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TRANSGRESSIONS - Cont'd


CHAPTER ELEVEN

Vectra carried Gabrielle back to their base camp. Debo met them as they entered.

"Ephiny, I had no choice. Queen Gabrielle regained consciousness not too long after you left. I couldnít stop her. She made me give her my dagger" The captain was sweating arrows. She was certain this time her career was over.

The Regent just patted her on the shoulder, trying to calm the warrior. "Debo...itís ok...I know you had no choice. We must leave this area immediately. See to it." Relieved to have a task, the captain scurried off.

Vectra laid Gabrielle on her blanket. She motioned for some water and a cloth. She was dabbing the gash on the bardís forehead when Ephiny approached. Without looking up, she asked the obvious, "Is she going to be ok, Eph?"

Ephiny knelt next to her friend. She ran her hand along Gabrielleís face. "Oh.... gods...I donít know. This is very serious, Vectra. It was as if Callisto wanted her to kill. She could have easily stopped the thrust, but didnít. And her men...they just stood there. It was a huge, elaborate set-up. This whole affair has been for one purpose.... to destroy Xena and Gabrielle." She looked at Vectra. There was a tremendous sadness in her eyes. " Iím afraid that Callisto finally has won."

Vectra wasnít accustomed to giving in. "Thereís got to be an answer. This canít be it. I refuse to think that...that.... piece of demented shit has won." She stood and angrily took a whack at a nearby tree, sending wood splinters flying.

Ephiny let her vent...gods knew she wanted to do the same. She also knew what she had to do next. She retrieved the small vial that Saras had given her. Holding it before her, she eyed it like a holy relic. This would be so drastic a measure she hesitated, but this certainly qualified as a Ďdire circumstanceí. Looking at Gabrielle, she weighed the consequences, opened the vial, and placed it to Gabrielleís lips. The bard swallowed involuntarily. It was done. Now the gods would have to do their work. Ephiny cleaned the blood from Gabrielleís hands and then waited. She wasnít sure what would happen.

Ephiny sat with Gabrielle, holding her safely against her, gently rocking. She had instructed Debo and the other warriors to start back. Only Vectra stayed with her. That in itself was a comforting thought. The warrior could easily best any four men. In fact, she was the only warrior that could rival Xenaís skill and courage. She felt perfectly safe. The charge in her lap began to stir. She motioned for Vectra to stand nearby. Ephiny really had no idea what to expect but wanted Vectra close, just in case. She caressed Gabrielleís face, removing the stray hairs that had fallen across her features. She spoke in a very calm voice.

"Gabrielle...can you hear me? Itís Ephiny. Itís ok, Gabrielle, itís over."

The bard struggled to open her eyes.... but could not. Invisible chains weighted her down. Hecate watched her brave attempt to enter the waking realm. ĎIt was always a struggle for the mortalsí, she thought. They seldom really understood about the ramifications of paying the Ďultimate priceí. It was amusing that the only Ďpriceí they could relate to was Ďdeathí. Little did they know that death was the easiest route. No, Gabrielleís price was far worse...she would live. Her memory had been shunted at the crossroad. She would now have to find her own way back.... if at all.

The reclamation of her soul was about to begin. Hecate had given Gabrielle what she asked for...but it was not what she truly desired. Her request for the elimination of grief had opened the door. The emotional balance had been disrupted allowing hatred and quest for revenge to rule. She had unwittingly enabled the Dark Goddess to act through her. It mattered not whether she slaughtered a woodland creature.... maiden.... or monster. It was all the same to Hecate. It had felt good to once again walk among the lower forms.... to draw off their collective unconscious. She had been absent too long. But for now, her work was done and reluctantly relinquished control to Artemis.

The coldness of Hecate was washed over by Artemis. Almost imperceptibly her features softened and took form. The warmth of her eyes focused on Gabrielle. The submerged river of molten emotion coursed through the very fibers of her body. It wouldnít be long before they sought a crack in the surface. Artemis spoke to her chosen in a dream.

"Gabrielle, itís time."

The bard looked confused. " Time? Time for what? The ceremony?" She was remembering the events in a fog. She couldnít quite get the definition.... there was something missing. Why had she asked about a ceremony? What kind of ceremony?

Artemis cursed Hecate for allowing Gabrielle to act on her suffering. It had served no purpose, save entertainment for the Mistress. Oddly, Artemis was at right angles with herself concerning this. It was quite the Minotaurís maze she found herself in. Artemis was confined within her very self. She so wanted to help Gabrielle, but knew intercession would evoke Zeusí wrath. And she had been the target of that too many times. There had to be another way. For now, Gabrielle would have to languish in a world of numbness. The goddess only hoped her spirit could evade the menacing darkness long enough.

Artemis reached for the bard, taking her hand. "Time to awake, Gabrielle. There will be much you donít understand. Trust those around you and listen for that voice deep inside you. All that you are and have been lies within your heart. Seek it and follow its lead. It will bring you home."

Gabrielle looked at the goddess with uncomprehending eyes. She seemed familiar, yet she couldnít quite remember. As the goddess vanished, a random thought strayed across her mind. It was a voice she knew, but didnít know how. "Gabrielle.... fight...hold on. All is not lost. Remember that I love you, always." A slight tingle of recognition swept over her, a stirring of emotion. She reached to snare the thought, but it was gone.

Gabrielle opened her eyes and found herself in the company of strangers. Oddly, she wasnít frightened. She had a feeling of safety. It was very eerie. Ephiny was overjoyed to finally have her conscious. She was trying to remember the instructions Saras had given her. ĎDonít overwhelm herí, were the words Saras had used. Eph spoke quietly to her friend.

"Itís ok, Gabrielle. No oneís going to hurt you. Whatís the last thing you remember?"

Vectra looked questioningly at Ephiny, but held her tongue. Gabrielle looked up into the eyes of the Amazon cradling her head. She hesitated, trying to remember where she had seen the woman. Her face was totally calm. There wasnít a hint of the severe stress and pain of the last few days.

"I.... I...donít know, exactly. I canít seem to remember much of anything. Who are you.... a friend?"

Ephiny was trying her best not to let her panic show through. Vectra was staring in disbelief, but remained still. This was obviously a critical juncture. The Regent helped Gabrielle into a sitting position before speaking.

"Yes, Gabrielle, Iím your friend, Ephiny. And this is also your friend, Vectra."

The bard gazed at the tall Amazon and just blinked. There was no recognition. Her next question sent a shock through both women.

"You call me Gabrielle.... but I donít really remember what my name is...where Iím from...or who I am.... what has happened? Can you tell me?"

Ephiny swallowed hard and attempted to give her the information. "Uh...youíve had an accident and have been wondering in these woods for a few days. Vectra and I have been searching for you. Youíve injured your head, thatís why you canít remember anything. But itís going to be ok. We just have to get you home. Can you stand?"

Gabrielle made a move to push herself off the ground. "I think I can." Eph and Vectra each took an arm, helping her to an upright position. She was a bit unsteady, but was maintaining. Ephiny handed her a staff to prop against. She looked at Vectra, indicating she needed to speak.... out of Gabrielleís hearing. The warrior excused herself and went about the task of gathering their things for the journey home. Ephiny soon joined her, leaving Gabrielle at the edge of the camp. "Gabrielle, weíll be just a few moments."

Vectra had her back to the Queen and was a sea of questions. She spoke in hushed tones, but the urgency in her voice came through loud and clear. "Ephiny, what in Hades is going on? You and I know that Ďbumpí on her head didnít cause total amnesia. She must be in shock. And what is that shit about her being lost?"

Ephiny was barely able to keep Vectra from going off on her. Conspiratorially, she spoke to her. "Will you keep it down. Listen to me. I gave her a potion that Saras prepared before we left the village. It contains a few drops from the Lethe...." She didnít get the rest of the explanation out. Vectra grabbed her arm roughly.

"You gave her what!? A potion made for the river of forgetfulness!? How could you!? Thatís not going to help Gabrielle. She still has all that misery bottled up inside her. Why didnít you tell me about this, Ephiny?"

Eph could understand Vectraís anger, but she didnít have the luxury of fully explaining. "Vectra, trust me, I had no choice. I was specifically instructed by Saras to discuss this with no one. Now we have to get Gabrielle back to the compound."

"Just how do you expect Gabrielle not to find out everything, Ephiny? You canít control the entire village. Someone will slip and tell her. Donít you think that could be more damaging? At least if she had her memory, she could deal with the events. But this...this will be so agonizing for her. Is that what Saras had in mind?"

"Great Athena, Vectra! I have absolutely NO idea what Saras was thinking. This was a direct instruction from Artemis. We have to trust she has a plan in mind. She was going to inform the compound if Gab...." She hesitated a moment, ".... if Gabrielle survived and we returned. Thatís why I sent the others and Debo on ahead. We just have to get her back. Now letís get going. Being out here is not safe."

The warrior screwed her mouth to one side, calculating the risks. Finally, she relented, "Ok, Eph, I trust you and thatís all that matters. Letís get the Hades out of here."

They rejoined Gabrielle at the clearing. The bard eyed the two and the obvious lack of equipment. She might have amnesia but even she could see they had not been gathering a mass of gear. "What took you so long? Is that all the stuff you have?"

Ephiny and Vectra eyed one another nervously; fearing their plan was already in jeopardy. Gabrielle broke the awkward silence, "Itís ok, you two, Iíve seen women in love before. You didnít have to sneak off like that." Without another word, she instinctively headed for the trail. She was thinking that surely she HAD seen that interaction...but she just couldnít remember it. Ephiny was wondering just what she meant by that remark. Vectra nervously eyed Ephiny, wondering if she was as transparent to her friend as to the Queen. Both women came out of their respective Ďwonderingsí and trotted to catch up with Gabrielle.


CHAPTER TWELVE

Hera stormed into the throne room and started in on Zeus.

"This is the last time I will allow that daughter of yours to interfere. I demand her punishment!"

The King of the Gods moved away from the aura of venom spewing from his wifeís lips. He had been expecting her since learning of Artemisí conference with Saras. He hated dealing with Hera. She was cruel and uncompromising. He genuinely feared for the safety of his beloved daughter. Although she had successfully survived numerous punishments for meddling in human affairs, this was pushing the limit, even for Artemis. He tried to appease the godly shrew.

"Now, Hera, my...er...Queen. Artemis has done nothing to change the course of events. All she did was erase the mortalís memory. Everything remains essentially the same, doesnít it?" Even Zeus knew this was a thin defense. He steeled himself for an explosion. He wasnít disappointed.

"You know thatís not the point! What good does the whole event serve if that little bitch canít remember it!? Artemis will pay severely for this...I promise you! Youíd better get her under control." The goddess turned on her heel to exit, " You get her here to explain this, Zeus.... or else!" In a maelstrom of negativity, Hera dissolved. Zeus was left a very familiar feeling of dread in his godly entrails. He was hoping Artemis had a good answer. Zeus turned to Hermes, the Messenger.

"You know what to do. Find Artemis and relay my request for her presence. Tell her to be prepared to deal with Hera."

The messenger nodded and left the King alone in the room. Zeus sagged onto the throne. He sat for some time, knowing the peace that surrounded him was soon to be broken.


Artemis appeared to the healer in her hut. Saras sat up on her pallet fearing the worse, hoping for more. "Artemis.... is she....??" The words wouldnít flow.

"Gabrielle is alive, Saras. But we must act quickly. The potionís effects will be lost soon and with it, Gabrielle. She will not survive the torrent of released emotions. Prepare the village and bring her to the temple as soon as they arrive."

Saras watched as Artemis turned transparent. She leapt from her bed and went to find Eponin. There was much to do before Gabrielle returned. Saras wasnít very clear about the specifics of Artemisí plan...and it hardly mattered. Getting Gabrielle back safely was the first concern.


The Queen was walking at a quick clip, her legs moving almost on their own. She hadnít spoken very much since leaving the vacinity of Crymeria. Ephiny and Vectra knew this wasnít normal behavior either. Gabrielle was conscious but still wasnít Ďin thereí. The two Amazons quietly pondered this.

"Do you think weíll ever see the real Gabrielle again, Eph?" Vectra was eyeing the automaton striding before them.

"Gods...I donít know. I thought an emotionless Gabrielle was hard to relate to...but this...this is really weird. She has no remembrance of Xena...of their love...her death...or even her killing Callisto. I honesty donít know which is worse."

"I know what you mean. But thereís something thatís been bothering me since that scene in the temple."

Ephiny knew what Vectra was talking about. Sheíd had the same thought process running through her own head. "Youíre thinking about Callisto too, huh?"

The tall blond nodded. "Yes. I thought she had been turned into a goddess by eating ambrosia. If thatís true, then Gabrielle should not have been able to kill her." She hesitated, forming her next observation. "Ephiny, do you think Gabrielle really killed her?"

Eph shook her head, "I donít know. I mean I saw the blood and watched her lifeless body succumb. But if she were a goddess, sheíd be able to do whatever the Hades she wanted. We could be manipulated into believing she died along with everyone else. The question I have is why would she do that?"

"For fun? You know how twisted Callisto was before becoming immortal. This is exactly the sick scenario Iíd expect from her." Vectra didnít mean to make light of the situation, but dealing with Callistoís tortured mind and motivation called for defensive gallows humor.

"Hmmm...you could be right. Perhaps she thought if she could Ďtrickí Gabrielle into surrendering her blood innocence, sheíd get extra Ďmean goddessí points. Who knows. I have a feeling that Callisto isnít finished with all this. But our problem is Gabrielle. Regardless of the validity of Callistoís survival, Gabrielle wanted to kill her. Somehow I think it counts."

"I suppose you could be right. Whatís going to happen to her?"

"I honestly donít know. All I was told was to get her back to the village pronto after giving her the potion. I think we are running out of candlemarks here."

The two noticed their conversation had slowed their steps and now the bard was well in front of them. They quickened the pace to close the gap.


Hera waved a dismissive hand to her servants, sending them scurrying from the room like the insects they were. In an icy tone, she addressed the form in front of her. "Come in, dear. Youíre looking...er...well."

Callisto ran her hand around the round edge of the scrying bowl, and playfully splashed the water. "Hmmm...Iím doing quite well for a gutted goddess." She let out a sinister chuckle, amused by her own ingenuity.

The Queen followed the twisted entity with her eyes. " Yes, you seemed to have recovered very nicely. I assume you were successful with that pathetic, whining bitch?"

Callisto feigned shock, holding a hand over her non-existent heart. "Why...Hera! How could you doubt my ability to complete my task? My feelings are positively crushed. Didnít you believe Ares when he said I was the Ďworstí one for the job?"

"Oh, no, thatís not it. Iíve always had complete faith in your twisted agendas. The method never mattered...just the result. Ares recommended you very highly. You have...uh...almost done the perfect job." She paused, allowing Callisto a moment to catch the last part. "You see...we have a weeeeee bit of a problem. Artemis has stuck her mortal loving nose in this business and has relieved Gabrielle of her memory...for the moment."

"So what! I did my part.... I made her want to kill me. And she did, too, rather convincingly. Oooh...not one, but, two really good gut tearing thrusts. Quite exhilarating. I may have to add that to my list of pleasures."

Hera drew near her. There was an irritation in her face. "Well, Iím so happy that you are pleased, but this thing isnít over. You see, if you had stuck to the original plan, then we wouldnít be having this little talk." The words were still hanging in the air when she sent an energy stream from her fingers straight to Callisto. The goddess was flung across the chamber, impacting on the far wall. For a moment, Callisto sat.... stunned. Slowly, she shook off the effects of the bolt and stood. She actually looked like she enjoyed the experience.

She stood, adjusted her neck and continued without pause. She defended her actions. "I donít see what the fuss is all about. Gabrielle attacked me with the full intent of killing. Her thought processes werenít engaged, Hera. The idea that she couldnít kill me never crossed that pea brain of hers... The deal was to get her to take a life willingly. She did that...now get off my case, already! I held up my part! "

Hera was furious. "NO!! See if you can follow this. The deal was for her to kill a mortal willingly. You were to get one of the townís maidens under your...er...spell, dress them in the priestess garb...and wait for Gabrielle to arrive and kill her. That act was to drive her mad...which wonít happen now...ícause she doesnít remember the damn thing! And of course the real reason for all of this.... the eternal suffering of Xena, having to watch her precious Gabrielle wallow in that pit of nothingness. A perfectly good plan shot to Hades. This little grandstanding of yours gave Artemis a reason to interfere. If you had done it the Ďrightí way, she wouldnít have dared." The Queen sighed and spoke to Callisto like a disappointed mother to a fractious child.

"Now, Iím afraid Artemis will demand the contest unfair and moot. Do you know what that means?" She didnít wait for an answer, "It means she can seek a reversal from Zeus. And although he is a spineless wonder, Artemis is his favorite, and that brings out the gumption in him." She sighed loudly, "So, itís up to me to finish this thing. I still have one thing in my favor."

"Oh...and what is that?" Callisto was moderately interested in the outcome.

"Letís just say it involves the Achilles Heel of our beloved protector of the Amazons. Weíll see just how much she is willing to blindly promise for this insignificant mortal."


CHAPTER THIRTEEN

The Amazon village was tense with anticipation. Debo and the battle contingent returned late during the night. She reported directly to Eponin and Saras, giving them the details.

"You mean it was Callisto all along? But why...and how?" Eponin was a sea of questions and fears. "How could Gabrielle kill her? It must be a mistake. Callisto is a goddess now. She canít be killed by a mortal."

Debo could only relay what had been told to her by Ephiny and the others. "I know it sounds impossible, but they saw it. Gabrielle attacked and gutted her right there at the altar. Thereís no way she survived."

Saras's hand covered her mouth, her heart racing. "Oh, gods...tell me she didnít." The healerís worst fear for Gabrielle had been confirmed. She had taken a life. This was most agonizing. "And what of Gabrielle. What condition is she in?"

"Iím not sure. Vectra carried her from the village. She was unconscious with a gash on her forehead. Her hands were covered in Callistoís blood and I think she was in shock." Debo was trying to imagine what Gabrielle went through. "If I were in her place, I would have been out of my mind."

That phrase settled over Ep and Saras, they looked at one another, expressions wide. The healer was afraid that this was exactly the case. She wanted to know if Ephiny had given her the potion, but refrained from asking. Debo finished her report.

"Ephiny told me to gather the others and make haste back here. Vectra stayed with them. Thatís just about all I know. Iím sorry, but I just donít really know how Queen Gabrielle is." She offered a bit of optimism before leaving the two women. "She must be ok, Ďcause I saw Ephiny giving her something to drink. I mean, if she were seriously injured, she wouldnít be able to do that, right?"

That was all Saras needed to hear. Now the game was afoot. "No, that is a good sign. Debo, I want to be sure the perimeter guards pick them up and escort them here immediately. Bring them to the temple. Understood?"

"Understood." The answer was short and direct. The captain made her way from the hut to execute her duties. Eponin was nervously pacing the room.

"Saras, do you think Ephiny gave her the potion?"

"Oh, Iím sure of it now. We need to have everything ready when they get here. Once that potion wears off, Gabrielle will be at great risk. The timing is crucial for Artemisí plan to succeed. She must be able to remember all of her pain...but at a very specific point."

"Do you think this will bring our Gabrielle back?" Ep was looking for a guarantee.

"If this works, Ep, it will bring us all back." The healer gave her a reassuring touch on the shoulder, and exited the room. Ep was left wondering just what she had meant by that last remark.


Artemis materialized in the throne room. Her father, Zeus, warmly greeted her. He embraced her and spoke softly in her ear. "Daughter, this is very serious. Hera means to extract a heavy price from you. I will do what I can, but that may not be much. Please be careful in dealing with her."

Artemis returned his embrace and slowly pulled back. She calmly looked into the Kingís eyes. She could see the weariness in them. Living and dealing with Hera for millenniums had started to take its toll.... even for a god. "Donít worry, father."

Their private moment was interrupted by the sound of an echoing clap. A sarcastic voice filled the room. "Well...isnít that touching. Father and daughter communing. I think I may be sick!"

Hera strode into the room, Callisto not far behind her. Both were casting acid glances at the Moon Goddess. Artemis watched them with no emotion showing. She made a solicitous half bow toward the Queen. The rebellious act wasnít wasted on Hera. She was all too familiar with the arrogant goddess. She had tried more than once to humble and break the protector of the Amazons, up to and including making her mortal. Nothing seemed to deter her fervor where these mortals were concerned. But this time would be different. She planned to use Artemis against herself. The idea was ingenious and oddly, it was that whiny blond bitch that gave it birth. This was going to be perfect. Hera couldnít wait to get started. The trick would be to manipulate Artemis into agreeing to a blind proposal.

The Queen settled on her throne, Callisto stood near, like a pet adder. Hera addressed Artemis. "You know why youíre here?"

"I assume you think Iíve done something wrong, as usual. What is it this time?" She asked almost innocently.

"Donít be coy with me, Artemis. You know you interfered with Gabrielle. I will not allow this insolence any further!"

Artemis was doing a slow burn. "You wonít allow? Your pet there..." she made a sweep of her hand toward Callisto, ".... had a hand in pushing Gabrielle into killing...or thinking she wanted to kill. The reality is that, as a goddess, Callisto canít be killed. The test was unfair."

Hera inched forward, " No...youíre wrong. Gabrielle had intent.... goddess or not. She wanted to kill and for all practical purposes, did just that. No...the test stands. Your taking her memory is the infraction here. And I demand retribution and I want the little tykeís memory restored. Part of her punishment will be Ďrememberingí." She paused before revealing a rather odd addition. "Oh, and by the way, it wasnít JUST Callisto who allowed Gabrielle access to that wanton desire. You have responsibility here too."

Artemis looked askance at Hera. "And just what are you saying?"

This was so delicious and Hera was going to get every last drop of enjoyment. "Why, Artemis, dear. It was Hecate who Gabrielle aligned with. Have you so conveniently forgotten? So, yes, Iím afraid you are very responsible." She sighed heavily, "The fact that you donít allow Hecate out very much is no excuse. She may be your least favorite part, but she is part of you."

Artemis had to find a way to get Zeus involved in this. She had always feared Hecateís ability to manipulate mortals.... feeding off their fears and hatred. There must be some way to turn this....her plan required a subtle shift in Heraís agenda. She implored, "Father, regardless of Hecateís involvement, I did only what was right. If Hera and Callisto had not bent the rules, I would have sadly allowed Gabrielle this personal horror, even with Hecateís intervention. But this isnít right. Callisto is as guilty of meddling as Iíve ever been." She turned to Hera, her voice filled with anger, "And you! Youíre the worst! You orchestrated this whole affair. It is I who should demand retribution!"

Zeus was looking for any small opening to grant his daughter an out. He may have found it. Looking at Hera for the first time since she entered, he threw out his observations. "She does have a point, wife. You and Callisto did manipulate Gabrielle into killing. You just fueled Hecateís particular brand of revenge. Thatís hardly free will as I see it."

Hera and Artemis were now fully engaged in a silent war. The Queen tried to be scornful. "I donít see where my dealings with the mortal realm should be of any concern to you." She paused for effect, " But I am not completely without a willingness to negotiate. I agree that.... um.... perhaps Callisto overplayed her hand. And I will grant you some slack where Hecate is concerned. But in the interest of saving face...." Turning to face Artemis, she posed, "Artemis, what are you willing to trade to possibly adjust the final outcome of all this?"

"Trade!? I shouldnít have to trade anything!" Artemis had to be very careful. Pushing Hera always had its limits.

"Why, yes, dear.... a trade. I canít simply let you have compensation. I have something you want.... the power to be magnanimous about all this. And you have something I want." She let the statement hang like a swarm of bees looking for a new nest.

Artemis was aware that nothing came without risk, especially where Hera was concerned. To agree was tantamount to disaster but she would have to chance it. "What do you want, Hera?"

Hera rose, ran a hand absently over her Callistoís head, and moved toward Artemis. "Hmmm....interesting question. I can think of so many things I want from you, dear Artemis." She walked slowly around the bowl, eyeing Artemis carefully. "Well, it would be just a small token really. Nothing as large as snatching your godly powers." She stopped just behind the moon goddess and whispered near her ear. "Perhaps just a small, insignificant...er...expression."

Artemis was trying to think. What did Hera really want? It all was a moot point, however, the goddess had already decided to give the Queen whatever she wanted. She just didnít want Hera to think she had won so easily. Besides, once she verbalized her request, Hera might reject it anyway. She tried to press for more information.

"Just what kind of...uh...expression are you talking about, Hera?"

"Well, that wouldnít be fair, now would it.... revealing what I want before I hear your request?" Hera paused, waiting for Artemis to commit. The goddess knew she would have to accept the offer sight unseen.

She couldnít think of any punishment worse than being banished and having her powers stripped. But Hera had already had a hand in doing that to her, and in reality, it wasnít that bad. She made her decision.

"All right, Hera, I accept your terms. Now what exactly do you want from me?"

Hera was continuing the game. " No...no, dear. I will only reveal what is required from you after you tell me what you want. I am willing to offer you...letís say.... a slight reversal of fortune for that pathetic mortal." She hesitated, putting fingers to her lips, " But...mind you, do not think I will completely allow the incident to be erased. So.... choose carefully, dear Artemis."

"All right, Hera, here is what I want. My wish is to place Gabrielle back at the morning of the attack on the village.... and run the scenario forward again." She waited rejection.

The Queen could hardly suppress her elation. This was so perfect. She tried to sound concerned. "Hmm...toying with the Fates is very serious, Artemis. Iím not sure I can allow that."

Artemis pressed for advantage. "Are you saying that the expression you seek from me isnít worth a small manipulation in time? I thought you wanted to make this worth while."

A smile creased Heraís face. It looked very out of place on her. "Very well, Artemis. But there are stipulations to your request. Will you abide by them?"

This was getting to be a real pain for the goddess. She steeled herself, lest Hera find a weakness to exploit. She tried to sound bored with the whole thing, letting out a loud sigh. "Yes, Hera, any stipulation you desire."

"Very well then. You may have your request but may not...I repeat...may not reveal any information to Gabrielle concerning the future events. They must flow to their natural conclusion. Do you agree?"

Artemis nodded, " I agree that I shall not give Gabrielle any information." The Queen approached the large scrying bowl in the center of the room. Zeus, Artemis and Callisto closed around its circumference. The faces of the Fates took form. They were holding Gabrielleís lifeline. Artemis could see the dangling thread that had been Xenaís life. It was so entwined with the bardís. It hurt her to look upon it. The Fates acknowledged the Queenís presence.

" Great Hera, we are honored by your attendance." Out of respect, the three bowed their heads. Hera nodded slightly in return. "How may we be of service to the Queen of the Gods?"

The Queen spoke to the Fate holding Gabrielleís lifeline. "I have a request from Gabrielleís protector, Artemis. You will do as she asks." The Fates awaited the petition. Hera motioned for Artemis to make her choice. She moved away from the scrying bowl, giving Artemis an unobstructed view. The goddess carefully traced Gabrielleís line to a point just before the attack on the Amazon village...the morning of the attack.

"This is the place, Hera. I wish to start from here." Artemis indicated a spot on the thread a fraction of an inch before the truncated end of Xenaís life.

Heraís look remained impassive. She raised an eyebrow slightly, a signal to the Fates to make it so. As Artemis watched, the severed thread of Xenaís life was once again joined with Gabrielleís. Xena would live again.... but perhaps only briefly. It was the remotest possibility that their destiny could be significantly altered...but it was a chance. Thatís all Artemis needed.... a window of opportunity. The rest was up to Gabrielle. She smiled at the thought and turned to Hera. She still didnít know what the Queen would take from her.

"All right, Hera. Iíve made my decision, now what do you want from me." The goddess waited for her sentence.

"Well, my dear Artemis. I believe I shall wait until this little scenario has run to its conclusion again." Hera was the queen of irritation also. She ignored the insistence of Artemis. "You may go and situate the bardís return but remember.... you shall not reveal any information to her. To do so will forfeit her life along with Xenaís.... again."

"Very well, Hera. I will return when this business is complete." It was obvious Hera was going to draw this out. Artemis hated dealing with her, but time was quickly running out for Gabrielle. Without further word, Artemis dissolved and returned to the mortal realm. Zeus was very suspicious of Heraís sudden wave of accommodation.

"Wife...what are you up to? You know the possibility of changing this outcome is so remote. In fact, the result may very well be worse. There is no risk to you, why allow Artemis to put them through this anguish again?"

"Because...I can...thatís why! And I need to put that meddling daughter of yours in her place...once and for all. I will have Xena dead.... Gabrielle in torment...and Artemis in my service."

This misguided statement stunned even Zeus. "My dear, Artemis will never serve you. You have made a serious mistake."

"No, dear husband, Artemis has made the mistake. Her blind affection for this mortal has clouded her judgment. Oh, yes, I will have her in my service. She has agreed without fully realizing it."


CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The trio was nearing the boundaries of the Amazon village. Ephiny and Vectra had been following behind Gabrielle. They were amazed that she seemed to know the way and the fact that this didnít appear to bother her was very weird.

"Eph, if she doesnít remember anything, how in Hades, does she know where weíre going?" Vectraís eyes searched for an answer.

"Iíll tell you, with all thatís happened in the last few days, nothing suprises me. Gabrielle must have some internal homing instinct engaged. Itís not like sheís really conscious and with us, if you get my drift. Saras didnít elaborate on the possible side effects of the potion." The Regent glanced at Gabrielleís form, walking steadily forward.

"Well, at least sheís not in that obsessed-let-me-kill-everyone mode. Sweet Athena, that was scary. I just hope we get to the village before this thing wears off."

Vectra cast a worried look at Ephiny. "Is there something else youíve forgotten to tell me, Eph? You know Iím beginning to think you donít trust me." There was a hint of a twinkle in her bright blues. She and Ephiny had been friends a long time. At one point, they had been very close. Vectra had wanted more, but Ephiny decided to stop just short of crossing that line. She had never stopped loving her, but always respected her wishes. It was amusing that Gabrielle had seen right through the years of control. It had brought those feelings rushing to the surface and she cursed her fading resolve.

Ephinyís voice brought her out of the familiar internal scenario. "No, thatís not it at all. You know I trust you with my life, Vectra. I havenít the faintest idea how she will react when the potion wears off. I can only hazard a guess. If she remembers everything then the shock wave will be unbearable and she might just fall off the edge of sanity."

Vectra smiled slightly, "Honey, sheís already gone over the edge. How much further could she possibly fall?"

"Well, youíve got a point there."

The sight of Gabrielleís faltering steps interrupted their analysis. She appeared unsteady and used the staff to keep from falling over. Ephiny and Vectra closed the distance to her side.

"Gabrielle! Are you all right? Whatís wrong!?" Ephiny steadied her friendís balance with her own hand. The bard stood for a moment, shaking her head to clear the cobwebs. It took just a few moments before she regained her composure. She had a faint look of questioning in her eyes. "Ephiny, who are Callisto and Alexxus? Are they my friends too?"

Ephiny shot Vectra a look warning her not to Ďgo thereí. "No, Gabrielle, they arenít your friends. Not even close." This question alarmed Eph. This meant her memory was starting to reintegrate from the most recent event. ĎIt was too sooní, she thought. "Why do you ask?"

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes, trying to answer the simple question. "Iím not sure, I just had a flash of Ďknowingí. Are they important in my life?"

"Letís just say they had a hand in who you are today." The reference was vague and she offered no further clarification.

"Had? Are they dead or sumptin? Címon, Ephiny, tell me. I need to know."

The Regent wanted to avoid this, but Gabrielle was being very insistent. At least that part of her true self was still functioning. "Dead? Yeah, I guess that would be right. Callisto and Alexxus were very evil, Gabrielle, and well...now theyíre gone and we are ALL better off."

The bard was relentless in her probing. "Did I have something to do with their deaths?"

How could Ephiny answer this without unnecessary damage to Gabrielleís fragile psyche? Vectra stepped into the arena deftly deflecting her Queenís need to know.... for the moment.

"No, Gabrielle, I killed them. You were in great danger, and I had no choice." She waited for Gabrielleís reaction and that of Ephiny. The bard had the look of a non-believer. She turned to Ephiny for confirmation. "Is this true, did Vectra kill them?"

Ephiny had no intention of laying the real truth out, she lied, "Yes, Gabrielle, she did. It was as she said." Gabrielleís eyes hinted at her internal processing. Since she really couldnít remember the actual event, she embraced her friendsí account as truth. In a strange way, killing didnít seem to be her style. She wasnít sure what was, but this other felt foreign. "Oh, I see," was all she said.

The conversation fell silent and the bard turned to continue walking. Ephiny and Vectra appeared calm, but their eyes were dilated by adrenaline.

"Ephiny, do you think sheís going to remember everything soon?" Vectra spoke in a hushed tone, turning away from Gabrielle.

Eph took a deep breath before answering. "I donít know. But if sheís getting images of that scene in the temple, then itís safe to say the rest wonít be far behind. I donít think weíll be able to lie our way out of that mess. Weíve got to hurry to the village. If she regains full memory out here, well.... Saras was very adamant about getting her home."

The two Amazons quickened the pace, urging Gabrielle to do the same. The perimeter guards silently watched their Queen from perches on high. The call went out through the trees announcing their arrival in Amazon territory. Gabrielle wasnít connected enough to notice the familiar sound, only casually scanning the wood for the source of the Ďbirdsí. There was something familiar though...she just couldnít put her finger on it...connecting her to an emotion riding just under the surface.... waiting.


Saras was in the temple when Artemis appeared. The sight of a materializing goddess always took her breath. It was truly astonishing and she never tired of watching the unbelievable made manifest. She waited until the form was solid to speak.

"Artemis, I understand Gabrielle, Ephiny and Vectra have passed the outer perimeter. They should be arriving very soon. What is it that I need to do for her and for you?"

The goddess had to be very careful in this instruction. She had no doubt that Hera was listening and one false step could spell disaster for all. "Saras, Gabrielleís memory is beginning to return. She has already had a glimpse of the scene in the temple. This is going to be very close. I cannot reveal the specifics to you, as it would possibly effect future events. The less you actually know the better. There is one very important thing you must do for me...." Artemis paused to allow Saras an opportunity to grasp her real intent. "... and you will know the time. Gabrielle must be able to draw upon all of her pain and anguish...to fully remember...connect...re-establish. She must look within herself for that realization. Do you understand what Iím telling you?"

Saras was hoping she understood. The fact that Artemis was being so very careful in her phrasing was a message in itself. She was certain that the intervention Artemis had planned hinged very much on Gabrielleís ability to listen to her intuitive self and her timeless love for Xena.

"I understand, Artemis, what I must do. I donít, however, understand what will follow. Can you tell me?" Saras asked, already knowing the answer.

The goddess silently looked into her heart, wanting to tell her everything, but doing so would snuff out the only chance Gabrielle and Xena had. She quietly responded, "Saras, faithful healer. You have but one task to complete.... do so without question.... and let the real healing begin. It is out of my hands now and in yours and Gabrielleís."

Before Saras could protest, Artemis dissolved, leaving the healer standing alone in the temple. Even though it was useless, she called to the goddess, "Artemis! Wait!" The silence fell on her like a heavy mantel, the anxiety building around her center. She began pacing the space near the altar.... nervously waiting.... not really knowing how all this would transpire. Out of sheer frustration, Saras marched to the temple entrance, peering out on the compound grounds. "Hades! Where are they!?"


Gabrielle slowed her pace somewhat and turned to the two warriors behind her. "How much further to this village, anyway? Iím kinda tired. Couldnít we rest for a bit?"

Eph and Vectra noticed she looked a bit pale and her body language indicated weariness. Hesitating would prove to be dangerous and Ephiny needed Gabrielle to forge ahead.

"Gabrielle.... itís not that much further if you could just hang with it a bit longer. Once weíre in the safety of the compound, you can rest all you like." She tried very hard not to let the fear come through in her voice. It was harder to hide in her eyes. The Queen looked into her friendís soul.

"Ephiny, what are you hiding from me? Why is it so important to get to that village? Please, tell me...." Her plea was halted by a waking flash of recognition across her consciousness. Gabrielleís hand flew to her chest, clutching the space that occupied her broken...awakening heart. She caught her breath, trying to understand the image. Vectra was closest to her and offered support.

"Gabrielle, what is it?" Her concern in her voice was genuine. "More images?"

"Yes...I...donít know what it means...but it...uh...hurts...here..." She glanced at her chest, her fist balled tightly against it. Ephiny was mentally calculating the distance to the village.... it wasnít more than a candlemark away. She silently prayed for the time.

Drawing to the Queen, Ephiny took her arm. Her voice was controlled and soft. "Gabrielle, I...uh...we...donít have time to discuss the details. Trust me on this one.... itís crucial that we keep moving." Ephiny was already inching her forward before her words fell silent. The bard was trying to rationally process the image of the tall, dark woman and itís connection to her physical discomfort. The tightness in her chest was increasing. It was as if a monstrous beast was trying to rip itís way out. She felt just barely able to contain its release.

Ephiny and Vectra practically lifted Gabrielle off the ground. If need be, Vectra could just carry her the rest of the way. From the confused look on the bardís face, the warrior wouldnít have had any objections. Ephiny knew their time was about up...Gabrielle was about to be inundated with all that sheíd suppressed over the last few days. It seemed so long ago that those events had taken place.... a lifetime. They were almost home.

"Please, Gabrielle, hang on just a bit longer." Ephiny tightened her grip and quickened her step.

Gabrielle focused on the ache deep within her.... the woman in her image.... her eyes, deepest ice blue, searing a hole through the stone in her chest. Involuntarily, the word slipped from her lips, "Xena..." The hairline fracture had begun to widen.

The escort that Saras had sent forth met the Queen, Ephiny and Vectra just north of the village. They had been given strict instructions not to discuss any of the prior events with Gabrielle. She hadnít explained the details. It was the wish of Artemis. That was all they needed. Ephiny was very relieved to see evidence of the completion of their journey. She greeted the captain. "Debo, has Saras made...uh...arrangements for Gabrielle?"

Debo was stressed beyond max with all this. "Yes, Regent, all is ready for Que...." Ephiny threw her a fierce look, cutting her sentence short. She tried valiantly to recover. ".... uh...the accommodations have been...finalized. All is ready." She would certainly be glad when all this over. Nothing in her training had prepared her for the things that had happened lately. And she prayed to Zeus that she wouldnít have to use these skills again. She found that she was not a very convincing liar. Luckily for her, Gabrielleís attention was being directed inward. She could have yelled the whole truth and the Queen wouldnít have heard her.

Gabrielle was barely aware of the reality around her. Flashes of insight were beginning to wash over her consciousness, fleeting glimpses...images...sounds...sensations. It was extremely disorienting and she found herself unable to move any further. Ephiny saw her friend go blank and knew the real show was about to start. She motioned to Vectra, and the tall Amazon unceremoniously hoisted the Queen in her arms. Gabrielle offered no resistance. The entire contingent made a hurried retreat from the wood into the village compound.

They passed through the gate and went straight to the temple. Saras was standing in the doorway, wringing her hands. She had absolute faith in Artemisí as yet unexplained plan. It was her part that she was nervous about. The moment had to be exact.... too soon would stall the execution and too late.... well...it would be too late. She had to wait until the complete dimension of her pain and suffering embraced her...in all its agonizing realization.

Vectra mounted the steps, carrying her charge. Saras led her across the interior to a place near the altar. Ephiny and the guard followed. They all were exhausted. Vectra finally settled Gabrielle on a padded stone bench, Saras sitting close to her. Eph knelt next to her friend.

"Gabrielle.... what is it?" She waited for a response. A sweat had broken out the bardís body, her rapid pulse evident in the throbbing artery in her neck. The room was beginning to fall away from her.... a new awareness encroaching. She heard Ephinyís question, but couldnít answer. Her focus was on a pair of searing blue eyes. For the first time since the attack, Gabrielle reached up and closed her hand around the silver amulet, Xenaís joining token. As her fingers closed around the symbol, the floodgate was opened. The torrent of emotion rushed unmercifully toward her.

In instant flashes she relived her timeline in reverse.... the contorted face of Callisto mocking her even in death.... the coldness of Hecate and surrendering her soul to the goddess.... her detachment and hostility toward her closest friends.... hatred and anger so close where it had never been before, pushing her innate personality aside.... pain and grief so deep it defied description, a rending so horrific her very soul was shattered....but before all of that, the calmness of blue eyes and a passion so intrinsically linked. This passion...this absolute love was the center.... the eye of her existence.... the source of her strength and a well of unending renewal. Gabrielle fell to her knees, her arms wrapped around herself, rocking to and fro. She began to sob uncontrollably, her body wracked in spasms of acceptance and release. A plaintive wail from deep within her soul signaled an eruption of yet unprocessed grief. "Oh...gods!!!!.... Pleeeeaseee help me!!!"

Artemis stood nearby, unseen, and grieved with her chosen. The time was upon her and Gabrielle had finally requested intercession. Silently, she pleaded with Saras, "Now.... healer.... now." Urged by an inner voice, Saras went to Gabrielleís side. She placed her arms around the young womanís shoulders, holding her close. She closed her eyes and waited for Ďthe right momentí.

In a singular moment of abject sorrow, Saras spoke calmly into Gabrielleís ear. It was simple and direct. "Remember, Gabrielle, remember the love."

Gabrielle let loose a cry torn from the very gates of Tartarus. " XEEEEENA!!! Pleeease donít leave me!! I love you.... so!" All her memories converged in one massive inundating rush. Gabrielle felt that her skin would be torn from her body.... it was too much to bear.... too much to remember.... too much to feel. In a voice barely audible, she beseeched her protector, "Artemis, please...."

"Iím here, Gabrielle." Artemis surrounded Gabrielle, separating her from this timeís reality and relationships. As her full memory.... emotion.... pain combined, she ceased to exist in this space......they all ceased.


CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Hera was absolutely livid. "NO! She canít do that! I forbade her to give Gabrielle ANY information. Iím stopping this right now! She has defied me for the last time." Hera pushed Callisto out of her way and approached the scrying bowl, fully intent on severing Xena and Gabrielleís lives this time. Zeus stopped her.

"Iím afraid I canít allow you to interfere with this now. Artemis kept her promise.... she didnít tell Gabrielle anything. It was the healer who prodded her."

"Yes, and who told the healer?" The question was rhetorical. "Artemis...thatís who. Same difference!"

Zeus was always amazed at his daughterís ability to circumvent Heraís nasty agendas. This particular move was one of genius. He wanted to swell with pride, but it would only serve to further inflame Hera. He stated the obvious anyway. "Well...you know, technically, Artemis did not tell Gabrielle. You never stipulated that she couldnít enlist others. And in all fairness, she really didnít instruct Saras directly. I think the healer just...um...took it upon herself to do the right thing."

Hera picked up the nearest loose object and hurled it across the room, sailing toward Callisto. She was completely amused by the Queenís rage. Deflecting the incoming missile easily, she gleefully snickered. This only sent Hera further over the edge. Her rage now was aimed at the Evil One. "And just what is so amusing, bitch? You think Artemis has won?"

Callisto sided with Zeus. "Well, she certainly has an edge now. This may very well backfire on you, Hera. And...well...as for me...I can always torment the two of them any time I want." She playfully hooked an arm through Zeusís, seeking a buffer from Heraís wrath. "But you...my...my...Iím afraid youíre going to lose a lot of face over this." She spoke to Zeus in a loud aside. "And she could use a new face, if you know what I mean." Callisto had absolutely no respect for Hera, a fact that irked the Hades out of the Queen.

Hera regained a modicum of control. This little setback was inconsequential. The fact that Gabrielle Ďmightí shift the outcome was still so remote as to be laughable. Hera still had the odds on her side. And she still had Artemis right where she wanted her regardless. Saving face was a minor inconvenience.... but the insolence of Callisto was becoming intolerable. She would soon do something about that. But for now, her services might be needed. That fact was all that was saving her at the moment...so she ignored the taunt thrown at her expense. She coldly addressed Zeus and his current arm decoration.

"It matters not.... this event will have the same conclusion.... Xena will die...and possibly Gabrielle this time. And that daughter of yours will pay the full price for attempting to intervene...I swear it! In fact, Iím so sure of it; I donít even have to watch the outcome. I will be eagerly awaiting Artemisís arrival. I have such plans for her, dear husband." She let her words slip though her lips icily and fumed out of the room.

Callisto removed herself from Zeusís protection and pulled a chair up to the edge of the scrying bowl. She wanted a ringside seat for the death of Xena as she had missed the event the first time...being on the earthly realm that go around. She was positively giddy in anticipation. Zeus drew near knowing the events would be basically unchanged. He couldnít draw his eyes from the unfolding scene even if he wanted. Both of them sat transfixed...viewing the alternate timeline.... it had begun.


Gabrielleís eyes snapped open...her heart beating wildly in her chest...sweat covering her quaking body...her throat constricted in a cry not remembered. She was certain that she had endured a nightmare, but the memory was clouded. There was only a lingering uneasiness...something that she should remember...but couldnít. She shook off the eeriness of the experience and raised up slightly from the pallet. Her first instinct was to look for Xena. She didnít have to search very far. The warrior was right where she left her.... beside her, resting peacefully. Gabrielleís sudden awakening had not disturbed the slumbering woman.

Although she didnít need a reason to embrace her lover, Gabrielle felt this overwhelming desire to hold Xena close. She rolled on her side, and just looked at the warriorís finely etched features. She couldnít believe how beautiful Xena was. She paused, taking in the quietness of the moment, treasuring it. She placed her hand on Xenaís face, tracing the outline of her lips with a finger. Her touch stirred the woman and she shifted slightly toward the bard. Gabrielle pulled closer and sweetly placed a kiss on her parted lips. A shock went through the bardís body. It was as if she had not kissed her in a thousand years. The emotion was so strong that a tear welled in her eye and a twist in her gut drew an audible gasp.

Xena was drawn out of sleep by Gabrielleís distress. Her eyes immediately locked on her. Instinctively, Xenaís arm folded over Gabrielle, pulling her in close. A kiss of deep abiding passion joined them. Xena felt like a woman dying of thirst and finally finding a wellspring in her lover. She was totally unprepared for the wave of emotion in that joining. Both were unaware of the magnitude of that kiss.... reuniting them. Neither could explain the feelings of loss returned. They simply clung to one another, wordlessly experiencing the moment. Gabrielle was crying. Xena held her even closer...if that was possible. There wasnít a molecule separating them, their hearts beating in such proximity they became one percussive sound. Xena gently rocked the woman in her arms, not knowing why this was sweeping over her, but there was an urgency in their touching that surprised even the warrior.

Xena wiped the tears from Gabrielleís cheek and placed a kiss at the corner of her mouth. She attempted to draw the bard from that overwhelming place. "Gabrielle, look at me, please." Xena raised the bardís chin toward her. "Tell me whatís going on. What has upset you so? Are you nervous about the ceremony today?" Xena knew that wasnít it, but she still had a hard time dealing with heavy emotional issues. Oh, she was getting better, but sometimes Gabrielleís reactions went beyond description. She found it best to just ask for enlightenment rather than to guess. This certainly qualified as one of those occasions. She tried again to get Gabrielle to open up to her. "Please, talk to me. Youíve never had a problem with that before. Think of your reputation."

A smile crept over the bardís face, much to Xenaís relief. "Oh, so now youíre worried about my reputation. Itís a bit late for that, donít you think?" Gabrielle could be very evasive when she wanted...and apparently this was one of those rare times. That in itself worried Xena. This lack of willingness to talk to her meant something very heavy was happening with her lover. Xena was not going to let her slip by that easily.

"Although I believe that the time is well past for saving your rep, that doesnít answer my question. Iím serious now, talk to me. It canít be that bad." She waited, giving Gabrielle time to respond.

Gabrielleís green eyes never left Xenaís penetrating blues. Her left hand came to her face, fingers gingerly removing the current wetness from her lower lids. She sniffed slightly using the back of her hand to run under her drippy nose. She was a messy, unsightly crier. She knew her Ďstallí time was over and began. "Iím not sure what has happened. I think I had a bad dream and when I woke I just wanted to be a close to you as possible. When I kissed you, all this emotion just washed over me. Oh, Xena, it was like I had lost you for a very long time. And was given a second chance. I.... I.... canít explain it. Just thinking about it now makes me want to sob all over again. I just know that I love you beyond all that I understand." That was all she could get out before the tears started running down her cheek again.

Gabrielle had described exactly what Xena had felt, yet had no words for. They had shared an experience from some place outside their reality. As comfortable as Gabrielle was describing it, Xena was equally uncomfortable hearing it. That too, was part of their interpersonal dynamic. Gabrielle talked about emotions and Xena tried to listen. Many times they found some neutral ground to have a discourse. This morning, however, they just held one another, secure in the closeness they shared. Today was going to be one of extreme joy and Xena couldnít think of a better way to start than by holding Gabrielle.

Before passionately kissing her lips, Xena whispered in the womanís ear. "I love you more than life, Gabrielle, I always have...and always will." Her mouth claimed the bardís and their fire was re-ignited. So much for the pre-ceremony tradition of abstinence. Xena always thought it to be overrated anyway.


The band of raiders quietly entered the Amazon wood. They had to be very careful now. Tipping their hand too early would be a disaster. They had to draw close enough to the village to draw Xena into the fray. That was the only reason they were here. It mattered not who else died in the process. Callisto had been very clear about the plan. Any deviation from it would mean a horrible death at her expert hands. Thesspias had seen her in the full throes of such a state. He was a battle hardened warrior but her coldness gave him pause. The fact she was immortal left the band no recourse...no reprieve. There was no possibility of her being killed...by anyone or anything. To fail her was suicide. This resolve bonded them. They would succeed or die trying. The only civilian in the bunch was Ramus. As Alexxus, she had Ďgivení him the honor of killing the Xena who molested and murdered his daughter. It was all she could do from laughing out loud when bestowing Ďthe honorí. His pain was still so acute choosing him was perfect. She knew she could count on him without question.

Thesspias had been instructed to pull his men from the fight once Xena was dead. They were to leave Ramus in the hands of the Amazons. He was armed with only a bow and one arrow in his quiver. He never questioned not having another weapon for defense. He assumed the others would protect him.

As they neared the village, Thesspias drew Erastimus aside. "You remember what to do, right?"

They had been over this a hundred times and Erastimus was tired of the implication. In an irritated tone, he responded, "For the hundredth time, yes...I remember what to do. Zeus almighty, Iím not stupid, yaí know."

Thesspias wasnít concerned about offending his sensibilities. He was concerned about failing Callisto. "Yes...and for the hundredth time letís go over it again...shall we?"

Erastimus just sighed and ran his part by him again. " Ok...me Dragus and Menias get the attention of Xena and draw her into bow range of the peasant...uh...Ramus. We give him a clear shot...he kills the warrior...we leave him high and dry. Then I sneak back and make sure that heís dead. There just ainít a whole lot to this. An idiot could remember it."

Thesspias rolled his eyes. "Yes, exactly. Just make sure you donít screw up or Iíll kill you myself." Now get ready for the ambush. Position Ramus near some good cover...give yourselves some fighting room. It wonít be easy to make Xena stay in position very long. Make sure he knows that. He will have just the one shot. Heíd better make it."

"Oh, I donít think that will be a problem...heís been practicing for a moon. Heís quite accurate with that bow. Xena is a good as dead right now." Confidant of success, Erastimus strolled off to find his cohorts, leaving Thesspias to finish the job of positioning the others.


The small band of thugs thrashed loudly through the wood. High in the trees, the rear guard watched their bows aimed at the inept group. A warning signal was sent through the air, finally reaching the ears of the posted sentries along the villageís battlement. This set in motion a contingent of warriors, like the worker bees massing to defend the threatened hive...and itís Queen.

Eponin raced across the compound yard to the Regentís chamber. She knocked loudly as she entered the room, apologizing all the while.

"Ephiny, Regent...come quickly, there are raiders near the village." She had caught the Regent and her lover in an early morning embrace of passion. She tried to just look past the naked women. Ephiny made no attempt to cover herself, nor did Vectra. "Please excuse the intrusion, but you must come now...." She was out the door before the words settled. Vectra gave Eph a quick kiss before springing up, " Hmmm... I thought youíd already come, my dear. Perhaps I was mistaken. We can...um...resume this in a few." Both women laughed and pulled on their clothes and armor. Ephiny exited her room and made her way to Xena and Gabrielle. Vectra headed to the outer compound to join the others.

Xena and Gabrielle were already moving toward the door when Ephiny entered.

"What the Hades is going on, Eph?" Xena was pulling on her armor and Gabrielle was helping.

"Iím not sure, but the rear guard has spotted a small band of raiders headed this way. Very unusual I would think.... to enter Amazon land so openly...and with obvious hostile intent."

"Yes, most curious." Xena arched that eyebrow of hers, "This doesnít feel right, does it?"

Gabrielle was trying to follow this, "What doesnít feel right?"

As they headed out of the hut, Ephiny explained. "Gabrielle, think about it. Who in their right mind would walk right into the rear guard unannounced? This is definitely not right."

"You mean itís a trap?" Gabrielle had no idea where that came from.

"Hmmm...could be. But weíll see soon enough. There appears to be only five of them. This will be short work. Donít worry."

"Oh, Iím not going to worry, Iím going with you." She had her staff and was now leading the three to the compound floor.

Xena caught her from behind. "Whoa.... I donít think so. Thereís no reason for you to go out there. Trust me, if thereís only five of them, Eph, Vectra and I can handle it. Youíre staying right here...no argument." Her intense blue eyes were concentrated on the bardís face. She meant business.

Gabrielle still wasnít convinced. "And what if it is a trap.... what then? You three will be cut off and outnumbered. No...I donít think so...so just deal with it...ok?" They were at an impasse. Xena relented, as there was no time to banter the point.

To be on the safe side they took several archers with them. The party entered the forest edge. The raiders had definitely come to a certain point and then retreated. It was most odd. Why just turn around in the face of no obvious resistance. Yep, this was not right.

"Ephiny, this stinks. I donít know why they wanted us out here, but I think it best we returned to the village." Xena had already turned when the first man dropped from the trees. In a flash the air was filled with dropping warriors. The underbrush sprang alive with swordsmen. The fight was engaged. Xena and Gabrielle took on the first four combatants. Eph and Vectra expertly separated the men from the rest of the boys. The archers skillfully dropped the others.

The first attacker was met by Gabrielleís staff to his mid-section, knocking the wind out of him. He was an easy target for the finishing blow in his doubled over state. One down...three to go. Xena had successfully parried a slicing sweep by the less that adroit swordsman. His reward was a quick deathblow. It was his own fault. Xena was going to just wound his sword arm, but at the last moment he impaled himself on her sword.

ĎHow stupid!í she thought. The remaining two were in the process of turning her toward the stand of trees. Ramus had an excellent view of the battle...and cover from which to shoot from. His mouth was dry and his heart racing. Yes, this was the warrior who had defiled his daughter. Killing her would be a pleasure...but what of the young woman who fought so fiercely at her side? Alexxus had said nothing of this. The blonde woman reminded him of Katherine.... so filled with life.

The first man she had downed joined the thug struggling with Gabrielle. Apparently he hadnít had enough and was ready for another go. She shook her head and approached him. Her guard was a little down...and thatís all he needed. He took a handful of dirt off the ground and threw it into her face. Gabrielle had not expected that kind of move at all. She went to one knee, blindly sweeping the air in front of her. Her free hand was desperately trying to wipe the dirt from her eyes.

Xena was seeing her predicament out of the corner of her eye. She watched as the man stood over her helpless lover, preparing to end her life with a thrust of his sword. If she had only thought to bring her chakram. What had she been thinking? She called to the bard, "Gabrielle.... above you!"

Instinctively, Gabrielle raised her staff high, connecting with a form standing over her. He was barely touched and sidestepped with ease. Xena had her hands full at the moment. Her attacker was a very skilled swordsman and was giving as good as he was getting. It would take a few more minutes to finish him. That would be too long for Gabrielle.

Ramus was watching the entire scenario. The woman on the ground was so young...innocent looking...his eyes darted to Xenaís back...the blonde woman reminded him of Katherine...it was now or never. He pulled the bow...aimed...and released. The arrow crossed the distance in a fraction of a second...finding itís true mark. A wide-eyed look of genuine surprise crossed the warriorís face. Erastimus was dead before he hit the ground. The swordsman fighting Xena was distracted just long enough for her to take him out. He went down like a ton of rocks. The last raider dropped his sword at the insistence of Vectra. She stood almost a head taller than him and had a very vile looking dagger at his throat. The fight was over.

Ramus disappeared into the wood along with the rest of the fleeing raiders. He just couldnít let the young woman die. That wouldnít bring back his daughter. It didnít have it in him to kill in cold blood. Alexxus was wrong. He would resolve this anguish another way. The rest of the men were considering not returning to the village and the sure wrath of the priestess. Thesspias decided to just let Callisto track him down. He was hoping sheíd move on to another challenge and leave his worthless hide alone.

Xena helped Gabrielle to her feet. She was in the process of ridding her face of the soil. She couldnít wait to be vindicated. Sputtering, she started, "See...I told..."

Xena put a hand over her mouth. "If you say ĎI told you soí Iíll take you out myself." There was a glint in her eye that betrayed the harshness in her voice. She couldnít stay angry with Gabrielle for very long.

The Amazons took inventory of their injuries.... just some scrapes...nothing major. The raiders suffered three dead, one captured and the rest had run, including the archer that took out one of their own. This was very peculiar to Ephiny.

"Why do you suppose he did that? He could have easily killed you or Gabrielle. I just donít get it." She shivered at the thought of the alternative. "But Iím glad he had a change of...er...heart."

Gabrielle smiled and squinted through red eyes. "Iím glad he did to. It really would have ruined my day." She winked at Xena and prepared to return to the village. "Not to mention my night."

The warrior beamed at the bard. Yes, she had definite plans for the young woman this evening......long...slow...torturous...plans. She wanted to forego the formality of the ceremony, but Gabrielle was very insistent on doing this. In a way, Xena needed the Ďofficialí joining of their lives to take place. Besides, how uncomfortable could it possibly be? A gentle hand on her arm interrupted her internal processing.

"Whaícha thinking about?" Gabrielleís soft voice caressed Xena like a warm breeze. "Trying to think of something special to do tonight?"

"Oh, Iíve already thought of that, my anxious Queen. Something I want very badly from you." Xenaís arm folded around Gabrielleís shoulder, pulling her tight against the warriorís side. The bardís arm wrapped around the tall womanís waist, locking her in place.

Gabrielle tried her best to arch an eyebrow, but ended up raising both of them in an expression of wide-eyed surprise. She still hadnít perfected the Ďwarrior archí. It always amused Xena to watch her try this. "And just what is that you want so very badly, my warrior?"

Xena leaned to Gabrielleís ear; her lips just barely touching the lobe. She ran a tongue along the lower part of the ear, sending a shiver through the bardís body. Seductively, she whispered in a low throaty voice, "Why, Gabrielle, you donít know?" She paused for an agonizing second before revealing her wish. "I want you to make me scream."

A rush went over the bard at the image. It was a good thing Xena had a purchase on her shoulder and Gabrielle had her arm around Xenaís waist. Walking had become a real problem for both of them. Ephiny and Vectra were watching the whole interaction with great amusement.

Vectra posed a question to her mate, "Do you suppose theyíll even make the ceremony?"

Ephiny squeezed the tall Amazonís strong hand. "It will be a miracle if they even make it back to the village." Both of the women fell into unrestrained laughter. Yes, today was a tremendous day of joy. From an unseen spot, Artemis couldnít agree more. She would return to celebrate the joining, but now she had business with Hera.


CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Artemis appeared in the throne room, much to the delight of her father. He greeted her with open arms. "Well done, daughter."

Callisto ignored the goddess and stared into the large scrying bowl. "Well, if that just doesnít bite the big one! That bitch!" She stood and took a swat at the Ďhappy coupleí reflected in the water. The spray took flight, landing in a pattern on the floor. "Arggggg!!! Just what do I have to do to kill them!?" She really didnít expect an answer to her question, but looked at Zeus anyway. The King returned the twisted goddessís gaze. He was very surprised at the turn of events.... pleasantly surprised. He couldnít resist commenting.

"Perhaps you should just leave them alone, Callisto. Even with all your hatred and Heraís meddling, they have survived. That should tell you something."

"Yeah...it tells me that I need a better plan next time. And no more partners!" She lowered her voice and spoke to the King conspiratorially. "Just between you, me and the gates of Tartarus, Hera couldnít plan her way out of this room, let alone the demise of Xena and that whiny bard."

Artemis was so over listening to Callisto. She truly disliked this entity. "Enough! Just get over it, Callisto! You will never separate them. Their love is too strong. And they have very powerful allies in high places. You, Hera and Ares are in the minority here. So save your energy for some other project. Why donít you go help Hera find another face? Sheís going to need it!"

The moon goddessís mood was temporarily interrupted by the Queenís voice. "Perhaps youíve forgotten our little deal, Artemis." Hera took form before her eyes.

Artemis looked more annoyed than concerned. She spoke before the form stopped shimmering. "Oh, no...Iím still waiting for your... er... request of me Hera. You think that will happen this century?" The goddess was trying to further irritate her...and having some success.

Suppressing the urge to scream, Hera let her face go blank. "You can try, dear Artemis to make me angry, but thatís not going to happen. You see I have won anyway...regardless of the insignificant turn of events in the mortal realm. I will gain something much more satisfying...your servitude."

Artemis laughed out loud. "My...what!? Not in your twisted dreams, Hera. I will never serve you."

"Perhaps...you wonít serve me...but part of you will. We have a contract, Artemis. You agreed to allow me a small Ďexpressioní and I am here to collect."

Artemis was tired of her wordy games. "So...get to the point, Hera! What the Hades do you want?"

The Queen neared Zeusís daughter. "I want access to Hecate.... to do my biding. See... a very simple request. I am within my right here. Even Zeus heard you agree...there are witnesses."

Artemis seemed unusually calm. The potential danger of Hecate joining with Hera was astronomical. "Iíd really love to accommodate you, but you see, since Gabrielle never called her forth in this timeline, she has no way to take form...let alone serve you."

Hera went threw the celestial roof. "I DONíT CARE!! It makes NO difference if she called her or not...a deal is a deal! Now, I want Hecate materialized.... THIS MOMENT!!" So much for being in Queenly control.

Artemis smiled and continued adding fuel to the inferno. "Sorry, canít do it. You know the rules, Hera. Hecate can only be summoned by a mortal...a very special mortal...my chosen. Previous lifelines donít count...just the present. Nope...youíre out of luck this time. And since you didnít ...er...íexpressí an alternate request.... Iím afraid youíre really out of luck. You get nothing.... zero.... for all your efforts. Now, get away from me before I get really angry."

Callisto was nearing convulsions. Artemis had a little something left just for her. "Oh...dearie...just so you donít feel left out. Xena and Gabrielle send their thanks to you."

The dark goddess took pause. "Huh? Thanks? For what!?"

"Why, it was because of your screw-up that this whole affair had a chance to be played again. Dear Callisto, you are very responsible for bringing Xena back to life and restoring Gabrielleís sanity. How does it feel to be a Ďdo-gooder?' "

Callisto hadnít thought about that. It absolutely infuriated her. "How do I feel? I FEEL like finding that coward Thesspias and ripping his heart out as compensation. THATíS how I feel. In fact, I think Iíll do just that." She made a move to leave but was stopped by the seething Queen. They made quite a pair...crazy and the beast.

"Where do you think youíre going? You made this mess and until we figure a way around it, you are going to serve me...got it!?" Hera was very close to extracting a heavy price from Callisto. Even the demented one recognized her peril. She decided that working with Hera would be safer that against her.... for the time being.

"Fine! But can I get Thesspias first...I ...uh...owe him something really special." There was a gleam in her eye of a childlike quality.

Hera was done with this discourse. She took a parting shot at Artemis before leaving. "Donít think this is over, Artemis! We are just getting started...believe me. There will be another day." The Queen turned, taking Callisto in tow like a naughty, dangerous child. They vanished in a pyrotechnic display.

"Well, that was a bit theatric, donít you think?" Artemis had the final word after all. She turned to say goodbye to her Father. The elderly King was so relieved this mess was over. He held his arms out to embrace his child.

"Take care, Artemis. I know Hera and she isnít finished yet. Although I think this will stick in her throat for quite a while. Ingenious plan. How did you know it would work?"

"Oh, Father, I never had any doubt. Xena and Gabrielle have the purest form of love there is. They are truly destined for the stars. Not even death will stop that."

The goddess released the King, gave him a kiss on the cheek and vanished. Zeus walked over to his throne and sat...taking a deep breath. It was quiet once again on Mount Olympus...but for how long?


The End


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