CHAPTER 8 (cont)
"Gabrielle...Gabrielle wake up," Xena said urgently, as she shook the bards shoulder.
"Hmmm?" the young woman asked sleepily.
"Gabrielle wake up," Xena repeated, shaking her lovers shoulder once again.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked in a bewildered voice. Finally managing to open her eyes, she looked up at her friend. Seeing that Xena was already dressed and wearing her weapons, Gabrielle began to worry. "Whats wrong?" she asked anxiously.
Forcing a smile onto her face, Xena placed a reassuring hand on the bards shoulder. "Its okay. Were not under attack. I just need to talk to you real quick. A rider just came looking for me with a message from an old friend of mine. My friends wife and son have been kidnapped, and he doesnt think the man responsible will return them alive no matter how much ransom he pays. He wants me to help get them back."
Gabrielle nodded her head and started to get out of bed. "Okay. Ill get dressed...."
Xena stopped her from rising, pushing her back down while she shook her head. "No Gabrielle. Im going to have to go alone." Seeing the bard getting ready to protest, she hurriedly continued. "Im going to have to push Argo hard just to get there in two days. Theres no time to waste here. There are lives on the line,"
Gabrielle considered Xenas words and then nodded grudgingly. "All right. Ill follow on foot. It will take me a little longer but Ill get there."
Xena thought about Gabrielles suggestion and then shook her head. "No. You should stay here."
"Xena....," Gabrielle began angrily.
Xena quickly held up her hand. "Gabrielle listen to me. Its not that I dont want you with me, because I do. And its not that I dont think youd be able to follow me there on your own, because I know you could. And its not that you wouldnt be a help to me, because you would. But I have no idea where Im going to be going after I get to my friends home. By the time you get there, I could be so far away it would take you another week to catch up to me. Youd most likely just end up waiting around for me at my friends and you can do that here, just as well as there. It doesnt make sense for you to follow me this time," Xena finished, willing the bard to see the logic of what she was saying.
Gabrielle listened to Xena carefully, before finally shaking her head. "No. The last time you rode off on your own because someone said they needed your help it was a trap and I almost lost you. Now you expect me to just sit here while you do the exact same thing again?"
"This is different Gabrielle. I know this man. Hes a friend. I can trust him."
"Do you know the messenger?" Gabrielle demanded.
"No," Xena admitted. "But the scroll he was carrying bore my friends seal, and the message made references to things only my friend would know. The request is real. Please Gabrielle," she said, taking a deep breath. "I have to go. I cant be too late to help again," she finished quietly.
Gabrielle looked at her friend silently, wanting to tell her not to go but knowing that Xena had to leave. "All right," she said finally. "But only if you promise me that youll come back here safe and in one piece."
Xena let out the breath she had been holding, as she reached forward to take Gabrielle into her arms. "I promise that Ill be back before youve even had a chance to miss me," she said with a smile.
"Not possible Warrior," Gabrielle replied softly. "Because Im going to start missing you the second you walk out the door. How long will you be gone?"
Xena hesitated before responding. "Im not sure. A week at least, maybe two...Will you be okay here?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Ill be fine. The innkeeper wanted me to stay longer anyway, so I doubt therell be any problem making an arrangement with him. But if you arent going to be back within two weeks, then send word. Otherwise I may just get the entire Amazon tribe and come after you," she said with a slight smile.
Xena smiled at her words, before pulling the young woman to her to kiss her. Breaking the kiss, she reached up to cup Gabrielles cheeks with her palms. Rubbing her thumbs across them, she gazed quietly into her lovers eyes, her own eyes filled with tenderness. "I love you," she said softly, before leaning forward to kiss Gabrielle once again.
After gently caressing Gabrielles face one last time, she rose to leave. The young bard reached up and captured one of her hands. Closing her eyes, she brought Xenas hand to her lips to kiss it, before rubbing it softly against her cheek once more. Opening her eyes, she looked at the warrior, love shining from her eyes. "I love you too. Be safe," she said quietly.
Xena nodded, as she squeezed Gabrielles hand and moved away, wishing they had more time to say good-bye properly. Taking a deep breath, she turned to look at her lover one last time. "I left the scroll with all the information on the table," she said quietly. "It has my friends name and the location of his home, but you wont need it. Ill be back soon. I promise," she vowed. "After all," she said with a crooked smile, "What choice do I have? You hold my heart."
"And you hold my soul," Gabrielle said softly, as she watched Xena turn and walk out the door.
Xena smiled to herself, as she neared the town of Nalimore. Her return had been delayed for days and, as each day had passed, she had become more and more anxious to get back to the village. She had managed to rescue her friends wife and son with comparative ease. The man who had kidnapped them was someone Xena had once ridden with. Outwitting him had been a fairly easy task. Wife and son had been safely returned home. Xena had been prepared to ride out, but her friend had implored her to stay for one more day, so that he could thank her properly. Xena had resisted at first, but eventually had given in, mainly to give Argo a chance to rest. The mare had been pushed hard for several days and a day off for her was long overdue. Unfortunately, that night it had begun to storm. As the rains fell, the rivers rose, making the return trip essentially impossible. Several days passed before Xena was able to leave and, even then, the roads were so muddy that travel was slow at best. Fortunately, she was still within the two week deadline Gabrielle had given her, so she didnt have to worry that her friend had rallied the troops to begin looking for her.
As she drew closer to the town, a sense of uneasiness began to wash over her. At first she was unable to figure out what was bothering her, but soon she began to recognize the unmistakable signs that told her the town had recently been attacked. Fear rising up inside her, she kicked Argo into a gallop. She charged down the road, desperate to reach the village.
Argo thundered into the town, startling several of the residents, until a couple of them recognized the warrior who had been in their village the week before. "Gabrielle?" Xena shouted out frantically. "Gabrielle?" she repeated, a note of fear entering her voice, when she saw the sorrowful looks that the villagers were giving her, before quickly turning away.
Xena turned quickly at the sound of a familiar voice. An older man was slowly approaching her, his arm in a sling and a jagged scar showing on his right cheek. Xena racked her brain trying to remember the mans name, before it finally came to her. "Hrothgar," she said urgently, as she jumped down from Argo to approach him. "Where is Gabrielle? What happened here?"
"Shes...shes at the temple. We were attacked several days ago by a large army. They were too much for us, I suppose we should be happy they didnt destroy the entire town," he said sadly.
"Is Gabrielle all right?" Xena demanded, fighting down the terror that was threatening to consume her.
Hrothgars eye reflected infinite sadness, as he paused before replying. "Im sorry Warrior. Gabrielle is dead."
"Dead? What do you mean shes dead?" Xena demanded angrily. "She cant be dead! Theres got to be a mistake!"
Hrothgar shook his head sadly. "Im sorry to be the one who has to tell you this, but your friend has crossed over to the other side."
Xenas mind reeled in shock, but she refused to believe that Gabrielle could actually be gone. "Where is she? I want to see her body now!"
Hrothgar hesitated momentarily before nodding. "As I said, shes at the temple. All her things are there too," he replied. He led Xena through the village in silence. Once they entered the temple, he gestured towards a small, plain sarcophagus resting at the opposite end and, as they approached, Xena could see Gabrielles staff leaning up against it. "We werent certain what to do about her. We knew you were supposed to be back soon, so we decided to wait a few more days before lighting a funeral fire for her."
Silently, Xena moved towards the sarcophagus. As she reached out to open the lid, Hrothgar quickly moved to place his hand on her arm to stop her. Without a word, Xena glanced down at the hand resting on her arm, before slowly looking up to stare at the man beside her. Hastily pulling his hand back, he swallowed several times before he was able to speak. "I just wanted to warn you...her death was not an easy one...She was badly injured and her body shows the marks of it," he finally managed to stammer.
Xena nodded woodenly, as she turned back to face the sarcophagus. Taking a deep breath, she opened the lid and looked inside, praying that somehow a terrible mistake had been made. As she looked down on the body, however, she realized that her prayers had gone unanswered. The body inside had been severely mutilated, but there was no doubt that it was Gabrielles. After a few moments, Xena shut the coffin, unable to look at her friend any longer. Placing both hands on the lid, she silently stared at the sarcophagus for several long minutes, her expressionless face giving no clue as to what she was thinking or feeling. "How did it happen?" she finally asked dispassionately, as she remained focused on the sarcophagus. "Did you see it?"
Hrothgar cleared his throat nervously. "Many of us did...I...I could find someone who is better at this sort of thing...."
"Youll do. Tell me what happened."
"Warrior...you dont want to hear this. Let it go. Well help you with the pyre...."
Xena suddenly whirled around to face him, grabbing him roughly and ignoring his gasp of pain as she hauled him close to her face. "I wont ask you again. Tell me how this happened. And if you leave anything out, I swear by Hades you will regret it for the rest of your short life!" she ground out, her voice as cold as steel.
Hrothgar stumbled backwards, as Xena abruptly pushed him away. Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves and collect his thoughts, he slowly began to tell Xena what she had demanded to know. "The town was attacked....by the warlord Martakas...."
"Martakas? Youre certain it was him?" Xena demanded in astonishment.
"Yes, he told us his name...wanted us to remember it," he replied, as he looked at Xena in confusion.
Xena nodded. "Okay...it was Martakas. Go on."
"His army attacked us. Your friend was in the tavern telling stories. When we heard the screams of the others, we all ran outside." Hrothgar paused to wipe the sweat from his brow, before resuming. "Your friend was very brave. She saved the life of a small child and....and she saved my life as well. She even managed to disable several of the soldiers, before Martakas saw her...He fought her himself and he defeated her...he...he...." Hrothgar paused, unable to continue.
"Go on," Xena said, her voice completely lacking emotion of any kind.
"He was angry, so angry. Gabrielle had beaten his men. She had landed several solid blows to him as well...I even thought for awhile she would defeat him. But once he finally had her, he began to beat her and...he raped her...and then several of his men raped her." Hrothgar hung his head, unable to look at the Warrior Princess. "Thats enough Warrior. You dont need to hear anymore," he begged, unwilling to continue the story.
"Finish," she spat back at him.
Hrothgar sighed in defeat, realizing that nothing was going to stop Xena from hearing the entire, horrifying story. "The fighting was pretty much over by then, so Martakas gave her to his men. He told them they could do whatever they wanted with her, as long as they didnt kill her or mark her face. He wanted her to serve as an example to the rest of us as to what happened to those who would dare to resist him. He didnt want us to forget the identity of the woman he was punishing. After several hours had passed, Martakas had the men bring her back to the town center. He ordered all the villagers there as well. He was holding the children hostage; we didnt dare resist him. He ripped the remaining shreds of clothing from her body and then raped your friend one last time in front of everyone. Then...then he ordered that she be flogged."
As Hrothgar continued to speak, Xena struggled to remain calm, knowing that if she lost control now she would never get it back again. She tried to just listen to Hrothgars words, to keep things on an abstract, simple level. Slowly, though, the images of Gabrielles pain and torture began to fill her head and she saw everything as if it was happening before her.
Martakas laughed loudly, while he watched the young woman writhing in anguish beneath the lash. She hung from the whipping pole he had had his men put up. Her back was raw and bleeding and she was barely conscious. The sounds of her low moans of agony filled the air. Realizing that if the beating continued she would soon pass out, Martakas ordered his man to stop. He slowly approached the woman. Lifting her head, he waited calmly while she slowly focused her pain-filled eyes. Finally seeing a glimmer of recognition flash across her face, he smiled broadly, before spitting at her and slapping her as hard as he could.
Gabrielles senses were rocked by the powerful blow, but it was only one of many she had already suffered that day. She heard Martakas order that she be cut down. As the ropes binding her to the whipping pole were sliced, she collapsed to the ground, gasping in pain. She lay there, unable to defend herself, let alone get away. Every part of her body was in agony and she began praying to the gods that the torment would end soon.
"People of Nalimore. Do not forget what you see here today. Know that this is the fate of any who would dare resist Martakas," the warlord arrogantly called out. Kicking Gabrielle as hard as he could, he managed to roll her onto her back. Grinning widely, he loosened his trousers and then proceeded to piss on the young womans face, while his men cheered raucously. "Woman, wake up!" he ordered loudly. "It would be a shame to miss whats coming next," he jeered.
Gabrielle sputtered as she struggled to get away, but she lacked the strength to do more than raise her hands in a feeble attempt to cover her face. She looked up helplessly at Martakas, wondering what the warlord had in mind for her next. "Put her on it," she heard him yell, as he fastened his trousers once again.
To her horror, she saw a large cross being carried into the town square. She looked at Martakas in astonishment, not believing that he could truly intend to put her up onto that thing. As two soldiers came forward and grabbed her, however, she realized that he was actually going to do it. She struggled frantically, ignoring the excruciating pain that wracked her entire body with every move she made, as she desperately tried to escape this new torment. Her reserves was too far gone, however, and she was helpless in the face of their superior strength.
The villagers began growing agitated when they realized Martakas intention and, for a brief moment, Gabrielle thought they were going to try to help her. Martakas, noticing the villagers behavior, turned to them and looked them over carefully. "If anyone helps this woman in anyway, if anyone makes a move to try to stop what we are doing to her, then everyone in this village will die, starting with your children," he said calmly. He smiled in satisfaction when he saw the villagers will to resist vanish in the face of his statements.
As the soldiers began tying her to the cross, Gabrielle thrashed wildly until one of them smashed her across the face with his clenched fist, momentarily stunning her and ending her resistance. The soldiers quickly finished the job and began to raise the cross, when Martakas stopped them. Moving close to the young woman, he ran his hands over her body, grinning when he saw her flinch beneath his touch. "You are a beauty. Its too bad you had to defy me. We could have had so much fun together," he smirked, squeezing her breasts as hard as he could and laughing when he heard the young woman yelp in pain. Running his hand down between her thighs, he rubbed his hand coarsely against her, laughing again when he saw her shudder of revulsion. "Ahh well, I guess it wasnt meant to be," he said with mock sadness as he stood up and began walking away. "Nail her to it," he said coldly, his voice radiating pure evil. "We dont want to take any chances of her falling off now, do we."
Gabrielle screamed in agony as the soldiers drove the nails through her wrists and legs and tears began streaming down her face. Martakas watched the entire process with a broad smile, pleased with the effects of his torture. With a gesture, he ordered the cross lifted into place, laughing when he heard the young womans choked, pain-filled sobs. He looked her over carefully, a satisfied grin on his face, before finally turning back to the villagers who were watching. "The woman will remain up there until my men and I are ready to leave. If anyone helps her, you all will die," he said harshly, in a tone that brooked no argument, before turning and walking away.
For Gabrielle, the next few hours passed by in a pain-filled haze. The soldiers came by regularly to taunt her and occasionally throw water at her, but she was rapidly losing any awareness of her surroundings. She tried to hold out hope for rescue, praying that somehow Xena would return in time to save her but, as more time passed, she realized that that wasnt going to happen.
When the sun went down, the temperature dropped rapidly and Gabrielle began to shiver uncontrollably, increasing the torment she was in. She fell in and out of consciousness, waking up whenever she began gasping for air, as she forced her body up so that she could take another breath, moaning in agony each and every time she had to do so.
Eventually, the night ended and the sun rose, signaling the next day. As Gabrielle looked around at her surroundings, she knew with utter certainty that she would be dead before the end of the day. The thought terrified her, not because she feared death, but because there were things that needed to be done before she could allow herself to pass over to the other side, and she began to worry that she wasnt going to get the chance.
She fought to remain focused on who and where she was, enduring the pain as she resisted the temptation to simply succumb. Finally, she saw a familiar face standing nearby. With a feeble movement of her head, she begged the man to approach, ignoring the excruciating pain that the action caused.
Hrothgar approached hesitantly, conscious of the fact that it would mean the death of the entire village if they thought he was helping the young woman. Deep down he wanted nothing more than to do just that, but he knew he couldnt bring down the wrath of Martakas on the entire village, especially not on the children. "Yes?" he finally asked quietly, glancing around one last time to make certain there were no guards close at hand.
Gabrielle looked down at the man standing before her as she struggled to speak. Her voice was all but gone and she knew that the pain she had endured before would be nothing compared to what she was going to experience as soon as she tried to speak, but she had no choice, she had to get a message to Xena. Lifting herself up to take another breath, she ignored the pain as she began to speak. "Tell Xena...I want Ephiny...have my right...right of caste," she gasped out, before the waves of pain coursing through her body overwhelmed her once again.
Hrothgar stared at her in confusion, completely clueless as to what she was talking about and wondering if she was simply delirious from the pain. "You want me to tell Xena that you want Ephiny to have your right of caste?" he finally asked, his voice making it clear he was certain he had misunderstood her.
Gabrielle nodded, as relief swept over her body. Struggling once again to speak, she reassured him, "Its okay...shell know," she moaned, before collapsing once again.
"All right. Ill tell her as soon as I see her," Hrothgar promised, as he turned, anxious to get away before any of the guards decided he was too close.
"Wait," he heard Gabrielles tortured sob coming from behind him, stopping him in his tracks. Looking back up, he saw the young woman was desperately fighting to speak once again and his heart ached at the unbelievable torment she was enduring. Finally, Gabrielle gained enough control of the pain rippling through her to speak one last time. "Tell Xena...I...love her," she wheezed, before giving in to the agony sweeping over her body.
Hrothgar looked at her sadly. "Ill tell her," he promised again, moving away before any of the soldiers noticed him.
For the young bard, the rest of the day passed by in a pain-induced delirium. At times she wanted to simply give up, to accept the sweet reprieve that her death would grant her, but she couldnt stop fighting; her will to live was simply too strong. Slowly she began to realize that Martakas and his men were preparing to leave the village, and she wondered once again if he intended to kill her before he left, or leave her alive as a continuing lesson to those in the village.
Martakas studied the woman hanging before him. "So my sweet. Will you miss me when Im gone?" he asked derisively. "I know Ill miss you. Its seldom that I meet someone who can provide me with quite so much entertainment," he told her, before motioning towards the soldier who was with him. "And now the fun really begins," he said with a grin. "Break them!" he ordered. Without a moments hesitation, the soldier swung the club he was carrying in a savage arc, smashing the weapon across Gabrielles legs. Martakas encouraged his man to continue, laughing wildly as he watched the club pound into the young womans legs over and over, shattering the bones completely.
A loud scream of pure agony was ripped from Gabrielles throat when she felt the first blow from the club. When the soldier stepped back, her body was shaking uncontrollably, as spasms of pain wracked through her. Shuddering sobs were the only sound she was capable of making.
"Now well get to see just how strong you really are," Martakas told her. "Now that your legs are broken, youll have to lift yourself up using just your arms. The average person dies after about three hours or so of this, but Id bet you could last at least four or five," he said encouragingly, before turning and wandering away to see to the last of their departure preparations.
Gabrielle lost complete track of time and her surroundings, as she struggled to hold out against the latest torment. Searing pain shot through her body with every breath she had to take, only to be replaced by an agonizing ache while she rested. She hadnt known it was possible to endure so much torment and still manage to stay alive. She knew though, that the end was almost near. One way or another, her suffering was going to end soon.
With an almost detached air, she finally noticed Martakas and several of his soldiers approaching her. "Get her down from there," Martakas ordered, waiting calmly while his men hurried to do his bidding. He watched calmly as Gabrielle fell to the ground in front of him, gasping for air as her body twitched convulsively. For several moments, he observed her with an almost curious expression, before finally drawing his sword and facing the village. "Never forget what you have seen here," he said brazenly, before ordering two of his men to roll Gabrielle onto her back and then grab her hands and feet to hold her firmly on the ground before him.
Martakas waited for several minutes until he was certain that his plaything was once again fully aware of where she was. Looking down at her he grinned, before placing the tip of his sword against her left collarbone. He pressed against the blade until he began to draw blood and then slowly dragged the tip down her body until he reached her right hip.
Gabrielle struggled weakly for a moment and then gave up, knowing that it was futile and that Martakas wanted to see her struggle. As she felt the blade move to her right shoulder and then arc down to her left hip, she bit down on her lip to keep from crying out, but she couldnt stop her body from writhing in pain when she felt the tip of the sword slice open her breast.
Martakas raised his eyebrows in silent salute as he saw her fighting to remain silent. He then smiled when he saw the trickle of blood coming from her lips where she had bitten through the tender skin. "You have been truly incredible," he said softly. "But alas, all good things must come to an end," he said regretfully, as he placed the blade to her neck. For one brief moment he acted as if he intended to cut her throat, and then he stopped himself. "No...this will be even better," he said, as he pulled his sword away. Stepping forward slightly, he twirled his sword above his head and then brought it down quickly, severing both her hands from her body, laughing as her screams of horror filled the air. He watched as she slowly bled to death before him.
For the first time since Hrothgar had begun speaking, Xenas eyes registered an emotion: pure and utter shock. Turning back to the sarcophagus, she opened it once again and pulled back the sheet that was partially covering her friend, gasping softly when she saw that Hrothgar had been telling the truth. Although Gabrielles left hand was lying beside her body, her right hand was missing. "Where is her other hand?" she demanded angrily.
"Martakas...Martakas took it as a trophy...He made a comment about it...about it being a good luck charm."
Xena lowered the lid of the sarcophagus and struggled desperately to gain control of her anger. "Martakas just stood there and watched her bleed to death?" she finally managed to ask.
Hrothgar nodded nervously. "Yeah...she uh...she passed out pretty quickly. Probably from the shock. Martakas waited until he was sure she was dead, before he walked away. I guess he didnt want to take even the slightest chance that someone might be able to save her." Clearing his throat, he hesitated before speaking again. "The right of caste thing...you know what she meant by that? I wasnt sure if I got that right but she seemed pretty worried about it."
"I know what she meant," Xena replied lifelessly, as she felt her heart break into a thousand pieces. She still couldnt believe that Gabrielle had actually managed to speak while being crucified. The pain must have been unimaginable for her friend. After several moments had passed, she finally found her voice. "Thank you," she said dully. "Ill be taking her body with me. What do I owe you for this?" she said, gesturing towards the sarcophagus.
"Nothing. Its all we could do for her...I just wish we could have done more, provided something more fitting."
Xena wasnt able to speak and so nodded to acknowledged Hrothgars words. "Ill be leaving town shortly and Ill be back for her as soon as Im ready to go," she finally choked out, as she turned and fled from the room.
Xena could feel the blood pounding in her head as the familiar, comforting darkness rose within her. Gabrielle was dead, she was gone...and there was nothing Xena could do to change it. Nothing mattered anymore, nothing made any difference. The only thing in the entire world that she cared about, the only thing that had given her life meaning, had been brutally taken from her. Someone was going to pay for this...and Xena knew exactly who that someone was.
Promise me if anything happens to me you will not become a monster...promise me.
Xena growled in frustration as she heard the words Gabrielle had said to her so long ago, and she shook her head angrily. I know I promised you Gabrielle...but this is too much to ask of me! When I made that promise to you, I never thought Id be asked to accept this. That bastard didnt kill you, he destroyed you!
Martakas. The name alone filled her with a hatred unlike anything she had experienced in years. In the span of a few weeks, he had managed to cause the death of two people she had truly loved. Gods above, it would be so easy to just let go, to give in to the bloodlust that was coursing through her body. It wouldnt fill the void left in her soul, but it would deaden the pain. And all she had to do was just embrace that part of herself that shed been trying to deny for so long now. Accept the anger, the madness, the darkness that rolled within her.
Xena took several deep breaths, as she finally managed to control the rage that was threatening to overwhelm her. Focus damnit! Focus! No...No, I will not become a monster...but I will not accept this either! Martakas will pay...he will be brought to justice. I wont allow him to continue to destroy.
Her fury under control for the time being, Xena went to find Argo. Before I can do anything about Martakas, I have to take care of Gabrielle first. I can take her to the Amazons, or I can take her to her family in Poteidaia. Xena considered the two options, as she continued to search for the mare, reaching a decision just as she found her horse. Ill take her to the Amazons. Gabrielle was the Amazon Queen; she deserves an Amazon funeral. Ill take her ashes to Poteidaia. If her family doesnt like my decision...well it certainly wont be the first time.
It took Xena nearly a week to reach the Amazon territory. Everyday, she started travel early and continued until darkness had completely fallen. Fortunately, she was only troubled once during her journey, when a half dozen men tried to convince her to hand over her horse, her money and her body. She coolly informed them that she had no time to waste on them and, when they continued to harass her, she calmly killed four of them. The other two barely managed to escape with their lives.
Xena breathed a small sigh of relief, as she reached Amazon territory, knowing that soon the nightmare would be over. She walked alongside Argo in silence for quite some time, completely aware that Amazon scouts had surrounded her, before they finally dropped out of the trees around her. Xena watched impassively as they carefully placed their swords on Gabrielles sarcophagus, honoring their fallen Queen. As they lifted their masks, Xena recognized Solari and Ephiny and nodded briefly at them as they approached. "Were so sorry," Ephiny said, her voice cracking slightly
"We need to get her back to the village," Xena said emotionlessly. "There are a few things I need to discuss with you."
Ephiny nodded, knowing better than to try to talk to the warrior at the moment. "Lets go," she said to the others, as she began moving back towards the village.
The trip back passed by quickly and in absolute silence. Once they entered the village, Ephiny ordered the sarcophagus to be taken to one of the huts and assigned four women to act as guards. Xena stopped her before it could be taken away and informed Ephiny that under no circumstances was the sarcophagus to be opened until after they had talked. Ephiny hesitantly agreed and then led Xena to her own hut.
As they entered Ephinys hut, the Amazon turned to face Xena. "You did bring her here for an Amazon funeral didnt you?" she asked, a note of concern in her voice.
Xena nodded. "Yes...the Amazons were important to her. I felt she should have an Amazon ceremony. Ill take her ashes to her parents afterwards."
Ephiny sighed in relief. "How did this happen?" she asked hesitantly.
Xena stood silently for several long moments, before turning lifeless eyes towards Ephiny. In a halting voice, she told the Amazon the story of Gabrielles death, leaving out little in the retelling but stopping frequently whenever she felt her anger beginning to burn out of control. As she finished, she looked directly at Ephiny. "She wanted you to have her right of caste."
Ephiny nodded. "We will honor her memory throughout the night and tomorrow we will light the funeral pyre. What will you do then?"
"Im going after the man responsible," Xena said, her voice cold and hard.
Ephiny looked at her uneasily. "Xena, you arent really intending to take on an entire army on your own, are you?"
Xena nearly laughed out loud at the irony. She had once destroyed an entire army over a woman whom shed merely cared about. Now Ephiny was doubting whether or not she could handle the army that had killed the woman Xena had loved more than life itself. "I intend to put a stop to Martakas once and for all," she replied simply.
"Xena," Ephiny said carefully, knowing how painful this was for the warrior. "Gabrielle wouldnt want you to go on a killing spree over her."
"Ephiny," Xena shot back angrily. "Your Queen was murdered...more than that she was tortured, raped and crucified before they finally ended her torment! Can you honestly tell me, as an Amazon, that you dont want the man responsible dead?"
Ephinys mind warred with her emotions. Part of her agreed completely with Xena. The man responsible must be made to pay. It was Amazon justice and they couldnt allow someone to murder their Queen and get away with it. On the other hand, she knew the fears Gabrielle had had about what Xena might do if anything ever happened to her. Allowing Xena to go after Gabrielles killer was an extremely dangerous thing to do. "I should go," she finally said quietly. "I should be the one to go after her killer. She gave her right of caste to me. Its my duty and my responsibility."
"You cant do it," Xena replied, holding her hand up to stop Ephinys protests. "This village has changed Queens too many times over the past few months. Your place is here. The village needs you to provide them with some stability. Right now, the Queen cant leave on a mission of vengeance."
"But you can leave to seek vengeance on Gabrielles killer? Do you honestly think thats what shed want, Xena?" Ephiny demanded.
"Im going Ephiny and thats final," Xena replied, as she glared at the Amazon standing before her. "Ill stay long enough to honor Gabrielle and then Ill be leaving to track down her killer," she said, before pushing past Ephiny to walk out the door.
Gabrielles funeral was a grand affair. Xena observed the entire thing calmly, appearing to an unknowing watcher to be untouched by the event. Inside, however, she was slowly dying. As she watched the flames consume the sarcophagus that contained Gabrielles body, she felt the darkness within her rising up, as it struggled to consume her once again.
It was late in the afternoon by the time Xena was finally ready to leave. Ephiny had agreed to guard Gabrielles ashes until the warrior could return to retrieve them. Xena had briefly considered taking them to Poteidaia before she went after Martakas but had quickly discarded the idea. For one thing, the warlord already had a huge head start on her and it was time to end his reign of terror once and for all. For another, Xena wasnt particularly anxious to deal with Gabrielles family any sooner than she had to. Putting that confrontation off for a little while longer was definitely an inviting option.
Xena was in the process of gathering up the last of her gear, when Ephiny entered her hut. Xena deliberately ignored the Amazon for several minutes, as she continued to get ready. She was almost amused by the fact that Ephiny was obviously prepared to wait her out. Finishing with her task, Xena turned to face her visitor, squaring her shoulders and setting her jaw as she did so. "You arent going to try to change my mind are you?" she finally asked.
Ephiny shook her head. "No...youre right. Martakas must be brought to justice."
Xena nodded. "Good, Im glad were agreed."
"Oh we are," Ephiny assured her. "Ive even talked to the tribunal about this matter. Its a bit of a gray area as far as Amazon law is concerned. We know who killed Gabrielle and, since she gave her right of caste to me, I would normally be the one expected to act as her avenger. But you were right. The tribunal agreed that, after everything that has happened, it would be wrong for me to leave the village right now to hunt down her murderer." Ephiny paused for a moment before continuing. "So we want you to bring Martakas back to the village after you capture him."
Xena looked at Ephiny in utter astonishment. "You cant be serious."
"Im completely serious. Gabrielle gave her right of caste to me not you.
Were all agreed that I cant leave the village right now, so if you intend to
go after this man then you need to bring him back here once you capture him. He will be
tried for his crimes against the Amazons and punished accordingly. Its Amazon
"Ill handle Martakas my own way Ephiny," Xena snarled. "I dont need or care about Amazon justice."
"No?" Ephiny asked softly. "Gabrielle cared about it. It was important to her. Or dont you care about that either?"
Xena glared at Ephiny in mute fury, trapped by the very words she had once spoken to Gabrielle. Taking a deep breath, she tried another tack. "Ephiny...I may not even be able to capture him alive."
Ephiny looked at her calmly. "Try...and before you tell me that you wont be able to get him back here afterwards, Ive already solved that problem. Im sending six warriors along with you. They will help you capture him and bring him back here."
"I dont need any help to deal with this man," Xena snapped in an irritated voice.
"Maybe not. But this is an Amazon matter Xena. I understand your feelings for Gabrielle, but these warriors are going after the warlord, regardless of what you choose to do. I suggest you accept their help and work with them," she replied firmly. "Just be glad Im only sending six. There wasnt a woman in this village who didnt beg to be allowed to go after Martakas. Limiting it to six was one of the hardest things Ive ever had to do."
Xena was furious, but she could see no way out of the situation at the moment. "All right...but Im leaving now."
Ephiny nodded. "Fine. Theyre ready to leave now as well. Cashta," she called loudly. Instantly, the warrior appeared in the doorway. "Cashta, tell the others that Xena is ready to leave. You can meet her at the east entrance to the village."
Ephiny watched as Cashta left, before turning to face Xena once again. "Xena...I know youre hurting right now...but dont do anything you would regret Gabrielle knowing about," she said quietly.
Xena scowled at the Amazon, as she tried to decide how to respond. "Damn you Ephiny," she finally muttered under her breath, as she picked up the rest of her gear and then pushed roughly past the Queen on her way out the door.
Xena and the six Amazons traveled rapidly across the countryside towards Nalimore, the last known location of Martakas. Xena rarely spoke to any of the Amazons and they were all fully aware of the fact that she intensely resented their presence. They quickly came to an agreement that the Amazons would follow Xenas lead, as long as she didnt interfere with their attempts to capture Martakas for trial. They also reached an unspoken agreement that Xena was to be left alone as much as possible.
Xena barely tolerated the women who were traveling with her, but she had to admit that at least Ephiny had chosen well. Cashta was the de facto leader of the group of Amazons. She was a seasoned warrior who was skilled with all her weapons but deadliest with the sword, where her lightning quick reflexes made her one of the most dangerous warriors Xena had ever seen. Zeles was the youngest of them all, younger even than Gabrielle had been. She was a skilled swordswoman, however, and was one of the few warriors Xena had even known that regularly fought with a sword in each hand. Sethline and Narnia were the archers of the group. Their skill with their crossbows was phenomenal but they were also more than able to handle themselves in both armed and unarmed combat. Derassa was the lone staffer. Her skill was impressive, but it was really her ability as a tracker that had earned her the right to be included in the group and Xena realized that even she could learn a thing or two from the young woman. Alaini was the final member of the group. Although she wore a sword strapped to her back, Xena had never seen her use it. Instead, the young womans chosen weapons were the chobos, two short sticks that could be used as clubs. Xena had watched her practicing with them on several occasions and knew that Alaini was truly a master with these weapons, which could be used both to defend and to attack, with devastating results.
The group traveled without incident for several days until they finally reached Nalimore. As they neared the village, Xena brought Argo to a brief stop. "Wait for me here," she said flatly, before going on ahead alone. She had no idea how the villagers would react to the presence of the Amazon women and, at the moment, she was in no mood to deal with them if they turned out to be hostile. She wanted to get the information she needed and be on her way as quickly as possible.
Upon reaching the village, she paused momentarily before heading to the tavern, intending to ask the innkeeper about the whereabouts of Hrothgar. As she entered the inn, however, she saw the older man sitting at a table in the back corner. Crossing the room swiftly and silently, she was seated at his table before he even saw her approaching.
"Warrior!" he exclaimed in a surprised voice. "I never thought Id see you again."
Xena nodded tersely, "I know, but I need any information that you can give me about Martakas. The size of his army, their fighting skills, their insignia...anything at all will help me."
Hrothgar looked at her carefully. "Help you what?"
"Im going after Martakas. This is the last place I know he was, so Im starting here."
Hrothgar shook his head. "Warrior, you cant be serious. You cant go after an entire army by yourself."
"First, Im not by myself. Second, its none of your business what I choose to do. Now tell me what I want to know," Xena said, glaring at him angrily.
With a small shrug, Hrothgar began answering her questions. His information was sketchy but at least it provided Xena with a basis on which to start planning. As for the location of the warlord, the only thing Hrothgar knew was that, after hed left Nalimore, Martakas headed north . Theyd heard a few reports that hed attacked villages and towns in that direction but there had been no recent information.
Xena began to thank Hrothgar for his help, when a young man suddenly appeared at their table. He hesitated when he saw Xena and looked for a moment as if he intended to leave, but Hrothgar stopped his retreat. "Its all right, Askel, were nearly finished here. You arent interrupting."
The young man smiled in relief as he sat down beside Hrothgar. He looked at Xena curiously, then returned his attention to the older man. "Weve finished rebuilding the defenses at the southern gate. Theres nothing much left to do now unless something new has come up."
Hrothgar shook his head. "No lad. I think you and the boys have taken care of everything now." Turning to Xena, Hrothgar smiled slightly. "This is Askel. His parents were friends of mine but they were killed in the attack. Askel and several others came to Nalimore to help us rebuild our village." He paused as he smiled fondly at the young man sitting at his side. "I barely recognized the boy when I first saw him, but I thank the gods that he and the others came to help our village. Wed still just be getting started with the repairs if it wasnt for them. Askel, this is Xena. I believe I mentioned her to you once before," Hrothgar said carefully, his eyes flashing a silent warning to his young friend.
Askel nodded as he recognized the name. He looked at the warrior compassionately, not having needed Hrothgars caution to remember the terrible loss she had suffered. Extending his arm, he smiled as she clasped his wrist. "Its good to meet you, Xena. Ive heard a lot about you. Im truly sorry about your friend. I guess that gives us something in common huh? We both lost people that we cared about to that butcher," he said softly, his voice tightening slightly as he spoke.
"Yeah I guess," Xena said tonelessly, before turning to face Hrothgar once again. "Thanks for the information. Now I just have to find Martakas."
"Martakas?" Askel asked in a surprised voice.
Xena nodded as Hrothgar explained. "Xena intends to go after the warlord."
Askels eyes widened slightly. "Really? Youre really going to put a stop to that bastard?"
Xena shrugged. "Yeah," she said simply.
Askel stared at her for a moment before leaning towards her. "Let me help you," he said earnestly. "Let me and the others go with you. Weve been trying to figure out a way to put a stop to Martakas but we knew there was no way we could do it on our own. With you though....he cant escape you!"
"No," both Xena and Hrothgar said at the same time.
"No lad," Hrothgar repeated, as he placed his hand on the young mans shoulder. "This is no job for you. Its too dangerous."
Askel shook his head. "Hrothgar, Im not the young kid you remember anymore. Im a grown man and Im capable of making my own decisions. This man killed my parents. Ill do anything to see that hes brought to justice."
"No," Xena repeated, as Askel looked at her hopefully. "I dont need you or your friends to help me."
"Probably not," Askel agreed. "But could you use our help? Theres four of us and were all skilled fighters. We could help you if youd just accept us."
Xena shook her head. "This isnt some grand adventure were going on. Youre not going to find fame and fortune at the end of this journey. Its a bounty hunt, pure and simple."
"I know," Askel said quietly. "But its the right thing to do. We have to stand up to men like this. Let me and my friends go with you. You wont regret it if you do."
Xena looked the young man over carefully. He had the appearance of a seasoned warrior, even if he did look a little young. As she considered his request, she slowly began to realize that she honestly didnt care one way or the other. If he wanted to go with her that was fine, and if he changed his mind tomorrow and left then that would be fine too. Shed already been saddled with six people she didnt want...what difference would a few more make? If she decided later that he was interfering with her efforts to deal with Martakas, she could always get rid of him then.
"All right," she finally said. "If you want to come, you can, but only if youve got horses. Im not slowing down for anyone. And there are three conditions." She paused for a moment and then continued once she saw him nod. "First, I want to see for myself that youre a skilled fighter. You and your friends will each face me in combat and if I decide youre good enough you can come with me. You have 30 minutes to meet me on the road north of town. If youre not there by then. Im leaving without you."
"Second, you follow my orders completely. I didnt ask you to join me, you asked me. If you cant handle that, if you have any illusions that well have some kind of equal partnership, then stay here. I have no time to put up with arguing about my decisions."
Askel nodded as he heard each condition, then watched as the warrior stood up to leave. "And the third?" he asked.
"The third? The third is that you remember at all times that when we finally do catch up with Martakas...hes mine," she stated calmly, in a voice as cold as ice. "Agreed?"
Askel swallowed once under the intensity of her gaze and then nodded. "Agreed," he finally said.
"Good. Ill meet you north of town. Hrothgar," she said, as she turned to the older man one last time. "Again, thanks," she said quietly, before stalking out of the tavern and heading out of town.
The four men proved to be as good as Askel had said they were and Xena agreed to let them accompany her. She immediately made it clear to all of them that she wanted to be left alone and that, if they valued their lives, they would respect her wishes. The Amazons were more than a little surprised that Xena had allowed the men to join them but they knew better than to protest. The presence of the newcomers didnt particularly affect their plans one way or the other, so it made no difference to them if they came along or not.
The small group of warriors traveled north rapidly, stopping occasionally in various towns as they tried to find out more information about Martakas. The members of the band got along well enough, but they didnt particularly meld together. The Amazons and the men tended to remain as isolated subgroups and Xena stayed apart from both of them. Still, they worked well together, with no obvious sources of tension among the group and the days passed quickly.
One morning, as they were traveling along a flat stretch of road, they caught sight of a band of thieves attacking a couple of merchants. Immediately, Xena began racing down the road towards the scene and, after a slight hesitation, the others followed her lead. Screaming her war cry, she charged into the midst of the battle, before vaulting off Argo to land in front of one of the bandits. The man saw that she was unarmed and quickly came at her with his dagger. With a malicious grin, Xena reached out and caught the arm that was holding the knife and twisted it down and around to plunge it into the mans own body. Pushing him away from her, she quickly drew her sword and attacked the man closest to her, killing him as well.
The battle was over almost before it had begun and seven dead highwaymen were lying on the ground around them. The three men they had saved looked at them nervously for a few seconds, before finally smiling weakly, as they realized that the warriors who had just appeared out of nowhere were there to save them, not to take the place of those they had defeated. "Thanks," one of them finally said, his voice still somewhat shaky. "We owe you our lives."
Xena simply nodded, then turned away from him to find Argo. The man watched her walk away and then curiously studied the others, before finally clearing his throat and asking, "So who do we have to thank for our rescue?"
Askel looked around and saw that no one was stepping forward, so he smiled and answered the mans question. "Thats Xena," he said, pointing to the warrior. "And I guess the rest of us are just with her," he said with a wry grin.
The man chuckled. "Im Roshard. I want to thank you again for helping us."
"Where are you headed Roshard?" Askel inquired politely.
Askel shook his head. "Im sorry, I dont know that village."
"Cardem isnt far. We should be there by the end of the day if we dont have any more trouble," Roshard replied.
From where she stood with Argo, Xena looked at Roshard silently for several seconds, having listened to the entire conversation between the two men. "Ever heard of a warlord called Martakas?" she asked suddenly.
Roshards eyes widened slightly. "Yes I have. He attacked Cardem awhile back."
"Really?" Xena asked, growing more interested. "Do you think anyone there would know where we could find him?"
Roshard thought for a second. "My brother might," he said finally. "He runs the inn in Cardem so he hears all the gossip."
Xena nodded. "All right. Well escort you there and then well talk to your brother."
The trip to Cardem passed by uneventfully. Xena rode slightly ahead of the group, with the Amazons following just behind. The men came after that, with Askel spending most of the trip talking to Roshard. When they finally began to draw near the village, it was beginning to get dark, so Xena told the others to start setting up camp while she went on ahead to talk to Roshards brother.
Roshard immediately protested. "No thats not necessary. After what you did for me today you shouldnt have to spend the night out here in the cold. Please, all of you, come with me to my brothers inn. Well put you up tonight free of charge."
Xena shook her head. "Thats not necessary. Besides, I doubt your brother would be so pleased with you offering rooms to us like that."
Roshard smiled. "Half the supplies in this wagon belong to him. Putting you up for the night is the least he can do. Really, its okay. Its a large inn and this is a slow season for travelers. Hell have plenty of rooms. Please, I insist."
Xena shrugged. It really made no difference to her, one way or the other, if they spent the night camped out or stayed at an inn. "All right," she finally agreed. "I guess it will make things easier," she said, before moving forward along the road and into the town.
As Roshard had said, his brother was extremely grateful to the band of warriors for their assistance and he willingly provided them with rooms for the evening. His knowledge of Martakas was slim but he had heard reports that the warlord was roaming through the north, laying waste to everything in his path. He promised to ask around that evening to see if anyone else knew more about the warlord and then hurried off to prepare their rooms.
Xena went back outside to take care of Argo and retrieve her things, trusting no one else to do it for her. By the time she reentered the inn, her room was waiting for her. She quickly climbed the stairs and walked the short distance down the hallway to reach the door. As she entered her room, she glanced around briefly. It looked like an average room at an inn: a bed, a table with two chairs, a window, a fireplace. There was nothing out of the ordinary, yet she felt awkward and out of place, and for a moment she couldnt figure out why. Suddenly it hit her. This was the first time in longer than she could remember that she had stayed at an inn without Gabrielle. She hadnt bothered staying at inns when she had had to travel without the young woman. Spending the night at an inn had been something she had done for Gabrielles comfort and, without the bard here with her, the room seemed to mock her with its silence. She glanced momentarily at the bed, before shaking her head and moving to lay her bedroll out on the opposite side of the room. There was no way she could possibly sleep in that bed without Gabrielle. It was already difficult enough for her to sleep at night without being able to hold the young woman in her arms. Trying to sleep in a bed without her would be nothing short of torture.
Xena briefly wandered around the room, before sitting down heavily in one of the chairs. An overwhelming sense of emptiness washed over her. Her world had collapsed when Gabrielle had been taken from her. The pain that filled her soul was beyond anything she could have ever imagined and things were only getting worse. Her sleep had always been plagued by nightmares, but they had become even more intense and disturbing over the past couple of weeks. She woke up several times a night in a cold sweat, her heart pounding and her body shaking, tears streaming down her cheeks. And every night it was a variation of the same dream...Gabrielle suffering at the hands of Martakas, begging for mercy, crying out for Xena to rescue her and Xena never getting there in time to save her.
As she looked around the room, images of the last time she had seen Gabrielle alive raced through her mind. She saw the bard kneeling before her, her hands covering Xenas as she looked up at the warrior with such an expression of trust and love that it nearly took Xenas breath away. She saw the young womans face, as she held the bard in her arms, promising that she would always love her. She could feel Gabrielles arms wrapping around her to hold her tight and she could feel the warmth of her body as the bard slept against her chest.
"Gods Gabrielle, I love you," she choked out hoarsely. "I miss you so much." Xena took a deep breath and fought to compose herself, desperately trying to hold back the tears that were threatening to fall. "I looked for you again today," she finally whispered softly. "I just cant seem to stop doing that. I keep looking down from Argo expecting to see you walking along beside me. I glance across the campfire to catch a glimpse of you working on one of your scrolls. I keep closing my eyes, praying that when I open them Ill find out that this has all been some horrible dream, but it never works." Xena paused for several seconds, as she felt her throat getting tight again and then sighed heavily before continuing. "Today...I was in a fight. After it was over, I looked for you, wanting to make certain you were all right. But it was too late for that...I was too late for that." Xena took a shuddering breath. "Im so sorry Gabrielle. I never should have left you behind. I wasnt there when you needed me. I let you down and Ill never forgive myself for that. But Martakas wont win...I promise you he wont win," she vowed, as tears began falling down her face. For several seconds, she struggled for control, before finally giving in to the pain. Resting her arms on the table, she laid her head down on top of them, as silent sobs wracked her body.
It was quite awhile before Xena was able to go downstairs to join the others for dinner or, at least, to go downstairs to eat dinner in the same room with the others, since she sat alone at a table in a corner. The last thing in the world she wanted at the moment was company, a fact she made abundantly clear to all the men who thought a woman sitting alone at a table was an open invitation. After she nearly broke the arm of the third man who tried to join her, word rapidly spread throughout the tavern that the tall, dark-haired woman wanted to be left alone.
As the evening progressed, Xena continued to sit alone, nursing her drink. The four men who were traveling with her were all sitting at one table, while the Amazons sat at another. After awhile, two of the Amazons left to go upstairs. Xena briefly considered leaving as well but quickly decided against it. That room brought back too many memories of the ones she had spent time in with Gabrielle. She wasnt going to go up there until she actually had to.
After a little more time had passed, Xena noticed a small commotion towards one end of the bar. Curious, she turned her attention in that direction and tried to discern what was going on. Several seconds later, she heard the bartender call for quiet, as a young man hopped up and sat on the counter. The bartender then announced that the bard was ready to give his performance for the evening and, after introducing the young man as Serolius, he backed away to give him more room.
Xena groaned inwardly as she heard the announcement. A performance by a bard was the last thing in the world she wanted to hear at the moment. She again thought about leaving but decided that maybe she could just ignore Serolius and put off going up to the room for a little while longer.
"On the sunny slopes of the Phrygian hills, two oak trees can be seen growing side by side...."
Xenas head snapped up as she heard the bard begin his story. Her face white with shock, she felt as if all the air had suddenly left her body and she fought to breathe normally. As she listened to the bard start to tell his story, she had to forcibly resist the urge to charge across the room and beat him until he stopped speaking. She knew that if she didnt get out of the room immediately, she would do just that. She struggled to her feet and stumbled over to the table where the Amazons were sitting. "We leave at dawn. Tell the others," she growled, as she jerked her head towards the table where Askel and the other men were sitting, before fleeing from the main room.
Xena stormed into her own room and slammed the door behind her. Damn that bard! Out of every story the fool had to know, he had to chose to tell that one. She swore again loudly, as she raged against the hand shed been dealt. This was not the way that things were supposed to turn out. She and Gabrielle were supposed to end up like Philemon and Baucis; they were supposed to intertwine with one another for the rest of eternity. They had finally discovered their love for one another and now the Fates had ripped them apart. It was as if she was the butt of some great cosmic joke, and she was getting tired of the whole damn thing.
She took several deep breaths and forced herself to relax, knowing that if she didnt calm down immediately, she was likely to go back downstairs and put a permanent end to that bards storytelling days. This loss of control was getting harder and harder to handle and she was finding that the dark thoughts of her past were visiting her with increasing frequency. Wrapping around her heart and soul, they comforted and insulated her like a warm blanket on a cold night.
With an audible sigh, she removed her scabbard and chakram and tossed them into a corner, while banishing from her mind all thoughts of the bard and his story. She rolled her neck around for several seconds, as she tried to relieve the stress and tension of the past several days, and then sat down and began taking off her armor. Almost immediately, memories of Gabrielle helping her to undress began to dominate her thoughts, and her fingers became uncharacteristically clumsy, causing her to fumble with the buckles and straps. The harder she worked to remove the pieces, the more difficult she began to find the task and the angrier she became. By the time she finally managed to get the breastplate undone, her fury was raging out of control and she hurled it across the room, wanting the offending item as far away from herself as possible. She struggled to remove the rest of the armor, flinging each piece away from her, as she removed it from her body. Low, angry snarls came from her throat with every breath she took.
She stood up and walked around to stand behind the chair, clutching the top of it tightly, as she fought back the anger and rage that were building within her, but it was no use. She had been pushed too far. Suddenly, with a muffled yell, she lifted the chair and swung it over her head, before smashing it down across the table and breaking it into several pieces.
Xena heard the sound of someone running down the hall towards her room, followed by the noise of the door to her room opening. She knew that it was one of the Amazons who had entered but she remained where she was. She stood with her back to the door, while she gazed down quietly at the table in front of her, which was now covered with broken parts of the chair.
Alaini looked around the room for several seconds to assure herself that Xena was not under attack. Finally, her gaze rested on the tall warrior standing silently in the middle of the room. Looking at Xena more closely, Alaini saw that she was holding two broken pieces of wood in her hands. She realized that they were part of a chair and that the rest of it was scattered across the table and floor. She hesitated for a few more moments before asking, "What happened?"
Xena continued to stand with her back to the door, as she answered the womans question. "I tripped," she replied flatly.
Alaini looked the warrior over carefully, knowing that Xena was like a wounded animal at the moment and that that made her even more deadly than usual. "All right," she said finally, her voice carefully neutral. "Do you think you will...trip...anymore tonight?"
Xena shook her head. "No. Ill be all right," she replied, sighing in relief when she heard the Amazon shut the door and walk away. Cursing softly, Xena dropped the two pieces of the chair that she was still holding and walked over to look out the window. She was dangerously close to losing control completely and she knew it. She could feel her anger pulsing through her body with every beat of her heart. She stared out the window as she desperately tried to focus on her breathing. Concentrating on taking slow even breaths, she clenched her fists in frustration, as she felt her rage slowly rising up once again. Despite all her efforts, she began to see visions of Gabrielle suffering at the hands of Martakas. She closed her eyes tightly, as her body began to tremble and tried to banish the images, but they continued to overwhelm her. She saw her friend on the cross, screaming in agony, saw her being raped repeatedly by Martakas and his men, saw the expression on her face as Martakas sword cut through her wrists.
"Enough!" she growled hoarsely, as she turned away from the window. Stalking around the room like a caged animal, she paused when she felt a warm, stickiness coating her left hand. Looking down, she noticed blood oozing out from between her still clenched fingers. Carefully opening her hand, she saw that it was covered in blood and several small cuts covered the palm where her fingernails had pierced the skin.
Xena stared at her hand with an indifferent expression, as if it was something unrelated and completely set apart from herself, watching as her blood slowly flowed over her skin. As she continued to examine her hand, a malevolent grin began to spread across her face. Blood on her hand. Gods what she wouldnt give for it to be Martakas blood. She promised herself, though, that it would be soon. He would pay for what he had done. No matter how long it took to catch up with him, she would find him and she would make certain he was punished for his crimes.
But he hadnt acted alone. His soldiers had helped him, supported him. They had taken part in Gabrielles torture with gleeful abandon. The gods only knew how many of them had abused, defiled and raped her, before Martakas had had her brought back to the town square. And the villagers...they had just stood by and watched, never lifting a finger to help the woman whose only crime was that she had tried to protect their worthless lives. They might not have actively participated in Gabrielles final horror but they didnt do a thing to stop it either. They were guilty as well and they should consider themselves fortunate that she didnt wipe their miserable village from the face of the earth as punishment for their inaction.
Stop it, she ordered herself harshly, as she realized the direction of her thoughts. Taking several deep breaths, she managed to slow her pounding heart once again. The villagers couldnt be blamed for being weak and afraid. She couldnt hold them responsible for Gabrielles death. The soldiers were a different matter. She would love to destroy the entire army and, if any of them interfered with her plans for Martakas, then she would deal with them ruthlessly and mercilessly. But Martakas was the one she was really after. He was the one who had actually killed Gabrielle and, for that, he would die.
Someone has to say no to this lust for revenge.
"This is not revenge!" Xena snarled angrily, as the words Gabrielle had said to her, right after they had first met Callisto, echoed in her mind. "This is justice!" Martakas had signed his own death warrant when he killed Gabrielle. He was a walking corpse, he just didnt know it yet. Whether Xena killed him herself or she turned him over to the Amazons, the result would still be the same for the warlord: death.
So why was she resisting the idea of capturing him and handing him over to the Amazons for trial? Despite what she had said to Ephiny, she knew she could capture Martakas alive if she wanted to, but that was just it...she didnt want to. She wanted to kill him herself. She wanted to see him on his knees in front of her. She wanted to hear him begging for the mercy he wouldnt give Gabrielle, the mercy hed never get from her. She wanted to see the fear in his eyes when he realized he had no chance of escaping her; when he realized his own death was at hand. She wanted to watch his body writhe in agony beneath the tip of her sword, as she slowly carved intricate patterns across his skin. She wanted to hear his strangled screams of pain as she buried her sword in his chest and she wanted to feel his blood flowing out over her hand like a warm caress. She wanted to see the light slowly fade from his eyes and she wanted to hear the sounds of his last rattled breaths ringing in her ears.
As she looked at the blood that was now trailing down her arm, Xena shook her head in an attempt to calm her raging soul. Walking over to the washbowl, she filled it with water from the pitcher sitting beside it and then paused as she realized she needed something to use to clean up the blood. Moving to her saddlebags, she began digging aimlessly though them as she tried to find a rag she could use. As she finally found a clean cloth and began to pull it out, it caught on something in the bag. Growling in frustration, Xena jerked on the rag. To her surprise, it came out wrapped around Gabrielles staff.
Xena froze in shock at the sight of the weapon, having completely forgotten that she had put the staff in her saddlebags. Her breathing grew ragged as she reached out to pick the staff up, her hand shaking violently as she clutched the weapon to her chest. With a low, keening moan, she collapsed to her knees and began slowly rocking back and forth, as the pain of losing Gabrielle smashed through her, leaving her shivering uncontrollably, her grief finally overwhelming her completely. The tears she had shed earlier that day were nothing compared to the sobs that wracked her body, as she finally broke down and allowed herself to mourn the death of her friend and lover.
Xena called Gabrielles name over and over until her voice was hoarse and raw. She cried until she was too weak to support herself any longer and then slumped to the floor as shuddering, pain-filled sobs continued to be ripped from her soul. Gods above, she didnt want to go on living without Gabrielle. There was nothing left on the earth for her now that her lover had crossed over to the other side. She wanted to die. Even if she ended up in Tartarus and she wouldnt be able to be with Gabrielle, at least she wouldnt have to deal with the agony of knowing that she was alive, while the only person she had ever truly loved was dead. And maybe, just maybe, Hades would remember the favors she had done for him and he would at least let her occasionally see Gabrielle as a reward.
She cried for hours before she finally wore herself out. As her sobs slowly eased, changing to soft whimpers and then stopping all together, she lay quietly on the floor, staring silently at the wall. She was drained, physically and emotionally, and she felt completely empty inside. There was no way she was ever going to feel whole again. She had lost her heart and she had lost her soul, all that was left was a hollow shell.
As she continued to gaze silently at the wall, a cold, dark rage began to settle over her. She had grieved for Gabrielle, now she would avenge her death. No matter how much she might crave death, no matter how much she might desire the sweet release it would provide her, she couldnt allow herself to die just yet. She still had things that had to be done here in the world of the living. She had to see that Martakas paid for his crimes. She would never be able to rest until he was dead.
As the first streaks of light, that signaled the dawn, appeared through her window, Xena carefully replaced Gabrielles staff in the saddlebag, before rising to stand on somewhat shaky legs. Walking back over to the washbasin, she carefully began washing the dried blood from her hand and arm. Slowly, she admitted the truth of the situation to herself. She wanted to kill Martakas more than she could even begin to describe and that was the best reason in the world for her to let the Amazons handle him instead, but it was also the reason that she couldnt let them do it. He belonged to her. She would make certain that his punishment fit his crime. She wanted it and no one stopped the Warrior Princess from getting what she wanted. If Ephiny thought that six Amazons or six hundred Amazons would be able to stop her from doing exactly what she wanted, then Ephiny was in for some very rude surprises.