THE BLACK DRAGON
(aka Friend In Need Part 3)
by Aiglon vel
Polish version - 2001 | English translation - 2012
Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, Ares & the rest of our beloved characters belong to Renaissance Pictures, Universal/MCA.
SEX/VIOLENCE & SPOILERS: It will be a surprise, but no sex here. Lot of violence, blood and fights but no smut. So if you look for erotic scenes between the warrior and the bard, wrong fanfic, sorry. That's a personal settlement for the series finale; story I wrote just after watching "Friend in Need". This is POST AFIN fanfiction, so if you haven't watch it (is there any Xenite who didn't?), don't read.
A NOTE OF THANKS: Serena (tyrannosaurus-ren.tumblr.com) for her feedback, encouragement and also beta reading and fixing all my horrible grammar mistakes. Giovanna (dreammaker-heartbreaker.tumblr.com) for improving my vocabulary and all her incredible notes. Daniela (inclined-ice.tumblr.com) for all her love and support. Port (portportport.tumblr.com) for amazing trolling. Yselle, because I wouldn't survive watching AFIN without her. Neila (miss you , Canadian girl!) for her friendship. Mary D for all her kind words, incredible support and wise suggestions. And of course Hellgirl and Szalka for waking me up in the middle of the night and letting me complete this story.
If you have any comments, thoughts and suggestions, feel free to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
PART ONE - THE DESPAIR
She was sitting alone with her head down, breathing slowly, not knowing if she was supposed to be alive nor able to take air into her lungs. Cold winter jerked her short blond hair, keeping her face hidden in the dark. She would have a problem seeing anything, but didn't care to see the world around her. The world she couldn't stand.
Her hands carefully caressed the cold steel of the chakram, now shining in the red lights of sun. The view was absolutely breathtaking; the sunset cradled the snowed mountains on the horizon with delicate and warm light. Just like in Japan, she thought. The beautiful land, where the air tasted like freedom and trees blow by millions of colorful flowers. This was land where she lost everything. Gods, how much she hated the sunsets.
She wiped a single, treacherous tear running down her cheek. It has been one year, five months and sixteen days since she almost cried her soul out, far away, in a different world, crashed by bestiality of the consequences of her lover's decision. Reality was too hard to bear even now. She remembered laying on the ground, helpless in despair, waiting to wake up from this nightmare or just bury herself in the frozen dust, just there, between the rocks of Mount Fuji. They say that time heals the wounds but in her point of view, it only makes things worse. The Warrior Princess was all her life, owned all her dreams and ambitions, her smiles and had given all moments of happiness. She was everything, but left, leaving her alone, cold and dirty in her guilt of letting Xena go. She loved the raven haired warrior with all her heart, and was ready to take life for her and give her own if needed. She didn't have that chance nor choice. Frankly she thought that they both had died that day, one way or another. Once sacrificed her body and went to another world, the other sacrificed her soul but she wasn't able to go anywhere.
Sometimes she felt Xena's presence by her side. Her scent, her fingers running through her face, smile behind her back. She dreamed about her and cried even harder every morning realizing that the other side of the bed was painfully empty. She knew that the Warrior's soul was visiting her from time to time. She heard the voice, singing with the wind, confessions of love when she closed her eyes. But memories and wind blowing her hair weren't enough for her. And never will be.
She stood up and looked ahead, changing her broken destiny with brave sight. She changed a lot, getting used to strange habits which made people think she was insane; she could be, probably. Insomnia was her middle name, screaming during sleep just casual part of life. When she had gone back to Potadeia visiting her sister and her niece; they barely could recognize her. Her face, lit with joy and hope before, was now bitter and filled with resignation. Yet, what was even more destructive – her green eyes were empty and indifferent. She was not only a shadow of her former self, but the exact opposite.
Oh, she still helped people, traveling hundreds of miles to answer their pleas. The more she tried to find her old priorities, to get back to her previous life, the more pain had increased inside and killed everything she felt. One day she discovered that she didn't feel anything. It didn't even surprise her. She was incredibly tired, discouraged and heart-broken. She didn't see the purpose in sacrificing herself nor risking her life for strangers, whom usually wouldn't care to thank her, obviously recognizing that this was her obligation and duty. She hadn't thought about that before, when another day fighting for the greater good meant another day with Xena. Now every detail seemed important somehow.
At first she had felt an urgent need to continue Xena's duty, but when every thought about her partner started to be painful, she lost her sense in fighting for a better world. Whenever she asked herself "What would Xena do?," under her closed eyelids she saw a beautiful, tall, black haired warrior with piercing blue and incredibly sad eyes, she had to use all her strength no to cry out hard.
Her back was to Greece. This was supposed to help her get over this pain– that what she thought then. That's where she had been born and raised, where her family still lived, and where she could rest a little. Everything there had changed though; she couldn't resist recalling all painful memories. This was an unfair fight between her heart and brain. What part of her would win her soul and tear it apart? The heart won it all the time. She failed even in that matter.
She couldn't admit to herself that a few mugs of dark strong ale every evening helped her not to think and she continued to need that kind of help every day and every night. "Tonight I will need that again." she thought with a wry smile, being perfectly aware, that this meant trouble. Yet, does this little problem mean anything? After all this?
She walked down the hill, trying to focus on her last task. That wasn't easy, since she had a huge hangover and her head seemed to explode with every hard step. Wouldn't she care that the magic rings, once owned by Zeus, were stolen? The master of all gods had been dead for a long time now, but people continued believing in him and that entire Olympian horde. She had to watch ridiculous rituals and sometimes she was asked to join people, who sacrifice their last piece of bread to propitiate selfish gods. These men asked for her help and would expect her to risk her life – stupid, doltish and trusting in something that wasn't in existence anymore. She lost all her hope, buried all former priorities. The routine was superseded by commitment.
She had met Eve a few months ago. Xena's daughter couldn't believe nor understand her mother's death, she wanted to go to Japan, save her and fight back. This calm girl, a believer, a chosen one, the messenger of Eli, who should understand this sacrifice, yet, she couldn't. Hit Gabrielle's face hard, when she was telling her why she was stopped by resurrecting her beloved warrior.
"Why?" she screamed. "Why haven't you done that?"
Why? Damn, she wanted to know herself. No one was able to understand that not Eve not Gabrielle; No one.
Eve had gotten a grip after few days of despair, appreciating her mother's deed, but Gabrielle wasn't that perfect example of a human being. Frankly she felt very far away from perfection. She kept traveling around, trying to find any sense to her existence, any purpose to her life. Why is she here now? Alone..
Alone it is. And it made everything even harder. Her sense of insecurity came from the fact that she didn't have any close person in this world. Her sister, an old lady now was sick and tired of hard country life and mostly focused on her everyday problems. They couldn't find a way to communicate, arguing about small nonessential things and Gabrielle was learning with painful awareness that their point of views were becoming greatly contradictory every day. Everything had changed; the time did its work well. Her sister's daughter was a nice person, but still torturing herself with her own guilt and painful memories. Gabrielle wasn't able to help her, and as a matter of fact - to help anybody else, even herself. She had a deep and still bleeding wound in her soul, alone and disgraced by her own lack of dignity. In this world, after 25 years of dreaming in that frozen coffin, she had no friends. Most of them had died, didn't remember or didn't want to know her even. Making new relations was difficult, because who would like to spend time with a person, like she became – always miserable, bleak, drunk, reticent and snippy. Gabrielle let herself smile a little. Yes, she hadn't been a very outgoing girl lately.
Only once, being driven by her intuition, instinct, and horrible loneliness, went to Meg's inn, looking for Virgil. He was the only person except Eve who still reminded her of her former life. The meeting happened to be a total emotional turmoil and disaster. Virgil wanted to go fight, claiming vengeance, while waving his sword and swearing a lot. Later he sat and cried like little boy, begging for her support and a calming hug. Gabrielle was watching him with despair. She couldn't tell him that she had gone there seeking his help. Frankly, she didn't have to explain that though. It was pretty obvious that he wouldn't be able to calm her down in any way. She spent a few days there, trying not to drink too much and avoiding her night walks just to not let them become concerned about her usual behavior. It didn't work well though. One of the nights she spent with Virgil, she forgot what exactly she wanted to prove or forget. He was anxious and shy after all and wasn't able to talk with her easily. And she felt dirty inside and outside. She left this place as fast as possible not even looking back.
The only thing she had was her fight. In the name of honor, of greater good or whatever you want to call it. She tried to forget everything in the heat of battle, forget about her own screaming inner self. Gabrielle had always wondered why all mercenaries she had met before seemed so cold and indifferent. Now she looked like one of them. She couldn't convict herself for death, she tried so hard but giving up wasn't part of her nature so she always won eventually, even the toughness and hopeless fights. But part of her sought this ultimate solution on every battlefield.
She fixed up her belt, now even heavier since she started to use Greek Swords instead of Sais, raised the collar of her coat, dirty from dust and walked to her mare, trying to calm her down a bit. The horse was uneasy, neighed restlessly, like she was scared of the upcoming night. Gabrielle mounted her easily, tightened her fingers on the reins and made the animal enter the northern road. The mare shook her head, objecting her mistress's choice, but maneuvered dutifully.
"Wait." Gabrielle frowned and looked behind her completely surprised. She couldn't recognize him at first, but the dark figure looked familiar. He was hidden in the raising dark, but after a few heartbeats came ahead and showed himself. Gabrielle couldn't help and smile.
"Ares, what a nice surprise" she said not even bothering to hide the irony in her voice. "What are you up to? A little war? A battle? Another fair play?"
He shook his head and looked at her carefully. He didn't change much, almost nothing at all. His hair was a little bit longer, his outfit was a little bit different, but that's all. He was still handsome as hell with that irritating smile on his immortal face.
"I want to talk to you" he said calmly.
"About what?" Gabrielle's voice was rough and unfriendly. "We don't have anything in common anymore."
"You've changed." He stopped, smiled, and walked closer to her.
"Sharp as a tack; as usual" Gabrielle didn't' let him to come closer, maneuvering her horse skillfully. "And now, forgive me, but I have some things to do."
He threw her a little bundle. Gabrielle caught it automatically, untied it and looked inside. She held the magic rings, exactly those she sought for.
"Is that what you're looking for?" Ares asked.
Gabrielle nodded. "I'm not going to make a mistake and ask you how you found those. You wouldn't tell me anyway. Plus I don't really care." She kicked back in the saddle relaxing a little. Her mare was dancing nervously beneath her, but she calmed her down with single, fast gesture. Gabrielle looked at the rings, then at him again. "My question is why you are giving me this?" she asked suspiciously. "And what do you want in return?"
He shrugged, but Gabrielle was too tired to become annoyed by this gesture.
"I want to talk." He replied. "You wouldn't have time theoretically, now you have it apparently. I did your job, and saved you from putting a lot of effort so that would be fair if you would repay me by spending some time in my company".
She raised an eyebrow.
"Just a simple talk" Ares sighed finding double meaning in his previous sentence. "You don't really think that.."
"Whatever I think doesn't matter" she interrupted. "But ok, we can talk. Only talk."
The world waved, collapsed down and disappeared. After a few moments, appeared again, full of candle lights, decorated torches, expensive furniture and impressive furs of wild animals. The air was full of tasteful smell of sensationally seasoned game, good wine and freshly baked bread. Gabrielle looked around alertly, finding herself standing in the center of the room, without her horse nor coat on her back.
"Your mare is in my stables" Ares said seeing question in her sigh. "She has a lot of hay and water; now cleared and safe".
She nodded. That it was enough. First, somehow did not believe that Ares could lie in that matter. Second, wasn't too fond of the mare just because it was a stubborn beast, stupid and terribly fearful. She changed mounts frequently, and cared for them as much as she had to.
They sat on the wooden benches, a young man clothed in chain mail gave them food, the other lifted a mighty jug, pouring the wine into silver goblets, and then the two quietly left the room. The girl immediately reached for a drink, which Ares commented with eloquent look.
"You shouldn't drink that much" He tossed casually.
"And you shouldn't pay attention to me on that issue; like in any other".
"Xena didn't drink that much"
Table shook heavily when her fist hit it suddenly. She finished her cup in one sip and looked coldly on Ares trying to calm himself.
"You wanted to talk to me. So talk."
He sat up slowly stretching his arms, while wondering, sipped wine and began to speak. "Yes, I wanted to talk to you. I hope you will listen to me calmly, and you won't trash this place every time you will hear the name of the Warrior Princess."
She shrugged, trying to sit comfortably filling her cup again. "The sentiments Ares?" she asked sharply. "Want to talk or reminisce about the only true love of your life?"
"As far I know, yours as well" he struck.
They watched each other for a moment, fighting silently. Gabrielle gave up at last, nodding again and giving Ares a sign to continue. Hiding her insecurity she found a steaming roast of deer extremely interesting but didn't allow herself reach for another cup of wine. She wanted to listen to this being sober. Just in case.
"Xena is dead" Ares began.
She refrained from commenting and focused on eating.
"And as I know, will not return. But you're here Gabrielle. Here and now". He looked at her but she refused to up her head. He started again: "I don't want to talk about the old times, all these wrongs and merits, because it does not make any sense. We both remember. I want to talk about the future" he stopped, waiting for a response.
He cleared his throat slightly, confused; stood up and began to wander around the room, not taking his eyes off the blonde-haired warrior.
"A lot split us apart, Gabrielle, still divides us a lot. But we really are alike. And you and I both live in war. The role was forced upon us, and now we both decide to live this way because of our choices. Because of our needs."
"Needs?" Gabrielle wiped her greasy fingers on her pants. "What are you talking about Ares? You are the god of war. GOD."
"I also have some responsibilities. And it has been imposed from above. You know perfectly well that once I wanted to give it all up." He narrowed his eyes. "You know for who and by whom."
"But you did not succeed apparently, and generally speaking were quite pleased when your divinity came back." Gabrielle took a bite of meat with bread and looked at him closely. "You said, however, would not go back to the past. So do not come back."
"Agreed." He started to walk around the room again. "I watch you Gabriele. I've been watching you for a long time. You are true warrior, brave, fearless and devoted to the art of warfare. But I do know that you really lost the sense in your fight. You kill, but really do not know why. Since Xena doesn't stand by your side, killing no longer makes you feel good."
"If you watch me so intently Ares, you know that the killing wasn't, is, or will be a pleasure for me." She said indifferently.
"Do not go back to the past" he muttered, then stopped walking and sat down exactly against the former bard. "I want to give you a new purpose in life Gabrielle. I want you to have something to live for."
"It's interesting." she hissed. "What a convenient attitude. Ares merciful? Ares benefactor? Say what you want right now and I may not laugh off your offer immediately."
He couldn't hide a smile. He was in, he knew it.
"Well then, no word games. Before I give you the offer I want you to answer me one question. Honestly."
"Honesty Ares?" She raised her eyebrow. "Speaking honestly with you doesn't pay back well."
"Perhaps some things have changed. Besides - Do you have anything to lose?"
"Ask." Gabrielle gave up, knowing that he was right. She had nothing; nothing at all. Even the meal she ate wasn't hers. She looked on the cup missing the taste of wine. Which was very good wine to be honest.
"What do you want most?" He asked finally after long moment of silence.
She looked into his eyes, and her sight was pierced by the cold indifference with such great despair and monstrous longing that even the god of war was slightly embarrassed.
"You cannot give me this" Gabrielle hissed softly and rapidly stood up.
"Wait!" Ares called her, seeing that she was wearing gloves, getting ready to leave. "Perhaps it is not so impossible."
The blond warrior turned to him.
"You said that she can't go back." Gabrielle had huge problems with controlling the trembling of her voice.
"She can't." Ares shook his head sadly and put his hand on her shoulder "But you can go where she is."
A hope flickered in her eyes for a moment, but after a while went out with gloomy doubt.
"Neither god nor man can do this" She said sharply.
Ares didn't let her get away and forced Gabrielle to look in his eyes.
"How do you know?" Ares asked quietly. "How can you be sure?"
She hesitated. Ares took his advantage immediately.
"Listen, I know that life no longer has a sense for you. I know, been there, done that. You've been looking for death more than once. I know that even in the underworld you won't be able to meet her. Xena is imprisoned in her own world between the living and the dead. You will never meet her again. Unless..." He paused for better effect. "Unless I will send you there".
Gabrielle restrained herself with difficulty, straightened. She knew that he was right and whatever he would do or say, she was going to accept the offer because she didn't have anything to loose.
"What do you want in return?" She asked coldly.
Ares didn't say anything for a moment, perhaps thinking to choose the right words. Now was the time, he knew that he had something Gabrielle wanted more than anything. But he had to sell her that properly.
"I.." He began and narrowed his eyes. "I want you to regain the world for me."
There was a dead silence for a moment, interrupted only by hissing of never fading torches.
"A World, Ares?" Gabrielle laughed hoarsely. "What world could I give you? How could I regain it for you? No one will follow me, I won't conquer anything nor anybody anymore" Controlled her joy, seeing his gloomy look. "Look around. People came up with hundreds of new gods once again; still worshiping those who do not even exist. Ares, the world has changed, changed so much that I and not even you won't win it now. It's a hard place to simply live in it for us. The golden years, when Hercules and Xena together carried out the heroic deeds and the gods fought amongst themselves, are gone. There's nothing more but ruins, dust and ashes. There is nothing to control over, Ares; Nothing to conquer."
She turned around and leaned on the table very tired and resigned. Before he tried to interrupt her she managed to take up the subject again: "Ares trust me, there's nothing in this world and even in the whole universe I would want more than to take your offer. If you want, I can die for your cause in return. But don't count that I will end this mission successfully." She looked at him. "I am not Xena" she added quietly. "Even if I have this" she turned the chakram in her hand.
He nodded thoughtfully and then examined her face, her eyes.
"Stand by my side. Lead my army" He said finally. "Fight for me, be faithful to me, and regardless of the outcome of this fight, I'll bring you to where you want to be."
Gabrielle finished her cup and asked trying to be calm and reasonable. That wasn't easy. "And how could I be sure that you have an ability to do it?"
"I am a god." He replied proudly.
"Yes, you are" She admitted. "The half-forgotten god, who sits in his deep hidden chambers, whose name is called more frequently in the legends than in the temples. You are a god. It's an undeniable fact. But you do have your own limit, that's why you need me. I want to make sure that if I devote my life for you, I won't make a fatal mistake."
"Well..." He said seriously. "And so I prove my power to you. Ability, as you said. I'll get you there very shortly and you see if you can believe me."
"It's a world of spirits, Ares" She muttered, quite confused. "And I'm still pretty much alive."
"Therefore, your journey will be very short." He nodded. "So short, you will be able to return to your body. But long enough, you would see if it is worth your sacrifice."
"I'm sure it's worth it" Gabrielle blurted out, desperately wanting to believe. "If you speak the truth of course."
"You will judge this by yourself" Ares walked over toward her. "Lie on this bench. Relax. Close your eyes ......"
She woke up slowly, with difficulty, had to get involved with all her will and strength to open her eyes. She rose and looked around curious of the world, which soon will be her home. She couldn't recognize the time of day, just like time didn't exist here. The sky was burning red, even though the sun had not occurred. Everything there was crushed and silent. She couldn't find the right words to describe this, but it seemed to her that sounds propagate differently here. And generally speaking - not diverge at all.
She started to walk hesitantly looking closely around. She didn't see a single tree nor a field of grass or any other plant. The tops of the sharp small rocks and sheets of dead lakes cleaned like a mirror's surface not affected by the breath of the wind were the only parts of this strange landscape. If such a thing as wind even existed there.
Gabrielle after a short walk decided to climb over the highest rock to look around. She hoped that from the highest part of the area, she will notice a trace of Xena. After long while barely defeated, she reached the top. Her body, which was probably just an illusion, resisted the will of her mind consistently. Gabrielle suspected that this is because she still really belongs to the living world. She stood on top of the rock setting up her legs wide to maintain balance. She hoped that the air will be a little lighter and cooler here, but that didn't happen. This world was ruled by strange laws and she gave up trying to understand them.
The former bard looked around intently. Not even the slightest trace of any kind of life. It was a scary world, lying in eternal silence, as if dormant. She shuddered at the thought that Xena had spent so much time here.
Suddenly, on the bank of one of the dead lakes she saw a seated figure. It could not be mistaken. It had to be Xena. Gabrielle ran quickly from the rock, and moved as fast as she could toward the warrior. Her heart beat wildly in her chest; she desperately caught her breath not letting herself slow down. She forced herself, trying to make every great effort. She almost got there, and stopped suddenly. She had to consider how to explain to Xena why she was here.
Gabrielle rounded the last rock carefully and looked at the Warrior, but still for some reason unknown, wasn't betraying her presence.
Xena sat motionless, hunched and staring at the calm and plain surface of the lake. The sacred katana lay by her side, reflecting a lazily blood-red glow of the sky. Gabrielle couldn't move; amazed by seeing her Warrior again. She looked at her beloved, and tears ran down her cheeks. She had to wait so long to see her but couldn't force herself to approach the warrior princess.
Xena raised her head suddenly, like she was feeling her presence. The Warrior looked around carefully before their eyes finally met. They both stand there for the moment not moving at all, frozen and speechless. Xena was more than surprised, and Gabrielle too thrilled and touched to say anything.
She was just about to walk to the Warrior, when she felt surrounded by a blue flame and began to fade, slowly flowing into her own world. She tried to fight it for a moment, not paying attention to the horrible pain but finally gave up. She got her proof, and she will be back there eventually. Just before disappearing, she only noticed that Xena stood up rapidly, running in her direction and shouting something, but Gabrielle didn't hear what exactly.
She raised her hand in a farewell and vanished from the warrior's sight, whom then fell to her knees in despair and hid her face into her hands.
She began to cough hard, feeling weak as a newborn kitten. Her whole body was sweating and drenched, shaken by powerful chills. She felt sick and couldn't stop herself for vomiting on the floor.
"Great" she heard Ares' voice just above her head but she didn't have enough strength to worry about his reaction. God of war cleaned the floor with one simple magical gesture and walk to Gabrielle who still tried to control herself.
"And how did it go?" He asked smiling boldly.
Gabrielle looked at him. She noticed that this trip cost him so much, even though he intended to hide that and would deny it for sure if she cared to ask. She tried to sit down but started to cough again when she just rose a bit. Ares was observing her and didn't comment when she found a cup of wine with her trembling hands and drank it to the end. Alcohol burned her throat and stomach but that helped her to feel better.
"Oh, you certainly shouldn't drink so much". He sighed and sat down in front of her. Gabrielle ignored him trying to catch her breath again.
"And how did it go?" He repeated the question.
She looked at him tired and exhausted but the glimmer of hope lightened in her eyes.
"Deal." She said as much firmly as she could.
They shook hands. Gabrielle couldn't help the feeling that she heard stroke of a thunder outside.
PART TWO - THE FURY
The horses neighed wildly, the warriors called each other aloud when some of them entertained the rest showing their skills exercising their sword fighting, filling the camp with sounds of steel. Gabrielle was standing silent looking at people, whom she might lead to death. She realized that she's going to be guilty of annihilation of hundreds of lives but didn't want to think about it. She was ready to sacrifice all of them in the name of her love. It was selfish, evil and unjust but so what? Had the world treated her better?
Nothing left from the priorities of this little girl who hit the road with a mighty warrior and who wanted to change the world, substituting evil with good. Ha, she was even able to die for her ideals. But her priorities always lose with feelings for the dark-haired warrior. She remembered the moment when she had reached for the sword for the very first time, throwing away everything she had believed; how they had died, crucified. But it was a sweet death, because they had known that they would meet on the other side. Now they will be always be together, forever...
Gabrielle lowered her head noticing that powerful anger at Xena has woken up deeply inside her. Those kinds of feelings had begun to dominate her recently, when she got back to the memories of the events from almost one and a half years. How could she leave her? Why? Setting herself for a sick duty to guard an empty post, and Gabrielle was aware that this certainly wasn't necessary - or just she tried to tell that to herself. "I should have to push her back and pour the ashes into the fountain" - the thought didn't want to leave her mind ever. Again, she was angry at herself. She needed to unleash her fury somehow.
She threw her sword out from the scrap bag and moved forward, listening to the song of crossed blades. After a while she came to the place where warriors killed their time practicing fencing. Gabrielle jumped over a low fence and walked between them. As soon they noticed their commander, they stopped fighting immediately and saluted with their swords. She nodded simply in return and looked at the bigger and tallest of them. He was a muscular man, with huge cheekbones, broken nose and small, clever eyes. She knew he was dangerous and fighting with him was risky but right now how she wanted it to be.
"You" She ordered. "Will fight with me. Now. To the first blood."
He bowed under trained knowing that "first blood" was only a figure of speech. His leader wasn't used to finishing fights in any other way than killing. Gabrielle turned the sword in her hand and looked at the others. Without a word of opposition they formed a circle, which only one of the fighters could leave alive. She watched her opponent walking around him and playing by her blade, changing the rhythm of her steps from time to time. He looked at her intently, trying to guess what she was going to do. Wielding a great two-handed sword in his hands, he knew how to use it apparently, but his commander was a famous fighter and that awareness made him insecure. Gabrielle saw how his small eyes begin to burn with flames of aggression. She smiled - yes, that what she needed - a nice, good fight.
He moved forward like the charging bull seeking for a gap in her defense. She deceived him easily, bounced, took the offensive by hitting three short blows which he parried, jumped out and circled him slowly again. Then he moved pointing his blade to her feet. The sword whistled through the air. She jumped, making spectacular somersault and landed right behind him, then pared his next hit behind her back. Blades parted with a shrill screech, causing sparks. Gabrielle turned out, launched the attack again, showering her opponent with strong and rapid blows inflicted by short arm. He defended himself with difficulty. His sword was too heavy to parry the blows easily in such fast rhythm. But Gabrielle didn't underestimate him. Between her one swift blow and another, he cut through the attack and slashed at her right side. She ran away neatly, the blade's edge sided down after a new, excellent armor, but it hurt; and hurt hard.
"One broken rib at least." she thought quickly. She flew into a rage. Cutting down and cutting through as strongly as she could, struck at him. He retreated more and more, and increasingly horror woke up in his eyes. He didn't try to attack anymore, only reflected the blows dealt faster and harder.
Finally, impossibly furious, she cut him down to his knees. He fell with a muffled groan and tried to overshadow himself by the sword. She sliced his face, controlled herself with difficulty and sprang aside. The man lay breathing heavily and waiting for the final blow. She didn't do it though, fighting monstrous desire to see his guts on her blade. She watched him for a moment while trying to calm her breath. She shook her head, hid her sword and jumped over the fence, leaving her wounded opponent surprised, wounded but alive.
She looked on her chest when finally got in her tent. Just like she thought, two ribs were broken. Despite the pain, she bound herself tightly with linen bandages and sat down, breathing heavily. She poured some wine to the decorated, silver goblet and took a long sip, lost in her thoughts for a moment or two.
She jumped up to her feet suddenly pulling out her sword. Xena stood before her. Quiet and calm as usual and terribly serious. Gabrielle put down her blade on the table besides her and sat down again on a wooden chair upholstered in fur.
"Hello, Xena." She said trying to act this cool. "What brings you here?"
"You." The Warrior looked right in her eyes. Gabrielle avoided her sight. Xena walked over to her and crouched beside the blonde.
"Gabrielle, what are you doing?" she asked quietly.
The bard couldn't answer. She desperately took a sip of wine, closing her eyes tightly.
"What are you talking about?" She asked trying to sound casual.
"Well I think you know." Xena looked at her with her imperious gaze.
Gabrielle felt extremely uncomfortable and bad.
"I'm talking about this whole mess. Ares... Why does he do it? Why do you serve him Gabrielle? What tempted you?"
The Blonde Warrior looked at the love of her life with despair. Xena stared closely in her eyes, took her hands in her palms, she raised them to her mouth and kissed lightly.
"Xena, don't do it, please." Gabrielle escaped and cowered in her chair. Seeing the surprise on the warrior's face, she couldn't help herself and blurted out sadly "Oh, come on. You came up from time to time; you look at me with these beautiful blue eyes, kiss me with your ghostly mouth and then leave again." She started to sob. "I can't live that way Xena. It breaks me completely. I just can't".
"I..." The warrior uncertainly tried to find right words.
"It's torture for me, don't you understand?" The former bard said now openly crying. "You come in, not allowing me to forget about you, and then leave. You do not realize how much that hurts? I can't stand this Xena. I just can't stand it. If I knew that I could meet you on the other side, I would have made this decision a long time ago..." And then bitted her lip and stopped, realizing that she said too much.
Xena froze but still stared at her lover with so much pain and remorse in her eyes, that Gabrielle felt a lump in her throat once again.
"If I could turn back the time" The Warrior said so softly that almost whispered the sentences. "I wouldn't leave you. Never."
"Xena, it's irrelevant" Gabrielle felt very tired. "It happened. Period. Now, nothing and no one can change it back."
Suddenly, the warrior's eyes narrowed. "What did Ares promise you, Gabrielle? Tell me." Her voice was sharp and demanding. "Does this have anything to do with us?"
Gabrielle wasn't stupid. She knew that her warrior can't learn about what her agreement with the god of war. But she couldn't hide her eyes nor shaking hands. She knew that Xena will guess why she does what she does eventually.
The warrior grabbed her shoulders and forced Gabrielle to look in her eyes.
"I saw you in my post. I saw you. How did you get there?"
She can't tell her. She can't. It may not. No...
Xena let her go, shocked. Gabrielle curled, expecting an attack, reprimand, and the sermons of a better world. She was mistaken; almost.
"Sunshine." The Warrior groaned and fell on her knees closer to the bard. She took her hands again, but this time Gabrielle hadn't enough strength to escape. "You're doing it ... for us?" She didn't expect a reply, she was sure that Gabrielle wouldn't give it. "You fight in the service of Ares, because you want to come to me? Baby..." Xena's eyes were filled with tears. "You can't do it." She added softly.
"I can't?" Gabrielle asked with a stifled voice. "I can't? And at this point you're very wrong warrior princess. I can and I will. What could stop me?"
" Gabrielle " Xena tried to convince her again. "You taught me that we have to make sacrifices. We are not important. Just ..."
"Just what?" She said aggressively. "Xena, look at me, see me. I've forgotten a long time ago about the things that I had been teaching you." She added ironically. "I'm terribly lonely Xena; terribly lonely without you. I have nothing left. I'm lost without you. So give me one reason - why not?"
Xena was looking for answers frantically, but couldn't find any. She met Gabrielle's demand and looked at her. And then she froze frightened.
There was such pain, longing and indifference. All the lonely days and nights spent only with bottles of good wine. Roam the world in search of purpose, wandering aimlessly and above all, helplessness and total lack of hope.
Xena let her hands go and slowly, very slowly sat down on the ground, and hid her face in her hands.
"By the gods" She groaned hollowly. "What have I done?"
They stood there, frozen for a moment, cuddled by heavy, dead silence.
Gabrielle reached for the cup finally and finished her wine. Xena looked at her in surprise.
"I would offer you a cup of wine" The girl muttered. "But I doubt the spirits might drink."
"You are right, Gabrielle" Xena murmured thoughtfully.
"That they don't drink? I suppose."
"No. You are right. I shouldn't have stayed there. I had no right to break a promise I had given to you just because I wanted to fix my sins of the past and strive for atoning for them. It made no sense. It wasn't our fight, not yours. I shouldn't make such a choice" She lowered her head. Gabrielle couldn't answer anything for that statement. Xena raised her eyes at her and said firmly: "But I can't let you do this."
"You can't?" Gabrielle laughed. "What will you do? What can you do exactly? Up against me? Healthy and alive? If this were possible Xena, if I could get you back, I would. But it's our only chance to be together. Don't you understand?"
"I understand" The warrior shook her head, and black curls danced around her face. "But I can't let you kill hundreds of innocent people because of my mistake and our... desire to be together"
"They aren't innocent." Gabrielle shrugged. "They are warriors. Someone would lead them into a battle, sooner or later. Does it matter who? They will stand in front of people as limited and hungry for power as they are. They're going to slaughter each other, that's their destiny, and chosen fate. The only difference is the fact I'll be watching this."
Xena looked at her for a very, very long time.
"You've changed very much." she said at last.
"The world has changed me."
"You had resisted to it before."
"Because I was with you."
Xena lowered her gaze again. "I cannot allow it, Gabrielle."
"You keep repeating that. What can you do?"
"To convince you?" Her eyes shone with a little hope.
Gabrielle shook her head. "You won't convince me. You aren't able to. You had convinced me once. There, on top of Mount Fiji. And that is totally enough."
"I love you, Gabrielle." Xena's voice was shaking. "But don't... just don't...."
The girl came up to her, knelt, took her face in her hands.
"Don't think about that Xena." She whispered softly, her eyes lighted up with love. "We'll be together soon. Sooner than you think."
"Shhh..." Gabrielle closed her eyes, feeling the warrior is slowly disappearing, dissolving in the mist. "Just give me some time. Not much. And we'll be together again. This time forever."
It was late evening; finally the sun went down, letting the world calm a little from the Greek hot spring. She sat lost in thoughts, having heard the barking of dogs, steps of the guards, sounds of the war camp. However, she was able to listen only to crackling fire and her own thoughts. She held, as usual, an integral cup of wine in her hands. She gently played with its decorated base, her fingers touching the sculptures and precious stones. She watched as the fire is reflected in the shimmering surface, distorting the decoration. The silver seemed to be alive, pulsing with blood.
"You decided to entertain yourself today."
She tore her gaze from the goblet and looked at Ares, who leaned on the table comfortably, as usual, with his left hand on the hilt of the sword.
"What do you mean?"
"I heard that you nearly killed one of our better fighters today." He raised an eyebrow.
"If he was one of the best, I highly doubt that our little project would end successfully."
"He wasn't the worst, since he was able to harm the great and the very best student of Xena."
"Take care of yourself. I need you." The God of War admonished her softly. It was annoying, but she realized a long time ago that her annoyance causes nothing, except making him smile.
"Everybody needs training" The Blonde Warrior teased. "And humility."
"Ha, humility." Ares grinned and looked at her. "I also heard that you had a visitor."
"Indeed." And didn't even ask how he knew. "It's a pity that you didn't join our creative conversation. You would explain motives of our actions to Xena."
"Well I assume that she knows them very well."
"Now you're safe at least." She muttered. "There is no warrior princess to prevent this mission."
Ares smiled mysteriously.
"Who knows..." He whispered to himself "Who knows." Repeated then changed the subject quickly. "How are the preparations for the battle going?"
"Outposts set, the strategy discussed. We'll take the field tomorrow."
"You realize that you're fighting the Roman legions."
"Not for the first time" Gabrielle shrugged. "Besides, it still a really small unit. If we won't beat them, you cannot even dream of going any further. We'll see how perfect your soldiers are."
"Everything depends on the leaders" Ares smiled broadly, then made a nonchalant gesture and disappeared into the blue glow.
Gabrielle sighed and took another sip from the goblet.
"Gods, what a day." She bitterly whispered.
The morning was cold, dreary and unfriendly. Sun looked reluctantly behind the clouds; the cold fog was covering the field, suppressing noises and wind. Columns of soldiers marched straight, beating the monotonous rhythm in red dust, sinking in the pale mist. Gabrielle rode on horseback, along with a few her captains, surrounded by color guards. Her white stallion raised his head proudly and neighed from time to time. Her brand new silver armor glistened in the rays of the hidden and apparently shy sun. The coat, red as blood, was covering her tightly and protected her from fog's cold.
Despite the persuasion of her soldiers and a few comments from Ares she still didn't wear the decorated helmet, which she put in a saddlebag along with a magnificent shield. She didn't intend to use it also, wanting to stand in a battlefield with a bare head only with a sword in her hand. Gabrielle didn't care what would happen. She knew she was able to take care and knew how to defend herself. She only wanted to attack, to bite like a wolf, until she gets what she wants.
They reached the field, the army stopped in one heartbeat, ready for a fight. Commanders took their positions on the hill and began to prepare troops for battle. Messengers carrying orders started to ride around, wheels of carts and catapults creaked. The horses neighed impatiently, feeling the increasing tension. The warriors lined up in compact ranks. Archers drove their arrows into the ground to be able to get them easily when the time comes.
Gabrielle followed the white stallion to the top of the hill and looked into the field. Wind tugged her hair, blowing in her eyes. She felt that it starts to rain a little. Well, any weather is good to die. She pulled the gloves covered with steel plates on her hands, tried if the sword is still sharp; made sure that the chakram is in its place.
"You still can end this, Gabrielle." Xena appeared by her side suddenly. She was sitting on Argo, proudly and magnificent, just like Gabrielle always will remember her. They both looked at the field with their eyes narrowed.
Gabrielle gathered the reins of her horse sharply. She said nothing.
"Stop this Gabrielle." Xena said seriously. "Stop it before it will be too late!"
Gabrielle fixed her coat, so that wouldn't disturb her during the attack.
She pulled her sword out, lifting it up and standing in the stirrups.
"ATTACK!" She yelled and watched as the column of the riders soared through the field like human, lighted arrows. She watched as the machine of death start to act and destroy. She clenched her teeth, and stormed down the hill with a raised sword.
Xena lowered her head; very, very low. Then she disappeared.
Gabrielle sat on a freshly fallen tree trunk, tired and indifferent to everything. Her beautiful, silver, richly decorated armor was splashed with blood of young legionnaires whom fell from her sword today and the blood of her own soldiers as well. Field, so beautifully untouched this morning, was carpeted with bodies of dead warriors, now quiet and reconciled with their fate. She could see silhouettes of soldiers in the evening's fog, looking for the bodies of their comrades, brothers, fathers, and friends. Gabrielle prohibited killing the wounded, allowed to take them from the field, even though she knew that this decision was not welcomed by her officers.
"We won" the general repeated, one of the highest commanders of the army, in her army.
"We won" she repeated, trying to taste the word. Gods, it didn't matter for her whatever they win or lose. So many people died this day on every side. She was just lucky and very well trained.
"I know." Gabrielle looked at the solder getting back to reality. "Make the appropriate orders. We'll go on tomorrow." She stood up with difficulty. Cracked ribs burned with pain. Her whole body was soaring and could barely use her hand because of her holding her heavy decorated sword for whole day.
She moved slowly toward the nearby woods, not realizing where or why she went in that direction. She walked through the battlefield, greeting Ares, who smiled to her and entered the calm, peaceful forest. She moved further along the border of the trees, until she saw a small inconspicuous path leading into the woods. She couldn't think of anything, nor concentrate on any thought. Tired of the senseless fighting she went ahead. Sharp bushes tore her legs, but she walked on.
The path led to the open space. Gabrielle came to a beautiful meadow where the colorful flowers shimmered and danced with the evening dew and rays of the setting sun. She sat down, fell onto the grass actually, in this beautiful corner of nature, not ravaged by war.
Suddenly she felt a great net fall on her. She was too shocked to react at first, but then she began to cut the rope by her dagger. When she almost broke free, few men attack her screaming wildly. She tried to defend herself but she knew in advance that was futile. They overpowered her quickly and tied her up. She swore loudly hearing their hoarse laughter in response. Another man approached from the woods, wearing armor of roman legions and smiled at her. Then hit her hard and smiled even more.
And then the brightness came. A strange light and tremendous power filled her entirely. Her eyes flashed by a terrifying confidence.
She broke the bonds with a single movement. She rose rapidly and grabbed her dagger, hammering the blade between the third and fourth opponent's ribs, making sure she reached the heart. She threw the corpse on the grass and took care of the rest kidnappers. Grass was filled with blood very fast.
It didn't take much time.
When she finished, she washed her hands covered with blood in the stream nearby. She splashed her face and hair. Then, guided by a strange foreboding, she turned around.
Zeus was standing before her.
PART THREE - THE ILLUSION
"The gods don't die so easily, Gabrielle." The ruler of Mount Olympus smiled and began to walk around her. "Although I have to admit that your friend had hurt us and complicated the situation. We needed a lot of time to recover and we still are weak comparing to how strong we have been. The gods don't die" He repeated. "Or I should say they die only when people forget about them. My son made the right choice. Indeed, you are a true avenger of the gods, a real black dragon. You use our gift well."
"Wait, wait a minute." Gabrielle shook her head. "I stood in the service of Ares and lead his army, but I'm not an avenger."
"Yes, you are." Zeus laughed loudly. "Ares didn't tell you everything I guess. We've searched for the real black dragon for a very long time. A hero, who would lead our army across the world and remind the people about us. Well, you do it well. So far."
Gabrielle sat down on the grass, completely dumb founded.
"By the gods." She whispered. "What have I done?"
Zeus stood by her and said: "Do not despair. Ares didn't tell you everything but also the award which you get will be a lot more valuable. If you succeed, which I have no doubts about that, you will be allowed to move to any world you want; with the warrior princess of course. You will be able to choose the place, the time; everything."
She looked at him surprised.
"You can't do that."
"Not yet, that's true." He admitted frankly; but with the faith of the people we regain our strength and power and then I will fulfill your request."
Gabrielle tried desperately to sort all this out in her head. She was completely surprised by the new situation. She knew Ares was hiding something, but she didn't realize that it was such a big deal. Avenger of the gods! The Black Dragon! At the top of Tartarus, the situation wouldn't be able to be worst, probably.
"What am I supposed to do?" She asked. "Waving a banner and shouting your name?"
He laughed loudly, relaxed and apparently very pound of himself.
"Fighting in our name is pretty much enough. Our priests, who follow your army, will deal with the rest of things."
"Forcing conversion?" She raised an eyebrow. "Sounds familiar."
"It's a proven way" Zeus nodded with an ironical smile.
"How long do I have to fight? How long will it take?"
He spread his arms. "I don't know. As long as it is needed"
"In other words, till the end of my days."
"Not necessarily." He forced her to get up with a single gesture and began to walk around again. "You have to win the battle of Mount Olympus and that would be enough for us to embrace the control of our world".
"Olympus?" She yelled. "It's over 300 miles away!"
"Only 300 miles away from fulfilling your dreams."
"300 miles bathed in blood." Gabrielle hissed, noticing that her ribs were already healed. The god's power was really very useful, she thought.
"I didn't think you will bother about this." He shrugged, then looked at her kindly. "That's it. The gods will forget about you, we will allow you to live where you want and how you want. And if you want, you can even sit on Olympus with us of course."
"If you want to," I said. Zeus stepped back slightly.
"Very well, swear to me Zeus, on the blood of your sons, on your own life and immortality, that if I win the battle on Olympus, You will let me go along with Xena, and help me release her and forget about me just like her!"
"I promised you this before!" He seemed to be a little resentful by her words.
"Swear!" The former bard insisted. "Swear, or your own avenger will throw her sword in your bloody guts."
"I swear." he said, displeased. "But you also have to swear."
Marcus Vinicius the third to Paraksymon
Athens, March, the 16 day of the month.
Welcome Paraksymon. I hope you well and that Caesar's palace intrigues and continues to provide entertainment for your mind, but issues on how to decorate your hall for the next party is still your bigger problem. I'm sorry, I write fast and I do not have enough time, to place all the polite formulas in this letter to you. I hope you forgive me of my rudeness, and our friendship won't suffer for such a thing.
You asked me about the news from Greece. Unfortunately they are not auspicious. Greek Army of rebels still prevails. The woman who is in charge, called herself The Avenger of the Olympian Gods or The black dragon. That's how she gained her allies. It's amazing that people still believe in these old legends. However their leader, a woman named Gabrielle, is incredibly talented in military planning. Although I will have to stand against her today, I have to admit that she is a brilliant strategist and commander, still surprising us with something new. Every single battle has taken a different course. Greece has not seen the greatest commander since the legendary Xena, the Conqueror. But our actual opponent exceeds the warrior princess with skills, abilities and reasonable thinking.
You asked did I hire assassins and kidnappers. I followed your advice several times, not stinting gold to find the best, but she always manages to avoid the ambush. Dear Paraksymon - usually she sent us the heads of our people as a gift after every try. Sometimes I feel that she really is protected by the divine powers, because it's not possible to avoid many pitfalls, to be repealed before so many daggers.
Today, Greek army comes to Athens, and we will go out to meet them. If they beat us, we would have to count on the legion stationed in Olympia to stop them. If they fail to do so - we are lost, and so is Greece. But I am hopeful and I think that I can still delay the march, and even stop them perhaps. Indeed, I wonder how it will be to face such a great fighter in the battlefield.
So I salute you Paraksymon. Wish me luck today. As soon as the soldiers' duties allow, I appeal again.
"Akemi! What are you doing here?" Xena got up, brushed out the red dust from her armor. Her eyes were visibly red from crying but she seemed to be more calm than ever; especially, when she saw the second guest.
The small Japanese girl bowed deeply into a formal greeting. Then she pointed of a powerful man standing next to her. The Warrior knew him very well.
"Archangel Michael wanted to see you" Akemi whispered softly. "I should introduce you in a more proper way but..."
"We know each other." Xena nodded in response to his bow. "What is going on?"
"Xena, the world is in danger." The Archangel said. "The Olympian Gods returned and are up to getting back their power."
"Returned, how so?" Xena reached for her chakram almost forgetting that the weapon was given to Gabrielle long time ago.
"We do not know." He began calmly. "They set the avenger, who converts people to the old faith. Greece is going through a storm. Roman legions tried to stop them, but failed. Athenian army was defeated today. The final confrontation is close. I think that's going to be a battle of Mount Olympus. The woman who leads them.... "He stopped for a moment, cleaned his throat and started again "Their commander called herself The Black Dragon, a messenger and the highest priest of the Olympian Gods. She's dangerous Xena, extremely dangerous."
"So... This is a woman?" She looked at them, forcing with a strange feeling, but calmed herself immediately. They both stood silent, hiding something apparently, but Xena highly doubted that this was about Gabrielle. That wasn't possible, but her love was involved in that war one way or another.
The Archangel nodded.
The Warrior stared intently at Akemi, then at Michael.
"You didn't explain me why did you tell me this story." She said finally.
"You have to help them Xena. You must finish the job." Akemi looked at her gently.
"I cannot. I have no power in that world. I cannot intervene directly."
The visitors exchanged glares and then Akemi nodded. Michael sighed lightly and said:
"Those who you are guarding here, they let you out of obligation with their own choice. They recognized the importance of this issue and realized the great danger threatening all of Greece, and even the whole world. Olympian Gods intend to conquer all the lands, and the messenger has a great chance to meet the task. Your deputy has been appointed and he will take this burden from you forever."
"Harukata!" Xena whispered in surprise seeing an old, small muscular man approaching to her "The soul killer!"
He bowed in the eastern way before her.
"Welcome, great warrior." He said with a sharp accent. "I am pleased to see you once again and proud that I came to take over your sacred duty."
Xena was shocked. She looked at Akemi, at Michael, and at Harukata.
"Does that mean... "She began hesitantly "that...I'm free?
"It means," Michael said seriously "that you must face the most powerful warrior in Greece. And if you will undertake this task, we will refund you the right to life and death. Again."
"Only you can do it." Akemi whispered. She seemed upset, but she was aware how much this mission is important.
Xena closed her eyes and swallowed hard. Looked around the area where she had lived for almost 18 months realizing how much she hated that place.
Oh Gods... This is true... This is happening for real. Gabrielle... I'm coming to you, I'm back.
"Do you agree?" The archangel asked officially. Akemi smiled sadly, knowing the answer. They both knew.
The Warrior Princess nodded without hesitation.
Marcus Vinicius the third to Paraksymon
Mount Olympus, March, the 23th day of the month
Welcome my dear friend. I hope that you enjoy your life being healthy and joyful. Thank you for your prompt response, indeed the messenger almost rode his horse to death. As you know the avenger broke us completely in Athens. I've never seen such a cruel and ruthless tactics. Almost half of the troops have been burned alive, because she used using a mysterious black powder. We couldn't repulse her in any way, and, as you know, there were two legions of roman veterans, not inexperienced recruits. Several formations were just got threw away from the earth. And she circled around the field, with sword in hand and fire burning in her eyes fighting with us in direct battle. I had no luck to cross swords with her, but unfortunately my brother Anthony met his fate, killed by her hand.
I stay with the rest of the troops at the foot of Mount Olympus now. We will meet our destiny here. Gods have mercy on our souls.
Marcus Vinicius the third looked at the letter; he sighed deeply, wrote few more courtesy formulas and signed. Suddenly by a corner of his eye he saw a tall figure emerging from the darkness, near the window.
He tried to reach his sword, but she was already there. He pulled the handle, but she was faster again not letting him pull out his weapon.
"You should be more careful." she said.
He looked at her; a tall, dark-haired woman with a sword on his back and a cheeky smile on her lips.
"Who are you?"
"An ally. My name won't tell you anything or you will take it as a joke. It doesn't matter though."
"An ally?" He looked on his sword, which she still held in her hands. She noticed it and threw him the weapon. He grabbed it surprised but still suspicious.
"People usually react strangely when they are surprised." She explained shrugging and smiled wildly.
"And you think I won't call my guard?"
"Yeah, I think so" She crossed her hands on her chest. "Mostly because all your guards are asleep now."
He pulled out the sword, trying to attack her, but she was faster again. They crossed their blades once and then Marcus gave up understanding that he wouldn't be able to win this fight. Damn Greek fighters. He sat down at the table, dropping his sword on the desk and said quietly: "It's not very common to find an ally nowadays."
She joined him by the table and also laid her weapon by his blade.
He nodded, but the situation wasn't very comfortable for proud roman officer.
"I'm not used to talking with a woman." She raised an eyebrow. "Who doesn't want to introduce herself." He added quickly.
"My name is Xena" she sighed looking at him closely.
Marcus almost burst in laughter, but controlled himself in the very last moment and leaned over the table.
"I'm not." The Warrior was deadly serious. "Although I'd rather not explain any ambiguity and certainly don't have a special desire to prove my identity. We have a common issue and I want to talk a little about this."
"An issue? What kind?"
"The Avenger" She narrowed her eyes. "The Black Dragon"
Marcus Vinicius hadn't met a woman like her in his entire life; beautiful, intelligent, seductive as Venus, and, above all, a phenomenal military strategist. They both were bending over a map of the area and the one, who ordered to be called Xena, studied carefully the future battlefield.
"Assuming that we will defend ourselves in this place." She pointed a spot on the map. "We do not have many chances. If she will throw hot oil on us, the whole formation would panic and run away breaking the line."
"So what are you suggesting?" He asked noticing that in every minute of their talk he spotted more and more mistakes in his previous plan.
"We could set the formations here and there. Most of the army will wait on the right side."
"But .." Marcus Vinicius looked surprised. "This unit doesn't have the slightest chance of survival at this point."
"It's better to sacrifice one unit than all of them" She looked at him coldly. Then again, her eyes wandered to the map. "However, we can dig holes in the back of this hill. Then, when the hell will start, they will be able to cover up there."
"And we could set another unit in that place?" He asked.
She thought for a moment on his proposition.
"Not a bad idea. Risky, but that may work. The solders have to keep oil and other detonators ready. That would help them hide if anything will go wrong. There is nothing more distracting than burning oil; especially when you try to catch running opponent."
They both smiled. Weak spark of hope flashed in Marcus' eyes. He began to believe they have a chance. Not a big one though.
"What do you know about her?" She asked suddenly.
Surprised at first he didn't know what she was talking about but after a short while he realized the question.
"Actually, we know very little about her." Marcus admitted feeling embarrassed. This woman just came out from nowhere and no one could give him any useful information about her past nor habits. That was quite frustrating, especially for an experienced Roman Officer.
"Consider it please. This can be important."
"They said that she's a protégé of Ares, God of War." He started slowly, trying to remember all things he knew about The Avenger. "This Legendary God contributed to her arrival apparently. But we both know that it's only a legend to strengthen her power in people's eyes..." He tried to smile, but realized who is sitting by his side.
Xena looked shocked and went pale. She shivered hard. Clenched her teeth, trying to resist the next thrill. The world spun suddenly. Marcus looked on her surprised, but she avoided his gaze.
Is that possible? Is that really possible? Why didn't they tell me?
She felt used, just like simple pawn on the chessboard. The most powerful creatures of this world was playing with her emotions, feelings, with everything what had meaning to her. And she was naive enough, trustful again, to made a deal, horrible deal to fight with one person on the world she had promised to protect.
Closing her eyes, shivered again feeling very sick and tired. Under her eyelids she saw beautiful smile, green sparkling eyes.
Xena tried to control herself for long painful moment, and then asked, very slowly:
"Do you know her name?"
"They call her The Avenger, The Black Dragon. You know it." Marcus shrugged.
"But her name. Her real name."
He looked at her in surprise. Of course he knew. He was just surprised that Xena didn't know.
And of course, he said.
She turned around abruptly. Xena stood before her, beautiful, proud and deadly serious. Gabrielle smiled, cracked her nose, walked to her love.
"Xena" she whispered but the warrior took a step back.
"Wait a minute." Gabrielle frowned. "What is going on?" she asked, surprised and hurt. The Warrior never avoided the intimacy. Unless something was extremely wrong.
"Wait." Xena raised her hands. "We need to talk."
Gabrielle stared at her closely. The Warrior lowered her eyes and wondered for a moment what to say. What should she say? That wasn't an easy choice.
"Is that true?" She began striving for calm. "That they call you The Avenger of Olympian Gods?"
"Yes." Gabrielle even didn't try to lie nor wanted to.
"The Black Dragon?"
"Yes." She confirmed simply once again.
"How could you?" Xena looked at her in despair. "After all that they did to us?"
"Listen to me Xena." Gabrielle grabbed her shoulders. "They have their issues, we have ours. That's not our business, not anymore. We will be together again. Do you hear me? Together. That's the most important thing. Try to focus on bigger picture."
"No!" Xena took another step back. "No." She repeated firmly. "You miss the big picture here. Not after what we've done. We destroyed them together so people can finally choose their destiny, not being a part of their horrible game. We've changed the world in a better place. You can't..."
"The world is not a better place!" Gabrielle cried out loudly. "Nothing has changed! Are you blind? I have believed that we could do something. That we were fighting for better future, for a better tomorrow. But there's no better tomorrow. There was not a better tomorrow even for us!"
"Gabrielle" The warrior hissed. "You look at it all through your own feelings and your own despair. Everything has changed a lot. You can't wipe through all things we've done, just because ..."
"That I love you?" The Blonde exclaimed.
"Even so..." She heard the quiet reply.
Gabrielle sat on the wooden bench and sighed loudly. She felt the presence of Xena, her calm and her anger.
For a moment, she was silent and then said finally:
"I didn't know that this is going to turn out in that way. I was only supposed to lead Ares army. Later I found out, about the trap I was caught in. I didn't know about that, really." She looked at Xena with eyes filled with tears.
The Warrior waited on.
"Zeus came to me, gave me some power. I can't forsake it" Gabrielle was staring at her hands, now clean but dirty with blood so many times before. She felt guilty, but also was too desperate to admit it. "He promised me that if I win the last battle, the battle for Mount Olympus, he will let me go. With you." The Blonde Warrior stared at Xena for a long painful moment. "They will give you your life back or death. We will be able to go wherever you want. They will forget about us and about you and me, about everything."
"They won't forget."
"They swore to me." Gabrielle said firmly getting up and walking over to her beloved. "And I swore to them! The deal is set!"
"So we are lost..." Xena whispered in despair.
"We are not!" The Blonde stroked the Warrior's face by her fingertips. "After a few hours I will be able to bring you back... We'll be together again."
"Oh, Gabrielle," Xena shook her head. "What have we done...?"
Now she sat down heavily, tired and broken.
What should I do? What can I do?
Finally, she looked on love of her life, the woman who led all of Greece into a deadly battle, only because she loved her. Xena was perfectly aware that this all has started there, the top of Mount Fiji, almost two years ago. Everything has started and ended because of this decision, a bad decision.
" Gabrielle ." She asked, after few moments of desperate thinking. "Would you go with me everywhere? Will you be with me, even in death?"
"You know the answer."
"I know. But now more than ever I need to hear this..."
Gabrielle looked at her and her eyes widened with understanding.
"Xena, what have you done? What happened?" The Blonde Warrior walked up to her and looked into her eyes. "What is happening?" She asked again.
"Just give me the answer..." The Mighty Warrior, a slayer, a woman who had defeated Yodoshi, the King of Daemons, was fighting with tears.
"Wherever, whenever Xena," She heard. "Everywhere and always, whatever will happen."
PART FOUR - THE DESTINY
Ares walked through the camp, whistling and checking the soldiers' preparation from time to time. He already visited Gabrielle's tent and fond her little despondent, but he knew that her mood was changing very often. He left her another bottle of brilliant Corinthian wine and went away, counting she will drink it fast and heal all her strange objections. The Blonde was a great warrior, even better than he expected and the thought she would leave his army was pretty much uncomfortable. The deal is the deal though. Ares promised himself to talk to Zeus after the battle. He wanted to keep her but couldn't find any arguments to let her stay. Ares shrugged and smiled boldly. He will figure this out sooner or later. He is the God of War, after all.
He went into his tent. Owning one wasn't necessary, but he couldn't help himself and lived with the army like a simple soldier. Alright, not a very simple, with luxury and splendor, but the God of War loved to be in the middle of action. He just loved his duty that was the way he was born.
Somebody hit him in face so hard, that he fell on the ground and almost lost his consciousness. Tossing his head he got up and looked on his visitor. And then smile got back on his face.
"Xena, my love. What took you so long? Want something to drink?"
"Stop your games Ares." The Warrior Princess came into the light, with the sword in her hand. Her gloomy look suggested that she wasn't in a playful mood. Ares didn't expect anything else to be honest.
"Have you seen the camp? Impressive, huh?" The God of War ignored her and walked over toward the table just to make sure that all the maps were covered. "Your little Gabrielle made huge progress when you were.. ehmm.. dead."
"But I'm not dead anymore." She said firmly and was very close to hitting him again. "I'm back and I won't let you do this."
"I'm not the leader." He laughed. "You know the one who is in charge. I'm just shoveling the shit, as they say."
"You made her the Avenger" She approached him, getting even angrier. "You promised her an impossible thing to call her the Black Dragon."
"She made the choice." Ares stood before her pound and smiled. "I didn't do anything, not my fault this time." He spread his arms happily. "And I'm immensely glad that you're back. It will make everything easier. We won't have to bring you back from this so-called underworld. How was that anyway?"
She tried to hit him again, but he blocked her arm and pushed away.
"I'm back and I won't let you win this battle." Xena hissed.
"Wrong tent Warrior Princess" He laughed. "I'm telling you, I'm not the one you should fight with and something is telling me that little Gabrielle won't take your offer to just leave this and walk away with you. Frankly, I think she can't." His laugher became ever more annoying.
Suddenly, the Warrior calmed herself down.
"When I looked at you I saw a man who was begging me to give him a safe shelter, to save his life, to fix all his mistakes." she said after a moment of silence. "A man, who promised to not mess with my life again. A man who was an honorable god. Now I can see that everything I suspected about you Ares is true. You don't know what honor means. You don't know how to keep your word. You are just a lazy bastard who likes to play games with others; unfair games."
He spit on the ground and brushed away the blood form his lip. He didn't expect her to be so strong after her exile. Xena surprised him once again; nothing new in that matter.
"And who is talking now, huh?" Ares teased and walked toward her. "You left her, robbed her from everything and disappeared. I know you Xena. I know you exceptionally well. And I'm pretty sure that you just didn't know what to do, huh? That was getting so serious, she wanted to have a home, to raise a family and you weren't ready for that. So you just left, babbling about some stupid duty on the other side of the world. You acted just like a typical warlord, leaving his woman, because of the fear. And now, I gave her new purpose in life. You are the one to blame; you and no one else. But you don't understand one small thing Xena. That thing I avoided to understand for years. She's your destiny. And I'm just a messenger who helps her fulfill it. She needs me because YOU were too scared to do it right!"
Xena was listening to him, not moving at all; just her blue eyes were burning in pain.
"Maybe you are right" She added. "But it doesn't matter now. You both have done something unforgettable and wrong. Something I have to stop. And if you know me you are aware, that I always fix my mistakes by myself. I don't need any messengers. Neither does she."
The Warrior was getting to leave the tent but he stopped her, grabbing her arm.
"And what are you going to do? Kill us both?" He yelled irritated by her tranquility. "You won't be able to finish her existence, I know it. And you can't kill me! I'm the God of War. The world needs me!"
Xena smiled sadly and shook her head in disbelief.
"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn about the world anymore." And she left leaving him angry and dumb founded as usual.
The world was burning. People screamed in panic, some tried to fight, some of them ran away, while others shouted in triumph. Gabrielle was aware that they lost this battle. She realized that when her first unit was caught in a trap and slaughtered quickly. But, as usual, she started to fight with a bare head and naked sword in her hand. With her piercing green eyes, filled with fire and hate, she was slaying around, not even counting how many had died from her blade that day. She knew that everything was lost and of those who thwarted her plans.
The Gods won't fulfill their promise. They won't return to their glory. The army was not prepared for such a battle and failed. She failed and wouldn't receive the awards. Xena ...
Yeah, Xena. The girl knew; almost felt with every nerve that her fail was Xena's success. She was a good student of the Warrior Princess, as demonstrated in several previous victories. However, the student wasn't not be able to face the champion. And win.
"Xena!" She cried hoarsely.
Someone ran to her, trying to attack. She parried the blow and fought back easily. The blade went through his throat. The boy fell to the ground coughing up blood.
"Xena ..." She whispered walking on.
There was so much blood, death, destruction for nothing; everything for nothing.
She lowered her head, standing in the center of the battle. People killed and harmed each other about her, and yet allowed her to stand still.
Xena stood before her, with sword in hand. She was magnificent, beautiful, and wonderful. She was Alive. Gabrielle looked at her with indifference in her eyes and sat down on the ground. Just like that.
"Gabrielle get up." She heard.
Gabrielle didn't react.
"Stand up." She heard another commend.
She raised her eyes.
"Why? What for? "She asked. "Everything is lost!"
"Get up Gabrielle" The voice above her was deadly serious.
She did not know why, but she started to get up slowly.
"Take your sword" she heard. She fulfilled the order, rising finally.
Her sword collided with a strange blade.
"Why should I fight you?" She sobbed. "Why? Why would I let you return to the void, where you lived before? And let myself die in this empty world, where I can't find any joy nor any simple thing to be happy about. WHY?"
World Flashed, thundered. The rain poured down.
"Gabrielle" she heard. "We have to make it through. Trust me. Please."
They crossed swords. Xena moved forward with a quick feint, and then deceived her opponent to the other side. Gabrielle avoided the blade in pirouette, and parried the blow easily. She hit from the right. The cutting edge collided with a steaming blade. They sprang away from one another.
Gabrielle, it's our destiny to be together.
Gabrielle attacked first this time. She jumped up, cutting up the air with few quick movements but didn't break through Xena's defense. She fell to the ground, rolled over passing the whizzing blade effectively and jumped to her feet again.
Even in death, I will never leave you.
Xena attacked from the bottom, but it was just a clever trick. Gabrielle escaped easily and hit out with a few quick blows. The Warrior took a step back.
I love you Xena ...I will always love you.
The very first and main rule in sword fighting is not to watch the opponent's blade but his eyes to predict his next move, next attack. Gabrielle tried to avoid the warrior's gaze, trying to imagine that she was fighting with somebody else, with somebody whom she didn't even know. She succeeded at first, still being able to continue her fight which shown how skilled she was. But at the end she failed and looked up at the piercing blue eyes she had missed for so long.
Whatever happens, know that my love for you is endless.
And then, suddenly, the warrior slashed her leg. Gabrielle fell to the ground, which had turned into mud because of the falling rain. She looked at Xena, rose to her knees and then saw the blade of a sword protruding from her chest. She frowned. It looked so strange, so ... unreal.
If I only had 30 seconds to live, I would spend it looking into your eyes.
She knew this sword.
"I love you, Gabrielle"
The world flashed up with bright light. Xena stood in the rain, not aware that she was crying. She didn't notice that Michael appeared by her side and looked at the dead bard.
"You are free" He said quietly
"You are free" Replied a chorus of voices behind him
"You are free" she whispered.
She pulled out her sword from Gabrielle's chest, looked again at the girl's body lying in the mud and blood. She didn't want to end like this. She didn't want it at all...
She looked up; between the storm clouds out there the sun was shining lightly. She had to get there; above. Somebody is waiting for her there; had been waiting for so long.
With one smooth move she turned her own sword in her stomach and the blow knocked her to her knees.
Slowly, all the sounds died away, buzz of battle disappeared in the rain. She walked in the pulsing light, nervously looking for the beloved face she expected to see there. And Gabrielle was waiting there, smiled and happy, beautiful and loving.
"Xena." She whispered softly.
"Gabrielle." The warrior raised her head. "At last."
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