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Please see the disclaimers from the previous 7 parts!
By the way, this is my first attempt at fan fiction, so please let me know what you think by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Constructive criticism only! All other kinds will make me cry
Last, but definitely NOT least, I need to thank my partner in life for being so supportive in my endeavor. I love you!
THE DARKLING - PART EIGHT
By Lynne Knowlton
Calli watched the rift close, knowing that she had just made a huge mistake; one which made all the other mistakes she'd made so far seem tiny in comparison. The second she realized that the person on the grey gelding wasn't who she thought, her muscles had turned to jelly. It was a far cry from the defiance and disdain she had shown back at the Keep. She was certainly no stranger to fear. It kept her on her toes, but she had never experienced the mind-numbing emotion that invaded her from the moment she saw the 'other'. Shame filled her as she realized that she would have to explain this to Gabrielle. How in the known world would she be able to face the bard after what she had done? Or rather, what she didn't do? The mere thought of it sent waves of apprehension through her gut. Damn it! She was so sure she had the answer to everything, and now it was ruined! She would never get back to where she belonged; Xena was gone; and Gabrielle would hate her forever.
"SonofabloodsuckingbaccheawhoreslutBIIIIIIIIIIIIITCH!!!!" As Calli screamed, she hurled herself around the clearing, looking much like a 5-year old having a tantrum. "RottenstinkingslimesuckinggorgonkissingSLUUUUUUUUUUUUUT!!!!!!!!" When she was finished, she lay gasping in the dirt. "Yeah. That scream therapy of Damara's actually works! It still doesn't take the place of sticking a sword in the bitch, but it's a good substitute for now."
Since Calli was now in a much better frame of mind, she was able to think about what to do next. It was certain that the warlord Xena would return through the rift accompanied by a massive army. The trick would be to figure out when and where. Waiting in the clearing wasn't an option. She had to get help, but who? Who would believe such a crazy story? "Gabrielle!" Saying the name aloud brought a wonderful realization to Calli. Centaurs and Amazons were a part of this world, and Gabrielle would be the key to bring them both together! She was the Amazon Queen, so the nation would follow her. The centaurs knew and trusted the bard. If anyone could get them to work with the Amazons, it would be Gabrielle.
As she ran back to the village, she was once again overwhelmed with the feeling that the little bard was the key. She would be the one to put an end to the warlord. The tough part would be convincing Gabrielle of that. Talking to the bard on their way to Amphipolis taught Calli a lot about the way the young woman viewed the world. Gabrielle didn't believe in war; she believed that there was always a better way. Calli's job would be to show her that sometimes, fighting was the only choice.
Breathing hard, she pushed her way into the tavern. The place was nearly empty, except for two old men sitting at a back table. "Cyrene!" Calli rounded the corner of the bar, headed for the kitchen, when Cyrene answered from the top of the stairs.
"Oh Calli! Thank goodness you're here. Gabrielle's gone. I can't find her anywhere and her things are gone from the stables." The older woman wrung her hands as she descended to where Calli stood.
"Oh, this is great! First the bitch is almost a day early, then Xena gets dragged through the damned portal, and now Gabrielle's missing! Just great!" Calli punched the stone wall next to the kitchen door. "Ow!" She shook her hand out while stomping around the tavern. She stopped long enough to ask Cyrene, "Ok, where would she have gone?"
"Well, either home to Poteidaia or to the Amazon village." The tavern owner's paused for a heartbeat to consider. "Wait a minute. What do you mean 'Xena got dragged through the portal?' What portal?"
"I'm sorry Cyrene, but I don't have time to explain things to you. Believe me when I say it's a long, loooong story." She paused, tilting her head in thought. After a moment she asked, "Which direction is the Amazon village?"
"Three days southwest of here by foot. Do you think that's where Gabrielle went?"
Calli nodded in the affirmative. "Yeah. After what happened with Xena, I think she'll be out to prove herself. Ah
do you think I could take Argo?"
"I don't see why not, dear. The Gods only know when my daughter will be back."
"That's more true than you know." Calli thought. Before she left the tavern, she turned back to Cyrene. "I'll do everything in my power to make sure they're safe. Both of them."
Relief shone in the older woman's eyes. "Thank you."
It felt good to defy one of Xena's major rules about travelling at night, especially alone. The bard had made up her mind that she was going to live by her own rules now. And so
she was walking in the dark, alone, on the narrow path to her Amazon village. Of course, she was walking to the far right in case she had to hide in a hurry. All the thoughts whirling in her head were driving her a little bit crazy. Her mind kept replaying the incident when Xena had thrown her down and walked away. It was maddening! Even though part of her mind was on recent events, the bard's senses were still focused on the surrounding area. It wouldn't be prudent to be caught unawares by some slavering, grotesque, wanna be raider.
Looking up at the night sky, Gabrielle thought the stars seemed less bright tonight. As hard as she tried to look forward to her new future, she couldn't help but be devastated by the loss of her best friend, her soulmate. The depression she had fought off so desperately threatened to overwhelm her. Her eyes welled up with tears, but the little bard refused to give in. In the midst of feeling sorry for herself, she heard the sound of a horse being run hard. She scrambled into the prickly bushes at the side of the road and waited to see who came around the bend.
"Calli!" The surprised bard jumped from the bushes, startling Argo into rearing up. Calli tumbled from the saddle, landing in the dusty road with a 'thud'. Gabrielle ran to the woman lying prostrate in the dirt. "Oh Gods, are you alright?"
"Oh yeah. Couldn't be better." Replied the woman in the dirt.
"I'm really, really sorry." Gabrielle's proffered hand was knocked away. "Really."
Calli stood and brushed the dust from her shirt and breeches. "I heard you the first time. C'mere, Argo." Reaching for the reigns, the woman eyeballed the horse with undisguised annoyance.
Gabrielle's brows furrowed in confusion. "Wait a second. Something's not
why are you riding Argo?" Panic gripped her gut. "Where's Xena? What's happened to her?"
"I'm afraid I've got some bad news for you, little bard."
"Something's happened to Xena, hasn't it?" A trembling hand reached out to grasp Calli by the wrist.
"That bitch took her through the portal."
"What?" Gabrielle's eyes were filled with a combination of fear and anger. "I thought you said she was going to wait until the last minute! I thought you knew how she operated!"
I did, but
let's just concentrate on what we need to do here, shall we?" Calli was obviously frustrated with having to explain herself to the bard. She knew that it wouldn't be easy. Facing a rabid mountain lion would be easier than dealing with the angry bard.
are you in there?" The bard rapped on Calli's forehead with her knuckles. "What we need to do here, is rescue Xena!" Gabrielle pushed past Calli and headed back toward Amphipolis.
"Ow!" Calli rubbed the sore spot on her forehead. "Wait a second, for Athena's sake!" She ran to block the bard's path.
"Look. The longer we wait, the harder it's going to be to rescue Xena!" Gabrielle again pushed her way past and continued stomping her way toward the village.
"Gabrielle, you can go back to the clearing if you want, but you're forgetting one thing!" Calli yelled at the retreating bard.
Gabrielle smacked herself on the forehead. "You're right! I need to get help from the Amazons!" She turned around, setting back on her original course toward the Amazon village.
"Well, that's a great idea, but you're still missing something."
"Yeah? What's that?" Gabrielle challenged. "Oh, wait! I know
THE PLAN!! The great, wonderful plan you two came up with, right?" The bard stopped and turned to face Calli. "You know, the plan that was supposed to capture that other Xena, thereby saving your world and ours, right? THAT PLAN???!!! Boy, I sure wish I had thought of it." Gabrielle snorted and turned away. "But then again, had I thought of it, she would have ignored it and she still would have been dragged through that stupid portal! Damn it! I should never have left the way I did! If I had just fought harder I could have at least convinced her not to do something crazy."
Calli listened to the bard's tirade, fuming the entire time. "Well, of course things could have gone better
a lot better, actually. But, that's not what I mean. You're forgetting the fact that THERE IS NO PORTAL!!!!! They've already gone through it. We have no way of getting to my world."
Gabrielle's green eyes narrowed and shot daggers at the other woman. "Okay. I knew that. Yeah. So
do you have a new plan? One that's waaaay better than the last one you had?" Sarcasm dripped from the bard's voice.
"Yeah. As a matter of fact I do. Let's discuss it while we ride to the Amazon village." Calli mounted Argo and reached down to help Gabrielle. As she pulled the bard up to settle behind her, she said. "Just so you know, you couldn't have done anything. She was set on her course and nothing you could have said would have changed that."
The bard signed, knowing Calli was right. "I know. But thanks anyway."
The pain in her head had subsided somewhat, allowing her to open the one eye that had not swelled shut. She surveyed her surroundings, looking for a way out. The cell was small, six-by-six, with a tiny, barred window about seven feet from the floor. A pile of filthy hay was bunched in the far corner. This is where Xena lay. A thick, iron shackle circled one ankle. The shackle, in turn, was connected by an equally thick chain to an iron stake in the middle of the room. The chain appeared to be just long enough for Xena to reach the three moss-covered stone walls, but not long enough for her to reach the cell door. The warrior sat up slowly, taking a mental inventory of all her body parts. Although she was bruised and sore, it didn't seem that there were any broken bones. She probably looked a lot worse than she felt, a condition which could be used to her advantage. As she was sizing up her current situation, she heard soft footsteps coming down the corridor.
"So. You're awake."
Xena narrowed her good eye to focus on the figure in the shadows just beyond the cell door. "Yeah."
The figure stepped forward to reveal the warlord. She studied Xena with detachment. "It's so strange to see someone who looks like me, and yet isn't anything like me at all.
"Really?" Xena's voice dropped dangerously low. "I bet we're more alike than you care to believe." "But not in the way we dress." She thought to herself. The warlord was back in her usual garb. She wore loose-fitting, black leather breeches; and a tunic of the same color draped her muscular body. The only weapon she wore was a sword strapped to her hip. "No chakram?" Xena thought. "Interesting
The warlord smirked. "Oh I doubt that. You're weak. I'm not.
"Why did you bring me here?" Xena tried a different tack. She wanted to learn as much as she could about this warlord. The more she knew, the better the chance would be that her plan would succeed.
"You were too much of a liability to me in your world."
"Killing me would have been easier. Why didn't you?"
"Good question, and one that I can't answer." The warlord replied truthfully.
"Too much like killing yourself?" Xena asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Perhaps." The warlord answered with a half-smile that made Xena shudder. "You and I are going to get to know each other very well. I'll have a guard bring some fresh clothes and a wash basin. Get cleaned up."
On foot, the Amazon village was a three-day journey. On Argo, the trip was cut by more than half. As they approached the boarder to Amazon lands, Gabrielle asked Calli to stop.
"Why? We're almost there." Calli turned her head to address the bard.
"You obviously don't know anything about Amazons or their customs." Gabrielle replied as she swung herself to the ground. "Just do what I do, and don't say anything." The bard replied.
Calli watched as Gabrielle dropped her staff to the ground, raised her arms, and clasped her hands above her head. She shrugged, dismounted, and did the same. The second her hands met, six masked Amazon warriors descended from the trees. Her eyes widened in surprise, but she managed to squelch the vocal equivalent just in time. Five of the warriors stood at the ready, while the sixth approached the two women, and kneeled in front of Gabrielle.
"My queen." The masked Amazon said.
Calli couldn't contain her surprise. "Queen?" She dropped her hands. "You never said anything about being a queen!" The blonde woman turned to stare at the bard standing next to her.
The five Amazons, taking the movement to be a threat, surrounded Calli and pushed her to the ground. The Amazon who had knelt in front of Gabrielle jumped up and positioned herself between her Queen and the woman lying in the dirt. Calli noted the three swords and two arrows pointed at her chest. "Back off, ladies!" She snarled. "This is the third time in three days I've ended up in the dirt, and I'm getting pretty damned sick of it!"
The bard smirked, shaking her head. "I told you not to say anything, didn't I?" She turned to the masked Amazon standing in front of her. "It's okay Ephiny. She's a friend."
The mask was immediately pushed up on top of a blonde, curly head. "A friend? Callisto is a friend?! " Ephiny's hazel eyes narrowed as she studied the bard. "Okay. This is Ares' doing, isn't it? He's enchanted you somehow to join forces with this she-demon." The Amazon reagent gestured toward Calli with her sword.
Gabrielle stepped into the circle of Amazons surrounding Calli. "Amazons, hear me!" Calli watched in awe as the bard truly took on the persona of an Amazon Queen. "Our nation
our entire world is being threatened. This woman comes under the banner of friendship to help us defeat the enemy. By so doing, she has jeopardized the lives of her own people. I call her friend, and she shall be treated accordingly!"
The Amazon warriors stepped back and removed their masks, revealing their faces. Their eyes seemed to question Gabrielle's sanity, but they lowered their weapons.
Calli, still lying in the dirt, got up and knocked the dust off. "Gee, thanks so much for your help. I just don't know how I'll ever repay you." Her voice dripped with sarcasm. The only answers she received from the Amazons were cold stares.
Ephiny pulled the bard to one side. "My queen, the council will need some answers."
Gabrielle, exhausted from all that she had endured the past few days, sighed. "Ephiny. Stop calling me 'My Queen'. And I plan on going before the council anyway. There's a lot more going on than I can explain right now, believe me. Calli is the least of it." The bard turned to the other five Amazons, who were still now focusing icy glares at Calli. Gabrielle sighed and addressed them again. "Look. I know you're confused, but I don't have time to explain every single thing to every single Amazon. You'll just have to trust me."
The five Amazons nodded, indicating their willingness to accept what their Queen had said; and more importantly, accept Calli as their Queen's friend
Xena watched the warlord as she walked away. "She wants to clean me up. I wonder what her game is?" It didn't take long to find out. The guards had delivered fresh clothes and a washbasin as the warlord had promised. The men were extremely careful when entering the cell. Only one approached, setting the basin and clothing just inside the cell door. They were placed close enough so the warrior could reach the items, but not close enough that she could reach the guards. They refused to unchain the warrior, indicating that she could take care of herself just fine shackled. Xena shrugged, stripped off her filthy shift and began to clean herself. The guards tried to ignore her but found themselves unable to keep their eyes off of the beautiful warrior. Though battered and bruised, she still portrayed grace, confidence, and dangerous strength. Bronze skin played over the muscle in her thighs as she knelt to retrieve the clothing. She smirked at the guards as she pulled the tunic over her head. The cloth was blue, matching the color of her eyes, and reached just above her knees.
"Hey." Xena called to the guards. "You're gonna have to remove this thing at some point, boys." She shook her leg to emphasize her point. None of the guards made a move toward her. The warrior's eyebrow rose and a half-smile appeared on her face. "Well? I promise I won't bite
hard." The four guards looked nervously looked to each other for guidance. It seemed that no one was brave enough to enter the cell for fear of what she might do to them. "Toss me the key, then willya? It's kind of chilly in here." The hard nipples pushing up against the blue cloth was evidence of that fact. After another few heartbeats, a key came sailing into the cell, landing just within her reach. She quickly removed the shackle, and pulled on a pair of trousers the same color as the tunic. Soft, leather boots had also been provided. Xena pulled them on, noting the perfect fit. "Must be hers". She thought as she tucked the trouser legs inside the boots. The warrior noted that she had not been provided a belt. The tunic would have to hang on her as it was. "Smart. She knows I could have used it as a weapon. Now
I wonder what her game is." It didn't take long for the answer.
"Do you remember when I said we were going to get to know each other?" The warlord appeared at the cell door. "We'll start now. You!" She pointed at the guards. "Get out! And by the way, I want the man who unshackled her standing on the Red Hill at dawn, along with his squad leader. " The guards eyes widened at the meaning of her statement. They all but ran down the hall and out of the dungeon. Next, she waved her arm and five well- armed, well-muscled men appeared and took positions near the cell door. The warlord raised an eyebrow. "These are my best men. Rest assured that if you attempt to escape, you won't make it." The warlord pushed her way to the front, and called to the warrior. "Exit the cell carefully. You'll have three men behind you, and two to the front. Remember
if you attempt anything, you're off to Tartarus."
Xena shrugged and walked toward the little dungeon procession. She neither looked at the soldiers nor at the warlord. She stared straight ahead, and followed the men in front. She was lead down the hall, and up a narrow flight of stairs. Once out the door she studied, and committed to memory, everything in the courtyard. Every door, every tree, every window, every blade of grass was imprinted into her brain. Xena knew that she would need that information later
when her plan was finally put into action. As far as she was concerned, everything was going exactly how she wanted it. It couldn't be any more perfect...
They walked across the courtyard and crossed the threshold into the fortress. There, the warlord stopped and spread her arms wide. She turned to face Xena with a look of utter arrogance. "How do you like my Keep, Xena? It's impenetrable, you know. All I need are a few to walk the walls and guard the gates. Of course, it's not as though I have any real threats to my power. Oh, I still have to quash random uprisings here and there, but nothing challenging. You see, this Keep is mine, this land is mine, and the people are mine. You
you are mine
and, your pathetic little world will be mine as well." The warlord laughed and gestured to a spiral staircase to her right. "Shall we dine, then?" The warlord was first up the staircase, followed by two guards, Xena, and the three remaining guards, all single file.
Xena kept the smile to herself. "Apparently, this particular version of me is arrogant to a fault. Her bragging is telling me exactly what I need to know." As she did in the courtyard, the warrior memorized everything about the Keep. She memorized how many stairs there were, how many hand-spans wide the staircase was, and how many torches lit the way. Once they reached the top of the stairs, she memorized how many steps it took to reach the warlord's chambers. She noted that there was only one other doorway in the hall. From what she learned from Calli, she suspected that it led to Alti's chambers. When they reached the thick, wooden door at the end of the hall, one of the guards opened the way. He entered the room first, along with two others, to ensure that it was safe for the warlord to enter.
Xena couldn't resist the jibe. "So. If everything is yours, what are you afraid of?" She smiled as the warlord turned to address the question.
The warlord sneered as she replied. "Even you must know the answer to that question, Xena. Trust no one." Once the warlord was assured that it was safe to enter her own chambers, she gestured to the guards remaining in the hall. They pushed Xena forward into the room, and took up their positions. Three of the guards were stationed at various strategic locations in the room and two stood blocking the door.
As Xena stepped into the room, she recognized the opulence of one who was secure in her power. Ornate tapestries, depicting the stories of the Gods lined the grey, stone walls. In the center of the room stood a long, highly polished oaken table. Bench seats were situated on either side of the table, and an exquisitely crafted chair was placed at the head. This was obviously where the warlord sat during meals. The table was covered with all manner of fruit, cheese, and roasted meats, and elaborate candelabras were positioned on either end to provide lighting during the meal. To the left of the table was an archway, which appeared to lead to lavish sleeping quarters. To the right was the window, and against one wall was a small altar. Xena turned her attention back to the table. There were three silver goblets, filled with red wine. "It appears that we're to have a third party join us." Xena was curious as to who that other person would be. She was not long in wondering when Alti stepped into the room.
" She whispered, surprised to see her old enemy alive and well. She had listened to the conversation between Calli and Gabrielle the afternoon before they arrived in Amphipolis. She knew Alti was a part of what was happening here, but to see her so close was disconcerting. Alti's eyes bore into her very soul, searching
for something. Xena closed herself off to the probing and saw the startled look on Alti's face. There was a hint of approval in those dark eyes, but it was gone in a heartbeat.
"Xena." The shamaness replied, voice shaking. She turned to the warlord. "I am
taken aback by the resemblance, my Queen."
The warlord laughed. "Yes, Alti. It's remarkable, isn't it?" The dark woman gestured toward the table filled with food and drink. "Let's eat, shall we?" The warlord took her place at the head of the table, while Xena and Alti sat opposite each other on the benches. "Now we will find out just how much our
As they ate, the warlord questioned Xena. She wanted to know about the Gods of her world; specifically Ares. Xena answered as truthfully as she could, under the circumstances. The warrior wanted to give the impression that she was cooperating without revealing too much. She admitted that she was Ares Chosen, but had thrown off the mantle of war. She also admitted that she had no use for the Gods of Olympus. The warrior let the warlord know, in no uncertain terms, that she looked upon the Gods with disgust. Xena felt that they lived their immortal existence with nothing to do but interfere in the lives of humans. When the warlord turned her questioning to more strategic areas, Xena made it clear that she wouldn't answer any more questions.
"You've learned enough about me. Now it's your turn." The warrior bit into a succulent piece of pheasant as she addressed the warlord.
"In due time." A half-smile appeared on the warlord's face. "Tell me what I want to know."
"So." The warlord's eyes turned cold. "It appears that we've reached an impasse."
"You could say that." Xena replied.
"Perhaps I can
persuade you to cooperate?"
Xena sneered. "I doubt that."
"Really?" The warlord spat. "Alti! Show her!"
"As you wish." Alti made her way to the altar, waving one of the guards out of the way. The soldier, seeing their Queen nod, moved toward the door. Upon the altar were two candles, one silver pitcher, and one silver bowl. The shamaness lit the candles, and the scent of lilac filled the room. She looked into the pitcher of water and closed her eyes. Her voice, deep and soothing intoned. "Blessed water of verity, show me what I wish to see." With that, she poured some of the liquid into the bowl. Alti carefully picked up the bowl and carried it to where Xena sat. The bowl was placed directly in front of the warrior with the command, "Look, and know it to be the truth."
Xena gazed into the silver bowl, which seemed to glow with an unearthly light. The water churned and rippled as a picture began to form.; and the warrior saw her heart
" She whispered, horrified.
"So that's her name, is it?" The warlord sneered in disgust. "So. Care to tell us what you know? Or
perhaps you would rather watch her die? Oh, I could find some very delicious ways to make her death
a work of art, so to speak."
Xena raged at the warlord. "You stinking BITCH!" She lunged toward the dark woman, but was immediately cut down by one of the guards. The man brought the hilt of his sword down to the back of Xena's head, knocking her into oblivion,
The warlord stood, enraged. "Who is in charge of this squad!"
The man who had stopped the warrior stood at attention. He knew that he had made the biggest mistake of his life. "I am, my Queen." He heard the sound of steel being drawn a split second before his head rolled to the floor.
"Ephiny." Gabrielle motioned for the reagent to enter the hut. "I need
needs your help." The bard closed the door, shutting out the rest of the Nation. "I really don't know where to begin
" She ran her hand through her reddish-blonde hair. "This is so complicated, I just
" She was interrupted by strong hands on her shoulders.
"Gabrielle, slow down. You're so exhausted you can barely think straight." Ephiny gave the bard a little shake to get her attention. Once she had it, she continued. "You've ridden straight through from Amphipolis with no rest. Just lay down for a little while. Sleep. Once your head is clear, we'll talk about it."
Gabrielle pushed Ephiny away in frustration. "You don't understand what's at stake, Ephiny!"
"I do." Calli, who had been watching the exchange, interrupted. "She's right, Gabrielle." Calli crossed the room to stand directly in front of the bard. "We both need to rest. A few more hours won't make a difference."
Gabrielle, realizing she was outnumbered, acquiesced. "Fine. Two hours and no longer. I want to meet with the council in exactly two hours." She sat on the down-filled bed, and rubbed her eyes. "Ephiny, please escort Calli to one of the guest huts. And I want her to be in the council chambers for the meeting."
Ephiny bowed, not liking for a moment, the fact that Calli was going to be a part of what was to come. "Yes, my Queen." She motioned for Calli to follow her out of the hut.
Gabrielle sighed with exasperation. "Ephiny, would you stop with the 'yes, my Queen'?"
Ephiny turned and grinned. "Yes, my Queen." Gabrielle could hear the reagent snickering as the door slowly shut.
Gabrielle couldn't believe how exhausted she was, both physically and emotionally. There was so much going on inside her head that she was certain she would never get to sleep. Besides, it felt strange to sleep when the sun was shining
She was snoring in less than two heartbeats
As the two women exited the queen's hut, Calli noticed the angry glares she was receiving from the Amazons. "So. I take it that you're not too happy to see me?" Calli flippantly asked the reagent.
"You could say that." Ephiny replied without looking at her. Her good humor seemed to disappear with Calli's words.
"And I take it that all of this
would have something to do with Callisto?"
"Yes." Ephiny still refused to look at Calli.
Calli rolled her eyes. "Here we go again."
Ephiny refused to respond as she escorted her charge across the camp, stopping at a small hut. "This is the guest hut. Make yourself comfortable."
I don't know how I'll ever be able to thank you for your kind hospitality. Yes, I have to say that getting knocked down, and having swords held at my neck was really great. And now all the rude stares
I just don't know what to say. I'm touched." Her grin held no warmth for the reagent. "Let's do dinner, shall we?" She entered the hut and slammed the door in Ephiny's face.
Ephiny, on the outside of the hut, was acutely aware of the other Amazons staring at her. "Bitch." She snarled. She turned around to face the other women. "Well? What in Hades are you looking at?" Ephiny threw her hands up and stalked off to the training grounds. "Eponin!" She called over her shoulder. "Meet me on the grounds! Chobos!"
Eponin, who had been among the Amazons watching the unusual events of the day, groaned. "Why me? I hate sparring with her when she gets like this."
Solari grinned at her stocky friend. "Why you? Because you're the only one who can hold her own with her when she's this mad. Come on, Ep. Go kick her butt."
"Yeah right." Eponin snorted. "Well, let's get this over with." The bronze-skinned, muscular woman trotted after the fuming reagent. She rolled her eyes as she heard the sound of Amazon footsteps behind her. "Great. An audience." Not that she could blame her friends, however. Amazons were, by nature, a nosey bunch. Of course, if anyone ever put it quite like that, there would be a fight. The Amazons would assert that they were merely "curious", and it was necessary to be "curious". Why, that very same "curiosity" could one day save the life of a fellow Amazon
one just never knew. Eponin held in her laugh, not wanting to offend her friends; but more importantly, not wanting to further enrage Ephiny.
The training ground had several areas dedicated to certain types of weapons training. The area for chobos, staff, and hand-to hand combat was a fifty-pace by fifty-pace grassy field. A circle, composed of bare earth marked the edges of the area, providing a clear "out-of-bounds" designation. As Eponin approached the grounds, she saw that Ephiny had already chosen her chobos. The reagent was warming up, and looked as though she could beat the snot out of a Titan. "Oh, this is getting better by the second." She thought as she sized up the chobos. She picked up a pair and tested the weight and feel. The Amazon stepped into the circle and began to warm up as well.
"Let's go!" Ephiny barked, approaching Eponin with determination.
Eponin began to circle Ephiny, sizing her up, when she was taken by surprise. Ephiny rushed her, attacking high. Eponin got the chobos up just in time to keep Ephiny from caving her skull in. "Holy Hera's nosehairs!" Eponin thought as she pushed off, propelling the smaller woman backwards a few steps. "Something sure has got her leathers in a twist!" More wary now, Eponin kept back a few steps, forcing Ephiny to come to her. Eponin blocked each of Ephiny's attacks, and the chobos were nothing but a blur. For several heartbeats, nothing could be heard but the clacking sound of the chobos. Finally, Ephiny scored a hit to Eponin's leg. Pain flared in the Amazon's right shin and she went down. She rolled onto her back just in time to meet the blow meant for her head.
now I'm mad!" She snarled. Using her uninjured leg, she kicked Ephiny in the gut, knocking the smaller woman onto her hands and knees. Taking advantage of the reagent's inability to breathe, Eponin scrambled behind Ephiny, and put her in a chokehold. "Surrender!"
"No!" Ephiny huffed under the pressure of Eponin's arm across her throat.
The muscular woman growled and squeezed tighter. "I
The reagent nodded, admitting defeat. As soon as she felt the pressure release, she flopped to the ground like a fish, gasping for air. Her body was covered with a fine sheen of sweat and her hair was plastered to her head. As she lay there, she realized that there was a very hot, very angry Eponin standing over her.
"Would you like to tell me what this was really all about?" The bronze-skinned woman snapped at her friend.
"Well, guess what? 'Not really' is not good enough! You tried to take my head off and you hit me on the shin! You couldn’t go for the fleshy part of the thigh, could you? Oh noooooo
you just had to smash my shin! You KNOW how I feel about my shins, dammit!"
Ephiny winced, knowing that her friend was right. It was well known in the village that, during sparring matches, Eponin's shins were off limits. It was a little strange, considering that she was an Amazon warrior, but her shins truly were her weak spot. She could take a blow anywhere on her body but there. As a matter of fact, she prided herself on how many head blows she had taken and retained all her faculties
it was something she routinely bragged about. But, if anything went anywhere near her shins
it got ugly.
The Amazons who had been watching the sparring match decided that it would be prudent to leave the area. The group quietly snuck back to the village while the two women worked it out. No one wanted to be near when Eponin killed Ephiny for hitting her in the shin.
Neither woman paid any attention to the retreating Amazons. "Look
Eponin. I'm really, really sorry about your shin."
" Eponin glowered at the woman on the ground.
"It's just that
"Well, I'm just so damn mad about this whole thing!" Ephiny smacked her fists into the earth.
"So you decided to take it out on my shins?"
"Well, of course not! Gods, it's just so hard to explain."
Eponin reached down to help her friend off the ground. "Try. And it had better be good, because my shin is killing me."
"Thanks." The reagent acknowledged the proffered hand. She stood and dusted herself off. "Look. I'll make it up to you."
The stocky Amazon smiled at her friend. "Deal." Her face then turned serious. "Now. Talk to me." The friends began a leisurely walk back toward the village.
Ephiny ran one hand through her damp hair. "Gods. I just don't know how to explain it without sounding like a horrible person."
"It's just that I feel like we're second-class citizens."
"What do you mean?" Eponin grabbed Ephiny's shoulder and stopped the reagent from going any further. "Amazons have never been second-class, Ephiny."
"I know that, Eponin. But I'm not sure that Gabrielle does."
Eponin was clearly shocked. "What?!"
"Look. It just seems that the only time Gabrielle ever comes to this village is when she, or Xena, wants something. Other than that, she couldn't care less about us." Ephiny continued down the path.
"Ephiny, wait!" Eponin caught up to her friend. "You don't actually believe that do you?"
I don't know!." Ephiny shook her head. "It doesn't matter what I believe, Eponin. She's our true Queen, she needs our help, and we're going to give it. That's the way it is. That's the way it'll always be. And now
"Now, what?" Eponin prompted.
"Now she just expects us to accept that crazy bitch as a friend???!!!" The reagent threw her hands up in disgust.
Eponin's eyes lit up in understanding. "Ahhh
now were getting to the real root of the problem."
"You like her." Eponin smirked.
Ephiny looked at her friend as though she had lost her mind. "What in Hades are you talking about? Like her? Like her?? I can't stand her!!"
"That's what you say, but that's not what you feel." The stocky woman started to laugh as she poked Ephiny in the shoulder.
Ephiny slapped at Eponin's hand. "Quit poking me." She turned and walked back toward the village. "Come on. It's time to wake Gabrielle."
Eponin watched her friend stalk down the path. "This is going to be veeeery interesting." She smiled to herself. "Hey!" She called out to the disappearing reagent. "Don't forget about my shin! You owe me!"
The council hut was situated near the center of the village. The council was already assembled when Gabrielle entered with Calli and Ephiny. A round, wooden table was situated at the far end of the hut. Encircling the table sat the five members in full ceremonial garb, along with three empty chairs. When Gabrielle first became Queen, she did away with the traditional, rectangular council table. The members were constantly bickering over who would be the one to sit at the head. The round table was a way for all the members to be on equal footing during the meetings. Occasionally there were trials and hearings. They were few and far between, but when they did happen, the traditional table was brought back in. Benches were then arranged inside the hut for village members to sit and watch the proceedings.
Gabrielle took her seat, and motioned for Calli and Ephiny to do the same. Once everyone was comfortable, Gabrielle began to speak. "I've assembled you here today to discuss a very grave situation
one that affects not only the Amazons, but the entire known world." The bard waited for that information to sink in, noting the disbelieving stares from the older women.
"Queen Gabrielle, if I may
" Kiris, the grey-haired Amazon healer raised a hand. "These proceedings are for Amazons only, yet we have one among us who is not of the Nation."
"True Kiris, but her presence here is necessary. You'll understand once you hear what she has to say." Gabrielle nodded in Calli's direction. "Go ahead."
Calli stood and acknowledged Gabrielle, Ephiny, and then each of the council members. Her tone was respectful, and her manner urgent. As she began to explain who she was, and where she came from, she noted raised eyebrows and smirks from everyone except for Ephiny. The reagent was staring hard at Calli, as if she were trying to gauge her sincerity and truthfulness. The only other reaction she got was when she told the council of how the warlord had completely destroyed the Amazon nation. Anger surfaced on the faces of each woman seated at the table. She concluded her story at the point where she found herself thrust into this world.
Cyrellis, the village blacksmith addressed Calli with sarcasm. "So. We are to believe this preposterous story? You, who have done nothing but cause our Queen and her companion grief?" The tall woman turned to her fellow council members. "This is ridiculous."
Gabrielle jumped up, put her hands on top of the table, and leaned toward Cyrellis with fury in her eyes. "She saved my life!" She paused for effect. "I would be dead right now if it weren't for Calli!"
Ephiny was still staring at Calli, but eyes look softened somewhat. "Can you tell us what happened?" She asked Calli.
A tiny smile crossed Calli's lips. "I think I'll let Gabrielle finish the story."
"Story is right." Kiris snorted.
"Quiet!" Gabrielle yelled, surpising everyone in the chamber with her vehemence. "None of you are leaving here until you hear me out. I'm the Queen of this Nation, and you will treat me accordingly!" Each of the council members nodded in acquiescence and Gabrielle continued. The Queen of the Amazons went into what Xena called "full bard mode". She told them how they had found Calli that day
beaten and bruised, and how they nursed her back to health. She admitted how skeptical she and Xena were when they first heard Calli's story. But then
then she told them of the battle, of how seriously she had been injured, and what Calli had given up to save her. Gasps came from each of the women, including Ephiny, who seemed to look at Calli with something close to respect. The bard concluded her story. "And now, I hope you understand just what's at stake here. I know it sounds crazy, but it is fact. You all know Xena, and who she was." She held the gaze of each of the women seated at the table. "Imagine
" Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Imagine
if she had never changed?" Gabrielle could see that she had swayed the council, and pressed the advantage. "Calli and I have worked out a plan, but it's going to take some time to put it all together." One glance at the council showed the bard that they were all as drained as she was. She decided to end the meeting, and continue in the morning. "We're all tired, and you need time to think through everything we've told you. We'll meet again tomorrow morning after breakfast." With that, the bard turned on her heel and left the hut.
Calli followed Ephiny out of the hut and tapped her on the shoulder. "So. Still think I'm a bitch?" She smiled sweetly at the reagent.
Ephiny had the grace to blush. "Yes. But you saved the life of my queen, and for that, I'll always be in your debt."
Calli put one finger on her cheek. "Hmm
that could be interesting!"
Ephiny glared at the annoying woman. "You're in my way." She pushed past Calli and stalked to her hut.
When Xena awoke, she was back in her cell, lying on the filthy pile of hay and the shackle was once again around her ankle. She was still dressed in the same clothing she had worn during her meeting with the warlord and Alti. Aside from a bit of a headache, Xena felt more or less okay. Unlike the last time she was in the cell, there were two guards posted on the other side of the door. "Just two? Hmmmm
." As soon as the thought formed in Xena's head, she heard footsteps. She fully expected to see the warlord, but was surprised when Alti appeared on the other side of the door.
"Come to gloat?" Xena snarled at the shamaness.
Alti ignored Xena and turned to the guards. "Leave us."
The taller of the two men protested. "We were given orders. We cannot leave our posts."
"You must leave us." Alti's voice took on a strange, soothing tone. "Walk down the hallway. Go up the stairs. Unlock the gate, but do not open it. Go to the barracks, and sleep. When you wake, you will not remember this." When the shamaness finished speaking, the guards did exactly as they were told. Their faces were completely blank as they walked away from the cell. Alti waited until she heard dungeon door shut before she entered the cell.
Xena watched dumbfounded as Alti unlocked the shackle. "What in Hades is going on here?"
"Let's go." Alti turned to leave the cell.
"I'm not going anywhere with you until you tell me what's going on." Xena replied.
Alti glared at Xena. "We don't have time for this." She hissed. "Now let's go."
For some reason, the warrior felt that this woman could be trusted. She knew that Calli was nothing like Callisto, so it was possible that Alti was nothing like the one she knew in her world. She nodded and followed the shamaness out the door and into the courtyard. The two women quickly made their way across the courtyard to the gate. The warrior pulled Alti back before she could open the door. "Let me check this out first." She whispered. The warrior's powerful legs propelled her over the gate to land quietly on the other side. Once she was certain there was no threat, Xena pushed the gate open just enough for Alti to get through. They ran to the woods that stood just to the east of the Keep, and wound their way through the trees. When Xena felt they were deep enough into the woods to avoid detection, she turned to Alti.
"Okay. Let's have it."
"I'm going to open the portal. I'll put you in the middle of the Amazon village."
Alti's eyes widened with surprise. "But you've got to stop her!"
"I plan on it, but I can't do it from there. I need to see a few people first." Xena's blue eyes narrowed in thought. "And
I suspect that you know exactly where I can find them."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes you do." Xena leaned forward with a menacing look on her face. "Look. You didn't get me out of that cell just to send me back. You said it yourself. You want me to stop her. You'll have to trust that I know the best way to do that." The expression on Alti's face told Xena that the shamaness would indeed help. "I can't do this alone, Alti. Tell me what you know."
"I infiltrated her inner circle several moons ago. No one knows about this. The people in the resistance have no idea that I'm trying to help them."
"Not even Calli?" Xena asked.
"But someone knows, don't they Alti?" A half-smile formed on Xena's face. "Which one is it?"
"Artemis." Xena repeated. "So. Did she give you the ability to open the portal?"
"No. The door is a natural phenomenon, but one which she decided could be put to use."
"The answer to that is twofold. First, it was a way into another world
one which could hold the key to stopping the warlord. Second, the Amazon nations don't exist in this world, but they do in yours. It's Artemis' hope that some of them would wish to come here and begin again."
Xena shook her head. "Well, why didn't she just go through the portal herself and ask them?"
"For some reason, the Gods can't pass through. Mortals, however, can."
"Okaaaay. Well, why didn't you just go through, find me, and ask the Amazons for help? Why the big game of shoving her through the damned thing to wreak havoc in my world?" Xena threw her hands up in disgust. "No. Don't answer that. Anything that has to do with the Gods is never simple. They have to make things as complicated as they possibly can! It's almost funny in a way. The Gods in this world are just as obnoxious as the ones in mine!"
"Things weren't supposed to go this badly." Alti looked embarrassed.
"Oh really." Xena's voice dripped with sarcasm.
"No. You were supposed to kill her there."
"Well did it ever occur to you and your brilliant goddess that I might have other plans? For all I knew, you were just like the Alti I know, and killing that other Xena wouldn't have accomplished a thing! And who says I would have killed her anyway? I don't suppose either of you thought about coordinating our efforts???" The angry warrior circled Alti like a lion sizing up its prey. "Well, what other God's know about this damn portal?"
"None other. Artemis was afraid that Ares would find out, and devise a way to close it."
Xena smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. "Funny you should mention him."
"Because once I meet with the rebels, I meet with him."
CONTINUED IN PART NINE