Meanwhile, at a warrior camp a few hours north of Karakorum…
Sitting in her makeshift throne near the far edge of her camp, the warrior known as Callisto, silently watched as her men fought amongst each other for their own amusement. Swords changed against each other, ropes swung back and forth, ladders were being risen left and right. They could kill each other if they desired, Callisto didn't care. They were all nameless beings to her. Just a means to an end. Ever since her family perished by the hands of the warrior princess, Xena, when she was a girl, Callisto made it a point to never let sentiment into her life again. Being attached to another living being only brought pain. Love, of any kind, was not for her.
Only one thing in all the world mattered to the blonde warrior. Xena. She trained hard every day to become Xena's equal or better. She fought like her in hand to hand and weapons. She studied Xena's every movement until she was a copy. Then gathered herself an army to sack villages, all in an attempt to let Xena know that she was coming. One day she'd have her revenge. She'd burn the soul out of Xena by killing every last person and creature she ever loved, then kill her. Only then would Callisto consider herself done. Revenge was all that mattered.
As she let her brown eyes settle on the dancing flames coming from a nearby campfire, her fantasies of slicing Xena's throat were interrupted by her scout. "Callisto, I have reports of Xena and her army." With a slightly annoyed sigh, she lazily glanced at the man and waved him on. "Xena has reunited with Borias and they have an army. They defeated a horde of Mongols." Callisto didn't care about who Xena or her lover where currently killing or killed. It was trivial. She wanted to know where Xena was heading to so she could get their first and surprise her old friend. "Enough with that. Tell me where Xena is heading next or I'll kill you and use your body as food for the men."
The scout gulped hard because he knew Callisto kept her threats. "I... I overheard her men say they planned to attack Karakorum tomorrow." Callisto showed a hint of a smile then waved the frightened scout away from her. Karakorum was only a few hours away from her current location. If they rode now, they'd beat Xena there. Feeling almost giddy, Callisto stood from her throne, and immediately her army all stopped their actions and faced their leader. "Gather the horses, we ride for Karakorum. Now!!!" She yelled at her men as they gathered up their weapons and food.
Dark Sorceress, Reaper, Dragon blood running deep within her veins. Queen, no Empress of The Strega Empire ruler of the kingdom of Gallendrell, mother. Are just a few of the words to describe Giada. Others may include wicked, evil, vengeful and a few others that she won't even mention. Born in a realm far from this one, taken from her home as a baby to protect her given to a less powerful witch and warlock to raise never knowing who and what she truly was til centuries had passed. She traveled and ruled many realms in her life. Her life filled with hardships perhaps that is what has made her so dark or it could be it was in her blood.
The Strega Empire, she inherited from a woman she never knew, or even heard of her great-great grandmother Queen Enchantress Trinity Reaper. A powerful woman, the most powerful sorceress of her time. A smirk came to her soft pink lips as her chocolate brown eyes looked upon the courtyard below. As a gentle breeze blew around her billowing her skirts her ankles, her dark hair blowing around her delicate face. Some say she is just like her great-great grandmother in her power and abilities as others say she looks just like her.
Either way, she was given the Strega to rejuvenate it and bring it back to its glory. She accepted it against the wishes of her sister. She had met her sister centuries later. They were separated to keep them both safe and fulfill their destiny. Her sister is the north star and Giada the South Star. However when she told her sister about her great great grandmother and her wish to have Giada rule the Empire. Her sister saw it as treason and against their father. See they had different mothers. However, there is another story within itself. Giada was given an ultimatum..either reject the offer or her sister would disown her and she would have to leave her empire and never return. Her dear sister should of known Giada does not do good with ultimatums.
So now here she stands on the balcony to her private sitting room. The Strega is thriving and becoming strong and powerful as the days go by. However, she needs to build her army stronger. Acquire stronger warriors at any cost. Lies, deceit anything. For the day will come she will with her human warriors and her army of the dead she will invade her sister's lands. Taking her sister as her prisoner and claiming her lands as her own.
Turning around to enter her sitting room an evil smirk crossed her lips. There was one warrior, in particular, she had heard of..and she will do anything to make that specific warrior come to her. She was a dark sorceress...and she always gets her way.
A war that was sure to serve as a catalyst of one form or another was starting, that much was clear. The thought wasn't a comforting one. The warrior princess had been fighting foes of all different skill-sets for a couple of decades now. Xena sighed and ran a hand through her raven hair. For the first moment of that day, she felt as if she could truly relax. She had tried earlier but failed miserably. A man had entered their encampment and had busied himself with attempting to steal a bit of Xena’s blood or some such nonsense. In retaliation, Borias had cut his cheek, effectively marking him as a trespasser and one that shouldn’t be trusted. She had considered ending his life, spilling his guts at their feet and making sure that the entire brigade was within eyesight. However, he was much more useful alive as she believed they could use him as a guide back to the camp where he had come from. So, secure with the knowledge that the man now hidden away in the stables and forced to sleep amongst the animal feces like the piece of discarded trash he was, she loosened a breath the warrior princess hadn’t realized she had been holding.
Thoughts of what could potentially happen in the morning light swirled in her mind as she tried to quiet her thoughts and drift off to sleep. She had been laying in the tent she shared with her lover for a few minutes. They had just returned from the river and after cleaning themselves off with the chilly water, her muscles were practically begging her to take a rest. It was past the midnight hour and most of the guards were already rotating shifts so the ones who had previously watched the camp could sleep. No sooner had she relaxed next to the sleeping form of her lover did the sound of horse hooves echo from the distance. She turned over so she was laying on her stomach and shut her steel-blue eyes, focusing all of her attention on listening to the sounds of the night. The horses were wild, that much was obvious. The way their hooves relentlessly attacked the ground as the miles passed away behind them was enough evidence of that. For a moment, she gave the Gods and Goddesses a silent prayer of thanks as she snuggled into the already sleeping form of Borias and allowed the peaceful subconsciousness of sleep to take her away. Little did she know that Callisto would be waiting to greet her.
With his hands tucked into the pockets of his wool robe, Erwen hurried along the stone path to the private but opulent quarters of Queen Giada, nestled in amongst the boulders at the top of a hill overlooking the great Strega Empire. He was always loathe to interrupt the Queen, for she was known for her sudden bursts of ferocious anger, and an enraged sorceress of her magnitude was something to be avoided at all costs. But Erwen had come by some most valuable information that she was sure to appreciate. Erwen was a Druid, and quite a talented one at that. Not even close to the caliber of the Queen in terms of magical competence, of course, but he possessed certain useful skills that required time and complex spells to fully engage, time that the Queen could not spare. Why devote all that time and effort when you had a Druid who could faithfully do the job for you? And yes, Erwen was faithful to his Queen. She was spectacular and dazzling in every possible way; her beauty, grace, and power, not to mention her raw ruthlessness in achieving her objectives, were unrivaled in all the world. Erwen worshipped her, and would do absolutely anything she asked. Anything.
He bustled his way up to the door to the Queen’s chamber. It was, as always, guarded by three well-armed warriors. “I am here to see the Queen. I come bearing important information.” The guards, who were tall and beautifully sculpted male specimens, looked down upon Erwen as if he were a spider or a bloated tick, something that should be squashed underfoot. But they knew who he was, and the special relationship he had with the Queen. So one of them went inside to announce him, and a moment later Erwen was ushered into the Queen’s sitting room. She was sprawled seductively on a scarlet chaise settee. Her lush and potent beauty nearly took Erwen’s breath away. He fell to one knee and bowed his head in supplication. “Your Majesty, I have news from the Mongol Steppe. The one you seek is there. Opportunity awaits because she is about to engage in a battle she is likely to lose. In the chaos of bloodletting and death arises fortuitous contingency, my Grace.”
As Giada stepped through the french doors she went straightaway to her favorite red chaise settee. There were piles of messages cluttering her white antique desk. Some had been there for at least a week. However, other things had taken her away from her writings. Now she is just not in the mood to answer them. In her mind, they had been there for a while and a little longer would not make a difference. She would instead, read from one of her antique books of spells and potions.
As she picked up the heavy leather-bound book. A knock sounded at her door. She was about to chastise whoever dare interrupt her. A smile though crossed her lips. It was one of her personal guards. He wore just a pair of dark pants. His chest was bare with just a hint of armor covering it. He was the most exquisite eye candy. Being a queen did have it perks. However her smile soon turned to a frown. "Why do you interrupt me? It better be important Claudius." She warned him.
Claudius bowed nervously. Never knowing just what his Queen may or may not do. With his own eyes he had seen her kill a man with just a snap of her small delicate fingers. "M...M'lady. Erwen is outside. He says he has information for you." He said standing up looking at Giada. Tossing her book to the side with a sigh. "Show him in."
Erwen was a druid and in the past he had helped her tremendously and his powers, although not a strong as hers, they were powerful in their own right. He also was very loyal to her and for that she trusted him. She also knew of his affection for her. as well. It was too obvious to miss. She had no feelings for anyone. Her cold dark heart had been sealed off years ago and she vowed never to let the walls down again. Except for her children of course, for them she would die to save their lives.
She watched the man come into the room. His eyes taking her in the smile that formed on his face as he kneeled down in front of her. Upon hearing his news she smiled. Sitting up in her chair. "You have bought me wonderful news Erwen. However, her safety is of the utmost importance. She will not lose the battle or her life.
Holding out her hand and turning an amulet over and over. A red ruby on a gold chain appeared. It glowed brilliantly. If one looked inside it seemed to come alive. "Take this to her. It will spare her in the battle she is about to engage in. All will fall who dare even mark her skin with their sword. Then bring her to me. If she refuses, then she will see what her refusal shall do. Her skin will burn her tongue will swell until either her breath is stilled. She will either die or agree to come to Gallendrell." She grinned wickedly as she handed Erwen the trinket.
The glory of war, the screams of the innocent dying, the riches that came with it. None of that mattered to Callisto. Ever since that fated day in Cirra, only one thing mattered to the blonde warrior. Xena. Or more precisely, the death of Xena.
Xena was the reason why she did everything. The reason she became a warrior, the reason she gathered an army, the very reason why she still breathed. Callisto made a promise to herself that she would avenge her parents and end that wretched woman's existence. Though that task was easier said than done. Xena had friends. Xena had allies. Before Callisto could get to the one she wanted, she'd have to go through everyone else. And that only made Callisto happy. The more pain and devastation she could cause her raven-haired counterpart, the better. But she knew her army wouldn't be up for that challenge. Killers they were, but they were also stupid. She'd kill them herself soon enough.
Staring off, focused on a tree in the distance, Callisto plotted her next series of moves carefully. She's taken her army to the next town and let them slaughter everyone. Then as they rested, shed slit each of their throats. Once the bloodshed was over shed make her way towards Xena's camp. Her lover Borias was the only real threat to her outside of Xena herself. She'd have to get to him as he slept as well. Sneak into his bed then kill him, quiet as a mouse.
Unsheathing her trusted sword, Callisto began to sharpen its blade as a sinister smile formed on her lips. Soon if everything went to plan, Xena would be dead. Vengeance would be had.
Her soldiers quickly finished gathering their supplies and mounted their horses. "Now ride to Karakorum, and kill everyone you see. I'll meet up shortly after. Oh and make sure you burn it all down after. I'm in the mood for a barbeque."
The Queen’s voice was sweeter than the finest music Erwen had ever heard. More musical than a symphony, soaring and inspirational beyond that of any composition ever written, or that would ever be written. And the fluidity of her movement as she sat up on her scarlet settee exuded life and beauty and everything wondrous and feminine. He was deeply humbled that she would lower herself to allow him to approach her there. She held out a charm in her hand, something Erwen recognized as a very powerful talisman. That hand was akin to the loveliest of flowers, perfect yet powerful, and deadly at that. His fingers brushed the velvet skin of that most perfect hand as he plucked the talisman from her grasp. The touch sent a bolt of magical electricity from her to him, and he couldn’t help but sigh as it did.
With his head still bowed, his unappealing face still hidden in the folds of his robe, Erwen mumbled, “It shall be done, my Queen. The Talisman of Ulaanbaaster is a very powerful instrument, indeed. Even Xena, the one they falsely call the warrior princess, will not be immune to its magic. Your Majesty, as always, your plan is flawless and above reproach. I am forever honored that you keep me in your council, but it seems you have little use for my advice. I shall do exactly as you ask, though.” He bowed again. Loathe to leave her glowing presence, he lingered for a moment and allowed himself to glimpse his Queen one more time before leaving. The sight of her enriched his very being, and his heart soared. He sighed, “With your permission, my Grace, I shall take my leave.” She waved a hand and Erwen turned to trundle away from her glorious chambers.
He requisitioned a horse from none other than the Queen’s own guard and galloped off across the dusty, lifeless plains towards Xena’s encampment on the other side of Karakorum. The horse was a prime specimen, one of the best examples of the Kasakh breed from Baikonur. Its long legs and powerful hindquarters would ensure the speediest progress possible. Although a powerful Druid, Erwen knew not the precise schedule of coming events, but he fully realized that time was of the essence. He did not want to arrive after Xena and Borias had engaged Callisto’s army, because by then it might be too late. And to be late would be to fail Queen Giada. That was out of the question. So he pushed the horse to its limits, frothy sweat appearing on the animal’s hide minutes after he left Strega. The beast would likely die from the effort, but no matter. Erwen would keep it alive magically until it was no longer needed.
Borias silently rode the slipstream of the dreamworld, a place he rarely remembered during the waking hours, but a place nonetheless that was equally important to him as that waking world in which he bludgeoned his way through a tumultuous life. For it was in slumber that he carefully reviewed the activities, trials, and victories from the previous day, watching a replay of each reenactment of events from his spectator’s boat on the river. Like watching a play in which he was the leading actor, Borias studied those events, and learned from his mistakes, taking note of what works and what doesn’t. This sublime, nocturnal learning process was not a conscious thing, but rather was the essence of his instinctual response mechanism. It was the engine that honed his natural proclivities, his gut reactions to a deadly, razor-sharp edge. But instinct is an elusive and mysterious thing, and Borias could not tell Xena or anyone else exactly how it worked – he only knew that it did work, and had kept him alive these many years – that, and Xena’s extraordinary prowess as a warrior and military strategist.
So he slept, and snored, lying on his back amidst the animal skins with Xena in his arms. If he snored too loudly or incessantly, she would wake him and demand that he turn over. The means by which she awoke him were always creative, and off times devious and playful. Use your imagination, dear reader.
In the dream state, he kept returning to an event from the day, one for which he would have preferred a different outcome. It was the traitor, the one with Xena’s sword, the one who proclaimed Xena’s blood would make them victorious in battle. Witchcraft was clearly involved. Borias would have tortured the man until he told all that he knew. There were ways to know if the man was lying, saying only that which was needed for the pain to stop. Those ways also involved witchcraft, but it was a simple spell, one that even Borias could bring to bear on the man. But Xena had sent the man away, to sleep in the stables with horse muffins as a mattress and a pillow. Borias hoped he would be trampled in the night. But could it be that what the weasel-of-a-man said was correct? And that Xena might be hiding the truth about her blood for some reason? No, that thought needed to be quashed, snuffed out. Even in the dreamworld, Borias refused to abide the concept that his lover was not entirely honest with him.
Something in the night, in the conscious world, rousted Borias from his slumber. He always slept light. Warriors cannot afford to sleep so deeply that an enemy could slip into camp undetected. Yes, they had guards set up 24 hours a day, but guards can be killed, and defenses can be breached. Borias awoke with a start, his eyes wide open, alert to a subtle disturbance that had triggered his spider senses, like a tiny insect tweaking the end of a spider’s web. Xena was no longer beside him, but Callisto had taken her place. The blonde’s eyes were wild with angry anticipation, a grimace skinned her lips back from her gleaming white teeth, and she held a wicked-looking dagger. She plunged that dagger into Borias’ side, efficiently slipping it between ribs to places where it would do the maximum damage.
Gabrielle had already been in battle, with a man, an angry one at that. He was powerful and wanted everyone to fear him. He knew the Amazon's all too well, he knew that the tribe was going to be hard to kill. Especially with the anger that was tossed around with their weapons at hand. As Gabrielle tried her hardest to defeat all that stood in her way. using her trusty staff, she hit one guard in the stomach, causing him to bounce forward as she then swung her body around, the staff that followed as she ran the staff against his legs, causing him to fall to the ground, once she saw him trying to get up from the ground, she smacked him in the face with the ends of her staff, that caused him to pass out, being knocked out for the count. As she then stood in the battle of the battle, she turned her head from side to side, trying to see all of what was going on. At this point, it felt as if the Amazon village had met it's match. So, not the best feeling. These Amazon's were her tribe, her sisters, her family. and she would be damned to allow it all go into ruin. Gabrielle had always been like that. She wouldn't allow nor tolerate such damnation to overcome this region of society. She would die before such a crime immense. No such power, or ability would prevail any of the outcomes.
As Gabrielle searched the lands for anything, answers, warlords to knock out. she noticed a man, a man laying down on the ground in which it seems to be injured.. She quickly ran to his aid, kneeling down beside him "Careful, don't move too fast" she said, hands rested firmly on his arm, when she rolled him over, it was Borias laying there... "Borias? where's Xena?" She asked, then noticing a silver dagger sticking out of his lower abdomen. "By The Gods," she said and asking questions at this point wasn't the smartest, but, only he would know of such an outcome. "Don't move" she said, resting a hand on her lips, looking down, not really sure of what to do. to move it or not.. that was the question. but, if the knife wasn't removed properly, he could bleed to death.. Gabrielle grabbed the bottoms of her skirt, ripping at them hem as she then used it as a rag to push against his wound.
"Are you ready?" She asked, looking him on.. "Now, this is going to hurt... badly," she said placing the ripped part of her skin to his skin, alongside the blade that she would soon pull out of his chest cavity.. "Ok, here we go" she took in a deep breath, using one hand to push against him with the other hand, wrapped around the neck of the dagger. using all force, she pulled the knife out, tossing it to the sides of herself. now using both hands as she pushed with pressure, the ripped cloth, blood was seeping through it, running in between the creases of her fingertips. but, she never stopped applying it against him. he needed to be saved and by the gods, she was going to try, or die trying. She looked at the dagger that was laying on the ground beside herself, luckily it was close enough for her to see the designs along the sides of it, her eyes widened.. that dagger could only come from one place, one person, Callisto. She gasped, looking around as her hands continued to try to stop the bleeding. she didn't like surprises, the kind that could cause Gabrielle to wind up dead in the end. but, with how she believed and saw things, saving a life was way more important.
There had not been sufficient time to react, and sleep had muddled Borias’ thoughts and slowed his reactions just enough that Callisto had been successful in delivering what would likely be a mortal blow. Gabrielle had appeared out of nowhere to help. Borias had not known she was here with them, so her sudden appearance seemed miraculous. She inquired about Xena’s whereabouts, “I know not… only that she was here with me not long ago.” His words came out strained and halting, laced with pain and anger. Anger at Callisto, yes, but also at himself for allowing this to happen. He had been a moment too slow, and he’d paid the ultimate warrior price.
Gabrielle pulled the dagger out of his side, and as she did, Borias let out an involuntary yell. Pain exploded in his side, even more so than when Callisto had thrust the dagger into him. He gasped and grimaced until the agony waned a little. “It was Callisto who did this deed. She doesn’t care about me, it wasn’t me she wanted to hurt or kill, it was Xena. Her need for revenge has become darkly obsessive.” Borias struggled into a sitting position, which was probably a mistake because another wave of nauseating, torturous pain blossomed in his side. “Callisto knew just where and how to place that dagger. I fear the wound is mortal. I’m bleeding inside.” In fact, Borias fought back a wave of vertigo and his vision tunneled for a moment. He’d seen this over and over again on the battlefield. How many hundreds of men had he seen die? How many of those deaths was he responsible for? It didn’t matter now, for he was facing his own mortality, and it was likely to come soon.
He grasped Gabrielle’s arm, perhaps a little too hard, and locked gazes with her. Sweet yet courageous Gabrielle - she and Borias competed for Xena’s affections, and still competed. Loyal and compassionate to those deserving of it, but an Amazon firebrand to her and Xena’s foes, Gabrielle was everything Borias wasn’t. Ruthless and selfish with an insatiable lust for power, Borias was the complete opposite of Gabrielle. Yet they represented the two aspects of Xena, like two sides of a coin, both fulfilling something the warrior princess needed and recognized in herself, and when they were all together they were strong, nearly invincible. Well, that invincibility had just flagged, and the three were about to become two. “Gabrielle! Callisto is probably still in the camp, wreaking havoc and chaos. Xena is in danger! Alert the camp! Find the warrior princess. You have done what you can do here, and I appreciate that wholeheartedly. But you must now go. Help Xena. If any harm comes to her, may Hades himself throw Callisto into the internal flames!”
"Of course, Callisto only cares about herself.. she's greedy that way" Gabrielle said, watching the blood on his side, continuing to drain out of the hole in his side. Gabrielle wasn't all that surprised that Borias was even stabbed. It was who she was, the person who she was brought up to be. So, all in what she does, Callisto is evil. no surprises there. Gabrielle pushed the cloth against his side a little tighter as she applied a certain about of pressure against his wound, the main focus at this point of time was stopping the bleeding the more time passes, Borias could be at a loss soon if something was applied. she remained looking down at his side, hearing him speaking such horrible things about Callisto, things that Gabrielle is already aware of.
As Gabrielle finally getting the blood to stop, she sat up on her knees, hands rested firmly on her lap she watched Borias slowly following. she already knew she needed to find Xena. yes, she was able to handle a lot on her own, but, Gabrielle always felt the need to help the raven-haired warrior. she sighed, nodding her head, to the thought of going to find her. He then grabbed her arm, in somewhat of a tight grasp against it. "You need to find Xena" he said, in a confident, yet, demanding tone of voice, She looked him on, giving another solid nod of the head as she gently tapped the top of his hand. "I will find, Xena. I give you my word"
Gabrielle directed her hands beside the ground, next to her legs as she propped herself from the ground, now looking down at him. "Don't worry about Xena, I will find her and help her. I give you my word" She said, setting off a trail of soft smiles as she turned and walked away. walking past a tree where her staff was leaning against, she grabbed it, grasping it tightly into her hands as she then walked off, and out of sight.
Gabrielle walked for what it seemed to be, forever. Holding the staff, tightly at hand, keeping high alert just in case. She then stopped in her tracks, hearing the sounds of branches cracking from underneath her own feet. She closed her eyes, hoping no one would hear it. slowly fluttering her eyes open, she looked around once more, checking her surroundings as she began to walk again. As she was walking, she noticed a blonde, sitting but a few feet ahead, it was Callisto. but, something seemed off, why wasn't she attacking.. Gabrielle took in a deep sigh, grasping the neck of her staff once again, she knew this was probably going to turn out bad, as she began to sneak, she felt a hand grab a hold of her mouth, pulling her behind a tree. As her mouth was then covered she looked down at the wrists as she noticed it was Xena, seeing the familiar wrists band attire, As Xena slowly moved her hands from her mouth, Gabrielle quickly turned around, wrapping her arms around Xena, giving her the tightest hug she could sum up "By the gods, you are alright" knowing that she could handle her own, Gabrielle was always thankful to see her. "What are we going to do?" She said, looking at Xena as she looked back, drawing her attention back and forth on Callisto as she didn't move a muscle. Knowing Xena, she probably already had a plan.
Giada listened to Erwen's words with a slight devilish grin on her pink lips. She saw the longing in his desperate eyes even though they were still hidden behind the hood of his cloak. Leaning forward slightly her arms gently rest of the arms of the settee. "Now Erwen you know I do enjoy having you around. You are quite useful to me." She said her voice as smooth as honey.
Giada sat back in her chair as she watched him leave her room. Another smile crossed her lips. This time it was more wicked in nature. If all would come to pass as she planned, it plan would come to pass. Shrugging her slim shoulders gently. If this did not work as plan she would have to think of something even more devious.
With a small gentle flourish of her right hand, a crystal goblet and decanter appeared on the small table beside her. Another graceful movement of her hand the decanter rose slowly in the air and poured the sweet red wine in the glass. As the decanter settled back down she picked up the glass and gently place it against her lips and drank the liquid.
Whispering softly her words carrying to Erwen's ears as he rode on of her finest steeds from her stables. "Hurry Erwen. Make no haste in your travels. Or else." Her voice taking on a slight edge.
Erwen the Druid heeded the demands of his Queen and repeatedly used his whip on the horse to push it to the very edge of its physical limits. The steed gasped great inhalations and creamy froths of sweat poured off the animal’s hide, seeming to lubricate its long, powerful legs as it pounded across the dusty, barren landscape, while a moonshadow kept pace just behind the horse and rider.
And so Erwen made the ride to Xena’s camp in record time. Seeing the lights from the camp’s torches in the distance, Erwen applied the whip generously, demanding a final burst of speed from the horse. But in the last quarter league, the animal stumbled and then tripped, tumbling Erwen off into the dirt. Uninjured but shaken and angry, Erwen dusted himself off and made sure the Talisman of Ulaanbaaster was still in his pocket and not harmed. It was. But the horse lay twitching in its death throes. Its mighty heart had ceased up, driven by the whip beyond its capabilities. There was nothing Erwen could do. His magic did not extend to bringing horses back to life, not that he would waste his magic on an animal that had failed him.
So he walked the final distance, and it was probably good that he did, because a rider coming at full gallop into Xena’s camp was likely to be shot through the heart with an arrow. As it was, he came as a somewhat overweight man in a robe, without any weapons. He appeared to pose no threat. When greeted by one of Xena’s guards, he announced himself, “I am Erwen with a message for Xena the Warrior Princess.” But he quickly learned of an attack on the camp, and that Xena’s lover had sustained a mortal wound. “Take me to him. I can perform healing magic.” Erwen did not care whether Borias lived or died, his only mission here was to deliver the Talisman to Xena. But if he was able to heal the man, Erwen might gain Xena’s confidence, he might be seen as an ally and she would be more amenable to accepting and wearing the “gift” from Queen Giada.
So it was that he was taken to Borias. The man lay dying on a bloody sleeping pallet inside a tent. He had already fallen into unconsciousness, a condition from which he would not return without Erwen’s assistance. “Bring me Gentian and Rehmannia root immediately!” The healing herbs were commonly kept even in remote camps like this. As the guards went in search of the requested items, Erwen began the spell that would cure Borias. The herbs would put the finishing touches on the incantation, which incidentally would also give Erwen some influence over Borias’ behavior and actions.
In another part of Greece, there was a warrior training in a courtyard. Her name was Cassandra and she was the adopted daughter of Ares God of War. Cassandra's parents were murdered by warlords when she was only 5 years old. The God of War looked into the little girl's heart and he saw a fighter's spirit. So he decided to adopt her. She lived in one of his many temples and for years he had her train in the courtyard to be his top warrior and lead his army. Which around the age of 21 she eventually did become the leader of his army.
She was surrounded by Ares men in the courtyard. She looked around at them and she smirked a bit. Ares appeared to watch his daughter's progress. The men turned to look at him and she took the opportunity of distraction and she attacked. They were thrown off guard and they tried to fight back but the little warrior was too much for them. She ended her attack in a fighting stance and the men were all on the ground moaning and groaning. "Ares what brings you down from Olympus. I'm just training as usual." Ares walked down the steps with his hand on the hilt of his sword. "There is a battle going on between Xena and Callisto. I want you to aide Callisto in the battle. Take my army and make haste. Callisto must not lose this battle with Xena. Do you understand Cassandra?" he said in a demanding tone. Cassandra stood in front of him and she nods her head. "I shall not fail you Ares." He approached her and caressed her cheek "See that you don't."
Cassandra immediately got the army ready for departure. It would be a long ride to where the battle was being held. Cassandra looked to Ares and she gave a small wave to him. Then she kicked her massive stead in the sides and they took off over the grassy plains towards battle.
To say the least, Giada was not a patient woman. When she wanted something she wanted it now. She always got what she wanted and she also knew she could of went to Xena herself. However, this was a matter of patience and acting hastily would not get what she wanted in the long run. However, the longer she waited, the angrier she became. The servants had learned to walk the other way if they saw her coming for Giada's temper was something to steer clear of.
So Giada found herself locked away in her Crystal Spell Room. It was a grand place in her eyes. Way beneath the palace floor. A large stone fireplace adorned one entire wall with two red wing chairs in front of it. A Pentagram made out of dried flowers hung over the mantle. Her mahogany desk was behind there and the walls were covered with ancient and antique spell and potion books. Her crystal ball which stood in an antique brass base sat closely by her desk. Her pride and joy stood on the opposite side of the wall. Her work table made out of the same wood as her desk was in the center. A black cauldron sitting on top. Vials and glass jars lined the walls filled with objects only the darkest of sorceresses would have.
However, it was the ticking of the mantle clock that drove Giada crazy. Each passing tick-tock just reminded her of how long she had been waiting. Where was Erwen she wondered? Did Xena choose not to come? He had one chore, and that was to bring Xena to The Strega. He better not fail her. For she would shake the foundation of the Empire herself.
Through a midnight dreamscape of his own design, Borias slipped from one shadow to the next like a wraith, searching for a way out of the nightmare and back to a world he knew and loved. Back to his Xena. For this place was like none he had experienced, nor heard told about in the tales and legends shared among warriors around the campfire or in the taverns over flagons of ale. Two small moons cast a wan, dirty orange-brown light on a rocky landscape dotted by small, thorny and half-dead trees and shrubs. Things prowled this landscape, too – things foul and obscene. Creatures that were wrong – hybrid abominations. Borias had already been attacked three times. Once by something that resembled a dog with the head of a spider, and twice by flying monstrosities seemingly constructed crudely from multiple organisms. The bat/insectile things had tried and failed to take a chunk of flesh out of his neck with suction-cup lips. He suspected that if he died in this place he would never return home. Or perhaps he was dead already and this was hell, or purgatory. He never expected to ascend to the Elysian Fields where he’d brush shoulders with the Gods and Goddesses while sipping ambrosia nectar from crystalline cups, but he’d hoped for better than this. He didn’t even have a weapon. A warrior should be allowed to defend himself, even in hell. And even if he went down to defeat over and over again.
Then abruptly the sky brightened. This was no blue sky day over Athens with puffy white clouds, but this strange world turned just a little, and for the better. One of the dog/spider things loped away from Borias, glancing over its shoulder at the changes above with its glossy, black multi-faceted eyes. It looked scared, if such a thing could be scared. A whirlwind twisted over a small rise, picked up speed, and headed straight towards Borias, as if it had him in its sights. It was small yet powerful. The thorn bushes and trees were ripped from the ground and spun up into the air. Borias tried to run but it caught him, too, plucked him right off the ground and tumbled him skyward with the other flotsam and debris.
The world changed again. Borias gasped for breath and his eyes opened wide. He was back in his world on a sleeping mat inside a tent. A monk or someone resembling a monk told him he’d be alright, but he needed to rest for now. He remembered what had happened to him. Callisto’s blade. Borias had been certain the wound was mortal. He pulled up his tunic to find only a minor scar where the wound had been. Grabbing the monk’s arm, Borias demanded to know how long he’d been unconscious. He was informed it had been less than two hours. “You cured me. For that I am indebted to you.” Little did Borias know, or suspect. “I must find Xena, must warn her of what is sure to come!”
The objective was to kill Xena but first, everyone Xena loved would perish. And Borias had made himself too vulnerable. Sneaking into his bed was easy. Sliding the dagger into his body was fun. It was a precise stab. A killing blow. One even Xena couldn't cure. And as quickly and silently as she entered, Callisto escaped. But she didn't go far. She wanted to see the mayhem and carnage her army did to their men. She wanted to hear Xena cry out when she found her dead lover.
But minutes passed and there were no cries of pain from Xena. Instead, Callisto caught glimpse of Gabrielle who did her best to help Borias, before running off. No doubt in search of Xena. Anger boiled inside of the blonde. She hasn't expected Gabrielle to be there. Or to help Borias. Turning on her heels, she stormed off a few feet until she found a large rock to sit on. There she waited for someone to find her. She had her money of Xena or the annoying blonde sidekick.
In fact, it didn't take long before Callisto heard the sound of footsteps. They distinctly sounded like Gabrielle's. But Callisto didn't turn or grab a weapon. Ins
Two masked, robed, silent Roman Guards, aptly named the Royal Guards, flanked to the tent which served as the temporary office of Callisto’s second in command. Only the Gods of Mount Olympus would know how she had managed to set something like this up. As grim, even macabre reminders Xena observed, stood in glass cases which mounted remains of her previous enemies at the temple. The very same warrior who had prevented the demi-goddess from murdering even more people. Not by the loyal legion which followed close behind Xena that had assisted, more so, those she had personally slain without hesitation. With her own sense of pride. The opponents had it coming in Callisto’s warped mind. For too long they'd ruled. Influencing the Greek royal court members and spiritual influences across the landscape. To one day make a move, to enact their insidious plot of treason against the lands that the warrior princess had vowed to protect. Below the encampment, glaring with hooded eyes, Xena felt and saw a 'hurricane' spring to life. She had been waiting and as soon as she noticed Callisto’s forces emerging for their early morning rituals, she pounced.
The first thing Xena had made sure of was that both Gabrielle and Borias were showed the utmost respect and medical care. If anyone so much as gave either one of them curious glances, they would find themselves impaled with her sword without preamble. The skies above Delphi had become a shredded mix of clouds and blue patches of untarnished brilliance, reflected with a slight pink hue as Xena’s soldiers roared to life. The sounds of almost deafening warrior cries were followed by the echoing of marching. Rank upon regimented rank of soldiers marched in perfect synchrony. Once, they were runaways; Born from the slums of the bigger cities and regulated to a life of crime. Now, from dozens of different city streets, were the recruits. All of them eager to proudly serve the newly formed legion she had trained in silence, waiting to make sure that Callist would not be successful. It was indeed, a marvelous sight to behold. Yet, through it all, Xena could feel her stomach lurch and roil. Her eyelids scraping shut, she of all people had yet to come to understand, to appreciate all that she had done.
There lingered within her chest beneath her breastplate, that cold void that now seemed omnipresent. No longer did the moniker of the warrior princess with no fear suit her, for that was a distorted view of Xena, not of the woman she'd become, the vengeful warlord she would one day learn to be. Clenching her favored weapon in her right hand, she could hear the slight pangs that came when the iron armor everyone was wearing warped and moved with each step. It was then, she felt her smile turn melancholy. She had not slept in days. Weeks. She might very well keep them moving, the legion only manifesting in power within, but nothing could give her rest. Not even the promise so powerfully bestowed upon her soulmate - Gabrielle. Friend. Confidant. Master. What sleep could bring, she dared not imagine. Flickering across her mind, was a tale, a poet that of all people, Ares had once read. Scarcely could she remember the name nor the exact quote. She only remembered briefly that it pertained to something about how there is no greater misery than to remember, with bitter regret, a day when you were happy. Inside her, a furnace burned. The first soldier who pledged allegiance to Callisto was also the first person to die, as her chakram raced through the air and cut into his chest, stopped only by the sheer amount of dense bone found within there.
Events moved faster than a Mongolian quarter horse under the whip. Borias had found Xena and Gabrielle only after they had confronted Callisto, the wicked and vengeful blond who had stolen into their camp and slipped her blade into Borias’ side. He knew not what had happened to the woman, only that she had escaped to fight another day. The man, Erwen, who had miraculously mended Borias’ mortal wounds, had given him a beautiful necklace to give to Xena - a massive, heart-shaped ruby nestled in a gold setting and suspended by a thick, gold chain. Borias had not questioned why the man would want to part with such a treasure. Nor had he thought it odd that he would do so. He only knew that he desired to give the necklace to his Xena, that he must and would give it to her as if it was his own gift to the warrior princess. He did not need to mention to Xena the peculiar, overweight man who resembled a monk, even though it was this man who had given Borias the jewel. And it was this same man who clearly had substantial magical abilities. It did not occur to Borias that the jewel might itself be imbued with an enchantment that could hurt Xena. It did not occur to him because he had been enchanted himself.
So it was that Borias gave the jewel to Xena, telling her it was a lucky charm and would help her in battle. Which in point of fact it would. The jewel would make her immune to harm. At least in battle. But it was the other effects that he spoke not of. In the back of his mind, he had some fuzzy realization of what the jewel could do, of what it really was. But he presented the necklace only as a harmless gift, a token of his love. So she wore it for him without question. And, together with Gabrielle and Xena, they engaged the enemy, brought their small but determined band of mercenaries down upon Callisto’s much larger army. They were vastly outnumbered, perhaps three to one, perhaps as much as five or six to one. But it didn’t really matter. The battle was gloriously bloody and wickedly satisfying. Borias’ sword was quickly slathered with bright red gore, and his armor and woolen tunic under the breastplate were quickly stained dark with it. He and Gabrielle flanked Xena as the warrior princess led the advance on the opposing army. Xena was breathtakingly magnificent. An unstoppable force of nature, her sword slashing at a blinding speed, always finding its mark, always taking down at least two of Callisto’s warriors with a single swipe. It was all Borias could do to keep up, helping Xena drive a strategic wedge into Callisto’s army, through which Xena’s mercenaries followed, emboldened by the courage and success of their warrior princess. The intent was to split Callisto’s army down the middle, and then the rest of Xena’s warriors would descend from the hills on either side, surrounding them for the final kill. So they forged on ahead, Borias’ sword slashing and flashing red in the sunlight. All around him were yells of aggression punctuated by screams of pain. Metal clashed against metal, but more often than not metal found flesh, and rendered that flesh into bloody chunks. The wounded, the dead, and parts thereof littered the battlefield. The buzzards would eat well tomorrow.
But where was Callisto? Where was the evil creature who had dared to challenge Xena and her followers? Oh, she would pay dearly. By the end of the day, Callisto’s head would be nothing but a bloody trophy, at the top of a pike, while Gabrielle, Xena, and Borias feasted and drank themselves into oblivion. This day would go down in history and become the stuff of legends.
Cassandra and her army drew near to the battle. It looked like it was to be the final battle as she sat upon her stead on top of the hill. Her right-hand man Grafton leaned over and smirked. "Great and mighty Cassandra why do we wait on top of this hill. Callisto's army is being torn apart. Shouldn't we be down there assisting them? Your father Ares will not be pleased." Cassandra steadied her horse and looked over at her right-hand man. "Grafton who did my father put in charge of this army? You or Me?" Grafton had to pause a moment he was not the smartest one in the bunch but he was the strongest. "Um, you, oh mighty Cassandra." Cassandra only smiled. "Yes me. And we will go when I say."
The battle was progressing way too fast and Callisto's men were dropping like flies. It was time to make her move. Cassandra turned her horse around to face her men. "Alright men who do you fight for!" they all shout "ARES!" and Cassandra grinned. "Yes, Ares your God of War and my father. This war will end here and now. And we will make sure of that! Immortality take it it's yours!" she raised her sword at them and they all shouted and raised their weapons along with her. She then turned her horse quickly around "TO VICTORY!" They all charged down the hill in one large mass towards Xena's men. Reaching the battle their swords and horses clashed with the men on the ground. Some of the soldiers tried to knock Cassandras men off their horses. Cassandra herself was knocked off her horse. But that did not stop her. She got up and attacked the first enemy soldier she came across. Her two blades were like whips. She moved so fast that the soldier she was fighting didn't even have time to blink before his neck was sliced open.
The entire kingdom of Gallendrell. No, let's rephrase that the entire Strega Empire now quakes from Giada's wrath. Villagers treaded lightly never knowing when or where she would strike next. As the days passed without a word from Erwen her anger rose. Villages had burned. Her dungeons were filled with men who even dare speak a cross word about the Queen or her fury. She even turned the kingdom dark for several days.
Pacing...pacing...pacing. She had practically worn a path in the carpet. The mantle clock now lays in pieces on the floor. For it's annoying ticking got on her nerves one too many times. Pulling on a golden cord...not once but twice. A terrified young servant stepped into the room. Her blond hair pinned back and her blue eyes looking like a dear caught in a trap. Apparently, she was the unlucky one to see what the queen wanted. Crossing her arms in front of her she merely smirked. "Has Erwen returned?" She snapped out, making the young girl practically jump out of her shoes.
The young girl shook her head vigorously. "No...no..no my Queen. He has not." Raising her hands swiping them through the air. The room shook, the walls trembling the floor quaking. The young girl looked around. "I...I am sorry M'lady." The girl said. "Out!" Giada bellowed. Standing there she watched the girl practically run out of the room.
Clutching her fist down beside her. Electricity flowing from her fingertips "EWEN!!!" She yelled..her voice she knew carrying to his ears. If he did not come here within the week. She would go herself. Then he would be in more trouble than he ever thought he could be.
Safely perched on a horse half a league away, Erwen watched the battle through his primitive telescope, which combined the latest in technology with magic. Everything was unfolding just as he wished it would. Xena’s small army had initially driven a wedge through the center of Callisto’s army, cutting it in half and making it vulnerable to attack from the side. Xena herself was leading the charge with her halfwit friends Borias and Gabrielle. Even from this distance, Erwen could see that Xena wore the Talisman of Ulaanbaaster, which would both protect her from harm and ensnare her. In battle, Xena would be unstoppable. Even if all her army was reduced to bloody ribbons and severed heads, she would continue until she was victorious, because that was the power of the Talisman. But Erwen knew it wouldn’t come to that. Oh yes, her entire army might well be defeated, but Xena herself would not be here for the final battle cry, for the last of the heads to roll.
Xena’s final strategic push to defeat Callisto was to bring in the rest of her ragtag army from each side to surround the two halves of the opposing army. But that move was thwarted by a surprise attack from Callisto’s allies. Cassandra, daughter of Ares, brought her army to bear, sweeping down off a nearby hilltop. The sudden influx of attackers caught Xena’s warriors off guard. They began to scatter as they were cut to shreds. Even that iron wedge of soldiers led by Xena, Borias, and Gabrielle began to break up. The tide had turned, and it appeared that Xena’s army would soon be vanquished.
On the battlefield, Erwen believed he could see Callisto battling Xena. Appropriately it had come to this at the end. Of course, Xena would prevail or at least not be injured on account of her wearing the Talisman. But her army was on the verge of being defeated. It was time for Erwen to act. But before he could, Queen Giada screamed in his head. He squeezed his eyes shut and clamped his hands over his ears. Erwen nearly fell off his horse. Blood ran from his ears out between his fingers, so loud had the call been. Except it wasn’t sound in the usual sense, it was a psychic summon at 200 decibels.
The Queen was impatient. The Queen demanded action.
Regaining his composure a little, Erwen galloped down off the hill toward the battle, his brown wool hood blown back exposing his pale, bald pate. It was time to activate the Talisman. He would use it to transport Xena into the dungeon beneath the Queen’s castle. He planned to use the same magical slipstream to transport himself to the castle as well. “Transport Xena la temnita castel, imediat!” He yelled as his horse galloped across the dusty steppe landscape. He felt himself caught up in a magical maelstrom, and he knew Xena was there with him, that the spell had worked. In a moment, his horse, surprised and afraid of the portal it had just passed through, whinnied and bucked, throwing Erwen off before galloping away into the forest. But it mattered not, because Erwen was back at the Queen’s castle and Xena was safely ensconced in the dungeon. Erwen hurried up the steps of the castle to inform his Queen that everything had gone according to plan. Or at least so he thought.
*************Xena, Erwen, and Giada Move to Part 1**************
Giada was in her precious gardens. Trying to pass the time until Erwen did as she ordered him to do. The echoing of the closing of the iron cell door in her dungeons sounded in her ears. Yes, she knew exactly when Xena now rested behind the iron bars. She also knew Erwen was on his way back to The Strega and Gallendrell. He had finally done as he was told to do. 'It was about time' She thought to herself.
Slowly she stood brushing off the dirt that had fallen on her skirts. Slowly she took off the gardening gloves from her small hands and placed the hand shovel and the gloves on the table nearby. She would not wait for Erwen to arrive to visit her shall we say "guest". So she slowly made her way to the palace and to the dungeons below.
However, she was stopped on her way by Erwen. The joy on his face of completing the task that was given to him was evident. Her scowl though was not missed. "It is about time you have returned Erwen. You are lucky I do not send you to the dungeons as well. Let you feel the tugging and pulling of the rack!." she bellowed. She that she moved her skirts past him. " Follow me Erwen!." She commanded.
Once inside she walked down the old wooden staircase. Taking one step at a time. Her hand resting on the wooden railing as well. The soft clicking of her heels on the steps seemed to echo with each step she took throughout the dungeon. Standing at the end of the stairs she turned her head to the left and smiled as she saw Xena standing there. Her shoulders straight a slight tilt to her chin. Looking every bit of the warrior she is.
Giada made her way to stand in front of the bars. Looking her "captive" in the eyes. A smirk crossing her lips. "Very nice of you to come Xena. Welcome to my home and kingdom. " She knew this would spark anger in the woman. She wanted to see her reaction. So she waited for it. She also heard the slight footsteps of Erwen coming there to join them.
The battle had stopped for a time because both of its leaders had been whisked away by some kind of magic. Cassandra and her army stood by a grove of trees and tended to their wounded. Her right-hand man came to her and bowed his head. "My Lady I bear a message from your father he has written it down on a parchment." Cassandra lowered her sword for she was at the moment cleaning it. She held out her hand and she took the parchment from him. She read it to herself and she cleared her throat. "He said he is proud of me. He says that I fought bravely and that he would have not had the outcome any other way. But he is questioning where Callisto and Xena have been taken to. I too am wondering what happened to them. Not so much Xena I could care less what happens to her but Callisto I do care about. Because Ares cares about what happens to her. I believe he has some sort of plan for her." She then rolled up the parchment and stored it away in her saddlebag. She then dismissed her right-hand man and he went off to join in the celebration near the fire. Cassandra leaned against the tree as she picked up her sword once again and continued to sharpen it.
It was getting late and Cassandra was getting restless. There was still no word of Callisto or Xena's whereabouts. Cassandra got up off the ground and dusted herself off. She cleared her throat and she looked around. Most of the men had turned in for the night and well this was the perfect time to go to the lake and clean off. She would not be disturbed she hoped. So grabbed her long drying cloth and she walked towards the lake. When she arrived she looked around to make sure she was alone. There was no one around and so she undressed and stepped into the cool lake. The water felt so good on her hot body. She leaned back her head and she exhaled slowly. "Ah yes this is exactly what I needed." She said to herself.
Defeat is a bitter pill to swallow, particularly when they had been so close to victory, so close that Borias could taste it, smell it. Driving a wedge up the middle of Callisto’s army had worked beautifully. Xena’s army had cut through them like a sword through bread, separating the two halves, confusing the soldiers, demoralizing them. Then a last minute surprise. Cassandra. The scouts had reported she was a hundred leagues away fighting the Mongol hordes. She was not a threat in this battle, they’d said. They were wrong. Dead wrong.
Borias would have fought to the death for Xena, Gabrielle, and his other fellow warriors. He’d intended to. They might be defeated, but it didn’t mean he wouldn’t take a lot of the enemy down with him to the depths of hell. Borias might burn, certainly would, but he’d have company down there. Even in defeat one can salvage some self-respect and die a glorious warrior’s death. But it wasn’t meant to be, because here he sat on a log in the dark, overlooking a moonlit lake, his head in his hands. He’d taken a blow to the head and his attacker had either assumed the blow was mortal, or had become distracted. Because Borias awoke hours later on the battlefield amidst heaps of bodies, the stench of death, blood, and sweat thick in his nostrils, and a vulture picking at his pants leg. He still bled from a dozen sword wounds, the worst of them on his right bicep. Not caring if he lived or died after Xena was magically removed from the battle, Borias hadn’t tended to it as he should have. But after experiencing dizzy spells from loss of blood, he’d torn a piece of cloth from his tunic and tied it around his arm to staunch the flow.
Had Xena not been taken, perhaps they would have prevailed, despite all the odds against them. Xena was always amazing in battle, but on this day she’d been flawless – every blow of her sword wrung the maximum damage out of the enemy. Everywhere she walked the ground was stained dark with the blood of her enemies, and bodies and body parts were so thick that a lesser warrior would have tripped over them. Not a single blow was landed against her. It seemed as though she was charmed, undefeatable. And perhaps she was. That charm Borias had given her. There had been something so right, yet so wrong about it. And he knew it, yet he gave it to her anyway. Why? That was something he couldn’t explain. But the man who had given the jewel to him to give to Xena. Borias had spotted him on a hill above the battle, casting a spell, sparks flying from his fingertips. Xena had been battling Callisto. A swordfight to the death, and given Xena’s warrior prowess and the apparent power of the charm, it would certainly be Callisto’s death. Borias looked away for just a moment, but when he looked back, the two women were gone and the wizard in the monk’s outfit was too. Xena and Callisto had been removed. But to where, by whom, and to what purpose?
A splash, and then movement in the lake. A woman surfaced in the water not 20 feet from Borias. She slicked her wet hair back with her hands, the water on her skin glistening in the moonlight. It was Cassandra.
Borias picked up his sword again, but the fight had been driven from him. Bled away. “Cassandra, where did they take them? Where are Callisto and Xena?”
Cassandra and Borias Move Back to the Part 1 Erwen
Oh dear, the Queen was angry with him again! Erwen bowed and supplicated, and then supplicated and bowed again before stretching out prostrate on the ground, his face in the dirt. “Yes my Queen, I am so very inadequate, so loathsome to look at, so very slow in carrying out your commands.” He rose to his knees, then pulled the hood of his robe down to expose his thick neck, “You should have one of your warriors remove my head. I deserve it for being so incompetent and deficient.” Of course, he was hoping that decapitation would not be his punishment. After all, he did accomplish the mission. Xena was in the dungeon, just as she’d asked.
To emphasize this point, he led the Queen to the cell where Xena, formerly the proud and brave warrior princess, was trapped like a common criminal. Callisto was in the cell next to her. Erwen had not intended to trap Callisto, she had been a collateral capture. She and Xena had been battling, sword on sword; it was impossible to magically capture one without taking the other. So Erwen had placed the blonde in the cell next to Xena. He could imagine the exchange of insults between them. He wished he could be a fly on the wall just to listen to them verbally slash at each other, now that they were without weapons and incapable of actually harming one another physically.
Except that each time Erwen had seen Xena in her cell, she had been sullen and mute, withdrawn. Almost absent from the game. Almost as though she had abandoned her own character, her inner muse on vacation. No matter, because she was captive, and the Queen would have her way with her.
Queen Giada appeared curious about Xena’s lack of responsiveness. “She has been like that since her capture, my Queen. And Callisto, she was in the magical line of fire, so to speak. I hadn’t intended to catch her, but it was inevitable. So I placed her here, next to Xena. If you do not wish to have Callisto captive, I will have her executed, released, indentured as a slave, or whatever fate you wish to bestow upon her. She is yours if you believe she may be useful to you. Just tell me your wishes regarding her and I will carry them out promptly.”
He knew very little about exactly what the Queen wanted from Xena, but he suspected much. He believed Queen Giada wanted the power of the warrior princess on her side. Xena would never agree to voluntarily fight for the Queen, but that fact was irrelevant. The Queen had the power to coerce her into being whatever the Queen wanted. To bend Xena’s will, and to break it if necessary. With the power of the warrior princess, the Queen would be able to conquer all of the known world and ascend to the mantel of not just Queen of the Strega Empire, but Queen of the World.
Being transported to a cell by some sort of magic was not ideal. Being trapped alongside Xena was even less ideal. This meant that her hatred for the warrior princess would have to be put on hold for the time being, so they could find a way out. Callisto had worked alongside Xena before, but the long-term goal was always to kill her and everyone she loved. Begrudgingly, for the time being, all of her anger and hatred would have to be focused off Xena and towards their captures. Who happened to be coming towards them. A monk and a queen. Not exactly what Callisto was expecting.
Silently, Callisto watched and listened as the monk stated he hadn't intended to capture her but she happened to be standing too close to Xena and got dragged in by his magic. But because she did get pulled in they had to do something with her, and his options were to have her executed, released, or indentured as a slave. Callisto made a mental note to decapitate him as soon as she got free. But the queen seemed to have something else in mind. Callisto recognized the look in her eyes. She was planning on using them against each other. A plan that would be foolish, except Xena had compassion. Compassion for even her worst enemies. This queen could use that. Disgusted that the queen would likely get her way, Callisto leaned back and glared angrily towards Xena. It was just one more reason to hate her.
The queen gave her offer to Xena, appealing to her human, compassionate side. The side that wouldn't want harm to come to Callisto. Not waiting for Xena to give an answer, Callisto picked up a rock and smashed it onto the back of Xena's head, knocking her out. Pleased with herself, Callisto grabbed the cell bars in front of her, standing directly in front of her royal capture. "Sorry, Xena is busy. But I'll be happy to make a deal with you. What do you want?"
The look of amusement shone in Giada's eyes as she saw the other woman glare at Erwen. Giada knew the woman would kill the poor monk on the spot if she could. True the poor Erwen erred when he bought Callisto here as well. It was not a complete mistake, however. This other woman could be used. She would not have anything happen to Erwen… he was useful to her at times.
A evil grinned crossed Giada's lips. When Callisto hit Xena over the head with a rock. The brave warrior princess falling to the ground blood dripping from the wound from the back of her head and onto the floor of the cell. As the woman grabbed the iron bars her knuckles turning white as her grip tightened. The look of anger and dare she say hatred. Shining in her eyes. "Yes." Giada thought this is even better than she could have imagined. She shook her head slightly. "Tsk..tsk..tsk." Giada said softly. "All this violence and hatred. Is all this emotion for me, Xena or both. " She grinned wickedly. She turned to Erwen and smiled. "They say I am the wicked witch. "
Giada then turned to Callisto. Her eyes darkening. "My dear Callisto. You are not who I wanted to make a deal with. You are only here because of the bumbling actions of my dear Erwen here. " She Giada glanced at Erwen again. He stood there not saying a word. Perhaps he was too afraid to do so.
Looking back at the woman behind the bars. "You want to make a deal? You do not know what I wanted with Xena. Maybe I wanted her head in my gallows? Would you still want to make that deal? Would you give your life for hers? Do you care for her that much?" She grinned wickedly.
"So tell me Callisto. Are you as great a warrior as Xena is? I have heard of her.. however, I have not heard of you. So tell me why should I make the deal with you and not Xena? Remember your life just may depend on your answer." She looked the woman in her eyes. Waiting for her answer.
It seemed like Xena had been unconscious for weeks, maybe months. And although her head was pounding, and she knew there was a knot at the back of her skull the size of a goose’s egg, her eyelids flew open and she jumped to her feet. Fists balled at her side, her lips skinned back from gleaming teeth, Xena shot daggers from her eyes, first at Giada and then Callisto. To the blonde, she spat out these words, “You whoring, syphilitic, fat, ugly, BITCH! I wasn’t born with enough middle fingers to let you know how I feel about you! You’re living proof that manure can sprout legs and walk.” She felt at the knot at the back of her head. Cringing, she yelped “Ouch! You hit me with a rock! But that’s what I’d expect of a coward and a cheat!” She rattled the bars of the cell between her and Callisto, “I WILL get my hands on your wrinkled, scrawny throat, and when I do, you’ll be DEAD, DEAD, DEAD!”
Xena then turned her rage on Giada. “So YOU’RE to blame for this! YOU locked me up!” Her lips twisted into a scowl, “You don’t think I know who you are. Oh but I do, I do Giada. You think you’re all-powerful, the Queen of the Strega Empire!” Xena spit between the bars and onto the feet of Giada. “The Strega is a blasted, ruined wasteland. Everybody knows that. No one with half a brain would live there. And you’re the Great Ruler of the Wasteland. It’s the ONLY property you could ever rule over, you old and worn-out battleax. You HAG, you COW, trollop, hussy, you SLUT. Filthy WITCH!” She waved Callisto over, “Call, just look at this bitch. There’s enough Botox in those lips to ballast a 50-oarsmen warship. Look at her ass! It looks like 20 pounds of cottage cheese in a pillowcase. And those boobs! They’re propped up so stiffly crows could perch on the ends of them, but take those props away and I’ll bet they’d sag all the way to her rotten, crab-infested crotch!”
Xena stepped up to the bars and peered through, daring Giada to strike her down. “Come on Gi, let's have a go at it. Just you and me. Hell, you can even take the blonde skank onto your side, I don’t care. Put 'em up, put 'em up! I'll fight you both together if you want. I'll fight you with one hand tied behind my back. I'll fight you standing on one foot. I'll fight you with my eyes closed!”
Giada's beamed with amusement as she stood back watching as Xena woke up. Her tirade at Callisto was quite amusing. Again the hatred toward the woman was evident...and it could be used to her advantage. Giada watched between the two..she saw fear in Callisto's eyes also she knew Callisto only hit the warrior on the head to protect her. Xena should truly know who her friends and enemies are. Nevertheless, it was an interesting site to behold and witness.
When Xena turned her tirade to Giada she simply raised her eyebrows. Not many would stand up to her or even dare call her the names she spewed from her mouth. However, her patience now was wearing thing with Xena's outburst and assault of words. The rattling of bars echoed in the dungeon Giada was still somewhat in the shadows. Slowing however, she stepped forward her eyes glowing crimson.
"Tsk..tsk..tsk. Xena" She said her voice low evil. "You should learn how to control your nasty outburst. It could cost you your tongue. Or perhaps I shall give you another one." She grinned.." A tongue of a serpent seems to fit you quite well" Looking toward Callisto. "Does she always talk to you in such a manner? When all you did was try to help her?" Shaking her head. "Seems you are too good of a friend to her."
Looking back at Xena as she stood before her cell. Tapping her chin with her index finger. "What am I saying? Ahh...yes. Sticks and stones may hurt my bones....but names will never hurt me." She laughed wickedly. Raising both hands her palms facing Xena.. A barrage of sticks and stones came rushing into Xena's cell hitting the stone walls and covering the floor.
Raising her eyebrows. "You wish to fight me Xena...a sorceress and a reaper who could snap your neck with a simple flick of my wrist?" She grinned... Looking at Callisto... "Perhaps we should leave her here to die and rot. She does not speak well to you...and she " Flicked the corner of her eye, pretending to wipe away a nonexistent tear. "She has hurt my feelings terribly." She laughed.
Pausing for a moment. "Yes, perhaps you would like to hear my offer and the reason I bought your...your friend here." She grinned.."Shall we talk Callisto?"
Now that the obligatory outburst had passed, Xena needed to get serious about how to get the hell out of this cell. Meanwhile, Giada was doing her best to counter. A barrage of sticks and stones came hurtling at Xena. She covered her head and tucked herself up against the bars at the back of the cage, but she still got hammered and sustained multiple small cuts on exposed skin. “Very brave, Giada. You attack while I’m locked up. I DARE you to let me out. Dare you to take me on one on one. You wouldn’t last 10 seconds against the Warrior Princess!”
But Xena sat down on the floor of her cage and waited for Callisto to respond. Would the blonde bitch strike a deal with the witch? Not that Xena could care one way or another. But she was worried. The last time she saw Gabrielle, the girl was fighting hard against three of Callisto’s male soldiers – each of which must have outweighed Gabrielle by 50 pounds. Not that weight made that much difference in battle, but those men were strong and skilled. Xena was going to step in to help when Giada had magically removed her from the battle.
Speaking of the battle, things were going so well before Cassandra’s army arrived. Xena was certain they would be victorious against Callisto. But then things had gone downhill fast. And without Xena there, it was unlikely any of her friends and comrades in arms made it out alive. Would Gabrielle be taken alive? Held prisoner? And what of Borias? Both might be dead. Both were probably dead. Sitting now in a prison cell, Xena harbored deep regret. They had been overconfident, too anxious for the next victory. Their small army hadn’t been enough, and they’d been exhausted after the battle of Darkhan. They should have taken a few days, a week, to recharge before going into battle again. They should have repaired and sharpened weapons. Let the men relax and appreciate the spoils they’d taken in Darkhan. No, Xena had made a mistake, a fatal one.
Giada stood a wicked and evil grin crossed her face. An eerie death laugh escaped from her lips. That echoed throughout the cell echoing off the walls. As she watched Xena she saw a change in her. She had much on her mind. For a moment did she even look defeated? She would think not. That was not the warrior that she heard tales of. If that were true she would not of sent for her.
"For being a warrior, a princess warrior as you call yourself. I would think you would have learned that the first rule of battle is to know your opponent, Xena. Do not challenge someone who you know nothing about. The bars are for your protection my dear. I do not want you to make any foolish movement that would cost you your life. That is before you know the reason you are here."
Giada paced in front of the cell. Her high heels clicking on the dungeon floor. "Let me tell you a bit about myself, Xena. Then let's see if you want the cell door open. I am a very dark and powerful sorceress. My powers are that of which you have never seen. I am also a Reaper..do you know what is Xena? So, I cannot die.. because I am death." She grinned. I have been trained to weld a sword by the best fighter and commander there is."
Stopping in front of the cell door. "Let me introduce myself. I am Queen Giada Reaper. Empress of the Strega Empire." Turning her wrist over. The tumblers in the lock began to turn as the door squeaked open. "Now tell me Xena, do you want to fight a battle that you will not win? Or do you want to know why you were bought here? The choice is yours...however I do advise you to choose wisely." She grinned wickedly. Her eyes turning black as the night.
Xena watched carefully as the tumblers of the lock fell into place, and then as Giada removed the lock and swung the cage door open. This would be the defining moment. Of course, she knew who Giada was. Anyone who had ears and a brain in this realm knew who she was, and what she was. Xena had gone all bravado on her while in the cage, but she knew she must be very careful, indeed, now that the door was open.
Without her weapons, Xena would be severely handicapped in a fight with Giada. Might she still prevail? Possibly. But possibly not. She couldn’t really take the chance. It was more than just her own life at stake. There was Gabrielle and Borias to think about, not to mention other friends and warriors who might have survived back on the battlefield.
Giada’s eyes, now as shiny and black as the carapaces of beetles, were meant to intimidate. Xena didn’t intimidate easily. She’d seen it all before. Those were demonic eyes. Didn’t mean Giada couldn’t be defeated. She said she can’t die. From what Xena understood of her, that just might be true. But it didn’t mean she couldn’t be chopped up into little bits and buried in 100 different metal boxes scattered across the realm. She could live forever as twitching chunks of flesh.
“Ok, I’ll bite, Reaper Girl. Why did you bring me here? And get to the point, if you will. I have places to go, people to see. Even evil queen reapers can’t erase the many obligations of the warrior princess.”
Smirking as she looked at Xena. Oh yes, the warrior princess was all she had heard her to be. Stubborn and very angry. Giada also could practically hear the wheels turning inside Xena's head. Planning her escape, planning her revenge. Plotting her next move. Shaking her head. "Xena...Xena...Xena." She grinned. "Do not think you can escape The Strega that easily or harm me. "You will be monitored and watched, by me. If you try to leave you will find yourself back in this dungeon behind bars. Next time I won't be so hospitable."
Nodding her head. "Do not think you will not be rewarded for your help with my men. Any amount of payment or jewels or other payment you would want will be granted to you. " She noticed how the concerned looked she had for Callisto. No harm shall come to her Xena. Erwen bought her here by accident he was only supposed to bring you. He does tend to bumble a job at times. " The other name she mentioned she thought for a moment. Borias and Gabrielle? You need them to complete your task?" she asked. After thinking for a moment. "I will send for them...however do not think you can double-cross me on this Xena. Or you all will die." She said her voice cold as ice.
"You may see it as a fight between sister. However, it is much more than that my dear. It is about absolute power. It is about a woman who betrayed me or proclaimed to be my friend, my sister. Believe me, she is plotting also. She wished for my demise and vowed to ruin me. So it is just about who will strike first. I intend to have the better army of the dead...a better mortal army as well. To either counter her attack or to be the first to strike. So that is why I wanted the best...or before she herself captured you and you would be in her dungeons now instead of mine." She smirked.
"So now Xena. Shall I show you and Callisto out of this dank and dreary dungeon and into better accomodations? You do have a choice. You can eihter bunk with the guards. Or I can have a set of rooms prepared for you both. It is your choice."
The warrior inside Xena was still sorely tempted to just battle it out here and now with Giada. To use her fists, her feet, and whatever she could muster for a weapon. If she died trying to take down Giada, so be it, she would have died a warrior’s death – in battle – which is as it should be. But her head told her that was foolishness. This situation, which looked bad on the surface, presented many opportunities. And was she not starting essentially from scratch? She had lost her army back on the steppes. They had been defeated. Borias and Gabrielle may very well be dead. And if not dead, likely imprisoned in some foul dungeon from which they may never emerge.
That thought strummed a twang of deep anxiety within Xena, stimulating her to restate her request to Giada, “Yes, please try to track down my friends and colleagues, Gabrielle and Borias. They will be important in my fulfillment of your request to train your army.” She glanced back at Callisto. Would the blond go along with Xena’s plans? She always seemed to have her own convoluted motives and schemes, most of which eluded Xena. Their minds worked crosswise.
“As to having rooms for us…” she presumed they would be plush accommodations in the Queen’s castle, “I believe that is the wrong approach. We will bunk with the guard. They need to know we are one of them. We will live with the soldiers, eat what they eat, sleep in their bunkhouses or tents. It is the way of a soldier.” She would not gain their trust, and the alliances she hoped to build would be tougher to come by, if she was seen as some form of royalty. Besides, Xena slept better on hard ground under the stars than in a feather bed.
“Take Callisto and me now to your commanders, your Generals. The sooner we begin planning to train and restructure your army and defenses the better. Time is always of the essence where defense, or offense, is involved. You never know when the enemy may strike.” If Giada’s sister was so powerful, could she be monitoring this conversation right now? Would it not be to her advantage to strike before Xena and Callisto had a chance to begin the training of Giada’s warriors?
Giada saw the temptation clearly in Xena's eyes. Weighing the chances of how she would fare in a fight either hand to hand or with swords with her. The flashes of hate, anger, and being trapped shone like fire in the warrior princess's eyes. However, the moment of surrender could not be missed either. Xena was a smart woman. She knew when to give in to her circumstances for the greater good.
"I am not asking you for your help without payment Xena. You will be paid or compensated in any way you like. Money. Which I do not think you desire. Perhaps battle superiority? Perhaps help in a situation you find you need help with? A friend to be rescued or helped? Just name it Xena and you shall have it."
Nodding her head. "If bunking with the guards is what you desire then you shall have quarters there set up for you so you can have some sort of privacy if you desire it. However, please note that a set of rooms will always be ready for you. Your friend Callisto here can sleep in quarters, as well. I will send Erwen to gather the others you speak of while you begin your training."
Taking a step toward the door she stopped and turned to look at Xena. "All is required of you Xena is to train my men. They are green and lazy. Their mission is one of great importance and they need to prepared. However, if you betray me..or try to double-cross me in any way. I will kill you. " She said her voice icy and cold. "Now shall we go and meet the men you will be training?”
Turning her back to Xena. Where Xena could easily attack her. The first test to see what she would do given the opportunity. Giada made her way to the dungeon doors opening them to led them outside.
Callisto would have to decide for herself where she wanted to stay, but Xena expected she would also bunk with Giada’s warriors. It was what she was accustomed to, just like Xena. Then Giada offered recompense. Curious that she would kidnap Xena and Callisto and then offer to pay them. But Xena would extract payment wherever it was offered, and sometimes even when it wasn’t offered. She wasn’t opposed to stealing. Quite the opposite, really. It was part of her and Borias’ way of life, especially if she thought she deserved whatever it was that she stole. Surprised by the offer, Xena looked into her heart and gave an answer without any real thought. “Save Borias and Gabrielle, if they are alive, and bring them to me safely. That is all the payment I will need.”
The Queen then repeated what she wanted Xena to do. Train her green and lazy men, she said. Adding that she would kill Xena if she was betrayed or double-crossed. Xena couldn’t help but laugh. After the laugh had run its course, Xena said, “Sorry for the outburst, but if all you want is for me to train your men, seems to me there is little opportunity for betrayal. No matter what I might feel about the situation. No, if you save Borias and Gabrielle and bring them here safe and sound, as I asked, then I will do my best to train your men, and beat the laziness out of them if I have to.” She glanced at Callisto, “I’ll make sure Callisto goes along with that deal.” Xena stopped short of giving her word, and failed to say exactly what she would train Giada’s men to do. From her perspective, Giada had stolen her away from a battle at a key juncture – a battle she and her army should have won. Xena had a score to settle with this witch, but retribution would come in its own sweet time. When the iron was hot, and the blade was wicked sharp, as they say. Turning her attention back to Giada, Xena said, “Let’s go meet your Commanders. I want to set up a training regimen with them immediately.”
Erwen had been dutifully standing by, his head lowered, his arms tucked into the sleeves of his wool robe. He listened carefully to the exchange between the Warrior Princess and his Queen. He was suspicious, though, of the blond. She was silent but wary, crouching in her cage like a trapped animal. A feral wildness haunted her eyes. He could tell she had not decided how to handle this situation, or which side she would take. Although at this point in time, there only seemed to be one side – that of his Queen. Or one viable side. To choose otherwise was to choose death, which would be foolish. Xena and Callisto could still be warriors under the Queen’s rule. And not only warriors, but leaders, commanders. That is a warrior’s life. Does it really matter what cause or monarch you fight for? The fight is what matters to a warrior. Nothing more.
When Queen Giada Reaper-Bloodraven mentioned Erwen’s name, his ears perked up. Xena wanted her friends at her side – Borias and Gabrielle. Understandable. That was another trait of a good warrior – put your trust and loyalty in a chosen few – people you know without a doubt will defend you with their lives in battle, just as you will defend them. Callisto did not yet fit into that category for Xena, and perhaps never would. Erwen recalled seeing the lithe and lovely blond girl, Gabrielle, fighting with Xena against Cassandra’s army. But he had lost track of the warrior Borias. It seemed likely both were dead – certainly regrettable in the case of Gabrielle. Without Xena there, the armies of Callisto and Cassandra would have crushed the small band of fighters who had made up Xena’s army. It had been the magical amulet that made them as successful as they’d been. But that amulet disappeared with Xena. Erwen presumed the warrior princess still had it. Perhaps it would need to be retrieved.
Erwen bowed to his Queen, “Your Beauteous Majesty, with your leave, I shall depart immediately to determine the status and whereabouts of Borias and Gabrielle. If they are dead, I shall bring proof. If they are alive, I will fetch them.” But he waited patiently to be excused by the Queen. He did not want to leave unless She, in all her grace and glory, wished him to leave. She might have further instructions for him.
Giada still knew Xena could not be trusted. She practically heard the wheels turning in her head. She had to give the warrior princess credit. Even though she knew a battle with her would lead to her demise...she still wanted to be the fighter she was. However, one false move Xena would make she would find herself back into these dungeons and a toy for Giada's devious mind and torture room. She did not need to know that..let that be a surprise if it were to happen.. "Train my men, Xena...perhaps lead them into their first battle as well. If you do not train them properly and they are killed. You will die alongside them as well." She sneered.
Looking at the woman still in the cell. "Well, until she decides. " With a simple wave her hand the iron cell door slammed shut loudly. Looking at the woman, then back at Xena. "She is your problem. Whether she joins you or not is not my concern. She will stay here until she decides either way." Nodding toward the door. " Go ahead Xena. I will join you in a moment." The first test, however, Giada wanted to see if Xena would try to escape. Or try to ambush her when she joined her.
Giada knew Erwen was listening in the corner like a rat afraid to come out until it was safe. Turning she went to him. "Bring back these people she has asked for. " Turning her hand over two vials of grey dust appeared. "If they give you trouble. Just blow some of this into their faces. It will automatically put them in a trance and they will do as you command." She smirked. "Then put them in my dungeons when they arrive."
Turning then went to join Xena as she took the stairs that led out of the dungeon and into the courtyard. She wondered if Xena would be waiting for her...or she was planning to attack her or scaling the palace walls.
The Queen turned her majestic and resplendent attention towards Erwen. On those occasions when she spoke to him or honored him with her regal gaze, he always felt giddy, mildly dizzy, and as light as a feather, as if the slightest of breezes might just carry him off into the sky. But of course, he stayed grounded and listened to her instructions carefully and reverently. He couldn’t afford to fail her. He would do precisely as she asked, or die trying. There was no viable alternative.
She held out her most perfect hand, which held two small glass vials. That hand was strong yet consummately feminine. The fingers were long and elegant. He reached out with his own crude, pudgy hand with its short, blunt fingers and plucked the two vials off the satiny, smooth skin. The tips of two of his fingers lightly brushed the skin of Queen Giada’s hand, and Erwen blushed, that slightest of touches pulsing through him electrically.
He slipped the vials into a pocket of his robe. Then bowing his head while backing away, Erwen spoke, his voice somewhat shaky with emotion, “Yes, my Queen. Thank you for allowing me to serve you. I shall ride this very hour back towards the Mongol Steppes and retrieve Borias and Gabrielle, if they are alive. Or I shall determine what befell them. I shall not fail you, my Queen!”
Erwen turned and ran away towards the stables. He would gather up a satchel of supplies, saddle a horse, and be on the road within half an hour. He would ride until he could ride no more.
Erwen moves to Part 1
The man or monk or whatever he was, Erwen was a pathetic groupie of Giada. Groveling at her feet, hoping for the least of acknowledgments from her that he was recognized or even appreciated. Xena was of a mind to find a sword and lop Erwen’s head off. Put him out of his self-imposed misery. What a loser.
But she didn’t. Instead, she ascended the stairs and awaited Queen Giada. What would befall Callisto? At this point, Xena didn’t give a damn. She could rot in this dungeon for all she cared. Xena glanced around at her surroundings. This was her first-ever view of the Strega Empire. She had to admit it wasn’t as bad as she’d hoped. She’d been told it was a wasteland, its people in abject poverty, starving and hopeless. But the hillsides were green with grain. Down in the valley, it looked as though there were fruit trees, perhaps figs and plums. Maybe the Strega wasn’t so bad after all.
Erwen, in all his bloated and blustery mannerisms, came charging up the stairs, huffing and puffing under the strain. The man ran towards what looked like stables. Apparently, he would ride this very hour after Borias and Gabrielle. Xena could only hope that he would find them, that he was as good a sorcerer as she’d been led to believe.
Giada came up from the dungeons next, regal and elegant. If she wasn’t such an arrogant prick, Xena might find her attractive. “Show me to your warrior training grounds. I wish to meet with your Commanders immediately. We have much to plan for, and much more to do.”
Slowly and steadily Giada ascended the stairs to the courtyard. As she stood outside. The air was fresh and the gentle breeze blew around her. She filled her lungs with fresh air. The dungeons were not her favorite place. The stench of mildew and death filled the atmosphere down there. Shaking her head as she watched Erwen run across the courtyard. "He is a pitiful soul is he not." She smirked.
Looking at Xena she could not help but smirk. In the sunlight, the hatred in the warrior's eyes was even more visible. Giada knew if Xena could take her sword and plunge it in her chest she would. However, the warrior princess was a smart woman and that would not fare well for her. "Hatred is good Xena...it keeps you on your toes...keeps your wits about you. Never lose that. However, too much hatred against the wrong person can only lead you to your downfall and demise." Nodding her head. "Who knows we could even become friends" She laughed.
Pointing to the guard's barracks then to the knight quarters. "The army.." She shook her head. "Has not been formed yet. That is where you come in You will recruit men and women. I am not opposed to females serving and fighting. However, I do want women who will scream at a spider or faint at the sight of blood."
Starting to walk towards the barracks. "Come Xena, let's introduce you to your men. " She said as she continued to approach the building.. Then ringing a brass bell to call all the knights and guards.
Friends? Xena judiciously decided not to comment. She was not going to fall into the trap of the Stockholm Syndrome, even though she had no idea what that was, and Stockholm, Sweden wouldn’t be on any maps for another thousand years.
Another surprise from the Queen was that there was no Army. No Army? Xena would have to be a recruiter as well as a trainer? Well, she supposed that would guarantee she could pick and choose from the best potentials out there, rather than being stuck with whatever collection of losers might have been assembled before she was kidnapped.
“Giada, men and women fighters need motivation to leave their families, their lovers, and their homes to come and fight and possibly die. Sometimes a cause is enough, a charismatic leader may be all they need to lead them into battle. But decent pay helps too. If I am to recruit the best, what can I offer them as recompense?”
Soon they were at the barracks. There they found an assemblage of knights and the Queen’s personal Guard. There weren’t many of them, but they’d have to do, have to form the nucleus of what would become an Army. Strangely, Xena was already planning ahead, thinking about how this might all come together. She enjoyed a challenge, and of course, her own army was lying dead back on a distant battlefield, so there was nothing to return to. And Borias and Gabrielle would soon be here, assuming they were alive. Make no mistake though, she still intended to turn the tables on this Queen of the Reapers, the Underworld’s dragon-blooded witch, and whatever else she might be. Xena might not be a God, but she could play in their arena and come out the other end victorious. She’d done it before and could do it again.
She spoke to the collected Knights and Guard. “I am Xena the Warrior Princess. Your Queen has indentured me to assemble and train an army capable of defeating her sister.” Xena walked towards one of the larger knights. The man towered over her and must have outweighed her by a hundred pounds. “You’re gonna have to lose that gut, big guy.” She poked him in the stomach. “You’re all going to have to be stronger, faster, more ruthless and smarter than you are today. Those that don’t make the grade will die in the first battle against Giada’s sister. Mark my word. Training starts today. But recruitment also starts today.” She puzzled over the assembled men, then made decisions. “You” she pointed, “and you, the bald one in the back and the fat man next to you… and you with the red beard, and you with the oversized feet. You’re going to help me recruit an army. We ride in an hour. Be ready.”
Giada did not speak as she stood there folding her hands in front of her. She listened and watched the murderous gleam her Xena's eyes. She saw Xena started to move forward. Giada stopped Xena however before she proceeded. She wanted to address this issue once more. She was beginning to tire of Xena's superior attitude and plotting.
"Let me say this to you Xena, Warrior Princess. I bought you here for one purpose to train the Strega Empire's army, knights ad guards. I heard many things about you. Good and bad. I thought you were the best for the job at hand. However, you are not the only skilled warrior. Do you want to fight me now for your freedom? However, I guarantee you, you will not win. However if you survive then you are free to leave. I have grown tired of your murderous stares and plotting in your mind." Giada spoke that only Xena could hear.
Then Giada stepped back slightly to let Xena address the men as they eyed the warrior curiously. She did not want the men to only obey Xena when she was around. She wanted them to know Xena was their leader and commander from the start. A smiled caressed her lip. Yes, Xena was perfect for this task. She looked forward to seeing these men when they are fully trained and ready for battle.
Once though Xena was finished with the men. They will continue their conversation. Plus answer her question about what the men will receive as payment.
“Murderous stares? Oh don’t worry about that, Queen Giada, that’s my default look. I give murderous stares to Borias and Gabrielle. I shoot murderous daggers from my baby blues at the bartender who brings me a flagon of ale. It goes with the territory. I’ve been a warrior so long that murderous stares are second nature to me. But they mean nothing.”
That wasn’t quite true, but close enough. These days, Xena didn’t have much reason to turn her frown upside down, as they say. “And I have no intention of fighting you. I know and you know it would be suicide. I’m not quite ready to go into that dark night.” That wasn’t quite true either, but again, close enough. It would do under the circumstances. For now…
There was one big man who looked mean, nasty, and formidable. He had massive, bulging muscles in his arms, chest, and legs. So much so that he probably wasn’t very fast. But one swing of his sword would probably cut a man in two. Xena called him out. “You. What’s your name?” The man said his name was Cadmus. His voice was deep and gravely. “Do you consider yourself a competent warrior and swordsman, Cadmus?” The man puffed himself up and began recounting his many achievements in battle – I’ve killed 324 men, I took down a dragon single-handedly in the Black Mountains, I’ve never lost a sword fight, I…” Xena stopped him “You’re my man, then. Grab your sword, I want to see what you’ve got.”
The other warriors gathered around, but gave Xena and Cadmus room to fight. Cadmus towered over the Warrior Princess, but she easily avoided his relatively ponderous but wickedly strong sword moves. Within a minute, she’d disarmed him and had him flat on his back on the ground, her foot on his barrel chest. “Thus begins the training, my friends. Your first lesson is humility.”
Raising her eyebrows slightly as she looked at the Warrior Princess. "Touche, Xena." She smirked. "However, control your natural look of disgust and plotting to yourself especially around the men you will be training. I will not have them thinking they can do the same. Or they will die at your feet and you will be accused of killing the Queen's army," she glared at the woman. Giadas eyes turning black as the night for a brief moment.
Xena summoned a huge giant man named Cadmus? She had never seen the man before. However, she wondered how she could have missed him considering his size. She did wonder why she had summoned him forward. However, at the mention of him killing a dragon, an electric charge flew between her fingers. She fought the urge to kill the man right off. She had dragon blood flowing through her veins. Her eyes glowed amber. A dragon was family, a part of who she was. She would cast a spell on this man. If he ever so much put a scratch on a dragon in the future he would die.
"Ahhh..." She thought to herself. To take down the most powerful of men in front of the others to prove her dominance and battle-worthy. "Very good Xena." She thought again. However, she was not surprised they won the battle. Everything she had heard of the warrior was true She smiled to herself. Her sister and her army would be defeated.
"When you are done training these.....men. For the day." She glanced at the tall man once more. The spell swirling in her head as she spoke. "Come and see me, Xena." With those words, Giada turned and walked back toward the palace.
Plotting in my mind, Giada had said. So the Queen could read minds. That was going to be a problem. Xena was a trained and disciplined warrior, but she had never had to discipline her thoughts. They have a tendency to go wherever the hell they want to go, which is just how Xena liked it. But she would have to learn to be more careful around the Queen in the future. Corral the thoughts she wished to hide and cover them with thoughts of training the Queen’s men, of victory against the Queen’s sister, of anything other than what she wished to keep from the Queen. Those were the ideas that ran through her mind as she watched Queen Giada walk away, on the path to the Palace.
Six hours or more were left in the day before sunset. The Queen had wanted recruits, so Xena assigned five men to ride into the countryside, to the villages and farms to bring back men and women who could be turned into warriors. There would be no forced indenture because soldiers who didn’t want to be on the battlefield always made poor fighters and were likely to desert at the first opportunity. She hadn’t had time to discuss it with the Queen, but she told the five recruiters that those who joined the Army would be well fed and paid enough to send money home for their families. Once they had added a substantial number of men to Giada’s ragtag Army, then they would send out even more recruiters and build the Army to numbers that could truly defend the Strega Empire, or launch an offensive against the Queen’s sister.
After the recruiters rode off, Xena collected the remaining men and demonstrated a variety of sword moves, both offensive and defensive, from lunges and thrusts, to ripostes, parries, and slicing cuts. She selected men from the group, gave them a sword and then engaged them in mock battle. The strategy, she told them, is not to overpower your opponent, but rather to outsmart them, such as with use of the feint, making your opponent think you’re withdrawing, and then when they come at you in their overconfidence, you go in for the kill.
Xena also showed them hand-to-hand combat skills, with and without small arms such as knives and bludgeons. Again, the focus was on strategy rather than overpowering strength. She was already beginning to pick out the men with the most promise and talent for warfare. With a little more training, they could become trainers, which was important because once the Army grew, she would not be able to train each and every man or woman.
As the shadows grew and the day came to a close, Xena congratulated the men on their progress and wished them a good night. Dirty and sweaty, Xena trudged off towards the Palace to brief Queen Giada of the day’s achievements. As she did, she worked to discipline her thinking, even though she was tired. She pushed thoughts of rebellion to the back of her mind, and focused on Giada’s men. When she reached the door to the palace, it was guarded by two heavily armed men, each of which seemed as big as a cave bear. “I am Xena. The Queen is expecting me. Take me to her.”
Giada had slowly walked back to the palace. Wondering at first if Xena would attack her from the back. To her surprise and delight, the attack never came. Oh, she knew the warrior princess hated her, and wanted to take her revenge out of her. What Xena did not know that she had enemies...much more stronger and powerful than Xena could ever be. Kings, Queens, Gods and Goddesses, including her sister that would love to see her head on a platter.
When she had reached the palace, she went straight to her office. There were piles of papers and documents that needed tending too. She had been putting off such matters for she found them terribly boring and always seem to find something else to do. She instructed the two guards at her door to escort Xena in when she arrived, then she disappeared inside her office sitting down at her antique white writing desk. In between her paperwork, she would go to the window pulling back the lace curtains and watched the courtyard.
Xena's skills were unmatched and fierce. She could not help but snicker once or twice at the green men who tried to keep up with the warrior princess. However, the more she worked with them..the more she could see the fire in their eyes. Perhaps, just perhaps her army could defeat her sister's second line of defense. Sighing sightly..she would return to her desk. Her sister on her mind. Once very close, now enemies. It was a shame...but her sister was the cause of all of this.
Looking up from her desk as she heard the door open. "What is it!" She barked as she saw the guards step through. Both burly men bowed their heads as one of them spoke. "The Warrior Princess M'lady. She requests to see you." He said with his head still bowed.
"Come in Xena," Giada commanded laying her pen on her desk. "You two are dismissed as well. " The men bowed and exited the room closing the door behind them."
"Come in Xena, have a seat." Giada said as she watched her.
The opulence of the Queen’s palace, with its gold this and jeweled that, intricately carved furniture made from exotic woods most assuredly imported from far to the south, and linens and cloths that appeared to be woven from gold strands, was so very over the top snooty, pretentious, and pompous from Xena’s perspective. She and her warriors enjoyed stealing things like this, but they didn’t have much use for them. No, they would sell or trade items like these for mead and ale, weapons, armor, horses, and other useful possessions. The men would often trade the spoils of war for time with pretty and voluptuous women, which is something Xena had done as well – pretty women and handsome men - she was sexually ambidextrous.
The two huge men escorted Xena into the Queen’s chambers. Giada asked her to have a seat, which she did. But Xena stuck a thumb out over her shoulder at the two warriors and quipped, “Those two are as big and well-muscled as any men I’ve seen. I mistook the biggest of the two for a Mongolian Cave Bear. Your Army could use men like that, Giada. I’ll bet they can fight, too. And if they can fight, they can train others. Mind if I borrow them?”
Queen Giada was surrounded by heaps of paper, which brought a frown to Xena’s brow. Why would someone as powerful as the Queen bother with such frivolities? She should have swarms of bespectacled accountants, Royal paper pushers and gophers to do whatever needed to be done with this mess. Or perhaps Giada didn’t trust anyone with this end of her business, which was an intriguing concept. If she can’t trust an accountant, did she trust anyone? And what did that say about the Queen?
“The first day went well enough. All of your men have potential. With a little training, they can be at least adequate warriors, and many of them will be top-notch. From what I’ve seen, I need four weeks with them, minimum. They need to get into shape, as well as learn sword and hand-to-hand combat skills. The leaders among them need to be taught battlefield strategies. Queen Giada, we will also need more weapons. Quality swords and blades, spears, chainmail and armor, battle axes, crossbows and longbows. A few catapults would be nice. If you can, you need to direct available blacksmiths and craftsmen to make these weapons. They will, of course, have to be paid, just as the warriors that are recruited into your Army will need to be paid a living wage, and with enough left over to send money home to their families.” Giada needed to know that raising and training a first-rate army wasn’t something that could be done on the cheap. Xena waved a hand at all the papers on the Queen’s desk, “Although perhaps you are already working out those mundane details, seeing if the ledgers balance.” Xena raised an inquiring eyebrow.
Dropping her pen down n the pile of papers that sat in front of her then unceremoniously shoving them away from her. Her gaze drifting to her two personal guards she grinned. "They are very skilled warriors Xena. From the Lycavacian Empire. I spent some time there. If you like you can travel there. The Emperor and I are quite good friends." Smirking slightly. "Borrow them? If you can convince them to join you in your training...then, by all means, borrow away."
Xena's curious eyes did not escape her. Her eyes give her away when she has questions running through her mind. Sitting back in her chair and steepling her fingers in front of her she grinned. "These papers Xena are documents, messages and accounts that need tending too. I was taught a long time ago, never let anyone else handle your business...yes I have assistants, however, can I truly trust them? If I find they betray me their betrayal is met with death. I have many enemies Xena. Ones that thought at one time were family and friends...but they put the knife in my back first." She sneered.
Shaking her head. "I have no problem in paying the men fair wages Xen...and supporting their families even the men who die in battle their wives and children will be taken care of until at least the wives marry again, however, the children will never go hungry as long as I am Queen. I learned from a very experience ruler always take care of your men and their families...it instills loyalty. However, they shall get paid according to their rank. You shall be in charge of that. Advancement also should be available according to skill and loyalty as well." she stated.
"My resources are available to you Xena. Anything you need just ask. " Nodding to the french doors. "You see those mountains? They are filled with silver and gold and other natural resources to produce weapons you might need. There are miners there working as we speak. However, if you would like to see them first hand I can personally take you there. I want a army filled with the most capable and trained soldiers. As I said you will lead us to our first battle to make sure you trained them well...your life will be on the line as well. After that, you are free to go with your pockets filled with gold." She grinned.
Xena spent a moment gazing up at the mountain of a man she said looked like a Cave Bear. In comparison, she must have weighed a third of what he did, and he was at least a foot and a half taller than she. And Xena, at 5’ 10 inches, wasn’t short for a woman. Everything Giada was saying made sense and fit with what Xena was thinking was necessary to build a first-rate army. Was the Queen actually agreeing with Xena, and Xena was agreeing with her? Was this some sort of watershed moment? A bonding of enemies? No, Xena needed to put this all into perspective. She was still being
And so it was that Xena did the Queen’s bidding, training her warriors, building her army. She trained a few at first, who then became the trainers. The recruiters were small in number, too, at first – only five – but as the army began to grow, more were assigned to that task, and the more recruiters, the faster the army grew. The Queen was true to her word, in that she paid the warriors well, which brought in peasants who had worked in the fields for almost nothing, and businessmen who had failed, in fact, all manner of people came forth to be part of Giada’s strength and power, her Almighty Fist. Xena was even able to recruit women fighters. These were not Amazons, but any women could fight if trained properly, and if they were too small or weak, in fact if any fighter, man or woman, was physically not suitable to stand and fight against any adversary, then they were trained in other tasks of war. Such as maintaining weapons and armor, tending to the horses, fixing meals, setting up tents. An army was more than just fighters. There was a whole battalion of support staff that was critical to keeping the machinery of war well-oiled and running with clockwork precision.
Then there was the manufacture of swords, bows and arrows, spears, battle-axes, armor, and other materials. Once again, the Queen was generous with her resources, which was needed, because none of these things came cheap. Xena also requisitioned the construction of three large catapults, and scouts were even sent into the mountains to coax dragon riders to join in the fight. The riders were quite secretive, and their steeds – mighty fire-breathing dragons – had not been seen in these parts for years. Riders and their dragons had not joined in battles between the armies of men for many a year, but Xena was hopeful they would join this cause. After all, the Queen had dragon blood flowing through her veins.
So the weeks passed. And there was still no word from Erwen. No word of Gabrielle and Borias. Xena feared that Erwen very well may have failed, and had been lost or killed. On the other hand, no word was still not bad news. She would not give up hope for her friends, not until she had proof of their deaths.
Five weeks since her capture, Xena visited the Queen once again with her now faithful assistant, Baer, by her side. She and Baer bowed before the Queen. “Your Majesty, the building and training of your army is going exceptionally well. The army is now 9,000 strong. I would say a third of them are trained to my standards. It will take another three weeks to bring the others up to speed. And we are still recruiting. In another month you should have the largest army in the hemisphere, if not the world. Weapons manufacturing is going better than I would have imagined. We have equipment for an army of 15,000, and we have skilled craftsmen aplenty to make additional equipment and maintain what we have. We are also ahead of schedule with encampment supplies and stocks of quality horses. Queen Giada, I would wager that in another month, if all continues to go well, you will have an army capable of fighting and defeating any foe, and any enemy.”
As the weeks had passed. Giada had kept a close eye on Xena and her training Even though she was not involved directly nor did she tour the bunkers or training areas she did know the progress of Xena and her training. She was pleased of what she had heard. She knew she chose the right person for the job. Granted it wasn't the best way to persuade Xena to do the job. However, it made her meaner and her hatred for Giada and her desire to be free also her impending death if she failed only made Xena harder and more determined to do as she was told.
Giada was having her afternoon tea when the knock on the sunroom's door made her look up. When she had said "Come in" She was surprised to see Xena and Baer walk in. Setting down the tea cup she looked at the both of them. "What do I owe the pleasure of you two this afternoon." She stated. After hearing Xena's words she smiled. "Wonderful Xena. I knew you were the right woman for the job." Sitting back in her chair she looked at Xena.
"I have become a little worried about Erwen however. Usually, it does not take him this long to do a task. Unless he has gotten himself into trouble or failed in any way. He would not show his face to me in fear I would drop him in a bubbling cauldron." She grinned. "Your first test on how good you have trained these men is to send out two of your best warriors and search for him...and your friends of course if they are with him."
"Secondly I want to inspect the men and woman you have trained. The areas you have created first hand. " With that being said she stood slowly and gracefully. "So my dear...lead the way." She grinned waiting for Xena to show her the camp and guards.
Xena, too, had wondered what was keeping the fat Druid, Erwen, from completing his mission. It had been weeks since he’d left to find Borias and Gabrielle. Xena had thought they’d hear something by now. She still felt confident that her friends had survived, for both were competent warriors and had survived many previous campaigns, even losing campaigns such as the one against Callisto’s army. But still there was a gnawing pang of worry, and it tempted Xena to look for the duo herself. But of course, she had obligations here, didn’t she?
Baer had proven to be quite an asset. He was more than just brawn and muscle. The man had a head on his shoulders, too. And he knew the men in the garrison, knew the craftsmen, blacksmiths, and leather workers out in the villages, and knew the price of things here in the Strega. He was also a keen military strategist and knew something of the strengths and weaknesses of Giada’s adversaries. And thus knew what aspects of Giada’s army to emphasize in training and development.
Together, Xena and Baer took the Queen first to the training grounds, where warriors were taught fighting skills. Xena staged a mock battle between two men and explained the fighting strategy of each to the Queen. “Each man is taught to go with his strengths and to quickly identify the weaknesses of his opponent and target those relentlessly. You’ll notice that the smaller man is not particularly strong, but he is quick on his feet, and agile like a dancer. The larger man is relatively slow, but his sword blows are powerful and lethal if he makes contact. Each warrior’s capabilities are unique, so training is individualized.”
They then moved on to the weapons production area, where men and women were engaged in producing swords, bows and arrows, armor, saddles and tents, and all manner of equipment needed by an army on and off the battlefield. “The best craftsmen were brought in from the villages to make what the army needs. Queen Giada, the generous wages you provided were the incentive these craftsmen needed to come here and become part of the war effort.”
Xena turned to the Queen. There was something Xena was hoping Giada could tell her. “Just as our fight training is individualized to the strengths and weaknesses of each warrior, so should the entire development and training of an army be individualized to the nature of an upcoming battle. Queen Giada, what can you tell me of your sister’s army? How large a force does she have? What sorts of weapons? And most importantly, does she have a weakness?”
It had been weeks since Xena was brought here against her will. Giada knew she shouldn't have bought the Princess Warrior here under such conditions. However, she knew Xena would not o come here voluntarily. She was a fighter she thrived o the battlefield, not in a training camp. Giada needed her men to be prepared. She needed these men to be fit and trained in the highest level of battle. To match and be victorious over her sister's men.
To say she was thrilled to go out and see the men Xena and yes even Baer has been training would be an understatement. So when the day came that she would do so..she went with great expectation. However, what she saw was more than wht she expected. Xena had done an extraordinary job. The men were sharp, stronger, capable. She smiled and nodded. 'Wonderful Xena. I must say you did more with these green men than I expected."
Hearing Xena's question. Her smile faded as she still looked over the men. The thought of her sister always bought a pang to her heart. Knowing they were enemies now. Knowing one day either her sister would invade her lands or the other way around. was inevitable.
Turning to Xena. "My sister's army is large and strong Xena. They were trained by the best fighters in the world. Her ex-husband was a military man...when they divorced she took some of their men and built her kingdom. Well the one that was given to her by him. She has an army of the dead. They will be her first line of defense. " Giada laughed softly. "No not look so shocked or troubled Xena. I too have an army of the dead. They were trained by....' She stopped. Not wanted to give the name of the person. 'They were trained quite well. These men would be the second line that would go in after the first battle was over.”
Giada said as she watched the men continue to train. She liked what she was seeing. "Remember though Xena. I will be on the battlefield with you. Not to watch over you...I have my own agenda. however, if they are successful in the second line of defense. You will be free to go. I will live up to my bargain as I promised.”
Turning to look at the warrior princess, "However, I fear for the safety of the bumbling Erwen and your friends. I am not quite sure if they are well. Perhaps sending a few men to look for them would be advisable."
Knowing that the Queen could read her mind, Xena had learned to control her thoughts when in Giada’s presence. She disciplined her mind to only think of the Queen’s welfare and the building of her army. Although for certain Xena had hidden thoughts of her own, and plans and aspirations. She would not always be under the Queen’s thumb. But the time was not yet ripe for treasonous thoughts or activities. Xena could be patient when patience was needed.
Xena listened to the Queen’s description of her sister’s army, after which she mentioned her own backup force – something of which Xena was unaware. So Giada had been keeping things from her. There was an army of the dead, trained by someone the Queen didn’t want to talk about. A frown creased Xena’s brow and she crossed her arms under her breastplate. “My Queen, if I am to take your army into battle, to properly strategize and plan an attack, it is imperative that I know what all our assets are. For instance, if I know that the men I’ve trained, and the army I’ve built is all we have, then the battle plan will look very different than if we have a reserve unit of the dead. For instance, if we know there is a backup unit, we might leave an avenue open on the battlefield for the enemy to advance. They would not know of this secret reserve force. We could let them penetrate our defenses, then bring the army of the dead in and to encircle and annihilate them. That is a strategy not available to us if we don’t have this secret force, and that is just one of many examples. So again, I cannot stress the importance of you sharing the entire makeup of your army, including any secret army of the dead.”
Xena had some experience with dead warriors – Cyan and her northern Amazon tribe of the dead. If motivated, and fully corporeal, the dead could be almost unstoppable. It would take magic to banish them. “Tell me more about these dead warriors. Your’s and your sister’s. The outcome of the upcoming battle may hinge on what you tell me, and what you don’t.”
After Giada had finished talking she let Xena do her rant. She was of course an angry woman. To be honest she would be too if the shoe was on the other foot. However, she let Xena say what has been built up for a while. Giada could care less what Xena had to say or even think. She was here to train her men.. and woman if there were any strong enough to fight.
Raising her eyebrows slightly at the challenge of fighting Giada. Then she simply smirked. "Do you feel better now Xena? Spouting off as you did? I do not care if you like me or not. I have you here for one purpose. I have offered you freedom after you do your job. Offered you quite generous payment to do so. I would advise, however, not to speak so freely to me in the future. Just because I have allowed it does not mean I will continue to do so. Be careful of your challenges as well. I do not even have to pick up a sword to kill you. Or I could." She shrugged her shoulders slightly. " Since you feel you could strike me down before I would do so to you. Remember Xena, an over-exaggerated ego can be a person's downfall."
She paused for a moment. "The people of the Strega are prideful people. I knew with the right training they would become a force to be reckoned with. With your guidance, they are becoming that. However, my army of the dead under your command? I am the only one who commands them Xena. To turn them over to you is unacceptable Since you will not be here after the initial battles. If you care to meet them..then once you have fully trained the soldiers then perhaps you shall meet them. You were bought here for two purposes...To train, and to lead into the first battle."
"You would think that you would want to leave if my army of the dead loses..you would be happy to leave then. You would be free. No more ties. So why doe sit concern you if I throw in the towel or proceed without you? That is very odd to me."
“Why does it concern me?” Xena still had her arms crossed, and now she was pacing back and forth in an agitated fashion. After fuming for a moment, she stopped to gaze at Giada square on, her sandaled feet planted far apart in a battle-ready pose. “I care because I have gotten to know your warriors. I don’t want to see them needlessly slaughtered because their Queen is on some power trip and won’t share even the slightest of information about a secret army of the dead with me or them.”
Xena ran her fingers through her hair, gathering her composure. “Giada, by saying you will send in your army of the dead first, you have already determined the battle plan when many other options, including better options for winning, may very well be available. Having a secret backup force is often a winning strategy. Your army of the dead could be the front line or the rear guard, either way. Backup forces allow for battle strategies such as penetration of the opposing force’s battle line. This involves the creation of a gap in the enemy line and its exploitation. Two ways of accomplishing this are separating enemy forces and using a reserve to exploit the gap that forms between them or having fast, elite forces smash at a specific point in the enemy line, such as an enemy weak spot or an area where your elites are at their best in striking power, and then while reserves and holding forces hold your opponent, you drive quickly and immediately for the enemy's command. Then there is the classic strategy of envelopment. Attack the enemy from the front, then with a secondary force, circle around and flank them from the rear. Another strategy is the feigned retreat, really another type of envelopment. As your primary force retreats, the secondary force moves in from the side to slaughter the opposing army. But Giada, all these strategies and more require two forces. I could split the human army in half, but that vastly decreases our chances of winning. No, I probably would not use any strategy that involved splitting that army – unless it could be reinforced by your army of the dead.”
“I don’t ask to command your dead warriors. All I ask is that we coordinate the battle plan, use the resources available to the greatest benefit. If we were to do that sort of planning, then we should have others in the chain of command at the table to discuss strategy – commanders of both the living and the dead. That is all I ask, Giada. Your army, your people, will fall on the battlefield. I want to ensure that as few as possible die.”
A warrior asked permission of the guards at the door to enter. He was granted that permission. He kneeled with his head bowed before he spoke these words, ‘Empress Giada Reaper-Bloodraven, there is news of the Druid Erwen. He and the warrior Borias and the Princess Cassandra are riding from the Swamps of Ragnar and should be here within 10 hours.’
Xena had an immediate reaction. “Cassandra? That bitch! What of Gabrielle? Erwen was supposed to fetch Borias and Gabrielle, not the daughter of Ares!”
Giada was reaching her limit with Xena. She had bit her tongue on more than one occasion. Because she felt Xena was the best person for the task she had assigned. However, her free speaking and constant irritable frame of mind were just about enough. "Let me get this straight Xena. You were hired for a specific reason. To train my men. Power trip? I think not. If I did not care about these men..men who call The Strega home I would not have sent for you. I would have sent them into battle with little skills they have." She said glaring at the princess warrior.
"I appreciate your opinion and advice about battle strategies… however, I will not accept your judgments. We are not friends nor allies. So you are to do a job. A job you will be paid generously for. A job you have been detained to do." She sneered her temper starting to flare. "As for my army of the dead. I will consider a meeting between the three of us. General Armistead Blackmond does not like high and mighty mortals. He tends to eat them for breakfast."
She was going to continue however she was interrupted by a guard. She quickly held up her hand pausing the guard. "It is Empress Giada Reaper. If anyone speaks the name of Bloodraven again I will have their head on a platter am I understood. " Her voice cold as ice.
However, she looked at Xena saw her reaction to the name Cassandra." She found it quite interesting. "So, Erwen has mesed up again I see. I am not surprised.. however, why do you not like this Cassandra?" Giada asked. Dismissing the guard but not before she gave him instructions to make up beds and private quarters for the two new arrivals in the guardhouse.
Had the Warrior Princess overstepped her bounds? She was, after all, a prisoner. A slave of sorts. Was the slave rebelling? Yes, she was. And it was about time, too. But it was more than rebellion, Xena really had acquired an appreciation for the warriors in Giada’s army. They were common, simple folk – farmers, merchants, cobblers, blacksmiths, wives, fathers and mothers – but they were brave and knew that sometimes they had to fight to defend their families and land. Xena did not want to see any of them die. And unless Giada relented, got down off her high horse and stopped being so damned arrogant, more of those men and women would die than was needed or was warranted. And Xena would shoulder some of the responsibility and burden unless she could convince Giada of the error of her ways. “Just for the record, if you had sent these gentlemen and women into battle without any training, as you just suggested, your sister’s army would have slaughtered them. All of them. Perhaps you rule the Strega with an iron fist, but rulers who do not listen to the people, who send them into battle unprepared, those are the ones where the peasants eventually rise up with their pitchforks and torches and bring the high and mighty to their knees. It has happened again and again down through the centuries. But I’m sure the Empress of the Strega needs no history lessons.”
Xena gazed out the window for a moment, doing her best to regain her composure. An interesting nugget from the Empress’ outburst was when she nearly bit the head off the soldier who called her “Blood-Raven.” Xena didn’t understand it, but it was a term she wouldn’t use. No need to poke the bear with a stick, particularly a bear who could be as cranky and dangerous as this one. Xena turned back to the Empress. “So please, if you will your Majesty, give some thought to what I have requested. You said you will consider a meeting among the three of us – you, me, and your General Armistead Blackmond. Please do.” Xena grinned, “As for me being eaten by your dead General, let’s let him take his best shot, if he sees me as a tasty treat.”
Xena changed the subject. “As far as Cassandra is concerned, it is her army that swept onto the battlefield to assist Callisto – just before your Druid took me from the battle. Cassandra is my enemy, and by association she is the enemy of Borias. To hear that she and Borias have been traveling together is more than a little distressing. Borias should have had her head on a pike!”
Of course, Cassandra was the cherished daughter of Ares. To kill or even injure her would anger the God of War. And that was something that even Giada wouldn’t want, particularly when she was preparing for war. Giada
Giada was at the end of her ropes. She had, had it with Xena and her high and might opinions of her and her rebellious actions. She was about to send her on her way. The only reason she stands before her is because Xena was the best at what she does. However, there are others that could take over now. Perhaps before the first battle starts she just might send her on her way.
Crossing her arms she looked at the warrior princess. "Let's get one thing straight Xena here and now. If I did not care about the people of the Strega. If I did not want the best for them. I would not have taken this position in the first place. I would of let it fall into ruins like it was. If I did not care for the safety of this place or its people.. I would leave the borders free to anyone to come in. If I did not care about the men and women who pick up arms to fight.. You would not be here. Am I understood? I am finding that your services here are becoming more and of problem then it benefits.
As for the meeting of the dead army. I said I would think on it. " She listened her speak of Cassandra and Borias. "Cassandra is your problem Xena not mine. I do not care if you like her or not...if she comes here and causes problems she will meet her untimely end. I do not have time for squabbles. " She said "We do not have to like each other Xena. You have a job to do..yes a job. You are not a slave here." She smirked. Showing her she is letting her thoughts show. "You are getting paid royally for your expertise. Soon you will be free to walk out of these gates...After the first meeting with my sister's army. Just remember that.
From Part 1:
Erwen examined the fallen warrior girl’s wound. It was not healing as expected. In fact, in some ways, it appeared to be worse. There was discoloration around the wound that wasn’t there before, and the bloody discharge was laced with puss and worse. “The infection is rampant, systemic, otherwise she wouldn’t have passed out. I know time is of the essence, but give me a moment.” Erwen went to his saddlebags and brought forth a small satchel. He brought it to the girl’s side and opened it up. “I have herbs and a potion that will at least stabilize her condition. But this is no normal infection. It is germs doing their work, yes, but also the essence of the wolf. Cassandra’s body is trying to fight off both, and she is successful at neither.”
Erwen made a poultice of herbs and pasted it onto the wound before letting Borias bind the bloody opening closed. He then unstoppered a small ceramic vial. “Hold her head back, I need to pour this into her mouth. By the Gods, I pray she does not choke.” Borias did what was asked of him and Erwen poured half the vile, slowly into Cassandra’s open mouth. She coughed and spit up a good portion of it without waking. Erwen tried again. This time he could see her throat working a little. “She’s swallowed some of it. That’s all it should take. Now get her on your horse with you. You’ll hold her upright as you ride. We’ll tie her horse in back of yours, then we ride for the Castle.” Shading his eyes, Erwen looked up into the sky at the angle of the sun. “We should have just enough time to reach the Queen’s Castle. But we cannot afford to have any further delays.”
In a matter of minutes, Borias and Cassandra were up on his horse with Erwen in the lead and Cassandra’s horse Celtric bringing up the rear. Their progress was slower than Erwen would have liked, but if they road hard, the girl would bleed out. Erwen knew who she was, and he also knew he’d be a dead man if he was in any way associated with the death of Ares’ daughter. And his death would not be pleasant, or fast.
They reached the boundary of the Strega Empire by early afternoon and were greeted by Giada’s palace guard perhaps 45 minutes before the sun would descend below the western horizon. There was little time to spare. The werewolf’s curse would transform the girl as soon as the sunlight was gone. He told the guards they needed to see the Queen immediately. Their response was that she was in a meeting with Xena and was not to be disturbed. “Tell her it’s a life or death situation! The Daughter of Ares is in mortal danger!” It was more than that, actually. The girl’s soul was on the verge of being consumed by the wolf, and if that happened, Erwen wasn’t sure that even Queen Giada could reverse the damage.
Giada was still standing in the courtyard with Xena. Bot women staring at each other. Hate obvious in Xena's eyes..and if it were true, hate also in Giada's eyes as well. She could understand how Xena felt being held here against her will, however, she would be paid generously for her time and training. So, as Giada saw it, Xena did not have too much to complain about.
She was about to say she would set up a meeting with her Army of the Dead when one of her guards came running across the courtyard yelling her name. "M'lady... Empress.... Queen Gaida." He called over and over. Giada slowly turned and looked a the man. Perspiration dotted his brow, his eyes wide. Giada did take a moment to look at Xen who looked just as confused as she did it seemed. Then she looked at the guard once more as he stopped in front of her his breath coming in short gasp.
"M...M"la...M'lady." She said catching his breath.
"Take it easy..." Gaida said. "Take deep breaths and then speak." She said waiting for him to answer.
He nodded his head. "M'lady... Erwen has returned. He..He said come to him quickly..it is a matter of lie and death." Giada looked at him a bit puzzled. "Life and death? " She said repeating his words. The guard nodding his head. "Yes, M'lady he has a young woman with him....she seems to have some sort of wound about her. I..I do not know what it is."
Giada once more looked at Xena. "It seems there has been an accident Xena..amongst your friends. Shall we go and see exactly what is going on?" With that, she motioned for the guard to lead them both to where Erwen was.
"What has Erwen done now," she grumbled out loud as she made her way across the courtyard.
Xena stood with her arms crossed under her breastplate and her feet planted widely apart – a warrior’s stance – as she listened to Giada’s rant. They were covering the same ground over and over again. There was no point in arguing that ground again. It would be like prowling a battlefield after the battle was done, only to stab at the fallen enemy. The next turning point would be Giada’s decision on whether she and Xena would sit down with her General Armistead Blackmond. If that meeting was allowed to proceed, then Xena’s concerns would be addressed, no matter what the outcome of that meeting. She only wanted an opportunity to talk strategy with both Giada and Blackmond in the room. She was confident enough of her strategic knowledge of battle plans that she believed if allowed to make her case, she would convince the both of them that linking the army of the dead’s plan of attack directly to what would follow next, or to even combine the two into a more flexible and comprehensive plan would be prudent ways to proceed.
So Xena let Giada’s rant run its course. But that rant was cut off by a messenger saying Erwen had returned and there was a life or death situation. Xena raised an inquiring eyebrow as she listened to the man’s breathless explanation of the situation. Was he breathless because he’d just run across the courtyard, or was he scared to death to be speaking to the Great and Powerful Empress Giada? If the latter, what did that say about how the people of the Strega thought about their ruler?
No matter. Xena and Giada followed the man through the gardens of the palace courtyard and the opulence of its stone statues and sculptures out into the streets where the commoners were selling their vegetables, fruits, textiles, beads, and other products. Gasps could be heard as the Empress emerged, and the people fell prostrate to the ground, silent and still. Erwen was next to the community well, as were Borias and Cassandra. The girl had been laid out on the ground. Xena smiled at Borias, “At long last, we meet again, my warrior friend. What of Gabrielle?” But the attention was on the girl. Erwen had peeled back her tunic to show a nasty wound on Cassandra’s right side, below the rib cage. It was a slash, and the skin around it had turned yellowish and blue, with red tendrils snaking out in all directions. Xena didn’t need Erwen or Borias to tell her what had happened. “I recognize this. It was inflicted by a werewolf.” She raised her gaze to the horizon, where the sun was about to set. “I would hazard a guess that she has no more than fifteen minutes before she turns into a wolf. With all these people around, that could be a problem.” Xena looked at Giada, “Unless you can cure her, I suggest we cut off her head.” Xena removed a gleaming sword from a scabbard on her back.
Cassandra could not defend herself. She was unconscious. So when the Warrior Princess decided to kill her it looked like to be the end for her. Ares was watching the entire thing from his temple in his pool that he used to spy upon mortals. His eyes became very large and he knew that if he did not intervene he would bury a daughter in the back of his temple. He then made his decision and he disappeared in his normal manner.
Suddenly a flash of lightning appeared in the room and Ares grabbed the Warrior Princess's hand before she could draw her sword any further. "Don't think so Xena. You will not lay a hand on my daughter!" He then shoved her back and he kneels down and he puts his hand on her forehead. "She was attacked by a werewolf. I will use my power to heal her. Queen Giada your gifts will not be necessary." He then focused his energy on the wound on his daughter's midsection and before them all he healed his own flesh and blood. The wound disappeared and Cassandra fluttered her eyes and she looked up at her father and she cleared her throat. "Father?" Ares only smiled at her and then leaned down and kissed her forehead. "I have healed you. Please be careful for I will not do it a second time." He then disappears without looking at anyone else and he returns to his temple.
Cassandra was given some water by the Druid and she was sitting up against the well. She looked up at Xena and she only smirked as she drank from the cup. "If you want to know what happened to your friend I saw her. She is safe in a nearby village. Though that could only be a guess because I did not see her body among the dead of the battlefield." She then tucked back her hair and she looked over at Queen Giada. "Now your Majesty I would like to see Callisto and see if she is being treated right. I see you have not harmed or killed Xena and that I do not care about. But I would like to return Callisto to my father. He has plans for her. And do not ask me what they are because I do not know. All I know is that he wants her."
Giada stood beside Xena. She had heard her words of cutting off the woman's head. However, before she could utter a single word the place they were all standing in began to glow with a bright light. Then a man appeared. She could tell he was a god without even him even saying anything. A scowl forming on her lips automatically. Giada detected Gods. Their holier than though attitudes and their false sense of superiority did not set well with her.
However, she said nothing. As she was told her abilities or skills were not needed. So she merely crossed her arms like Xena had and watched. So this was Ares she thought. The God of War. She had never met him before...however she had heard of him. She was not surprised that in mere seconds the woman named Cassandra was healed and sitting up.
Giada was surprised though at Cassandra' request, to see Callisto. The young woman was polite and seemed pleasant however there was an air about her...but she was the daughter of Ares so that was to be expected. Giada did glance over to Xena read her mind by the expression on her face...however she could read her mind. Her attention then turned back to the young woman.
"Plans for her?" Giada had to admit she was curious of these plans. She doubted the woman would tell her what they were...but what would it hurt to ask. "Perhaps you could tell me these plans as we walk to my dungeons." She grinned.
So this was the mighty Strega Empire, and the home of the supposedly all-powerful Queen of the Strega. They stopped short of the Palace and placed Cassandra near the community well. This was in a commoner’s area, a marketplace where people were selling their produce, salted and smoked meats, and wares. The smoked meat smelled good to Borias, but they had more pressing needs than filling bellies. Cassandra was near death, or would become a werewolf soon. Those two possibilities were her only choices, unless the Queen could or would cure her.
But Borias was surprised, and perhaps a bit disappointed to see Xena coming from the Palace with a woman who could only be Empress Giada. The common folk were bowing and lying prostrate in her presence. Borias stood his ground. Was the warrior princess in league with Giada? What was happening here? But Xena did smile and she greeted Borias. Still, they would need to talk. Xena suggested slicing off Cassandra’s head and drew her sword in preparation for that act. Before Borias could object, the God of War appeared and stayed her sword hand. A moment later and the Princess was cured and Ares had vanished again.
So Ares did care about his daughter after all. That boded well for their cause. Giada would not dare raise a hand against Cassandra, knowing that Ares might cut her down. Cassandra gave a rather allusive answer to Xena in regard to Gabrielle, which left Borias puzzled. Why hadn’t the Princess spoken of this before now, with himself? It would have to be left for future discussion.
On the way to the dungeon, Borias took the opportunity to walk by Xena’s side. “Warrior Princess, you probably know that your Army was defeated after you were taken from the battlefield. I am not sure how I survived, or why. And you are probably wondering why I am traveling with the enemy, with Cassandra. The answer to that is… complicated. But we met the night after the battle and realized we had a common
Cassandra walked alongside Giada and she glanced back at Borias and Xena. It seemed their partnership has come to an abrupt end. She would have to thank him before she whisked Callisto out of her with the help of her father. But that would come later. She looked over at Giada and she still wondered what her father saw in this woman. Yes she was beautiful but that was all Cassandra saw going for her. Unless her father liked that she was evil. Which could be a strong contributing factor.
When they reached the cell Cassandra cursed under her breath to find that Callisto was gone. She then watched as Xena inspected the lock and informed them that there was no damage to it. She glared and then ran her hand over her mouth then down her neck. "This is just great! I nearly die or worse get cursed to be a wretched werewolf for the rest of my life. And I come to the end of the journey only to find what I really need is nowhere to be found. Didn't you have guards watching her?" She looked to Giada and waited for an answer. She then thought for a moment. "If there were guards posted here then they would know what happened to her. Unless they were sleeping on the job!" Cassandra cracked her knuckles. "Queen Giada you need to find out who was last on guard before she went missing." But that would be hard because she probably didn't know how long she had been missing. Cassandra takes in a deep breath and she starts to pace around the room. She was so frustrated. Her father's words echoed through her mind. "Get Callisto or suffer the consequences. Do not let me down." He had said to her.
She then looked up at everyone and her eyes were wide. "Well what are we doing just standing around for? We have to find that mad woman so I can take her to my father." She then looked to the Warrior Princess and Borias. She did not know if they really cared about her mission. Borias was on the brink of completing his mission. All he had left to do was get Xena out of there. Though it did not look like the Warrior Princess was here against her will to say the least. So she just might have to find the mad Warrior on her own.
Being locked up like an animal was not Callisto's favorite pastime. She was restless and anger-driven. If she didn't find a way out of her prison cell quickly, she knew she'd drive herself insane. Most of all, she didn't want to be around when Giada made her way back. Whatever that woman had in store for her, Callisto didn't have time for. She needed to break free, gather up a fresh new army, and get back on task. Once Xena and all her loved ones were done for, then Giada or whoever else, could do whatever they wanted with her. She would no longer care.
In these types of situations, Callisto came to realize if she was patient soon an opportunity would present itself. And sure enough, one came. No one had come to check on her for days minus a guard here and there. She studied each guard until she found the one dumb enough to talk with her. It didn't take long to convince the man that she was innocent and harmless victim. Manipulation was an art she learned for her tormentor Xena.
The easily fooled guard grabbed the keys and opened up her cell, freeing the psychotic woman. As she exited her cell, she fantasized about snapping his neck, but stopped herself from acting on it. She wasn't eager to let Giada and pals know how she escaped. Without a word, she ran out, grabbing a sword that was laying nearby. Once out she stole the nearest horse and rode off to make a camp for the night. Once fed, she'd resume her mission.
Callisto on the loose was a bad omen for everyone here. The woman was patently mad, driven to lunacy at an early age when Xena killed her family. But Borias believed it was more than that. The woman had a predilection towards madness. He suspected it ran in her family. Callisto had proven on more than one occasion that her thirst for blood was more than revenge. She had bypassed opportunities to kill Xena, and when she fought the warrior princess, she often displayed the kind of fighting prowess and power that few could harness. But she was undisciplined, and subject to fits of rage. Rage is valuable in war, but only if it can be contained and channeled. Rage can be focused and honed like a fine sword, and helps overcome fatigue, pain, and fear. But let it run rampant and it can take over, bubbling over like molten lava, destroying battle awareness, obliterating fighting skills and strategy. Callisto’s biggest enemy was herself, and her lack of control.
Borias stepped into the cell that had housed Callisto. It was filthy. She must have been pissing into the dirt. A bucket stood in the corner where, from the smell of it, was where she defecated. Scraps of food littered the floor, along with scuttling roaches and other insect vermin that were making a living here.
And now the mad dog was on the loose, probably with an intent of rebuilding her army and striking back at Empress Giada, Xena, or whoever pisses her off next. “Cassandra was supposed to find Callisto and deliver the woman to her father, Ares. For what purpose I do not know, and do not care. What Ares wants with that blonde is none of my concern. But if or until she is recaptured, know that she will be a thorn in everyone’s side.” He glanced at the Empress, “You’re now on her long list of enemies, although who knows who she will turn her rage towards next.”
“Cassandra is right, though. We need to question the guards, discover how she escaped. Xena, you now have contacts throughout the Strega. Send out men to all the villages. Someone must have seen her. After her time in this cell, she’s probably at a tavern, drinking and gorging herself on whatever fare is served in this land. Callisto is hard to miss. Kind of stands out in a crowd. Not to mention that she can’t keep her damned mouth shut. If she’s still in the Strega, it shouldn’t take long to find her.”
Giada walked to the dungeons in silence. She was assessing the situation at hand. Xena's friends had arrived. She could tell this Borias person had a million and one questions. She could hear most of them rummaging around in his head. However, none were exactly clear. There were too many thoughts being run into one another. She knew, however, as soon as the two were completely alone..he would ask them all… perhaps all at once.
She knew Xena would tell him how she was bought here..and being held against her will to train her men. She just hoped Xena would tell her friend that she was also being paid royally for her efforts. Also, she did not have to remain here after the first battle..she would be free to leave. Then the thought of Gods in her kingdom made her dragon blood boil. She detested Gods and who and what they represent. However, she would say nothing...for now.
As they reached the dungeons she too was shocked to see the cell empty. She glanced around then looked at Xena and her friend. However, the accusation that one of her guards would betray her and let the prisoner out..was unthinkable. Well not really unthinkable… but it would be signing their death certificate as well.
She looked at the two. "It seems someone has let her out." She spoke. Her voice smooth as silk. "Suggesting my guards did this? They know better to betray me." Her voice then became cold as ice. "Perhaps someone who came with you Borias, let her free? Perhaps you should question them as well." She said to him.
“Someone who came with me?” Borias bristled at the accusation. “Queen Giada, you cannot blame this woman’s escape on me. I’d rather she rot in your prison forever than be lose out in the Strega or beyond. Callisto is a danger to everyone I’ve ever fought with, everyone I align with. Besides, I just arrived here, not two hours ago, and I came with Cassandra and your man Erwen. Cassandra and I have not been out of Erwen’s sight for two days, not since the Swamps of Ragnar. We had nothing to do with Callisto’s escape.”
“But let me suggest something. When she puts her mind to it, Callisto can be quite beguiling. She has considerable feminine charms, and I’ve seen her use them on men before. She uses those charms as effectively as a sword. One of your men, probably one with the face of a horse or a pig, one who has to pay a pretty price to be with a woman, that man listened to Callisto. That man was persuaded to find the keys, to unlock the prison door. Look for a guard who fits that description, and you’ll have your traitor. Mark my words.”
“That, and as I said, send warriors out into the surrounding villages. Callisto stands out in a crowd, and she can’t keep her damned mouth shut. She’ll be spotted, which means she can be recaptured.” Although capturing her could be difficult. She was a skilled fighter. “Until such time as she’s found, we have other business.” Borias crossed his arms over his broad chest and faced the Queen of the Strega Empire. “I want to know for what purpose you captured Xena. You should know that I am here to demand her release.” He knew how ridiculous that must sound, given the circumstances, so he added “But I will negotiate for the terms of her release. Tell me what you desire in exchange and I shall ensure it comes to pass.”
Giada now knew that Ares was monitoring their situation. The God of War had only intervened to save Cassandra, but his hovering presence and watchful eye was likely to make Giada think twice about taking radical actions against anyone here - particularly against the daughter of Ares.
Giada crossed her arms gracefully in front of her as she listened to this man named Borias standing in front of her. He did have a point. This Callisto was a pretty woman..and she could have used her womanly wiles with one of her guards. If that was true he would die a slow and painful death at her own hands. Men are such easily led humans. Especially mortal ones. They only think of one thing.
"So you are suggesting one of my loyal guards fell prey to her seductive ways? " Nodding her head. "Perhaps..we shall see won't we." She grinned wickedly. "I will Erwen out again to search for her along with a few of my knights. She will be captured once more."
Raising her eyebrows slightly then looked at Xena and grinned. Before she looked at Borias once more. "I do not negogiate. Especially when I have a deal with your friend Xena." She did wonder what he would think about that fact. Nodding her head "I will say I bought your friend Xena here against her will. I had heard of her expertise on the battlefield. She is well known throughout the realms."
Walking slowly toward both of them. Her movements graceful. It seemed her feet barely touched the floor. "You see Borias. I needed her to train my guards. They are weak from years of lounging around. Not doing their duties. I am preparing to take over my sister's land. The land she exiled me from." Shrugging her shoulders. "True I left on my own accord to take over the Strega.. but she forbid me to ever return. So I am returning." She grinned. "I knew Xena would not coming willingly...so I took her prisoner. " Shrugging her shoulders. "Kidnapped her if you will. However, as you see she is well and free to roam. She is not being mistreated and she has a bed to sleep in..not a dungeon floor and food to eat. She is well." She grinned.
"However, we have struck a deal. Have we not Xena? Once she leads my army into its first battle she is free to go. If she has trained my guards properly. She will be paid royally as well. Gold, silver, whatever form of payment she desires...shall be hers." Looking at Xena. "is that not true Xena?"
It had only been a matter of weeks, but so much had changed between Xena and Borias. They had been in lockstep when they’d slaughtered the Mongol hordes on the steppes in Darkhan. In lockstep as lovers and on the rugged road of life. But it was a dark path and one that had soured for Xena. She wanted more than the spoils of war and an adequate lover. She believed there was a higher purpose for her supernatural strength and abilities. She was wasting them. And then Gabrielle came into her life and everything changed. She found that higher purpose, that greater path. But almost before she could start down that road, it was cut short and Gabrielle was taken from her. Xena feared the girl was lost or dead now. Erwen, Borias, and Cassandra had all searched for her without success. Had she died in that final battle with Callisto and Cassandra’s army? Had her body been trampled under the hooves of horses and the wheels of wagons into the mud and left to rot with the hundreds of other warriors who died on that day?
“Borias. The Empress of the Strega Empire speaks truthfully. I was brought here against my will, with Callisto. Torn from the battlefield by the Empress’s Druid, Erwen, and locked here in that dungeon cell. But I was given a choice. Callisto was given the same option – train Giada’s army for a war against Giada’s sister, or rot in prison. I elected to be the trainer. And you know me better than most - when I say I will do something, I do it. My word is inviolate.” That was true in part regarding the current situation, but in the beginning she had schemed to escape, and to possibly spread discord among the troops against the Empress.
“I’ve come to enjoy the work, and I like the field commanders. Their men were unskilled at first, but not afraid to learn or get beat up a little in the learning process. The people of the Strega Empire are good, Borias - family folk, loyal to their land and their Empress, strong-willed but willing to learn how to make their lives better.”
Xena glanced sidelong at Giada, the slightest of a knowing smirk playing on her lips, “Besides, I can use more alliances. Can’t hurt to have friends out there. And knowledge of other lands and other peoples. The Empress and I have come to an arrangement, and I have no doubt we will be victorious against her sister. You should see the preparations we’ve made, Borias. The Empress has vast resources. The army is now 9,000 strong, we have equipment for an army of 15,000, and we have skilled craftsmen aplenty to make additional equipment and maintain what we have. The horses here are the best this side of the Mongolian slopes of Cangar. I have requisitioned the construction of catapults, and there is even a possibility we will have fire-breathing dragons to back up the army. And we have a secret weapon – the Empress has a battalion of the dead, although she and I have yet to agree on how to use them.”
The early evening sky had turned blood red and a chill was already in the air. “Borias, you should join us. You are a warrior without a war. This battle was made for one such as yourself, and you would be a valuable asset.” Then she turned to Giada, “But Empress, I request something from you, as well. I need for Erwen or someone with similar abilities to continue the search for Gabrielle.”
Cassandra was sharpening her sword while she listened to everyone talking. What Borias said was true they had not been out of Erwen's sight the entire time so how could anyone had followed them. There was just her and Borias. Besides she had a feeling that most of her men were on their way back to her father's temple anyway. And plus she told her men not to follow her anyway. She rolled her eyes a bit when Xena mentioned how strong Giada's army was now because of her. She got up off the rock she was sitting on and she put her sword back into its sheath. "Look Queen Giada I have a psycho to look for and return to my father. So if you don't mind I am just going to go because obviously you guys don't need me here. Oh and Xena I hope you find your little Bard friend. Last time I saw her she was still alive. Not trampled by hooves or war carriages. Once you are done here playing trainer to a bunch of men I advise you to go and look for her."
Cassandra then made for the exit because she did really didn't think anyone was going to stop her. Because one she was not important and two there was nothing keeping her there anyway. Unless the Queen wanted to throw her into the dungeon. She did however take one last back look at Borias. "It was fun Borias, while it lasted." She then glanced over at Xena and knew that things between them were over. This is where their quest ended.
Cassandra would try for the taverns to look for Callisto like Borias suggested. Since she was in a dungeon for weeks she would be very hungry and thirsty. Cassandra left the castle with little to no difficulty. Guess she was no threat. She then grinned a bit as she went down the road a ways to the first village. She looked around for the nearest tavern and it didn't take her long until she heard the hollers of men drinking themselves into a drunken stupor.
She walked towards the tavern and she was stopped by a couple of drunks. They began to paw her. "Hello pretty little one you want to play with big daddy. You look like you could use some comforting." Cassandra groaned and she reached down and she grabbed his ball sack. "Touch me again and I will be plucking grapes. *glances down* Or in your case raisins. Now I am looking for a blonde woman about my height. She is kind of a psycho with a seductive charm. Have you seen her?" The man kinda groaned in pain and sounded like a little girl. Cassandra looked back at his friend. "Okay, I will ask you. Have you seen the woman I am referring to?" The man shakes his head. Cassandra released the man and he fell to the ground. "Dammit! Onto the next tavern then." Cassandra stepped over the man and his friend knelt down to help him up. The man shoved him off of him. "Get away from me!" He then drew his sword. "Hey bitch! No one makes a fool out of me and lives to tell the tale." Cassandra stopped and she smirked. "Put the sword away pal unless you want to be beat by a woman to further your humiliation." The man growled and advanced on her. She jumped in the air and made a backflip and then landed on the ground. She drew her sword and placed it at his neck. "Now I am going to walk out of here and you are not going to bother me again right?" She then shoved him in the back and he fell to the ground. She then began walking towards the next tavern.
Clasping her hands in front of her. Giada listened intently to the conversation that was going on in front of her. She was not one to just jump in and pass her opinion. No, she preferred to watch people. Their body language. The tone of their voices as they spoke. Only after that would she speak. However, Xena's words did surprise her. As she simply raised her eyebrows looking at her.
If she would admit it. Which she never would out loud. She had begun to respect Xena. She already knew she was a great warrior. However, the way she trained her men. She wanted them to succeed. She herself had kept an eye on Xena. She had seen her men grow stronger, more confident and more and more battle-ready. An alliance? Frends? Now this is new to her. It could possibly be arranged. We would have to see she thought.
She noticed this had disappeared. Did not Xena and her friend Borias notice this too? Or were they too involved in their own conversation to take notice. Or did they not care? If Cassandra were to decide to wreak havoc in her kingdom or empire. Or cause trouble with her men. She would find herself back in these dungeons. This time her escape would be imposible.
However, the dank smelly dungeon was not a place she wanted to keep standing around holding this conversation. The stench of blood and death permeated through the air. The steady dripping of water somewhere was beginning to annoy her as well. Looking between Xena and Borias. "Did you two not notice Cassandra has disappeared? If so do you not care?" She sneered. "I will not have her causing trouble in my lands."
Nodding towards the dungeon door. "However, shall we continue this conversation in the fresh air? Or I will even be so gracious to continue it over tea." She said, waiting for them to either follow her or stay in the dungeons as she made her way to the exit.
As he listened to Xena talk, Borias wondered whether the warrior princess had been enchanted somehow by Erwen or perhaps even by Giada herself. Xena spoke with pride of her work here in the Strega, of how she had built up Giada’s army, trained the soldiers and instilled a sense of confidence and honor within them. She went on to praise the people of the Strega, and how she had become fond of them. Was this the woman Borias had spent the last two years of his life with? The warrior with whom he’d pillaged villages, taken from the rich and the poor alike, and thought only of themselves and those few warriors strong enough and clever enough to survive by their side? He’d made love to this woman, laughed as she drank men under the table, and watched her kill anyone and anything who got in her way.
It was if the ruthlessness had been burned out of her soul. Or perhaps it had only been skin deep all along, just something she needed to get out of her system. This was Gabrielle’s fault, of that Borias was certain. The girl was innocent at heart, and much too forgiving, altruistic, and charitable. Gabrielle was a bleeding heart and she’d somehow infected Xena. It might be better if they never found Gabrielle, or never found her alive.
Yet Xena said that Borias was a warrior without a war, which was true enough. But did he want to devote himself to Giada’s army? He had come here to rescue Xena from the mad Empress. Now Xena was asking him to fight for Giada’s cause? With arms crossed and booted feet planted in the dirt, Borias considered Xena’s offer, and also assessed the consequences of saying no. With Cassandra gone, he was on his own here. An island. If he spoke out against the Empress, he was likely to end up in this dungeon. But he was not yet ready to commit. “I’ll take what you said under consideration, Xena. I would like to hear more about this army you’re training, and about the upcoming battle with Giada’s sister. And I am most curious about this army of the dead.” He turned his gaze to the Empress, but her eyes and expression were unreadable.
Giada spoke up, asking if they had noticed Cassandra’s departure. Borias grinned, “I notice everything, Empress. But don’t fear Cassandra, even if she is the daughter of Ares. She’ll track down the mad bitch, Callisto, who has much greater potential to do you and your people harm than Cassandra. As far as going somewhere for tea, I’d prefer something stronger. Ale, mead, or any distilled drink is much more to my liking.” He could use a good meal, too. Roasted meat, and lots of it. But for the time being, he’d settle for alcohol.
Before Giada had left the dreary dungeon. Her eyes could not help but see Borias's questioning eyes. His thoughts running together. His confusion also was obvious. She heard his thoughts of him thinking that somehow Giada had put a spell on Xena or bewitched her in someway amused her. She did not have to enchant anyone. Pure greed...the thought of gold, silver etc. Was enough to lure any human. She had learned that a long time ago.
However in Xena's defense. She could tell she took pride in the work she was doing here. Training these men to become battle-ready soldiers and live to see the end of the battle was her mission. Because she had become attached to them. The men also have a new respect for Xena she saw it when she addressed them or even passed by. She too, has formed a new opinion of her. A respect for her had formed. Perhaps an alliance was possible, even a friendship of some sort.
As Giada stood outside. The warm late afternoon sun hitting her face. The air definitely much better as she inhaled deeply and smiled. The courtyard buzzing with activity. Guards, servants and other workers going about their daily routines. She turned and watched as Xena and Borias joined her.
Nodding her head. "I have mead, the best whiskey you will ever taste, and wine from my vineyards. " She smiled. "Oh and I shall have the cook fix something for you to eat..I am sure you are hungry after your travels." She looked at Xena letting her know she had heard his thoughts. "Shall we go inside? The sunroom is much cooler than standing about in the hot sun." With that she turned and went toward the palace.
Erwen had been standing back a little from the group, his hands threaded into the sleeves of his robe. He listened to the exchange, and was surprised to hear that Xena had adapted to her captivity here. He had heard so much over the years about the warrior princess, and this is not what he would have expected. Unless she was secretly plotting against Empress Giada. But he knew of Giada’s psychic powers. She could read thoughts. It would be very difficult, indeed, to covertly move against her without her knowing it. Unless of course, this was a dance of sorts between the two women – Xena plotting and Giada counter-plotting. It was really well beyond his pay grade. He was simply a Druid, a technician of magic serving the Empire and its Empress.
Talk of mead, whiskey, and wine got Erwen’s stomach to growling. And he had quite the stomach, too! But he knew he had other work here. Ares, the God of War, was following what was happening in the Strega and with his daughter, Cassandra. And Callisto, she must be found. Erwen knew a little of her story and how it circled around Xena. As a young girl, Callisto witnessed the brutal murder of her family and, in fact, the killing of everyone in her village by the warrior princess. Her’s has been a life of guilt, revenge, hate, and madness, and all of it with Xena at its center.
As the others began to move away from the square and towards the castle, Erwen spoke up. He bowed and stammered in front of his Empress, “Your Majestic Excellency. If I may so humbly suggest.” He kept his eyes turned towards the ground, his face was nearly hidden in the folds of his hooded robe. “I could use my powers to find Callisto, much as I found Borias and Cassandra.” He turned to Xena, but only slightly, “And of course, I can continue the search for Gabrielle. With Cassandra having recently left us, it would be easy enough for me to track her and join in her search for Callisto. But only if it is in your will, Empress. And if you have no other purpose for me.”
Erwen stood stock still, waiting for a response from his Empress. He would stand in place until the end of time, if that’s what his Empress required of him.
An instant after Erwen’s stomach growled, so did Borias’. The warrior who had fought side by side with Xena more times than he could count, laughed a good hearty laugh at the banal, unscripted reaction to the mention of food and drink. “Excuse my insolence, Empress. But I have been on the road for a very long time.” He glanced at Xena, “In fact, it seems like I’ve always been on the road.”
Erwen was waiting for an answer from his Supreme Leader, Giada. For permission to go in search of Callisto, to join Cassandra in that endeavor. That was a worthy cause and one that Borias wouldn’t mind pursuing himself. But he needed to talk to Xena first, and assess the possibility of joining the warrior princess in her quest to prepare Giada’s army for war. His thoughts massaged what was said about an Army of the Dead. There were tales and legends of such a thing, of course. Borias had heard many a yarn about dead soldiers and armies while drinking with others around a campfire, or at a tavern in one of the towns. The legends always told that the dead had been great warriors in their time, and were resurrected by one sort of magic or another. Usually, they possessed supernatural strength and cunning, and of course, you can’t kill the dead. They could be cut down with swords, burned, bludgeoned, run down by chariots or horses, but they would always rise back up again to fight another day. Created by magic, they could only be defeated by magic. Or so the legends said.
Night was descending upon them rapidly, and the dry air wasn’t going to hold the heat. It would be cold in the Strega tonight. The moon and the stars were only beginning to wake up and turn their light towards the earth. But something caught Borias’ eye in the evening sky. A movement. A point of light that moved through the heavens. It was too slow for a shooting star, so what was it? He craned his neck to watch the odd celestial occurrence. It moved lazily into the constellation Cassiopeia, then abruptly turned towards and into Orion, where it played along the belt and then up to Orion’s mighty club where it danced for a spell. The moving star then vanished into the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters.
These things always had meaning. Omens, warnings, prognostications. But what meaning did this celestial event hold? Cassiopeia was a bold, vain, and arrogant Queen. Massively powerful, not unlike Giada. Cassiopeia was also the Queen of Aethiopia and mother of Andromeda. Orion was, of course, a Giant and a great hunter and warrior. Exactly who the seven sisters were is lost in antiquity, but they were known to be nymphs, creatures of magic.
Borias speculated, “This is a sign, although what it is trying to tell us escapes me. The Gods know I am not a sage, not an interpreter of such things. Perhaps it will all become clear in time, but for now I wish to set aside forebodings and forget my travels and trials with goblets of mead and a table of charred meat.”
Cassandra was having no luck in finding Callisto. She ran a hand through her hair out of frustration. She wished her father would give her some kind of clue on where to find her so she could get out of this hell hole. Her thoughts then drifted to a certain male warrior and she closed her eyes a bit. She imagined them together and for a split instant she imagined them in tight embraces and well making out under the stars. She shock her head violently and she tried to erase the memory from her mind. She did not know if her powers of shielding her thoughts worked in this place. So Ares probably saw that little clip and he would be very furious with her.
The night had descended and Cassandra was growing rather tired from her searching of Callisto. She got herself a room at a small inn. She mentioned who she was and the innkeeper got her food and drink quickly for he did not want to mess with the Daughter of Ares. Or it would be his head. Cassandra hated that she had not found Callisto yet. Maybe the madwoman did not want to be found. Cassandra still did not know why Ares wanted the woman in the first place but it did not matter she just had to bring her to him or it would be her neck. Literally.
While Cassandra was eating her meal Ares popped up beside her and he took the glass of wine that was beside her. He put it to his lips and drank deeply. He then looked to his daughter. "So have you found Callisto yet dear daughter?" Cassandra crumbled the bread in her fist and dropped it on her plate. She hated when he talked to her in a public room. It made her look stupid talking to herself. "I will speak with you in my room Father." He then laughed and ran a hand through her beautiful raven hair. "Eat quickly for I will not wait long." Cassandra rolled her eyes as he disappeared. She had lost her appetite anyway and she finished off her glass of wine which was half gone anyway. "I'd like a bottle brought to my room asap." She then paid the innkeeper and went to her room.
Entering the room it was pretty small but with a certain homey charm. She went over to the fireplace and she saw that it was already lit. She turned around and there was her father laying on the bed. "So tell me Cassandra why were you thinking of Borias when you should be concerned with finding Callisto. You do know that will have no choice to kill you if you do not find her." Cassandra glared at him. "Why do you want her so badly Father?" Ares placed a hand on his chest and laughed. "Its not me that wants her daughter. Its Hera. For some odd reason, she wants her for one of her plots." Cassandra glared and then went over to him. "You are saying the Queen of the Gods wants Callisto now. I think I know the reason. Because she wants her to try again in getting rid of Hercules." Ares's eyes got wide and he smirked. "You are a good daughter. Yes, Hera wants Callisto to kill Hercules because she is the only one that hates him as much as she does. And she will kill him without remorse. Unlike you." Cassandra looked into his eyes. "I'd kill my Uncle in a heartbeat. But since I am half Goddess I can't." Ares pointed to her and smirked. "Exactly and that decree is still in effect that no God or Goddess can kill Hercules without dooming themselves to a life in Tartarus." He stands up and pushes her back. He then gets really close to her. "So find her beloved daughter because I'd hate to be the one to sever that pretty little head of yours off those strong shoulders." He then leaned in and softly kissed her lips. "Good night Cassandra and happy hunting tomorrow." He then disappeared and Cassandra stood in the middle of her room and exhaled. She then went over to her bed and she laid down upon it. She closed her eyes and she fell into a deep sleep. Her mind was buzzing like a beehive though so it was kind of hard to get a good night's sleep.
Giada had ordered a feast so to say. Breads, cheeses, meats fruits. and of course. Mead and ale. Giada could not abide by the taste for either one, even though she had drunk it many times while she was on her campaigns which now seemed like a lifetime ago. She herself had a pot of tea made for her.
She saw Erwen standing in the corner still waiting for her to dismiss him. However, he was licking his lips watching the feast in front of him. He dare not take a step toward it though. Last time he did ..without permission he found himself with lobster claws. With this Giada called to him. "Erwen!" She said, 'Go to the cook. Tell him to prepare you a bag of food then go and find this Callisto. Then bring her back here." She then turned back to the group before her.
She listened to their conversations..she watched Borias and Xena. She saw the many questions still playing across his mind. She wondered if he would speak freely in front of her. Ask the questions that are plaguing his mind… or would he wait to be alone with Xena and try to shake some sense in her.
Pouring her tea and placing a lemon and two lumps of sugar in the cup. "I have such a wicked sweet tooth." She said breaking the silence with a grin. "Now tell me Borias. What do you think of my kingdom? I know you must have a million questions for myself and your friend Xena." She grinned once more taking a sip of tea.
The moving star and its meaning that so eluded Borias would be filed away for further consideration. He glanced at Erwen. The man was a Druid. He had not commented on the celestial event, yet he must have some understanding of such things. Perhaps Borias would quiz him later. Pick his brain for possible answers to questions unknown.
But the Empress’ feast banished thoughts of prognostication from Borias’ mind. Which is as it should be. Borias was not a wizard or a sage. He was a warrior, and he had the appetites of a warrior. Besides, Giada dismissed the Druid. Told him to go look for Callisto. So perhaps Friar Tuck would find Cassandra at the same time. Borias wished to see that girl again.
The feast table was full of roast pig and duck, legs of lamb, and cuts of the finest beef from the fertile pasturelands of the Strega Empire. Borias’ stomach growled. But there was more than just meat here, too. Breads, sweetbreads, exotic fruits that must have come from far to the south. Fruits of a variety Borias had never seen. There was one that looked like a yellow star. Another that was red and adorned with spikes. He wondered how one ate something like that. Steamed, curried, brazed, and caramelized vegetables, too, awaited them in abundance. And then there was the drink. Borias filled a flagon with mead and drank half it down before coming up for air. Then catching Giada’s eye, to be sure he wasn’t violating some court etiquette, he filled his plate – first with the meats and chunks of warm bread. He would indulge his tastes for fruits and vegetables next. He took a seat at the long, exquisitely carved table. The wood was fine-grained and reddish-brown. Borias knew not what type of tree it had been carved from. Posted on Feb 23rd 2021 - 8:46 PM
This was not exactly the answer Callisto was looking for. Ares was annoying but at least she knew how to handle him. But he didn't want her for anything, he just needed to bring her to his mother, Hera. Though Cassandra claimed not to know why Hera wanted her, Callisto had a good idea. Hera was as single-minded in her hatred as Callisto was. Except it wasn't Xena that Hera wanted dead, it was Hercules. This was not exactly a fight Callisto wanted to get dragged into but there was a possibility to get something she wanted out if it. Not from Hera, or Ares, but Cassandra.
The brunette before her kept talking as Callisto pondered the newly given information. The blonde wasn't paying full attention to every word but she got enough of the pieces to learn Ares would be ordered to kill his own daughter if she failed. It wasn't surprising. Gods were cruel and petty. Family meant nothing to them. And this family in particular meant less than that to Callisto.
Eventually, Cassandra seemed to grow impatient enough waiting for an answer which amused Callisto some. "So impatient. Just like your father." Callisto approached the young woman, clearly not frightened by her in the least. "So daddy wants you to bring me to him, so he can bring me to his mother, your aunt. And she wants to me..." Taking a strand of her untamed hair between her fingers, Callisto twirled it as she pretended to think about what Hera could want. "Oh, I know.... She wants me to kill Hercules. Because that's all that woman ever wants." The hint of a smile she had before was now gone, replaced with an emptiness.
"And of you fail, Ares will have to kill you. So sad." She shrugged her shoulders and swiftly sat down on the edge of the bedding. "You're right, I don't really care if you live or die. I just met you after all. But I do care if Xena lives or dies." A devilish grin flickered onto her face as she locked eyes with Cassandra. "Let's make a deal. I'll willingly go with you and play along with your family's wants, if you, in turn, go and distract Xena. And by distract I mean kill Gabrielle and her ex-lover Borias. Kill her beloved horse too." A wicked laugh came from inside her at the thought of Xena's suffering. "So now, what say you?"
The Glorious Empress Giada had given Erwen an order to find Callisto, and this time he would not fail. His problem the first time was that he depended too much on his own Druid skills, which were adequate for many things, but apparently not sufficient to locate the mad blonde. He would need help from others of his clan. But he first returned to the cell that had housed Callisto for weeks. He was looking for something, anything that would make the search easier. And it didn’t take him long to find what he was looking for – a single, long golden strand of her hair. It was troddin into the filth and mud of the floor, but there it was. A little water would clean it up just fine.
He rushed back to his clan’s Priory where he met with the Arch Druid, Amerind Gluingel. Together they cast a locater spell using that one strand of hair. The spell pinpointed her location quickly and accurately – she was at a tavern in the village of Braemar. “That is only six leagues distant from here, m’Lord,” Erwen exclaimed. Callisto had not gone very far at all. In her arrogance she must have assumed she was in no true danger of being recaptured. Or perhaps she even believed she could come back to the Palace and extract revenge from the Empress for the harsh treatment bestowed upon her during her captivity.
“I can ride to Braemar in an hour.” Erwen said. But the Arch Druid would have none of it. Time was of the essence, he said. Callisto was likely to escape again. They would employ teleportation, and Erwen would be there almost instantaneously. But he needed to be prepared. Another spell was cast, a containment spell bottled up in a small vial. Toss the vial at the feet of Callisto, the vial would break, and the madwoman would be bound up in invisible bindings. She could be loaded onto a cart or slung over a horse and tied on and then brought back to the Palace to stand trial before Empress Giada. Justice in the Strega was swift and brutal. Callisto would be dead before the sun arose again. And good riddance.
So Erwen was magically whisked away to that tavern in the village of Braemar. He materialized into the shadows of the place, unnoticed by any of the clientele. They were mostly drunk anyway, and wouldn’t have noticed if a Troll crashed through the front door. Erwen slunk up the stairs to where he knew Callisto was. He didn’t expect to find Cassandra there, but it didn’t matter. He walked over the threshold and into the room and while saying this spell, flung the tiny potion-filled vial at Callisto’s feet, “Alligatus es ligatum et effugium, et non possunt!”
Deals took time to process, Callisto knew this. But still, Cassandra was taking longer than the blonde warrior cared for. Being this close to where she had been previously captured was risky. Also, she had other things she could be doing with her previous time, like killing everything Xena loved. Impatiently she began to tap her foot against the wooden floor. After a few more seconds of silence, she couldn't wait any longer. "Well?!" She practically screamed the words at the brunette woman across from her.
But her answer was going to have to wait. Another player in this game had entered the room. Turning just in time to see Erwen, Callisto side stepped back out of the way of the tiny potion-filled vial. She wasn't sure what the potion and spell would do, but she knew she didn't want any part of it. And now she was just mad. It seemed like everyone was trying to kill, capture or use her, and she was tired of it. Done were the days of her toying with her enemies. Now she was going to begin killing anyone who got in her way. Starting with the minion in front of her.
In a split second after she stepped back, she pulled her sword out from its sheath on her back and plunged it straight into Erwen's stomach. A fire raged behind her brown eyes as she twisted the blade inside him before pulling it out. Then with one swift swing, she sliced his head clean off his body. Once he hit the floor, she turned around back towards Cassandra. "That was just rude." Picking up a cloth from the table near her, she wiped the blood off her sword before sheathing it once again. "Cassandra, what is your answer? Kill Xena's friends. The ones you're capable of killing anyway. If your anything like your father, I don't really have that much faith in you."
At this point all Callisto wanted was to be left alone. But that didn't seem likely. Not with everyone that she ever met wanting her for their own schemes. More than anything she wanted to go on a killing spree, but with being on Hera's radar, that wasn't going to be easy. First, she'd have to kill whoever Hera wanted dead, which she assumed was Hercules, then and only then could she be free to do as she pleased.
Cassandra blinked for a moment as Erwen appeared in her bedroom. It seemed that she was getting a lot of visitors that night. First her father in her dreams, next the woman that she was searching for what a complete joy that was because she didn't have to go searching for her in the morning, and now Erwen. But that was short-lived on account he was just decapitated right in front of her very eyes. She did not wink or seemed to be in disgust about it at all. She really didn't like the man anyway or trust him for that matter.
When Callisto asked again what her answer was she kinda hesitated again. With killing both Borias and Gabrielle that would leave Xena all alone again. But that is what Callisto wanted. She wanted Xena to feel the utter loneliness that she felt when Xena had murdered her family. But what really was holding her back from answering her was the pure fact of Borias. She still had a soft spot for him and killing him was not going to be part of the bargain. She then tucked back her hair behind her ear and she looked at the crazy blonde. "Well, you know what Callisto I am sure I could kill the annoying little Bard for you. But Borias will be a different story. See I'd like him for my own plans. And those plans do not include killing him. So I will just simply make him disappear from the picture for a while making him seem dead that way you will get what you want. Xena being utterly alone."
She had a feeling that Callisto would not go for this plan. After all, she did say that she did not have much faith in her. She then looked down at Erwen's dead body and as a way of demonstration she made his body disappear with just a snap of her finger. She then folded her arms and she grinned. "If you are wondering where I have sent him. Its a little place where the Sovereign is being held. And alternate universe if you will. He will feel right at home there and he will not be able to get out unless I bring him out. One of my father's many tricks that I like using." She then grinned a bit and waited for her answer. She ran a finger over her nails and clicked her tongue. She looked over at the blonde and giggled a little bit. "If you need a day or two to think about it I could buy you a room and you can have some food and drink and rest. Just to think about it. Or you can simply leave and I will just keep on chasing you for Hera will still want her Warrior to get rid of that Do-Gooder Uncle of mine."
Giada merely sat back in her seat as she watched Borias' feast. The aromas of the food did smell delicious. The cook out did himself. She had placed some bread and cheese on her plate along with some fruit..but it went untouched. She did take a few sips of her wine, but now it too sat untouched.
She had sent Erwen to find this Cassandra, she did hope he did not find himself in trouble again. He seemed to always stumble into harm's way. Perhaps she should have sent someone more qualified. She quickly dismissed the thought as she watched her guest once more devour the food in front of him. "You appear to have not eaten for quite some time M'lord. " She said as she watched him fill his tankard once more.
Raising her eyebrows slightly she grinned as she took her goblet and sipped her wine for answering. Setting it down. "Ahh..it is always about the gold or silver is it not?" She smirked. "I have offered to pay Xena quite well for her help, but that is not your payment is it? " She grinned. "Your payment shall be the same as I will pay Xena nothing more M'lord. If you require another payment...then put it on the table." She said waiting for him to answer her.
While refilling his flagon with mead, Borias listened to Empress Giada. So he would receive the same payment as Xena. Nothing less, nothing more. He did not expect more than what the Warrior Princess was paid. And he would have taken less. Much less, if it meant it was all leading up to some epic battle. To be a part of such a battle would be his greatest reward, and to kill as many of the enemy as he could. Who was defined as the enemy didn’t concern him all that much.
He bit off a chunk of the heavy, dark bread. It tasted as though it was made with molasses. He dipped it into his mead and took another bite. Then a moment later, what came out of his mouth (not food, but words) surprised him, probably as much as it surprised Giada, “That is fair, Empress Giada. I’ll take your deal and I shall serve you well.” Borias had made a snap decision, but he would be true to his word. He glanced across the table at Xena. More than anything else, his decision to align himself with Giada was because Xena was aligned with her. He trusted Xena’s judgment. Plus, it would be more than a pleasure to fight at Xena’s side again. Few men would admit to learning battle and fighting strategies from a woman, but Borias was not a proud man, and there was no doubt he had learned much from Xena.
Heaping more of the roasted beef onto his pewter plate, Borias asked other questions that had been nagging him. “Empress, you and your sister are more legend than real to people outside the Strega. I don’t even know where your sister’s lands are, and the Strega is cut off from most of the world by the Swamps and Ragnar and the things that dwell within that rotting, waterlogged bottomland. You have an army of the dead, and Xena tells me that your regular army is large, well-equipped, and nearly battle-ready. If you will, tell me of your sister’s army. What will we be up against? Will we attack first, or draw them into battle, and if so, where?” His next question was just something to staunch his curiosity, “And, if you don’t mind me asking, what grudge do you hold against your sister? Why would sisters go to war against each other?”
Picking up her goblet of red wine she sipped on it as she continued to watch and listen to Borias. Every once in a while she would glance at Xena. She was surprised she remained silent throughout the meal. She could tell that the two however, were close... and thought well of each other. No wonder she wanted him with her.
Setting down the crystal goblet back down on the table. Her own food still going untouched. She was not hungry. When discussing business and strategy she never had an appetite. There was a time for dining and this was not one of them. When he agreed to take her offer she smiled slightly. She knew he would. The coin is more powerful than the sword. She simply nodded her head without a word.
Raising her eyebrows slightly at the mention of her men, the battle and her sister. She glanced at Xena once more. "Xena has done wonders with the men. Even though she was forced into the situation, at first. I can tell she enjoys her newfound position. Do you not?"She smirked. "The men were quite green when she first took over. Now I see them stronger and every day more battle-ready."
Turning her attention back to Borias. "I have an army of the dead as well. Xena has been wanting a meeting with the General. I have not yet granted that. The strategy has not been decided yet. However, we will travel to her lands, for the confrontation." she grinned.
"Legends you say?" She grinned at hearing that. I am sure my sister is spoken of kindly. She tries to be sweet and kind. " Shrugging her shoulders softly. "I suppose she is nicer than me. However, do not let that fool you M'lord. She is very powerful in her own right.” Raising her eyebrows once more she leaned up toward the table. "So you want to know why I want to attack my sister?"
Nodding her head. “I shall tell you. She knew of me...as I was sent away as a baby. Killed my mother, although she had a right to do so...since my mother killed hers." she smirked. "However, she liked to say she was more powerful than I was. She never defended me..and I was her sister. I let her get away with this. Because I loved her, I wanted a sister. However, her treatment became more and more unbearable. So when the Strega came for me to rule I left her empire and the kingdom I ruled there. She felt it as a betrayal...because the Strega belonged to my mother's family. So she disowned me and vowed revenge."
Sitting back once more against her chair. "She did not know I too vowed revenge. You asked why do sisters fight? Ask her the same question when I have her in chains. " She grinned wickedly. Nodding her head. "What will you be up against? Her army of the Dead, her men...and of course her powers. However, I will be there on the battlefield Borias. I do know how to weld a sword. I have been taught by the best." She grinned once more.
Not unlike Borias, with which she shared many common beliefs and skepticisms, Xena was enjoying the feast. It had been a very long time, indeed, since she had seen such a spread of delicious delights and drink. Her plate was piled as high as the one in front of Borias, although her table manners were considerably more refined than that of the Hungarian warrior. Her memories of her times with him were bittersweet. She had changed since those times. Gabrielle was responsible for that, or was she? Maybe it was just a sea change within Xena’s evolving personality? Right now, her fondest memory of Borias was his efforts to save the Centaurs from genocide, efforts that were fruitful and unselfish.
“Is this Moroccan Sea Crab, Empress?” Xena poked at the white flaky meat with a fork. “I haven’t seen this since, well, I was in Morocco.” Whatever it was – bathed in a lemon, garlic, butter sauce - it was delicious. She weighed in on the discussion, such as it was thus far.
“Borias, when this battle comes to pass, as it surely will – probably sooner than later - you will be right at home. It will be epic, on a scale we have not seen before. And perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t see it as a drawn-out affair, of point and counterpoint strategy. I think when it happens, it will be all out, full on combat to the swift and bloody end. One side will prevail and the outcome will be decisive and without question. The key is to ensure that we’re on the winning side.” She sampled some of the marinated yak meat. “This is exquisite, Empress!”
“And if I may be so bold, Empress Giada, I would like to put Borias in charge of what I call unconventional fighting techniques. Borias is an excellent swordsman, but what sets him apart is his ability to improvise, to evaluate each situation and opponent and turn disadvantages into advantages. To find the enemy’s weakness and exploit it to the fullest. I propose Borias begin in that training capacity first thing tomorrow.”
A soft laughter escaped her lips as she turned her attention to Xena. When relaxed and the company of friends...she was a different person it seems...Not the fierce warrior she had witnessed in the past days...while she was training her men. Ordering them around, and they stumbling to do as she commanded.
Nodding her head. It seemed however, both warriors were enjoying the feast. She can remember the days on the battlefield on campaigns with her ex-brother-in-law. Food was not plentiful. You ate what you could kill forge. At times she did miss those days. To her, they were simpler..and t times would go back to them in a heartbeat. "Yes, I think it is Xena...however, the cook would know better than I would. He knows I only accept the best." She grinned.
She looked back at Borias for a moment at Xena's request. Then she looked at Xena once. "The men are yours to do as you please Xena. if Borias is joining us then you can place him where ever you feel would be best." She said picking up her goblet and taking a sip of sweet red wine.
Borias listened with interest, and sat and only sipped on his mead while the Empress spoke, leaving his plate untouched until she finished with her stories. She said that her sister is thought to be sweet and kind. Borias knew the legends, what little there were of them regarding the sisters. Aurora was the light and Giada was the dark. Night and day, polar opposites. Both with awesome powers and strengths. Both strong-willed. Some would say bull-headed. Not that Borias would say that to Empress Giada.
When she was done with her biography, Borias said, “I’ll take shrewd and hard over sweet and nice any day, Empress. Sweet and nice speaks of vulnerabilities, and together we shall exploit those vulnerabilities to the fullest.” Armies of the Dead, rumors of dragons. Xena had said Giada had an army of 9,000 with enough equipment for 15,000. The coming battle would be epic. It was something that Borias wouldn’t miss for anything. For him, to be a part of such a battle was the most important thing. And if he could be on the winning side, it would be that much better.
The Empress had also said that she would be there on the battlefield with them. That had surprised him. Most monarchs wanted no part of the active, bloody part of war, where men fought and died. Usually, they would sit on horseback on a hill overlooking the battlefield and confer with their advisors. But a monarch that would wield a sword and fight side by side with the commoners, that was a special monarch, indeed. Borias was beginning to like Empress Giada more and more.
Xena suggested he lead the training of unconventional fighting techniques. With a turkey leg in one hand, grease dripping from his fist, Borias agreed wholeheartedly, “Fine idea, Xena. I will start first thing in the morning. You can introduce me to the men and show me the training grounds and armory.”
The feasting and drink continued on into the night. They spoke of many things, of past battles, friends and foes, dragons and giants. Borias may have exaggerated now and then in regard to his fighting prowess and his accomplishments against trolls, echidnas, arachnes, and other foul beasts. Although Borias was also thinking of Cassandra and where she might be at this moment. Had she found Callisto? And if she had, was she successful in capturing the crazy blonde? And what of Erwen, the Druid?
Cassandra’s thoughts had drifted in and out of the situation she was in. She was thinking of Borias and the nights they camped out under the stars on their journey to the city. A small smile appeared on her face when they first met and she was completely naked from bathing in the river. She then shook her head because she had to keep focus on the task at hand. This was to bring Callisto to her Father who would bring her to Hera. That was the task and she had to complete it or it would be her life that would pay the price.
Cassandra was growing very impatient with Callisto. She was tapping her foot upon the floor and she glanced at her a couple of times. The body of Erwen was beginning to stink. She wrinkled her nose and then looked at Callisto. She had proposed that she would come willingly if Cassandra would kill the two things that Xena loved the most. Her friends, the bard and Borias. While Cassandra had no problem in killing the little bard it might prove to be a little bit difficult in killing Borias. Because she had a soft spot for him. But it all boiled down to one thing if she was a true warrior killing someone should be an easy task. There should be no heartache for killing the enemy. And yes Borias was technically the enemy.
Finally she looked at Callisto and she cleared her throat. “Alright, Callisto give me one day to think about this proposal of yours and do not go far. I don’t want to go searching the entire area for you again.” Cassandra then thought about it. A day should be reasonable. And she was sure that she would be visited by her father again. He would probably tell her that she should kill Borias. Because it was either his life or her own. Which one was more important at this point? Cassandra placed her hand out in front of her and she looked at Callisto and waited for an answer. “Well, what say you?”
Giada's mind wandered a bit. A strange feeling came over her. Something was wrong. What it was she could not say. She would have to delve deeper into this feeling when she was alone tonight. She would go into her magic room. However, for now she would dismiss this feeling and turn her attention back to the matters at hand.
She saw the excitement in Borias's eyes. She could tell he lived for the battle and the fight. She could tell he was a seasoned warrior. As Xena was. However, being too anxious in this battle could cost him his life not to mention the lives of others. Her sister was cunning and she would know Giada's weaknesses as Giada knows hers. So everyone will have to be on guard every moment of this encounter.
The food was disappearing as well and the drink...The minutes passed to hours and the feast continued. She had nibbled on some meat and cheese along with a piece of bread. Looking at Xena she could tell she too was anxious for the battle. With th stroke of the grandfather clock announcing it was now ten 'clock. Giada looked at the two warriors. "It seems the night has flown by. I do hope you both have enjoyed the feast and ready for tomorrow. However, it is late...and I do have a couple of things to do before I retire for the night." She said pausing for a moment. "Is there anything else...that needs to be discussed...but I say my good nights?"
Gabrielle awoke lying prone on the dirt floor of a cave high above a verdant valley. The sun was streaming in onto her face, her long blonde hair matted and dirty. In fact she was filthy from head to sandals, and the filth included quite a bit of blood that had long since turned black and sticky. Gabrielle stank, too. And she was ravenously hungry and felt wilted from thirst.
The last thing she remembered was fighting side by side with Xena against Callisto’s army. They had driven a wedge up the middle of that army, and although they’d been outnumbered three to one or more, it appeared they would be victorious. And Xena was in rare form. She was absolutely unstoppable. But then Cassandra and her army had arrived, flanking Xena’s army and cutting them off. The battle turned against them. Then there was a flash of light and Xena was gone. Magically removed from the battlefield. There was nothing for Gabrielle to do but fight for her life. Though it felt like her chances of surviving were few to none.
The battle was a blur after Xena vanished. And in reality, Gabrielle couldn’t remember what happened, and she certainly had no idea how she wound up here. But she still had her weapons, and the blood-encrusted on her clothes, arms, and legs apparently wasn’t her own. Miraculously, she appeared to be unharmed.
The landscape was unfamiliar to her. But she quickly found a stream where she got cleaned up and quenched her thirst, was able to shoot not one but two fat rabbits, and soon was well-fed, too. Afraid to sleep and potentially fall back into whatever fugue had entrapped her, Gabrielle headed down into the valley, where she found not just a town, but a magnificent castle, a bustling marketplace, and lots of people. A woman selling a large golden fruit that Gabrielle had never seen before said this place was called the Strega Empire.
The earth seemed to move under Xena’s feet. Subtly but without a shadow of a doubt. Something had changed fundamentally. But what? Xena took in her surroundings, the Empress Giada, Borias, the others in the room. Nothing about them seemed different. The food before her was the same, although she seemed to have lost her appetite. At least for food. What was it then?
Giada was talking, yet Xena wasn’t comprehending what was said. That was poor form on Xena’s part. She must always stay attentive to Giada’s wishes. No matter what her ultimate plans, Xena must stay on point with the Empress. To do otherwise risked everything. The warrior princess blinked, trying to turn back the clock, trying to replay what Giada had just said. Something about it being late, anything else…? Xena glanced at Borias to see if he might answer the question that hung in the air with potency and expectancy. But the man seemed occupied. Still filling his gut with the spoils of Giada’s abundant feast. Yes, Borias always took advantage of abundance when abundance presented itself. Because you never know when you might have to go without. A prudent course of action. But Xena had enough of the feast. Xena was motivated to investigate this unseen sea change that only she seemed to have detected. She pushed her chair away from the table. “Empress, I thank you for the fine meal. As you say, though, it is time to retire and prepare for the coming day. Borias and I have much to do tomorrow. We are turning the next page on your ascension to greatness.” Xena stood, bowed, and hurried from the dining hall. But she was not headed for her room in the soldier’s quarters. She was headed to the streets, to the marketplace, because something was drawing her there. Something she desperately needed.
As Giada sat back in her chair, her elbows resting on the arms of her chair as they crossed in front of her. She watched both Xena and Borias. Borias was still busy feasted on the food before him. Even if it was now becoming sparse. Xena however looked like something hit her over the head and she was looking around to see who it was.
Giada said nothing but simply nodded her head as she stood up quicky and excused herself from the room. Giada knew Xena was not going to bed. She would allow her this bit of freedom to roam the streets of Gallendrell. This would be a test of her loyalty..if not well she would pay for her actions.
Turning her attention to Borias. "Xena is correct Borias. It is getting late. Please if you want you can remain here to finish your meal. You can even take some with you if you wish," She said as she slowly stood up. "However, I will bid you good night " She said as she gracefully walked across the room and exited the dining hall. However she was not going to bed either. She was going to her magic room...to watch the night in her crystal ball.
Although Borias was immensely enjoying the feast, it didn’t mean that he wasn’t paying attention. He could see that Xena was distracted by something. Like suddenly remembering she hadn’t tied up her horse, meaning it was wandering around the marketplace eating apples and kicking over food carts. Of course, that wasn’t it, but it had to be something like that. And her sudden departure proved that there was something she needed to take care of immediately. Borias shrugged, because he couldn’t imagine it meant anything of significance. But he knew she wasn’t just going to her bed in the soldier’s barracks. He was curious, but not curious enough to follow her.
Giada, the ever-gracious hostess, stood to leave herself, but invited Borias to eat and drink to his heart’s content. “Why thank you, Empress.” He hastily stood and bowed to Giada. “Your hospitality and sharing of all these fine foods and drink are most welcomed and much appreciated. I have not seen the likes of such a spread since Xena and I invaded the Chagatai Khanati, killing the Prince and his consort and pillaging their larders. Ah, the treasures we carried away from that place.” Of course, he’d gambled away and squandered his portion of the spoils in less than a month. But that was the way of a warrior and he had no regrets. Besides, he had no real use for riches. “I will be up before dawn to begin teaching your warriors unconventional fighting techniques.” As Xena had called them. To Borias, it was just improvising when improvisation was needed.
The Empress exited the dining hall, leaving Borias with the rest of the feast. He spent another 30 minutes stuffing his face and finishing off the mead. When he couldn’t possibly eat another drumstick or swallow another drop of mead, he made his way out into the streets. He didn’t know where the soldier’s quarters were, but people on the street were happy to direct him. The people of the Strega were polite and gracious. When he found the barracks and told them who he was, a few recognized his name and knew of his deeds. More mead, plus ale and harder beverages flowed, and Borias exchanged stories of war and conquest, and the others told their tales as well. There might have been a few exaggerations and embellishments – numbers killed single-handedly could have been inflated, riches plundered may have been overvalued, but everyone enjoyed the rest of the night – until a glow in the eastern sky began to banish the darkness of the night. Borias made new friends and bonded with Giada’s warriors. He was part of something bigger than himself again, and he was loving it. *******Aurora and Erwen Move to Part 1*******
The Strega Empire. Gabrielle had heard of this place, but she’d never been here. She understood it was difficult to get to. Mountains to cross or swamps full of flesh-eating monsters. Something like that. And a moody, brooding and evil Empress with a heart as black as coal. But the town she was in looked nice enough. It was prosperous and the people seemed vigorous and happy. Not what she would expect in an evil Empire.
That large golden fruit for sale was too good to resist, and Gabrielle was famished, as though she hadn’t eaten for weeks. She dug around in her pockets and to her surprise found that she had money. In fact, it was a good amount of money. Enough to buy boxes of these fruits. Enough to buy a few horses and maybe a wagon or two. She was comparatively rich. But where had the money come from? In fact, how had she gotten here? Whose blood had soaked her clothes? Where had she been since the battle and how long had it been? These were mysteries that plagued her, and she suspected sorcery. So Gabrielle bought two of the large fruits, found a log to sit on, and proceeded to eat one of them. She moaned with pleasure, because this was without a doubt the sweetest and most flavorful fruit she’d ever tasted. The flesh was a pleasant yellow-orange color and not soft yet not hard and crisp either. It tasted like ambrosia and passion fruit mixed with tangerines. Or something like that. The juice dribbled down her chin and onto her bare legs. After consuming the first of the fruit, she must have looked a fright, like a child with zero manners. But she couldn’t help herself.
And that’s when she looked up and saw Xena striding towards her. The lovely fruit forgotten, she arose, dumping what remained of it into the dirt. But a grin as broad as the oceans opened up in her features, and Gabrielle ran. She jumped into the arms of her Xena and hugged her tight. “Oh Xena! I can’t believe you found me! I don’t know how I got here or even when it is. But none of that matters now that we’re together again!”
Giada had left Borias in the dining hall still feasting on what was left of the food. She walked down the hallway...to a wooden door. A golden key appeared in her hand. On the end of it was a dragon sitting on a skull. Inserting it into the keyhole and turning it unlocking the door to her Magica Volutpat.... Magic Room.
Down the spiral staircase into her most private of rooms. It was a spacious room.. one side held her workstation made out of mahogany..and iron cauldron sat on top. The walls behind it were filled with potions and vials of odd and questionable objects to use said potions. The other side..seemed quite cozy at first glance. A large stone fireplace took up one wall..with a pentagram made of dried flowers and bones hung over the mantle. A roaring fire was ablaze in the hearth...another cauldron hanging over the fire. The walls were covered in shelves that had hundreds of books on it.. filled with spells and potions and ancient writings.
She made her way to her antique mahogany desk that matched her workstation.. and sat down..Running her hand over a large crystal ball that st in an antique brass floor stand...At her feet she felt her pet panther, Jinx, purring like a small kitten. Reaching down with her other hand she gently stroked his head. "Now Jinxy, let's see what everyone is doing tonight." She grinned.
Holding Gabrielle in her arms was the best thing that could have happened to Xena. She had truly believed that her friend, her lover, was dead. But here she was, whole and real. Xena breathed her in, hugged her tight, ran her fingers through her silky, long blonde hair, and kissed her c
There was so much to share with Gabrielle – Xena explained the situation here in the Strega. Yes, she’d been brought here against her will, but she’d struck a deal, an agreement with Empress Giada, and Xena was true to her word. She would help the Empress in the war against her sister. There were still details yet to be worked out – such as the Empress’ Army of the Dead and what role they would play. Xena believed there was a potential for problems, cross purposes. She wanted to meet with the commander of that Army - General Armistead Blackmond – to discuss battle strategies. But it was Empress Giada’s decision as to whether that meeting would happen. If it didn’t, it was just another wild card out there that could wind up hurting their chances of being victorious.
Then there were Gabrielle’s missing weeks. Where had she been? How had she gotten to the Strega? It was still a dark mystery, and although Xena was thrilled to have Gabrielle with her, embers of doubt and suspicion lingered within her heart. Because all indications suggested sorcery. If Gabrielle had been brought here, then for what purpose was she here? And who ensorcelled her?
“Gabrielle, we should ask Empress Giada if she can detect any lingering scent of magic on you. She is very powerful. She might be able to determine if you’ve been the victim of a spell, and if so, what the nature of the spell may be. She might even be able to reverse the worst aspects of it, if there is a spell.”
After indulging some fruit and bread for breakfast, Xena introduced Gabrielle to the leaders in Giada’s army, and they discussed training and preparation for war. Gabrielle could help train the warriors, particularly women, for she was clever and skilled in ways to fool an opponent and to amplify the strengths she had through keeping those opponents off balance while leveraging and directing her strength to do the maximum damage.
“Gabrielle, perhaps we should seek out Empress Giada. She will be interested to meet you and hear of your journey. Then we can ask her about your strange situation and whether magic brought you here.”
The majority of the night was spent in her magic lair. Watching the events of the evening play out. The meeting between Xena and Gabrielle. So it was true what she suspected, that Xena had feelings for this Gabrielle. In fact, they were lovers. Xena it seems feels comfortable enough though to leave the palace grounds. However, a smile did play across her lips as she saw her return.. Loyalty maybe? Fear? Perhaps. Or greed? The thought of the payment she will receive will cause anyone's loyalty. "Humans." She muttered under her breath.
In the wee hours of the morning, Giada found herself in her private chambers. Sleep eluded her. Her mind too active. Her body too restless. So she tried reading but her mind would not concentrate on the words. So she had tossed the book on the couch in frustration.. So she paced..and thought. Her instincts on edge. Something was milling around..something big. She felt it to the core of her being. What it was she did not know. Her intuition though never failed her.
When the first glimpse of the sun's rays began to paint the sky orange and pink. She went to her balcony and looked down on the courtyard. She heard the footsteps of the soldiers coming out of their quarters. The rustling of the servants that had begun their day. The gentle breeze blowing through her long dark hair. Caressing her cheeks. She wondered when would Borias and Xena rise to continue the training of her men. She watched in silence. Waiting for them to appear down below.
Gabrielle nervously brushed a lock of blonde hair behind one ear as she and Xena walked along through the training area. “You mean you want to introduce me to the Empress?” The Bard was suddenly very nervous. She’d met royalty before, even Gods like Ares. But there was something about meeting the Empress of the Strega that made her very uncomfortable. “So she’s not going to rip my head off or dissolve me into a puddle of goo? I know she has all these magical powers. And several of the men back there said she has a temper. Should we really ask her about what happened to me, I mean, without really knowing what happened to me? Maybe we should just go for a brief social meeting. Meet and greet and then get back to the training grounds.” Gabrielle felt more than comfortable around warriors, and she was anxious to help Xena and Borias with training the Empress’ army.
But Xena seemed to brush off any concerns. They’d be fine, she said. So Gabrielle followed along, trying to tamp down her jittery nerves. They came out of a stone corridor and into a grand square, beyond which was the castle. It was massive, the biggest Gabrielle had ever seen. Spires and turrets, flying buttresses, gargoyles, pointed archways, and lots and lots of ornate decorations. Gabrielle gazed up, shading the sun from her eyes. High above the square was a broad balcony, and on that balcony stood a spectacularly beautiful woman in a stunning dress, her long dark hair billowed out to the side by the breeze. She was watching them. “That’s her, isn’t it? That’s Empress Giada!” Xena was well-known by the palace guard, so they were quickly escorted inside and then up a towering, sweeping staircase to a sitting room where they would await Empress Giada. Torches burned in sconces on the walls, although there seemed to be plenty of light coming in through the large windows. Gabrielle took a seat on one of the cushy, embroidered, gold-edged divans, or maybe it was a settee. She didn’t have much experience with luxury like this. She bounced up and down on it for a moment, a big grin on her face. “Wow! I could sleep for a month on something like this!”
Giada knew the exact moment when Xena was near the palace gates. This time though she was not alone. She gracefully had made her way onto the balcony to watch their arrival Of course the palace guards let them in without a problem. Even some of the guards nodded their heads out of respect for Xena. She had earned their respect and admiration.
She watched as the two walked across the courtyard. Her chocolate brown eyes even watching as the blonde whose name was Gabrielle shielded her eyes to look up at her. She could sense the uneasiness and slight fear in the woman as she continued to walk to the palace doors.
In typical fashion for Giada. She waited at least thirty minutes before she proceeded down to the east living room where the two women waited. She liked to keep her quest waiting at times...especially one that was already nervous in meeting her.
Stepping into the room she looked at Xena, then the woman called Gabrielle. She had instructed the servants to bring in tea before entering the room.. so for now she made her way gracefully and slowly to the chair that was placed by the grand marble fireplace and took her seat.
"I see Xena you have brought a guest into my home. " She said as the servant came into the room bowing respectfully and placing the tray on the coffee table. Giada slowly waved her hand for the servant to exit the room. Which she did quickly bowing once more.
Although overjoyed at Gabrielle’s return, Xena continued to be concerned about the circumstances around the Bard’s return. Where had Gabrielle been between the battle against Callisto and Cassandra’s armies and now? Weeks had passed without the slightest word of her. Even the Druid, Erwen, was not able to locate her. Xena had feared the worst. But then she had appeared, seemingly like magic. Or perhaps more than seemingly. Gabrielle appeared to be just Gabrielle, though. Unchanged in all ways that Xena could assess, and after last night, she had to admit that there weren’t too many ways left that needed assessment.
Gabrielle appeared nervous about meeting the Empress. “Well, all that you’ve heard is correct. Empress Giada is very powerful, and she has a reputation for wickedness. She did have her wizards rip me off the battlefield, leaving you and Borias to fare for yourselves. I can’t forgive her for that. But since I’ve been here, she’s been fair with me. Honest, as far as I can tell. And she’s kept her word and her promises. Furthermore, the people of the Strega Empire are prosperous and relatively happy, which is more than I can say for most empires. The men, her warriors and officers, they both respect and fear the Empress. But they know she’s been good for the Strega, and they would lay down their lives for her.”
They entered the main plaza and Gabrielle was fairly dazzled by the opulence of the palace. The Empress herself could even be seen up on her balcony. They were escorted inside where they awaited Giada. They didn’t have long to wait. Xena and Gabrielle stood as the Empress entered. She asked about Xena’s guest.
“Yes, your Excellency, this is my consort, Gabrielle. She is a skilled warrior and a bard. She will be of value in the training of your warriors and in the coming battle.” Xena paused and glanced over at Gabrielle. The blonde was hesitant to bring up the topic of her disappearance, but Xena was confident that the Empress would be interested and might be able to suss out what happened. “Empress Giada. You know that Erwen was sent to find Gabrielle, but he was unsuccessful. I feared that she had been killed in battle. But then she simply walked into the city yesterday. She has no memory of what befell her from the time of the battle with Cassandra and Callisto’s army until yesterday. I fear sorcery is involved, and we were wondering if you might be able to help us figure out what happened.”
A day had gone by and another and another. Cassandra said she needed a day to think about Callisto's proposal of her coming willing if she killed Gabrielle and Boria's. Well, Cassandra was still thinking about it and she was sure that Callisto was getting really bored at waiting for her..
Cassandra needed to clear her head so she went down to a creek and she scooped up some water and placed it to her lips. The cold water slid down her throat and it tasted so good. She looked into the water down at her reflection and she cleared her throat. She thought long and hard about the proposal. She then hissed to herself and she splashed the water to cast away her reflection. She turned swiftly and then there was Ares. She knew he would show his face eventually. "Cassandra you are running out of time. Hera grows impatient. What is taking so long for you to fulfill your duty?" Cassandra huffed a bit and she side-stepped him. He then stepped directly in front of her. "Why are you trying to avoid this? What has come over you? You have grown soft." Cassandra grew angry. "I HAVE NOT GROWN SOFT ARES!" He then glared at her. "THEN DO WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE! KILL THE BARD AND BORIAS OR I WILL FIND ANOTHER WARRIOR TO DO IT AND THEN HERA WILL KILL YOU!" Cassandra knew he was furious now. He cleared his throat and he stepped forward and placed his hands upon her cheeks. "Cassandra my beloved daughter do not disappoint me again. I do not want to feed you to the worm that is my mother." He then leaned in and kissed her forehead." He then looked upon her and she upon him. He then disappeared.
Cassandra knew what had to be done. She would find Callisto again and she would tell her that she would agree to her terms. She could not disappoint her father once again. By this time tomorrow the Bard and Borias will be dead.
Sitting in her chair she motioned for the two women to sit as well. She did not like people standing over her. Even though most rulers prefer it she did not. She leaned forward and poured three glasses of wine. "This is from The Strega's vineyards. You can have a glass if you like" She said sipping on her glass.
Sitting back in her chair he saw the shocked look on the woman named Gabrielle's face. Although she said nothing. Another difference between her and other rulers. She did not mind partaking in a glass of wine with others. However, the look of fright and confusion did not escape Giada. She found this amusing...for he looked like a rabbit caught in a trap.
Raising her eyebrows. "Sorcery?" She asked admittingly a bit surprised. Sitting down her glass. "Now tell me Xena what makes you think that? I can assure you if there was anyone using magic in the Strega... I would know of it." She said eyeing the two women. "Who would use magic on your friend? Is she a problem? Or does she have enemies?" Giada asked Xena...waiting for her response.
Xena was amused at Gabrielle’s reaction. “Hey girlfriend,” she playfully punched Gabrielle’s shoulder, “She bites, but only if you’re the enemy, which you’re not. Ok?” Xena took the Empress’ offer and poured herself and Gabrielle glasses of wine. That wine was impressive, with a bouquet of flavors – currant, cinnamon, rosemary, and spice all blended to perfection. “Outstanding! But then I’ve come to expect no less from the Strega’s vineyards.”
Xena pondered the Empress’ questions, but it didn’t take long to come up with answers. “Yes, Gabrielle’s a problem. Call her the problem girl. Always getting into trouble. The mischievous one. And enemies? Both of us have enemies galore. More than we can count.” Xena sipped on her wine again, savoring the complex flavors. “You see, we’re both warriors. We’ve both killed a lot of people. You kill people and you make enemies of their friends and family. It’s only natural and I can’t blame them for it. Someone kills my friends and family and I’ll go after them with a vengeance. I have to admit that I went through a pretty ruthless period, too.” It was her time with Borias. Together they ravaged and pillaged across half of the Mongolian steppes. “No doubt I have more enemies than Gabrielle. But just her association with me would make her a target.”
“As far as magicians who would want to settle a score. I can think of a few. There was a mage by the name of Eli. We helped him discover healing powers that he didn’t know he had. But unveiling those powers also revealed equally dark magic and he turned on us. The last we saw of him, he said he would take out his revenge upon us for cursing him. But there were others – a wizard in Hovd – we destroyed his Hydra, which left his magical power source unprotected. Then there were magicians in battles that we either killed or vanquished. I guess there’s a long list.” Xena chuckled and shrugged before sipping on her wine again.
“So, Empress, you don’t detect any magical shifts in Gabrielle’s aura or an aftertaste about her that suggests she’s been ensorcelled somehow?”
The three catapults were truly a thing of beauty! But on top of that, they were more sophisticated and larger than any Borias had ever seen. He talked to one of the construction foreman at length about how they were built. As it turned out, they were a combination of both mechanical technology and magical wizardry. All three were of the Trebuchets design, which included a 30-foot long fulcrum arm, on the end of which was a large metal bowl into which the ammunition would be loaded. The arm was connected at its base to a massive metal leaf spring, which could be wound tight, providing the power for launching the ammunition. The entire structure was mounted on wheels so it could be maneuvered into position. All three were equipped with a precision sight for aiming the projectile. The fulcrum could be adjusted so it would launch the ammunition in more of an arc, which would go longer distances, or it could fire the ammunition in a straight line for higher velocity and more destructive capability. The magical part had to do with increasing the accuracy of targeting the enemy. What was essentially a crystal ball mounted on the catapult would bring up an image of the enemy force. The operator could point out a place in that image for the ammunition to be delivered. The type of ammunition could also be magically enhanced. Like rocks that suddenly turn into molten lava, or heads of cabbage that turn into balls of hot, flaming oil just before impact.
Borias was most impressed, and he slapped the foreman on the back, congratulating him on work well done. The two of them met up with a magician and two carpenters and wound up back at the tavern Borias had been at last night. They drank and laughed the afternoon away, telling somewhat exaggerated tales of glorious battles and how brave they were, and how many of the enemy they slayed. The exaggerations grew as the afternoon progressed and the number of flagons of ale consumed unloosened their tongues even further. Borias was in his element, and he couldn’t wait for this battle between the Empress Giada and her sister. This would be a Battle remembered for centuries; stories of the brave soldiers becoming legends as the years passed. And Borias just knew he would be remembered for his warrior prowess, his role in training Giada’s army, and moreover, his fearlessness and leadership on the battlefield.
Cassandra could not wait around for Callisto to show up any longer than she already has. She needed to get moving on this job that her father has appointed her or she would lose her head for sure. The moment when she did find Callisto again she would tell her that she had done the deed. That she killed the Bard and Borias. Now she just had to follow through with the act.
Cracking her knuckles she made her way down the streets of the busy town and her head was like on a swivel. She was on high alert keeping her guard up and never letting up. She had to think about who she was going to take out first. Both Borias and Gabrielle would not give in without a fight. And with Xena as their friend it was going to prove to be an even more difficult task.
Taking in a deep breath Cassandra walks into a tavern and she heard laughing going on. She looked around for the source of the joyful laughter. Then she spotted the two men at the bar. She took in a deep breath when she saw that it was none other than Borias. Keeping a hand on her sword she walked towards the bar. Then her destination changed swiftly and she was standing right behind Borias. "Borias?" She said in a questioning, but calm tone. "We need to talk."
Borias was relating to his newfound friends how he’d once tracked an Almas high in the Caucasus Mountains of Mongolia. The Almases are humanoid, but 10-12 feet tall, covered in thick brown hair, and live in small family groups in caves. Legends have it that they represent a primitive race of humans, something that fell off the family tree a long, long time ago. Known for their fearlessness and brutality, the Almases purportedly hunt Snow Leopards, Dire Wolves, and Cave Bears, killing them with spears and their bare hands. Borias got to the part where he’d tracked the creature through fresh snow into a canyon and then to the smallish entrance to a volcanic cave when a familiar voice rang out at his back.
It was Cassandra. With a flagon of ale in one hand and a broad grin on his face, he clapped the girl on the back, “Princess! We were speaking of your bravery and skills with a sword just a few minutes ago! Join us for some drink, and look, this establishment has an unlimited supply of blood sausage and mutton. Step up to the bar! I’ll buy you as much as you can eat and drink.”
But she looked serious, as though something dire had happened or would happen. He’d seen that look in her eyes before. “What is it Princess Cassandra? What do you wish to talk to me about?” Did they need to move away from the crowd Borias was a part of? His new drinking buddies? Did she desire a private conversation? Cassandra
Cassandra almost had the look that could kill a raven 100 feet away. She was not impressed with the behavior that the great warrior Borias was showing to his new friends. She placed a hand on her sword because they were giving her the look of death as well. She then turned her attention back to Borias and cleared her throat. "Let's take a ride. Celtic is out front."
She then turned slowly and then looked back at the men that Borias was sitting with. One of them whispered in his ear and she tightened her grip on her sword. She was ready for a fight if one sprang up at a moment's notice. The man simply just whispered a small warning to him and then went back to drinking from his glass and cutting himself a big helping of the blood sausage that sat on a plate between them. Cassandra rolled her eyes a bit and she made her way through the crowded tavern and she wondered if Borias was actually following her.
While making her way through the crowded room she was thinking to herself. How am I going to kill the great Borias. He was said to be impossible to kill. Any man or woman for that matter that tried to stand up to him found themselves to an early grave. She cleared her throat and looked up at the sky and wondered if Ares was watching her right now.
Yes, to her answer Ares was watching her right now. Through a means of a pool of water in his temple. He used his gifts and made the image appear. He smiled a bit and he cleared his throat. "Just have the confidence to do it, my beloved daughter. You have brought men down twice his size. It does not matter that he is the Great Borias. Just believe that you can do it. And remember if you don't, it's your life you are forfeiting. Make me proud."
Well with that magical pool Cassandra heard every word that her father just said. She cleared her throat and she stopped short of reaching Celtic. He whinnied at her and she smiled at him. She walked over to him and patted his neck. She then grabbed the reins and looked around for Borias. She wondered if he was still within the crowd.
With a ready hand on the hilt of her sword, and the fires of Hades burning bright in her eyes, Cassandra was itching for a fight. Although what exactly had set her off was way beyond Borias. But he wasn’t very good at sussing out what bothered women. He’d proven that over and over again with Xena. Women were a dangerously unpredictable breed, often like an entirely different species. And she wanted to talk, but about what? Well, he’d follow her out the door and find out. He owed her that. But before leaving, he tilted back his tankard and finished off his ale, belching loudly afterward. Then he thanked his companions for a fine time, laid twenty dinars on the counter – which included a generous tip for the barkeep - and headed for the door. Cassandra was already outside.
During his time in the tavern, the sky had clotted up with dark, cottage cheese clouds. The steadily deepening gloom strummed a bright, disharmonious chord of intuition for Borias, as real as a kick in the groin. He suddenly suspected he might be in mortal danger. He and Cassandra were allies and they’d made the long trek to the Strega Empire together, enduring many challenges, including an attack from a werewolf in the Swamps of Ragnar. But take it back a month and a half and he and the Princess had been sworn enemies, fighting from opposite sides of the battlefield. Cassandra was a great warrior in her own right, but she was also the daughter of the God of War, and Ares had a list of those he disliked. Makin a list and checkin it twice. People on that list died in excruciatingly horrible ways. Was Borias on that list now? So before untying his horse, Borias asked “You look like a cat’s tail, Princess. What is this all about, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Lightning scissored across the southern skies like daggers, followed quickly by rolling grumbles of thunder that caused Celtic and Borias’ black stallion to prance and whinny. A storm was coming, and the air already smelled of black rain.
Cassandra didn't mind him asking and as the lightning struck above their heads she counted in her head until she heard the boom of a thunderclap. She counted 3 Mississippis until the boom of a thunderclap cackled through the skies. The storm was right over their head and it would not be safe for either of them to ride off into an open field like she planned. She looked at him and she cleared her throat. "What is this all about you ask?" Her hand firmly on her sword now. "I was hoping to go for a ride. But with this storm blazing out of control I am guessing we will have to have the talk somewhere else."
She didn't want to have the talk right in the open. She wanted to talk to him in private. Might make it easier for her to make the final blow. But then looking at him and seeing his kind face. The face that looked down upon her as she was laying down on the ground about to die from the wound she received from the werewolf. He could have let her die out there in that wilderness. Frankly, he should have killed her back at that stream where she was bathing. But no they decided to forge an allience because they both had a similar goal to complete. His was to get Xena back and hers was to get Callisto. Now things have changed. Callisto and her made a deal that she would kill Borias and the Bard in order for her to go willing to Hera.
But still, the thought of that moment lingered in the back of her head. Her grip on her sword softened and she looked at him. "Follow me." She then left Celtic tied up alongside Borias's horse and she began to walk through the crowd. There was an abandoned barn just outside the village. That might be the best place for them to have their talk and possibly the best place to take the final battle between them.
His quest to find Callisto and or Cassandra had failed, so Erwen rode back to the Strega Empire where he would await further instructions from the glorious Empress Giada. The ride gave him some time to reflect, but pieces of his memories over the last week or so wouldn’t come clear in his mind. He knew he had originally gone to Braemer at the behest of Empress Giada to locate both Callisto and Cassandra. And he had found them, upstairs in a boarding room above a tavern. Exactly what had happened thereafter was obscure, though. He believed there was a fight. Something had happened he could not remember. Then he found himself in the Seljuk Empire in front of Empress Aurora, Giada’s sister. She had instructions for him, instructions he was compelled to carry out.
But he was loyal to his Empress Giada, without question. He would lay down his life for Empress Giada. Then why was he at Empress Aurora’s court? This was most distressing. In any case, he needed to speak with the Empress Giada. Perhaps she would help him see the light, to clear the fog in his head that concealed the truth. On the other hand, he was somewhat apprehensive. What would Empress Giada think of him going to see her sister? The two were preparing for battle. Would Empress Giada assume he was a traitor? Would she kill Erwen on the spot? Well, it didn’t really matter. As he had stated before, he would give his life for Empress Giada.
He rode up to the palace, dismounted, then hurried upstairs to the Empress’ suite. But palace guards prevented him from entering those suites. They said the Empress was meeting with Xena and Gabrielle. Gabrielle? So the lost had been found. Erwen gave a message to the guard, “When the time is right, please let the Empress know that her faithful servant Erwen has returned from his mission. He has news of Callisto and Cassandra.” He had meant to add he had news of Aurora, too, but the words would not form on his lips.
Cassandra wanted to go riding, then she wanted to talk. And apparently, she wanted to talk in private, away from others who might hear what she has to say. So perhaps she had news of Callisto or knew something about the coming battle between the Empress sisters. Some news that would be momentous and needed to be kept a secret. “Alright then, Princess. Lead the way and we shall talk of these things that weigh heavily upon your mind.” Borias followed a step behind the woman, through the village to the outskirts of town. He and Cassandra spoke not as they walked. But the Princess possessed a presence of royalty, and the common folk in the marketplace stopped whatever they were doing as she passed, and some bowed down to her, even though they may not have known who she was. She just had the look of someone who should be bowed to. Regal and aloof.
Meanwhile, the storm continued to build. Its strength and veracity, which had seemingly come out of nowhere, was disquieting to Borias. And there was a color to the sky – flat, monochromatic blacks and grays – that leant a particularly ominous taint to the storm. It did not feel natural or normal. Was it a portent of dark days to come? Or dark moments, even? Was it a precursor to what would be an epic battle between the two most powerful Empresses in the known world?
A sizzling lightning bolt right over their heads slashed at the pregnant belly of the sky, giving birth to a deluge. Borias and Cassandra had to run the last short distance to the barn, and then both were nearly drenched through by the time they found modest shelter from the storm. Once inside the barn, which leaked in a thousand small places and which stunk of farm animals and now wet hay, Borias shook the water off his arms and said, “Now tell me this big secret you’ve been wanting to tell me, Princess. Is it about Callisto?”
It had been days...a week or more to be honest. Since she met with Xena or any of her friends. She was getting a little irritated she will admit it. She had seen all of them, Xena, Borias, and that other one whatever her name was prancing around the courtyard. Going and coming as freely as they pleased. Time was of the essence to her. She must have her army battle ready, to attack before her sister attacks her.
She had spoken to the General of the army of the dead. He was not willing to meet with Xena. However, after many attempts and hours speaking to him he unwillingly agreed to meet her. However, he too was growing impatient with this so-called meeting that seemed to not be happening.
She was glancing out the window her eyes narrowing with each passing second. Letting the lace curtain fall from her small delicate hand she made her way to the palace door and with a swipe of her hand it flew open, practically falling off it's hinges. Hitting the wall with a loud thud. She stood on the palace steps. Her long dark brown hair billowing in the wind. Her eyes locked onto the guardhouse in the west end of the courtyard.
She saw no guards training...no drills going on. With each step she took the ground seemed to quake in her path. Looking for Xena was her main goal.
It looked to be that the Thunder God was trying to warn Borias of something that was coming to him. Because Cassandra knew that Ares would not send this kind of display. Cassandra looked around the barn and yes it was linking in many places which did not help the stench in the barn. She looked over at the horses that stood in their stalls. The poor things. Rain was dripping into their eyes which made it hard for them to get a proper night's sleep. She took in a deep breath and she shock off the water from herself. She then squeezed the water out of her hair and then she looked at Borias who asked what the big secret was. No it wasn't about Callisto. But it had Callisto in the mix.
Cassandra cleared her throat and she began to pace about she had all this time to think on what to say Borias. But now with him all wet it was distracting her from the course she was one. She took a deep breath and then walked towards him. "Yes Borias it's about Callisto but not the way you might be thinking." She then cast her gaze away from his for a brief second. She placed her hand to her lips and she exhaled. "Borias you and I have been through a lot together. You helped me get here to this place to retrieve Callisto for my father. You helped me when I was wounded by that creature. I will never forget any of that. Not for as long as I live. But........"
She felt a sharp poke in the back of her spine and she grabbed her sword and spun around. She looked in all directions and then realized that no one was there. It must have been Ares. Probably warning her to cut the chit-chat and get on with it. She mentally told him to stay out of it and she would handle it on her own. And to tell grandpa to cut the storm. Ares laughed a bit and then made the pool disappear. The storm however continued its raging destruction.
Cassandra then turned back around and looked at Borias who was standing there looking a little confused. "Borias I am sorry." She kept her sword darn and she stepped closer to him. "This is the way it's got to be. I will not die by Hera's hand." She got even closer to him and the tip of the sword touched his breastplate. "Draw your sword Borias! I will not kill you like this! Fight me! Here! Now! To the Death!"
As Cassandra spoke, the storm outside redoubled its intensity. The sky, the air, everything above the ground was angry. Rain lashed at the old barn, pounding on the roof, demanding to be let in. Beams creaked, the entire structure wobbled like a 70-year old woman carrying two buckets of water back from the well.
Cassandra began her statement with a litany of favors Borias had done for her. And it was true, although really they helped each other. He wasn’t sure he would have gotten out of the Swamps of Ragnar alive if Cassandra hadn’t been there. The end of her soliloquy was punctuated with a ‘but’. Borias hated when women did that. Build you up only to kick you in the gut. Or maybe put a sword through your chest. And she seemed to be having a discussion with someone who wasn’t there. Had Cassandra contracted lunacy from Callisto? Was madness infectious? Not that he knew of, but Callisto’s insanity was of an entirely different brand. Who knows what might be possible.
Then the girl drew her sword, poked the tip of it into Borias’ breastplate. Told him to fight. To the death, no less. Borias pushed the blade away, “What is this all about, Princess? You and I have fought side by side. We are allies now, not enemies. What does Hera have to do with anything?” But she persisted. At risk now, Borias automatically drew his own sword and struck a fighting pose. Lightning hammered the old barn, igniting one of the overhead beams, but the rain quickly put it out. Still, Borias was loath to fight. He shook his head and let his sword droop towards the hay and horse crap-laden dirt floor. “This is ridiculous, Cassandra. I will not fight you.” He tossed
Cassandra could not believe that even after she said she wanted a match to the death with Borias he was still willing to save her life. As he tried with all his might to get her leg freed from the beam she tried to wiggle it free. But it would not budge. She looked at him. "Borias don't it's no use. Get out of here while you still can!" But he would not listen. He still tried with all his might to get the beam off of her trapped leg. His muscles bulging all over the place. Finally, he stopped and she laid her head down on the dirt and looked up at him. "Just get out of here Borias. Leave me to die!"
She lowered her eyes and as he was looking around an idea popped into his head. She looked up when he said "Wait just a moment, Princess." She hated that he called her princess all the time and she believed that he knew that and that he did it just to annoye her. She watched him searched the barn as best she could. "What the hell are you looking for?" He then found what he was looking for and held it up in the air. "A shovel?" She then watched him as he dug around her leg. When he was through he cupped his hands under her shoulders and pulled her free. She grunted and moaned because the pain was overwhelming. "By the Gods this really hurts." She bit her lower lip and looked up at him. "Yeah sure do what you have to do. I've had to do that to my arm several times." She then watched him tear a piece of his tunic off and he handed it to her. She took it and bit into it hard. "Alright I'm.....AHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!" There was no three. He pulled the ankle and the leg bones back into place and she almost passed out from the pain.
She was then propped up against some more fallen beams and she looked at him. "You know Xena is not going to like that you saved my life. She will probably throw a hissy fit." She laughed a little bit imagining the Warrior Princess scowling Borias for his deed. She then watched as Borias put the "will have to do" splint on her leg. Borias then cradled his arms underneath her and she wrapped her arms around his neck. She winked in pain as he lifted her up off the ground.
When they got out of the barn not 5 seconds later it came crashing down. Cassandra looked over her shoulder as Borias carried her towards the city. She then turned her head and looked at him. "Borias I was going to fight you to the death. You could have left me in that barn and all your problems would have been solved. Why did you save my life?" But her questions would not be answered for when they reached the edge of the clearing where the tents were supposed to be "The war of the two sisters" had already started. Her heart raced and for one reason Ares would know that she did not fulfill her duty and her life was forfeited anyway. Looking at him when he mentioned that the only place that Cassandra would be safe would be the Palace and she shook her head. Callisto had killed Erwen and Cassandra did nothing to prevent it. If that came to light then her head would be put on a spit in two shakes of a horse's tail. NO she would not be safe there. Especially with Xena there. The moment she sees her in Boria's arms she would be dead. All paths lead to her death. And there was no way around it.
Of course the God of War would not let his precious daughter die. No not today or any other day. He was on his way to the Amazon Village where there was said to be some Ambrosia still left. Even though he had declared war on them years ago to get his Godhood back maybe they would be more generous to him if he explained that the ambrosia was not for him this time. But to save the life of his beloved daughter. But would the Amazon's believe him or would he once again have to declare war on them and take the Ambrosia by force. Because one way or another he would get that scarred fruit and save his daughter from an untimely fate.
The rain was hard and cold, and lightning bolts pummeled the Empress Giada’s castle. Yet Borias continued to trudge through the mud and the storm, determined to get Cassandra to safety inside the castle where her broken leg could be tended to. He hoped there would be a magical solution, because otherwise that leg would take many weeks to heal. And he’d seen enough badly broken limbs to know that it might not heal quite right. It could leave Cassandra with a permanent limp and badly degrade her capabilities in battle.
She asked why he saved her life. He shook his head and frowned at the question, which he thought had an obvious answer, “Because I am a man of honor. Honor and duty. I don’t know why you decided you had to kill me. I’m sure you had your reasons. Wouldn’t be the first time an ally has turned on me. But I don’t care why, because I have no reason to turn on you. I have come to respect you, Princess. I even… like you.” This was becoming awkward. He stopped for a moment under the eave of a storefront where vegetables and meats were being sold. Except the shopkeeper had taken cover and the customers had apparently scurried on home. He noted that the makeshift bandage around Cassandra’s wound was soaked through with blood.
“Cassandra, Princess… after the great battle between Xena’s army, your army and Callisto’s band of thieves, we came together first as enemies under truce to pursue a common cause together. That’s what rationale, honorable people do. I know you killed my friends and fellow warriors on the battlefield. I held no grudge because of that. You were doing what a warrior does, just as I was doing.” The rain seemed to let up a little, so Borias continued on with Cassandra in his arms. “But I don’t understand your sudden aggression towards me. What did I do to deserve this?”
He stood across the courtyard from the entrance to the palace. Lightning was sizzling into the palace walls about every 10 seconds, leaving long, ragged black scars on the stone. The lightning wasn’t damaging the palace, but it made entry hazardous at best. After one bolt of electricity struck, Borias made a run for it. He nearly slipped in the mud and his hair stood up on end as lightning struck not 20 feet away from him, but they made it safely inside the palace. Now – to find help.
The Empress Giada had declined to answer Xena’s questions about Gabrielle’s circumstances, about the likelihood that she might be under a spell or the victim of sorcery. Gabrielle’s sudden appearance in the Strega Empire after weeks of having gone missing, and – Xena had to admit, she was presumed dead - was mysterious and suspicious at the same time. But Gabrielle appeared to be herself. The battle bard. Xena could detect no indication of trouble. So they would continue training, continue to prepare for battle, but watch for signs, be vigilant just in case.
Xena and Gabrielle were about to go back to the training grounds to assess recent progress on the construction of the gigantic catapults when a storm suddenly and rapidly blew up out of the south. This was no ordinary storm, it was pitch black and the clouds moved in over the Strega with astonishing speed. As Xena understood things in this region of the world, this was not the season for such weather. This was typically the dry season in the Strega.
With Gabrielle at her side, Xena climbed to the rooftop of the tallest mud and mortar building in the marketplace to get a better view of the gathering tempest. A frown furrowed her brow as the wind kicked up, gusting leaves and debris through the corridors of the marketplace below them. The clouds in the distance, which were rapidly approaching, seemed to be almost boiling, and as dark as looking down into the deepest well. Lightning constantly scissored back and forth in those clouds. The short hairs on the back of Xena’s neck, the ones that dependably were a bellwether for dark magic, were standing up straight. “Gabrielle. Go back to the palace and warn the palace guard and Giada herself. Something is coming, and it’s coming fast. I fear war is upon us. Go now! Hurry. I will alert the generals. We will ready the army for battle.”
As the rains started pouring down, trumpets sounded from the training grounds. Those trumpets were meant to be blown on only one occasion – when the army was under attack. “Run, Gabrielle! Like the wind! Run!”
The rain was hard and cold, and lightning bolts pummeled the Empress Giada’s castle. Yet Borias continued to trudge through the mud and the storm, determined to get Cassandra to safety inside the castle where her broken leg could be tended to. He hoped there would be a magical solution, because otherwise that leg would take many weeks to heal. And he’d seen enough badly broken limbs to know that it might not heal quite right. It could leave the girl with a permanent limp and badly degrade her capabilities in battle.
She asked why he saved her life. He shook his head and frowned at the question, which he thought had an obvious answer, “Because I am a man of honor. Honor and duty. I don’t know why you decided you had to kill me. I’m sure you had your reasons. Wouldn’t be the first time an ally has turned on me. But I don’t care why, because I have no reason to turn on you. I have come to respect you, Princess. I even… like you.” This was becoming awkward. He stopped for a moment under the eave of a storefront where vegetables and meats were being sold. Except the shopkeeper had taken cover and the customers had apparently scurried on home. He noted that the makeshift bandage around Cassandra’s wound was soaked through with blood.
“Cassandra, Princess… after the great battle between Xena’s army, your army, and Callisto’s band of thieves, we came together first as enemies under truce to pursue a common cause together. That’s what rationale, honorable people do. I know you killed my friends and fellow warriors on that battlefield. I held no grudge because of that. You were doing what a warrior does, just as I was doing.” The rain seemed to let up a little, so Borias continued on with Cassandra in his arms. “But I don’t understand your sudden aggression towards me. What did I do to deserve this?”
He stood across the courtyard from the entrance to the palace. Lightning was sizzling into the palace walls about every 10 seconds, leaving long, ragged black scars on the stone. The lightning wasn’t damaging the palace, but it made entry hazardous at best. After one bolt of electricity struck, Borias made a run for it. He nearly slipped in the mud and his hair stood up on end as lightning struck not 20 feet away from him, but they made it safely inside the palace. Now – to find help.
The lighting was so treacherous that it was not natural. Someone was controlling this storm and making it near impossible to gain entrance to the castle. Cassandra ran all of what Borias said in her mind and she thought long and hard about it. Why was she doing all of this? Yes, they were enemies. Faught valiantly on the battlefield. Yes she took many of his friends and fellow warriors on the battlefield and sent them to Hades or wherever honorable men go. Cassandra did not know about the afterlife. She then cleared her throat and looked at him as they waited for a possible moment to pass safely through into the castle. But Borias could not wait any longer, Cassandra held onto him tight and he darted towards the entrance.
They made it in sure enough. She was still in his arms and she remembered what he said about him sorta liking her. She suddenly felt a bit uncomfortable. Also the question "What did I do to deserve this?" He did nothing really it was just her duty at that moment and it had to be carried out or she would be fed to the warms. But he would never believe her. Or more like it he would try and get her out of her duty. Be the hero and try and save the damsel in distress. A damsel she was not and she had to fulfill her duty....no matter what. But he did deserve an answer. Cassandra looked up at him and she cleared her throat. "Alright Borias after all that we been through you deserve a straight answer. The reason why I challenged you to a fight to the death was because if I do not kill both you and the Bard Gabrielle, Callisto will not agree to going with me willing to my father to be handed to Hera who needs her for a special task. I am guessing it has to do something with Hercules. But that is only a guess I do not know why Hera wants her. But if I don't bring Callisto to my father to give to Hera then Hera will force my father to kill me."
Meanwhile back at the Amazon Territory...Ares appeared and he had his hand on his sword. "Alright, I am here. Now where would they keep that damn tree." Suddenly he was surrounded by about a dozen Amazon Warriors. Ares looked at them and he thought about it long and hard he could just kill these Amazons right here right now and take the fruit by force. But he decided to go with the sincere approach. He looked at them once again in turn and he noticed that this was the Amazon village that Cassandra came from. Maybe he could use that to his advantage. The Amazon Queen stepped forward. "Ares, what are you doing here? You said you would never attack this Village again and yet here you are. Why?" Ares's cheeks flared a bit and he looked at them. "My daughter Cassandra is badly injured. If she does not get proper medical attention, or does not eat the fruit Ambrosia, she could have a permanent injury and she would lose her advantage in battle. Her speed and agility!" The Amazon Queen pointed her spear at him. "YOU MEAN YOU WOULD LOSE YOUR ADVANTAGE IN BATTLE ARES! You do not care about your Warriors even if it is your daughter. You will not get the Ambrosia from us." Ares then drew his sword and glared at them. "TAKE THAT BACK YOU HEATHEN. THE LOVE OF MY DAUGHTER IS ALL I CARE ABOUT AT THIS POINT. I WILL NOT SEE HER PUT THROUGH THIS SHAME FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE! NOW GIVE ME THE AMBROSIA!" The Amazon's all drew their weapons and waited for their Queens command.
The Queen looked at Ares and she stepped even closer to him. He looked down at her and his breathing was heavy and she could tell he was super pissed off. "Ares the tail of the time you took your daughter from our queen has been passed down to queen to queen for many many years. Not a single Amazon does not go on without this story in their minds. We pray that one day Cassandra will see the light and come back to us and take her place as our Queen. *takes in a deep breath* Because she has Amazon blood in her we will give you the fruit. But on one condition. You release her from her bonds from you and allow her to return to us." Ares stepped back and kept his sword high pointed at the Amazon Queens' neck. "Cassandra is not bond to me in any way, shape or form. She stays on her own free will." The Amazon Queen shook her head. "You are wrong about that Ares. She stays because she loves you. As any Daughter would love their Father. CAST that love aside and disown her! She will return to us in a heartbeat after you've done that." Ares shakes his head and looks her dead in the eyes. "No! You are asking me to cast aside the love I have for my daughter! I WILL NOT DO THAT! DO YOU HEAR ME! I WILL NOT!" The Queen raised her hand. "Then you have made your choice. Your daughter will not receive the Ambrosia and she will forever live with the injury she has endured. This meeting is over. AMAZONS!" The Queen turns and they all walk back into the village and Ares is left dumbstruck. Now what was he supposed to do?
This storm was in a way like a wildfire ripping across the high grasslands – out of control, unstoppable, and deadly as hell. The difference being this was all water, lightning bolts, and thunder. But both had a similar destructive force. Xena told her to run to the palace and warn the guard and Empress Giada. Seems like they would know what was happening already. It was pretty obvious to Gabrielle. Aurora, Giada’s sister was attacking. The war to end all wars had begun in spectacular fashion. Aurora must have a flair for the dramatic with all these celestial pyrotechnics. Gabrielle wanted to stay with Xena, wanted to go out on the battlefield and fight side by side with her. But she would do what was asked of her. Because it was Xena. Besides, she felt she had unfinished business with the Empress of the Strega. Strange that she would feel that way, because what could that unfinished business possibly be?
So Gabrielle ran. Through the marketplace, past the booths that were being hastily packed up or buttoned down. These people knew it was more than a storm. They knew it was the brink of war. Their lives were about to change dramatically. Some of them probably wouldn’t live through the night. Still Gabrielle ran. But she skidded to a stop in the mud outside the palace, because a wall of blazingly brilliant electricity shimmered in front her, a wall of lightning bolts – and what appeared to be an impenetrable barrier. Except a door opened up, a passageway just big enough for Gabrielle. Somehow she knew that would happen, and she calmly walked right through the lightning wall and into the vast anteroom of the palace. The guards confronted her. She told them the war had started, that Aurora’s army of the dead was attacking out on the training grounds. She asked to be taken to the Empress, to inform Giada of what she knew. They said the Empress had gone out, to find Xena.
Little did she know that Borias and Cassandra were only one room away, and the guards didn’t deem it important enough to tell her.
Gabrielle felt suddenly deflated, as if purpose had flown from her body. She was confused, lightheaded even. She took a seat on a chair and rubbed at her forehead. “I’ll wait for her,” she said to the guard. But what exactly was she waiting for? Empress Giada, or something else? Gabrielle stood, frowning. “No, on second thought, I’ll go find her.” She strode out of the palace and back through that lightning door to find the Empress. To Gabrielle, it felt like she was on the precipice of her destiny. Giada
Giada had gone out to find Xena...to no avail. The storm had begun in its vengeance. . At first Giada paid no head to the storm. Her anger of not finding Xena took hold of her thoughts. She would have Xena's head on a platter when she found her. However, an ominous feeling crept up her spine as one flash of lightning streaked across the sky. Only one person beside herself that could create a lightning strike such as that.... The North Star....her sister Aurora.
"Aurora!" She called out..."Her sister was here in The Strega...she could feel her even if she was not visible with the naked eye. As she came closer to the palace. The storm was in its full raging glory. Crossing the courtyard, she heard the crashing and collapsing of the barn. She was soaked to the bone as the rain came down harder. Picking up her soaked gown she began to run faster to the palace doors.
As she neared the palace doors, she practically ran into Gabrielle. Her eyes flashing a fiery red as she looked at the girl. "Where is Xena?" She demanded. "Why were inside the palace? My sister has begun her attack. " She said waiting for the girl to answer her.
They found a bed to lay Cassandra down upon. But the guards said that the Empress was not in the palace. There was only a minor warlock here and they didn’t know if he had healing powers. “Well get him, dammit! Can’t you see we’ve got an emergency here?!” Not to mention what was happening outside. The storm was still battering the palace and the flashes of lightning were coming so fast and furious that it was making Borias dizzy. But the guards went in search of the warlock.
Borias got the Princess a glass of water, which was all he could find. “I’d have made it something stronger, but the great palace of the Empress Giada seems to be stunningly lacking in what we need.” Then Cassandra laid out her rationale for why she’d gone all berserk warrior princess on him. “Callisto won’t go with you unless you kill both me and Gabrielle?” Xena wasn’t going to be happy about that. “And Hercules, Hera, and your father are all involved in this tangled web, as well?” Borias was having difficulty wrapping his head around all this Olympian drama. He was a simple man who was always direct. No contorted plots or twisted intrigue for Borias. You kill the enemy, steal their stuff, and party. Or they kill you. It’s quite simple. Or it should be.
“That doesn’t make any sense. You and I, we capture and hogtie Callisto. Or if needed, we’ll bring in Xena and Gabrielle. The four of us will take the mad blonde down easily enough. Cassandra, all you had to do was ask for help. We are allies now. I am bound to you, as a warrior. But at the moment, we have other problems. Like this leg of yours, and that storm and the war raging outside. We have to get through that first, then we’ll deal with Callisto and whatever celestial, godly business awaits us after that. If we survive. And if your father or Hera or Hercules or whoever doesn’t like that plan, well, they can strike us dead!” Borias looked up, half expecting the mighty fist of Ares to appear above him and pulverize him flat. But it didn’t happen.
What did happen was the warlock stalked into the room. The man was tall and thin, of dark complexion and hair, and he wore a cowled robe. He introduced himself as Alatar. “Can you heal the Princess’ leg, Mr. Alatar?” The warlock briefly looked at the wound, then nodded his head and said ‘Yes. But I need ingredients for my spell.’ He turned and walked out of the room. Borias shook his head, “What happened to wizards who would just wave their hand over a broken bone and just like that it would be mended?”
Meanwhile, the storm outside intensified even more, if that was possible. Borias was itching to get onto the battlefield.
Xena slogged through the mud and the driving rain towards the palace. She needed to brief the Empress. But she found Giada and Gabrielle on the pathway to the palace doors. “Your Majesty! The war, it has begun!” Xena’s wet hair was plastered to her head and lightning flashed all around them. “The attack took us by surprise.” “Your sister brought in her Army of the Dead first, as we surmised. But General Augustus was slow to respond. He didn’t have sufficient time. Empress, the Battle of the Dead is going very badly for our side. The living have engaged as well, but I wouldn’t say it’s going much better there, either. Our men were training before the storm. When the rains and the wind began destroying the encampment, they were in the middle of trying to hold everything together when they were attacked on three sides. Empress, two of the three catapults have been destroyed, and the other is mired and dumped on its side in the mud.” Xena swept locks of wet hair out of her eyes. “Sorcery is afoot as well. Our scouts should have seen Aurora’s army coming, but they just appeared, as if magically transported to the Strega. I have reports that for each living soldier of your sister’s army that we kill, two soldiers are recruited into Aurora’s army of the dead. Unless that magic can be stopped, we will not prevail and Aurora’s army will overrun the Strega.”
Xena took notice of Gabrielle standing there. She was watching Giada instead of focusing on what Xena was saying. “Gabrielle, why aren’t you on the battlefield. I thought we…” Xena frowned. Something was wrong but she couldn’t define it. And didn’t have time for it. “Empress, you are needed on the battlefield. Only your power is likely to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.” A lightning bolt sizzled into a tree not 20 feet away, splitting it in two. “We need to move before we’re incinerated!”
Surreal was the word that best described this moment. In a pouring rain that was more sorcery than natural phenomenon, Gabrielle watched as Xena explained how badly the war was going for Empress Giada. Although Gabrielle was barely listening, because she knew already how things would go out there on the battlefield. It was destined, because the Empress Aurora was the elder sister, the more powerful and exalted sister. Yes, Aurora would win. There was no doubt about it. It was destined to be. Just as Gabrielle was destined to be here, standing next to the Empress Giada at this critical juncture.
Something burned brightly in the pocket of Gabrielle’s jacket. It was a rain jacket, and she had the hood drawn up over her head to protect her from the storm. She knew the lightning bolts would not hurt her, because they were lightning bolts sent from Aurora, the Empress of the Great Seljuk Empire. Aurora the Great had resurrected Gabrielle from the dirt and mud of the battlefield. Gabrielle’s body had been pounded into the sands by the hooves of horses. She’d been left to the vultures and the ravens. The jackals and the beetles and worms. So unfair. But Aurora had brought Gabrielle back, had given her life and purpose again. And that purpose was crystalline clear now. Xena would not be happy, and Gabrielle fully expected to die as a result of her treasonous actions. But it didn’t matter, because she knew she was destined for a better place, a better existence. And in time, Xena would join her there.
So from out of her jacket pocket Gabrielle slid the dagger infused with a poison made by Aurora herself, to target her sister. With no regrets, she plunged it into the side of the Empress Giada.
“A gift from your dearest sister. Sweet retribution, bitter reward,” Gabrielle said. Erwen
Like the Bard, Gabrielle, Erwen had been brought back from the dead by the Empress Aurora. He had most certainly been killed by Callisto in that upstairs boarding house, above a tavern in some insignificant town. But the Empress Aurora knew his value, so she had his remains collected and brought to her palace. He was resurrected. But on a condition of service to Aurora. In retrospect, it was a pretty good deal. Better than an eternity in Hell, which was Erwen’s only other option. He only needed to betray Empress Giada. “No problem,” he’d unhesitatingly told Giada’s sister, Aurora. So he’d hurried back to the Strega and pretended to be the Druid he had once been – loyal and completely devoted to the Empress Giada.
But when the battle started, he took his position on the hill – a good vantage point, and a most excellent place to perform his dark magic. But this time, instead of sorcery to benefit Giada, he used some tricks that Aurora had taught him to draw power away from Giada’s Army of the Dead, funneling it to Aurora’s own army. The magical power would create two new dead soldiers for Aurora for every live soldier killed by Giada’s army. Furthermore, in every way he could, Erwen drew magical energy from Giada and channeled it to Aurora’s now conquering force.
He hummed a happy tune as he wove his traitorous magic of betrayal. Giada
Before she could speak another word. She felt the stabbing fiery knife as it plunged into her side. Giada stumbled backwards as she looked at the woman before her. Instantly she felt the burning pain as the poison that was on the dagger seeped into her body. She knew instantly her sister had dealt a devastating blow to her. She meant to kill her...and she just might succeed as the world swirled around her.
Giada's eyes burned a crimson red as she outstretched her hand with all the power she could muster lifted Gabrielle up in the air. Her feet dangling as the grip she had on her...was tightly around her throat cutting off the air supply to her lungs. "You shall die!." She said between gritted teeth. Giada's eyes began to blur and with one quick flick of her wrist Gabrielle went flying in the air...only to land on the ground in the courtyard.
Stumbling into the palace. Giada almost fell. She grabbed onto the table in the foyer steadying herself. Taking a few deep breaths. She managed to get to the end of the hallway where her magic lair was. Opening the door she practically tumbled don the long spiral staircase. Making her way to her work table. Casting a spell. Her eyes beginning to become unfocused she used the last of her strength to summon the only two people that could help her now. She uttered these words. To summon her great great grandfather, The Immortal King William Reaper, and the great Emperor Delfic. "O rex magnus, magna est avo William messor et magnum principem molliret Delferic .. Nunc opus est tibi."
With that she passed out. As the world blackened around her. Suddenly the first was to appear was her great great grandfather.. His eyes burning red as she saw his great great granddaughter on the ground. Then Emperor Delferic. The most brutal warrior that ever was. The man who considered Gada a sister and trained her himself to be a warrior.
Both men looked at each other. The room shook with anger as they picked up Giada. "Whoever did this will pay with their lives." The Immortal King William Reaper spoke.." Nodding his head. "Indeed they shall. First lets help Giada so she can fight along side us in the battle." Emperor Delferic spoke sternly.
“GABRIELLE!!!” Xena couldn’t believe her own eyes, couldn’t believe what Gabrielle had just done! The Empress stumbled, the dagger protruding from her side, blood beginning to stream down her regal gown. “Why Gabrielle!? WHY?!” Xena knew what was coming next. Knew that Gabrielle had just signed her own death warrant. In the rain and the mud, and despite her dire injury, Giada lifted Gabrielle off the ground by her slender throat. The girl didn’t struggle, like she knew and expected these to be her last moments. “Empress Giada, please! She didn’t know what she was doing! It must be that she’s controlled by your sister. Under a spell. It’s not her fault, Empress!” Giada could have broken her neck or choked the life out of Gabrielle, but she didn’t, she just flung the girl aside and stormed back into the palace. Had she taken mercy on Gabrielle, or was retribution only delayed, and perhaps would come in some worse fashion than a mere broken neck?
Torn now between helping her friend and lover, and assisting Giada in her time of need, Xena followed her heart and went to Gabrielle’s side. The girl was coughing up blood. Did she have broken bones? Internal injuries? There was no way of knowing. All Xena knew was the girl needed medical attention. They needed the help of the Army doctors and whatever magicians could be mustered to heal Gabrielle’s wounds. Xena also knew she needed to quickly remove Gabrielle from the palace. Because Giada would be coming for Gabrielle.
So she ran with her lover in her arms, ran through the mud and the bolts of lightning, ran to the edge of the clearing where Giada’s army had established a camp with its tents and armaments and equipment. Except the army had been overrun by Aurora’s soldiers, living and dead. The tents had been blown down and trampled into the mud by Aurora’s cavalry. The medical tent was gone, as were the doctors. Xena should be out on the battlefield, leading the charge against the enemy. But she was here with a dying Gabrielle in her arms. What was she to do? A gnarled hollowed-out fire scar at the base of a huge, old tree provided a respite from the storm. Xena laid Gabrielle down there and tried her best to make her comfortable and to keep her dry. But it wasn’t long before Aurora’s soldiers found them. Xena had to fight, and she knew now exactly what she was fighting for. With her signature, fearsome war cry, Xena tossed her lethal Balance Chakram, drew her sword and began hacking her way through the hordes of enemy warriors that tried to cut her down and get to Gabrielle.
From a lofty height above the battlefield, Aurora was jubilant! Everything was working like clockwork. Her own Army of the Dead had decimated Giada’s walking dead soldiers, Aurora’s magic, wielded by Erwen, was creating two new dead soldiers for every live soldier from the Seljuk Empire that Giada’s soldiers killed, the Strega’s mighty catapults had been destroyed or disabled, and Giada’s army was in disarray and on the run. The piece de resistance was that Gabrielle had stabbed Giada with the dagger Aurora had given her. The magic infused into that blade would put Giada into a coma and leave her slumbering for a hundred years like a goddess Rip Van Winkle. When she awoke, the Strega would be under the firm rule of Aurora. No one would even remember that Giada had ever been Empress here. The war couldn’t be going much better for Aurora and her Seljuk Empire fighters.
Giada’s best warriors were even distracted or disabled. Borias was tending to Cassandra who had been injured when a building collapsed. Gabrielle was, of course, on Aurora’s side, and Erwen was a traitor as well. But Xena had joined the fight recently, and she was inflicting a heavy toll on Aurora’s warriors. Xena was protecting an injured or dying Gabrielle, and fighting with all the incentive one would expect of a woman protecting her lover.
It was time for Aurora to intercede, to not only stave off any further losses in her army, but to show her soldiers that she had their backs and was not afraid to get her hands dirty. Yes, Aurora would fight, and she would square off with Xena. Aurora, the Empress of the Great Seljuk Empire, floated down out of the sky, a glowing golden sword grasped firmly in her right hand, her long golden locks billowing out behind her, but her feet were bare as was the custom in the Seljuk. As she descended, the storm abated around her and the sun shined on the Empress. Aurora the Great didn’t need to be soaked by her own conjured storm. She waved her soldiers away from the warrior princess, “Return to the main front, brave warriors. I’ll deal with Xena.” Her soldiers were more than happy to oblige. Already many of them had fallen to Xena’s sword and Chakram. Of course, they had all come back as dead warriors.
Aurora grinned at Xena. The warrior princess was probably 5 inches taller than Aurora, and she was more than a match for any ordinary human soldier. But Aurora was neither ordinary nor completely human. She twirled the sword in her grasp, and as she did it shed brilliant magical sparks. “Finally we meet, Xena.” Aurora pointed her sword at Gabrielle, who was cowering in a hole at the base of a tree, “Xena, you know I brought her back from the dead. You left her there on the battlefield. She didn’t stand a chance against both Callisto and Cassandra’s armies. Gabrielle was killed by a sword thrust from Callisto herself and her body was left to be trampled into the mud where it would rot and become fodder for vultures, jackals, and worms. But I knew what she meant to you. I knew she was important. So I resurrected Gabrielle and I gave her one simple task, something to show her gratitude for my gift to her, the gift of life. And she carried out that task admirably.” Which was of course, to stab Giada with the magical dagger. “But you are now standing in the way of my victory, my ascension to Empress of the Strega. So you shall fight and you shall die.” Aurora raised her sword and swung it with such devastating speed and accuracy that Xena Warrior Princess would certainly be cut in half.
Cassandra could feel something was wrong. The air was thick with electricity and well it was driving her crazy She wanted to fight and the war was going on without her. She looked up at Borias and of course, he was itching to fight as well. She laid there on the table waiting for the damn magician to come back with the ingredients that he needed in order to fix her leg. The pain was more than she could bear and she was sweating a little too much for comfort. The wound on her broken leg was getting infected and it was making her sick. If the magician did not come back soon she would lose more than just her leg.
Ares grew tired of this. He knew that Hera would not allow this but he had to intervene. He had to save his daughter of the Amazon's were not going to help him. He had made his decision he would appear at the Strega Empire and he would heal his daughter with his own Godhood powers. But before he could even lightning bolt away Hera appeared to him. "You were not going to go against your own mother would you Ares. Remember our deal. Your daughter brings me Callisto and I do not kill her. You do not interfere in any way. Remember?" Ares glared at Hera. "She will die anyway if I do not help her. Hera she doing the best she can. She is only half Goddess. She can't heal herself like we can. Please let me go down there and help her so she can finish her task. Please!" Hera folded her arms and she cleared her throat. "She will not do it your way, Ares. She will not kill the Bard and Borias." Ares glared. "I do not care about that right now. All I care about is that she is well and that she brings Callisto here like you said." Hera waved her hand and she did the deed herself. "There she is healed now stay out of this Ares. Cassandra will do as she must to get me Callisto."
Suddenly as if by magic from another source Cassandra's leg began to mend on its own. She looked up at Borias and she had the looked of surprise. "Borias look! My leg! It’s healing by itself. But the Magician is nowhere to be seen. Who could be healing my leg." She then thought that it might be Ares. But he was not supposed to interfere with her mission. She was supposed to do this on her own. Once her bones were back in place she quickly stood up and looked at Borias. "I fear something terrible has happened while we have been MIA. Let's take care of this war between sisters and then we will worry about Callisto.”
Giada sat on her black steed in between her great great grandfather and the Emperor Delferic. As they rode out of the palace gates. Five legions of their most fierce warriors from each men rode behind her and flanked each side. She was still sore for the stab wound that was inflicted upon her. Each stepped her horse took pained her a little but she ignored it for she had a battle to fight..her sister to be brought down.
Giada was in full reaper armor. A black chest plate and tattered black cloak around her shoulders. Her sword strapped to her waist. The blade of her sword was made of stainless steel. The golden dragon on the hilt moved and swayed as its eyes glowed a crimson red. Ready for battle.
She could hear the battle raging in the distance. She wondered how many men she lost due to her sister's army. She also wondered where Xena and Borias were. She would hold Xena accountable for each life that was lost. That though is for later after the battle was won and her sister and her army defeated once and for all.
As they finally stood overlooking the battle Giada looked at both men. Their steely eyes taking in the scene below. Nodding their heads. They began riding toward the battle at full speed. The pounding of the hooves shook the ground like an earthquake. Mentally Giada sent her sister a message. "On this day Aurora...you shall meet your match."
Xena was admirably ducking Aurora’s devastating sword volleys and then cowardly slashing at the Empress of the Seljuk Empire when she thought she could do so without injury. This wasn’t a battle, it was an embarrassment. Aurora should have finished off the warrior princess in short order, yet here she was wasting her precious time. She was needed out on the battlefield. Xena was right about one thing, Giada had gone on the offensive. Although Aurora’s army had caught Giada’s forces by surprise and inflicted devastating initial losses, Aurora could feel something in the air. The battle was beginning to pivot, and Giada and her Generals had entered the battlefield. This was not the time for Aurora to be dilly-dallying with a single pathetic opponent.
Aurora stopped her offensive against Xena and rose up into the air above the level at which Xena could attack her. Her visage glowed a brilliant gold and a phantom wind billowed her hair out behind her. “I have neither the patience nor the time for this nonsense!” Aurora pointed to Gabrielle with her sword, “Look, Xena, your lover lays dying in the mud. Go to her now, kiss her goodbye and hold her in your arms one last time, for she has little time left in this realm.”
Aurora departed, flying across the muddy ground towards where the armies of the two Empresses were engaged. The storm no longer served a purpose, so she put an end to the driving rain and sent the clouds and lightning northward, away from the Strega. Hovering above the battlefield, Aurora didn’t like what she was seeing. Giada’s army had cut a swath through Aurora’s forces, separating them into two groups. The eastern flank of her army was surrounded and taking heavy losses. The western group was retreating. This would not do! Would not do at all! Aurora could also see that Giada and her Generals were bearing down on the eastern flank. They would no doubt finish off that half of Aurora’s army in short order, which would not bode well for the other half or winning this war for the Seljuk Empire. So that was where Aurora needed to focus. If she could push back against Giada there, Aurora just might yet win the day.
Telepathically, Aurora called to three of her own Generals – the Commander of her Army of the Dead – Obelius, and her experts in battlefield strategy – Generals Santos and Belen, called them to join her to repel Giada and her offensive. Aurora descended into the fray, her shining silver sword slashing back and forth, cutting through enemy necks, torsos, and limbs in sprays of hot arterial blood. Slowly she cut a path through Giada’s men towards where she knew her sister, Empress Giada, was inflicting similar damage on Aurora’s troops. “I am coming for you, dear sister!” She yelled. “Cherish these moments, for they are your last as Empress of the Strega!!”
With Aurora out of the way now, Xena ran to Gabrielle’s side once again. She stroked the girl’s silky blonde hair and her satin cheek. “Gabrielle, how are you feeling?” The Bard seemed better, her condition appeared to have stabilized a little. “We’re in a bit of a pickle here, Gabrielle. I swore allegiance to Empress Giada, but she just tried to kill you. I just battled her sister, Aurora, who put a spell on you to kill Giada.” But then Aurora had also brought Gabrielle back from the dead – so there was some yin and yang in regard to Aurora. “Giada brought me here as a prisoner. I agreed to work with her because I didn’t seem to have any good alternatives. Maybe I should have escaped with Callisto. But when Giada removed me from the battlefield, or I guess Erwen removed me, that left you at risk. Giada is the reason why you died out there. Giada will be expecting me to fight for her, but I can’t do that now. I’m not feeling the love, if you know what I mean. Not for Giada. But we’re not on Aurora’s side either. We’re in a no-woman’s land. Betwixt and between. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Gabrielle, we just have to get the hell out of here. The sisters are distracted, this is our opportunity to escape.” She gathered Gabrielle up into her arms and headed towards the village. “I want to get as far away from this horrible place as possible. Mongolia, or maybe China. We’ll start anew, just you and me. A new life, maybe a quieter life.”
Xena bought supplies in the marketplace, then stole two horses – a big black stallion for herself and a white mare for Gabrielle. The Bard was almost too weak to ride, but they made their way west, away from the battlefield. They hadn’t gotten very far when Xena heard something behind her. She turned around in the saddle to see three large dragons out on the battlefield. Fire-breathers. They’d talked about trying to recruit dragon riders to help Giada, but as far as Xena knew, no one had been successful. The two sisters had a Dragon Lord for a father. So the question was, who’s side were the dragons on? Aurora or Giada? Xena turned back around in her saddle. It didn’t really matter anymore. Xena and Gabrielle were done here. She didn’t care who won, Xena just wanted to be someplace else, someplace far, far away.
The Emperor Delferic motioned for his men to take the east...as The Immortal William Reaper motioned for his men to take the west. However, the two men still sat mounted on their horses by Giada's side. Ready to fight alongside her with her sister. Giada shook her head as she looked at both men. "Go with your men. This fight is between my sister and I." She spoke softly. "However, Xena is trying to escape with Gabrielle. Send a couple of your men to bring her back to me..and place them both in the dungeons." Her voice was an icy river on a winter's day.
Both men hesitated to leave Giada's side. However, they saw the look in her eyes and knew not to argue with her. Agree to sending a few men to capture this Xena and bring her back. As they departed from her side the screeching of dragons echoed over her head. Breathing fire and burning everything in their path. The sister's dragon blood had called the dragons on this day. The warring sisters had summoned the most powerful dragons in all the lands. The disturbance and the balance was disturbed. The North and South Stars colliding.
Gracefully Giada dismounted her stallion. As it knickered to her in a waning as it hooves pranced on the ground. Giada petting him and whispered in his ear to calm him. Then taking her sword out of its sheath to walk toward her sister. Then she spotted her. Slashing her sword through the air...giving out orders to defeat the legions of fighters that were on the ground.
Telepathically she sent another message to her sister. "Your armies will die Aurora. Your army of the dead.. will turn to ashes.. your soldiers shall be feasted on by the armies of my great-great grandfather and Emperor Delferic. Their blood is on your hands this day. Now meet me in the middle of the battlefield if you are brave enough." She said as she stood there waiting for her sister.
Fighting all the soldiers around her Cassandra was slashing her sword left and right meeting her mark each time. She wasn't even paying attention to the commotion in the middle of the battlefield where the two sisters were meeting. She didn't even care where Xena and Gabrielle were. If they were still alive that is. She just kept at her pace of hacking the soldiers to bits. She was using her godlike strength and agility to whine them out. But as she was hacking the soldiers up she saw them rise again. "What kind of black magic is this?" She then saw that one of the men was her own. She squinted her eyes and then she opened them wide. "Clabber is that you? Clabber its me Cassandra." But the soldier did not even recognize his once commander. He swung his blade and it cut her right arm. She screamed in pain as she grabbed her arm. It was her sword arm so this was going to make it much more difficult. "BORIAS! BORIAS WHERE ARE YOU?" Clabber kicked her in the chest and she fell back into the muddy wet ground. "DIE! DAUGHTER OF ARES!" Cassandra looked up and she had a feeling that this was going to be the moment that her life was going to be taken from her.
The war was going badly for Aurora and her army. She was in constant telepathic contact with her battlefield Generals: Obelius, Santos, and Belen, and the word wasn’t good. Belen, in charge of what had become Aurora’s western army flank, was taking heavy losses and had been surrounded. Santos, who was leading the eastern flank, was in retreat. He said they were vastly outnumbered. But Aurora didn’t care, she screamed into his head, “Where’s your courage, Santos!! Grow a pair! Stand and fight. DON’T YOU DARE RUN OFF THIS BATTLEFIELD OR I’LL COME FOR YOU MYSELF!!”
Meanwhile, three fire-breathing dragons had joined the fray. But they didn’t seem to be helping either side much. They were just burning paths through soldiers and equipment, and it didn’t seem to matter to them who they killed. They must have been confused, as both Giada and Aurora have dragon blood flowing through their veins. Aurora sent reassuring thoughts their way, and encouraged them to attack only Giada’s army. They were simple-minded creatures, and required simple-minded instructions. Aurora hoped it would work, because she badly needed an edge.
There was one other option that might win the day for Aurora. Giada had called Aurora out. The Empress of the Seljuk Empire rose up into the sky and flew across the bloody, chaotic battlefield to where her sister waited for her. She drifted down into the mud and blood on deceptively delicate, bare feet. A phantom, magical breeze billowed her golden locks out behind her. “Then let us fight, dear sister. You and I to the death.” She waved her sword at the rest of the battle, the other soldiers who were fighting and dying. “But let’s make this just between you and I. I will call off my soldiers and you call off yours. Everything rides on the fight between sisters, right here and now, up close and personal. If you win, you take the Seljuk Empire and everything I own, everything I am. If I win, I take the Strega, and all that you possess, everything you are becomes mine. I dare you sister, I dare you to risk it all.”
Borias and Cassandra were in the central thrust of Giada’s army, which had broken through Aurora’s defenses and split her army into two pieces. Part of Giada’s forces had wrapped around the western flank of Aurora’s army and they were pressing in for the kill. But there were complications. Kill one of Aurora’s living soldiers and two dead ones pop up in their place. Not to mention seemingly rogue dragons that were spewing fire at anyone and everyone. They just seemed like agents of chaos. Still, Borias and Cassandra did what they were built to do – fight, and they fought well – slashing a bloody path through the opposition, themselves splashed with the blood and awful of Aurora’s soldiers.
And then something untoward happened. One of the dead soldiers sliced at Cassandra’s sword arm and she went down. She yelled for help from Borias. Of course he stepped between the dead warrior and Cassandra. The dead are best equipped to fight other dead, but most of Giada’s dead army was elsewhere. Cassandra seemed to know this man, before he became this thing. Borias raised his sword, “Begone, foul creature. Go fight your own kind!” But it advanced on him. Now, Borias’ sword had been blessed years ago by a Mongolian shaman, warded against certain kinds of magic and evil. A typical sword would have no effect on the dead, except perhaps to anger the spirit. Borias swung his enchanted sword in a broad arc and sliced the dead man’s head off. It rolled into the mud, its blank eyes staring off at the clouded sky. But the dead soldier stumbled around, bent over, searching blindly for its head with his hands. “Oh, bloody hell!” So Borias kept chopping, separating arms from the torso, legs from hips, and then chopping those quivering pieces into ever-smaller pieces. When he was happy with the results, he helped Cassandra to her feet. “Princess, your arm. Can you fight? We have the enemy surrounded. We just need to finish them off. Are you up for it” He glanced around them. A few more dead soldiers had wandered into the fray. Or maybe they’d been created as live soldiers fell. “From now on, let me take care of the dead.”
The world was fading in and out, and the pain in Gabrielle’s back and stomach wasn’t getting much better. She’d been tossed like a rag doll by Aurora; she was lucky her neck wasn’t broken. But other things, inside things, were definitely broken. Gabrielle didn’t think she could stay put on her horse. “Xena, hold up. This isn’t working.” They altered things a bit. They tied the horses together and Gabrielle got up on Xena’s horse, sitting directly behind the Warrior Princess and holding her tight. Gabrielle pressed her body against Xena and laid her cheek against her strong back. As they rode, maybe it was magic, but Gabrielle seemed to draw strength from her old friend and lover. With each passing bend in the road, Gabrielle’s body was mending and growing stronger. So when Giada’s three men showed up and demanded they surrender, Gabrielle was strong enough to fight.
And fight they did. Gabrielle used a tree branch from the side of the road as a fighting staff, whipping it around, tripping the soldiers and throwing them in the dirt, conking them on the head, butting them in the gut. What was Giada thinking, sending run-of-the-mill soldiers to capture her and Xena? Who did she think she was dealing with?
Two of the men were run through with Xena’s sword. The third would be allowed to live, with a message for the Empress. This next part was Gabrielle’s idea. Maybe it was a little cruel, but dammit, she’d had enough of Empresses messing with her life! Xena held the man and Gabrielle used her knife to carve “Xena!” into his forehead. She then rubbed horse poop into the wound, ensuring it would leave a nasty scar. They then tied his hands behind his back and put him up on his horse. “Go back to your Empress and the Strega, coward. And take this message to Giada. Xena and Gabrielle are done with you manipulating our lives. We’re gone and you’ll never, ever find us.” Gabrielle slapped the horse on the rear, setting it down the road, back towards the Strega and Giada.
Then Xena and Gabrielle rode like the wind, never to set foot in the Strega Empire ever again.
The smell of death and flesh filled the air. Causing Giada's nostril to burn from it. The sound of human soldiers screaming by either being eaten alive or as the swords cut through their bodies. Growls and horses' hooves also could be heard. Emperor Delferic vampire and werewolf army taking their tolls. The dragons that flew overhead. Breathing fire burning everything in their wake.
The two sisters with dragon blood in their veins. The daughters of the Great Lord of Dragons were confusing the dragons. Causing them to go wild and uncontrollable. Giada heard her sister's mental message to the dragons. She too sent a message to them. To sit upon the mountain tops and wait. Wait until the battle was over. She loved these creatures..and did not want to see them harmed. Taking her message instead of her sisters...they flew off eastward to await the end of the battle.
Finally, her sister was there. Face to face after how many years? Too many to count. She listened to her sister's words. However, they said nothing. She raised her sword in the air. Rose gold electricity flew from it...then red lightning shot out from all sides. Bringing it down swiftly to the ground. The earth seemed to shatter beneath their feet. Suddenly it was quiet. As it seemed time had stood still. The battle stopped. The fighting stopped as the soldiers on all sides stopped. "I already did my sister. The battle has ended. No more losses on either side."
Giada raised up in the air. As she floated quickly and gracefully into the middle of the field. Slowly descending. Her long dark hair flowing down her back..Her chocolate brown eyes now were fiery red. Nodding her head. "Your empire will die my sister. All will know it was the Great Aurora to cause it. Til the death my sister." She said waiting for her sister.
Cassandra watched the heroics of Borias as he slashed at the creature that was once one of her trusted soldiers. She cursed Giada's sister that she would use men from her army to attack her. She remained on the muddy ground because she could not get up herself. Her arm hurt but a little and it bled pretty badly. She groaned as she was lifted off the ground and looked at Borias. "It is my sword hand Borias I don't think it will do me much good now. I will be slow with my other arm. I am a liability now." She then looked towards the remaining soldiers and she took in a deep breath. She was up for it. She would never give up in a battle even if she was inches from death itself. "Yes I am up for it. Let's do this." Looking at him and then looking down at his sword. "Someday when all this is over. Remind me to thank you and the man that gave you that sword."
Cassandra then raised her other arm with her sword and she charged through the remaining soldiers. She swung slower now because it was not her sword hand. She kept to her word that she would leave the dead soldiers to Borias because of his enchanted sword. The soldiers came at her in groups and she used her other abilities to get through them. Kicking them to the ground and then stabbing them repeatedly. She then would hack them up just like Borias did so they could not come back to the dead army. She looked over her shoulder and she had lost Borias in the chaos. "BORIAS! BORIAS WHERE ARE YOU!" She then saw him in the middle of his own group of soldiers. He looked like he needed help. Cassandra rushed over but then she heard something coming from behind her. She raised her sword and blocked the attack from the back. She spun around and hacked the soldier's head clean off his shoulders. "Never come up on a woman. She will literally take your head off." She laughed and then she rushed over to help Borias with his mess.
After all the yelling and death cries, the whinnying of horses, clanging of swords against armor and other swords, and the swish of dragon wings, silence descended over the battlefield. All fighting ceased. Soldiers began walking back to their own sides of the battleground – Giada’s soldiers to the north, Aurora’s to the south. The wounded and dying would be tended to. The dragons had vanished as quickly and as mysteriously as they had arrived, but they left much destruction and suffering in their wake.
None of that mattered now. The war had shifted, risen to an apex, a climax. This was the long-awaited showdown. The two Dragon Lord sisters would finally fight. Everything in two empires – the Seljuk and the Strega – rode on the outcome. An outcome that would leave one sister dead and the other an Empress over both empires.
Giada’s sword was legendary, passed down through generations of royalty. It sizzled and crackled with energy. But from her lofty, airborne perch, just a smidge above her younger sister, Aurora’s sword – silver and platinum, shining with an innate glow that could burn mortals in an instant, was just as impressive. And just as deadly. Were the sisters equally matched? Or was one ever so slightly more powerful? Would one make a mistake in the battle, negating any differences in strength or skill? All the armies of both sisters, spectators to this epic fight, were about to find out.
Aurora swished her sword back and forth, forming contrails of brilliant energy. “Dearest sister. Your time has come to an end.” Aurora came at her sister, energy bristling all around her, waves of it pulsing out to embrace Giada. Then their swords met, not with a clang, but a gong that reverberated through the land. And soldiers fell to the ground, clasping their hands over their ears, the noise was so very loud and intense. Above the battlefield, Aurora fought with her sister, Giada, swords flashing at lightning speed, Aurora getting in the occasional kick or a jab with her small but lethally strong fist. A hundred silver daggers appeared in the sky above and behind Aurora. She yelled, “Impetus!” and the daggers flew with wicked, deadly accuracy at Giada.
Although outnumbered and even though those pesky dead soldiers were especially hard to kill, Borias was enjoying himself immensely. Times like this, blood pumping, adrenaline rushing, life and death - these were the times Borias lived for. Because he was a soldier and really nothing more. But he was good at what he did. Amazingly good, given that he harbored no magical powers and was just a man.
At the moment he found himself surrounded by six of Aurora’s soldiers. To battle all of them at the same time, he’d salvaged a sword out of the mud and wielded both that sword and his own, lethal blades of steel spinning and jabbing with deadly precision. He quickly disarmed one of the soldiers and ran him through the neck with the salvaged sword. With his other arm, he slashed at the belly of another solder, drawing blood but not bringing him down. He got lucky with a third soldier – a boy really, too young to be on a battlefield. But Borias had to defend himself and took the young man’s head off. That left four, which he faced down. But Cassandra joined him. “Two against four. It almost seems unfair, Princess – for them.”
But something happened and Aurora’s warriors stepped back, letting their swords fall to their sides. Oddly, Borias felt no desire to fight anymore, either. All around them the battlefield fell silent. The war had come to an abrupt end. “It’s an enchantment, Princess. Foul magic!” But warriors began to turn towards the center of the battlefield. Some pointed, others watched in awe as the two queens rose up into the air, their glowing swords raised high. “Ah, so it has come to this. The two sisters will battle it out. And no doubt the spoils of the loser will go to the winner.” What did that mean for the warriors of the losers? Borias hoped Empress Giada would be decidedly victorious. Giada
Giada stood in the middle of the battleground. It seemed barren, if not for the dead and dying carpeting the ground. The soil reddening from the blood of the men who fought. Giada simply nodded her head as the clouds above them turned an eerie grey. The winds started to blow around them. Lightning flashed dangerously across the skies. Then silence. No wind, no lightening. The moans silenced. It was a dead silence where everything in time stood still.
All eyes now on the two sisters. The north and south stars colliding. It will be a cosmic alteration. This was inevitable. The love they once shared destroyed. Did Giada really want to kill her sister? The answer simple..No. However, she will fight her sister to the death of one of them...Or would she. She is the dark star...the evil star.. Also what her sister did not know she was the Goddess of the Oracular. She was the spirit that held all the elements together. Water, Air, Fire, and Earth. How that happened was a story in itself.
The dragon on her sword seemed to know of the battle. For his red ruby eyes. Began to shine. Fire breathed from its mouth. Restless to get the battle started. Giada watched her sister descend down to her. Their swords hitting metal upon metal sparked energy and shook the ground beneath their feet. Sending bolts of lightning in colors of black, red, blue and green. Shooting out like fireworks. The high-pitched sound screeching across the land. However, the two sisters were not affected by it.
Their footwork was majesty like seasoned swordsmen. Sashaying left and right. Dancing in a circle and around each other. Their swords clashing. Blocking the other with their weapons. Giada felt the blows from her sister but did not stumble. As her own blows from her free hand would meet her sister's flesh with her small but powerful hand.
A rose gold light hovered around Giada as she saw the daggers flying toward her. Making contact with the light..the daggers seemed to explode into a million tiny daggers bouncing off the rays. The cries of the men sounded as they were hit by the daggers.
"Circulus Ignis" Called out as a ring of wood encircled her sister. Its flames high that seemed to hunger to lick at her sisters flesh. Once more Giada called out. " Nubibus chains..come canos ejus." The grey clouds seemed to grow arms and fingers that would now encircle her sister's wrist . If her sister was not quick enough to react. Chaining her in her spot. Her sisters sword would fall to the ground at her feet.
Giada walked through the fire that encircled her sister. Now face to face. No one could see the two sisters, because of the flames that now encircled both of them. "I do not wish to kill you my sister but kill you I will." Giada laid her sword on the ground beside her sisters. Then both swords rose up above the flames hovering around them. Dancing in a dual on their own. "Let's say this my dear sister. Whoever reaches their sword first..and makes the first mark wins." With a nod of her head. The clouds would unchain her sister.. Then with lightning speed Giada flew up to grab her sword. Who would be the first sister to take her sword?
Was this a home-field advantage? Did Giada have some power that Aurora had not anticipated? Because that was how Aurora was beginning to feel. Oh, Aurora was not defeated, not by a long shot. But her sister had thus far out-dueled her, and that was true if one looked at the battle between the two armies or what was happening now between the two sisters. Where was Erwen? Aurora had recruited him, ensorcelled him into helping with her cause. And yes, the conversion of Aurora’s soldiers killed by Giada’s army into a growing Army of the Dead had worked, at least for a while, but it had not been enough to turn the tide against Giada’s impressive defenses. Had Erwen the Druid Wizard found a way to thwart Aurora’s spell, or even turn it against her?
But all that was irrelevant now, because the armies lay idle, gleaming swords no longer flashed, no longer tore at flesh. At least out on the battlefield, because those soldiers were awaiting the outcome of the fight between Aurora and Giada.
Aurora had been confident of her success in a one-on-one battle with her sister because Giada was the younger of the two, the less experienced, and she was patently evil. Did not good always triumph over evil, at least in the long term? Not that Aurora could be categorized as “good”, but her powers originated from a place of light and goodness, whereas Giada’s powers came from the dark bowels of the earth. But as the foul grayness encircled Aurora and tried to ensnare her, she realized she just might be outmatched. Perhaps outmatched but not yet defeated. And while there was life and the will to continue, victory was never out of reach. So although she was dismayed when her silver and platinum sword, which had the power to incinerate entire battalions of the enemy, fell from her grasp, Aurora was not about to give up. And it seemed her sister was granting her one more opportunity. Giada relinquished control of her own sword allowing the two enchanted weapons to do battle in the sky above the sisters. Giada would regret that, would regret not having finished Aurora when she could have. And Aurora would not waste the opportunity given to her.
The two swords clashed, sparks flying, turbulence of power distorting the view from below. But as with the sisters, the two swords were closely matched with nearly equal powers of offense and defense. The only thing both lacked at this moment was their owners to grasp the hilts and make the final difference. Giada issued the challenge: the first one to reach their sword and strike the first blow shall be the winner. A malevolent grin spread across Aurora’s fine features. “So shall it be, and so shall it be done, sister!”
The two shot skyward and both swords positioned themselves for quick access and a final lethal blow by their owners. Perhaps Giada was a fraction of a second faster, but it wasn’t fast enough for Aurora not to be able to counter her sister’s blow. But it was an awkward, off balance circle parry, intended to deflect Aurora’s thrust. And it did, but it left Aurora open for a classic disengage and counter thrust, which Giada executed with perfection. Her dragon sword pierced Aurora’s left side, just below the rib cage. Aurora gasped as she dropped her own sword, her eyes wide with dismay and pained surprise. Just before she fell from the sky she said, “Congratulations dear sister, you have killed me…” Aurora the Empress of the Great Seljuk Empire and elder sister to Empress Giada, dropped to the muddy battlefield in a heap, her sword beside her now dull and powerless, as if it was forged from mere iron. Giada
The two sisters... flew to the top of the flames..their battle private for the ring of fire kept them hidden once they grasp their swords. Beyond the fire… silence except for the occasional whisper. Then, Giada's sword made contact with her sister. Her dragon sword piercing Aurora's skin. The dragon roaring in victory, its head moving up and down. Giada saw the surprise look in her sister's eyes. Then Aurora her beloved older sister falling to the ground.
Giada slowly withdrew her sword from her sister's side. The circle of flames now disappearing around them. Finally both armies, Her Great Great Grandfather, and Emperor Delferic could see the results of the two-stars battle. A hush falling once more around them.
Her sister's words echoing in her ears. "You have killed me my sister". Giada looked at her sword. Dripping with her sister's blood. Slowly she raised her sword once more. Placing it under her sister's chin. The tip ready to slice her sisters throat. She hated her sister, she loathed her sister for all she did to her. Her arrogance, her superior attitude. Her attempt to kill her. Yes, slicing her sister's throat would be so easy...She would be the victorious reigning Empress...Queen. She would be the only star, and all the power of the realms would be hers. After all her sister deserved it..did she not?"
This was her sister though...the North Star...did she really hate her sister that much to kill her? Was there any spark of love left in her heart for Aurora...her older sister. If Aurora would be standing victorious...would she not hesitate to cut off her head. The answer for her was simple. She did love her sister no matter what and she did not want to kill her. So slowly she lowered her sword and jabbing it into the muddy ground.
"I won Aurora. All your men and my men see who is victorious today. Let that be known that I, Empress Gaida of The Strega Empire defeat Aurora of the Great Seljuk Empire. Which now belongs to me, does it not?" She grinned. "You have been dethroned in all ways and now are at my mercy." Giada said..Then stooped down looking her sister in the eyes.
Giada gently placed her hand on her sister's wound. "I am the Goddess of the Oracular, Aurora." She said as a rose gold light would shine beneath her hand healing her sister's wound. Giada then removed her hand as she stood up. "I do not want your empire, my sister. I do not want to see you perish on this day either. " Taking her sword in her hand once more.
"Go Aurora, However, if you ever come back to lands I will kill you." She said her eyes turning black as the night...the a flame appeared in her pupils. Then turning around walking away.
Never before had Aurora felt and endured such humiliation, such complete and utter defeat. And all before an audience of her entire army, her generals, her trusted advisors. She would never again be the same omnipotent near-Goddess in their eyes. If she returned to her palace at the Seljuk they would see her as weak, as vulnerable. They might even have the courage to plot a coup against her.
Aurora would have preferred to die on the battlefield. That would have been a fitting and proper death. But the final humiliation came when her dear sister healed her, brought her back from what would certainly be her end. Aurora, muddied, still soaked in her own blood, propped herself up on one arm and gazed up at her sister. Giada, the younger sister, Giada the one who should be down here in the mud, bleeding out her last moments. She said she didn’t want the Seljuk. Aurora wanted it, but knew her rule over it would be challenged after her defeat here today. Her sister told her to leave, to never return. Yes, that was good advice. At least for the time being.
Aurora looked down at her cherished, enchanted sword. It lay dormant and the metal was dull and ordinary. It had been defeated just like its owner. Aurora got back on her feet, pushing locks of muddied blond hair over her shoulders. She watched as her sister walked away, her victorious sister. Then she looked about at the soldiers who were watching her. She knew what they were thinking, that she was done for, a loser. The Great Empress of the Seljuk Empire was great no more. She couldn’t abide their sneering, scornful gazes. Without a word, and leaving her sword in the mud, Aurora jumped up on the back of a horse that looked like it could run, kicked it in the sides and rode like the wind away from the battlefield, away from her army and generals, and away from sister and the Strega. Aurora couldn’t return to her palace, not in defeat. She knew not where she would go, only that she had to go. She would ride until the horse could carry her no farther, then she would find another horse and another after that, until she found a place where she could heal her pride and regain her self-respect.