By Masque

Joxer’s Thread

The journey had proceeded in near silence. Hercules long strides had been eating the distance under him as he desperately wanted to get to Xena. Iolaus grudgingly kept up, it was as though by prolonging their arrival in Amphipolis he could pretend that the whole thing was lie. Joxer just felt stuck in limbo; he did not want to reach Amphipolis, it would just be a reminder that he had lost the woman he loved, but he did not want to go anywhere else. So he just kept up.

Night had descended a short time ago and they now searched for suitable camping area. It was sheer luck that Joxer looked up from his feet the moment that he did to stop himself from walking straight into Iolaus’s back. The two legendary friends had stopped in their tracks and now stared ahead a short distance. “Why are we...?” He was cut off by Hercules hand covering his mouth, when the hand was gone he repeated, more quietly this time, “Why are we stopping?”

Hercules pointed up ahead, “You see that?” Joxer followed the gesture to see a faint glow amongst the trees, “Somebody is camping over there, we’d better check it out.”

Iolaus nodded and Joxer gave a thumbs up. Hercules indicated that he would go to the left, Iolaus should head the right and Joxer should approach slowly and keep hidden. All was going well as Hercules and Iolaus circled the camp and then Joxer tripped....

There were two people in the campsite, both masked and on their feet wielding swords at the sudden noise. One of the figures approached the bush where Joxer had fallen, “Move out into the light, slowly,” Joxer crawled and clumsily stood up to face the masked figure, “Joxer?” The figure hissed through clenched teeth and pushed the mask back.

“Ephiny!” Joxer cried with sheer relief at the fact that he was not going to be run through.

“Ephiny?” Hercules chorused as he leapt into the circle of light.

“Hercules?” Ephiny swung her attention to the muscular man on her right.

At the same time Iolaus appeared from the bushes and into the camp, to be greeted by a sword point.

“And you would be?” The second masked figure asked.

“Iolaus. And you?” He asked as he lowered his own sword.

“Solari.” The figure answered, pushing back her mask to reveal a mass of dark brown hair and eyes.

As the tension dissipated the two Amazons persuaded the three men to join them for the night.

“That’s very kind of you Ephiny.” Hercules stretched his long legs out in front of the fire and rested his back against a log. Joxer sat quietly beside Hercules and Iolaus perched on a rock on the opposite side of the fire next to Solari. “What brings you this way?”

“We’re headed for Amphipolis, we have to see Xena.” Ephiny explained cautiously trying ascertain if the men knew about the terrible news of Gabrielle’s fate.

“You know,” Hercules saw Ephiny and Solari nod, the sadness evident in both their eyes, “How did you find out?”

Ephiny seemed far too choked to speak so Solari spoke up, “Artemis came to us. She told us what had happened to our Queen.”

“And we wanted to make sure that Xena was alright, and here we are.” Ephiny gestured to encompass the current situation. “I don’t know if Xena will be happy to see me or not.” She added, more to herself but Hercules heard her.

“Why?” He asked.

Ephiny raised her left arm, showing a brace, that was cleverly disguised as a vanguard, which covered most of her arm, “Let’s just say the last time that we met it wasn’t too pleasant.”

“How’s it doing?” Joxer asked, concern laced his voice as he thought back to the incident.

“It’s healing, slowly.” She told him.

“What happened?” Iolaus ventured into the conversation.

Ephiny gazed into the faces of all present and then into the fire, “Xena wanted to kill Gabrielle, I got in the way, so did Joxer....”

“Xena punched me when I tried to stand up for Gabrielle.” Joxer rubbed his jaw as he remembered the impact.

Finally Ephiny pulled her gaze from the fire to look at Joxer, “We thought they were dead until Gabrielle sent word. How were they.... you know?”

“They were fine. They seemed stronger than they’d ever been. Didn’t talk much about it, just said they had been given a second chance.” Joxer said thinking of the times since that near fatal day when he had watched the two friends together, “and now she’s gone.” Joxer’s lip trembled. Ephiny reached out a reassuring hand to his shoulder. She knew how much Gabrielle had meant to him, why else would he have risked his life against Xena’s wrath that day.

Iolaus thought he too was about to cry, he turned from the group only to lock eyes with Solari. He forced a smile.

Solari smiled too, but it did not reach either of their eyes. “I’m going to miss her too.”

Everybody heard the comment and everybody felt it. With those words the five travellers settled down for the night, each feeling their loss for the Amazon bard.

*           *            *

Xena’s Thread

It was barely dawn as Xena reached the outskirts of Poteidaia; she had travelled through most of the night, resting only for Argo’s sake. Xena felt so far removed from her feelings in her body that she barely registered how fatigued she really was, but she always took care of Argo.

The farming town was beginning to come to life as she led Argo through the entrance at the East side of town. Market traders were setting up their wares for the days business, men were heading out to the fields to work and the women were collecting water from the well. How stereotypical, Xena thought, she finally understood why Gabrielle had been so desperate to leave with her.

Gabrielle! Xena brought herself back to the present, remembering why she had actually come back to Poteidaia. Bringing Argo to a halt in the centre of the town square, she turned to the saddle and busied herself with releasing the staff. Holding it loosely in her right hand she stepped around Argo and began to scan the square until she found the person she was looking for. It did not take long, in fact, that person found her.

Lila, Gabrielle’s younger sister, broke away from the girls she had been talking with when her eyes caught on Xena, the Warrior Princess. She had never been a big fan of Xena’s ever since Gabrielle had left town to follow the warrior; and the sight of that warrior stood alone in the middle of the town told her that she was about to gain another reason to dislike the woman.

Cautiously the girl moved towards the warrior, although intimidated, Lila did her best to meet the piercing blue eyes. The woman looked terrible, like she had not eaten or slept in days; this made Lila even more wary. She stopped before the woman and watched, a lump rising in her throat as Xena extended her right arm, holding Gabrielle’s staff. Lila took the staff and as she did the full realisation of what the gesture meant occurred to her.

The feeling of nausea became anger and then hatred and she lashed out. The arch of the staff connected with Xena’s left temple. The impact split the flesh and blood spurted out and began to pour down the side of her face onto her shoulder, her leather and her armour; the force of the blow shook the warrior and sent to her knees in the dirt.

“Why?” Lila screamed as she swung the weapon a second time, Xena raised her hands in a defensive posture and deflected the hit. “You were supposed to protect her, if it wasn’t for you she never would have left, she would’ve stayed here, she would have been safe.” Lila continued to shout at Xena, though tears flowed freely from her eyes she clenched her teeth and hurled insults at the warrior, “You brought nothing but pain to Gabrielle, it’s your fault, it’s all your fault.”

Xena wanted to defend herself, to try and explain that she had no choice, that there was nothing she could have done, but all words failed her, just as she had failed Gabrielle. There, in Poteidaia, as she knelt before Lila she said the only words she could, “Forgive me,” but in her mind she was really in the land of Illusia, kneeling before Gabrielle - the only person who had driven her to her knees to beg for forgiveness.

Once again grief threatened to overwhelm her but she would not allow it. With what little remained of her strength she struggled away from the scorned sibling and towards Argo. The mare was already moving and Xena grabbed the saddle and threw herself into it, only just making it and galloped out of Poteidaia. This time she was running to the only place where she could find shelter and get the help that she needed - she was running home.

*           *            *

Gabrielle’s Thread

She could not believe she had actually slept, with the fear of her impending trial Gabrielle was surprised she could actually breath. But she had been so tired, and the bath had been so relaxing, and the bed had been so comfortable that she had not been able to help herself. She felt revitalized for the slumber; her body no longer ached with physical pain, no, the emotional pain had taken over somewhere in the night when she had awoken and found herself alone. She had called Xena’s name, but before she had said it she knew there would be no answer, she had just wanted to hear the name.

At the sound of the doors swinging open Gabrielle sat up to greet Hades; the God was accompanied by Persephone, his wife.

“Good, you’re awake,” As Hades spoke the candles in the room seemed to brighten, “It is time Gabrielle, we must take you to Olympus.”

“I don’t suppose there’s anyway to get out of this?” Gabrielle attempted some humour to try and quiet her nerves, it did not work. Hades seemed to understand this.

“I’m afraid not,” he extended a hand towards the young woman, “come, the Gods await you.”

Gabrielle took the offered hand and as she stood Persephone slipped a comforting arm around her shoulders. They moved towards the doorway, but beyond it there was no longer the stone corridor, instead there was an impenetrable white mist. They were enveloped by the mist and then they vanished from the Underworld.

*           *            *

Joxer’s Thread

Joxer, along with the heroic duo - Hercules and Iolaus - and the Amazons - Ephiny and Solari - had been travelling since first light. This morning they had all been moving at ground breaking speed and had managed to get to Amphipolis before the sun had cleared the horizon.

They passed through fields where the women busily collected the harvest whilst chanting a folk melody. Once in the main part of the town they hit upon their first problem.

“Does anyone have any idea where to start looking?” Iolaus asked, looking around the town as though he expected the Warrior Princess to jump out and tell them to stop worrying about her.

“Beats me.” Hercules replied, he shrugged his shoulder and heaved an exhausted sigh.

“Hold on. Didn’t Xena say that her mother owned a tavern?” Ephiny recalled, remembering that being the explaination as to how she could drink every single Amazon under the table.

“Yeah, that’s right.” Solari confirmed, remembering only too well the hangover she had endured for finding that bit of information about the Warrior Princess a little too late.

“Tavern.” Joxer pointed to the large building at the far end of town, obviously the tavern due to the fact that there were still two drunks passed out practically on the doorstep.

Hercules led the way, the rest followed. At the door Hercules tried to open it but found it locked. He could have ripped it right off of its hinges but what would it accomplish; a locked door meant no one inside for them to talk to.

“Now what?” Joxer was becoming more than a little anxious.

“We wait.” Ephiny stated to everyone.

Five slightly tired companions walked into the shade at the side of the building and slid the ground to await opening time.

*           *            *

Ares’s and Callisto’s Thread

The woman before Ares hung in chains, her unconscious form slumped against the rough surface of the wall. The straggly white blonde hair covered her face and her chin hung down resting against her chest.

He stood watching the body as it swung under its own weight. With one arm resting on his sword the other was raised and a thumb stroked absently across his lower lip as he pondered his latest scheme.

An arm snaked around his waist and another across his chest; the body pressed up against his back. He could not see the face but the feel was unmistakable - Alecto.

For a moment he succumbed to her seduction but then he reached out a hand to the comatose form, hooking a finger beneath the chin he tilted the head to gaze upon the face of Callisto. Her eyes closed, her features gaunt and an ugly scar that ran diagonally across her face marked what she had lost, but Ares had to be sure, “Is it done?”

“Yes Ares,” Alecto’s voice hissed against his ear, “She has been stripped of her immortality and godhood.” She curled around him to come between the God and the former Goddess.

“She will be ready in time?” Ares voice held a note of concern, his finger dropped Callisto’s head.

“She will be ready in time.” Alecto repeated, but it was an answer.

Ares lowered his gaze, his eyes locking with those of Alecto, “Make sure of it. I don’t want any mistakes this time.” He traced a finger along her jawline.

She mimicked his gesture, “Neither do I.” She bestowed an all knowing smile upon him.

He vanished.

*           *            *

Joxer’s Thread

The five travellers were still waiting by the side of the tavern for it to open. The two drunks had long since woken up, sobered up, got up and gone home. They had not noticed, they were lost in the continuation of the conversation they had begun the night before, about how much they would miss Gabrielle.

“.... the way she used to swing that staff. I gave it to her, well it was slightly different when I did, but it used to be mine.” Ephiny was saying, she looked to Solari, “What about you, what will you miss?”

Solari chuckled, “Her jokes, it always took me ages to work them out.”

“I’ll miss the way she used to get annoyed with me and she’d grab my nose or my ear, or she’d hit me with her staff....” Joxer was cut off when Iolaus abruptly stood up.

“How can you do that? How can you sit there and talk like that? Gabrielle.... she....” he stuttered for words and clenched his fists.

Solari was on her feet immediately and took Iolaus by the shoulders, “Because it helps. What about you? There must be something that you’re going to miss, that you’ll remember. Something special that you shared.”

Physically calming himself Iolaus closed his eyes and remembered, “Her stories. I’ll always remember her stories. She told me once that there was a time when all people had four legs, four arms, two heads but one soul; the Gods became angry and they threw down lightning bolts and separated them and now we spend our lives searching for the other half of our souls.” He opened his eyes and for the first time the smile actually touched them. “I don’t know whether she’s the other half of my soul, but I do know that she was a big part of my life. What about you Hercules?” Iolaus asked turning to his friend who had been oddly quiet and distant; no doubt his thoughts were with the person that he considered to be the other half of his soul.

“I didn’t know her that well, I just know that she made Xena very happy.” He tossed aside the piece of straw that he had been playing with, “Doesn’t this place ever open?” The usually calm Hercules was starting to get annoyed.

As if on cue a woman in a simple village dress passed them, “Customers already, that is a pleasant sight.”

All five stared at the woman; the dark brown, almost black hair, the piercing blue eyes, the prominent cheek bones, she did not have the height but she had to be Xena’s mother.

“Come in, come in,” she ushered them through the doorway, “take a seat, I’ll be right with you.” As the tavern keeper moved to the bar she took in the appearance of all five, most notably the two women, “Would you two ladies be Amazons?”

“Yes we are.” Ephiny replied as they seated themselves around a table.

The woman was heading back to the table, a jug of ale in one hand and an arm full of mugs in the other. “My daughters best friend is an Amazon,” she set down the mugs and began to pour ale into them, “and my daughter is quite a warrior too.”

That cleared up that - this was definitely Xena’s mother.

“Call me if you need anything,” she began to move away but then came back having forgotten something, “By the way, my name is Cyrene.”

“Thank you Cyrene.” Hercules said in his most charismatic voice, Cyrene blushed and then drifted back to the bar.

It was obvious that Xena had not yet arrived and so they sat back to do some more waiting - at least they had some ale this time.

*           *            *

Gabrielle’s and Ares’s Threads

The mists began to dissipate before her eyes and Gabrielle found herself on a large staircase that led onto a vast circular - no spherical - chamber; even the ceiling and the floor were a continuation of the room. Gabrielle was aware of the fact that she was gaping but the view was spectacular. The chamber was lined with several archways and beyond each seemed to exist another place and as Gabrielle feared there were twelve in all - one for each of the twelve Olympian Gods.

Hades assisted her in her descent of the final steps, she noticed that Persephone’s comforting arm was sorely absent. The God of the Underworld led her to the centre of the chamber, he paced around her in a circle, not looking at her but at the twelve arches. One stood higher than the rest, situated between two more staircases - it could only be Zeus’s arch. She stole glances at some of the other alcoves for some sense of recognition. The Halls of War were easily Ares, the forge at Mount Vulcan belonged to Hephaestus, a library could only mean Athena, a forest the grounds of Artemis and the sound of cascading water behind her had to be Poseidon. There was no chance to decipher any of the others before Hades voice spoke to the empty chamber.

“Gods of Olympus, I Hades, God of the Underworld call upon your presence for the Judgement upon Gabrielle, Bard of Poteidaia, Queen of the Amazons, known to the followers of Dahak as The Betrayer and to the Olympians as a Saviour.”

As the request hung in the air Gabrielle pondered on how she had managed to accumulate so many titles, almost as many as Xena.

Figures began to shimmer into existence in the centre of each archway. Gabrielle shot a sidelong glance at Ares as he appeared from the Halls of War, he failed to meet her eyes.

When all twelve Olympians were present Zeus spoke directly to Gabrielle, “You have been brought here to stand trial for your crimes against the Olympian Gods and their people. The only reason that you have not been condemned to Tartarus already is because of your actions preceding the manifestation of Dahak and your part in ridding him and his followers from the world.”

“You will be questioned and allowed to defend your actions, but know that you will be judged and sentenced fairly by this counsel upon the evidence presented.” It was the Goddess to the right of Zeus who spoke; the peacock motif in her garments indicated that this was Hera and the Queen of the Gods had pale eyes that could rival Xena in the steely gaze department.

The Goddess to Zeus’s left spoke next, Zeus bestowed such an affectionate glance upon her that it was obviously his favourite daughter - Athena, “Father, the Judgement can not proceed as planned. A key witness is in no fit state to testify, I ask that you concede some time to allow the situation to be rectified.”

It did not take an oracle to work out that Athena referred to Xena. Gabrielle felt tears begin to prick at her eyes as she thought once more of the pain her friend must be going through; Xena was unaware that Gabrielle was in limbo, she wished that she could get a message to her.

“Very well, the Judgement will convene when the Warrior Princess has had a suitable amount of time to grieve,” Zeus proclaimed, “For now Gabrielle, you will return to the Underworld in Hades’s custody.”

“Father,” Goddess of the Hunt, the Moon and the Amazons took a step forward, “Allow Gabrielle into my custody, I will care for her, she is one of my own.”

Silence followed Artemis’s request and Gabrielle feared Zeus’s decision. She had never met Artemis, but the Goddess seemed protective of her and she could certainly do with some protecting.

“So be it.” Zeus gestured for Gabrielle to go to Artemis.

The Goddess reached out her hand to her young Amazon Queen and pulled her closer. She was about to leave with her charge when Zeus spoke again.

“While we are all assembled I have one final announcement,” When he was sure he held all of their attentions, “Ares, God of War, will not be participating in this Judgement.”

“Father....” Ares began to protest.

“That is my final decision Ares.” Zeus told him.

“But Father, I must be allowed my vote.” Ares pleaded.

“No Ares, I told you what would happen for your betrayal.” Zeus turned to his brother who still stood in the centre of the room, “Hades will take the place of the twelfth juror.”

Ares snarled his disapproval and then turned to the Halls of War and was gone.

In a similar fashion to how the Gods had arrived they departed from Olympus, leaving only Gabrielle and Artemis.

“Thank you.” Gabrielle whispered to the Goddess who had her arm draped loosely around the smaller woman’s shoulders.

“Thank you for what? For taking care of you?” Artemis took Gabrielle’s face in her hands and looked into the glazed, but dazzling eyes, “Gabrielle, my Amazons mean more to me than anything. I would never allow another God to take custody of you.”

“Artemis, how did Athena know about Xena?” As she said the name a single tear made its way down her cheek, Artemis wiped it away with her thumb.

“Athena likes to keep an eye on the Warrior Princess, you know, make sure she’s doing okay.” Artemis explained.

“Must be nice to have a God looking out for you.” Gabrielle mused lowering her gaze to the floor.

“She’s not the only one.” Artemis told her, making Gabrielle greet her eyes so that there was no doubt to whom she was referring.

Gabrielle chuckled to herself, “Where were you when I was falling into a fire pit?” She accused.

“Waiting for you here,” she took Gabrielle’s hand in her own, “Gabrielle, Zeus wouldn’t allow us to interfere. It had to be done this way.” She paused for a moment making sure that Gabrielle understood, “Come on, there are some people waiting to see you.”

Artemis led Gabrielle through the archway and into the forest, the transitional shift took only a moment and when Gabrielle looked back Olympus was gone.

*           *            *

Continued in Part 3