no, that's rather improbable, that's not the way I react to the death of people I love and Ares is well aware of that.
"When I was fifteen, my brother was killed by a warlord and I became one myself to get my revenge. Two summers later, your friend Julius Caesar put me on a cross and broke my legs. I became the Destroyer of Nations, orchestrating the defeat of his army more than once, the last time in Britannia with Boadicea's help." Xena's voice, far from proudly recalling past victories, was devoid of any emotion. But for just the blink of an eye, the Roman was certain he saw something akin to grief in her eyes. "A few moons ago, Hera killed my daughters out of hatred for their father, and in response I killed the goddess of the family and the hearth.
"Since I walked away from Ares' path and the darkness in my soul, he wants me back. He has tried time and again without success. I suppose he hopes that seeing Gabrielle die will bring back my dark side and make me once again accessible to him. It would break something in my soul, that's right, but you and your men wouldn't live long enough to savour your victory because I wouldn't care how many of you I'd take with me to Tartarus."
"Why are you telling me all of this? If you're trying to scare me away, it doesn't work."
The tall woman stood and slowly sheathed her weapon. She moved with the swiftness and precision of a predator and when she reached the desk he instinctively also stood, putting his hand on the hilt of his sword. Their eyes locked, and he could feel a cold shiver running down his spine. The tension in his body involuntarily lessened when she once again spoke.
"To Caesar the only person that counted was himself He would have used what I just told you about the Amazon Queen to his advantage, but you are a soldier not a politician. You are ruthless in battle and honourable in life. You never go back on your word, and Roman virtues still have meaning for you. That's why your officers and your soldiers follow you. So, what do you intend doing?"
"We never met before, so what do you base your judgement on?"
Xena's smile didn't reach her eyes, but it somewhat tempered their coldness. "Experience. We've captured some prisoners these last few days. Your men, the Romans, that is, are loyal to you, and they don't act out of fear but because they believe in what you stand for. And then there's Cleopatra. She associated herself with Caesar for the sake of her country, and he deceived her to strengthen his own power, as he always has. She never would have allowed you in her bed if you were even remotely alike, not even for the future of Egypt. But you didn't answer my question."
"You really aren't what I expected, Xena, but you are right. Not all the Roman and Greek gods combined could bring me to kill an unarmed woman, not even if she is the leader of my enemies. But I also can't just let her go, she's too valuable. There's only one honourable way: you fight for her. Two candlemarks from now, the Amazon Queen will be waiting in the middle of today's battlefield. To set her free you will have to defeat ten of the best fighters of my army. I give you my word of honour that she will be freed even if you die in this fight and tomorrow all bets are off and this war will continue. Without you leading the Amazons and Centaurs, I'm sure we still have a chance. And don't bring that round thing of yours."
"Regent Ephiny and our weapons' master will be at my side. They won't interfere with the fight, but make sure to get Queen Gabrielle back, regardless of the outcome."
"So be it." The fair-haired Roman stood, turned around, and left the tent.
"Xena, that's insane. You're more than brilliant as a fighter, we all know this, but alone against ten experienced soldiers. You don't stand a chance." The deep voice came from where the tall Centaur was standing.
"There's no other choice, Tyldus. Marc Anthony may have forgotten about Ares, I haven't.
"The punishment devised by Athena and Justice should have prevented my participation in this war. That's probably why he arranged the whole thing. By leading the combined armies, I foiled Ares' plans. But he still had a good show to enjoy with the battles going as they did. You don't need me to end this war in your favour. So, Amazons and Centaurs will stay safe, one way or the other.
"Ares won't kill Gabrielle himself, he knows he would get into too much trouble by personally killing Artemis' Chosen; but he also won't honour Marc Anthony's word if it's too easy for me. Ten against one are just the odds to keep him interested and entertained enough. Getting me back at the moment isn't his primary goal. The Roman situation, however, is bound to keep him occupied for quite some time, regardless of Marc Anthony's fate here. Brutus and Octavian won't stay allies for long; there are simply too many other parties involved. I also suppose that some of the recently conquered provinces will attempt to free themselves from Roman rule. Yes, Ares will be occupied.
"Besides, it isn't the first time that I have had to face more than five or six opponents at a time. I don't say that it will be a stroll through a meadow, but it can be done, my friend."
"I really hope you are right, Xena."
Xena, the two Amazons and Tyldus stepped from behind the cover of the trees as soon as her opponents appeared at the other side of the middle sized field, Gabrielle in their midst. Her hands were bound in front of her. But instead of keeping her this was during the fight, Marc Anthony stepped from behind his men and cut her restraints. The Amazon Queen's face was a study in anger and worry when she reached Xena and exchanged a few words with her worry for the safety of her lover and anger about the fact that the tall warrior once again was in danger of sacrificing herself for her.
The younger woman continued in the direction of her Amazon sisters, Xena took another step forward, drew her sword and the fight was engaged without further words. When she was surprised that Marc Anthony led the attack himself, her face didn't show it.
To Gabrielle's experienced eyes, it quickly was obvious that Romans and Persians followed a preconceived battle plan. Marc Anthony and one of his officers kept Xena occupied while the others slowly encircled her. They step by step inched closer, not knowing that Xena would have been able to feel their approach even with her eyes closed. Two more feet and they would be within striking distance. The Amazon Queen knew that her lover also had a plan, but still she involuntarily held her breath. Xena dispatched one of her immediate attackers by knocking him out with the flat of her sword against his temple. She then erupted in a blur of motion, jumping and slicing, kicking and thrusting, ducking and feinting.
Helpless against the dark haired woman's superior speed and skill, they tried to reorganise their ranks, and this time they seemed to get a head start. None were dead, but half were out of commission. Xena held three Romans in check with her intricate sword play while two Persian blades struck her back, her armour taking the brunt of it, but the raw power of the blows brought her to her knees. Marc Anthony staggered to his feet and aimed for her throat.
She quickly changed her weapon to her left hand and repositioned her right arm to deflect the Roman's sword with her bracer. Still occupied at getting back on her feet and holding the others at bay, she felt the impact and heard the surprised gasps of both the Amazons and her opponents. They all were looking at Marc Anthony's sword, or rather what was left of his sword. Almost one third was missing, with tiny parts of it lying harmlessly scattered on the ground.
One of the Persians had the presence of mind to try another attack from behind. Xena saw it in Marc Anthony's eyes, swirled her weapon around and impaled the man without even turning her head.
The tall warrior's eyes changed to an even darker, colder blue, and Gabrielle knew that for the first time in this fight Xena's sensitive nostrils registered the distinctive scent of her enemy's blood. A deadly smile appeared on Xena's face, and the Amazon Queen prayed to her Patron Goddess. 'Please, let her keep control, don't let her lose the light.'
The two surviving Persians immediately threw themselves against her. Xena somersaulted easily over their heads, turned around in mid-air and cut their heads off with a fluid, elegant movement belying the immense strength necessary to do so. Her smile broadened and her eyes grew colder. With her sword weaving some sort of impenetrable shield in front of her, she slowly advanced towards the seven remaining enemies.
The blonde woman knew they soon would be dead, and then and only then, she would have a chance to get back the woman she loved, the woman now dominated by a deeply embedded need to kill, a legacy from the times when she was proud to call herself Ares' Chosen. Marc Anthony seemed mesmerised by her display, and while the others retreated he just stood and looked at her. When she was at striking distance, he threw the remnants of his sword in front of her feet. She didn't stop the movement of her blade, but she no longer advanced either.
"I, Marc Anthony, rightful ruler of Rome, declare you, Xena of Amphipolis the indisputable winner of this fight. There's no need to slaughter my men just to prove a point. I should have known when we talked, but until now I never understood why Caesar always feared you."
Xena's sword arm froze in mid-motion, and for an agonisingly long heartbeat it seemed as if she were about to strike the tall Roman down. She then abruptly sheathed her weapon and answered. "Go home, Marc Anthony; you're Roman but I don't want to kill you. Go home."
The tall man nodded toward his soldiers, and they left the battlefield. When they had disappeared behind the tree line at the other side, Xena turned her head. Her eyes no longer were cold and distant when they found Gabrielle's. The younger woman immediately was at her side and embraced her warrior with strong arms whispering how much she loved her.
"I love you, too. Gabrielle, I could use some help getting back to the camp, and then I'll need the blacksmith, my armour needs mending."
"It's just a scra ."
"It's never just a scratch, Xena. For you even to mention it, it must hurt like Tartarus. What happened?"
"I don't know for sure yet, but either my back armour broke with the two blows I got there or they were forceful enough to embed the armour plates itself slightly in my skin. It probably will be a little difficult to get it off."
5. Trial by ordeal
If she hadn't been so relieved that her stubborn lover still was alive, the Amazon Queen would have given her a piece of her mind. As it was, she was pacing in front of the command tent while Erymma and the Amazon's blacksmith tried to get Xena out of her brass armour, muttering to herself. 'A little difficult, pah, difficult, my ass! Warrior Princess of understatement, that's what she is. Slightly pah! As if!'
What in reality only took less than a candlemark, to Gabrielle it seemed to last an eternity; and when the healer and her unlikely helper left the hut, she had worked herself in a full-blown temper tantrum.
"My Queen, Xena now is ready for you. Please see that she doesn't get up and that she gets plenty of rest. She should stay flat on her stomach for at least three days. For any other, I would make it at least a quarter moon, but she's healing so incredibly fast."
Gabrielle nodded in acknowledgement, entered the tent, but didn't find the warrior lying on her simple bed. "Please sit down, Gabrielle. I know you have much to tell me. I heard you while you were pacing outside. Please, let me talk first."
The blonde woman turned towards the voice and bonelessly sank to the chair positioned at the centre of the tent. Xena was wearing the skirt of a simple Amazon outfit, dark brown leathers, ending just above mid-thigh. Instead of the traditional leather halter, she had on a very broad black scarf tied at her neck and around her waist. Her dark hair was in a braid falling over her left shoulder, and only the bracers reminded Gabrielle of the deadly warrior she was.
Xena lowered herself on her right knee in front of Gabrielle's chair and took the younger woman's hands. "I know you're angry with me, and you have every reason to be. I'm sorry for not keeping my promise, for agreeing to this fight without first asking you. I'm sorry for getting hurt, I never wanted you to worry. But having the pattern of my armour imprinted on my back for some time is a price I gladly pay for seeing you safe and not having to kill all those soldiers. I'm sorry for frightening you during the fight. I used my dark side then, but it didn't stand a chance against the love and trust in your eyes. I love you so much, my beautiful bard."
There were tears glistening in the corners of the blonde woman's eyes when she bent down and gently kissed her lover's lips. She sat back and smiled. "You know that you're not fighting fair, my sneaky warrior. How can I yell at you after such an apology?"
"Yell at me all you want I deserve it. It's better than seeing hurt, with worry and anger in your eyes."
"Don't look at me with those puppy dog eyes. You know very well that I never can stay angry for long, and I'd really like to show you that you're forgiven. However, Erymma said that you need rest and that you need to stay in bed for at least three days."
"She's exaggerating, Gabrielle. A good night's rest is all I need, and tomorrow I have to be back on the battlefield. The Romans are not to know that I was even slightly hurt, otherwise they will never see reason," The tall woman answered, stubbornly squaring her shoulders.
The Amazon Queen simply smiled. "We'll worry about the Romans in the morning. To bed with you, no, on your front, for once do what the healer says."
"But I can't hold you in my arms when I'm flat on my stomach," Xena replied with a pout.
"I'll be right beside you, my big dumb warrior, holding your hand," the Amazon Queen said, her calm voice belying the horror in her eyes when for the first time she had a good view of Xena's back. She barely stifled a gasp when she looked closer.
"It will be all right, my love. It doesn't look too good at the moment, but the swelling soon will go down. And if I'm lucky, there won't even be any scars. Erymma applied a painkiller, and there's more of it in the mug next to me for later in the night."
The next morning Gabrielle woke with the feeling of being observed and found the Amazon healer checking in on her patient and applying more of the healing salve. The pattern of the warrior's armour now was clearly visible, but some of the imprints still oozed blood. What really astonished her was that Xena was still sleeping.
"No need to worry, my Queen. I suspected Xena would be too restless to stay in bed of her own accord, that's why I put some sleeping herbs in the mug with painkillers I left for her yesterday. The blacksmith and I had to cut off the armour one bit a time not to cause more damage. Some of the sharp edges nevertheless grazed a muscle or two. She has to stay as relaxed as possible to guarantee a complete recovery, and the easiest way to do this is to keep her unconscious while her body heals itself."
"Well, then we have our work cut out for us because she certainly won't be thrilled at the prospect. Thank you, Erymma. You're probably needed in the healer's tent, but I want you to have one of your apprentices monitor Xena's sleep. I don't want her to wake up alone while I try to smooth the ruffled feathers of the war council. They really detested being left out of the loop yesterday. Besides, there's still a war to win."
"The council is already expecting you, Queen Gabrielle. It seems the scouts brought some intriguing news."
And it was. According to the scouts, the enemy army obviously was in the middle of breaking up their camp. Their advance party already was on its way to the nearest seaport. Every member of the war council, Amazons and Centaurs alike, had his or her own theory about this rather unexpected behaviour. Some of them thought that they simply didn't want to risk their lives for a lost cause. Others suspected some sort of trapthat the Romans would try to circle around and get them from behind or try to attack their home villages.
The fervent discussions gave Gabrielle a headache so she simply adjourned the meeting by referring to the Chosen's Prerogative. She ordered the scouts to keep tabs on the enemy army and report to her every other candlemark. She then retired to the command tent where Xena adamantly refused to take another portion of sleeping herbs. The Queen heard the angry and exasperated voices even before she saw the tent, but she was in no mood to deal with more wasted candlemarks of endless discussions. She was resigned, having to cite the Chosen's Prerogative for the second time this day.
Xena was sitting on the bed, arguing furiously with Erymma who was holding a steaming mug. Her eyes found Gabrielle's, and whatever she saw in them made her relent. Hearing about the enemy's retreat, the tall warrior finally agreed to stay in bed for as long as the healer deemed necessary In return she didn't have to drink the healer's tea. She wanted to stay alert in case the situation was not as it appeared to be, but the scouts' reports confirmed that the remnants of the Roman and Persian armies were heading towards the nearest seaport. There were no signs of anyone trying to double back.
The combined forces of Amazons and Centaurs stayed in the area for another three days, just to be on the safe side. Gabrielle took the opportunity to hammer out a treaty dealing with joint border patrols and advance scouting parties of Amazons and Centaurs to create a more efficient warning system. There was a big party before everyone returned to their villages.
Most of the Amazons were anxious to get back to their loved ones and hastened their return journey. They held the funeral rites for their fallen sisters the same evening; Xena and Ephiny sang the dirge together. The traditional victory celebration, however, would have to wait for Gabrielle to go through the trial by ordeal, to determine if she used the Chosen's Prerogative with honour and to the benefit of the Amazon nation.
The Queen had to spend a night in an isolated room in the temple. It was said that there she would be confronted not only with the consequences of the events she set in motion with the Prerogative, but also with circumstances and situations she still had to work through from her past to find a real balance in life. The next morning she would have to fight two of the best Amazon warriors with a weapon of her choice, one after the other. The outcome would decide upon her fate, her future. The Queen had to win both fights to fully justify her actions. Losing both of them meant at least lifelong exile; losing only one would give the Amazon council the chance to either get rid of her and choose a new Queen or reinstate her.
Gabrielle didn't look forward to both parts of the ritual. She was honest enough with herself to know that Xena's well being, for her, was at least as important as the security of the Amazon nation. Yes, there were innumerable reasons, all justifiable, to suspend her lover's punishment; but she also did it to spare her the pain and so she would no longer have to see the agony hidden deep in Xena's eyesso deep no one else seemed to see it. Did the outcome really justify her means?
To Xena and her closest friends, Gabrielle's worries and insecurities were easily visible in her posture; she held her back straight, her shoulders were rigid, the set of her jaw was tense, and her smile didn't reach her eyes. Ephiny tried to get her to talk about her fears, but the Queen just changed the topic in return. Not even the afternoon sparring session managed to get her mind off the upcoming night.
All Xena could do was to keep reassuring her by maintaining some sort of physical contact for the better part of the day. It seemed to work but didn't help the growing feeling of helplessness the tall warrior was experiencing. So, when the time came, she silently followed the Queen to the temple.
The priestess acknowledged her presence with a nod but protested when she continued to follow Gabrielle to the room reserved for the Queen's vigil. "I don't care what you think, priestess. But out of respect, I'll tell you this: I won't interfere in the Queen's dealing with the goddess, but I won't let her go in there all alone. That's not an option. The scroll I read said that the goddess would speak to Gabrielle when she falls into a sleep-like state. Until then, I'll just hold her in my arms."
"Last night, the goddess told me that this would happen. Do what you need to do, warrior." Xena's left eyebrow rose in surprise, and only when the priestess closed the door behind them, did she realise that Gabrielle hadn't uttered a single word since entering the temple.
There were blankets and cushions liberally littering the floor. The Queen sat down as if to meditate, but before she could get started with the breathing exercises, Xena slid behind her and drew her into her arms. She could feel the rapid heart beat of her lover and knew she somehow had to calm her down. She lowered her head towards Gabrielle's and began to hum slowly in her ear. At first, it was just a low tone, only slightly higher than a murmur; but soon it involuntarily changed to a well-known melody, a lullaby she often had sung to her daughters. The tension rapidly was draining out of Gabrielle's body, and she slipped into what seemed like a deep sleep.
When the stoic warrior became aware of what she was doing, she could no longer stop the tears falling from her eyes. A gut feeling told her that this night vigil not only was for the Queen to cope with her past, but also for herself. She knew she yet had to mourn her little girls, and this night would be the beginning of another painful process of healing. For the second time in her life, she welcomed the wetness running down her cheeks.
At some point, she must have fallen asleep because she woke to the sensation of Gabrielle snuggling closer in her arms. Shortly after, the door to the room opened and the priestess entered, carrying the Queen's staff. After a few unsuccessful attempts to wake Gabrielle, Xena finally roused her with a kiss. It took some time for the young woman to regain her bearings in the unfamiliar room. She then looked into the eyes of her lover and saw only love, devotion, and trust. The regulations pertaining to the trial by ordeal didn't allow her to talk to anyone until after facing the challenges, so she gently kissed her lover in response.
Every inhabitant of the village was already waiting at the central square, even the teachers and the children; it made for rather close quarters. In the middle, a small rectangular area was cordoned off with two rows of benches on one side where the council and the elders were already seated. The weapons' master was Gabrielle's first opponent, the captain of the Royal guards her second. The Queen tried to convince herself that this wasn't any different from all the training bouts she had had with either woman, but in her gut, she knew it wasn't. She knew that this morning both Eponin and Solari had made a solemn vow in front of Artemis' altar to give their best in the upcoming fight regardless of their personal feelings.
Gabrielle's mind tuned out Ephiny announcing the rules and possible consequences of the fight while she tried to calm down. Suddenly, a hand rested on her shoulder, and it was as if some of Xena's confidence seeped through her skin directly to her heart and brain. She took a defensive stance and waited for Eponin to attack. They both knew the weaknesses and special quirks of the other's fighting style like the back of their own hand. So, they fought each other time and again to a standstill, but finally the Queen's greater speed gained the advantage needed to take the weapons' master down and pin her to the ground with the end of the smaller woman's staff at her throat. The watching Amazons cheered.
The rules allowed a small break to give Gabrielle the opportunity to have some water and towel off the sweat covering her body. Xena quickly wrapped her in the piece of fabric to keep her muscles from stiffening and gave her encouragement, advice, and a dazzling smile. While Eponin always tried to rely on her greater strength, the captain of the Royal guards had a style similar to Gabrielle's. In their sparring sessions, the Queen could two out of three times secure a victory, but she could already feel the strain on her arms from her first fight. Very quickly, she had to rely only upon defending herself. Then her eyes, for a fraction of a heartbeat, found Xena's, and she knew what she had to do.
With a backwards roll, she distanced herself from her opponent, closed both hands around one end of her staff, and used the other end to pepper Solari with quick jabbing motions. Slightly astonished at the unexpected move, the other woman retreated far enough to let Gabrielle regain her favourite defensive stance; but instead of using the chance, the Queen attacked. She took three fast steps forward, planted the end of her staff on the ground, jumped and landed feet first on Solari's chest, effectively knocking the wind out of her.
The second fight was over, Gabrielle now would stay the Amazon's Queen, and best of all, no one would be able to challenge her rule for another cycle of seasons. Her subjects were cheering her, loud enough to be heard in the Centaur village at the other side of the river. Everyone, from the council members to the children, was eager to congratulate her, and though Gabrielle usually was a very touchy-feely kind of person, she felt more than overwhelmed. Everything around her, even the air, suddenly became too close. She lost consciousnessbut she never hit the ground. Xena scooped her up in her arms and carried her to her hut. The healer was summoned to confirm Xena's and Ephiny's suspicion that she was simply exhausted. Unconsciousness quickly changed into sleep, and the tall warrior continued to hold her, soon succumbing to Morpheus' call as well.
Two candlemarks before sunset, they were sitting in one of the large tubs in the back room of the big bathing hut. "Was it a dream? Last night, was it a dream?"
"No, and if it was, your dream was mine, and my dream was yours. I'm ready to repeat to the whole Amazon nation, to the outside world, and to every god willing to listen what I said to you last night.
"From the day I first met you, just outside your home village, you were my life. You gave me meaning and joy. You are my heart and my soul, and you'll be a part of me forever. I promise to cherish you above all others, to honour and to love you, and to obey the commands of Queen Gabrielle. I promise to never again let my fear of hurting you get in the way of our love. Please agree to join your life to my life, your heart to my heart, your body to my body, your soul to my soul."
"Yes, I will my warrior. At the harvest festival, I will wait for you to pledge your allegiance to the Amazon nation, and me; and I will accept you as my consort and champion. Unfortunately, we'll first have to get this stupid punishment out of the way."
"I know; the sooner the better. Perhaps I should go back to my cage in the sweating hut immediately."
"No, tomorrow morning is soon enough. The army needs its commander to celebrate our victory and remember the dead. Besides, I have plans for us, after the festivities."
Despite the Queen's best efforts, they weren't able to leave until after midnight. The party still was in full swing, the hypnotising beat of the drums speaking to them even behind the closed doors of the hut. On impulse, Xena drew her closer, and they both began to move to the alluring rhythm. Xena's hands were solidly attached to the other woman's hips, while Gabrielle's sneaked past the barrier of the tall warrior's tunic. She revelled in the warmth of the older woman's skin.
"Your clothes, they have to come off. Now! That's an order, warrior!"
"Yes, my Queen. Your order shall be my wish." Xena reluctantly took two steps back, slowly and sensuously wriggling out of her clothing. Without being asked, she started to loosen the straps holding Gabrielle's Amazon garb in place. She held eye contact with her and continued to sway her hips. It didn't take long for both of their hearts to beat faster.
As soon as Gabrielle's clothing also was relegated to the floor, a hand found Xena's neck and guided her to waiting lips. She lost herself in the softness of her lover's mouth. They finally broke the kiss to come up to breathe.
"You're so incredibly beautiful, my love."
"No, you are the real beauty here. Your body is perfect, but the real source of your beauty is coming from the goodness you carry inside. I'm nothing more than an old, battered, scared ex-warlord, my beloved."
Gabrielle smiled enticingly and grabbed one of the taller woman's ears between thumb and index fingers, pulling her down. "My big dumb warrior! Sometimes you really have no clue. Come to bed, and I'll show you what your battered, scared body is doing to me, Granny."
A second invitation wasn't necessary. Xena lifted the Amazon Queen from her feet and cradled her in her strong arms. She carried her over to the big, solid bed, and they made love 'til the wee candlemarks of morning.
Before falling asleep Gabrielle, for a fraction of a heartbeat, contemplated getting up and setting a good example for her Amazon sisters by starting her day early even though they had just ended a major celebration. Then Xena pulled her closer to her chest, reminding her that her lover would have to spend her nights in the cage from now on, far away from her. Her virtuous thoughts were forgotten. They shared a gentle kiss, Gabrielle nestled her head more comfortably on Xena's shoulder, and they both fell asleep.
Some time after midday, the village began to wake from the aftermath of their party. Xena's senses alerted her of two sets of running feet approaching the hut from different directions. For a short moment, she contemplated warning them off with her chakram should they be insensitive enough simply to burst through the door without knocking first but they did, and she reluctantly told them to wait. Gabrielle was roused from sleep with small kisses. They were putting on their discarded clothing from the night before when the knocking was repeated, more insistent this time. The Queen combed her blonde hair with her fingers and told them to enter.
Ephiny hurried through the door. "Queen Gabrielle, Xena, good morning. I'm sorry to disturb you, but there's been an incident at the council's hut. The scroll has disappeared from the wall."
"Scroll? Xena's scroll, the one with the details for the punishment?"
"Yes, my Queen. As you know, it was hanging on the back wall of the council's hut for everyone to read. When I checked the room during my morning rounds, it was gone. We've already searched the hut, and Olica and her staff are checking the library as we speak."
Both Gabrielle and Xena looked at her as if she had two heads, but before they could think of anything to ask or say Solari spoke up. "I think I may have an answer for the missing scroll, my Queen, but it's hard to explain. Come to the sweating hut. There's something you have to see."
"Don't play the mystery woman, Sol, just tell us."
"You have to see it with your own eyes, Eph. You won't believe it otherwise."
Gabrielle effectively ended the conversation by leaving the hut and starting out towards the sweating hut turned prison.
When the four friends entered the hut, they found the cage gone. In its place on the floor was silvery armour, matching Xena's bracers. The breastplate was a perfect reproduction of her old brass armour. The back protection was different; the central piece consisting of a flat surface between the shoulder blades, descended in a gentle curve almost to the waist. From there the familiar pattern stretched over the shoulders. The strands of steel were subtly curved, thus ensuring a perfect fit. At least that's what Xena thought by just looking at it. There also were shin protectors and metal bands for the upper arms.
The missing scroll was lying next to the armour pieces. It was unscrolled, and there was a broad line crossing the writing on it from the upper right to the lower left corner. At the bottom, a few additional lines had been added.
Justice is satisfied. Zeus has agreed to put an end to your punishment. Use this chance for a new life to your advantage.
You did well in defending my people and my Chosen. The armour is a gift from Aphrodite and Hephaestus, made of the steel of your cage. It doesn't have any special powers, but it won't be as easily dented as your old one. See it as a joining gift of sorts. I'm looking forward to the harvest solstice.
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