Bulartha called out angrily to her slave, before smiling and turning back to the man seated at the counter in front of her. Bulartha was a large, powerful woman, who ran her tavern with an iron hand and an acid tongue, but she could be reasonably charming to her customers when she wanted to and, at the moment, she wanted to. The current focus of her attention was a handsome young man who was traveling through her village. If Bulartha had her way, however, the man would be delaying his departure from the village for a day or two, or perhaps three or four.
Bulartha growled under her breath, when she saw another customer asking for a refill and she straightened up to look around for her slave. The keg needed to be replaced and Bulartha had no intention of doing it...that was the reason she had bought the slave in the first place. However, she was getting fed up with the slaves laziness. Bulartha was an understanding owner who felt that one beating a day was more than sufficient for any slave. Her patience was being sorely tested by her newest purchase, though. She was beginning to think that she would have to begin administering a second daily beating as well and was even considering using her whip every day instead of just every other day as she had been doing.
Finally, the slave appeared out of the back storage room and began quickly walking towards Bulartha. "Im sorry I took so....," she started to say, before Bulartha backhanded her across the face as hard as she could, knocking the young woman into the wall.
"No excuses!" the tavern owner snarled angrily. "Now replace that keg before I lose my temper." Ignoring her slave once again, Bulartha turned to face the man at the bar, sighing sadly. "What can you do?" she asked with a helpless shrug. "Good slaves are so hard to come by nowadays."
The young woman hastily began moving the empty keg out from behind the bar, anxious to avoid another beating from her ill-tempered mistress. It didnt take long for her to maneuver the keg into the back storage room and, with a sigh, she shut the door and then leaned against it heavily.
Gabrielle carefully raised her hand to her mouth, flinching slightly when she felt the side of it already beginning to swell. At least, she decided, one more bruise wouldnt make any difference this time. She certainly wasnt going to be giving any performances any time soon, so it wasnt as if she needed to be too concerned about a swollen lip.
Gabrielle groaned softly, as she began pushing the empty keg to the side. She wondered, for the thousandth time, how she had ever ended up as Bularthas slave. She remembered sitting in the tavern in Nalimore telling stories to the customers. They had heard people screaming outside the tavern and she had grabbed her staff and run out to see what was happening. She remembered the soldiers charging down the street towards them. She remembered one of the soldiers lifting his sword to plunge it into a small child, before she disarmed him and then knocked him unconscious. She remembered an explosion at the base of her skull and then her world had gone black.
The next thing she could recall was waking up in a dark holding cell. She had no idea how long shed been unconscious or how long shed been in that room. She had eventually been tossed into a wagon and, after several days of travel, she had ended up in this village. She didnt know where this village was and she wasnt entirely certain what it was called. She just knew that slavery was legal here and she had been sold on the auction block to Bulartha the day after she had arrived.
Gabrielle didnt know exactly how long ago the attack on Nalimore had occurred, but she knew that it had been at least a month. At first she had waited confidently for Xena to arrive to rescue her. Gabrielle knew that once her lover returned to Nalimore and discovered that she had been captured by slavers, it wouldnt take the warrior long to find her. As time had passed, however, the young bard had begun to grow worried. There was no way that it should have taken Xena this long to track her down and Gabrielle could only come up with one possible reason to explain the delay: something had happened to Xena. She knew she should never have allowed the warrior to go off without her. She just prayed that Xena had simply been delayed by the weather or some other minor problem and not because she had been injured...or something even worse.
Gabrielle tugged slightly at the collar she was wearing around her neck, while she crossed the room to where the full kegs were standing. The neck band marked her as a slave in this village and, as long as it was around her neck, escape from the town would be all but impossible. Bulartha had made certain that she understood the punishment for trying to remove it. If she caught Gabrielle without the collar, or even just found her trying to remove it, she had promised the young woman a beating that would make her daily ones seem like tender caresses. A second incident would result in an even more severe thrashing and, if Gabrielle was so foolish as to attempt to remove the band a third time, then Bulartha would simply kill her and be done with it. She refused to put up with a slave who was constantly trying to escape.
Gabrielle put aside her worries about Xena and her fleeting thoughts of escape, as she reached around to grab hold of the new keg. It was extremely heavy, but the young woman knew better than to complain. It would only earn her a beating if she was lucky and a beating plus a whipping if she wasnt. Taking a deep breath, she slowly began to move the large keg, beads of sweat appearing on her forehead as she struggled with the load.
"My how the mighty have fallen. You certainly have changed since the last time I saw you in a tavern. Dont they feed you here?"
Gabrielle turned in shock at the sound of the first familiar voice she had heard in ages. To her astonishment, leaning against a cabinet watching her calmly, was Hrothgar, the man she had met in Nalimore, . "Hrothgar!" she said happily, as she quickly moved towards him. When she drew closer, however, her steps faltered, as she noticed a strange look in his eyes. "What are you doing here?" she asked uncertainly.
"I just wanted to see how you were doing. After all...its because of me that youre here in the first place. I was curious as to how things were going for you," he replied pleasantly.
Gabrielles jaw dropped as she heard his words. "You? Youre the one responsible? But...but why?" she asked, while her mind raced frantically as it tried to assimilate this rapid turn of events.
He shrugged. "I just decided that it was time to get the irritating little blond out of the way once and for all...and this seemed like the perfect way to do it," he replied, as he began to laugh menacingly.
"Irritating little blond?" Gabrielle repeated in a confused voice, before suddenly taking a closer look at the man standing in front of her. "Ares," she said dully, recognizing the laugh that had been burned into her brain.
As Gabrielle watched, the image of the man before her slowly changed into that of the God of War. "At your service," he said with a mocking bow.
"Ares. I should have known. So all of this is just another attempt to get Xena back?" Gabrielle shook her head. "Its not going to work Ares, just like none of your other plans worked."
"Ahh...but you see those other times I made a fatal mistake. I forgot to deal directly with you but Ive corrected that problem this time. Now its only a matter of time before I have Xena back."
"It wont work Ares. Xena will find me eventually. It may take her awhile but she will track me down."
Ares looked at her with mock sympathy. "Oh...Im sorry...I forgot to tell you. Youre dead...or at least Xena thinks so."
"Dead?" Gabrielle gasped in surprise.
"Uh huh. And Hrothgar told her the horrible story of your death in glowing details. That story alone was almost enough to push her over the edge," he informed her with a satisfied grin.
Gabrielle shook her head, trying to deny Ares words. "It wont work Ares. Xena wont believe Im dead unless she sees my body."
"Actually...I had the same thought. So I made certain she saw the body with her own eyes so that there would be no room for doubt in her mind."
"How...how did you...."
Ares rolled his eyes. "Come now Gabrielle. Im Ares, God of War. I can alter my appearance at will, raise the dead, and switch Xena and Callisto into each others bodies. Just how hard do you think it was to make one corpse look like someone elses? The villagers found your body afterwards and assumed that you had been killed during the battle. Fortunately, after the story I told Xena about your death, she wasnt in the mood to talk to any of the other villagers about what had happened. Shed definitely have gotten a different story from any of them than the one Hrothgar gave her," he said, a broad smile covering his face.
Gabrielle stared at him in disbelief, finding it difficult to speak, as she considered the ramifications of what he was saying. "No Ares, youre wrong...Xena wont return to her old ways just because she thinks I was killed," Gabrielle denied, but there was a trace of doubt in her voice.
Ares sighed. "You know...I was worried for awhile that you might actually be right. I mean, I go to all the trouble to kill her lover....," Ares stopped speaking and smirked when he saw the expression on Gabrielles face. "Yes I know about you two. I admit, I was almost jealous at first, but I soon realized that it was the best possible break for me. Killing her friend was one thing, killing her lover...now thats really going to go a long way to pushing her back to the edge," he said with an evil grin. "But where was I?...Oh...thats right...I go to all the trouble of killing her lover and there was still an outside chance that, after all your meddling and interference, she might actually choose to stay on that stupid path shes been on for the past couple of years." Ares shook his head sadly before smiling again. "Fortunately, that hasnt been the case."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle demanded.
"I mean that Xena is already riding at the head of an army. She has been for weeks."
Gabrielle shook her head. "No...youre lying. She wouldnt do that."
"Oh she would and she is. Here, see for yourself," he said, before gesturing towards the far wall.
When Gabrielle turned to face the wall, she saw that it was now covered with the image of Xena riding at the head of a vast army. While she watched, she caught sight of several Amazons who she recognized from the village. In addition to those women, Xena appeared to be leading dozens of unfamiliar soldiers, all on horseback. As she looked at Xena again, Gabrielle realized that she barely recognized her friend. Xena had often slipped into "warrior mode" while they were traveling but this was, by far, beyond anything she had ever seen before. The warrior was calmly and efficiently giving orders to her troops and she appeared to be totally in her element.
Gabrielle looked at Ares. "This is just another one of your illusions Ares. Its not real," she said weakly, desperately trying not to believe what she was seeing.
Ares grinned at her. "We both know you dont believe that Gabrielle. And to answer your next question...No, shes not back in my fold yet but its only a matter of time."
"What do you mean?"
"Xena has been slowly building up that army from nothing. She started out using it to rescue villages. She then began to capture raiders who had already attacked villages, before finally attacking other armies rather than allowing them to make a move. So far shes still working to protect peasants and farmers...but that wont last much longer. Her rage is building out of control. By the time she finally catches the man she holds responsible for your death, her anger will know no bounds and shell murder him in cold blood. Shell call it justice, but deep down shell know that it was nothing more than a violent act of revenge. As soon as she crosses that line again and kills someone just because she wants to, shell be mine!" he finished, as he waved his hand, causing the image of Xena to disappear. "It really was much simpler than I thought it would be. Apparently I overestimated the influence you had had on her. Obviously there was still a large part of her that wanted to be back leading an army. It makes sense. Im sure youre an amusing little distraction but Xena is destined for greatness. She must know that, by herself, she could never really make much of a difference in peoples lives. To really make a difference, she needs an army," he said with a wide grin, "And now she has one!"
Gabrielle glanced sharply at the god, wondering if he had been reading her mind. For several days before the attack on Nalimore, Gabrielle had been wondering about Xenas comments about needing more help and about the odds always being against her. Obviously, by gathering an army to help her, Xena had managed to even the odds. Gabrielle had to admit that an army would be considerably more help to Xena than one lone bard who refused to kill.
Gabrielle watched the god gloat for several seconds. "Why did you go to all this trouble over me Ares?" she finally asked quietly.
Ares looked at her in surprise. "What are you talking about?"
"I mean, why bother coming here to tell me all this...and why fake my death in the first place? Wouldnt it have been easier to just kill me and be done with it?"
"Ah...yes, I guess it would have. But you see, youve interfered with my plans for Xena on too many occasions. Now I could kill you, but that would just send you to the Elysian Fields. Not much of a punishment there. On the other hand, arranging to have you sold into slavery...well, thats the gift that just keeps on giving! Why tell you about my plans for Xena? Because I know that knowing shes going back to me is going to eat you up inside. And why tell you that Xena thinks youre dead? Because I dont want you to have any hope of rescue. Who knows, maybe now that you know Xena wont be riding in here one day to rescue you, youll get desperate enough to try to escape, even though we both know that it would be essentially impossible for you to do so," he finished with a smirk.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to reply but then stopped, knowing that nothing she could say would make any difference and would only serve to provide the god with more amusement. Ares chuckled again when he saw the expression on her face, then paused as he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. "I believe this is my cue to leave," he said softly. "But before I go, let me leave you with a gift...a little help in the escape plans that are undoubtedly running through your mind at the moment."
As Ares slowly faded from view, he made a small gesture and, to Gabrielles astonishment, two of the straps that held her neck collar came undone. Before she could react, the door to the supply room opened and Bulartha walked in. "Whats taking you so long?" she demanded angrily, before catching sight of the collar on Gabrielles neck, which was now hanging almost completely off. "I warned you about trying to remove that!" she screamed, as she charged across the room to grab Gabrielle. Slamming her up against the wall, Bulartha watched as Gabrielle slowly fell to the ground. She began kicking and beating the young woman, continuing the violent abuse until Gabrielle was begging for forgiveness. "Thats one," the woman hissed into Gabrielles ear, as she reached down and fastened the straps to the collar once again. "The next time I wont be so merciful. Now get up and get that keg moved out of here, before I have to show you what I do to slaves who are too slow," she said, turning and leaving Gabrielle alone to struggle painfully to her feet.
It was the middle of the afternoon and the excitement level in Xenas war camp was steadily mounting. The men were cleaning and polishing their weapons, as they mentally prepared themselves for the battle they fight the next day. They had been chasing Martakas and his army for so long, that it was hard to believe that they had finally caught up with the warlord. But they had, and they had complete confidence in their commander. Tomorrow, Xena would lead them to victory, and Martakas would finally pay for his crimes.
There was one small group in Xenas army, however, who did not share everyone elses rising thrill. The Amazons were deeply concerned about the upcoming battle. Not because they had any fears that Xenas army would be defeated, but because they were all but certain that Xena intended to kill Martakas herself, rather than allow him to be captured by the Amazons.
The Amazons had become increasingly alarmed about the changes they had seen in Xena over the past few weeks, but they had been powerless to do anything about them. While they were well aware of the fact that Xena had always been a determined and potentially ruthless warrior, there had also been a spark of compassion within her. The woman who had fought to keep the Amazons and Centaurs from going to war was gone, as was the woman who had spent time in their village with Gabrielle a couple of months ago. In her place was a cold, angry warlord who had a savage temper and was dangerously close to losing control of her rage. Too many times they had seen the madness and bloodlust in Xenas eyes. In the state she was in, they knew it wouldnt require much for her to snap completely, and killing Martakas would likely be all that it would take.
Alaini looked out across the camp to where Xena was standing over a map, as she half listened to what Cashta was saying. Suddenly becoming aware that her leader had finished speaking, Alaini glanced back guiltily, as she realized that Cashta was waiting for her to respond. "Im sorry," she said contritely. "I didnt catch that last part."
Cashta shook her head. "Alaini, you have got to pay attention. I asked if you understood what needed to be done?"
Alaini sighed heavily. "Yes, I understand. I just dont think its going to work."
Cashta shrugged helplessly. "We dont have a lot of options here. If you have a better idea, Im open to suggestions."
"No," Alaini replied sadly, as she turned back to look at the Warrior Princess, "I dont. I just wish I thought this plan had a better chance of succeeding. Frankly, I wish it was up to someone else to carry it out."
"Ephiny thought it had a chance. She warned us that Xena was unlikely to be willing to simply capture Martakas and I think were all agreed that Xena intends to kill him tomorrow." Cashta paused and looked around at the other women. Seeing them all nod their assent, she continued, "You also know that this is the main reason Ephiny wanted you here with us. Youre the only one who has a chance with Xena at this point, the only one who can possibly relate to her and break through to her."
"I know," Alaini agreed heavily, "But that doesnt make this any easier. Dealing with Xena is bad enough at the moment, without trying something like this. One wrong move and Ill be lucky to escape with my head still attached to my shoulders," she said, only half in jest. The Amazon took a deep breath and mentally prepared herself for the challenge ahead. Straightening her shoulders, she started walking towards Xena, before stopping once again and looking at her leader. "Cashta, if this doesnt work...what are we going to do?"
Cashta sighed softly. "I dont know," she admitted. "Do we kill the woman our Queen loved to prevent her from avenging the Queens death? To keep her from killing a man that we will only execute anyway?" Cashta glanced over to where Xena was standing. "And even if we were willing to...none of us would stand a chance against Xena in single combat and her men would never allow us to attack her as a group. Do we try to attack her from behind or while shes sleeping? All to keep her from killing a murderer?" Cashta sighed again. "If I thought we had a chance of taking her, I might be willing to try. But we cant stand against her and her army, and Martakas could get away from us if we tried. Its better that Xena be permitted to kill Martakas than to allow Gabrielles murderer to go free."
"Maybe," Alaini said softly. "But do you really think Xena will be satisfied with merely killing him? I dont think thats what she has in mind at this point. She wants revenge, pure and simple, and Ephiny said that could finish her."
Cashta shook her head. "I know. Heads we lose, tails we lose. We either kill Xena to keep her from killing Martakas or we let her do what she wants and watch as she destroys herself. Either way, the woman Gabrielle loved will be gone." Cashta took a deep breath, before looking Alaini squarely in the eyes. "We owe Gabrielle more than that," she said firmly. "We have to at least try this one last thing before we give up."
Alaini nodded silently. "All right," she said finally. "Ill try. Wish me luck," she said, as she slowly began moving towards Xena.
"Luck," Cashta said softly, before she began praying fervently to Artemis, hoping that somehow they would find a way out of the mess they were now in.
"Xena, can I talk to you for a second?" Alaini asked quietly.
Xena looked up in surprise at the sound of the Amazons voice. The Amazons had been avoiding her more than usual lately and even Alaini hadnt spent much time with her recently. "Sure," Xena said, after a momentary pause.
Alaini sighed to herself in relief, realizing that she had at least cleared the first hurdle. "I was just wondering about tomorrows battle," she said carefully, her eyes not missing the way Xena immediately tensed up at her words. If she hadnt been sure of Xenas plans before, the warriors reaction had just confirmed what the Amazons all feared. Xena had no intention of capturing Martakas alive.
"What were you wondering about?" Xena asked cautiously.
Alaini knew she was already treading on dangerous ground, so she deliberately kept her tone light and casual. "Well, we were all curious as to what your plans were for us. What you wanted us to do...that sort of thing."
Xena relaxed slightly, but she continued to keep her guard up. "Oh. Well, I was going to go talk to Cashta about this in a while, but as long as youre here, Ill just tell you," Xena replied, before motioning for the Amazon to come closer. Using the map, Xena described her battle plan to the young woman, pointing out the potential problem areas and explaining exactly what she wanted the Amazons to do during the attack.
After Xena had finished, Alaini was silent for several long seconds, as she carefully considered the warriors scheme. It was a brilliant plan, but it was obvious that Xena had constructed this strategy with the intention of keeping the Amazons as far away from Martakas as possible. She glanced at the warrior briefly, noticing the barely controlled tension in her body. She knew Xena was waiting for her to make some comment about the plan, but she wasnt certain what to say that wouldnt just cause a confrontation.
After several more seconds had passed, Alaini finally found her voice. "Youve outdone yourself, Xena. Martakas doesnt stand a chance."
"Thanks," Xena said roughly, shrugging off the young womans praise.
"No, I mean it. Unless something completely unexpected happens, this will all be over after tomorrow." Alaini paused for several seconds, watching the warrior carefully. "So I guess the only question remaining is, what will you do then?"
"What do you mean?" Xena asked in a confused voice.
Alaini shrugged. "I mean that one way or the other, this will be finished after tomorrows battle. Even if something goes wrong and we...we cant take Martakas alive, this will all be over for us. But what about you? What will you do after tomorrows battle?"
Xena hesitated for a moment, as she suddenly realized she hadnt really thought about what would happen after the battle. She had been operating on sheer rage and anger for a long time now and the only thing she had been focused on was killing the warlord. What did she intend to do afterwards? "I guess I could just stay with the army," Xena finally said. Thinking about it for a few more seconds, she realized that it made as much sense as anything else. "We could do a lot of good."
Alaini looked at her intently. "What about Gabrielles ashes?" she asked quietly. "What about her belongings? I thought you were going to take them to her parents."
Xena looked at the Amazon with a touch of surprise. "Yeah, I was. But I dont really need to be the one to do that," she said steadily, trying to convince Alaini as much as herself. "In fact, it might even be better if someone else went instead. Her family has never liked me and seeing me again would just upset them further. It would be better if I just stayed away."
Alaini looked at her unwaveringly. "Maybe," she finally said, after several seconds had passed. Turning away from Xena, the Amazon looked out over the camp, taking in the sight of all the warriors scattered around. Chuckling softly, she turned back to face Xena. "I wonder what Gabrielle would think of all of this?"
"All of what?" Xena asked gruffly.
"This," Alaini repeated, waving her hand towards all the warriors. "I wonder what shed think about your army. It would probably be quite a surprise to her."
Xena glanced at the soldiers that surrounded them. "Yeah...I guess it would," she agreed quietly, before losing herself in thought.
"You know, Ive been thinking about Gabrielle a lot lately...trying to imagine how she would fit into an army like this." Alaini smiled slightly at the warrior standing beside her. "Its not an easy picture to come up with."
Xena shrugged. "No, it isnt. Gabrielle would never be comfortable in an army like this for very long, no matter what it was that we were fighting for. Maybe an Amazon army that was fighting to defend its way of life," Xena conceded, "But never one like this."
"I think shed try though," Alaini said softly. "I think for you shed make the effort. She loved you very much you know."
"I know," Xena said tightly.
Alaini was quiet for several minutes, as she tried to figure out her next angle of attack. "Do you think Martakas death will give you what youre looking for Xena?" she eventually asked.
Xena looked the young woman over carefully, trying to decide if there was an ulterior motive behind her questions. "I dont know," she finally replied. "But its the only thing I have at the moment."
Alaini nodded. "I remember that feeling all too well." Seeing Xenas inquiring look, she shrugged sadly. "Youre not the only one whos lost someone. The woman I loved was killed about a year and a half ago. She gave me her right of caste and I avenged her death. Fortunately, her killer was a simple bandit. I didnt have to go through an entire army to get to him."
Xena looked at the Amazon intently. "And did his death give you were looking for?"
Alaini shook her head. "No. I was looking for peace and, I guess, a release from my guilt...but that only came with time."
"Guilt?" Xena asked sharply.
Alaini nodded. "For a long time I blamed myself for Aristeas death. I was supposed to be on patrol instead of her but I got tied up with other things and she went in my place. The other women with her managed to get her back to the village. She told me she loved me, but she died before I could tell her I loved her as well."
Xena shook her head. "You werent to blame for her death. You had nothing to feel guilty about."
"I know that now. And, logically, I knew it back then. But when your hearts been broken, its hard to listen to logic, isnt it?" she asked gently.
Xena stared at her unblinkingly. "Yeah...it is," she agreed quietly. Xena looked out at her soldiers again, struggling to compose herself. "So?" she finally asked. "How long did it take you to find peace again?"
Alaini shrugged. "I dont know. A long time. Fortunately, I never completely lost Aristea. I could feel her with me, and I still carry a part of her soul around inside me...guiding me whenever I feel lost."
Xena was silent for several seconds, as she considered Alainis words. "And what do you do when you cant feel that part of you anymore?" she finally asked softly. "What do you do when that part of you has been destroyed?"
Alaini looked at her carefully. "I dont know," she admitted. "But when two people truly love one another, when you carry around a piece of someone elses soul within you...its not that easy for it to be destroyed. It may be hidden deep inside you...but it clings to you desperately. There were times I thought Id lost Aristea completely, but whenever I felt like that, I clung to the tangible things I still had that could remind me of her."
Alaini chuckled softly. "Like this," she replied, before reaching behind her to slowly draw her sword.
Xenas eyes narrowed momentarily when she saw Alainis action, but she quickly relaxed once she realized that the Amazon was offering the weapon to her. She took the sword and examined it. It was a high quality weapon, perfect balance and expert craftsmanship. After a few seconds, she handed it back to Alaini, a curious expression on her face.
Alaini held the sword carefully and then smiled at the Warrior Princess. "Go ahead," she encouraged. "Draw your weapon...test my skill."
Xena raised an eyebrow questioningly and then accepted the young womans challenge. The two women sparred briefly, before Xena managed to disarm the Amazon. Xena stared at her in astonishment, as she watched Alaini move to pick the weapon back up and then slide it into its scabbard. Alaini was one of the most skilled warriors she had ever seen with the chobos, but with the sword she was only marginally better than Gabrielle had been.
Alaini grinned ruefully at Xena, as she watched the warrior return her own sword to its scabbard. "The sword belonged to Aristea. I wear it to remind me of her. To provide me with something solid and real to hold onto when I feel lost. But I never use it. Ive never had any proficiency with the sword. Chobos have always been my first choice."
Xena nodded, finally understanding why she had never seen Alaini use her sword. "Does it really help?"
"Yeah, it does," she said. "I like the weight of it on my back. Its comfortable and it keeps me grounded. Whenever I used to feel like I was losing myself, I would hold onto the sword. It was my salvation on more than one occasion." Alaini paused, before looking at the warrior curiously. "What about you, Xena?" she asked softly. "Do you have something of Gabrielles to hold onto? To help connect you to her?"
Xena thought about the question for a few seconds, before shrugging carelessly. "Yeah, I do."
"Then maybe you should try using it," Alaini advised. "Maybe it will help you start to find peace. Because Martakas death is not going to give you that...no matter who kills him."
"Whats that supposed to mean?" Xena asked, instantly on her guard once again.
"Nothing, Xena," Alaini responded quietly. "But Ephiny told me to remind you of two things before we caught up with Martakas. She said to remind you that Gabrielle loved you and to remind you not to do anything you wouldnt want Gabrielle to know about because, if you do, youll only regret it later. Martakas may have killed Gabrielle but he could never kill the love you two shared. Theres only one person who can do that and thats you." Alaini sighed softly, as she rubbed her hand across her eyes, the strain of the conversation beginning to tell on her. "So I guess you just need to decide where youre going to go from here," she said with a shrug, before calmly walking away.
As she moved towards the rest of the Amazons, Alaini could feel Xenas eyes boring into her back. She breathed a sigh of relief when she finally reached Cashtas side. "Well, I did it," she said in a tired voice.
Cashta nodded, while her eyes moved quickly to where Xena was once again studying her map. "And?"
"We were right. Xena told me her battle plan and it was obvious from what she said
that she has no intention of allowing us to take on Martakas tomorrow."
Cashta nodded again. "Did you get through to her?"
Alaini shrugged. "I dont know," she replied. "I think I may have managed to get her pointed in the right direction but she has to decide for herself whether shell take the next step. And to be completely honest, I have no idea what shes going to choose to do."
Xena spent the rest of the day preparing battle and trying desperately not to think about her conversation with Alaini. She wasnt a fool. She knew the Amazon had deliberately brought up the subject of Gabrielle, in the hope that somehow it would sway Xena from the path she had decided to take. But Alaini didnt understand. Xena knew that Ephiny hadnt told the rest of the village all the details about what had happened to Gabrielle. Alaini and the others didnt know what Martakas had done to their Queen. If they did, then they would agree with Xena that it wasnt enough to simply execute Martakas. He needed to suffer in the same way that Gabrielle had suffered.
As the afternoon faded into evening and then into night, Xena looked over her camp with satisfaction. Martakas knew they were coming; it wasnt possible for an army of this size to sneak up on anyone. But that knowledge would do the warlord little good. He had foolishly allowed himself to be maneuvered into an extremely vulnerable position. Tomorrow morning, Xena and her men would ride right over the top of him. His army was slightly larger than hers, but every one of her men was on horseback, while only about a third of his were. Her soldiers had the advantage of speed, mobility and skill. Victory would be hers at last.
As the hour grew later, Xena tried to get some sleep, wanting to be rested for the upcoming battle. But her thoughts betrayed her and kept her wide awake. Eventually she gave up, realizing that she was too filled with pent-up energy to get any sleep. In an effort to tire herself out, she wandered around the camp, sharpened her weapons, checked Argos tack and tried numerous other tasks, but nothing helped. She was no closer to sleep than when she had first gotten up. Finally, she tried to simply sit quietly and focus on her breathing. She hoped that meditation would be the answer. But it was no use and, with an angry growl, she finally gave up. She stalked around the camp like a wild animal, her thoughts and emotions racing out of control. Desperately she tried to remind herself that in a few short hours she would have Martakas at her feet. She just needed to hold on for a little while longer and everything would be all right.
Eventually, she walked back over to her gear and began rifling through it, looking for something to keep her occupied. She stopped what she was doing when her hands suddenly came into contact with Gabrielles staff. After a few seconds hesitation, she pulled the weapon out to take a look at it. She held the staff reverently, running her hands over its smooth lines, before she finally began to assemble it.
She grasped the staff lightly in her hands, enjoying the feel and the weight of it, letting it connect her to Gabrielle. She felt the peace that had eluded her all evening, finally beginning to wash over her, as she moved away from the soldiers who were scattered around her. She walked a short distance from the camp until she reached a large open area. Slowly, she began to move the staff in an intricate pattern around her body, just as she had watched Gabrielle do countless times in the past. As more time went by, she began moving faster and faster, increasing the complexity of her movements, feeling Gabrielles presence growing stronger with every passing second.
Xena continued her silent sparring until she had utterly exhausted herself. Finishing her last pass with the staff, she stood completely still, resting her forehead against the top of the weapon, while she continued to think about Gabrielle. Alaini was right she realized. Having something solid of Gabrielles to hold on to did help to bring the bard closer. For the first time in longer than she could remember, Xena felt a sense of calmness in her soul. The fire and the hatred within her had temporarily died down to glowing embers.
Taking a deep breath, Xena walked back to the camp. She took one last look around to make certain that everything was still okay and then made her way to her bedroll. She carefully placed her weapons nearby and then stretched out on the blankets, still clutching Gabrielles staff tightly in her hands. She hadnt changed her mind about Martakas. She still intended to kill the warlord, slowly and painfully, so in that respect, nothing had changed for her. But for tonight at least, she could pretend that Gabrielle was still a part of her life; she could make herself believe that the young bard would always be with her.
Xena woke up early the next morning, Gabrielles staff still clasped firmly in her hands. She set the staff aside for long enough to put on her armor and strap on her weapons. Picking the staff back up, she went to check on her men. Everyone was just starting to wake up and the excitement in the camp was near fever pitch. Xena watched as the men began loosening up and preparing for the battle and then went to make her own final preparations.
She was gazing calmly in the direction where Martakas and his army were, when she heard footsteps approaching her from behind. She waited for several seconds after they stopped before she finally moved. Turning around, she saw Askel standing before her, staring intently at the staff she was still holding in her hands. "Whats wrong?" she asked tersely.
Askel shook his head as if to clear it and then looked at her carefully. "Whats with the staff? Ive never seen you with it before."
Xena shrugged. "Its not actually mine," she said simply, before changing the subject. "Are the men ready?"
Before Askel could answer, Cashta approached. "Xena? Could I talk to you for a second?"
Xena nodded. "What do you want?" she asked the Amazon.
Cashta took a deep breath. "I just wanted to make a suggestion about the upcoming battle...specifically about what you were wanting the Amazons to do. I was thinking that we might be more help somewhere else. The six of us have worked together as a unit for a long time, so maybe it would make more sense if you gave us the responsibility of ."
Xena cut the Amazon off harshly, knowing what she was getting ready to suggest. "Cashta, there will be no changes to the battle plan that I have devised. You and the other Amazons will follow my strategy exactly. You will not deviate from it in any way. And if you dont think you can do that, then you will stay away from the battle completely. Is that understood?" Xena demanded icily.
Cashta opened her mouth to reply and then hesitated, as she heard the sound of movement behind her. Looking over her shoulder, she saw that over a dozen of Xenas men were now standing behind her, watching every move she made with chilling intensity. Turning back around to look at Xena, Cashta nodded her head slightly in surrender. "Yes it is. Well do it your way," she replied, before quietly walking away.
Xena watched the Amazon leave and then turned to face Askel once more. "Are the men ready?" she asked again.
Askel grinned widely. "Were ready," he said happily.
"Good. Get them in formation. Well launch our attack shortly." Xena ordered. "Oh, and Askel," Xena said, a bit more softly, "Im putting you personally in charge of the Amazons. Make certain they follow the plan and keep them away from me during the battle. I will hold you personally responsible if they interfere with me in any way."
Askel nodded, his eyes glinting with a cold light. "All right. Just how forceful am I allowed to be in making sure they stay away from you?"
Xena glanced at the staff she was still holding in her hands and then looked over to where the Amazons were standing. "Dont kill them. Dont do any permanent damage, but I expect you to do anything and everything necessary to prevent them from getting in my way. I have plans for Martakas and I dont want anything or anyone to interrupt those plans."
Askel smiled confidently. "They wont bother you, Commander. You can count on me."
"Good," Xena said. "Because if you fail me, I will see to it that you spend the rest of your short, miserable life regretting the day you decided to join me. Understood?"
Xena screamed her war cry at the top of her lungs, as she and her army charged into Martakas forces. She and her men smashed into the waiting army at full speed and almost immediately began to overwhelm the warlords inferior troops. Xena reveled in the absolute freedom of it all, as the almost carnal thrill of battle and bloodlust began washing over her with increasing intensity. She quickly vaulted off Argo and began cutting a bloody path through Martakas army. Soldier after soldier fell to her blade. She was a woman possessed, her hatred radiating from her body in waves, and she intended to make certain that as many of Martakas men as possible died at her hands. Her only regret was that she didnt have the time to make all of their deaths as slow and painful as she intended to make Martakas.
The battle was intense and fierce. Xenas plan had worked perfectly and it was soon clear that their victory was assured. There was no point in taking prisoners and the men knew that their unspoken order was to kill every last member of the warlords army. The only way one of Martakas men could avoid this fate was by throwing down his weapon and begging for mercy and, even then, it was anyones guess as to whether or not he would actually be spared. The hatred that had consumed Xena had spread to the men who followed her and they were all too willing to do whatever it took to please their leader.
Xena lost track of how many men she had killed by the time she finally reached Martakas. As she looked at the man she had been chasing for so very long, her rage began to overpower her and she had to struggle to keep it under control so that she could use it as a weapon against him. She moved towards him deliberately, a feral gleam appearing in her eyes. She smiled when she saw his eyes widen in fear at her approach.
The warlord took a deep breath and then charged towards the woman who was slowly stalking him. At first, he planned to use his superior strength against her, but within seconds he realized that she was far, far stronger than he would have ever dreamed possible. Almost immediately, he was forced to assume a defensive posture, as the demon before him began to rapidly dominate him with her superior skill.
Xena toyed with the warlord for several minutes, laughing wickedly every time she pierced his skin with her blade. She repeatedly drew his blood, slashing his face and hands over and over again, reveling in the cries of pain that each new injury elicited from him. She gloried in the panic that was beginning to build within him, as he saw the hunger for the kill in her eyes. She knew she could kill him whenever she wanted to, but she was most definitely not ready to kill him yet, so she continued to draw the torment out, as she mocked him and promised him that the fun had only just begun.
As she slowly began driving him away from the rest of the battle, Xena continued to taunt the warlord. When Martakas realized what she was doing, he began looking for an opportunity to escape, knowing that he was vastly outclassed and stood no chance against the woman he was fighting. Xena realized his intentions and, with a sudden flurry, she disarmed the warlord, sending his sword arcing through the air to land several yards away. He stared at her in astonishment for a half a second, before Xena kicked out, driving her boot into his groin. As he started to double over in pain, she kicked him again, this time smashing his kneecap, shattering the bone completely.
Martakas fell to the ground, screaming in agony. Xena grinned fiendishly for a few seconds and then launched herself towards him, wrapping her fingers around his throat. Martakas desperately tried to fight her off but she ignored his feeble attempts. She began to throttle him, slamming his head repeatedly against the ground, barbarous snarls emanating from her throat. When she saw the warlord beginning to lose consciousness, a tiny shred of reason penetrated through her madness. No...she wouldnt kill him like this. This was not nearly enough of a punishment for his crimes.
Releasing her hold, Xena quickly rose to stand over her prey. Grabbing the rope at her waist, she hastily tied the warlords wrists together before whistling for Argo. The mare appeared at her side instantly and Xena immediately leapt up onto the horses back. Tying the other end of the rope around the saddlehorn, she kicked Argo into a gallop and charged away from the battle, dragging the nearly unconscious Martakas behind her.
Xena rode for a few minutes, until she reached the place she had found the day before while scouting the area. It was perfect for her needs. She would be able to deliver the punishment that the warlord so richly deserved, without having to worry about being disturbed. Jumping down from Argo, she grabbed the rope and began dragging the warlord to the next phase of his sentence. In no time at all, Martakas arms were securely tied around a tree and his armor and shirt had been removed.
Xena waited patiently for the warlord to become aware of his surroundings, before she moved closer to look him directly in the eyes. "Do you know who I am?" she purred evilly.
The terror in the warlords eyes was obvious. "Youre Xena," he gasped.
"No," Xena corrected him. "I am the last person youre going to see before you leave this world. I am the one youre going to eventually beg to end your suffering. I am your death!" she growled angrily.
Walking back to Argo, Xena grabbed her newest acquisition: a scourge. Returning to Martakas side, she showed her toy to the warlord, flicking it lightly against his skin and grinning when she saw him tremble with fear. "Ever seen one of these? What am I saying? Of course you have. Its been a very long time since Ive used one, but a skill once mastered is never forgotten. Lets see how long it takes me to get this right."
Moving behind the warlord, Xena began the brutal process of flogging him. Martakas screamed in pain every time he felt the sting of the lash and, every time she heard that sound, Xenas heart pounded harder and faster. Her bloodlust was at its height, controlling every move she made and every thought she had. She would satisfy her need for vengeance completely, as she taught him the true meaning of the word torture. Eventually she lost count of the number of times she struck the warlord with the scourge. Every time he began losing consciousness, however, she immediately stopped and waited for him to recover, before beginning the process once again. Finally she realized that he wouldnt be able to take much more before he would be dead, so she threw the scourge aside. She still wasnt ready to kill the warlord yet, not when she had so many other torments left to explore.
For several seconds, Xena gazed at the warlords bleeding, mutilated back with rapt fascination. Finally, she moved to cut him down from the tree to which hed been tied, smirking as she listened to his tortured groans of pain. She lifted him up with one hand and slapped him hard across the face with the other. She threw him across the clearing, she slammed him into the trees. She kicked, punched and beat him until he was barely able to breathe. She cracked his ribs, dislocated his shoulder, broke his arm and crushed his fingers and she enjoyed every single minute of it. She was pure rage, pure hatred, pure power.
Finally she laid him out on the ground and tied him back up. Xena smiled down at the man lying on the ground in front of her. The warlord pulled weakly at the ropes that held his wrists and ankles, but the bonds were secure and there was no possible means of escape. "Please," he begged frantically. "Have mercy."
A wave of satisfaction surged through Xena. "Mercy?" she asked, as a deranged gleam appeared in her eyes. "How many of your victims begged for mercy? How many of them pleaded with you to stop the torture?" she asked, her voice soft and sweet. She gazed down at him for a few seconds, as if waiting for an answer, before rage suddenly contorted her features into a hideous mask. "And how many of them did you grant mercy to?" she snarled angrily.
Glaring down at the man lying at her feet, Xena welcomed the darkness she could feel consuming her soul, knowing it would provide her with the strength to make Martakas last remaining moments an utter nightmare. With a pitiless smile, she kicked the warlords broken knee as hard as she could, laughing maniacally when she heard his screams of pain. Drawing her sword from its scabbard, she carefully placed the tip of it on his left collarbone and began slowly pressing down until she saw blood. A monstrous grin spread across her features, as she deliberately dragged the blade down across his body to his right hip. Reaching down, she drew her hand along the path her sword had just traced, smiling viciously as she watched his blood flow over her skin.
The warlord realized that the woman standing over him was completely mad. As he sobbed hysterically, he struggled against his bindings, but only succeeded in causing himself more pain. He watched with a horrified expression as the warrior placed her sword on his right collarbone and then began slowly moving it down to his left hip.
The warlord began shrieking uncontrollably, as spasms of pain ripped through his body. Xena watched him calmly, her eyes glowing with an inhuman light. After several minutes had passed, she finally moved forward and looked down at him, a bloodthirsty smile tugging at her lips. Placing her sword to his throat, she sneered at him contemptuously. "You have been truly pathetic," she spat out. "Fortunately, all bad things must come to an end." She pressed down lightly with her sword and then pulled it away with a demented little chuckle. "Oh no...that would be too easy wouldnt it? I think I can do even better by you," she said wickedly.
"Please," Martakas begged one last time. "Ill do anything you ask. Ill give you whatever you want. Anything I have is yours!" he promised. "Just dont kill me!"
The anger that had been coursing through Xenas veins before, was nothing compared to the absolute hatred and rage she felt come over her when she heard the warlords pledge. "You cant give me what I want because you already destroyed the only thing I ever cared about!" she hissed furiously. "You stole the light from my soul. The only thing you have that I want is your blood," she snarled savagely. "And I will take it from you in the same way you took my life from me." Quickly stepping forward towards the warlords bound wrists, she raised her sword and looked at the warlords terrified expression. "For Gabrielle," she said softly, before swiftly bringing her sword down, smiling demonically when she heard Martakas wail in abject fear.
Her sword buried itself deep into the ground beside the warlords wrists, as he screamed in horror and passed out from the shock. Xena stared at her sword in confusion. How could she possibly have missed? The warlord hadnt moved a muscle and yet, somehow, she had missed her target. Shaking her head angrily, she brought her sword back up high over her head, took a deep breath and then froze. She ordered herself to bring the sword down, to cleave the warlords hands from his body, but her muscles remained locked firmly in place.
No...this wasnt happening to her! She was going to kill this man, she swore angrily, tears of frustration beginning to stream down her cheeks. She tried again to make herself bring the sword down, but she couldnt do it, and after several long seconds, she dropped her arms to her side. She couldnt do it. This man deserved to die more than any other she had ever known, and she couldnt do it. Not like this. Not in cold blood. Not while he was unarmed and helpless. She would wait until he revived and then let him arm himself. Then she could kill him and she would still make it painful and torturous for him.
But she was fooling herself and she knew it. She wanted to kill him more than she had ever dreamed possible...and she couldnt do it. If she killed Martakas, then shed be killing the last part of herself that was worth anything...the tiny part of her that still carried Gabrielle within her. She couldnt do that. She couldnt finish the job that Martakas had started when he had killed Gabrielle. It wasnt much, it had nearly been crushed out of existence, but there was still a sliver of Gabrielles soul inside her and it was all she had left to cling to.
Glancing at the warlord briefly, Xena assured herself that he wouldnt die from the wounds she had already inflicted on him and then sat down to wait for the Amazons to arrive and take him off her hands. Time lost all meaning as she sat staring silently at the warlord. She no longer cared about the battle that had once meant so much to her, she just wanted this to all be over.
She looked up as she heard footsteps approaching, relaxing slightly when she saw Askel advancing towards her. "We defeated them, Commander," he said happily, before looking in surprise at the warlord that was lying a short distance away from them. "Hes still alive?" he asked in a confused voice.
"Yeah," Xena replied flatly.
Xena glanced at Askel and shrugged her shoulders. "Because Im leaving him to the Amazons."
Askel stared at her in shock. "You cant be serious. He killed your friend and youre just going to let him get away with that?"
"Hes not getting away with anything," Xena snapped, her anger quickly rising at Askels accusation. "Theres only one punishment for his crime as far as the Amazons are concerned. Hell be put to death. Hell get what he deserves."
Askel shook his head. "He deserves a lot more than death...."
"I know that. But Im not going to kill him."
Askel looked at her intently. "So what are you going to do now?"
Xena shrugged again. "Ill go back with the Amazons...I need to see the sentence carried out before I can put this behind me. And then...then I dont know what Ill do."
"What about us?"
"What about you?" Xena replied, the tone of her voice making it clear she couldnt care less.
"You cant really be planning on leaving. Youre our Commander. Were ready to go on serving you...."
"But Im not ready to keep leading. We did what we said we were going to do. Martakas is a thing of the past, or at least he will be soon enough. Thats all we were ever supposed to do."
Askel shook his head in denial. "No Xena, youre wrong. Were destined for so much more. This is stupid. Why are you wasting your time with this Amazon justice? Kill Martakas yourself. You admitted that the only punishment for his crime is death. What difference does it make who actually carries out the sentence? Kill him and be done with it. His blood belongs to you...not the Amazons!"
Xena struggled to resist the sweet appeal of his words. He was right. Shed said it herself. Martakas belonged to her. What difference did it make who killed him? He was essentially dead already, she could just finish the job and this would all be over.
Seeing her resolve weakening, Askel pressed his attack. "And then you can keep leading us. Think of all the good we can do...all the armies we can stop...all the villages we can save. Its what you do best, Xena. Its what you were fated to do and be."
It was true. There was so much she could accomplish with an army that she could never do on her own. She could bring peace and justice to places where there was only anarchy. She could get rid of the bandits who roamed the land. In time, she could even start to take on the larger kingdoms whose lords were unfair and despotic. She could force those men from power and install leaders who were more responsive to their peoples needs. She could...she could....
She could be the Warrior Princess again, crushing all those who didnt bow down to her, who didnt share her vision of how the world should be. She could destroy armies and cities because they didnt pay her the proper respect. She could overthrow peaceful nations, simply because they stood in the way of her bringing about a new world order.
Xena shook her head. "No," she said softly. "I wont do it. Not again. Once was more than enough. Ill disband the army. Everyone will go home."
Askel cursed loudly, causing Xena to look up in surprise. "I cant believe it. After all this time and effort to build an army capable of defeating any challengers, you want to just throw it all away. Whats wrong with you? I thought you were supposed to be a great warrior, but you refuse to accept your destiny. I cant believe Ive wasted so much of my time on you," he finished indignantly. "This path youre on is the wrong one for you, Xena. You know in your heart that the only way youll ever be satisfied is riding at the head of a mighty army!"
Xena stared at the man standing before her, a sick feeling suddenly beginning to sweep over her. "Who are you?" she demanded angrily.
Askel looked at her innocently but she could see the mocking glint in his eyes. "What are you talking about, Warrior Princess?"
"Ares!" Xena spat out, before quickly leaping to her feet and bringing her sword up to point it at the man standing in front of her.
Askel gave her a pleased look, before shaking his head. "No...but thanks for the compliment," he said, as his appearance slowly began to change before her eyes.
Xena stared at the lean, dark-haired young man, dressed all in black, who was now standing in front of her. "Strife," she said disgustedly. "Dont you two ever give up?" she asked in a weary tone.
"On you Xena? Come on, you know better than that! Now look. All I need from you is for you to just waste this guy and everything will be fine. Youll be back with Ares. Ill get a promotion. Its a win-win situation for us both," he said reasonably.
Xena glared at him furiously. "Im not going to kill him, Strife. Get that through your head! Now what in Tartarus is going on here? Hrothgar said he knew you. He said you were the son of an old friend of his."
Strife looked at the warrior carefully. He knew Ares would be furious with him if he told Xena the truth about Hrothgar. Besides, there was still a chance to salvage all of this as long as Xena never discovered who Hrothgar really was. Grinning cockily, he shrugged his shoulders carelessly. "Think about it Xena. Its not hard to convince some old geezer that youre someone he hasnt seen in years. I just kinda, you know, winged it. I really was pretty good at it, if I do say so myself," he finished, beaming with false modesty.
Xena rolled her eyes, loathing the sight of the arrogant young god standing before her. "So you expect me to believe that this was all your plan? Dont think for a second that I believe that! Where is Ares? I want to see him...NOW!" she growled in a loud, harsh voice.
"Well...Ares is pretty busy you know," Strife said evasively. "So many wars, so little time. Surely the two of us can come to some kind of understanding that...."
"Its all right, Strife," a deep, masculine voice suddenly said from behind Xena. "Go on. Ill take care of this."
"Uncle. I almost had this all wrapped up. Xena and I were about to come to an
"Strife. Leave," Ares ordered firmly, sighing in relief when the godling disappeared. "Hes a good boy...but he gets a little too overanxious at times," Ares remarked casually. "Still, decent help is hard to find," he finished, sitting down on a tree stump not far from where Xena was standing. "So, Xena. Howve you been?" he asked artlessly.
"This was all a plot to get me back, wasnt it?" Xena demanded, her voice trembling with rage. "You set me up...You killed Gabrielle...."
"Whoa, Xena," Ares said, holding his hands up to stop her tirade. "I did not kill your little friend."
Xena sneered. "Fine, you had Strife kill...."
Ares shook his head again. "No. Neither of us killed her. Oh, I admit we took advantage of the situation back there in Nalimore. Strife played the part of the long lost son of one of Hrothgars dear friends to perfection. But neither of us made Martakas do anything he didnt want to do. The man doesnt exactly need encouragement to torture and kill people you know."
Xena glared at Ares in mute fury. "Why should I believe you?"
Ares shook his head. "Xena...you know that I always keep my word to you. I give you my word that Im telling you the truth. Neither Strife nor I killed Gabrielle."
Xenas shoulders sagged in defeat, knowing that the god was telling her the truth. "Fine, you didnt kill her," she said flatly, before sheathing her sword and sinking back down to sit on the ground. She was completely exhausted, her strength having drained out of her as her anger had subsided.
Ares shook his head sadly as he looked her over. "Xena, what am I going to do with you? Why do you insist on denying who and what you are? Your friend is gone. Ill admit that Im not sorry about that fact, but you should admit that theres nothing keeping you from coming back to me now." Ares rose from where he was sitting and moved forward to kneel beside Xena. His voice was soft and sensual and his words flowed over her like a silken caress. "Come back to me Xena. Use this army you built to do whatever you want. I dont care if you want to use it to protect peasants. I just want to watch you do what you do best. Ride at the head of this army again. Let me take in the delicious sight of you in all your magnificent glory. You have been awe inspiring and majestic these past few weeks. Come back to me Xena," he coaxed once again. "You know its what you truly want to do."
Xena desperately fought against the seductiveness of Ares voice and words. Closing her eyes tightly, she mentally reached out for something to hold onto, something to ground her. She could feel the amazing attraction that Ares had always held for her, as it threatened to consume her once again. Finally, she found it. The same tiny piece of Gabrielles soul that had kept her from killing Martakas now gave her the strength to resist the temptation to succumb to Ares. "No," she ground out hoarsely, her breath coming in short, harsh gasps. "Im not going back to that way of life. I wont be that person again."
Ares swore loudly, as he rose and stalked away. "So now what?" he demanded furiously. "What do you intend to do now? What about your army?"
Xena opened her eyes slowly and struggled to focus on the angry god who was now standing several feet away from her. "Ill see to it that the Amazons get Martakas back to their village. Ill take Gabrielles things to her parents...And then I dont know what Ill do. After I take care of Gabrielle, it wont really matter what happens to me anymore...live or die...it wont make any difference to me," she said listlessly. "As for the army...Ill send them all home. They can have the spoils of Martakas army as payment. I never cared about any of that."
Ares scoffed at her. "Do you think it will be that simple? Do you think you can so easily send them all away? You formed an army Xena and someone will be waiting to take control as soon as you step down."
Xena looked at him steadily. "Who? Askel? We both know Strife cant lead the army for you. Dont forget Ares...those men wanted to follow me...Theyre good men, not mercenaries, not bandits, not bullies. Without Askel or me to lead them, the majority of them will be willing to go home. And the ones who arent...well Ill handle them personally. That army will be no more. Im not going to leave it as a mess for someone else to clean up."
"You dont have to do this Xena...."
"Yes...I do. I made a promise a long time ago, and I intend to keep it," Xena replied calmly, as she finally rose to her feet. "And we have nothing more to talk about. Good-bye Ares," she said quietly, before moving over to check on Martakas once again.
"Not good-bye Xena," Ares said softly. "Just until next time," he finished, before vanishing from sight.
Ares watched with silent rage as Xena and the Amazons left the battlefield with Martakas in tow. She had done what she had said she would do. She had disbanded her army and scattered the men to the winds. Xena had been right. Many of the men had only been interested in following her and defeating Martakas and, with the warlord crushed, the driving force to be a warrior had vanished for them. Most of them would have been willing to continue serving Xena, or perhaps even Askel, but without either of their two leaders, the majority of the men were ready to take what they wanted from what was left of Martakas army and head home.
There were a few men who tried to hold the others together, wanting to keep the army going under their own leadership. Xena made it clear to everyone, however, that she would personally destroy any army that formed from the remnants of the one she had just dispersed, and the impetus for creating a new army quickly died down. Ares briefly considered stirring things up again to make things more difficult for Xena, but he realized it wouldnt accomplish anything. At best, he could force Xena into the position of killing several of the men who had once been her soldiers but that still wouldnt give him what he really wanted. It was time to cut his losses. He would just have to move on to something else.
"She really is magnificent. I can see why you want her back so much," Strife sighed softly, as he moved forward to stand beside the God of War. "I mean, the way she just tears across the plains, screaming that battle cry of hers. And the way she toys with her opponents just before she kills them...its...its...its just incredible. And have you ever noticed how she...."
"STRIFE!" Ares growled angrily. "I dont want to hear about how wonderful Xena is. I already know and Im definitely not in the mood to listen to this right now!"
"Riiiiight. Sorry about that," the young godling said contritely. "So, Unc...what do we do now?"
"We finish it," Ares replied in a cold, hard voice.
Strife stared at him in confusion. "Finish it? But Xena has already...."
"Uh huh...And what do you want to do about the bard?"
Ares stared quietly in the direction Xena had disappeared. "The bard? The bard dies."
Strife looked at the God of War, a puzzled expression on his features. "Uhh...I
thought you told Xena...."
Ares interrupted him. "I told Xena that we hadnt killed Gabrielle. Past tense." Ares glanced briefly at Strife, as a menacing grin began to spread across his face. "I didnt say anything about what could happen in the future."
A look of pure admiration appeared on Strifes face. "Now you see...thats why youre the God of War and Im just...hmmm...what am I exactly anyway? I really need to get a decent title," he said plaintively, as he began wandering around, muttering under his breath, trying to come up with a new name.
Ares listened to him for a few seconds, before he rapidly began to lose his patience. "Strife! Go!" he finally ordered harshly, rolling his eyes in exasperation.
Strife looked at him with a touch of surprise. "All right...Ill just zip
over and take care of that little bard for you...."
"Strife! I meant go away...as in leave. Ill take care of Xenas little friend on my own. I want that pleasure for myself."
"Ahhhh...okay. Well, Ill just catch up with you later. Let me know if you need me," he said eagerly, before fading away.
Ares stood where he was for several more minutes, before finally cursing softly. "I almost had you, Xena. I was so close that time." Shaking his head, he sighed ruefully. "Well Gabrielle, it looks like you were able to save Xena from me one last time. Its too bad for you she wont be able to return the favor," he concluded with an evil chuckle, before finally fading from sight.