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Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong in their entirety to Universal and Renaissance. No copyright infringement was intended.
Violence and subtext are restricted to the guidelines established by the television series.
This is the last of eight related stories starting with Turning Point. Apologies to William Shakespeare.
"This is a beautiful valley," said Gabrielle coming up to stand by her friend Xena. Xena looked down at her petite, blond companion. Gabrielle's face shone with excitement and innocent joy. Her Amazon working clothes of earth tones made her look like a lost nymph from the forest. Xena gave a half smile that was instantly replaced by a frown of sorrow as she turned again to scan the valley. Gabrielle looked up at her friend with concern. The two companions stood on a hillside of wild flowers looking down into a wide valley, green and lush with spring growth. A fresh river splashed its way around rocks as it wound among the valley farms. Here and there blue smoke rose from morning fires in farmer's huts. Near the end of the valley, a smoke haze hung like a flat cloud above a palisaded town of some size.
"I always thought so," stated Xena flatly scowling at the valley below.
"You've been here before?" questioned Gabrielle gentle recognizing the uneasiness of her warrior friend. Xena's eyes closed for a second and when they opened again her sea-blue eyes had become stormy and dark.
"Several times, but only to burn and destroy," snarled Xena in disgust turning her back on the beautiful scene and walking over to squat by the fire. She picked up a stick and poked moodily at the ashes spreading the charcoal blackness. "It was a good valley to sack, rich takings and lots of grain and livestock to steal if your army was hungry and tired of battle."
Gabrielle turned and looked with worry at her friend. It always upset her when Xena revealed the pain and guilt she felt about her warlord past. Gabrielle watched Xena's smooth muscles flex in her shoulder as she poked at the fire. Her profile was beautiful, with high cheekbones and a full sensuous mouth. The mouth at the moment was pulled tight and Gabrielle could see a nerve jumping near Xena's temple. Dressed in dark leather battle dress, armored and carrying lethal weapons, Xena did not look vulnerable but Gabrielle knew otherwise. She walked over and knelt by Xena's side putting her arm around the tense shoulders of the warrior. "Xena, why are we here?"
Xena smiled up at her friend, "You're the one that sees the future," she reminded Gabrielle giving her a gentle push with her body before returning to poke the fire moodily. "King Garith of Phaicia, the town at the end of this valley, requested I come. I don't know why." Xena dropped the stick in the fire and turned to look into the eyes of her friend. "I owe these people," she said.
Gabrielle gave her companion a squeeze of support and then got up. "I'll break camp while you saddle Argo," she said, showing her support of Xena's decision. "We'll want to get to Phaicia before midday." Xena smiled softly at her friend and got up to do as Gabrielle had suggested.
The sun was not directly overhead when the path that had brought the two travelers down into the valley joined the main trail leading to the town. There a troop of mounted guards waited. Xena tensed in her saddle and Gabrielle, walking at her side shifted her hands on her staff to a fighting position in case of trouble.
"Xena, Warrior Princess of Ares?" barked the troop leader urging his horse forward to block Xena's path. Gabrielle felt her friend's anger mounting. Xena did not like to be reminded that she was the princess of the god Ares.
"Yes," stated Xena with a controlled calm.
"I've been instructed to arrest you and hold you for trial before the King on charges of war crimes. Hand over your weapons," commanded the soldier seriously.
Gabrielle stepped forward hopping to defuse a tense situation. Knowing that her friend would be fighting for control. Her human side understanding as her god-blood cried out in rage. She readied her staff for combat and smiled, "You obviously don't know Xena..." Gabrielle started to explain to the troop leader.
"Gabrielle," snapped Xena and Gabrielle looked back at her friend in confusion. "Give this officer my weapons," Xena commanded slowly lifting her sword from its scabbard on her back and holding it out to Gabrielle.
"What!?" cried Gabrielle in surprise coming to stand by Xena's side and looking up at her. "What are you thinking of!?"
"Gabrielle, I'm not here to cause trouble, remember," Xena tried to explain to her stunned friend as Argo pranced nervously sensing the tension.
Gabrielle reached up and grabbed Argo's bridle steadying the big beast. Leaning close she argued in a whisper, "Xena, they are arresting you!" But Xena's only response was to raise an eyebrow and to hold out her sword once more. Gabrielle met Xena's eyes and sighed. Her friend was impossible to move when she had made up her mind. Gabrielle took the sword and waited as Xena past over her chakra, whip, and assorted knives. At the signal of the troop captain, a soldier stepped forward and took the equipment from Gabrielle. Another soldier stepped forward as Gabrielle was doing so and snapped heavy iron cuffs attached by chain to Xena's wrists, Xena sat on her horse, looking straight ahead, her face stone.
"Hey!" cried Gabrielle turning around, "Take those off! They're not needed!" The soldier's only response was to grab up the reins of Argo and try to pull his captive along. But Gabrielle rushed over and snatched the reins from his hands. "No guard is going to lead my friend into town like she was a criminal!" snapped Gabrielle, her eyes flashing as she came to take Argo's bridle and lead her off down the rutted road towards Phaicia. Xena did not react at all, but sat chained on Argo's back staring straight ahead.
A horn blew as they walked through the gates of Phaicia. Towns folk crowded around and yelled jeers at Xena.
"It's Xena, the monster!"
"Why have a trial? Kill her now! Murderer"
"Butcher her like she did my brother!"
A boy at a farmer's stall picked up a soft tomato and hurled it at Xena. It smashed against her chest and red bits splashed on her face and rained on Argo. Gabrielle fought to keep Argo from bolting. Gabrielle looked up expecting Xena to swing into action. But Xena just stared straight ahead and didn't react at all. What was Xena doing!? What was the matter with her!? Now stones, rotten cabbage and soft tomatoes smashed against her body. Gabrielle urged Argo forward and the guards pushed back the angry crowds and threatened them with their swords to bring order. The crowd went sullen and followed menacingly. Gabrielle coaxed the frightened Argo on and glanced up for some sort of reaction from Xena but Xena sat straight in her saddle stone faced.
The soldiers cleared a path through the mob to the prison walls. Here the captain of the guard ordered the crowd pushed back and then dismounted. With his hand on his sword hilt he walked over to where Xena sat on Argo. "Dismount prisoner," he commanded. Xena dismounted smoothly even with her hands chained. For the first time she reacted, turning to Gabrielle and whispering in her ear. "There's dinar in my saddle bag. Get a room and care for Argo," Xena instructed and turned away to follow the guard before Gabrielle could argue.
Gabrielle watched Xena walk into the prison block. Around her the guards had formed a wall and were holding back an angry crowd who now yelled insults at her friend. Argo paced nervously beside her and she reached up and stroked Xena's mount. Argo's neck felt warm and the fur was bristly under her fingers. "Come on Argo, let's get out of here," she whispered and taking up the horse’s reins, she pulled the horse along pushing through the crowds with defiance.
She did not walk far down the shabby streets near the jail before she found a stable. Although small, it was clearly well managed and clean. Xena was very particular about Argo's care. They had shared victories and pain. The horse and rider had a silent language that made them one whether galloping along a seashore or charging into battle. Gabrielle knew that one of Xena's first questions would be about Argo's safety and care. "Hello, hello," called Gabrielle peering into the darkness of the stables, "Can anyone help me?"
A huge bear of a man ambled out. His face looked like it had been carelessly cut from stone. His features big and crude. His hands were huge paws of muscle and sinew. Gabrielle strained her neck back and looked up with a nervous smile, "I need this horse boarded," she explained.
"The warrior's horse?" growled the stable owner walking passed Gabrielle to eye Argo.
"What if it is!" snapped Gabrielle, her jaw tight with rage. "I want the best care I can get for this horse. If you have a problem with that I'll take my business elsewhere!"
The huge, dark man turned and loomed over Gabrielle, "I have no problem caring for Xena's Argo. Xena was a great leader and Argo a fine horse," said the course monster of a man before her.
"You know Xena?" Gabrielle questioned looking up in surprise at the mountain of a man before her.
"I served in her army and was proud to do so. There are a number of us who found homes and lives in this valley after Xena left. Argo will get the best of care here and at no charge. You tell Xena that Hercal runs the stable. It will put her mind at rest."
"Thank you, Hercal," Gabrielle smiled. The big man nodded with an embarrassed smile and turned to loosen Argo's cinch strap.
"You are Gabrielle, the Warrior Bard of Olympus, if I've heard right," stated the stable owner turning to lead Argo and Gabrielle into the stable.
"Just Gabrielle," she responded blushing, " I ride with Xena." Gabrielle looked up with pride and met the stable owner's eyes.
He nodded knowingly and then cast a weary eye towards the door and back to Gabrielle.
"Then you are going to find few friends in this town," he observed. "You would be better to stay here where I can look out for you. I can make up a bed of fresh straw in the back stall and if you can cook, it will do for payment. I live alone in the loft above. You might need my protection before all this is done."
"I don't want to impose on you," stated Gabrielle. Lifting her staff for the man to see she continued, " And I can take care of myself."
The huge man smiled and nodded at Gabrielle's courage and independence. "You would be helping me out, I hate my own cooking," grumbled the bear of a man. "The only inn is not likely to have you what with the lord-mayor being its owner. It's a rough place too when the men have been drinking. Not a place for one like you."
Gabrielle smiled, "Then I accept and you're in luck because I'm a pretty good cook."
Hercal smiled and turned to help Gabrielle remove the saddle bags and gear from Argo's back. Then Gabrielle groomed the big horse while Hercal watered and fed the animal.
Later, they shared a meal in the loft of black bread, fruit and cider. Gabrielle wrapped up the remains to take to Xena at Hercal's suggestion. "Awful the way they care and treat them in there. I should know, I've spent time enough in that goal!"
Gabrielle's frown deepened. She knew her friend would find it unbearable to be locked up like a wild animal. She also knew if she was mistreated that the temper that the demigod of war was always trying to control would break out with incredible fury. She hurried along the street keeping her head down and avoiding people until she reached the guardhouse. Even on the outside the smell of vomit, waste and rot seeped from within. Gabrielle wrinkled her nose in disgust and walked up the stairs. At the huge metal studded door, a soldier stood on guard. He wore the black leather livery of a warrior and smelt of sweat and yeasty beer. " I'm here to visit a prisoner," Gabrielle explained.
The guard looked her up and down with interest and then snarled, "See the officer inside."
Gabrielle walked into the gloomy interior and found two soldiers playing cards in a room on the right. " I'm here to see Xena," she informed them, "Who can take me to her?"
"I can," replied one of the warriors getting up and looking at Gabrielle with a leer. "You're Xena's girlfriend aren't you?" he asked turning to roll his eyes at his companion. The other soldier stifled a laugh.
"I'm Xena's partner. Take me to her," stated Gabrielle calmly.
The soldier shrugged and walked over to a large iron key ring that hung from a hook on the wall. He took these and pushed passed Gabrielle to go clanging down the hall. Gabrielle followed. At a narrow, spiral, stone staircase the soldier stopped, "You go first," he said.
Gabrielle shook her head, "After you." The soldier smiled and headed down the worn stairs into the gloom below. Even as they wound around the filthy stone stairs, down into the gloom and stench, it was clear that there was a commotion going on below. Loud voices could be heard and the thuds of a fight. The sound of a man's laugh echoed up to them.
"Xena!" called Gabrielle as she pushed round the guard and raced below. As she came out into a guard's area, she could see down a narrow hallway a guard standing outside a cell laughing at someone within who was, by the sounds of things, being beat up. Gabrielle headed down the hall and looked into the cell. To her shock, she saw her friend on the ground with the four other inmates of the cell kicking at her. "Back off!" Gabrielle screamed smashing her staff against the bars. "Back off!" The surprised prisoners moved away from Xena and Gabrielle whirled on the guard. "Give me the keys! Or I swear to the gods I'll send you to Hades right now!" she snarled.
The startled jailer handed over the keys and Gabrielle unlocked the door and went in with her staff up. The ugly inmates backed off some more and Gabrielle helped Xena, who was now staggering to her knees, up onto her feet. Gabrielle backed out holding Xena close. The guard closed the door as Gabrielle lead Xena to the area that was used as a guard's room. "I'll see the King hears about this!" she snapped at the guard who had brought her down. "It's the King who is to judge Xena fairly not scum like you."
The guard bristled with rage. "She has to be locked up," he responded as Gabrielle pushed passed him to sit Xena on a stool by a small wood table.
"Then she is to be in a cell by herself and not before I clean her up and she eats!" growled Gabrielle lifting her staff. "Now back off!" The two guards moved back down the hall and left the two women alone.
Gabrielle turned to fill a bowl with water from a jug on the table and took out a cloth to wet. "You could have easily handled those thugs. You let them beat you up! Zeus! What's the matter with you Xena?!" grumbled Gabrielle as she wiped the dirt from her friend's face with the wet rag. Xena didn't respond but stared straight ahead. Gabrielle stopped what she was doing and now with real concern, she knelt in front of her friend and took her by the shoulders. "Xena, Xena!" she called giving her friend a shake.
Finally, Xena's eyes focused on her friend. "Is Argo all right?" she asked. Gabrielle gave a relieved smile. "She's in a good stable run by an old companion of yours called Hercal. I'm staying there too." explained Gabrielle.
Xena nodded in relief. "Hercal has a way with horses and he is a man you can trust." Then her face clouded over again, "Gabrielle, if they don't execute me, bring me a knife..I..I..can't live underground. Let me kill myself," requested Xena softly.
Gabrielle looked at her friend in complete shock. "Xena, don't talk like that!" she ordered shaking Xena by the shoulders again.
Some spark returned to Xena's eyes and she grabbed Gabrielle's wrist. "Promise me if the worst comes to the worst, you'll help me take my life," begged Xena holding on to Gabrielle tightly and looking into her eyes pleadingly.
For a second silence hung between the two friends. Then in a quiet voice, Gabrielle said calmly and sincerely, "My word Xena, that I will allow you to die with dignity before I let you rot away here. But understand, I am going to move Mount Olympus if necessary to get you out of this mess," finished Gabrielle picking up the cloth to wash Xena.
Xena smiled and nodded and then took the rag from Gabrielle's hand and started to clean herself. Gabrielle smiled and started to set up a meal on the guard's table. "Just to show you what a real friend I am, I'll eat with you eventhough you smell like a wet donkey in a hot, dirty stable!" The two friends laughed.
Xena sat at the guard's table eating with one hand as Gabrielle stood in front of her treating her cuts. "Xena, you have to be more careful down here, even a small cut could turn nasty in this filth. Please Xena, take care of yourself until I can get you out," begged Gabrielle.
Xena shrugged and then hesitated at the sight of Gabrielle's stressed features. She nodded, "I'll do my best," she promised and was rewarded by a huge smile from Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, sit down for a minute, I need to talk to you," continued Xena quietly. Gabrielle looked apprehensive and pulled up a stool to sit in front of Xena. "I'm guilty. If you search my memories that you were given by the witch Ornell, you will know that. Maybe this is the end of the journey you talk about." Gabrielle went to object but Xena held up her hand. "Please, let me finish. You've had no visions for awhile. Maybe this is my journey's end, to face my crimes and accept my punishment," stated Xena searching Gabrielle's face for a sign of understanding.
There wasn't one. Gabrielle looked at her friend in frustration and disbelief. "I wont let your guilt cause you to martyr yourself, Xena. You can't change the past, and we both know this world would have been a much worse place for me and others if you had never been. Xena, this is not the way you are to end your journey. I'm sure of this. We need..."
"She has to be locked up now," interrupted the guard moving into the room and taking Xena by her arm. Xena stood and looked at her friend and smiled. They both knew Xena could break the guard in two if she wanted to escape. Instead, Xena let him pull her down the hall and place her in a new cell on the left.
Gabrielle picked up her things and packed them away and then headed up the stairs to the fresh air and sunlight. Xena was not going to survive down there long, Gabrielle thought. Especially in the mood she was in. It was almost like she wanted to be punished for her past!
A worried Gabrielle hurried back to the stable. There she found Hercal working at the bellows shaping a horseshoe. She told him what had happened and he shook his head in worry. "The King is a young man but he wants to be a strong and fair leader from what I can see. I think he will weigh the evidence fairly. But no decision can be made in isolation. The King will have to consider solidifying his leadership. As a young man, he needs the support of the powerful in the area to maintain his rule. That means he can not afford to upset the lord-mayor of Phaiacia. And the lord-mayor of Phaiacia wants nothing more than Xena's death," explained Hercal working away absently on his chores.
Gabrielle leaned against a stall and listened intently. "Why does the lord-mayor hate Xena?" she asked.
Hercal stopped what he was doing and looked at Gabrielle for a minute considering, then he shrugged and shook his head, "Xena killed his son. I..er..don't know much about it," he finished lamely.
Gabrielle knew he was not telling everything he knew. "Hercal, Xena and I have no secrets from each other. Most of her years as a warlord I have relived because of a witch's spell that gave me Xena's memories of those years. You can't spare me pain or disillusion me about my friend. Xena and I have gone through so much together over the last three years. She and I have shared all our secrets and pain. Please tell me what memories happened here," pleaded Gabrielle walking over and taking the arm of the ugly bear of a man beseechingly.
Hercal looked uncomfortable. "It's the only time I ever saw Xena out of control," he justified. "I don't know what lead up to it because it happened in the heat of battle. All I know is I heard Xena's war cry and turned to see her charge over the hill on Argo after a man that was running on foot. She didn't even bother to rein in her horse but rode right into him. Then she whirled and dismounted and was on him before he could stagger to his feet. She didn't use any weapons, just her hands but she kept beating him until he died. She was still kicking at his bloody carcass when I went over and pulled her off. Her mouth was foaming and her eyes were as cold and as black as Tartarus itself. The man's blood covered her and still she wanted at him. It took three of us in the end to hold her off. She was so wild with blood-lust that I don't even think she knew who we were."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and leaned against Hercal's arm. She could remember but the images were distorted by Xena's emotion. Gabrielle could feel her hate. "Why?" she asked looking up at Hercal.
Hercal shook his dark face and patted Gabrielle's shoulder with a huge, gentle paw. "I don't know. But she wouldn't let anyone near his remains. His father came to ask for the body but Xena had him sent back to the village without letting him see his son. She left the body where it was to be eaten by the scavengers and rot." Hercal looked down at Gabrielle with a worried frown. "Xena was never like that. Just that once," he tried to explain.
Gabrielle patted Hercal's arm reassuringly," Xena is kind and good, Hercal. I don't know what happened but Xena would not have done what she did without an awful good reason. I'm going back to talk to her."
Xena was surprised when the door opened and Gabrielle was admitted to her small cell. Her friend look pale and nervous. Strain was in her eyes. Something was very wrong. "Gabrielle, what is it?" asked Xena coming up to her friend and putting her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
Gabrielle looked around the small cell that just about left Xena enough room to lie out. The floor was dry and a small barred window near the ceiling let in some light. It was an awful place to be but it could be worse. At least Xena was not going to be bothered by bullies. "Xena, you brutally killed a man here. I need to know why."
Xena stiffened. "Because I was a warlord and killing was what I did," said Xena turning away.
"Xena, you didn't just kill this man. You beat him to death and left his bones to be picked by the scavengers! I need to know why!" stated Gabrielle angrily watching her friend.
"He had come to me several days out of the village and told me he knew of my army and wanted to join. He was healthy and strong and could use his sword well. His name was Zacthos. I was glad to have him. During the battle I came across him. He had raped and killed a woman and her three children. I..I..was responsible. He was my soldier. I..I.. " Xena stopped and swallowed several times. Gabrielle came up behind her and wrapped her arms around her friend and held her tight. " One of the children was still alive and I was bent over her trying to save her. The spear was meant for me, but just at that moment I reached sideways for a water skin that lay near by on the ground. The spear went through the child. I..I.. went mad. I rode him down and tore him apart with my bare hands. I..I.."
"Xena, don't," whispered Gabrielle coming around to face her friend. Xena's face was twisted in agony. Gabrielle took her cold hands in hers. For a second, she lowered her head and hesitated, then looked up at Xena. " Zacthos' father is the lord-mayor now. He's the one who has been inciting the feelings of the town against you." explained Gabrielle.
Xena laughed bitterly and pulled away from Gabrielle. In two strides she was at the opposite wall and turned to face her friend. "Incited the town against me! Come on Gabrielle, look at things the way they are! Twice, I lead an army here to burn and destroy. Do you think Zacthos was the only man to take what he could at the cost of the innocent!? Gabrielle, I'm guilty. I am what they say I am. Don't you see that!?"
"No, I don't! I don't see it at all! And I'm not going to let you give up!" yelled Gabrielle coming over to Xena and looking at her angrily.
Xena sighed and turned towards the wall. "Ares and I..."
Gabrielle grabbed Xena and spun her around, "Don't" threatened Gabrielle with real fire in her eyes. "Don't even think it!" she snarled shaking her fist in Xena's face. Xena looked at her in amazement as Gabrielle turned and banged on the door to be let out. She did not look back as she left.
Gabrielle walked through the streets and after stopping to ask directions several times she found her way to the lord-mayor's house. She now waited in a room of rich tapestries and fine furniture. Even the cushions were highlighted in gold thread. They glistened in the light of the fire. A curtain was pulled back and a tall, sinister looking man dressed in black entered the room. " I am the lord-mayor of Phaicia. I must say I am surprised at your nerve coming here. What do you want?" he said moving over to pick up a bunch of grapes from a large dish of fruit that sat on a table. He picked off a single, blood-red grape and dropped it in to his mouth with a smug smile.
Gabrielle squared her shoulders and faced the man. "I came to try and convince you not to use your power to influence the King's decision in judging Xena," she stated calmly.
The lord-mayor laughed. "My you are naive!"
"Look," argued Gabrielle, "Xena has paid for her past many times over. Now she risks her life to help others. She is a good influence in this world. You can't change the past!"
The lord-mayor leaned on the edge of the table and looked at Gabrielle. " My dear, Xena probably did me a favor. My son was a problem child. He was fated to die an ugly death. No, this is not a matter of revenge but a matter of good business. The King is young and vulnerable. He needs my support and I need a district that is not going to be championed by a hero like Xena."
Disgust filled Gabrielle's face, "You're horrible!"
The lord-mayor smiled, "No, I am practical and a survivor. My son was neither. Xena is guilty, you know. And tomorrow when we go before the King, I will prove that easily. Many have chosen like fools to forgive her because of her good deeds, that was very unwise. No, my ...business interests...sometimes are questionable and I can not afford the whimsy of having a hero about. You can be sure I will do everything in my power to hang Xena," finished the lord-mayor coming up to stand in front of Gabrielle.
"Well, you can be sure I'm going to do what ever it takes to stop you!" snapped Gabrielle pushing passed the evil man and leaving.
The man smiled and watched Gabrielle go. When he was sure she had left, he turned and called out for his guard, "Egro! Egro!." A bulky guard entered the room and stood silently by. "This girl could be trouble. I think we need some insurance that Xena does die. Burn the prison down tonight," commanded the lord-mayor. The guard smiled and left the room.
Gabrielle returned to the stable discouraged and tired but she kept her promise and prepared Hercal a special meal of spiced fish in grape leaves and young potatoes. Hercal sighed in contentment and then glanced at Gabrielle who was playing with her food. "You are worried," he observed.
Gabrielle nodded. " Everyone seems against Xena, even Xena. What words can I use to make these people understand that Xena is worth saving? Gabrielle shook her head in frustration and got up and went to stand at the window. People think that Xena is so strong. They don't understand her like I do. Her blood is part god and part human. She wants to do what is right and good as a human but the blood-lust of the god of war rages a continual battle in her soul. She rarely smiles when she does good, to her its a task she must continually do to make up for her darker side. She smiles when she is in battle." Gabrielle turned and faced Hercal, "And she smiles when she's with me. Xena's very vulnerable in here," explained Gabrielle touching her heart, "She has the most caring, loving soul and yet she wages a continual battle with the violence of her blood. Ares calls her and sometimes I am the only one that holds her back. Somehow tonight I have to find the words for both Xena and the King to make them understand how very special a person Xena really is." Gabrielle turned and looked out the window. Hercal left her to her thoughts as he cleared away the dinner remains.
Xena smelt the oil only seconds before she heard the flash of hot flame. Smoke billowed through the wood rafters of the ceiling. Xena spun around and pointed her finger towards the lock of the door. Blue flames leapt from her fingertip and melted the iron lock away. Quickly, Xena ran down the smoke filled hall and up the winding stone stairs. The panicking prisoners below called to her for mercy. "Where's the keys?" she yelled as she burst into the guard room where two guards sat drinking, "The place is on fire. Hurry give me the keys!"
The guards recovered from their surprise and came at Xena. She leapt in the air and caught both of them under their chins with her boots snapping their necks back with incredible force. The two lay cold on the floor while Xena searched their bodies for the keys. They weren't there. Looking around the room, she saw them on the hook on the wall. With relief, she grabbed them and headed down the spiral stairway that was now full of heavy smoke. Cell after cell Xena opened. She made several trips up the spiral stairs carrying those that had been over come by smoke and flame. The old, dry support beams and straw bedding burned like an inferno. Xena's skin was scorched and her hands blistered but she fought on. Leaping over walls of fire and kicking burning debris to clear a path she managed to reach each cell. Only when everyone was safely out did she follow, stopping at the guard's room to drag the two soldiers outside to the safety of the courtyard. There she fell to the ground and passed out, overcome by the heat and smoke.
Gabrielle was trying to find the words. The message had to be short but powerful. She frowned trying to find the phrases that would touch the heart of the King. As she sat in the window, Gabrielle smelt the rancid smell of smoke just a second before the western sky lit up in a blaze of orange. "Hercal! Hercal!" screamed Gabrielle running for the stairs, "The prison is on fire!"
Men, women and children carried buckets and threw it on the fire. Fortunately, the heavy stone of the fortress stopped the fire from spreading to other buildings quickly and this gave the town's people time to wet down the grass roofs and contain the fire. Some of the prisoners that Xena released stayed to help save the town but most disappeared quietly in the confusion. Xena lay in the mud, stepped on by those that ran to help.
"Xena! Xena," cried Gabrielle running up with Hercal on her heels. Just then the walls of the prison collapsed in a spray of heat and sparks. Gabrielle screamed and covered her face in horror but Hercal tripped and looked down to see Xena's body in the dancing shadows of the fire.
"Gabrielle, she's here!" cried Hercal carefully turning Xena over and trying to clean some of the mud off her face.
Gabrielle knelt beside her friend, "Xena," she whispered in fear looking at Xena's burnt hands and charred skin.
Xena opened her eyes and smiled. " I'm O.K. Gabrielle." she coughed and passed out again.
Hercal bent down and picked Xena up in his arms and with Gabrielle beside him, he pushed his way through the crowds back to his stable. There Gabrielle washed the dirt and smoke from Xena's body and put ointment on her burns. Xena was conscious but said little watching the worried Gabrielle attend to her needs. "Can you drink some wine?' asked Gabrielle.
Xena nodded and Gabrielle went and filled a goblet and brought it back to hold to Xena's parched lips. "Thanks," said Xena with a stronger voice.
Gabrielle smiled. "What happened?" she asked.
"Someone poured oil in and then dropped in a torch. I imagine someone felt a trial wasn't necessary," explained Xena bitterly.
"Xena, lets go tonight. We can be long gone before they realize you didn't perish in the fire." But Xena was shaking her head.
"Gabrielle, I can't do that," said Xena looking up at Gabrielle her hands curled around the bandages that Gabrielle had carefully wrapped around her burnt hands. "If I do, I'll be on the run for the rest of my life. I can't run from my past forever. I have committed crimes in my life and now I am here to accept the punishment for them. Try to understand Gabrielle."
Gabrielle got up and looked down at her friend in disgust, "What I understand is that you are willing to hang for a lousy bit of political maneuvering. The lord-mayor wants you dead so that he wont have to worry about you interfering with any illegal business he might have! He is using your guilt to get rid of a hero. Zeus! What is the matter with you, Xena?"
Xena closed her eyes and then looked up at Gabrielle. "I don't really care about what the lord-mayor's reasons are. I need this trial to put my soul at rest. Try to understand, please!" begged Xena.
Gabrielle turned and walked away from her friend. " Tomorrow, I have to find the words to convince the King not to hang you. It would be nice if that was what you wanted too, Xena," snapped Gabrielle in disgust.
The next morning Hercal, Xena and Gabrielle walked to the King's palace. A surprised guard led them before the King who had already heard the lord-mayor's story of Xena's raids and cruelty. He had also been told of how Xena had escaped by starting a fire. He was then, amazed when Hercal, Xena and Gabrielle walked in.
"You are Xena, daughter of Ares and his princess of war?" asked the King.
Xena's eyes narrowed, "I am Xena. I claim no birthright or bond to any god. I ride with the Warrior Bard of Olympus, Gabrielle.
"Yes, I have heard this. Who speaks on your behalf?" the young King asked leaning back and looking at Xena with open curiosity.
"I do," said Gabrielle stepping forward and bowing slightly to the King.
"Speak then," the King directed with a wave of his hand, "I have heard one side and the telling was both shocking and grizzly. Now I will hear the other side.
Gabrielle looked at Xena and Xena smiled encouragingly at her. Gabrielle stepped forward, "Good King and townspeople, let me not stir you up to suddenly mutiny against the laws of this land. Those who have charged Xena are honorable and what private griefs or motives they have, we do not know," started Gabrielle turning to give a meaningful stare at the lord-mayor. She turned and looked into the eyes of her friend. "I come to condemn Xena not to praise her," Gabrielle announced quietly to the shock of those in the room. Xena's bowed head shot up and her face showed the pain of shock and betrayal. Gabrielle bit her lip never wanting to see that look on her friend's face again. She turned to face the King. "The evil that she has done will remain in your hearts when her goodness is buried with her bones. This is as it should be with Xena. The lord-mayor has told you of Xena's cruelty and ambition, and if it is so it was a grievous fault. And grievously should she pay for it. But Xena is my friend, faithful and just to me. She has risked her life for me and others and brought peace and prosperity to many lands with her sword. Does this seem cruel and ambitious? Three times Xena has been offered godhood and three times she refused. Was this cruel ambition? Yet you charge her so and you are honorable men. Yesterday, the good word of Xena might have stood against the evilness of this world. Tomorrow, she will fall dead. And what a fall it is my countrymen! For all of us will fall down and a hero lost will allow bloody treason and corruption to flourish over us! The lord-mayor had told you of Xena's crimes and he is an honorable man. But I can speak only for the hearts of those this noble warrior has touched. This woman is the noblest of them all. With honest thought, she worked for the good of all. Her life is gentle and the elements so mixed in her that the gods will stand up and say to the world, this is a hero!"
Gabrielle came and stood by her friend and Xena bent her head to place her cheek by Gabrielle. Gabrielle turned with worried, proud eyes and looked at Xena. The two women smiled and Gabrielle took Xena's hand as they faced the King.
The King sat in silence for a long time then he raised his head and looked at Gabrielle. "Bard, you have spoken with the gold of truth. Your words will not be wasted but will be passed through history, for no greater words could ever be spoken in defense of a friend."
The King turned and looked at Xena. "Xena, you are a hero and I see no cruelty or ambition in your actions or thought today. But it is my job to judge you not on what you are but what you were when last you came to this valley. Your evil does live on in our hearts. I hope that the goodness will not be buried, for the world needs to know of it too. Xena tomorrow you hang," finished the King getting up from his throne and walking from the room.
"No!" cried Gabrielle starting forward but Xena put a strong arm around her and held her close while she cried. Hercal came forward and touched the Warrior's shoulder. He took a broken Gabrielle in his arms as a guard came to lead Xena away.
Xena sat in utter darkness in the old dungeons below the palace. It made her head spin and she forced the panic of claustrophobia from her mind. She had no fear of her pending death. What haunted her was the wail of Gabrielle's voice when King Garith condemned her to die. Her partner's pain shot through her like an arrow.
Xena started from her thoughts as a key worked its way into the lock mechanism with the loud grate of metal against metal. The heavy oak door opened just wide enough for Gabrielle to slip in holding a lit candle and a bucket. Then it slammed shut again with a heavy finality. Xena raised her hand to her eyes blinking in the pale glow of the small candle after the absolute darkness. She heard Gabrielle's soft gasp of concern.
Gabrielle saw her friend standing in the corner of the small damp cell. The floor was muddy and the stone walls green with mold. The stench from the open pit in the far corner was overwhelming. Xena covered her eyes and blinked in pain and Gabrielle put down the bucket of water she carried to shield the flame from Xena's eyes. Xena was muddy and the bruises from her beating and the burns from the fire distorted her features. Her battle dress usually clean and neat, hung torn and singed.
Gabrielle placed the candle carefully in the mud and ran over to her friend. Xena wrapped her in her arms. "I smell," she croaked dryly, "And I'll get you all dirty".
Gabrielle looked up at her friend through eyes brimming over with emotion, "Xena, I'm so sorry. I should have found the words to get you off. I'm a Bard. I should have been able to convince them of your innocence," groaned Gabrielle.
Xena held her friend by the shoulders and bent so their eyes were level. "Gabrielle, you gave it your all. It was a great effort. But you couldn't hide the truth. It doesn't matter what I might be now, then, I was a ruthless killer. I am guilty, Gabrielle. Don't you remember how disgusted you were when the witch Ornell, gave you my memories. You can't deny what I've done."
"Yes, I can" cried Gabrielle, "Even when your heart belonged to Ares, your soul never did. You never hurt the innocent and you did your best to control the actions of your army. Xena, you can't be responsible for the actions of others!" argued Gabrielle.
"You can when you are their commander, Gabrielle" stated Xena quietly looking at her friend. Gabrielle swallowed. She didn't like it but she was not going to get anywhere arguing with Xena. Xena had some need inside her to bear this guilt.
"O.K., O.K.," sighed Gabrielle turning to get the bucket. I brought you some water to clean up in and I've got a clean outfit for you and some decent food," chatted Gabrielle as she brought the bucket over and slung the knapsack she carried on her back to a relatively dry corner. "As soon as you're presentable you can use your powers to break out of here. I've got Argo ready in the barn. And I've got all your weapons back. They're packed in your saddle gear," explained Gabrielle lifting a wet sponge and rubbing at Xena's neck and cheek with concentration.
Quietly, Xena reached up and stayed Gabrielle's hand. She looked deeply into Gabrielle's eyes with a mixture of pain and sorrow. "Gabrielle, I'm not going to escape. I'm going to let them hang me," she stated calmly.
"What! Oh, I get it! It's a trick, right? You've got a plan," said a confused Gabrielle backing up so that she could better see her friend.
Xena held the sponge up and squeezed it, watching the water run down her muddy arm like blood. Then she dropped the sponge into the bucket and looked at her friend. " No, I don't have a plan. I'm going to let them execute me," stated Xena coldly.
Gabrielle stared at Xena in stunned silence. Huge tears welled up in her eyes as she slowly shook her head in disbelief. "Why?" she whispered, "Why are you doing this?" she begged.
"It was a fair trial, Gabrielle. Am I above the law? If I run, I am running back into the life of a fugitive. If I've really changed my life around, I have to be prepared to pay for my crimes. Can you understand that Gabrielle?" asked Xena anxiously.
Gabrielle's eyes flashed and she moved forward and grabbed Xena by the arm. "No! No, I can't understand. It sounds like stupid martyrdom to me. What are you trying to prove here Xena, how bloody noble you are?! Forget it! Its a bit late, don't you think," snapped Gabrielle.
Xena's eyes flashed and she pushed Gabrielle away. Her teeth ground together and she growled at Gabrielle. "I had my chance to be queen of this world and turned it down because I thought there was something better than war. Have you any idea how hard it is for me to resist violence, to not seek mayhem. Do you know what a battle rages inside me?" yelled Xena advancing to stand within inches of Gabrielle, looking down at her in contempt. Her hand shot up and took Gabrielle by the neck. Her thumb stroked across Gabrielle's throat as she leaned forward so that their faces were close together. "I am the god of war's princess. He conceived me. He is in my blood. I lived with him."
Gabrielle's hand shot up and slapped Xena across the face. Blood slowly seeped from Xena's lip as Gabrielle's hand ripped Xena's fingers from her throat. " You do not belong to Ares. You belong with me. If you ever say that again, I swear to the gods, I'll kill you!" screamed Gabrielle in pain well aware that Xena had sacrificed herself to save Gabrielle.
Xena looked down at her friend shaking with emotion and fought back the anger that threatened to break loose. "Gabrielle, understand that I can't live as a mortal and use my powers for my own gain like a demigod!"
"You are a demigod! Zeus! What's the use of having gone through the pain you have if you wont use your powers to save yourself!" cried Gabrielle her lower lip quivering with emotion as she backed away from Xena.
"I can't," stated Xena quietly looking for understanding in Gabrielle's face.
"What about me, Xena. What about little Xena, our daughter? We lose because you have to do what you feel is right! Don't we get a say in this? For you, its one short walk on a cold morning, for us its a life time of sorrow. For gods sakes Xena, don't do this to the people who love you."
Xena swallowed hard and tears ran unchecked down her face. "Gabrielle, I need you to understand..." started Xena spreading her arms and moving towards Gabrielle.
Gabrielle snarled and side kicked with all her force at Xena. Xena made no attempt to stop the blow but took it straight in her gut. She toppled back into the mud. Gabrielle spun and picked up the candle and pounded on the door in tears until the guard came to let her out. As she left, she spun on Xena who sat in the mud looking with wide eyed horror at Gabrielle. "Go to Tartarus, Xena! That's what you want. Go to Tartarus and rot there!" yelled Gabrielle shaking with rage as the door slammed between them.
"Gabrielle, Gabrielle!" cried Xena to the darkness around her.
Afraid the rats would attack her if she slept, Xena sat in the corner all night, her thoughts on Gabrielle and their time and adventures together. There was only darkness, but Xena had faintly heard the cock crow. She got up and stripped off her clothes and washed as best she could in the dark. From the bag that Gabrielle had left she pulled out a fresh outfit and put in on. She pulled back her hair as best she could and tied it with a strip of rawhide. Inside, her heart ached. She needed Gabrielle's understanding. She stood waiting expressionless until the guard unlocked the door and then instinctively raised her hand and turned her face away from the blinding light of the lantern. "A good day to die, Xena, Warrior Princess of Ares," snarled the guard grabbing her by the arm and fitting heavy iron cuffs around her wrists. He grabbed the chain that joined them and pulled Xena down the hall. As Xena walked behind her guard, she could see the rotting prisoners in the cells move forward to watch. Do they smile smugly knowing I am going to my death? Or do they envy my escape? Xena wondered. Out in the sunlight, Xena squinted in pain. Gradually, the blur of color became a jeering crowd. The guards cleared a path for the Warrior towards the gallows.
"Stop!" Gabrielle shouted stepping in front of Xena and placing her hand on Xena's chest. Xena looked at her with anger. Don't try to stop this, Gabrielle! she thought.
But Gabrielle had already turned to the guard. "Take the chains off her! My friend is going to die with dignity not like a common criminal," snapped Gabrielle raising her chin defiantly looking around at the now quiet crowd with contempt. Her eyes snapped back to the guard, "Give me the key!"
The guard shrugged and reached for the keys off his belt and passed them to Gabrielle.
"We do it for their own good. It stops them from grabbing the rope and prolonging the agony," explained the guard.
But Gabrielle was not listening, she was busily taking the chains off Xena's wrists, "You clearly have no idea how strong and brave my friend is." stated Gabrielle.
Xena looked down at Gabrielle in relief, "Thanks," she managed to say through dry lips.
Gabrielle looked up and reached her finger tips to touch Xena's split lip. Xena smiled gently and Gabrielle smiled back as best she could. She wrapped her arms around Xena and held her close. Then she leaned back and looked into Xena's eyes. " I'm here. You are closer than blood, more precious than life. I know that you are honorable and good. And I'll end my stories by telling the world that you walk with Marcus on the Elysium Fields." Gabrielle stood on her tiptoes and softly kissed Xena's lips.
Xena looked down at her friend and smiled. The guard pulled her away and up the stairs to the gallows. Gabrielle battled her way through the crowd and stood right in front of the gallows, keeping her eyes locked on that of her friend's. The hooded hangman moved forward and slipped the noose around Xena's neck tightening it snugly. He then moved away and took hold of the release bar waiting for the chief guard to give the signal. Xena looked down at Gabrielle's small, brave figure. " I belonged with you. You were the only good to stay in my life. I'll wait for you. I love..."
The trap dropped and Xena's words were cut off with a choke. The crowd cheered and moved away to find refreshment in the local taverns. Xena's body swung in the breeze, limp, her head down and her hands dangling at her sides. Gabrielle stood staring, her hand still stifling the scream that had ripped from her lips as Xena fell, her head snapping back. The hangman closed the trap and lowered Xena's body to the platform. He loosened the rope from Xena's neck and blood dripped from the angry ribbon of ripped flesh that cut across Xena's long white neck. Gabrielle cried out and leapt up on the platform and ran to hold Xena's limp body in her arms. Blood trickled from Xena's wound onto Gabrielle's hand.
Realization hit Gabrielle like a thunderbolt but the hangman's hand dropped on her shoulder heavily. "Not a word. Not a word," he ordered and pushed a stunned Gabrielle out of the way. He wrapped Xena's body in a horse blanket and fastened it with twine. Then he picked her body up and with a jerk of his head indicated that Gabrielle should follow him to the barn. In the barn, Argo stood ready with Hercal. She whinnied at the smell of her owner. The hangman threw Xena's body over the horse and tied it on securely. Then he turned and removed his leather hood to face Gabrielle. The man standing before her was lean and rough looking. An angry scar ran across his cheek. "I am Leto. I rode with Xena once. I was proud to be part of her army. She always treated her men well and she didn't take from the poor or hit the innocent like some. She saved my life and I owed her one. Hanging is no death for a brave and honorable warrior and I wanted no part of it. I used a stiff rope and measured the length so the drop would knock her out but not snap her neck. I don't know if she will live or die of the choking, but I have tried," explained the rough warrior with compassion.
Gabrielle looked at him in wonder and then reach for her friend with a cry of hope. "No," stated the hangman grabbing Gabrielle's arm, "Its not safe here. Take your friend. Travel all day and don't stop until darkness makes it impossible to go on. Then check if Xena lives."
Hercal stepped forward, "Go Gabrielle, before the undertaker comes to claim the body. We'll make excuses. Go as far and as fast as you can. Take the north road along the edge of the valley, it's less traveled. At the forks, you will meet some more of Xena's friends. They will provide you with supplies and direct you from there."
Gabrielle nodded and took the reins and headed out of the town as fast as she could walk.
"Thank you," she called back to the two warriors who now stood in shadows.
Gabrielle sat quietly by Xena's still body as the night slowly crept on. Tears rolled down her face. Suddenly she became aware of an unnatural movement in the trees. An owl hooted and she leaped to her feet and raised her hands over her head in the Amazon greeting of peace. From all sides Amazons dropped on ropes from the trees. One stepped foreward and lifted her mask. "Ephany!" cried Gabrielle falling into the arms of her regent.
"Gabrielle, we came as soon as we heard that Xena was hung." She looked sadly at Xena's body in the firelight.
"She's not dead Ephany. But she wont wake up. I don't know what else to do!" sobbed Gabrielle into Ephany's shoulder. Worry and hope flashed across Ephany's eyes as she tried to comfort her Queen.
"As long as she holds to life, we will hold to hope Gabrielle," reassured Ephany. "Amazons set up camp and post guards," ordered Ephany leading Gabrielle over to sit by Xena. Then she walked beyond the perimeter of firelight and returned in a few minutes with a bundle carefully held in her arms. "Little Xena insisted on coming on her first Amazon war party," teased Ephany placing Gabrielle's baby daughter into her arms.
Gabrielle beamed with delight looking down at the six month old child that she and Xena called their own. "Little Xena, here's your other mom," whispered Gabrielle tucking the small bundle into the cradle of Xena's arm. Then she lowered her own exhausted body along side and at last slept.
Ephany's eyes brimmed over with tears that she quickly brushed away. The Amazons moved back into the shadows to silently guard and protect this small, special family through the night.
Xena's throat burned like fire and throbbed with pain. She wanted to cry out but her throat was crushed and dry. Slowly, she opened her eyes. Before her was a blur of fire. Tartarus. She closed her eyes and waited for the sick dizziness to pass and then opened her eyes again. She was lying by a fire under the stars! Gabrielle was sleeping close beside her, a protective arm wrapped over Xena's waist and nestled under her shoulder was her and Gabrielle's baby girl. Xena reached out and touched her soulmate and Gabrielle was awake instantly. "Xena! Xena!" cried Gabrielle with a huge smile as tears ran unchecked down her face.
Xena tried to say something but managed only a croak. Gabrielle fumbled about and came up with a wine skin and held it to Xena's lips. The cool water felt good on her parched lips but the pain was awful when she tried to swallow. She choked and spit most of the water back up again. Gabrielle patiently dried her off and then let only a few drops of water at a time trickle down Xena's throat. Finally, Xena pushed the skin away and whispered with effort, "What?"
Gabrielle smiled and sat back on her heels. "What happened?" Gabrielle asked and Xena nodded. "Well, warrior of darkness, princess of war, you just weren't mean enough. The hangman turned out to be a soldier you saved called Leto. He said that hanging was not the death for a brave and honorable warrior. He cut the rope too short for you to have enough of a drop to snap your neck and he used a stiff rope so that it would not pull too tight. As it was, it was touch and go. You've been out cold for two days and I was starting to fear that your mind was dead even if your body wasn't. Hercal directed me to a farmer at the end of the valley who gave us food and sent us up here to his summer herding camp for safety until you could travel again." Gabrielle stopped and looked at her friend meaningfully. "It seems you prevented your men from killing him and carting off his women." Gabrielle smiled and brushed Xena's bangs from her eyes. "For a blood thirsty warlord, you seemed to have spread a lot of sunshine!" she teased. "And tonight the Amazon nation arrived to see what they could do to help. They brought little Xena here, on her first war party to save her mom. I think she is going to grow up to be a hero just like you," smiled Gabrielle through tears of joy.
Xena gave an embarrassed smile and blushed as she looked up from her daughter to the tear stained face of her partner. "Xena, your life is fated, just as mine. It doesn't look like the Fates are going to be kind to us. But at least they gave us a special friendship and the power to do some good in this world. You belong with me. You have paid your debts. Let the guilt go, Xena. They hung you. The old Xena is dead forever and my Xena is now free to be whole.
Xena looked into her friend's wise eyes and nodded. Gabrielle smiled and twined her fingers with that of her partner who held their child so protectively.
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