Aftermath: The Tree of Life
See disclaimers in Part I. Comments and feedback always welcomed. Sorry for the delay in posting this, real life went and interfered this month.
The atmosphere was slightly calmer in the Amazon village. Eponin and Clymera had called a meeting of the Council and taken Gabrielle to the meeting room. Gabrielle watched as the other members came in and took their places. The head of the table was left open, no one willing to take Terreis seat. Eponin and Clymera sat on either side of the young woman. Across from them sat a warrior named Solari, the healer named Aria, the animal trainer Rana, and the Consort Ephiny.
Ephiny was still in shock, her eyes red-rimmed and her skin quite pale. She looked like she might fall over at any moment and Gabrielle was very concerned for her. The other Amazons seemed to be so as well and the young woman was glad for that.
Clymera, being the eldest of the women, assumed the leadership of the meeting. "I want to express my personal sympathies to Ephiny at this time. Terreis was a good and honorable Queen. She led our Nation well and ably, and I will miss her friendship. I know, having lost my bondmate less than three winters ago, how terrible such a loss is and my heart hurts for you."
Each of the other women murmured assent to Clymeras statement, with Solari gently putting an arm around Ephinys slight shoulders.
"Now it is our duty as the Ruling Council of the Nation to announce the successor to Terreis throne. Right before her death, Terreis gave Gabrielle her right of caste." Clymera gave the women a few moments to absorb her announcement, knowing that except for Eponin and Ephiny, this news came as a shock.
Solari stared hard at the young woman seated across from her. "That must be a mistake." She took in the facts that the woman was young, inexperienced, crippled, not an Amazon, and Greek. "I cant believe it. Why would Terreis give her right to a non-Amazon?" That was the kindest question she could form at that moment.
Eponin shrugged her shoulders, "I dont know why, but I witnessed it, Sol."
"Perhaps," Solari countered, "she meant to give it to you, but instead "
"You dont know how much I wish that were true." You dont know how much I wish it was me being readied for the funeral pyre.
Gabrielles curiosity could stand it no more. "Excuse me, but I was wondering if someone could explain what exactly it was that she gave me? Because Im a bit in the dark here." The young woman was tired of people speaking about her and not to her.
Rana sighed, "Gods above, she doesnt even know!"
"Im not an Amazon," Gabrielle countered, her cheeks flushing with annoyance. She had been more than patient and now she wanted answers. "I didnt ask for this thing, whatever it is. Im happy to give it back."
"You cannot," Clymera said softly.
"Why not? Its mine now, right?" Gabrielle warmed to the fight, ready to prove to these women that she was as strong as they were. She looked around the table and found the women reluctantly acknowledging that whatever this right was, was hers now. "Why cant I get rid of it and one of you point the way back to Ephesus for me?"
"Gabrielle," the old woman replied, "it can only be given away at death."
"Oh." All the fight drained from Gabrielle.
"Wed be happy to oblige," Aria muttered.
Clymeras eyes flashed in anger and she twisted in her seat to face the healer, "That is no way to speak to your Queen, Aria."
"Queen?" Gabrielle echoed. I definitely should have stayed in the library.
The Priestess continued, "You would never have tolerated such disrespect of Terreis."
"Terreis was Amazon Royalty. She was a true leader of our Nation. She was good and strong and she saved us from the Destroyer," Aria replied heatedly. "She earned respect, Clymera, she deserved it."
Eponin roughly ran a hand through her wavy hair, hating the next words she had to say. "Terreis gave her leadership to the girl. Shouldnt we respect Terreis as much in death as in life?" Although Ter, I would have appreciated a little heads up on this decision.
"You want me to be your Queen?" Gabrielle finally managed, trying to grasp the concept and failing. The Conqueror is definitely not going to like this.
Three nos and three yess responded. Clymera stared at the women who had dissented, silently reproving each of them, glad that Ephiny was not among them. "I have seen visions of you, Gabrielle. Visions of you leading us against our greatest enemy and defeating her."
"Her?" Gabrielle echoed, already dreading who this enemy was.
"Xena, Conqueror of Greece, Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations and Enemy of Artemis."
Gabrielles small hands covered her face, as she unsuccessfully hid her shock and horror at considering the Conqueror her enemy. This just keeps getting worse and worse.
Palaemon ran through the streets of Ephesus like a crazed harpy until he reached the central shopping district. There, amidst the crowds, he forced himself to be calm, to blend in with the normal activity. He mopped the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve, and realized that he needed to change his clothing. His Captains uniform made him far too visible and recognizable.
He began searching for a garment seller. Palaemon decided to not try to pass himself off as an Ephesian. His coloring would give him away, making him even more obvious. Instead, he searched for a Greek merchant. When he located one, he slipped inside the booth, trying to disappear from view.
The merchant recoiled upon seeing an officer of the Royal Guard. "How can I help you?" The mans insolent tone of voice indicated that he wished to be of no help.
Palaemon frowned, not needing to have to deal with hostility from this man as well. "I need a new traveling outfit."
The man hesitated, "Why? The Conqueror doesnt let you wear anything else but your uniform." He wanted nothing to do with a soldier on the run from the Conqueror. She was terrifying enough when one was in her good graces, or better still, when unknown to her. He did not wish to be brought to her attention in any manner.
Palaemon pressed a knife into the skin of the merchants throat and expelled hot breath on his face. "Dont make me take these clothes from you."
The merchants hands were held out from his body, reaffirming that he was no threat to the guard. "Take anything you want and leave me."
Palaemon nodded briskly, sheathed his knife and chose a tunic that looked like it would fit. Once his selection was made, he stripped and changed. Scowling that his weapons were still clearly visible, he pulled a robe on and adjusted the fit. Then he left as stealthily as he had arrived.
The merchant let out a sigh, grateful to still be alive. Holding his head in his hands, he started when someone entered his booth. "Gods, dont do that," he scolded his visitor.
The other Greek nodded sympathetically. "Are you all right, Arrol?"
The man shrugged, "I think so."
Palaemon wasnt sure how to find Gabrielle, but he knew the time for subtlety was long past. The look in his rulers eyes had stilled his heart, as he knew how cold hers had grown in the space of moments.
His only logical starting point in the search was the temple. It was where Gabrielle was last seen, if Cefan were to be believed, he corrected himself. He could not comprehend what had happened with his lieutenant. Why would she take Gabrielle to the temple at all? Cefan knew that the Conqueror planned on visiting the temple to torment the Amazons. Why would she deliberately put Gabrielle in harms way? Unless, she wanted to be near the action herself. Cefan had been none-too-pleased with her assignment for the day.
Alleyways and side streets provided a somewhat safer route for the Captain. Ephesus was home to many residents and the streets were filled with people going about their business. By moving confidently, but not too quickly, Palaemon managed to blend in with the crowd. He wished he had something on to cover his head, but that was not the custom of Ephesian men and would only serve to draw more attention, rather than less.
The colorful culture of Ephesus was lost on the Captain. In his determined state, he did not pay attention to the bright colored garments of the men and women. Nor did he stop to browse at the multitude of stands selling ivory carvings of Artemis and her temple. A small quartet of musicians playing religious songs near the Gate of Agora did not cause him to pause and listen. All Palaemon did was focus briefly on each, determine whether they were a potential threat, and push on.
He waited until it was near dusk before he approached the temple. He had been pleased to not have seen any of the Conquerors troops moving about the city searching for him. Perhaps, she had decided to let him go. Palaemon shook his head, clearing the ridiculous thought. He had never seen the Conqueror release her prey. And those she hunted, she always found. The trip across the open expanse to the temple would be the most dangerous walk he had ever taken.
Taking a deep breath and reminding himself that he was protecting not only his own life but Gabrielles as well, Palaemon began a brisk walk to the steps.
He was halfway there when he heard a low laugh. "Do you really think she will have you now that she has returned to her Amazons?"
Palaemon stopped and drew his sword, spinning in the direction of the voice. "Cefan, why are you doing this?"
The Egyptian stepped out of the shadows at the base of the temple. She had been waiting there for candlemarks, knowing it was Palaemons only potential destination. "And to think I once admired you. Now I despise you." Her sword swung in a lazy pattern in front of her.
"There must be an explanation for this, Cefan. Think about it."
"I have. And the Conqueror has asked me to bring her your lying tongue." With that, Cefan stepped forward, swinging her sword at his head.
Palaemon quickly brought his sword up to block her blow. He took a step back and noted that several Amazon guards had come to stand on the top of the stairs. Remembering that this was no sparring match, he feinted left and lunged right, attempting to dislodge the sword from her hands.
His blow stung as the metal vibrated in her hands, but Cefan held on. They began trading strikes, the metal singing in the early evening air creating the music for their deadly dance.
They circled each other, testing the strengths and subtle weaknesses they each knew well from fighting alongside one another for several years. She knew he preferred to complete a rapid cycle of strikes, dizzying his opponent. He knew that she liked to strike low and cripple, so as to bring her blade across her enemys neck. For long minutes they fought, neither gaining an advantage.
A clash of metal and they were pressed against each other, sword arms tangled. "Stop this madness, Cefan," Palaemon pleaded.
"Never," she swore as she twisted free and kicked out her leg, attempting to sweep him off his feet.
The Captain hopped over her leg and brought his sword down on the back of her thigh as it passed. He felt the metal slice through her flesh and the Egyptian cried out in pain. "Cefan, walk away. I dont want to kill you."
She managed to stand, putting her weight on her left and uninjured leg. Blood flowed freely from the wound, but she seemed not to notice the stained sand beneath her. "Come on, Captain. Lets have at it." Cefan stood still, waiting for him to move within striking range.
Palaemon, recognizing that he had hobbled his opponent, continued to back away from her, increasing the distance between them. "I wont kill you, Cefan. Not when I dont have to."
"Damn you, Palaemon! Fight me!" Cefan moved to close the distance between her and the Captain, but the cut was too deep and the blood loss already too great. Her leg folded underneath her and she fell to the ground.
Reaching the stairs, he glanced up at the Amazons who stood at the ready. He sheathed his sword and turned to mount the stairs.
As he turned, he felt a dagger imbed itself in his arm. Crying out in pain, he staggered up the stairs. Landing on his knees on the hard marble surface, he groaned and removed the blade from his flesh. Ripping a strip of cloth from his tunic, he wrapped it around the wounded arm and tied it off.
He then noticed that he was surrounded by a living wall of Amazon flesh. And they did not look too happy to have him visiting their most sacred site.
The Conqueror met with Charis and the scouts going over the plan for the morning attack on the caravan. Since Palaemons defection, Xena had reworked the details so that his knowledge was useless to the Amazons or to the Romans.
She had awaited word of Palaemons capture or death for the remainder of the afternoon, but no such word had come. As the sun slipped over the horizon in a brilliant display of red, the Conqueror knew that the time of her inactivity had ended. Summoning her Royal Guards to her she stood in front of them, her skin dyed with the setting sun. "The time has come for the destruction of the Amazon Nation."
The sight of Ephiny was heartrending, Gabrielle decided.
Seated atop the dais having been proclaimed as the new Queen of the Amazons, signaling the start of the funereal blaze it was all too much for the young woman. She felt herself at the center of a vortex and was appalled at her own inability to escape. She missed the security of being with the Conqueror and the peace she had known at her side. How can she be my enemy when all I want is to be with her right now?
"My Queen," Eponin said, bowing to the fair-haired woman.
Gabrielle turned to the warrior and waited for her to continue. She blushed when she realized she had to invite her to make her report. "Yes?"
"We have captured a man at the temple. He claims that he has important information for you. I would not have disturbed you at this time, but he says it is about the Destroyer."
It took the new Queen a moment to remember who the Destroyer was to these women. "Is he still at the temple?"
"No, the warriors have brought him here for your questioning, if you so desire."
"I desire," Gabrielle rose, and with her all those seated on the dais. She waved them down and followed Eponin to the far end of the village where the stockade was located.
As the sounds of the funeral faded, Gabrielle felt her heart rate slow to normal, glad to be away from the activity. It had been a rather overwhelming day.
To distract herself, she watched the play of muscles in the strong body of the warrior in front of her. Eponin was unlike the Conqueror in every way. Where the Conqueror was tall, her muscles long and lean, Eponin was shorter, just taller than Gabrielle, and her muscles were more prominent. It made her appear stocky, when she was actually just bulky. She moved solidly, but the Conqueror moved gracefully, her footsteps seeming never to come fully to the ground. Gabrielle had no doubt that Eponin was a fine warrior. She also had no illusion that Eponin would last more than a few minutes against the Conqueror in single combat.
Since the council meeting, Eponin had taken a rough tutelage of Gabrielle. With the clear support of Clymera, Eponin and Ephiny, the Nation really had no choice but to accept her as Queen.
Now, if only I can accept myself as Queen. Repeat after me, Gabrielle: you will never ever wander off ever again.
The two Amazons guarding the stockade stepped aside at Eponins instructions and the two women entered the small windowless room. It took a moment for Gabrielles eyes to adjust to the diminished light which streamed in from the open doorway. Then she recognized Palaemon seated on the ground, cradling his wounded arm.
"Palaemon!" she cried out, dropping to her knees beside him. "What happened to you?" Her hands began removing the bandage so she could inspect the wound herself. She took in his dirty and disheveled appearance, and the fact that he was out of uniform. Her hands stilled and she turned cold eyes to meet Eponins. "Did we do this to him?"
Palaemons heart stopped at her use of the word we. Perhaps Cefan was right after all, perhaps he had made the biggest mistake of his life.
Eponin shook her head. "No, your Majesty. He was wounded when he was captured."
"Your Majesty?" the Captain echoed. This situation was becoming worse by the moment.
Gabrielle ignored him as she saw the deep slice to his arm, just above his elbow. It was still bleeding slightly. "Eponin, bring Aria here to see to his injury."
"My Queen, I should not leave you alone with the prisoner."
"Tch, hes not a prisoner. Hes a friend. Now, go." Assuming her order would be obeyed, Gabrielle focused her attention on Palaemon; just as she knew the Conqueror would if she were here instead. Since this whole Queen fiasco had begun, Gabrielle had been trying to comport herself as the Conqueror did among her troops.
"Gabrielle, whats going on?" Palaemon managed despite the fact he was completely overwhelmed by the situation.
"Well, first were going to get you taken care of. And youre going to explain how youve ended up in an Amazon village."
Pale blue eyes, which reminded her very much of the Conqueror, looked back at her. "I was going to ask you the very same question."
The young woman groaned and slumped to the floor beside the Captain, cradling her head in her hands. At the sound of such pain, the guards outside the door stormed into the room, swords drawn. Palaemon jerked his hands high into the air and then remained motionless, not wanting to add another injury to his body.
"Are you all right, my Queen?" one of the warriors inquired.
She waved them out of the cell, not bothering to lift her face. "Gods, how this must look to you," she sighed.
He said softly, "Well, I will admit, it doesnt look too good." With the guards gone, he let his hand rest gently against her back, trying to convey a sense of comfort. "Why did you go to the temple, Gabrielle?"
"I dont know. I just wanted to see it." She said, her voice choked with emotion. Pushing herself off the ground, she dusted her hands off on her skirt and sat cross-legged beside him. "I had been reading about the temple in some of the scrolls in the library. Cefan told me not to wander off anywhere but I didnt see any harm in going to take a quick peek."
"Cefan told you not to wander off?" he echoed. "Where was she?" She didnt leave you alone, did she?
Gabrielle cringed, she hadnt wanted the lieutenant to be seen as negligent in her duties. "She went to go get something to eat, I guess. She didnt want to stay in the library with me. Dont blame her, though, Palaemon, I shouldnt have gone."
"Ill be a son of a bacchae!" Palaemon shouted, suddenly energized, despite the circumstances. "That conniving, lying, double-crossing, no-good "
"What are you talking about?" Gabrielle waved the guards away yet again. "Palaemon, what happened? Is the Conqueror okay?"
Palaemon was still processing the information about Cefan. In his mind he was reliving the conversation between himself, Cefan and Xena. He shook his head several times as he heard Cefans lies, and he wondered what else she might have lied about. "No wonder she wants to kill you," he whispered.
"Cefan wants to kill me?" the new Queen echoed, feeling a stab of pain, wondering what she could have done to so anger the lieutenant.
"No, not Cefan," he replied without thinking, and cringed. Idiot, why did you say that?
"The Conqueror wants me dead?"
It was the smallest voice Palaemon had ever heard. And he knew he had caused the gentlest soul he had ever met indescribable pain. "Gabrielle " he reached out for her, but she jerked away from him, as if burned by his touch.
If you become small, you cant feel the pain, thats what Lila used to say. Become small. Maybe if I become small enough I can just simply disappear. Gabrielle brought her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms tightly around her legs. Pressing her forehead against her knees, she still didnt feel small enough. Or maybe there was no way to escape such a large amount of pain. There was an ache in her chest, a heaviness that kept her from being able to breathe properly. Her throat was constricting, trying to block out the cry that threatened to come loose from her soul at any moment. And her eyes were shedding large, wet tears that were tapped from a deep, internal, endless source.
Palaemon sat by, helpless and hating himself for the words he had carelessly spoken.
It was then that Eponin and Aria arrived in the cell. "What did you do to her?" Eponin growled. This one might not have been her choice for Queen, but she would not tolerate any man causing the Queen of the Amazons injury of any kind.
"I told her something I shouldnt have," the Captain replied stiffly.
Aria raised an eyebrow and folded her arms over her chest. This girl had no business leading the Nation. "What? That there is no such thing as good faeries who come in the night and make everything good again?"
Palaemon refused to respond to the woman.
Eponin knelt beside Gabrielle and reached out to touch her, to perhaps abate the weeping. And she was surprised when Gabrielle let out a wail and began striking out blindly at her. Not wanting to injure the girl, Eponin let down her defenses and allowed the assault.
Palaemons staring contest with Aria was broken off by Gabrielles activity. Knowing the girl needed a friend, his large hands reached out and caught Gabrielles fists, closing gently around them. Palaemon waited while Gabrielle choked out more sobs and then he tugged her tight against his chest, wrapping his arms around her, wishing he could protect her from the words he had spoken. He began making soft sounds in her ear, trying to calm her and failing.
Some time later, when Gabrielle had quieted and Palaemons wound been tended to, the new Queen sat on a low bench outside the stockade. She sipped down a glass of juice which felt good going down her throat, raw from too much crying. Palaemon had to remain in the stockade, as it was the only part of Amazon territory a man was permitted, but Gabrielle had insisted that a cot be brought in for him, food and drink provided, and the door remain open. It wasnt what she wanted to give him, but it would have to do.
Clymera came and took a seat near Gabrielle. The old priestess knew that her prophecy of this young womans leadership was true, but she couldnt figure out why Gabrielle was so displeased to be a part of the Nation. "My Queen, are you feeling better?"
Gabrielle licked her lips slowly, tasting the tang of melon remaining. "Tell me about your visions of me. Tell me why I will defeat the Destroyer." I dont want to hurt her ever. Ill die before I let that happen.
Ah, that makes sense, Clymera realized, the girl is terrified of opposing the Destroyer. Shes surely heard the stories of the prior destruction of the Nation both in Greece and in other lands. Shes afraid to die. "My visions are true, my Queen. I see you bringing the Destroyer to her knees. She will not harm you."
"Do " Gabrielle closed her eyes trying to avoid the horrible image her question brought before her eyes, "do I kill her?"
Clymera shook her head slowly, "My vision is of a battlefield. It is dusk, Apollos last rays brushing the lands surface. There is much bloodshed, many have fallen, and everywhere there are instruments of war. In the center of the field, you stand. The Nation encircles the battlefield, watching you. The Destroyer is before you, on her knees, pleading with you for you have defeated her. Her army is scattered. They are no threat to our Nation anymore."
"That is all you see?"
"That is all. I see you deliver us from the evil one."
Gabrielle winced at the priestess word choice. Destroyer and evil one were not monikers she would have chosen for the Conqueror. "How can I be your Queen when I dont know how to be what you need?"
The priestess reached out and touched a bit of the cloth covering Gabrielles heart. "You have a true spirit, my Queen. It is all we can ask of you."
Truth. Thats all the Conqueror asked of me as well. "I dont know "
Gabrielles comments were cut off by the arrival of an Amazon scout who fell to her knees before the women. "My Queen, Priestess, the Destroyers army marches on our village."
Darkness had already settled on the land, Gabrielle noted with relief. No prophecy is coming true tonight at least. Even if it is in anger, I will see her. "Bring Eponin to me." To Clymera she said, "I will need the Council to meet with me as well. And Palaemon will join us."
"My Queen "
"Dont argue, please. Palaemon is her Captain. If anyone will know how to protect us from her wrath, it will be him. Im not trying to be difficult, Clymera. Im just trying to survive."
"Yes, my Queen." The priestess added a touch more respectful emphasis on the young womans title. Yes, this is the Queen I have seen.
Xena stood on the outskirts of Amazon territory. She held up her hand, halting the army behind her, and listened. Cocking her head to one side, she closed her eyes, focusing on the sounds she did and did not hear. There should have been the subtle sounds of scouts in the trees above them this close to Amazon territory. There was only silence. Silence that did not extend to her heart, however, which still cried out in pain at the betrayal of her one true friend.
"My liege?" Charis asked noting the pained look on the Conquerors face.
Xenas eyes narrowed as she focused on the soldier. "It seems we have been anticipated. You and I will continue, but send the other officers back. I want them rested for our attack tomorrow."
"Conqueror, surely we should bring along a squadron?" Charis queried warily.
Pale eyes swept over the young woman. "I am not accustomed to having my orders questioned. Do I need to find a new commander?" Xenas hand rested casually on the hilt of a dagger, leaving no doubts as to what would happen should Charis provide the wrong answer.
"No, my liege." Charis hurried to proclaim the order to the troops. She wondered how Palaemon had managed to survive under the Conquerors command for as long as he had. She tried hard not to think that he was among the hunted tonight as well, and certainly not to ponder if this was to be her own fate one day as well.
Xena leaned against the trunk of a tree. She felt entirely at home in the deep woods, having spent time with the Amazons both as a tenuous friend and a firmer foe in such settings. She kept her attention focused on the overhead branches, knowing how these women used the overlying canopy to move stealthily above their prey. It would be no stretch of her skills for her to ascend into their territory, but she preferred to wait.
Her men followed her orders of returning to the city. They would not be needed tonight. The Amazons had fled, which surprised Xena. It was only when her annihilation of the Amazon nation was nearly complete in Greece that a few of them crossed the Aegean sea to Ephesus. Most had stayed on their traditional homelands, preferring death to surrender or to retreat.
Xena needed to go on to the village to discover why the Amazons had chosen to not meet her, their hated Destroyer, in battle. It was very curious, and she was annoyed to be deprived of the anticipated conflict. She needed the heat of battle to dispel some of the heat in her soul. Though all the blood in the Amazon Nation wouldnt be enough to quench the fire inside of her. She had been stupid. She had left herself vulnerable. And she had been betrayed, once again.
Charis returned to her side and the Conqueror took off at a trot. The movement felt good and it was easy to navigate through the woods by the light of the full moon. The small totems scattered about guided her unerringly to the Amazons home.
At the encampment outskirts, she stopped, causing Charis to nearly collide into her. Not quite deserted, she thought as she saw the two figures sitting near the central fire, one of whom stood and drew his sword at her appearance but kept the blade lowered.
"Why, Palaemon," Xena drawled, sarcasm filling her voice, "what a surprise to find you here." She let her gaze drift to the young woman who remained seated and whose hair faintly glowed in the firelight, reminding Xena of the times when it had been their campfire people had come to. Stop it! She is seated by an Amazon fire with Palaemon. Dont be fooled by gentle looks a second time. "And, Gabrielle, how was your time at the library?" Xena tried to not think how she had planned on asking that question tonight in a different, friendlier forum, over a shared meal and enjoying the successes of the day.
"Conqueror," Gabrielle replied softly, "Im glad you came." In fact, all Gabrielle wanted to do was go back to Salmoneus house with her and pretend that this day had never taken place. She couldnt believe that the guiding star she had seen on the ship had brought her to Ephesus for this end. Not to see the hateful look in the Conquerors eyes when she looked at her. That pain hurt more than the cross ever did.
Xena let a cold smile cross her features, her anger blinding her to the relief in her oracles voice. "I dont think you will be." Drawing her sword, she made it dance in front of her. "Palaemon, I dont think weve had a chance to spar lately. Care to play?"
The Captain took a step toward the Conqueror, but Gabrielle stood up and placed a hand on his forearm restraining him. "We stayed to talk to you. Actually, I stayed to talk to you, and Palaemon insisted on remaining with me."
A cold shiver of jealousy ran through Xena as she watched the casual touch. She wondered how many other less casual touches the two had exchanged while in her company. How could I have been so blind? She shook her head to clear images of Gabrielle and Palaemon from her mind. "That was a stupid choice, because there is nothing I want to hear from you." With a swift stroke, Xena lunged at her former oracle. Perhaps she would be less attractive to Palaemon as she lay bleeding on the ground.
The Captain shoved Gabrielle down roughly and met the Conquerors blade. Trading quick strikes over the fair-haired girl, neither could gain an advantage. A swift kick to Xenas torso by Palaemon provided Gabrielle the room she needed to scramble out of striking distance. Once she was clear, four arrows came raining down on Xena.
Years of battle training and her innate ability allowed Xena to deflect two with her sword, dodge the third and capture the fourth in her fist. She held it over her heart and let her gaze drift first to Gabrielle and then up to the Amazon warriors in the trees. Damn it all, I was too focused on her to watch my own back. What other surprises does my little betrayer have in store for me?
"No!" Gabrielle screamed. "No!" She pushed her way around Palaemon and threw herself in front of the Conqueror, her back to the woman who just tried to kill her. "Stop it! Dont you harm her!" Gabrielle was furious, she was unaware that any of the Amazons had stayed behind, despite her evacuation order. Her heart was beating double-time, the arrows heading for the Conqueror terrifying her more than the fight that had taken place above her.
Xena grabbed the girl and pulled her tight against her body, her dagger at Gabrielles throat. She spun them around, looking for a solid structure to put at her back. Seeing a nearby hut, she moved them to it, pressing herself against the mud and stone edifice. "Charis, take cover!" she called out.
Her commander placed herself where she could make sure no one could sneak up on the Conqueror. Charis knew she was still slightly exposed, but her life was supposed to be forfeit for the Conqueror.
Gabrielle did not struggle against Xena, allowing the stronger woman to hold her captive, trusting that she would not slit her throat. And if she did, Gabrielle knew that her life wouldnt be worth living without the Conqueror in it anyway. Immediate death was a preferable substitute to the slow death of loneliness; the destruction of the body always the better choice over the destruction of the soul.
Palaemon followed to stand a few feet in front of them, his sword at the ready. His own heart was torn in two seeing his ruler poised to kill her oracle. He didnt want to harm Xena to save Gabrielle, and he found choosing between the two impossible. He wanted them both, together.
Two Amazons dropped from the trees and approached the hostage and hostage-taker, crossbows loaded. "Let her go, Destroyer," Eponin commanded. I can avenge you now, Terreis. Even if this Greek dog had nothing to do with your death, shes the one who forced us to this land where you died.
A snorted laugh was her only reply. The Conqueror tightened her hold around Gabrielles waist, and was surprised by her instinctive desire to be gentle with the girl. Gods, snap out of it, Xena. This one is your betrayer, remember?
Gabrielle willed herself to be calm. She didnt want to provide the obviously enraged woman with an excuse to hurt her. Looking directly at Eponin, she said, "Lower your weapons. I do not want her harmed. No matter what the outcome."
"My Queen, I cant do that." I wont do that.
The feel of metal biting into her neck caused Gabrielle to gasp in pain. She felt the warm trickle of blood down her throat. "Youre their Queen?" a hot voice husked in her ear.
"Youre hurting me."
The point of the knife dug a fraction deeper, "I intend to kill you."
Gabrielles eyes closed against the pain, not from her neck but from her heart. "Why, Conqueror? What have I done to you?"
You made me feel again. Her lips a hairs breadth away from Gabrielles ear, Xena replied, "You did not speak truth. That was our agreement, wasnt it, Queen Gabrielle? Your life for truthful lips."
"I never lied to you, please believe me." The young oracle raised one hand and placed it atop the Conquerors much larger hand which held her against the rulers body. Gently she squeezed the hand as she had done only the night before in the theatre. Was it only last night? "Conqueror, please hear me out, let me explain. Let me tell you the truth."
Xena held very still and tried to filter out the voices which all vied for her attention. She heard the Amazons shouting at her, threatening her should she not release their Queen. There was Palaemons voice as well, asking her to listen to whatever fanciful story they had made up. Charis voice was there, warning her of movement in the trees. Her battle-hardened senses cried out for a hearing, too, reminding her of past betrayals, of Caesar who brought her to this land. And then there was her heart which spoke in the softest voice of them all whispering to her not to harm the one in her arms and thus destroy herself.
Gabrielle felt the arm around her throat loosen and saw with relief the dagger lower. Sending a silent prayer to whatever god had been watching over the scene, she remained exactly where she was despite the overwhelming urge to flee. She fixed her eyes on Eponin, "I command you to lower your weapons." When the warrior did not readily comply, Gabrielle put some of the language she had read in the library to use. "This meeting is now under a banner of truce. I call Artemis as a witness to that fact. Any who break the truce will be dealt with severely." Gabrielle had called up every phrase of protocol and bargaining she could remember, hoping she sounded reasonably regal and coherent. Her gaze shifted to Palaemon, "You too, Captain." She waited until the three she could see complied with her command. There were four arrows, four warriors. "Order the others to come down from the trees and stand where I can see them."
Eponin scowled but obeyed. Lifting her hands to her mouth, she mimicked a bird cry. Two Amazon warriors dropped from the branches and joined their sisters. "As you have commanded, my Queen," Eponin said as she indicated their number. Seeing the little Queen in the Destroyers clutches made the warrior believe that soon the Nation would be passing the mask of queen to a new woman. Eponin couldnt recall another Queen whose tenure lasted less than a full day. She wondered if the girl would think to pass on the rite of caste.
Realizing it was her turn to show good faith, Xena spoke, "Charis, put away your sword."
"My liege, we are still outnumbered," Charis replied. The young commander was more terrified than she cared to admit. Glancing up at the tree line, she swore she could see a hundred more Amazons in wait for them.
"Do not disobey me!" Xena roared, the womans inexperience in leadership blatant, forcing Xena to take a menacing step toward her commander.
The shifting caused Gabrielle to once again be nicked by the dagger. She made a small sound and brought a hand up to the wound, wiping away a small trail of blood, smearing it across her neck.
The inadvertent wounding caused Xena to see if the Amazon warriors had changed their demeanor toward her. They hadnt flinched, proving themselves to be disciplined, despite the circumstances.
Gabrielle knew she had to take hold of the situation, bring the intensity down if she ever hoped for the Conqueror to truly hear her. "Would you like something to eat or drink?" She willed her voice to be calm, despite the fact she could plainly hear the thumping of her heart within her chest.
Seeing that the danger had diminished to a manageable level, Xena released her hold on Gabrielle entirely, pushing her away from her body, missing the contact immediately. "Nothing. I want only answers."
With a hard look to her warriors, who were already disobedient by staying behind and were in serious trouble for attacking Xena, Gabrielle turned to face the Conqueror. "What can I tell you?"
"Youre Queen of the Amazons. Did you come to kill me?"
Gabrielle shook her head, "How could I?" She gestured toward herself, being sure to draw the Conquerors attention to her still healing legs. "Havent I been traveling with you for an entire moon? I have tasted your food, brought you your wine, slept by your side. Did you ever once feel that I was any threat to you? Look at me, Conqueror. How am I a threat to you?"
"I destroyed your Nation."
The smaller woman shook her head, "This " she indicated the Amazon warriors and village "- has been a more recent development. I wasnt an Amazon in Greece."
"Not in Greece?" Xena was confused. If she hadnt been an Amazon in Greece, where had she become an Amazon? "Then where?"
"Here. Today." Gods, was it only today?
Today? Xenas anger flared, knowing she was being lied to once again. "The Amazon nation doesnt go around making Greek oracles their Queen for no reason, Gabrielle."
"Thats true. I was at the temple today when someone shot an arrow into Terreis, their Queen. When it happened, I just threw myself on top of her, I wasnt really thinking. As she died, she gave me her right of caste. I had no idea what it meant, until the Amazons came and brought me back here. I wanted to get word to you, I was afraid you would think I had left you to go back to Corinth. But then Palaemon came and told me you wanted to kill me, that you thought I had been a spy while I was with you."
"Is he your lover?" the question escaped Xenas lips before she could censor it.
Both Gabrielle and Palaemon gasped at the question and Xena was sure she had her answer.
"On my honor, my liege, I swear not," Palaemon responded, dropping to one knee. "I would never harm you so."
"Palaemon is my friend, Conqueror, and yours, as well," Gabrielle replied. She shoved all the implications of the question firmly to one side of her mind. There was no time now to consider them. Even though she desperately wanted to hear why the thought of her and Palaemon being lovers was so upsetting to the Conqueror. She hoped it was for all the same reasons she could come up with.
Turning to her former Captain, Xena scowled, "Then why are you here?"
Palaemon considered her question and met her eyes as he answered, "To protect you, my liege." From yourself, he silently added. I never thought that the one force which could conquer you wouldnt even reach my shoulder and have gentle green eyes.
Xenas stance softened slightly wanting to believe her Captain of several years. Flicking her pale eyes on to Gabrielle, she continued her inquiry. "And you? Why did you ask Cefan to take you to the temple?"
"I didnt go to the temple with Cefan, Conqueror. I left her, I know I shouldnt have. I was reading in the Library about a statue in the temple and I really wanted to go see it. I thought Cefan had gone to go get some food. I figured I would only be away for a few minutes, but then things became a little complicated."
"Cefan wasnt with you?" the Conqueror asked very slowly, the ramifications of Gabrielles answer already causing her mental anguish.
"No, she wasnt." Gabrielle said nothing more, knowing she was better off not laying any accusations against Cefan. The Conqueror needed to choose who to believe on her own.
Xenas gaze shifted to Eponin. "Did your troops engage one of my soldiers today at your temple?"
Eponin clenched her jaw as if she would refuse to answer, but Gabrielle fixed a hard stare on the warrior and issued her a silent command to do so. "Unfortunately, no, Destroyer."
"The only one Cefan engaged, my liege, was me," Palaemon added. "She followed me to the temple after I left you this afternoon. There she attacked me. After I defeated her, she threw a dagger into my back, striking my shoulder." Cefan is a back-stabbing coward. Understand that, my liege, and believe what Gabrielle says.
"Where is she now?"
"My liege, I do not know. She was injured in our fight, and I was detained and brought here."
Anticipating the Conquerors next question, Gabrielle fixed her gaze on Eponin, "Did any of the guards attend to Cefan after her fight with Palaemon?"
Eponin lowered her eyes, "No, my Queen."
"Someone is lying to me " she held up a hand to cut off Gabrielles comment "- that is plain. If I find you have spoken the truth, Gabrielle, then I will not attack your Amazons and will let you go in peace. But if I find otherwise, Artemis will be left without worshippers. Do I make myself clear?"
For the first time, Gabrielle felt a glimmer of hope. Her clear green eyes met the Conquerors blue eyes steadily and her voice was strong as she answered. "Only if I have made myself clear that I would never do what you accuse me of. I didnt lie to you and I wouldnt leave you." I wont leave you.
It would be so easy to believe her, Xena thought. The first person in years that I didnt feel a need to impress. Someone who reminded me of home, of Lyceus of family. But homes get destroyed and family members die and youre left all alone. And the only person you can ever count on is yourself. Caesar taught you about destiny, Xena. Remember that yours is to rule Greece. Alone.
To Palaemon she growled, "Do not interfere with my plans, or you will not live to regret it." Without giving him a chance to respond, Xena focused her attention on Gabrielle. "This isnt over between us."
Gods above, I hope not. Gabrielle nodded, wishing there was something she could say that would make this all better. There was nothing to say. Now there was only the aftermath of decisions.
To be continued (sooner rather than later, I promise)
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