She slowly opened her eyes. It didn't make much difference. Where she was, it was pitch black; the only sounds that could be heard were moans, cries of pain and agony. She was in pain too. Nothing too extreme, but very uncomfortable. She knew it would get worse soon. She closed her eyes again.
"Gabrielle?" Someone close to her whispered.
"Ephiny? How are you?" She whispered back.
"Relax. It's gonna get better soon," she replied. She knew Ephiny was more beaten than her. She resisted more. But it would get better. In the Elysian Fields there would be no pain. So, she drifted back to sleep.
Xena was bored. This was not the way she had planned things. Well, it was the way she had planned things, only she had no idea she would get this bored. She owned the entire known world, all the treasures in the known world and more than two thirds of all the gold coins of the known world. Even what she didn't own she could just claim it and it would be hers. Next stop, the milky way, she thought to herself and smiled. But she knew that even if she made a claim on the stars above no one would dare defy her. So she didn't bother.
Dressed in a pair of black leather pants, black shirt and her heavy black winter cloak she made her way to the hearing chamber. Some Amazons had been captured the previous day and her presence was required in their sentencing. Well, maybe not required, it was her rule after all. But she wanted to see the Amazons. Just out of curiosity. Because rumor had it that they resisted.
The hearing chamber was one of the most luxurious chambers of the palace. She had ordered it that way because she wanted all the traitors, thieves and enemies of hers to see what she had and what they would never get. And then they died. Also, none of the guards or anyone else but her was allowed to carry a weapon in there. If someone had to die, she killed them herself.
She sat on her throne and placed her sword next to her. One look to the guard, and the Amazons were sent in. Even though she could tell they had been severely battered, they had an air of pride and asked for no help from the guards when they were guided in the room. Pride gets you in trouble, Amazons, she thought.
One kick from the guards and the five Amazons were kneeling in front of her.
"Which one of you calls herself their Queen?" Xena asked in a low and commanding voice.
"I do, Conqueror," the Amazon with the blonde curly hair answered.
Xena did not miss the look of daggers she received from another, equally blonde and more petite Amazon in the group. So, I guess that answers my question, she thought. But she let it pass, just because she could. And she would have more fun that way.
"And what is your name, Amazon?" Xena asked again.
"What are the charges?" Xena asked the head of the guards
"Our tribute collector was not allowed to gather the agreed monthly supplies, Conqueror," the guard answered.
"What do you have to say for yourself, Ephiny?" Xena asked the Amazon.
"It is true, Conqueror. This year the winter is harsh and we couldn't afford the tribute. Our young will starve," Ephiny replied, stating the truth.
Xena had allowed the Amazon nation to survive, letting them keep a small land and in exchange the Amazons paid a monthly tribute to her, consisting of food and weapons. She had done that, not as much because she liked the Amazons in particular, but because she wanted to anger her previous mentor, Alti. Alti was now long dead, but Xena hadn't thought about changing the deal with the Amazons. It had worked fine, until now. Decisions, decisions, she thought. It is true, this winter is very cold, most crops are frosted, but this should not be used as an excuse to ignore my deal. If I let this pass, others will start defying me as well. And I want to keep resistance levels as they are: zero. And then an idea crossed her mind and she smiled down at the kneeling Amazons. An evil, feral smile.
"Ephiny," she spoke, "you and her," she pointed to a brunette Amazon, "will be given three days to return here with the tribute. If you don't manage that, I will crucify the rest of this lot, and consider our peace treaty broken. As you see, I am being kind by letting you go, seeing you are their leader. Any questions?"
Ephiny gathered all her remaining courage and spoke.
"Conqueror?" she said.
"Yes?" Xena answered, a bit surprised that the Amazon dared speak.
"Could you keep me here and let her go instead?" Ephiny pointed at the petite blonde.
"And why would I want to do that?" Xena asked, knowing full well why the request was made.
"Cause.. cause.. She's the real Queen," Ephiny said, not expecting the smile that was forming at Xena's face at her confession. She just hoped she could get Gabrielle out of this.
"But I already knew that," Xena replied. "So your answer is no. Now go. I will see you in pay day, one way, or another." Then, she turned to the guards, and with a voice full of indifference said, "Return the rest to the dungeon. And start building three crosses." And with that, she left.
Xena woke up. Before opening her eyes, she listened for sounds in the room, hearing none. Next, noticed that the room was cold, and she felt something like ice cubes crawling up and down her spine; but she knew she hadn't been asleep long enough for the fire in the fireplace to have extinguished. She opened her eyes, slowly, and was surprised to see that there was a faint white light in the room. Her fingers started moving towards her sword, which was always by her side; a habit that she kept from the old days.
"You won't need this," she heard a soft male voice saying. Startled, she grabbed her sword nevertheless, jumped out of bed and saw a faint figure, standing near the wall of her room. The figure was surprisingly familiar.
"Ly..Ly-ceus?" she asked. Okay Xena, it's just a dream, she thought. The food at dinner was probably a bit too packed with herbs and it fell heavy on your stomach. It's just a dream.
"Yes, Xena," the figure replied, "and you really don't need your sword. You can't harm me and I certainly won't try to harm you."
"You're a dream," Xena stated, sounding a bit too sure but feeling exactly the opposite. She knew that she had never felt like that in a dream.
"Sister, I am not a dream," the figure of Lyceus replied. "I am the spirit of your brother. I've watched over you in the past, and now I've come to warn you."
"Warn me? About what?" Xena asked.
"I have to explain myself first. You see, all those that their life was unfairly cut short, can be granted a wish. I hadn't used my wish yet, sister, but tonight I asked something from the Fates."
"Very nice indeed," Xena said. "Now can you please go, so I can wake up?" she asked the figure, with a hint of sarcasm in her voice.
The ghost of Lyceus smiled. "I am no dream Xena, and tonight I wished for you to be guided to happiness. Expect three more like me, one tonight and two more in the next two nights. They will be your guides, but the ultimate choice is up to you. That's all that the Fates allowed. So goodbye for now, dear sister, and remember I'm always by your side."
With that, the figure disappeared and Xena was left alone in the dark room. She sat back on her bed, and spent the next few moments trying to understand what had just taken place. Was that the spirit of her brother or a strange dream that felt a bit too real? And if it was a dream why couldn't she still wake up? Or did she just wake up in the middle of the room? She had heard of people doing that, standing up and walking in their sleep. Maybe that's what happened.
Her musings were interrupted by a glow filling the room again. Oh in the name of Zeus, I have to wake up! She chastised herself. She looked towards the part of the wall she had seen Lyceus stand before and there was another figure there. A smaller one and it looked both like Lyceus as a child, as far as Xena remembered, and at the same time, like an old, wrinkled man.
Before she had a chance to speak, the figure spoke first.
"Hello Xena. I am the ghost of Solstice Past."
"Solstice?" Xena asked. She had no idea what the figure was talking about.
"Yes Xena. It's Solstice in three days, don't you remember?" the figure asked back.
"Sure. But we don't do that anymore," Xena replied. And it was true. She hadn't been celebrating that day since she came into reign. She was never the holiday type. And with her, the whole kingdom had slowly forgotten about the celebration. It didn't matter anymore. And it suited Xena just fine.
"I know," the figure said, "but I will show you nevertheless. Take my hand."
"No," Xena replied, a bit startled that the figure was standing right beside her in a matter of seconds.
"Xena, take my hand now, and later you will understand everything," the spirit said and extended its hand towards Xena.
Well, since it's just a dream, I might as well take its hand, Xena though. I just hope I wake up soon, cause this is getting boring. Cautiously she extended her hand as well and touched the spirit. Next thing she knew, she was standing on a rocky road that led to a very familiar building. She looked around, not quite believing what she was seeing, but everything was just like she remembered it. She was outside her mother's inn, in Amphipolis. She looked at the spirit, and it spoke:
"No one can see you, or hear you. But you can look around as much as you like."
Xena turned to the window and she peeked inside the inn. Everything was decorated for Solstice and the room was filled with a warm glow. She saw herself as a child, wearing her formal dress, running around with young Lyceus. Her brother Toris was sitting by the fireplace, looking happily at all the presents that were scattered around it. Xena smiled as she remembered the scene and knew exactly what was going to follow.
Cyrene emerged from the kitchen, waving a spoon. "Alright, you three," she said, failing to hide her smile, "whoever painted white spots on the black cow is in big trouble!" Chuckles were heard from all the three children.
"But mama," young Lyceus replied seriously, "it wasn't us! It was all the snow!" he said, thinking that he could convince his mother.
"Right," Cyrene said. "Now, go wash your hands and come to the table. You'll clean the cow in the morning."
Xena turned to the spirit. "What are you trying to prove? Yes, this is a nice memory. But that's what it is. A memory. Everything changed."
The spirit nodded and replied, "Yes, things change, and then, they can change again."
"Not for me," Xena replied.
Inside she saw everyone sitting at the big table, ready to devour the best of Cyrene's cooking. Hugs and kisses were exchanged and the happy family, unaware of the dark future, spent one of the last solstice celebrations in joy.
Then Xena found herself back in her room, in her bed. The fire in the fireplace was completely extinguished and the first rays of light were shyly starting to fill the bedroom. So it *was* a dream, she mused. As she went on with her day, she found herself thinking about that solstice night and the gifts she received from her family: a new fishing pole from Lyceus, a wooden toy horse from Toris, and a new pair of leather boots from her mother. The pole and the horse were her good luck charms for many years to come, but when Cortese came, when she left her home, she left them both behind.
"Xena," she heard someone calling her, "Open your eyes."
As she did so, she saw another ghostly figure standing beside her bed. This one was a skinny woman, dressed in very poor clothes, and barefoot. Ugh, she thought, not again.
"Let me guess," she said to the woman, figuring this would be as good an ice breaker as any, "another trip down memory lane?"
"Not tonight, Xena," the ghost replied, "I am the Ghost of Solstice Present. And we have to hurry, because there are many places we need to go."
"Do I have a choice?" Xena asked.
"Not really. This is something that must be done. Take my hand."
The next moment, Xena found herself nowhere else but in the dungeons of her palace. She was standing in the cold and dark corridor just outside the main cell. The remaining dungeon was empty, as prisoners were almost never kept. They were either found innocent, or guilty- otherwise dead.
"Look inside," the ghost said, "what do you see?"
"The Amazons," she replied, a bit annoyed for having to state the obvious.
"Yes," the ghost patiently explained, "but what do you *see*?"
Xena looked back into the cell, and she saw the three Amazons sitting side by side, shivering, and probably trying to get warmer through body contact. The moonlight allowed Xena to distinguish that the two other Amazons had placed their so-called Queen between them. Dried blood painted their faces. The Amazon on the left got caught in a coughing fit.
"Eponin?" Xena heard the Queen call out to the coughing Amazon.
"Don't worry about it, Gabrielle," Eponin replied. "It's just two more days."
"Two more days," Gabrielle confirmed. And then, in a much kinder voice, as if talking to herself, added, "and then it's going to end."
"I just wish they fed us something," the Amazon on the right said.
"There's no point in giving us food, Solari," Eponin replied. "No point in wasting resources on someone who's going to die soon."
"I just wonder if the Conqueror realizes that she's going to have us crossed on Solstice day," Gabrielle continued her musing aloud.
Xena abruptly turned to the ghost. "So what?" she said, "They broke the treaty by their choice. They should consider themselves lucky that I am giving them a second chance."
The ghost faintly smiled but did not reply immediately. After a moment, she extended her hand towards Xena again and said, "Come, you have to see something else as well."
Xena now found herself in unfamiliar territory. Amazonian unfamiliar territory. In the middle of the night. Alarmed, she looked at the ghost, but the figure calmly reminded her, "Relax. No one can see you or hear you, remember? Follow me."
The figure guided her through the snowed village, and entered a small hut. In there, she saw the Amazon Ephiny, obviously exhausted after a vigorous trip, talking to a group of elderly Amazons.
"Look," Ephiny said, "we can't leave Gabrielle and the others in there. And we seriously can't afford to break the treaty."
"Don't you think we know that, Ephiny?" One of the older Amazons replied.
"How can we pile up the food though? There is none around. The children are sharing orange slices for lunch, for crying out loud!" Another Amazon continued.
"There has to be way," Ephiny said. "What about the emergency grain?"
The mention of this stirred up a murmur among the Elders, until one finally spoke out loud. "Ephiny," she said, "If we give away the emergency grain, how are we going to survive the winter? It's only Solstice now, and the snow will last a good two months more, you know that."
"And what about Gabrielle? She's the Queen, for Artemis' sake!" Ephiny exclaimed. "What about Eponin and Solari?"
"What about the children?" the elder Amazon continued gently. "Queen Gabrielle would want to save the children first. That's the greater good she was talking about."
Ephiny looked defeated. "In three months' time, when the snow melts and the Conqueror's troops can move, it won't matter that the children survived the winter," she muttered.
The ghost then turned and smiled at Xena.
Next thing she knew, the Conqueror was back in her bed. Despite an uneasy feeling that was piling in her stomach, she was still determined that she had to rule with an iron fist. No exceptions. She looked out from her window and she saw the three crosses that were being constructed just outside the palace walls. They were almost ready. The Amazons had one more day to honor the tribute. Solstice day.
She then made a quick decision. Giving the Amazons the benefit of the doubt, she ordered the guards to deliver some food and blankets to the prisoners.
Xena opened her eyes again. This time she knew exactly what was going to happen next, and decided to go with the flow.
"I can only suppose you are going to show me the future, right?" she asked the chunky ghost that was standing before her. This female figure was dressed in what seemed to be very expensive clothing, had carefully groomed hair, and yet a very distant and sad expression on her face.
"You are partly right, Conqueror," the ghost said. "I am the Ghost of the Future Solstice that Will Not Come."
This truly puzzled Xena. Why would the Fates want to show me what is *not* in my future? She mused. Nevertheless, she took the ghosts' hand and blinked.
She was still in her bedroom. Only this time, there were two of them in there. Her own self was lying in her bed, smiling in her sleep. It was morning.
"What is this?" Xena asked the ghost.
"This is you, Conqueror," the ghost replied. "Follow yourself."
Upon the ghosts' words, Xena saw her alter ego slowly rise from the bed, and lazily put on a robe. She did as the ghost asked, and followed herself out of the bedroom chambers, then abruptly stopped and looked around in shock. The entire palace was decorated. She didn't have much time to dwell on the decorations as her robe clad self was hastily descending the double staircase of the palace, and was making her way to the entertainment room. Various servants were smiling politely at her alter ego, and yet Xena could tell that they were genuine smiles, and not the formal ones she was used to receiving.
Intrigued, the Conqueror entered the entertainment room and saw one of the most bewildering scenes of her life.
The fireplace was almost hidden behind mounds of gifts. The tables of the room were filled with all kinds of traditional Solstice candy, and furthermore almost all her favorite food was waiting for her alter ego to devour. Even those dumplings with the red hot filling inside. Only one person in the world knew how much she liked that food.
Instead of heading for the dishes, the Conqueror saw that her alter ego chose to stand in the middle of the room with closed eyes. After a second, she jumped high in the air and landed behind a couch at the far end of the room.
"I knew I'd find you here," Xena said to the person behind the couch.
Giggling was heard.
Then, the Conqueror saw herself rising from behind the couch, along with another person. They exchanged one of the most passionate kisses the Conqueror had ever seen in her life. So passionate, that she could swear that she felt the atmosphere in the room become electrified. Her jaw dropped when she saw whom her alter ego was kissing. "That's the Amazon? Gabrielle?" she whispered, and turned to the ghost, "but? how?"
"Does it even matter?" the sad ghost replied and continued to gaze at the scene.
The Conqueror looked away from the ghost, and peeked back into her alter ego's life, feeling a bit jealous that this Xena could kiss and laugh and play and share presents.
"Xena, don't eat just the candy, okay?" Gabrielle scolded her now pouting alter ego, "Cyrene has been cooking all the food since the crack of dawn."
"My mother?" She asked the ghost, "My mother is here?"
"Yes," was the ghosts' only response.
She felt her eyes water at the thought that her mother would ever again be part of her life. She was positive that she was completely written off by the woman who gave birth to her, and yet, in this reality, Cyrene was in the palace, living with her.
"How?" The Conqueror asked the ghost, "How can I make this future true? Please tell me!"
The ghost smiled for the first time.
"Stop being the Conqueror," she replied.
"But if I'm not the Conqueror, I'll lose everything!" Xena protested.
"Look around you for my reply to that, Xena," the ghost said, "Our time is over here."
And with that, Xena found herself back in her own room. On Solstice day.
She didn't get out of bed until midmorning. Instead, she just sat there, thinking about the events she experienced the past three nights. She was positive they were not dreams after all. She thought about the family she had as a child, the present conditions in the realm, and the possibilities of what the future may hold.
Her musings were interrupted by a guard that announced the return of the Amazon party.
She got up, and made her way to the hearing chamber. She asked the guards to also send the prisoners in, and waited.
Soon, she once again had five kneeling Amazons in front of her.
"Ephiny," Xena said, "did you return to honor the tribute?"
"Yes, Conqueror," Ephiny almost whispered.
So, maybe the visions were wrong, Xena thought. Maybe they do have supplies.
She turned to the guard for confirmation. "Report," she commanded him
"Conqueror," the guard said, "the Amazons came back and brought ten sacs of grain. That's the one third of the tribute."
"It's all we had," Ephiny replied, hoping that she wouldn't lose her head for speaking without permission. But it didn't matter anymore.
And then you'll spend the entire winter praying to Artemis until a cherry drops from the sky, Xena sadly thought.
And then she decided that she wanted to live the future of her vision.
"Guards," she said. "Release the Amazons and provide them with all the supplies they will need to last through the winter."
Nobody moved a muscle, as all thought that this was just an ironic joke from the Conqueror before she ordered the Amazons dead.
"Did you not hear me?" Xena asked.
"Yes, Conqueror," the head of the guards replied, and quickly gathered the Amazons up.
Just before they exited the room, Xena jumped from the throne and stood in front of the Amazon Queen.
"I am terribly sorry," she said. "Please accept my supplies, and maybe when the winter ends you can visit here and renegotiate the terms of the peace treaty."
And she saw the first real smile she had received in years. "Gladly," Gabrielle replied.
Then they left, taking away from Xena a miniscule amount of supplies compared to her wealth, and leaving something very important and priceless back: