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Lady Jane Gray
Copyright Warning: The characters Xena, Gabrielle, et. al. are all the intellectual property of MCA Universal. Athena copyright Olympian Productions. Inclusion here is not intended to violate their copyrights. The story may not be copied or reproduced, in any form, without this copyright warning.
Content Disclaimer There's some physical violence against the lead characters, as well as a very light portrayal of sexuality between them.
Cliff's Notes: This is part of a story arc: Isle/Wrath of Achilles/Higher Wisdom/White Warrior/Commitment/High Priestess. It is the fourth story I wrote; parts of it were posted beginning October 1996. I recommend the arc be read: Higher Wisdom- Commitment - High Priestess. I'd personally recommend skipping Isle/Wrath of Achilles/White Warrior.
Much of Higher Wisdom was pointing to resolution in this story.
Early autumn in a forest; Gabrielle's breath frosts as she gathers deadwood amongst fallen leaves. Nearby, Agape, in leather shorts and a jacket, uses a machete to cut fresh pine branches. She looks at the sticky resin on her hands, grimaces: "I think that's about it."
Hands full, the two wend their way through a meadow. Gabrielle, in a long brown skirt, moves awkwardly over the rough ground. They stop at an outcrop of rock overlooking the sea; the only sound the crashing of the waves. Xena lies on a pile of kindling, heavy branches, and pine needles. Agape arranges the last of the wood, spreading the pine like a blanket over Xena's body.
"Gabrielle. Sure you're ready?"
Gabrielle only blinks, nods. Agape steps up to the wood, pulls out a twisted branch, as long and thick as her arm. She moves her palm over one end, and fire springs up; passing the burning brand to Gabrielle, she steps back.
Gabrielle starts at the foot of the pyre, lighting the deepest layer of kindling. The damp wood burns slowly, with a thick white smoke. She stops again at the middle of the pyre, lights it. At the head, she falls to her knees, unable to lift the brand. Agape kneels beside her, steadies her hand; together they complete the ritual.
As the flames take hold, the wind twists smoke and a thick scent of pine over them. Agape leans towards Gabrielle "There's nothing here you need to see. C'mon" but it has no effect.
Gabrielle kneels over Xena, lifeless. Wordless, expressionless, she kneels until the heat of the funeral pyre drives her and Agape away.
Gabrielle lies in deep sleep, wrapped about with a heavy blanket. The flames of an enormous campfire pick out hues of red in the blanket; Agape sits nearby, holding a twig against the flames. Watching the twig catch fire, die out, catch again, only to die out again. A shape looms in back; Agape does not move, and it resolves into the figure of a man. Salmoneus.
"I came as soon as I heard."
"We couldn't wait any longer. The body . . ."
Salmoneus puts his hand on her shoulder, looks down at Gabrielle.
"I put her to sleep. When she wakes she'll be a little more used to it."
"How. How could it happen?"
"I was there almost right after, but she was already dead. . . I don't know what happened. Gabrielle won't talk. At all."
"Why can't you . . ."
"Salmoneus. . . . " Agape pauses, looks at him. Her face is pained, uncertain, and she seems for a moment like a lost teenage girl.
She sighs, throws the twig into the flames.
"I loved them. Father Zeus! Why?!"
But the sky, moonless, covered in clouds, gives no answer.
Deep within herself, Gabrielle dreams. Athena's gift, the healing dream, reaches a part of her soul beyond grief, pain. Her spirit travels, seeking.
At first, her senses fail to resolve the turbulent void around her. Bright colors flow, in shapes of fantastic complexity. A roar of sound, with some hidden undertone. Her core self refuses panic; she focuses not on sense but on feeling. Xena.
Gabrielle falls back into reality, or some reality. Sounds, sight return. She finds herself staring directly into the eyes of a black-haired five year old girl. Who is hanging upside down from a tree branch.
"You weren't there, before. Are you a god?"
"No, hon." Gabrielle has the oddest sensation, of feeling her own smile, hearing her own voice, as though a mask of herself.
"Yes you are. Why did my daddy go away? Was I bad?"
Grief overwhelms her, but not her own: she is feeling what the little girl feels. Backing away, into her own sensations, she dissociates, and the scene vanishes. Loss. Xena. The thread that guided her. More confident, she searches the void again.
"Who the bloody hell are you?"
She faces a teenage girl, black-haired, wearing shorts and a halter. Gabrielle notices the girl happens to be holding a sword directly in her navel. Something familiar about the sword . . . she steps back, trips; falls over a body. Panic: jumps back into the void. Pausing, she focuses on one sensation. Reality flashes; this time she only watches, invisible. She sees Xena kneel by the body, turn it over. A boy, Xena's own age. Her brother. Gabrielle jumps into the void again, before the wave of grief touches her.
Fragments of Xena's life float before her, like drops of painted rain; Gabrielle chooses another. She stands in a large warehouse, smells of decaying wood and oiled metals assault her. A sound: the twang of a bow, and she watches as an arrow pierces the chest of a tall, well muscled black man. A scream: below her, looking up, Xena. She leaves for the peace of the void; falls yet again into reality.
An enormous room, vault upon vault, oppressive stone: she feels buried. She shudders in revulsion: some foul smell; then recognizes it as burnt flesh. And a constant murmur, the sound of a thousand muted screams. She looks around, focuses at the other end of the room. Xena, and a man who could only be Marcus, talking with a haggard, unshaven man wearing a loose red cloak. As Gabrielle looks on, Xena lifts her lips to be kissed; seeing the want in Xena's face, Gabrielle withdraws from the intensity of Xena's, her own feelings. And witnesses Xena plunge a dagger deep into Marcus' heart.
Gabrielle closes her eyes, breathes, looks around. Yes. Now.
The same room in the fortress of Hades. A hundred candles illumine the sunless world, but it only emphasizes the shadows. The god of the underworld sits behind a slate-black table, looking contemplatively at Xena. Ares half-sits on the edge of the table.
"Of course it is your judgment, Hades. But she promised herself to me long ago." He stands, walks over to Xena, lifts a lock of her hair. She stands rigid, as though unaware of her surroundings. Measured, confident, Ares drops the hair, stands before Hades. "And now it is time to collect."
"Not that simple, Ares." Hades smiles slightly. "Every mortal deserves justice. At least once, before they die."
"Justice?! For the greatest mass murderer of her time? Give her to me! It would be far more merciful than justice!"
"Xena isn't the same woman who prayed to you ten years ago. That must be weighed in her favor."
Ares turns away from Hades, half-sits again on the edge of the table, tilts his head. Judiciously.
"Oh, certainly, Hades. Every criminal is sorry for what they've done. Tartarus is full of them. Will you pardon them all?" Ares turns back to Hades. "Tell me. Do you see anyone to speak for her?"
Gabrielle stirs, about to emerge, when Hades stands, walks over to Xena. He touches her shoulder, and Xena blinks, looks around.
"Hades. And . . . Ares. What a surprise."
"Nice, Xena. But this time, there are no tricks. No goddesses. This time . . . you are mine."
Hades clears his throat, nods at Xena.
"He makes a strong case, Xena. I don't know if I can save you. Is there someone who will speak for you?"
"I will. If I have to fight the god of death, I will speak."
It was Marcus, strong, tall and forceful, appearing in the room, confronting the two gods. As Hades steps away from him, Ares briefly touches the hilt of his sword, then relaxes. Marcus turns to Xena, and his fierceness melts.
"Xena. I'm sorry. But I'm glad, too."
He reaches to hold his love, and Xena holds up her hand, tentatively, to touch him. As they touch, a flash of light, and the two are thrown back. Marcus looks over to Hades.
"Until she's been judged, she belongs to the living."
Marcus nods, then smiles, looks into Xena's eyes. Slowly, his smile fades, and Xena looks away.
"What's wrong? Xena, what's happened? I've been waiting for you." Marcus' voice takes on a strident tone, as Xena steps back.
"I happened". Gabrielle strides into the room, glares at Ares, Hades and Marcus equally. Taking on the fierceness that Marcus lost, she puts her arm around Xena's waist, pulls her near. Xena's shoulders relax; for a moment she buries her face in Gabrielle's shoulder, but then Gabrielle pushes her away.
"This is justice? All the three of you can think of is whose property Xena is. 'She promised herself to me. No, she's mine. I'm lord here, I decide.' " Her singsong tone mocks them. Gabrielle walks up to Hades "She belongs to the world of the living. Helping people. Not in any of your private fantasies."
Xena's fate hangs in the balance, for just that second. And then Ares laughs, breaking her spell. Alive, eager, he circles Gabrielle, a smile on his face. Sensing victory, he stops in front of her.
"Xena died. Protecting you. From your own foolish mistake, as I recall." He puts his hands on her shoulders, looks at her, pityingly. "Child. Xena is dead. The only question is whether she gets the punishment she worked so hard to earn."
Ares speaks and Gabrielle glimpses the emptiness behind his eyes . . .
Suddenly, Marcus stands in back of Ares; Ares is thrown backwards against a granite column. And Marcus laughs. His laughter fills the room, the laugh of a man twice his size.
"Pick on someone who likes to fight."
Ares, angered, draws a sword, throws it, and by the god's will alone it strikes Marcus in the lower abdomen. He doubles over, grimaces, then stands straight, pulls the sword out. Tossing it back to Xena, Marcus strides forward, and with the back of his hand sends Ares reeling against a rack of candles. And Ares vanishes.
Xena, strangely passive, as though much of the life had already drained from her, walks to Gabrielle, puts an arm around her shoulder. Gabrielle looks briefly up to her, then to Marcus.
"You didn't have to do that."
Xena looks proudly at Marcus:
"He never could stand a bully."
Marcus looks at Xena; to Gabrielle it seems a look of longing, the ghost of the love they'd shared. But Marcus breaks her thought with a laugh. "I've wanted to do that for so long . . . Lord Hades, it felt good!"
Hades looks over . . .
"Sorry. Just an expression."
Gabrielle, arm around Xena's waist, looks from Xena to Marcus, back.
"Hmn," as though seeing Xena reflected in Marcus. But Xena drops her arm from Gabrielle's shoulder, turns to Hades.
"Let's get this over with."
"Wait. This isn't fair." Gabrielle looks around the room quickly, trying to buy time. "I'm the one who was supposed to die. Judge me."
Hades wipes his brow. If he'd expected an easy judgment, he was being fast disillusioned. He tries to compose himself, taking a drink from a rams-horn cup, when Gabrielle starts in again.
"The world needs Xena. Let her go."
Hades closes his eyes, slouches down in his seat, steeples his hands. He thinks; open mouthed, Gabrielle waits.
"Life is choice. And the consequences of choice. None of it can be taken back." Hades stands, and as Gabrielle moves forward, Xena stops her.
"He's right, Gabrielle. That decision, I made a long time ago." She smiles briefly, shakes her head. "I have no regrets."
Hades sits again. "Then let's get on with it. Who speaks for you, Xena?"
Marcus and Gabrielle step forward, bumping against each other. Both start to talk, while Hades runs his fingers through his hair, closes his eyes.
"Stop!" In a voice that shakes the foundations of the underworld. "One of you. Only one. Xena, choose. I'm tired of this, and I'm getting less merciful."
Xena studies the two. Gabrielle: overeager, always rushing in, unaware what she faces. Marcus: calm, forceful, strong.
Uncertain, Xena chooses. "Gabrielle?"
She bites her lip, nods. Clenching her hands, awkward, Gabrielle pleads before Hades.
"I know what Ares said about her. The greatest mass-murderer of her time. That isn't the Xena I know. She's given her life for other people."
She pauses to look at Hades' face: impassive. Her voice takes on a tinge of panic as she continues:
"This wasn't meant to happen. Let Xena live out her life, let her have the time to show who she really is."
Xena closes her eyes; Marcus shows disappointment, but Hades says nothing. Thoughtful, he stands, walks to a window of his fortress. Looking out past the ironwork grill, he sees an endless wasteland of burning rock, hope abandoned. Several minutes pass before he turns to face the three mortals.
"I must be honest: I think you are insane with grief. But." He leans back against the iron tracery-work over the window. "I know you are not lying; you believe what you tell me." He pauses, puzzled. "I think I've never heard anything like it."
Gabrielle steps tentatively forward. "Then . . . ."
"Then nothing. You have one day, sunrise to sunrise, to prove what you say. After that, Xena is judged on her actions."
He pauses, but before Gabrielle can speak,
"Xena. Do you accept this judgment?"
Xena looks to him, then Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle. Let it go."
"I can't!" Angrily, she moves to face Xena, who smiles and reaches forward to hold her. But she brushes away Xena's free arm. Xena, frustrated: "What is it you want?"
"It's you I want! Not just for me, for . . ." Gabrielle turns, faces Hades. "This is between you, and me. It isn't her choice." Hades pauses, then nods agreement.
"Gabrielle." Xena, no emotion showing in her voice, holds up the sword. "You may need this."
Gabrielle turns to take the sword, and Xena quickly puts an arm around her waist, drawing her close. She leans down, whispers in Gabrielle's ear. Whatever it is, Gabrielle relaxes against her, nods.
The first signs of dawn show behind thick clouds, making a grim sunrise. Salmoneus and Agape still sit before their fire, talking quietly, respecting Gabrielle's sleep.
"I promised I'd stay with her. At least back to Poteidaia."
"That's a three week trip! Don't you need to be . . .goddessing somewhere?"
"It was a promise. She's in bad shape, Salmoneus. Not even talking."
"I know what you mean. Ah . . . how do I say this. Your wisdom. You wouldn't be . . . interested in Gabrielle, by any chance?"
" What would you care if I am, mortal?" Agape looks angry, then sighs. "I'm sorry; you're just being protective . . . and I'm on edge."
"Was that an answer? Did I miss it?"
"Maybe a thousand years was too long. Maybe it's time to commit while I have someone. And don't look at me like that. I'm not going to share a blanket with her."
"That could work . . . "
"Don't deflect. If . . . it turns out Gabrielle feels something for me . . . I'll wait. However long it takes."
"What? However long what takes?" Gabrielle sits upright, and Agape's face glows. She kneels to give Gabrielle a hug: "It's good to hear you talking again."
Gabrielle returns her a groggy half-hug. "I was just talking with Xena."
Agape and Salmoneus look at each other. Agape speaks first "Gabrielle, Xena's dead. You lit her funeral pyre yesterday."
Gabrielle, disheveled, wrinkles her face, looks at each of them. "I know that. I meant, I was talking with her in Tartarus. I went to visit Hades." She looks around again. "Ares was there too."
Agape takes Gabrielle's hand, looks in her eyes. "You had a dream."
She snatches her hand away, throws the blanket back. "Well thank you for believing in me!"
"I'm sorry. Maybe it would be easier to believe in you if you'd tell us what happened. Starting from when Xena . . . .
Gabrielle looks at her with a puzzled expression. "Right. I can do that. But we have to hurry; Hades only gave me a day."
"To prove that this is all some bad mistake."
Salmoneus, worried, strokes his beard. Looking at Agape, he breaks in. "I know you miss her. But after grief, isn't there supposed to be this thing . . . acceptance?"
"Look. Why don't you just not interrupt, and I'll tell this story?" She glances at them, gets their approval, then throws the blanket around her shoulders and moves closer to the fire.
"We were out for a morning walk . . ."
The morning light warms a forest path; Xena and Gabrielle walk along, talking. Xena walks with only a part of her mind on the conversation, as she watches, listens to the forest sounds. Gabrielle, using her staff as a walking stick, brushes a frond out of the way with her other hand.
"I really love this season. Did you have any harvest festivals in your village, growing up?"
Xena smiles. "This is planting season, for winter wheat. Everyone hangs a bag of seed on their rafters. It's a fertility thing."
"Are there ceremonies, too?"
"I don't remember. We always made melopita at the inn. Mom and I made the dough and baked pies; Lyceus brought in the new milk to make cheese for the filling. And fresh honey. I remember that." Xena shakes her head. "And the old men drank new wine. I remember it tasted like turpentine." She grimaces.
"Do you want to go back, this year? Visit your mom and your old friends?"
"I . . . don't know how my mother would feel about you. "
"My family accepted us. You remember, mom said you were like another daughter."
"I've given my mother too many shocks already."
"You're not even giving her a chance."
"Gabrielle, please. This is too nice a morning." As they walk, Xena puts her arm around Gabrielle's waist, turns towards her; without breaking stride, they kiss, then move apart.
"You are the most frustrating woman! Every time we start to talk serious, you get affectionate."
Xena looks straight ahead, but a small smile creeps over her face. Looking very proud of herself, she says "And you're the only woman I've met who'd rather talk than . . . Gabrielle!"
Xena stops suddenly, puts her hand out to keep Gabrielle back. Ahead, in the brush, three men on horseback. Having been spotted, they move out onto the trail. One holds a spear, a small stag slung across the back of his saddle. The second carries a bow, and three hares hang from the horn of his saddle. And the third, in the lead, simply smiles unpleasantly. All three are well dressed, in brown leather over clean wheat-colored cloth, the leather held with silver buckles. Aristocrats, out on a morning hunt.
Gabrielle steps forward, stops about twenty paces from the leader. "I'm sorry, I think you must have missed the warnings. This wood is a game preserve, for the village below." She points off left, but doesn't take her eyes off the men. Xena walks up, stops slightly ahead of her.
The leader glances back at his companions, then leans forward. Smiling, with a challenge in his voice, "And who are you? The game wardens?"
"No, actually my partner and I are the lords of this land. And I don't remember any of you being at the ceremony of allegiance."
"Ah. So you must be Gabrielle. And this . . . is Xena."
Gabrielle lifts her staff, holds it crosswise. "That's right. And now would be a fine time to swear allegiance. Get down from your horses, all of you."
Gabrielle shudders in front of the fire, looks at Salmoneus, Agape. "That was so dumb. I was looking for a fight. Guess that's what Ares meant, when he said it was my fault. I was angry at Xena and I should have let it go."
"You told Ares about this and you wouldn't even talk with me?" Agape looks at her with disbelief.
"What is it with you this morning? Ares knew all about it. Isn't it some god thing you have?"
Agape, irritated. "No. It isn't a . . . god thing. I wasn't there, I didn't see it. If I'd been there, Xena wouldn't be dead. I'm sorry. Just . . . go on with your story."
"Then the leader laughed . . ."
Turning again back to his companions, he nods. The hunter with the spear steps his horse several paces back and slightly to the right. The leader looks, snarls, "I'll show you what I'll swear to" and digs his heels into his horse, charging at Gabrielle. She steps to one side, lowers her staff, and the horse tumbles, throwing the rider headfirst into the brush. Gabrielle and Xena move together, closing off the path, isolating the fallen rider from his companions. And the hunter in the rear lifts his spear, readying it for a cast. Xena watches his eyes, as Gabrielle turns back to the unhorsed rider, who has just come up behind them. She steps forward, swings the staff around, hitting him directly in the midriff. As he bends, she hits him on the back, neck, and he falls unconscious to the ground.
Gabrielle turns, looks in shock at a spear coming straight towards her heart. Xena steps in front of her, reaches a hand to catch the spear, and steps back in shock as the spear pierces her own heart. She falls to her knees, then to her side. And the forest is filled with the sound of screams, over and over.
Salmoneus looks doubtfully at Gabrielle, then Agape. "That . . isn't going to convince Hades. It didn't even convince me"
"It happened that way."
"Look. Salmoneus. I'd like to talk with Gabrielle. Alone."
"Ohhhkay. Uncle Salmoneus will see about finding breakfast. I think I saw the horses here somewhere. . . "
When Salmoneus is out of sight, Gabrielle casts off her blanket, shakes loose her hair. "I know he means well, but . . . I really needed to be alone with you. Thanks."
Agape sits on the ground, her back against a log, a little ways from Gabrielle. "Don't underestimate him. He's a very sharp man. Unfortunately, with a slightly twisted mind. Anyway. How are you feeling after . . . going through it?"
"Better." She smiles, pauses. "Do . . . you think there's a chance? Of getting Xena back?"
Agape sighs. "When you started . . . no, I didn't. But now, I feel it. Something's wrong. I don't know what, yet."
"You have no idea, how much better I feel talking with you. Ummm, Athena?"
Agape, surprised at Gabrielle's tone, her choice of name, says very gently, "Yes, Gabrielle?"
"I don't know how to ask you this. I know it isn't right, but . . . would you hold me? I feel so lost."
Agape breathes out, heavily. Keeping her face expressionless, her tone even, "Sure. Up or down?"
Agape takes off her leather jacket, revealing a loose short-sleeved white top and small rounded breasts. Methodically, she rolls up the leather into a pillow, puts it at the head of Gabrielle's blanket, straightens the blanket. Something gleams, catches her eye.
"What's this?" She holds up a sword. It looks as new as the day it was forged, the hilt a pure gold, the blade so fine it seems to glow.
"Oh. You found it."
"You don't see something like this often. Hephaestus made it. Where did you get it?"
"Um, Ares left it behind?"
"Ah. We'll talk about this later, Gabrielle. Mortals don't usually carry weapons like this. For now . . ." Agape suddenly smiles, pats the blanket. "C'mere. Let's just lie together and talk."
Agape lies down, head on the jacket, arms in back of her head. She looks over in surprise as Gabrielle sits next to her and leans back, resting her head directly on Agape's shoulder. Lying on her side, head nestled in the crook of Agape's arms, Gabrielle sighs. A minute goes by, and Agape puts an arm along Gabrielle's side, resting a palm on her hip.
"Xena was so different when I saw her. It was like . . . she was dead already."
"It's alright. She'll be back to feisty when she's back here with us."
"Feisty I can handle. It's . . . what worries me, she wanted it to be over. Like she didn't even care about coming back to . . . us."
"No. And the longer she's down there, the less attached she'll be to you, to anyone living. That's a natural part of the process of death, letting go of us. It would be torture for her, every day for eternity, thinking
"But I have to!"
"Gabrielle . . . the living have to let go, too. Hades is a wise man: he limited you to one day. Longer than that . . . I think Xena might not want to come back at all."
"Athena? . . . thank you, being here for both of us. I forget sometimes, I'm not the only one who loved her."
"You're probably the only one who understands that." Agape shifts on her side, part faces Gabrielle. "I'm supposed to be the virgin goddess. I guess wisdom doesn't lie down with love."
Looking up at Agape, Gabrielle smiles, then snuggles down against the goddesses shoulder. She breathes, once, then, very softly:
"Xena told me that we . . you and I, were lovers. Once."
"Almost. What else did she say?"
"Nothing. You know, I don't remember anything that happened back then. I just . . . have feelings sometimes and I don't know why."
Agape relaxes, smiles, continues in her goddess of wisdom role. "Everyone has those. It's part of being alive, that you have feelings. Even if you don't know why, you accept them as real."
Encouraged, feeling safe and understood, Gabrielle rushes ahead, "Whenever I see you. . . I feel. I feel I love you, and I don't understand why. I can't tell Xena because I don't even know what it means, about her and me. How can I be in love with her and still feel that way about you?"
Agape takes Gabrielle's hand in her own, but says nothing.
"Are you mad at me?"
"No, Gabrielle. And I don't think Xena would be either. But you need to talk with her, not me."
"But you're the goddess of wisdom."
"Not this time."
"You are angry."
"No." Agape pulls away her arm, shifts her shoulder, sits up. "C'mon. Quiet time is over."
Gabrielle sits up, uncertain what to feel. Guilt, loss. A confession of love that somehow leaves her more isolated than before. Ashamed, she looks at Athena.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry. This is my fault, mixing goddess and human."
She stands, reaches a hand down to Gabrielle.
Meekly, Gabrielle takes a quick look up at her. Then stops.
"No. I'm not going to take this from you too. You think you can make me love you when you want, then be a goddess when you want." Gabrielle, fire in her eyes, ignores Agape's outstretched hand. Agape steps back, comes up against the log and stops awkwardly. She folds her arms over her chest, looks at Gabrielle.
"You don't remember it, but you and Xena stood before me and made a commitment. I don't take that lightly. Do you?"
"Why don't you remind Xena? All she remembers is the one she made to Marcus."
"Fine. When she gets back here, I will ask you both to stand before me and renew your pledge. You decide. Until then, you are a couple. Agreed?
"Gabrielle?" She smiles suddenly. "Thanks for what you said to me. It felt good . . . just for a second, not to be the goddess of wisdom."
"You still think you can just drop it . . . " Gabrielle stands, walks up to her.
Instead of replying, Agape again reaches a hand to her. Gabrielle moves into her arms, looks up, and kisses her. They kiss slowly at first, until Agape weakens, puts her arms around Gabrielle's waist, draws their bodies together. When they break, Gabrielle slides her arms over Agape's body, down to her waist.
"Agape . . . I didn't mean for that to happen."
"Yeah. Well, at least now you know what choice you're making. Now, let's go find Salmoneus. And rescue Xena."
The two break and Gabrielle turns, one arm still around Agape's waist.
"Yes! I am so hungry."
Salmoneus, grimacing, casts his eyes over to the blanket. Instead of saying anything, he sits down and unfolds a large cloth napkin, filled with hand-sized pies . The smell of meats, cheese, and fried dough hits the air, wends its way to Agape.
"Can I? I guess I don't really need it, but . . . I'd really like to share some with you."
"Mmph!" A small bit of cheese and spinach escapes Gabrielle's mouth; she catches it on her chin, pops it back it her mouth. She smiles, thinks, turns.
"Salmoneus. How did you find these?"
"The village. A babushka was bringing a whole basketfull to her daughter's family, and. . . we, ah, traded."
"I see. And, what did we trade?"
"My own personal formula." He leans forward, whispers: "Potency restorer. What every married woman needs." As he says it, he picks up a pie, glances over at the blanket, "Except you."
Agape, who has been watching Salmoneus and tossing a pie back and forth in her hands to cool it, sets it down, walks to the blanket, picks up her jacket.
"Salmoneus, stop it. It wasn't what you think."
Grinning, "Actually I was thinking about my own grandmother's pies. These are almost as good."
"Don't lie to me." She puts an arm down one sleeve, turns slightly to put the other in. As the loose fabric of her shirt tightens about her chest, Agape stops, shocked: "Salmoneus! Forget it. I don't do men."
Salmoneus, giving a weak and embarrassed grin, bends over to pick up another pie, and glances up at Gabrielle. As she struggles to get the jacket on, Agape's eyes follow his, and she looks . . .
"Gabrielle!" And Agape vanishes.
"Who knew? She hears what we're thinking?"
Gabrielle gives him a look, leans over to the blanket. "No wonder she was embarrassed." She shakes it, brushes off a few leaves, and starts folding it. "I can't believe you thought that we. . ."
A rumble of thunder announces the arrival of Pallas Athena, in full armor, helmet, shield and spear. She taps the end of the spear lightly on the ground, and a small flash of lightning breaks the sky. "This has gotten totally out of control. No more 'Agape'; from now on, you call me Athena. And remember who I am."
Gabrielle looks at her, face contorted. She quickly hides it in her hands, but a small giggle escapes. Looking guilty, she manages to gasp out "I think it was the kiss. I can't worship while I'm kissing. Oops. I'm sorry, A ... Athena." To keep herself from breaking out in open laughter, she looks at Salmoneus. "And that's all it was. Just a kiss." Gabrielle takes a deep breath, swallows, and manages to look straight-faced at a still angry goddess of victory. Salmoneus, unfortunately, now has the goddesses full attention. Thinking quickly, he wipes his mouth on his sleeve, gets down on his knees. Sounding genuinely anguished,
"Forgive me, your wisdom. You said you were in love with Gabrielle, and I just assumed. . .."
Athena, eyes wide, shocked, drops her spear and steps quickly away from Salmoneus. Lightening flashes again, and Gabrielle stands, looking almost as shocked. "You what!?" she screams, walking menacingly towards Athena, who backs away, crying out "ah .. . ah....AAAAAA." before vanishing again.
"It may possibly be that I said too much already?" He turns, still on his knees, to Gabrielle. As she moves to avoid him, her foot touches the sword, and a gleam touches her eye. Bending, picking it up: "See this? Aries' sword."
"You wouldn't. You would?" Salmoneus gulps, sits back on the grass. Gabrielle sets her jaw, holding the sword two-handed, at ready in front of her. She nods menacingly, and with one hand tries an experimental swing against a tree branch. The branch falls off easily, and as she takes the swing around, the blade passes through the trunk. The tree itself topples, and she finally stops the motion by grabbing her wrist. Dramatically, covering her surprise, "Now, suffer my wrath!"
"I see you're upset about this, but it wasn't my fault. We were just talking, and Athena said she would wait. For you. However long it takes."
Gabrielle, surprised, lowers the sword. "She did? That may be the sweetest thing anyone's ever said to me." She pauses, frowns. "I just wish . . . she *had* said it to me."
A sound from in back: just Agape, back in leather shorts and a jacket. "I shoulda tried it. The subtle approach: 'I'm sorry the only person you ever loved is dead. But I'm available!' Sheesh! Human emotions . . ."
"Now, with me, that wouldn't be a problem."
"Quiet, Salmoneus." Agape stands, arms folded, confronting Gabrielle. She notices something, looks around, "So, I see you, ah, tried the sword."
"It tried me."
"Yeah. Gabrielle, that sword was made for Ares. It is almost impossible *not* to kill something with it. I think maybe he could manage it, but I don't think he's ever tried. Anyway, it's no sword for you to carry. Give it here."
Gabrielle twists her mouth, like a little girl caught playing with daddy's armor. As she hands over the sword, Agape takes it, then takes her wrist, pulls Gabrielle towards her. "Gabrielle, I meant what I said. If you want me, I'll wait. I'd expect a commitment, that you really want to be with me, not just because you can't have Xena."
She drops Gabrielle's hand, turns to Salmoneus. "Now, if we can all stop thinking about how cute my little butt is, maybe we could devote some thought to rescuing Xena?"
The three sit again, and Agape tries to use the sword to flip a pie. She manages to pierce it, and meat juices run out onto the cloth. "I used to could do this. Cursed sword keeps moving. Oh, my. Gabrielle. I think I know what happened." She looks up, smiles. "I have an idea. How are you with a sword?" Gabrielle gives her a look, and she continues. "Great. Here. Take the sword. No, hold it like a spear." As she talks, Agape gets up, moves about twenty paces away.
"Yeah. No, don't stand. Just kind of throw it at me. My feet, maybe."
Gabrielle looking dubious, tries to sit and hold the sword like she's about to cast it. "I don't like this."
"I know I know, you have a thing about swords. Pretend I'm immortal or something."
Shaking her head, Gabrielle awkwardly throws the sword at the goddess. Seemingly with a mind of its own, the sword heads straight towards her heart. Agape grabs it out of the air, somehow not hurting herself.
"How do you do that?" Salmoneus looks on, amazed.
"Ask Xena, when she gets back." Agape walks back to the circle of friends, sets the sword down. "See, something bothered me, that thing with the spear. Xena is a whole lot taller than you. A spear aimed at *your* heart would hit her lower down. And I wondered. How could Xena miss it? She was *waiting* for that cast, fer zoossake."
Gabrielle, confused, looks at her. "But that's what I remember. It's so clear, I can almost smell her blood." She shudders. "I looked at her face and she was so shocked she . . ." Gabrielle looks up, tears in her eyes. "Before she died, she . . . looked at me."
"Gabrielle." Agape gets to her knees, holds the younger woman's head against her shoulder, waits. And at long last, Gabrielle weeps.
Holding her love, Athena closes her eyes and feels each sob as it racks Gabrielle. "It's alright. She's coming back. Oh, babe, it's gonna be alright." In an immortal life consumed by wise counsels, wars and victories, she has no words for the pain of the mortal in her arms. Gradually, Gabrielle cries herself out. Sniffly,
" She's coming back?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle lets go, and Athena looks at her. "As long as Xena was in danger, you didn't even dare cry, did you? There's someone . . . very brave, marching underneath that skin of yours." She sighs, lets go, moves away. Gabrielle, one arm wiping the tears from her eyes, reaches for her, but misses as Agape withdraws.
Salmoneus, sensing emotional safety, "Hades isn't just going to take your word for this. And Ares. . . '
"Well, that's the second thing. Ares knew all about this and I didn't. How? He was there. Why? This was murder, planned by a god." Again, she sighs. "Like you say, Salmoneus. We have to catch him at it, somehow." And her voice tapers off, lost in thought.
"Excuse me, could we try a little optimism?" Gabrielle's irritation gets a glance from Agape.
"Hey! Y'know, we're working on your side."
"My side? You two have been ready to give up since we started. I'm tired of fighting alone"
"Gabrielle . . . what we need now is an idea."
"Fine. Find the spear. The one that killed Xena."
"Don't you think Ares would want that back?"
"Salmoneus, I've met Ares. Twice. He isn't exactly the god of bright moves."
"So: here's what we're going to do." And as Gabrielle outlines her plan, Agape's face brightens. Smiling, she nods repeatedly.
"Salmoneus, you're the key. Ready to move out?"
"Taverns, I can deal with. Remind me to tell you a story."
"I will. We'll meet back at the palace. And . . . Salmoneus? Watch yourself. Remember what happened to Xena."
"You mean . . . like what happened to Xena?" He gulps, looks around. "Why do I do these things?"
Gabrielle kneels, puts her arms around Salmoneus, gives him a quick hug.
"Oh, that's why. Help me up while I can still stand."
Salmoneus moves off to find the nearest village tavern, and Agape turns to call a horse. Athanike trots up to her, accepts a pat on the shoulder and a kiss on her forehead. "Hey!" Gabrielle looks at Agape. "That's my horse!"
"Whoops. Sorry about that." Talking to Athanike, "It's not your fault, is it, girl?" She moves to the saddle, mounts, looks down at Gabrielle. "Athanike used to be mine. Funny name, huh? Athena's Nike."
"Yeah, as in victory. Gabrielle, this is . . . ah, this is a pretty special horse." She smiles, pats the space behind her. "Ride in back?"
Looking not at all pleased, Gabrielle stands facing her. "Special. That's just great. And thanks so much for telling me." Gabrielle looks at the ground, then back up. "She's still my horse, right?"
"Well, . . . yeah."
"So, how about, you ride in back?"
Agape sits alone, waiting in a courtyard of Gabrielle and Xena's palace. She watches water lazily flow from a small fountain into a tile-lined trough. The tiles, painted bright with flowers, continue on either side of the fountain, into Gabrielle's herb garden. With the cool nights, the herbs are just taking to seed. She moves her hand over rosemary, scattered with light lavender blossoms; delicately plucks one petal. Examines it; with a light breath, blows it away.
"How's this?" Standing in back of her, quietly, Gabrielle, wearing leather riding pants and a jacket, a loose white blouse underneath. Her hair is held back with a thin leather strap across the forehead, and she holds Xena's sword and scabbard.
"Very intimidating. I think I like it." Agape smiles, "Gabrielle. I've made a decision. I'm not coming with you."
Gabrielle looks at the sword, briefly; directs a puzzled look at the goddess. Getting no response, she kneels down, takes Agape's hands in hers. Looking directly into her eyes,
Agape moves away, over to the fountain; dips her hands. "I've been thinking about what comes next. What if Ares accuses us of arranging Xena's murder, so we could be together?"
Gabrielle, desolate, only looks at her.
"Don't look at me like that; gods have done worse. But if you're alone . . ."
"I guess we're not really in this together. Are we."
"Gabrielle, I want to be with you. But it isn't what I want. It's Xena's life." She smiles, something that is not a smile. "Wisdom and love don't mix very well."
For a long time, Gabrielle says nothing.
"Athena? If something goes wrong tonight, I want to be with Xena."
"I promise. You'll be together."
"Will you hold me? Until Salmoneus gets back?"
They sit, intertwined, silent, waiting in the garden. Athena places a palm on Gabrielle's temple, and she begins breathing deeply, slowly. Her mind lets go of her pain, her loss. Sensing that Athena has again given her the gift to heal herself, she travels through her own past. Experienced, like a connoisseur of emotions, she examines, selects, tastes her life with Xena.
She looks around: night, their bedroom in the palace. Someone has placed a bouquet of spring flowers near their bed, along with a single candle. Xena, fresh from a bath, her hair bound in a pony tail, stands over the bed, looking down at her. Gabrielle holds herself back, afraid to touch the emotions around her. She recognizes the scene: their first night together, after Xena freed her from Ares. She remembers her own confusion: an intense sexual desire she didn't understand, mixed with fear of violating Xena's friendship. She remembers being unable to read Xena's face; now, she touches her feelings.
Surprise sends her back into the present, into Athena's arms. She stirs, feels the pressure of Athena's hand on her, returns to . . . tenderness, an almost desperate need to hold, protect. Feelings she'd never heard expressed, never imagined, stand naked before her. "How are you feeling?" Xena sits next to her, moves her hair, inadvertently touching her shoulder, neck. Gabrielle sees herself gasp; Xena, ashamed, quickly moves her hand away. Hearing a memory, Gabrielle smiles, watches herself: "Like I've always been in love with you. Like if you don't touch me again soon I'm going to die." She sees Xena, smiling, confident, assured. Memory and lust mingle; briefly she wonders what Athena will think, then lets go, merges with Xena's feelings.
Again, intense surprise: a fear so deep, it gnaws at her stomach. The illusions behind her love shattered, Gabrielle gasps, leaves.
But Athena will not free her, and again she confronts the past.
She sees herself, sitting alone in a barren courtyard. Xena sets a tray in front of her: fresh bread, a small pot of honey, two cups of dark fragrant tea. She sees herself look up, remembers her own wonderment: will I ever understand this woman? Hears herself complain, "You're treating me like I'm sick." She laughs, hearing Xena's quick answer: "No, I'm treating you like you're my wife." And she witnesses herself become suddenly shy, holding the tea, looking deep into it. "Xena? Why are we like this? What if people find out?"
"Gabrielle. They already know. This . . palace. This land. It was a wedding gift. We're married."
"But . . . how? Why?"
"Do I need to remind you?" Gabrielle smiles inside herself at Xena's sudden change in tone. She hears herself catch it, smile. "Yeah. I'd like that." Plunging into Xena's feelings: peace, and something so subtle she almost misses it. Joy.
This time she fights Athena, struggles. Back in her arms, the goddesses face impassive, her feelings, if any, impenetrable. "Athena. I know what you're doing."
"Good. Hey, I thought you were resting."
"No." She gets up, holds out the scabbard. "Help put this on my back."
Turning, she faces the center courtyard, where a small tree is beginning to lose its first leaves.
"Xena brought me here . . . when I didn't remember anything. We planted that tree together."
Replacing Xena's sword with Aries', Agape puts a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Now it's me that doesn't like you using a sword." She smiles, waits for one in return before proceeding. "The sword will kill, if it can. Remember, Gabrielle: focus."
Gabrielle turns, looks into her deep gray eyes, suddenly kneels. Holding her eyes, she speaks, dredging from memory a prayer of Xena's:
"Great goddess Athena. Before I go into battle today, give me your peace. Give me your wisdom, to know what is right, and your courage, to act it."
Releasing Athena's eyes, she bows, and accepts Athena's hands on her head.
What passes between them takes hours, or no time: Gabrielle has no way to measure. All she knows is the release, when Athena takes her hands away. And a memory, already dim, of Athena's spirit. Then . . . it is over.
"Salmoneus. Coming up."
And true enough, he puffs into view. "I got here." Huff. "As soon as I found out. It's . . . "
Athena stands, puts a finger over his lips. Salmoneus, surprised at the touch, steps back, silent.
"I know too much already. Time for this goddess to be leaving."
"But. . . . "
"She'll explain. I'm paying a visit to Hades. He'll keep his eyes on me while . . . you do whatever."
"How will I . . "
"Gabrielle. This would a good time to trust. Do your part, I'll take care of the god thing."
Gabrielle looks at her: "Athena?" Hesitates. "Come back?"
And the goddess of wisdom smiles, vanishes.
"Not all the action was in the tavern. Mmn?"
"It wasn't like that. It was *never* like that. It was . . . spiritual."
"Well, this wasn't. Good news or bad news first?"
"I think I want a steaming cup of nice, strong tea. First."
"OK . . . that's part of the bad news. It was Stepissos and Polybos. They've been bragging in every tavern here to the coast, that they killed Xena."
Gabrielle touches the sword on her back, looks grim. "And?"
"They have a fortress, about a half day's ride."
"So I'll get there by nightfall. Salmoneus: what's the bad news?"
"A banquet. Tonight. Every lord and warrior in the land will be there."
Gabrielle is distant for a moment, then nods, puts a hand on his shoulder. "Thanks, Salmoneus. Stepissos thinks he'll get the others to swear allegiance to him. Perfect time for our plan to avenge Xena."
"Gabrielle. You can't! Do you know what you're saying? You're going to fight a dozen warriors? You're not Xena, you know."
Distant, again, Gabrielle turns, touches the tree. "Are you sure?"
Nightfall; Gabrielle and Athanike, riding hard. They slow; dimly, the walls of a fortress loom. Gabrielle reins in Athanike, scans the walls. Too high for scaling, even if . . well, even if Xena were there. She remembers something Xena had said, night talk together, before the first fight with Callisto. "Choose your battles. Make each one fit into your own plan."
She sighs, knowing what must come next, steps Athanike up to the main gate of the fortress. In the dark, she sees two men suddenly stand straight, bar her path with crossed spears. Time slows; she sees a gleam from the polished bronze of their spears, notices the thin leather of their armor. No protection at all, really. Must not have been expecting her.
"Right miss, this is a private party. The whole town isn't invited."
"Without me there won't be a party."
"Ga . . Lady Gabrielle of Samothrike."
One guard smiles, looks at the other. "Oh, right. Heard of you. Your lordship."
Before either can react, Gabrielle has drawn her sword, and with a flat swipe, cut the points off the brass spears. Holding the sword ready, "Good. Then you can announce me to Stepissos."
One guard has the wit to step back; for the other, it is already too late. She lifts the sword high, brings the hilt down against the side of his head. He falls, and Athanike, as though reading Gabrielle's mind, steps forward to where the other guard stands trembling. Again she lifts the sword; holding it back, she cuts through leather, just missing skin, muscle. She smiles. "Tell him. Tell him I'm here to avenge Xena."
The guard stands for a moment, then breaks, running in terror, his leather flapping loosely about him. Gabrielle stops to consider her plan. The horses, next. Athanike takes her there; several dozen milling around, feeding from troughs, being brushed by grooms. In the dark, she rides unseen among them, looking, thinking. Taking a torch down from the castle wall, she touches it to a bale of hay, then a wagonload, and Athanike steps back, as though to watch the effect. The horses panic as the fire spreads, begins to take hold on the outbuildings. She moves on, to the back of the castle.
Next place to try: the armory. If the spear would only be there. . . . She sees a massive wooden door set against the castle: probably not. The front entrance. Leaning forward, she whispers to Athanike just what she plans. Dismounts, hides in the dark recesses of the castle walls, watching the main door.
Soon enough, men venture out: slightly drunk, angry. Their wits just beginning to slow, they run to where the fire burns heaviest, where their mounts used to be. Gabrielle notices their clothing: fairly crude, these would most likely be retainers, the major lords still inside. She emerges from shadows, walks in the main door.
A dozen or so men mill about the entry hall; Gabrielle quickly notes a staircase, no side exits, open double doors to the main banquet hall. Overhead, a ring of candles light the room; briefly she wishes she'd brought the chakram: that'd make a nice diversion. Then she wishes Xena had taught her the chakram. Slightly annoyed, she scans the room for faces she knows, faces that might recognize her.
Most of the men's eyes glide right over her. She begins moving towards the staircase . . .
She's stopped by a middle aged gentleman about her own height, black still showing in his beard. He stands in a small group of five men, all well dressed, carefully groomed.
"I heard of your loss. I'm sorry. But . . ." he glances at the men about him, picking up their assent, "we want you to know there are a number of us who still support you. The reforms you've begun are long overdue, and we want to see them continue." He leans forward, lightly takes her arm, whispers: "But with Xena gone, I'm not sure how long you can hold out against Stepissos and his supporters."
She hadn't expected to be playing politics; that had always been Xena's interest. And certainly had never viewed herself as taking on Xena's mantle as leader of the reformist landowners.
"Thank you, Mentor. . . thank you all. Don't believe every rumor you hear. Xena is on the mainland, talking with Darius about the opposition here."
One of the other men, short, nervously glancing between Gabrielle, Mentor and the open doors to the hall: "But we saw the spear! Stepissos has it hanging in the main hall. He's been bragging that he killed Xena."
"Gyrian, I promise she'll be back before the full moon." She looks around, warily. "No surprise Stepissos chose now to make his claim. You know he never swore loyalty."
Mentor looks at her. "You can't be thinking of challenging him here? He's a ruthless man, Lady Gabrielle. He'd just as soon you and Xena were hanging in his hall."
"Xena wouldn't stand for this challenge to our rights. I won't either."
"But . . . "
Gabrielle walks forward, to the main hall. Remembering Xena's words: "Choose your allies carefully. And always know what they will and won't do for you." She stops, turns back.
"Gyrian, Mentor, all of you. It may come to blood. But I'm stopping this challenge, tonight. Before I walk in there, I want to know: are you with me?"
Mentor stands forward, pulls back the top of his tunic, revealing a short gilt-handled dagger. "I may be past my prime, but I'm at your service." Gyrian and the others look, stand with him.
"Good men. Now . . . here's what I need."
The hall fills, as retainers come in with news of the horses, or give up the search. As soon as they begin to crowd the entry to the banquet hall, Gabrielle, surrounded by her five loyal followers, enter as well. Her hopes to go unnoticed last only a second; guards close in on either side. The one on the right reaches directly over Gyrian, grabs Gabrielle's shoulder. Gyrian steps back, and Gabrielle, her sword already unsheathed, whirls around, hits the guard in the upper abdomen with the hilt. He doubles over, gasping for air, and receives the hilt again directly against his chin. He falls backwards as Mentor steps forward and turns, to let the guard on the left at Gabrielle. He rushes in, stops short at the sight of her raised sword, and is knocked unconscious by Mentor.
Gabrielle, safe on either side, sheathes her sword, surveys the hall. Some twenty men, mostly without weapons, milling in confusion. Servants, carrying food and drink. A large set of candles, suspended from the ceiling by a rope, within reach. The walls decorated gruesomely with the heads of animals killed on hunt. A long banquet table, and, at the very end, Stepissos. Sitting, smiling. Just as she remembered him asking, "And who are you? The game wardens?" And hanging from the rafters above him . . . a spear. His trophy.
Gabrielle recognizes it instantly, the tip still dyed with Xena's blood, but otherwise a perfect match for her sword: it could only be Aries' spear. She searches quickly, can't see Polybos, the man who cast it. No matter; if she didn't act, she would soon lose the advantage of surprise.
Seeing for a moment a clear path in front, she runs, vaults over the edge of the banquet table, lands steadily in the middle. The room is silent; most of the feasters are too shocked to do anything; a few braver or more sober men start to gather near Stepissos. Now . . .
"Stepissos. You couldn't make it to my ceremony of allegiance. I decided to visit yours." Drawing her sword, turning it about in her hand, she strides down the banquet table, kicking food to either side.
Gabrielle notices that one table has ended and another begun; she turns, brings the sword down on the table she's just left, cleaving it in two. It falls apart, spilling food. Panic just begins to start; one would-be follower of Stepissos raises a sword. She blocks, blocks again, sees an opening, raises her sword slowly. He holds up his sword, two handed, to block her, as Aries' sword cuts effortlessly through his metal.
Sensing her time, Gabrielle makes a short run, stands in front of Stepissos. He looks up, still with a smile, blindly unafraid. She balances the sword, his eyes track it . . . as she kicks him in the face. "That's for your insolence." His nose bloodied, he tries to stand, and she kicks again, throwing him back in the chair. Almost at the same time, she sees the bowman who was with Stepissos and Polybos reach towards her leg. She lightly swings the sword back, almost severing his hand as it reaches. Angered at her loss of control, she jumps down, directly in front of Stepissos. Looking in his eyes, "And this is for Xena." He can only watch as she takes the sword back and to the side, swings. The hilt hits his head, lightly, and he falls to the right, on his knees. Looking up, then past her . . . Gabrielle whirls around, kicking him backwards. And sees that Polybos has reached above her, taken the spear.
He quickly falls to the floor, rolls out of the way as her sword cuts through a chair. And now stands, looking in her eyes, ready to cast.
All of Gabrielle's fears, her pain, fall into that one second, as she sees the spear leave his arm, right itself, and head once again towards her heart. Rigid, open-mouthed, she holds the sword in front of her. And at the last moment, it leaps of its own, blocks the spear.
Breathing again, she turns, takes the spear out of a wall where it lodged, looks around. The men surrounding Stepissos have pulled back, two of them tying a tourniquet on the bowsman. Mentor and a growing group of men with him are walking to the front of the room; Gabrielle sheathes her sword, pulls Stepissos to his feet, draws his sword for him, and places it, crosswise, in his two hands. "Now, swear!"
Head bowed, mumbling from a broken and swollen mouth, he offers Gabrielle his allegiance.
She turns again, sees Polybos caught, held between Gyrian and Mentor. And Gabrielle smiles.
"Let him go!" She calls across the room. Taking the spear, hefting it, Gabrielle looks at him. "Think you can outrun my cast, Polybos?" She tosses it lightly up in the air, feels its readiness to fly, laughs. "Well, hunter?"
Polybos looks at the spear, quivering against Gabrielle's restraint, screams, and covers his head. She strides to him; pulling his hair, she jerks his head back, looks in his eyes. "Well? I came here for vengeance, Polybos. I'm still waiting."
"Please. Please, my lady. Spare me. It wasn't me. I didn't . . ."
"Then who did?" Gabrielle takes the point of the spear, holds it against his neck. "Who, Polybos? Who did it, that isn't here to protect you now?"
Polybos falls to his knees; doomed either way, he sobs: "Ares."
"And what did he promise you?"
"If I let him . . . take my place. I could keep the spear. I didn't know what he was going to do. I'll swear allegiance. Anything you want."
Gabrielle leans the spear against the wall, unsheathes her sword. "Hold your hands out. Both of them."
"No. Please, no."
She looks annoyed: "Get off the island. Tonight. If Xena or I ever see you again . . . " she looks at his hands. Then turns. "And Stepissos. Get those dead animal heads off your walls, before Xena and I visit here again. They're an insult."
Full dawn. Athena, Gabrielle and Salmoneus stand, waiting near the stables, before the palace walls. A brief shimmer, . . and the chariot of Hades steps through into the world of the living. Xena stands next to him, pale, but smiling. Hades reins in his horses, pure black and white, stops before them.
"As promised. One mortal, Xena. To live out her natural life, free from further interference by certain gods." He smiles. "Xena, Gabrielle. I owe you one."
Xena stands down from the chariot, as Gabrielle slams into her, wraps her arms around in a death-hug. They twirl around, looking into each other's eyes.
"Athena. Hephaestus and I . . . made a little surprise for Ares, after you left. He's caught, and . . . Zeus agreed to a trial."
"The beast has been chained?" Athena, looking as young as Agape, laughs. "This I have to see." She turns to Gabrielle, Xena. "Remember the ceremony. Don't do anything 'till I get back." And jumps into Hades' chariot.
Xena looks up: "No promises", puts her hand around Gabrielle's waist, as the two gods shimmer, disappear. "What did she mean about a ceremony?"
"Ah, the commitment ceremony. She wants . . . us to do it again."
"Why? I remember the vow."
Salmoneus, looking anxious, mutters, "Uh-oh."
Xena releases Gabrielle, turns on him. Grabbing the front of his tunic, "What does that mean?" Turning, looking from Gabrielle to Salmoneus, "What. . . is going on?"
"Xena. We . . . have to talk. Athena . . . "
Dropping Salmoneus, Xena gives Gabrielle a deadly look. "No. Not again. Gabrielle, how *could* you?"
"Xena." Salmoneus grabs her arm. "It wasn't like that."
She shakes it off. "And what was it like?" She looks from Gabrielle, to Salmoneus, back. Seeing guilt on their faces, "No." Looking around, desperately, she sees Argo, whistles, vaults onto her back.
Salmoneus stands beside Gabrielle. "She'll be back. She left her bags and sword. She'll be back."
"Salmoneus. You've done enough damage. You need a vacation. A long one. To the mainland." And she walks, alone, back into the palace.
Night. Gabrielle, dressed in a long, flowing gown, waits for Xena. Sitting at a table, she opens a small, delicately worked box. Inside, there is only a leather cord, and strung on it, a bead. Gabrielle takes it up, shudders with the emotions locked in it. Knowing only that it must hold something of deep significance to her and Xena, she ties it on her neck. And waits.
Night. Xena walks through the palace, picking up her sword, chakram. In the bedroom, she finds her saddlebags, then sees Gabrielle sleeping on their bed. She sits, gently, beside her love, notices the necklace. Untying it, she puts it in her bag, quietly leaves.
Xena and Argo stand in a wide field, thistled, overgrown. She places her hand on Argo's neck, looks up at mountains rising hazily in the distance. "It's good to be on the road again, huh, girl." She takes Argo's halter, leads her, walking slowly towards the mountains. "Olympus. We need a change of scene."
Midafternoon, sitting under a small grove of wild olive. Argo is at a stream, while Xena, reflective, bites off tiny pieces of a small plant. Hades, Gabrielle, even Marcus had told her she belonged back in the world of the living, helping. She'd been waiting for the day Gabrielle would be fully recovered, ready to travel again. Tossing the herb aside, she stands, leans her head against Argo. It wasn't supposed to be like this.
Late that night, Xena sits up, sleepless, staring at a waning quarter moon. She hears a step . . .
"Gabrielle." She smiles in the dark. How?"
"I know where you're going."
"You walked out on me. You wouldn't even talk. Who in the name of all the gods, do you think you are, that you can do that to me?" Gabrielle kneels before her, angry.
"Gabrielle. I died for you. And all you . . . "
"Don't give me that, Xena Amphipolis. You always take the easy way out."
Xena smiles, and Gabrielle shakes her. "How do you think it felt, Xena. To watch you die in my arms. To light your funeral pyre? You died for me? I had to live!"
"Gabrielle. . . all I wanted to do was protect you."
"I don't want your protection. I could have had a goddess; I chose you. I want *your* love. Not some lie you make up to protect me."
Waiting, hoping to hear something, anything from her love, Gabrielle looks up, sees the leather band and the stone around Xena's neck. Furious, she grabs, rips it from her.
"Look at this. You didn't even have the courage to face me. You had to take it when I fell asleep."
Gabrielle looks at Xena, but instead of a reply, sees a tear starting down Xena's cheek.
"Xena, I'm tired of this. I want . . . someone who can face me and talk with me and . . . who can honor the truth in us."
Xena's tears start to flow, still silently. Athanike walks up as Gabrielle stands, drops the stone on the ground. "Goodbye, warrior princess."