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SING YOU A SONG OF JUSTICE
Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Warrior Princess are owned by MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures, bless their imaginative little hearts. No copyright infringement is intended.
This story contains some violence, as do many Xena stories. Of more concern, suicide is also a peripheral part of the story and if you are sensitive to this subject you might not want to read further.
She waited. The morning mist was beginning to dissipate over the forest visible from her vantage point at the mouth of her cave. A cool dawn was giving way to a warm morning, the sun warming her face, but not reaching her soul.
She waited. Her tangled, dirty hair fell onto her face, but she didn't brush it away. Motionless she sat, alert, expectant. Her bulky, dirty cloak fell haphazardly about her shoulders as if she didn't care. She didn't.
She waited. There was a feral look about her that suggested a fey hermit, a mad woman. But her eyes told a different story. There was an intelligence there hiding a purpose only she knew. She had waited five summers for this day studying and practicing until she knew she had a chance to complete her task. The Fates had chosen this day and then she would die.
Still she waited.
Xena and Gabrielle rode at a steady pace up the mountain path. Normally Gabrielle would be walking, but the vague message had been urgent. A village was being threatened by a particularly unpleasant warlord, not that there is any other kind, and their presence was needed as soon as possible.
Gabrielle was regaling Xena with the story of Pygmalion and Galatea. Unfortunately this was the third time this morning as the bard was refining her story, trying to put the proper body language and rhythms into her words. Nothing pleased a crowd more than a good love story, except perhaps, a chronicle of a bloody battle.
"...so Pygmalion stared hopefully at his statue and started to caress her smooth marble skin." Gabrielle was running her hands up and down Xena's body as she spoke, "then fell back in surprise as he thought he felt warmth coming from her beautiful body." She flung her arms back, a look of wonderment on her face.
Now, the problem with telling stories on horseback is that the good bards use not only their words, but also their face and their hands to tell their stories. It is especially dangerous if the horse is tired of the storyteller's antics. At this moment, Argo missed a step and Gabrielle would have gone flying if Xena hadn't reached back and grabbed her as the bard's legs were clearing her horse's rump. Pulling up, she gently lowered the surprised bard to the ground.
"She did that on purpose Xena," Gabrielle fumed. She grabbed her staff out of the saddle. "I'm walking". She stomped on up the path, rounding the corner and out of sight.
"No she didn't, Gabrielle. Come on, you know we'll get there faster if we ride," Xena called to the rapidly disappearing bard's back. She sighed, and patted Argo's neck, whispering, "That wasn't very nice." Argo looked back and nickered softly in wide-eyed innocence. "Not that I blame you. I was getting pretty tired of that story myself. Although... the caressing part wasn't bad."
She sat for a few minutes enjoying the silence, then dismounted. Stretching, she decided to walk for awhile and let Gabrielle cool off before she caught up with her. Her infrequent fits of pique could be intense but seldom lasted long. Looking down into the valley, her keen eyes watched a large bird making lazy circles in the sky. It turned and headed for the path in front of her. A carrion eater. Senses always alert, Xena scanned her surroundings. Nothing looked out of place, but she couldn't ignore her unease at the sight. Mounting the golden mare, she urged Argo on, suddenly wanting to have Gabrielle in view.
Gabrielle, still muttering to herself about insensitive traveling companions and threatening dire consequences to irascible horses, walked rapidly on. Gods! How was she supposed to perfect her craft if she didn't practice? Xena practiced all the time! So intense was her conversation with herself, she nearly walked by the figure sitting very still in front the cave. She stopped abruptly. Turning slowly, she brought her staff up in a defensive position.
The two women studied each other for a few moments, one in wonder, the other in amusement. Gabrielle wasn't even sure this was a woman. She was so filthy she blended in with the rock she was sitting on. And then there was a particularly pungent odor emanating from the silent figure. But those eyes, wise, amused, infinite pools of sadness.
"Hello, child," the figure said. The voice was rich, yet underused. Gabrielle could just image a conversation between the woman and Xena. Monosyllabic and terribly short. She smothered a giggle.
Not sensing any hostility from the stranger, Gabrielle moved closer, lowering her staff. "Hello, I'm Gabrielle. Who are you?"
"Antipany," the woman replied. They studied each other for a moment longer. "So Gabrielle, what are you doing up here all by yourself. It can pretty dangerous for someone who's not paying much attention to her surroundings." Her gentle words held a mild reproach.
"Oh, I'm not by myself," Gabrielle said hastily, "my friend is following behind." Antipany raised an questioning eyebrow. "We had this little disagreement so I went on ahead." The eyebrow remained raised. "I'm a bard, you see, and I have to practice, but Argo objected and I just can't please her."
"Argo is your friend?" asked Antipany.
"Nooo.. Argo is her horse." Gabrielle explained.
"You had a fight with a horse?" The eyes were definitely laughing now.
"It's a long story. You don't know this horse." Gabrielle muttered, looking away.
Antipany studied the young girl carefully. There is no evil in this one, she thought. "I'm studying sorcery myself but I'm not very good at it. It takes so long to learn the craft. You know, my mentor has a library you might be interested in. I believe I brought some scrolls with me. Have you heard of Aristophanes or Tyrtaeus of Sparta?" She stood up stiffly and walked slowly into the cave. "Why, he even claimed one was written by Apollo himself. I find that very hard to believe, but come in and look for yourself."
At the mention of a library Gabrielle's eyes lit up and with the mention of scrolls she flushed with excitement . Still she hesitated at the opening of the cave, caution lasting just long enough to spot the scrolls. But she reasoned Antipany had been nothing but kind, and besides she was probably pretty lonely living up here all by herself. Gabrielle took a few cautious steps into the cave. It was Spartan and surprisingly well kept, despite the disheveled appearance of the woman. A bed roll lay to one side. Cooking utensils were laid out neatly along one wall. Antipany was gathering up a few scrolls and moving them toward the light of a natural vent near the back of the cave.
"Come over here, Gabrielle. They're so old, I don't want to expose them to direct sunlight." Sounded reasonable. Gabrielle walked further in and reached eagerly for a scroll. In moments she reading with wide eyed abandonment, the real world lost to her.
Antipany leaned against the cave wall near the entrance watching. Soon it would be over. If Gabrielle had bothered to look, she would have seen the woman's eyes grow cold and calculating.
Ah, the young, thought Antipany, was I ever that gullible?
Xena rode down the path, cursing with every stride Argo took, not able to shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong. It seemed like every time she let Gabrielle out of her sight, the bard got into trouble. She should send her home, because Xena knew most of their trouble originated with the warrior's bloody past. Somehow, she just couldn't do it. You're a coward, she scolded herself. Killing was so easy now. Once started, impossible to stop. Gabrielle steadied her, kept her on a straight .... well, straighter path. She wouldn't send her away. The warrior needed her too much. "She probably gets in these messes just to get more stories," Xena grumbled.
The big bird that had been circling below suddenly appeared to be flying down the path ahead and disappeared around a bend in the road. Xena's mouth tightened as she urged Argo on.
Rounding the bend, she suddenly reined Argo to a stop. The vulture was perched on a stone ledge protruding by a cave entrance. Xena jumped down, tying the reins to the saddle horn. "Watch him Argo," she said, pointing to the bird, "If he moves, eat him." Argo snorted in disgust. Xena drew her sword, slid by the huge bird and entered the cave.
Gabrielle was still reading intently when Xena entered. The warrior could see or rather smell the entity leaning against the cave wall. Seeing the bard bent over the scroll oblivious to her presence, Xena sighed. "I should have known. Do you remember anything I taught you?"
The bard looked up startled. "Oh Xena, look at these! They're wonderful." Her voice faltered as she noticed the drawn sword pointed at Antipany still leaning against the wall. "What's wrong?" She moved closer to Xena. "Put down the sword, Xena. Antipany is a friend."
"You make friends so easily, Gabrielle. One of these days one of your new friends will cut your throat." Xena continued to stare at the figure by the wall. She seemed to blend in with the rock wall. It was impossible to tell her age under all that filth, she looked to be an old woman.
"Xena! What is wrong with you!" Gabrielle was getting angry. "She's done nothing to hurt me!"
Antipany, arms still folded across her body, stood up a little straighter. "She's right, Xena. I have no quarrel with your young companion. It's you I'm here to judge."
Gabrielle started toward her. "Hey! Wait just a minute here! What's going on?" Xena shot out an arm and moved the bard back. "Go outside Gabrielle."
"Not on your life, Xena. What ever happens, we're in this together." She did, however, move back to where she was reading and picked up her staff.
Keeping her body and face deliberately relaxed, Xena asked, "You seem to know me, do I know you?"
"We met briefly about five harvests ago, " Antipany replied. The cold eyes were beginning to heat up. "It's little wonder you don't remember. Spartoculus was such a small village, I don't know why you even bothered to pillage us. I suppose because we happened to be in the way." She laughed bitterly, dropping her arms to her sides. "You hadn't quite reached your peak as a bloodthirsty warlord, but you were getting there fast." Her hands were taking on a strange glow. "It was really a very small atrocity, as those things go, only seven men were murdered. But that wasn't the end of the story, Xena, and before I execute you, I want to make sure you understand the full extent of your crime. Justice demands it." She was still speaking calmly, but rage poured from her eyes. Her breathing quickened. The glow around her hands brightened.
Xena looked at her thoughtfully trying to remember the village. There had been so many of them. She shook her head and let out a short, rueful laugh.
"Something about the destruction of my village amuses you, warlord?" The hands glowed even brighter, the rage barely contained.
"No," Xena shook her head, "It's just that with all the terrible crimes I've committed, I finally get nailed for one I don't even remember. Before you carry out my sentence, refresh my memory."
Gabrielle moved up to Xena's side, then sidled slightly in front, ready to defend her friend when necessary. The other women noted the movement and looked at each other in an unvoiced agreement.
Antipany took a deep calming breath and began, "It was just after the harvest when one of your captains came demanding food and supplies. We barely raised enough to live on ourselves, we had none to spare. So he gave us a choice, give it all up now and live, or be raided and die. What a choice! Die fast or die slow when winter came. We choose to defend our homes. We hid what we could but it really wasn't any contest. When it was over, seven of our men were dead, including my two brothers. Your raiders tortured my people into revealing the whereabouts of our supplies. Then burned our homes as a lesson to those who would defy you." Her voice remained calm, flat, without emotion. Only her eyes burned in anger. "You know what the real crime was, Xena? After we had time to assess the damage and know how desperate we were, three of our people killed themselves. We lost ten others, mostly children and elders, to hunger and illness that awful winter. By spring, Spartoculus was deserted, the remainder of our people had moved on. You may have only murdered seven men, but you destroyed a whole community. You will die for that!" Now the hate was audible, the hands white hot.
Gabrielle jumped in front of Xena, staff poised. "Hold on a bit, here. Everyone deserves a defense! You can't just.......Ahhhh!" Grabbed from behind, she had a bird's eye view of the floor as she went flying out of the mouth of the cave, landing at Argo's feet. "Now stay out there, Gabrielle," she heard Xena say. Cursing, the bard started to get up but then noticed Argo was staring fixedly at something by the cave opening. Glancing over, Gabrielle abruptly sat down, backing into Argo's front legs.
"Oh, yuuuk!" she exclaimed. There perched the biggest, ugliest bird she'd ever seen. Bald head, dark brown feathers, large hooked beak, soft brown eyes that transferred their gaze from Argo to her. She started to get up but the bird flapped it's very intimidating wings in warning. Hmmm, she thought. Well, griffin feathers. Just do what you do best. She began to tell it a story. A very boring story. In a soothing, monotone voice.
Xena looked at Antipany in defeat. "I can't justify what happened. It was wrong. I can only tell you that I've changed and I'm trying to atone for what I've done, but I can't do that if I'm dead."
"Even if I believed that, Xena, it wouldn't make any difference. I've heard you only do good now, but I wonder how much of that comes from within you, and how much is due to Gabrielle's influence. Would you still be on this righteous path without Gabrielle to hold you there?"
Xena rubbed her face in frustration. It was a good question and even she did not know it's answer. "I don't know," she whispered, looking away.
"I'm not here to judge you on how many good deeds you've done versus how many evil. Only Hades can do that. I can only judge you for the seven murders I witnessed, and the devastation that followed." The voice was cold, final. But Antipany was uneasy, this was not going as she thought it would. She thought Xena would battle her to the death, and not give herself over to judgment so easily, if at all.
"Xena of Amphipolis, I sentence you to die." she intoned, raising her arms and pointing her now brightly glowing hands towards Xena.
"Waaait.....," Gabrielle screamed, dashing into the opening just as a thunderous bolt of energy sprang from those hands and slammed into Xena's chest, throwing her against the back wall of the cave. "Xena, oh no, Xena.." Gabrielle ran back and cradled Xena's head, checking for a pulse. "Thank the Gods," she murmured. Faint, but it was there, and gradually getting stronger."
Antipany, sure her task was completed, smiled in grim satisfaction. "How did you get past my vulture?" Gabrielle wiping the tears from her eyes, looked up "I have many ski... Well, actually, I have one big one. I told him a story and put him to sleep." Antipany laughed dryly, "Strange skill for a bard.." She stopped and frowned as Xena stirred, raising shakily to her knees. "Great Zeus, woman, what does it take to execute you?" Xena smiled sadly. "More than that feeble effort."
Hands glowing once more, the sorceress poised to fire again. Gabrielle jumped to her feet in front of Xena. "Wait, wait....let's talk this over. This isn't justice, it's revenge, it's...it's murder! This Xena is not the one who killed your brothers and destroyed your village. That Xena is already dead!"
"Oh, yeah," Antipany was losing control. "Well, tell that to my brothers. Tell Uhrias..." Shifting her aim, a bolt of energy ricocheted off the wall and struck Xena from the side. "and Eupodias..." Aiming toward the opposite wall, another bolt bounced off and hit Xena on the other side staggering her, but still she did not go down.
"This Xena is good and kind and loving," Gabrielle was crying now, pleading, "Please, please, let me take her place. She still has amends to make, but I am ready to die for her. I will stand in her stead."
"Oh gods....Gabrielle...noo!" a voice whispered behind her.
Incredulous, Antipany stared at Gabrielle. "You would take this murderers place? You have done nothing wrong, bard. I have no quarrel with you. I can not allow that!" She threw her arms up in frustration. Two bolts of energy ricocheted off the ceiling, striking Gabrielle as she stood there pleading. She clutched her chest with a surprised "Ohh..." and collapsed to the floor.
Antipany quickly folded her arms tight against her body and grimaced. "OOPS! Sorry about that. Sometimes it just gets away from me, especially if I'm upset."
Xena laid a shaky hand on the unmoving bard. "You idiot! She hasn't done anything. You've killed her. I'll..."
Another bolt of energy abruptly shot out knocking Xena over and into blessed oblivion. "Quiet!" the sorceress commanded. "I have to think."
Antipany walked over to Gabrielle. Kneeling down she placed a hand over the bard's heart and felt a flutter against her palm. "So thin," she murmured, "doesn't that warrior of yours ever feed you?" Not a normal beat, but something was there. Thoughtfully she placed one hand below the heart and the other on the bard's upper right chest, releasing a small jolt of energy. The bard's body bounced then relaxed. Antipany felt for the heart beat again. "Not enough," she said as the flutter continued. She repeated her actions with just a little more juice. Gabrielle jerked again, then took in a deep breath. A few seconds later she opened her eyes.
"Welcome back Gabrielle. Oh don't worry she's not dead .... yet." as the bard sat up searching for Xena who lay unconscious a few meters away. "How do you feel?"
"Like a Cyclops sat on my chest," said the dazed bard, feeling around to make sure all her parts were still attached. She reached over to touch Xena, reassuring herself that the warrior was still alive.
"Yes, well it seems Xena is a very hard person to kill. I guess I just need to put a little more effort into it." Antipany looked annoyed. This was not turning out the way she planned. She stood over the unconscious warrior and prepared to end it once and for all.
Gabrielle stood up quickly, a wave of dizziness rolling over her as she stood. She grabbed the sorceress arm to steady herself. "Wait a minute. You just assaulted me and I demand justice. You should be punished."
Antipany looked at her in confusion, then amusement. "Gabrielle, it was an accident. Besides which, if you would have stayed outside where Xena threw you and told you to stay, I might add, you would have never been hurt. And.." she said, starting to point a finger, then hastily folding it tight against her body, "You offered to take her place, remember?"
"Yes, but you refused, remember?" Gabrielle retorted. "As the injured party I demand to choose your punishment."
"Fine! Go ahead." Antipany closed her eyes in resignation. "It doesn't matter. Even if you choose my death, I will finish my task and you can do whatever you want. I have no reason to live after today anyway."
"O.K." Gabrielle took a deep breath, "You swear you'll abide by my decision." She pointed a finger at the sorceress.
"On Artemis sacred name"
"Cross your heart and hope to die?"
"All right, all right," the bard backed away a step holding her palms up. "This is your punishment," she took a deep breath, "You may not execute Xena until I am no longer her traveling companion." Antipany raised an eyebrow, mouth opening to protest. Gabrielle rushed on, "I believe with all my heart that Xena has changed forever. If I am wrong and she goes back to her evil ways, I will leave her, and you may carry out her execution. That is your punishment."
Antipany continued to stare at her.
"You promised to abide by my decision, Antipany," Gabrielle reminded her, "if Xena is as bad as you think, she'll revert to her old ways no matter what I do or say. I'm betting she won't."
The eyes were beginning to heat up again. She began to stride back and forth across the cave. The hands ... started to come up. "Oh, oh!" thought Gabrielle. She dove to the floor, covering Xena's body with her own.
Bolts of energy flashed around the cave as Antipany fumed, waving her arms in frustration and anger. "I've been suckered!" Zing! Light flashed just over Gabrielle's head. "What kind of punishment is that, for Zeus sake." sThe light show was impressive. "Five summers wasted!" Rocks loosed by stray bolts fell from the ceiling. "IT'S NOT FAIR!" Jeeze. Talk about your sore loser, thought Gabrielle as a small rock and a cloud of dust hit her back. The sorceress stopped suddenly, breathing hard. Breaking into tears she looked down at Gabrielle saying sadly "I've failed," and walked out of the cave.
Being dead wasn't so bad. Not like last time. A soft voice comforted her, telling her how much she was loved. Soft hands caressed her body. Now why did that feel so familiar? Soft lips kissed her cheek. No indeed, being dead wasn't bad at all. Then she tried to move. Oh, the pain. Wait a minute. You don't feel pain when you're dead! Xena moved again. Yep, that was definitely pain she was feeling.
"Xena, wake up, come on, I know you can do it. Wake up Xena." She felt the gentle warm breath of someone whispering in her ear. Not entirely unpleasant. She moaned and levered opened one eye. Gabrielle swam into view. She lay with her head in Gabrielle's lap. The bard grinned, leaned over and kissed Xena's forehead in relief. "It's about time you woke up. I was really beginning to worry."
The other eye popped open. "I'm not dead?" Xena sat up suddenly and stared at the bard. "You're not dead!" She reached over and pulled Gabrielle to her chest in a crushing hug. Gabrielle laughed, enjoying the moment before she pushed away. "I'm fine. Can you move? We have to get going. Antipany is gone, and we have to find her." Gabrielle stood up and headed for the opening.
She was halfway out into the fading sun when she realized Xena was not behind her. Turning back she saw the warrior still sitting on the floor looking at her. "Let's go Xena!"
"Why?" Xena didn't move.
"Because she was very upset, and I'm afraid she'll harm herself."
"So?" Xena still didn't move.
"Fine," Gabrielle spun around, "You sit there while I go find her."
"Gabrielle, wait. I'm coming, I'm coming." Xena stood up suppressing a groan. "I feel like a Cyclops sat on my chest."
Antipany walked blindly down the path. She had no destination, just a desire to flee. To forget what a fool, what a failure she was. She was not a killer, had never killed before. But what she had vowed to do, to execute that murdering warlord, was right and just. Xena knew she deserved to die. And she had been prepared to carry it through. Would have done it. She'd only made one little mistake, underestimating that young bard. Taken in by her innocence. How stupid can one person be! Anyone traveling with Xena couldn't be that innocent. She reached an area where the ground flattened out. Beyond it lay a deep ravine. Walking over to a fallen log she sat down and began to despair. For her dead brothers, for her dead friends, for her dead village, for her cold, dead heart.
Argo was waiting for them as they exited the cave. The vulture was nowhere in sight. Gabrielle looked anxiously up and down the path. There was no sign of Antipany. "Which way, Xena?"
Xena reluctantly scanned the path then sniffed the air. "This way," she said, pointing down the road. "Great," said Gabrielle as she struggled to get into Argo's saddle, "Let's go!" Xena's eyebrow shot up. "Now she wants to ride," she muttered.
"Uh...Xena, I could use a hand here." Xena grabbed the struggling bard and sat her firmly on the ground. Leaping into the saddle, she reached down and pulled Gabrielle up behind her, then urged Argo on at a nice, bone jarring trot.
The sunset was spectacular, not that Antipany noticed. The huge orange-red ball was just beginning to sink over the horizon when she stood and walked to the edge of the ravine. Funny, she had always been a little afraid ... well actually, a lot afraid of heights. It didn't bother her this evening. Nothing mattered anymore. The big bird was sitting in a dead tree watching her. She looked over at him. "Goodbye, my friend. Enjoy the feast." She spread out her arms and closed her eyes.
Xena pulled Argo up abruptly. "There she is."
"Oh gods, Xena. Do something!"
"She's going to jump!" Gabrielle thumped her on the back.
"Are you angry because she tried to kill you?"
"No, I'm angry because she almost killed you. Get down Gabrielle." Xena reached back and roughly lowered the bard to the ground. Then she urged Argo into a gallop toward the figure at the edge of the ravine.
Gabrielle started running. She'll never make it. The figure had her arms raised. Almost in slow motion her knees bent and Antipathy pushed herself up and off the edge.
Antipany had tuned everything out. She didn't hear Gabrielle shout or the thunder of Argo's hooves as she drew nearer. With eyes closed, she pushed off the cliff jumping as high and as far as she could. Is this what her friend the vulture felt? Is this what it felt like to fly? She reached the zenith of her journey and now longed for it's nadir. Suddenly she felt a tightening around her chest and arms and her eyes flew open only to see the ravine wall rushing up to meet her. Huh? Was her last conscious thought as she slammed into the wall.
Gabrielle ran up beside Argo and looked over the edge. "Nice catch, Xena," she grinned up at the warrior and patted her leg. Xena tied the rope off on Argo's saddle horn and instructed the mare to back up. Slowly the rope inched up and an unconscious, securely lassoed Antipany appeared at the end.
Xena hauled the sorceress the rest of the way up. "There should be a good place to camp not too far down the road. Now that we've got her, what do we do with her?" Xena looked expectantly at the bard.
"Well... I hadn't quite thought that far in advance," Gabrielle said slowly. "I'll have to sleep on it."
"Well," said Xena dryly, "Lets sleep downwind, shall we? I know one thing we're going to do with her bright and early tomorrow." Securely tying Antipany's hands to her side, she was hoisted unceremoniously up on Argo's back and they headed on down the road. Crossing a bridge spanning the creek which was flowing down from the now gentle slope, Xena turned off the road and led the way to a glade with a small lake. The pair made camp and settled in for the night.
They sat together on a log by the fire after dinner. Gabrielle had made the still unconscious Antipany as comfortable as she could. Xena looked at the still form and then asked "Are you going to tell me what happened in the cave and why we're both still alive?" Gabrielle smiled and proceeded to fill her in. When she got to the part about Antipany's punishment, she put her arm around her friend's waist and lay her head on her shoulder. "I know you won't ever go back to your old ways, Xena." She looked the other woman in the eye, "I trust you completely."
Xena looked at her companion with unsettling emotion. "Thank you, Gabrielle. But it's not wise to bind yourself to me. My past has a way of always catching up with us." She gave the bard a quick hug. "Come on, let's get some sleep."
Antipany woke up the next morning with a splitting headache. Ye gods, she couldn't even kill herself properly. The next thing she noticed was she couldn't move her hands away from her sides. They were tied. She sat up moaning. Pain was just not her thing. Gabrielle was quickly at her side . "Here, drink this, it will get rid of your headache." She held the cup up to the woman's lips and she drank eagerly. "Ugh," she said wrinkling her nose, "it tastes so bad it should cure something. I don't suppose you would untie my hands. I promise I won't do anything rash... to you or myself."
Gabrielle looked questioningly back at Xena who just stared at the morning fire. "Ah.. not just yet. But soon." Antipany struggled to her feet. "Where do you think you're going?" Xena inquired.
Antipany looked at her disdainfully and headed for the bushes. "If I don't relieve myself soon, princess, this cloak is going smell even worse than it does now."
When she returned, Xena was standing with her arms crossed watching her intently. Not a good sign. "Let's go." Xena said, "Not that way," as Antipany headed for the road. Antipany turned around. She raised her chin and said steadily, "You don't need to take me into the trees to kill me, princess. Do it here. Do it now."
Xena smiled and uncrossed her arms. "Oh, I have no wish to see you dead, sorceress, just smelling less like a garbage heap." She relaxed, playing catch with an object she had hid in her hand.
Antipany blanched, although Xena couldn't see it through the several layers of dirt on her face. The sorceress just realized what torture the warrior had in mind. The object she was tossing was a bar of soap.
Antipany spun around and headed away from the water as if Cerberus himself was after her. With her hands tied by her side, it really wasn't any contest. She felt herself snatched up and slung over the warrior's shoulder.
"Oh no you don't," Xena laughed, "you stink, and it's time we got a good look at what's underneath all that filth."
"Nooooo....," Antipany screamed, "you don't understand. I can't get wet." Her hands glowed bright, sending out little bolts of energy, but without focus, they did little damage, except to a few low-hanging tree branches. Xena never stopped until she reached the water's edge. Dumping the kicking, screaming sorceress on the ground, she pulled out a dagger and taking hold of the cloak said, "Since I can't untie you, I guess I'll have to cut your off clothes."
That stopped the screaming. But started the cursing. "You ignorant daughter of a satyr...." The knife came closer. "Wait.." Antipany sat fuming for a few seconds, then said "All right, I'll take the stupid bath, but please don't cut my cloak. My whole life is in this cloak." She looked at Xena pleading, "Untie my hands. I swear to you I'll not try to harm you or run away. I'll just...bathe."
Xena just stared. The knife touched the cloth.
"Please, Gabrielle, I swear by Artemis sacred name."
The knife dug into the cloth.
"CROSS MY HEART AND HOPE TO DIE!" she yelled scooting back. The dagger flicked down and severed her bonds. "By the way, Gabrielle," she asked, shedding her ropes, "what in Hades name does that mean?"
She sighed, then shrugged out of her cloak. She was a surprisingly thin, delicate woman. The cloak made her look twice as big as she actually was. "I'll wash out your cloak and shift while you are bathing," Gabrielle said, picking up the cloak. It was heavy. "All right, but let my empty out the compartments before you do." Antipany reached for the cloak.
"Gabrielle can do that," Xena said, "Quit stalling, we don't have all day." Antipany pulled her shift up over her head and gave it to Gabrielle. "This water is freezing and I catch cold so easily. You know, there's a reason I don't bathe just anywhere. It really could be dangerous for any creature in the..." She felt herself being lifted by an arm and a leg and swung around. Xena gave a couple of twirls and let fly. "I just hope you like fiiiissshh..." she heard Antipany say as she went sailing out into the middle of the lake. With a magnificent belly flop she hit the surface of the water and sank rapidly toward the bottom.
As she hit the surface, there was a loud CRACK!, then a loud sizzling noise, and lightening flashed through the water in all directions. The water then roiled for a few seconds.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other in consternation. "What was that!" exclaimed Gabrielle. The water returned to its pristine state as Antipany's head broke the surface. "Boy, this does feel good." she sighed, swimming toward the bank.
"So what's your problem with water, " Gabrielle asked perplexed.
"Wait a few heartbeats," said the sorceress, holding up a hand. Slowly she turned and surveyed the lake. One, then a dozen, then a hundred dead and stunned fish popped to the surface. "My force has fled into the lake. It is an effective way to catch fish, but it isn't very selective. Well, princess, you've killed a few more living things unnecessarily, happy now?"
Xena did not look happy. She picked up six fish as they floated by. "I'll make breakfast while you wash out those clothes Gabrielle." She tossed the soap to Antipany. "Make good use of that, I can still smell you."
Gabrielle laid the cloak out flat. To her surprise the cloth was actually very thin, made of a material she had never seen before. There were three layers of the thin material, with pockets sewn in all three layers. Soon the ground had an impressive pile of objects taken from the cloak. Scrolls, flat pieces of parchment sewn together, little packets of herbs, small containers of liquids, a few dinars, a couple of jewels, three small knives... that discovery brought a frown to Xena's face... packets of dried fish and game, needles and thread, two almost clean shifts and an assortment of odds and ends.
"What is this material?" Gabrielle asked, as she washed it out in the cold lake. "I don't know," replied Antipany as she finished bathing. "My mentor gave it to me. I think he got it from someplace near the eastern edge of the world. He said if he had gone any farther east, he would have fallen off the edge. It wears very well and is warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Give me one of those bags and I'll start gathering the dead fish. I know a certain bird who will enjoy them." She took the bag from Gabrielle and swam around gathering fish. Most of the stunned ones had revived and she collected only about twenty dead ones which she tossed up on the bank.
Gabrielle finished washing the cloak and shift and hung them out in the sun to dry. Xena brought a blanket over. "Here, put this on until your clothes dry. Breakfast is ready." Antipany climbed out of the water shivering. The change was amazing. She was almost a head taller than Gabrielle. Although thin, she was wiry with long limbs, and long delicate hands. Her now clean face showed that she was probably no older than Xena. Her big brown eyes still dominated her pale face. Long thick dark auburn hair fell down her back in a tangled mass.
She snatched the blanket from Xena without a word and threw it around her shoulders. They ate breakfast in silence. Cleaning up, Xena turned to Gabrielle and asked, "Now what?"
Antipany smiled bitterly, "Yes Gabrielle, now what?"
Gabrielle looked from one woman to the other. "You know, what we have here is a failure to communicate." Both women raised an eyebrow. "What we need to do is understand each other better, to feel each other's pain." Both countenances darkened. "So Antipany, you're coming to Gyrotopilus to help us rid the village of those thugs." The two women looked at Gabrielle in disbelief, then at each other in horror.
"Gabrielle...," Xena growled.
"Ridiculous," Antipany cried, throwing her hands up in disgust. Xena and Gabrielle both ducked, but the hands were shooting blanks. "You may have noticed that I am temporarily without power. That's what water does to me. It will take me a few days to build up more force, and even then it won't be much."
"That's not a very practical skill to have," pointed out Gabrielle.
"I went six moons without getting my body wet, Gabrielle. I had plenty of power to get the job done. Its only purpose was to defeat Xena." She scowled, dropped the blanket, and stalked over to retrieve her clothing. "I'm leaving."
"I won't have her at our backs," Xena warned, crossing her arms.
Gabrielle sighed, turning to Xena, she put her hands on Xena's waist and looked her in the eye. "Please, Xena. This is important. She has to come with us."
That look did not intimidate Gabrielle like it used to. "Because guilt and hate are eating her up inside. She'll never be whole unless she finds some way to forgive you... and herself."
"So?" I'm going to have to find a new look, Xena thought, this one isn't working anymore.
Gabrielle sighed. She, who was always so good with words, struggled to find the right ones. "Because if she never forgives you, you will never forgive yourself. The moment will be lost, and you may never have another opportunity to make things right with her. Please, Xena." The bard continued to look earnestly into her eyes. Trusting, open, honest. There was a better chance of a sunny day in Tartarus than of Xena winning this argument, despite her misgivings.
Antipany finished dressing and hastily loaded all her belongings into her pockets. Without a word she started to walk back toward the cave.
"You're going the wrong way...again." came the voice she hated most.
Turning slowly around, she said incredulously, "You can't be serious. Even if I wanted to help, and I don't, I have nothing left to fight with!" She turned but took no more than two steps, when a very angry warrior stepped in front of her.
"You are coming with us!" the voice allowed no argument.
Antipany stood taller and glared back. "And if I don't?"
The dagger lay on her cloak. "Then I'll cut up this precious cloak of yours in teeny tiny pieces, and you can walk back to your cave stark naked."
The stark naked part didn't bother Antipany near as much as having her cloak sliced and diced. Silently she whirled around and started walking rapidly toward the village. Gabrielle hurried after her.
"You two go ahead," Xena called after them, "I'll just finish packing up here..." Her voice trailed off to a mutter. This was not going to be an enjoyable trip. She took her time cleaning up the campsite and packing Argo's saddlebags. Finally she could put it off no longer and climbing into the saddle, she headed off after them.
Gabrielle walked quietly by the still fuming sorceress for a while but not being one who appreciated a silent moment, soon was chatting away, mostly about inconsequential trivia. She felt Antipany start to relax somewhat.
"You really aren't much of a sorceress, are you?" Gabrielle finally asked.
Antipany looked at her, a smile threatening to appear in spite of her anger. "No, but then neither was my teacher. He loved to explore, to tinker. To do anything but practice spell casting. To tell you the truth, I only learned that one skill so I could have a chance to defeat Xena. I didn't expect to be in this world any longer than that."
"Xena has changed, you know."
Antipany snorted, "I don't care if she could be the queen of the Elysian Fields. She murdered those men and should be punished for it."
"We've all done things we're sorry for, Antipany. If we don't forgive those who have wronged us, we would do nothing but fight and kill. Retribution upon retribution. Is that anyway to live?"
"I can live with that."
"You were prepared to die for that. And it would have solved nothing. The past cannot be changed. Xena is atoning for her crimes the only way she knows how. By doing good now." Gabrielle brightened. "Let me tell you a story..."
By the time Xena caught up with them, Gabrielle was finishing up her story about how Xena brought Gregor, Pandora, and his adopted son together.
Antipany countered with a tale of Xena's destruction of a city.
Gabrielle told her the story of Xena helping David and his people defeat the Philistines.
Antipany countered with a tale of Xena's destruction of another town.
Xena dropped back until she could still see the two women, but could not hear their conversation. Hades just take me now, she thought, Tartarus can't be this bad.
"Why do you stay with her?" Antipany finally asked.
"I love her." Gabrielle said simply. "I have never known her to be anything but good and kind and wise." The bard crossed her fingers behind her back when she said that. It wasn't that far from the whole truth. "She's taught me more than I ever expected to know. She's saved my village and my life more times than I can count."
"Wake up, Gabrielle," said Antipany angrily, "You're her salvation and she knows it. While she so conveniently saves your life, you're busy saving her soul. If she does manage to find the Elysian Fields it will only be due to your efforts. Believe me, she's getting the better part of the deal. Do you really think she stays with you because she loves you?" Antipany strode on shaking her head.
Gabrielle's stride faltered for a moment. She glanced back at Xena riding far behind. "Hey, that's not true," she said indignantly, running to catch up. She glanced back again just to reassure herself.
They entered the village about supper time. All seemed quiet. As they stood in front of the tavern, a man approached them.
"You must be Xena," he said, "I am Orphileus, the leader of this village. Thank you for coming so soon. We really need your help."
"What's the problem." Xena asked, not in the mood for conversation.
"Well you see, Delponius, one of our young men has always been a handful. At first it was just small harmless pranks, but lately it's been much worse. He's gathered together a group of young men and they've been terrorizing the town. Fighting, stealing, wagon races down the center of our town. We can't control them. The last confrontation resulted in the death of one of our shopkeepers. We were hoping you could put the fear of Zeus into them. I'm afraid Delponius has visions of becoming a powerful warlord and with his personality, he could succeed."
"Oh, don't worry Orpheleus," Antipany was leaning back against the well, eyes closed, "Xena will slew them all for you. She's good at that you know."
Orpheleus waved his hands, "Oh no! We don't want you to kill them. Most of these hooligans are barely into manhood. They were good boys until Delponius led them into trouble."
"This is your big warlord problem?" Gabrielle was indignant. "For this I had to ride Argo?"
"Let me get this straight," Xena said tight lipped, "you want me to discipline your children? I don't do children!"
Orpheleus studied his shoes, "They're really big boys now."
Xena stared at him for a minute, but Orpheleus wouldn't look up. "All right, Orpheleus. I'll take care of your problem and I won't even hurt them. Much." She turned to the other women. "Go into the tavern and get us some supper. I have to stable Argo and get some supplies."
The tavern was much like any other. Tables and benches were scattered around in an semi-organized fashion. Various objets d'art hung from the rafters. A bar stood on one side, giving the owner a view of the whole room while he poured drinks. It was still early enough not to be crowded. The locals usually didn't start arriving until dusk, but lately business had been almost nil due to Delponius and his gang of thugs.
Orpheleus introduced the two women to the owner. Kortus greeted them heartily, but was doubtful they could handle Delponius. Gabrielle reassured him. "Xena will take care of everything. All we need is some food and rooms for the night. By tomorrow your trouble will be over and business will be back to normal." She looked around. There were only two patrons in the tavern. "Please get everyone out of here and don't let anyone else in, except for Delponius and his friends."
By the time Xena returned, dinner was on the table. She dumped an armful of manacles at various places around the room, then sat down and started to eat.
Antipany, picking at her food, stared at the manacles. "Sooo..what's the plan, princess, when they come in will you say 'line up boys and, oh by the way, please put these on your wrists'?"
"That's pretty much it," Xena replied, continuing to eat with gusto "This is pretty good stew. I wonder if we can get the recipe."
Antipany look at questioningly at Gabrielle. "Hey," the bard said wryly, "that's more of plan than we usually have." The sorceress just shook her head. Silently they finished eating and were sipping their drinks, when Orpheleus rushed in.
"Great, now wait outside," Xena said, still relaxed, feet up on the table.
Orpheleus didn't argue, rushing out as fast as he rushed in. Antipany rose, "I guess I'll get into position," sliding behind the bar.
"What kind of position is that?" Gabrielle asked, picking up her staff and walking over to the bar.
"A safe one I hope," came the retort. "This is Xena's show and I'm just an unwilling spectator."
At that moment, the door slammed open and ten young men entered the tavern. They were led by a man who had to be a first cousin to Adonis. Delponius was simply gorgeous. Just shorter than Xena, he had dark, curly hair and big dark eyes. Muscles rippled all over his body, stuffed in clothes so tight they barely contain him. He walked with a confident swagger, a smile played on his lips. "So Xena, I understand you wanted to see me. May I service you in some way?" His meaning was clear. His men snickered.
"Oh, boy," breathed Gabrielle, "He's dead meat. You'd think they'd come up with a new line by now." Antipany was still staring. "He is pretty impressive, Gabrielle." "I suppose, if you like the type," the bard replied. Antipany glanced at her, "Not your type?" "Not hardly," said Gabrielle with a snort, "Besides, he reminds me too much of Ares."
Xena stood up, still relaxed. "I hear you've been really bad boys."
Delponius smirked. "Verrry baaad. Want to spank us?"
"Son," she drawled, "you're barely weaned from your mother's nipple. I bet you still wet your bed at night, and you wouldn't know what to do with a woman if Aphrodite drew you pictures."
Face flushing, Delponius retorted, "Oh...oh...yeah!"
"Now, that's an original comeback," Gabrielle whispered to Antipany, "Not a bad guess about the bed wetting was it."
Furious, Delponius snarled, "Get her" and led the stampede toward Xena. Jumping up on the table, she launched herself in a tight somersault over their heads, "iyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi" came the yell as she landed behind them, putting herself between them and the door and them between her and the other two women.
"Come and get me boys!" she said with a chilly smile and crooked her finger invitingly. Bumping into each other in their effort to stop as she flew over their heads, they looked at Delponius. "Spread out. And get those two," he pointed to the two women at the bar. Five of the toughs headed for Xena, three others went for Gabrielle and Antipany.
"Have fun out there, Gabrielle," Antipany said, leaning on the bar and resting her head on her hand as they watched the men approach.
"Thanks a bunch. Don't put yourself out Antipany."
The first two toughs rushed at Xena trying to grab her. She ducked and they flew on by ramming into the wall. Bouncing off the wall, they whirled then stopped, surprised to find each had a manacle attached to his wrist. Xena popped up between them and smacked both of them in the face with the back of her fists. On their way to the floor, she fastened one manacle to a ring embedded in the wall and the other one to the first ruffian's free wrist, effectively chaining them together.
"Next?" she grinned. The next three advanced more cautiously.
Two men came after Gabrielle swinging short staffs. She pushed away from the bar to get more room for her own staff. She feinted with her staff, then dropped down as the rods whizzed over her head. In their haste to get her, they belted each other and fell to the floor. She grabbed a manacle and snapped it into place. Hauling the dazed youth up, she twirled him around, planted a foot firmly in his backside and shoved him across the room into the other manacled men. Xena added him to the chain.
Antipany's head snapped back as the club smacked the bar just inches from her face. Grabbing the club, she leaned forward and said sadly "Didn't your mother ever tell you it's not nice to hit a lady?" The youth's eyes grew wide as he watched her hands turn into bright glowing orbs.
Mesmerized, he finally glanced up, blurting "You..you're a lady?"
"No," she admitted sweetly as she tossed a bolt of energy at him, knocking him across the room. In her spare time Xena added him to the growing chain.
The three toughs drew their swords and advanced trying to encircle Xena. Before they could get set, she back kicked the one circling behind in the stomach, ducked under the swing of the one in front of her, and used his momentum to throw him into the third youth. Swords went flying. Before they could recover they found themselves manacled to the others.
Gabrielle was just turning to the dazed youth on the floor when her attention was diverted by a strange sight. Resting her staff on the floor, she watched a young man approach twirling swords in both hands "I am Gaster the Mighty, feel my wrath!". A feeling of déjà vu swept over her. Holding up her hand, she yelled "Stop!" The young man halted abruptly. "You wouldn't happen to be related to a man named Joxer would you?" His face brightened.
"No, but he's my hero. I know every story there is about him. How he saved Xena from Callisto, how he helped Ares get his godhood back." Suddenly he burst into song, "Joxer the Mighty, He roams through the countryside, He never needs a place to hide, With Gabby as his sidekick, Fighting with her little stick..."
THWACK! The staff hit him across chest, stomach, and twice on the back before he could take another breath. Slowly he sank to the ground. "Sorry," said Gabrielle through clenched teeth, "It's not my favorite song."
While her attention had been on Gaster, the other man at her feet had recovered enough to stagger up and was coming at her from behind. Suddenly another bolt of energy shot across the room, striking a harness hanging from the rafter. It fell on the head of the man coming up behind Gabrielle, dropping him in his tracks.
Xena was at the bar before the harness hit the ground. Grabbing Antipany's cloak she hauled her across the bar until they were nose to nose. "What happened to 'It's going to take days to get my power back?'" she snarled. Antipany shrugged, "I lied." she said unapologetically. Suddenly she brought up a hand on either side of Xena's head and let loose with another weak bolt of energy. Xena dropped her and whirled around.
"Ow, ow, ow, ow...," Delponius was dancing around, shaking his right hand while a spear clattered to the floor. Xena looked at Antipany in surprise. "Oh don't get the wrong idea, princess. No one executes you but me, if I can help it."
Xena, her countenance as dark as Gabrielle had ever seen it, grabbed the two fallen men and added them to the just about complete chain. She looked up and snarled, "And another thing...Don't call me princess." As she stood up the youngest of the group, a Delponius wannabe of about thirteen, came at her with sword raised. Straightening up to her tallest height, she looked him in the eye, curled her lip and growled. The boy stopped dead in his tracks, the sword dropping from his hand. Meekly he held out an arm to be manacled. Xena glared at him for a moment then inclined her head towards the door. Not needing a second invitation, he slowly sidled around her until he had a clear path to the door, then ran.
"Well, Delponius, it looks like this last manacle is about your size. Ready to try it on?" He glared at her. "Hey, you can't blame this all on me. It was their fault too. And that shopkeeper attacked us. Besides Timorin there struck the fatal blow.....aaak!" His breath was cut off as Xena suddenly grabbed him by the throat and raised him up until he was on his tiptoes.
"Your men, your responsibility Delponius," she said softly, "you want to be a warlord, well, you get to take the blame for everything they do, good and bad." The fingers tightened slightly. "For every innocent person they kill, for every brave deed they do, for every atrocity they commit, its all on your head. It comes with the territory." The fingers tightened more. "And you'll die young. We always do. Even if you're good at it, there will always, always be at least one person stronger, and quicker, and smarter than you. That's all it takes. Still want to be a warlord Delponius?"
At that point all poor Delponius wanted to do was breathe. His eyes bulged, and his face was an interesting shade of blue. Gabrielle grabbed Xena's arm. "Let him go, Xena!" Xena dropped him, turned away and walked out of the tavern.
The next morning the women prepared to leave. While Delponius and Timorin remained imprisoned, the rest of the young men were reprimanded, ordered to repair the damages they caused and do community service. A final stern warning from Xena about what she would do to them if she ever had to come back seemed enough to make them very repentant.
Gabrielle and Antipany stood talking while they waited for Xena to join them. "See, that wasn't so bad, Antipany, the good guys win again, and nobody got killed."
Antipany shook her head in amusement, then put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and kissed her on the forehead. "You are a wonder. If you ever do get tired of traveling around, you'll always have a place to stay with me. I wasn't joking about the library. Maxius picked up scrolls and text everywhere he went. He had quite an assortment."
Gabrielle's face lit up, then muted. "Can I bring Xena?" she said hopefully.
"Don't push it, bard." Antipany warned. She looked at Gabrielle for a moment. Then, "Release me from my promise, Gabrielle. Xena and I have to settle this or neither one of us will have peace."
Gabrielle thought a moment. As much as she liked Antipany, she wouldn't, no couldn't, take a chance with Xena's life. The sorceress was one person she trusted to keep her oath, and while she couldn't protect Xena from all her enemies, at least she could do something about this one. She shook her head regretfully. "Not yet."
Antipany looked at her sadly. "One day you'll have to. She'll do something so horrendous even you can't save her. Then you'll have to live with the knowledge you could have prevented it."
"I'll take that chance." There really wasn't any other choice. "You won't do anything rash like kill yourself when we leave, will you?"
Antipany shook her head. "No, I'm over that for now. Besides, I have a new goal in life. If you won't let me execute her, at least maybe I can be the bane of Xena's existence.
Gabrielle smiled, "I think Callisto already has that title. Would you settle for thorn in her side."
"It will do for now. The next time I see you Gabrielle, tell me a story about justice." Antipany kissed her goodbye then headed off across a meadow towards the forest. A big brown bird flew lazy circles in the sky above her.
Xena came down the road leading Argo. Gabrielle met her with a smile and an apple for the golden horse. "So, is everything taken care of?"
"I think so. I saw Delponius for a minute. The good news is that he doesn't want to be a warlord anymore."
"And the bad?"
"He wants to be tyrant."
"A politician! Yes, he should be good at that. I just hope everyone holds onto their money belts."
"Antipany go home?" The question was casual.
"Yes. She invited us to come stay with her. She really does have a library!"
"Us?" The eyebrow raised.
"Weellll, nearly us. She's coming around to our side, I can feel it."
"Right," Xena said dryly.
"Xena," Gabrielle looked sideways at her, "Do you remember Antipany's village yet."
"No, it's strange. I've had nightmares about every place I destroyed, but I just can't remember that one."
"It might be because you weren't there. Antipany told me it was your men who did the killing. You passed by the next day with the rest of your army. I don't think you even saw her village." They walked in silence for a moment.
"Knowing that, would you still stand there and let Antipany execute you?"
"But why! You weren't even there!"
"My men, my responsibility. That's the price of being a leader. There's a price for every decision you make in life, Gabrielle and I'm afraid you'll have to pay a heavy one for traveling with me. If justice for Antipany means my death, then so be it. But Gabrielle," she continued, "I would never want to leave you. You're the light in my life." She smiled, trying to soften her words. "I really don't have a death wish."
They walked in silence a few moments longer.
"Tell me story. A story about love and passion. And don't leave out the special effects."