|Disclaiming the obvious (see Part I)
Note: Like Obi-Wan Kenobi before her, Xena was too damn cool to kill off. I don't care if the teacher has to be overcome in order for the pupil to walk free of her/his shadow. Maybe that's why they invented graduation. On with the story, already!
It's A Beautiful Life
How Xena Got Her Groove Back
by Crème Brûlée
I lay in bed contemplating a strategy for carrying out my task. I didn't look forward to telling Gabrielle - somehow I got the impression she'd find it objectionable.
A good plan requires good information. So far all I knew was that several conquered and questionably allied warlords and rulers had agreed that a shaky coalition was better than the mayhem they've lived with for ages. And that these allies were united, apparently... against two foes who lived to the West. They were the rulers Hector and Tiranus.
Over the years, these two powerful and well-organized kings had done everything they could to promote the instability of their warring neighbors. And now they stood as the last impediment to Gabrielle's vision of a peaceable kingdom.
There was a quiet knocking at my door. I admit that I was disappointed to learn that it wasn't Gabrielle. It was Prince Narcis' elder sister, Princess Petulata, she slipped into the room and I closed the door. "Thank you for seeing me," she whispered.
It turned out to be the first in a string of visits that I had that night.
Early the next morning I rode out of Bellikos, heading west. I told Enid to tell everyone I was feeling a little under the weather and would be staying in my room. She would be spending her time looking for "the receiver".
"How will you know when you've spotted it?" I'd asked.
"Oh, it will be clear. The receiver will have to emit a specific frequency at great intensity to ground such a large biostream." she'd explained...
I arrived back in Bellikos late the following day, it was dusk. I rode through the bustling town, toward the king's stables. A yell from a window that I was about to pass under caught my attention, as did the body that flew out of it. The figure, clad in black, landed three paces in front of my horse and didn't move. I glanced up and saw Gabrielle illuminated in the torchlight that shone from the window.
She shook her head. "I don't know why it is that they think you can't hear them climbing up the ivy." She rearranged some of the leaves on the vine that grew past her window.
I shrugged in answer. I'd never figured that out either. Several guards trotted over and dragged the unconscious assailant off.
"I'm glad to see that you're feeling better. You've been busy for a woman who's come down with scarlet fever." Gabrielle said.
I'd told Enid 'a touch of fever', not scarlet fever - oh well... "It's amazing what a spot of fresh air will do for you."
"Why don't you come up and tell me about it."
Well, well, it looked like I'd found a way to get Gabrielle's attention.
I knocked on her door. She answered it, giving me a questioning look.
"Does this belong to you?" I indicated the unconscious assassin I'd arrived with, slung over my shoulder. "I found her lurking behind one of the tapestries in your corridor."
Gabrielle sighed and called for more guards to take away the body and an assortment of deadly weapons that went with it.
We sat facing the fire in a room that was a cross between a chart room and library. It was where Gabrielle said she worked.
"Together at last," I said, to cover the awkwardness we both were feeling.
"You went to meet with Hector and Tiranus, didn't you?" She asked.
"I can see why it is that you had a problem with my abbreviated manners when we first met." I noted.
"Xena, your manners never improved all that much."
"Oh come on, I was making progress there at the end - some..."
Gabrielle looked dubious.
"Well, I was working on it." I argued.
Gabrielle shrugged. "It doesn't matter, why did you go to see them?"
"All business, Gabrielle, no time for reflection, no time for me. Why is that?"
"I'm too close, too close to victory to be distracted from it. This land will know a peace it hasn't experienced in ages. We can catch up then."
"Why not now? You seem to have some time on your hands. Why not tell me how you got that scar on your face?"
She smiled. "Believe it or not, a very bad man took exception to something I did."
"Which was?" I prompted.
"Removed his means of making a living, he said. I saw it as disrupting a rather nasty slave trading operation in children, kidnapped from the provinces and shipped into city brothels."
"He gave you the scar?"
She nodded. "After five of his men pinned me down. But people never realize what a good lubricant wet blood is, even veteran thugs - I slipped away easily after he cut me. But not before giving the slave-trader one of my sai as a departing gift."
We sat in silence for a few moments.
"Why are you here, Xena?"
I sighed, "To stop you from destroying yourself - and everything else. And I have two more days to do it."
I told Gabrielle that Hector and Tiranus were prepared to negotiate peace. I'd met with them to find out what their capabilities and strategies were: to do what they always did, they responded - keep the warring parties of the eastern lands from crossing into their territories and spreading the mayhem they'd cursed themselves with for ages. When I'd asked them if they would negotiate a peace, they responded that there was no peace for the East, only war. They pointed to Gabrielle as evidence, saying that the eastern people had finally united and what was their purpose? The one that the western rulers and their predecessors had feared and defended against - conquest of their lands.
There seemed an obvious solution to a problem that didn't even have to exist. Or it seemed obvious to me. Gabrielle, however, had stood up and was shaking her head at my words. I'd barely finished speaking before she spoke. "There's no peace for Hector and Tiranus unless they surrender. Those are my terms."
"But why?" I asked.
"To create a united kingdom..."
"Under one just ruler, I know. But that means you'd rather kill than settle for one united kingdom under one just ruler with peaceful neighbors."
"There would be no peace with Hector and Tiranus," she insisted.
"I've got news for you, there'll be no peace anyway. Look around you Gabrielle, even if your army rode right over them, how long do you think you could keep the rulers here from attacking each other again? Listen carefully to the sounds of these hallways at night, there's more traffic and alliance-making going on in the dark than around any negotiating table. You live in a warren of power-hungry rats!"
"You think I don't know that?!" she asked.
"A strong neighboring power would go a long way in keeping these jackals in check. Possibly giving them time to understand that what you've given them is worth keeping. As it is, there are at least three alliances firming up here. One is funding your daily visits from assassins, the other wants the king dead and the third is just plain bored and has nothing better to do with themselves."
"I don't need you to tell me what I already know. I didn't get to this point by accident. I've worked for it night and day for three years. I can see an end to this, and I will bring it about - with or without your help."
"Was that an invite? I'm honored. The Merciful Blade deigns to acknowledge my presence."
"I'd rather have you with me than against me."
"You wouldn't be the first."
"No kidding," she said.
I didn't like the implication in her tone. "Are we getting personal now? Are you still capable of it? Because I was beginning to think that ability had escaped you."
"You're against me, I take it." Gabrielle had folded her arms across her chest and she glared at me. I could see that I'd struck a nerve, which was comforting to know, because I had really begun to believe that she didn't have them available to strike.
"You take it right. What are you going to do about it?" I crossed my arms, too.
"Ignore you. Nothing else was ever as effective."
"Ignore me? You think you can ignore me?" My vision, always clear, except in moments of extreme rage, began to blur. "I've got another bit of information for you to contemplate while you're playing with your battle maps and dreaming of peaceable kingdoms; when you fight that last great battle, you're going to take all of this with you. Me, Aphrodite, your king and queen and your pal Guenther - we'll all be dead. There's a force at work here that you can't see; I can't see it either. Enid has a grasp on it, but that's only because she's from the same dimension that it is. A bridge has been built, a hole opened up - that gives access to our world, and it's causing an instability in the essence of... well, everything. When you ride into battle, this weakness, this instability, will unhinge everything, including your peace. This is the force that created the vision that you thought was my ghost. I ask you, what kind of ghost is it that a goddess can't see? Didn't you ever wonder why Aphrodite couldn't see your spirit chum? Think Gabrielle, I'm not here to rain on your parade, to snatch victory from you, I'm here to try to save you. Now doesn't that sound like the kind of thing I'd do?"
Gabrielle, who showed no outward signs of it, was overwhelmed. Or at least I assumed that that's why she asked me to leave and showed me to the door. Given time, I knew she'd see reason, even if my story seemed beyond it. I could sense that Gabrielle was warring with herself. While her heart had been armored, it was putting up a mighty fight with her very stubborn head. A head that had always been bent on peace, had always wanted to bring people freedom from their suffering, a head that saw its goal so very near at hand, but had lost grasp of the larger picture. What I didn't know, considering all of this, was if I had time for a reasonable approach. I felt I needed to force the issue.
Gabrielle wasn't cooperative with my effort and spent the following day looking straight through me as I followed her around, trying to talk to her. She attempted to give me the slip and even sicked a few guards on me once, but I prevailed. I'm really not very easy to ignore.
Guenther, who I'd assumed was a fast friend of Gabrielle's, had looked on with amusement. This irritated Gabrielle even further. I wasn't sure how Guenther fit into the picture; his behavior was surprising to say the least for someone she kept in close confidence. I'd have expected him to have tried to fight me off, not snicker at her predicament.
I decided to give Gabrielle a brief respite and buttonholed Guenther for a chat. "You're having a great time of it today. Any reason for that?"
He shrugged. "I think you're right and you're the only one who's got the guts to say anything to her. People around here barely think Gabrielle breathes air. Some think she's a god. We both know differently. Everyone knows she wields the power here - she gives the king legitimacy. The soldiers fight for her. And while I think we could beat Hector and Tiranus in a brief campaign, I know we don't have to. She'd know it too, if she could stop and look at the situation as it exists, not as it is in her head. She's driven by vision, a call. People who've gone to such extremes sometimes lose touch with everything else. She has... somewhat. Or maybe that's what gives her such an edge, maybe we can't fully understand her vision."
"Will you follow her?" I asked.
"Of course. Hector and Tiranus will fall, their lands will come under the greater flag of our king. Mark my words, Gabrielle has a way of making these things happen. She's truly amazing."
I nodded agreement and let him down from where I had him pinned to a wall.
"For what it's worth," he said. "Part of me hopes you'll convince her. I've lost my appetite for war, even war for peace. People die just the same - it's bloody and horrific. And if push comes to shove and we have to fight one another, you and I, I think you should know that I've never laid hand on Gabrielle. I tried, but she wouldn't let me. So you can stop picturing whatever gruesome thing it is you do whenever I see you looking at me with that blank stare. It's unnerving. Just kill me with a clean blow."
"How did you ever lead an army?" I asked.
"By knowing who not to attack."
I redoubled my efforts to convince Gabrielle of my story. She walked into her work room (an inner chamber in her private rooms) and found me, quite by coincidence, reading over her battle plans.
"Oh, come on!" She walked over to a door on which she'd posted a couple of guards and opened it. The clueless soldiers glanced through the door in our direction and Gabrielle pointed at me, sitting in her chair, feet resting on her desk. "Did you just let her walk in?!"
They sprang to life, rushing in to apprehend me. "Forget it," Gabrielle waved them out. "Post someone outside my window - on the ground and the roof."
"I guess that they don't know about listening to the ivy," I said.
She narrowed her eyes at me. She looked marvelous in her I'm-in-command getup. So ready for action, so Gabrielle. I just wanted to squeeze her.
Enid, usually bubbly but unflappable, was growing concerned. She hadn't located her receiver and she didn't have full confidence in my plan. I missed Gabrielle's unwavering devotion in the sidekick department.
A full day of pressing my case got me nowhere. I felt that Gabrielle was leaving me no choice but to resort to extreme measures.
Gabrielle took a double take at me sitting in her steaming tub. She glanced up to the barred window, then checked the bolt on the door she'd just come through. She huffed out a frustrated breath as she closed it and stood glaring at me, arms crossed.
"Well, as long as I'm here and the water's warm, why don't you get in? I'm sure you're not afraid."
"No, I'm not. I'm more tired than anything else. It's been a long day." She glared at me.
"Then a hot bath is just the thing you need." Was that me purring like that?
"That look in your eye isn't. Xena, I'm not the gullible farm girl that I once was and I'm not your pet. You can't drop in here on a whim and seduce me. I'm not Draco or some horny warlord, willing to fold because you trot out the Warrior Princess charm. And you're right, a hot bath is what I need, but you're in my tub."
"It's a big tub, Gabrielle, there's plenty of room for both of us." I removed myself to the back wall and draped my arms over the edge. "I'll even stay over here if I bother you so much."
"You do that. I can't believe you'd pull this. After all we've been through, you try a cheap seduction. I was expecting something a little more original. This is pathetic." Gabrielle undressed. It was possibly the least sexy striptease I'd ever witnessed, and I was getting the idea that, however unlikely, she was invulnerable to this approach. She plunked down in the tub and let out a groan. She was really and truly bone deep tired, exhausted. She rested her head back against the edge of the tub and closed her eyes.
It would have been the perfect opportunity to make a move, but I decided that I'd have to find another way. I didn't have the heart to go through with it. I got out of the tub. She opened her eyes and watched me. I toweled off and slipped on a robe. I walked around the tub and looked down into her eyes. She looked up at me, her expression unreadable. She was such the warrior now, with no emotion in evidence. I motioned with my head for her to lean forward. She hesitated, then capitulated. She shook her head and laughed quietly. I reached down and began to massage the muscles of her shoulders and neck.
I left Gabrielle snoring quietly in her bed. I think, next to my great cunning and subtlety in dealing with the prickly little warrior, I was most pleased with having managed not to join her under the covers.
I lay in my own bed musing over the prospect of having to pursue Gabrielle. It was a monumental role reversal in our relationship. From the beginning, it was she who'd chased me.
It's been said that I have many skills - resisting an amorous bard by firelight isn't one of them. Which was why Gabrielle was able to shift our relationship out of the platonic sphere, into an altogether different one, one I held many reservations about entering into with her. It had been less a seduction than a full frontal assault. I'd held her off with every argument I could think of: the age difference; she barely knew half the warlord names that were general knowledge to people my age: shared interests; she was always going on about some new poet I'd never heard of and cared less about once I'd sampled their disjointed take on all things lyrical: the character issue; she was a peasant girl from a good family, I was a nasty warlord leftover who'd spent a good portion of my life consumed by anger, greed and lust for power. But Gabrielle's tongue has always been a persuasive instrument. In retrospect, I can't be sure if it was the force of her argument or the way she moved against me as she made it that finally convinced me. Once I'd been convinced, however, there was no turning back.
I won't claim that I was a perfect partner for Gabrielle. But I always aspired to be as good as I could possibly manage for her, and given my quixotic nature, that's saying something.
This pleasant reminiscence of the beginnings of our romance helped me pass the time it took four painfully slow assassins to creep through the open window of my darkened chamber and position themselves for a collective strike. You'd think I had all night, the way these people poked along. Finally, they were situated around the room, their weapons at the ready.
The element of surprise is key in such instances; I was waiting for the precise moment that would give me the advantage I sought. Which was why I was not just a little perturbed by the pair of hands that grabbed me and dragged me over the edge of the bed a moment before a synchronized quartet of crossbow bolts thudded into the mattress.
My mind did a hasty calculation. I was certain, positive really, that there'd only been four assassins. Who was this fifth interloper with the grasping hands? I was in an excellent position to find out as I'd landed on them... her.
"Why, Gabrielle," I smiled down into the darkness, having recognized her on impact. "You care."
Another round of bolts thudded into the mattress and bedposts.
"So it seems," she didn't sound altogether pleased by this revelation. I felt somewhat vindicated at my initial hesitation at our entering a relationship years earlier. Let her see what it's like to have every sensible argument your head comes up with be summarily overrode by your rampageous heart. The shoe was on the other foot, I hoped she'd find it as uncomfortable as I had.
It was dark, but I didn't have a problem locating her mouth. The kiss was awkward, Gabrielle stiff. She turned her head and nudged me off her a bit.
"Xena, there are four assassins in the room," she whispered, perturbed.
I released the chakram from her belt and let it fly. There were several muffled screams and a shower of sparks from the chakram hitting the stone walls as it ricocheted in a complex pattern of deadly angles. It embedded itself into one of the bedposts after its final round of the room.
"Now, where were we?" I leaned down to resume the kiss, but Gabrielle placed a finger on my lips and whispered, "Shhh."
The quiet of the night should have been more quiet than it was. I could hear the clashing of swords in the distance and yelling.
"Not again," Gabrielle sighed.
The noise of the fighting grew louder.
"Fights breaking out a common occurrence hereabouts?" I asked, not in the least bit surprised.
"I don't need any snide remarks from you," she warned. "It's happened before, an all out insurrection the first time."
"These people are nervous. They know this may be their last chance to stop you before your next battle. They're bent on dividing power amongst themselves."
"I know," she said.
"That's why I asked Hector and Tiranus to come here tonight."
"You what?!" She hissed.
"They should be in the anteroom of the Great Hall about now." I said.
She shoved me. "How did you get them in?"
"I told them to tell the guards at the gate that they were assassins, here to kill you. Seemed to be the most effective cover."
She shoved me again, this time rolling us over. We ended up in reversed positions with her above me. Instead of taking advantage of her position, she stood up and dragged me along with her. She didn't head for the door, but to the wall. It was practically pitch black in the room but I could hear her feeling along the stone surface. She triggered a switch of some kind and part of the wall moved when she pushed on it.
"This place is riddled with these," she told me.
We felt our way down a narrow, dusty corridor.
"I can't believe you'd betray me by bringing them here," she mumbled, feeling her way along.
"Just talk to them," I said. "There's no great harm that can come from it - they're here under a truce."
"Does the fighting you hear out there sound like a truce to you?" She turned, pushing back past me. I heard the click of metal on metal. She pushed passed me again. "Wait here, there's a torch over there... somewhere."
I stood, ready to argue my case. There was more metal clicking as Gabrielle felt around for the torch. "You know that fighting is more likely your home grown opposition, than it is the few men who agreed to come here at great peril to themselves."
"Perhaps they're part of one of those factions," she argued.
"They're not, and you know it."
Several sparks flashed nearby as Gabrielle struck a flint. Soon the flames of a torch jumped to life. I didn't like what they illuminated. I stood nearly eight paces from her, but between us was a closed metal gate. I didn't have to turn around to know that there would also be a closed gate a few paces behind me.
"You can't be serious." I said, glaring at her from behind bars.
"I couldn't be more serious. I have to go out there and take care of this mess."
"Not alone, you don't." I said.
"I've done it before. And I should trust you now? For all I know you'll let some enemy army loose on me if I let you out of there."
"Gabrielle, if I'd wanted you dead..."
"I'd already be dead." She finished my signature phrase for me, then looked away, unable to maintain eye contact.
I couldn't suppress the smile that broke across my face. "Then the real reason you're keeping me in here is that you're worried I'm going to get hurt. You really do care."
She was silent for a moment, then gave me a look of determined calm. "I'm not losing you again, Xena. You're just going to have to stay put until I get this cleared up. Then we'll talk about your ill conceived plan to disrupt my campaign." A ghost of a smile graced her lips as she turned to leave.
"Hey!" I yelled. "Didn't you learn anything from me?"
She turned back, a look of confusion on her face.
I sighed, shaking my head at my flawed protege. "You don't race off into a battle, where you're likely to be killed, without kissing the woman. It's basic heroine etiquette."
"To be honest," she said. "I tried it, but I kept getting slapped."
"You must not have done it right. Come here, I'll show you."
"I'm not getting within arm's reach of those bars. You see, I did learn something from you. I have to go." She turned away again.
"Wait! What if I promised not to touch you? I'll even give you a head start before I dislodge these bars from the stone."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Don't be cruel. Look, if you're going to do the hero thing, you should do it right. You're supposed to kiss me before you run off of to get to yourself killed." I insisted. "How about if I promise not to touch you?"
"We both know that you can't be trusted where someone else's safety is in question." She argued.
"True," I admitted. "How about of I make an exception to my own rule and let you get away just this once?"
She gave me a wary look, but stepped up to the bars.
As kisses go, it started out on the slow side. But what Gabrielle's hardened heart lacked in initial enthusiasm, she made up for in the long stretch. The kiss ended, Gabrielle stepped back from the bars, her eyes wide, and her mouth still open slightly.
"Now, promise me you'll be back." I smiled.
"I'll be back, I promise." She said, still breathless, still staring at me.
"It's missing a certain definitive something, but it will do for now. Go quell your uprising."
With one last glance backward, she ran off down the corridor. I watched her until she turned a corner. The light from the torch faded soon after and I was left in my cage - in the dark.
I worked at the bars, but it didn't take more than a minute to realize that they were solid. They were also solidly sunk into the stone walls. I began to grow anxious with the thought that I would be too late to help Gabrielle and I redoubled my efforts.
"You should be careful, you could strain something doing that." I heard Enid scold me from several paces behind.
"Where are you?" I felt the bars behind me, but she wasn't there.
"I'm here," she touched my hand, from the other side of the bars.
"How did you find me?" I asked.
"I've told you, your energy is unique. I can spot you anywhere."
I didn't bother wasting time trying to understand her, I had more pressing matters on my hands. "Do something useful and get me out of here, would you?"
"I'm sorry Xena, but I wasn't charged for that task."
"'With', you mean 'With that task.'" I argued reflexively as I turned my attention back to the bars.
"For," she responded politely.
"I don't have time for grammar lessons right now, but remind me to brief you on this one later. It's annoying the hell out of me. Right now, I have a couple of kings to save and a prickly warrior to contend with."
"I suggest you get to work then," she said.
I paused while considering if I should narrow my eyes at Enid or not. She seemed capable of sight in the dark, but it would look stupid to glare at someone you weren't sure you were making eye contact with. I gave it up and went back to work.
An uncomfortable feeling crept its way up my spine. It was accompanied by a disembodied laugh. An all too familiar laugh that reverberated in the small space before Ares, god of war, materialized in a showy cascade of fire and sparks. "Well, well, well - if it isn't Xena - caged. Tell me it doesn't hurt to be outwitted by your sidekick."
"I wondered where you fit into all this. This mess has your unmistakable stink all over it." I paused in my efforts to greet him.
He shrugged. "You've missed your mark. Why should I interfere when I wasn't needed? The self-righteous visionary did the job for me. Muzzle Gabrielle's passionate heart and she's as power-hungry as any warlord I've ever met."
"She's not after power and you know it."
"Her cause may be different, but it amounts to the same thing."
"Not to the people in the villages, it doesn't." I glanced at Enid - we were both illuminated in Ares' glow. She was struggling to reach through the bars.
Ares laughed at her feeble attempts to reach him. "They're just not making sidekicks like they used to."
Enid huffed, moved over a few bars and tried reaching through again. I rolled my eyes and turned back to face Ares. "Do you have any idea what's going to happen if Gabrielle decides to go to war with Hector and Tiranus?"
He smiled. "The battle to end all battles."
"To end all of everything." I corrected.
"It'll be one hell of a sendoff!" He chuckled.
"Not just for Gabrielle, but for all of us." I said, however, I had the uncomfortable feeling that he already knew. I didn't like the look in Ares' eyes.
"Like I said, it'll be one hell of a send off."
"You want to die?" I asked.
"He's an unstable energy force." Enid said, still trying to reach through the bars. You'd think for such a quick study, she'd have figured out that there would be no way she could reach her target. "He's been strained beyond his given capacity."
"I get it; she's your Joxer replacement." Ares taunted.
"Ares, don't do this. It's madness!" I felt that pointing out the obvious might be of some help at this juncture - on the off chance he'd overlooked it...
"Have you got something better to offer me? Hmm, Xena? Something to live for?"
After all of this time, all of the games, all of the rejections, I was stunned by the heartfelt, though woefully inappropriate, suggestion.
Ares laughed. It wasn't one of his nicer ones. "When you were alive, you were hers. When you were dead, I'm sure you were still hers. And now that you're back again, my chances are much the same as they've always been."
"Ares, I'm sorry..."
"You would've made a beautiful warrior queen." Ares faded into darkness.
"We're in trouble."
"We weren't before?"
"If there's anything you can do to help me get out of here, you'd better do it now."
Enid gasped. "Even if there was, I couldn't! It would be extremely irregular."
"Let me ask you something. Is extremely irregular worse than extremely non-existent? Because that's what we'll all be if I don't get out of here."
"I think Gabrielle may be right, your feelings of self-importance can be overbearing at times."
"Enid!" I yelled. "I don't think you appreciate the gravity of the situation we're facing here. We've got two enemy kings in residence - at my invitation. Gabrielle, the woman I love, has trotted off to face a household of malicious miscreants who are, I'm sure, armed to the teeth. And finally, there's a suicidal god of war on the premises. This could be the beginning of the very war we've been trying to avert since we got here. I, for one, am just starting to enjoy life and I'd rather not end it here in a dark corridor trapped by a few bars of metal!"
"It's not my fault you got stuck in there."
My patience, however augmented, ran out. Even in the dark, I saw red. Unsheathing my sword is a reflex when I'm that frustrated. Staring at my sword when I'm angered beyond comprehension isn't reflexive, but when the blade is letting off a dull glow, icy blue - I take note.
"Ooh!" Enid exclaimed. "That's pretty."
I could feel a gentle vibration in the pommel of the sword - it hadn't been there before. In the light cast by the blade I could just make out the bars before me. I stepped back and took a deep breath. Enid scurried back from where she stood. I swung the sword and nearly lost my balance as it sliced through the iron like it was water. I'd been expecting a little more resistance than I got. When I swung it back in the opposite direction I made sure to adjust the force that I applied. A section of the bars clanked to the floor.
"Why didn't you tell me this could do that?" I asked as I stepped through the hole.
Enid shrugged as we made for the nearest exit. "It's not within my parameters to interfere."
"But you just did."
"No, I didn't." She argued, pushing through a door that opened into an outer corridor.
"Sure you did - you pissed me off until I drew the sword."
"Xena!" Enid gasped. "I did no such thing. That would be extremely irregular behavior for an entity on my level. I've told you..."
"Of course," I said as we hastened down the hall. "You're not in Chaos Management. Save it for the committee, we both know the truth."
"Think what you must," she said, as we approached the Great Hall.
The large chamber was lively with the sounds of shouting and clashing weapons - a fight was well underway. Spotting Gabrielle wasn't a challenge - she was a sword wielding fury, practically a blur. She was facing down a line of soldiers who seemed intent on reaching the two men who stood pressed to the wall behind her; Hector and Tiranus. The renegades would have to go through Gabrielle to reach the kings and I had full confidence that that wouldn't be happening anytime soon. Guenther fought beside Gabrielle and I noted an efficiency that was surprising given his usual casual demeanor. He was a capable swordsman.
Enid glanced around the room and huffed in frustration. "Where now?!" She had a look of utter confusion on her face. The several men approaching us didn't share this dilemma, whatever the dilemma was, they had looks of grim determination. I smiled to myself thinking that I'd finally get to give my body a workout, but before I lay a sword on the first soldier, a familiar blur sliced through the air around me. A moment later Enid and I were the only figures standing in the space formerly occupied by eight.
I glanced down at the fallen bodies then over to where Gabrielle had just recaught the chakram and was clipping it to her belt. She replied to the frown on my face by sheepishly shrugging her shoulders, before turning to disarm another attacker. I had no time to deal with her misplaced protective instincts, because Enid was on the move again.
"Hey! Stay with me." I shouted at her, but she paid no notice. This isn't a smart tactic for an unarmed woman in a room full of combatants. I did my best to keep her safe as she moved around the space. I had to admit, despite the deadly situation and hectic environment, it was almost a relief to be using a sword.
The battle turned in Gabrielle's favor as more soldiers loyal to her joined in. The meddlesome faction, or those of them who remained standing, was forced to one end of the hall. The fighting began to diminish, much to the consternation of Princess Petulata, their leader. She was yelling at her soldiers and pushing the retreating fighters back into the growing opposition.
"Kill them!" she shouted. "Leave Hector and Tiranus. I want Gabrielle dead!"
The battle was all but won. Petulata's soldiers were pressed to the rear wall. Gabrielle and Guenther were able to relax their guard. I was hoping I could stop chaperoning Enid, who'd helped the winning side considerably by leading me through the room on a hunt of some kind. We took out a good quarter of Petulata's forces on our circuit, evening the odds before reinforcements showed up.
"This is terrible!" she exclaimed, throwing her hands up in frustration.
"Enid, we've pretty much won this one." I tried to assure her.
"No! Don't you see?" She asked. "We've done nothing! Nothing to stop it."
I looked around at the injured soldiers and bodies that littered the floor then glanced at her for an explanation. After feeling an all too familiar creeping sensation, I spun back to face the center of the room where Ares materialized. He was facing Gabrielle and Guenther, who still stood before Hector and Tiranus.
Ares shook his head in disgust. "Here's more proof that if you want a job done, you have to do it yourself!" His hands began to glow in what were the telltale signs of nasty energy bursts emerging. I moved toward Gabrielle to do what I could to deflect the impact. As I moved, Enid rushed by me in the other direction heading straight for Ares. I wasn't able to pivot back in time to stop her. Ares, who was busy preparing to make us all pay for his suffering, took no notice of Enid, who scurried up to him and grabbed him in a great hug. I thought, briefly, that if Ares had had more affection in his lifetime, perhaps we wouldn't have come to such a juncture as this. Still, Enid's last ditch effort wasn't bound to net us much positive ground in making up for a god's developmental deficiencies.
The bright fire like balls of energy that had formed in Ares' hands (that he usually threw at things and people who'd displeased him) began to spiral up his arms in chords of flame. He watched, amazed, as his power betrayed him. He got his bearings and tried to dislodge Enid, his unlikely attacker. They struggled as the cords of energy began to bind them together. A loud crackling noise was accompanied by an increased pressure in the air of the room as the pair were completely engulfed in a column of fire and light. The light shot upward and fanned out across the ceiling.
I felt a gentle pressure on my hand and looked down to see Gabrielle holding it while staring with rapt attention at what was unfolding before us. I hoped that whatever it was, it wasn't going to take us all with it. I dearly wanted a chance to be with Gabrielle, without the fireworks and threat of non-existence looming before us.
The ceiling began to move, or it least I thought it did. I rubbed my eyes, thinking that the strange atmosphere in the room may have affected them. It wasn't hot, despite all of the light and fire, but it was extremely bright and the air oppressively heavy. Rubbing my eyes didn't improve the look of anything. The ceiling was bending and warping, more like a heavy liquid than the beams and stone it was made of. And then it disappeared altogether. Where to was anybody's guess. There had been several floors above it, but there was only night sky now.
I'd seen funnel clouds and whirlpools in my travels - we seemed to be at the base of an enormous thing that resembled those phenomena. It reached into the heavens, it's blinding light bleaching out the dark sky. A noise, that I can only describe as rude, preceded the very bottom of the funnel of energy's departure from the ground. It retracted, at great speed, up and away and we found ourselves staring, in silence, at the intricate decorations of the great hall's ceiling.
I saw Enid and Ares lying where they'd been dropped as the energy departed. I raced over.
Enid had landed face up and was staring at the ceiling. She looked very peaceful. I knelt and leaned into her line of vision. A small smile pulled at the corner of her lips and her words were barely audible when she spoke them.
"Charged for," she said. Then she closed her eyes and breathed her last breath.
Ares had also been killed. Aphrodite, who'd seen the death of so much of her family, appeared and without comment dematerialized with Ares' body.
Gabrielle's greatest challenge in the following months, besides keeping power hungry rulers and warlords at peace, was not smiling too much in public. She felt it would undermine her authority and hard won respect. I told her that she should smile all she wanted and I would gladly reinforce her authority at any time. While she appreciated the sentiment, she maintained her stony regard in the political and social arena. When alone with Guenther and I, she'd relax and let her newly unfettered heart stretch its wings. She even started writing again. Which isn't to say that Gabrielle was untouched or unaffected by the experiences she'd had since we'd been apart, but her natural resilience, and compassion of heart helped to lighten the burden of the darkness she'd known.
Gabrielle wouldn't be able to leave Bellikos for some time. The peace very definitely depended on her presence in the short run. And yet, there were signs of hope for a lasting peace cropping up intermittently.
From time to time I reflected on the events that had brought Gabrielle and I back together. I missed Enid and her cheerful determination and efficiency. I liked to think she'd found a certain satisfaction in performing an important task - it had been a job well done. Aphrodite, who was still appearing in a black see-through mourning get up, was gradually beginning to partake in human affairs again. The world seemed to have enough aggression and hatred to spin onward without Ares, though I missed his unique approach.
For the most part, I was kept busy helping with affairs of state - by encouraging certain parties that the straight and narrow was an infinitely more desirable (if not less painful) course for them to adhere to.
"Where will we go first?" Gabrielle asked. We'd stolen away from Bellikos to give her a break. I made a point of dragging the Merciful Blade away for a couple of days at least once every other moon. We lay under the stars on the shores of a lake in the relative luxury that our bedrolls provided us. A small fire crackled nearby.
"North, I expect. Always a good direction. Good fishing, too. But enough of this chitchat, you need to do your exercise. Practice, Gabrielle, you can't underestimate the importance of practice in your rehabilitation."
"Oh yes, time for drills," she agreed and moved over, propping herself up on an elbow. She bent her head and kissed me gently on the lips.
After savoring it, I declared, "Much improved - soft, with a hint of passion. But you'd better try it again. There was still the slightest hesitation at the beginning. Don't be discouraged though, you're coming along by leaps and bounds."
"You think so?"
"No question in my mind."
"I know this has been difficult for you." She caressed my face gently. "I want you to know that I appreciate your sacrificing so much of your time to help with my rehabilitation."
"Think nothing of it. After all, it's the kind of thing we heroines do. But we should really get on with your drills, I can't have you neglecting such an urgent task."
"Is it urgent?" she asked.
"Most definitely," I assured her.
She hesitated, hovering above me a few inches, looking into my eyes.
"What are you doing?" I inquired as she scrutinized me further.
"Falling more deeply in love with you."
"Well then, by all means, proceed."
She leaned in to resume her exercises and paused a maddening hair's breadth from my lips. "What's that?" she asked.
I listened, also picking up the noise. What began as a faint cry grew louder with alarming rapidity. Whatever it was was moving very fast. Gabrielle and I sat up and looked around. It occurred to me to look up and I caught a glimpse of a silhouette falling through the moonlit sky. It smacked into the surface of the lake.
Gabrielle and I exchanged glances.
"Shall you go or shall I?" I asked.
She shrugged, "It's a nice night for a swim, why don't we both go?"
We reached the stunned arrival a few minutes later. "Gods be damned, that hurt!" he exclaimed, shaking his head and spitting some water he'd almost swallowed.
"Ares?" I asked, unsure.
"Landing sucks, but the welcome party goes a long way to make up for it. Miss me ladies?"
"No." We said in unison - more out of habit than truth perhaps... at least on my part.
"You don't look too sagged or wrinkled so I can't have been gone too long," he smiled at me.
"Where were you?" Gabrielle asked. "We thought you were dead."
"So did I, for a while. Your pal fried me good. Which wasn't in their plan, whatever their plan was, but it wasn't to crisp the receiver - just to neutralize it... or me. That charge she hit me with scattered my primary wavelengths like nobody's business - that's how they shut down some Stellar guy and his black hole. Or so they said - during what must have been the longest committee meeting in eternity (throughout which your sidekick kept nattering "due process" and whining "extremely irregular!"). Long story short, I found myself tumbling in the darkness and landing in this lake. Nice lake too, maybe I should put a temple up here. By the way Princess, Lao Ma says hello - she'll be in touch."
I felt Gabrielle's eyes snap to me as I feigned indifference to Ares' news. "Nice to know, thanks. Shouldn't you find Aphrodite so she knows you're not dead?"
He winked at me, knowing full well the problem he'd created. "Too true. Wouldn't want the G.O.L. to be glum a minute more than necessary. Have a lovely evening ladies."
And he was gone... and in his place, a stony silence. Reluctantly, I turned to face Gabrielle. She'd never fully reconciled her conflicted feelings about my former mentor and lover. Gabrielle's head was cocked to the side, her arms were crossed, her expression was unreadable.
I cleared my throat. "I felt that we had a lot to contend with and mentioning Lao Ma wasn't going to be helpful in the context of such an extreme situation. I was going to mention her later."
"It's been six months." Gabrielle pointed out the obvious.
"And you've been busy."
"There's been time."
"True," I sighed. "I didn't want to upset you. You've been volatile at times as you've readjusted to your full emotional spectrum... and I didn't want to get a chakram tossed at me."
"I wouldn't have tossed the chakram at you... unless there was some reason I should... was there?"
"Absolutely not. And anyway, it wasn't Lao Ma - not really."
"Who was it then?"
"Something that looked, talked and smelled like her... but wasn't her."
"Did it taste like her?" Gabrielle narrowed her eyes.
"I wouldn't know." I let my tone convey the indignation I felt at her insinuation.
"You'd better not."
"My thoughts were only of you, my prickly delight."
She splashed me. I splashed her back. If we hadn't already been wet we'd have been soaked through when we were done with our water fight and the wrestling match that ensued.
I lay back in the water in surrender. "I'm vanquished by the Mighty and Merciful Blade. Carry me back to dry land, and have your way with me." I floated, looking up at the stars, enjoying the open expanse of the night sky.
"Carry yourself. And I think I should point out to you, as you're not familiar with the position and therefore aren't familiar with the protocol that goes with, but the loser doesn't set conditions. That's the prerogative of the winner." She lay back and floated next to me.
"Carry me anyway."
"Is that your idea of an equal partnership? That I should have to haul your carcass around at your whim?"
"No. My idea of an equal partnership is that I should be able to rely on you in battle, trust in your decisions and to tell you the truth at all times."
She took my hand and we started kicking our feet gently, propelling ourselves toward the shore - we were in no rush. The night was warm, the water refreshing.
"That sounds about right," she concurred.
"Good, then I have to tell you that your battle name is seriously corny."
"Really? Guenther came up with it when I spared his life. After his forces ambushed a battalion of my soldiers in a mountain pass."
"He was trying to flatter you, playing to your soft side."
"I guess it worked - I spared his life and he joined my army. I like him, he reminds me of Joxer." I could hear the smile in her voice at the mention of our old friend.
"I thought as much. You hungry?"
"A little, but we don't have much if we want to have anything to eat in the morning."
"I just caught a fish," I said.
"You did?" She looked over. I held up a nicely sized wriggling bass.
"I've learned many skills from you, but I've never mastered fishing by hand."
"We need to maintain some of the mystery in our relationship..."
"Which is why I'll be cooking the fish."
"Precisely," I smiled.
We made for shore and camp. I reveled in the simple joy of spending time watching the woman I loved - a fine friend, a great warrior and leader - get covered in fish scales.
So, now that you've absorbed the whole thing and had two seconds to contemplate it... what did you think? ~Brulee: cremebrulee%40myrealbox%2Ecom
Note: One thing about fiction is... we can escape the realities of life for a spell - we can even revisit characters once portrayed by actors who are no longer with us. Kevin Smith was a marvelous Ares, a totally rockin' God of War, I'm grateful he brought his magic to the storyline. Peace.