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Chapters 34 - 38
"Princess Gabrielle isnít available." Xena nodded at the half-expected reply and turned away. The dream seemed finally capable of making sense. Gabrielle held the key to undoing everything, and Xena had handed it to her. Damn, she reproached herself, as she left the Amazon courtyard, why didnít I check that room for spies before the meeting? Because I assumed it would be one of Radecís people, if anyone, and it would be more effective to expose him after the fact, she answered herself. She knew the chances of his betraying her were high, and it would have been an object lesson in what happens to those who betray me. What does happen to them, Xena? she asked herself with disdain. What happens to Gabrielle? The face came out of the darkness, and she walked on, oblivious to her surroundings, seeing only the anguished eyes. What was there? Fear, certainly; she was afraid of me, Xena realized. What else? Hatred. Gabrielle had heard enough to finally hate me. Better for her, she acknowledged, but what will she do about it? How could she be stopped? She hadnít expected that Gabrielle would agree to see her, and wasnít sure what she would have said, anyway. Threats wouldnít work, and she couldnít explain it away; Gabrielle would no longer trust her that far. She would certainly tell, but who? Ephiny? The Amazon would likely talk to Xena before taking it further. That could buy a little time. If Gabrielle chose to tell Cletus, would he talk, or have Xena arrested? Things werenít quite in place yet, she needed a little time...
She had wandered, unthinking, further into the Amazon enclave, to a secluded garden, where the scent of fruit blossom and roses overpowered the senses. It was cool in the shade of the trees, and the dark warrior allowed herself to sink onto the grass, hoping to quiet the burning flesh under Callisto's mark. She focused on the drone of bees which circled the flowers, and found herself humming with them, a monotonous sound that bore with it the long-stifled groans of chronic pain. She lay on her side, very still, pillowed on her own arm, and soon was asleep.
It was dark when she woke, and she took a moment to remember where she was. Oddly, she wasnít disturbed to find herself so off-guard, to have slept when there was so much to be done. She wasnít bothered, or even surprised to hear a gentle greeting and know she wasnít alone. "Good evening, Xena. You are awake at last, and feeling better I think. The pain you choose to bear has been hushed."
Xena stretched out on her back, resting her head on her hands. Jalani spoke the truth: the pain was gone, for the moment. Choose the pain? More riddles.
"You slept well. No dreams." Xena turned her face to look at the older woman, wondering at her part in that dreamless-sleep. She felt suddenly vulnerable; before she could move to leave, Jalani spoke again. "Stay, Xena. Enjoy Gaiaís gifts a while longer.
You deny yourself so much of the bounty she offers. Your tasks will still await you."
Xena obeyed the voice which flowed over her like a soothing unguent. "We must find time for our bodies and minds to rest Xena, we must be still, or we never hear them speak to us."
"I do that," she told her, remembering the time she gave to meditation. Too infrequently now, she realized.
"You empty your mind, Xena. That is a type of rest," she agreed. "You do it to hone your warrior-senses." She stirred and the soft rustle of silk reached Xenaís ears. "You were happy, now, not to dream. Yet dreams are a path to self-knowledge."
This was not a topic Xena wanted to discuss. "You have explored your dream-passage?" Jalani guessed. Xena nodded, mutely. "I can usually tell," Jalani smiled with satisfaction.
"Yet you still run from your dreams. Some dreams. How can you hear the message, Xena, if you run away."
"I know where my dreams are going, Jalani. I donít need that pain." She sat up, a little agitated.
"You amuse me warrior," she responded. "You fear love more than pain. More than death."
"Why are you talking about love?" Xena said, fighting the woman now.
"Because love is a reality, Xena. Death is an illusion; you have conquered death. Pain is an illusion; you alone give it power. Love is the reality you canít face."
"Well, Iím glad I amused you, anyway," she said, sarcastically, as she rose to her feet. The dream-reader held a small cloth bundle, tied with twine, on her out-stretched palm. "When you are ready to follow your dream to its conclusion, this will help." Xena hesitated, then snatched the bundle, and tucked it inside her battledress.
Jalani had a final message. "I have felt your heart Xena. It is strong; and good.
Xena mumbled a hasty "good-bye," and left, aware that the pain was back.
Gabrielle only half-listened to Salmoneus. He was trying hard to raise her spirits, with little success. This was her next-to-last night in Prestia; there was little chance sheíd run into Salmoneus in Amazonia. This might well be a final private good-bye. As different as they were, there was an easy companionship between them. They had worked together, with Xena, to stop a war, and grieved together at Xenaís apparent death. She had seen, then, the basic goodness that lay beneath the avaricious veneer, and admitted that she would miss him.
"I almost forgot," he said, reaching for a cumbersome bundle at his feet.
"Iím not in the mood for shopping, Salmoneus," she protested, but he placed it in her hands.
"Itís a gift, Gabrielle. Not a farewell present, just a gift. Something you might find amusing, unique scrolls, the instructions are included, along with a quill, special ink, and a thesaurus of vulgarities." That caught her attention, briefly, and even brought a smile, as she realized what he was doing. "Worried about Xena, huh?"
ĎWorriedí didnít cover it anymore, she acknowledged to herself. What she heard from the hidden space had sickened her, literally, once she allowed herself to think about it. Since then, there had been little time to think. Every moment had been taken up with official duties. Maybe it was better that way. Time, she had hoped would allow her to deal with the words, apart from the raw emotions. She understood now that it couldnít be done. Each time she repeated the words in her head, she relived the horror of knowing that her suspicions were confirmed: Xena would take over this kingdom, return to her interrupted life of conquest, and be lost to the darkness. She had already reverted to an old tactic: using sex to achieve an objective. She took Drusander to her bed to keep the trust of the royal family, so that she could do what? Murder them all? She had said she would Ďtake care of Teremoní. Gods what did that mean? And Cirra...Gabrielleís mind refused to consider what the truth might be about that incident. "Worried?" she said to the patient Salmoneus. "You are a master of understatement. Did you ever have the feeling that someone you thought you knew well, you just didnít know at all?"
"Yeah, well, Xenaís acting a little, or a lot, not like the Xena Iíve come to know and love.
But when I get too worried, I remember how she put her life on the line to save that little baby, back when she was a warlord. Of course, her army threw her out, and nearly beat her to death in the process, but she survived. I donít think I could ever seriously doubt her goodness after that." He looked at her, and laughed at his own presumption. "Why am I telling you this. Who knows the enigmatic warrior better than you?"
Gabrielle heard his words as a reproach. He had just verbalized what she had been afraid to think all day. She had seen Xenaís goodness more clearly than anyone. Yet she had also seen her at the edge of darkness. What had it taken to pull her back then? Once, she had whacked her with a pitchfork; another time sheíd taken a vicious blow from Xena; the knowledge that sheíd struck Gabrielle had alone been enough to pull her back from the edge. The uncertainty that had weighed on the bard for hours began to lift. She pushed Cirra from her mind. Past was past. Events in the here and now, things soon to come, had not yet been played out. Her mind whirled with the possibilities. She might still make a difference. She had spent the day avoiding the warrior; now she needed to find a way to be close to her. The biggest problem, again, was time. She had one day, then she would leave with the Amazons.
Salmoneus watched her quietly, wondering at the effect his words might have. Her reaction startled him. She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. "Salmoneus, for a dinar-grubbing womanizer, sometimes youíre a lovely man."
Glaucon watched Radec carefully, wondering if the sudden loss of judgmental skills which afflicted Cletus had settled on his master as well. When the smaller man had finished speaking he asked carefully: "Radec, you canít mean this? You will let the bitch have the throne?"
Radecís small eyes eyed Glaucon wearily, then he explained with a pointed patience.
"Glaucon. The woman will never rule as queen. I will see her dead, I promise you," he said fervently, "but before that time, she can be useful. When she moves to depose Cletus, she has done half the job for us."
"But if, as she says, the army supports her, she can move against us. You must know that," he said, a little too forcefully, for Radecís liking.
"I confess, I donít know her true intentions. The barbarian might only want the army," he mused. "Still, it doesnít matter; I wonít take chances with her intentions. Once Cletus is gone, she follows."
"She isnít that easy to kill," Glaucon reminded him.
"If she trusts me, it will be that much easier. Even if she pretends to trust me, itís easier.
Glaucon, think of the possibilities, youíre the assassin, for Zeusí sake. Although your luck has turned against you in that regard," he added caustically. "When sheís dead, we give her body to the people as a patricide. The army waffles in confusion, waiting for someone to take the helm. We take the applause for bringing her to justice and choose the successor."
"Who?" Glaucon asked.
"That depends on how much blood she spills when she takes over. She has a cold core, that one," Radec observed, remembering her words about Cirra. Odd how many times heíd thought of Cirra today. Maybe the timing was an omen of some sort. "If Teremon survives, heíd be a good choice. If she kills him, we find a cousin. Or invent a new bastard. The people wouldnít doubt another child. All that can be determined later, he said, suddenly impatient. "The important thing is to be on top of things, to step in after sheís deposed Cletus, and before sheís moved against us. I donít think she counts on the troops that Memnos is bringing from the borders. The Security Forces already outnumber the castle garrison. When Memnos arrives, the issue will no longer be in doubt."
"When does she move?"
"When the Amazons are gone. They represent an armed force within the castle walls; she doesnít want them in her way." He noted Glauconís furrowed brow. "Stop worrying. You give the Warrior Princess too much importance."
"Iím not thinking of Xena; Iím thinking of Callisto." Radec inspected Glauconís misshapen nose. The younger daughter had done quite a job on it. He understood Glauconís bitterness.
"Xena and Callisto will battle; I have no doubt. We deal with the survivor. Iím betting on Xena." Radec misread the gleam in Glauconís eyes. He was not envisioning Callisto dead at Xenaís hands, but at his own.
Cletusí dining chamber had been the scene of a celebration, of sorts. The celebrants still sat at the long table, pastries and wine before them, when Xena finally arrived. Callisto saw her first. "Well. Look what the cat dragged in."
A Ďfamilyí dinner, Xena realized with a scowl. At least her mind wouldnít turn to Gabrielle, and her work of the next few days.
"Xena, youíve missed our little party, Cletus, told her, disapproval in his voice.
She noted with approval that Teremon shared a broad chair with Callisto, was almost in her lap.
"Whatís the occasion?" Xena asked, taking a honeyed confection from a platter in the center of the table, not bothering to apologize for her lateness. Drusander, stood, placed an arm around her waist to guide her to a seat next to his own, and put a cup of wine in her hand. "We were drinking Callisto's health. Itís the anniversary of her birth."
Callisto watched Xena expectantly. They all watched expectantly. "Your health," she said at last, not bothering to smile.
"I had thought your birth was in the winter, Callisto. I seem to be distracted by so many things lately," Cletus apologized.
"Not to worry, Father," she cooed. "I was born in winter, the first time," she confessed, "but no one who remembers that day is still around. This is the day I commemorate my rebirth."
Xenaís knuckles went white around the cup she held. Cirra.
"This is the anniversary of the day I became aware of Xena. Do you remember, Xena? You wore that sinister black leather battledress; you were terrifying." Her voice shrank to a whisper. "Iíll never forget it."
Teremon listened silently, trying once again to fit Cirra into the image he had of the adult world around him. The silence went on too long, and he tried to make some contact. "Xena? Could I have a ride on Argo sometime?"
"Now, Teremon," Callisto answered for her, "You must remember, Xena is very busy. Itís nothing personal, she doesnít even have time for her own son. Sheís either got to save the world, or conquer it, depending on her kick of the moment. Which are we doing this week, dear?" Callisto sat forward, hands supporting her chin, knowing the effort it took for Xena to suppress a violent, or at least emotional response. She would give Callisto the satisfaction of neither, but it would hurt.
"Callisto," Cletus began, but the blonde warrior would not be quieted. "Itís my day, Father, and I want to have some fun."
Xenaís response was to reach for another pastry, which she ate while looking Callisto in the eye. Knowing Callisto, Gabrielle would be next, Xena predicted, and beat her to it.
"Donít you ever have something new to say Callisto? You should have a chat with Gabrielle before she leaves; sheíll give you plenty to throw at me." That was her exit line.
Not much longer now, she consoled herself, as she left the family gathering.
Drusander caught her before she had arrived at her suite of rooms. He was sweet, almost annoyingly so, she admitted, as he pulled her close, and began to apologize.
"Why are you apologizing?" she demanded. "Because Callisto said those things? Or because you heard them?"
"I donít like to see you hurt, Xena."
"It didnít hurt," she told him, "it was aggravating. Thatís all. Same old barbs all the time." She broke away and continued to her quarters. Once there, she turned to Drusander, who had followed her like a faithful dog. No matter how many times I kick him, he keeps coming back for more, she acknowledged. She began to undress, wondering what terrors this night would hold. Drusander stood watching her. She looked up to see the desire in his eyes, and smiled. He was too easy, she thought, deciding that it must have been the years on Dracatha that left him so needy for a woman. Almost any woman, she guessed. "Drusander," she asked, suddenly curious, "You like me?"
"Of course, Xena, I think I lovĖ"
She didnít want to hear that. He had said it in the heat of passion, she didnít want to hear it as a sober thought. "Why?" She stood before him, naked, defying him to move past the obvious. His answer surprised her.
"For all the things you are," he said quickly. "You see, Iíve given this some thought. I wanted to know this was more than a physical attraction, a response to an exciting woman who wears leather, and has eyes I could look in forever. It is more. As hard as you try to hide yourself, Xena, it comes through, when your guard is down. I saw it first on the road. When you saved Teremon Ė "
"You didnít like me," she reminded him.
"I didnít understand. You were doing what needed to be done. You werenít looking for thanks, or applause, or approval. Teremon is alive, because you have a great spirit."
Her face showed her astonishment. She wondered what heíd think of her in the days ahead. "Iím sorry, Xena. You asked. Are you forgetting Iím a bard?"
"Iíve heard enough." She moved to him, and put her mouth on his, to silence him.
This night she felt the labored breathing of one whoís been crucified, and made a strangled sound, even as the woman stepped forward, and reached out. Her body tensed, waiting for some new insult, but Drusander shook her awake, and wrapped her in strong arms until the moment passed.
"Itís been fun, but Iíll be happy to get back home," Solari mused, spearing the last of her melon. "After a while these dead, stone buildings are depressing."
"Iím glad the feast tonight will be outdoors," Eponin said in agreement. "Barring rain, of course."
Ephiny laughed. "In Prestia? It wouldnít dare rain tonight. I think Cletus has a special arrangement with," she paused, groping for an answer, then gave up. "What god would he make an arrangement with," she asked. "I canít recall seeing any temples here."
"They have no public temples," Gabrielle informed them. "Some people have household gods."
"Odd," Solari commented. "Yet it doesnít seem to have made the gods angry. This place is more peaceful and prosperous than most."
"I think thereís a story there," Gabrielle said. "I donít have much time to learn what it is,"
the bard said with regret. She alone seemed unhappy about leaving.
"You have no official duties until the festivities, Gabrielle. Why not scout out the tale? It might make good entertainment some evening back home."
Because I have something more important to do, Ephiny, she thought, but only smiled and shook her head in agreement.
The day before, Gabrielle had made herself unavailable. Today, Xena was nowhere to be found. Drusander was genuine in his regret that he didnít know her whereabouts. "Iíd like to find her too," he shared with Gabrielle. Iím sure you would, she thought. "Sheís probably with the troops. I think the military is her first love." His voice was tinged with regret. "Makes me wish I was a warrior, instead of a bard," he joked. "Although Iíve heard it said she was very close to a bard, once."
"I know." Gabrielle shot darts from her eyes. "Iím the bard."
Xena was with the army, her army, as she increasingly thought of it, though the bulk of it was stationed in border districts, and known to her only in names and numbers. It was only through her good-standing among the troops in the castle garrison that she was able to persuade the posting of select officers and men to the borders, to be able to vouch for her intentions when the time came. She didnít want an officer out of touch with the realities of Prestian politics to come charging in with troops to undo her coup. Nor did she want Gabrielle to undo the coup, yet she would not be swayed by a delegation of troops. Her mouth twisted in a wry smile at the thought of the Amazon bard. After so much time together, so many shared adventures, it came to this. She stopped Argoís progress, a concession to pain. The half-dozen troops who rode at her side saw it as her occasion to speak with a young girl by a produce cart. Xena had made it a point to look for Laepita on each foray into the town. She wanted to know that her protection of the girl was being honored. She spent a few dinars for produce, sharing fruit with her men, and passing the time of day with the locals. The men of the Internal Security Forces shrank into alleys or behind corners at her approach. A good few hours spent, she told herself as she rode back to through the castle gate. In the end, it would be the small things that determined success or failure. And one very big decision by a little bard.
If the Amazons had given Prestia a lesson in procession, they were now about to give them a lesson in entertaining. Wonderfully intoxicating aromas had wafted from the Amazon cookfires all day. Amazon hunting parties had penetrated the abundant hunting grounds which surrounded the capital city, returning with venison, and game birds. Fish had been speared in the River Pres. Local produce had to substitute for the varieties the Amazons preferred, and grew, but the spices and wines were all Amazon, and the atmosphere had an elegant informality, crafted by women who were at one with nature. Ephiny questioned only her own sense in having the feast the night before they would leave.
"Weíll leave the clean-up for the morning," Solari reasoned. "Let the Prestians take care of it." More to the point, she added: "Any Amazon who drinks too much deserves the hangover she has on the road. Right, Gabrielle?" she asked, just to get a reaction. The princess had been absent most of the day, and said little about her activities. She paid little attention now, as she pretended to read one of the just-signed treaties, that had been a convenient justification for the state visit. "Fascinating reading, isnít it Gabrielle. I especially liked the part about the buyerís remedies if the goods are spoiled in transit."
"Yeah, that was good," Gabrielle agreed, then caught up her words, and laughed at herself. "Iím sorry. Iíll be better once tonight is over. Once the Amazons leave Prestia behind them." Solari and Ephiny silently agreed.
Xena bathed and dressed with care, troubling for the first time in weeks to plait her hair, producing an elaborate, complex arrangement, which incorporated a blue ribbon. The effect, pronounced Drusander, was inspiring. But he knew it wasnít for him, guessed it was for her other bard, the one she had loved.
He was wrong. This was for Xena, who examined her own face in the looking-glass with something verging on sorrow. So much wasted time, she thought, so many missed opportunities for happiness. So little time left. She noticed the beginnings of tiny lines at the corners of her eyes. Narrowed too many times in anger, or to intimidate. When did this face get so hard? she wondered, knowing the answer would be measured in years. "Almost all my adult life," she murmured, "I have been hard. Life has been hard." There was a time I was very young; I must have had dreams. What were my dreams? she demanded of the face in the glass. What might I have done otherwise? She looked at her strong hands. They were nice hands she admitted without vanity, no more callused or rough than those of most women. They had done some good, in their time, not nearly enough, but some. Some healing, some real loving; far more killing. She watched as her eyes welled-up and the first tear traced a slow path down her face. Mourning for a misspent life, she wept inconsolable tears. When they were spent, she washed her face, and walked with gritted teeth to where Amazon drums had begun to sound.
She arrived at the Amazon-occupied courtyard alone, having persuaded Drusander that Teremon needed his descriptive skills to fully appreciate the experience. This was not the formal banquet of Cletusí court. There was a protocol, but it worked out its wrinkles in action, guided mostly by an urge to hospitality. In keeping with this, those brave Prestian women who had sought to emulate Amazon garb found their effort lauded. Plenty of time for laughter on the road home, Solari reminded herself. As a princess of Prestia, Xena was greeted officially, and ushered to a place of honor to await the official salutations. Because it was her duty, she fought her impulse to mingle with the women she had come to know so well. In the distance, Jalani stood patiently, not looking at the warrior, but seeing her all the same.
Xena was beautiful, tonight of all nights; it was remarked on by Amazons and Prestians alike. She smiled at newcomers and they wanted not to leave her presence. She smiled at Cletus when he entered, determined to betray nothing. Callisto clung to the arm of Cletus, making some silent statement, meeting Xenaís subdued smile with one of her own. When Drusander arrived with Teremon, Xena hugged the little boy close for a moment, then smiled at Drusander; it was, at last, the smile he was longing to see. Gabrielle watched her, golden in the glow of the ceremonial fire, and thought her heart would break.
Little formal speaking was done at Amazons feasts, but tonight Cletus was in a mood to speak his mind on many topics. His rambling would have annoyed, except that he ended with an announcement: Before the next moon had passed, Teremon would be anointed as heir, first in line for the throne. The Amazons were invited to send a delegation to the ceremony. Ephiny accepted, even as her eyes surveyed the scene, noting the steely non-reaction of Xena, and the sudden departure of Callisto.
Food was followed by dancing and singing. The ceremonial chants and dances, performed by select Amazons, soon gave way to generally frivolous fun; even the oddly attired Prestian women joined in, briefly, before they understood the prerequisites: rhythm and stamina. Prestian society was not surprised therefore, when Xena, who they believed to be some sort of Amazon, joined the dance around the fire. The Amazons were amazed.
"Whatís she been smoking?" Solari asked no one. Xena knew the Amazon rhythms and dance patterns. She followed their lead, through the most complex dances, and sang with them. "Quite a party girl tonight," Solari commented. "Sheís spent a lot of time on her hair. I wonder who thatís for?"
"Itís for Xena," Gabrielle said. She watched every move, fascinated. She had seen Xena dance, had danced with her, but never so publicly, so frenetically. So passionately. The more accomplished dancers challenged themselves now to conquer the hot blaze that centered the dance. One after another, they leaped through the flames, daring it to touch them, as they sought creative ways to soar. Xena took her turn, uttering a cry of defiance and triumph as she flew above the licking flames, turning and twisting at once in mid air, threatening never to return to earth. The Amazon dancers embraced her, this woman who was and was not one of them. Gabrielle shuddered, so violently that Ephiny saw the tremor, and raised an eyebrow in question. "Sheís scaring me, Ephiny."
Xena left the dance, heart beating a trifle fast, sweat beginning to show on her body. She stopped to cool off in a fountain, a little out of the way, splashing water on herself with no regard for propriety. That had been fun. She closed her eyes and smiled, still feeling the pulsing rhythm of the drums. She opened her eyes again, to see Gabrielleís soft green eyes close by. She held the eyes with her own, and stood motionless as Gabrielle drew nearer.
"You werenít going to leave without saying good-bye, Xena?"
"There will be time for good-byes in the morning Gabrielle." The green eyes were maddening; Xena tried in vain to read her decision there. She found only a serenity that invited her in.
"You had a good time tonight," Gabrielle observed, with obvious pleasure. "And youíre very beautiful," she whispered. "I wish you were leaving with us." She reached to touch the blue ribbon that was woven into her hair. "Itís amazing how far a little color can go." Consumed by pain, Xena couldnít pull away, but grasped Gabrielleís wrist in one strong hand. Gabrielle stood her ground. "Xena, why not come with us? Amazonia is good for you, but this place, this heap of stones Ė "
Xena shook her head firmly. "No." She was a little breathless, and Gabrielle needed only gentle force to make her sit on the ground.
"Xena, youíre hurt and unhappy. Prestia is killing you." Xena caught her lower lip between her teeth, and shook with silent laughter for a minute. Only the few tears which escaped gave her away. Gabrielle wiped them away with soft fingers; Xena took the hand, more gently now, and kissed the palm, then pulled Gabrielle close for a moment, holding her with a desperate affection. She moved to find the bardís mouth with her own, and said good-bye with a lingering kiss. She finally pulled away, and rose to her feet; "Gabrielle. Do what you need to do." She was gone, and both women wondered how she could love, and still leave the bard, with so little pain.
The men of the castle garrison had their own celebration that night, in honor of the Amazons, and in honor of the winners of the two day competition in arms. The Blue and Golds, spurred on by Xenaís attention, had won, but narrowly They already faced new challenges from rival units, but tonight, the Warrior Princess, Xena of Prestia, was theirs.
They forgave her late arrival, knowing she had official duties, and welcomed her with the respect due a royal commander. She was gracious in return, free with her smile, and her praise for the champions. Like schoolboys accepting a prize, they beamed as she removed the blue ribbon from her plait, in one deft maneuver, and affixed it to their standard. Something worth fighting for, she thought grimly. Maybe worth dying for. She wondered which of the brave men before her would not know another peaceful campfire, and determined that the number would be small.
"Tarimides." She called the first officer to her side. "These men are my personal legion. You are my aide-de-camp." My Arcus, she thought; she would have liked Arcus to be with her, but knew he had a higher allegiance. Tarimides didnít question the order; since the resignation of Memnos, authority had seemed to reside nowhere. It was nice to have someone giving orders. "Hereís your first command: escort me to the campfire."
For a second time that evening, Xena joined fireside revelries. The soldiers didnít dance, but they sang, and Xena sang with them. As the fires in both quarters burned low, she stood before her new legion, and sang alone. In the Amazon courtyard, people stopped what they were doing, and listened. From a distance away, borne on the wind, a melancholy voice carried a mournful tune. The assembly hushed, as the strange words tugged at their hearts. Gabrielle knew the song, and the voice. She had first heard it beside a pyre for Xenaís dead lover, Marcus. She heard it a second time when Xena sang Perdicus to his rest. When the last strains died away, Solari said quietly, "Xena has a lovely voice."
The bardís heart beat furiously, as she alone understood: Xena had just sung her own dirge.
Xena had one more task before she found her bed. Radec called to her from the shadows, and she spoke to his dark form. "Your men are to be in their barracks, or whatever rat- holes they reside in by midday. After that I wonít be responsible for their safety. My men will patrol the city."
"My men," she said pointedly.
"And I do what?"
"Wait for word."
He swallowed the command. It left a bitter taste in his mouth. "I am concerned about Callisto's role in all of this. She left the banquet early. Do you know where she might be?"
"Sheís probably sulking. She doesnít like the idea of the boy being anointed as heir. Callisto keeps her own council," she shrugged.
"That doesnít help," he chided.
"Then you figure her out," she said testily. You havenít done well with her so far. She wouldnít even be here if Glaucon hadnít told her Cletus is her father." That said, she had completed her tasks for the day.
Drusander hadnít waited up for her, she discovered gratefully, and she preferred not to deal with him later. She left the room, taking a small cloth bundle with her. The stable was quiet, and empty save for the horses. She liked the scent of horses, was at home in clean hay, and soon had stripped off her armor, and lay back, relieved to find rest. There was little to think about for a while, all decisions had been made. Radec was temporarily halted; she was certain he would wait for her to move first. The plan awaited only implementation.
Gabrielle alone needed thought. She hadnít asked the bard what she would do with her information. It puzzled her that after all she had heard, Gabrielle would still ask her to return to Amazonia. How much easier that would be, Xena knew, than staying the course here. Jalaniís powder was removed from its colorful cloth. For when Iím ready to face my dreams, Xena mused. Little time left for dreams. She swallowed the contents of the bundle. Tonight, Gabrielle, it ends. Be kind.
She knelt on the rolling deck, in shackles, a heavy collar around her neck, waiting to hear her fate. Then the familiar saga of abuse began, the insulting stares, rude comments, brutal blows. She was breathing hard, tossing spasmodically in the hay, a spectacle of fascination to a silent watcher. Rapid movement under her closed eyelids told of the sleeperís turmoil. This was a bad nightmare. Callisto grinned, hoping she was part of it.
Xenaís arms were stretched out, and roughly bound against the rude cross beam. Her face contorted, and she gasped as the crucifix was elevated, placing tremendous strain on her shoulders. She looked down, as from a great height, and saw them all there, the monster, Atrius, yellow teeth behind the lascivious grin; Borius, the self-righteous one; Petrocles, sated, smiling; and Gabrielle, her composed face looking on coolly. Caesar was in the forefront regarding her with bare contempt, prepared to give a command. This is when she ended the dream each night, determined to avoid this final pain, and ultimate humiliation. Tonight, the dream wouldnít end; he would have her legs broken, and the animal-like scream would escape her once more. She waited, helpless, and Callisto wondered as her body went rigid. The tortured scream was unlike any Callisto had heard; it told of pain so deep, so enduring that nothing survived it.
This was all new territory for the dreamer. The pain was an illusion, no more real than the cross, or the spectators, yet each nerve responded in remembrance, and waves of anguish swept through her. It seemed an eternity, instead of the few seconds it took, but then Gabrielle began to move; her arm reached out as she drew near, and Xena flinched, not ready for what she felt: the gentle touch of strong, cool fingers releasing her bonds.
The same cool fingers brushed her face, lifted the lolling head, and kissed her. Then Xena ceased her struggle, content to dream, comforted by the presence of sweet love.
Callisto saw only a soul at rest, and scowled.
Waking was a sweet experience. Xena lay still for a long moment, remembering the dream, savoring the new knowledge sheíd found there. She almost laughed out loud, at her own stupidity in having read things so wrong, and out of the joy that coursed through her body. Suddenly, everything seemed possible. She sat up, shook hay from her hair, and donned her armor hastily. She had wasted enough time. Gabrielle would know today why Xena had been so distant, so cold. A thought froze her movements. Maybe Gabrielle wouldnít care anymore. She had been rebuffed so many times... Xena startled the stable-boys with her hasty appearance on the floor amongst them; before they had registered her presence enough to greet her, she was gone, at a run, the cursed pain in her thigh barely felt.
She had no bath, not even a splash of water in her face before she arrived at the Amazon courtyard. She stood for a moment, considering an exhilarated climb up the outside of the building. That would startled the bard, she grinned; and maybe alarm the Amazons into a cascade of arrows directed at the intruder, she warned herself, and decided on a more conventional entrance. It was still awfully early. She didnít know which rooms were Gabrielleís, but guessed that Ephinyís would be close by. So then, she decided, Ephiny would get an early morning caller.
The queen was awake, when Xena knocked, preparing for the long journey home. She was startled nonetheless. "You look as if youíve slept in the stable, Xena, " she said.
"I did," Xena acknowledged, smiling. This smile was different from those of the evening
before, Ephiny noted with approval; this time the blue eyes were part of it. For the first time, Xenaís eyes had come back to life. Something had happened, something good, for once. Now Ephiny dreaded the question she knew Xena would ask next.
"Ephiny, whereís Gabrielle? I need to see her."
Damn! Ephiny swore, lips tight, as she sought for a way to soften this. There was none.
"Xena, Gabrielleís gone. She left hours ago with the advance scouting party. She said it was too painful to stay here any longer. Weíre to meet them in camp tonight."
Xenaís smile vanished. "Since when is she a scout?" she asked in a soft explosion. "Sheíll never keep up with those riders."
"I wouldnít have let her go if I thought sheíd be in danger, Xena. Theyíll take good care of her. Sheís not heading into a war zone," she reasoned.
"No," she said gratefully; she might be leaving one. Tiny lines knit Xenaís brow, as she thought hard.
"Xena, you could catch them in few hours. Gabrielle will be happy to see you. Like this." Hope flickered in Xenaís breast for a second, then was extinguished by the realities of what she must do this day.
"I canít" she said flatly, the exuberance of moments before lost. She felt the pain again, and inhaled sharply, feeling Ephinyís eyes on her. "Why not, Xena? What is there in Prestia for you? Come back with us to Amazonia," she urged.
Xena stared at her blankly. "Thereís something I need to do, Ephiny." Now she wondered what she had been thinking, why it had seemed so urgent to see Gabrielle. What would she have said? Good-bye; I love you, but good-bye? She shook her head, satisfied that things had worked out for the best. She left Ephinyís chamber without a word.
Off to a fine start, she scolded herself, as she made her way through the courtyard. You might as well have been drunk, for all the sense that made. Focus on what you need to do, before you wreck everything. She wondered briefly if Gabrielle had given the plan away, that would account for the fast exit. Damn, youíre doing it again. That would be out of character. Her exit, was in fact, a sure sign that she hadnít told of what sheíd heard, and now she never would. Such faith in me...Xena shook her head, wondering how the girl could be so constant, in the face of so much.
Xena reappeared at the last minute to join the farewell to the Amazons. She nodded briefly to Ephiny, Eponin, Solari, and a few of the others. Only Jalani did she seek for a brief, private moment. Before she spoke, Jalani knew her message. "You have faced your dream." Xena nodded. "Thank you." She hesitated, "Please tell Gabrielle, Iím sorry for doubting her. I was a fool."
"You can tell her yourself."
"Just tell her," Xena insisted, a rueful smile on her lips.
Then the Amazons headed out of Prestia, in a blaze of color.
It began quietly. The casual observer might not have noticed that the crest on the sentries outside the barracks of the Kingís Own had changed. They would not know that the sentries were now charged, not with keeping intruders out, but with keeping the residents of the barracks in. In these barracks were the men of the king, sworn to die in the defense of the king, and his crown. Xena had decided they would not die in a lost cause. It spread from the barracks, to the castle itself, as individual guards were arrested at their posts and marched to the dungeons in the bowels of the castle. The castle was secured before its residents had finished their morning meal.
"All is accomplished," Tarimides reported to his commander. Xena regarded him grimly.
"Nothing is accomplished yet, Tarimides. You have the list of occupants. Everyone is to be accounted for. You know the rules, remind the men. Iíll see to Cletus and his family." She nodded to the squad at her back, and together they turned to the castle.
Drusander was in the courtyard, when a dozen soldiers walked by. He looked at them absently. Soldiers in the castle were quite in context. Xena appeared a few moments later, and took his arm, in a way she never did. "I need to see you about something, Drusander. It concerns Cletus. Will you join us?" She left him no way to say no, even had he wanted to. He never noticed that the guards in the kingís quarters were not wearing the crest of the Kingís Own.
Cletus answered Drusanderís knock as if he expected it; he didnít blink when a guard followed them in to his presence. Drusander looked quizzically at the man, who stationed himself in front of the closed door, but he hadnít even formulated a question when Xena began to speak. "Drusander." Her voice was commanding. "In all this jumble youíll find a scroll, and a quill somewhere. Write what I tell you." She waited, her eyes riveted to those of the king, while Drusander did as he was bidden. He felt alarm now, and a little afraid of this woman who filled the room with her will. "Record these words, Drusander:
In the name of the peace and security of the Kingdom of Prestia, and its subjects, it is demanded that Cletus, of the House of Pres, the Fourth of that name to wear the crown, relinquish all right, title and claim to the sovereignty of this realm, in favor of Xena, his acknowledged child, and rightful heir, under the Rule Of Succession established during the reign of Pres Prima, and as ratified by his Advisory Council of Citizens."
Drusander started as her intention was made clear, he rose to protest, but his words died on his lips, as Cletus and Xena focused on each other to the exclusion of all else.
"Who makes this demand?" Cletus asked, for the record, being careful to note that Drusander continued his recording of the event.
"Xena of Amphipolis, your daughter, old man," she said through tight lips.
"Xena the Usurper," he called her.
"Iíve been called far worse, Cletus," she said, not troubled at all. "Besides, how can I usurp power, when you have already given it away? The only power exercised in this kingdom is in Radecís hands," she told him coldly. Your people canít walk unmolested on the streets of your capital; the taxes your subjects pay line the coffers of Radec, and pay his thugs to terrorize the population. You dictate a succession, yet have done nothing to make the crown secure from Radec. As you leave things, Teremon will serve only at Radecís will, or else the kingdom will be plunged into civil war. You tolerate all of this. I wonít." Her voice was as hard as her face. "Youíve heard the demand. What is your answer?"
Cletus looked past her to the guard at the door. "The army is with you?"
"What is to become of Teremon?" Cletus asked.
"He wonít be harmed," she assured him. "No one will be harmed, unless we meet resistance. Now," she commanded, "abdicate."
"If I refuse?"
"You are already deposed, old man. Save your dignity."
"And do you the favor of legitimizing your claim, by abdicating in your favor?"
She smiled without humor. "In the grand tradition of Pres Prima, I am less interested in the title than the power. I donít care a lot what people think of me, like Pres Prima, a warlord so bloody, whose crimes were so heinous, even Zeus couldnít tolerate him. Thatís my blood old man, so donít pretend I should behave differently."
Cletus regarded her for a short while, eyes melancholy, yet a certain pride was barely evident in his face. Then he turned to the conscripted-scribe.
"Drusander, record this: I, Cletus, King of Prestia, the Fourth of my line to bear that name, abdicate all my right, title and sovereignty in favor of my daughter, Xena." He took the quill from Drusander and signed his name with a flourish. Xena took the pen from his fingers, and signed her name beneath her own demand. She threw the pen on the table. "Witness it Drusander," she told him. Drusander did as she bid, then sat and stared at nothing, unable to look at her, unwilling to look at Cletus. She beckoned the guard to sign as witness, and watched as he signed The guard stepped back a pace. "Long live the Queen!" he said firmly. Xena hadnít expected that. She nodded to him. The royal seal, her seal now, was close to hand, and she let hot sealing wax drip beneath the signatures, then left her impression. While the wax was still warm, she pressed the tip of her dagger against the wax twice, incorporating her "X" into the seal.
It was accomplished.
The sun was overhead, and Prestians wondered at the absence of the Internal Security Forces, and the silent appearance of regular army troops. Something was afoot, and they whispered quietly, hoping Cletus had found a way to bung the rat in his hole.
Salmoneus expected the knock on the door. When it came he thought he would be asked to vacate his castle lodgings. He had been there by request of the Amazons. With their departure, his only hope was Xenaís intervention, and he hadnít spoken to her since the night of the street battle, and the exposure of Krykon. "Yes, Iím packing, Iím packing," he said even before he pulled the door open.
"No need to pack, sir," the soldier said courteously. "This will only be for a short time."
With no further explanation, Salmoneus was hustled from his room. "And thatís how I got here," he moaned to no one in particular, in a cold, crowded cell beneath the castle.
"Rise for the her Majesty, the Queen."
Ephiny? Salmoneus thought, almost said aloud, as the cell door opened. Then he saw Xena, and all became clear. "Xena," he exclaimed.
"Show some respect," a soldier with her barked at him. "He addressed the group in the cell: Rise for Her Royal Majesty, Queen Xena."
Xena had to walk a fine line between accepting, even projecting authority, on the one hand, and appealing for support on the other. This wasnít her army, and she was no longer a warlord. Fear was not needed, or desired from her subjects. She entered the cell with a flourish. Monarchs needed to be competent; a touch of panache didnít hurt.
"Xena, that is, Queen Xena, is this a coup?" Salmoneus asked, despite the scowl on the soldierís face.
She nodded to him, then addressed her words to the entire cell: "A short time ago, King Cletus abdicated the throne in my favor. You have been kept here for your own safety while the change in administration was accomplished. This has been accomplished with no loss of life or bloodshed, except," she grinned, " for a finger caught in a door." She gestured to the soldier at her side, who held up a finger which was tightly bound with a cloth. Her infectious grin, and the soldierís demeanor, helped them release the tension they all felt with welcome laughter. While she had them smiling, she continued: "The former king, my brother Teremon, and his guardian, are all well, and shall remain so, under my protection. In a few minutes, you will all be free to resume your normal duties.
I ask you to perform your tasks conscientiously, as I will mine, for the good of Prestia, and its people. All of them." Salmoneus watched with fascination as the blue eyes moved slowly around the room, focusing for a moment on each observer, as if sealing a bond. Then she turned, crooking a finger at Salmoneus as she left. "Long live the Queen" said a solitary voice as he scurried out of the cell after her. The resounding cheer which answered the cry left no doubt about the effectiveness of her technique.
"Xena, that was scarily effective. I think you could rule the world," Salmoneus commented as he caught up with her. She turned to fix him with a steady gaze, and he saw what Ephiny had seen: new life in the depths of blue which stared out at him.
"Salmoneus, Iím sorry you had to sit in the dungeon."
"Iíve been in worse dungeons," he recalled. "I was in a worse dungeon with you."
"Yeah. Well you arenít Prestian, so you neednít stay here at all. I can put you on a horse and give you an escort to the border, or..." she paused to tantalize, "you can stay here, to see what opportunities turn up. In addition to the sturgeon roe concession. I havenít forgotten that." He looked at her puzzled. "Salmoneus, I need an advisor. You once told me that I should improve my public relations." He remembered; she had been a warlord then. "I finally agree," she told him.
"Xena, after witnessing that speech, I think you could give lessons in public relations."
"I canít be everyplace at once, Salmoneus. I have the troops; I have to win everyone else, and there isnít much time." She spoke frankly. "I canít guarantee that I can pull this off; you might be in danger; there may be no pay-off in the end." The lovely face was sober, there was no hint of a smile. She wouldnít seduce him into gambling his life. He wondered what had reawakened the fire in the icy blue eyes. He would have guessed Gabrielle, but it somehow didnít fit that she was gone. Maybe staging a coup put Xena in a better frame of mind? No matter. She was alone, he figured, and for friendshipís sake, he would stick around. If a little money was to be made, so much the better. He had one question, first: "Xena, why are you doing this?"
I was born to do this, Salmoneus. This is my destiny. Aloud, she only said: "Someone has to sweep the garbage from the streets."
He made an elaborate bow from the waist. "Your majesty, how may I serve you? And, um, do I get a title? An expense account?"
The table in front of Xena was piled with neat stacks of maps and scrolls. She finished her distinctive sealing of the last of the proclamations she nodded to Tarimides. "These can be read and posted. I want every village to be notified within two days." He collected them and conferred briefly with his own aide posted by the door. Xena sat back, eyes closed for a moment, considering whether she had missed anything. The castle and town had been secured by her troops, the people seemed content, for the moment, to see her standard flying over the castle. It was a hastily contrived affair, the crest of Prestia, with a distinctive lavender and blue "X" embroidered in the corner, a tiny crown nestled in the top crook. The lowering of the kingís standard had been Radecís sign that she had deposed the king, or he had abdicated. It would make little difference to Radec. She wondered briefly if his plans had been set into action yet. She could only guess at the form his plan would take, but would, in fact, had, bet all on his objective.
She opened her eyes to see Arcus, accompanied by two guards, before her. His expression was dour; he was plainly unhappy, and disappointed. He nodded curtly, called her "Highness." Tarimides corrected him. "Majesty." Xena smiled wryly at his passive resistance. That kind of loyalty canít be bought, she told herself, with a twinge of envy. Cletus must have done some things right in his time. "Arcus. Iím sorry its come to this."
He grunted his assent. "I wish you were with me," she said sincerely.
"No hard feelings, Xena. You know I have to be with him."
"I know. Thatís why youíre here. I want you to be with him, as his personal aide, and protector, if need be." He looked at her doubtfully. "Arcus, I have no intention of seeing him, Teremon or Drusander harmed. I donít know how this will turn out; I want them cared for. You can choose the number of men you need to do the job, from the Kingís Own. I know they are all sworn to protect Cletus. They must also swear to support my reign." Arcus sighed and shook his head, I donít know if theyíll do that, Xena."
"Theyíll follow your lead, Arcus." Her voice was steady, as was the gaze of her blue eyes. He had wondered what had prompted this coup, half expected to find a power hungry villain wearing the crown. Yet this was no villain before him. This was not even the unhappy, tormented Xena of the long road to and from Dracatha. He shook his head, as if to shake his preconceptions loose. "Xena, I need to know your intentions."
"I intend to restore the peace here. I intend for the people for Prestia to be governed with reason, prudence and equity."
"Radec?" he asked simply.
"Radec will be dealt with," she replied simply. "Itís best you donít know more." She waited patiently for an answer, knowing the struggle which must rage in the taciturn soldier. Again, he behaved as expected. "I shall stay with Cletus, and I shall swear allegiance to your reign, Your Majesty. Long live the Queen," he ended quietly.
Gabrielle sat in near-darkness in a hidden part of the stable loft, above where the Amazon horses had been lodged. From here she had witnessed the Amazons ready their mounts for the journey home, pack a supply wagon with their gear, food and presents which bespoke the hospitality of their host country. From here she had glimpsed Xena, as she bid farewell to Jalani, and limped away, shoulders slightly slumped. She had been sorely tempted then, to leave her hiding place and go to the unhappy warrior, and tell her she would never leave this place without her. She had fought the temptation, deciding it was best to know what she was dealing with before making her presence known. As the day wore on, she grew less and less certain that her decision had been right. She had watched silently, puzzled by the steady parade of military personnel, to and from the castle, some under guard. She knew the Kingís Own. Even from this distance it was obvious that they were the ones under guard. At one point she saw Arcus marched past, his sword held by another soldier. She looked in vain for Radecís brown-clad forces, hoping he was behind this. If it were not Radec, then it had to be Xena. A little while before, she had looked through the knot-hole that was her window on Prestia, and saw and fears confirmed. The X-marked standard that flew in place of the Kingís was Xenaís. She had done as she had said, taken the throne, the entire kingdom with it; her base of support for an army of conquest.
The bard was almost numb from her long day of voluntary confinement. She wondered at the reaction when the Amazon scouting party met the main party, and told them that Gabrielle had turned back almost immediately, claiming to be ill. Ephiny would be angry, maybe worried, would probably send a party back to make sure the Amazon Princess was alright. Ephiny would certainly guess the reason for her decision. But all that wouldnít happen until the two groups met to make camp, many hours from now.
As the sun grew warm, and heat rose to the loft, she felt a little sick. She hadnít eaten all day. The wine of the night before had left her with a headache, and she almost wished she had really left with the Amazons, instead of staying to witness what she had not been able to stop. Well of course you werenít able to stop it, she told herself, you didnít even try. Some plan. You sat and watched like some spectator, while Xena Ė her mind balked at the thought - turned back to all that she had left behind. What did Xena tell you? Act, donít react. Knowing she was probably too late to do much good, the bard slipped stealthily from her hide-out, and prepared to make her way into the castle.
As members of the castle staff, or the Kingís Own swore allegiance to Queen Xena, they were issued a bow of lavender and blue, sealed with the Queenís X-inscribed crest. The other troops welcomed their brothers to Xenaís service with relief, as it lessened their nagging doubts concerning the legitimacy of her reign. It remained only for the people to accept that Xena was the true queen. The townspeople knew that Xena had taken, or been given the crown. Their immediate concern was that the peace not be broken. They tried not to remember her past, avoided mention of Cirra, and focused on the welcome absence of Radecís forces. The soldiers were friendly, all wore the sign of Xenaís reign, yet they made no comment on recent events, except to say, when asked, that all was well at the castle, and that Cletus was in good health. Official word came with the dispatch of heralds with Royal Proclamations, which brought tidings of Cletusí abdication and the accession of Queen Xena. Now, officially, the old king was declared to be unharmed, and in support of his daughterís reign. Long-held, deep affection for the king lived in his subjects. They cheered at this word, even as they cheered to know that his reign, and with it, Radecís, had ended. Salmoneus watched this display at several sites, until satisfied that the people were ready to accept Xena. As he rode through the city, ears open for comments, a new, ugly strain was heard. "Of course, they say Cletus is well. Would you expect them to admit heís been butchered? Iíve heard..." The gruff voice continued on as Salmoneus rode out of earshot. A little further along, a second voice said much the same thing. A whispering campaign, Salmoneus thought with alarm, thinking that the rumor-mongers both looked the type to be in Radecís employ. Only the brown shirts were absent. Xena would have to know this, he concluded hastily, and sent off, at a canter to find his new boss.
She listened more than spoke at this meeting, happy to do so, head aching from the long, wordy day. She longed for some fresh air, and a respite from people asking for decisions.
This was a meeting of the Advisory Council of Citizens, and it was all important. The Ministers had clamored to meet with her, but had been told, gently, but firmly, that they would have to wait. The elected body was of more concern to her than the appointed, and they may as well know it now. She was meeting most of them for the first time, and wondered which of them was Radecís spy; he was too crafty not to be represented here.
They had heard her proposals, and seemed a little reluctant to believe her. She didnít begrudge them that, it was a common reaction to her, and well founded in her past deeds. She had been careful to grant them a brief audience with Cletus, knowing that doubts about his welfare would soon surface, despite the proclamation. She dismissed them now, cordially, assuring them that their monarch was willing to receive them at any time.
One more meeting, the Ministers, sans Radec, she thought, munching on an olive from a nearby plate. Tarimides had insisted on bringing her something himself, to guard against assassination attempts. She wouldnít die from poison, she wanted to tell him, but she had been poisoned here once, and couldnít afford the weakness it would bring. When the Ministers were gone, she would see what else needed to be done. Things had gone smoothly, so far. Too smoothly. It would soon be time to start crisis intervention, she could feel it in her gut.
Gabrielle had decided that the wing which had housed the Amazons would be her best bet for entry to the castle, and she was not wrong, she did gain entry, but under the watchful eyes of a sentry. She looked like an Amazon, he decided, but they were all gone.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"I overslept," she told him with a grin. "You know how it is, we partied late last night, and then there was the wine Ė "
"Your people left hours ago. How did you sleep through that?"
"Iím quite a sleeper, legendary, in fact." You could ask your new queen, she thought, but decided it was best to pull rank: "The other Amazons think twice before they awaken their princess."
"Princess Gabrielle?" That got his attention, she thought, satisfied. But it didnít win her release. Through several layers of rank the puzzle of what to do with her was mulled over, finally she offered them a solution. "Listen. I know Xena."
"Queen Xena," she was corrected.
"Of course, Queen Xena. If I could speak with her for a few moments _ "
"Sorry, Princess, the Queen is very busy just now."
"Iíll just bet she is, Gabrielle thought. "Fine. Iíll wait, but when she hears that one of her Amazon friends has been kept waiting like a scullery maid...Xena is fond of the Amazons you know, and I am a royal person," she reminded them.
The soldiers exchanged uncertain glances, not wanting to be the first to see the new Queenís temper. After all, this was Xena...
In the end she was taken to the wing which housed the royal family, close to the meeting rooms which had known Xenaís presence all day. "As soon as Her Majesty is free, weíll tell her thereís an Amazon left behind, Princess Gabrielle. For now, you can wait in here," she was told. They were at the top of a small stairway, which seemed to go nowhere, and the door was opened onto a room that smelled of scrolls and old cloth. Dust flew through the air as she walked past the tapestries that hung from every space. At least Iíll have something to keep me busy, the bard thought, as she began to read the nearest tapestry.
Salmoneus brushed past the Ministers as they left, and flew to Xenaís side. "Xena, youíve got to show them Cletus," she was told. "The rumorís being spread that you butchered him, and the boy, Teremon. People arenít sure whether to believe it, but this is a serious campaign. I think you can avoid some trouble if you let them see the old guy."
She had been expecting this. Her eyes narrowed, mouth turned up in a half-grin as she considered. Radec had wasted no time in trying to spread unrest and dissension. Salmoneus was right about the proper course of action, and it would have to be done right away.
"Iíd better ask Cletus to get ready; weíre going to see our people."
"Xena, I was thinking more of an appearance from the castle parapet. This Radec character must be really upset that youíve beaten him to the punch, so to speak. I suppose it hasnít occurred to you that he might just be luring you into the open to kill you?"
Her look alone made him realize he had just mad an incredibly wrong assumption. "On the contrary, Salmoneus, Iím counting on it."
The Amazon Princess in the dusty room upstairs was forgotten by the guards for the moment.
Cletus didnít balk when Xena made her request for him to accompany her. He said little, but withdrew to choose suitable attire. Iím glad I donít have to decide everyday what to wear, Xena thought as she sat to wait for him. From across the room Drusander cast hostile glances at her. Teremon was asleep on the seat next to him, a toy horse clutched in one hand. Neither had responded when she entered. This isnít how it should end, she decided, rising abruptly, despite the protest of pain from her thigh. She spoke as she crossed the room.
"Drusander, have you got something to say to me?"
"Not in front of Teremon."
"Heís asleep," she pointed out.
"Good, I donít like him to be reminded of you. I donít like him to be around you. Youíre an unnatural creature Xena," he threw at her.
"Unnatural?" She had expected many things, but not that.
"What sort of daughter steals a throne from her father? And her brother?" he asked.
"I donít know, Drusander. What kind of king lets a man like Radec run his kingdom? As for stealing the throne from Teremon, let me remind you, that I have prior right to the crown, by virtue of my birth order."
"Iíll be sure to tell Teremon. Maybe that will be some consolation."
"He wants so much to be king?" she asked, incredulous. "He probably will be someday; I mean, he has an age advantage of quite a few years," she added hastily. "Or is the problem that you want so much to be regent?"
"Donít be ridiculous," he exclaimed, "but come to think of it, I believe Iíd do this kingdom a lot more good than you will."
"Oh." So that was the problem. She let it go; it made little difference. Cletus was taking a long time, she thought a little irked. He was still staring at her. "Was there anything else, Drusander? Now is as good a time as any, to get it off your chest."
"I was just wondering how any woman could use sex the way you did." His voice dripped with contempt. He spoke to wound her.
She shrugged, and caught her upper lip in her teeth. This was at last was what she had been expecting.
"That was all just to help catch us off guard, when the time was right, wasnít it?" he said with righteous certainty.
"Not entirely." She looked him straight in the eye.
"What else was there?" he asked, then snickered. "I almost forgot. The nightmares. I hope I helped," he said with mock sincerity.
Xena nodded. "Being with you did help, Drusander. From the first night, it helped. I told you then, there could never be anything between us. You accepted that as some sort of challenge, I guess. Just donít pretend you werenít warned."
"You didnít tell me why there could never be anything between us. I didnít know about Gabrielle," he said in an aggrieved tone.
Xena arched an eyebrow. "Gabrielle," she echoed. "What about Gabrielle?"
"She came looking for you yesterday. It came up that you and she..."
"Were lovers?" Xena supplied.
"Not in those words, but I caught the implication," he said.
"And?" she demanded, scowling.
"And if I had known where your tastes lay, I wouldnít have bothered. I guess it was hard,
I mean being with me."
Unnatural, she thought, thatís what he meant. Wouldnít want Teremon around me.
"Iíve been with plenty of men, Drusander," she said wearily.
"Iím sure you have," he smirked.
"I love Gabrielle," she confessed to him. "Thatís why you and I were impossible." She paused. "Maybe I should have told you; but it wasnít something I could talk about. It still isnít," she said, fighting to keep anger from her voice, "but I want you to know this: Loving Gabrielle was the most natural thing in the world." Her jaw had tightened, and the blue eyes carried a warning.
"Really?" He raised an eyebrow. "Then why wasnít she chasing your nightmares away?"
Cletus returned at that moment, saving Xena from deciding what to reply.
In the murky light of the tapestry room, Gabrielle reached out a hand to touch the tiny woven figure with dark air and armor of golden thread. It was not much of a likeness, yet she knew who it was meant to be. She had known since the first panel in which she appeared, rising from flames like a phoenix, sword brandished, unsmiling face surveying the world with grim determination. This was Xena, with an army at her back, foes vanquished before her, mounds of corpses at her feet. She had to search for the next panels depicting her, there was quite a lapse, as if the weaver of years before had lost sight of the warrior, as her conquests ended, and she set to the task of conquering herself.
When next she appeared, the craftsmanship was different, as if, as was likely, the work was done by a different hand. This Xena was also unsmiling, but an aura shone about her,
and her army was gone. Gabrielle had looked in vain for herself by Xenaís side, and was puzzled by the omission, until she decided unhappily that the weaver of years long gone by had known that she would not be permanent in Xenaís life. Various scenes were presented, most of which required interpretation. She was pretty certain she recognized Hercules, who had helped call Xena from darkness, and she decided one scene depicted her defense of Amphipolis by single combat with the warlord, Draco. Or that could have been her single combat with any number of other warlords. Kirilus came to mind. So many images mingled, Amazons, Poseidon, a looming crucifix, and Centaurs. She thought a small blue-eyed boy might be Solon. It was eerie, knowing that so much could be guessed before a person was even born. How did it work, she wondered? Were theses weavers able to see to the end of your life, and record all? Or did they weave what they wanted your life to be, and you followed the story they had written for you? If I pulled out all these threads and wove a scene, would I dictate events, the teary-eyed bard thought desperately, focusing on one panel in particular. Here, outside this very castle, Xena supported herself on a stick, or staff. That was true enough; sometimes the warrior seemed close to collapse, and the limp appeared to be a permanent part of the powerful body. A great battle raged, men, and Amazons, contesting for the streets of Prestia. Many of the details were lost to her now, as she looked closer, through streaming tears, and stroked the last image of Xena. In this scene, she lay on the plains outside the city, her defiled body picked at by vultures.
It was not much of a procession, hastily arranged and consisting mainly of soldiers. Arcus rode by the old kingís side, with a half dozen of the Kingís Own. The royal purple was largely absent. Xena wore a new medallion affixed to her armor, signifying her new rank. Cletus sat pleasantly by her side, as they exited the castle gate and made their way through the streets of Prestia. There were two reasons Radec would have begun the rumors of Cletusí demise: to sow unrest among the people, and to bring Xena out into the open. An assassinís arrow now would leave the kingdom open to him. Still, she rode without fear, that was not the way it would be, she knew.
A greater worry was the possibility of violence that would need to be put down by the troops. If the people came to see the new regime as an equally brutal successor to Radecís forces, the game was lost. Radec knew that; his men could be counted on to provoke a violent response. Accordingly, each man patrolling in the town was issued a staff, in addition to his other weapons. Staffs, first, was the order; steel only as a last resort.
Along most of the route the crowd was peaceful, many people wore blue and lavender ribbons tied around an arm, as a show of support for the new monarch. Things took an ugly turn as they rounded a square and turned back toward the castle. It was expected, Xena mused, as she knew Radec had heard of the procession by now, and had given instructions for a provocation. Who better to be forced to slaughter than the Warrior Queen? Some poor fool would step forward to provoke her. There was always one, she knew, from long practice at manipulating foolhardy subordinates.
She stopped as usual, at Laepitaís fruit stand. The young woman had a lavender and blue streamer adorning her stand, and she greeted the warrior queen with a proprietary pleasure. Today the fruit was a gift, she said against Xenaís protests. Her stand was doing a brisk business as they resumed their progress down the street. Suddenly there was a clamor behind them. Xena wheeled Argo around to see Laepita lying on the ground, blood streaming from a head wound. She galloped back, as two men began swinging staffs at each other.
They broke off at her approach. "Usurper," one shouted, to be met by a renewed attack from the other. The crowd, which had been strung out along the streets gathered now, as if for a spectacle. And thatís what they shall have, Xena thought, a small smile playing around her lips. She left Argo in a spectacular somersault to land between the two sparring men, catching one staff in each hand. One man wore the lavender and blue ribbons, the other did not. She turned to him. "You got something to say to me?" she asked in as nice a tone as one threatening homicide could manage. The force emanating from her caused them to rethink their roles in Radecís plans. Dead men canít spend dinars, they each realized. "Long live the Queen," said the one with the blue ribbon. The other sputtered, and turned as if to run. Xena reached out a long arm and caught him by the collar. "Where do you think youíre going? "she growled. "You got a problem with me being queen? Take it up with Cletus." She directed his attention to the abdicated monarch, who had ridden back to be at her side. He replied as if it had been scripted.
"Xena is the rightful monarch," he said to the man, and to the crowd at once. The situation was happily diffused, but Xena was alert for more. She knelt beside Laepita, focused on the scalp wound that poured blood into the street. It was not bad, she realized, yet it needed more than Xenaís probing fingers. She stood to issue an order, when suddenly, the five senses she trusted so well alerted her to respond as the shaft of an arrow whizzed toward her. She snatched it from the air, and looked for itís mate, which was snatched with her other hand. "Home!" she called out to the troops around her, in the prearranged signal for seeking the kingís safety if need be. The riders spurred forward, and Arcus turned to see the warrior shield the prone form of Laepita as she scanned the rooftops. The archers were above, she knew, and her instinct was to find them. She was certain she had seen a head duck behind a gable. The crowd had dispersed, ducking into the nearest shops or alleyways. Her half dozen soldiers pressed their mounts against the sides of the road, each scanning the opposite side. Xena dragged the unconscious girl to a nearby shop and deposited her on the floor. "Take care of my friend," she instructed, then she was gone, into the street, catching an overhanging beam, using it to swing to the next level, and then running up a slate roof, until she could see the rooftops spread before her.
She gave a resounding war cry alerting the townspeople, her own soldiers, and the toxophilites, of her presence. Predictably, one of the archers peered from around a corner, unable to credit what his ears told him. She laughed at the startled face, and did a succession of flips which brought her near him before he had thought to move. He threw his bow at her, and she tossed it into the street. The crowd strained to see or hear anything which gave a hint of the progress of the battle. The bow descending to the street brought a cheer. Xena grinned at the sound. "Imagine their joy if I tossed you down after it?" she said wickedly. The man gave her no reason to consider it further, throwing his hands into the air and waiting for her to loop her whip around his wrists. They climbed into the nearest window, and descended to street level. The throng let out another cheer at the sight of her, and demanded the would-be assassinís blood. "Heís Cleg, that bastard in the brown shirts," a voice volunteered, and a dozen others murmured assent. Obviously, Xena thought, happy the crowd knew it, but she was troubled. This had been clumsy, inept, half-hearted. She had expected more from Radec, and was certain it would still come. And her it was. The sound of many feet moving in cadence could be thrilling, it had long been so for her; in most people it sparked dread, and so it was now. A touch of panic spread from face to face as the sound grew nearer. It wasnít her troops, Xena knew, most of them were in the castle grounds. It couldnít be Radecís rabble marching so smartly. She was briefly puzzled, then recalled Memnos, who had gone over to Radec.
This was Memnos, marching at the head of an army he had pirated from itís lawful command, and leading soldiers who may or may not know that he was no longer a legitimate commander. No matter, they were a threat, and they were here. She whistled shrilly, and Argo was beside her. From horseback she addressed the crowd. "Clear the streets, go to your homes, or join me inside the castle walls." She rode the length of the street, hurrying the people on, promising the protection of her broad sword until they had found shelter. All the while, the marching feet drew closer. At last the street was clear, save for the remnants of stragglers on their way to the castle walls. Now Xena and her half dozen troops turned to face the approaching foe. They came around a corner and Xenaís guess was confirmed. "Memnos." She recognized the standard she had seen when she first arrived in Prestia, before he had resigned. A plan quickly took shape, and she refined it as she bid Tarimides to join her, and rode forward to meet her foe.
She stopped a distance from the advancing army, and Tarimides rode ahead carrying a standard which bore the royal crest.
"By what order do these troops return from their post on the border," he demanded.
"By order of General Memnos," he was told by his opposite number.
"General Memnos has no command, and no authority in the realm of Her majesty Queen Xena. She demands that he relinquish his pretense at command. Who is his deputy?" Xena listened with approval; she had chosen her aide well. That demand brought Memnos himself to the forefront. "Queen Xena?" he inquired with a haughty air. "I am to bow to the Bitch of Cirra?" Tarimides brought an empty glove across his face.
"Hold, Tarimides; itíll be a sorry day, when I canít defend myself against a scum like this." Argo sauntered across the square, understanding the mood her mistress was in.
"Iím kind of particular about who I let bow to me, Memnos," she told him, her voice loud enough for the forward ranks to hear. "So you scurry on over to Radec, and pay your respects to that traitor to the realm," she ended harshly. Without pause, she grabbed the royal standard from Tarimides and cantered along the line of troops, shouting "For Prestia! Who is with me?" The bewildered troops knew only that the woman before them
invoked Prestia, and a few clear eyes noted that a new banner fluttered over the parapets. It seemed possible, that this was their new sovereign. When Memnos threw the order to his archers to kill her, Tarimides tensed, but noted that the archers hesitated, then looked away, as if unable to hear the orders.
Xena had them now, she acknowledged, and the smile she showed them became genuine, only in the rear ranks, the troops wore different garb, and regarded her with hostile stares. These were mercenaries, she realized. Memnos had hired mercenaries to fill the ranks. From the look of things, there were more mercenaries than regular troops. By far. She made no sign that she had noticed the difference, and galloped back to face Memnos across a widening gulf of tension. "Memnos. You are under arrest. Your troops are now under the command of my aide, General Tarimides, "she said, giving him a field promotion. "Follow his commands," she said to the crowd at large, or consider yourself under arrest." Her face was stern, but the blue of her eyes showed, even as they narrowed, focusing on Memnos, but taking in the whole scene. "Throw down your sword," she commanded the former general, knowing that would force his hand. Instead he cast a telltale glance to the rear ranks. One of those mounted troops yelled an order, and the others understood. They fell on the soldiers of Prestia who were before them, as Memnos charged at Xena. She was in no mood; Argo nimbly sidestepped while she sent the chakram on a mission of destruction through the rear ranks. Then she countercharged Memnos, sword drawn, and this time she meant it, parrying his thrust and driving her sword home. He fell sideways out of the saddle; one foot caught in a stirrup, and he and was dragged away by his mount. Xena caught the chakram as she flew past the troops who just began to understand the situation. "To the castle!" she yelled. "Watch your backs!" She moved to do just that for them, wading into the thick of the fighting as the soldiers of Pres made a desperate effort to reach the castle walls. From the parapets, the guards watched the scene play out. The early stream of citizens seeking shelter had alerted them, and they stood by the gate now, ready to give entry to friends. Cletus watched, amazed and proud, as his daughter, Queen Xena, laid low the enemies of Pres.
Gabrielle watched the fighting too, with a far different emotion. Xena was easy to distinguish from the other warriors, so tiny from this distance. Apart from the dark locks flying behind her like a battle streamer, there was the flow of battle around her, as if the whole whirling mass of violent energy was drawn to her. Gabrielle was drawn to her, still. She wanted at that moment to be at Xenaís side, her staff in Xenaís service, to be there when Ė stop that Ė she scolded herself, she isnít going to die because some bunch of musty wall hangings say so! Still, she wanted to be there...
The door opened, and she took a step back, into a shadow. The portly figure was familiar..."Salmoneus?"
The man jumped, dropping the armful of scrolls he was carrying. He focused at the solid figure that was not some ghost, and his eyes widened. "Gabrielle?" What are you doing here?"
"Thatís my question, Salmoneus."
"I was in the castle when all this broke. I was in the dungeon, I gotta tell you, I was happy to learn Xena was behind the coup, Ďcause for a little while there," he held up his hand as if to tighten an imaginary noose. He shook his head at the wonder of it all. "Then Xena appeared, and here I am, her aide-without-portfolio. That is, I do a little of this a little of that...To be honest, I think she just wanted a friend around."
"I wouldnít be surprised," Gabrielle agreed. Her eyes had remained riveted on the battle scene outside the walls; now the bulk of the Prestian troops flooded in through the gates, and a troop of mounted men burst forward to join their Queen in pursuit of the suddenly retreating mercenaries. They turned a corner and further action was lost from view.
"So, Princess Gabrielle, whatís your story? I thought youíd be long gone with the rest of the Amazons."
Briefly, Gabrielle told of her ruse, and day in hiding. "I thought Xena could use a friend about now, too, Salmoneus, even if it is only me."
His face fell, and he told her: "Gabrielle, I wish I could explain even half of whatís going on in that beautiful head of hers right now. Sheís just not herself. Imagine," he said in disbelief, "Xena wanting to be a Queen. Whatís this about I asked myself? Power? Another army? Then I saw her, and knew: this isnít for Xena. I think she takes this noblesse oblige thing a little far; sheís trying to avert a civil war, and save these people from Radec, the way she saved people from Talmedeus, and Xerxes...only this time the problemís on a larger scale. Believe me Gabrielle, her heart is in the right place."
"I know Salmoneus." Gabrielleís voice was so soft he strained to hear. "Sheíll save them. Even if it kills her." Her arm gesture took in the whole musty room in which they sat. "Iíve spent a few hours reading these tapestries. Itís all here. I guess Xenaís read them too, learned her role, and now sheís determined to play it out to the end." Salmoneus looked at the tapestries, then looked a question at Gabrielle. In a long, sometimes barely coherent narrative, she relayed what she had found in these elaborate cloth hangings.
He settled down next to Gabrielle, and shook his head. "No. Xenaís not a person who waits for life to happen to her. She wouldnít follow a script woven in thread," he exclaimed.
"I would agree, normally," Gabrielle said, "but then I took another look." She lead him to a section of the room which lay nearly hidden in shadows, and bid him look, while she told the tale. "Centuries ago, there was a race of warlords, so brutal and cold-hearted that nations trembled before them. They made many sacrifices to Ares, and he smiled at them, and made them strong in battle." Salmoneus made out indistinct forms which seemed to illustrate what she said. "They grew so powerful, and their cruelties so multiplied that the world groaned in protest to Zeus. The gods of Olympus joined the protest: Hestia angry at the families who, being dead, were unable to tend her temples; Aphrodite, who watched her love matches end, with the deaths of worthy suitors, and the rape of their women; Artemis, whose beloved Amazons dwindled in number after countless battles. Even Hades cried out for recourse, as the dead threatened to inundate his underworld kingdom." Salmoneus saw each god, and several others, arrayed around Zeus. "The First among gods was finally moved, and raised his hand to smite the warrior race. Ares was now heard. He implored Zeus to spare his favored ones, and Zeus agreed, on condition that they forsake their warrior ways. He granted them peace, prosperity and the absence of divine interference, as long as they stay within the land of their exile, beyond the River Pres. Pres Prima accepted Zeusí offer."
"Thatís the foundation of the kingdom; thatís why they donít have public temples: the gods arenít welcome here," Salmoneus said, as if answering a question that had bothered him. "And this was done at Aresí behest? But itís a kingdom of peace and prosperity, that doesnít make sense."
"The story isnít over," she told him softly, as she continued: "Ares was angered at Pres Prima for agreeing to this, and demanded a favor of Zeus, who had deprived him of his best warriors. This was the boon granted to the God of War." She indicated a scene of birth and joy, and dark Ares, reaching out to touch the babe. "Through the centuries, he had had dominion over those descendants of Pres Prima born outside the safe borders of Prestia."
Salmoneus stared, as if unable to comprehend her words. She grew exasperated now.
"Donít you see? The descendants of Pres Prima have peace, as long as they stay in Prestia. Outside its borders, they may again be touched with an inordinate love of things martial. Over the centuries, Ares found other warriors, elsewhere, and the Royal House of Pres grew content to stay within its borders. Except for Cletus, who dared to father children, all his children, outside Prestia. Ares has dominion over those children he chooses. Over Xena. Thatís why he wonít leave her alone, thatís why," she paused and swallowed back a big gulp of sobs. "Thatís why Xena is content to let things end this way. Itís the only way to escape her destiny as one of Aresí Ďchildrení. Sheís alone, hurt, and unhappy. Sheís been fighting against the darkness for so long; she must think now itís a struggle sheís destined to lose."
"So, our intrepid warrior friend is in the thick of battle, expecting that sheís got a one-way ticket on Charonís boat? Isnít that sort of a bad attitude to have in a life threatening situation?" She nodded, glumly. "So, whatís the plan?" he challenged. One fatalist in leather was plenty for now he decided.
Without Memnos to command them, the army of mercenaries rampaged through the streets of Prestia, in a headlong retreat from the mounted soldiers at their backs. They had no idea where they were to go, or what objective they were fighting for. Therefore they did what they were generally paid to do, burn and destroy. One torch became the source of a dozen fires, and Xena ordered men to stand down and battle the blazes, rather than pursue the foe. She continued after them with a small force, taking a fearsome toll, whenever she was within reach, with chakram, sword or whip. Each one dead here was one less to deal with later, she told herself, and drove herself on. If they knew where Radec headquartered the Security Forces, they would have turned to the north, but at every northward turn they met opposition. They began to believe that Xena was capable of bi-location, as she was just, always there, before them or behind them, dealing death in a variety of forms. At last Radec caught on to her game, and sent his own men into the streets, not to fight, but to light a trail of destruction. As terrified citizens abandoned blazing homes, the streets began to clog, and Radecís men set on them with a will. Xena turned toward the smoke, abandoning her pursuit of the mercenaries. The Security Forces
lead them to their headquarters, while the Prestian soldiers extinguished more fires.
The battle was, over, for now. The soldiers escorted those who wished to come, to the castle. As they neared the gate, Xena turned to look upon the lovely town, another sacrifice to the foolish vanity of the king. Radec, she knew had an advantage. She held the castle, but he held the town, and its innocent citizens. What he could do with them as pawns, chilled her. One way or another, this affair would be settled very soon.
To Be Continued....