CHAPTER 10 (Final Chapter)
Gabrielle woke up to find Xena watching her quietly from a resting chair next to the window. The very thought that she was being observed while she slept gave her a chilling sensation, but she refused to let it show.
To be honest, she was surprised she was still alive.
"What?" She asked awkwardly as she saw the contemplation in Xena's eyes.
"I was just thinking maybe I've seen you somewhere before… all this." Her hands attempted an encompassing gesture.
"Perhaps in our previous battles…" Gabrielle sat up but made no move to get out of bed, or leave the room. It wasn't like she had anything better to do, or places to go, not anymore.
"No, I mean before that. Before you became an Amazon."
Gabrielle suddenly sat a bit straighter, her green eyes lit up sharply with alertness. "How did you know I wasn't born an Amazon?"
"You don't really think or act like one, you lack the mentality." Xena said matter-of-factly, she had that look where she was seizing her up, studying and evaluating her.
Was she that easy to read after all? Gabrielle couldn't help but feel a little embarrassed, and looked away, feeling heat rising in her cheeks. Or perhaps it was just Xena who was especially adept at guessing people.
Still, she couldn't quite figure out her own position in the middle of all this. Did she manage to buy herself more time? Or was she going to finally get executed after the friendly interrogation? Xena's calmness and lack of edge made her paranoid.
"What village did you come from originally?" The voice was soft, very unlike the Empress' usual tone.
It made Gabrielle really want to answer, because it felt like she actually cared. Perhaps this was the way Xena was in the morning, although the servants who constantly fled in terror wouldn't be able to confirm the fact for her.
"I think I was near Poteidaia once…" Xena's eyes veered off as if reminiscing on an event in the past.
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "When you let me stay in that room next to yours, you knew I would try to kill you eventually." It wasn't a question.
"Yes, I did."
"But you did it anyway, why? Why did you do it if you knew you couldn't trust me?"
"Part of me wanted to say that I didn't know what I was doing. But it's mainly because I trust your nature. I trust who you are." Xena smiled, shaking her head as she thought of the previous accusation she made, "and you are not a murderer. You're not like me."
Gabrielle caught a hint of an envious sadness in the Empress', she wasn't sure if it was in her eyes or in her tone of voice, or both. That in turn made her a little bit sad too.
Gabrielle herself wasn't a murderer – not to begin with. She used kill only when it was necessary. But now, she was probably willing to kill for lesser reasons. She did almost murder Xena out of revenge, the sense of revenge that went beyond just plain Amazon honor. Somewhere during all this, she developed a bloodlust.
As for Xena, she most probably started out killing for more selfish reasons – to gain rank, maybe wealth, and then power. She had made it so far into the game that killing eventually became a necessity for self-preservation.
Ironic, how between the two of them, they've gone full circle.
"But why did you choose to take the risk at all?"
"It beats reading all my scrolls over again."
Gabrielle nodded, feeling that perhaps, something did change. Perhaps in Xena, or in herself. Or something between the two of them.
A moment of awkward silence marked the other topic they were avoiding to discuss.
"Xena, last night…"
The chamber door chose then to swing open and revealed Florens. He had begun saying something, but upon spotting Gabrielle sitting in the bed, he came to an abrupt halt. His small beady eyes glided questioningly towards the shape of the Empress lounging in a chair nearby.
The two women, noticing his entrance, both casually turned to regard him.
Florens tried not to look like he was frowning. Was it he who found this sudden turnout bizarre or was it strange that the two women before him didn't?
"Well? What is it Florens?"
"Uh- ah…" He began, clearly very distracted and bothered by Gabrielle's presence. "I've just received a few scrolls that you might want to look over, nothing too urgent." Why was the savage even here, and in the Empress' bed?
Then his eyes caught the glint of the morning light reflecting from a blade on the floor, its sharp edge just barely lined with a rusty red hue. Once again, his eyes darted to the Empress, who had drawn a scarf around to cover her neck.
It was for certain now, the Empress had gone mad. The Amazon must somehow have her under some spell. Even now, the manipulative little savage sat there like some innocent tortured creature…
She needed to be rid of, without Xena's interference. Xena herself gave them the right to rid Rome of potential threats should her judgment be clouded. It seemed to Florens that the Empress' mind had been quite hazy lately, and the threat had grown past the point of just being potential.
"I must excuse myself, Majesty. I have a meeting with some of your subjects."
"Is it anything that I should attend?" Xena made to get up.
"No, Empress," Florens quickly reassured with easing hands, "just some minor details that you shouldn't be bothered with."
As Xena sat back down comfortably, he cast another weary eye on Gabrielle before closing the door behind him. The blonde eyed him back just as suspiciously.
"Something must be done, Dama, and soon!" Florens fidgeted.
It wasn't unusual that council meetings only held the two top advisors. They were the top decision makers after all, and very wise men. Most of the time, the rest of the council were too eager to agree to their decisions either way. All those other minor cretins managed to ever accomplish successfully was deplete the room of good air and generated unnecessary body heat.
"Yes, I understand the urgency of it. We've only barely gotten rid of that trainer Bai and his stupid ways of peace…" Dama pondered aloud as he paced calmly back and forth. The constant movement helped him think. He was missing something here, something crucial, but he couldn't quite grasp it. His hawk-like shadow, cast from the room's single window, transposed onto the stone wall and created an ethereal monster that patrolled back and forth along with him.
"It wasn't even the fact that she had tried to murder the Empress." Florens frowned, his gaze internal, searching through his last observation. "That would've solved our problems and given us the chance to put the blame on someone. It's the fact that she didn't finish the job and the Empress let her live."
Dama stopped. "Are they forming an alliance?"
"I found her in the Empress' bed this morning."
"Ah." Dama nodded knowingly.
Florens shook his head as he thought back, remembering Gabrielle staring back at him from the bed. "But she had tried to kill her, that I'm certain." He thought about the knife on the floor, "and instead of punishing her, her Majesty let her sleep in the royal bed."
"Hmm…" Dama responded as he paced again. "Obviously the Empress felt comfortable enough to let the Amazon get that close in the first place…"
"Close enough to bed her? I don't understand, Dama. I mean, savage as she may be, that girl isn't exactly unattractive. The Xena we knew a few years ago would've jumped at the chance to defile her in any way she could've conjured up." Florens sighed, shifting his weight. "But for some time, Xena hadn't touched her, or allowed anyone to touch her for that matter. Yet I found her there that morning, and the girl didn't look scared or traumatized at all. It was as if Xena had been waiting for Gabrielle to go to her."
"Ah Florens, you are truly the naive one." Dama chuckled dryly, suddenly realizing what he was missing. "Can't you see that Xena is losing her edge, my friend? Our Empress is growing tired, and she is seeking comfort and companionship in unlikely places. She is seeking trust in unstable and dangerous people." His turned to Florens as if he had just understood something. "This is the perfect opportunity to take it all away from her."
"So what are we going to do? We barely got away with pushing Bai off the wall, and it was by chance that we found that assassin to take the bait."
"We'll have to get rid of the Amazon ourselves. If Xena is starting to value her as much as I think she is… then the loss of that savage will hurt her."
"And then it won't take much more to shift the wind in our favor." Dama turned a predatory gaze towards his colleague, making sure that he was understood.
Florens nodded, and gulped.
"And without an immediate successor, the council is in charge until a new fitting one is appointed." The smaller pudgy man offered.
"We must start as soon as possible." Florens said a bit shakily.
"Yes, let's call the guards." Dama replied smoothly.
The market place was quieter this time and the sun had cast a lazy light through the streets. Though still full of people, everyone seemed to go about their daily routines with less urgency. Xena brushed through the crowd briskly, knowing exactly where she was headed this time around.
The sorceress appeared to be in deep concentration when she entered the tent. No attempt was made to acknowledge her arrival. Xena snorted at this lack of attention; usually people scrambled to find her feet to grovel at when her shadow was even within the vicinity.
"Old woman, I require your services." She sat down opposite the sorceress without invitation.
The old woman swayed slightly but went back to being still again. She was frowning and in deep meditation.
Xena looked around the tent and noted that nothing had really moved since her last visit. Slow business, or a front? Her hand tapped on her knee and she licked her lips. The tent gave her the creeps even on a repeated visit.
"Sorceress, I don't have all day."
As if on cue, suddenly, the old sorceress grabbed Xena's wrist, and her milky eyes shot open.
"The time to act is now! Danger to the one with whom you share the bond!"
Xena recoiled slightly, startled.
"What are you talking about?"
"Those who seek to destabilize the Empress have finally figured out a new way to tip the scale!" The woman's voice was hoarse compared to last time. She raised frail venous hands and began shoving Xena towards the exit of the tent.
Xena jumped to her feet, hearing the urgency in the sorceress' voice.
"Who are they? Who is trying to destabilize me?" She grabbed the old woman by the shoulders and shook her not too gently.
"You must go! Go save her!"
Xena jaw set tightly as the 'her' helped confirm what she had been thinking all along.
"They are taking her now! Go!"
But even before the Sorceress had finished, Xena had left the tent and had broken into a mad run towards the palace.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked as she heard the chamber door open.
"No, the Empress is no longer in the right mindset to make decisions about you."
Without warning, a large noose lassoed and tightened around Gabrielle's neck. It choked her as she was yanked backwards, dragged off the bed and across the floor towards the door. Her hands shot up instinctively but they were quickly forced back with many pairs of arms.
"We thought we gave you ample chances to murder the Empress. We thought we gave you enough reasons and enough time." Gabrielle knew she recognized the voice but she barely had time to register that it belonged to Dama's.
The Amazon grunted in response and she kicked at the guards.
"But now… Now, you truly are useless to all of us."
Her answer was in the form of a guttural roar as she attempted to lash out, but her head was snapped aside by a swinging Roman boot. It dazed her and made a wide cut in her cheek.
The proceeded to drag her out of the room and down the hallway in a half strangled state.
"We fail to understand your newfound loyalty towards Xena," this time, it was Florens, "but we can assure you, it won't last very long."
The soldiers continued dragging her down the hallway and she tried to break free again but was only beat and kicked continuously once more. This time, it left her barely conscious.
When they reached an intersection that opened up into three other hallways, a high pitched wail suddenly echoed through the corridors, freezing everyone in place.
It was a cry that Dama and Florens have rarely heard before, and one that the guards have only heard of in ghost tales.
It made everyone look about nervously. The cry sounded like it could've originated from any direction.
Without warning, a dark form dropped from directly above them, and with a feral war cry, it grabbed one of the guards holding Gabrielle and sent him crashing into the wall. It grabbed the sword from the sheath of the second guard holding Gabrielle and sent that guard flying down one of the hallways as well.
The remaining guards quickly got into an organized formation to face their assailant; with two holding Gabrielle behind them, and the two advisors standing near the unconscious Amazon.
The shadow facing them raised its head to the torchlight and revealed the Empress' face amid semi-disheveled dark hair. Dama's eyes narrowed and Florens whimpered before taking off down the hallway in a frantic run. The guards simply looked confused.
There was an eerily sadistic grin forming on Xena's face. "I smell… rats in the palace."
"The Empress has gone berserk! Restrain her!" Dama cried with a pointing finger.
Three guards charged. One went for her head, missed it by inches and instead, snapped the band holding up her hair. The dark mane cascaded down freely and made her look even more animalistic. The man responsible was soon lying on the ground in his own guts, quite thoroughly disemboweled.
The other two guards lunged at her simultaneously, but she had fluidly swerved out of the way. She followed the swerving with a flip that landed her behind them.
As they turned, one of them readily lost his head to a flash of Xena's sword and the other followed his companion to the ground after having his throat sliced open.
The two guards holding Gabrielle dropped the unconscious Amazon and fled in terror. The woman collapsed to the floor with a barely conscious grunt.
Dama, seeing that the battle was lost, began turning his back to flee. After a mere few steps, he crashed face forward into the stone hard floor, eyes wide shock, blood trickling from between his teeth. The sword that was previously in Xena's hand was now embedded in the middle of his back.
Once everything was still again, Xena seemed to have snapped out of her berserk trance. Her eyes shot towards the limp form of the blonde woman and she ran towards her.
Gabrielle woke up later, and found herself lying in Xena's bed. Confused, she wondered about whether if it had all been a dream.
However, when she tried to move, the ache and throbbing all over her body informed her quite immediately that it hadn't been.
As she eased back down while wincing, the door that led to the hall creaked open. Gabrielle watched it with apprehension, only to find herself strangely relieved when she saw Xena's head poking through.
The taller woman, upon seeing her awake went to kneel at the bed's side.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry… I'm sorry for everything I've done to you..."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to reply, but instead winced again at the sharp pain that the simple movement had sent shooting up the side of her head.
"Here, drink this. My healer said it will help with the pain." Xena handed her a goblet that felt comfortingly warm.
Gabrielle sipped tentatively and began finding the liquid quite agreeable.
She was rather distracted by the fact that Xena looked like she wanted to do and say a few hundred things all at once, but couldn't settle on which one to start on. She could've sworn she saw Xena consciously force most of them away to focus on what mattered first.
"How do you feel?"
"Like I've been trampled by a mob of centaurs." She took a few more sips.
"If you'd like… you could… maybe stay in the palace?" Xena, who had been watching her closely, blurted. "I know it's strange, and perhaps too soon to ask… but two of the advising positions are currently open and I feel you are wise enough to account for at least three of my best advisors."
Gabrielle was surprised by the offer. After all that had happened, it didn't seem real.
"What are you going to do with the extra advisor?"
"Kill him." Xena said nonchalantly but, noting the look of shock on Gabrielle face, realized that it was still too soon for jests. She quickly corrected herself. "I'm going to give him a respectable position in another city, most probably."
Gabrielle studied the Empress' tired yet sincere face, and suddenly saw someone different. It was as if she recognized the essence in her, a spirit that she seemed to have been familiar with for lifetimes that have gone by.
"I accept your offer." She bit her lip, hesitating as she watched Xena nodding quietly. "And if you'd like, I can also be a friend." She offered her hand.
A smile edged on Xena's lips, uninhibited and full of gratitude. She took the hand firmly and shook.
"I'd like that, friend."
Author's notes and replies:
The story unfortunately did not unravel the way I had intended to, although I have to admit my stories often take a life of their own. I did have trouble with the two last chapters, I'm not sure if it actually shows, but please feel free to comment openly (as long as you're not slandering me) and discuss other possibilities.
HAZMOT: Thank you so much for you continuous feedback. I totally adored your reviews and they helped me immensely in seeing whether my story has the effect I intended to or not. Also it helped me see angles that I've totally missed before.
PAM: What is ppms??