The Last Conqueror
Kamouraskan and Lariel
For disclaimers and credits, please see part 1
Ephiny had never travelled to these far reaches of the palace. Built on top of a former fortress, these cellars were of the original foundations and there was a musty dead smell that made even the roughened Amazon clench her stomach. She moved warily, but other than her own light padding, she could hear only a steady dripping of water through the broken stones and the hiss of the burning torch in her fist. She put her free hand to her sword, and called out with a firmness she did not feel, "Xena?"
"What do you want, Amazon?"
The closeness of the response made her heart beat hard and fast. A figure appeared suddenly in front of her, and this didn't serve to calm her. The Butcher of Potadaia was alone with her, and no one other than Gabrielle knew where she was. She struggled to find her courage, and her voice.
"I have some food for you, and a request."
"Oh good. I so seldom have visitors. Is it from... Gabrielle?" The name was snarled, and Ephiny took a step backwards as the figure loomed closer.
"Who else knew you were here? She would have come herself, but figured that might not be a good idea."
"She thought right."
There was no response to this she could think of, but Ephiny felt obliged to press some more.
"So why are you still where she left you? If you distrust her so much, why haven't you taken off?"
Xena seemed to ignore the question, asking one of her own. "How'd she convince you to risk meeting with me?"
Ephiny shrugged. "I've decided to trust her."
There was a low, cynical laugh from the shape ahead of her. "Maybe that's your answer. She does have that charm, doesn't she?"
"She could have sent a series of guards down here instead of me," the Amazon countered.
"Do you think they'd find me if I didn't want to be found? And how many would be alive if I found them first?"
There was no point in denying that the woman's bravado was well placed, so Ephiny changed the topic. "Look, I have some food and medicines here. If you're worried they may be poisoned, then fine, but I dragged them here and I'm not hauling them all the way back."
Xena cocked her head and smiled oddly. "What did she really want? She didn't send you just to celebrate early Solstice."
"Alti has made Gabrielle the envoy to meet the Green Dragon."
"Ming Tien?" There was a note of surprise in Xena's voice. "Coming here? Interesting... what for?"
"Gabrielle doesn't know why, or what she's expected to do. And, she was given a bag - like it's supposed to mean something to the Prince when he gets it." As Ephiny moved away from her cargo, the figure stepped forward, and began to open the sacks with one booted foot. Ephiny could see the scarring on her legs, and smell the stench rolling off the woman even over the other scents around her. Her stomach and nose revolted, but she resisted the urge to bolt. The pale eyes stared at her for a moment, before Xena squatted and began to rummage through the bags.
"Hmmmm, mainly fruits, vegetables, hard to poison without there being some scent... the medicines smell like the real things..." she muttered to herself, pulling out the contents and tossing them carelessly onto the floor.
Ephiny was astonished as she laid eyes on Xena for only the second time. Bundled up in furs, with what looked like crusted blood on her sleeves and her long hair a mass of tangles, she looked a mess. She had been bad enough when she had rescued hers and Terreis' butts from Darphus a few days before, but she seemed to have deteriorated physically even more in this short time. "So you'll help her?" she pressed, trying to appear unfazed.
Xena snorted, loudly. "No. But I'll answer her questions." A herb was held up to the light and sniffed carefully before she spoke again. "Alti is sending her because like most conmen, she's gullible. She believes this supposed prophecy and thinks Gabrielle is a magic token come to solve all her problems. She's testing her on Ming Tien. Simple enough? Meanwhile, what was in the bag?" She sat down, cross-legged, and began to eat.
"A powder, different kinds of ground rock, very dark."
"Ah... so Alti did keep some. I wondered. Probably killing herself trying to figure out the recipe for the past year." There was a sharp spitting noise and a seed barely missed Ephiny's ear. "See, the people of Chin have a formula to make that stuff, and the great and powerful Alti doesn't have a clue what it is. She only knows what it can do. But she probably figures she can con Ming Tien that she knows the secret, and she's hoping that the bluff will scare him off." Xena closed her eyes and pursed her lips. "Hmmmm, I like these yellow ones."
"What does it do?"
"Have you ever seen a blacksmith's boiler explode? That little bitty bag of Gabrielle's could do the same thing. Alti and her toys are scared that Ming Tien could have brought a few hundred barrels of the stuff with him. Since it can launch itself without a catapult, it could blow holes in the walls of Corinth while he and his men were out of reach of any of their weapons."
Ephiny nodded. "So that's why no one's marched on them. Gabrielle thought that ten thousand men couldn't be a war party. She said that it probably took a thousand men to help Ming Tien go to the toilet."
There was a reluctant chuckle. "She's not far wrong. Ten thousand isn't an invading force, it's a protective one. The only way he'd be able to take control here would be by getting one or more of Alti's generals to join his side. He doesn't need to conquer Corinth anyway. He just needs to have a few of Alti's generals come over to him, or cause enough chaos to screw up Alti's rule. Then he can go back home, expand, whatever. There'd be no more taxes to pay to Corinth, he'll be free to do what he wants. He'd finally have his country back."
"Gabrielle suggested that they might be thinking of playing both sides."
"She'd know, wouldn't she? I keep underestimating her." Xena smiled grimly before pushing a piece of bread into her mouth.
"Look, I know you don't trust her. But I think she wants to hold onto her promise to you. Whatever you think, she's not Alti's toy, and she really does want what's best for the people of Corinth."
"Maybe. But even if that's true, Alti is clever. She always finds the soft spot, the place where you don't notice her creeping in until she has you, mind and soul."
"I think Gabrielle's stronger than that."
"You think so, do you? You'd be surprised how persuasive Alti can be. Why else do you think I killed all the leaders of the Northern Amazon tribes? They weren't part of my plans."
"Alti asked you?" Ephiny's eyes turned hard.
"Not asked, as such. Alti has... many skills." Xena gave a tight smile. "So you really think dear sweet little Gabrielle can resist? She's getting what she always wanted, now."
"Someone like you could never understand someone like Gabrielle."
"So that's what this is? You've developed a taste for her?" Xena sneered.
"I don't think she's perfect. She was stupid enough to think she should give more than a tinker's cuss about you. And why she does, I don't understand. Do you know where she's from? Potadaia! So if your medicines and salves aren't poisoned, it's not thanks to your charm."
Cold blue eyes blazed into her at the mention of the village. "Impossible. No one survived Potadaia."
"Everyone knows that, thanks to you. So why would she make that claim unless it were true? You killed her father, mother, and her sister. Burned her home. She and that boy are about all that's left after your army was through with destroying her life."
"She told you that?
"She didn't have to. And yet, she's still got more compassion in her than... damn, what's the point? Take your food. I hope you choke on it," was Ephiny's gruff reply. She turned around and began to pick her way back to the entrance in the dark, but was stopped by Xena.
"Hey, maybe you're right. Maybe she is clever enough to fight Alti. But she has to get through Ming Tien first, and he's no fool. Give her this, and tell her to present it to him when she meets him." Between her grubby fingers, Xena held a slim, black object, barely discernable in the torchlight. Ephiny reached out cautiously, and took it.
"What is it?"
"A hair pin. It belonged to his mother, Lao Ma. She gave it to me before she... died." Xena smiled again, and Ephiny wasn't sure whether she liked the smile or not. "He'll know what it means."
"What does it mean?" Ephiny asked as she carefully tucked the object away in her belt.
"It means I tidy up my messes these days. Have Gabrielle tell him that." And with that, she grabbed the scattered food, stuffed them into her bag and melted into the shadows, leaving Ephiny alone in the darkness.
Still dressed in her silken robes, Gabrielle approached the small cottage for the first time from the front entrance. The guards posted there moved back as she approached. She nodded at them and took a deep breath before entering. She found Arminus in the kitchen, stirring herbs carefully into a pot of steaming water.
"I thought you would like some tea, my child."
"You knew I was coming?"
The old man moved unhurriedly to a chair, carrying the pot carefully and placing it on the hearth. "Yes, I have a gift that allows me to see potential guests to my home." He paused but before she could ask, he grinned and added, "It's called a window." He patted the chair opposite him, on the other side of the fireplace.
Gabrielle did not smile. In fact her tension increased, and he noticed that her hand was trembling.
"What is it?" he asked, and motioned her to sit again before pouring tea into two small cups.
"That's what it is, isn't it? It's all a joke, a huge joke on me."
"Do you know what the Empress is sending me to do? ME? All because of this stupid prophesy? Like I was magic or something?"
"I know of the plans. And the prophecy did not make you who you are. It only said you existed. You are still yourself."
"With a choice?"
"And I really can make a difference whether Alti remains as Empress?"
"Possibly." He held out her cup; she sighed, took it from him and sat down opposite him.
"What is it with you Oracles? Can't you ever give a straight answer?"
"Oracles and Gods are like translators, Gabrielle. We try to explain words that do not exist in another language. We grasp at flashes of truth and try to bring the fragments into this world..."
"And there is little truth in our world, is there?"
"Truth is all around us, Gabrielle. Not everybody recognises it, or wants to see it."
"Except you. You see it." He did not respond but sipped his tea.
She followed suit, raising the cup to her lips and letting the slightly sour and musty smell of the brew fill her nostrils. It smelt of freshly gathered hay from the fields that her father had worked in; it smelt of the herb garden which she had helped her mother tend; it smelt of fires in the evening and the damp earth of her father's workboots after a rainy day in the fields. It smelt like home. She put the liquid against her lips. It tasted... sweet.
"But you won't tell me the truth about any of this, will you?"
"We all have to find our own truth, Gabrielle."
She drank again, before asking the question which had burned on her tongue since she arrived. "But how do I do that? How do I know which is the right choice to make, if I don't know the truth about what's going on with any of this?"
At this question, Arminus became uneasy. "I have told you to make the choice of the heart, not mind."
"Well, that's going to be hard. Have you looked at my choices? I just gave away around ten thousand dinars to the poor. A thousand children that were hungry are going to eat well tonight, people who were about to lose their homes will be safe in them. All thanks to Alti forcing me here. All Xena wants is to kill her and if we're lucky, just leave and let chaos reign afterwards. I know chaos. It's all I've known since Xena came to Potadaia."
There was a short silence as both finished their tea. Gabrielle carefully placed her cup on the hearth, before stretching her arms out in a gesture of luxury. "Do you know what I did last night? I had a hot bath. First one in my life. Do you know what that was like? It was so sensuous, so marvellous. With scented oils and soaps that didn't sting. Then I was dressed in fresh clothes, clothes that no one else had ever worn. And all I had to do to earn it was be ten times as helpful to the people I was failing yesterday. And do you know what more I could do? In this empire? Is this the darkness you warned me about? Is this the terrible corruption? Because I don't see Xena teaching me purity of soul."
"Gabrielle, whatever you choose, there will be a loss, a corruption of your innocence."
"So I lose, either way?"
"You can choose a life that will also strengthen the mind and heart in the greater good."
"Well that's what I feel I've done now. That's what my body and my mind feel now."
"That you've made the right choice?"
"I haven't made a choice. But how can I help Xena, after..." She struggled to continue, stumbling helplessly to a stop. "I don't know."
"A choice of the head, or of the heart, Gabrielle. Only you can decide which is right."
"But it hurts, Arminus. How can anything be right, when it hurts so much?"
"Study the pain, Gabrielle. Because the truth hurts, and whatever hurts us also can make us stronger. The path less taken is often littered with thorns and branches, roots and rocks. And the journey down it is often treacherous and painful - but to walk the well worn path is not always for the best, even though it may be safer and easier."
"No pain, no gain - is that what you're saying?" He made no reply, save for a smile, which creased the corners of his eyes and made the dimple in his cheek stand out more. "So basically, I should be like some sort of masochist...great." She snorted, and rose to her feet. "Thank you for the tea, Arminus."
"Travel safely, Gabrielle," he said as she was leaving, and she didn't even bother wondering how he knew about her journey. She closed the front door carefully behind her.
He rose, washed her cup and placed it carefully in his cupboard with the rest of his meagre utensils. Slowly, he returned to his chair, and stoked the dying embers of the fire. The few remaining coals glowed a dull, lifeless red amidst the grey ashes.
"So, you couldn't resist. You said you wouldn't push her to make a specific choice, but I heard every word." A voice as sharp as gravel pushed its way through his kitchen, and settled itself in the chair which Gabrielle had just vacated.
"I said nothing that changed her mind, Shamaness."
"Not for want of trying. I can see that not only do I not need you anymore, but I can't trust you either."
"And so you dispose of what causes you fear."
"You don't scare me, old man," Alti snarled, her voice exuding confidence. Arminus merely nodded.
"I have been expecting this moment. You took your time."
"Of course. I kept you alive because I needed to know more about the prophecy, but now that's been shown to me, you're just another source of power. One I'll need to take on Xena and the corruption of that girl."
"You cannot access my strength without breaking me. You can only kill me."
"You fool. Do you think I would keep anyone as dangerous to me alive if not for a reason? Anyone close to me that I couldn't break? If there wasn't a fissure, a fracture point that I couldn't cleave apart with a precise strike... I can break you, old man, just as I have broken everyone I've ever wanted to." She raised claw like fingers, and rested her chin in her hand as she gazed at him, mocking and triumphant at the same time.
"Except Xena. You never quite managed to break her, did you?"
"You didn't see her, in that cell. I had her." Her eyes hardened.
"You no longer have her. She has you."
"And I have Gabrielle. And as long as she's mine, Xena has lost."
"You'll never break Gabrielle. She has a spirit that shines with strength."
Alti stared at him for a long moment, a calculating look in her eyes. "You seem to know a lot about the girl." He remained silent. She gazed at him again before continuing, "Everyone is corruptible. Everyone has that flaw. She's no exception, and you know how determined I can be when I really set my mind to it. She's already mine - it's just a matter of time," she finished, a confident smile curving her red lips. "In the meantime though - you are a problem. One that I can't allow to continue."
His fingers gripped the arm of his chair, but the rest of his body seemed to relax, as thought at the end of a long, tense struggle. "I've known this moment would come."
"And it has been a long time." She rose languidly, enjoying the moment. "You and I." She moved behind him, her breath warming his ear. "And the passage of time has not been your friend, has it? It's hard to remember the strength you once had, when I was just your student. You were so strong then, so vigorous. So proud."
Arminus laughed with a confidence he barely felt. "That's my weakness? My age? I wear my wrinkles with pride."
"No, not your wrinkles, it's those other infirmities... how weak and slow you have become, how the blood flows so sluggishly through your veins, and that wonderfully clear mind has weakened as well. Do you remember that attack you had last year?"
Arminus eyes began to blink, and his breathing became more forced, as Alti reached to stroke and finally grip his throat. "Before that you would still have been capable of fending off my touch, but now..." The eyes continued to expand and his gasps become more pain filled, until a seizure struck, and he slumped forward. "Oh, how sad. It's happened again, hasn't it? What's left of that mind will be trapped inside that mouldering flesh. I hardly need do any more. I should leave you like this."
Even as he felt the red hot pain burst through his chest, he slurred, "I'm not... afraid to die, Shamaness. You can't... take my spirit."
"I know you're not afraid to die, old man. But are you ready to live - like this? Helpless, vulnerable. Like a mewling baby. You'll need someone to nurse you, to come and feed you, push the food past your drooling lips." She bent over, seized his face between her hands and grinned into his eyes. "Won't that be nice?"
His eyes closed briefly as he tried to avoid the pictures that were playing on her black irids. She laughed at him. "Not just any nurse, oh no... not some old matron from Corinth. No, for you - for my old teacher - I shall demand the best, kindest and most gentle nurse I can find. Someone like... Gabrielle. Yes, that beautiful, lovely girl can bathe you, see your withered nakedness, wipe you down when you mess yourself. And you can stand by and watch, helpless, as I take her down a different corridor of hard decisions. Always giving her choices, and letting her choose the lesser of the evils. I'll teach her well, just as you taught me - but I'll teach her how to desire, about the force of will that drives the world, and how to take what she wants. Like I taught Xena, and this time I won't make any mistakes." She laughed, in triumph. "And there won't be a thing you can do to stop me."
Alti lifted Arminus' head and at the exact moment that a small tear began to trail its way down the side of his face, she struck. The energy poured into her, and her mind began to blaze with his power.
Perdicus was in the midst of arranging blankets for more drop-ins when he became aware that all the voices in the sleeping hall had suddenly fallen silent. He looked up and saw that the normally rambunctious lodgers were staring in shock at a space directly behind him. With his heart in his mouth, he turned. He couldn't help showing his relief that it was Xena and not Alti or her guards, and Xena shook her head in mock dismay.
"I don't know who else you were expecting, but I could get a little upset that I'm not your worst nightmare."
Perdicus looked to the smile with some uncertainty, but didn't back away. "I did what I thought was best. It was stupid and I nearly got us all killed. You know I won't go to Alti again after that."
"So it was just stupidity and we're all friends now?" Xena leaned in close, and hissed into his face, "Especially as I heard yesterday that you're claiming you survived Potadaia."
Perdicus stiffened as the icy eyes bored into his, and he placed his hands slowly on his hips, mainly to stop them shaking so much. "Gabrielle said you were to be treated as a friend. She said that there were more important things going on and no matter what you did in the past, you were to be welcomed here," he replied, with a certain amount of bravado which belied his lurching stomach.
Xena straightened, and stood looking down at the boy. "So you really are from Potadaia? And I'm welcome here..." She shook her head slowly before spitting out, "What sort of dung is that?"
Perdicus heard a plaintive note in the question, and waved to the children to relax. "I'd be dead a dozen times if it weren't for Gabrielle. She wanted you to feel safe with us, and that's enough reason for you to be welcomed here. If she was wrong, and you're here to finish the job you started five years ago..." He closed his eyes and waited, though he could not stop the trembling of his hands and legs.
Xena took in the sight in front of her, smiled slightly and stepped back. "Relax. I just wanted to ask you some questions. And I'm impressed. It looks like you're handling things well enough here without Gabrielle."
Perdicus took a deep breath. "She's been gone for almost a week, and someone had to take charge." He shrugged, and seemed to look at the filth covering the woman in front of him for the first time and called to a group of the children. "Our guest here needs some food, and some clean clothes." His nose wrinkled. "And a wash."
Suddenly there were two cherubs alongside of her, tugging her towards a chair, and Xena had to fight the urge to pull away violently. A table and fresh fruit were put in front of her and still she stared at Perdicus. "What are you up to? And don't tell me you're just such perfect forgiving people. You're thieves, conmen, beggars. Don't take me for another easy mark."
This time Perdicus did not tremble, and Xena was reminded of the easy anger that had flowed from Gabrielle, as his control broke and he lunged over the table top to spit his furious words in her face. "You really wanna know the truth? Do you? I've imagined you dying a thousand times since we left what you... I don't care if your men went out of control, or you weren't even in command that day. You should pay for what you did. But now I can see that Gabrielle was right all along. About the empire. This city's going to be the centre of a war, and she says you're the only thing that stands between that and everyone in this room being killed." He stopped, panting for breath as the fury washed away. He cast her one last angry look, and slumped into a chair opposite her, and gestured to the children who had gathered around him. "For them, and for Gabrielle, I'll clean your boots if I have to. So, I'm going to make sure you're healthy and alive, okay?" He called behind him, "Mercia, get the fresh meat out of the larder, and get Callus to sear it fast. And some juice while you're there." He turned back to Xena. "Now what did you come here to find out?"
Still taken aback by the boy's swift changes, Xena almost hesitated. But she took a bite of an
apple, and chewed while arranging her thoughts. Perdicus seemed willing to believe that Potadaia had been an accident of command. Strange how some people still refused to believe that she would deliberately raze a defenceless farming village to the ground. She wondered how Perdicus and Gabrielle would respond if they knew the truth. In the years that had followed, whenever her own conscience had troubled her, she had reminded herself that the destruction of Potadaia had saved hundreds of other villages, and thousands of lives. The fear that the massacre had engendered had made any resistance melt before her army, just as Alti had promised. It was not an argument that would satisfy this boy or Gabrielle, and increasingly, herself. She swallowed. "Okay. So we know where you stand. What about Gabrielle? When was the last time you talked with her?"
"A few days ago, before she left to see the Green Dragon." At Xena's look of disbelief, he explained. "She dropped messages from her window, and we sent ones to her by slingshot. We know what's going on pretty good."
So Gabrielle's orders hadn't changed from the time she had become Alti's protégé. Why did she still think she needed Xena? How much was this a game of Gabrielle's just to keep her options open?
"Everyone seems to trust Gabrielle. But why should I?" Xena asked.
"Because she deserves it. Look, I'm busy, we have a load of kids that're gonna need a place to sleep in a few hours. Eat your food, and if you want to know who Gabrielle is, I suggest you read her scrolls. She always wanted you to."
"Wanted me to? When did she say that?"
"Five years ago when she wrote them. You want them?"
"She wanted me to read them? Why?"
"Because she wanted you to understand. But I doubt..." He hesitated, and then brought over a bag stuffed haphazardly with scrolls of all different sizes. " Here. They're a mix. Some are her story scrolls, some are journals that she wrote on the way here from Potadaia. She stopped writing soon after we got here; it was just too tough to try and survive. She always wanted to be bard, but then you happened to her." He began to walk away, adding, "Enjoy your meal. And your reading."
Two candlemarks later, Xena was staring sightlessly at a wall, realising that she'd been suckered, but good. A couple of kids had drawn her into an ambush as skillfully as any she could have built, and she'd fallen for it. 'Enjoy your reading,' indeed.
The problem was that it had started so innocently. The first scrolls she had read were simple childhood prattling, but after a few she found herself engrossed, caught up in the young Gabrielle's skill at creating a story out of common place incident. A butcher's difficulty in finding sausage became a monumental crisis in her hands, and the woodcarver who made flutes for the children, a hero. She'd almost forgotten what she was there for until she was in the middle of reading it.
Though it was written by a girl just barely in her teens, Xena had been there, and was brought back by the force of the words. She'd somehow remembered that it had been a sunny day but hadn't recalled all the details of the season that Gabrielle had summoned up. The perfect summer day that had contrasted so horribly with the stench of burning homes, and bodies.
A few of the children had been in the woods all day, and had returned singing and laughing at sunset, telling stories much like the ones Xena had been reading. Gabrielle's last stories, Xena knew. She'd come over that hill, a child for the last time, wondering what the strange burning smell had been, and stumbled into the most horrific massacre in recent Greek history. Seeing not just anonymous victims, but the remains of human beings who had lived and loved that very morning, just as Xena could now see them. Xena felt her pain that the butcher would never laugh again, and that the flutes would be forever silent. Gabrielle had made them all real to Xena, and made her feel their sudden silence and loss. Through the scrolls, she was forced to follow Gabrielle to what was left of her home. Discovered the bodies of her Mother. Father. Sister. She'd heard Perdicus and the other children whimpering in fear and shock beside Gabrielle.
Then came the anger. The rage at the person that had done this, and this was more than familiar - Xena knew from her own heart. Just as she'd wanted to kill Cortese, Gabrielle seemed bent on finding and killing the Warrior Princess.
But why hadn't she? Gabrielle's anger was consuming, and focussed on everything around her. She cursed the summer day for its ironic beauty, and that night after finding only a few scraps to feed on, she'd cursed the clear night sky that evening for its loveliness, determined that such things would never touch her again. That they would always be tainted with pain and anguish.
But there, the parallel to her own descent into hatred had ended. Because there were the other children with her, Gabrielle had been forced as the oldest to take charge. And that, she wrote, had been her salvation. Responsibility was what people like Xena did not take.
'People like Xena steal and cheat and kill and lie because they feel no responsibility. They love to force people to do what they want, and then when it's all ending in death and ruin, they blame the other guys or they run away because they can't handle what they've done. Taking responsibility is hard and it hurts, but that's what makes us stronger and makes us a whole person. Not a shadow, afraid to let people close and always pushing people away because it's easier. Hating because it's simplest. I won't be like her, I won't. I'll never give in to that emptiness, I'd rather die.'
The children had been turned away from every door they had come to. Too much war had made extra mouths something to be shunned, and the farmer's children knew nothing of foraging or surviving in the wild. So she had decided to take them to the city. Somehow, she had brought them all across country and when they'd finally arrived, ragged, starved and dirty, she'd found them all shelter and she'd stolen to feed them. And so it had started. There had been more children who had been abandoned, and more food was needed, more theft.
Xena had rigorously avoided seeing anything through the eyes of her victims for so long, that this was a blow she needed time to recover from. But part of her mind focused on what it revealed. Alti's insistence that all of Potadaia be destroyed took on a new significance. The dreams that Xena had of the God of War urging her to completely destroy the town and slaughter every person suddenly meant much more than a battle stratagem. It implied that the prophesy was real, and that Gabrielle was its foundation. Even if Ares and Alti hadn't known who Gabrielle was, they'd known that someone existed in that small town who was a danger to them or their control over Xena, and she'd been used as the very tool to try to destroy it. But Gabrielle had survived. Somehow, with help or not, she had survived. And that meant that she really was the one, and the prophecy was for real.
Which meant that there was a future, if Xena could find in herself the strength to change. If she and Gabrielle could... what? Did Gabrielle know the truth? Alti certainly did, and had all the advantages.
Everything but time, because restless armies were massing, and the cataclysm was fast approaching.
And Gabrielle. Unlike all of the other betrayals in Xena's life, all the other people she'd lost or thrown away, Gabrielle had found some way past all the hatred and had found some sort of... forgiveness? If that was true, Xena owed her more than loyalty. And if she was wrong, then it didn't matter. She'd be just as well off dead, because this would be her last offering of faith to any mortal. She stretched her shoulders to straighten them out, and wondered how long it had been since she had thought about her past, thought about anything so clearly. It was as though her association with Gabrielle had freed her in some way. She gripped the chair she was seated on, marveling at its firmness, and her assurance that it was part of a reality she shared. It wasn't much, but it was a start.
She'd been sitting like a statue for so long that her sudden movement from the table startled the few children still up, but in a moment Perdicus was in front of her.
"Find out what you needed to know?"
She gave him a resentful glare. "As you probably figured, more than I wanted." There was an awkward pause while she searched for the words, but finally she asked, "Gabrielle... was she really that good a storyteller?"
Perdicus had expected many questions but not that one. "Yes, she was good. She would have been one of the best. But you took her home, and her family, along with everyone and everything we knew. The gift died. She knew... what difference would her scribblings make?"
Xena ignored the question it seemed. Though inwardly she answered "Because it's another of the wounds I made, and I need to know them. I want to make sure no one else, especially me, hurts her again." Still not sure why she felt this commitment, nevertheless she stood, and gave her body a quick examination.
"I need a bath, and I need to fix my leathers. If I'm going into battle I'd better be prepared." Perdicus nodded, and his eyes shone slightly. Xena chuckled ruefully. "Yeah, you got me. Way my life has gone, you'll probably regret it, but you got me. But I have a few things I have to take responsibility for first, you understand?"
She tucked the scrolls carefully back into their bag, and handed it back to Perdicus.
Ephiny had been pleased with Gabrielle's progress through the training. She was fit and strong and young, which was more than they could say for many of their recruits.
Even so, after almost a week of riding, Gabrielle was ready to fall out of the saddle and Ephiny had assigned herself to watch her. She was ready when high on the hillsides, just a half days ride from Ming Tien's encampment, the girl lost her balance and nearly slid from her mount. Ephiny was immediately by her side. Even so, she couldn't help but tease the girl. "I thought you were getting the hang of this?"
Gabrielle was not in the mood. "I've never been on a horse in my life before this week, so what do you expect?"
"Just the usual perfection from an Oracle. But you can relax for a bit. We're stopping here anyway, so you might as well dismount."
Curious, but with ill-disguised relief, Gabrielle did so. "Tell me I don't have to get back on?" she grumbled, staring up the tall, cream coloured flanks of the mare she had been riding for the last five days. Ephiny, eyes twinkling, shook her head. Gabrielle sighed. "Are you sure I can't ride in one of the carts?"
"You're kidding? Training with staves all night, riding all day - this is the plan, right? Why didn't she just kill me in the palace and get it over with? " Gabrielle sighed again, louder. "So, why have we stopped now?" she asked as she rubbed her aching thigh muscles.
"You'll see," Ephiny answered, and as if on cue, Terreis rode over.
The casual evasion was enough to trigger another outburst from the exhausted blonde. "Oh, not more travel plans that I don't know anything about! So much for being an Amazon sister. I thought I was supposed to be leading this damn expedition. Enough secrets - I want to know what's going on!"
Terreis smiled and spread out her arms "This," she stated, proudly. As her hands spread, the hills were filled with cries, and thousands of women began to stream down from all sides of the hills that surrounded them.
"This is the new Amazon nation, Gabrielle." Seeing the girl's astounded face, she grinned and laughed. "You said that Alti was worried that some force might get to Ming Tien and arrange a coup before she could talk to him? Well, you were right. One has."
The door to the ratcatcher's room opened, letting light stream into the darkened room. Framed against the sun was a blond head, atop a short, slim body. Xena knew immediately who it was, and her heart lurched.
"Hello, Solon." She stepped out of the shadows, and brushed dust off her clothes.
"Xena." He sounded neither surprised nor afraid to see her.
"How did you know I was here?"
"Alti sent me. She promised Gabrielle she wouldn't touch you, but she's given up waiting for you to come for her."
"So she compromised and sent you. How... Alti of her."
While watching her carefully, he moved his hands from behind his back with a deliberate motion. "She gave me this very special crossbow. It can fire three quarrels at once. She said you might be able to catch two." He raised it to his eye.
Xena snorted a laugh. But did she warn you that I could take out the bowman with my chakram first? "So, what are you waiting for?" she asked calmly, her fingers lightly brushing the metal disc that hung from her belt.
To Be Continued
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