The Toughest Thing
By Larry Dudock
Based on the story "At A Distance," by Melissa Good
This is a short story based on the events of Melissa’s novel. Same characters, same situations, slightly different turn of events. If you haven’t read ‘At A Distance,’ you ought to before reading this. First, you’ll probably enjoy it more. Second, while you’ll be able to follow the events in the story without having read AAD, you’ll be at a disadvantage. Thanks to Melissa for a great story. I consider myself in her debt.
For those who need a quick memory refresh: Gabrielle has gone to stay with the Amazons for a bit while Xena hangs out in Amphipolis. Gab’s duties as Queen place her in conflict with Arella, whose view of what the Amazons must be is the opposite of Gabrielle’s. Things come to a head when Xena is just barely able to prevent the assassination of Gabrielle by Arella, and, with Gab’s help, to avert an impending war between the Centaurs and the Amazons. It is now a few days later, and Gabrielle must wrap up some unfinished business. As this story was written between the first airings of "Maternal Instincts" and "When In Rome..." , those stories indicate that the creators’ view of Gab is similar to my own, in that her dedication to seeing that evil is stopped is a higher value for her than ‘blood innocence’.
While this story does not contain ‘violence for the sake of violence,’ it does contain some graphic depictions of violence and death. Readers not wishing to read material of this sort may wish to read a story other than this one.
Xena, Gabrielle and Ephiny are owned by MCA/Universal. To the best of my knowledge, Arella is the property of Melissa Good. No copyright infringements are intended or should be inferred. This story is a work of fan appreciation, and no material profit was derived from it.
Ready? Here we go...
There were three reasons why Arella had to die.
Gabrielle had been turning it over in her mind for two days. Someone was going to have to go down. Someone was going to have to pay for six dead Amazons -- and for the attempt to assassinate Xena. It wasn't revenge. It was justice.
First, it was the only just response to murder. There could be no doubt that it was Arella -- and Arella alone -- who was directly responsible for the death of the six Amazons. The fact that Xena had been the intended target merely increased her guilt. The thought that none, not one those six women would ever again walk, run, laugh, cry, or feel the warmth of the sun on her face was bad enough. But the thought that their murderer would be allowed to do all those things -- would be allowed to keep her life, while her victims would be forever denied that most precious of gifts -- made Gabrielle's normally gentle face harden with a slow anger she had never known before.
Second, it was the only compassionate response to murder. After the battle at the Centaur village, and the immediate danger had passed and the wounded cared for, Gabrielle had led a party to the mountain pass to recover the victims. She made it her business to look at the face of each one of the women before the bodies were carried back to the village for burial. She knew them all, though not well... but well enough to know who their friends were; friends who were as close as sisters; friends who expected them home, but who would never see them alive again. The thought of other Amazons -- friends of the murdered -- having to endure Arella's ongoing presence in their midst... it was an act of cruelty that Gabrielle was not prepared to commit.
Finally, there was that rule-of-thumb that Gabrielle had picked up on her long travels with Xena, across many lands and many villages, each with their own way of going about things: That the only way a society could truly express its view -- positive or negative -- of an act, was in the reward or punishment it doled out in response. She'd seen the bizarre rituals and practices of many lands in her travels with Xena; Seen the arbitrary power doled out to leaders to abuse as they wished; the obscene value placed on torture for the amusement of the strong, the blind eye turned to innocent suffering. Through those years, she'd sworn to herself that, were she ever in a position to act, that by all the Gods of all the worlds, she would make sure that those under her knew that the taking of innocent life was so serious, so unanswerable a crime, that it merited the most severe punishment a society could give -- death.
It was shortly after dawn on the third day that Gabrielle had Ephiny assemble the entire tribe in the center of the village. Everyone present knew what was going to happen and why, including the guilty one. Hushed murmurs could be heard as Arella was escorted out from the healer's tent, under guard. She moved slowly and with difficulty, a tight bandage wrapped around her ribcage and shoulder, her jaw still swollen from the pounding Xena had given it. The guilty and her escorts moved to the center of the clearing, which contained a small table and one chair. On the center of the table stood a single goblet filled with dark liquid.
The guards parted to give her space as Arella arrived at the table. The murmurs stopped. Arella turned to look squarely up at the raised platform in front of her, on which Gabrielle sat, spotless in her ceremonial tunic, flanked by Xena, Ephiny, and several other elders. The early morning sun cast sharp, long shadows on the ground. The wind blew a gentle breeze through the motionless gathering, rustling the trees slightly.
Without rising, Gabrielle said, in a voice that could carry, "If you have something to say, or a final request, now is the time for it."
Arella looked quietly down at the poison-filled cup, paused a few moments, then shifted her gaze back to Gabrielle. When she spoke, it was with pain, the distorted words emitted from a jaw that could move only half an inch downward; Every sound uttered took a herculean effort. "Sorry, ...green eyes," she said slowly, "but I'm ...not going to... do it."
Xena shifted her weight, flexing her knees into combat-readiness. Gabrielle's already serious face turned stone-hard; her posture went arrow-straight. Gasps and murmurs filled the ranks of the Amazons in the crowd for a few moments, dying down after enough of them caught the glare in their queen's eyes, and Ephiny's booming call for silence.
"I thought... was right... and I still do, " Arella continued. "We can't survive... through peace treaties ...and herding sheep. It's going...to make us soft, stupid, ...and weak. We'll...survive only if...strong -- if we're predators...feared by...those around us. That fear ever...goes, and so...do we." She paused from the pain, the effort of speech taking its toll, "I tried to...do what was right...f’us, for...the Amazons... for what we could be...n’should be. I ack...nowledge that I... took my best shot and...lost. I'm sorry -- very sorry...that that happened...because your...leadership...will doom this," she waved her hand in a sweeping gesture "...to destruction. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, ...but soon. And when the end comes...it will...come through...some...enemy who won't ... your quaint notion ...of compassion and...goodness; they'll know only...what really counts...brute strength. I know...our people... better than you do... and they deserve... better than that. And so...green eyes...if you want...me dead...you'll have...to do it... yourself. I won't...do it...for you."
For Gabrielle, this was the worst part of leading the Amazons -- being forced to play a roll she didn’t want, and would have payed many dinars to avoid, had their been an honorable way out. Feeling the start of tears behind her eyes, she took a moment to glance at Xena. The sight of the Warrior Princess, Destroyer-of-Nations turned Force for Good, was a living, breathing reminder of all that Arella could not see and would never grasp. It was a gulf that could never be crossed nor reasoned with nor argued against. She fully comprehended the wrongness of Arella's vision, and would do all in her power to stop it -- no matter what the cost.
She rose to her feet, and took a deep breath. She closed her eyes. "Ephiny, get me a crossbow."
Ephiny took a step towards her. "My queen --"
"NOW!" Gabrielle raised her voice.
The weapon was passed to her, with a quiver of arrows. Gabrielle glanced down at it. The crossbow was not her specialty, and her staff could not be used. Her training was to disable an opponent, and here, that would not be sufficient. It was not combat that had to occur.
She glanced to Ephiny, "Load it."
While Ephiny took the weapon and the quivers, Arella stared at Gabrielle. When Xena looked at her friend, she saw her wearing the most pained expression she had ever seen on her. Xena clenched her fists in anger, as she had full knowledge of what that expression meant. Gabrielle’s tightly-drawn lips and weary eyes revealed that she, too, knew the full price of the decision she was making: This was the abandoning of her code against killing. This was Gabrielle’s becoming more like Xena, a being who would spill blood in the cause of justice, a being whose commitment to stopping evil had finally trumped a reluctance to kill. Even Arella could feel the change and felt a twinge of corruption descend on her, as though she had caused a priceless work of art to be defaced.
Gabrielle accepted the loaded weapon from Ephiny. "Stand and face me," she said to Arella, "And keep still. I... don't... want you to suffer."
Arella stepped forward, hands at her sides. She raised her chin, a calm expression on her face.
Gabrielle raised the crossbow to her shoulders, feeling the unfamiliar weight of the weapon. She planted her feet firmly on the ground, took a deep breath, held it, and bit down. She closed one eye, aimed, and shot Arella in the chest.
Arella staggered back into the table, knocking it over. Blood pouring out of her severed heart, she collapsed backward, shuddered on the ground for a few endless seconds, and then lay still.
Gabrielle released her jaw and exhaled, angrily throwing the empty crossbow to the side. Arella remained motionless, save for the river of blood collecting on the ground, seeping into the earth and running down into micro-hollows. Gabrielle took two steps forward, and Xena could tell from her breathing that it was taking all her effort to remain upright. She took a step towards Gabrielle, then thought better of it and remained where she was.
Gabrielle took several deep breaths, placing her hands on her hips. "Is there any doubt in anyone's mind -- ANY DOUBT AT ALL -- what sort of people the Amazons are going to be?" she said in a booming voice to the entire village.
"Good!" She glanced to her right. "Ephiny," she said, "form a burial detail!" After a pause of a few seconds, she added, "I want her buried at least a hundred feet away from any other of our people. We'll give her a decent burial, ...but she's not one of us, and never will be again."
Ephiny nodded in acknowledgment, "Yes, my queen."
At this, Gabrielle bit her lip and walked quickly off the platform. Xena waited for her to get twenty feet away before she moved to follow her. When she reached the edge of the clearing, Gabrielle's steps became shaky and she shifted into a run. Xena took off after her without a word. No one else took a step in their direction.
As they left the Amazons behind, Xena could hear Gabrielle's ragged breathing over the sounds of her footsteps, could see the shakiness of her shoulders, the jerky, uncoordinated movements of her arms, and knew that her friend was on the verge of collapse. "Gabrielle!" she said.
Gabrielle took another shaky few lopes forward, the nausea building rapidly up within her, before crashing to the ground on her hands and knees. She coughed once, and then threw up on the side of the footpath.
Xena slowed her approach when she saw Gabrielle go down. She knew what was going to happen. She resisted the tearing instinct to fly to Gabrielle's side, knowing that her friend would interpret the gesture as the Warrior Princess treating her like an infant, someone to be mothered and cared for, as against a partner who could stand on her own feet and weather the stones that life throws at all mortals. After what she had seen her friend do as Amazon Queen a few moments before, she knew that Gabrielle had earned better treatment than that. She took a few steps forward, approaching to the rear of the huddled figure gagging and retching with dry heaves among the golden, waist-high weeds, the vomit hitting the dirt in brown liquid broken by occasional solid clumps.
The heaving stopped and was replaced by gasps as lungs sucked for air. The deep breaths continued for some minutes, broken only by the occasional sob. Gabrielle never once looked up from the ground, the wetness around her nose and mouth matched by tear stains on her eyes, both liquids mixing on the ground below.
"Hey," Xena said, after Gabrielle's breathing seemed a bit stronger, "you okay?"
Gabrielle didn't look up, but continued to breathe softly. "Some queen I am, huh? Look at this. Look at me."
Xena stepped forward and knelt by her friend, reaching out a hand and gently stroked her cheek.
"I can't believe she made me..." Gabrielle continued. "I can't believe I... had... to..."
"Gabrielle," Xena said softly, placing her fingers under Gabrielle's jawline and raising her head up to make eye-contact. "Don't you dare berate yourself for this. That was the toughest thing I've ever seen you do, was much harder for you to do than for many, many other people to do, including me... but you did it. You did what you had to do; You did what needed doing. And you did it unhesitatingly, cleanly, and... with a lot more grace than I would have. If you know me by now, and you do, you know that I respect those who can do hard things. And I want you to know that I am very, very proud of you for what you summoned yourself to do today, and yes, even for this -- because it proves that you haven't lost any of that part of you I treasure most, the part that has a reverence for all life. It’s the part that keeps me whole, the light that... helps counter some of my darkness."
She embraced the bard in a tight hug, and patted her head gently, blinking tears out of her eyes, when Gabrielle returned the hug.
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