Please read the Disclaimer in Part One!
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Fifteen: No subversive emotions in sore need of validation were unfairly disparaged during the production of this fanfic.
"Stop her," said Xena quickly, sensing danger. Anaira had stepped forward as well, but before the two of them could move for the stairs, there was a shout and Korain emerged into view above them, barreling toward Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle!" Xena screamed, her heart nearly stilling as she tasted her helplessness. She reached for her chakram and raised it to throw, but it was already too late. Ducking Korain's sword as smoothly as she had ducked the arrows, Gabrielle slid sideways and deflected the renegade's lunge. Still voicing her anguished battle cry, Korain hit the railing, unable to slow her momentum, and toppled over it. There were a few shrieks of dismay and shock as her body seemed to sink in slow motion toward the ground, finally hitting it with a sickening thump and stilling.
The gathered women held their breaths for a long moment, and at last Xena and a few others moved cautiously forward to assess the situation. As they drew near, Korain stirred, lifting her head painfully to glare at them.
"All lies," she managed, her face contorting almost petulantly. "Stay away...."
"Korain, let us help, by the Gods," said the other renegade leader softly, urgently. She moved forward with hand outstretched, bending her knees in preparation to kneel by her compatriot's body.
Swift as a lizard, Korain's hand darted to her belt and drew a dagger. Xena tensed, ready to disarm her, but before anyone could predict her intent, the renegade had lifted the blade to her own breast and pressed it in. Her hateful glare remained on Xena even as she breathed her last.
The other Amazons close enough to see recoiled, stunned and horrified. Xena herself felt slightly sick, but mostly just tired. She closed her eyes briefly, and when she opened them, Gabrielle was beside her, staring in sorrow at the body as it lay pouring its crimson offering onto the earth.
"Her pain killed her," the bard said softly. "It blinded her to all those who loved and wanted to help."
"She was the fool," the other leader said, turning a strained face to Gabrielle. "My Queen, it's been too long since we've been spoken to with truth the way you just spoke."
"I just hope it was enough for the rest of them," Gabrielle replied. "I don't know that anything I could have said would have healed her, but the others...."
"Yes." The other renegade held out her arm. "My name is Laneis. It is my honor to serve you, my Queen."
"No," Gabrielle said, taking Laneis's arm in her own. "It's both of our honor to serve the Nation."
"Well said," said Ephiny, putting a warm hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Now we need to get the wounded treated, and the dead taken care of. And the living are probably hungry."
"I'll see to food," said Cassa, turning away. Xena turned grimly back to Korain's body.
"I'll see to this," she said, and looked around the gathered faces. "Lirin. Come with me."
Fearfully, the young girl stepped forward, looking with apprehension from Xena to the corpse and back. Xena bent over Korain and, although she could easily have lifted the body herself, took a grip under the arms and nodded for Lirin to take the feet. This the girl did, trembling with revulsion, and together they carried the dead renegade to the cleansing hut.
"Y - You treat her with such respect," Lirin said querulously, watching in consternation as Xena carefully, almost reverentially, pulled the dagger from Korain's breast and set it aside. "But she was the enemy."
"She was the enemy," Xena agreed, taking a rag and wiping the blood from the wound. "But she was also a human being, and now she is dead. If we treat the dead like garbage, we're no better than beasts."
"If you had killed her you wouldn't be saying that," Lirin avowed with sudden boldness.
"Is that what you think?" Xena drew a shroud over the body and turned a heated gaze on the youth. "Do you think I don't honor those I've killed?"
Lirin made no answer, staring at Xena in confusion. The warrior gave a short nod and turned, striding out of the hut, leaving the girl alone with the corpse.
Outside, things had begun to calm down. The wounded had been taken to the infirmary; some of the unscathed had been drafted to start up the bonfire again, and meats and bread were being set out for the hungry masses. Xena found Gabrielle in the midst of a crowd of Amazons, former renegades mingling seamlessly with the others, speaking solemnly of battles and plans. The warrior held back, unwilling to intervene. After watching for a moment, she turned again and left.
As the initial flush of euphoria faded, an uneasiness fell over the gathered Amazons which even the arrival of food could not completely allay. But as Gabrielle sat comfortably talking with Ephiny, Laneis and a group of others, their example seemed to spread and the goodwill slowly resurfaced.
"My Queens," said Galia formally, approaching the table with a sternly set expression. "I request permission to leave this place and return to the village. As soon as possible."
"Galia, what's wrong? Sit," Gabrielle urged. Reluctantly, the Amazon sat.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I do think it's wonderful that we were able to resolve this without too much bloodshed, and I hope the peace lasts. But-" She looked with narrowed eyes around the area. "One of these people killed my cousin. How can I forget that?"
"You can't," said Gabrielle simply, as Ephiny leaned back with a troubled expression. "You can only let it go, or let it destroy you inside."
"I know," Galia said stolidly. "I want to forgive. I want to heal. But I just can't see how to do it. I'm sorry."
"No, don't apologize. We still have a lot of work to do, a lot of trust to rebuild," Gabrielle said, looking pensively into the fire. "If you like, you can leave for headquarters now."
"Gabrielle-" Ephiny said in surprise, looking up. Gabrielle gave her a small shake of the head, and Galia took the opportunity to rise.
"Thank you, my Queen."
"I don't see any profit in forcing her to stay," Gabrielle told Ephiny as the other Amazon walked off. "There may be others who feel similarly. I think it's best to let them go back home and adjust to the new alliance on their own."
"You may be right," Ephiny mused, looking with new respect at her friend. "Gabrielle, you really do have the leader in you. You make a wise and compassionate Queen."
"Thank you," Gabrielle said, but she frowned slightly. "Ephiny, I'm not saying I'll stay and rule. Xena-"
"I understand," Ephiny put in quickly. "You know I'm happy to be your Regent for as long as necessary. Just remember one thing."
"None of this would have happened if not for you," Ephiny told her, indicating the eating, laughing Amazons on all sides. "You made this happen. Remember that."
"I will," Gabrielle murmured, flushing slightly with pleasure. I made this happen....
Xena made her way through the passages toward the eastern door. She sensed two presences; one she sought, the other she allowed to follow.
The eastern door had been badly burned, and a temporary barrier of a large heavy table had been set against it in the interim. With the battle over, the doors were no longer guarded, and no one accosted Xena as she hauled the table far enough back to permit her to squeeze by. She emerged into the cool breeze of gathering dusk, the forest noises calming jangled nerves, the feel of moss underfoot and the smell of the trees soothing her like an embrace.
Xena walked a few paces into the forest and turned, folding her arms coolly across her chest. "Well?"
"You put up a good fight, as always, Xena," said a gravelly voice in her ear even before he appeared by her side. "Looks like you lost this time."
"What are you talking about? We won," she scoffed, turning to look him in the face. She was nearly as tall as he, and their faces were inches away. He licked his lips.
"Oh, sure, the Amazons got their little victory," the God of War said, waving his hand dismissively. "But you lost in the larger sense, Xena. You've become soft."
"I've become smart," she corrected. "I've finally realized that my way -- your way -- isn't always the right way. Sometimes Gabrielle's way is better. I'm kinda looking forward to trying it again."
"Give it up!" Ares rolled his eyes in exasperation. "It's pointless, Xena. It's in your blood. I'm in your blood. You can't deny me."
"I don't deny you," Xena said, her voice like steel. "But I don't have to accept you either. Listen," she added quickly, before he could retort. "I just want to know one thing."
"I'm all ears," he growled sarcastically. Xena ignored it.
"Back in Brittania, you wanted me to destroy Dahak's temple. Why? Are you afraid of him? Or did you know what was coming?"
Ares looked away, folding his own arms. "I thought you might be interested in destroying what Caesar held dear. You did have a bit of a retribution thing going against him."
"Bullshit." Xena walked around him, forcing her way back into his line of sight. "You deliberately goaded me toward destroying the temple, knowing that I wouldn't do it if I thought it was what you wanted."
"Xena," Ares said intensely, looking her in the eye and lowering his voice until it throbbed, "you've gotten too used to being lied to. You assume the easy, the obvious, without questioning. Maybe it's time you started to question." He paused, and then looked over her shoulder. "I made a promise," he added. "Think what you will of me, but I've kept it. Be sure to tell her that." And he was gone.
Xena was silent for a long time, ignoring the presence behind her. Finally, as the shadows gathered again between the tree branches and torches began to smoke within the village, the Warrior Princess spoke.
"I suppose he's right."
"Annoying, isn't it?" said Anaira quietly, not moving from behind her. Xena closed her eyes briefly and nodded, then opened them and sighed lightly.
"So I still have my guilt to live with."
"We all do," Anaira replied. "But that's not what he was saying, is it?"
"Who knows?" Xena asked flippantly, turning at last to face the other warrior. "If I had destroyed the temple when he told me to...."
"Gabrielle would have had to face some other pain. Some other test. And she would still be with you."
"Maybe." Xena rubbed her face tiredly. "But it's time. I've made a new vow. The guilts of the past are the past. The future is much more interesting anyway."
"I'll second that," Anaira agreed. They looked at each other for a moment, and then turned back to the wall.
As they squeezed through the space between wall and table, Xena asked quietly, "Will you tell her?"
"Everything," Anaira replied without hesitation. "Someday." They walked silently together back to the bonfire.
Gabrielle looked up as Xena rejoined them. "I was just going to send out a search party," she joked. Xena gave her a somber smile. "Is everything all right?"
"Fine," said Xena firmly, putting an arm around the bard's waist and squeezing lightly. Gabrielle grinned at her.
"You certainly did a job with Lirin. That's another kid who won't be the same after meeting you."
"Oh?" Xena enquired, refusing to take the words at their worst. "Where is she?" Looking around, she couldn't see the youth anywhere.
"She's around here somewhere ... bragging to the other girls about how she's a close personal friend of yours," Gabrielle replied with humor. "If bringing her here was supposed to cure her crush on me, it certainly worked."
"So she's in love with me now? Great," Xena sighed. "I suppose it's too much to hope that she actually learned a lesson about war as well."
"No, I think you accomplished that too," Gabrielle said thoughtfully. "Only time will tell, of course, but ... I think I saw something in her eyes."
"Good," said Xena, and then they both fell silent, eating.
As darkness fell there was another funeral pyre to light, and the Amazons chanted with great ceremony as Korain's body was consumed by the flames. Galia and a small group of others had already left for the head village, but Sepha remained, staring into the embers long after the fire had died down.
"I like to think they're making peace with each other in Elysia," she said quietly as Gabrielle came to check on her. "Don't you think?"
"Absolutely," Gabrielle said, patting her gently on the back. "Get to bed, Sepha. It's been a long few days."
"Yes, it has. Thank you, my Queen," the Amazon said, and for once the title didn't chafe. Gabrielle smiled.
The bard-queen returned to the barn, where Xena was waiting, idly combing her fingers through Argo's mane.
"We're stronger, aren't we?" Gabrielle said as she put down her staff and joined her lover by the horse's side. Xena nodded.
"Yes, we've learned our hard lessons."
"And we can forgive each other?"
"Gabrielle," said Xena earnestly, turning to face her, taking Gabrielle's shoulders gently in her hands. "If you can forgive everything that's happened to you because of me ... I can certainly forgive everything that's happened because of you. I love you. I'm not going to let the pain win any more."
"I love you, Xena," Gabrielle said, smiling with delight. "Whatever happens next, it'll happen to us together. We're ready for it."
"We're ready," Xena repeated, agreeing. She pulled Gabrielle into her arms and they embraced, holding each other close as the day drew to an end.
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