Disclaimer: This story involves characters that are copyrighted by Universal and Renaissance Pictures. I'm just borrowing them for a while, with no financial gain involved nor required.
This work of fan fiction is set between the 5th season episodes 'Amphipolis Under Siege' and 'Married With Fishsticks'.
It might pay to be aware of both episodes, as well as four Hercules:TLJ eps called 'The Gauntlet', 'Armageddon Now Parts 1 & 2', and 'The Green-Eyed Monster'.
I would like to thank Rob Tapert and the rest of the Ren Pics crew for providing me with over five years of the most wonderful entertainment. They have produced, quite simply, the best television programme I have ever known. I salute them all.
Finally, a special thank you goes to Stacia Seaman for her outstanding proof-reading.
By Mark Annetts
Ares sat on his darkly ornate throne in the Halls of War, his legs casually draped over one arm. Things are not going well, he brooded. Once again he came to the conclusion that it was his damnable half-brothers fault. First he took his chosen away from her path, and now the ungrateful bastard had killed their father, Zeus.
He stared at the back of his hands for a moment before slowly raising one of his arms straight out. A blue sphere of light erupted from his fingertips and shot across the room, shattering a statue of Thor into a thousand pieces.
I dont feel any different, he thought. The prophecy of the Fates about the Twilight of the gods certainly was disconcerting, and not something to be taken lightly, but... things still did seem to be the same, in spite of Zeus' death.
I have to come up with a plan that will put things right again, thats all there is to it. The other gods were wasting their time going after Xena and her baby. That was not the answer, he was sure. That wouldnt solve anything. No, this called for something more... creative, more... cunning.
He absentmindedly stroked his beard and smiled. It so very nearly worked once, why not try again? The smile turned to a scowl as he realised hed need the assistance of another god for what he wanted to do. He couldnt risk going himself, and this time he'd be damned if he would rely on a mere mortal. Who could he turn to, Apollo, Hermes, Athena, Artemis, Poseidon? He quickly dismissed them all. There was always the lesser gods. 'Hmmm, what are any of them good at?' Then it hit him. 'Of course, of course! Maybe Eli was right all along, love is the way!' he grinned. 'Ooh, you're so good.'
* * *
Gabrielle flopped unceremoniously down on the blanket that shed just thrown on the ground, and sighed with relief. Cyrenes insistence that she and Xena take a moment off from nursing and guarding Eve had been most welcome. She could see the constant stress was nagging at Xena too, so this quiet moment of peace and rest was necessary and long overdue.
When Xenas mother had first suggested that they both go off and have an afternoon together by the lake, away from everything and everybody, Xena had dismissed the idea. But Gabrielle had just looked into those blue eyes and put a comforting hand on the warriors arm. She didnt say anything, just continued to gaze into her eyes.
She could see the conflicting emotions passing across Xenas face; the look of guilt at abandoning her daughter, followed by the acceptance that they had both been neglecting each other since the birth of Eve. Defending Amphipolis from Athena's armies had taken a heavy toll on both of them. Xena's final acceptance of the plan filled the bard with joy.
Gabrielle held Eve in her arms as she and Cyrene stood waiting in front of the inn for Xena to arrive. The warrior trotted up with a bristling Argo, the warhorse obviously pleased to be going out for a ride. The bard handed over Eve to Xena's mother, swapping the infant for a large picnic basket.
"Can I give you a lift," Xena said, smiling, as she leaned down and offered her hand to the bard. Gabrielle laughed and reached out to Xena.
"Just like old times, huh?" she said, grinning.
"Just like old times, my bard." Xena turned to look at her mother. "Take good care of Eve, mom, well be back before nightfall."
"Ill do that, now go on you two, be off with you and enjoy yourselves, you hear me."
"Yes, mom." came the synchronised response from the two women on horseback. Xena kicked Argo lightly with her heels into a relaxed canter towards the lake.
* * *
Xena lifted the picnic from Argos saddle and brought it over to where Gabrielle had laid out the blanket. She pushed the basket over to the bard and smiled at the look of undisguised pleasure that passed over her friends face. Food was a gift from the gods, as far as Gabrielle was concerned.
They ate the food in a comfortable silence, their partnership now so grounded that the need for constant reassurance had long since passed.
Xena reached out and held Gabrielles hand; so small in her own.
"Gabrielle, I... Ive wanted to say how much Ive appreciated your help over the last couple of months. I dont think I say often enough how much I need you near me." She trailed off into silence, a little embarrassed at the sudden display of her true feelings.
"Xena, I know how you feel. You dont need to tell me in words, I see it in your eyes and in your deeds. We are together, thats how it is, and that's how it will always be," the bard smiled.
Xena thought her heart would burst. All she could manage was another squeeze of her friends hand. Gabrielle could see Xena was struggling with herself over what she was about to say. "Xena, just say what you want to say. Youll feel much better for it," she said, gently returning the pressure on Xena's hand.
"Oh, Gabrielle, Ive been wanting to say something like this for so long--" her words were cut off as the air around them crackled and a familiar form materialised.
"Aphrodite!" Xena fumed through clenched teeth. "Not now, whatever it is, go away!"
"No time to explain, Warrior Babe." With that the goddess waved both arms in a circle and closed her eyes. The scenery around them faded from view as a shimmering translucent dome formed above their heads.
"What in thundering Tartarus are you doing?" Xena shouted as she stood up, spinning round, the dome enclosing them on all sides.
"Aphrodite, what is it?" Gabrielle asked more reasonably, taking a step towards the goddess.
"Cant talk... must concentrate... " she mumbled, her eyelids barely opening in response. The dome crackled and undulated, as if something was battering on the outside, trying to get in.
"Whatever youre doing stop it now!" Xena demanded, drawing her sword. Gabrielle held up her hand to Xena to stop her from doing anything drastic.
"Xena, shes not listening. Dont do anything rash, Im sure Aphrodites got a good reason for doing this."
Xena continued to scowl but relented and sheathed her weapon. They stood and watched the goddess struggle with whatever it was she was doing. She frowned and began to tremble from the strain. Finally she sighed and let her arms drop, sagging to her knees. Gabrielle caught her, lowering her gently to the ground. Xena knelt down and touched her hand to Aphrodites neck.
"Do gods have a pulse?" Gabrielle asked, sceptically.
"Damned if I know, but no harm in finding out." As Xena touched her neck a graceful but exceptionally strong hand stopped her.
"Thats close enough, Warrior Babe," said Aphrodite, opening her eyes. Xena tried to pull her hand back from the goddesss grip but it was like it was set in stone.
"Okay, so youve proved youre still a goddess, now let me go... please," Xena said through clenched teeth.
"Thats better," said Aphrodite grinning as she fluidly stood up. "Well, that was interesting, dont ya think?"
"What exactly just happened?" asked a puzzled bard, looking all around. Everything seemed the same as before.
"Ill let you know soon, Sweet Pea," the goddess said, pinching Gabrielle lightly on the cheek. "Later" and with that winked out in a shower of stars.
"gods be damned... gods!" Xena ranted, clenching and unclenching her fists. "Must they always interfere and play their childish games?" She looked down at the half-eaten picnic and the rumpled blanket. Anger and frustration now replaced the relaxed mood shed been in. "Lets get back home, shes kinda screwed the mood now. I want to check on Eve, make sure nothings happened."
"Im with you, Xena," Gabrielle said hastily gathering their belongings and heading to where Argo had been standing. She bumped into a stationary warrior blocking her path. She could feel the tension rippling up and down the warriors back.
"Xena, whats wrong?"
"Argos gone," Xena whispered.
They both stared at the spot where Argo had been only minutes before. Gabrielle put an arm around the tall warriors waist and gave a gentle hug. "Itll be alright, I'm sure. Maybe Aphrodites tricks spooked her. Shes probably run off into the woods. Shell be around, somewhere close."
"No, you dont understand, Gabrielle, her saddles gone and theres no hoof prints. Its like she was never there in the first place."
Gabrielle frowned. "Why would Aphrodite take Argo?"
"I dont think she did."
"What do you mean?"
"I think she was protecting us from something, and poor Argo was outside her protection."
"Oh," was all the bard could manage. There was nothing she could say to diminish Xena's obvious pain. The faithful war-horse was one of the few beings that Xena had ever really loved.
"Come on Xena, we cant do anything standing here, lets go back."
Xena nodded silently, still staring at the ground where her horse should've been. They walked towards Amphipolis, their hearts heavy and their progress much too slow for the warrior's liking. With each step nearer home, Xena's dread increased at what they might find. Gabrielle felt Xenas despair settle around them both like a shroud. She ached to ask Xena what she had been going to say just before Aphrodites sudden arrival, but she knew now was not the time. She wondered despondently whether there ever would be a good time. Neither of them said anything during several hours of walking and jogging.
* * *
Ares clapped his hands in glee. It was all going well so far; better than hed ever hoped possible. Zeus was back on his throne, the Twilight was stopped before it had even started, and Eli was still alive but back to wandering the back alleys of Indian cities, nothing more than a feeble street magician. And even his deeply annoying half-brother, Hercules, was no longer a problem. He now sat at Zeus side, having been made a full god, no longer meddling in mortals lives.
And as for his chosen, well, boy, had she ever fulfilled her potential! Hed always known she had the ability to one day rule the world, but by the gods, even hed had no idea just how well, and how thoroughly shed rise to meet the challenge. But even more surprising had been Gabrielle. He shivered at the prospect of getting to know the new and improved Queen of the Amazons.
Who would have thought that a little love would alter so much? he grinned. And none of the other gods would ever be the wiser. Hed done it at last; hed managed to best them all. Stupid Cupid, stupid Cupid, he giggled to himself. The strain of keeping up the sphere of protection for several hours had been arduous, but hed managed it. Now for phase two. Just the small matter of killing a god and making sure Cupid never opens his stupid blabbermouth. Ah well, nothing in life comes easy!
* * *
Xena and Gabrielle arrived back at the tavern weary and short-tempered. It hadnt helped their disposition when they'd been set upon by a band of ruffians. Xena warned them she wasnt in the mood and felled the nearest three in quick succession to show she meant business. Then something strange happened, as if the day wasnt strange enough already. The men finally recognised who they were attempting to rob. The looks of disbelief, followed by abject terror had been puzzling -- Xena did have a fearsome reputation, but the oddest reaction had been when Gabrielle stepped out from behind the warrior.
"You!" the nearest thug shrieked "Please, Gods, no!" He dropped his weapon and fainted dead away, hitting the floor like a sack of turnips.
Gabrielle looked as astonished as Xena felt. The little bard was certainly an accomplished fighter in her own right these days, but still, she didnt normally scare her opponents into submission. The rest of the men had simply thrown their weapons away and made for the trees as fast as they could run, many of them screaming as they went.
"What was all that about?"
"Maybe they heard one of your stories?" Xena said, producing her first smile since the appearance of the goddess, several hours before.
They looked at each and shrugged. There was little point in trying to rationalise such inexplicable behaviour. They jogged on in weary silence.
* * *
Xena pushed open the door, afraid of what she might find. They stepped into the tavern and both gasped in surprise. The interior was completely rearranged. It was too early for the evening patrons, so the place was deserted.
"Xena?" a startled voice called out from behind the bar.
"Mother, whats going on?"
"What... what are you doing here?" Cyrene said, ignoring her daughters question.
The fear that had been nagging at her since the strange events by the lake took hold. The anger Xena had been holding in check welled unbidden to the surface. In three swift strides she had reached the bar and effortlessly vaulted over it as if it was an entirely natural thing to do. She grasped her mother by both shoulders and shook her, none too gently.
"Where is Eve," she barked. Cyrene paled and gulped, her mouth suddenly very dry.
"Eve... Eve who?" she stuttered.
Xenas fierce expression melted into one of terrible grief. She released her vice-like grip on her mother and staggered back, almost toppling over backward, her legs failing. Gabrielle who had now reached her by more conventional means, neatly caught her. Cyrene blanched when she saw who it was that was supporting her daughter. She took several involuntary steps back, her hand flying to cover her mouth in shock.
Gabrielle noted Cyrenes reaction was similar to that of the thugs theyd seen off earlier, but now was not the time to dwell on it. She heaved the stunned warrior to a standing position and walked her over to one of the taverns tables. Dragging a chair out with her foot, she manoeuvred her friend down on to it.
Once Xena was seated Gabrielle, turned to Cyrene. "Get her a glass of something strong."
Cyrene nodded rapidly and did as she was told. She tentatively brought the glass over to her daughter, but the bard took it from her hand.
"Here, Xena, drink this," Gabrielle said tenderly. Xena took the drink and consumed it in one swallow, still panting in shock.
"Whats wrong with her?"
"Shes just lost a daughter."
"D... Daughter?" Cyrene managed. "By the gods, when did that happen?"
"This morning." Gabrielle looked into the puzzled face of Xenas mother. "Its complicated, Im not sure I can explain it."
There was a flash of light in the doorway. "Maybe I can help with that," Aphrodite said, materialising before them.
"I wish somebody would," came the whispered response from the grief-stricken warrior.
"Seems your old friend, my brother, has been up to his old tricks. He somehow tricked my idiot son to do his dirty work for him, and now hes made sure no one will know of his deceit by permanently shutting him up!" Aphrodite said, anger in her voice.
It was all too much for Cyrene. She quietly withdrew back behind the bar and poured herself a stiff drink.
"What exactly did he do?" Gabrielle asked, beginning to feel her anger rise too.
"He convinced my stupid, stupid son to fire one of his arrows at the wrong person at the wrong time."
"I dont understand," Gabrielle said, her head starting to spin. Aphrodite wasnt making any sense at all.
"He sent him back in time," the goddess shrugged with a wave of her hand, as if that explained everything.
"What... when... where?" was all Gabrielle could muster.
"Oh, cmon, girl, youre supposed to be the clever one. Whered you think?" she added, infuriatingly.
"Look, Im not in the mood for this, Aphrodite, just tell me what happened, okay"
The goddess looked peeved for a moment, her bottom lip sticking out slightly. "Youre no fun sometimes, you know that."
Gabrielle sensed movement under her hand and barely had time to press down on Xenas shoulder. The last thing they needed at the moment was a confrontation between an enraged warrior and a petulant goddess.
"Xena, sit!" she said, and she meant it. Xena unlocked her eyes from the goddess's and looked up at Gabrielle. She blinked and sighed, mentally thanking her friend for keeping her in check. Her full faculties were thankfully returning.
"All right start at the beginning and leave nothing out," Xena growled at the goddess.
Aphrodite considered for a moment just leaving the stupid mortals to their own devices, but she knew shed need them to help put things right.
"Okay, Warrior Babe, but dont push it too far. Goddess of Love I may be, but I swing a mean right hook, so dont forget it!"
Gabrielle stepped closer to the goddess and placed a hand gently on her arm. She could feel skittering power through her fingers as she made contact. "Please, Aphrodite, were all a bit jumpy at the moment. Just tell us what you know."
Aphrodite huffed again, but smiled. "You know, if you werent already Artemis Chosen... " she let the rest of her words hang. "Where were we? Oh yes, what happened. Well, near as I can tell Ares sent Cupid back to Xenas past. At the right moment, Im not sure when exactly, he zapped someone in such a way that they fell for somebody important, probably tall, dark and deadly over there," the goddess said, pointing to Xena.
Xena groaned and shook her head. It was beginning to come clear now what had happened. "Go on," she said.
"Whoever it was, it seems it kept the warrior babe from turning to the path of righteousness and so she kept on her merry way to world domination. Congratulations, champ, youre now officially the big cheese. Well, not you exactly, but your more driven twin."
Gabrielle frowned. "So youre saying that... there are now two Xenas?" Aphrodite laughed "Oh yes, Sweetie, and whats more theres two of you too," she said, grinning widely. "And wait till you get a load of her!"
"Why?" Gabrielle said, uncomfortably, the hairs on the back of her neck beginning to prickle at what might be coming.
"If you thought the Princess here was the deadly one of the team, then, Sugar, this aint Kansas. But Ive got places to go, gods to spy on, so... later!" and winked out in a shower of golden sparkles.
Gabrielle shut her eyes and kept them closed for a good while until her breathing steadied. Talking to the goddess of Love was almost always a prelude to a good headache, and this time wasnt proving to be any different.
"Why do you suppose she kept us from the change in destiny?" Xena asked the bard.
"I have no idea. Maybe she needs us for something." she thought a moment, and said "What do you think she meant that Ares had shut Cupid up for good?"
Xena shook her head. "Who knows. Ive long since given up trying to understand the gods. Theyre just a bunch of childish immortals with magical powers. None of them are worth a second of anyones worship. One day theyll get theirs. I just wanna make sure I'm there when it happens..." Xena trailed into silence as her mother approached.
"Did I understand all that to mean that youre not the real Conqueror?"
"No!" Xena replied, with a scowl. "Not even close!"
"So youre not my daughter?"
"Yes and no."
"What does that mean, are you or arent you my daughter?"
Xena sighed. "I am your daughter, you are my mother only not the daughter you know. Its its complicated."
Cyrene turned to the bard "And youre not the Queen of the Amazons?" Gabrielle shrugged "Yeah, technically I guess I still am, but its been a long time since I was last there."
"So whats up with the Amazon Queen; the one you know?" Xena asked her mother, suddenly curious.
"Shes the devil, the darkest evil you can imagine. She kills and maims for pleasure. If half the blood-curdling stories Ive heard are true I would strongly advise not going anywhere near her."
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other, both sets of eyebrows raised. "Wow" was all Xena said. Gabrielle just grimaced and shook her head.
"In our world Xena gave up being a warlord and became a force for good," Gabrielle explained.
Cyrene didnt say anything for a while, still trying to understand what was happening. A frown creased her forehead. "Who is Eve?"
Xena sighed again and her head drooped. "She is my new-born daughter... your granddaughter."
Her mother digested this piece of information for a moment.
"So, whos the father?" she asked, in all innocence. Xena looked up at Gabrielle helplessly. The bard just shrugged. "Xena, its already gone to Tartarus on the weirdness scale today, you might as well tell her the truth."
Xena sighed loudly and her shoulders slumped. "An angel called Callisto," she said, in a surprisingly small voice.
"I think I need another drink," Cyrene muttered to herself, reaching for a bottle.
* * *
The Amazon warrior carefully examined the room the four of them had just entered. She wanted no other ears to listen to what she was about to say to her fellow Amazons.
"A little paranoid today arent we, Ep," Solari said, amused at her friends antics. Eponin let the heavy tapestry slide from her sword. She turned to her friend and grimaced. "What Im about to say, Sol, cannot be heard outside this room. If Xena were to find out what we speak of here, we would all be slowly roasted over a fire, and that would be before she really got started." She let the words sink in. Solari turned to Chilapa and raised her eyebrows. Chilapa just shrugged.
"Okay, Ep, what is it you wanted to say?" the dark-skinned warrior asked. Amarice, the fourth warrior present, remained silent.
Getting close to her three most trusted friends Eponin whispered "Were going to put Gabrielle on the Throne in her own right. No longer will she have to suffer the crumbs of power Xena tosses her way."
"Are you crazy?" Solari whispered back. She looked to Chilapa for confirmation of her reaction to Eponins apparent madness. Chilapa merely looked thoughtful. "Go on," she said. Amarice, her face a mask of apparent indifference, remained her usual stoic self.
* * *
The Conqueror sat alone in her royal apartment and sighed. She had just left a heads of state meeting and once again it had been tedious beyond words. She rubbed her eyes in frustration. Darphus, the head of her main southern army, was his usual obsequious and oily self. Only her precious Amazon, Gabrielle, head of the elite guard, had livened it up by threatening to kill everyone who opposed the Conqueror. Which apparently included most of the people in the room. gods, what would she do without her queen, who made life so worth living?
She remembered one particularly raucous meeting a few months past. Alti, Xenas senior advisor at the time, had been throwing her weight around and had crossed paths with the Amazon Queen. Gabrielle hadnt said anything at the time, but anyone who knew what to look for shuddered at the fires that burned in those green eyes.
The next day, at a royal banquet, Gabrielle had made a toast to the Conqueror, to Greece and the Empire and its continued stability under Xenas leadership. Everyone raised their glasses and hailed the Conqueror. Gabrielle had slipped away from her position on the right of Xena and walked around the table. No one paid her much attention; she was always on the prowl. As she passed behind the seated Alti one of the Amazon guards passed her Queen a war hammer. Without saying a word, and still moving gracefully, the Amazon Queen swung the weapon and smashed it down into the back of Altis head. Two more blows reduced the Conquerors former chief advisor to a headless mess, slumped across the table. In the stunned silence that followed, Gabrielle nonchalantly handed the hammer back to her guard and returned to her chair.
Xena turned to look at the Queen. "Was that strictly necessary?"
"She was plotting against the throne," Gabrielle replied, flipping some fruit into her mouth as if nothing had happened. "These are good grapes," she added, spitting out a pip onto her plate.
Xena looked back around the table at the other diners, who were all now staring aghast. Xena shook her head and smiled. "Oh, my Amazon Queen, these meals would be so boring without you to liven them up," and started to laugh. Gabrielle soon joined in, both of them laughing uproariously.
The rest of the table could only stare at the two most powerful women in the known world. Nobody had liked Alti, and her sudden departure would certainly not be mourned, but even so, such a naked display of the ruthless wielding of power left them all cowed. Even Darphus had paled, obviously trying hard not to lose his dinner.
The ever-stoic Amazon guards removed the body without comment. Under Queen Gabrielles rule the Amazons had finally taken their true place as the ultimate fighting force in the world. They had led the shock troops that had smashed the mighty Roman legions and placed all of the Roman Empire under the direct control of Corinth. They held their heads high; they knew they were unassailable. The Conqueror might think she ruled the world, but secretly they knew better.
Xena stared out of the window sightlessly. The leadership of the Amazons was fast becoming a real problem. Alti had been tiresome and dangerous, but she had been an asset worth keeping. Her visions had foretold of many potential problems that Xena had been able to avoid or minimise. Her last vision had been the most puzzling and frustrating. Alti had warned her of the Queen, which was hardly a revelation, but more bizarrely had warned her to guard against herself. What had that meant, for Zeuss sake? Shed never had a chance to question Alti further, Gabrielle having executed her so spectacularly that evening. But then, she had to admit, it had been... pretty amusing.
Oh Gabrielle, Gabrielle, what are we to do about this mess? she pondered. 'Those warriors of hers worship the ground she walks on. They think they know who really rules around here, I can see it in their eyes. They think its only a matter of time, that I dont know. Fools! If it had been anyone else behaving in such a manner theyd be dead, or worse, by now.'
Xena closed her eyes and leaned her head back into the padded chair. Soon, my Queen, you and I are going to have to sort this out once and for all. A sense of sadness settled on the Conqueror.
* * *
Xena paced about the tavern liked a caged panther. Gabrielle knew her partner was on the edge of exploding. The warrior hated, above all things, not being in control, and Ares had set them on a path that left her feeling impotent.
"Xena, please sit and eat. Youll not do yourself any good, brooding like this."
Xena stopped her pacing and looked at the bard. "Damn it, Gabrielle, I feel so helpless. The more I think about this the worse it gets. Were strangers here, not even my own mother really knows me. All the people we think of as friends will be different, they wont know the real us. People we thought of as enemies might be friends, but we have no way of knowing. Argos gone, Eves gone, our whole life as we know it has gone. And there's nothing I can think of doing to put it right!"
"I know," the bard said quietly. She stood up and put a hand gently on the agitated warriors shoulder. They looked into each others eyes, and both saw the tears brimming there. Gabrielle leaned in and hugged Xena hard, crying on each other, both giving into the despair overwhelming them.
When Xena sensed that Gabrielle had finished she pulled back and wiped a hand across her own tear-streaked cheeks and performed the same action on her distraught friend.
"Gee, getting crucified, coming back from the dead, and having kids, sure can mess with your hormones," she said, smiling. Gabrielle laughed in spite of her pain.
"Yeah, it sure can," she agreed, sniffing loudly but grinning back to match the warrior's smile.
"Feeling better?" The bard nodded and sniffed again. Xena gave her a quick hug and stood upright, straightening her shoulders decisively. The no-nonsense warrior was back in control.
"We need to know whats happening if were to find a way out of this mess. And at the moment I only know one person who can help." She looked around the still empty barroom, her head tilting slightly to one side. "Aphrodite!" she called out loudly "Show yourself... now!"
A cloud of sparkles and light formed in front of them. "Ow, theres no need to shout," the goddess pouted. "Look, Xena honey, Im not at your beck and call yknow. Ive got problems, big problems of my own to attend to."
"Would you mind please telling us everything you know."
Gabrielle stepped close to the goddess. "Please, Aphrodite, were in your hands at the moment. Please help us." Xena smiled inwardly. That bard of mine could charm Zeus himself... if he was still alive, she reminded herself.
"He aint dead no more," the goddess spoke. Xena frowned, Damn the gods and their mind-reading tricks! She closed her eyes and breathed deeply a few times.
"Look, just start at the beginning, would you?"
"Okay, okay. Well, let's see, I was at home having this wonderful massage from this gorgeous--"
Xena interrupted and asked the goddess to stick to relevant details.
"Hey, chill, Warrior Babe, keep your leathers on, Im getting there, okay?" Xena sighed loudly in exasperation.
"How is Zeus not dead?" the bard asked.
"Easy, in this world there was no falling out between Xena and her murderous chums, so no meeting of groins with Hercules, which meant no fighting for the greater good, which meant that Xena squashed Callisto like a bug the first time they met, which meant no guardian angel Callisto, which meant no warrior mom and so my pop never felt the need to kill tall, dark, and deadly and her pup, and my big ol' noble bro didnt need to get all macho with the rib," she finished with a flourish of her arms and a broad smile. "See, it all makes perfect sense!"
"Do you know what in Tartarus shes babbling about?" Xena exclaimed gruffly to the bard.
"Sort of I think," Gabrielle replied uncomfortably, rubbing her temples and closing her eyes.
"Okay, so we know that none of the things that happened to us happened here to this worlds Xena. She now rules the world." Gabrielle caught the hardening of her partner's features as she scowled and curled her top lip in disdain. Gabrielle instinctively put her arm around the troubled warrior and rubbed her back gently, pleased to feel her relax under her hand.
"So, where is this worlds Xena now?"
"In her palace in Corinth, Id expect," the goddess shrugged.
"I thought you gods knew everything," the warrior said.
"Oh, honey, dont be silly. Just most things, thats all."
"Whats the story with this worlds Gabrielle?"
"Ah, see there you go, a perfect example," Aphrodite said with a big smile.
"A perfect example of what?" Xenas voice beginning to rise in exasperation.
The goddess shrugged "Thats one of the things I dont know." Xenas shoulders dropped and her head fell forward onto her chest, her fists clenching and unclenching at her side. She turned to the bard.
"You talk to her, I dont think I can stand much more of this." Xena walked to the bar and picked up a half empty bottle and drained its fiery contents in two great gulps. The bottle banged back down on the bar as the warrior wiped the back of her hand across her mouth.
"How come you dont know?" Gabrielle asked.
"Look, Ive been creeping around like a Bacchae with sunburn ever since this happened. It really wouldnt do to meet up with my other half, now would it?"
"Hephaestus?" said Gabrielle hesitantly.
"Duh Gabrielle, pay attention, will ya. I mean this time-line's Aphrodite, dummy!"
"Aphrodite?" the bard exclaimed, her eyebrows nearly touching the top of her head.
"Dont you get it? There are now two Ares, two of me, two Cupids, two annoying blondes from Poteidaia and the gods preserve us all, two of her!" she said, jerking her thumb at the warrior standing nonchalantly at the bar with another nearly empty bottle in her hand.
Gabrielle sighed inwardly at Xenas apparent answer to the situation, to get drunk. "Xena, is that wise?" she said softly. The warrior swung her piercing blue eyes on the bard, her brow deeply furrowed, the anger rippling up and down her muscular body. Xena stood motionless for a moment, inhaling deeply through her nose. "I guess not," with a low rumble. She placed the bottle carefully down on the bar and walked back to Gabrielles side.
"Exactly why are there two of everybody?" she asked, resigned to playing along with the infuriating goddess.
"Well, it all started when I got a call from Psyche "
* * *
Ares frowned. 'How was he going to creep up on his other half and remove him from the picture?' All this would be for nothing if he couldnt assume his proper place as the true God of War.
I wonder if I could get one of Kronoss ribs without anyone noticing? Nah, too risky. The Dagger of Helios, hmmm, thats a possibility he nodded to himself. I wonder where they keep the hinds blood, he mused.
Cupid, now that was easy! His grin widened, for when it came to low cunning, nobody did it better. First I had better get up to speed on whats been happening here before I go jumping in and say the wrong thing. It would not do to tip Zeus hand.' The ungrateful fool would never forgive him for meddling with time like this, even if it had saved his sorry hide.
I must go and observe my chosen, see if she can sense me like the other one. A momentary pang struck him. Gods, Ill never see my true Xena again ' The thought troubled him greatly, for reasons he couldnt begin to fathom. He closed his eyes and shook himself. Get a grip this Xena is how she was always meant to be! How can that be worse?'
He frowned again, but didn't really know why.
* * *
"C'mere," the Conqueror growled. The Amazon Queen laughed and sprinted across the room, leaping at the last moment into Xenas outstretched arms. They kissed and hugged, the Conqueror easily able to hold the smaller woman off the floor. Gabrielle grinned wickedly, biting her lover none too gently on the shoulder.
Xena ignored her own arousal and dropped the Amazon to the floor. "We must talk, my Queen."
Gabrielle recognised the tone immediately. Something serious was troubling the Conqueror. "What is it, my Lady, who or what dares to trouble you?"
Xena smiled down into the earnest face of her most devoted subject. "Im afraid the troops are getting restless."
The queen snorted "Hah! Darphus and his cronies will tremble at your feet, my Lady. My guards will see to that," she said emphatically.
Xena shook her head. "Theres no easy way to say this, my love, but the trouble is not with the army, but with..." she paused, knowing Gabrielle would not like what she was about to say, "your Amazons."
Gabrielle took a step back as if shed been slapped, a look of disbelief and pain on her face.
"It seems that some of your generals think I dont share enough power with you. They think you should sit on the throne in my place."
"Name them and they will be dead within the hour," Gabrielle spat out. The thought of her elite guard betraying Xena like this shocked her to the core.
"Its not that simple. I dont know how deep it goes, and some of the people involved are close friends. Though not to me, it now seems," Xena said with sadness tingeing her voice.
"Please tell me... I must know."
"If I tell you, will you promise not to do anything about it until I give the order?"
"I vowed to protect you, my Lady, with my life, and the lives of every Amazon. The thought that any of them could plot against you fills me with sorrow, and rage. But I will do as I am ordered." She knelt down on one knee at Xenas feet and bowed.
Xena shook her head and smiled. "Come on, my Queen, there will be no kneeling in our private quarters. We are equals here. If your generals could only see us here, they would know how much I depend on you. As far as Im concerned we rule jointly."
Xena frowned slightly for a moment. "You know, thats not such a bad idea."
"Perhaps we should make this official?"
"Make what official?"
"Are you deliberately being dense," the Conqueror asked, with a smirk.
"Maybe, my Lady," the Amazon queen replied, matching the smirk of her lover.
* * *
"So, let me get this straight. Cupid, your son, at Ares's suggestion, went back in time and stopped me from giving up my warlord ways?"
"Yep, that's right, Warrior Babe."
"And there's nothing you can do to put this right!" Xena fumed. Her tolerance of the goddess was never very high and at the moment it was close to non-existent.
"Look, Sweetie, I can't undo what's been done. It was the work of two other gods. How am I supposed to combat that?"
Xena glared at her, her scowl deepening.
"Hey, Bardie, tell this big hunk of trouble that she wouldn't even be here if it wasn't for me!" Aphrodite pouted and stalked off to stand next to Gabrielle, where she put a friendly arm around the surprised bard's shoulder.
"She's right you know, Xena," Gabrielle said, carefully extracting herself from the clinging goddess as diplomatically as possible.
"And that's supposed to make me feel better?" exploded Xena.
"Fine, next time I hear of a plan to do you down, I'll just leave you to it!"
"That fine with me!"
"Good, I'm glad!"
"Good, so am I!"
Xena and Aphrodite glared at each other, scowling and trying to be as intimidating as possible.
"This isn't helping any," the bard broke in gently. Xena turned to her soulmate and was about to say something, but stopped and thought better of it. Her shoulders slumped and she looked at the floor sheepishly.
"You're right, as ever." She paused. "I'm sorry Aphrodite. What do you suggest we do about this?"
The goddess's frown was immediately replaced with a beaming smile. "Well, first we find Hera."
"What!" exclaimed an surprised warrior.
"Why Hera? I thought we needed to find Cupid and find out where and when he went," asked an intrigued bard.
"There's a slight complication. It seems Ares knew about a curse Hera placed on my son once, when I sort of... borrowed one of her boyfriends. Cupid's been turned into a raving green, yucky monster thing. He can't even talk anymore, let alone tell us where he went. Ares has got him locked up in the Halls of War in one of his dungeons."
Xena groaned and sat down heavily on a chair shaking her head.
"But... why don't we go straight to Zeus and tell him everything?" asked Gabrielle.
"I hate to remind you, guys, but if we succeed and put things back the way they were, he dies again. I can't see him, or any of the other gods, wanting to assist in their own extinction."
The goddess started pacing, her right index finger tapping on her lips, concentrating on the problem, her left arm tucked securely under her breasts.
"You've got to send us back to stop Cupid," Xena said.
"Duh, and they say you've got brains as well as brawn." The goddess continued her pacing. Xena closed her eyes and exhaled. Gabrielle could tell Xena was finding it hard to keep her hands from attempting to throttle the condescending goddess.
"What's wrong with Xena's suggestion?"
The goddess stopped pacing and looked at the bard. "There's nothing wrong, apart from where, and more importantly when, would you have me send you?"
"Surely there can't be that many possibilities?"
"Oh really, and when was the last time you attended one of Clotho's interminably boring lectures on space-time anomalies, contradictions and paradoxes?"
Gabrielle was momentarily at a loss for words and turned to Xena for help.
"Hey, don't look at me, I'm not even sure she's speaking Greek," said the warrior grumpily.
Aphrodite smiled and brushed the back of her fingers affectionately down Gabrielle's cheek. "In simple terms, little one, without knowing precisely where and when, I'd be more than likely condemning you both to living out your lives pointlessly in the wrong place and in the wrong time, waiting for something that's not going to happen anytime soon. Looking for a needle in a haystack doesn't even come close, in terms of chances of success."
"Finding out the when shouldn't be too difficult. All we have to do keep going back for a few hours at a time in a big city and ask around. It should be pretty obvious if Xena the Warlord is still around," said Xena.
Aphrodite looked at the warrior for a moment. "Unfortunately, there's one other little problem I haven't mentioned yet. Too much time tripping will start to become obvious to one or more of the other gods. We're trying not to draw attention to ourselves, remember. One or two we could probably get away with, but not some systematic charting of history. So think again, Warrior Babe."
Xena threw up her hands in disgust and started pacing again.
"No, we've got to somehow pinpoint the exact time and place before we send either of you anywhere."
"So, all we've got to do is track down Ares or turn Cupid back into, er... Cupid, and ask them, or make them tell us, where and when?" the bard said, a sarcastic edge creeping into her voice.
"That's about the size of it. And that was what I was working on before Miss Happy over there kept interrupting me."
Gabrielle walked over to her partner and began massaging Xena's extremely tense shoulders.
"I'm gonna kill her, so help me, I'm gonna find me some hind's blood and I'm gonna--" Xena's angry whispers to the bard were cut short by Aphrodite from across the room.
"Don't forget my godly hearing, Princess," the goddess said with a withering sneer.
Gabrielle sighed to herself and rubbed her temples. It was going to be a long, long night.
* * *
The young Amazon crept silently through the dark passages that led directly to the Conqueror's private gardens. The place was deserted. She sighed; at least she was on time. It didn't pay to keep the Conqueror waiting. She sat down on one of the ornate metal benches that surrounded a central fountain.
Amarice jumped as the graceful form of the Conqueror slid into place next to her. No matter how often she did this to her, the Amazon couldn't begin to mask her surprise at the way the Warrior Princess could so easily avoid detection and seemingly appear out of thin air.
"I... I didn't see you, my Lady," she stuttered, instantly dropping to one knee and bowing her head.
"So I see. And I thought you Amazons prided yourselves on such things."
Amarice looked up into the smiling face of the Conqueror, uncertain at the jovial tones of her leader.
"We do, my Lady, but you... you are beyond the rest of us mortals."
Xena raised an eyebrow, threw her head back and laughed out loud. After a while she stopped laughing and pulled the astonished Amazon to her feet.
"Now is not the time for grovelling, Amarice. Just give me your report and get yourself to bed. I'm sure there's someone lucky waiting for you somewhere."
Still somewhat taken aback by Xena's uncharacteristically good mood she started into her report, hoping that what she had to say wouldn't dent the Conqueror's good mood too severely.
"There has been another development, my Lady. Eponin has contacted Ephiny and asked for a secret meeting to discuss the plot against you."
Xena's smile slowly faded and the poker face slipped back into place.
"When will this meeting take place, and who will be in attendance?"
"I'm not sure, my Lady, but I believe Chilapa, and Solari will accompany Eponin. There is talk of getting the northern Amazons involved, but they have their own problems, what with Cyane having to assert her authority over all the youngsters who want to challenge her leadership. She's not as young as she once was."
Xena raised an eyebrow and turned her impassive stare on the uncomfortable Amazon, who only now realised her mistake.
"I... I meant no disrespect, my Lady. I... I meant only that... well, Cyane is a capable Queen, but she's not you, my Lady... " she faded into an embarrassed silence.
"I know all about the comings and goings of Cyane and her tribe, you need not concern yourself with them. You need only worry about the Greek Amazons."
"Yes, my Lady," she said bowing.
"You're doing a great job, Amarice, under difficult circumstances. Keep up the good work," she said, lightly squeezing the young warrior on the shoulder, giving her a warm smile. Amarice felt light-headed with gratitude and relief. To be congratulated by the Conqueror made her chest swell with pride. She snapped to attention.
"Yes my Lady, thank you my Lady. I promise I won't let you down!" She saluted in the traditional Amazon fashion, her clenched fist smacked diagonally across her chest, standing rigidly to attention. Xena just smiled and nodded.
As soon as the Amazon had hurried away the smile dropped from her face and she shook her head. Yet another young and impressionable soldier she'd just sweet-talked into willingly giving up her life if required. Manipulating others had become so ingrained it was second nature to her now. She knew it was necessary, but deep down something was gnawing at her soul. Ruling was a grubby business at times. In fact most of the time, she corrected herself.
Still, it had its compensations, she thought, the image of a certain very boisterous Amazon Queen coming to mind. Whistling contentedly, the Conqueror slipped effortlessly back into the shadows.
* * *
"So, how in Tartarus are we going to get Hera to lift an ancient curse?" asked Xena.
"That's a very good question, and one I don't have a clue on," said the frowning goddess.
"Where's this world's Cupid at the moment?"
Aphrodite looked at the bard. "Does it matter?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I guess not."
"Can you take us to see our Cupid?" asked Xena.
"Sure," the goddess said, clicking her fingers and disappearing.
Xena turned to Gabrielle and raised her arms questioningly. "Did she forget something?"
Gabrielle could only shake her head and shrug back. She was about to speak when the goddess returned.
"Okay, all's clear," and clicked her fingers again. This time all three of them disappeared. Cyrene stared for a long time at the now empty room.
"No one'll ever believe me," she muttered to herself darkly.
* * *
Ephiny relaxed in the royal bath. It was one of the few luxuries she had allowed to be brought into the Amazon capital, all the way from Rome. Not for them the large marble palaces and decadent lifestyle of the Conqueror. Artemis, their patron goddess, had been quite specific about retaining the austere, sparsely furnished wooden huts.
She had explained that it was one of the things that gave the Amazons their edge. That it was necessary to regularly rotate the elite guard sent to protect the Queen in Corinth. It didn't do to have them grow soft and complacent. They were the best of the best, and Artemis intended to keep them that way.
The regent closed her eyes and relaxed in the steaming water. The plans were proceeding well. She jumped slightly as an uncomfortable tingling sensation enveloped her body.
"I wish you'd use doors like everyone else," Ephiny said, grimacing as she recognised the hand casually swirling the water at the foot of the bath.
"Have you no sense of humour, mortal?"
"Not when I'm trying to have a relaxing bath."
Artemis smiled at the frowning face of her favourite Amazon. She reached down and mischievously stroked the bottom of Ephiny's foot, making the regent jump. Ephiny shuddered, electric tingles racing through her body from the goddess's touch. Artemis relented and pulled her hand away.
"Chilapa sends good news, I trust?"
"Yes, my goddess. They think the Conqueror is the target, not the Queen."
"Gabrielle will learn that worshipping a mortal over me will be her biggest and last mistake. I do not tolerate lack of loyalty in my chosen. Remember that, regent, or should that be 'Queen'?"
"I'll not abandon you, my goddess. But what of the Conqueror? She won't take kindly to you interfering with her second in command."
"You leave Xena to us. My brother wants to make her an offer she can't refuse."
* * *
The two mortal women and the Goddess of Love looked through the bars at the hideous monster rampaging about its cell, smashing impotently at the bars in frustration, howling in animal rage.
"No offence, Aph', but that is one ugly monster," said the bard.
"None taken," the goddess replied, a look of sad resignation on her face.
"You sure these bars can hold him?" asked the ever-practical warrior.
"Oh sure, they're some of Hephie's."
"Talking of which, are you two, or at least your other you, are you still married to Hephaestus in this world?" asked the bard.
Aphrodite's shoulders slumped and she sighed. "No, it seems I fell for my brother's charms in this world."
"What?" the two mortal women exclaimed.
The goddess shrugged. "Hey, we're gods, it happens. Ares is this Cupid's father. It's no big deal," she said defensively.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other and shrugged. "Gods, eh?" Xena said.
"So what's with this curse?"
"Well, in a nut-shell, if Cupid ever feels unrequited love for, or jealousy of, a mortal woman, he turns into the monster. Luckily it wears off after an hour or so. The kicker is, should it happen a third time it stays put; no wearing off. Goodbye handsome, hello green slimy thing forever."
"So how did Ares make him have unrequited love for a mortal three times?"
"Oh, it already happened twice before. When we get back, you'll have to ask Herc about it, he loves swapping stories with his favourite bard."
"Really, I'm his favourite bard?" Gabrielle's face lit up with a big smile.
"Hey, that's pretty neat, don't ya think, Xena?"
"Yeah, just wonderful. Now can we get back to the problem, please?"
Gabrielle made a face at Xena, but grudgingly turned back to Aphrodite.
"I'm not sure. Last time it was about Psyche, so I'm guessing maybe he told him some lies about what she'd been up to in this timeline. Probably bragged about how he'd looked after her in Cupid's absence. I mean, I love Cupie like a mother, but really I can't imagine it was too hard for Ares to trick him in to almost anything. Pretty he may be, but let's face it, sometimes he flies too close to Apollo's chariot."
"What's she talking about?" Gabrielle whispered to Xena.
"So now we've got to somehow get Hera to lift an old curse she's probably long forgotten about?"
"I could be wrong, but I don't think that's going to be easy."
The goddess and the bard both looked at the warrior.
* * *
Ares watched the northern barbarians squabble over a felled deer. He sighed at their lack of training and discipline. How were they ever going to organise enough to truly mount a worthy opposition to Xena's crack troops, let alone those damned Amazons? A regiment of either of them would crush these fools without breaking a sweat. Where was the challenge, where was the excitement?
Guiding the young Xena to world domination had been fun and adventurous on a grand scale. But now... now there was no more enemies left to fight. He could weep at the irony of it all.
He turned away from the puny rabble in disgust, intending to return to Olympus. There was little point in going to Corinth; Xena had long since stopped listening to him. Even the polite indifference had ceased, to be replaced by open hostility at his presence. 'Outlived my usefulness,' he thought grumpily to himself.
"I'll second that, brother," a familiar voice spoke from behind. He whirled around in confusion. No mortal could see him, let alone creep up on him like this. The shock of seeing his mirror image was short lived as he felt an intense pain sear through his chest. Stunned, he looked down with uncomprehending eyes at the hilt of the dagger of Helios. The hilt was all that was visible, the blade buried deep inside him.
He looked up at his killer and tried to speak, but already his life force was tearing away from his body and disappearing skyward in a blue streak of raw energy.
Ares dropped to his knees, clutching desperately at the legs of the person still holding the knife. As their eyes met he recognised his own greed and cunning staring back at him. His eyes rolled back and he slumped to the ground lifeless. Some flashes of lightning streaked across the sky, accompanied by a few ground-rumbling crashes of thunder. The God of War was dead.
Ares looked down at the body. "Sweet dreams, handsome. Oh, I forgot, you won't be dreaming 'cos you're dead. Tough break." He retrieved the dagger from the corpse, giving it a sharp kick to confirm that it was still indeed dead. Satisfied that the departed god wasn't coming back, Ares waved his hand over the body. A vivid blue flame swept up and down the corpse. Within moments the former God of War was reduced to nothing more than dust and glowing sparks that gently blew away on the wind.
"Dust to dust, my friend." The new God of War grinned, winking out in a haze of blue light.
* * *
"So, what scares Hera?" asked the bard of no one in particular.
"Nothing!" scoffed Aphrodite.
"Bull, everyone's got something they're afraid of," said Xena, off-handedly, apparently speaking from experience.
Gabrielle turned to the warrior. "Oh yeah, so what's yours?"
Xena smiled briefly. "Okay, so maybe not everyone."
Gabrielle turned to Aphrodite. "There must be something she doesn't care for."
The goddess thought about it for a while, her faced pinched in concentration.
"It hurts to think that hard," Xena whispered to Gabrielle, eliciting a giggle that the bard skilfully turned into a cough, not wishing to offend the goddess.
"You keep forgetting my godly hearing, Warrior Babe. Remember what I can do if I get really mad."
"Yeah, what you're gonna do, turn me into a lovesick fool?"
"Not quite," said Aphrodite with a wicked grin. She snapped her fingers and Xena transformed into an old, angry-looking woman. Gabrielle gasped.
"Aphrodite, she was only kidding, for Gaea's sake. Turn her back immediately!"
"Uh uh, little one, meet Atropos, the inevitable."
"That's right, Sweetie, the only thing that scares old cow face is the Fates." With that she snapped her fingers at Gabrielle, who immediately transformed into a young, sullen-looking girl of about ten years. Satisfied, she snapped her fingers again and changed herself into the Fate known as Lachesis, the apportioner.
"Why do I have to be the old hag?" exclaimed an aggrieved warrior.
"She kills people for a living, you're a natural for the part."
Gabrielle giggled again, only this time she sounded like the ten-year-old girl she had become.
"Oh, that's right, laugh it up, shorty."
Gabrielle stopped laughing and frowned. "Why do I get to be the kid?" she said indignantly.
"Because you're the right height for the job," both goddess and warrior said in unison, slapping each other's palms together in the air in a show of mutual victory. The bard harrumphed and scowled some more.
"Okay, so we look like the Fates, now what? We can't just stroll up to Hera and demand she takes a long-forgotten curse of a minor deity for no good reason, she'll immediately be suspicious."
"Well duh! I've done my part, now it's up to you two, the dynamic duo, to pull your weight in this enterprise."
"One of these days, Aphrodite, one of these days... " Xena let the unspoken remainder of the threat trail away as Gabrielle tugged on her sleeve, demanding silence.
"We have to present her with a list of demands, one of which is Cupid's curse. Then we can haggle and lose a few if necessary, as long as one of them isn't Cupid's."
"Yeah, so what are our demands, and what have we got to bargain with?"
"Must you be so... so practical all the time?"
Xena grinned. "It's what I do, you should know that by now."
"Yeah, don't I know it."
"And what does that mean, exactly?"
Before Gabrielle could reply Aphrodite moved between them.
"Ladies, we don't have time for this now. You, Warrior Babe, go over there and sharpen your scissors, or something. While you, you little brat, you think of a list, and make it good. I'll be back in a while and I want us ready to rumble." The goddess clicked her fingers and disappeared in a shower of sparkles.
The warrior and the bard starred at each other for a moment.
"Do you think she does that deliberately?"
"What, tries to be a annoying as possible?" said a disgruntled warrior.
"No, the sparkly thing when she leaves."
"Probably, just to be annoying for the maximum amount of time possible."
"I heard that!" a ghostly voice echoed around the room.
Xena shook her head and sighed. "See what I mean?"
"And that," said the echoey voice, more faintly this time.
* * *
Ephiny stepped outside the royal hut and motioned for one of the guards to come close.
"I'm expecting visitors soon and we are to have absolute privacy. I don't care if Zeus himself shows up, nobody gets past you, okay?" The guard saluted and returned to her post.
The Regent knelt in front of the small statue of Artemis that graced the middle of the main living space of the royal apartments. "Goddess Artemis, I pray to you to appear before me."
A blinding, but mercifully short, burst of light heralded the arrival of the moon goddess.
"Arise, Regent. I'll not have you kneeling for Ares when he gets here." The goddess paused and looked around. "It is a great pity that we need Ares to subdue the Conqueror, Ephiny. Would that there were another way."
"I think he's handsome," the Amazon spoke, before realising quite what she had said. The goddess snorted. "That's as maybe, but his brains are in his britches. Like all men, he can be easily manipulated."
Ephiny smiled. "They have their uses, my goddess."
"Their only job in life is to help produce female babies, and the gods know they only get that right half the time!" Ephiny smiled again, but said nothing. It didn't pay to argue with a god, especially one with a short temper.
Satisfied that they were alone and secure, Artemis called for the God of War.
"Ares, get your sorry butt down here!"
"What... what now?" the God of War said brusquely, materialising. He was not used to being summoned so off-handedly.
"We were supposed to meet here to discuss the next phase of the plan, or don't you remember?"
Ares, being new to the job, tried to act nonchalantly. He noted the presence of the Amazon regent.
"Plan, ah yes, the plan." he said, casually walking around the room, apparently interested in all the furnishings. When he finally got close to Artemis he leant close to her ear and whispered. "Remind me about the plan again, sis, I've had a lot on my mind recently."
Artemis sighed heavily and looked at Ephiny, who was studiously looking at the floor, trying not to laugh.
"What did I tell you, Ephiny, totally unreliable."
* * *
Eponin walked the battlements, her eyes missing nothing as she scanned the area surrounding the palace. It was past midnight and the moonless sky did nothing to help, but her night vision was extremely acute. So good, in fact, it almost matched the Conqueror's herself. Though, if Eponin were honest with herself, secretly she was convinced there was some Olympian blood flowing in the Conqueror's veins, which gave her an unfair advantage over ordinary mortals. So it was easy to convince herself that she was the best there was, if you didn't count the pesky gods, of course.
She easily detected the feather-light footsteps of the person attempting to creep up on her, long before they were in striking range.
"My Queen," she said casually, without turning around.
"One day, Ep, I'll get close enough to make you jump," said Gabrielle.
"I don't doubt it, Gabs... one day," the Amazon warrior said, their close friendship ruling out the need for formality.
"So, have you stirred the pot well?"
"Yes, I think the troops are finally succumbing to my charms."
"How could they resist?"
"How indeed, my Queen," Eponin said with a smile.
Neither spoke for while, both of them apparently lost in their own thoughts.
"Xena suspects something, you know," said Gabrielle, breaking the silence.
"The Conqueror may be many things, but stupid is definitely not one of them."
"Of course not, she is Xena," the queen said, knowing that was explanation enough.
"It is a dangerous game we play, Gabrielle. If the Conqueror should find out that we conspire to uncover conspirators amongst the Amazons without her knowledge and approval, she may take it badly and have all our hides."
"Damn it, Ep, this is an Amazon problem, we don't need outsiders telling us our business!"
"I think Xena would say all things are hers, and act accordingly."
Gabrielle nodded in confirmation. "She's asked me to marry her."
Eponin raised an eyebrow at this sudden change of direction in the conversation.
"Congratulations, it's about time."
"Yes... I guess."
"You don't seem convinced."
"Oh, I am, I am. It's just with all this nonsense with Cyane, and Ephiny, at the moment, now is maybe not the right time. I had hoped to have all the Amazon infighting settled before it came to this."
"What does Xena think?"
"You know Xena, if I go to her with Amazon troubles she'll simply settle it in the quickest way she knows how."
"Kill 'em all?"
"Perhaps you underestimate her?"
"Perhaps. She may have mellowed slightly over the last couple of years, but underneath, the Destroyer of Nations still lurks, waiting for her chance to come out to play."
"Doesn't it worry you, living with a walking volcano just waiting to erupt?"
"I think we're pretty well matched, don't you?"
"Yeah, I guess. Not so much Yin and Yang, more Yang and Yang."
The queen regarded the sardonic smile of her warrior. "You've been reading too much of Ming Tien's mother's book of wisdom, Ep, it's doing you no good."
The warrior broke out into a broad grin, bringing her hands together and giving a formal oriental bow. "As an ancient philosopher once said... "
"Cut the centaur-crap, Ep, we ain't got time." the queen broke in brusquely. "Now, who have we managed to shake out of the woodwork?"
* * *
"Are you sure this is where Hera will be?" an agitated bard asked, looking up at the daunting facade of the temple standing proudly in the centre of Argos. The Goddess of Love had returned from her travels and whisked the three of them to the small city in the Peleponnesus. Standing in the dead of night looking up at the imposing building was not exactly conducive to great feelings of relaxation and well being. Added to that, the bard was still feeling slightly disorientated from the effects of instant travel.
"Yeah, she's here all right. This is her main temple." replied the goddess. "Now remember, we're The Fates, afraid of no one, god or mortal. And we speak funny."
"Funny?" asked the warrior, doing her best to raise an ancient eyebrow.
"Yeah, you know, one of us starts a sentence and the other two join in and finish it off."
"Oh, that kind of funny. So how in hell do we do that?" asked a perplexed bard.
"Hell?" asked a puzzled goddess. "Where's that?"
"You don't wanna go there."
"So how do we do the speaking thing?" the warrior asked.
"Practice, I guess."
"Right... How about... 'Hera, Queen of the Gods...'" Aphrodite trailed into silence.
"What?" shrugged the warrior.
"You're supposed to carry on the sentence I started!"
"Well, how in Tartarus am I supposed to know what you were going to say next?"
The goddess scowled and stamped her foot. "This is what I get for working with amateurs."
"Hey, we didn't ask for any of this you know!"
Gabrielle quickly jumped in between them, which in her present guise wasn't difficult, as she was only three feet tall. "Look, it's simple, all we have to do is agree on a set number of sentences and practice those ones. If we're clever we can think up something suitable to cover any eventuality."
The warrior and the goddess stared at each other for a moment more but relented and agreed to Gabrielle's plan.
A half-hour later they were confident they could pull it off, Gabrielle having made up some all-purpose sentences that sounded important but didn't actually say a lot.
It was agreed that Aphrodite would take the lead with the other two just trying to look as intimidating as possible. Not that any of them could really imagine intimidating Hera over-much.
"Before we go in, Aphrodite, I suggest you refrain from your own brand of 'funny' speak, it's a dead give-away."
"Like I speak funny," the goddess snorted.
"And you might want to go easy on the sparkles, that's a bit of a trademark too."
"Alright already! Quit it you two, will ya, you're making me nervous."
"Okay, Aph', don't get your nightie in a twist, we're only trying to make sure all goes according to plan," the bard soothed the ruffled goddess.
Aphrodite pouted for a moment but smiled. "I know, little one, and I appreciate it... from you," she said pointedly, glaring at the warrior, who just curled her lips in response.
With a wave of the goddess's hand they materialised in front of the main altar of the temple. Several priests and acolytes gasped and hurried out of the way. A cross goddess was one thing, but the three Fates were simply not to be messed with under any circumstances.
"...your noble presence."
A swirling mass of green light erupted in front of the altar. "Don't patronise me, ladies, just tell me what you want and go back to your spinning."
If Aphrodite was taken aback by Hera's antagonism towards them she didn't show it.
"...wish." They rattled off, as if it was an entirely natural way to communicate.
Hera began to sit down, a large padded throne appearing beneath her. As she settled into it her piercing eyes lanced into the three women before her, but they didn't flinch from the searing gaze.
"You have... "
"...trifled in many..."
"...lives, both mortal and god."
"And it has caused us..."
"...a great deal of..."
The Queen of the God's face formed a contemptuous sneer. "What of it, I am the queen of the universe, I do as I please and will brook no interference from anyone, including you three."
As they had discussed and expected, Hera's opening tactic would be aggressive and bullying. They stood passively, ignoring the queen's outburst. The silence stretched out as both sides sought to gain psychological dominance.
Eventually Hera looked away scowling. "All right, what is it you want exactly? And be quick, my time is precious!"
"And none that..."
"...will cause you..."
"Then let us get to it, I have better things to be doing."
* * *
Aphrodite strode through the swirling mists of the great hallway of Olympus towards the main hall. The huge ornately carved doors swooped open on her arrival and silently shut behind her as she entered the room.
Zeus looked up from throne and lowered the scroll he was reading. His heart sank seeing the angry scowl on his daughter's face.
'What now?' he thought despairingly. 'Don't tell me, let me guess, Ares has been being a bad boy again and upsetting some intricate plan or other'.
"Ah, daughter, lovely to see you. What brings you to our presence," he said, smiling.
"Daddy, there's something going on, I just know it. I don't know how, but I'm sure Ares is behind it all."
'Ares, now there's a surprise.'
"What's he done now, my child?"
"That's just it, I don't know... but I can feel it, something's not right."
"I did warn you that marrying your half-brother would have its complications. How is Cupid, by the way?"
"Oh, don't talk to me about Cupid. He's suffering the same old problem, he's gone and fallen for a mortal woman again."
"Who is it this time?"
Aphrodite frowned. "You don't wanna know, papa."
"Why is it that I get a deep sense of foreboding?" But the words were tempered with a kindly smile.
"He's only got the hots for Xena's little Amazon bitch, that psycho, Gabrielle."
Zeus' smile dropped immediately. He closed his eyes and sighed. Of all the mortals why did his grandson have to get mixed up with one of the leading lights of Murder Incorporated? Whilst, the Conqueror and the Queen made sure the public chariots ran on time, and the city streets certainly had a lot less crime than before, it was a high price to pay. Civil liberties were at an all-time low. The Conqueror's government ruled with an unrelenting iron fist.
And with all the factions jockeying for position to have a stab at the Conqueror herself, and most of them being goaded by one of his children, yes, he was only too aware of the forbidden manipulation all his offspring were partaking in; it was all a recipe for utter disaster and chaos.
"We need a hero to sort all this out," he grumbled to himself.
"What about your son, Hercules?"
"I've tried, believe me, I've tried. All he does all day is loaf about in that... that gymnasium, as he calls it, and lifts heavy weights all day. Total waste of his time, if you ask me."
"Well, he is kinda cute, daddy."
"If you say so, my dear. Anyway, we've more important things to worry about. We have to try and bring that son of yours to his senses. And I want to see Ares, Athena, and Artemis before me, here, at noon tomorrow!"
"Athena?" the goddess said, surprised. "What's Miss Prissy been up to?"
"Oh, she's taken one of those Amazons, probably has the poor woman playing house maid, I shouldn't wonder. After that, she sneaks off and takes her place, stirring up trouble."
"Really, which one'd she take?"
"I think the warrior's name is Solari, but it hardly matters."
"Cool, who'da thought Ath' would'a had it in her?"
Zeus shuddered at his daughter's slipshod Greek. "The point is, my darling daughter, all of them are meddling where they don't belong, and I will not have it!"
"Ooh, I love it when you talk tough, daddy!" said Aphrodite, swinging a left and right hook for emphasis.
Not for the first time did Zeus seriously ponder if the pleasures of the flesh were truly worth the long-term consequences.
* * *
Solari sat under a tree, puzzling over her predicament. It was glorious sunny day, and she felt completely at ease, yet something wasn't quite right, but try as she might, she couldn't quite put her finger on what was troubling her.
She supposed she'd been here some time, but again, she couldn't quite remember how long. Frowning, she idly picked at some grass and watched it lazily drift away on the cool summer breeze that pleasingly took the edge off the heat of the day.
Eventually she got up and went for a walk. She strolled amiably through the meadow plants, taking joy in the butterflies that fluttered from blossom to blossom. As she walked over the gently curving mound of the small rise that surrounded the meadow she saw another tree in the distance. She stopped to look back at the tree she'd just been sitting under. Yep, there was no doubt about it, it was the same tree. She frowned again, knowing that the puzzle should disturb her, but curiously it didn't.
Sighing, she ambled to the second tree and sat down in its shadow, on a conveniently placed log. She picked a flower and put it to her nose, inhaling its sweet fragrance, and smiled.
"Hello, what's an Amazon warrior doing in my aunt's palace, might I ask?"
The voice jolted her from her reveries. She looked up into the handsome face of a young man who seemed to posses a pair of wings. Solari blinked and shook her head as the peaceful sanctuary of the meadow melted from view, to be replaced by the austere walls of a sparsely furnished castle.
Astonishment quickly gave way to fear, her warrior's instincts taking over. Leaping up from the deeply padded armchair she had been sitting in, Solari drew her sword and pointed it threateningly at the man looking at her.
"Who are you, and where is this place?" she demanded.
Cupid took a step back. "Whoa, little lady, hold on there. I mean you no harm," he said, holding up his hands in mock surrender.
"Are you C... Cupid?"
"In the flesh, little girl!" he said grinning.
"It's been many years since anyone called me 'little girl', and why have you brought me here?" she said testily, thrusting her sword for emphasis.
"Relax, now put that down before you cut yourself," he said waving his hand. Solari's sword was pulled from her grip and shot between them, landing perfectly in his outstretched hand. He casually put the sword down on a nearby table and started to walk towards the shocked warrior.
"Now, first, I didn't bring you anywhere, you were already here when I came in. My best guess is that my Aunt Athena brought you here, and by the looks of things, put you in some sort of trance. And second, forget all that stuff, much more important, do you know a feisty little blonde by the name of Gabrielle. I believe she's one of your queens, or something?"
Solari took a step back, trying to maintain some distance between herself and the advancing god. "I... I might do. What do you want with her?"
"Um... " he coughed and cleared his throat. "Do you think you could introduce me?" he said, an unmistakable pleading in his voice.
* * *
"Boy, she was a tough sell!" Aphrodite said, as the three of them stared into the cell in the Halls of War, waiting for Cupid to change back from being a monster.
"Is there any reason to keep us all looking like the Fates?" asked a sullen warrior. She'd had enough of playing games with gods, and she'd especially had enough of being old and wrinkly.
"Nah, I guess not," said the goddess, waving her arm. A shower of sparkles later the three were back to normal.
"Thank the gods I'm back to my full height," sighed a relieved bard.
"Really, I didn't notice much difference."
"Don't push me, Xena, I'm about ready to explode."
Xena was about to respond when Aphrodite shrieked and grasped the bars.
"Cupie, you're back!"
"C'mere, my baby," the goddess said, stretching her arms through the bars.
"Mom! There are mortals present."
"Oh, don't mind them, they've seen it all before."
The embarrassed god mutely acknowledged Xena and Gabrielle with a short nod in their direction. Aphrodite clicked her fingers, gasping as nothing happened. She looked down at her hands in surprise.
"I can't beam you out of there. Ares must've put some form of blocking spell on it."
"Can't you go in there and bring him back out?" asked the bard.
"Good thinking, Sweetie," the goddess said, sweeping her arm in an elaborate arc. Aphrodite shimmered and became transparent for a moment. She materialised again and stamped her foot. "Damn, it works both ways, I can't get through. He's thought of everything, the son of a--"
"I guess Ares made quite a fool out of me, huh?" Cupid said, interrupting his mother.
"Whatever, you're back now, that's all that matters."
"I don't recognise this place. Where am I?"
"This is Ares's Halls of War, you're his prisoner. It's kinda complicated."
"Cupid, you've got to tell me where and when Ares sent you," said Xena.
"I'm not telling you anything. Ares told me this would bring Zeus back and put an end to the twilight. You're my sworn enemy!"
"Duh, Cupie darling, look around you. Does Ares look like he's your friend? You can't trust anything he says." The god looked around him and frowned petulantly.
"I don't care, she's going to be the end of all of us," he said, pointing at Xena.
"No, no I'm not. I don't care about any superstitious nonsense about my daughter bringing down the gods. It's ridiculous, the whole thing. You leave us alone, and we'll leave you alone."
"There, you can't say fairer than that, now can you," Aphrodite said, with a big reassuring smile.
"Look mom, just get me out of here, okay, then we'll discuss it."
"I can't, honey, this is Hephie's work, nothing I've got will break through it. There isn't even a keyhole to try and pick."
Xena ran her fingers along the shiny metal of the bars. "This metal look familiar to you?" she asked Gabrielle.
"Could be the same stuff Ares gave to that wannabe warlord who caused all the trouble."
"We need a saw or file made of the same material."
"Where do we get that from?"
"Hephaestus' workshop, I guess."
"This is turning into one of the epic quest things isn't it?" said a grinning, and obviously excited bard.
"Oh, goody," the less than enthusiastic warrior replied.
* * *
"Are you insane? Killing Blondie will not get Xena to play lapdog. Believe me, I've tried, she just doesn't work that way," said the God of War.
"And when was that exactly?"
Ares looked at his sister, who had suspicion written all over her face. "Doesn't matter, just trust me on this one, okay. And since when did you want to do for your chosen, anyway?"
"Terreis was my chosen, Gabrielle was an accident, as well you know!"
"Whad'ya mean I should know, why should I be bothered with keeping up with your stupid Amazons? This whole thing is just dumb!"
"It's a bit late to be backing out now," the moon goddess hissed.
"I'm not backing out, just... reviewing our plans. And at the moment, they suck. I know Xena. If we kill her little friend she'll either kill herself, or kill everyone else, and I do mean everyone, and then kill herself!"
"Oh really, so what do you suggest we do instead?"
"We've got to be more subtle, more cunning."
"That doesn't sound like you at all!"
"Gee, and I thought Callisto was a pain."
"Excuse me, I hate to interrupt this family get together, but could we get back on track here, please." said Ephiny. The two Olympians glared at the regent for interrupting their argument.
"She's right, this is getting us nowhere," the goddess acknowledged. "So, what do we do about the Queen and the Conqueror?"
The god snickered. "We've got to drive a wedge between them, make them hate each other of their own accord."
"How?" both the goddess and the regent asked together.
"Leave that to me. I think I know how to get them at each other's throats."
"You've got twenty-four hours, then it's back to plan Alpha, we move against the queen!" the Moon goddess spat decisively before she exploded in a flash of bright white light and disappeared.
"I don't know how you put up with so many 'sisters'," the god said sincerely to Ephiny, before he too disappeared in an eerie blue glow.
* * *
The Conqueror sat at her desk carefully drafting an important letter to one of her most trusted field generals. It was to Marmax in the north, one of her original sparring partners, now risen through the ranks, not by Xena's sponsorship, but by his own hard work and military skill. The daily reports she had been getting of the mounting unrest in the northern Amazons was of great concern. The last thing she needed at the moment was for a band of young upstarts to mess with the smooth running of her elite shock troops.
Under Cyane's rule they had proved their loyalty time and again with their ruthless campaigns across the steppes and into northern Chin. It didn't do to have a part of your main battle spearhead turn inward on itself or worse, break away and proclaim independence.
Xena didn't like to appear to be meddling too closely in Amazon affairs, all the while they didn't spill over into affecting the Empire. And she knew Gabrielle would take it very seriously if Xena's tactics went wrong. Gabrielle was fiercely supportive of the Amazon's independence in the day-to-day running of their nations. But Xena also knew that Gabrielle was too close to see the overall picture, and that what was right for the Empire and what was right for the Amazon nations didn't always coincide. Gabrielle would take the Amazon side of things every time.
She also knew she should discuss this with Gabrielle, to avoid any misunderstandings. But time was pressing, and her own tribe getting rebellious, if her spy Amarice was to be believed, all of Gabrielle's focus was needed here to keep her own house in order.
She wrote that she wished Marmax to contact Cyane and the young shamaness, Otere, the leader of the hotheads, and request them both to come to Corinth for a meeting about the upcoming campaign they would soon have to launch to subdue the barbarians in the north of Britannia. It was a pretence, of course. She really wanted to assess Otere and see if she would make a worthy successor to Queen Cyane, who was now getting to the age when she would either be forcibly overthrown, as was the traditional Amazon way, or else step down and retire from the game. Xena would hate to see Cyane go, after all they'd been through together, but the Amazons really were a law unto themselves and any overt interference on her part would not be welcome.
Xena sealed the scroll with her royal seal and summoned a messenger. She instructed him in her most no-nonsense manner, that he was not to discuss this with anyone and was to make his way immediately to the northern army's main headquarters. He bowed and left, thankful to be away from the Conqueror.
Xena wondered if she had made a mistake in not bringing Gabrielle in on her plans. She considered all the possible outcomes of her actions and decided it was an acceptable risk. She could always bring Gabrielle in on the matter later on, when things were more settled in her own tribe.
* * *
The goddess, the warrior, and the bard peeked over the stone outcrop they were hiding behind and watched the smith god pound away on a piece of armour with a great hammer. Sparks flew from each mighty blow, illuminating the high cave walls with a glittering light show that reminded Xena of some of the firework displays she'd witnessed on their last trip to Chin.
She looked across at Gabrielle, who was smiling gleefully, her face beaming with simple pleasure at the awesome spectacle going on below them.
"Now what?" whispered Xena, though with the amount of noise coming from the workshop below it was doubtful anyone would hear her, but one could never be too careful when it came to dealing with gods.
Aphrodite shrugged. "He can keep up that pounding for hours, if not days," she smiled wistfully. Xena rolled her eyes and the bard giggled.
"Never mind," the exasperated warrior said. "We need a diversion. You think you can handle that?"
"Sure, I reckon this Hephie must have feelings for me too. But then, thinking about it, doesn't everyone?" she said, holding out her hands and grinning.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever."
"Well, most sane people do. Those that don't their kicks from punching people in the face!"
"Shouldn't that be getting their punches from kicking people in the face?" the bard chipped in, smirking.
"Very droll, now can we get the show on the road please," Xena said witheringly, casting one of her piercing stares at the bard.
"Won't work on me, Warrior Babe!" Gabrielle said with casual indifference.
Xena ran her fingers through her hair and rubbed her face. The sooner they got out of this world the better, and it wouldn't come soon enough. She was worried that Gabrielle seemed to be treating it like one big happy adventure, just fodder for one of her scrolls.
She turned to look at Aphrodite who was grinning at the interplay between them. "Why are you still here?" she hissed at the goddess. Aphrodite huffed in disdain.
"Sit back and watch a pro in action, girls," she said, disappearing in a golden shower.
"Yeah, ya got that right!" Xena muttered.
Aphrodite appeared down below, sitting seductively across Hephaestus' large ornate throne. The smith god immediately stopped what he was doing and put down his hammer. He walked towards the goddess, wiping the sweat from his brow, a broad smile lighting up his face.
"What are they saying?" whispered Gabrielle.
"I can't hear from up here, they're too far away."
"Well, that's a first," grinned the bard.
"Don't start with me, Amazon."
"Yeah, else what?" Gabrielle said, nudging Xena with her elbow.
"Else, it'll get ugly," Xena replied, nudging the bard back, a bit more firmly than she intended. Gabrielle waved her arms, fighting to regain her balance. Xena reached out and grabbed the flailing bard, wrapping her hand around Gabrielle's mouth to suppress a squeal, as she teetered on the edge of the outcrop overlooking the cavern.
Xena managed to pull Gabrielle back, but in so doing dislodged a few loose stones from the edge. They rattled lightly down the side of the steep cave wall.
"What was that?" the smith god spun round looking for the source of the noise.
Aphrodite lurched up and grabbed Hephaestus, pulling him into a passionate kiss, her eyes scowling over his shoulder in rebuke at Xena and Gabrielle for nearly ruining everything.
Xena held her hand up sheepishly to the goddess, acknowledging their mistake and apologising through body language before she melted back into the shadow, pulling a worried bard with her.
A short while later Xena's curiosity got the better of her and she peeked over the edge again to see what was happening below.
"Whoa, so that's what it's like when two gods go at it," she whispered. Gabrielle was immediately beside her, looking down at the two Olympians.
"By the gods," was all she said.
Xena turned her back on the show and slid down the wall to a sitting position. Gabrielle soon joined her.
"What did she say, hours, sometimes days?"
"Yeah, I think so."
Xena groaned and dropped her head onto her raised knees.
* * *
General Marmax opened the urgent scroll, carefully breaking the Conqueror's seal. He read the curt message. Frowning, he shook his head and reread it. To say the general was astonished would be a gross understatement. Over the years the Conqueror had done some things that seemed strange at first, but which later proved to be just the right thing to achieve a goal, or overcome some difficult problem. But, for the life of him, he couldn't see the military or civil need to arrest Cyane, the local Amazon Queen, and Otere, the young shamaness from Cyane's tribe, and have them both executed for treason.
He had been but a young captain in the Conqueror's army when they had smashed the Roman Empire, with the help of the two great Amazon Queens, Melosa and Cyane. After Rome nothing had stood up to them, from Spain to Chin, from Africa to Siberia, their three armies had utterly destroyed all opposition.
He had felt that it was only a matter of time before the Amazons turned on Xena's army to finally prove who was the best. But against all the odds, somehow the Conqueror had kept the peace between them. She had managed to unite them in peace as well as in conquest. And when Melosa had died and the young tearaway, Princess Gabrielle, had assumed command of the Greek Amazons, instead of facing off against each other as everyone expected, Xena had once again kept the peace, this time by taking the young queen and making Gabrielle her protege.
Marmax knew that the consolidation of the two Greek armies had rankled with Cyane, and ever since there had been an uneasy peace. So, to order the execution of Cyane would cause uproar and in all likelihood lead to civil war within the empire. The Greek Amazons and all the other tribes would be forced to side with the northern Amazons. What on earth was the Conqueror thinking, what devious game was she playing now?
Marmax dismissed the messenger without a second thought, already consumed by the enormity of what he was about to order. Once the messenger was outside the general's chamber he started to grin, which rapidly changed to a light chuckle and on into a loud guffaw. As he laughed, his appearance changed into that of the God of War. The real messenger wouldn't arrive for at least a week. But that hardly mattered; Xena and the Gabrielle would be at each other's throats long before then.
* * *
Zeus sat on the throne of the king of the gods in the main hall of Olympus. Before him were three very contrite gods.
"So, Artemis, let me get this clear... you intended to organise the assassination of a mortal, an Amazon Queen no less?"
Artemis looked out the window trying to feign indifference but failing miserably. She couldn't look her father in the eye, all the while playing nervously with a silver arrow. She started to speak but Zeus held up his hand and shook his head, silencing her.
"And you, Ares, you went along with this ridiculous and shameful scheme?"
"Hey, it wasn't my ide--"
"Enough!" Zeus roared.
"And you, Athena, you I am most disappointed with. You should know much better than these two. What in Tartarus did you think you were doing?"
"Father, I felt it my duty to come to the aid of my chosen."
"Gabrielle is your chosen?"
"No!" the goddess of Wisdom frowned. "Xena is my chosen!" she said indignantly.
"Since when? Xena's my chosen!" Ares shouted.
"Not since she renounced you and became mine!" Athena answered back.
"Cease!" Zeus roared. The three gods flinched at thunderous tirade.
"If I hear one more word from any of you on this matter, or if I find out you've been meddling further in their affairs, so help me, a century in Tartarus will seem like a warm vacation when I'm done!"
The three gods looked at the floor embarrassed and shamed. Hesitantly Ares lifted up his hand, seeking Zeus' attention, and stuttered. "F... father, er, um, we may have a slight problem in that respect."
"You amaze me. What have you done now?"
"Well, I... I sort of... well, it's like I kinda--"
"Get on with it!"
"Well, I might have started a little civil war, sort of... maybe."
Zeus sighed and shook his head. "What exactly did you do?"
"I sent a false message to one of Xena's generals to arrest and execute... somebody. Nobody important really. It'll soon blow over, I'm sure."
"Who?" the other three said together.
"Cyane, the Amazon queen," he said quickly and quietly, busily looking the other way.
"You ordered the death of one of my queens!" Artemis screeched.
"Hey, you were all set to waste Blondie, so don't come the innocent with me!"
Artemis flew at Ares and they fell to the ground, rolling around trading blows and insults. Zeus and Athena watched the spectacle in silence.
Zeus turned to Athena. "Redeem yourself and sort this mess out, but after that, no more interfering," he said firmly. "You know that as well as I do, that of all the mortals on the planet, the one person who needs defending the least is Xena, so no more, understand?" The goddess nodded meekly, bowing as she disappeared in a pale yellow shimmer.
Artemis had Ares round the throat, while Ares pounded the moon goddess's head on the floor using her hair. Zeus stood up and clapped his hands. The two battling gods flew apart, skidding wildly on the polished marble floor.
"Ares you are banished to the northern ice wastes for six months, and you, Artemis, to the southern ice wastes for six months. I don't want to see or hear from you, or about you, till then, is that understood?"
"Daddy, that's not fair. Gabrielle had ceased to worship me for the sake of a mortal, I couldn't allow that to continue!"
"Enough, be gone from my sight the pair of you!" With a sweep of his hand they both disappeared.
"You can come out now." Aphrodite peeked out from behind a tapestry.
"You really think they'll stay out in the cold for all that time?" she asked.
"Knowing those two, I very much doubt it. But at least they should lay low for a while. Time enough to get this mess sorted out, I hope."
"Think Ath' can do it?"
The king of the gods shrugged. "If Xena should find out what has been going on and who was behind it, I might find myself short of some children, so for their sakes we can but hope she can."
"Who will warm my bed with my husband away?" the goddess said, pouting.
Zeus looked at his daughter and smiled. "I'm sure you'll manage, one way or another."
* * *
Marmax urged his mount forward. Five hundred fully armed mounted cavalry sat behind him, ready to launch an attack on his word. Cyane rode out from the forest to greet him. The Amazons had seen the large army approaching Amazon territory for many hours, thanks to their scouts. They were prepared for the worst.
"Marmax, what brings you to the edge of our lands?"
"I have orders from the Conqueror that I am required to carry out, much as it pains me."
"What has she done now that causes you such turmoil?"
"I am to arrest you and the shamaness Otere on charges of treason. You are to be executed immediately."
"What! No trial, no explanation, nothing?" asked the incredulous queen.
Marmax shrugged. "I'm sorry, Queen Cyane, those are my orders."
"Come, let us journey to Corinth together and sort this out."
"Would that I could, your highness, but you know as well as I, that were I to directly disobey one of the Conqueror's orders, I too would be facing certain execution."
"You realise that arresting me will start a war that neither of us wants?"
"I am only too aware of the consequences, Cyane."
The queen remained quiet for a moment. "If I don't ride back to that forest line a thousand Amazons will ride down and smash your cavalry to tiny pieces. Amazons are fiercely protective of their queen."
Marmax sighed and steadied his horse as it shifted sideways, trembling slightly. "You know that it would be your final victory on the battlefield, my Queen. When word reaches Corinth of what happens here today, it can only mean that the Conqueror herself will come to hunt you down. It would only be a matter of time before you and all your warriors fall to her blade. At the snap of her fingers she can command an army of twenty thousand men at arms, and that's before she calls in the colonial armies."
"We will face that when it comes to it. We don't need to do this at all Marmax. You are about to go down in history as the man who started the war to end all wars."
"It would seem to be the role that the fates and, more importantly, the Conqueror, would have me play."
Cyane shook her head, smiling sadly. "I'll see you on the other side my friend."
He returned the smile. "I'll be waiting for you." He raised his arm and signalled for one of the cavalry officers to come forward and arrest the Queen.
Cyane raised her hand to her mouth. "Amazons attack!" A hundred yards away the forestline that had looked peaceful and deserted only moments before erupted into life.
* * *
Xena rose from her throne and glared at all her assembled advisors and generals. The steady buzz of conversation died away to silence.
"I have an important announcement to make." The whole room held it's collective breath. Special announcements were more often as not detrimental to one's health. "I have asked the queen of the Greek Amazons to be my wife and she has accepted. There will be a royal wedding both here at the palace and a second Amazon joining ceremony to be held in the Amazon village. You are all invited."
A collective sigh swept the room, followed by cheers and congratulations as they all stepped forward to shake the Conqueror's hand. The Amazon guards descended on the beaming queen and hoisted her up in the air in celebration.
The meeting soon turned into a full celebration with food and drinks being served. Gabrielle drank several toasts with her Amazon warriors, each trying to outdo each other with more and more outrageous tales of joining ceremonies past. She glanced over to Xena, who had been pulled to one side by a royal messenger. The Conqueror's happy expression of a moment ago was replaced by a grim scowl. Gabrielle excused herself from the carousing Amazons and made her way over to her intended.
"Xena, what's wrong?" she asked.
"Trouble, big trouble. It looks like civil war's coming and I need to know which side you and your Amazons will be on."
Taken aback by the suppressed fury that was radiating from her lover, Gabrielle was unsure of what to say.
Finally she managed "Of course you can count on me, whatever it is."
"Can I though?"
"What is it Xena?"
"I've just received word that the northern Amazons, lead by Cyane, have attacked and destroyed a cavalry battalion of my northern army, including one of my best generals, Marmax, who's missing, believed killed."
"That can't be true, Xena, Amazons would never attack the crown in this way, they are steadfastly loyal. I'd stake my life on that!"
Xena looked into her lover's eyes and saw only the deepest sincerity. But she also knew Gabrielle and what a zealously loyal Amazon she was. They were interrupted by another messenger who placed a small scroll in the Conqueror's hand before bowing and departing. Xena unfurled the note and read it.
"Still think it's untrue?" she said, handing the scroll to Gabrielle. The Queen read it in silence, her expression grim. Cyane was holding Marmax hostage and demanded Xena's attendance to talk terms for his release.
"If this is true, and I have no reason to doubt it at the moment, I need to know that when I go north to suppress the rebels I don't have an unfriendly army at my back, pretending to be my ally."
"Xena, you can't talk about my Amazons in that way. You know we are loyal."
"And you know I can't afford to take the risk. Perhaps it would be best if you and your Amazons went back to your village until this is sorted out. I know there are many in your tribe who will not raise a weapon against their sisters from another tribe. I will not be dictated to by a bunch of gods-be-damned Amazons. How dare they do this to me? They will be wiped from the face of the earth!"
The two women glared at each other, neither giving ground nor looking away.
"If we leave now it will show that world that you don't trust us, and our loyalty means nothing to you. Is that what you want?"
Xena nodded curtly.
"I guess this means the wedding's off?" said Gabrielle. Xena's implacable warrior mask was back in place. She said nothing and made no sign either way.
"Fine!" the queen said through gritted teeth and threw down her glass, shattering it across the stone floor. The party mood abruptly vanished as Gabrielle summoned her Amazons and ordered them to follow her back to their barracks. They would be leaving within the hour.
* * *
Xena leaned over the parapet of the outcrop again. It had been over an hour and they were still trapped by two amorous gods. The impatient warrior tried to catch the eye of the goddess by waving and gesticulating, but so far Aphrodite hadn't looked their way.
"This is hopeless!" Xena growled in a whisper, sliding back below the edge and sitting down next to a very bored and uncomfortable bard.
"You've got to give them ten out of ten for stamina," she said, grinning humourlessly. Xena rolled her eyes.
"Hah, that's nothing, why I remember once--" she trailed off at the snarl forming on Gabrielle's face.
"It's bad enough listening to those two without having to listen to you brag about past conquests too!"
Xena pursed her lips and mouthed a penitent apology. It didn't do to upset an already miserable bard. She hurriedly changed subject. "Got a plan to bring Cupid onto our side, once we spring him?"
Gabrielle sighed and shrugged. "Nope, I've been working on that ever since the lurve goddess decided to give us a private lesson, and I can't think of anything that will sway him. Thanks to that stupid twilight prophecy, he's got himself convinced that to aid us in any way would be to bring about the end of Olympus. I mean how dumb is that? Next they'll believe Eve will have the power to kill gods, or some such nonsense."
"I know. But we have to do something, he's our only chance of putting an end to this farce and getting back to our own time."
"Well, I'm plumb out of ideas. I can't imagine that Aphrodite's been putting too much thought into the problem for the last hour or so, so that leaves you, oh mighty warrior."
Xena could see the irritation written all over the bard's face. "Okay, so let's go over the options. We can trick him somehow. We can force him somehow. Or, we can appeal to his good nature and ask for his help. Did I leave anything out?"
"We can make him an offer. Something in exchange for helping us."
"Like what!" Xena said, frowning.
"I dunno, you're the problem solver, I'm only the sidekick, remember."
"Thanks a bunch, you've been most helpful."
They sat in silence for several minutes. Eventually Xena stood up and looked down at the two gods again. As luck would have it, Aphrodite had just opened her eyes and happened to be looking up at the rock balcony where Xena and Gabrielle were hiding.
Xena made a few sweeping gesticulations trying to get the goddess to take her new found lover and disappear somewhere. At first Aphrodite frowned and shrugged, not understanding Xena's message. Then she smiled and nodded her head, and the two disappeared in a shower of sparkles.
"Why in the gods' names didn't she do that over an hour ago?" Xena exclaimed out loud. Gabrielle stood up and looked over at the empty cavern below.
"Maybe she likes an audience, ever thought about that?"
"Sure, I remember once--"
"All right, all right, let's just get down there and find a hacksaw."
They slowly made their way down the rock wall to the bottom. It didn't take long to find what they were looking for amongst the great pile of tools scattered on the large workbench near the forge.
"Now we climb back up and wait for Aphrodite to come and collect us."
"Let's hope she's not too worn out," the bard muttered, starting to climb the cave wall.
* * *
Solari felt sick. Air travel did not sit well with her constitution. She was being carried by a flying god as he tore up over treetops and swooped down, skimming across the surfaces of lakes and rivers, scaring birds and animals with reckless jollity.
"Cupid, do you mind if we set down and have a rest a moment?" the warrior asked tentatively.
"Oh yes, I forgot, this is the first time you've flown with Cupid airways. It can be a little unnerving when you're not used to it. But don't worry, you'll soon learn to love it. It can get addictive, you know."
"Don't worry, I don't intend to make a habit of it," Solari said, closing her eyes as they narrowly missed a flock of geese.
She opened her eyes again just as they deftly touched down near a small clump of trees overlooking a long narrow meadow. Her legs trembled as she tried to walk in a straight path to the shade of the nearest tree.
"You wouldn't happen to have some water would you, or better yet some ale?" Cupid grinned and snapped his fingers. Solari found herself surrounded by tables of food and drink, with a reclining soft chair and footrest nestling under the overhanging branches of the tree.
"You're a mighty handy fellah to have around, you know that?" The god grinned and shrugged. "Don't normally have much time for the male of the species, but in your case I could make an exception."
"I'm an exceptional guy, don't you think?"
"Most guys have your arrogance, but in your case I guess it's justified." They both smiled, and held a silent toast of wine to each other.
"Now, about your queen. Do you think she might... you know... go for a guy like me?"
Solari didn't say anything for a moment, plucking some grapes from the table. "Well, it's always possible. She can be quite unpredictable, you know. Some say she's never really recovered from the trouble she had when she first became an Amazon."
"Oh, what was that?"
"I... I shouldn't really talk about it; it's a personal thing. I don't think she'd want me discussing it with strangers."
"But I'm a god, people come to me all the time with their personal problems."
"That's true, I guess. Well... don't tell her I told you this, but back when she was a simple village girl some slavers caught her. Draco's men, I believe."
"How horrid!" the god said, frowning. It never ceased to amaze him the human capacity for maltreatment of others. 'Why couldn't everyone just love each other?' he thought.
"Well, the same group had just captured some of my sister Amazons. We were out searching for them, but they were good at keeping one step ahead of us. But it was only a matter of time; Melosa had committed nearly the whole Nation to tracking them down. You see, they'd made a big mistake in taking Amazons, but a suicidal one in abducting an Amazon princess. Her name was Terreis, and she was next in line to the crown, after Melosa." Cupid listened enthralled; Solari was unexpectedly good at the bard thing, and he'd always loved adventures.
"Go on," he said, eagerly.
"They put the village girls in the same cage as my sisters, and pretty soon they were all friends and making plans together on how to escape from the slavers. Unfortunately their first plan failed miserably with one of the village girls getting killed. Of course they blamed the Amazons, who are not noted for being good prisoners. They made an example of one of them by beating and having their way with her in front of all the others. It had the desired effect on them all except for Gabrielle and Terreis. They both burned all the more for escape and revenge."
"How did they escape?"
"That's the sad part, they didn't."
"What do you mean they didn't?"
"What they didn't know was that we were closing in on their camp. Another couple of hours and we would have rescued them. Seems some of the men got drunk and decided another lesson was due, and they didn't care who was to get it. Apparently they chose Terreis. Gabrielle volunteered to take her place, as Terreis was of royal blood and a virgin, and for some reason, even though she wasn't an Amazon, she felt she had to protect the young princess."
"But you did rescue them, right, eventually?"
"We found Gabrielle tied between two posts naked and beaten half to death. She had managed to save Terreis, but only for a couple of hours. We attacked, but before the slavers fled into the forest, they stabbed all the prisoners out of spite. Terreis died in the queen's arms, but not before the princess had passed her right of caste to the unconscious Gabrielle."
"So that's how she became a queen?"
"Yeah, when Melosa got killed by some upstart called Velasca who called for a royal challenge, Gabrielle immediately challenged her back. I don't think she ever really wanted the mask, but she did it for Terreis. Velasca was an accomplished warrior, but after her experience with the slavers, Gabrielle became driven to become a warrior herself. She was never going to be at anyone's mercy again."
"She beat Velasca, I take it?"
"Oh yeah, massively. Broke just about every damn bone in her body, and that was before she killed her. I think her experience with the slavers never really left her. To this day she never does anything by halves. It's all or nothing with her. She is not a woman to cross, I can tell you that much. Until I met the Conqueror I thought she was the finest fighter, most daring leader, and bravest person I'd ever met, but also the most savage at times. I guess that's why she and the Conqueror hit it off so well the first time they met. Two women with a purpose, who let nothing get in their way."
"What happened to the slavers?"
"Oh we soon rounded them up. The ones that weren't killed were taken back to the village for trial. They were all found guilty of crimes against the nation. Melosa decreed that their fate be in the hands of Gabrielle, the only survivor of the massacre. We all thought she'd ask to hang them, or behead them or something, but she asked that they be kept locked up till she was fit enough to carry out the executions herself. Melosa wasn't best pleased, she preferred justice to be swift and clean. But she'd let Gabrielle decide and so that's what happened."
"Gabrielle executed them herself?" asked an astonished god.
"Yup, one at a time with a war hammer. Damn it was a mess. Took us ages to clean up the stage."
Solari looked up from the cup of wine she'd been drinking from. The god looked in pain from the terrible story he'd just heard.
"I had no idea," he said.
"Few people do. All they know are the stories of her violence. But we Amazons know the full story and we would all give our lives for her and what she did for Terreis."
"So why is my aunt so down on her?"
"Artemis, your Goddess of the Hunt. Tall, good-looking, permanent frown, you know her, surely?"
"Artemis doesn't like Gabrielle?" asked an incredulous Solari.
"No, she hates her, wants to put your regent on the throne. I don't understand it myself. I know Artie can be a bit odd at times, but hey, isn't everyone?" he said smiling happily to himself.
"Are you sure about this?" Solari asked, frowning.
The god stopped smiling and thought about the conversation they'd just had. A twinge of doubt that perhaps he'd said too much began to nag at him.
"Maybe I shouldn't have told you all that, but after your generous telling of Gabrielle's tale I felt I should reciprocate. My mom's always telling me off for shooting my mouth off as fast as my bow. You won't tell anyone, will you?"
"No, I'd never do that," said Solari, crossing her fingers behind her back.
* * *
Aphrodite grinned, stretching luxuriantly, and slid out of bed. Hephaeustus was still sleeping soundly. She carefully pulled the satin sheets up over the slumbering god and gently kissed him on the cheek. Silently she clicked her fingers and disappeared, reappearing next to a very cross warrior princess and a sleeping bard.
"Aw, that's sweet," she said, smiling at Gabrielle, who lay asleep in Xena's arms.
"Where have you been?" Xena growled.
"Hey, I was playing diversions. I hope you did your part of the plan."
"We did. Two hours ago!"
"Really, that quick, huh? This Hephie's no match for mine," she said, grinning with pride.
Gabrielle began to stir at the heated conversation going on around her. "Wha'sup?" she managed groggily.
"The goddess of Love has decided to take time out from her busy schedule and pay us a visit!" Xena hissed.
"Dite, you're back... that was quick," Gabrielle mumbled in between yawns. Xena rolled her eyes and pushed the bard off her lap. "Hey!" she shrieked, rolling to the floor. "What's that for?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, darlin', did you slip?" Xena said, glaring at the goddess.
"Not funny, Xena," said an indignant bard, standing up and brushing the sand off her clothes.
"Can we go now?"
"When you two've finished, I'm ready," said the goddess. They nodded and the goddess waved her arm. They were immediately back in the Halls of War, standing in front of the cell where Cupid had been imprisoned.
"It's empty!" gasped the bard.
"I can see that!" snapped Xena, her patience having dipped even further. Aphrodite frowned and clicked her fingers. She appeared inside the cell.
"Hey, Ares's spell must've weakened or something, I can get in now."
Xena threw the saw they had worked so hard to obtain down in disgust. "That's just terrific! So, where in Tartarus has Cupid gone?"
"Search me, Warrior Babe. Coulda gone anywhere," she said, shrugging.
"That does it, I wanna kill someone, anyone, I don't care who," Xena shouted, pulling out her chakram, her knuckles turning white as she gripped the deadly ring with ferocious strength.
"Now calm down, Xena, we'll find him, don't worry," soothed the bard, carefully taking hold of the chakram and gently pulled it from Xena's slowly relaxing death-grip. The goddess disappeared and reappeared next to them.
"Man, you got a 'tude on you, Xeens. You should see someone about that before you burst something inside that's important."
Xena narrowed her eyes and held up an accusing index finger in the goddess's face. She was about to say something when Gabrielle steered her away from the grinning goddess.
"Come on, Xena, don't let her rile you. You know what she's like, she's just joking."
"One day, Aphrodite, one day," Xena said over her shoulder.
"Yeah, you and whose army?"
"Quit it, the pair of you!" shouted the bard. "This isn't helping any. We need to figure out where Cupid has gone to and follow him, and I mean now!"
The goddess and the warrior remained silent. Eventually Aphrodite shrugged. "Malidon, I expect."
"Yeah, it's a small country town, a little ways from Corinth."
"That's where Psyche lived."
* * *
The Conqueror sat and brooded. The more she brooded, the worse her temper got. How dare the Amazons conspire against her like this! 'First those damn northerners attack my men, and now Gabrielle, the woman I love, walks out on me. Me! Me, the ruler of the world, for Gaea's sake!' Conveniently forgetting that it was she who'd asked them to leave.
The sun poked its first rays through the window of her study. At dawn, the second and third armies would be moving out and connecting up with four more armies on the way. She was taking no chances with the Amazons. They may be the best in the world, but even they cannot win when they were outnumbered two hundred to one. But she hoped it wouldn't come to that. Cyane was not wantonly reckless with her warriors. She would see that Xena meant business and would see reason. Then again, one just could never tell with those damned Amazons. If they were of a mind, they'd fight to the death, every last one of them, right down to the cooks and farmers. And they'd all make sure they took five men with them.
She sighed. All of this sucked and she couldn't help feeling that someone was making it happen. 'Probably Ares', she thought, gloomily.
"He's not alone in this," a voice said behind her. Xena spun round and faced the intruder her sword in her hand in less time than it took to blink.
"Athena, what do you want?" she said, with undisguised menace and contempt.
"Don't be so quick to judge your superiors, Xena," the goddess said, calmly pushing the sword from her face. Xena snorted.
"I didn't come here to debate your divinity, Xena, but to assist in any way I can. I have been specifically requested to intervene and try to undo what my brother and sister have done."
"Oh, and who requested that?"
"Zeus," Athena said, shrugging and picking up an ornate goblet with a carving of Bacchus on it. She shuddered and touched the goblet's rim with her other hand. The carving transformed into a picture of an owl. "Some of my distant cousins can be so... unsettling."
"If your idea of helping is to fill the place with pictures of owls, you can take your arts and crafts and--"
"Xena, let's not play games. I haven't the time or the inclination. As we speak your armies are preparing to fight the Amazons. Is that not so?"
"Only some of them. Amazons, that is."
"Are you so sure of that?"
"Gabrielle's Amazons would never turn on me, never!"
"What do you know that I don't?"
"I know that Ares is not your only problem. It seems that Artemis has plans for you too."
Xena raised her eyebrows. "Artemis, what in Tartarus does she want with me?"
"Oh, you're not the only target, oh mighty Conqueror. Her schemes stretch farther than that. Much farther."
"Look, can't you gods just speak plainly every once in a while, must you always speak in riddles and deliberate obfuscation?"
Athena smiled slightly. "Obfuscation, that's a big word for a warrior, isn't it?"
Xena scowled, turned her back on the goddess and strode towards the door. "When you've finished in here, there's more crockery in the kitchen. I'm sure the head cook will like the new pattern. If you'll excuse me, I've got an army to lead."
Athena's smile dropped and she waved her arm. She appeared in front of the Conqueror, blocking her path to the door.
"I'm... sorry, Xena. Can we start this again... please?" Xena halted and frowned. For a goddess to apologise to her, something was most definitely up.
"You've got five minutes, make it count."
"There is no give in you at all is there?"
"Four and a half minutes now."
"All right, all right... Ares engineered the Amazon problem. He changed your message to your general, Marmax. His new orders were to arrest and execute Cyane and Otere. The Amazons were forced to defend their queen. They had no choice."
"Damn your gods-be-damned... brother!" Xena roared.
Athena could only look embarrassed, and accept Xena's condemnation.
"Would you like me to take you to Cyane and sort this out? It will be a lot quicker than riding at the head of your army."
Xena considered it for a moment. With a bit of luck they would be back before Gabrielle and her Amazons got too far. She would be able to recall them and explain the situation. "All right, let's go."
Athena smiled and put her arm around Xena's shoulders.
* * *
Birdcalls sounded through the forest, alerting the village of the impending arrival of the queen and her royal guard. Ephiny waited at the foot of the royal lodge, ready to welcome the queen back and formally hand control back to Gabrielle. She didn't know the reason for her unexpected return from Corinth, but whatever it was, it was unlikely to be good. Xena and the queen rarely parted company these days.
She watched as the riders came to a halt by the stables and dismounted, handing their reins to the stable girls. As Gabrielle strode towards the lodge, Amazons bowed in her wake, but she barely acknowledged them.
"Your Majesty," Ephiny said, bowing low and holding out the queen's mask. Gabrielle snatched it from her hand and brushed past her up the steps to the royal lodge. Ephiny stood up and stared down the three warriors attempting to follow her.
"Later, Ep, Chilapa, Amarice. The queen and I have much to discuss." The returning royal guards looked at each other. Shrugging, they turned and headed for the food hall. It didn't pay to get involved in royal spats.
Ephiny climbed the steps, taking a last look around before closing the door behind her. Gabrielle was waiting for her inside.
"How are things in the village?"
"We are well, Gabrielle. It's obviously not as refined as the palace in Corinth, but we manage."
"Cut the crap, Ephiny. I know all about the plotting to get rid of me. Call up your fairy godmother and let's get down to business."
"You shouldn't talk of the goddess in such a disrespectful manner, if she were to hear her chosen speak--"
"Shut up, Ephiny, and get the bitch down here... now!"
Ephiny scowled at such impudence. Anyone else and she would have drawn her sword, but she knew that part of Gabrielle's cockiness was due to the fact that she could whip everyone else's butt, including the regent's.
"As you wish, my Queen," all pretence at friendship having evaporated. Ephiny knelt before the small altar and prayed. She held out her arms and requested the goddess's presence. Nothing happened. She frowned, this had never happened before. Artemis had given her this statue especially for the purpose of contacting her whenever there was an urgent need. She tried again.
"Artemis, goddess of the Hunt, please appear before your humble servant, Ephiny."
Gabrielle snorted. "Wha'sup, Eph', your goddess not at home?"
"As a matter of fact I wasn't at home, and barely heard my regent's request," Artemis said, appearing in a blinding flash of brilliant white light.
The two Amazons were somewhat taken aback by the goddess's appearance. She was covered in ice. It cracked and flaked away from her skin as she walked towards them. In the warmth of the lodge it began to melt, running off her body and leaving a trail of drips behind her on the floor.
"I cannot stay long, what is it you want?"
"Queen Gabrielle wishes an audience, your highness." Artemis turned to Gabrielle, her face impassive.
"I know you don't like me, and that I'm here by accident, against your wishes. Well, guess what, I don't want to be here either. So, I'll make you a deal. I'll hand over the mask to Ephiny, or anyone else you want, in return for you leaving me and Xena alone."
The goddess considered the offer for a moment. "How can I trust you not to return to the Conqueror's arms and persuade her to attack the Amazons?"
"Xena has no quarrel with the Greek Amazons; at least not at the moment. I swear that I hold no grudge against my sisters either. Unlike some, I wouldn't consider plotting against my own."
Artemis winced at the implied accusation. "Very well, your voluntary stepping down achieves most of my goals, I accept. We will hold a ceremony to mark the handing over of power to Ephiny in six months' time. I will appear and give you my blessing."
"Why six months?" asked a puzzled regent.
"I have other commitments until then. And this way gives you both time to plan ahead and make the hand-over as smooth as possible."
"As you wish, your highness," said Ephiny. Gabrielle just snorted again.
"One more thing." Artemis was about to return to her banishment. She stopped, mid-arm wave.
"I want you to take me to Xena, wherever she is. I wish to be at her side when she faces our northern sisters. I want to try and act as a mediator and keep the damage to a minimum."
"I'm not even supposed to be... I have obligations, I shouldn't even... Oh, very well, if you must!" She reached out and touched Gabrielle's shoulder. They both disappeared in a flash of light, leaving behind a bemused regent and a puddle of water on the floor.
* * *
"What's his name again?" asked Gabrielle.
Xena, Gabrielle and Aphrodite stood in front of the inn in the centre of Malidon.
"Well, are you going to go in, or stand in the street all day?" asked an impatient goddess.
"I'm trying to think of a convincing story that won't arouse his suspicion. Make him want to confide in us."
"Yeah, yeah, all right, but do it quicker, will ya?"
"Oh this is futile," snapped the warrior and barged into the inn, leaving a grinning goddess and furious bard behind.
"Ya gotta admit, she's decisive," giggled the goddess, breezing past a stationary Gabrielle.
"Holidus!" Xena shouted at the empty bar. A man came scurrying from the back room, wiping his hands in his apron as he ran.
"I'm sorry, the bar's not quite open yet, but if you'd like a room I've got one available, it's very..." he trailed away into silence noticing Aphrodite.
"Gods... I mean, sorry I meant no disrespect... I'm not used to gods coming into my inn, and to have two in one day... well, it's a bit unsettling."
"Charmed, I'm sure," said Aphrodite in her most seductive manner. Holidus was reduced to opening and closing his mouth, but nothing came out. Xena rolled her eyes and cleared her throat.
"Excuse me, keep, but we need a question answered." Aphrodite continued to smile serenely at the awe-struck man.
Holidus eventually managed to drag his eyes away and turned to look at Xena for a moment.
"Question... yes," he mumbled, his eyes wandered back to the goddess.
"Yes, what?" Xena demanded. The man blinked, and the blood drained from his face, finally realising who else was in the room with them. He immediately dropped to his knees and bowed deeply, all but prostrating himself in front of Xena.
"Conqueror, forgive me, please, I... I'm not feeling well. I forget my manners. Please, anything you ask is yours." He started to tremble and whimper slightly. Seeing the man in evident distress, Gabrielle rushed over, helping him to his feet. Which would have been fine, had he not mistaken her for a certain Amazon Queen and promptly screamed, thinking it was his last moments on Earth. He finally stopped screaming when he fainted.
"Well, at least that stopped the noise," Xena grimaced.
"Don't just stand there, help me!" Gabrielle demanded, struggling to support the man's dead weight.
"You made him faint, not me."
"Oh, very funny. Ha ha, I'm laughing myself silly here." Xena grinned evilly and casually picked up a beer mug on the bar and inspected it.
"Xena!" the bard stormed. The warrior flinched at the harsh tone and without thinking jumped forward to assist her soulmate. Aphrodite burst out laughing at Xena's antics.
"Got ya whipped, huh, Warrior Babe?"
Scowling at the goddess, Xena effortlessly lifted Holidus up onto the bar. She poured the contents of a nearby mug over the man's head, bringing the man back to his senses.
"So much for the subtle approach," Gabrielle groaned and sat down on a barstool shaking her head.
"Wha... where... " he stuttered. He looked up into the piercing blue eyes staring down at him and made to faint again. Xena grabbed him by the front of his tunic and lifted him up to within an inch of her face.
"Listen, keep, I'm on a very tight schedule here, and I will get really quite annoyed with you if you faint again. Understand?" she demanded.
The nervous man nodded his head rapidly.
"Good. Now, where is your daughter, Psyche?"
"In C... Corinth, your majesty."
"Where in Corinth?"
"At your palace, Milady. She's... she's one of your ladies in waiting." Xena frowned and considered this for a moment.
"Okay," she said, lowering him to the bar and carefully straightening out his tunic. "Er, thanks... you've been most helpful."
He rolled off the bar, shying away from Gabrielle, and got down on his knees in front of Xena again. He tried to kiss Xena's foot.
"Thank you for sparing my worthless hide, Your Majesty."
"Stop that," Xena said in disgust, stepping away from the cowering barkeep. She bent down and hauled him to his feet. "Have a bit of dignity, will ya."
"I'm sorry, Milady, I'm so sorry," he whimpered and started to cry, his emotions getting the better of him, now that he realised he might actually be allowed to live. Xena looked to her bard for support. She gestured for Xena to comfort the man. She grimaced, but stiffly tried to hug the man, and pat the back of his head. He continued to weep on her shoulder.
"There, um... there. It's all right, I assure you. No one's going to hurt you. I won't let the big bad Amazon Queen hurt you, I promise," she said smirking over his shoulder at Gabrielle. The bard returned the gesture with a withering look of disdain.
"P... please, Lord, er Lady, er Conqueror, what has my daughter done to warrant such interest from two gods, and yourself, and her majesty the Amazon Queen?"
"Nothing, nothing at all. We just want to talk to her."
"Please, if she's done something wrong, please be merciful and... and make it quick," he gasped, bursting into floods of tears again. Xena gritted her teeth and fumed silently at the goddess and the bard who were both enjoying Xena's discomfort greatly.
"You said two gods, who did you mean," the warrior asked gently.
"The god Cupid came by a few hours ago and asked the same questions," he managed in-between sobs.
"And you told him the same things you told us?"
"Well, not exactly, now that I recall." He'd managed to stop crying and was now looking thoughtful. "Funny thing, really. I told him that Psyche had gone to the capital to be in the Conqueror's court. She always was ambitious, and she had the looks, that's for sure. She had to fight them off, the local village boys, that is, like bees to honey it was. I told her, I said--"
"Yeah, fascinating, pops, but what did Cupid say?" Aphrodite butted in on his reminiscences.
The man looked at Aphrodite and blinked again, his mind going blank. She clicked her fingers in his face and tapped him on the forehead.
"Wakey, wakey. Hello, anyone home?"
The man jerked back to his senses. "Oh yes... he said that he would fly to Athens immediately, and with that, rushed out the door. Why did he want to go to Athens? I don't understand," Holidus said, obviously puzzled.
"Gods, eh! Who can understand 'em?" Xena said, smirking at Aphrodite, who sneered back by way of a reply.
* * *
"Where are we?"
"I'm not sure."
"A god who isn't sure?"
Artemis frowned. The mortal was right, this shouldn't have happened. Not at all it shouldn't.
"So, where should we be?" asked an exasperated Gabrielle.
"I was taking us to see the Conqueror, who should be somewhere between Corinth and the northern Amazons. Instead, we're... here," the goddess said, waving her arm at the surrounding area.
"I've often wondered how that works. I mean, do you just think of someplace to go, and pouf, there you are?"
"More or less, but that isn't something that need concern a mortal. Not even my chosen," she said, managing to make the word chosen sound like a particularly nasty disease.
"So, what place did you think of, just before we... poufed?"
"I thought of a person, not a place."
"So, if you thought of a person, and I'm assuming it was Xena, why isn't she here?"
The goddess scowled. "Do you always ask so many questions?"
"Yep, it's one of the best ways of finding out things, and knowledge is power."
"Really," the goddess said, with disdain.
Gabrielle remained silent for a few moments. "Artemis, can I ask you a question, a personal one I mean?"
Artemis sighed and looked at her chosen, a chosen that had been thrust upon her so unexpectedly. She opened up her senses for a moment, enough to catch what Gabrielle was thinking.
"You wish to know why I don't like you?"
"Yeah, something like that. I don't understand. I've worked my butt off for the Amazons. I mean, it's not as if I ever wanted to be one, it just sort of happened. If you want to blame someone, blame Draco. It was his men who threw me in a cell with Terreis."
The goddess stiffened at the mention of the name. She quickly looked away so that Gabrielle couldn't see the pain in her eyes. But it wasn't quick enough.
"So that's it! You blame me for Terreis' death?" The queen was astonished.
"I don't wish to talk of it. Least of all with you!"
"But it's not my fault, godsdamnit!"
"You may be the queen, and you may be my chosen, but don't presume that you can talk to me like that, mortal."
"Oh, so you're gonna pull the 'I'm a goddess' routine, huh? Saves you having to face the truth!" Gabrielle was on a roll, and beyond caring what the consequences might be.
"Enough!" roared the goddess and backhanded Gabrielle across the face. The queen's head snapped back as she flew through the air, hitting a tree and slumping unconscious to the ground. Artemis simmered with rage. She was so caught up in the heat of the moment that she failed to notice a dark shadow falling across her back. Something grabbed her shoulder and spun her around.
"No one hits my intended!" roared Xena, smashing her fist with every ounce of her enormous strength into the goddess's face. Artemis staggered back, falling down onto her backside with a thump. She shook her head in disbelief, trying to recover her senses, totally unaccustomed to being hit like that. Nobody, not even Ares, had ever put her down so hard. Divine blood splashed down from her broken nose onto her normally immaculate white tunic.
"Get up!" shouted Xena, her fists balled in rage, standing over the felled goddess.
"I think she's had enough, don't you?" purred Athena, grinning and draping her hand on Xena's shoulder, looking down at her fallen sister.
"Not nearly enough," growled the still enraged Conqueror, who was about ready to start in on Artemis again.
The stunned goddess held up her hand in defeat. "Keep her off me, Athena, I've had enough," she said, spitting blood out from between her swelling lips.
Xena snarled at her, but shrugged off her intense desire to keep on hitting the goddess, and went over to Gabrielle to see how she was instead. She carefully pulled the queen up into a sitting position, gently pushing the hair from her eyes.
"Hey, come on, Sleepy-head, let's be waking up now." She stroked the queen's face with the back of her hand." Gabrielle moaned and coughed, her eyelids flickering open. "You got a nasty bump on the back of your head, and you're going to have a shiner to be proud of."
"Did you get the name of the driver?" groaned Gabrielle.
"Sure did. I gave her an on-the-spot fine. She won't be doing it again, I promise." Gabrielle smiled, but winced, the muscles of her face tugging on her tender cheekbones.
"Ooh, that hurts."
"Yeah, well, you've had worse. It wasn't the smartest move to goad a goddess into hitting you, now was it?"
"She hates me and I wanted to know why."
"Yeah, what's not to like?" Gabrielle grinned, her sense of humour reasserting itself.
Xena grinned back. "Nothing that I can see." Gabrielle sat up fully and looked around. The two goddesses were a short distance away. Athena was smiling but Artemis was studying the floor with great interest, pushing her boot through the soft dry dirt.
"Athena tells me this is the edges of the Fields."
"Elysia?" spluttered an astonished Gabrielle.
"The one and only."
"But... but why are we here. Are we dead?"
"Not yet, Honey. This is a part where the gods come to relax and chill out. It's not the main Fields. They're over that hill, but it's a one-way door if you're not a god. So we won't be going that way."
"But what are we doing here?"
"Athena and I were discussing some things, and she thought it would be a nice private place to come and have a picnic by the stream on the other side of the trees. Seems it wasn't so private after all. We heard your frank exchange of views and came to investigate."
"I take it you gave her the bloody nose?"
"Yup, and she can consider herself lucky that's all she got!" said Xena, raising her voice so that Artemis could hear.
"How is that possible, Xena?"
"I've made a deal with Athena. I'm switching allegiances from Ares to her. From now on, I'm her chosen, not his. All my power comes from her. She gave me the ability to hurt gods if necessary, in order to keep Ares off my back. Didn't know it would be required for other members of her family."
"Xena, are you a god now?"
Xena snorted. "You gotta be kidding. Think I want to be like them? No offence, Athena."
"None taken," replied the goddess. Artemis scowled, but said nothing.
Xena stood up and pulled the still wobbly Gabrielle with her.
"Why'd you have to interfere?" Artemis whined to her sister.
"Because the damage you and Ares were doing was getting out of hand." Athena touched her sister's face, immediately curing her broken nose. "The pair of you may be strong and ruthless, but neither of you have an ounce of true wisdom. It was time I became involved and injected a little... guidance." Artemis, scowled again, but could do nothing. She knew she was no match for Athena, the second most powerful god, behind Zeus himself. And now, it seemed, not even a match for a mere mortal, albeit the most powerful in the world.
"This sucks," she said. "I'm going home to Olympus to have a nice long bath. Wake me up in a year or two!" Athena simply tilted her head and raised her eyebrows.
"I thought you were banished for six months?"
"Oh... crap!" Artemis said, disappearing in a bright white flash
"You two may as well finish the picnic. My dealings with you, Xena, are concluded. I'll be back for you both when you're ready." She was about to raise her arm and disappear when Xena cleared her throat.
"If you can fix your stupid sister's nose, you can fix my fiancee's damage," she said bluntly.
Athena raised her eyebrows, staring directly into Xena's intimidating eyes.
"Please," Xena finally muttered.
"That's better, Xena. A little humility and manners would improve your demeanour immensely." The goddess touched Gabrielle's head. The queen trembled as the healing powers flooded through her.
"Whoa, that's a rush," she gasped, touching her face and happily feeling no pain.
"What about giving my fiancee the power to defend herself against the other gods?"
"I'll think about it. Remember, despite Artemis' antipathy towards your intended, she is still her chosen, and not really mine to pla... interfere with."
"Well, you'd better warn them, especially Ares, that she's off limits, or they'll have me to contend with. I take the protection of my family very seriously."
"I think they all know that, Xena. Especially once word gets around about how you decked poor Art'," she said, smiling maliciously.
"Who's going to tell them? I can't imagine she will."
"Oh, don't you worry, little Queenie, they'll know soon enough."
"The name's Gabrielle."
"Athena, she's under my protection," Xena growled.
"Your powers to hurt gods don't extend to me, Xena. I'm not called the Goddess of Wisdom for nothing," she smirked.
"Yeah, well don't forget that there are other gods who'd like me to be their chosen. Maybe I can get one of them to give me that power?"
Athena's smile dropped immediately. "I'll be back," she said, waving her hand and disappearing in a soft glow of yellow light.
"What now?" asked Gabrielle.
Xena shrugged. "I've got a bunch of northern Amazons who've got their feathers in a twist, I've got a bunch of Greek Amazons plotting to kill the pair of us, I've now got a bound-to-be-angry God of War on my case, a Goddess of Wisdom and Just Warfare who wants to bend me to her will, and not least of all, an entire world to run. And on top of all that, there's also the small matter of a wedding to plan. But to Tartarus with them, I say we go and relax and have a nice picnic."
"I'm with you on that!"
"Thought you might be," Xena said, grinning at her wife-to-be.
* * *
Cupid swooped down into the palace courtyard, scattering people and animals alike. He dropped Solari gently to the ground as he landed, folding his wings neatly at his back.
"Did you enjoy your flight?"
Solari rubbed her face and blinked a few times, grateful to have made it in one piece. "I think I'll stick to feet and horses, if it's all the same to you, flyboy." Cupid laughed out loud at her new name for him.
"I think one day all mortals will fly. It's the next step in mankind's evolution."
"I'm glad I shall be long dead in that case," but she smiled anyway. She felt they had become good friends in the short time they'd been together.
"Now, where's your queen?"
"Our barracks are this way," she said, pointing to one of the side entrances. As they passed through the archway a sentry held out his pike and stepped in their path.
"All Amazons should have left by now. Why are you not with them?"
"Get that thing out of my face or I'll ram it where the sun don't shine, soldier!"
"Now, now, Solari. I sure he's only doing his job."
"And who are you... oh, you're the god Cupid, aren't you? My apologies, my Lord." The man gulped and lowered his pike.
"I knew you were a handy guy to have around," Solari smirked.
"So, what is this about the Amazons leaving?"
"The Conqueror asked them to go back to their own lands while she leads an army north to suppress the rebels."
"Rebels, what rebels, and why isn't the Conqueror taking her best troops?" demanded Solari.
The man looked pained. He turned to Cupid. "It's the northern Amazons, sire. They've threatened to invade Greece, or so I've heard."
"Wow, bummer," was all the god could say.
"This is nonsense. So everyone's gone, the Queen, the Royal Guard, everyone?"
"Y... yes," he stammered.
"This is all wrong. Cupid, if you want to see Gabrielle you'll have to go to our main village in the middle of our sacred hunting lands."
"I don't know the way."
"I can show you."
The god grinned. "I thought you said that you were sticking to feet or hooves from now on?"
"I changed my mind. A warrior's prerogative," she grinned back. She turned her back and held her arms out. Cupid snaked his arms under hers and lifted her effortlessly into the sky.
"Amazon lands here we come!" he shouted in glee, causing the warrior to giggle uncontrollably.
* * *
Continued - Part 2 (Conclusion)
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