THE LESSER EVIL
-"The Nurse and the Wolf" - Aesop's fables-
One way leads to diamonds,
One way leads to gold,
Another leads you only
To everything you're told.
In your heart you wonder
Which of these is true;
The road that leads to nowhere,
The road that leads to you.
Will you find the answer
In all you say and do?
Will you find the answer
There inside of you?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The day began with promise, as had so many before it. Xena woke as the sun split the horizon. The sky bled, oozing hues of purple, red and orange into a turquoise dawn. Gabrielle slept soundly at her side, snoring lightly. Xena sensed a presence, something silently watching them from the cover of deep woods. She had this feeling, this awareness, of someone following, watching, for several days now. It was an odd and elusive presence, one that she couldn't quite grasp; it was like trying to perceive a ghost.
She sensed no danger, it was probably just a fox or some other curious creature of the forest, but her hand closed around her sword nonetheless. She lay quietly for a moment, listening, as the woodland listened back. After a few moments a bird sounded a tentative note, then fell silent. The wind sighed around her; Mother Earth yawning deeply as She awakened with the dawn, Her breath stirring the low-lying fog in the meadow.
They had set up camp very late last night, beneath the pale blue light of a waning moon. They were in a small, sheltered clearing at the edge of dense forest. A meadow of yellowing grass and late blooming wildflowers rolled away to their left and down a slight incline where it was swallowed up by the waiting forest. Ironically, they discovered that this tranquil piece of grassland had once, long ago, played host to a violent conflict. Scattered pieces of broken and discarded weaponry littered the field. The earth was slowly, inexorably, reclaiming fragments of bone, rotting leather, tarnished buckles of silver and sundry other items as nature patiently erased the damage wrought by the callous hand of man.
The wind swept past, bathing her face with a fine, cool mist. Xena closed her eyes and listened to faint echoes of the battle. The rush of footsteps in the tall grass, the clash of swords in the rattling trees, and the moans of the dead and dying in the murmuring wind. The presence in the woods gradually faded, along with the restless spirits that still fought their final battle on this lonely piece of earth.
Xena sat up slowly, resting on her elbows. Gabrielle mumbled something in her sleep, most likely protesting the absence of Xena's warmth. Xena had come to greatly appreciate quiet preludes to their often-hectic days and to highly treasure early mornings of absolute peace. She studied Gabrielle, as she often did in these quiet times, before the day intruded upon them.
Gabrielle's face looked as smooth and unlined as a child's in this faultless light; innocent and unburdened. Xena felt a familiar tightening in her chest as her heart reacted to this tiny illusion. The telltale etchings of their arduous journeys were magically absent in this uncertain light of dawn. Xena had observed those telling lines appear over the years, born of laughter and harshness, reflections of heartache and joy. They had shared much, both hilarious and hellacious, and life had deeply marked them as it had swept them along in its heedless rush to tomorrow.
Xena reached over and touched Gabrielle's hair. The warrior's hand trembled slightly and a tiny smile crossed her lips; such was the power of the diminutive bard from Poteidaia who had grown to mean so much to her. A fine line creased Gabrielle's forehead as she reached out for Xena and found her missing. Her eyes, still heavy with sleep, struggled to open. Xena bent close to her ear.
"I'm here, Gabrielle."
"Uhmph...up?" Gabrielle mumbled in return.
"Go back to sleep," Xena said softly.
A slit of sea green appeared for a brief moment, meeting sky blue, then disappeared, along with the worry line.
Xena had good intentions of getting up, but as she began to move away Gabrielle turned toward her and moved closer. Xena hesitated. A few moments later Gabrielle's arm snaked across Xena's waist, her head nestling in the hollow of her shoulder. Xena closed her eyes and pressed a gentle kiss against Gabrielle's temple. Absolutely nothing in Xena's life had ever felt as purely good and right as this simple, familiar act. Some days, it just made more sense to sleep in.
When darkness falls upon your heart and soul
I'll be the light that shines for you
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle stood motionless in brilliant white sunlight. It sat uncomfortably warm on her shoulders, but she shivered in spite it. She watched as Xena walked toward her, a shimmering visage in the sun's bright glare. Xena was smiling and an answering smile lit Gabrielle's face. A vague uneasiness stole over Gabrielle as a similar scene teased the edge of a distant memory, lingered for a moment and was lost.
Xena held out her hand as she drew nearer. "Come with me, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's smile faded as she noticed a darkness hovering close behind Xena. It followed her, caressed her with hideous fingers. This darkness had a name, but she could not remember it.
"Gabrielle?" Xena extended her hand, beckoning.
Gabrielle moved forward, reaching for her hand, but pulled back quickly as the voracious darkness surged toward her.
"Don't be afraid," Xena's voice was soothing. "Accept it. It defines you, what you are becoming. It's the way."
Xena's smile slid from her face. The sun cowered then abruptly disappeared, overcome by the darkness.
"Xena, it's not my way."
"Stand with me, be with me, Gabrielle."
"I'm here for you."
"I'm alone in this darkness." Xena began to fade, swallowed by the murky blackness.
"No, don't go. You're not alone, I'll stay with you." Gabrielle reached out for her. The darkness smiled.
Dreams of sorrow, dreams of ire
Darkness listens, watches, waits
Hides in shadows
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena woke for the second time that morning when Gabrielle turned uneasily away from her and cried out softly in her sleep.
Dreaming again, Xena thought, looking over her shoulder at her.
And it didn't look pleasant. Xena frowned; she had hoped that the nightmares that plagued Gabrielle's dreams would fade in time. It had been almost two years since their run-in with Zagnan. Of course, she thought ruefully, their lives were seldom conducive to peaceful dreams. Gabrielle mumbled something and reached out. Xena turned over and took Gabrielle's hand, felt it tremble within her grasp, and wrapped both hands around it. Gabrielle tensed slightly, then relaxed, comforted by the familiar warmth of Xena's touch; the trembling ceased. Xena moved close behind her, gently laying an arm across her waist. As the tension gradually left Gabrielle's body, sleep overtook Xena once more. Gabrielle's hand slid from her grasp; the trembling returned almost immediately.
On the road that I have taken,
One day, walking, I awaken,
Amazed to see where I have come,
Where I'm going, where I'm from.
This is not the path I thought.
This is not the place I sought.
This is not the dream I bought,
Just a fever of fate I've caught.
-Book Of Counted Sorrows-
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle's nose twitched as the smell of simmering broth enticed her to wakefulness; she opened one eye and sniffed. Xena watched with amusement as the shapeless lump beneath the blankets began to slowly emerge; Gabrielle could sleep through most anything, her stomach, however, was not so inclined. The disheveled blond head appeared, followed closely by two aquamarine eyes at half-mast. The nose reluctantly left the warmth of the blanket and the blanket, in turn, slid down to reveal a yawn so huge it made Xena's jaw ache just to look at it. Xena stirred the broth and Gabrielle's nose pulled her upright.
"Muhnornin'," Gabrielle mumbled.
"That it is," Xena confirmed, lifting an eyebrow as Gabrielle's head and eyelids drooped in perfect harmony. "Hungry?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle blinked like a wise old owl. Xena's lopsided grin appeared as she crouched down and ruffled the unruly bed-head, barely able to resist placing an affectionate kiss on top of it. The corners of Gabrielle's mouth lifted in a somewhat goofy grin as a cup of something hot and smelling savory materialized in her hand, "Mmm...thanks," she murmured sleepily.
"Uh-huh," Xena replied.
Gabrielle lifted the cup to her lips, relishing the warmth of the steam on her face for a moment before taking a cautious sip. Gabrielle's eyes widened slightly in surprise. Whatever Xena had cooked up was not only edible, it was hot and tasty. An all encompassing "Mmm-good," echoed hollowly from inside the cup. Xena chuckled then frowned slightly as she looked over Gabrielle's shoulder.
Coming more fully awake now, Gabrielle slowly lowered the cup. "What is it?" she whispered, resisting the urge to turn and see for herself.
Xena gave her a wistful look, brushed her fingertips lightly along Gabrielle's jaw then stood, her hand coming to rest, finally, on her chakram. The fragile serenity of the morning dissipated as soundlessly as Xena's sigh as trouble emerged phantom-like from the mist-shrouded woods. Gabrielle reluctantly dropped the cup of broth she was holding and scrambled to her feet.
"Stay close, Gabrielle," Xena's breath laced the crisp dawn with pale blue frost as she calmly let fly the deceptively beautiful sphere of silver and drew her sword.
The chakram touched three; nuzzling a throat, caressing a chest and singing harmony with an upraised sword in its passing. A jugular spurted wildly, a heart pumped crimson, a blade severed, and all three added to the rubble amidst the tangled weeds of the decaying battlefield. The chakram, calmly returning to its mistress after completing its assigned tasks, took no notice of the devastation it left behind.
Xena followed the chakram's flight, capturing it as gently as a lover upon its return. This triggered a familiar, evil little grin and ignited an unholy light burning behind her icy blue eyes. The transformation never failed to astonish Gabrielle. More men emerged from the woods, two of which decided on a less formidable looking opponent and turned their attention to Gabrielle. Xena stepped in front of her. The two approaching Gabrielle were quickly dispatched, but not before another drew Xena's blood. Xena seldom got cut, and rarely so early into a battle, and the sight of it was eerily disturbing.
There are too many of them, Gabrielle thought, for her to be worrying about me.
Slightly mesmerized by the thick line of blood running down Xena's arm, Gabrielle found herself, not for the first time, in a battle with her conscience over her determination not to fight and the danger it placed them in.
"Xena!" Gabrielle yelled a warning as she ducked, leaned to her left, and agilely extended a foot in the path of a determined, though somewhat overly zealous, attacker.
Xena turned quickly, eyes widening at the now out-of-control rush of an equally wide-eyed attacker; she discouraged him with a well-placed kick. His weapon fell from hands otherwise occupied cradling more valuable assets. The spear fell at Gabrielle's feet, its gleaming silver tip giving her an impudent wink in the sunlight.
...pick it up...help her
Gabrielle closed her eyes, "I can't..."
...don't let her down again, Gabrielle...she depends on you...can't you hear their cries, those you failed...pick it up...
Xena deftly sidestepped another adversary and slashed a brilliant swatch of scarlet across his chest as he passed. Gabrielle instinctively stepped aside, but not quite far enough, nor fast enough to avoid a bone-jarring collision before he fell away from her. An instantly fierce surge of pain inserted itself behind Gabrielle's eyes as she squeezed them shut; pulsating waves of purple throbbed gently to the rhythm of her heart. She lowered her head, pressing her fingertips tightly against her temples as the fighting raged around her. Dizzy and queasy, her sense of time and self became as distorted as her vision when she opened her eyes once more.
Her pulse quickened as she closed her eyes again and listened...listened and remembered. Entangled now, grappling with the demons of her past, bits and pieces of myriad battles unfolded before her;
Leading the charge, the instinctive, intoxicating fight for survival as senses sharpened, muscles tightened, breathing became more even and controlled. Her heart raced, thundering in her ears. She ducked away from a whistling sword, retaliated quickly and turned in one quick, precise movement, bouncing lightly on her toes as she faced her next opponent. The hollow ring of her staff against his shield vibrated through her entire body. "No, no..." Her voice was a fraying gossamer thread, binding her tenuously to the present as the past unraveled, spun away from her, and wove itself into a portent of a future that haunted her dreams.
Someone blind-sided her, snapping her head painfully to the side, sending a streak of burning pain down the side of her neck and shoulder. She lashed out angrily, swinging the staff with instinctive, unerring accuracy and then pulled back, startled, as a spray of warm blood covered her hands and splashed across her face. All motion around her slowed, images and sounds heightened to a keen intensity. Her lungs labored and burned, spewing tiny clouds of rasping breath into the chill air. She heard the wet, eerily drawn out slash of a sword across tortured flesh, followed by a long, low cry of agony. Fire and smoke and...death...death all around her. The world grew still and small, shrank away from her in frightened, silent awe.
And within that silence; deception and truth found voice inside her head and emerged as one: "You have inherited a gift, Gabrielle; this rage, this beautiful darkness, it becomes you..." And then... "All this is for a reason...otherwise, what's the point?"
Gabrielle opened her eyes as past and present, reality and illusion, merged seamlessly, if not entirely accurately. "It's not me," she insisted, "that's not who I am."
"...What you and Xena did was for the greater good; there was a reason for it then, there is a reason for it now. It is a good day for fighting."
The wind whispered to her, surrounded her, touched her; ghostly fingers riding an errant breeze. She froze, sickened, as that day of fighting came rushing back to her in loathsome detail; Phlanagus, Temecula and a failure that would haunt her until her dying day. I could have saved him. How do I get past that?
Xena's shout of warning coincided with a sharp blow that jarred her harshly into the present, forced her to her knees and slashed a narrow path of stinging pain across her temple. Blood poured from a gash above her eye. She lifted her head and swiped a forearm across her face, trying to clear her bloodstained vision. A vicious kick to her ribs emptied her of breath, rattled her teeth and sent her hard to the ground. Lifting her head, she looked up and winced, half blinded by pain and the sun glinting off a sword as it was raised above her.
A dark silhouette emerged against the sun as she struggled to pull in a breath. She stared up at him for what seemed an excessive amount of time before he did something profoundly odd; bowing his head, he brought the sword to his chest then slowly sank to his knees beside her as if paying homage to a god. Gabrielle watched this bizarre episode with eerie detachment, finally managing to suck in a breath that hurt like Tartarus. She pushed herself part way up off the ground, sucking in another careful breath. He lifted his head a little and she looked into his eyes, which now reflected an aching, infinite sadness.
"I..." He opened his mouth to speak and they both watched, morbidly fascinated, as one...two...three falling drops of red spattered on the ground between them. Three answering puffs of dust spiraled upward and were immediately borne away by a softly sighing wind. The sight captivated Gabrielle until he spoke again.
"I...don't even... know you..."
She looked up at him once more. He was young, so very young. His eyes, blue as a soft summer sky, overflowed with tears as he stared fixedly at his sword. He turned his head slightly and looked down at her. With one hand clutched tightly to his chest, he moved his sword to her throat with a terrible and precise purpose.
"I'm sorry," he whispered with gentle regret.
The wind rose and swirled around them. He lifted his head as it tossed his hair; spun gold in sunlight, into his eyes. Smiling sadly, he ran a hand through it, leaving a jarring, glistening streak of bright red across his forehead.
"Momma?...oh, do you see..." Disbelief, then quiet acceptance filled his eyes, his voice, as he absently moved the blade away. Bearing a smudge of dusty red that spoiled its fine radiance, the sword dropped, unnoticed, from his fingers as he slowly collapsed at Gabrielle's side.
I know that it will hurt
I know that it will break your heart
The way things are
The way they've been
The way they've always been
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle did not answer. She sat, staring dully into the young man's unseeing blue eyes, rocking slightly in the softly wailing wind. Xena touched her shoulder. "Gabrielle..."
Gabrielle lifted her head. Xena's heart sank as she looked into the haunted emptiness of Gabrielle's dazed eyes. She had seen this look far too often lately; had witnessed the almost daily war Gabrielle seemed to wage to re-establish her balance between the darkness and the light.
"He..." Gabrielle's words were swallowed by the rushing wind; she bowed her head against the swirling dust. Xena knelt in front of her, laying a gentle hand against her face. The wind pushed angrily at Xena's back for a time then retreated with an irritated huff.
"By the gods, Xena." Anguished disbelief rendered Gabrielle's voice nearly inaudible. "He called out for his mother." Closing her eyes, Gabrielle bit her lip and tried to force back a hot rush of tears. She succeeded only for a moment, losing the struggle when Xena pulled her into a tight embrace. Gabrielle's face crumpled into a mask of despair, she began to cry. Xena closed her eyes and held on.
At the point where hope and reason part
Lies the spot where madness gets a start
-the Book of Counted Sorrows-
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
There was a quiet tension about them as Xena finally persuaded Gabrielle to lie down so she could tend to her injuries. Gabrielle lay quietly, pressing a blood-soaked cloth above her eye. She had watched, just as quietly, as Xena had buried the young man. Gabrielle had insisted they at least put him in the ground, out of the reach of scavengers then had asked, too, if they could move on before seeing to their own wounds. Gabrielle seemed far removed. In shock or just deep in thought? Xena wondered, as she washed blood from Gabrielle's hands and face. She remained that way until Xena cleaned the gash above her eye, drawing in hissing breath when Xena applied a pungent smelling concoction, which stung as sharply as it smelled.
"Sorry," Xena apologized.
"Mmm," Gabrielle replied.
"I'm going to close this with a couple of stitches."
Xena raised an eyebrow and bent to the task.
"I'm sorry. Hold still."
"I am holding still."
"No, you aren't; stop squirming."
"Well, how long can it take for a couple of little stitches?"
"I'm trying to be neat, so it doesn't leave a scar."
Gabrielle uttered an exasperated little snort, but held still until Xena finished. When she began to sit up, Xena placed a firm hand on her shoulder. "Wait. Let me-"
"I'm all right."
"Let me just-"
Gabrielle sat up; if she felt any pain, she hid it well behind tightly clenched teeth. "I said, I'm all right." Her voice was sharp, bordering on anger.
Xena clamped her own teeth together and took a deep breath. Gabrielle noted the muscle in Xena's jaw twitching and sat still for a moment, redirecting her gaze out toward the mountains in the distant horizon.
"You want to tell me what it is that's bothering you?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle looked back into Xena's questioning gaze. "What?"
"Look, Gabrielle, I know you are upset about that boy, why don't you just talk about it."
Gabrielle opened her mouth, then closed it again and looked away. Xena sat quietly, waiting, with a lot more patience than she felt.
"Did you have to kill him?" Gabrielle asked softly a few moments later.
Gabrielle met her eyes again; Xena's were narrowed in confusion. "The boy," Gabrielle replied. "Why did you..."
"I didn't kill that boy, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle stared at her for a few moments, bewildered. "Then who...you don't think that I..."
"No, I didn't say that."
"Well, I didn't, at least, I don't think I..."
She stopped and shook her head a little, trying to remember. "By the gods, Xena, could I have killed him and not remember it?"
That haunted look began to creep back into Gabrielle's eyes; Xena reached over and took her hand. "No," Xena stated firmly.
"He was very young, Gabrielle, and inexperienced. The fighting was intense. He just got in the way of someone's sword."
Gabrielle didn't look entirely convinced, but some of the color began to return to her face. Something very cold lodged itself in the pit of her stomach and she shivered. Xena grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around her. "Why don't you rest for a while, we're in no hurry to be anywhere."
Gabrielle looked into Xena's azure gaze for a moment and suddenly felt very tired. She nodded her head a little and lay down, wincing at the pull of the stitches above her eye.
Xena watched her until she fell asleep, amazed, as always, at Gabrielle's uncanny and enviable ability to escape into slumber so quickly. She moved away to attend to some of her own wounds. The one on her arm was minor, but there was a particularly nasty cut on the back of her hand. She poured some of the pungent medicine over it and sucked in a sharp breath. Damn, she thought, that really does sting. Xena occupied herself brushing Argo, gathering firewood, and being alternately restless and pensive until she heard Gabrielle's voice and returned to her side.
She was talking in her sleep, a troubled frown on her face. Xena gently lifted a few strands of Gabrielle's hair away from the cut, which had stopped seeping blood and crusted over. Gabrielle again mumbled something in her sleep and Xena leaned closer, "What?" she whispered, close to Gabrielle's ear.
Xena thought for a moment that she was awake, but she wasn't. She retrieved another blanket and covered her with it. Xena looked around her. The sun was nearing the horizon; the day had ebbed away as surely and furtively as a retreating tide. It was going to be a fine sunset, all reds and oranges behind majestic mountains of purple clouds. She toyed with the idea of waking Gabrielle to see it, so the day might end as it begun; in relative peace. She wondered why they were attacked. Were they merely thieves or something else entirely? And she thought, too, about the boy.
Gabrielle moved uneasily under the blanket and uttered a single word into the heavy silence; "Cold."
The word and the tone of her voice were an eerily matched pair. Xena lifted the blankets and lay down close behind her, draping a protective arm across her waist. She allowed herself a small smile as Gabrielle sighed deeply and settled back against her warmth. A few moments later, she felt Gabrielle's hand close around hers and finally, together, they found peace in the restless night.
Tell me who you love,
And I'll tell you who you are
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The day dawned unseasonably chilly, drenched in fog and spitting occasional smatterings of fat, wet snowflakes; winter, struggling to assert itself against fall's tenacious hold.
Gabrielle woke with the rising sun, which was attempting, with very little success, to muscle aside the chill with its warmth. She reached out groggily for Xena and found her gone. This was not unusual, for Xena often rose long before Gabrielle even thought of opening her eyes. She would busy herself tending the fire, brushing Argo, or performing her own routine of exercise and meditation while waiting for Gabrielle to drag herself into wakefulness. Still, every time Gabrielle woke and found her gone, it sent a tiny shot of apprehension straight into her heart. She sat up and sucked in a hissing breath as a few of her more spiteful bumps and bruises cheerfully announced their presence. She touched the stitches above her eye, grimacing a little at the rough feel of them and the dull ache beneath them. Sensing someone behind her instinct sent her hand underneath the blanket. The coldness of Xena's sword felt forbidding beneath her touch, she quickly pulled her hand away.
"It's me," Xena declared softly.
Gabrielle turned to look at her. She was an obscure shadow against the fragile sun, emerging from an eerily tinted blue-gray mist and silent snowfall like an image from a fading dream. A feeling of inexplicable, icy dread flickered through Gabrielle's consciousness, there and quickly gone, no match for the warmth of Xena's eyes as she drew near.
"I have something that may interest you." Xena told her, stooping down beside her.
"Oh? What's that?"
"It's a surprise."
Gabrielle smiled a little. "Well, you know I love surprises."
Xena returned the smile. Reaching over, she pushed Gabrielle's hair aside and studied the stitches above her eye. "How do you feel?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I'll live."
Xena stared at her for such a long time that she began to feel a little uncomfortable. Gabrielle began to say something to fill the silence when Xena leaned over and touched her lips very gently against the laceration above her eye, which had the immediate effect of rendering Gabrielle speechless.
Xena leaned back and looked into her eyes. "My mother used to do that," she said, by way of explanation. "It had the most amazing healing effect. Just thought I'd give it a try."
Gabrielle said nothing, but felt something very much akin to being struck by lightning.
"Well?" Xena inquired.
Gabrielle touched the cut, which, oddly, seemed to hum with a slight energy beneath her fingertips. "What?" she replied, more than a little distracted.
"Did it help?"
Xena cocked an eyebrow at her, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth. "Come on, I've got something to show you." She stood and held out her hand, Gabrielle grasped it and Xena gave carefully assisted her to her feet. Gathering up their meager belongings, they stowed them on Argo and Xena climbed aboard, again extending her hand. "A bit of a ride, but we'll go slow; give the aches a break."
Gabrielle grasped her hand, stuck a foot in the stirrup, and gingerly helped pull herself into the saddle behind Xena. True to her word, Xena urged Argo slowly forward with a gentle nudge of her knees.
"So, what's the surprise?"
"Well, it's not going to be a surprise if I tell ya, now, is it?"
They rode in easy silence. Gabrielle had become considerably more introspective in the last few years, and though Xena told herself she was grateful for the reprieve from Gabrielle's incessant chatter, she had to admit that she sometimes missed it. Xena guided Argo off the main trail onto a barely discernible path that took them higher into the mountains. Gabrielle gazed around her. The vegetation, which should have been growing sparser the higher they climbed, was, in fact, flourishing. The trees hung low and they had to duck under a canopy of greenness as Argo pushed forward.
"You aren't bringing me up here to lose me, are you?"
Xena chuckled a little. "Never."
"Are you lost?"
Xena turned to give her a Look. Gabrielle returned it with a grin. The barely perceptible sound of rushing water, as is its habit, quietly instilled itself upon their senses and gradually increased in volume as they neared its source. They broke through into a clearing and Gabrielle's jaw dropped in surprise. A double waterfall, over a hundred feet high, which mysteriously disappeared from view between the two cascades. Water spilled like fine white lace down a sheer face of black stone and then dropped out of sight into a narrow channel of smooth shale. It emerged in a rush of foam and white water and thundered over another towering outcropping of rock before emptying into a shimmering pool of clear blue water. A dozen tiny rainbows rode the mist in its wake. When she could finally force her eyes from the waterfalls, Gabrielle looked around her. Everything was green, from the subtlest shade of cool jade to shinning emerald. A light, gauzy mist from a dozen hot springs enveloped it all in a silky, comforting warmth.
"It's beautiful," Gabrielle whispered.
"Yes," Xena replied simply, turning to look at her for a moment before she leaned back, lifted a leg over the saddle and slid quietly to the ground. Gabrielle, eyes still fixed on her surroundings, absently accepted a hand down. Xena began unsaddling Argo. "I thought a nice long soak would do us both good."
Gabrielle looked back at her. "You've been here before?"
"Mmm-hmm," Xena removed the harness and gave Argo's nose a brisk rub before the horse ambled away. She walked over to stand beside Gabrielle. "It's a special place for me. A place to go to get away from people and...things. I've never brought anyone here before."
Gabrielle looked over at her. "Xena, I..." Xena gazed into her eyes; rendered a deep jade by their surroundings. "Thank you."
"Call it a belated birthday present."
Gabrielle looked into the gentlest of eyes; such a revelation were those eyes, she knew them so well, but sometimes, in a heartbeat, she knew them not at all. "I...I don't know what to say."
"Well, there's a first, eh?"
"Funny," Gabrielle gave her a droll smile. "Sure beats spiders in my bedroll, squishy things in my boots," she added, looking around.
"Day's young yet," Xena teased. Gabrielle raised an eyebrow and shot her a look. "So," Xena said, ignoring the look. "Feel like getting warm and wet?" The eyebrow rose higher. "The springs," Xena clarified, with a nod toward them.
"Ah, the springs," Gabrielle replied. "Of course."
Xena shed her garments with practiced ease - an action both innocent and sensual - and disappeared into the swirling steam, only to reappear a few moments later. "Coming?" she asked, eyes blue fire in the gray mist.
"Oh yeah, uh-huh," Gabrielle affirmed.
Oh, mirror in the sky,
What is love
Can the child within my heart rise above
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides
Can I handle the seasons of my life
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The day passed peacefully; a wonder in itself. The weather mellowed, the untimely morning snow not daring enough to intrude upon this magical place. They soaked long and luxuriously, trading massages and such allowing the steaming water to soothe both body and spirit. Xena groaned in pure pleasure as Gabrielle coaxed stubborn knots from her neck and shoulders.
"Mmmm," Xena sighed. "Did I ever tell you what wonderful hands you have?"
Gabrielle paused and studied the steam rising from Xena's shoulders. "As a matter of fact, I don't think you have. Just the opposite. Something about sailors if I remember right?"
"Well, whatever I said before, I take it back," Xena closed her eyes and sank lower in the steam.
"Hmmm?" Her voice bubbled up through the water.
"This is nice, isn't it?"
Xena resurfaced, spewing a small splutter of water. "Is this a trick question?"
"No," Gabrielle replied, answer riding on a chuckle. "It just made me wonder if you ever think about settling somewhere for a while." Gabrielle felt Xena stiffen slightly under her touch. She was silent for so long that Gabrielle decided that she wasn't going to answer.
Xena sat up slowly and turned to face her. "Here," she said. "I'll do you for a while."
Gabrielle turned around and closed her eyes. In a very short time she was gone, lost in the magic of Xena's firm but gentle touch.
"Is that what you want?" Xena asked her.
"To settle down?"
Gabrielle thought about it for a moment. "I don't know. I think about it sometimes. The violence..." She stopped speaking and Xena's hands stopped moving.
"I know it bothers you, Gabrielle, I..."
"It does more than that," Gabrielle interrupted, not unkindly. "It really scares me at times."
Xena was still, saying nothing for a long moment. "Do I scare you, Gabrielle?"
Not nearly as much as I scare myself, Gabrielle thought, turning to look at her and trying, with limited success, to unravel the complexities in those cool blue eyes. "Sometimes, you can be truly scary, Warrior Princess, so that would have to be a yes."
Xena studied her for a moment. "Well, good," she said, laying a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Hate to think I'd lost my touch."
Gabrielle looked surprised for just a second then caught the look in Xena's eye. "Don't you da-"
Xena pushed her under. Gabrielle came up sputtering and with a handful of foot, Xena's, it turned out, and she suddenly disappeared beneath the bubbling steam. A well placed pinch drew a squeal of indignation and a flurry of enthusiastic retaliation and wild splashing. And so went another fierce aquatic battle between Amazon Queen and Warrior Princess. The battle wound down to a waterlogged draw and a wary truce. The only casualty; one mystical spring, which was left considerably depleted.
Everything is waves and stars
The universe is resting
In my arms
Oh, I feel so light
This is all I want to feel tonight
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The sun began a slow descent, occasionally peeking from between the massive trees that surrounded the springs. Xena smiled to herself as Gabrielle carefully checked each boot before pulling it on. "Feel like taking a walk?"
"I feel remarkably rejuvenated," Gabrielle answered, standing up. "Lead on."
A mere suggestion of a path preceded them upward through the rocks toward the waterfall as they raced the setting sun. Gabrielle stumbled a little over a small pile of fallen stone and Xena grabbed her arm. "Careful."
Gabrielle looked down. The trees looked dwarf-like from this height, the pool they had bathed in a tiny, glimmering jewel in an oasis of jade. The waterfall showered them with fine mist, smelling of cold metal and soft musk.
"Not far now," Xena told her, as they crossed a slippery expanse of shale and disappeared behind the first waterfall. Water roared above them as they passed through a surprisingly wide tunnel and emerged on the side of the mountain in the face of the setting sun. Head a little woozy from the climb, taken by the sight before her, Gabrielle sat down with a "Wow" as her only comment.
Xena smiled and sat close beside her. "You know, for a bard, your vocabulary seems sorely depleted today."
Gabrielle grinned. "I'm totally speechless."
"Wonders never cease."
They both turned their gaze toward the horizon. A muted, crimson sun settled itself lazily toward a distant sea, casting floating ribbons of color upon its surface. The nearly cloudless sky faded from turquoise, to indigo, to dusky deep blue flushed with rose. The corpulent sun flattened itself against the horizon, as if reluctant to touch the cool waters of the waiting sea. A solitary hawk dipped and soared, deftly riding currents of air and for a moment, Xena felt a profound longing to be by its side.
Xena leaned toward Gabrielle. "Did you know," she said quietly, "that if you are very still, you can hear the sun touch the water?"
"Really?" Gabrielle whispered back, a small smile touching her lips.
Xena turned her head slightly, watching, as Gabrielle returned her gaze to the horizon, half closing her eyes against the muted brilliance of the setting sun.
Whether by power of suggestion, or some mystical ability hidden until this moment by Xena, the sun nestled into the tranquility of the waiting sea with a tiny, audible hissss and an inexplicable flash of pale green light.
"Did you see that?" Gabrielle's voice was reverently hushed, her skepticism lost in wonder. "Wasn't that just the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?"
"Yes," Xena agreed, delighting in her own private sunset reflected in the turquoise sea of Gabrielle's eyes. "It was."
Gabrielle looked over at her. "I wish it could always be like this."
"But then, you wouldn't appreciate it so much," Xena moved closer.
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow, leaning closer yet, drawn by the quiescent blue fire of Xena's eyes. "When did you become so wise, Warrior Woman?"
"Oh, I've always been wise. I know many things."
"Shush and I'll teach you."
The sun bled into the smooth palette of the sea, infusing it with perpetual ribbons of multihued color. The hawk circled the heavens.
Xena no longer desired to be by its side; she was already there.
Diverse are those
Who inhabit the night
Thinking their thoughts
As the rest of the world
Some share the darkness
Some are the darkness
Others trespass unaware
Never to find the dawn
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
They met under cover of night, beneath a pale moon blanketed by a layer of ragged clouds. The wind alone moved through the trees; all else had grown silent at their passing. The trees bent toward one another, trading delicious gossip, until the Goddess of Darkness raised her head. The wind subsided; the trees hung their heads like scolded children. "Why do you fear them so?" Hecate asked.
"I told you before, Hecate, I fear no one. They are a-"
"A distraction," Hecate interrupted impatiently. "Yes, yes, I remember what you said."
"You dare to question me?"
Hecate turned slowly to face the shadowy figure. A few moments passed in cold silence before she spoke. "I do not fear you, so do not take that condescending tone with me. As a matter of fact, you sorely try my patience. You want my help, yet you refuse to tell me why."
"You must trust me when I tell you-"
Hecate laughed, or what passed as laughter for her; a short, sharp, derisive bark of amusement. "Trust you? I'd sooner trust a snake. If you want my help, you will tell me why you are so fixated on Xena and Gabrielle. I helped you with them before. I fail to see what more you require of me."
"The plan went somewhat awry."
"The plan was set in motion, and although it did not go exactly as expected, you have yet to see the final outcome."
A sigh from the darkness. "Let us just say that we require some assurance, just in case. A backup plan, if you will."
Hecate turned away, silent, deep in thought, gently stroking the head of the great hound that sat quietly at her feet.
"Are you afraid of them, Hecate?"
"I respect them; I respect their power."
"If I did not know you better, Hecate, I'd say you've developed a soft spot for them, especially the little bard."
She turned slowly, deliberately, and the dark soul before her, who feared nothing, retreated a step from the intense malevolence in her eyes. "You do not know me at all." Her voice was quietly restrained. "You would be wise to remember that." The hound shifted uncomfortably at her feet, sensing much more in her tone than her words revealed. "And I do not answer to you," Hecate concluded. "You are wasting my time. Come, Tess." The beast immediately rose to her feet. Hecate turned away and a peculiar wind arose in her wake; an unnerving mix of fire and ice.
"Wait, Hecate!" She paused. "Please." The word, seldom used, had to be painfully coaxed into existence
She faced the shadows once more. "You need not waste such words on me; I gain no satisfaction from hearing them. Say what you have to say. If it is the truth, I will listen."
"Very well. I will concede that even the gods are, how shall I put this...troubled. There is unrest among the people, rumors of another power, even prophecies of a twilight."
"'Twilight'? Of the gods?" Hecate's voice held a note of incredulity. "That myth has been around for eons." Silence. "You believe this?" she asked.
"There have been certain... unsettling developments."
"For one, there is a rather annoying group of people who persist in perpetuating the belief that there is but one true God."
"I know of them."
"They are but sheep, weak, easily led..."
Hecate drew in an exasperated breath. "Get to the point, will you?!"
"The point is that, according to The Fates, there may be some merit to the myth. The point is that there have been some subtle shifts in power, and every time this shift occurs, they are there."
A tiny little thrill ran through Hecate; the hound felt it and whined excitedly. Hecate knew at once who they were. "Xena and Gabrielle," she stated.
"Yes. Xena! " The name spoken with barely suppressed rage. "This Power, this so called One God, seems drawn to her, though she, herself, shows not the least respect to any god."
"Oh, that is true," Hecate replied with a small hidden smile. "How can you be sure that it is Xena that draws this One God?"
"What are you implying?"
"Perhaps," Hecate answered thoughtfully, "it is Gabrielle, not Xena, who invites this interest."
There was a few moments of considered silence. "Perhaps you are right. All the more reason to separate them. Divide and conquer."
Hecate sniffed. "You sound like the man who would be a god," she said. "If only in his own mind."
"He has proved... useful."
"He is a fool."
"Useful, nevertheless. Tell me, what would you give for an emperor's foolish soul, Hecate?"
The eyes within the hood burned brighter with renewed interest. "So, have you any ideas for a backup plan?" The entity in the darkness had no doubt that she did, there was a game to be played, with very high stakes, and Hecate was a true master of the game.
"Gabrielle has lost her way, or so she is coming to believe," Hecate noted, eyes chillingly bright within the shadowed cowl. "And I have been helping her along with that particular belief. Now we..."
The darkness trembled at the intensity with which the particulars of the game were presented. A keen wind arose above them. Treetops swayed toward one another, prattling earnestly, excitedly, before backing away with a creak and a groan. Skeletal branches tore at tattered clouds, releasing the mummified moon; it hung there tangled in their midst, looking down upon them with a resentful, suspicious eye.
"...we must continue to provide her with a new way," Hecate insisted. "One at odds from the one Xena embraces so heartily."
"We can turn her by deception," agreed the voice from the shadows, caught up in the new scheme. "Divide and conquer indeed. Simple."
Hecate snorted at the word and turned away. The great black hound at Hecate's feet rose as the clouds began to overcome the moon once more. "There is nothing remotely simple about those two, one day, you will realize that. And the day they realize it, the game will be over. A path of their own making will end it."
The moon escaped once again, casting a wary eye over the landscape below, but the Goddess Who Ruled the Night was nowhere to be seen.
Who can say
Where the road goes
Where the day flows
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle looked on silently as Xena slowly raised the chakram. The buck lifted its head slightly, ears pivoting toward them and looked, Gabrielle swore, straight into her eyes. She laid a hand on Xena's arm. Xena shifted her gaze to Gabrielle's hand for a moment, then to her face. Gabrielle turned her head slightly and met Xena's inquisitive gaze. Xena lifted an eyebrow as Gabrielle's lower lip disappeared beneath her top teeth.
"I thought you were hungry." Xena kept her voice low and soft, throwing a quick glance at the buck. His head was lifted high now, muscles tensed; he was getting ready to bolt.
"Not so much," Gabrielle whispered back, nose wrinkling slightly as an ominous growl emerged from her stomach. Xena's mouth pooched out a little as she lifted an eloquent eyebrow. Gabrielle always thought of this as her "Yeah, right" look.
"Gabrielle," Xena said patiently, "it's going to be a very lean winter if you keep bonding with all the edible food."
"We could go fishing," Gabrielle suggested.
"'We'? You hate fishing."
Gabrielle had no reply to this; she truly did hate fishing.
"That buck" - Xena chanced another look, amazed to see it was still standing there - "could keep us fed and warm for a long time."
Gabrielle released a small sigh and looked at the big buck, almost invisible within the dappled hues of the forest. Her jaw dropped slightly and Xena followed her gaze. A doe had joined the buck and her gentle brown eyes stared directly into Xena's somewhat startled blue. Gabrielle smiled a little as Xena uttered a soft curse. They looked at each other again and Xena did not miss the amusement in Gabrielle's eyes.
"We still have to eat," Xena muttered gruffly.
Gabrielle lifted an eyebrow and gave her a small shrug. Xena recognized this as Gabrielle's "Go ahead, I'm not stopping you" gesture. Xena's eyes narrowed and filled with determined resolve. Gabrielle removed her hand from Xena's arm, decided that the laces on her boots needed tightening, and bent to the task. There was a short period of absolute silence before a small exclamation of surprise brought Gabrielle's eyes back to Xena's face, which had gone very pale. Gabrielle followed Xena's stunned gaze to the child who had suddenly appeared between them and the deer.
"Oh...." Gabrielle exhaled the word on a breath of air.
Standing before them, drenched in sunlight and delicate swirls of mist, the child was simply, breathtakingly, beautiful. Her hair was long, colors blended by the sun, from deep mahogany to burnished copper. She was small, but appeared wiry and fit. Her eyes, staring fixedly at Xena's chakram, were large and incredibly bright against her tanned skin. Xena stared at her, the deer forgotten. The child looked achingly familiar and Xena's heart filled with an odd mix of elation and despair.
"Rach..." Xena began then shook her head at the impossibility of the thought. The chakram suddenly felt awkward in her hand and Gabrielle jumped, startled, as she dropped it at their feet. Gabrielle forced her eyes from the child and looked down. She had never seen Xena drop her chakram. An icy bolt of fear shot through Gabrielle as she quickly turned to face her. But Xena appeared fine, aside from the fact she looked as though she had seen a ghost and her hands were fisted tightly at her sides. Gabrielle, feeling light-headed as the fear rush subsided, turned her attention to the child once more. The child said nothing; she merely lifted her arm and pointed into the woods off to their right. Curious, Xena and Gabrielle both looked in the direction she was pointing. In the amount of time it took them to do that and look back, both the child and the deer had vanished leaving only the swirling mist to fill the void of their passing.
"Did you see..." Gabrielle began.
"Yes. I saw her," Xena confirmed, moving forward. Gabrielle bent and picked up the chakram. A sticky smear of dark red marred its silver brilliance. Gabrielle frowned and wiped it away with her thumb. She stared after Xena for a moment, then followed.
Gabrielle, looking around for the child, nearly bumped into Xena who had halted at the point where the child had disappeared into the woods. "Do you see her?" Gabrielle asked quietly. Xena shook her head and pointed with her chin toward the deep woods. Gabrielle saw nothing at first. Gradually, as her eyes adjusted to the ever-changing camouflage of the forest, she saw it; a fawn, lying in a shadowed bed of grass and leaves, so young that a soft white striping of fur still remained on its back. The doe appeared at its side, nuzzling it awake. She lifted her head and stared at them through the fine ground mist as the fawn scrambled awkwardly to its feet. A crackle of leaves and a snapping branch turned their attention to the buck. He snorted once, breath fogging the cooler air of the deep forest. He lifted his head then lowered it. A threat, or merely an acknowledgment of their presence? He then retreated quietly into the mist and vanished. Gabrielle looked at Xena, following her gaze back to the spot they had seen the doe and her fawn. They were gone.
"Huh," Gabrielle commented, turning toward Xena, who wore her look of inquisitive amusement. "What?" Gabrielle inquired of the look.
"Oh, I don't know," Xena replied. "I guess I was expecting more than one syllable."
"Words elude me at the moment."
"Again?" Xena said with a wry grin.
"Now what?" Gabrielle asked, ignoring the jibe.
"Now," Xena said, looking around, "we go fishing."
"We're not going to find her," Xena interrupted, correctly reading Gabrielle's thoughts, "if she doesn't want to be found."
Gabrielle had more questions, of course, but she wisely held onto them. "Fishing. Wonderful," she stated with feigned enthusiasm, handing Xena her chakram. Xena took it, absently returning it to its place at her side. If she was at all surprised she had lost track of it, she gave no sign.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle knelt by the fire and added more wood, then tilted her head back and gazed up into a rich, midnight blue sky. The clouds were an immaculate white, brushed with dark shadows, the moon edging them with silver. So bright was the moon that, when she looked away, an afterimage of it floated before her eyes within the darkness. She stood up, looking around for Xena. She caught sight of her and watched silently as Xena whispered softly to Argo.
The mare lifted her head and then lowered it, as if nodding in agreement with whatever it was Xena was saying. Xena smiled and leaned her forehead against Argo's, rubbing one hand underneath the horse's chin, the other over her nose. Argo whickered softly in contentment. Gabrielle smiled. It was one of those rare, unguarded moments where the warrior retreated completely and the gentle, almost childlike woman magically surfaced in her place. It never failed to touch Gabrielle's heart.
Xena must have sensed her watching, because she lifted her head from Argo's and met Gabrielle's eyes, giving her an endearing smile. Gabrielle felt a rush of warmth, hitting her fast and hard, leaving her breathless...gods, how she loved this woman.
Xena said something else to Argo, gave the horse a quick smooch on the nose, and walked over to stand beside Gabrielle.
"Feels like winter's truly coming," Gabrielle spoke softly, rubbing her hands together.
"Uh-huh," Xena agreed, moving closer to her, holding her hands over the fire to warm them.
They were miles from any type of settlement and Gabrielle's reluctance to sleep inside anything even remotely resembling a cave left them few options. Not that Xena blamed her. Gabrielle had been held captive underground for days and had very nearly died there; her aversion to caves was understandable. They had managed to find shelter under a huge outcropping of rock, which was at least dry underneath and kept the worst of the wind off of them. The ground was sandy and soft and a small trickle of cold water ran down the rocks, spilling into a tiny, shallow pool at the bottom. It smelled, not unpleasantly, of damp earth, the metallic odor of the river not far from them and, rather strangely, strongly of pine. Xena picked up a blanket and wrapped it around Gabrielle's shoulders. Gabrielle was staring into the fire, absently massaging her hand.
"It still bothers you, doesn't it?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle turned her head to look into Xena's soft blue eyes; eyes that always used to hold a hint of frost, even at the best of times, but seemed lately to have mellowed somewhat. "What?"
"Your hand," Xena clarified. "It still hurts you sometimes."
"A little," Gabrielle admitted, looking down at it. "It aches in the cold and I can tell when it's going to rain. But," she added, "that's a small price to pay for what might have been."
Xena looked closely at her. They had not discussed all of what had happened with Zagnan, Rachel and Xandra. They both wondered, at times, but were reluctant to open barely healed wounds. Gabrielle wondered when, or even if, Xena would feel it was safe enough to search for Catherine, Xena's grandchild. Xena shivered a little and Gabrielle lifted the blanket. The shiver had little to do with the weather, but Xena moved closer and Gabrielle laid the blanket across her shoulders, Xena grasped it and pulled it close around them.
"I'm sorry I didn't do more for you before I left you. Maybe if I had taken more time with your hand..."
"No." Gabrielle said, turning toward her. "No, it wasn't that. Zagnan..." Gabrielle hesitated and averted her eyes.
Xena stared at her for a long moment. "Gabrielle..."
Gabrielle shook her head a little and Xena took her hand. It was icy cold and trembled slightly, and Xena wrapped both her hands around it. Gabrielle looked into the crystal blueness of Xena's eyes; a tiny spark of flame seemed to leap from their depths.
"How much damage did he do, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle was silent, but Xena could read volumes in the intricacies of those sea green eyes. There were shadows there, with secrets still huddled deep.
"It doesn't matter now, Xena," Gabrielle assured her.
"It matters to me."
"I know," Gabrielle's sad half-smile was grateful, though grim, as she looked away. They grew silent once more, lost in their own thoughts. Xena looked down at the faint scar that ran across the back of Gabrielle's hand, faded now, to the point of invisibility unless you knew it was there. She thought about the damage inflicted, which caused Gabrielle's hand to tremble uncontrollably when she was tired and sometimes, even, when she slept. Baltar had, literally, crushed it and Zagnan had obviously abused it further. Xena felt a rush of white-hot fury at the thought. She pushed it aside; there was no release for it here.
"Who healed your hand, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle glanced quickly at her, then down at her hand. "I'm not really sure. I was having these dreams, hallucinations from the fever and whatever it was that Zagnan was putting in the food and water. I don't remember a lot of it. But I do remember looking into these incredible eyes... and thinking it was you." She winced a little and looked up as Xena's grip suddenly tightened on her hand. "But her eyes were green, not blue," Gabrielle continued. "And her smile, her touch, were almost yours, too, but not quite."
Xena's face grew pale in the firelight, her eyes a vivid contrast of mellifluous blue. She stared hard at Gabrielle for a moment then abruptly looked away. "It was Rachel, wasn't it?" Gabrielle asked gently. "It was your daughter."
No answer was forthcoming and Gabrielle was startled to see Xena's eyes burn suddenly bright, exposing glistening shadows awash with unseen tears. Nothing wounded Gabrielle more deeply than the sight, or thought, of Xena's tears. Xena seldom shed them, and Gabrielle knew that she had touched upon a wound that had not yet even begun to heal. Unbearable loss, soul deep despair, only a mother who had lost a child could comprehend this particular heartache; they both knew it well. Gabrielle wrapped an arm around Xena's waist and leaned her head against her shoulder. They stood that way for a long time before Xena realized she was squeezing Gabrielle's hand. Gabrielle seemed not to notice and Xena massaged it gently for a moment before releasing it.
"I'm going to get more wood for the fire," Xena told her, moving away a little.
She looked into Gabrielle's eyes, searching then seemed to find what it was she was looking for. She pulled the blanket snug around Gabrielle's shoulders, touched her face for a brief moment and turned away.
I see a bad moon risin'
I see trouble on the way...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle watched Xena until she was lost in the darkness. Taking a deep breath, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, she moved to the fire and hung a pot of soup over the flames. She stirred it slowly, lost in memories past, and it was some time before she became aware that someone was watching her.
She raised her head and from the corner of her eye saw a brief flash of movement in the shadows. Straightening slowly, she stood up, "Xena?" she called out softly. A weighty silence pressed around her. Gabrielle felt a chill slide down her back, raising gooseflesh on her skin. She listened intently and heard a slight whisper of cloth, the soft scrape of a shoe on the sandy ground. "I know you're there," Gabrielle declared firmly. "Show yourself."
All she could hear now was her own heartbeat thrumming in her ears. She moved quietly to the spot where she had seen movement and studied the darkness. Once her eyes adjusted, she could see a slight indentation in the rock wall. Bending down, she found a small hole in the wall and looked in. She drew back as two spots of flickering light winked back at her. She returned to the fire, never taking her eyes from the spot. Lighting a torch, she moved back to the small opening in the rocks. A cave, she thought to herself. Wonderful.
"What is it?"
Xena's voice startled her so badly, Gabrielle jumped a foot and very nearly wet herself. "Zeus!" she yelped, turning to face the warrior.
Xena raised an eyebrow and calmly pushed aside the torch that Gabrielle had reflexively thrust much too close to her face. "By the gods, Xena!" Gabrielle gasped. "You scared me half to death. Do you have to creep around like that?!"
"I wasn't creeping. Give me that." Xena took the torch from her and stuck it in the hole while Gabrielle swallowed several times trying to dislodge her heart from her throat.
Xena bent down and Gabrielle eyed her backside for a moment, barely resisting the urge to give her a swift kick for scaring her so badly.
"Don't even think about it."
Gabrielle stuck her tongue out at her; she hated it when Xena read her mind like that.
"I saw that," Xena stated, doing it again, her disembodied voice echoing eerily.
"What's in there?" Gabrielle asked, pointedly ignoring Xena's physic abilities.
"There's a few feet of tunnel, then another opening," Xena answered as she backed out of the hole. "It looks as if there is a small fire inside it. Did you see anyone?"
"Just the light. I heard something moving earlier; I don't think it was an animal."
"Animals don't build fires."
"Not the four legged kind, anyway."
Xena's wry smile appeared. Gabrielle bent down and stared into the hole, then sucked in a quick breath.
Xena laid a hand on her shoulder. "See something?"
"Yes," Gabrielle stood back up and faced her. "A face, it looked like a child."
They tried calling out, but only the flames of the fire took heed, leaning curiously toward them then retreating with casual disinterest. Xena crawled through the opening into the short tunnel, but it narrowed considerably a few feet in and she could not reach the other opening.
Gabrielle peered into the darkness, trying not to set Xena aflame with the torch. "You might as well come out."
"I said," Gabrielle repeated, raising her voice, "you might as well come out before you get stuck in there." Xena scootched backward out of the hole and stood up. "You can't get through there," Gabrielle told her, grimacing, as she flicked a small spider out of Xena's hair. "Your, uhm...shoulders are too big," she concluded, with a quick, but meaningful, glance at Xena's chest.
Xena gave her a Look. Gabrielle grinned. "Well, do you want to go in?"
Gabrielle glanced down at the small, dark opening. "Not remotely."
Xena sighed. "I guess he'll just have to come out on his own, then."
"'She,'" Gabrielle reiterated. "I'm pretty sure it was a girl."
"Okay, she, then."
"Maybe she's hurt."
"Just scared, probably."
"Or both. What's she doing out here?"
"Why don't you go in and ask her?"
Gabrielle eyed the opening nervously, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "All right."
"Of course I'm not sure," she retorted somewhat irritably, running the words all together. "Just let me do it before I have time to change my mind."
Xena smiled slightly and handed her the torch. "I think I'll go without it. It's not that far to the end and I can see the fire there. I don't think I want to see anything else on the way."
"What if the fire goes out?"
"You had to say that, didn't you?"
Xena thought about it for a moment. "How 'bout if we tie a rope around you? If worse comes to worst, I can yank you back out."
"Wonderful idea," Gabrielle intoned bleakly, picturing how much skin she would lose if it came to that.
An ornery little gleam sparkled in Xena's eyes. "Oh, I'm just full of good ideas."
"You're full of something, all right," Gabrielle agreed.
Xena fetched the rope and began to tie it securely around Gabrielle's waist. "Want to take your coat off?"
Xena smiled a little and secured the rope. Gabrielle got on her hands and knees and crawled through the opening. It was close and dark and Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut against an instant attack of claustrophobia.
"Gabrielle?" Xena's muffled voice filtered through.
"Be careful...I'm right here."
Gabrielle opened her eyes and nodded then realized Xena couldn't see her. "Okay," she said.
"I said, 'Okay,'" she shouted, a little louder than she intended.
Xena gave her a reassuring little pat on the butt; oddly out of character for her, but immensely comforting somehow. Gabrielle crawled the few feet along the short, narrow tunnel, keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the flickering firelight at the end. She tried to ignore the little scuttling noises and occasional feathery touches on her face. She was sweating now and breathing heavily. The opening she had reached was even smaller than the one she had come through at the other end. Terrific, she thought to herself. Just terrific. She thought briefly about backing out, but something caught her eye and she immediately changed her mind. She lay flat on her stomach and pushed forward.
"Can you see her?" Xena's distorted voice reached her from the other end.
"Uh-huh," Gabrielle answered, trying to squeeze through the narrow opening.
"What's she doing?"
"I said, 'What's she doing?'" She was louder this time, words bouncing disjointedly off the tunnel walls.
"She's just sitting there."
"Can you get through?"
Gabrielle blew an errant strand of hair out of her eyes, wiped a trickle of sweat from her brow and tired to pull herself further into the opening. "Gods, I hate caves," she hissed.
"I'm stuck. Can you grab whatever is stuck and get it loose?"
Xena lowered the torch and looked in. Raising an eyebrow, she pondered briefly and laid the torch down. She crawled as far forward through the tunnel as she could, then reached out and grabbed Gabrielle's butt with both hands.
"Hey! Ow!" Gabrielle yelped in surprise, briskly rubbing her head where she had given it a good whack on the low hanging rock above her. "Son of a bi...Xena!!!"
"What in Tartarus are you doing!?"
"Well, you told me to grab what's stuck; that's what's stuck."
"It's my foot, not my a-what you grabbed!"
"By the gods..."
Gabrielle buried her face in her hands and blew out an exasperated breath. The child looked down at her from where she stood. A tiny smile flitted briefly across her face as she picked up the crossbow at her feet.
In the real world as in dreams,
Nothing is quite what it seems.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena felt Gabrielle go suddenly rigid beneath her hands. "Gabrielle? What's wrong?"
"Can you get me loose?" she answered, voice sounding strained.
Xena felt her way down Gabrielle's leg and discovered she had wedged her foot into a crevice that began wide at the bottom and grew narrower near the top. "Can you push your foot back?" No answer. "Gabrielle?"
"I'm trying. No, it's stuck tight."
Xena's lips drew into a slight pout as she contemplated the problem.
"I'm here. Try to lift your leg a little. I'm going to unlace your boot, maybe you can pull out of it."
The leg came up a bit and Xena went to work on the laces. "You sound funny," Xena said. "You all right?"
"Can you see the kid?"
"You know," Xena grumbled, struggling with laces. "For someone with such a large vocabulary, you certainly aren't using much of it lately."
"So you've said. You want to hurry up a little?"
"I'm hurrying as fast as I can. What's the kid doing?"
"She's just standing there."
"Is she scared? Or hurt?"
"Uhm, no. She has a crossbow."
"What?!" Xena yelled.
"I'm not yelling!" Xena yelled again. "Come out of there!"
"I told you, I'm stuck."
Xena worked furiously at the knot in the laces, finally losing what little patience she possessed, she used her chakram to cut them. Gabrielle's foot jerked and she yelled something unintelligible. Xena's heart skipped a beat. "Gabrielle?" Xena sucked in a breath and held it.
"Did you just cut my boot?" Gabrielle said indignantly.
The breath exited in an exasperated rush and Xena swore beneath it.
"What?" Gabrielle yelled.
"See if you can pull your foot loose and come back out of there."
Gabrielle freed her foot, but continued to crawl forward through the opening. Xena reached down, grabbed the rope and heard Gabrielle grunt as she gave it a yank.
"Xena! Stop that!"
"What are you doing? Come out of there!"
"I can't." She looked up at the child, who was motioning her forward. "I have to go in."
Something in her voice made Xena release the rope. Gabrielle squeezed the rest of the way through the opening and stood up slowly. The child watched her impassively, crossbow pointed directly at her heart.
"I'm not here to hurt you," Gabrielle's voice was softly reassuring, or, at least, she hoped it was. "Why don't you point that somewhere else?"
Xena bent down and stared impatiently into the opening. She could see Gabrielle's legs and just a shadow of the child; her chakram was still in her hand. Get out of the way, Gabrielle, she thought to herself. Every instinct screamed at her to release the chakram, but she hesitated.
Gabrielle took a step forward and to the side and saw the child's finger move to the trigger. "Wait, don't..."
Xena heard Gabrielle's voice and a sound that made her blood run cold; the familiar, unmistakable hiss of an arrow in flight. She heard Gabrielle's short gasp of pain as it found its mark.
The child's shadow abruptly disappeared.
In a beating heart.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Gabrielle! Gabrielle, answer me!"
Nothing. Xena had pushed herself as far forward as she could, but could see nothing except the dying flames of the small fire. She cursed soundly and laid her head on her arm trying to think. She thought about pulling on the rope, but quickly dismissed that idea. Sweat trickled into her eyes, causing them to burn as the air reached them. Air? she thought to herself, raising her head. She held her breath and waited. A slight, cool breeze swept out of the opening in front of her. The child seemed to have disappeared and there was a breeze - another entrance somewhere? She pushed herself back out of the tunnel and strode quickly out from under the outcropping of rock.
It was dark, but the moon illuminated the surrounding landscape like the underside of day; bleak, cool and blue and startlingly defined. Shadows and crevices stood out in stark contrast against the ghostly light. Xena's eyes moved slowly across the hillside and she felt, rather than saw, someone or something staring down at her. A darker shadow amongst the shadows gave her a focal point. Fixing her eyes on it, she started up the rocky incline. She heard a scuffling sound above her and ducked her head as few pebbles cascaded down the hillside. She hesitated; a strong sense of danger caused her skin to prickle as she stood listening to the silence. It was too silent, as if the air had been sucked dry of sound. She could hear her own heartbeat and little else. A wolf sent up a melancholy howl in the distance, its eerie, hauntingly beautiful cry sending shivers down her spine. Another answered, and then two more, their melodious voices blending into a mournful chorus, free and untamed as anything on Earth.
Another sound drew her attention from the hypnotic cry of the wolf and this one caused her to swear out loud and push herself close against the face of the rock in front of her. A good-sized boulder came thump-bumping down the embankment, clipping her shoulder on the way by. Another mini avalanche of rock and shale followed, and then all fell silent once again.
Xena stayed pressed to the earth in front of her for a few moments more before she leaned back and studied the darkness above her. A few moments later an owl screeched, splintering the silence. Other familiar night sounds leaked through, slowly flooding the area with a cacophony of sound. Whatever had hushed them seemed to have moved on. Xena rubbed her shoulder and felt something wet on her fingertips. She glanced at them; her blood looked black in the moonlight. "Damnit," she whispered. "What else could go-"
A cloud passed over the moon and thunder sounded in the distance, a sudden gust of wind carried the smell of rain. "Wonderful," she muttered, making her way up the hillside once more. It didn't take long to find the other entrance. It had been well hidden, but whoever had used it last had not bothered to replace the concealing pile of brush, making it easy to see. Too easy, perhaps? Xena entered cautiously, pulling her sword from its sheath at her back. The corridor was short, sloping sharply downward, but the ceiling was high and there was not much cover for someone to hide. She paused, and feeling nothing threatening, moved quickly on. The ceiling dropped lower and the passage narrowed, coming to an end at a dimly lit hole in the rock wall. Xena bent down and peered inside. All that remained of the fire were burning embers illuminating the interior with a warm, welcoming glow. Just like home, Xena thought to herself.
She was reluctant to enter its false warmth, head arguing common sense to her heart, until she caught site of a form lying motionless across the way. "Gabrielle."
Xena propelled herself through the opening and rolled to her left, coming quickly to her feet. There was no one else inside and nowhere to hide. A quick glance around revealed a bed of fragrant pine needles covered by furs and blankets, a water bag, a bowl, a cup, and a few other items scattered about. She moved quickly to Gabrielle and bent over her.
She was lying on her side; one arm stretched above her head, the other lay across her chest. Xena's own chest constricted so tightly she couldn't breathe. "Gabrielle." The word lodged painfully in her throat and refused to budge. She reached over and gripped Gabrielle's shoulder, turning her slightly and Gabrielle groaned in response. Xena expelled a short burst of air and her chest hurt so badly her breath caught in her throat once more. She closed her eyes for a moment, an unwelcome sense of d�j� vu enveloping her. How many times had she - had both of them - performed this very act? How many times would they do it before one of those times became the last time? The thoughts departed as quickly as they had arrived, leaving an aching emptiness in their passing.
Xena lifted Gabrielle's hand from her chest, her jaw clenching tightly, expecting the worst; a crossbow at such a short distance; the damage would be devastating. Xena's eyes widened in shock. There was nothing. No blood, no arrow, nothing. Had the arrow missed its mark? Apparently so. She ran her fingertips across Gabrielle's chest and she coughed a little and opened her eyes.
"Hey," Xena greeted her hoarsely. Gabrielle stared blankly at her for a moment. "You okay?" Xena asked.
"She shot me," Gabrielle managed, voice incredulous, finally focusing on Xena's brilliant blue eyes.
"Nu-uh. Hurts." Gabrielle sucked in a hissing breath of pain as she attempted to sit up. "Ow, by the g-"
"Lie still. Let me look," Xena undid the leather laces of the coat Gabrielle wore and carefully pulled it open. There was an angry purple and red bruise with a hard white center directly over her heart. Xena touched it gently.
Gabrielle sat up, with Xena's help, and looked down at her chest. "What the..." Gabrielle touched the bruise and winced.
Xena was looking around, finally catching sight of the feathered end of the crossbow arrow lying half buried in the dirt. Reaching over, she lifted it up and studied the end. "Huh."
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked, looking up.
Xena held the arrow out. The tip was wound with cloth, bound with leather strips. They stared wordlessly at one another for a moment. "I guess she didn't miss," Xena conceded.
"No. She didn't miss," Gabrielle assured her, eyes locked on the arrow, absently rubbing her chest.
"She could have killed you."
"She was just a child."
"A child with a crossbow and no qualms about using it."
"The tip is covered."
"And if it hadn't been?" Gabrielle was silent. "Damnit, Gabrielle. You need to be more careful," Xena was suddenly angry. And scared, though she wouldn't admit it. She seldom felt one without some measure of the other, especially where Gabrielle was concerned.
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow, as Xena continued. "You just go charging in with no thought to-"
"What happened to your shoulder?" Gabrielle interrupted.
"Your shoulder. It's bleeding."
Xena glanced at her shoulder, she had forgotten about it. "It's nothing."
"Doesn't look like nothing," Gabrielle reached out to touch it and Xena pulled back. Their eyes met and Gabrielle looked past the furious fire in Xena's gaze, suddenly remembering a voice from past. Xandra's voice; she of the silvery eyes and remarkably profound wisdom. "She always gets angry when she's had a good scare."
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle whispered.
Xena looked startled. Whatever it was she had expected Gabrielle to say, that was not it. She reached over and wiped a smudge of dirt from Gabrielle's jaw. "I..." Xena began. Thunder rumbled outside and the ground trembled beneath them. Xena felt cold and overwhelmingly tired. She looked into Gabrielle's soft green eyes. "What do you say we get out of here," Xena quietly suggested, handing Gabrielle her boot.
Gabrielle sighed meaningfully at the sight of the sliced leather. Xena watched silently as she pulled it on and rearranged the leather bindings to hold it in place. That done, she looked up at Xena, who presented her a sheepish grin.
Gabrielle gave her a long-suffering look. "Another day, another boot," she philosophized remorsefully. Xena chuckled.
Storms have come
Rains wash the earth away
Dark skies fall down
Into another day.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
They left the cave and made their way back down the hillside. The rain increased steadily as they went and the footing grew treacherous. Xena went toward the river, giving the rising, rushing water a worrisome look as she whistled for Argo. The horse appeared out of the gloom, breath misting in the cool, moist air. "Come on, girl,'" Xena's voice was soothing. Though Argo never appeared troubled by storms - rather, in fact, seemed to enjoy them - Xena wanted her near and led her under the outcropping of rock.
After wiping Argo down and throwing a blanket over her, she joined Gabrielle, who had built up the fire and was stirring something with an herbal fragrant within a small bowl warming at its outer edge.
"Where do you suppose she went?" Gabrielle wondered, looking up at Xena. Xena shrugged her shoulders and sat down. Gabrielle picked up the bowl and moved to sit beside her. Xena turned toward her with a soft smile as Gabrielle began to clean the abrasion on her shoulder.
"I can do that."
"I don't mind," Gabrielle replied, returning the smile.
"You know, you have developed quite a soft touch."
"Maybe your skin's just getting tougher."
"Maybe so," Xena agreed, laughing a little.
A sudden flash of lightning and answering crack of thunder caused them both to start slightly. The wind changed direction and blew a spray of cold rain over them. The fire hissed under the onslaught.
"Nasty," Gabrielle observed, shivering a little.
Xena nodded. "We'll want to keep an eye on the river. If this keeps up, it's going to flood for sure."
"Could it rise this high?" Gabrielle asked her, setting aside the bowl and smearing salve on the abrasion.
Gabrielle washed her hands, then moved to the fire and filled a bowl with soup and passed it over to Xena.
"Thanks." Xena's teeth flashed white as she took a bite and her gratified stomach transferred its smile to her lips.
"I know it would be better if it had some meat in it."
"It's good. Really," Xena assured her, swallowing another spoonful.
"Well, at least it's hot." They ate in silence for a while.
"I think that may have been the same child we saw this morning," Gabrielle offered, looking over at Xena.
"Are you sure?
"Pretty sure. Her hair was the same color, same type of clothing, though her eyes looked much darker. She was... beautiful."
"Beautiful and menacing," Xena pointed out, spooning more soup from the pot.
"I don't think she's dangerous. Not to us anyway."
"And you think this because...? Yowch," she mumbled, as she singed her fingers on the edge of the pot.
"Careful. I don't know, exactly. Just a feeling about her, one I've had before." Xena looked up and Gabrielle gave her a small smile. Beautiful and menacing pretty much summed up Gabrielle's first impression of Xena.
Xena touched her tongue against four lightly seared fingertips before blowing a stream of cool air over them. "Well, regardless, I think we should be a bit more cautious around her if we see her again, okay?"
"Okay," Gabrielle agreed, suppressing a grin at Xena's unrefined medical techniques.
They finished their meals and rinsed the bowls. Moving to the back of the overhang as far as they could, they spread out blankets and lay down. It had been a long day and Xena closed her eyes, looking forward to sleep.
Gabrielle stared up a bit uneasily at the tons of rock and earth above them and moved closer to Xena. "Xena?"
"Hmmm?" she answered with a soft sigh.
"Did she look familiar to you?"
"I didn't see her."
"The child we saw this morning, I mean."
Xena thought about it a moment, remembering the shock of seeing her, and whom she so strongly resembled.
"Yes," she whispered. "She looked familiar."
Gabrielle began to say something more, but something in Xena's voice stilled her. Reaching over, she gently squeezed Xena's hand. Xena said nothing, but held onto Gabrielle's hand when she started to remove it. Gabrielle drifted into a sound sleep; Xena stared into the darkness for a long time before sleep overcame her.
In my dreams I'll always see you soar above the sky
In my heart there will always be a place for you
For all my life
I'll keep a part of you with me
And everywhere I am, there you'll be
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena rolled over and changed positions, trying to elude a small pebble that seemed determined to poke and prod her no matter where she moved on the blankets. She instinctively reached out for Gabrielle and found only emptiness where she should be. Xena opened her eyes, sat up and began scanning the area beneath their shelter. The fire burned high and bright and threw shadows across the massive rock ceiling; an army of misshapen, ghostly monks weaving to a soundless chant.
Gabrielle was wrapped in a blanket, standing with her back to the fire, staring out at the wind and rain that thrashed the darkness. Xena stood and watched her for awhile. She looked small and fragile against the fury of the storm beyond her, but Xena knew this to be an illusion. Gabrielle; the naive little bard with the innocent heart and merciless chatter was all but gone. Innocence lost, a battered heart, and a world-weary awareness had etched fine lines of knowledge and pain across her face, across her soul. And yet the integrity, the laughter, the hope remained, deeply rooted in her heart.
A thousand thoughts tumbled over one another in Xena's mind. A kaleidoscope of images of what they had been through; the joys, the danger, victories and despair. They had faced it all, had been torn apart, body and soul and pieced themselves, and each other, back together. And through it all, it was as often Gabrielle as it was herself, who had the strength of will to heal them. They were completely different, yet incomplete without the other.
Gabrielle must have sensed her watching, for she turned slowly and looked directly into Xena's eyes. A small, melancholy smile touched her lips, firelight sparking muted green flame in her eyes. Something awakened within Xena, something that had been there all along and had been reflected in many different ways. But this, this was a feeling akin to a physical rush, yet to think of it as such seemed almost profane, for it was so much more than that.
It filled every part of her with wonder, infused her with fire, yet humbled her with its awesome power. They stood gazing at one another through the purifying flames and held the exact, unshakable thought in their hearts. A conviction so crystal clear, so simply complicated, and so powerful it caused even the gods to tremble; I have loved her before. I will love her forever. No matter what lifetime, no matter what form, or path, my spirit takes, I will always find her. I will recognize her, and I will love her there, too.
I hear hurricanes a blowin'
I know the end is coming soon
I feel rivers overflowing
I hear the voice of rage and ruin
Don't come around tonight
It's bound to take your life
There's a bad moon on the rise
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena shook her head a little, as if awakening from a dream, and moved to Gabrielle's side. Gabrielle looked up at her for a moment then looked outward into the storm once more. The wind and the downpour intensified. Sheet lightning, eerily silent, illuminated the cloud cover above, creating a monochrome landscape below; it was both beautiful and desolate. Gabrielle looked over at Xena, who was staring intently at the rain, a small frown on her face.
"What are you thinking?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena glanced back toward the far corner of the overhang; the insignificant trickle of water had grown into to a gushing torrent. "I'm thinking that if this storm doesn't let up soon, it's going to wash us right off the side of this mountain."
A blinding flash and a huge clap of thunder drew their attention once more. Another flash of lightning caused Gabrielle to blink, and yet another revealed the child standing before them. Wet hair plastered to her head, soaked through by the pouring rain, she stared up at them, eyes wildly alight with what might have been either terror or excitement, perhaps both.
"I need help!" she shouted above the rain, then turned and ran.
Gabrielle immediately began to follow. "Wait!" Xena insisted, grabbing Gabrielle's arm.
"We'll lose her!" Gabrielle yelled, trying to pull lose from Xena's grip.
"Gabrielle! This is the person who just shot you with a crossbow. Now you want to chase after her in the dark?"
"I'm trusting my instincts," Gabrielle shot back.
For some reason, that particular statement sent an apprehensive chill racing down Xena's spine. She looked into Gabrielle's determined eyes for a moment longer then released her, a look of weary resignation settling over her face. Rain poured steadily as the lightning intensified. Rolling across the sky, it back-lit fast moving clouds, illuminating the landscape with flickering light. Curiously muted thunder accompanied it, booming deeply, like a drum in a cauldron. Gabrielle seemed to know where she was going and Xena followed her through the storm, growing increasingly uneasy as they neared the rapidly rising river. "Gabri-" Xena began to call out, nearly running over her when she came to an abrupt halt in front of her.
"By the gods..." Gabrielle whispered to herself.
Xena looked over Gabrielle's head at the bizarre scene before them. The child stood near the riverbank, crossbow at the ready; in front of her stood a large black dog, teeth bared at an even larger wild boar. Both Xena and Gabrielle were well aware of the folly of facing off against the menace of wild boar. Fear of them was widespread and well deserved. They were unpredictable, ferocious, destructive, unnaturally strong and notoriously short on manners. The gods, especially Artemis, were fond of using them to unleash sudden and violent vengeance on mortals who had somehow irked them. Xena had seen a particularly nasty boar use razor sharp tusks to literally disembowel a hunter. It happened so quickly that the unfortunate victim stood for several seconds, staring down as his steaming entrails began to puddle on the ground before him, before his brain registered he was dead.
The boar attacked; the dog sidestepped and the child triggered the crossbow. From the answering, earsplitting squeal of pain, or rage, it was obvious that the point of this particular arrow was unhampered by layers of cloth. The dog, Gabrielle and Xena all moved at the same time. The dog went for the boar's throat, Xena palmed her chakram, and Gabrielle went for the child. What transpired after that became a study in chaos that later defied even Gabrielle's efforts to clearly depict in her scrolls.
The child shouted at Xena not to hurt the dog as Xena performed a delicate ballet of self-preservation and imminent bodily harm between the gnashing fangs of both animals. The child, showing an inordinate amount of strength for someone so small, pushed an astounded Gabrielle aside as Gabrielle struggled to pull her to safety. Gabrielle slid a few feet in the mud and fell to one knee as she tried to gain purchase on the slippery ground. The child threw an exasperated, warning look in her direction as she notched another arrow. Gabrielle watched in horrified fascination as the arrow hissed through the staggered light and dark of the night, missed Xena by a hair, and hit its intended target only inches from Xena's bloody chakram. The boar shrieked again. Xena cursed and threw a look of blistering blue heat in the child's direction as she drew her sword, abandoning the chakram buried in the boar's leathery neck.
The boar, half crazed now, from pain and frustration turned on Xena and charged. Gabrielle regained her senses and her feet as she caught a glimpse of Xena's sword, blade shimmering as it reflected the lightning, as it sailed off into the darkness. Xena went down, and Gabrielle was unsure who screamed the loudest; herself in fear for Xena, the boar in triumph, or the child in anger.
The dog hesitated, uncertain, and looked as though it very much wanted to flee. It turned in a confused circle before it launched itself forward and fastened its jaws again on the boar's exposed throat. The beast howled and hooked a deadly tusk under the dog, throwing it aside like a mere toy. Its jugular pumping spurts of dark blood, the boar turned its beady black eyes and dripping jaws on Xena and took several determined steps toward her as she tried to backpedal away from it.
She made little headway in the mud and the boar opened its mouth wide, dribbling snot and slobber, before its jaws closed around her boot. Xena grimaced, more in disgust than pain, braced herself as best she could with her hands in the muck, and kicked at it with her other foot. The boar was weakening, but determined; the kick was a mere annoyance in its frenzied state.
Gabrielle slid to a panicked stop beside the boar as it abandoned Xena's boot and began a determined lunge at her throat. Gabrielle had Xena's sword in hand, but no way in Tartarus to get it to her in time. She did the only thing she could think to do; she dropped the sword, grabbed onto the chakram and pulled, hoping to pull the boar's head away, or at least distract it. The chakram pulled free and a thick spurt of steaming blood cascaded across Gabrielle's boots. Incredibly, the beast emitted a startled shriek and abruptly collapsed in a heap at their feet. Pushing herself up on her elbows, Xena looked at up Gabrielle. Dramatically illuminated by the persistent lightning, Xena's blood-soaked chakram in her hand, she was a rather awesome sight. The image of her as god-like avenger, however, was somewhat compromised by the trembling of her hands, the look of sick astonishment on her mud-streaked face, and finally, her exclamation of disgusted outrage at the further ruination of her boots. Gabrielle opened her mouth to say something when they were both distracted by the child racing past them.
"You all right?" Gabrielle shouted into the wind, looking down again at Xena.
"Just peachy," Xena shouted back; her sarcasm lost on Gabrielle, who thrust the gore-encrusted chakram into her hand, turned quickly away, and ran after the child.
"Damnit," Xena muttered, pushing herself to her feet. She grimaced at the dripping chakram, scowled as she plucked her sword from the mud, and followed.
Gabrielle latched onto the child just before she launched herself over the edge of the riverbank. Wary of her strength this time, Gabrielle got a solid grip and hauled her back with a firm yank. The child went down, landing hard on her butt at Xena's feet. She glared up at Gabrielle from the ground
"What in Tartarus..." Gabrielle began.
"DOG!" the child yelled, scrambling to her feet.
Gabrielle and Xena both tensed and looked around them. Xena's hand sought her chakram as Gabrielle, not for the first time, silently lamented tossing her staff in the river. They stood in adrenaline charged readiness, awaiting another attack from the on and off darkness. The child ran to the edge of the bank, dropped to her knees and peered over. Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other.
"Her dog, I think," Xena surmised, finally, as Gabrielle's heart began beating once more.
They moved to the edge of the unstable riverbank, one on each side of the child, and looked down. The dog was lying on a small island of mud and debris at the bottom of the incline. Ravaged by the swirling waters of the rain-swollen river, the ground and riverbank were quickly eroding. Xena and Gabrielle both grabbed a handful of child as she leaned further over the edge.
"I have to get her!" the child insisted, squirming under their grasp.
"I'll go," Xena stated, against her better judgment, knowing if she did not, the child would.
"No," Gabrielle replied, with an eye on the unstable ground, "I'll go, I'm lighter."
"Can you lift it?" Xena asked, staring down at the dog.
"I think so, but I don't think I can carry it back up. I'll get it up and see if I can hand it to you."
"Don't hurt her," the child pleaded.
Xena and Gabrielle glanced at each other, both knowing the animal could well be beyond hurting.
"Be careful," Xena warned, as Gabrielle started down.
"Uh-huh," Xena huffed under her breath.
Gabrielle half slid, half fell, down the short incline where the animal lay. She stepped onto the precarious ledge and her foot went through muck up to her knee. Xena sucked in a breath between clenched teeth. Gabrielle pulled hard against the sucking sinkhole and it grudgingly gave up its quarry.
Grimacing at the wet sludge inside her boot, she carefully made her way to the dog and knelt beside it. She laid a hand against its side and felt movement; it was still breathing, at least. She also felt a sticky wetness and fervently hoped it was mostly mud. Gods, the thing was big; she wondered if she could lift it at all. She drew back a bit as the animal's eyes opened. They glowed eerily red in the nearly constant illumination from the incandescent lightning above. Then, oddly, they melted into green, then gold; Gabrielle became spellbound by the transformation.
"Gabrielle!" Xena's voice aptly coincided with the next burst of lightning and impatient thunder. Gabrielle's pulse quickened as she saw how fast the ledge was dissolving beneath her. Taking a deep breath, she got her feet under her and wrapped her arms around the dog. A rumbling growl from deep within its throat stood Gabrielle's hair on end.
"Don't you dare bite me!" she hissed at it. Surprisingly, the growl subsided. The only way she could manage was to maneuver its front legs into a carry position over her shoulder. It whimpered a little as she lifted, and the weight of it almost sent her over backward into the river. Xena held her breath until Gabrielle moved forward, cursing under her breath when she stumbled again. Instinctively, she started down to help her, but the child grabbed her arm.
"Wait," she advised calmly. Xena waited.
Gabrielle tightened her grip and struggled to her feet. Lungs laboring, heart pounding, river lapping at her heels and half blinded by rain and lightning, she blundered her way to the incline and looked up. Xena was lying down, hands extended over the edge.
With a grunt and a final burst of effort, she pushed herself and the dog far enough up the incline for Xena to grab hold of it. Grabbing the dog by the thick fur around its neck, one eye on the disappearing ledge beneath Gabrielle's feet, Xena hauled it unceremoniously up. They both went down in a heap. Xena roughly pushed the animal aside and crawled back toward the edge of the incline. The dog retaliated for the rude treatment by nipping her in the ass as she crawled past it.
"DAMNIT!" Xena yelped, glancing back for a moment and kicking a foot out towards the dog. She swiftly crabbed on all fours to the incline and waited impatiently for the next flash of lightning to reveal the ledge below. It came with a resounding roar of thunder. The ledge was gone, so was Gabrielle.
From the silent deep
The waters sweep
With a plaintive cry
And the waters leapt
And the wild winds swept
And blew out the moon in the sky
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Gabrielle! Xena tried to out-shout the wind, but her words were lost in the chaos of the relentless storm. Angry and helpless, she turned her frustration and furious blue eyes on the dog. It was on its feet, staring antagonistically back at her. Xena's lip curled back in an unconscious snarl.
"No!" the child cried out.
Xena hadn't noticed the child at the dog's side, nor had she realized she was a hair away from releasing the chakram in her hand.
"Please," the child insisted.
Xena glared into the dog's eyes for a long moment, body trembling from that insidious rage that simmered just beneath her reason. Another flash of lightning again transformed the animal's eyes from coal black to a shimmering green. Something flickered there, recognizable and potent enough to temper Xena's anger: pain.
Xena blinked and looked at the child's hand on her arm; she hadn't even noticed it was there. She lowered the chakram and turned her eyes to the churning black water beneath her.
Wild ran the river
Cold and deep
And all that it seized
It intended to keep
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The freezing black water stole her breath and filled her lungs with liquid fire. Sputtering, gasping for air, Gabrielle gave up trying to fight it and concentrated on just keeping her head above the rushing, fluid wave of darkness. Debris and flotsam clogged the water. Small trees and branches swept by her, grabbing, scraping and battering with merciless fingers as they shot past. She went under again as something spiteful and black as pitch unerringly discovered the wound over her eye and gave it a solid whack. She found that it was curiously calm beneath the surface. A pleasant murmuring filled her ears, peaceful and soothing. She was flying, arms outstretched, sailing on an ocean of liquid air. So tired. So very, very tired.
Tremulous skeins of destiny
Flutter so ethereally
Around me - but then I feel
Its embrace is that of steel.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Returning to the land of the living was having a markedly adverse effect on Gabrielle. She accepted it grudgingly, and with a most undignified lack of appreciation. After irritably, though ineffectively, fighting the hands and mouth attempting to force life back into her sodden lungs, she turned her head to the side and threw up. Several times.
"Ish!" A voice from the darkness penetrated her misery. She tried to speak, but nothing came forth except dirty river water.
Exhausted and shaking, she finally began to realize that someone was trying to help her.
The voice again. A nice, warm, familiar voice. She felt herself lifted, which made her sick again, so she left, seeking the welcoming, cottony darkness. She opened her eyes twice more. Once when she heard the lyrical crackling of a fire and the touch of soft fur against her skin. And again when she felt a warm body pull her near, enveloping her in a gentle embrace. The teeth-rattling trembling brought on by the frigid cold slowly withdrew, only to return in a gentler form that had nothing to do with the cold.
"Xena," she whispered.
"Sleep, Gabrielle." The voice snuggled around her, cozy, safe and warm; she slept.
I believe in your eyes
I believe in your fate
I believe we can fly
On the wings we create
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle opened her eyes to the surreal sound of sweet birdsong and the sight of bright sunshine. The birdsong was outside, the sun was pouring through a hole in the roof. A hole in the roof? She lay still for a moment, trying to reconcile the events of the previous night with the present. She remembered the storm, the child, the dog, the boar and going into the water, but very little after that. She pushed herself up on her elbows then closed her eyes as a wave of nausea washed over her. Closing her eyes resulted in that awful seasick spin, so she opened them again and fought off an attack of dry heaves with sheer willpower. Taking a deep breath was also a mistake; her sinuses gurgled, her lungs burned and a surge of foul tasting river water came rushing up the back of her throat. "Gack!" she turned her head and spit, fought down another dose of the same, and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand as she lay back down. After a few moments, she felt a little better and raised her head to study her surroundings.
She was in some type of shelter, there were walls and a roof, and the hole in the roof was not from decay, but rather by design. A rope led from a cleverly designed hoist that lifted a section of thatched roof, opening it to the sky above. Embers glowed in a dying fire ring a few feet away; smoke climbed lazily, easing its way out the hole in the roof. Other objects lay half-hidden in the shadows; a table, a wooden chair, some clothing. She was lying on a bed covered with blankets and furs. She tensed as a shadow filled the sunlit doorway.
"Xena." The word escaped on a breath of relief she didn't realize she was holding.
Xena stepped through the doorway and scanned the room. She looked exhausted; her face an odd mix of concern, relief, curiosity and maybe a tiny touch of anger.
The child appeared at Xena's side and pushed past her, walking up to the bed with a determined stride. "Where were you?!" she demanded. "Look at you," she admonished accusingly, eyes taking in the fire, the bed, and the warm blankets. "We looked all night for you; we were worried sick!"
Gabrielle stared at her in wonder, feeling instantly guilty at their disheveled appearance, yet not knowing exactly why. "But, I thought-" Gabrielle began.
"How did you get in here anyway?" the child interrupted.
"Do you believe this?" the child demanded, looking up at Xena.
Xena raised an eyebrow and, if possible, looked even wearier than before.
"Xena," Gabrielle began, "I thought that you..."
Xena raised a hand, silencing her. The child began to speak and Xena threw her a Look, which, amazingly, silenced her, also. "Are you all right?" Xena asked, voice raspy with fatigue.
"I think so," Gabrielle sat up, wrapped a blanket around her shoulders and swung her feet out onto the floor. The room tilted, then straightened, and she winced as a number of brand new aches and pains announced their presence. Limping slightly, Xena closed the distance between them and knelt by the bed. Gently pushing the hair from Gabrielle's eyes, she touched the freshly re-opened gash on her forehead then ran her thumb softly over a bruise on her cheek.
"What?" Gabrielle asked of the look in Xena's eyes, unconsciously leaning into the comfort of her touch.
"Cuts and bruises, very colorful. Does the rest of you look like this?" Xena's half-smile was brief and utterly weary.
"Probably. I..." Distracted by the feel of rough cloth against her face, Gabrielle touched the bloodstained bandage wrapped around Xena's palm. "What happened to your hand?"
"Well, it's a bit of a long story and- "
"She got bit," the child injected, startling Gabrielle, who had forgotten she was there.
"And that was the condensed version," Xena concluded, shooting the child a Look.
"Well, you did," the child insisted, in spite of the look.
Gabrielle captured Xena's hand and carefully unwrapped the bandage. She looked up at Xena, who was still in stare-down mode with the child. "Which one bit you," Gabrielle asked. "The boar or the wolf?"
"She's not a wolf," the child informed her huffily, breaking her gaze from Xena's to give Gabrielle an exasperated look.
"She sure looked like a wolf," Gabrielle stated flatly.
The child took a breath and Xena held out her hand in a halting motion. "Allow me. She's just a dog, she could, possibly, be a tiny..."
"Teeny tiny," the child corrected.
"Teeny-tiny part wolf, but mostly dog," Xena clarified.
"Ah. That would be the biting part I presume," Gabrielle replied. Xena gave her a grim little smile. "So. Which one bit you," Gabrielle asked again. "Dog, teeny, tiny part wolf, or boar?"
"Wolf bit her once for sure," the child popped in. "Right in the a-"
"Do you mind if I answer my own questions here?" Xena interrupted.
"I thought you said she wasn't a wolf," Gabrielle challenged.
The child looked at her. "Well, she isn't, that's just what I call her."
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. "What?"
"Wolf. I call her Wolf sometimes," the child answered. "She looks like a big old wolf." She made a "where did you get her face" at Xena and rolled her eyes heavenward in a manner implying supreme denseness on Gabrielle's part.
Gabrielle shook her head like a dog trying to dislodge a bee from its ear. Xena pinched the bridge of her nose between a thumb and forefinger. Gabrielle took a deep breath and wisely turned her attention back to Xena's hand, wincing when she saw the wound. "Xena," she said quietly. "This looks really bad."
Xena looked down at her hand. There was a deep, ragged tear across her palm, it was bruised, furiously red, swollen, and it ached clear up to her shoulder. The child peered over Gabrielle's shoulder and offered a precise, if not extremely tactful, medical opinion consisting of one word: "Yu-uck."
Agreeing with, though not overly impressed with the child's summation, Gabrielle turned Xena's hand over for further examination. "By the gods, Xena. Its bit clear through."
"No, its not," Xena stated. "Those are just teeth marks on top. It just needs some cleaning up."
The child handed Gabrielle a small leather pouch. "There's herbs and salves and such in there. You can clean it up and make a poultice." Gabrielle and Xena both stared at her for a moment. "What?" the child inquired of the looks.
"Nothing," Xena said.
"Where did you..." Gabrielle began.
"It's mine. I didn't steal it or anything. It's a medicine bag. My mother gave it to me," - the child's voice softened - "and taught me how to use what's in it. she..."
Gabrielle looked over at Xena who was staring intently at the child. The child looked up and met Xena's eyes. "If that old boar bit you, you're a goner, ya know. It was rabid."
"Child!" Gabrielle said, aghast.
"She's right," Xena quietly confirmed. "It was."
Gabrielle returned her attention to Xena. "Well, which one bit you?"
"I'm not sure," Xena hedged. "It got kind of hectic."
"How can you be so calm about this?"
"No need getting worked up," the child answered. "There's nothing to do for rabies."
"Goner for sure," Xena agreed solemnly.
"Damn straight," the child intoned gravely.
"On the bright side, there's a whole list of people I could bite." The child giggled; her laughter was like tiny silver bells singing in the wind.
"This isn't funny!" Gabrielle opined loudly, startling them both. "Who are you, anyway?" Gabrielle leveled a look at the child. "Do you have a name?"
"I gotta go," the child jumped to her feet with the effortless agility of the very young.
"Sorry," Xena looked sheepishly at Gabrielle.
"Hey..." Gabrielle turned, but the child was already gone. "Honestly,'' Gabrielle huffed, and began roughly pulling things out of the medicine bag. "And what about your foot?"
"Your foot. That was your foot stuck in the boar's mouth, was it not?"
"Didn't get to my foot, not even a scratch," Xena stated triumphantly. "I already checked."
Gabrielle looked down at Xena's boot, which was thoroughly gnawed and caked with a noxious mix of semi-dried mud, snot, blood and drool, but miraculously, mostly intact. Gabrielle looked up at her.
"Tough boots," Xena stated, trying out a tentative smile. "And," she added, "another good thing, this is the same hand that was already cut." Gabrielle winced. "Saves on bandages," Xena tried.
Gabrielle, unamused, turned her attention back to the task at hand. Xena reached down and took her hand. "Gabrielle." Gabrielle continued what she was doing using her free hand. "Gabrielle."
"What!" she retorted angrily, directing a shimmering turquoise gaze into Xena's calm blue.
"The child, she's afraid for me, I think. It's just how she deals with it."
A muscle twitched madly in Gabrielle's jaw as she tried to hold onto her anger; if she let loose of the anger, tears would follow.
Xena laid a gentle hand against Gabrielle's face. "It'll be all right." Gabrielle nodded, swallowed the tears, and went silently to work on the wound. "Gabrielle?"
"What?" Gabrielle answered, a bit more harshly than she intended.
"How, exactly, did you get in here?"
Gabrielle looked into her eyes again; sapphires reflected in a shaft of sunlight. "I thought it was you, I thought you brought me here."
"Well, if it wasn't you, then who-"
"I guess that would be me."
Xena had already begun to rise and turn, hand on her chakram, before the voice reached them from the doorway.
Gabrielle watched as Xena's hand dropped to her side and the muscles in her shoulders and arms relaxed. Gabrielle leaned sideways to look around her as a shadow emerged from the doorway and stepped into a shaft of bright sunlight. Gabrielle's jaw dropped as she recognized her.
"Xan!" she cried, delightedly surprised.
Wanderer how you journey
On the road you chose
To find out why the winds die
And where their stories go.
All days come from one day
That much you must know,
You cannot change what's over
But only where you go.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xandra, silvery eyes dancing, wore an infectious, ornery grin and an aura of prismatic light. Xena instinctively put a hand on Gabrielle's elbow to help her to her feet. Gabrielle stood up, hastily wrapping the blanket around her when she remembered she had nothing on beneath it, and looked around for her clothes.
A faint blush rose beneath Xan's tan as she nodded across the room toward Gabrielle's clothes, which were laid out near the fire. Gabrielle turned her head and the room tilted.
"Whoa, easy," Xan grasped her other elbow. "You okay?"
"Just a little dizzy," she answered, ducking her head for a moment.
"How many fingers?" Xan asked.
Gabrielle looked up at her. "What?"
"How many fingers do you see?"
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes, studying Xan's fisted hand for a moment. "None."
"Uh-oh," Xan looked at Xena. "This could be serious."
Gabrielle laughed, but Xan wore a look so solemn that she turned to Xena seeking a second opinion. "What do you see?"
"I see a knucklehead," Xena replied evenly, looking over Gabrielle's head at Xan. "But, that's beside the point. Are you all right?"
"Hey..." Xan sounded offended.
Gabrielle laughed again. "I'm fine... honest." Extracting herself from their grip, she went in search of her clothes. Xan watched her cross the room, her grin widening then dissolving as she turned her head and met the heat of Xena's eyes. Xena's lips formed a slight pout and an eyebrow rose in an unspoken question. A look Xan remembered all too well.
"We were wet," Xan explained.
"Oh, really?" Xena replied, eyebrow rising higher.
"She thought I was you," Xan went on, digging herself deeper.
Xena inclined her head slightly. The other eyebrow rose to join the first as Xena's bottom lip disappeared beneath the top one.
"She was out of her head," Xan added quickly. "Delirious."
Xena's lips made a tiny popping sound as they separated, "Well, that much is obvious," she agreed.
Xan laughed and then grunted as Gabrielle reached her and wrapped her in a firm hug. Surprised and absurdly pleased, Xan closed her eyes and planted a kiss on the top of Gabrielle's head. Xena took an unobtrusive step back. Xena and Xan had a diverse and impassioned history, one that seemed to be continuously sorting itself out. Gabrielle and Xan, on the other hand, had formed a nearly instantaneous and seemingly unbreakable bond of friendship and trust, unfazed by neither time, nor distance. Whether this bond stemmed from the fact that, subconsciously, they reminded one another of the most treasured person in their lives, or whether it was something greater than that, was of no concern to them; it just, simply, was.
Gabrielle, once again, found herself at a loss for words until Xan hugged her tighter and squeezed them out of her. "By the gods, Xan, you look wonderful." And she did. Far different from the pale, wounded woman Gabrielle had bid farewell nearly a year and a half ago, she looked much the same as she had when Gabrielle first met her. Except, that is, for the haunted look lurking within the brilliance of her eyes. Her dark, sun-kissed hair curled thickly over her collar. She wore her usual array of layered clothing, giving her a deceivingly bulky, masculine appearance. Helpful for a woman traveling alone, a bit confusing for those who did not know her.
Gabrielle blushed a little, remembering how she had been fooled, at first, by Xandra's appearance. Or had she? The blush deepened at the thought; Xan gave her a beguiling grin, teeth a perfect contrast to her richly tanned skin.
"Doesn't she look great, Xena?"
"Mmm-hmm," Xena answered, sounding uninterested, but studying Xan with a critical eye.
Xandra just missed being beautiful by a nose that had been broken one too many times, and a scar that bisected her upper lip, giving a slight snarl to an otherwise perfect smile. Xena had not contributed to the broken nose effect, but the scar was her gift. It had been most brutally delivered as they had once fought for the dubious pleasure of ending one another's miserable existence.
"It was a long time ago," Xan said quietly, either reading Xena's thoughts, or voicing her own.
Xena said nothing, but her face softened.
"What?" Gabrielle asked, voice muffled near Xan's shoulder.
Xan moved her hands to Gabrielle's shoulders and gently eased her away. "I said it's been too long. I've missed you."
"I've missed you, too." Gabrielle gazed into Xan's eyes, and if the eyes truly were the windows to the soul, then that window was unguarded and open to Gabrielle at this moment.
Xandra's eyes, like Xena's, were startlingly crystalline and pure at first glance. But, just for a heartbeat, Gabrielle saw that Xandra's soul, like her face, just missed being beautiful as well. Deep in a well of sorrow and pain laid a broken heart that would never fully heal and a soul that was brutally scarred. There lurked a hardness in the silvery luminous of Xan's eyes; something cold and unforgiving that was...frightening. Gabrielle shivered a little and withdrew from this alien part of Xan, back to the comforting warmth of her gaze. Here, there was love and kindness. Gabrielle found Xan looking at her strangely, and she wondered, briefly, if Xan had seen something similarly disturbing in her own eyes. Gabrielle lifted Xan's sleeve and sniffed, wrinkling her nose. "But, you still smell like horses."
Xan laughed and ruffled Gabrielle's hair. "I like the haircut," Xan stepped back, giving her an appraising glance. "And the new look," she added approvingly.
"Do you?" Gabrielle asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Oh, yeah, it's very sexy."
Gabrielle grinned and directed a quick glance toward Xena on hearing that phrase for the second time today. Xena shook her head a little, telling her, in effect, not to mention the child. If Xan noticed this exchange, she did not acknowledge it. Gabrielle placed a hand on Xandra's shoulder. "How are you, Xan?" Where have you been, what have you been doing?"
"I'm healed, mostly," Xan replied, flexing the shoulder a bit, recognizing the significance of the placement of Gabrielle's hand. "Though Nathan did leave me with some permanent damage there, the son of bitch."
Xan's smile remained in place, the tone of her voice never changed, but Gabrielle unconsciously drew back from the cold fire in her eyes.
"Bitchin' scar, though," Xan finished, drawing a laugh from Gabrielle and a half smile from Xena.
"Where are you staying?" Gabrielle asked.
"Here, as a matter of fact. For a while anyway. There is an Amazon village not far from here. I've been looking for Ephiny."
Xan shifted her gaze to Xena. Xena's face betrayed nothing, but Gabrielle noticed the change in her immediately.
Xena blinked once, very slowly, like a hawk lining up a meal. A tiny muscle twitched in her jaw and her eyes grew infinitely darker, as if filling with shadows from within. "Have you found her?" Xena asked, voice reflecting even less emotion than her face.
"No," Xan answered sadly, that one word speaking volumes.
Gabrielle stared at them both, sensing the emotion swirling around them, rising like heat from a mid-day desert. She knew, as Xena did, that Xan was not merely searching for Ephiny. She was searching for that which Xena had entrusted to Ephiny's care.
Catherine; Rachel's daughter, Xena's grandchild.
Is each of us a creature free - or trapped at birth by destiny?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The child sat beside the fire and gently stroked the old dog's head. The dog looked up at her with curious eyes; golden eyes, with tiny flecks of turquoise in the irises. The dog had seen the change of many seasons and her senses were not as sharp as they once had been. When the child first encountered her, there was a slight falter to the dog's step. And where once the animal had thrived in the winter cold, and gone positively loony in the early days of spring, now the cold and damp penetrated deeply, leaving an unpleasant ache in her bones. Though her coat was still thick and silky, her black muzzle was now suffused with gray and her once sharp eyes had begun to dim. She no longer ran with the wolves; those ultra-wild creatures who had patiently tolerated her unabashed presence, perhaps, because her ancestors had roamed this particular piece of earth for hundreds of years.
The child looked at her thoughtfully. She had found, or rather, the dog had found her, one bitter winter evening when they had both attempted to lay claim to the same sheltering cave. Fat snowflakes fell lazily, but steadily, from a midnight blue sky. A frosty full moon lit a starkly silent landscape and the icy cold turned each snowflake into a crystalline work of art. Snow covered every surface, shimmering in the moonlight like diamonds. Child and dog had eyed each other warily for a time, a frigid blast of cold wind finally forging an unspoken and uneasy truce between them. They shared the confines of the cave, a fire, and finally, a meal, which the dog provided, and the child expertly skinned, gutted and cooked.
The dog was never a constant companion, but the child would see her now and again, hear her distinctive howl, which she occasionally answered with a howl of her own. Then the dog had shown up at the cave, which the child now claimed as her own, not in the dead of winter, but in the early fall. There was something different about the animal, though she could not determine exactly what it was. She stayed closer, for one thing; the child would often wake to find the old dog staring at her, golden eyes catching the firelight and eerily holding it there long after the flames had turned to glowing embers. There was something different about those eyes. It was as if the dog were observing her, waiting for something. The child did not feel threatened, but she wasn't entirely comfortable with the animal's newfound interest in her. She began to talk to it when she was lonely or troubled, calling it Wolf only because it made the old dog grin in response.
"I'm Rhianna. Rhia, for short," she told the animal. The dog snorted delicately and feigned disinterest.
Rhianna co-inhabited with many animals, touching them when they permitted her that privilege, but she seldom named creatures of the wild, knowing that nothing wild could ever be tamed, nor could it ever be completely trusted not to eat you if it got hungry enough. So child and dog formed an alliance of sorts, built more on respect than trust. As Rhianna thought back on those days her brow wrinkled and a tiny frown pulled at the corners of her mouth.
She had been amazed when the aging dog had fought so mightily against the massive wild boar. Wolf, all fangs and attitude, seemed possessed of a superior strength and agility, one that she had not known for many years, if ever. But Wolf was old when the child met her and then...and then she wasn't. Rhia slowly turned her head and looked into the animal's burning gaze. Rhia tilted her head to the side, eliciting the exact same response from Wolf. Rhia's eyes narrowed as she stared deeply into the animal's eyes, not a very prudent thing to do if you are fond of your nose, but Rhia was past the point of conscious thought, and was acting purely on instinct. There, deep within the ebony pupil, a tiny flame danced on the currents of an unearthly zephyr.
"Who are you?" Rhia whispered to the light and darkness sharing the golden orb. And Darkness answered.
Time, flowing like a river
Time, beckoning me
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena, Gabrielle and Xandra entered the Amazon village just ahead of a storm that was building in the north. Black clouds rushed together, merged, and built towers of forbidding dark energy. Sheet lightning; silent, soft and deceptively beautiful, backlit the scene, forming eerie, yellowish-green moats around castles built of storm clouds. Xena touched Gabrielle's elbow, deftly steering her around numerous obstacles as Gabrielle stared upward, enthralled with the spectacle in the sky above. Xan, however, engrossed in the same exhibition, tripped over a small stack of wood.
Gabrielle grabbed her before she fell on her face. Xan blushed slightly, a quick grin crossing her lips. "Thanks."
"No problem," Gabrielle replied, returning the smile then moving on.
"She's something, isn't she?" Xan asked Xena. "She sure has changed. Wow," she added, giving Gabrielle an appreciative look as she walked away from them. Xena was silent and Xan turned to face her, grin fading a bit at the look in Xena's eyes. "I mean..."
"I know what you meant," Xena gave her a look that returned the blush to her face threefold.
"I...uhm..." Xan cleared her throat and looked up. "Nasty storm coming on."
"Yes," Xena agreed. "There is."
Xan glanced at her again, wondering if they were both discussing the weather. "I'll, uhm, just go catch up with..." Xan stood still, trying, without much success, to read Xena's eyes.
"So go," Xena told her, with a little wave of her hand.
Xan looked at Gabrielle, then back at Xena. "Well, okay, then," she replied, nearly stumbling over the same pile of wood as she tried moving toward Gabrielle without taking her eyes off Xena.
Xena lifted an eyebrow and suppressed a smile as Xan finally negotiated the woodpile. She then looked around for a familiar face among the Amazons. One finally found her and was fast approaching, wearing a big smile of her own. "Xena!" the Amazon wrapped her in a bone-cracking hug that drove the air from her lungs.
"Solari!" Xena whuffed back.
Solari released her and held her at arm's length. "You look wonderful! It's been too long! What are you doing here? How are you? Where's Gabrielle?"
"Thanks. You too, it has, passing through, I'm fine and she's over there."
Solari laughed, following Xena's gaze, and her smile brightened even more at the sight of Gabrielle. Gabrielle, Xena noted, often had that affect on people. Xena watched Gabrielle for a thoughtful moment. A warm sense of pride swept through her; a fierce pride commingled with an even more fervent affection, surprising her with its intensity.
"With the amazing Xandra at her side, of course," Solari added with a knowing chuckle.
Xena shifted her gaze back to Solari. "You know Xandra, then?"
"Oh, yeah. Everyone knows Xan."
Which, Xena thought to herself, is the reason we entered the village so easily.
"I'm not sure which got the girls the most excited," Solari continued. "When they found that there was a man in camp, or when they found out there wasn't!" Solari laughed uproariously over this and Xena felt herself joining in. Solari's laugh, as well as her quick wit and warm heart, were contagious. Solari's smile faltered as she looked into Xena's eyes. "I'm glad you're here, Xena, you and Gabrielle, we need you."
Xena felt a chill settle over her as Solari led the way to her hut. "Tell me."
Three six nine
The goose drank wine
The pigs went to town
On the railroad line...
-old nursery rhyme-
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle stopped to gaze around the small Amazon encampment, giving Xan a distracted smile as she joined her. There was an undercurrent of unease here. Gabrielle did not recognize most of the Amazons in this village, though a few of them were familiar to her. Those she had met before returned her smile of recognition, most adding a respectful nod and bringing a fisted hand to their heart.
Xan did not miss the tribute. "What are you, a goddess or something?" Xan asked teasingly.
"Well, that particular salute was definitely not meant for me."
"Or something," Gabrielle replied vaguely as a melancholy smile touched her lips; a curious mix of pride and pain.
Xan felt a pull at her heart at that look.
Xan remained at Gabrielle's side as she walked slowly through the camp, merely observing all that went on around her. There were the normal activities of an Amazon camp; lookouts posted high above, warriors measuring their skills against one another, the gathering and storing of supplies, tending of horses and livestock, cleaning and sharpening of weapons. But, in spite of the apparent normalcy, Gabrielle felt an underlying tension. Or was it merely the restless energy accompanying the impending storm?
"You feel it, don't you?" Xan asked, surprising her.
"Like something bad is about to happen and they are all waiting for it?"
"Something like that, yes."
"It's been like that since-" Xan abruptly stopped speaking. Eyes growing wide, she stepped around Gabrielle, putting Gabrielle between whatever she was looking at and herself.
This was so completely out of character for the normally fearless and protective Xan that Gabrielle's jaw dropped in surprise. Bracing herself for something truly awful, Gabrielle stopped and looked cautiously over her shoulder. She saw nothing out of the ordinary, except possibly the huge white goose that was making its resolute way toward them. "What's wrong with you?" Gabrielle asked, turning back to Xan.
"Nothing," Xan answered, standing on tiptoe and taking a quick peek over Gabrielle's head. "Oh, centaur-dung! Could we move along here, please?"
"Xan, what in the world..."
Xan suddenly drew her sword and Gabrielle stepped away from her in alarm. "You stay away from me, you mangy, flea-bitten pile of feathers for brains!"
Gabrielle, truly fearing for Xan's sanity now, looked over her shoulder once more. The goose had reached them and was giving Xan a hard, cold look. Lowering its head, it took another step closer to them and Xan emitted a tiny squeak of dismay.
"By the gods, Xan..."
"Keep that damn thing away from me, or I swear, I'm going to behead it," Xan insisted, placing her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and maneuvering her between herself and the circling goose.
Gabrielle hooted laugher. "A goose!? You're afraid of a goose?"
"It's not funny! That son of a bit...buh...bootstrap...is a dang menace!" Xan's tempered cursing was nothing if not inventive. Gabrielle raised an amused eyebrow. "I'm serious!" Xan protested, highly offended, looking indignant and sheepish at the same time. It was a look only Xan could master.
Gabrielle struggled to control her hilarity, but doing so made her chest ache and her eyes water unmercifully.
"Yah!" Xan shouted, taking a step toward the bird, trying to regain at least a shred of her dignity. The goose let loose with an angry hiss and Xan raised her sword.
"Xandra!" Gabrielle protested, still sputtering laughter. "Don't you dare!"
"I mean it. And stop circling, you're making me dizzy."
"Okayokayokay, gods above and below," Xan muttered.
Gabrielle stared at the goose, who presented her with a woeful look and a most pitiful shiver. "Oh, now, look, Xan, you've scared it."
"Scared it my lily white ass, that thing is a..." Gabrielle gave her a look and Xan, as usual, wasn't sure if it was for her language, her actions, or both.
"Go on, scoot," Gabrielle said, turning her attention back to the goose and giving a little shooing motion with her hand. "You're scaring my friend."
"Ha Ha," Xan said crossly, not missing the shaking of Gabrielle's shoulders as she struggled with her suppressed mirth. Xan did give her credit, though, for keeping a fairly straight face.
"What were we talking about, before we were so rudely interrupted?" Gabrielle managed, with only a trace of sarcasm. She took Xan's arm as she put her sword away.
"We were talking about..."
"Xan, honestly..." Gabrielle chided her, as Xan surreptitiously picked up a clod of dirt and threw it, managing to shower the goose with black peat as the lump exploded on the ground at its feet.
"Ha! Gottcha! Ya little-"
Gabrielle gripped Xan's arm and led her none too gently in the opposite direction. Xan took one last look over Gabrielle's shoulder and stuck out her tongue at the glaring goose. A flash of lightning and an immediate crack of thunder caused Xan to nearly leap out of her boots, therefore giving the goose, in effect at least, the last word.
Evil is no faceless stranger...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Rhianna closed her eyes as thunder grumbled in the distance. An indecisive rain pattered the ground for a moment then halted abruptly. The wind drew a low, deep, whistling breath, held it then slowly exhaled. A cold rush of air snuffled its way into the cave, searching every crevice. Rhia opened her eyes, resisting the urge to look over her shoulder, as a ghostly finger of air ruffled her hair and blew an icy breath across her neck. She drew back from the fire as fading white embers grew red hot, snapping a piece of blackened wood and spewing a twirling shower of sparks into the darkness. Rhia held her breath, trying to hear past the thrumming of her heart. A command was issued. It was more allusion than actuality, felt rather than heard, there and instantly gone, a flicker of the mind, a hissing of flame.
Nowhere can a secret keep always secret,
Dark and deep,
Half so well as in the past,
Buried deep to last, to last
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Welcome to my home, such as it is," Solari said, pulling Xena inside as the first plump raindrops bounced across the ground. "Crazy weather. The gods must be bored. Something to eat or drink?"
"No, but thanks."
Solari studied Xena's various wounds and dressings with a respectful, yet critical eye. "Looks like you've been tangling with a bear, Xena."
"Boar, bandits, boulders and a big bloody hound."
Solari grinned. "Never a dull moment, eh?"
"Anything I can do?"
Xena studied the dressing on the bite, it was seeping again, and it hurt. "Yeah, if you don't mind, Solari, this could definitely use a little attention."
"Sit down. I'll tend it while we chat."
Xena sat. Solari gathered various medicines and sat at her side, lifting an eyebrow, but saying nothing, as she undid the dressing on Xena's hand. Knowing of Xena's aversion to small talk, Solari got right to the point. "Xan came looking for Ephiny, though she never came right out and said so. I could tell she was disappointed not to find her here."
"But, Ephiny was here?"
"She passed through here less than a month ago. She came in the night, with a small hunting party. She stayed mostly alone, they moved on at dawn two mornings later."
"Did Ephiny leave any...thing here?"
Solari looked at her oddly. "Xan asked the same thing, in much the same manner." Xena said nothing. "No. She left as she came. Quietly, almost secretly," Solari was a master at reading people, even one as stoic and unrevealing as Xena. "If she carried anything of great value," Solari continued, lightly touching Xena's arm, "she did not leave it here, and she did not speak of it."
Xena's eyes touched Solari's in a moment of complete understanding. Solari may have guessed that Ephiny was protecting something, or someone, but she did not question her. Nor would she now question Xena. No one here knew of Xena's grandchild, no one knew that she was entrusted to Ephiny's care. Which was as it should be, but which also left many unanswered questions. Was Catherine still with Ephiny? And if not, then, where was she? Was she safe? Was she well? Was she even alive? Xena had no answers, could not even ask the questions. If Caesar even suspected that this child had survived her mother, and his own treachery, he would not rest until he hunted her down and destroyed her. For Caesar was confident that he alone controlled his destiny. He had no intention of letting this child, or Xena, change that destiny.
"Caesar is searching for you." Solari's quiet voice roused her from her reverie. Xena looked up into Solari's soft brown eyes. "There are rumors of a prophecy, one that foretells his demise. Have you heard of this, Xena?"
Xena closed her eyes, remembering, though not wanting to. In unguarded moments it all came rushing back. Rachel, with her ancient young eyes and beautiful sad smile, Rachel; her daughter.
"There is a prophecy." Rachel explained, "A prophecy which, presumably, foretells Caesar's true destiny. A destiny far different from the one he visualizes. This is a vision of absolute destruction, to be brought about by someone very close to him. The prophecy provides three clues to the identity of the person, or persons, who will bring Caesar to ruin; it will be someone he once trusted, someone who once trusted him, or someone of his own blood. Most think that the combination of these things will be the catalyst for his ultimate demise."
Rachel stared intently at Xena who said nothing, lost in her own thoughts, focused on memories past until Rachel's gentle voice brought her abruptly back. "I know you are my mother, Xena, and I know your history with Caesar."
Xena's eyes widened in shock as she connected this last with the words of the prophecy, "And what, Rachel?" Xena demanded, "You think Caesar is your father!? And this child..."
"Knowing your history with Caesar," - the sound of Solari's voice jarred Xena once more into the present - "we were not surprised to learn that he has been quietly searching for you; you and Gabrielle.
Xena looked sharply toward her, "Gabrielle?"
"Yes. And another thing..." Solari hesitated, wondering if Xena was listening, for her eyes had taken on a faraway look.
"What else?" Xena asked her.
"Roman troops have entered Amazon lands," Solari continued.
"Roman troops? For what purpose?"
"Why does Rome do anything?" Solari questioned bitterly. "Probably because that crazy, beguiling bastard who would rule the known world tells them to. I have heard that they are taking slaves, damn their souls."
"Slaves?" that doesn't sound like Caesar, what possible use could he have for Amazon slaves?"
Solari shrugged and shook her head; she had no answer. "Best keep an eye on that," she advised, giving Xena's hand a tender squeeze as she began putting away her medicines.
"I will, thanks," Xena brought her hands to her face, wearily rubbing her eyes and drawing a deep breath. She held that breath for a long moment before relinquishing it.
"You are troubled." Solari whispered. Xena met her gaze over tented fingers. "So am I," Solari admitted with a sigh. "So are we all."
You know I've seen it before
This mist that covers your eyes
You've been looking for something
That's not in your life
My intentions are true
Won't you take me with you
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Rhia watched with terrible fascination as the old dog's ears twitched toward a sound that only she perceived. Tiny pinpoints of light reflected hot and bright in the dog's eyes. A tiny breeze tiptoed past the child causing the light to flicker, both outside the cave and deep within the dog's eyes. Rhia reached out with a tentative hand and touched her head. "Hey, old dog..." she whispered carefully.
The dog, unblinking, regarded her with grave concern for a long moment. The animal's eyes grew unbearably heavy, their brilliance slowly fading; daylight seeping into twilight. The eyes closed on a weary sigh as the dog's breathing slowed and deepened. Rhia laid her head on its side, listening to the slowing cadence of its diminishing heartbeat. An ephemeral lament drifted around them like smoke, suspended like a ghost in the clear, cold air. A mournful howl sounded outside the cave, joined by several more. The dog, feet already in motion, receded with only a tiny whimper of regret and a single tear as the spirit heeded that timeless call and sought the inherit freedom of all things wild.
"You run, now," Rhianna gently urged. "You run..."
The heartbeat quickened, triumphant, strong and steady, like muted thunder in her ears. It faded slowly, peacefully receding then stopped altogether. Rhia cried then, tears of joy for the dog, eternally young now, as she rejoined the welcoming pack, in spirit, if not in body. And tears of loss, for part of her heart went, too, and she was filled with a nameless yearning; aching, unquenchable, and soul deep.
"I want to go home," she whispered. "Can you take me home?"
We have a weight to carry
And a distance we must go.
We have a weight to carry,
A destination we can't know.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xan found Xena and Gabrielle talking quietly beneath the low, sheltering branches of an ancient tree. Though the storm from the night before had left it sodden, dripping and somewhat disheveled, it held an air of stately grace. A rickety wooden fence leaned drunkenly forward to eavesdrop, crisscrossing them with pale blue shadow in the early morning light. The wind swept through, immersing them beneath a tide of crimson leaves, which was as unsettling as it was beautiful. Gabrielle gently took Xena's hand and lightly ran her fingers over the bandage covering it. Xena nodded at some question Gabrielle posed, lifting an eyebrow as Gabrielle pressed a light kiss against the dressing. Xan hesitated, watching them, not wanting to intrude on their quiet time, yet unable to turn away.
Gabrielle laughed, brushing leaves from Xena's hair. Xena smiled, a smile that transformed her from lion to lamb, a smile that, as far as Xan knew, was reserved exclusively for Gabrielle. And hidden within that smile lurked a ghost from Xan's past; it was Rachel's smile. Xan had, at first, thought Rachel so unlike her mother and yet, in many respects, they were exactly the same.
Xena, sensing Xan's presence, looked over at her. The penetrating blue eyes, considerably softened, no doubt, by Gabrielle's proximity, caught Xan by surprise. In that unguarded moment Xan marveled at the power in that gaze. And in the utter stillness of her mind, a phantom softly called her name. Xan closed her eyes, biting back a sudden rush of tears. "Rachel..." she whispered, answering the call unaware.
Xan opened her eyes to find Gabrielle walking slowly toward her.
Xan swiped a sleeve across her face, a habit Gabrielle would forever associate with her. "Sorry," Xan apologized. "I didn't mean to intrude."
"It's all right," Gabrielle assured her. "Going on a picnic?" she asked, noting the basket in Xan's hand, the blanket thrown over her shoulder.
"I...uhm, I threw a few things together. There's an abandoned temple not far from here. One of Artemis', I think. I wondered if maybe you...both of you, might want to..."
"Yeah. Why don't you wait here. I'll go get my coat in case the weather decides to change again."
"Okay." Xan watched her walk away then moved to sit beside Xena. They sat in silence for a while, Xena sharpening her sword, Xan staring at the ground.
"I wanted to thank you, Xan, for pulling Gabrielle out of that river."
Xan looked up at her; Xena's eyes never left her sword. "No thanks necessary."
Xena paused in her task for a moment. "If you hadn't been there..."
"It was nothing, really."
"Uh-huh," Xena reached over and ran a finger along Xan's jaw. A darkening bruise was just barely noticeable beneath her tan.
Xan winced and rubbed her jaw. "The mini-bard packs quite a punch."
"Gabrielle did that?" Xena smiled a little and went back to her sword-sharpening.
"Yep, she sure did." Xan noted Xena's smile and added, "I guess she wasn't too happy with me pushing her under."
Xena stopped, looked up and turned a puzzled gaze in Xan's direction. "What did you say?" There went the smile...
"Well, I met this young man once, in Thessaly, on my way to Athens?" Xan looked questioningly at Xena. One eyebrow rose, but Xena said nothing. "Anyway," Xan went on, "he was a healer, a philosopher, wrote some pretty amazing stuff. He wrote about this technique he had seen, this mouth to mouth thing. I figured I could test it out on Gabrielle," Xan wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. "But she came up sputtering and spitting like a beached trout, so I gave her a shove back under and-"
Xena gave Xan a firm shove off the log she was sitting on. "Idiot," Xena muttered.
Xan laughed heartily as she picked herself up. Xena shook her head and turned her attention back to her sword. Xan chuckled for a bit, squirming some on the log; Xena's shove had lodged a splinter somewhere in the seat of her pants. She settled, finally, into a pensive silence, thinking thoughts of long ago. She watched as the wind left footprints across a small meadow and disappeared into the forest. The air was crisp, alive, yet permeated by the smell of fallen leaves; such was the paradox of late autumn. The smell and feel of fall always made Xan nostalgic for things remembered, and those nearly forgotten. It carved a hollow void within, into which sifted countless memories of those who were now just that; memories and nothing more. God, it made her lonely.
Xena's sword sounded a silvery ting and Xan started a bit as Xena set it aside.
"I'm sorry, Xan."
Xena's voice was so soft and gentle, Xan thought she imagined it. Xan transferred her gaze from the horizon to the infinitely more engaging view of Xena's blue eyes. "Did you say something?"
"I never got the chance to tell you. I'm sorry about Rachel."
Xan always felt vaguely uneasy when Xena read her thoughts like that, another thing mother and daughter had in common. "It wasn't your fault," Xan replied, looking away.
"Nor was it yours."
Xan shook her head and said nothing. Xena picked up her sword and sheathed it. Both were thinking that the other was wrong.
Xena looked over at her. "You must miss her terribly."
"Every moment, of every day," Xan whispered, shifting her gaze back to Xena's. The blue eyes shimmered, darkened, liquefied into pools of iridescent blue, Xan was effortlessly drawn into their depths. "I thought I couldn't go on living without her. I didn't want to," Xan went on, half mesmerized by Xena's gaze.
"But you did."
Xan pulled her eyes away. "Depends on what you mean by living." Xena was silent. "She gave my life meaning and joy," Xan glanced at her, then quickly away. "She was...special. So very special."
Xan looked over at her; Xena stared at something far away, then, so softly Xan nearly missed it; "She called out for you, Xan," Xena turned her head toward Xan, some quirk of the light, or perhaps the mind, transformed her eyes from sapphire to emerald. "Your name was on the last breath she took."
Xan bowed her head. Xena looked away as Xan gave herself over to tears. It was one thing Xena had always respected, maybe even envied, about Xan; she cried when she needed to. Xena never viewed it as a sign of weakness about Xan, it was, in fact, quite the opposite. They sat in silence for a while. They were always comfortable within their silences; one of the many things they shared so long ago. Lifetimes ago, or so it seemed.
"You're more than a little concerned about Gabrielle, aren't you? Afraid of losing her somehow?" Xan broke the silence with a question that was unsettling in its intuitiveness.
Xena shifted her gaze back to Xan; apparently two could play at this mind reading game. "I'm afraid she's losing herself."
Xena took a deep breath, looked away again. "It's complicated, difficult; accepting who you are, what you are becoming. Sometimes, it...distracts her."
"And that's very dangerous. For both of you," Xan stated.
"Yes," Xena agreed. "It is."
"There's something more," Xan was keenly perceptive, as always.
Xena's eyes flicked back to Xan's. And just for a moment Xena's mind seemed to fold in on itself, presenting her a nightmarish image of blood and pain and death. A cold, blue emptiness surrounded her and eclipsing it all; the shadow of a cross on snow-covered ground.
"Xena?" Xan touched her hand. It felt lifeless and cold and matched perfectly the look in her eyes. "Xena." Xan leaned closer, concerned now.
Xena blinked and leaned away from her.
"Don't lose her, Xena," Xan insisted. "Hold onto her with everything you've got. Don't let anything, or anyone, come between you."
"She's coming," Xena said, recovering herself, but not before Xan caught a glimpse of something in her eyes that she had never seen there before. Fear; pure and absolute.
Once, as my heart remembers,
All the stars were fallen embers.
Once, when night seemed forever
I was with you.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena decided not to join them on the outing, preferring instead to give Argo a thorough brushing and perhaps spend some time talking with some of the other Amazons in camp. Watching them walk away gave her an odd feeling of aloneness. She watched as Xan leaned close and said something that made Gabrielle laugh out loud. Gabrielle punched her arm and Xan fell dramatically to the ground. Gabrielle nudged her with her foot and Xan grabbed her ankle, nearly upending her. Xena smiled ruefully, and found herself feeling just a tinge of jealousy. Argo nudged her from behind and snorted in her ear.
"Hey," Xena admonished, turning and briskly rubbing Argo's nose. "You should talk, you dumped me for an apple, remember?"
Argo denied all knowledge of such a thing and stepped on Xena's foot for good measure.
The hike to the old temple was fairly long, but the weather held and the day was pleasant. A cloudless sky, blue and immense, stretched out before them, a perfect backdrop for what remained of the still brilliant colors of late fall. The temple itself was falling to ruin. Surprised, Gabrielle wondered aloud why this was so.
"Maybe Artemis has fallen from grace in this part of the country," Xan suggested.
"She won't be pleased by this."
Xan shrugged and started up the long, narrow stairway. Xan, like Xena, was seldom impressed by what did, or did not, please the gods. Gabrielle followed in Xan's footsteps as she sidestepped the worst of crumbling stone. They crossed a small corridor, passing quickly beneath an enormous arch in worse disrepair than the stairway. Xan walked through the doorway and Gabrielle followed after taking an uneasy look over her shoulder. The inside was dusty and shadowed, full of broken statues and pottery. The roof was cracked and part of it had collapsed to the floor below, destroying the altar as it fell.
"What a mess," Xan observed, voice hushed, less in reverence, Gabrielle suspected, than in fear of anything louder bringing the rest of the ceiling down on top of them.
"I don't think we should go too far inside."
"Uh-huh, think you're right," Xan agreed.
They spread the blanket just inside the door and Gabrielle opened the basket, stomach growling noisily. "I missed breakfast." Gabrielle explained, at Xan's look.
Xan cast a wary eye on her midsection. "Mmm. I think it's alive."
Gabrielle laughed. "Yeah, and it's hungry!" she added dramatically.
The basket held fruit, cheese, bread and a small corked jug. "Wine?" Gabrielle inquired.
"Nope. Better than wine."
Gabrielle, experiencing a moment of total recall, warily eyed the jug. She remembered the last time they were together, Xan had contributed some sweet smelling 'weeds' to kindle their campfire and the ensuing smoke had rendered them both uninhibited and higher than Xena's flying parchment.
Xan gave her a sheepish grin, blushing a deep red, experiencing her own moment of d�j� vu, no doubt. "It's good, honest," Xan promised. "It's not exactly mead or wine. Here, take a small sip and it will warm you right up."
Gabrielle - mentally throwing caution to the wind, as usual, where Xan was concerned - pulled the cork, upended the jug and took a drink. The liquid, as promised, went down smoothly warm. At least it did at first. Then it hit her stomach like a bolt of lightning and kicked like an irate mule. Gabrielle sucked in a gigantic and totally involuntary gasp of air and choked, eyes watering, her throat on fire. Xan deftly liberated the jug from her hand, downed a quick drink, and pounded Gabrielle on the back, all in one graceful move.
"It's good, isn't it? Takes a little getting used to, though," Xan belatedly informed her, shuddering magnificently, as the liquid infused her insides with a delicious rush of scathing white heat.
Gabrielle, who had yet to exhale, placed a hand over her stalled heart.
"I got it from these farmers outside Athens," Xan continued, oblivious to Gabrielle's respiratory malfunction. "They have this remarkable setup, all these tubes and steaming vats and fermenting goop..."
"By...the...Ga...HA...od's!" Gabrielle gasped. Xan, for whatever reason, had given her a solid thump between the shoulder blades, thereby forcing air from her frozen lungs and re-animating her stunned heart.
Xan took another sip and handed the jug back to her. Gabrielle's bewildered brain, on temporary hiatus, deferred to a lower authority; reflex, which suggested she take another sip, which she did. This time the lightning merely tingled and the kick was somewhat blunted; a lesser mule, with cotton feet. The third sip produced a pleasantly mellow glow.
"Whoa," Gabrielle stated somewhat breathlessly after the next sip, and hiccuped, finally drawing Xan's full attention, such as it was.
"Hey," Xan began, with a narrow look, reaching for the jug. "Maybe you shouldn't-"
Gabrielle turned her head away and tipped the jug once more, putting another good-sized dent in the contents therein. "Whadizzistuff?" Gabrielle asked, wiping her mouth on the back of her hand.
Xan gave her a goofy grin, which Gabrielle returned with a demure little smile of her own. Though, from the startled look on Xan's face and the widening of her silvery eyes, Gabrielle suspected she might have put a bit too many teeth into it for demure. Demented was actually the word that crossed Xan's mind. They stared at each other for a moment and then giggled.
Uh-oh, whispered that little voice of reason in the back of Gabrielle's mind. Unheeding, Gabrielle reached for the jug, and Xan, thinking that Gabrielle had probably more than surpassed her limit, gallantly downed what was left.
"Huh...ey," Gabrielle said, with a hiccup that transcended into a truly splendid belch. "Oh! 'Scuse me," Her hand attempted a politely well intentioned gesture to cover her mouth, but stopped halfway, having suddenly lost interest in where it was going and why.
"You okay?" Xan asked, stifling a belly laugh and trying to focus on Gabrielle's eyes, which doubled, then tripled, then cycloped into one. Which was kind of a scary thing, when Xan thought about it.
Gabrielle took a deep breath, began to get up, and sat down hard as the room tilted at an impossible angle. "I'n fime just," she replied. "And me?" she asked, laying her hand on Xan's chest.
"I'm fime...uh, fine, too," Xan assured her, reaching out to touch Gabrielle's remarkable solitary eye, her irrepressible curiosity having overridden her initial apprehension.
Gabrielle looked up, uncomfortably cross-eyed, at Xan's finger resting in the middle of her forehead. Annoyed, she began slapping at the offending finger. She missed, but Xan got the message and obligingly removed it. Gabrielle's head, bereft of the supporting digit, slowly dropped forward onto Xan's shoulder and after a moment, the rest of her languidly followed suit. Xan, deciding that this felt very nice indeed, decided to let nature take its course.
Xan never could quite remember how long they stayed like that; she later recalled snatches of conversation, some laughter, some tears, some soul searching, perhaps? She did, with perfect recall, remember gently, albeit reluctantly, gripping Gabrielle's shoulders, finally, and pushing her away. Gabrielle gazed into Xandra's guileless pale eyes for a long moment before laying a hand gently against her face. Xan stared back, and experienced the peculiar sensation that Gabrielle could read her eyes as effortlessly as a well-known scroll. Suddenly, feeling far too exposed under her gaze, Xan looked away. Whatever Gabrielle had seen there moved her enough to close her eyes, lean forward, and place a gentle kiss on Xan's lips, startling Xan almost sober.
"I'm tired, Xandra..." Gabrielle whispered, leaning against Xan's shoulder once again.
Xan merely nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She located the blanket, unfolded it behind her, and lay back. Gabrielle followed her motion and fell instantly asleep with her head still resting on Xan's shoulder and her hand thrown carelessly across her chest. Xan lay awake, staring at cold sunlight spilling narrow paths of gold through cracks in the broken ceiling above. She noticed a slight trembling in Gabrielle's hand and, thinking she was cold, covered it with her own. Gabrielle stirred and mumbled something in her sleep.
"What?" Xan whispered, close to her ear.
"...I love you, Zuh...nuhm," Gabrielle muttered again. Snuggling closer, she began to snore lightly. Leaving Xan to wonder whose name Gabrielle had spoken, whose name she wished she had spoken, afraid to ask, and even more afraid to know.
If the best laid plans
Go suddenly awry
One can safely assume
There'll be you and I
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A scratching noise, followed by stealthy movement at her feet, brought Gabrielle half awake. She opened her eyes, conscious of a raging thirst surpassed only by the angry pounding in her muzzled head. It took her several moments to remember where she was and with whom. Gingerly lifting her head from Xan's shoulder, she looked down toward her feet. Something dark receded into the shadows, bringing Gabrielle instantly and fully awake. Gabrielle touched Xan's hand, which was resting on the hilt of her sword lying beside them.
"What is-" Xan began.
"Ssh," Gabrielle silenced her.
They listened carefully into the silence surrounding them. The sun had moved to the far west, casting diminishing light and lengthy shadows inside the temple. Birds, sounding oddly discordant, chittered outside. The wind hummed a mournful tune somewhere above their heads. Xan sat up slowly at Gabrielle's side as they studied the shadows. Something a shade darker than the dark stared back and moved forward, obsidian eyes gleaming in the half-light.
Xan's eyes widened. "Zeus'-naked-butt-on-an-outhouse-throne!" she exclaimed, leaping to her feet, Gabrielle's arm in one hand, sword and coat in the other. "Come on come on!" Xan yelped, backpedaling furiously and pulling Gabrielle to her feet, or rather, off of them, since Gabrielle was already standing. Gabrielle, brain still issuing muddled commands at best, miraculously got her feet beneath her.
She snorted laughter at the image of Zeus' naked butt anywhere and finally registered the black creature, white striped tail held ominously high, rushing rapidly toward them. She bolted for the door. Gabrielle and Xan reached said door at the exact same instant and stuck there; two panicked peas in a wooden pod. Xan swore creatively. Gabrielle, ever resourceful, reached over, shoved her hand down the back of Xan's pants and pushed back hard.
"EEEE!" Xan screeched, staggering backward from either the effect of Gabrielle's cold hand down her pants, or losing precious ground. Perhaps both.
Gabrielle popped out the doorway like a cork from a bottle and hit the narrow, crumbling stairs at a dead run. Xan shot a panicked look over her shoulder, catapulted through the doorway and leapt across the portico. She landed half a dozen steps down, fell on her ass, and began a swift descent downward. Two more jarring steps and she caught up with Gabrielle, who ended up in her lap. Xan outdid herself on the way down, not only in sheer howling volume, but also with a vast array of improbable, not to mention physically impossible, curses.
Gabrielle held on for dear life. Bumping, grinding and sliding their way downward, they ended up in a tangled heap of arms and legs at the bottom. All was silent, save for the pattering sound of loose shale hitting Gabrielle's back. Gabrielle's coat slithered by, giving them both another start. Gabrielle lifted her aching head and immediately ducked, pushing Xan's head down as well. Xan swore as her forehead bounced off the bottom step and looked up in time to see her sword come rushing down, bottom out with a sharp clang! inches from Gabrielle's nose and sail over them; a fleeting, silver-red streak in the sunset.
"By-the-gods-sonofaBITCHIN-Bacchus-bastard-BITCHES!" Gabrielle hissed.
Xan, shocked utterly speechless, stared at her in solemn awe. Gabrielle sniffed, grimaced, and wrinkled her nose in disgust. Maneuvering herself clumsily to her feet, she stared back up the stairway. The skunk, tail still held menacingly high, stared back. Seemingly satisfied with the outcome, it haughtily turned its back on them and disappeared into the temple. It then took an unexpected and abrupt detour as it shied away from the dark-hooded figure standing just inside the doorway.
"ISH ISH ISH! Is it gone? Did it get us? Where did it go??!!" Xan prattled fearfully, sniffing at her shirtsleeve.
"Yes, and yes, it a little bit did...get us...some, did got us a little bit some and..." Gabrielle shook her head and shut her mouth, thus halting the flow of scattered words that had jolted themselves loose during the fall and refused to assemble themselves into any kind of sensible order.
Xan looked up at her, wisely keeping her own mouth shut, and got painfully to her feet. Limping about, muttering another string of curses under her breath, she rubbed her bruised backside while collecting Gabrielle's coat and her own sword.
Terrorized by a goose and now a skunk, Xan thought to herself. Gods, could this just get any more embarrassing?
Torn, battered and defeated, each lost in their own deep thoughts, they made their way back to the village. While Gabrielle contemplated ways to win bloodless battles with legions of trained skunks and deranged rabbits, Xan tried to think of ways to ask for a butt massage without seeming lecherous. Several curious Amazons, noses twitching, gave them a long look and wide berth as they passed by. Even the goose from Tartarus took one menacing step toward Xan, lifted its head, immediately had second thoughts and waddled off in the opposite direction.
"See there?" Xan retorted, with a grim smile and a nod toward the retreating goose. "Something good comes of everything."
The combination of Gabrielle's look and the sight of Xena, arms crossed in front of her, leaning against tree a few feet away, erased the smile and sent Xan in the opposite direction as well.
Gabrielle watched Xan go and turned to find Xena standing directly in front of her. With one eyebrow raised above an amused blue eye, Xena casually placed a strategic hand over her nose and mouth. "Not a word," Gabrielle warned. "Not one, single, solitary word."
Xena had to bite her tongue, but none was forthcoming.
After a long soak in tubs filled with steaming hot water and a mixture of herbs, roots and other mysterious items, Xan and Gabrielle emerged smelling strongly of wintergreen and vaguely, Gabrielle swore, of tomatoes. Which made her hungry. She had missed breakfast, lunch and dinner. Xan sniffed suspiciously at her arm and Solari assured her she smelled good enough to eat. Xan blushed to the tips of her ears and Gabrielle's stomach growled ominously. Xena brought clean clothes and informed them that the clothes they had been wearing had been unsalvageable and disposed of; burnt.
Xan lamented the loss of another of her favorite shirts. This was getting to be a habit where Gabrielle was concerned.
Gabrielle sighed resignedly and swore to herself never again to eat, drink or inhale anything Xan offered her. After a hot meal and some minor medical treatment, they retired to their respective bedrolls. Xan off to her hut with the hole in the roof, Gabrielle and Xena under a lean-to, since the weather was holding.
Xena propped herself up on one elbow and looked down at Gabrielle, who was lying on her side with her back toward Xena. "I don't know why you're mad at me," Xena spoke into the semi-darkness.
"I'm not mad at you."
"I'm just ...tired."
"Long day," Xena stated.
"Very long day," Gabrielle agreed. Xena was silent. "Do I smell skunkish?" Gabrielle asked, a few moments later.
"No," Xena replied, briefly pressing her lips together to suppress a chuckle. "But, you have a tavernish smell about you, what were you two drinking?"
"I don't know," Gabrielle answered somewhat testily. "Something Xan brought."
"You should know better."
Gabrielle thought about that and laughed a little. "I guess I should."
Xena moved closer and began massaging her neck; Gabrielle melted into her touch. "Mmmm, that feels really good," Gabrielle murmured sleepily.
"You like Xan a lot, don't you? Skunk attacks and all?"
Xena smiled, Gabrielle was sinking fast. In a few moments Gabrielle was snoring softly and Xena's smile slowly faded as she stared down at her. Brushing back a strand of still damp hair, Xena pressed a light kiss to Gabrielle's temple and lay back. A very short time later, she felt Gabrielle turn toward her. Her arm slipped around Xena's waist and her head found its way to her shoulder, a perfect fit beneath her chin. Gabrielle sighed contentedly as Xena whispered something close to her ear. Xena smiled at her reply; all was good and as it should be in the universe.
For the time being, at least.
Hell hath no fury...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The morning, again, dawned unseasonably warm and pleasant. The sun made its appearance, a smudge of dusky orange followed by a brilliant slash of scarlet against a turquoise sky. It ducked behind an ethereal mountain range of deep blue clouds, edging them with silver and gold. A balmy breeze gently scattered lingering remnants of mist, which, in turn, magically sprinkled minute rainbows in their eddying wake. Xena glanced over at Gabrielle, who was still asleep by the fire, only the top of her blonde head visible above the blankets. Xena found herself wishing that she had remained at Gabrielle's side a bit longer so they might have shared the painted sunrise. If she could have awoken Gabrielle to see it, that is. She shook her head a little, wondering at her sudden sentimentalism.
"Wait," Xan's voice emerged softly from the morning fog. Xena turned toward her with a questioning look. "You were going to wake her, weren't you? Give a yell, or something?" Xena didn't bother to deny the statement. "You should learn to be a bit more sensitive, show a little tenderness, you know what I mean?"
"I'm sure you are going to tell me," Xena replied, crouching down, now near the fire.
"Look how serene, how peaceful she is. A beautiful, sleeping lady," Xan nodded toward Gabrielle, who uttered a distinctly unladylike snort in her sleep as she burrowed deeper under the blankets.
Xena raised an eyebrow and Xan had the grace to look sheepish for a moment. "She's not much on morning," Xena stated.
"Well, maybe you could do something to make waking up more pleasurable." Xena gave her an odd look. "May I?" Xan asked.
"Be my guest."
Xan bent down and ladled a cup of cool water into a cup. "I always wake up thirsty, don't you? It's nice to have someone-" She looked over at Xena, who was stirring the fire with a stick, trying not to tip over, or scorch her fingers on the pot in it's midst. Xan pointedly cleared her throat, bringing Xena's eyes, if not her full attention, back to the matter at hand.
"Watch and learn, Xena, watch and learn."
"Oh, I'm all eyes," Xena replied, giving Xan an inscrutable look.
Xan threw her a look and moved quietly to Gabrielle's side. Xan was quiet as a cat, Xena had to give her that. On further reflection, Xena realized that this might prove to be quite educational at that. She sat back, spellbound, as Xan bent down and gripped the blanket covering Gabrielle. Xena watched with interest as Gabrielle tensed slightly, hand moving from beneath the blanket, instinctively searching for her phantom staff. Gabrielle often slept like the dead, but the many years spent with Xena on their often-treacherous journeys had honed her instincts considerably.
"Ssssh!" Xan shot back over her shoulder, releasing the blanket as Gabrielle turned over once again.
Xena shushed. Xan, once again, gripped the blanket with gentle fingers. Xena's attention was suddenly captured by the appearance of a snow-white demon with orange feet who had now entered the picture, stage left.
Ooooo, this outta be good, Xena thought to herself, a malicious little grin curving her lips.
Xan peeled the blanket back with utmost care and leaned over further, bending close to Gabrielle's ear. Xena, meanwhile, totally appreciated the inescapable and undeniable draw Xan's backside presented. She watched with acute interest as the white-feathered, vengeance-minded menace waddled toward it at breakneck speed.
To give credit where credit is due, Xena noted that somewhere in mid-sensuous whisper, Xan realized that something was afoot. Or awaddle, whichever. Xan lifted her head a little just as the unerring and unstoppable clamping beak met its desired destination and twisted with unspeakable force.
"Wow," Xena whispered reverently at Xan's lyrical flow of curses.
So many things happened at once that Xena was on sensory overload trying to take it all in. The only thing she clearly remembered later was thinking, Now, that's gotta hurt, several times in quick succession. Gabrielle's head came up like a catapult in response to Xan's unearthly scream. Ice cold water dumped on her bare midsection rudely shocked her into total wakefulness. Xena winced as Gabrielle's head connected with Xan's chin with an audible crack! Gabrielle grabbed her forehead with both hands and went down like a felled tree. Xan let loose another amazing barrage of obscenities while falling over backward directly onto the squawking goose. Said goose took major offense, at either the language, or Xan's intrusion of her personal space. Taking careful aim, she thrummed a measured tattoo thawck-thwack-thwackthwackthwack-THWOCK! against Xan's skull.
Xan scrambled wildly to her feet, a murderous rage seething in her now blazing silver eyes. Another "Ooooo" of awe emerged from Xena's rounded lips. Gabrielle had begun to gather her wits around a knot of screaming pain on her forehead. Gingerly massaging the lump, she raised up slowly on one elbow. The now wisely high-tailing-it goose used her gut for a springboard as it leaped into the air for takeoff.
"Ugnh!" Gabrielle huffed.
"UGNH!!!!!" Xan screamed, making a huge lunge at white tail feathers. She probably would have had them, too, had she not lost her footing on a rather noxious and slip-slidey parting gift from her nemesis. Xena wondered if the offering was intentional - Surely not, but then again - or a purely conditioned reflex while being pursued by a clearly demented human. Xan went down rather marvelously, an awe-inspiring dance of flailing arms and legs that would have rendered tribal dancers everywhere speechless with admiration. Unfortunately, she landed smack atop Gabrielle, ending up in a somewhat compromising, and, Xena thought wistfully, altogether enviable, position. As Xan pushed herself up, utilizing a rather poor choice of Gabrielle's anatomy for leverage, Gabrielle reacted by elbowing her smartly in the nose.
"Yowth!" Xan cried, falling over backward once more and covering her throbbing nose with both hands. Xena's hands unconsciously mimicked Xan's.
"Whuddaell ewnu nat dor, Nabbielle!!??" Then, eyes growing wide, awestruck, no doubt, by her new speech impediment, "NAMMID-NALL-NINNY-NAY!!"
"What?!" Gabrielle's voice leapt an incredible three or four octaves.
No one employed the word "What" quite as effectively as Gabrielle, Xena mused, getting to her feet. "She said, 'What the heck did you do that for? Darn it all any way,'" Xena replied, cleaning up the translation and holding out a hand to Xan.
Xan angrily grabbed Xena's hand and pulled herself to her feet. Gabrielle absently shook out tingling fingers on one hand, and rubbed her aching head with the other.
"Are you all right?" Xena asked Gabrielle.
"I hit that little bone in my elbow. Geeze, that hurts like crazy," Gabrielle replied, still shaking out her hand.
"Nuuuu... duboor iddle ding, natz yust derabull!" Xan; positively oozing sarcasm, if not English.
Gabrielle's jaw dropped as she looked to Xena for a translation. "'You poor little thing, that's just terrible,'" Xena supplied. "But I don't think she means it," she added in a conspiratorial whisper close to Gabrielle's ear.
"What's in Zeus' name is wrong with you!?" Gabrielle glowered suspiciously up at Xan from beneath a rising purple ridge above her eye. "Have you been drinking that stuff again?"
"I mit my nam dung, nammit!!" Xan railed down at her, turning and spitting a glob of blood off to the side.
"She bit her tongue," Xena translated, in answer to Gabrielle's look of astonished mystification. Xena placed a hand over her own mouth, partly in sympathy, mostly to hide her barely suppressed hilarity.
"UND!" Xan suddenly yelped, causing Gabrielle to jump. "I dink ew boke ny nodse!!!"
"By the gods, Xandra!" Gabrielle hissed in disgusted exasperation, leaning away as Xan leaked little droplets of blood on her.
"By the gods, Xandra," Xena translated, straight-faced, to Xan's incredulous look.
"Doh, ni erd dutnee ned!! Oleygrap! PUH!"
Gabrielle and Xena both flinched from the 'puh'-spray. And with that, Xan turned and strode away with much spitting of blood and swearing, all while absently rubbing her left cheek where a great welt of goose-bite throbbed unmercifully.
"She heard what you said." Translation, again, to Gabrielle. "You know, I'm really kind of surprised you can't understand her, seeing as how you-" Xena stopped at Gabrielle's warning look; probably not a good time to remind her about her own self-induced linseed root affliction of numb tongue.
"'Oley grap'?" Gabrielle queried.
"Holy crap?" Xena suggested.
"Ah...well, 'Puh' to her, too."
Xena chuckled and bent over Gabrielle. Taking a quick glance over her shoulder at her exposed backside, she then wisely shifted position, crouching down instead. She brushed Gabrielle's hair back and gingerly touched the purpling knot on her forehead.
"Wow. Looks like an overripe plum. Pretty." Gabrielle winced and slapped her hand away like she was shooing flies. "Better get a cold cloth on that. You're probably going to have one heckofva shiner."
Xena's toothy grin withdrew in self-defense at the not amused look in Gabrielle's watery green eyes. And Xena wisely withdrew herself, busily soaking a cloth for Gabrielle's forehead with icy cold water from the well.
"What in Tartarus just happened?"
"A valuable lesson. Several, in fact. Do you have any blank scrolls lying around? I really think you ought to write it all down."
"Let sleeping bards lie? Hades hath no fury like a goose scorned?" Gabrielle's eyes narrowed dangerously. Xena also had a suggestion for the skunk tale, but decided not to push her luck.
I am lost in oceans of night...
Forever hoping I can find memories,
Those memories I left behind
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"How's the head?" Xena asked from atop Argo, as Gabrielle fell in step beside her.
"Better than Xan's," Gabrielle replied.
"She'll be all right. Besides, she's enjoying the attention." Xena inclined her head toward a group of concerned Amazons surrounding the wounded warrior. Gabrielle laughed a little and received an answering smile from Xena.
"You sure you feel up to this?" Xena asked.
"I'm fine. A slight headache is all."
"I'm not surprised," Xena sympathized, biting the inside of her lip before she lost control and began to laugh. She wasn't quite sure if Gabrielle had yet begun to see the humor in the situation. She glanced over and found Gabrielle staring at her with an altogether too knowing look. Gabrielle knew her way too well. "Want to ride?"
Gabrielle held out a hand and Xena assisted her up, feeling absurdly delighted and content as Gabrielle settled in behind her. Very seldom in her indiscriminate past had Xena found herself feeling as she did now; good, extremely good in fact, happy and at peace. Gabrielle's arms slid around her waist, tightening in a brief hug and Xena found herself hoping that Gabrielle felt the same. From the satisfied sigh Gabrielle uttered as she leaned close against Xena's back, she surmised that she did.
Having not found Ephiny, or Catherine, at the Amazon village, and unable to get the unusual child out of her mind, Xena decided to go back and look for her. Gabrielle, equally intrigued, hadn't argued.
"Do you think we can find her?" Gabrielle asked.
"I think if we go back to the cave, she'll find us."
"You're worried about her."
"No, not exactly," Xena disagreed, "she can obviously take care of herself."
"Me, too. There's something about her...I just can't quite..."
"I know. Do me a favor, Gabrielle?"
"Sure, if I can."
"When we get back up there, stay away from the river."
"Oh, you can count on that," Gabrielle assured her.
A persistent light rain followed them into the hills, gradually thickening into slush and occasional tiny pellets of hail. The temperature dropped steadily as they climbed higher and Gabrielle huddled closer to Xena. By dusk they had reached the overhang and Xena rekindled the fire as Gabrielle began stew preparations. Xena checked the narrow passageway to the cave, but saw no light at its end. Gabrielle kept her distance from it. They settled beside the fire and Xena's mouth began to water at the enticing smell of venison stew that Solari had graciously provided. Gabrielle shivered and pulled her coat closer around her as a stealthy gust of cold wind found its way beneath their shelter. Xena looked up and Gabrielle followed her gaze.
The child had arrived with the wind; quietly, unobtrusively.
Xena and Gabrielle said nothing, though neither missed the dark circles beneath the child's bloodshot eyes, the forlorn slump of her shoulders. Gabrielle instinctively sought to comfort, but held back. Xena's heart clutched in her chest as the mother in her reacted to the child's obvious distress, but she, too, remained where she was. The child ventured closer.
"Would you like something to eat?" Gabrielle asked. "We have more than enough."
The child glanced toward the passageway to her hideaway and then at them, studying them closely. She looked over her shoulder and a moment later the howl of a wolf sounded in the distance. "Nothing ever really dies, you know," she avowed quietly, fixing her eyes on Gabrielle. "The spirit goes on."
Xena and Gabrielle glanced at each other, both knowing that the old dog remained alive now only within the child's heart. Gabrielle felt a tightening in her throat and found it impossible to speak, her eyes, however, spoke volumes. The child shifted her gaze to Xena. "We know," Xena affirmed.
The child started a little as the wind kissed the fire, prompting the flames to frolic magically within Xena's eyes. She took this as a sign to stay. The child studied the cup of steaming stew in her hand as Gabrielle studied her. Her eyes were remarkably beautiful. They had been as startlingly blue as Xena's when they first saw her in the sunlight, but now, underneath the shadowed shelter, they looked as black as a moonless sky. Strange, as if, like the sea, they needed the light and the sky to infuse them with color. Gabrielle realized that the child was staring at a silver Amazon bracelet encircling her wrist. Gabrielle hadn't worn it often, but something had moved her to put it on this morning.
"Do you like it?" Gabrielle asked her.
"Yes," the child answered.
Xena watched from beneath half lowered lashes as Gabrielle moved closer to the child and slid the bracelet off over her hand. She held it out to the child, who, after a slight hesitation, took it. She examined it with the same bright interest she showed in most everything around her; running her fingers over the smooth silver, studying the finely etched engravings around its surface. The child handed it back, looking on curiously as Gabrielle stared at it for a long moment. Gabrielle moved toward her and the child backed quickly away.
"I...I just thought maybe you'd like try it on?"
The child glanced at Xena, who appeared to be dozing, then took a step forward. Gabrielle placed the bracelet into her outstretched palm, and the child carefully, almost reverently, slid it over her own wrist. It was too big for her slender wrist, of course, but, at Gabrielle's suggestion, she slid it up until it fit snugly against her upper arm. It gleamed like saffron in the soft firelight.
"It looks good there," Gabrielle remarked. "Why don't you keep it?"
"It is valuable to you," the child stated. "It's worth not measurable in coin."
Gabrielle's eyes widened a bit at this rather uncanny revelation, "Yes. A very close friend gave it to me."
"She will not mind?"
"No. She will not mind."
The bracelet was, in fact, a gift from Ephiny long ago. One that Gabrielle had been reluctant to accept because it looked valuable.
"It's not worth that much," Ephiny assured her. "Not in the way you are thinking. It's a gift; one that is meant to be passed on, to the right person, at the right time."
The child narrowed her eyes, tilted her head slightly to the side, and stared intently into Gabrielle's gentle eyes. Xena, again, felt her heart ache at the familiarity of the motion. For that particular characteristic was the one thing that Rachel had never outgrown. Never, in all the years between the woefully few times that Xena had come into contact with her. But this child was not Rachel, and she was too old to be Rachel's daughter, unless... Xena closed her eyes, losing herself among her unsettled thoughts.
I've come tonight
I've come to know
The way we are
The way we'll go
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The child delved into a small leather bag, then handed something wrapped in a piece of soft cloth to Gabrielle. Gabrielle opened it carefully and a small wood carving of a wolf fell into her hand. It was a classic pose, intricately detailed; eyes closed, head thrown back, ears flat to the skull, she could almost hear its howl rising to the heavens.
"Oh," Gabrielle whispered. "I can't-"
"Close your eyes," the child gently interrupted.
Gabrielle hesitated only a moment before doing so.
"What do you feel?"
The question surprised Gabrielle, not what do you hear as she expected, but what do you feel. She heard the wind, and the breathing of the fire, but she felt the moisture in the air and smelled it all around her. She felt the wind, its chilly, but light, caress carrying the sharp scent of pine, the musk of wet loam. She felt the swollen river, thundering through the canyon. Then she felt the earth's heartbeat, and for a moment, her own kept time. She opened her eyes and for a disconcerting instant, imagined she was looking into the comforting warmth of Xena's azure gaze.
"I want you to have it," the child's voice dissolved the illusion, but left its comforting warmth.
Gabrielle reached out to touch her hand, but stopped as the child's eyes followed the motion with mild alarm. The hand slowly withdrew and Gabrielle did not press.
The child was engrossed in her own thoughts for some time before looking back up at Gabrielle and then over at Xena, who was sitting with her back against the wall, eyes closed.
The child carefully set aside the cup of stew and walked over to Xena, scarcely making a sound as she closed the distance between them. Though Xena did not open her eyes, Gabrielle had no doubt that she knew the child was by her side. The child stood silently beside Xena for a few moments, one hand fluttering within the other like a tiny captive bird. She threw a quick glance at Gabrielle, who raised an eyebrow and took a bite of stew. Finally, the child moved closer and stood on tiptoe. The fluttering hand escaped and stretched toward Xena's head. One brilliant blue eye appeared, which gave the child pause, but only for a brief moment. The other eye opened as the child gently explored the top of Xena's head.
"Where are they?" the child asked curiously.
Xena looked askance at Gabrielle, who shrugged in return. "Where are what?" Xena asked.
The child stared at her for a moment longer then shifted her gaze to Gabrielle, who raised both eyebrows behind the steaming cup of stew. The child tossed her a small, impatient pout and turned her attention back to Xena.
"The Amazons have hay, you know."
Xena narrowed her eyes, giving the child a steely-eyed glare that affected her not at all. "I beg your pardon?"
They both looked at Gabrielle, who now wore that 'What?' look upon her face - she wisely retreated behind her cup once more. The child huffed out an annoyed little breath, put one hand on her hip and tilted her head to the side - that gesture, again, causing Xena's heart to lurch slightly within in her chest.
"Well," the child patiently explained. "I heard Xan say that you were cranky, and that meant that you were probably horny, and that meant all you needed was a roll in the hay to get you uncranky."
There was a moment of absolute, stunned silence. Xena's eyebrows shot up into her hairline, which, seemingly, unhinged her jaw since it dropped nearly to her chest. Then, both Xena and the child were startled by an explosion of sound that most closely resembled a hog snorting through a puddle of slop. They both turned as one toward Gabrielle.
"Ehhuuu!" the child exclaimed, voice equal parts horror and wondrously fascinated delight. "Look, Gabrielle has soup coming out her nose!"
"Amazing," Xena replied tonelessly, once she recovered her voice.
Gabrielle quickly buried her face in her coat sleeve and nearly imploded with excruciating hilarity.
"What's wrong with her?" the child inquired with some uneasiness, eyes growing wide.
Xena blinked slowly, pursing her lips slightly. "Well," she drawled. "It looks to me as if something has gone down the wrong way and she's choking on it. Maybe you should go over there and help her."
The child nodded solemnly and moved to Gabrielle's side. By the time she got there, Gabrielle had abandoned the cup of stew and had her face buried in her hands, shoulders shaking uncontrollably. The child gently patted her shoulder. "Are you all right, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle lifted her head, hands sliding down until they covered only her mouth, eyes streaming tears.
"Yeah, Gabrielle," Xena intoned sarcastically. "Do you think there's a tiny chance in Tartarus that you might live until morning?"
That particular statement, full of ominous payback undertones, combined with biting down hard on her lower lip, sobered Gabrielle enough for her to control herself. Somewhat. "Mmm...uhm, I'm okay," Gabrielle managed. "Something just went down the wrong way."
"You don't look okay," the child glanced at Xena for confirmation.
Xena was leaning back against the wall, arms folded in front of her, a typical Xena-ish sardonic look on her face. Finding little help there, the child turned to Gabrielle once more. Leaning in close to Gabrielle's ear, she whispered something to Gabrielle that brought on a minor coughing fit. The child helpfully pounded her on the back until she recovered.
"Better now?" she asked.
"Much better," Gabrielle assured her, before moving on to a safer topic. "You know Xandra, then?" The child nodded, but added nothing. "Does she watch out for you?"
"I watch out for her."
"I see," Gabrielle replied seriously.
The child looked toward Xena and narrowed her eyes a little, letting her know that she hadn't been of much aid to her friend, then picked up her bag and turned away from them.
"Wait," Gabrielle said, unwilling to see her go alone into the night. "You...haven't finished your stew."
The child turned back toward Gabrielle's voice, but looked straight at Xena. "I have to go now. I'll come back to see you again, if you don't tell anyone you saw me."
"But..." Gabrielle began, stopping when she saw Xena raise her hand a little.
"You have to promise," the child quietly insisted.
Xena looked into her solemn blue-green eyes for a long moment, "Could you tell us your name, at least?"
"Do you promise?" the child returned.
"Yes. I promise," Xena answered.
The child looked over at Gabrielle, who also promised and crossed her heart for good measure, drawing a tiny smile from both Xena and the child.
"My name is Rhianna. Rhia for short. I'll know if you tell anyone and I'll know that I can't trust you."
And with that she was gone, withdrawing as unobtrusively as she had entered, leaving only an odd, hollow emptiness and a soft glow of moonlight where she had stood; as if she had taken the light and left a luminous trail behind her. It was eerily surreal and thoroughly beautiful.
Xena and Gabrielle remained silent for a while, both absorbed in their own thoughts. Xena felt Gabrielle's eyes on her and met her amused gaze. "Something you want to say?"
Gabrielle chuckled a little, trying to control a huge surge of laughter welling up inside her. It would be days before she could look at Xena and not feel an attack of the giggles coming on. "Unusual child," she managed, finally.
"Very," Xena agreed.
"By the gods, Xena," Gabrielle snorted laughter, unable to control it any longer. "You should have seen the look on your face!"
"Yeah, well, wait 'til you see the look on Xan's face when I get hold of her."
Gabrielle totally lost it; she fell back against the blankets, literally howling with laughter. When she finally exhausted herself, she wiped her eyes and looked over at Xena once more. "Hoo, boy...sorry."
"I can see that."
"Mmm-hmm. What did she say to you?"
"Rhianna. She whispered something to you."
"Ah. Yes, she did," Gabrielle smiled again.
"She, uh..." Gabrielle cleared her throat. "She said that it would probably be more fun if I rolled in the hay with you. Just struck me funny..."
Xena stared at her for a long moment before uttering a gruff snort of laughter. Gabrielle moved to her side and leaned back against the stone wall close beside her. "Well," she said softly, staring into Xena's eyes, "what do you think about that, cranky, horny warrior woman?"
"I think," Xena replied, leaning closer yet and taking hold of Gabrielle's chin. "That sometimes you talk way too much."
Gabrielle grinned and raised an eyebrow. "Mmmm, maybe I should just sit here and quietly ponder my thoughts."
"Maybe you should," Xena agreed. Gabrielle pondered. "Gabrielle?"
"What, may I ask, are you pondering?"
"What are you doing?"
"Helping you ponder."
"Pondering is beginning to take on a whole new meaning...not to mention location."
"I have many skills. Now hush."
She did. Pretty much, anyway.
In visions of the dark night
I have dreamed of joy departed
-Edgar Allen Poe-
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The child appeared with the mist and the morning light. Xena looked up from adding wood to the fire and found Rhianna staring impassively at her.
"Good morning," Xena greeted her, voice low and quiet.
Rhia moved toward the fire as Xena put a finger to her lips and nodded toward a mound of blankets topped with a disheveled fringe of blonde hair. Rhia smiled and whispered, "She likes to sleep in."
"That she does," Xena agreed.
"I'm going to get water, I know a good place."
"I'll come with you."
Rhia turned to leave; Xena picked up the water bags and followed. The child led the way to a small waterfall that pooled and overflowed into a bowl shaped indentation in the rocks. The water was crystalline clear and icy cold. They filled the water bags and sat down to watch as the sun freed itself from the horizon, only to be entangled amongst the skeletal fingers of a dead tree.
Rhia looked up at Xena. "Sometimes I dream."
Xena turned her eyes to Rhia's, saying nothing.
"Sometimes," the child averted her eyes, "the dreams come true." She was quiet for a time; Xena waited in silence. "And sometimes," Rhia continued, "I touch something that is sick, or hurt..." - a quick glance at Xena's hand - "and it gets better." Silence still. The child shifted her gaze to Xena's solemn blue eyes once more. "But, sometimes it doesn't."
Xena took a slow breath, gathering her thoughts. "Why do you think these things happen?"
"I think...I think maybe I got it from my mother, but she could control it, so it didn't..." Rhia's lower lip disappeared beneath her top teeth.
"Frighten her?" Xena finished.
"Yes," Rhia whispered, voice lighter than air. "You can't tell anyone," she quickly added. "Except for Gabrielle, of course...if you want."
"I won't." The child leaned back, crossing her arms across her chest and closing her eyes. "Can I ask you something?" Xena inquired. "You don't have to answer if you don't want to."
Rhia opened one eye in an unconscious, yet perfect, imitation of Xena. The corners of Xena's mouth quirked up in amusement as she turned her head to fill a cup with water.
"Go ahead," Rhia encouraged, opening the other eye.
"Do you know which dreams will come true?"
A strange look crossed the child's face, her eyes grew darkly wary. "Yes," she answered, with slow reluctance.
"Do you know when the healing will work?"
"Is this why you avoid people, so they don't find out about your...gifts?"
The child blinked. "Do you think they are gifts?"
Xena thought about it; thought about Rachel and the saddened, far-away look in her timeworn eyes. "No," Xena said, finally. "I don't think they are."
"People are stinkers, that's why avoid them." An ephemeral grin crossed Xena's lips. "Most people," Rhia amended.
Rhia smiled, revealing a tiny gap between her two front teeth, the sight of which stopped Xena's heart for a split second. The child stood up.
"You watch over Xan," Xena stated.
"She needs someone," Rhia declared. "To watch over her," she added.
"Mmm," Xena replied noncommittally.
"And I have something to give her. When she's ready."
"How will you know when she's ready?"
"We'll both know," Rhia answered. "In here," she elaborated, placing her fingers above her heart.
"If something would happen to me, will you give it to her?"
The sudden shift of conversation jarred Xena for a moment, the thought of something happening to this child... "How will I know what it is?" Xena asked, willing her voice not to betray her sudden unease.
"In here?" Xena echoed, touching her heart.
Rhia's eyes sparkled. "Do you think I'm mys-ter-ee-us?"
"You are that," Xena admitted, smiling to herself. A delighted, gap-toothed grin appeared. Xena returned it.
The sun disentangled itself from the dead branches and rose higher. Rhia narrowed her eyes as it reflected off the chakram at Xena's side. The grin slid away with the tilting of her head. She moved closer, drawn by the chakram's silvery brilliance, and laid her fingers against it. Raising her head, she looked directly into Xena's eyes. Xena felt the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand straight up. She reached for Rhia's hand, determined to remove it from the chakram. Two words halted her.
"You dream," Rhia said softly, and so sadly, it was a lament.
Xena said nothing. Everyone dreamed.
"It will come true." Rhia's hand went to her mouth, as if the words had escaped unintentionally, the thought; uninvited.
Xena's blood ran cold. The child's eyes shimmered then overflowed with tears. Something smooth and cold touched Xena's hand. The child went absolutely still, not a muscle, not a breath disturbed that perfect stillness. She stepped back abruptly and the sun hit Xena squarely in the eyes. She squeezed them shut against its brightness, when she opened them the child was gone. Xena sucked in a breath as if she had just surfaced from frigid water; harsh and desperate. Exhaling shakily, she looked down and her breath caught again. A small piece of lapis; cool, blue and roughly formed in the shape of a cross rested obscenely in her hand. And as she watched, a fresh stain of blood pooled through the bandage around it.
Night can be sweet as a kiss,
though not a night like this.
-Edgar Allen Poe-
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena entered Xan's hut, blinking at the odd collation of darkness and light within. Sunlight spilled through the open roof, scattering dark shadows in its wake, puddling into a dust filled pool of light on the floor. In the midst of this, Gabrielle sat reading, a number of scrolls scattered around her. Xena studied her for a moment. She was totally absorbed in her reading, thoughtful expression on her face. She had not told Gabrielle of the encounter with the child, even though Gabrielle knew, in vivid and painful detail thanks to Alti, of Xena's disturbing visions.
"Gabrielle." Xena spoke softly, but Gabrielle started a bit at the sound of her voice.
"Hey," Gabrielle returned, a smile replacing her small frown of concentration.
"Writing?" Xena asked.
"Very good. Excellent, really. Poems; Xan wrote them." Xena raised an eyebrow in surprise. "She used to write. Before...she wrote for..." Gabrielle hesitated then silently cursed herself for not thinking before she spoke.
"For Rachel," Xena finished.
"She has many skills," Xena inserted, with a half-hearted attempt at levity and a smile that never reached her eyes.
"She does, doesn't she?" Gabrielle tried to muster an answering smile and had much the same success as Xena. "Are you going somewhere?" she added, noticing the bedroll in Xena's hand and deftly changing the subject.
Xena looked down at the bedroll as if she had forgotten it was there. Gabrielle titled her head a little to the side, studying Xena as closely as she had the scroll, which was now lying forgotten at her side. Xena looked tired, very tired. Her eyes shimmered, startlingly blue against the paleness of her face.
"Xena..." Xena shifted her gaze from the bedroll to Gabrielle. "Are you feeling all right?" Gabrielle asked.
"Come here. Please." Xena smiled a little and moved to stand beside her. Gabrielle looked up at her, shielding her eyes against the sun. "Sit. I'm getting a kink in my neck." Xena sat and Gabrielle laid a hand against her forehead, frowning at the heat against her palm.
"Stop that," Xena groused.
"You have a fever," Gabrielle told her, surprised and concerned now, moving her hand to the side of Xena's face.
"I do not."
Xena leaned back, lifting a hand to brush Gabrielle's aside. Gabrielle grabbed her wrist, wrinkling her nose at the sight of the bloodstained bandage around Xena's hand. The bite; she had all but forgotten about it. How could she have? "Have you been taking care of this?" she asked, feeling guilty and annoyed with both herself and Xena all at the same time.
"Let me see."
"Gabrielle, I don't have time-"
Gabrielle tightened her grip when Xena tried to free her wrist. Xena huffed out a resigned sigh and ceased the struggle when Gabrielle shot her a Look. Gabrielle undid the bandage. "Xena."
Gabrielle hissed, stress on the final syllable causing Xena to feel thoroughly chastised and about two years old. Puzzled, Xena looked at her palm. The jagged wound was fiery red and seeping yellow. The skin surrounding it was swollen, bruised and could have been cleaner. But, how could that be? She had been taking care of it. The threat of infection, and worse; rabies, was real, she would have to be a complete fool to ignore it. And yet...
"By the gods, Xena," Gabrielle huffed, exasperated.
Xena was silent, totally absorbed, and more than a little troubled by her thoughts as Gabrielle retrieved the medicine bag from amongst her scattered scrolls. Gabrielle cleaned and re-dressed the wound, being none too gentle about it. Xena uttered a soft sound. It was not quite a word, not a cry of pain, but something in between, causing Gabrielle to halt what she was doing and look up. Xena was studying her with quiet intensity, a look in her eyes that caused a sudden, uneasy heaviness in Gabrielle's chest. The atmosphere around them grew still and dense. Xena traced the scar on the back of Gabrielle's hand. Gabrielle glanced down and drew her fingers inward, forming a tight fist around the trembling.
"Did I hurt you?" Gabrielle spoke with effort, breaking, finally, the unnerving, smothering silence surrounding them.
Xena shook her head a little. "No. No it's fine. Thanks."
"Xena, you have to be more careful with this."
"I have been careful with it!"
Gabrielle drew back from the angry frustration in Xena's voice. They stared at each other a few moments longer before Xena shook her head a little and looked away.
"I talked with Solari today, she got word that there are more troops entering Amazon lands," Xena told her. "There has been fighting among them and scattered Amazon tribes. I'm leaving tomorrow to see if I can find why Caesar, if it is Caesar, would risk war with the Amazons. Solari is also afraid that Ephiny and her small party may be in danger."
"I'll get my things together. And we'll both keep an eye on this wound, okay?" Gabrielle tied off the bandage and began to stand.
"Gabrielle," Xena held onto her hand. Gabrielle sat back down, giving her a puzzled look. "I...maybe you should...I..."
Xena took a breath and began again. "Maybe you should stay here." Xena spoke quickly and raised a hand against the protest she knew was coming. "Look, Gabrielle, I know the past few months have been...hard for you. The violence, the killing. Especially lately, I'm afraid..."
"What? You're afraid I can't handle it?" Gabrielle's eyes grew dark; a rising storm on an angry sea.
"Have I become a liability to you, Xena?!" Gabrielle stood, pulling her hand from Xena's grasp.
"I didn't say that," Xena insisted.
"You didn't have to," Gabrielle retorted hotly, turning abruptly and angrily pushing aside the hide covering the door as she walked away.
Xena was stung by the heated intensity of Gabrielle's anger. She cursed herself for handling this badly, which was usually what happened when she wasn't completely straightforward with Gabrielle.
"I'm going to spend tonight at the cave where we met Rhianna," Xena called after her. "I'll be leaving tomorrow morning, just after sunrise." It was an invitation.
"Fine," Gabrielle replied shortly, ignoring it.
Damnit, Xena thought to herself, exiting the hut and staring at Gabrielle's fast retreating back. Gabrielle, wait. The words, so simple, formed in her mind. Her heart literally ached to voice them. Yet, they died on her tongue, frozen by the touch of the cold blue stone in her hand.
Gabrielle took a few more steps before she hesitated, halted by the senselessness of her animosity. Shaking her head a little, wondering at her anger, she turned around. Xena was gone. She looked around. Her unspoken apology burned in her throat, behind her eyes. Shadows gathered beneath the trees and the wind chortled derisively, chilling her to the bone. Just the wind, Gabrielle thought to herself, rubbing her arms against the cold. It's just the wind.
And I forgot to tell you
I love you
And the night's too long
And cold here
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The moon was tarnished gold against a velvet blue sky.
Xan studied it through the open roof of the hut. Gabrielle stared at it from beneath the lean-to. Xena looked past it into the vast emptiness beyond. Three hearts, three souls, one thought; lonely.
You found hope
You found faith
Found your dream
But lost your heart
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
What remained of the dying night embraced the hooded form as it moved quietly through the diminishing darkness. Both hovered and paused, listening, just outside Xan's hut. Silence within. Dew glistened on the sleeve as a pale hand pushed aside the covering over the doorway and slipped inside. The shrouded figure, a shadow among shadows, hesitated a moment, then moved toward the bed and reached out. A tingling along the spine, a slight disturbance of air and the swift, deadly song of honed silver.
"Don't!" A single word, breathlessly spoken, just as the blade touched her throat.
"Geeze, Gabrielle!" Xan's irked voice emerged from the darkness. The blade withdrew and Gabrielle swallowed, putting a hand to her throat. The sound of striking flint, and a spark as Xan lit a torch then two more set along the wall. She turned to face Gabrielle, eyes wide in the half-light. Gabrielle touched her throat, her own eyes widening at the feel of a thin line of wetness there.
"I'm sorry," they both said at the same time.
Xan moved beside her, placed a finger beneath her chin and gently raised her head. Grimacing, markedly appalled at the sight of Gabrielle's blood, Xan removed her finger, then repeated the process, tilting Gabrielle's head back once more. "Well," Xan offered, a bit shakily, "your head didn't fall off, so I guess you're okay?"
Gabrielle produced a grin that made Xan wince at its grimness. "I'm fine, it's nothing. Really."
"Damnit, Gabrielle," Xan said roughly, angry now that her fright had begun to dissipate.
"I know," Gabrielle held up a placating hand. "I said I was sorry. I was just going to wake you. I didn't want to scare you."
"Tell that to my underwear," Xan grumped, pulling at the seat of her pants.
Gabrielle stared at her a moment, then laughed out loud. The laugh turned a bit hysterical until Xan gave her a look. Gabrielle's hand moved from her throat to her mouth.
"What's wrong?" Xan asked.
Gabrielle told her. Xan stared at her for a long moment before going off on a rant. "Well, crimminies, Gabrielle, what are you doing here? What were you thinking? You don't belong here!"
"As a matter of fact," Xan began to pace the length of the hut and back, "neither of us belong here. You belong with Xena and I..."
"Well, I'm not quite sure where I belong, but it isn't here, and you-"
"What?!" Xan yelped, startled into immobility.
"I just came to get my things. And to say good-bye, in case we don't get back this way."
"Oh." They stared at each other in the flickering torchlight. "Well, then, give me a hug. You'd better get going if you are going to catch her by first light."
Gabrielle took a step forward, placed her hand gently on Xan's face, and explored the pale gray of her eyes. She began to say something, then merely closed her eyes, leaned forward and gave Xan a soft, sweet kiss before resting her head against Xan's shoulder. Xan, somewhat dazed and inexplicably breathless from the kiss, hesitated a moment, then slid her arms around Gabrielle, hugging her tightly.
Xan closed her eyes as the strangest feeling rose inside her. Emotions; elusive or altogether absent since she had lost Rachel, surfaced with unexpected and painful intensity.
She wanted to laugh, but she could not. She held back tears, hot and stinging, afraid of where they would lead.
Xan was scared. No!
She was invincible! Yes!
Her knees went suddenly weak. Damnit!
She was hurt, and so angry she was definitely ready to kill something!
"I'll miss you, Xan," Gabrielle whispered.
Xan grew meek as a newborn lamb. God help me I... Xan wisely left the thought unspoken as well as unfinished.
There's a hero,
If you look inside your heart
You don't have to be afraid
Of what you are...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As Xan helped Gabrielle gather her things, Gabrielle watched her from the corner of her eye. She was unusually quiet, but, then, Xan hated good-byes. Gabrielle was wishing she didn't have to leave so abruptly. Maybe she should...
"Gabrielle! Xan! Are you in there?" Solari's voice startled them both.
"Yes, Solari, come in," Gabrielle answered.
Solari pushed aside the covering over the door and stepped inside. "Soldiers," she said flatly. "Not far off, heading this way."
"Maybe they-" Gabrielle began.
"They killed Sara and Kasan."
Gabrielle was sickened. Sara and Kasan; the two young Amazons posted as forward lookouts. They had been stationed less than a mile from the Amazon campsite; she had known them both.
"Damn them!" Xan said between tightly clenched teeth, hand gripping her sword tightly. "Damn them all to Hell."
"Gabrielle," Solari touched her hand. "Will you lead us?"
Gabrielle felt her stomach take a dive toward her feet. Xan looked at her oddly.
"She is an Amazon Queen," Solari explained, when Xan's puzzled look shifted to her.
Xan was speechless; pretty much a first for her.
"But, your queen-" Gabrielle began.
"This tribe has no queen, she is dead. I have been filling in, but we had planned on joining Ephiny soon."
"How many soldiers?" Gabrielle asked, ignoring Xan's look of open-mouthed astonishment.
"A hundred at least, probably more. They outnumber us greatly. We sent someone to find Ephiny and her group yesterday, but we aren't exactly sure where they are."
"Maybe this is not the time to stand and fight," Gabrielle suggested.
"We are the largest tribe in this area," Solari stated. "We are all that stands between enemy soldiers and the smaller tribes scattered throughout this valley. They have already attacked other tribes, killed two of our own, they have obviously not come in peace. If not us, then who, and when?"
Gabrielle rubbed wearily at her eyes, nodding at the wisdom of Solari's words. Taking a deep breath, she looked deeply into Solari's calm brown eyes and made her decision. "Gather the tribe quickly, we need to discuss strategy. Have someone get the children to safety. There may still be a way to avoid more bloodshed."
Solari agreed with the first, raised a dubious eyebrow at the last, but nodded curtly, bringing a fisted hand to her heart, then turned away to do what Gabrielle had asked.
"Solari," Gabrielle called after her.
"Yes?" Solari turned to face her once more.
"I need someone to go get Xena. We need her."
If Solari was surprised that Xena was not in camp, she gave no sign of it. "Do you know where she is?"
"Yes. But we need to hurry."
"I'll send someone to you, you can tell her where to find Xena." Solari began to turn away then hesitated, perhaps sensing that which she could not see. "Gabrielle..."
"It's all right. We'll be all right," Gabrielle assured her, determination masking the feeling of cold dread in her heart.
Solari bowed her head slightly and placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder before she left them. "We will. With you here, I am sure of it, my Queen."
Solari's unquestioning faith in Gabrielle's ability to lead them brought a shimmer of unshed tears to Gabrielle's eyes; borne of both pride and loathing, they burned like fire in her soul. "What?" Gabrielle asked a few moments later, turning, sensing Xan's eyes on her.
"Why don't you go?" Xan asked.
Gabrielle looked at her. "Go?" she asked, puzzled.
"After Xena. Why don't you go?"
"I'm needed here."
"I've been in more than a few battles, I could-"
"No, Xan," Her voice was firm, but deep in her heart, she longed to do just that. Xan sniffed. "What?" Gabrielle asked.
"You think you can come up with a plan to avoid more bloodshed?"
"Maybe. What would you have us do?"
"I'd have us kick some serious butt, that's what I'd have us do."
"There are times when fighting isn't the only way," Gabrielle insisted.
"And if they don't want to play nice? What then?"
"Then we go to plan B."
Gabrielle looked around, then rummaged through her belongings and came up with a pair of boots, which she handed to Xan, and a pair of low, soft soled shoes, which she kept.
"What are these?" Xan asked of the boots.
"Serious butt-kicking boots."
Xan laughed. "And those?"
"Running shoes. Mine," Gabrielle informed her, with a tiny grin.
Xan snorted. "Come on, Gabrielle, you never ran from anything in your whole life."
Gabrielle gave Xan an odd look as the grin faded. A whisper from the past and the ghostly touch of one of The Fates lured her away;
...never ran from anything in your whole life...don't you leave me...don't you leave me!
"Hello-o-o..." Xan waved a hand in front of her eyes.
Gabrielle swatted absently at Xan's hand then, "Actually, I have."
"Have what? And don't do that, it creeps me out."
"I ran from Xena once," Gabrielle stated, either ignoring, or in ignorance of, Xan's admonishment.
Xan blew a fluttery "ppppth" sound from between closed lips. "Oh, well, who hasn't? When Xena's pissed, all else pales in comparison; even the enemy's leanest and meanest." Gabrielle smiled a little. "And besides," Xan added, "you obviously stopped running."
The smile and Gabrielle both went away, once again, for the moment. Xan inclined her head, narrowed her eyes and changed the subject. "You know," Xan told her, tugging on one of Gabrielle's well-worn coat sleeves. "You don't look like an Amazon Queen." Gabrielle refocused on Xan and lifted an eyebrow. "Should I fall down before you on my knees, Queen Gabrielle?" Xan teased, with a mischievous grin.
"On what you're going to do, once you get down there."
Xan snorted laughter; Gabrielle blushed to the roots of her hair. Xan always brought out an unabashed lewdness in her, often at the worst possible times. But, for a very brief moment she was able to forget the sick feeling of despair that had settled soul deep within her. And for that she was profoundly grateful, for it would be the last for a long time to come.
To build all your roads on today
Because tomorrow's ground
Is too uncertain
And futures have a way
Of falling down in mid flight
And you learn and learn
With each goodbye
-V. A. Shoftstall-
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena watched with tired eyes as the sun rose and caught the moon napping in the western sky. The chagrined moon blushed a deep red as the sun disappeared behind a thick line of gray clouds. A hazy gray fog rolled in. Xena frowned, thinking it pretty much matched her mood. It had been one of the shortest long nights she had ever endured; half dozing, half listening, hoping for Gabrielle and troubled by elusive dreams that left only a vague uneasiness in their wake.
She saddled Argo, gathered the rest of her things, and doused the fire, swearing soundly when a belligerent spurt of flame singed a dangling edge of new bandage. Smoke drifted lazily from beneath the overhang. It extended curious fingers toward the approaching fog and was soon engulfed by its ghostly embrace. Xena, unable to see much of anything through the thickening mist, closed her eyes and listened. Muted silence. Everything colorless and drab in the oppressive haze surrounding her. Argo nudged her shoulder and Xena turned to rub her nose.
"Well, girl, looks like it's just you and me." Argo snorted derisively at the maudlin clich�. "Well, thanks a lot." Argo uttered another opinion. "I know, I know, but I think it's probably best this way, for a while anyway."
Argo disagreed, but Xena was not listening. She pulled herself into the saddle, grimacing at the cold dampness beneath her, missing Gabrielle's warmth behind her. "Come on, girl," Xena urged Argo forward.
Argo took a few steps and halted. Pulling hard at the bit, she swung her head around to look behind them. Xena looked, too, but saw nothing except gray fog and leaden shadows. She felt something, though, or thought she did.
"Gabrielle?" Nothing. She stared a few moments longer, then dismissed her feelings as wishful thinking and urged Argo on. The shadows remained unchanged; silent and unpretentious, and the pale sliver of darkness that lived and breathed among them barely disturbed the fog as it retreated.
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood-
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena halted at the edge of a steep riverbank and climbed down from Argo, leaning heavily against her reassuring presence. She felt dizzy, clammy within her skin, even though the wind was brisk against her face. Fever, she thought to herself, looking down at the grubby bandage on her hand. She flexed her fingers and a sluggish ache crawled up her arm from palm to shoulder. She was thirsty again, but had consumed so much water already today the thought of more made her ill. Turning, she leaned back against the saddle and unwrapped the bandage, scowling at an odor not unlike spoiled meat. The wound was angry and oozing, the jagged tear resembling a bloody mouth drooling pus.
"Damn," Xena whispered. No matter what she did, it seemed, the wound kept getting worse. She had treated it just a short time ago...or at least she thought she had.
Gabrielle would not be pleased. Gabrielle. The thought of her awakened a muted ache in her heart. She may have left the woman behind, but she was still a constant companion. Xena lifted her head. How long had it been since she left to search for...to find...what?
Confused, she looked around her and realized that her wanderings had brought her to the back to the spot where the rampaging river had swept Gabrielle into its surging black maw. Whether from the disorienting effects of fever, or some enigmatic internal compass, she had traveled miles, gone nowhere, and ended up back where she started. How long had she been traveling, wandering like this? The thought that time had passed without her caused a shivering deep in her soul. Closing her eyes for a moment, she drew in a long, deep breath then set about gathering wood for a small fire. She needed to treat this wound before it got any worse and while she had her wits about her. She just needed to sit down for a moment, just for a moment...
Lots of spirits all over
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena's awakening was abrupt and harshly unpleasant. She sat straight up, the echo of her cry still ringing heavily in the still air. Wiping a hand across her face, her eyes swept dazedly around as her heart thrummed an unsteady beat against her ribcage. She rubbed absently at her hand and slowly became aware that it was wrapped, now, in clean bandage. The pungent odor of salve reached her nose; herbs and something else, familiar, maddeningly illusive...What is that?
She figured she must have fallen asleep after seeing to it. She remembered nothing after building the fire, sitting down beside it, and nearly emptying her water bag against her relentless thirst. The blanket around her was soaked with sweat. Fever broke, she thought to herself. There was something odd about the light. Xena looked up to see the sun being swallowed by a churning mass of sickly, greenish-yellow clouds. The fire beside her sputtered then flared brightly, hot and dangerously high in the stiffening breeze. The trees nudged one another, whispering urgently in the murky semi-darkness, as thunder grumbled uneasily in the distance. Argo stood still as a statue, muscles tensed, dark eyes showing an alarming amount of white. Her sensitive ears, lying nearly flat to her head, slowly pivoted forward toward Xena. Xena expelled a breath as a hawk took wing from its perch in the tree above her. Its familiar screeeee raised the small hairs at the back of her neck.
Argo jerked her head back nervously. "It's all right, girl." Xena's voice was soothing. But, Argo disagreed and uttered a gruff snort, shaking her head for emphasis. Xena stood, knees a little shaky, and moved to her side. "You're right," she told the horse. "Something's wrong. We're going back to the village."
It was getting late, the day had slipped away from her, and that strong sense of wrongness added to her urgency. She arrived at the river crossing to find the bridge gone, carried away by the still raging waters. Crossing here was impossible and Xena swore soundly as she realized she would have to take the mountain trail and cross the river from above. She would lose another day, at least, depending on the weather and the condition of the trail. Frustrated, angry, afraid now for Gabrielle - though why afraid she was not exactly certain - she turned Argo around and set out for the mountain road.
On a windless day
I saw the life blood drained away
A cold wind blows
On a windless day
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle opened her eyes and stared at the moon through the hole in the roof. The moon was so bright and the sky so black, it looked like a perfect round hole in the universe; bright, shimmering light and untold wonders awaited her there. She wanted to go there, to look into that hushed radiance beyond.
Her eyes began to burn and she was achingly thirsty. She tried to swallow, but could not work up enough saliva to do so. Discomfort brought her unwillingly back to the real world. What had happened? She thought about it, trying to ignore her burning thirst and organize scattered thoughts and images. She was weak and so very, very tired. Her pain seemed to have lessened considerably, but it had been replaced by a cold, unfeeling numbness that bordered on the edge of terrifying. She felt unmoored from life, but not yet gone, and wondered if it had all been a dream, a nightmare, or something worse.
A shadow slipped across her vision and her heart stumbled over a beat. She looked up; Rhia was standing beside her, hands wrapped around a cup of water, which she lowered to Gabrielle's lips. Gabrielle drank, choked most of it back up, and drank again. Exhaustion closed her eyes, and she felt herself drifting away.
"Better than sex."
Rhia's words penetrated the fog surrounding her. Gabrielle forced her eyes open again and looked deeply into Rhia's innocent gaze. "What?" she managed to croak.
"Cold water, when you are really thirsty," Rhia explained. "Not that I would know about that, but that's what Xan says."
Gabrielle chuckled a little, felt like laughing hysterically, started to cry instead. Rhia touched her face. "Don't cry," she said gently.
Gabrielle closed her eyes again, she had little control over the tears, or much else at the moment for that matter. She opened her eyes once more. "Who...are you?" she asked the child. "Who are you really?"
"I have to leave you now, but don't be afraid," Rhia replied, ignoring the question and turning away.
"Do you know?" Gabrielle persisted. "Do you know what's coming?"
Gabrielle's voice halted her, she hesitated a moment, then turned back. Gazing into Rhia's eyes, Gabrielle watched in silent awe as the deep blue eyes transformed from child-like innocence to an intelligence that staggered the mind; knowing, sad, compassionate and older than time. As quickly as it came, it was gone, leaving Gabrielle to wonder if she saw it at all.
"You do know, don't you?"
"Sometimes," the child answered. "Sometimes I see things."
The child shook her head and looked...afraid. "It's not good to know," she said, finally, looking off into a far place only the gods called home.
Gabrielle's gaze was drawn to the silver Amazon bracelet encircling Rhia's arm. She reached out and touched it, igniting a tiny blue spark, which startled them both.
"What do you see?" Gabrielle insisted.
"Please tell me, Rhia, I need to know."
Rhia stubbornly clamped her jaw shut and tried to out-stare Gabrielle. But, Gabrielle was a master at stare-downs, having learned from the best.
"It's cold," Rhia whispered hoarsely, wrapping her arms around herself.
Gabrielle did not move; instinct kept her quiet.
"It's cold and it's a blue morning and it's snowing. Blue morning, dark sun, black day."
Gabrielle felt a chill settle over her.
"She's coming to save you...there's a woman...she won't help. Bad, she's bad."
Rhia began to tremble and Gabrielle, fearful now, of what she had initiated, reached out in an attempt to sway Rhia from her dark visions. Gabrielle grunted in surprise as her hand was swept away. Had Rhia done that? No, she...
Rhia leaned forward and grabbed Gabrielle by the shoulders. "She will save you but the other is evil...so evil. Don't...oh!" Rhia released her and brought her hands to her mouth. "No."
A single word, filled with such sadness, such despair, it shook Gabrielle to her soul.
Rhia looked into her eyes, tears streaming down her face. "Oh she's broken, she's falling help her you have to...but you mustn't. You can't, you can't, you can't."
Rhia clasped her hands together in front of her and began to rock slightly back and forth. "Hurt, hurt, hurt, no, no, don't do that, please don't do that." Gradually, she stopped rocking, winding down. Tears dried, leaving pale streaks on her face.
Gabrielle was mesmerized, frozen in awe and horror. She had unknowingly sat up and now she fell back, hurting and weary to the bone, she closed her eyes.
Rhia awoke as from a dream. She looked around her, unclasped her hands and stared at them. Her palms were bleeding. She absently wiped them on her coat as she moved to Gabrielle's side. Gabrielle's wound was seeping. Rhia frowned. "Rest now."
Gabrielle felt the touch of Rhia's lips against her brow before the beckoning darkness lured her away.
Deep into that darkness peering,
Long I stood there wondering, fearing.
-Edgar Allen Poe-
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The child entered silently, disturbing nothing, save the dust on the floor, which stirred momentarily at her passing. She stood beside Gabrielle for a long time, unmoving, barely breathing. Finally, she reached over and touched the dampness on Gabrielle's face; she was crying in her sleep.
"Oh..." Rhia whispered sadly, laying her hand against Gabrielle's face. "Gabrielle." Gabrielle moved slightly under her touch. "Gabrielle," The voice grew more urgent.
Gabrielle heard the voice, was drawn to it, but it was not the voice she sought and she began to drift into the darkness once more.
The voice was subtlety persistent, urging her up, pulling gently, but powerfully at her consciousness. She began a half-hearted struggle from the grip of the blackness surrounding her; it embraced her like a jealous lover, unwilling to lose its hold.
"Gabrielle, wake up."
Feeling somewhere between irritated and panicked, Gabrielle grabbed the voice like a lifeline and hauled herself painfully up.
The child watched her closely. "Come on!" she insisted forcefully.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and winced. Everything tormented; the muted half-light in her eyes, the air she breathed and the wound that felt gnawed by dagger teeth. She moaned, and even that hurt.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle focused on the voice and the face swam into view. "Rhianna," her voice was harsh, weak from disuse, abraded by pain. It hurt to talk, it hurt to breathe, and it hurt to be alive. She found she didn't much want to be.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and Rhia took her hand, it trembled for a moment and then went still, like a dying bird in her palm. "She's coming," Rhia promised. The eyes opened, a light flickered across shimmering blue-green; the sun kissing the sea. "You have to wait. She's coming to you."
Gabrielle swallowed, tried to speak and could not.
"Wait for her," Rhia beseeched her.
"Trying..." Gabrielle managed.
Rhia stared at her for a long moment, chewing on her lower lip, lost in thought. "I can help you," Rhia said, finally, squeezing Gabrielle's hand.
But darkness was not to be so easily thwarted.
Eerie figures caper
To some midnight music
That only they can hear...
And under the winter moon's pale light
Dawn is unable to fade the night.
-the Book of Counted Sorrows-
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Rhia turned as the wind rose and pushed against the hut. It scrabbled and scratched along the walls seeking entry. Rhia moved quickly to the doorway and looked outside. Emptiness. Puffed clouds skittered across a crisp white moon, casting dizzying shadows of alternating light and dark across the landscape. Nothing out there. She looked quickly away from the dark, knowing that what was not there may be looking back. She untied the door covering and let it drop in place. Insulted, the wind muttered and complained and then pushed tentatively at the obstacle.
"Go away," Rhia demanded. "You can't come in here."
The wind grew eerily silent, barely stirring...breathing...on the other side; waiting, biding its time. Rhia backed away from the doorway until she bumped up against the bed where Gabrielle lay. She took a deep breath and with a last careful look at the doorway, turned her attention back to Gabrielle.
The breaths Gabrielle drew were wet-sounding and labored. Rhia stared at the blanket covering her; there was a spreading red stain on its surface. Pulling the blanket away, she was dismayed to see that the wound was seeping blood, stark and shockingly red against the bandage. How could that happen? Rhia started as the wind chuckled gleefully outside then grew ominously silent once more.
Rhia looked at Gabrielle's face and was surprised to see that she was gazing at her with bright, pain-glazed eyes. "Gabrielle..."
"Can't..." Gabrielle breathed out, so softly Rhia nearly missed it.
"You must, it's important," Rhia insisted.
"Tired..." Gabrielle replied. "So...tired."
Rhia nodded understandingly, "It's the pain."
Gabrielle shook her head slightly and closed her eyes. "Not here," Rhia placed a gentle touch against the seeping wound. "Here," she finished, moving her fingertips to Gabrielle's heart. Gabrielle opened her eyes. "As long as she's there, in your heart, there will be pain. But there will be joy as well. She completes you, as you complete her. What one is lacking, the other fulfills. You depend, but are not dependent, you never have been."
Gabrielle stared at her; these were not the words, nor the eyes, of a child. Midnight blue, as deep as the velvet night, these eyes looked not at you, but through you, into forever. Gabrielle cried out slightly when Rhia placed her hand over the blood soaked bandage. Lost in Rhia's eyes, she had left the pain behind; it reasserted itself with a vengeance.
"Trust me," Rhia urged. "Put your hand here, on top of mine."
Gabrielle tried, but could not seem to get the message from her brain to her hand. Rhia waited patiently. "You have to do it yourself," the child told her. Gabrielle tried again and finally managed to move it, an agonizingly frustrating inch at a time, until it covered Rhia's. At least she thought it did, for Rhia's hand was awash with blood, which was both disturbing and somehow profane.
"I can't heal you, but I can help."
Gabrielle again experienced that strong sense of d�j� vu. Somehow, somewhere, she knew this child, had lived this moment before. She closed her eyes, trying to remember. Rhia's touch grew warm, then uncomfortably hot, and back again, as if she were not quite in complete control of what she was doing. Gabrielle looked up into her eyes; they were bright, yet full of shadows, distant, yet intimate. Gabrielle gasped; jolted by a searing pain, every muscle, every nerve, every bone sang with it.
A biting, icy wind blundered its way through the doorway. Debris scattered on the floor, a spear tumbled from the wall, a chair overturned and clattered across the floor as if it had been angrily kicked aside. Gabrielle's eyes opened wide, but remained fixed on Rhia's, whose own intense gaze never faltered.
"The way you have chosen has consequences, Gabrielle," Rhia spoke calmly, clearly, eerily impervious to the chaos surrounding them. "You will remember this, if you remember nothing else, you will remember this; you will be lead down the same path, time and one more time again, and there will be a reckoning, a price to be paid each time. You must weigh the cost carefully against your conscience and your soul. Remember! In the end, trust in your heart, for therein lies your true path."
The wind pushed at the child and tore at her hair, whipping it around her face like slithering snakes. Rhia held her ground, her breath frosting the frigid air. Gabrielle felt a tremendous energy bearing down on her, smothering and painful, she opened her mouth to scream and it was torn from her lungs, swallowed by the raging wind. An inky darkness was edging past Rhia, reaching for her; Gabrielle pushed back against the bed. Pain was a living entity, racing through her, searing its way determinedly toward its destination; her mind, her heart, her soul. She was on fire, the cool wind caressed and the darkness beckoned, promising reprieve.
"You can go there," Rhia soothed. "But you mustn't stay there, it's dangerous."
There are days when I swear I could fly like an eagle
And dark, desperate hours that nobody sees
My arms stretched triumph on top of the mountain
My head in my hands, down on my knees
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sensing danger in front of her, Xan hesitated. She squinted into the murky darkness then started as a branch snapped with a tiny crack behind her. She stood immobile, muscles taut, listening in the dark, hand touching the knife at her belt.
"Don't move, Xan," Xena warned, dropping the small stick she had just broken to alert Xan to her presence.
Xan relaxed a little, recognizing the voice, and stood very still. She felt movement close behind her and tensed as Xena laid a hand on her shoulder.
"You want to step back," Xena suggested, removing her hand from Xan's shoulder.
Xan didn't question; she took two steps back and turned to face her. She was gone; Xan could neither see nor hear her, which gave her the shivers. She heard striking flint off to her left and turned her head in that direction. When she turned it back, Xena was in front of her. She held a flickering torch in a bandaged hand, the flames caught and held in her eyes, setting them ablaze.
"What's back there?" Xan asked, glancing over her shoulder, ignoring Xena's ghostly manifestation as if she had gotten used to them. She hadn't.
"Nothing, just drops off. Long way down."
Xan nodded, but did not thank her. "I've been looking for you."
"Well, now you've found me."
"Do you want to know why?" Xan asked, feeling an inexorable anger rise within her.
Xena said nothing, waiting patiently for Xan to tell her. Xan studied her for a moment. She stood straight and tall, her face reflecting nothing. Xan felt a stirring within her, a familiar heat and wonder at Xena's incredible beauty and power. She mentally shook herself to break the spell. "Why did you leave?" Xan demanded, a hint of that anger spilling over into her voice.
Xena narrowed her eyes, trying to discern the reason for Xan's ire. She could read it plainly in the tone of her voice, the clenched fists at her sides, the rising fury in her eyes. She was about to go off and Xena wanted no part of it. "You know why I left," Xena told her. "Not that it's any of your business," she added, turning to walk away.
Xan tried to hold her temper, but was never very successful at it in the best of times. It erupted. Taking two rapid steps forward, she grabbed Xena's shoulder and swung her around. Xena's glare sent a clear warning, one that has given even the gods pause, but Xan was too far gone to notice, or care.
"What did she have to do, Xena, come begging to you on her knees? Sending you a message wasn't good enough for the mighty Xena?!"
"What are you-"
Xan hit her. Hard. Xena's head snapped sideways, blood spraying, hissing angrily as it touched the torch flame. She turned her head back slowly, eyes burning with that sinuous spark of viciousness that lay so tightly coiled within her soul. A muscle did a mad dance in her jaw as she fought to control it. Xan moved closer, eyes filled with furious tears, and swung at her again. Xena grabbed her wrist just before the blow connected, and at the exact same time, felt the point of Xan's knife against her side.
"Damn you, Xena," Xan hissed. "You left her, you left us, when we needed you most. You are so good at leaving." Xan was crying now, tears reflecting like tiny gems in the torchlight. "I swear to God, if I hadn't promised her I'd bring you back, I'd kill you where you stand!
Xena stared into Xan's eyes for a long moment, barely resisting the impulse to break Xan's wrist and toss her into the crevice behind them. Slowly, the gist of Xan's words penetrated her own anger. "I received no message," Xena stated, her tone deceptively quiet.
"What?" Xan stared fixedly at her, voice strained with startled disbelief. Xena loosed her hold on Xan's wrist. "We sent Kara, we-"
"I never saw Kara before I left," Xena interrupted. Xan shook her head a little and Xena felt the knife drop at their feet.
Xan's rage and frustration drained away, leaving her weak and shaking in its wake. "God..." Xan muttered miserably. "Oh, God."
"What's happened?" Xena gripped Xan's shoulder, part of her needing to know, part of her dreading the answer.
Xan raised her eyes again and swallowed, getting control of herself. "Gabrielle's hurt. You have to come back."
There was much left unsaid, yet that said it all, and more. Xena blinked, the stab of pain she felt at Xan's words was no less intense than if she had used the knife at her feet. "Tell me."
"We need to go. We need to go now," Xan began to move past her, but Xena held fast to her arm.
"I need to know what's happened," Xena insisted, unwilling to rush off heedlessly into the night. "We'll go at first light. The trails down this mountain are treacherous. Having one of the horses break a leg in the darkness is not going to get us there any sooner."
Xan thought about it, ran a hand through her hair and listened, finally, to the voice of reason. She sat down heavily, exhausted, while Xena laid a small fire against the cold darkness, giving Xan time to collect herself. "Gabrielle was on her way to join you when we got word that soldiers were nearby," Xan began. "Two from the tribe were dead. Solari asked Gabrielle to lead them."
A quiescent sadness stole into Xena's eyes and Xan could only wonder at the cause of such forlorn emptiness. "I still don't understand why troops are trespassing on Amazon lands," Xan continued. "Unless it is Caesar, still hunting for Rachel and Catherine or..." Xan hesitated and looked over at Xena.
"For me," Xena finished.
Xan nodded, rubbing at her eyes as she continued. "I could tell Gabrielle was reluctant, but, with Ephiny away, she felt it her duty to help them. She led with her head, but not with her heart. She's changed, she's not afraid, but there is a wariness about her, an unwillingness...she hides it well, but..." Xan looked askance at Xena.
Xena said nothing. The reasons for Gabrielle's refusal to meet violence with even more violence were too complicated to even begin to explain.
Xan hesitated, took a deep breath and continued. "I give her credit; Gabrielle prepared the tribe well for battle, in case it came to that. She's extremely good at it. It's strange, I felt...I felt such an immense pride in her, and yet..." Xan met Xena's eyes; an unsettling blend of heat and ice, which perfectly conveyed that which Xan could not put into words. Xan shifted her gaze to the fire.
"Gabrielle sent Kara to find you, to tell you what was happening. And, to tell you that she had been on her way to join you when we got word of the attack. She told Kara to stay with you, that she'd be safe with you," Xan looked up at her. "Gabrielle never doubted you, you know? When you didn't show up, it never even occurred to her that you might have simply refused to come. She was afraid something had happened to you. She trusts you, loves you so much."
Xena remained silent, waiting patiently for Xan to continue.
Xan closed her eyes and saw it, worse yet, felt it all again, that heart stopping, gut-wrenching fear and confusion in Gabrielle's eyes. And the blood. So much blood. Xan opened her eyes to quell the images and found herself looking into Xena's unwavering gaze. "I found Kara later," Xan hurried on. "She was among the wounded back at the camp. I asked her if she found you. She was half out of her mind with pain, so young, so scared..."
As I walk there
Before me a shadow
From another world
Where no other can follow.
Carry me to my own
To where I can cross over...
Close to home - I cannot say.
Close to home - feeling so far away.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Kara? Kara, can you hear me?"
Kara looked up at Xan with terrified, pain filled eyes. She looks like a child, Xan thought as she gazed around her. So many wounded, dying, in the bloody aftermath of chaos. God, they were all so young in this tribe.
"Kara, what happened? Did you find Xena?"
"I don't want to die, Xan. She said I'd be all right, she promised. "She sent me back, she said we'd be all right..." Kara closed her eyes.
"I'm so very cold, Xan."
"I'll find you another blanket."
"Don't leave me."
"I won't leave you," Xan looked around. "I'm going to get you a blanket, Kara, right over there, see?"
"Yes," Kara answered, but she was past seeing what Xan saw.
"I'll be right back, okay?"
"I'm okay, I see them now," Kara closed her eyes. She reached out then, though her hand never left her side.
Xan returned with a couple of blankets and bent over the young warrior. "Here, Kara, these will keep you warm."
But Kara no longer had need of them. Eternal warmth and comfort awaited her and when the flames devoured her earthly bonds and set her spirit free, she would find them on the other side.
All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream
-Edgar Allen Poe-
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xan wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve; Xena found an odd sort of comfort in the familiar sight. Xan looked again at Xena. "I never saw her," Xena said quietly.
"Then who was she talking about?"
"I don't know, but I have an idea."
"I'm sorry, I..."
Xena waved away her apology, seeking only one thing from Xan; "And Gabrielle?"
Xan sat up straighter and continued. "We were badly outnumbered, but you know how Amazons can fight, we were holding our own, but just barely. The weather was both a hindrance and help. The light was wrong, yellow and green, sickly. And foggy, sometimes it felt as though you were the only one out there, but you could hear the sounds of battle all around you; shouts of triumph and pain, the ringing of steel, crying. You'd be totally alone and then a shadow would suddenly emerge from the fog. You had to be careful not to lash out at your own." Xan absently touched the scar on her lip.
Xena stared at her, acutely aware that the battle Xan spoke of now and the one that had drawn them together so long ago were eerily similar. Xan had very nearly killed her back then and her slight hesitation in doing so had changed and intertwined their lives, their destinies, forever. Xena also remembered that odd colored light when she woke this morning with the sound of her own voice, calling Gabrielle's name, echoing in her ears.
Xan glanced at her, rubbed at her eyes again. "It was intense, brutal, bloody. I tried to stay near Gabrielle. She was there, but she wouldn't fight. Damnit, I was afraid for her."
Xena nodded, she knew all too well.
"The fighting went on. It got worse, much worse. Both sides were showing signs of weariness, and desperation. It was like we were possessed. Neither side would retreat; we were slaughtering each other like savages. God..." Xan ran a trembling hand through her hair. Xena reached over and laid a hand on her shoulder. Xan started a little, lost in the memory, haunted by its brutality. Taking a shaky breath, Xan looked down at her hands and plunged on.
"I lost track of Gabrielle for a while in the confusion. I felt this awful sense of panic. I looked for her, called for her, but I couldn't find her anywhere. There was fire, but it was cold, sodden and dripping. It didn't crackle, it hissed like a snake.
"The weather got worse, foggier, the air was heavy, oppressive. There was no sun, yet there were shadows, twisted and black," Xan looked up at Xena. "It was so strange, Xena, the shadows didn't fall, they...they gathered. It was frightening. It was a nightmare."
Xena shivered, suddenly and violently, overcome by that chilling, out of control sense of the past repeating itself. Images; the impenetrable smoke, the fire, the sounds of death and dying all around her as she ran, stumbled, fought like a soul possessed. Frantically searching, crying out for Gabrielle. The panic; the absolute despair that she felt at the thought of losing her, the sudden elation of finding her, finding that she had survived; then, the devastating heartache of gazing into the vast, glistening emptiness of Gabrielle's eyes. Twin oceans, where sadness sailed and another piece of her soul lay dying, drowning in the depths of her sorrow and guilt.
"Gabrielle..." A terrible grief escaped with the breath that whispered her name. It lingered for a moment and then withdrew to a dark place where light could not exist. Xan shivered in the cold. They sat in uneasy silence, alone with their thoughts and their demons.
Blood drips in the dust...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xan remembered little toward the end of the madness except the infuriating frustration of trying to get Gabrielle back to the Amazon village. She called for help, but that accomplished nothing more than attracting more of the enemy to them. She fought in a nightmarish, panicked frenzy as Gabrielle lay helpless and bleeding on the ground at her feet.
And suddenly, it was over. Xan turned in a slow circle, sword outstretched in front of her, gazing around her in stunned disbelief as the shadowy figures withdrew into the mist and silently disappeared. Falling wearily to her knees beside Gabrielle, Xan pulled off her coat and dressed the wound as best she could with pieces torn from her shirt. She slid her arms gently beneath Gabrielle and lifted her, stumbling slightly as she got shakily to her feet.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and mumbled something about ruining yet another of Xan's shirts. Xan snorted out a laugh, which quickly escalated to near hysteria in her mind; she had to bite down hard on her lip to keep it there. Xan ignored the burning pain in her tortured, screaming muscles and concentrated only on putting one foot in front of the other. When she finally reached the village, they had to forcibly remove Gabrielle from her grasp. Ironically, the dark of night brought closure to this particular piece of the nightmare, but it was far from over.
"I found her," Xan said aloud, finally, drawing Xena's attention once more. "Or rather, she found me. I don't know, don't remember much that happened after that. I remember hearing her voice, seeing her, then nothing for a while. Only Gabrielle knows..."
I do not want to be
In this desolate place
For it reeks of evil and destruction
The noble cry out for compassion
And find only indifference
Peace comes only
On the silent wings of death.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
And for Gabrielle, sleep brought no release. It provided only a darkened stage for the nightmare to repeat itself.
Gabrielle sidestepped a seemingly disembodied hand in a pool of blood and looked around for Xan in the thick, swirling mist. The air and the ground were charged with the electricity of a coming storm. The mist seemed to leach greenness from the earth; it hung heavy and cloying around her, seemingly intent on alienating her from the others.
She was so tired, and so very sick; moments before she had been struggling to avoid a soldier intent on beheading her. He was big and strong, but more determined than skillful, more Joxer than warrior, and he kept swinging wildly at her head with his sword. She kept ducking, sidestepping him as best she could, hoping to elude him in the thickening fog. It was not to be; momentarily distracted by a stinging cut to her shoulder from a clumsy, and therefore unpredictable, thrust of his sword, he finally drove her to the ground with brute strength and a glancing blow to her jaw.
She clamped her teeth together as he raised the sword above her, as inept as he was, he would not miss now. A prayer flashed through her mind that he would at least be quick about it, if she was going to die, she didn't want to lie here alone in the cold and bleed to death. The prayer went unanswered.
A look of stunned disbelief twisted his features into a parody of comic indignation as a spurt of blood doused both him and Gabrielle. He fell forward on top of her, nearly smothering her until he was pulled away by a grinning, bloodied, Amazon who held out a hand and pulled her to her feet.
"Damn them all to Tartarus," the Amazon muttered. "Your sword, my Queen." She placed cold steel into Gabrielle's hand before vanishing into the mist.
Dazed, Gabrielle never even noticed it was there. A short time later, Gabrielle literally stumbled over her in the fog. Lying grotesquely disemboweled on the cold ground, steam rose from the young Amazon's still warm body, surrounding her like a shroud. Gabrielle backed away, a small sob escaping her before she turned and threw up. Wiping her mouth on the back of her hand left a streak of dark red blood across her jaw. She stared at the sword in her hand, at the darkening blood oozing slowly down the blade, and threw it down in disgust.
She didn't know which way to turn, the fog obliterated all but dusky shadows floating eerily in the mist, even the diminishing sounds of battle seemed blunted, wrapped in layers of viscous gauze. Then she heard Xan in the distance, calling out for her. She made her way toward Xan's voice and, miraculously, came across her in the mist.
"Xan!" Gabrielle shouted.
Xan turned to her, a smile - grimace actually - of relief spreading across her blood-spattered face. Gabrielle moved swiftly toward her, casting her eyes down to the slippery, uneven ground beneath her feet. Lifting her eyes to get her bearings, her heart clutched painfully in her chest when she saw Xan fall. A soldier solidified in the grayness where Xan had stood, sword upraised for a final, devastating blow.
"No-o-o-o!" Gabrielle screamed aloud as, not again, please, please not again, echoed in her mind.
The soldier hesitated for a crucial moment before continuing his downward swing; Gabrielle closed the remaining distance between them at a dead run. She barreled into him, making bone and teeth cracking contact with his armor, his jaw and the hilt of his sword. Down he went, helmet flying off, with a startled grunt of pain and surprise, he landed hard on his back at her feet. A galaxy of stars suddenly burst to life before Gabrielle's eyes. The excruciating brightness was accompanied by an exquisite jolt of pain as her brain bounced around like a pea in a pan inside her skull.
"Shit!" bending over, closing her eyes, grabbing her head with both hands, she uttered this Joxerism for the first, and only, time with heartfelt enthusiasm. She sensed, rather than saw, darkness sweep around her like a great dark cloak. Shaking her head a little, wincing at the pain, she jumped, startled, when something bitterly cold and unforgiving gripped her shoulder; a living nightmare had breached that thin line between darkest illusion and reality.
It is a place of skulls, a deathly place
Where we confront our violence and feel,
Before that broken and self-ravaged face,
The murderers we are...
The built-in destroyer, the savage goddess,
Wakes in the dark and takes away our sleep
She moves through the blood
To poison gentleness
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Straightening slowly, so as not to completely unhinge her still reeling brain from its moorings, Gabrielle forced open her fiercely watering eyes. For a moment, she stared uncomprehendingly at the impossibly gaunt, bone white hand resting on her shoulder. Her eyes traveled slowly from that aberration to the voluminous sleeve of the black cloak from whence it came. Something cold and heavy was placed into her trembling hand. Then, the apparition dissolved into the eddying mist before her blurred and burning eyes. A scrambling at her feet brought her back; the soldier, breathing heavily, slightly stunned, but on his feet now.
He pressed one hand against his aching jaw as the other gripped his bloodied sword with grim determination. His eyes held a look of fierce resolve as he stepped toward her. Gabrielle's eyes were fixed on the blood dripping from his sword - Xandra's blood? - Gabrielle felt the anger surge, powerless to contain it. It rose within her, pushing aside reason, unleashing that furious rage against injustice which still dwelt deep within her warrior's heart. That slumbering warrior erupted now; suddenly, frighteningly vicious, and fighting for control. Instinct, along with a healthy dose of guilt, tightened her grip on the cold steel blade in her hand. The soldier's sword met her own with a sharp retort as she blocked his attack. She pushed hard against his blade and it ran the length of her own, shrieking shrilly into the muffled silence before disengaging. That well-known sound of conflict sang through her, shocking her as vividly as the answering jolt of pain, which raced up her arms and lodged itself in her already throbbing skull. The pain closed her eyes, but she welcomed it; for the absolute, stunning clarity of it somehow pierced the armor of the still enraged warrior within. The clash of the blades echoed eerily for a moment before being swallowed up by the darkness. She felt a presence, but could not feel herself.
The warrior within stepped back into the shadows, but refused to step down. This was a dream; surely, she was lost in a dream. She opened her eyes once again and found herself looking down the silver length of blade in her hand. The soldier lying beneath it was very real and stared up at her with wild eyes...when had he fallen? So, this was not a dream after all, but it most definitely was a nightmare.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear
I learn by going where I have to go
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A crimson bubble of blood emerged at the tip of Gabrielle's sword. The tenacious mist swirled around her, with ghostly hands and unsettling, sensual touches it urged her breathlessly on...kill him kill him kill him...it chortled gleefully in her ear. She was lost again, curiously displaced, here, in this moment, yet not present. She watched, fascinated, as blood pooled in the soft whiteness of his throat and poured over the side. She heard it hit the ground drip...drip...drip and she heard someone crying as she looked into his eyes. He was young, so very young. The soldier was no more, the boy had come back to her; another chance at living? Or one last time to die?
"By the gods," she whispered helplessly. "This is not happening, not again, please..."
"I...don't even...know you..." his eyes, blue as a summer sky, slowly overflowed with tears that ran down his face and mixed with the blood at his throat; a river of blood and tears.
The wind rose and swirled around them. The mist gave way at its core, ghost fingers releasing her from their otherworldly grip. The sun knifed through the fog, reflecting blindingly bright on the silver sword. She moved the sword away from his throat and dropped it, forgotten, at her side. He lifted his head. The wind tossed his hair, golden silk in the sunlight, into his eyes. Smiling sadly, he ran a hand through it, leaving a jarring, glistening streak of bright red across his forehead.
Gabrielle felt a terrifying snap in her mind. If he called out for his mother she knew she would be forever lost; eternally wandering that netherworld, that irrevocable madness, that inhabits only the darkest corridors of the mind. She never felt the pain; that would come later. She felt, instead, the cold. Or rather, the abrupt absence of warmth, harbinger of mortality, as the blade slid into her side. She took a remarkably steady step backward, then another, and felt an awful sense of loss, an emptying, as she pulled away from the blade.
The voice was incorporeal, meant nothing to her, until she felt a warm hand on her shoulder.
More insistent now, the purity of it, and the spreading warmth from the hand on her shoulder, began to penetrate her bewildered indifference.
"Xan," a spark of light, followed closely by another... "Xena." The names threaded themselves through her consciousness, weaving a luminous lifeline, pulling her dizzily from the abyss of madness. She turned slowly and lifted her eyes to the astonishing silvered beauty of Xan's searching gaze. Looking past Xan then, searching for the crystal blue solace that she felt strongly, but could not see.
"Gabrielle!" the cry echoed within the screech of a hawk circling high above.
Gabrielle focused once again on Xan. Realization and pain came in degrees; a twinge, a feeling of wrongness. Looking down, she studied her hands, one atop the other against her side. Slowly, she moved them away, they trembled uncontrollably. Warm, wet, uncomfortably viscous and unaccountably crimson; she presented them to Xan, grimacing in wonder and disgust.
"Oh, God, Gabrielle, what...." Xan's voice was hoarse with fear and dread as she took Gabrielle's hands and enfolded them gently within her own.
Gabrielle clenched her teeth tightly against a sudden and terrible thickening that rose at the back of her throat. It lodged there, waiting patiently for release. Xan asked her something she knew she should not answer, but she could not ignore the pleading look in Xan's eyes. "I..." as she unclenched her teeth to answer Xan, a viscous flow inundated her mouth; coppery, hot and vile, it turned her stomach, leaving her violently sick and appallingly hollow within. Xan stepped forward and caught her as an overwhelming fear and a terrifying loss of control crumpled her; a marionette with strings undone.
We are lost
my soul and I
and oh, my spirit
and it speaks to me
of spectral things
not yet meant for eyes to see
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xan had spoken quietly with Solari in the bleak and sun-bruised blue shadows of the hut. Ephiny had sent word that the remaining tribes in this valley were to join her in the north, thereby increasing their number and uniting their strength. The wounded that could not be moved would remain behind with a select few to care for them and, hopefully, escape notice of the tenacious enemy troops. Gabrielle's wound was serious, but, miraculously, not life threatening. The amount of blood she lost, however, was. She could not be moved.
Solari gave Xan a hug that awoke every sore muscle in her body and had them screaming for mercy.
Gabrielle opened her eyes as Solari leaned over her. "Eph...iny..." Gabrielle's eyes held fear and tears and begged for understanding.
Solari had seen that look before. It dwelt in the faces of those who had stumbled against Death's door and found Her not yet ready to receive them. And it haunted the eyes of unfortunate souls who had unintentionally crossed paths with Celesta on her troubled journey and, in doing so, caught a fleeting glimpse of not only Death, but Her subsequent destination.
Solari's heart sank like a stone; Gabrielle may not know exactly when, or how, but Solari had no doubt that she knew of at least one who would succumb to Celesta's touch. She took a deep breath and steadied her voice. "I'll find her, Gabrielle, it will be all right."
Solari laid a soothing hand against Gabrielle's face. "I understand. Don't you worry, I'll warn Ephiny to take care and I'll stay right by her side."
Gabrielle closed her eyes, spilling tears into Solari's palm. Solari stared at her palm for a moment, closed her fingers tightly against it, and then brought the fisted hand to her heart. She placed a gentle kiss against Gabrielle's brow. "Farewell, my Queen, my little friend."
"Goodbye, Solari," Gabrielle whispered.
A cold finger traced an icy path the length of Solari's spine. She turned then and left without looking back, eyes and heart overflowing with tears of her own; she knew they would never meet again in this world.
Xan had watched her go, blissfully unaware of what had passed between them. She rubbed at her eyes, eased herself down into a chair beside Gabrielle and promptly fell asleep. As for Gabrielle, of this she would remember precious little, except for a vague uneasiness in her soul; sometimes, the gods could be merciful.
A soul adrift
Lost between two worlds
Once more content to dream...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The sound of Gabrielle's voice brought Xan instantly awake. "Gabrielle," Xan's voice was soft as she took Gabrielle's hand.
Gabrielle looked up at her, momentarily confused by her surroundings and with one thought, one question on her mind. "Xan, where..."
"You're safe, Gabrielle. You're going to be fine, but you need to rest. I'll be here with you."
"Didn't...come," Gabrielle finished. Xan merely looked at her. "Xena," Gabrielle tried again.
"I know who you mean," Xan replied gruffly.
Gabrielle sensed Xan's anger and was puzzled by it. Trying to figure it out was too much for her. She pushed the covers back and tried to get up.
"Hey!" Xan yelped. "What in Tartarus...stop that!" Xan put a gentle, but firm hand on her shoulder, then lifted the blanket and checked the dressing. It was red and seeping. "Damnit, Gabrielle," Xan hissed, angry and frightened at the same time.
"You don't hafta do anything. You're hurt, don't you understand that? Do you want to bleed to death?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath, flinching at the pain, disoriented by the lightheadedness it wrought. "She would have come," Gabrielle managed. "Something...wrong. Need to find her." Xan stared at her. "Please, Xan," Gabrielle gripped her hand.
Xan took a deep breath of her own and let it out slowly. "I'll find her. I'll bring her back. I promise."
"Thank you," Gabrielle relaxed, closing her eyes.
"You owe me another new shirt. You'd better be here when I get back."
A tiny smile crossed Gabrielle's lips. Darkness folded around her, she had neither strength, nor desire, to fight it.
But some mysteries bite and bark
And come to get you in the dark.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xan looked into Xena's eyes and fought the impulse to look over her shoulder. Xena's hand touched her chakram at the same instant Xan reached for her sword. It was a second too late; darkness fell upon them as the sun began to rise.
Xan was on her feet, sword in hand, when she was hit so brutally hard from behind it felt as though her skull had split in half. Xena winced at the sound of the blow. Leaving the chakram at her side, she stood up and drew her sword in one graceful move. Xan stumbled, sword dropping from her pain-numbed fingers. A strong arm snaked across her chest, yanking her back, and she felt the sharpness of a blade against her throat. Xena took a step forward.
"Don't," warned the voice in front of her.
Shocked recognition, as much as the blade against Xan's throat, halted Xena.
"Did you miss me as much as Gabrielle did, Xena?"
A bitter wave of fear for Gabrielle swept through Xena's soul. Horror had a name, and it stood before her now.
By the dismal tarns and pools
Where dwell the Ghouls,-
By each spot the most unholy-
In each nook most melancholy-
There the traveler meets aghast
Sheeted Memories of the Past-
Shrouded forms that start and sigh
As they pass the wanderer by-
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
So wretchedly depraved was he, his darkness so tangible, that he did not so much become visible emerging from the shadows, as much as he merely obscured all that was light around him. Gabrielle went numb with shock and disbelief, brain desperate to disengage from the perfect fear that welled up into a silent scream of terror within her. She willed her eyes closed, but all control was lost to her and they remained frozen open as he moved to her side. His face appeared above her, partially hidden within the shadows of a hooded cloak, but easily recognizable. He had, after all, been a persistent and unwelcome guest to all of her worst nightmares.
"Gabrielle..." his voice was eerily seductive. "You don't seem pleased to see me, I'm hurt."
He laughed softly and the past flooded over her, overwhelming all her carefully fabricated barriers of acceptance and denial. In an instant she was back in the darkness, entombed with her anger, her despair and her loneliness. The unbearable sense of betrayal; Xena had abandoned her when she was hurt and afraid and vulnerable. And always, from just beyond the fragile protection of torchlight and reason, his laughter had taunted her, tortured her, and nearly driven her mad within its unshakable presence. "Zagnan..." a voice shrieked repeatedly, soundlessly, unbelieving and deafeningly loud in her mind. "I saw you die," she whispered, finally, finding her voice, silencing the one raging in her head.
He leaned closer to her, half his face still hidden in the shadowy folds of the hood. "Did you?" He ran a gloved finger across her jaw and she recoiled from him, pushing hard against the pillows behind her. "You have grown even more beautiful, Gabrielle. Yet harder, I can see it in your eyes, in your face; little of your innocence remains."
She said nothing, bracing herself against the hideousness of his touch.
"She took all that from you, didn't she? She took all that and left you with the most fundamental part of her; the dark side. And where is she now, Gabrielle, your precious Xena? She's abandoned you again, hasn't she?"
"Leave me alone," she turned her head away from the soulless black eye peering at her from beneath the hood.
He laughed again and her skin crawled at the sound of it. "Ah, Gabrielle, I have no intention of leaving you alone. You or Xena, not after what you did to me."
She returned her disbelieving gaze to his with a derisive little laugh. "What we did to you?"
"You unleashed the black powder on me, Gabrielle, or had you forgotten?" he bent closer to her and slowly, deliberately, pulled back the hood. One side of his face remained the same, brutally handsome, arrogantly confident. The other was a nightmarish mass of twisted, blackened tissue. A blue-white cataract floated like an opaque moon upon a viscous black pool in one unseeing eye. A small sound of disgust and dismay escaped her as she turned her head away. He grasped her jaw and roughly forced her eyes to his. She watched, with awful familiarity, as the flames of his corruptness sparked fire in the cold depths of his gaze.
"What's the matter, Gabrielle? Do you no longer find me attractive?"
Suddenly, his mouth was covering hers, teeth cracking sharply against her own as his tongue shot into her mouth. Her stomach heaved with revulsion and hot bile shot up the back of her throat. She struggled to push him away. He was laughing again, pushing his mouth tightly against hers. She gagged, choking on her loathing of him, and white-hot anger at her helplessness.
"OW! Zeus!" he yelped, pulling back from her, hand covering his mouth. He lowered his hand and stared, mesmerized, at the blood on his fingertips. "You bit me!" he declared incredulously. "You damn little Bacchae bitch," he added softly, with just a touch of awe in his voice. He stared dispassionately into her blazing blue-green eyes for a moment before he hit her.
Where do the gods go
When the waters rise
When the winds blow
When the sun dies
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"You leave her alone!" The voice from the doorway was remarkably hushed, filled as it was with such menace and furious outrage. Gabrielle's stomach clenched at the sound of it and Zagnan slowly turned to face the small child with the big crossbow clutched in her hands.
"Rhia, no..." Gabrielle's fear for the child overrode her own newly awakened horror of this old nemesis. Zagnan uttered a strangled noise deep in his throat and Gabrielle looked up at him.
"You can't be here." His voice was hoarse; momentarily losing his composure, he actually took a step back before recovering himself. He glanced over his shoulder at Gabrielle, and she saw something odd - disbelief, a trace of fear perhaps? - in his face before he threw back his head and laughed heartily at the ceiling.
"Rhia, run!" Gabrielle implored the determined little warrior, who stood like an immovable rock just inside the doorway.
"Yes," Zagnan agreed, his amusement abruptly disappearing. "Do run away, little girl, before I tear you apart and eat you for dinner."
Gabrielle watched as the girl stood firm, the only movement a small muscle twitching in the determined set of her jaw.
Zagnan and the child locked eyes as he took a menacing step toward her; she merely tightened her finger on the crossbow release.
"Rhia..." Gabrielle struggled to sit up, wincing as the movement reopened a small tear in the wound in her side. Placing her hand there, she felt wetness seeping through the dressing. Rhia took her eyes off Zagnan to glance at Gabrielle and he moved quickly toward her, silent and smooth as the snake he was. Gabrielle opened her mouth to yell a warning, but, unbelievably, it was Zagnan who yelled. He took two steps back and sat down hard. Blood flowed between his fingers as he grasped the arrow planted deeply in his shoulder. Had she not been momentarily distracted, Gabrielle had no doubt that Rhia's arrow would have pierced his black heart dead center.
Zagnan closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. Rhia notched another arrow within the crosspiece, pulled back on the bowstring and locked it in place. Keeping her eyes on Zagnan, she took a wide path around him and made her way to Gabrielle. "Watch him," Rhia instructed, as she reached the bed.
Gabrielle nodded and leaned back against the pillows.
"You're bleeding again," Rhia quietly told her.
"I know," Gabrielle replied.
"Xan said that you..." Rhia left the thought unfinished. They both knew the obvious; that Gabrielle could survive the wound, but not the blood loss, there was no cure for that.
"I'll make a poultice," Rhia said determinedly. "We'll make it stop."
Rhia winced inwardly at the sound of Gabrielle's voice; forced whispers of air, strength fleeing, like sand running through her fingers. Rhia looked down at her, Gabrielle's eyes were determinedly fixed on Zagnan, but they were beginning to lose focus.
"You...you have to get away from him."
"I'll tie him up."
"No!" Gabrielle insisted, voice gaining strength born of fear and grim determination. "No, don't go near him."
"Rhia," Gabrielle pleaded. "Please. I don't want to argue with you. Just go."
Rhia was shaking her head and Gabrielle was trying to summon the will to argue with her when she sensed movement in the shadows. Zagnan was upon them before Gabrielle had time to utter a sound of warning. Rhia, however, saw the sudden fear in Gabrielle's eyes and spun around, raising the crossbow once more. But it was too late.
Zagnan crashed into her, the crossbow flying from her grip, clattering to the floor a few feet from Gabrielle's bedside. Gabrielle pushed herself up and stared down at it. Rhia struggled with Zagnan and he cursed soundly as her flying feet and fists connected solidly with various susceptible body parts. He finally managed to land a hard punch of his own against her jaw. She turned from him, momentarily stunned, and stumbled away. He grabbed her from behind, pulling her against him, wrapping his arms tightly around her as she struggled.
Gabrielle fought with the absolute need to pick up the crossbow and the revulsion in her heart at the thought of doing so. She glanced up at Zagnan, at his hideous hands on the child, and reached for the crossbow. She fought to hold it steady. She had not held a killing weapon in her hands for so long; it felt disturbingly alien, she felt sick. Sweat poured into her eyes, blurring her vision. She swiped a shoulder across her burning eyes, focused on Zagnan and pressed a hesitant, trembling finger against the release. Zagnan swung around, putting Rhia between himself and the wavering crossbow in Gabrielle's hands.
"Shoot him!" Rhia screamed, trying to duck out of the way.
"Yes-s-s-s, Gabrielle..." Zagnan hissed, tightening his grip on Rhia. "Go ahead, shoot."
"Let her go!"
"Come, Gabrielle," he urged breathlessly. "You have what it takes; you've had the best teacher in the world, have you not?"
Her finger touched the trigger, more firmly this time. Time and motion slowed, once again taking on a dreamlike quality. Gabrielle could hear her own heartbeat, her harsh breath rasping in her lungs, her head throbbed with pain. The air grew heavy and dank; it breathed as if it were alive. Rhia stopped struggling and stood motionless, eyes boring into Gabrielle's. She blinked, lashes lowering, rising, ever so slowly, like an owl in sudden sunlight, as she inclined her head slightly toward Gabrielle.
"Come on, do it! You know you want to. It is, after all, who you are, what you have become." Zagnan's taunting voice, sounding deeply distorted, words drawn out, surreal. Moving his hands to either side of Rhia's head, he bent down, resting his head on her shoulder. "Or will you sacrifice yet another in the way of love, Gabrielle?"
Time halted. Rhianna's eyes caught hers and held; Gabrielle's heart staggered under the weight of them.
"Chose..." Rhia whispered. The word hung suspended like a swollen drop of moisture in the thick air surrounding them. It fell, then, like a petal from a flower, landing in a pool of absolute silence.
Gabrielle's hand began to tremble; she hesitated, just for a moment to steady it. And in that tiny instant of indecision, a terrible crack! shattered the silence and Gabrielle's heart simultaneously; Zagnan snapped Rhia's neck like a twig.
All of us are travelers lost,
our tickets arranged at a cost
but beyond our means.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"No-o-o-o!" Gabrielle cried, reflexively squeezing the trigger of the crossbow. She never heard its whispered flight, nor the startled grunt that followed; her eyes were fixed on the child lying crumpled on the floor. The crossbow dropped, unnoticed and forgotten now, from her hands. Gabrielle fought to get to her feet, cursing her weakness, closing her eyes against the unrelenting pain, opening them again to the insufferable sight of Zagnan at her side. "You bastard!" she seethed. "Damn you! Damn your rotten soul!"
Laughing down at her, he knelt beside her, grabbing her wrist as she swung at him. Sick at heart, mortally wounded in soul, she cursed him, the Fates, and the gods who permitted the unthinkable to be done to the undeserving by the unjust. Zagnan shoved her roughly back against the pillows.
"You're done," he sneered at her, as she glared into his eyes. "You have no one, nothing left. You followed your righteous path, and it led you to this."
She sucked in a sharp breath of both pain and shock as he pushed his hand against her side. His touch was icy cold, even through the layers of seeping bandage covering the wound. She turned her head away as he removed his hand and held it, covered now with her blood, before her eyes.
"You will die a slow and miserable death. No one is coming, Gabrielle," his voice was a merciless drone in her ears. "I took them all away from you. The foolish Amazons who stayed to keep you safe, that annoying child, all of them."
She said nothing, closing her eyes, seeking even the formidable darkness against the dread each word instilled in her heart.
"No one, Gabrielle!" he insisted, inches from her face. "Your precious Xena, Xandra, I destroyed them, do you hear me!"
She opened her eyes then and turned her head toward him as he knew she would. He waited, in gleeful anticipation, for her mind to wrap itself around his words, for comprehension to dawn in those haunted, green eyes, and for the satisfying snap of mind and spirit breaking under his onslaught. The tears were there, the light too, though it was fading, along with the stream of warm life seeping from her side. She whispered something he could not hear.
"What?" he asked, placing his ear close to her lips.
Something moves within the night
That is not good and is not right.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Not quite what you expected to hear her say, I suspect."
Zagnan started a bit as he left the hut and Hecate's amused voice and unsettling presence slipped from the darkness, materializing close by his side. He glanced around her then turned a somewhat petulant gaze to a point within the dark hood to where he thought her eyes should be.
Hecate leaned close. "Looking for something?"
"Those bloody hounds of yours," he answered, looking away, having guessed right about the location of her eyes and regretting it. "They are unpredictable and-"
"Very close by," Hecate interrupted, watching him with interest.
Zagnan followed her gaze to his bloodied shoulder, where not one, but two, arrows had lodged. "A minor annoyance," he stated irritably.
"This much lower," Hecate told him, marking a tiny space between her finger and thumb. "And you would be annoying the worms."
"Our work here is done," he said flatly, ignoring her sarcasm. "Where is Xena? I want to finish this."
"I find myself wondering," Hecate ventured, moving uncomfortably closer, "if your part in this has not so much to do with serving certain entities, as with something more personal."
"Such as revenge." Her statement was met with silence. "You do not deny it," Hecate stated.
"I do not answer to you, Hecate."
"Nor I to you," she reminded him.
"Just because you don't approve of my methods does not give you the right to question my loyalties, nor my motives. Besides, things have worked out rather nicely, you did a magnificent job of manipulating, as usual-"
"I had nothing to do with this," she declared peevishly, dark sleeve billowing as she gestured toward the hut.
"Of course you did..."
"You used me, Zagnan and I am less than pleased."
"Why so defensive? Things are working out as planned. What's wrong, Hecate, have you gone softhearted over the little bard?"
Hecate uttered a derisive snort; Zagnan had the fleeting and altogether discomfiting impression that a small puff of flame and smoke followed. "You know nothing, Zagnan, and you assume too much, one day, it will be your undoing."
"Could it be," Zagnan persisted, foolishly ignoring her warning tone, "that the Goddess of Darkness is feeling guilty at what she set in motion so long ago? Your hands are as bloody as mine, Hecate, maybe more so."
Hecate stiffened at either the accusation, or the suggestion of feeling guilt. "I tormented them. I do not physically torture them."
It was Zagnan's turn to snort. "Do not take that moral high ground with me, Hecate! You possess no more morals than a snake. You are a predator. You lie in wait until someone like me weakens your prey then you ooze from the darkness into their dreams. You prey upon their physical weakness as well as their guilt. You reveal to them the existence and undeniable truths of their worst nightmares. You leave them doubting their sanity, their innocence, their reality. You leave them screaming for the false security of the dawn, and then you rip that away from them as well."
The tirade ceased for a moment as he gathered his thoughts and studied Hecate's unmoving, shrouded form. He noticed then, that her three black hounds lay curiously unconcerned at her feet, save for the one she called Tess, who stared at him with rapt attention. Encouraged by her silence and his own foolishly imagined superiority, he continued. "But it is all just tricks and mind games with you. The weak tremble before you, but I am the one who weakens the strong and brings them down. I, Hecate, I am your worst nightmare."
Hecate turned slowly, eyes beneath the shadowed hood ablaze with soulless heat. A gaping, inhuman grin suddenly split the humanly perceived visage within; it shattered noiselessly and melted into an inky abyss of eternal darkness. Hecate's true countenance began to reveal itself, undistorted, awesome, unspeakably evil. The mere demon before her in the guise of a man fell back, appalled by her repulsiveness, nearly shrieking like a child in perfect, unequivocal fear. She stood laughing in a fiery sea of blood; a string of skulls dangled carelessly from one hand, mouths stretched wide, they shrieked soundlessly in eternal torment. The air was icy, yet wavered, impossibly, with shimmering heat as the hooded figure inched agonizingly closer to his face. The hounds, on their feet now, trembled, with either fear or excitement, in anticipation. He watched, mesmerized, as the face swirled and shifted into exquisite nightmare images, reflections of submerged and forgotten fears so terrible they were nearly incomprehensible.
She reached out, bone white finger coming to rest on his now trembling shoulder. The pale face with the deceptive smile slowly reassembled itself; an eyebrow lifted above a desolate, shark-like eye; pitiless, merciless and terrifying.
"O-o-o-o, I am very, very, good, aren't I?" Her breath was a sulfurous sigh, her voice permeated with the plaintive cries of uncountable lost souls. She removed her finger from his shoulder, leaving a small, smoking scorch mark surrounded by tiny blue crystals of frost. "Behold," she commanded with a nasty chuckle, eyes drifting downward as she slid away and merged effortlessly with the darkness. "It appears as though my worst nightmare has soiled his pants."
Zagnan stood still for a moment, trembling with both fear and anger, before deciding, as all bullies do, as to which innocent he should direct his rage. He was livid, mad with power mixed with a healthy dose of humiliation, and he wanted to kill something, needed to kill something. He glanced back over his shoulder through the darkened doorway... and smiled.
I drew my saber through her, which was a bloody knife
I threw her in the river, which was a dreadful sight
My race is run beneath the sun, what waits for me is Hell
For I have murdered that dear little girl
Whose name was Gabrielle
-Down by the Willow Garden-
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"You look so surprised, Xena, and less than pleased to see me." Zagnan tightened his grip on Xan and the knife at her throat.
"Yeah, well, I get this same look every time I see a cockroach."
Zagnan laughed. "Put down your sword, Xena."
Xena cocked her head to the side. "And why, pray tell, would I want to do that?"
"Because if you don't, I'm going to slit her throat from ear to ear." Xena shrugged. "You know I'll do it, Xena."
"So, do it," Xena told him, unconcerned.
Zagnan stared at her, a flicker of uncertainty crossing his face. Even Xan, who had been subtly easing Zagnan back toward the crevasse, shot Xena an alarmed look. "You expect me to believe you don't care about her?"
"Believe what you like, Zagnan." Xena moved closer; Zagnan retreated a step and smiled at her. The sight made Xena's skin crawl.
"You haven't changed a bit, Xena. I actually do believe you." Zagnan was mere inches from the deep drop behind him when he stopped abruptly. "Foolish girl!" he hissed in Xandra's ear. "Do you think I don't know what you are trying to do? Zagnan pressed the blade tighter against Xan's throat, drawing a thin line of blood. "So, Xena, shall I rid you of this thorn in your side?" Zagnan shifted his position, removing his back from the precipice and forcing Xan to the edge. Xan sucked in a breath as her foot slid over into nothingness.
Xena smiled slightly, saying nothing, eyes locked onto Zagnan's as she moved to stand beside them. "You're beginning to bore me, Zagnan."
Zagnan's skin prickled at the coldness of that grin, the contemptuous, dangerous gleam in her eyes, the unspoken threat in her words. He came to a sudden and unwelcome realization; a darker evil than he ever imagined lived behind those deceivingly beautiful eyes. It excited him, aroused him and seriously frightened him. He embraced the fear, forcing it outward, exalting in its deceptive power.
The sun, its face an angry red, fought for dominance over a tenacious, lingering darkness. The knife glowed crimson in Zagnan's hand. It was a wicked blade; jagged, a silver bolt of lightning. An image of the scar on Gabrielle's hand flashed through Xena's mind.
"Shall I cut her up and serve her to you, Xena, a bloody piece at a time?" he brought the tip of the knife to Xan's eye. "She really doesn't care, you realize that, of course," Zagnan's mouth was close to Xan's ear, he moved the knife away slightly. "She cares for only one. Is this not so, Xena?"
Xena remained silent, unmoved, as Zagnan watched in vain for some change in the icy blue emptiness of her gaze as she drew nearer. "She will care even less about you in a moment," Zagnan persisted, taking a step back, pulling Xan with him. "Do you want to know why?"
The light grew dim and the land gray as the sun disappeared behind a cloak of forbidding dark clouds.
"Gabrielle cared about you, Xandra." Xan grew rigid in his grip. Zagnan never took his eyes from Xena's face. "It was you she called out for, Xandra, in her helplessness, in her fear, in her pain..." Zagnan stared into Xena's eyes, transfixed by what he saw in them; the sky before a storm, seawater, deep, dark and cold, where the monsters live. "Your name, Xandra," Zagnan's voice, soft, low, hypnotic, "on her lips...wondering why you didn't come...as I cut her...just-like-Rachel."
Xan's eyes met Xena's briefly as Zagnan's words chilled her soul like a cold, gray rain then inflamed her with a hot, searing rage. "No!" Xena shouted, a silent plea, an admonition that Xan did not heed.
Xan moved her head forward, ignoring the stinging bite of the blade then thrust it violently back. Zagnan's nose shattered with a sickening crunch and a spurt of bright red blood. His wet, guttural snarl merged with Xan's cry of shock and pain as Zagnan drove the blade deep before pushing her away from him. Xena dove forward, dropping her sword, grabbing Xan's arm with both hands as she blindly stumbled over the edge into nothingness.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The momentum of Xan's free-fall pulled Xena half over the edge herself. She grabbed wildly for purchase with one hand while maintaining a death grip on Xan's wrist with the other. In a matter of moments and in quick succession, she grabbed at a rotten log which crumbled, an utterly useless handful of dried grass and finally, remarkably, a piece of knotted rope which held, pulled loose, then held again as Xan's weight pulled her completely over the side. This piece of rotting rigging was all that remained of a narrow rope bridge that had once crossed the chasm. The two successive jolts first dislocated Xena's shoulder and then yanked it back in place again with an audible pop! Xena grunted; a strangled utterance, somewhere between a laugh and a cry. They hung there, suspended over extinction, twisting slowly in a maliciously rising wind. Xena grimly clenched her teeth against the pain of tormented bone, tendon and muscle with Xan a dead and ominously still weight beneath her.
"Xan," Xena called out. Nothing. Xena tried again and again received no response. "Xandra! Damnit!"
Xan heard her name and, more importantly, recognized the voice as well as the tone. Xena. And she was pissed. Xan lifted her head a little, wondering what she had done wrong now. Her face felt warm, wet and uncomfortably sticky. She tried lifting her arm to make use of her sleeve and found she could not. She found this vaguely disturbing and extremely annoying. Xena called her name again. "What?" Xan's own voice sounded odd to her; hers, but not hers, distant and hollow.
"Xan, grab on to me!"
This made even less sense to her. She decided she must be dreaming, and if she was dreaming she needed to wake up, and to wake up she merely needed to open her eyes. She did and wished with all her heart that she hadn't. The nightmare came rushing back in glorious detail, painfully perfect, undeniably real.
Xena looked down as she felt Xan's body spasm convulsively below her. She sucked in a startled breath as Xan looked up at her through a bright red haze of agony. Xena closed her eyes for a moment then closed her mind to the forbidding implications of Xan's bloodied face by convincing herself that it probably looked a lot worse than it was. "Xan. Xan, you have to help me."
"Yes you can!"
"Uh-uh...pain. Lots and lots of it."
"I know, but I can't hold you, you have to help. Reach up and grab onto me."
Xan lowered her head. Silence. Xena felt Xan's fingers, which had instinctively gripped Xena's wrist as she fell, begin to loosen. "Xan!" Xena hissed, through tightly clenched teeth.
"Let me go."
"Not an option. Damnit, Xandra, grab on and haul your ass up here. Gabrielle will kill me if I lose you!"
Silence below, movement above her. They were running out of time.
I've reached in darkness
And come out with treasures
I've laid down with love
And woke up with lies
What's it all worth?
Only the heart can measure
It's not what's in the mirror,
But what's left inside
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xan uttered a strange sound. Disbelief and relief in equal measure registered as Xena recognized the sound; incredibly, Xan was laughing. Xena looked down as Xan looked up at her. A frozen grin spread itself across Xan's face. Oozing blood staining the perfect white of her teeth made it a particularly ghastly sight. One silvery eye shimmered like quicksilver; the other was awash in scarlet. Xena felt a moment of panic as Xan's fingers unwound from her wrist, but they quickly returned with renewed strength.
"Help me," Xan demanded, voice hoarse, but determinedly strong.
Xena grunted with the effort of pulling Xan higher, teeth clenching tighter yet against the screaming agony in her shoulder. They slipped down another foot. Xena held her breath, waiting for the gnarly rope to give way completely. But the rope was holding. It was, in fact, the copious bleeding from the reopened wound in her hand that had caused the downward slide. Xena cursed silently, then let out a small, involuntary gasp as Xan's cold, wet fingers wrapped themselves around her thigh. And in one of those odd wavers in time, when perception becomes muddled by stress and the mind reacts by heightening past images to crystal clarity, Xena experienced a vivid flashback.
Dangling in a deep well; Gabrielle's panicked, peculiarly comic, yet oddly erotic struggle to pull herself up Xena's body to safety above.
Xena was reluctant to let it go, but the image was fleeting. Dissipated by reality, it blew apart like smoke within a maelstrom of caustic curses from Xan as she groped her way upward. Xan reached up, using sheer willpower and a final boost from Xena, she pulled herself, exhausted and totally spent, over the top. Xan turned onto her back and struggled to sit up so she could help Xena. But, the pain, the nausea and the darkness were dragging her down. And, finally, her body betrayed her and her mind, following the body's sensible lead, shut down, immediately withdrawing to a safer haven.
Even heroes die...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The sun broke through again just as Xena gained topside beside Xan. Xena was not exactly clear on how she had managed to get here, but here she was. The appearance of the sun at that moment proved a unique blessing, because the shadow it exposed was the only warning Xena had.
She ducked away from much of the power behind Zagnan's kick, which was fortunate, because even what connected was enough to do considerable damage. Fortunate, too, was the fact that the near miss, coupled with the muddy ground, threw Zagnan off balance enough to land him on his ass and give her time to recover. Shaking her head to clear it, grimacing at the coppery taste in her mouth, she spit blood; and more. She had a brief moment to lament, and curse, the loss of yet another good chewing tooth. An inane, yet nonetheless disturbing, thought passed quickly in and out of her mind; if she kept losing teeth at her current rate, she was going to be totally toothless before she reached forty.
Zagnan, knife in hand, reappeared amidst Xena's prophesying just as she got to her knees. He aimed another kick at her head and she grabbed his foot. As luck, or rather the lack thereof, would have it, the combination of pushing him away, a bullying wind, the onerous mud and crumbling earth sent her, maddeningly, sliding right back over the edge. She grabbed onto Xan's coat, which ripped but halted her slide, and began to ease herself back up. Zagnan's blade touched back of her bloodied hand, which rested just above Xan's heart. Xena looked up into the twin pools of madness that were Zagnan's eyes. He presented her a nightmarish grin as he drove the knife deeper by degrees, obsidian eyes burning with triumphant insanity.
"Good-bye, Xena. Hades is expecting you both."
He half stood, out of her limited reach, to bear more pressure on the knife. In desperation, Xena grabbed the blade with her other hand. It was a futile effort, gaining her little except more pain and blood. She had little leverage and no hope against Zagnan's unworldly strength and demented determination. Xena's weight began pulling her and Xan, again, inexorably over the edge. She thought, invariably, of Gabrielle, and that thought was enough to give her one final victory over Zagnan. A warm and peaceful presence embraced her. Suffering, sadness and grief all faded as the sun breached the clouds once more, bathing them in molten gold.
Xena raised her head and calmly met his eyes, a secret smile played at her lips, stealing his thunder, leaving him not only bewildered, but feeling thoroughly cheated as well.
His madness was not of the head, but the heart
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Zagnan roared his displeasure, and in doing so, heard not a whisper of the silent, deadly menace hurtling toward him. He must have sensed it, however, because he turned at the last moment as darkness met darkness; all growl and teeth and slathering jaws. Xena's blood ran cold at the sound of ripping, tearing flesh, the gnashing of teeth against bone. Finally, wearily, almost regretfully, as Zagnan's frenzied screams shattered the fragile peace surrounding her, she pulled herself painfully up to lie beside Xan.
Eventually, Zagnan's shrieks faded, turned wet, and were replaced by a rather gruesome gurgling and a welcome quiet. Xena lay on her back beside Xan and stared up at the sun; a bulging sphere of red fire being cautiously passed from limb to limb through the towering trees. She listened to a dead silence, which somehow breathed with life. She thought about all the things she had to do. She needed to rest, though, just for a moment. Just close her eyes and her mind for a short time. Surely, she deserved a small respite from this particular nightmare. Xena moved close beside Xan, slid a gentle arm across her chest, closed her eyes, and tumbled into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Night has patterns
That can be read
Less by the living
Than by the dead
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena opened her eyes and found darkness; the sun having been harvested by a thin, bright scythe of ice that was the moon. Stars glittered like diamonds upon a velvet cape of midnight blue. Shivering cold, weary to the bone and hurting everywhere she was not numb, Xena grunted as she reluctantly pushed herself up. Xan mumbled a feeble, but heartfelt, protest as Xena's warmth withdrew. Sensing another presence, reaching in vain for a weapon that was not there, Xena turned her head slowly to the right and found herself staring into the dripping jaws of the hound. She winced, leaning away from bloody pieces of skin and other unsavory morsels adhering to its formidable teeth, to say nothing of its offensive breath.
"I never did like that man," the voice sailed in on an icy gust of wind that shook the trees and pushed a cloud across the moon, bathing the earth in velvet blue shadow.
Xena looked up, inexplicably having no problem in the near dark discerning the ever-changing countenance beneath the black cowl; the midnight desolation from which nightmares took wing. Hecate watched impassively as Xena struggled to her feet only to take a few steps toward her and fall down again. Hecate made a tsking sound between her teeth. Xena cursed soundly under her breath and fought to a sitting position only to find Hecate bending over Xan.
"Don't," Xena warned.
"Just looking," Hecate replied airily, straightening up at Xan's side.
Xena took a few deep breaths of deliciously cool air and waited until the horizon stopped shifting before attempting to move again. She traveled a slightly erratic course back to Xan's side and sat down heavily beside her.
Hecate loomed over Xena like a dark cloud. "Nasty," she observed with a prudishly droll little sniff.
"He hurt her. He cut her eye. Damn his miserable soul," Xena seethed angrily.
"I meant you." Xena looked up at her. "Your hands."
Xena looked at her hands, one of which was trailing blood and dirty bandage, the other of which merely bled from both sides. And, now that Hecate had so graciously pointed it out, hurt like Tartarus. Xena looked around for something to wrap around them and saw two pieces of black cloth dangling in front of her nose. She looked up. The cloth came from the depths of Hecate's dark sleeve. She took hold of them and for a very unsettling moment they slithered through her fingers like twin black snakes. She blinked and they changed again, floating down like fine silk. Xena said nothing, but gave Hecate a withering look. She was in no mood for mind games.
"I can cauterize that," Hecate offered, luminous white grin appearing like magick within the dark folds of the hood.
"No thanks," Xena replied, wrapping the pieces of cloth around her hands, using her teeth to pull the knots tight. The cloth was very warm and smelled of herbs and something unidentifiable, which made her shiver.
"I'm very good at it."
"No doubt," Xena mumbled, glancing upward once more. "But, I'll pass." Hecate shrugged. Xena felt dizzy. Hecate handed her a water bag, which Xena sniffed suspiciously. "It's just water," Hecate promised, sounding amused.
Xena drank thirstily, Hecate watched impassively as she drank too much, too fast. Hecate grimaced in fastidious distaste when Xena threw up. "You should know better," Hecate admonished.
"Yeah, well...." Xena answered, rinsing her mouth and spitting.
"Cyrene would be appalled."
"You don't know my mother," Xena retorted harshly, giving Hecate a mean look.
"Of course I do," Hecate stated offhandedly, unfazed by the look. "She killed your father; we are on intimate terms."
Xena huffed out a breath, well past too tired to argue the point. Besides, part of it was true.
"Why don't you rest for a bit," Hecate suggested. "I'll look after your friend."
"I think not."
"You don't trust me?"
Xena just looked at her, detecting a hint of arctic whiteness beneath the shadowy cowl, which suggested Hecate was smiling.
"I'll be good, you have my word. I need you rested and fed and attentive. I need very much to talk to you."
Hecate produced a blanket, which was unaccountably warm, and handed it to her. Another one, unnoticed until now, covered Xan. There was a pot bubbling merrily over the fire. Fire. Which Xena had also not noticed, but at least explained how she was able to see in the nearly impenetrable darkness surrounding them.
"I'm good at fire," Hecate informed her.
"Big surprise," Xena replied.
"And broth," Hecate added, handing her a steaming cup.
Xena shook her head a little at Hecate's sleight of hand and unquenchable penchant for mystical showmanship. Against her better judgment, Xena relented to the extremely vocal grumbling of her stomach and drank the broth. Xena watched Hecate closely as she quickly emptied the cup, then turned her attention to Xan's wounds, some of which, to her dismay, were even worse than she had feared. The wound at her throat, thankfully, was not deep and had stopped bleeding. There was a bone deep gash just below her eye, which was still oozing blood. But, the worst was yet to be seen. Xena took a deep breath and held it as she lifted the bloody eyelid as gently as she could. Xan moaned and Xena's heart sank as she surveyed the irreparable damage. "Gone," Xena whispered, unaware that she had spoken.
Utterly destroyed; one half of the exquisite, silvery beauty that were Xan's eyes. All that remained from the savagery of Zagnan's blade was an appalling mix of viscous fluid, blood and tissue. Xena closed her eyes denying herself, for now, the luxury of useless tears and seething rage at the unfairness of it all. Suppressing, too, thoughts of Gabrielle and what brutality Zagnan may have visited on her.
"Vile, detestable little man," Hecate hissed, startling Xena, who had forgotten she was there.
Xena looked up at her, raising a suspicious eyebrow at a small medicine bag Hecate was offering. "He was one of yours, wasn't he?" she asked, gingerly plucking the medicine pouch from the end of Hecate's sleeve.
The hood drew back. "Please. I do have certain standards."
Xena couldn't help it, she laughed. Hecate looked offended.
Xena had dressed Xan's wounds as best she could before she noticed that the medicine bag looked suspiciously like Rhianna's. Xena directed her formidable blue gaze into the depths of the hood and Hecate was caught unaware by the eyes to die for. Xena felt her mind tremble, shift and slide. Downward, with a stomach-wrenching lurch, it dropped like a stone toward an abyss of swirling, sucking darkness. All manner of horror and wretchedness reached up with grasping, skeletal hands. Countless tormented souls, alone and hopelessly lost within despicable nightmares, screamed soundlessly, endlessly, bound forever in eternal night. Xena sucked in a searing, agonizing breath, which very nearly incinerated her soul. A blinding flash of incandescent blue cauterized, cleansed and released her mind, leaving a crimson stain before her eyes and, thankfully, no memory of what she had just seen. Xena then did something she had never done before. Something aside, that is, from getting her own personal glimpse of Hell. She fainted dead away.
Hecate scowled down at her. Uncharacteristically shaken herself, and for the most part, most unappreciative of the uninvited view of Xena's dark past and its dire consequences. The hound at her feet shook herself and snorted. Hecate looked down at her; the hound met her gaze with knowing eyes. "Well, perhaps you are right, Tess. It is rather pointless to harbor feelings of petty jealousy toward her. After all, I am the Goddess of Night. She has retired."
The hound raised an expressive eyebrow. Hecate grinned and Tess blinked. Hecate's grin was unsettling, even to the beasts of the netherworld. "But, it lies within her still," Hecate informed the hound. "And that, you see, is what makes her so much fun."
I took a walk around the world
To ease my troubled mind
I left my body lying somewhere
In the sands of time
I watched the world float to the dark
Side of the moon
After all, I knew it had something to do with you...
-Five for Fighting-
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena dreamt badly during her short absence and woke herself, again, calling Gabrielle's name.
"Zagnan told her that you weren't coming - told Gabrielle that is - that he had killed both you and Xandra." Hecate began the story as if no time had passed between them.
Xena lifted her head and looked up at her. Hecate's smile was in place; a glint of white within the shadowy depths of the ever-present hood. And which, as usual, was acutely more unnerving than her scowl. "It had a rather profound effect on her," Hecate added.
Xena waited, saying nothing. She shifted her gaze to Xan; all that was visible of her beneath the blanket was a seeping bandage of red.
"Gabrielle told him that he was a rather pathetic liar," Hecate continued, drawing Xena's attention once more. "And made a quite unsavory remark as to her thoughts of his probable origins. I must say, I was rather impressed with her insight, as well as her vocabulary. "
"Well, she is a bard," A brief and hard little smile touched Xena's lips.
"She is the most amazing child," Hecate mused, mostly to herself.
"She's not a child," Xena countered tiredly, resting her head against her knees.
The hood shifted in her direction. "Ah, but she is. More than you realize, and much more than you give her credit for."
Xena lifted her head at this odd statement and gazed into the obscure shadows of the cowl.
Hecate's eye's met hers and held. "Children have such wisdom and honesty. They love and trust without question until they are taught otherwise. To retain the child within the woman is a gift, a blessing, if you will. If you lose this gift you do not mature, you merely grow old. She shares this gift with you."
Xena gave her a peculiar look then returned her attention to Xan.
"What?" Hecate asked of the look.
"I just find all this rather strange coming from the Goddess of Darkness."
"You mean something so profound?"
"That's not quite the word I was thinking of, more along the lines of..."
"Corny," Xena concluded, looking up at her.
The hood withdrew a bit then another grainy white grin materialized within the gloom therein. At least Xena assumed it was a grin, since it was accompanied by a raspy wheeze that may have passed for a chuckle from one who seldom had occasion to use it. It went on for a few moments until Hecate received another peculiar look, this time from the great hound lying at her feet. Hecate recovered herself and replaced the laugh with a frigid smile, eyes shimmering like sunlight on ice. "Why did you help us?" Xena asked.
"You mean aside from the goodness of my heart?" Xena raised an eyebrow. "You mortals never appreciate my humor."
"Yeah, well, it wasn't all that funny."
"You know, the bard said the very same thing. You two just do not appreciate...ah, well, I digress. How about a history lesson instead?"
"Seeing as how you are older than Zeus, I don't know if I have the time." And the need to get to Gabrielle was driving her somewhere very close to panic-stricken madness.
Again the slight chuckle, like rough cloth rubbing on sand. "The edited version, then, until your friend comes around. Or not," Hecate added, after glancing at the now blood soaked dressing covering Xan's face.
"She'll be all right," Xena replied, quietly hopeful.
"She'll be left half blind and with a thirst for revenge that will not be sated."
"She'll live with it."
Hecate sniffed. "I suppose you're right. If you want to just leave her here, go see about Gabrielle, I'll watch over her."
"I don't think so."
"You still do not trust me?"
"Not one bit."
Xena gave her a chilly half smile. The beast growled low in her chest; Hecate reached down and touched the hound's head. Xena's grin had much the same effect on the hound as Hecate's. Xena ignored the animal and turned her attention to Xan for a few moments, when she looked up again Hecate was sitting close beside her. A little too close. Xena stared intently into the shadowed hood. She could never focus on a "face" for Hecate, because she wore so many. It was uniquely disquieting. Xena suddenly drew back, startled, as an image of a young woman with auburn hair and jade green eyes stared back at her through a swirling mist. "Rachel..." she whispered.
For an extraordinary moment, Xena was gazing into the eyes of her daughter. A feeling of absolute loss swept over her, through her. She was, briefly, utterly vulnerable and defenseless in its wake. She blinked and the image was gone. All that remained was heaviness in her heart and weightlessness in her head. But the absolute need to reach out to her lost child remained. She stared intently into the heart of Hecate's infinite darkness, striving to reconnect with her daughter; nothing, no one, was more important to her at this particular moment. The darkness resisted her at first then it began to weaken. Xena pushed harder, it relented and just as it began to gently lull her deeper she felt a sudden, vivid jolt of fear. She struggled to free herself from Hecate's insidious hold and there followed a quietly intense battle of wills. The hound eyed them both with bright, intelligent eyes. Hecate uttered an unearthly sound that could have meant anything or nothing at all. The air between them contracted then snapped like a bowstring.
"Impressive," Hecate remarked. The word dropped like a stone into a bottomless well of silence, falling heavily into nothingness. Hecate stood, or rather, rose like a column of smoke; effortlessly graceful and without a whisper of sound.
Xena drew a deep breath and rubbed at her nose with the back of her hand. It came away with a fresh dark stain of red; her nose was bleeding.
"There has always been evil in the world," Hecate began, again, as if nothing had happened. "And where there is evil, there am I."
"It's what you do," Xena intoned flatly, pressing the back of a bandaged hand against her nose.
"Yes!" Hecate replied, delighted. "There is also good. Two sides, if you will, to the same coin. There is an extremely tenuous balance between the two. Sometimes the balance shifts. And when that happens, one side will create an adjustment, so to speak. It is a system of checks and balances, you see?" Xena said nothing, but Hecate seemed pleased by her rapt attention.
"Something, or someone," - Hecate's eyes burned meaningfully into Xena's - "comes along to balance the scales. But extraordinary things tend to happen when mortals are involved. Having free will makes them a fickle lot; they change sides, sometimes more than once. So the checks and balances themselves are forever changing, both sides are always watching, and creating new ones. It's a game, you see?"
"Maybe to you."
"Ah, yes, I have noticed that the majority of mortals are not fond of the game. In all fairness, perhaps 'game' is not truly the right word for all concerned. Perhaps 'life' would be a better choice."
Xena pondered this for a moment. "So, you helped us because you needed to balance the scales?"
"No, I helped you because Tess took it upon herself to exact revenge. She's rather impetuous, has little in the way of restraint when she's...uhm...pissed off, for lack of a better term. I can't say as I blame her in this case, he was an annoying and distasteful little man." Hecate grew silent for a moment; Xena returned her attention to Xan.
Xena lifted her head at the sound of her daughter's name on Hecate's lips. "What about her?" she asked icily.
"She was part of the balance. It seems to run in the family."
And Catherine? Xena wondered to herself.
"Yes, her, too."
Xena said nothing. She did not know if Hecate could, indeed, read her thoughts, but she had no doubt that she was attuned to her nightmares. "Where is she?" Xena asked.
"I can't say."
"Can't, or won't?"
The arctic smile again. "Very few people have that information. Tess has put a rather messy end to one." A nod toward Zagnan.
Xena stared at her for a long moment. Just as she began to break eye contact Hecate pulled her back with a single word; "Ephiny." Xena's teeth clenched, a small muscle in her jaw began to twitch.
"She knows, of course," Hecate continued. "You entrusted her with something most cherished. It is the reason you came here, is it not? To seek Ephiny and her precious knowledge?"
Xan groaned a little, her hand moving toward the dressing covering her eye. Xena grabbed her wrist. When she turned, she found Hecate sitting close beside her again. Xena shivered and right on cue the flames of the fire rose higher. Xena directed a narrow gaze into the hood.
"She's coming around," Hecate said innocently.
"Yes. I believe she is," Xena replied, pulling her blanket up around her shoulders. She was still cold, in spite of the fire.
"She will be royally pissed off as well. If you'll excuse my rather vulgar slang."
Xena agreed. Xan settled and Xena shifted her gaze toward Hecate, taking care, this time, not to sink into the enchanting mysteries of her quicksand eyes.
"The child was...special, you know that, of course," Hecate went on.
Xena felt a jolt of icy cold slither down her spine. "What do you mean was? Which child?" Xena thought of both Rhianna and her grandchild. Then again, given Hecate's age, or agelessness as it were, and her penchant for game playing, she could be speaking of almost anyone. Even Gabrielle was a child to Hecate.
"They are as one, in their way."
"I'm not in the mood for riddles, Hecate."
Hecate was silent, the hood grew dark inside, as if she had reverted to nothingness to reflect on what she was about to reveal. Xena was equally unnerved and fascinated. A face appeared, or rather, the suggestion of a face. Xena looked away, it was like trying to watch the wind; you couldn't really see it, you just saw the results of its passing.
"I will tell you what I will, you will not interrupt, you will not question, just listen. You must pay attention, for it is complicated, extremely so. I will speak in the present, though it may not be so."
If Hecate expected an argument, or confusion, on Xena's part, she did not show it, she merely began again. "She is a balance. She has remarkable powers," - a significant glance at Xena - "as all balances do. She bore watching and both sides were watching. I used Tess," the beast raised her massive head at the sound of her name. "And Tess chose her own medium. I warned Tess that she would be vulnerable if she chose an earthly form, especially one that was accessible and being used, occasionally, by the other side. But, Tess held her own quite well until that imbecile Zagnan decided to interfere. He set that disgusting, rabid hog on the child, and Tess struggled to control the medium. The need to save the child, at times, overtook Tess' more selfish desire to let her fend for herself, as is often the case where love and loyalty are involved." Hecate reached down and touched the animal. "You silly hound," she scolded with affection. "You are fortunate that they did not kill you."
Hecate stood; actually, it was more like she drifted higher; sitting and standing did not really apply to her movements. "I owed you a debt, Xena, both you and Gabrielle, for saving Tess. I always repay my debts."
Xena looked up at her. "I know, you did it for the child, Xena. But you knew, didn't you, that something was amiss with the dog." It was not a question and Hecate did not wait for an answer. "Go where she dwells, if you dare," she instructed. "You will find both reprieve and reproach. You may find more than you want to know. And, because I am also indebted to Gabrielle, I will tell you this; if she can be saved, she must be given back what she has lost. You, and you alone, can do that."
Xan moved under Xena's hand, Xena looked down at her. "If it's any consolation," Hecate's voice was growing distant, "Zagnan murdered his own soul when he killed that child."
"It's not enough," Xena replied in turn. "It's not nearly enough." Xena looked up, again desiring to know of which child Hecate spoke. But darkness had swallowed darkness; Hecate and her hound were gone.
What is vengeance, after all, if not rough justice...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xan, aided by Hecate's mysterious, pain-numbing broth, Rhianna's medicines, Xena's strong arm and her own stubbornness, got shakily to her feet. Xena knew that attempting to talk Xan into staying put would be a waste of breath, so she made no effort to try. It was all she could do to keep her from leaving until dawn. Common sense dictated they would be much better off if they waited out the short amount of time until first light, with much less risk of injury to themselves or to the horses. But the waiting was agony for them both. Neither of them slept; too many nightmares lurked in that realm of counterfeit death, waiting to invade their dreams and lay claim to their souls. One dark goddess in particular, now that she considered her debts paid, was an eminent and undeniable danger, too persistent to ignore.
Xena saddled the horses in the waning darkness as Xan doused the fire and stowed gear. Xan worked slowly and methodically, doggedly determined to distance herself from pain both physical and mental. Xena looked around to find her standing over what was left of Zagnan.
"If I was a man, I'd piss on him," Xan snarled, as Xena moved to stand beside her. Xena nodded, half expecting her to do so, regardless. Xan settled on giving his remains a vicious kick and spitting on him before turning and walking away. Xena lingered a moment, surprising herself by picking up the lightning shaped blade and driving it viciously through Zagnan's heart. Or, at least, the spot where it would have been had he possessed one. It accomplished nothing, she supposed, but it felt remarkably satisfying.
Winter here's cold,
It's chilled us to the bone
Haven't seen the sun for weeks
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The ride to the abandoned Amazon camp where they still hoped to find Gabrielle was nothing less than torture. Xan, hunched over the saddle, had to be in agony as she led the way at a reckless, breakneck pace. Xena, trusting Argo, held the mare's reins loosely in ravaged hands. She was appreciative and a little awed at Xan's grim determination and endurance. Xena forced herself to think of nothing but the treacherous, muddy trail before them. They reached the camp before sundown and took an apprehensive look inside the huts. What they found of the half dozen wounded Amazons and the two who had stayed to tend them left them shaken and fearful.
"Gabrielle's not here," Xena felt both relieved and guilty at the same time.
"My hut," Xan explained, tears forging a rose hued path through her mud-spattered face. "I took her there before I left."
Xan held onto Xena when they finally reached the hut, stopping a few feet away. Xena turned her head and looked at her. Xan looked into Xena's eyes, which were oddly vacant, yet crowded with dread.
"You go," Xan whispered.
Something moved behind Xena's eyes, something grateful and terrible at the same time. "We'll both go," Xena replied.
Feel just like I'm sinking
And I claw for solid ground
Pulled down by the undertow
Never thought I could feel so low
I feel like
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena stepped through the open doorway and felt Death in the room. It stood in dark shadows, waited in assiduous anticipation. Death had many attributes and Xena was intimately aquatinted with them all. Drawing a deep breath, she could smell it, taste it, feel it all around her. This was not the more merciful presence of Celesta; this was something monstrous and cruel. "Go away," Xena hissed.
Xan heard her and hesitated outside the door; unsure as to whom she was speaking. Xena crossed the room alone and knelt beside Gabrielle who lay on her side, near the edge of the bed. One arm was pressed to her side. The other hung over the side of the bed, fingertips occasionally relinquishing something thick, dark and wet onto a crossbow on lying the floor.
"Gabrielle," Xena's mind formed the name and whispered it to her heart, which lay like a stone beneath her ribs. They had played out this same scene too many times before;
Put your hand on her shoulder and turn her.
But it wasn't always like this,
She's so pale. So much blood. Slash on her wrist
There were times of absolute peace and contentment.
Hold your breath. Place your fingertips on her throat. Find a pulse.
And there was that absolute certainty of how good, how right they were together.
It's there. It's got to be there.
There was joy and laughter in their lives.
This was just one short chapter of heartache and pain whose page required turning.
Push down the rage. Hold back the tears.
Another cruel trick of the gods to force them apart?
It's not fair. It's not right.
Or the hand of The Fates which would not be denied?
Xena looked up as Xandra emerged from the shadows. She rested a hand on Xena's shoulder while staring down at Gabrielle, anxiously awaiting the answer to her unspoken question. Xena placed her hand over Xan's as she answered, giving it a gentle squeeze before bowing her head once more.
Xan retreated numbly into the darkness. Xena wept.
It's a strange world
It's a very strange world
That leaves me holding on to
Nothing when there's nothing
Left to loose
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xan stifled a scream brought on by the simple act of swiping her sleeve across her face. She both welcomed and cursed the resulting hot spike of pain that nearly took the top of her head off. She cursed the knife-wielding bastard who had wrought so much pain in her life, and then cursed life in general. She was exhausted, having just spent a sizable amount of time retching her guts out. And she was even more exhausted from the dry heaves that followed. This not being her usual reaction to good news - she's alive - Xan supposed it was most likely the look in Xena's eyes, and what was left unsaid, that had caused this major upheaval. Gabrielle was dying. Zagnan, may God eternally damn his miserable black soul, had literally bled the life from her. There was nothing they could do for her. Nothing but stay with her, pray for a miracle and wait for the inevitable.
Suddenly, and unknowingly mimicking Gabrielle's frustrated reaction under similar circumstances, Xan picked up a fallen branch and brutally attacked a convenient tree. She gave it several maliciously spiteful whacks before putting her back against it and sliding slowly to a sitting position beneath it. Pulling her feet up, she crossed her arms over her knees and rested her head there. She longed for sleep, which would not come, and for peace, which may never come again. She wondered how she would learn to live with this pain in her heart and this hurt in her soul, and finally, she wondered if she even wanted to.
Sunrise brought an end
To that midnight of despair
But in the light of day
Midnight came again
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It was a fluttery breath of air, soft as moth wings, in the suffocating silence of hopelessness. Xena sensed, more than heard, Gabrielle whisper her name. She lifted her head among the murmurings of a dying dream and looked into Gabrielle's eyes, eerily bright against her pale face. "Hey," Xena whispered back, conjuring up a tiny half smile, her voice so brittle it could be shattered by a thought. Gabrielle smiled at the familiar, understated greeting, which said nothing and conveyed everything; Xena's heart nearly broke at the sight of it.
"Hey...'self," Gabrielle managed. She studied Xena's face and felt an overwhelming need to touch her. She reached out, only to hesitate, confused by the trembling of her hand and the dull ache in her wrist. Xena's hand closed gently around her own. Gabrielle shut her eyes, exceedingly comforted by Xena's nearness and the touch of her lips against her palm. Gabrielle roamed through a gray dawn, seeking a balance between the cautiously obscure and the brightly terrifying. Her bandaged wrist; a mystery, the incessant pain in her side; a manageable presence, the abysmal aching of her heart...Gabrielle felt a touch of moisture on the back of her hand and opened her eyes.
"Crying..." Gabrielle's soft voice was sadly bewildered. Xena raised her head. Gabrielle, as always, was awed by the shimmering blue of her eyes; achingly, hauntingly, beautiful. "Don't cry," Gabrielle pleaded gently.
"I won't," Xena promised. "You rest, now."
They stared at one another for a moment, both filled, suddenly, with a sense of foreboding, an uncomfortable premonition of something oddly familiar, but not yet recognized. Gabrielle shivered and Xena felt the same chill, one that emanated from the breath of The Fates and a rush toward a destiny they themselves seemed unable to control.
"Cold?" Xena turned away, reaching for another blanket
"Inside," Gabrielle acknowledged, closing her eyes.
Xena's hand halted halfway to the blanket. She returned her gaze to Gabrielle, knowing that another blanket would be of little use against this absence of warmth, this deadly, pervasive chill, which furtively consumed the body and set the soul adrift.
"Gabrielle?" Gabrielle opened her eyes, gaze now resting uneasily on the disheveled, bloodstained bandages on Xena's battered hands. "They'll heal," Xena assured her.
Gabrielle thought about it, dubious, but accepting after a moment. "Xan?" Gabrielle asked, looking up.
"She's here. She's a bit rough around the edges, but she'll be okay."
Light headed now and weary beyond measure, Gabrielle closed her eyes again. Xena held Gabrielle's hands, first one, and then the other, massaging them gently against the insidious cold that crept in whenever she stopped. The trembling, once again, had ceased, but Xena was unsure if this was a good thing. Gabrielle's eyes remained closed. Xena did not leave her side nor release her hand, fearing that if she did, she would somehow sever the tenuous thread that held Gabrielle to the land of the living. She remained, silent and watchful; a resolute deterrent between Gabrielle and what waited in the shadows.
A brash wind swept suddenly through the open doorway, bumbling into a table and rattling crockery, before pressing close to Xena and running icy fingers through her hair. Xena stood and turned to face it, defiantly holding her ground, as a foul and unseen presence pushed against her. She closed her eyes, engaged in fierce battle of wills, and felt it stealthily edging around her. She heard a strangled cry behind her.
"No!" Xena screamed silently and pushed with her mind.
Something shattered, either in the room or within her mind. Xena opened her eyes. A lingering tentacle of vapor caressed her face, then withdrew with a whispering hiss, leaving a cold so piercing that it glazed every surface with shimmering blue frost.
"I couldn't...save her." The misery in Gabrielle's voice drew Xena back. She turned, startled to find Gabrielle sitting up. Xena moved quickly to her side and gathered her into a gentle embrace. Gabrielle lowered her head onto Xena's shoulder and began to cry.
"It's all right, Gabrielle."
"I couldn't...stop him...didn't help her."
"Ssh, Gabrielle, it wasn't your fault."
Gabrielle leaned back and stared at her, at the quiescent, beautiful mystery of her, and sought an explanation for the unanswerable. Xena held her gaze with difficulty. Gabrielle's tears always undid her, and as she looked deeper...
...did you know that the eyes are the windows to the soul?
she saw more,
What do you see, Xena?
so much more. Rhianna's was far from the only spirit who wandered the vast, haunted depths of Gabrielle's soul.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle wept softly. "I'm so sorry."
Xena drew her close. Gabrielle, inconsolable in her guilt, laid her head against Xena's shoulder. "It's all right," Xena said gently. "It'll be all right."
But it wasn't, nor would it be. And Death, growing more eager now, stirred restlessly in the shadows.
Contempt loves the silence,
It thrives in the dark
With fine winding tendrils
That strangle the heart
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena entered the hut and let her eyes adjust to the gloom within. Xan was sitting beside Gabrielle, head bowed, holding Gabrielle's hand in both of her own. Xena moved to stand beside them and Xan swiped her sleeve across her face before she looked up at her. One silvery eye gleamed oddly in the dim light; the dressing over the other was saturated with scarlet, as if she had been weeping tears of blood. Xena's heart fisted tightly in her chest.
"We have to do something," Xan insisted. Xena blinked and looked past Xan to Gabrielle. Xan stood up. "This is your fault. Your fault!" Xan accused, startling Xena with her sudden hostility.
"You should have been there." Xan placed a hand on Xena's shoulder and pushed her back a step. "You should have done something!"
Xena reined in her temper and moved to step past her.
Xan grabbed her shoulder. "Stay away from her."
"Get your hand off me!"
Xan pushed her away with incredible force. Xena hit the wall so hard that it drove the wind from her and darkened the world around her.
"You're to blame, Xena," Xan hissed as the darkness took her. "You hurt her again, just like before. Damn you, you always hurt her!"
Once, in the care of morning
In the air was all belonging.
Once, when that day was dawning.
I was with you.
How far we are from morning.
How far we are...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Xena. Xena, damnit, you're hurting me!"
The irritated voice slipped through the darkness and into her consciousness. Xena felt Xan's hand in her own and used it to pull herself up. "What..."
"You were having a nightmare or something. Damn," Xan shook her hand out and flexed her fingers, testing for damage.
"Sorry." Xena looked over at Gabrielle.
"She's worse," Xan informed her, following her look. "I tried to wake her a while ago to get her to take some water, some broth, something, anything." Xena ran a hand through her hair, saying nothing. "She's dy-"
Xena shot Xan a look that stopped her cold. Xena got up, wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, and sat down on the bed beside Gabrielle.
"We have to do something," Xan insisted.
Xena shivered, feeling slightly ill, as the sudden, sour taste of her dream resurfaced like spoiled wine.
"I've heard stories of a healer, Ursula, I think." Xan went on, "In the land of the Far North. We could..."
"Xan," Xena gently interrupted. "Her name is Ursa and even if we could find her, Gabrielle could never survive the trip."
"She's not going to survive this!" Xan said hotly, then glanced at Gabrielle and lowered her voice. "Look at her, Xena, she's..." Xan hesitated, unwilling, or unable, to say the word. "We can't just do nothing and let her slip away from us. We have to do something."
Xena looked down at Gabrielle for a moment then closed her eyes. The image remained; Gabrielle, still and pale, falsely secure in the dark intimacy of deep, dreamless slumber, that sinister sister of Death. Opening her eyes, Xena lifted the blankets and placed her fingers lightly on the dressing covering Gabrielle's wound, they came away moist. Inexplicably, the wound was still seeping, slowly, inexorably, oozing both blood and life. "At dawn," Xena said, taking a deep breath, releasing it slowly. "You'll go ahead to make arrangements. I'll need a sled, supplies, and an exceptional team of dogs. It's a long way."
"Just tell me where to go, what you need," Xan got to her feet, "I'll leave now. I'll have everything ready when you get there."
Xena nodded, knowing there was no way she could convince Xan to wait until daybreak. Xan turned and leaned over Gabrielle, kissing her gently on the forehead and whispering something close to her ear.
"Xan." Xan straightened, turned to look into Xena's eyes. "I'll have to take her there alone." Xena held up a hand as Xan opened her mouth to protest. "I can travel faster by myself, plus, Ursu is very untrusting, there is a good chance she will never show herself if there is more than one of us and if she doesn't, I'll never find her."
Xan huffed out a sigh. "All right."
Relieved that she would not have to argue this, Xena let out a long breath.
"Will you make it?" Xan asked the one question that, in itself, created a dozen more. So Xena said nothing. Xan searched her face, looking for an answer, finding nothing more than a weary sadness mixed with a small measure of hope. Xan took a half step forward and wrapped her arms around Xena. "Please make it," Xan implored, releasing her, and then she was gone.
Cold as the northern winds
In December mornings,
Cold is the cry that rings
From this far distant shore.
Winter has come too late
Too close beside me.
How can I chase away
All these fears deep inside?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The wind howled gleefully as it battered and tore at her with icy, brutal fingers. It seemed to come from every direction at once, thwarting her every effort to avoid its merciless onslaught. Her eyes watered furiously, freezing solid on her eyelashes and face. Her rapid-fire breathing frosted the air in front of her as she struggled with the storm, the dogs, and the sled as well. Her chest ached, each labored breath of frigid air she sucked in slashed at her lungs like a blade.
Xena squeezed her eyes shut against the punishing force of the wind and at that moment the sled hit an ice ridge and pitched sideways in her grasp. Struggling to keep it upright, she yelled at the dogs, trying to halt their frenzied pace.
"Yanook!" she shouted, but her words were thrown back at her by the howling wind.
The lead dog sensed something, however, and came to an abrupt halt. The rest of the dogs piled up behind her, which would have been humorous had the situation not been so desperate. The sled over-turned, burying itself in a huge drift of snow. The wooden handle caught Xena on the jaw, knocking her backward onto the snow and ice.
"Damnit!" she cursed, sitting up, rubbing at her jaw and spitting blood; she had bitten her tongue.
The lead dog made her way around to the sled and began digging furiously in the snow.
"Gabrielle..." Xena whispered. Standing up, gathering her senses, she shook her head. A tiny, scarlet spray of blood from her mouth stained the immaculate white snow in front of her. She stared at it, mesmerized...
Falling snow. Hammer striking. Gabrielle. Fire. Alti.
"That's my gift to you! That's your future! She's responsible for your death!"
She jumped, Yanook's excited barking jolting her back to the present. Grabbing onto the sled, she managed to haul it backward out of the drift and turn it upright once more. The dog went immediately to the covered cargo strapped tightly to the sled and began nuzzling the blankets and furs.
"Good girl, Yanook, good dog," Xena said, close to the dog's ear, pushing her back a little so she could undo one of the straps. The bulky gloves she wore hindered her progress so she yanked one off with her teeth. Her fingers grew numb immediately. Damn, it's cold! she thought to herself. It was, in fact, more than merely cold. It was a mind-numbing, breath-taking, insidious, steal-your-soul-while-you sleep, never-ending nightmare. She cursed the wind soundly and it shrieked delightedly back at her. After blowing warm air on her fingers several times, she finally managed to get the strap undone and the blankets pulled aside.
"Gabrielle," she whispered again.
The wind died abruptly and Xena looked up, as did a dozen sled dogs. The silence, after days of constant, screaming wind, was deafening. A few of the dogs whined uneasily; Yanook growled deep in her throat. Xena stood, pushing back the hood on her coat, and scanned the horizon. Turning in a slow, deliberate circle, she saw nothing, but she sensed something. A penetrating chill invaded her that had nothing at all to do with the weather. After a few moments, the feeling faded and the dogs lay their heads back down, noses buried in their tails for warmth. Xena took a last look around and bent back down to the sled. Yanook continued to stare off into the distance as the sun began to settle toward the horizon, scattering clouds and shadows in its wake.
Walking from the shadows
A fear of sadness grows
Your heart is in your hands
Your knowing looks
Our time is gone
My time is gone
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena pushed the hood of Gabrielle's coat aside. Gabrielle's face was ashen, her lips tinged with blue. Xena pulled her other glove off, then Gabrielle's, and began rubbing Gabrielle's icy hands briskly between her own. She looked around for Yanook and found her still staring off into the distance, ears and hackles standing straight up.
"Yanook. Here!" Xena called. The dog returned immediately to her side. Xena patted the blankets and Yanook jumped onto the sled, turned three times in a tight little circle and lay down, covering Gabrielle's legs and feet with her body. Xena undid Gabrielle's coat and cursed softly at the sight of a fresh stain of bright red blood, made worse, no doubt, by the fall. How can the damn thing bleed so much? How much blood could one person lose and still be breathing? She pressed another blanket tightly and none too gently against it then pulled Gabrielle's coat shut and covered her with blankets. Xena shook her head, shaken by her frustrated anger.
Damn, she was exhausted, not thinking straight at all; now she was angry with Gabrielle for not bleeding to death. She closed her eyes, clenching her teeth together to thwart a threatening surge of hysterical laughter. The dog gazed curiously at her.
Had the wind not stopped its incessant howling, she would never have heard Gabrielle's voice. Xena lifted her head and laid a hand against Gabrielle's face.
"You...hurt..." Gabrielle murmured, lifting a hand toward Xena's bloodstained lips.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you," Xena apologized distractedly, looking away as Yanook lifted her nose toward the outline of a struggling moon and released a spine tingling howl.
Gabrielle winced at both the howl and Xena's misunderstanding.
Xena followed the dog's gaze to the faint slice of moon, which was blood red at the tip, as if it had cut itself on its own sharp edge. The wind stirred, wailed a desolate reply, and set off a chorus of howling from the other dogs. Emboldened, regaining strength and attitude, the wind sent snow hissing across the icy landscape, leaving serpentine paths across a frozen, blue-white wasteland. Xena threw an apprehensive look around them as she stood. "We have to get moving before we lose the light."
Xena looked down at her. "You're going to be all right, Gabrielle, Ursu will help you."
Gabrielle shook her head again. "No...no she...can't..."
Xena bent over her once more. "Yes, she can, Gabrielle, I told you about her, remember?"
"No..." Gabrielle tried again.
"Trust me, Gabrielle, please."
Gabrielle released a frustrated sigh and closed her eyes. Xena stared at her for a moment before standing up and turning her attention to the dogs. Gabrielle's eyes opened as what was left of the sun ducked behind a veil of cloud before relinquishing the day to the rising moon. "Xena." Yanook looked curiously over Xena's shoulder at Gabrielle while Xena adjusted the husky's harness. "Only you, Xena, Ursu mustn't... touch me...."
The words and the warning were there, finally, crystal clear and concise. But, the spiteful wind chose that moment to bear down upon them and it spirited them away to be forever lost in the frozen, brutal nothingness surrounding them. Even here, it seemed, the gods conspired against them.
Xena pushed on, following countless paths of night as they wound away from twilight. And when the moon had come and gone and twilight came again, Ursa found them; a tiny grain of color in an immense field of white.
So afraid to love you,
But more afraid to lose
Clinging to a past
That didn't let me choose.
Once there was a darkness,
Deep and endless night
You gave me everything you had,
Oh you gave me light
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena closed the door behind her, shutting out the softly falling snow and the haunting blue cold. Gabrielle lay silent and unmoving as Ursu laid her hands upon the ragged tear in her side. Xena sat down, closed her eyes, cleared her mind, and waited. Time passed as time does; unstoppable, uncaring and unwilling to vary its immutable flow. When the darkness in front of her grew a shade deeper, Xena opened her eyes and found herself staring at Ursu's folded hands. They opened slowly, apologetically, before her. The blood looked obscene and grossly inappropriate on the delicate fingers. Xena watched, spellbound, as a single crimson drop detached itself and fell languidly to the floor where it burst and scattered, shimmering like tiny rubies in the candlelight.
"No..." Xena whispered, looking past her toward the bed.
"I couldn't help her."
Ursu's words resounded painfully within the sudden hollowness in Xena's soul. Xena got to her feet and took a stumbling step toward the shrouded form on the bed, her mind denying what her heart already knew to be true. She turned away abruptly and moved toward the door, if she didn't look, it wouldn't be real. It couldn't be real. The heavy door blew inward as she neared it. Xena raised a hand in front of her face, half blinded by the glare and close proximity of the burning sun.
"Only you, Xena." Hecate's mocking voice held a note of reproach as she stood before her; a dark specter against a vast sea of white. Hecate's eyes burned beneath the black cowl as she slid, wraith-like, past Xena, her black robes steaming from the unaccustomed encounter with Helios. Hecate moved directly to Gabrielle's side, voluminous sleeves billowing as she extended bone white hands. "Come, child." Her voice was chillingly beautiful, its beguiling innocence obscuring the mournful admonition of a thousand lost souls.
"No!" Xena took two steps forward before she was halted by nothing more than the slow, deliberate turn of Hecate's head.
"No? Have you forgotten that her soul belongs to me, Xena? Did you think I would not hold you accountable? Brutus still lives, does he not? You both bargained her soul, tempting the Fates, always just one short breath from the inevitable, and you lost."
"This was your plan from the start," Xena hissed angrily, moving a step closer. "You played us. You've been playing us all along."
The Goddess of Night was seldom concerned with the paltry wrath of humankind; but here, by all the gods, here lurked a monster. It rose from the depths of Xena's darkness and stared with staggering evil from piercing blue eyes. Hecate felt a delicious thrill of fear rush through her and she smiled a welcome to its source. The beast slept, kept at bay by the light, but extinguish the light ...
"...And the beast arises," Hecate proclaimed softly.
Time gave both darkness and dreams to you.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena struggled to rise through a suffocating darkness. She was awake, but she wasn't, and she couldn't quite get there. Her scream of frustration emerged as a pathetic whimper. A blast of icy wetness finally jolted her, none too gently, back into reality. Xan took a hasty step back, prudently dropping the now empty ladle behind her. Xena, sputtering and cursing, sat straight up, impaling her with penetrating blue eyes.
"Jeez, Xena," Xan backed off another step.
Xena shook her head; flinging water and shaking cobwebs from her brain. "Gabrielle."
Xan's heart took a nasty fall as she shot a terrified look over her shoulder to where Gabrielle lay. Xena brushed past her and knelt beside the bed. Xan willed herself to move, but her brain couldn't seem to connect with her feet.
"I...the horse...ready to go..." Xan mumbled, her brain having no better luck with her mouth than with her feet.
"No," Xena said.
Xan's heart, which had begun a tentative rise, plummeted anew beneath the word. "Is she..."
"She must be given back what she has lost..." Xena looked up at Xan.
Xena's cryptic message was lost on Xan, and Xan's reply, so thoroughly reminiscent of Gabrielle, caused Xena to lose her train of thought for a moment. She blinked owlishly at Xan, swallowed painfully past a tightening in her throat and wearily rubbed at her eyes before looking up at Xan once more. "What is the one thing Gabrielle has lost," Xena asked her, "that could save her now?"
Xan thought about it, staring hard at Gabrielle. She studied her face, wincing slightly at the harshness of the dusky bruising against its paleness. She observed the sporadic and ever diminishing rise and fall of her chest beneath the blanket. Her attention was drawn from the blood stained bandage covering her wrist, to the soft glow of her hair, burnished gold in the candlelight. And back again.
"Blood," Xan whispered, looking into Xena's eyes.
"Yes," Xena agreed with subdued passion.
"Yes what?" Xan asked, lost again.
"That's what will save her."
Xan touched the bandage over her eye and felt the beginnings of a colossal headache, or rather, the reawakening of the horrific agony fitfully drowsing beneath her fingertips. She willed it aside for the moment and refocused on Xena. "And where in the...how will she-"
"We'll give her mine."
"Give her your what?"
"My blood. Well, not all of it, but..." Xena broke off, lost in thought.
Xan stared at her as if she had suddenly sprouted horns. "Are you crazy? How in Tartarus do you propose to do that!?" Xena stared at the floor. "Xena?" Xan took a step toward her, flinching when Xena lifted her head and grasped her arm.
"Are there still livestock in camp?"
"Livestock," Xena repeated, shaking Xan's arm for emphasis. "You know, a pig, a goat a..."
"I bloody well know what livestock is... are...what-the-Hades-ever!" Xan retorted testily, yanking her arm from Xena's grip.
"I need you to get me a bladder, Xan, and a jug with a cork. And sterilize them, boiling water."
"Pig, goat, not a cow...too big."
"And I need some hollow tubes, like a reed, only stronger, smaller..." Xena ran a hand through her hair and paced for a moment before coming to an abrupt halt before Xan who was, remarkably, beginning to put it all together. "Help me here, Xan, a small tube..."
Xan looked around the room, gaze finally resting on Gabrielle's scrolls. "A quill."
"Yes! Perfect!" Xena presented her a manic grin and eyes that would have sent a lesser woman fleeing.
"Go, Xandra, and hurry, there's not much time."
I can save you
If you want to
I can take you
Away from here
So lonely inside
So busy outside
All you wanted
Was someone to care
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xan stared uneasily at the arrangement of normally mundane objects that had somehow taken on sufficiently sinister qualities to scare her spitless. She winced as blood welled from the vertical incision that Xena had sliced just above her wrist.
"Can you do this, Xan?" Xena asked her, settling herself on a pile of bedding beside Gabrielle.
"Uh-huh," Xan answered. Xena had, after all, already completed the worst part; cutting herself and re-opening the wound in Gabrielle's wrist.
Xena reached up and gave Xan's arm a gentle squeeze and an amazingly reassuring smile.
"How do you know this is going to work?" Xan wondered, in spite of the smile.
Xena raised an eyebrow. "I saw it in a vision."
"God help us," Xan said after a moment, realizing she was serious.
A corner of Xena's mouth lifted. Some day, perhaps, she would ask Xan about this righteous and powerful One God. But not today.
"Maybe I should give some, too," Xan offered. "Blood, I mean."
"No, it has to be mine."
"Well, how will I know when to stop, Xena? How much is enough?"
"Just give it your best guess," Xena replied, as she probed with the sharpened quill for what she hoped was a suitable vein.
Xan winced, at both the reply and the probing, then swore softly and rubbed at her bandaged eye.
"Don't do that, you'll just make it worse," Xena admonished. "Squeeze that," she added, inclining her head toward the bladder in Xan's hand. Xan snorted. Xena allowed herself a brief, if grim, smile at both the "Yeah, right" snort and success at her own task as blood darkened and rose through the hollow spine. "Here we go."
Xena looked up and Xan's breath caught, as it often did, at the stunning blue of her eyes, the incredible strength and character of her face. God, she's beautiful, Xan thought to herself, perhaps for the thousandth time. Oddly, though, as the thought quickly came and went, and as out of place as it seemed right now, Xan was aware that it was distinctly different this time. It was as if she were seeing Xena, truly seeing her, for the very first time.
"Xandra," Xena said softly. Xan's wandering mind was re-corralled in the land of the now and the gate snapped shut with a preciseness that made her jump. "Here we go," Xan echoed, wiping her sleeve across her face.
How, then, do we set her free
Or come to terms with this fierce power
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena was drifting, floating on a river of light. There was darkness below, and it beckoned with imperfect promises of redemption and the paradox of peaceful oblivion. She was, at first, comfortably adrift and content within this warm, golden-hued stream of light. Almost imperceptibly the air grew colder, chilling the light to the pale blueness of winter twilight. There followed a faint rushing sound, which steadily increased in volume. She was suddenly, frighteningly, out of control and swept from the light into an angry river of red. The enticing darkness offered sanctuary; a shadowy harbor in a scarlet sea. A cold, sinewy tentacle of deceit rose from murky emptiness, snaked itself around her wrist and then dissolved into illusion. It was a feathery caress, a lover's touch, filled with such promise and desire that she offered no resistance as it slowly sucked the life from her. Xena closed her eyes and felt herself falling. It was an effortless fall to emptiness and she felt no fear. A sharp, painful, and truly irritating tug at her wrist opened her eyes. She was now well beyond wonder, mostly past caring, and seeing Gabrielle surprised her very little. Something about Gabrielle's smile, however, was a bit off. And something about the sharpness of Gabrielle's teeth as she bit into her wrist again began to sound little warning bells of alarm in Xena's mind.
Ow, Xena thought. Gabrielle paid no heed. Enough! Xena thought, attempting now, to reclaim her wrist.
Gabrielle raised her eyes, oddly colored in the ambiguous light, but did not relinquish her hold on Xena's wrist. Xena stared at her a moment, giving brief contemplation to simply just closing her eyes once more, before she angrily yanked her arm from Gabrielle's grasp.
Damnit Gabrielle, I said...
When dreaming I'm guided through another world
Time and time again...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Zeus in a manure moat!!!" Xan yelped. The harsh sound of Xena's voice scared Xan so badly she nearly dropped every single piece of the crudely improvised medical paraphernalia she was holding. Recovering, she looked over at Xena, who was now paler than the proverbial ghost. Carefully setting everything down, Xan hastily removed the quill from Xena's arm. Swearing again, she stuck her thumb over the bloody hole it left and held her breath while feeling for a pulse at Xena's throat.
It was there; weak, but steady. She released the breath in a relieved huff and examined her further. The puncture in Xena's arm still oozed blood and Xan looked around for more bandage. There was none to be found. Muttering a string of curses, she tore up another one of her diminishing number of shirts. Xena's skin was cold and clammy, her lips slightly tinged with blue. Xan quickly covered her with two more blankets and built up the fire. She then leaned over, lifted an eyelid and was startled by an ebony pool of emptiness surrounded by a tiny ring of piercing blue. Xan took a hasty step back, absently wiping her hand on her pants. Not knowing exactly what that meant, but knowing that it was totally unnerving, she turned her attention to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle's pulse was a bit erratic, but definitely stronger. Her face was flushed...small wonder...her skin hot and damp to the touch. Xan placed a cool, wet cloth on her forehead and Gabrielle opened her eyes. Xan nearly wept with relief and pure joy. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle stared uncomprehendingly at the one-eyed, heavily bandaged apparition in front of her, then turned her head to the side and threw up. "Ah, crimminycrapsake," Xan muttered, gingerly picking up the cloth from the floor. Xan held her as Gabrielle continued to throw up and dry heave a noxious mix of bile, blood and nothing at all until Xan was thoroughly convinced she would start yakking up vital organs and die in her arms. Then, wonder of wonders, it stopped. Gabrielle leaned back, exhausted and shaking, and asked for water. Xan dribbled a little on her parched lips. Gabrielle swallowed, coughed, gagged and clamped her teeth together as Xan grabbed the cloth and waited for the inevitable. Thankfully, it didn't happen.
Gabrielle gave Xan another long, curious look, closed her eyes and fell asleep. Thoroughly relieved, Xan gently covered her with a blanket. She then picked up a jug from the floor, popped the cork, took a long, hard pull and braced herself as the contents seared her insides like fire. Her stomach made a half-hearted attempt at protest then blissfully surrendered itself to the comforting warmth of liquid white lightning. Xan checked on Xena, who had regained some color and seemed, as far as she could tell, to be holding her own. Xan tossed some blankets and pelts on the floor between them, gave them both another look and sank wearily down. She fell instantly, deeply, gratefully asleep.
Xena opened her eyes and watched impassively as dust motes pranced merrily through a bright tunnel of sunlight streaming in from the roof above. She thought it extremely odd that there would be a window in the roof, but there clearly was. She idly considered this until a dark form inserted itself between her and the roof.
It took a few moments before she remembered who Xena was...
Xena is me.
and where she was
and what had happened
Way too much.
...and that the waving hand in front of her eyes was becoming increasingly annoying. "Stop that, Xan," Xena winced at the dryness of her mouth and a voice that cracked and crumbled like ancient parchment. Xan gave her a dazzling smile that actually hurt her eyes. She disappeared for a moment then returned with a cup of cool water that tasted like nectar from the gods. Xena drank deeply, coughed a little and Xan backed away, cup in hand, before Xena was even near to being through with it. Xena tried to sit up, found it not worth the effort and raised a hand toward the cup instead.
"You're not gonna york on me, are ya?"
Xena gave her a look, absently mulling over the marvel of Xan's innovative vocabulary as Xan handed over the cup, still keeping her distance.
"Gabrielle?" Xena managed, after she moistened her throat enough to speak.
"She's okay, I think," Xan answered. "She's flushed and warm, like she has a fever and she was God-awful sick for a while, but she seems better now. You, on the other hand... you two look like the before and after of a vampire feeding frenzy.
Xena lifted an eyebrow. "Vampire?" Grimacing at a voice still creaky and hoarse as an ancient crone, she took another small sip from the cup.
"Vampire; walking dead. Soulless, bloodsucking demon, travels the night looking for human blood to sustain it?" The eyebrow lifted higher. "I read. A lot. All kinds of stuff," Xan explained.
"Mmm," Xena replied, experiencing a quick here-and-gone image of a recent dream.
"Vampires are close cousins of Bacchae," Xan continued. "You familiar with Bacchae?"
"Intimately." Xena nodded, giving Xan a tiny, cryptic grin and pushed the blankets aside.
"Uhm...I don't think you should get up quite yet."
Xena sat up and the room shifted sideways and circled slowly around her. She sat back, much as she wanted to be at Gabrielle's side, just to be near, to touch her for a moment, she had to agree with Xan. She settled instead for just watching her, until her eyes grew heavy and the room grew still and dark.
"She's going to be all right," Xan assured her gently, taking the cup from Xena's hand and replacing the blankets. "We all are."
It was a promise, a hope, and a prayer. The fickle Fates, however, had altogether different plans for them.
I'll change highways in a while,
at the crossroads, one more mile
my path is lit by my own fire
I'm going only where I desire
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle felt a presence near her even before she awoke. As days of pain subsided into less painful healing, and nights of terror grew less terrifying, she found herself growing more attuned to her surroundings than ever before. A slight tremor of fear ran through her before she remembered that the soldiers were gone; chasing increasingly cold trails as the Amazons scattered to the four winds until they could safely regroup. And Zagnan was dead, for good this time, she hoped. And beyond that, well, beyond that she hadn't much thought about. Until today.
She opened her eyes and found Xena sitting quietly beside her. Eyes closed, motionless, she looked as though she was dozing, but her eyes slid slowly open, observing her thoughtfully. Gabrielle studied her as well. Xena still looked pale and there was still a bandage wrapped rather haphazardly around one hand, but, as always, her recovery had been amazingly swift.
"Hey," Gabrielle offered up their standard greeting and a yawn.
It was such a small, inconsequential thing, and yet it stirred feelings so deep, so eloquently unique to them alone, that Xena had to reach out to convince herself she was not dreaming. She fingered Gabrielle's hair briefly, inordinately comforted by its silky touch. "Hey, yourself. How are you feeling?"
Gabrielle sat up slowly and swung her legs over the side of the bed. "Pretty good, actually," Gabrielle smiled a little, receiving an answering half smile from Xena. Gabrielle placed her feet on the floor and stood up, closing her eyes against a persistent twinge of pain in her side and lightness in her head. Xena offered a steadying hand and Gabrielle made use of it, presenting Xena a smile of gratitude, before crossing the few steps to the doorway.
The sun was shimmering sphere hung in a sky of immaculate blue. A soft, southerly breeze ruffled her hair. Gabrielle closed her eyes and took a deep, satisfying breath. The air held the sharp, clean smell of sun and earth and the promise of life to come. Xena moved close behind her, adding the familiar smell of leather, horse and steel with an underlying trace of something indefinable that was Xena's alone.
"Are you sure you're up to this?" Xena asked.
"Yeah, I think I am. You said you had something to show me when I regained my strength. I think I have, pretty much."
Something in Xena's rueful smile caused a slight heaviness in Gabrielle's heart. She gazed into Xena's eyes, but Xena did not seem to be in there. "Are you sure that you are ready for this?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
Xena's focus returned to Gabrielle, the smile slid away. Xena said nothing, but gave a small nod of her head and walked out the door. Gabrielle followed, a small frown on her lips.
With the help of a well-placed boost from Xena, Gabrielle sucked in a tiny hiss of air between clenched teeth as she mounted Argo. Xena pulled herself up behind her.
Xena had her doubts about Gabrielle's fitness for riding, but urged Argo ahead with a small squeeze of her knees. Argo, perceptive, as always, of Xena's wishes and of Gabrielle's limitations at the moment, proceeded at a slow pace, providing a remarkably smooth and sure-footed ride.
"I swear you can float," Gabrielle told the mare, leaning forward to give the horse an affectionate pat on the neck.
"Oh, she can," Xena assured her. "Argo has many skills."
Gabrielle laughed softly, prompting an answering grin from Xena. They said little on the journey; both preoccupied with their own thoughts. Xena kept a protective arm wrapped gently around Gabrielle's waist. Gabrielle was moved and comforted by this small act of thoughtfulness. Lately, she had become acutely aware of the little things she once took for granted, and how much they meant to her. They rode in easy silence for a time, enjoying the miracle of simply being, as well as the simple joy of being together.
"Xena?" Gabrielle ventured softly into the stillness.
Gabrielle smiled to herself at Xena's long-suffering, if a bit over-dramatic, tone. Gabrielle thirsted for information; Xena was a well of knowledge. Xandra had enlightened her, in considerable and graphic detail, about the transfer of blood, but there were certain questions that Xan could not answer. "How did you know about the blood thing, how did you know it would work?'
"Someone told me."
Gabrielle waited for more; silence ensued. "A little bird?" Gabrielle prompted.
"More like a big, black crow," Xena replied.
Gabrielle turned her head and found herself looking directly into brilliant blue eyes. Her heart, in turn, performed some sort of odd gyration; a perfect example of cause and effect.
"Hecate," Xena explained.
"Hecate!" Gabrielle twisted around, stifling an oath as she aggravated an annoyingly petulant and still-healing wound, and faced forward again.
"Mmm," Gabrielle replied noncommittally. "Hecate," Gabrielle repeated wonderingly, a few moments later. "And you believed her?"
"Well, believed may be pushing it. Let's just say that options were pretty scarce by then, and that Hecate appeared to be the lesser evil at the time."
"Well, that's comforting." Xena smiled. "Why did she help me?"
Xena thought about it. "She said that she owed you. Hecate hates to be indebted." Xena had already explained, as best she could, what Hecate had told her about the dog, the child, and the balance of power both good and evil.
"Do you think all of what she told you is true?" Gabrielle asked.
"Some of it, yes. You know, maybe..." Xena stopped.
"Maybe she just has a thing for you."
Gabrielle uttered a derisively emphatic snort. Xena chuckled. Her smile felt oddly foreign, but it felt good to laugh again; very good. Gabrielle looked around her, just then realizing where they were heading, and a whole new series of questions arose. She opened her mouth to ask, but then thought better of it. Absently placing her hand over Xena's, Gabrielle gently ran her thumb across the rough bandage as she silently considered the significance of the destination.
As quiet descended once more, Xena's thoughts returned to Hecate. Hecate was an enigmatic presence in their lives, dangerously manipulative, beguilingly charismatic, unmistakably evil. Yet, she had, indeed, saved them. But, why? One thing Xena was sure of was that Hecate had her own personal agenda and that Brutus and Caesar were obviously to be a part of it. And what of herself and Gabrielle? What price would they pay for Hecate's attentions? Xena had no answer, but her soul shivered in response.
Each heart is a pilgrim,
Each one wants to know
The reason why the winds die
And where their stories go.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
They reached the familiar outcropping of rock in good time. It felt subtly alien and it seemed such a long time since they had been here; a lifetime ago. Gabrielle's thoughts turned to Rhianna. Bitter tears burned her eyes and awakened a painful ache in her heart. She dare not think about this, not now, not here. She mentally gathered those thoughts and committed them to a safer place. Xena dismounted and reached a hand up to Gabrielle. Gabrielle took hold of it and sat for a moment, looking down at her. Xena offered her no explanations; she merely stood there, waiting patiently.
"There are answers here," Gabrielle stated.
"Yes," Xena agreed. "And more questions. And pain."
"That, too." Xena looked away. "At a price."
"There's always a price, isn't there?"
"It seems there is."
Gabrielle gave Xena's hand a squeeze, wincing a little as Xena helped her down. Xena noticed Gabrielle's look of discomfort. "Side hurting?"
"No. A little lower and to the rear."
Xena chuckled. It was a pleasantly normal sound. "We have to go into the cave. I found another entrance to it and a path other than straight up, but it's still kind of rough. Think you're ready for it?"
"As I'll ever be," Gabrielle allowed.
They made their way up the rugged hillside, stopping several times to let Gabrielle catch her breath, but reaching the outside opening to Rhianna's hideaway in fairly good time. Xena struck flint, lit a torch and stepped into the gloom with Gabrielle close behind. Gabrielle felt a familiar tightening of her throat, clenching of her stomach and heaviness in her chest as they moved downward through the short passage to the cave entrance. Xena reached back and took hold of Gabrielle's hand as they ducked into the small enclosure. Xena moved to the side and released Gabrielle's hand as she walked past and gazed around, eyes narrowing as she took it all in.
The small fire pit was cold and empty save for some gray ash that stirred at her passing. Gabrielle moved to a small pile of bedding and bent over it. Rhianna's medicine bag laid on top the blankets. Gabrielle picked it up carefully, almost reverently, and a small puff of dust escaped the opening, the contents whispered dryly inside. The blankets, too, were covered with a thick layer of dust and there was an odd lumpiness to them. Gabrielle absently rubbed her nose with the back of her hand as she reached for them.
Gabrielle jumped a little, startled, as Xena crouched beside her and touched her shoulder. Gabrielle turned her head slightly to look at her. A small, cool gust of air made her shiver and the flame danced on the torch, shimmering eerily in Xena's eyes. And suddenly, she was afraid. "What is it?" Gabrielle asked tentatively, past the lump of uneasiness that had lodged in her throat.
Xena shook her head a little. "I...maybe you shouldn't..."
"It's all right, Xena. I really believe that I need to do this."
Gabrielle turned back to the blankets. A cold emptiness filled her as a heavy hand squeezed her heart from within. An image of Rhianna as they had first seen her appeared perfectly in her mind. She could almost feel her presence, perhaps because she wished it so. But, it was as intangible as an ancient memory, worn thin by time and distance.
She swallowed with difficulty, taking a deep breath as she fingered the softness of the worn blanket. Torn between the need to know and a sudden premonition of wrongness, she hesitated a moment, then quickly flipped the blanket aside with a flick of her wrist. She coughed, waving a hand in front of her face, as a dense cloud of dust rose from the blankets, half blinding her in the process. The dust dispersed; swirling and phantom-like on elusive eddies of air. What Gabrielle saw when it cleared was so unexpected that, for a moment, her mind went completely blank. There followed a brief period of elation, because what she was seeing was not what she feared she would see. She felt, then, an eerie slither deep in her soul as her mind sought to make sense of it, while her heart endeavored to deny all that it knew to be true.
The bones were small, those of a child, and they were very, very old. They could not, then, be Rhianna's, as she had feared. Yet, as she studied them, they spoke of mysteries and divulged to her their secrets, filling her with wonder, saddening her beyond measure.
I have looked deeply
for an answer to a mystery
Only to find it
hidden in plain sight
in all that surrounds me
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The fragile neck bone was cracked and splintered, the skull faced sharply right. Gabrielle clenched her teeth and closed her eyes; if she heard that distinctively hideous crack that echoed through her nightmares, she knew she would start screaming. And if I start...
Xena laid a hand on her shoulder. Gabrielle placed her hand on top of it and opened her eyes a few moments later. Centered once more, she returned her attention to the mystery before her. A delicate silver chain glimmered in the uncertain light, weaving its serpentine way across the ribcage. At its end, a small piece of intricately crafted turquoise and jade swung gently, set in perpetual motion by a final, dying breath. Gabrielle glanced at Xena, who seemed transfixed by its movement.
"It can't..." Gabrielle's voice emerged as a hoarse croak, dry as desert sand. Xena looked up as Gabrielle tried again. "It can't be her," Gabrielle managed, with a good deal more conviction than she felt. "The bones are too old. They've been here a long, long time. And the dust," she continued, gazing around, "it hasn't been disturbed in years." She stopped, suddenly realizing that it should have been, because they had been in here just weeks ago.
"It's not her," Gabrielle insisted.
"Look at her arm," Xena urged her gently.
Gabrielle turned reluctant eyes back to the bony remains. There, on the upper part of the arm, was the silver Amazon bracelet. "No," Gabrielle breathed the word. "I don't understand."
Xena gripped her shoulder gently. "I'm not sure we ever will."
"Xena, it can't be her. It can't be. Someone did this. Someone put these things here."
"That was my first thought, too. But, I know that it's not true."
"But we saw her, talked to her..."
"But no one else did."
Gabrielle felt the small hairs at the back of her neck stand up. "What?"
"No one else saw her."
"Of course they did, the Amazons..." Xena shook her head. "Xan! Xandra saw her; she said she watched out for her, she..."
"No, Gabrielle. No!" Xena's voice was firm. "Rhianna said she watched out for Xan, not the other way around." Gabrielle drew back from her tone and Xena spoke more softly. "Think about it, she made us promise not to tell anyone about her, and we never did, not even Xan. She was never around when anyone else was present."
"Never saw her. I asked her, I asked everyone," Xena gave her a rueful half-smile. "They think I'm a bit addled, ya know, I was half inclined to agree with them."
Gabrielle slowly turned her head and stared at the pitiful little pile of bones. She was silent for so long, Xena finally reached out and grasped her hand. Gabrielle looked into her eyes. "But, she touched me, she-"
"Did you ever touch her? Hug her, hold her hand?"
Gabrielle thought about it, shook her head. She felt numb, defeated, and at the same time, full of wonder. "Zagnan," Gabrielle said suddenly, eyes glinting in the torchlight. "Zagnan saw her. He touched her, he..." Gabrielle closed her eyes, stomach turning, as she remembered the horrific sight, and that sound, of Rhianna's neck snapping between Zagnan's hands.
"Zagnan," Xena said quietly, "wasn't quite human himself. He was resurrected from the dark side, used by those who inhabit that darkness. I believe he killed her all right, he may have even killed her twice."
Gabrielle thought back to Zagnan's look of surprise when Rhianna entered the hut: "You can't be here!" he had shouted. Because he had seen to that once before?
"There's more,'' Xena added, after a moment. "The necklace." Xena inclined her head in its direction.
Gabrielle's eyes shifted to the silvery chain, the tiny pendant was still moving. "You recognize it?"
"Yes," Xena replied. "But I don't know how...or why..."
Gabrielle moved her gaze from the oddly hypnotic motion of the pendant back to Xena's face; A single tear there, a drop of sorrow, an ocean of loss and regret. A painful ache settled itself in Gabrielle's heart as she moved closer to Xena's side.
"It was mine; a gift from Rachel's father," Xena explained, "I placed it around Rachel's neck when she was just a baby, just before I...left her."
Xena hesitated, swallowing the stubborn knot of guilt that tightened her throat. She had done what she had to do when she left Rachel with her father's people, what she believed was best for Rachel, feeling guilty about it would change nothing. "And the last thing Rachel did before she died was to place that same necklace around her daughter's neck."
"But, if she gave it to Catherine, then how did Rhianna..." The question died on Gabrielle's lips as she turned again to look at Xena. That faraway look was in Xena's eyes; the one she wore when the past had, once again, come full circle and wound itself into the present. Gabrielle moved as close to Xena as possible without actually touching her and bowed her head. They were as one within that textured silence; so vastly different, so very much alike.
Blue, like the winter snow in the full moon
Black like the silhouettes of the trees
Late blooming flowers lie frozen underneath the stars.
Still as the river grows in December
Silent and in perfect blinding ice
Spring keeps her promises
No cold can keep her back
I want you to remember me that way
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As Gabrielle covered the bones with the blanket a faint breeze touched her hair and whined mournfully in her ear. Gabrielle felt her skin prickle as she listened to the noisy silence surrounding her. The cave, though quiet as a tomb, was never still. There was movement, always just beyond where you were looking, hushed murmurs and mutterings just outside your comprehension. The wind, your mind rationalized, ever logical. Something more, you knew, without question.
"There's something more," Xena stated, startling Gabrielle from her musings. Gabrielle, not at all sure if she was prepared for anything more, turned a wary eye toward her. "I believe that Rhianna meant for Xan to have it," Xena concluded.
Curiosity overriding better judgment, Gabrielle stood, brushed the dust from her hands and joined Xena at the far side of the cave. "What is it?"
Xena lowered the torch she held, illuminating a wooden chest sitting in the shadows. Gabrielle knelt beside it for a closer look. The box was old, the wood scarred, the silver bindings tarnished and dented. It was, however, free of the thick layer of dust which covered most everything else. The top was mostly silver, engraved with a single word.
Gabrielle looked up at Xena, who said nothing and whose face remained carefully unreadable. Gabrielle returned her attention to the box. She fingered the hasp, which held no lock, and lifted it. It lifted easily, soundlessly, and felt warm to the touch. She began to open the lid, then hesitated, remembering other times, other boxes; the Israelites and their ark, for one, and the devastation it had unleashed on the unwary, the unwise, the unworthy.
"It's all right," Xena assured her, reading her thoughts.
An inquisitive breeze eddied impatiently against Gabrielle's shoulder and bade her open it, sighing softly as she did so. Myriad odors arose from within. Gabrielle closed her eyes and took a deep breath of old parchment, leather, wood, a pungent odor of herb and spices. And above all else there was the musky perfume of age; infinitely old, forever new. Xena lowered the torch closer to the box; Gabrielle opened her eyes as flame hissed past her ear. She sorted carefully through the contents.
There were a few yellowing scrolls and she unrolled one with infinite care. Within were poems, written in a careful hand and familiar somehow. Some dried flowers. Pages of parchment bound in leather; some old, some not. Gabrielle opened one; it appeared to be journal of some sort. She closed it gently after reading a few lines, feeling like an unwelcome intruder among fragile memories. And finally, lying near the bottom, there was a slender chain of pure silver, its clasp undone, like a coiled silver serpent it lay patiently waiting for...what? Or who? Something lay beneath it. As Gabrielle pushed the chain aside and picked it up, Xena knelt close beside her, icy hand gripping her shoulder. Gabrielle started violently at Xena's unexpected touch, her hand fisting convulsively around something both sharply cold and smoothly delicate.
Gabrielle turned, half in fright, half in irritation, toward Xena. "By the gods, Xena," her words escaping in an annoyed rush of air.
Xena's eyes, however, were firmly fixed on Gabrielle's now trembling hand. Gabrielle turned her hand over as she followed Xena's gaze. A crimson stream of blood slipped from between her clenched fingers. Displaying an eerily flawless sense of prophecy, it coursed significantly along that line indicating flow of life, then trickled across her wrist. Xena released an almost inaudible sound of dismay as she leaned forward and wrapped her fingers around Gabrielle's wrist. Gabrielle unclenched her fingers and drew a harsh breath. And within that breath, her heart went icy cold; as cold as the reflection of Xena's blue eyes in the bloodstained silver cross resting in her palm.
There comes a time we all know
There's a place that we must go
Into the soul
Into the heart
Into the dark
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle lowered the lid, staring hard at the single word engraved on its surface. It explained many things about the contents and left just as many unanswered. She traced a finger over the Greek lettering:
"Rachel," Xena translated unnecessarily, tying off a bit of cloth wound around Gabrielle's hand. The cut was minor and Gabrielle had raised an amused eyebrow at the overabundance of bandage afforded it. But, Xena had seen enough of infection lately, thank you, and had insisted on cleaning it, dressing it and enveloping it within in several layers. Besides, it gave them both something else to think about, for a while anyway.
Xena had looked as stunned as Gabrielle felt, so she had obviously somehow missed seeing the cross previously. Gabrielle turned to look at her; beautiful, haunted, and at this particular moment, remote. She felt the need to touch her, to reach her, and thus, laid a hand against Xena's face. The blue eyes closed for a moment at her touch. Xena took Gabrielle's hand, pressing her lips against her palm before releasing it; it was enough.
"Why would anyone make a cross of silver?" Gabrielle wondered aloud. Xena merely shook her head; she had no answer. Gabrielle began carefully replacing everything in the chest, saying not a word. Xena stood and lit another torch on the wall, then another, chasing the shadows back into their corners. Gabrielle moved away from the chest, as well as the little pile of bones, and sat on the jumble of dust-laden blankets that had once been Rhianna's bed. The scent of pine rose around her, inexplicably provoking the tears she had held so carefully in check. Xena stuck yet another torch in the rocks at their feet, sat down close beside her, but did not look at her. "There's more to tell you, if you want to hear."
Gabrielle rubbed wearily at her eyes and nodded her acquiescence, Xena began her story.
"Love is the hunger on which we feed"
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena sat just outside the entrance to the cave and stared at nothing in particular on the ground. She was tired, winded from the climb. Getting old, she thought to herself. Twilight stole in like a cat; furtive and shadowy. An arrogant, premature moon struggled to rise and, that accomplished, finally settled itself ponderously in the silent blue sea above. Xena's skin itched. A few moments later both the air and the trees shivered, in either anticipation or apprehension.
"So, you came." Hecate settled beside Xena like a dark wave nudging a boulder. She was accompanied by all three of her hounds this time. Two settled a fair distance away; indistinct puddles of impervious darkness. Tess, as usual, sat at Hecate's feet and stared at Xena with shiny, inquisitive eyes.
"So I did," Xena replied, without looking up.
"You heal rather rapidly."
Hecate's gruff chuckle brought Tess' ears to attention; the beast would never grow accustomed to this odd utterance from her master. "And your better half?"
The phrase lifted an eyebrow and as well as corner of Xena's mouth. "Healing very well, all things considered."
"Splendid. Perhaps, since your blood now runs trough her veins, she has acquired some of your remarkable healing powers."
Xena said nothing, though the thought was intriguing.
"And the visually impaired?" Hecate quipped.
"If you mean Xan," Xena snapped, turning now toward Hecate, "she's fine and that's not amusing."
Hecate looked askance at Tess, the hound grinned back at her; at least someone appreciated her humor. The hood turned in Xena's direction and Xena wisely shifted her gaze to the moon, which was growing less rotund and more luminous in equal measure.
"And you, Xena, what brings you to this place?"
"Questions that need answering."
"Some things are best left as they are."
"I need to know."
Hecate's sigh was heard only by the wind. "And so shall Gabrielle. Will you tell her, then, what you learn here?"
Hecate fell silent. Xena felt the tiny, prying tentacles of Hecate's furtive dark power slithering around in her mind. Xena closed her eyes, slipped into an inner darkness, and looked much too deeply. Both she and Hecate retreated in haste. Xena opened her eyes and looked at Hecate who was sitting, now, in front of her and wearing a grin so chilly and white it appeared carved of ice.
"Oooo, it's dark down there, isn't it?" Hecate observed. Xena merely stared at her. Hecate drew a breath, released it slowly, the smile slipped away. "Shall I tell you a story?"
"Knock yourself out," Xena retorted.
"There once was a young man from an unremarkable little village outside Corinth. A good man, if there exists such a creature. His people thought him blessed, a prophet, a healer."
The small hairs at the back of Xena's neck tingled; she and Hecate locked eyes for a scant moment before Hecate continued. "The young man, however, wholeheartedly disagreed with his people. And further, him being an independent soul who valued his privacy, he found their continued declarations most uncomfortable and their scrutiny unbearable. So he scurried off to Rome, and he became everything his people thought him incapable of becoming; a soldier, a gladiator, a killer."
Xena stood up, startling Tess, who released a tiny yelp, then covered her embarrassment with a low growl. "Ssh, Tess," Hecate murmured close to the beast's ear. "Don't be rude." Hecate met Xena's glare with amused eyes. "How well did you know Alexander before you fornicated and grew large and ungainly with his child?"
Xena's eyes narrowed into icy blue slits. "You have such a way with words, Hecate."
"I do, don't I?" Hecate looked pleased; sarcasm was truly wasted on the gods.
"I knew him well enough to marry him."
"He was older than you."
"I know that."
"He had many skills." Hecate lifted a suggestive eyebrow. "And women; those creatures of the heart, absolutely love those who possess many sk-"
Xena shifted impatiently. "Are you going to tell me anything I don't know?"
Hecate laid a hand on Tess' head, the hound looked up adoringly. "Would you mind sitting down, Xena? You look most menacing glowering down like that; it makes my girls uncomfortable."
Xena looked around; the other two hounds had risen to their feet and were standing close behind her, teeth shinning brightly in the moonlight. Xena curled her lip at them; one looked surprised, the other sneered back.
Hecate's gruff chuckle rolled like gravel behind her. "Do you know why Alexander left Rome?" Hecate asked.
Xena turned and sat down, the beasties behind her forgotten. Highly insulted, they snorted in unison and dissolved into the darkness. "He grew weary of the politics," Xena stated. "As well as the violence, the killing, he missed his people, his brothers. There were many reasons."
"He also made a powerful and enduring enemy."
Xena said nothing, for this, too, came as no surprise.
"But you may be surprised as to who it was," Hecate ventured, eerily attuned, as always, to Xena's thoughts. Xena raised an eyebrow. Hecate studied her for a long moment then grew pensive. The hood grew shadowy, "There are times," Hecate avowed, at last, from its depths, "when the past is best left in the past."
This being the second time that Hecate had imparted this particular bit of wisdom made it notably unsettling. Xena and the silence brooded for a time. "Touched though I am by your concern," Xena responded, finally, "I want you to go on."
Hecate continued, as was her habit, as if there had been no interruption at all. "Alexander grew enamored of a certain young lady in Rome."
Xena, though not really surprised at this revelation, felt a slight flinching of her heart.
Hecate leaned a bit closer. "I won't bore you with all the soppy details humans seem to find so enticing; he wanted her, he wooed her, he got her."
"How romantic," Xena opined, with more than a little sarcasm.
The eyes beneath the hood glittered. "Are you feeling a twinge of jealousy, Xena?"
Jealousy was not primary among the mix of emotions beginning to trickle into Xena's subconscious, so she ignored the question.
"I suppose not," Hecate answered her own question. "You seldom ever judged people by their past...the exception being your own self, of course."
Xena turned and directed a sharp look into the patchwork of shadows and lesser shadows beneath the cowl. Xena was finding it increasingly unnerving to discover how long Hecate had been lurking just beyond the corner of her mind's eye.
"The bard, as well," Hecate added, and Xena was, again, unclear as to what Hecate was referring. For every mystery Hecate revealed, she created a dozen more. The sky darkened, Xena looked up; the moon, with adroit and solemn dignity, wrapped itself within a cloak of dark cloud as Hecate spoke again.
"There was one, however, who was jealous, insanely so, it turned out. For Alexander had a most bitter rival, and though his lady gently, though firmly, spurned this rival's attentions and affections, he remained persistent in his pursuit of her. And as is often the case with both gods and humankind, when one man's desire becomes the object of another's affection, disaster soon follows. The rival's persistence, once an annoyance, grew increasingly alarming.
"His infatuation became a hunger, his hunger; an insatiable need." Hecate turned toward Xena. "And the need became blind obsession, which is the spark of madness in us all. They fled this madness, Alexander and his lady, but, alas, they could not hide forever and they could not escape. For insanity merely bides its time and grows more devious, and the Fates can be most unkind."
The moon shed the cloak and spilled bright, silver light across the land. Xena closed her eyes and found a terrible blue emptiness behind them. "No." She filled the void with denial.
"You know, don't you?" Hecate's voice caressed, words descending like snow in the silent caverns of Xena's mind. "Somehow, you've always known."
Xena struggled to close her mind, but the practiced fingers of She Who Rules the Night neatly parted the seams of consciousness.
"Rachel was not the only child who sprang from your beloved's seed. Alexander also gave his first young wife a child and this child was named after her mother..." Hecate hesitated.
"Rhianna," the voice in Xena's mind supplied without hesitation.
"And this child," Hecate went on, "was unique in the way of her parents; blessed...and cursed. And evil found them, eventually, as evil is wont to do, and slew the mother, and the child, and the heart and soul of a good man."
"Stop," Xena pleaded silently, and Hecate complied. Quiet descended around them with an expectant hush. An inquisitive, cool finger of air lightly traced the track of Xena's tear; a touch so unexpectedly gentle, it opened Xena's eyes.
The moonlight shimmered like quicksilver in Hecate's eyes and she looked...sad. "And evil had a name..." Hecate was slowly fading with the night. As she rose, her cloak brushed the tear; it crystallized to blue ice...
"Zagnan," Xena whispered to the dark.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Why must we lose the children, Gabrielle?" Xena spoke so softly, with such gentle care, that the harsh reality of her words was even more brutal than if she had screamed to the heavens. "Is there some sort of justice to be found there?"
Xena did not expect an answer to such a question, was, in fact, unaware that she had spoken it aloud. But it drove all else from Gabrielle's mind. It descended like an icy darkness upon her soul and left her heart cold and trembling in the shadow of its passing.
"Xena," Gabrielle whispered sadly. Nothing more was said as she drew Xena gently into her arms; for this question was most hurtful and never to be answered. Gabrielle could offer only herself as comfort, receiving the same in return.
"Something's coming, Gabrielle," Xena spoke carefully into the listening silence. "Something that will forever change us..."
Night has brought to those who sleep
Only dreams they cannot keep
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Exhausted; body and soul. The body found refuge in sleep, while the soul, restless and uneasy, drifted unprotected. Gabrielle opened her eyes and in one of those perfect, yet fleeting, moments in time, safe and content within the circle of Xena's arms, she remembered absolutely nothing. She yawned hugely and lifted her head from Xena's shoulder.
Xena looked down at her, a bittersweet smile appeared briefly beneath the blue eyes; a gentle kiss brushed Gabrielle's lips. The past faded to a distant memory, the future deemed unworthy of contemplation.
"I love you, Xena." Gabrielle did not know if she spoke aloud, but Xena heard, and replied in kind. Was this a dream, or something in between? "And I'm afraid."
"Of loving me?" Xena asked, voice curiously surprised.
"Of losing you."
"Don't be afraid."
The words whispered and echoed and died, carried by a wind as dark and still as a tomb.
And when you're there with no one there to hold.
I'll be the arms that reach for you.
And when you feel your faith is running low.
I'll be there to believe in you.
When all you find are lies. I'll be the truth you need.
When you need someone to run to
You can run to me
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
They woke at exactly the same moment for a change. Rising reluctantly from the warmth of each other's arms into a shadowy blue chill, they prepared to leave.
"What will you do with it?" Gabrielle asked, laying her hand on the battered chest as Xena finished putting together a rough travois to carry it.
"I'm going to give it to Xan," Xena answered, grunting a little as she tightened the knot in a piece of frayed rope. She cursed softly as it broke in her hand.
Gabrielle thought about that as she knelt beside her and handed her another. "It will mean a great deal to her."
"Yes...and to Catherine...some day. And I think Rhia meant for Xan to have it."
...And I have something to give her. When she's ready. If something should happen to me...
Xena closed her eyes, and her mind, drawing a long, careful breath before opening them both once more. She put the finishing touches on the crude litter and settled the wooden box on it.
"Yes, Gabrielle?" Gabrielle smiled a little at her tone. "Rachel was your daughter, Catherine is your grandchild; why didn't Rhia just give it to you?"
"Most likely because she wasn't sure I could deliver it."
Gabrielle considered this. Though anxious to find her, Xena knew that Catherine was still, and would continue to be, in mortal danger if Caesar found out about her. As she would be if any number of Xena's long list of old enemies found out about her.
"It will be safe with Xan," Xena continued. "And Xan needs something, someone in her life, now more than ever. She needs family, someone to love, she needs-"
"Someone to watch over her," Gabrielle finished, echoing Rhianna's solemn declaration.
Xena looked up at her. "That, too."
"And what about you?"
"Well, I've got all that, don't I? I've got you."
"Yeah," Gabrielle confirmed. "Yeah, you do." Gabrielle glanced again at the little bundle of bones, shivering in a draft of air, and laid a hand on Xena's arm. "Why? Why did she come to us?"
"I don't know," Xena mused. "Maybe...maybe to remind us that we need to respect the past, and learn from it, if we hope to change the future. What is the past, after all; a future we either spent wisely, or wasted. Maybe our paths, our destinies, will be decided on what we do with that knowledge...on what we are willing to sacrifice..."
"Or whom." Xena turned to look at her. "Rhia told me that there would be a reckoning, a price to be paid for the path I choose; she told me to follow my heart. Trouble is, that's what I've been trying to do and..." Gabrielle reached out and grasped Xena's arm. "I keep losing people I care about." Her voice, barely a whisper, was taut with emotion. "I can't lose you, Xena. I won't lose you."
A careful little smile crossed Xena's lips. "Well, ya got that right. You're stuck with me now, no matter what."
Gabrielle stared at her for a moment before a gruff, half-sob of uneasy laughter escaped her, breaking the tension. She lowered her head and rubbed at her eyes.
Xena gently pulled her hand away from her eyes. "Hey..."
Gabrielle lifted her head slowly. Xena bent forward and pressed a soft kiss against her forehead, lingering close for a long moment before leaning away.
Gabrielle looked into her eyes and felt as if she were falling - not into, but away - far, far away, toward an endless abyss of icy blue. She felt a brief moment of absolute panic before Xena's lips touched hers. The kiss was soft and sweet, yet held an almost desperate energy; a fervid yearning to prolong this moment indefinitely, expand upon it infinitely.
"I'll always believe in you, Gabrielle. Wherever you go, whatever path you choose, I'll stand by you as best I can. I will never stop loving you."
We die with the dying:
See, they depart and we go with them.
We are born with the dead;
See, they return, and bring us with them
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Ready to go?"
Gabrielle stood, brushing dust from her clothes as she looked around her. "Mmm-hmm."
Xena sighed inwardly. "You have more questions."
This, of course, was a given; asking Gabrielle if she had questions was akin to asking if water was wet. "Hundreds. Thousands, maybe." Xena lifted an expressive eyebrow. "But, they'll keep."
"Bless you," Xena remarked gratefully.
Gabrielle smiled to herself. Xena knelt down and laid her hand on the worn wooden box. Closing her eyes, she listened carefully. Faint murmurings of life long past; laughter and tears, pain and joy, echoes of a boundless spirit, adrift before its time. She opened her eyes and gazed at the small pile of blankets. A heavy sadness pressed a cold hand against her heart. Who was this child really? How did she die and why must she lie here, nameless and alone, inside this stone tomb? Was she wrong in her thinking? Was she denying the obvious? Could this be her granddaughter, Catherine? An icy cold settled around her, its source untraceable, its intent wholly malevolent, chilling her to the bone. Xena shivered, closing her eyes once again. A comforting presence moved close behind her, warm hands gentle, yet firm upon her shoulders.
"Gabrielle." The word was all but lost, frozen within the frosty blue-white vapor of Xena's breath. The cold was gradually, grudgingly, displaced and Xena, comforted by her warmth, leaned back and placed her hand on top of Gabrielle's. "I need to know," Xena said softly.
"You already know." The hands were slowly withdrawing, but their warmth endured.
"Did you say something?"
Xena was disoriented by the direction of the voice; startled, she opened her eyes...and found Gabrielle across the way. Xena exhaled a soft exclamation of surprise, her grip tightening on nothing more than the cold metal fingers of protective armor atop her shoulder. She drew a deep breath and stood, knees a little shaky in the aftermath of one of her more vivid and definitely more unsettling hallucinations of late.
She crossed the distance to Gabrielle and the tiny skeleton beneath its makeshift shroud. Gabrielle studied her curiously as Xena knelt beside her and gingerly touched the blanket. "I want to take another look at that necklace," Xena explained.
Gabrielle nodded and then looked around in surprise as the constant murmur of the wind suddenly stilled, replaced by a watchful hush.
Xena hesitated as Gabrielle placed a hand on her shoulder. "On second thought," Xena said quietly. "Let's just get out of here, shall we?"
"Right behind you," Gabrielle assured her.
Xena fervently hoped that was so.
You've never been to the moon
But don't you want to go
Under the sea in the volcano
You've never looked into my eyes
But don't you want to know
What the dark and the wild
And the different know
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Hecate touched a hand to the hound's head, silencing the growl before it began. "Something you require of me, or are you just lurking?" Hecate inquired of the darkly hooded presence behind her.
"The Master is merely curious," came the answer.
"Your master is merely impatient. Perhaps if your master would stop interfering, some of his objectives might actually come to be realized."
"I'll pass that along."
"You do that."
"Speaking of interfering," the rough voice hurried on, before Hecate vanished again into the night. "It seems as though you have...uhm...helped them...again."
"Things are not always as they seem," Hecate turned; a graceful twist of incorporeal darkness, and the figure took an involuntary step back. "Listen and learn my dark little shadow; it would serve no purpose to kill but one of them. The other's heart would undoubtedly shatter, but not the spirit. Trust me, I know them."
"I shall pass along your wisdom, Hecate."
"Do as you like." Hecate's voice was a dismissal. Tess rose languidly to her feet and stretched, more than ready to depart.
The lesser evil before her wisely took another step back as it spoke. "Tell me something, Hecate, just between you and I."
Hecate smiled to herself, knowing better; there was nothing known to this little minion that was not shared with his Master. "What is it you wish to know?"
The smaller dark hood took a wary look around before speaking. Hecate suppressed a sigh of impatience with his theatrics. "Do you not fear him, Hecate?"
"Fear whom?" Two could play at this irritation game.
"Him!" the hood trembled at its own outburst and lowered its voice. "The Master."
"I respect all power, be it Dark or Light," Hecate replied evenly.
As the minion pondered the answer that was not an answer, Hecate took a moment to further reflect upon the question. She smiled briefly at the true answer. She had not, in all her incalculable existence, felt fear in the presence of any man, beast, nor god. Except, that is, for one dark warrior. And, for the most part, Hecate had managed to stay somewhat on her good side. On further reflection, Hecate realized another somewhat startling truth about herself. She liked them; The Fate's elusive fugitives. Both the warrior, who ran so fast from her past that she often caught up to it. And the little bard, who took the beast by the heart and led her, unknowingly, on a path of redemption.
Liked. What a quaintly human emotion, almost as alien to her as fear. Perhaps it was because they were so deliciously unpredictable and they played the game so very well. Or, perhaps- Hecate's thoughts were interrupted by a startled squeak of dismay from the minor annoyance standing in front of her. Tess had grown bored and decided to size the little demon up as a potential meal. The beast sniffed at his black cloak, which was unnerving enough, then moved her nose beneath the cloak to approximately crotch level, which was utterly terrifying. Hecate lifted an eyebrow in amusement, but supposed it wouldn't do to have one of The Master's loyal servants return as a eunuch.
Tess, Hecate admonished. The word was unspoken, but the hound heard, nonetheless. The beast sniffed, then sneezed disdainfully, clearly indicating that there was barely enough there to classify as an appetizer, much less meal. Hecate laughed, the minion winced; Hecate's laugh was just slightly less unsettling than the hound's attentions.
"You may also want to suggest to your master," Hecate went on, seemingly unaware of the messenger's discomfort, "that if he insists on...intervening in this matter by using servants from his domain, he might consider choosing them a little more wisely." This being Hecate's tactful way of suggesting that The Master was an incompetent ass and should stop interfering with her well-laid plans.
"Lost sight of the mission," Hecate interrupted.
"And, whom, or what, do you suggest if The Master does feel the need to...uhm...assist you in the future?" The hooded figure visibly relaxed as Tess lost interest in his private parts and sat down beside her mistress. The hound yawned widely, showing an alarming number of wicked teeth.
Hecate appeared to be in deep thought for a while, but had actually been anticipating this question for some time and fully intended to use it to her advantage. "He has one of mine," she replied thoughtfully, and though it was much too subtle for the unattuned ears of the messenger, some nuance in Hecate's voice - anger? jealousy? - compelled Tess to look up sharply. "She would do nicely," Hecate finished, winking at the hound.
The messenger pondered for a moment. "Ah," he said, finally. "The fair-haired terror from Cirra. She was Xena's creation, was she not?"
Hecate seemed to grow taller, or perhaps the messenger merely shrank under her glare. "Xena planted the seed, most certainly," Hecate conceded, "but it was I who nurtured it."
"She is a bit...unstable and uncontrollable, is she not?"
"She knows Xena and Gabrielle well. Better, in fact, than anyone. She is devious and driven and has a mind of her own. This is what makes her so invaluable."
"And you want her back," he mused knowingly. "Are you a jealous, god, Hecate?"
The little lackey was smarter than she had given him credit for; a lesson well noted. "I want only that which is mine," Hecate replied. And Callisto is mine. "Just as your master desires that which he considers his, or, at least within his grasp. I am merely making a suggestion as to how he is most likely to obtain it. A means to an end, if you will."
The servant considered this as Hecate considered the servant. Hecate was well aware that the little monster was intimately acquainted with Callisto, if only in his wretched dreams. Hecate smiled to herself; she had to give the so-called Master his due. For even she had to admit that having to spend eternity obsessed with a woman who would as soon boil you in oil as look at you was an inspired stroke of ironic torture. Furthering the messenger's infatuation with Callisto would be a rather repugnant, yet necessary evil, for she needed this...this worm to acquire some semblance of a backbone and approach Callisto. The servant looked up from his musings just as Hecate grimaced at her thoughts. Tess glared at him and he took a step toward Hecate, mistakenly taking her grimace for a grin; an honest and often fatal error. He stared for a moment into the beguiling allure of Hecate's eyes, and was effortlessly lured into the dark recesses of her brilliantly manipulative mind...
The messenger was, of course, very well aware of whom Hecate spoke; the unobtainable bitch never left his mind for an instant. He knew that what Hecate said about Callisto was indeed true. In any case, it would not hurt to at least approach the twisted wench from Cirra; well, not much anyway. And Callisto would, most likely, please the Master. It was good when the Master was pleased, when he was not; it was very, very bad. And, when things worked out, both Callisto and the Master would most assuredly show him a bit more respect in the future.
Hecate released his mind with the same exactness as dropping a particularly offensive piece of garbage.
"Rest assured, I will pass along your counsel, Hecate."
Hecate said nothing. She was already plotting her next move in the game. Hecate was not averse to occasionally working in conjunction with other gods and monsters toward a common goal, but basically, she did not play well with others. She had, for instance, thoroughly enjoyed working with the charismatic God of War. Though Ares was devious and sometimes harsh, he played the game well and accepted his losses as graciously as his victories, especially where the Warrior Princess was concerned. His self-effacing humor, dark good looks and sly smile had quite an effect on the old, as well as the new, Xena. And then there was that additional element of their unacknowledged mutual love and respect for one another, as convoluted and twisted as it may be; it was fertile ground for some exquisite shared nightmares between the two of them. Hecate grinned at the irony of it. And then, of course, there was the latecomer, the wild card, the third side of the triangle; Gabrielle.
And Callisto; her untamed, often brutal, and always intensely focused child of the dark. Callisto's love/hate relationship with Xena, and the bard as well, was fascinating and endlessly unpredictable. Callisto's demise at Xena's hand was not at all unexpected, but came as a shock nonetheless. Looking back now, Gabrielle's sacrifice for Xena surprised Hecate not at all, and neither should have Xena's reaction to the jeering Callisto.
"I never thought I'd feel so good again! Seeing poor, dear Gabrielle sacrifice herself makes it all worthwhile. It finally gives me a reason for living, and I have you to thank for it, Xena."
Standing amidst the shadows of the past, Hecate felt anew that heart-wrenching jolt of shock and wonder as Xena drove the knife deep; Callisto's face, full of terrible and awesome disbelief, followed by a look of...what? Sorrow? Resignation? Or peace at long last? Xena's look was easier to interpret: complete and utter despair, and finally, the icy chill of Xena's eulogy for them all; "No more living for you..."
Hecate sighed deeply, "Callisto..."
The forgotten little servant stared up at her, wondering what manner of thought lurked behind the burning eyes within the shadowy confines of the hood. The Master, of course, could read Hecate's thoughts, but chose not to. The messenger, mistakenly, had entertained the notion that Hecate's mind was consistently filled with even more horror than the Master's. In a moment of unprecedented candor, and anger, the Master had set him straight on the matter. Hecate's mind, when the Master trespassed therein, was filled not with darkness and terror, but with a searing brightness; a reflection of inexplicable goodness and light. The Master was stunned; attempts to escape the light were met with false shadows and pathways to even more intricate plays of light and color. It was, of course, a ruse; ingenious and absolute in its effectiveness. The Master retreated, never to return.
"Perhaps, if all goes well," the servant offered, finally, shivering as the restive night grew even darker around them. "You will meet the Master himself one day and he will return your...uhm...servant."
The shadows stirred then swirled angrily within the cowl. Hecate did not like the Master. For in that one brief moment of Hecate's shock and subsequent inattentiveness at Xena's brutal response to the loss of Gabrielle, the Master had taken...stolen...one of hers. In Hecate's eyes, this act displayed a monumental lack of respect for herself, as well as for the game; bending an occasional rule was one thing, cheating was another.
Hecate smiled and the messenger recoiled at the sight of it. There was a new game to be played, one she intended to win. There were so many things to do; another planned meeting with Pompous, The Magnificent, and though Pompey could prove useful if he kept his head, she found him immensely tedious; such an egotistical fool. And Caesar was due for another not-so-romantic romp with Xena, if only in his nightmares. And Brutus; he was clearly fascinated by the little bard. Could Gabrielle sway him from his blind devotion to Caesar? And if all else failed, there was always the true messenger; care must be taken there, however, for a fearsome power flowed trough Eli, and using it would take a great deal of patience and finesse. Hecate beamed down at Tess, So many men, so little time. The hound's lips drew back in ghastly amusement.
"I shall look forward to meeting your master," Hecate fibbed aloud, as the darkness began to envelop her within its auspicious embrace. The messenger shut his eyes against the sights and sounds that accompanied Hecate and her hound into their nightmare realm, for they rivaled those from whence he had come, and in his current form, a mere glimpse alone could easily shatter what was left of his mind.
Don't you fret, my lovely beast. Hecate met Tess' fervent gaze as they departed. For it is true, I am a most jealous god, and if I can't have them...
Angels never came down
There's no one here
They want to be around
But if they knew
If they knew you at all
Then one by one the angels
Angels would fall
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle touched a gentle finger against the leather patch that covered Xan's eye. "I like it."
"Do you?" Xan asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Oh, yeah, it's very sexy."
"Damn straight." Xan laughed and pulled Gabrielle into a firm but gentle hug, lifting her feet from the ground and giving her a spin. "I can't breathe!" Gabrielle's muffled voice emerged from depths of the embrace.
Xan set her down. "Wussy."
Xena, busying herself giving Argo a thorough brush-down, smiled at their banter.
Xan looked into Gabrielle's sea green eyes and sighed deeply. "I'll miss you, Gabrielle."
"I'll miss you, too, Xan." And she would, more than she realized.
Xan gave her a dazzling and somewhat wolfish grin. Taking Gabrielle's hands, she planted a sloppy kiss on both her palms then pressed them above her heart. "My heart will always belong to you, Gabrielle. Not to mention, of course, my best coat. And several of my shirts."
Gabrielle laughed and sniffed the sleeve of her favorite coat, one that Xan had given her long ago. "It still smells of horses. And..." Gabrielle added, wrinkling her nose, "just a trace of goose poop, and perhaps a smidgen of skunk."
Xan snorted and blushed to the tips of her ears. Gabrielle smiled and laid her hand against the side of Xan's face.
Xena looked up as Argo whickered and moved restlessly beneath her hands. Gabrielle felt an eerily familiar shift in her perception. Shortly thereafter came an unsettling portent of things to come. And following that came the desperate and utterly futile longing to stand amidst the flow of time and somehow alter their irrevocable rush to an inconceivable destiny.
Xan's smile faltered as a mantle of dread settled over her, suffocating a piece of her soul in folds of darkness. The feeling faded quickly, leaving her breathless and with an odd heaviness in her heart.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and leaned forward, placing a gentle kiss against Xan's lips, stealing what little breath remained. "I love you, Xan," Gabrielle whispered. "I will always love you."
"And I, Gabrielle, have always loved you," Xan hugged her tightly, released her reluctantly, and wondered why this good-bye felt so...final. The answer, so dreadfully near in coming, would haunt her until the day she died.
Xena looked at Xan across Argo's back. "Where will you go?" she asked, still brushing Argo with firm, steady strokes.
"I'm leaving tomorrow," Xan replied, her vague uneasiness lingering as she watched Gabrielle pick up a saddlebag and sit down among the blue-gray shadows of a moribund old tree. "I'll be traveling with three of the Amazons Ephiny sent back to gather the remaining tribes scattered throughout this area. Then we'll join forces with Ephiny in the north." Xan rubbed Argo's nose, who responded with an appreciative murmur in horse-speak. "I'll find her, Xena."
Xena's brushing halted a moment then continued. "I'll find Catherine, I'll tell her everything about her mother and her family. I'll watch over her, I promise."
Xena grew very still and gazed silently at some obscure point on the distant horizon.
"And I'll read her stories about the warrior and the bard." Xan looked over at Gabrielle, who was fussing with her scrolls. "I'll teach her what I've learned about love, until you can both be there, and she can see for herself."
Xena remained motionless and silent, the minute twitch of muscle in her jaw the only sign she was listening at all. She turned, finally then walked around Argo until she was standing beside Xan. "Xan..."
"Huh?" Xan looked away from Gabrielle and found herself confronted by Xena's extraordinary blue eyes.
"You are, without a doubt, the most hopeless romantic I have ever met. Including Gabrielle."
Xan found herself speechless for a moment, then she laughed out loud. Gabrielle walked up beside them, handed Xena the saddlebag and gave a few of her scrolls to Xan. Xan took them with a solemn smile of gratitude and a somewhat heavy heart and turned to Xena. "You know, Xena," Xan said gruffly, lifting Xena's hand and kissing the back of it. "One of these days, you are going to say those three little words to me that I have always longed to hear."
Xena raised an eyebrow as they engaged in a stare-down. Xena wasn't biting.
"You mean, 'I love you'?" Gabrielle asked, deciding to speed things along a bit, having witnessed these stare-downs before.
"Oh, no, no-no-no," Xan replied, placing Xena's hand over her heart. "Not those three little words. I'm talking the ultimate here. I'm referring to the words that have eluded hundreds, maybe thousands, of Xena's followers, elicited the most passionate imaginings, inspired the wettest of wet dreams..."
Xena gave Xan a thoroughly noxious look and none too gently reclaimed her hand.
"Then what?" Gabrielle asked, laughing, hopelessly intrigued now, in spite of a warning look from Xena.
Xan inhaled dramatically; a long, deep breath, and released it slowly. Shaking her hands out in front of her, rotating her head to loosen neck muscles, she finally squared her shoulders and stood perfectly still. She cleared her face of all expression and placed her hands on Xena's shoulders. Leaning very close and in an eerily remarkable rendition of Xena's voice said, "Xan, Argo is yours," Pulling Xena forward then, in an astounding show of bravado, or utter stupidity, Xan kissed her; deeply, passionately, soundly.
Gabrielle exploded in laughter, Xena was not amused, and Xan ended up landing hard on her butt in the cold, cold mud, grinning from ear to ear.
"And that," Xena informed her, "was four words."
You brought me to trust
You brought me to tears
In one tender touch
The pain disappears
I have been to the sword
Seen it come
Seen it die
As we enter the dark
I beseech you to try
In prophecy all good things must end
So take care
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xan turned and waved a final good-bye, teeth dazzling white against her dark face, safely atop her own horse and a prudent distance away. With an impudent wink at Xena and an eye on the hand hovering near the chakram, she had departed posthaste after wrapping Gabrielle in her arms, bending her low and giving her an impassioned kiss that left them both breathless.
"You have to admit, that bit about Argo was funny," Gabrielle said, returning Xan's wave.
"Mmm," was Xena's equivocal reply.
"That was some kiss," Gabrielle added.
"Mine, or yours?"
"She'd have been better off kissing Argo."
Gabrielle laughed. They both watched as three Amazons on horseback joined Xan; stately silhouettes against a golden sun. Xan was only half listening as the impatient one called Amarice, who was already moving away, said something about her tribe being scattered so far and wide that they'd probably never find any of them. The other two solemnly placed fisted hands over their hearts then extended their arms toward Xena and Gabrielle, bidding them a royal Amazon farewell.
Xena laid a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. Gabrielle felt a tightening in her chest, and with a profound sense of pride and belonging, she returned the acknowledgment; next to Xena, there was home.
Xan stared a moment longer, then mimicked the Amazon's gesture, kissing her fingertips in lieu of the fisted hand. Xena smiled slightly and lifted her hand in farewell.
"She'll find Catherine, and she'll keep her safe," Gabrielle assured her, looking toward Xena when Xan was a mere speck on the horizon.
"I know," Xena replied quietly.
"You do love her," Gabrielle stated with conviction. "You love her very much."
"Love her? Xan?" Xena snorted.
"Give me a break, Gabrielle. She's stubborn, foolhardy, impulsive and she talks too much. When she's not talking she's asking questions, when she's not asking questions, she's giving you her opinion. How could I possibly love anyone like that?"
Gabrielle gave her a significantly pointed look. Xena drew back from the heat, bent her head and pulled at her earlobe while re-grouping. She then sniffed, rubbed her nose, and met Gabrielle's steely gaze. "Well, you, Gabrielle... I mean, you..."
Gabrielle pursed her lips and raised an eloquently inquisitive eyebrow. "I what?"
"You know," Xena insisted.
"Well, gee, Gabrielle, you have this ...this thing that sets you apart, ya know?"
"This remarkable thing," Xena draped an arm across Gabrielle's shoulders, pulled her close and whispered into her ear. "You, Gabrielle, you can cook. Ow."
If you're lost, you can look
And you will find me
Time after time
If you fall, I will catch you
I will be waiting
Time after time
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle sat down to tighten a bootlace and Xena, gingerly rubbing the rib Gabrielle had elbowed, sat down beside her.
"Put your finger on here, would you?" Gabrielle asked without looking up. "I can never seem to get this one tied tight enough."
"I'll do it."
"Ah ah, no thanks," Gabrielle said, slapping at Xena's fingers. "Last time you did it I couldn't get it untied, and the time before that you broke it and the time before that..."
Xena stuck her finger on the designated spot, effectively halting Gabrielle's tirade. Gabrielle smiled to herself.
"Well, you're supposed to move it before I pull it tight. Honesty, Xena..."
Xena extracted her finger and they began anew. "Gabrielle..."
"Maybe we should do the other one while-"
"Did I ever tell you how empty my life was before I met you? Gabrielle's hands went still, her heart did not. "How much I've learned," Xena said quietly, touching her hand, "and that I love you."
Gabrielle smiled, a bittersweet smile, remembering. "I always wondered if you heard me that day," voice soft, looking up, finally, into Xena's eyes.
"I always hear you, Gabrielle, sometimes it may take me a while to listen, but I always hear you.
Hear the music, dance if you can
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena opened one eye and found herself nose to nose with Gabrielle. "What's wrong?"
"I'm freezing," Gabrielle declared, breath vaporizing in the small space between them, adding visible credibility to her words.
"It's chilly," Xena conceded.
"Chilly? My goosebumps have goosebumps. My goosebump's goosebumps have-"
"I get the picture," Xena affirmed, opening her other eye. Gabrielle was shivering beneath the blankets. "Move closer to the fire," Xena suggested.
"Tried that. My backside got hot enough to fry fish; my front is still freezing.
"Mmmmm..." Xena replied sleepily, shutting her eyes again.
"'Mmmm', that's it?"
Xena opened her eyes once more. "Well, what do you suggest?"
"A room? A barn? A stable?"
"Mmm-hmm, if we were within miles of one. There's that cave back..."
"You know I-" Gabrielle interrupted.
"Hate caves," Xena finished. "Any other thoughts?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Uh-huh. That could work, I suppose. Maybe you could sleep with Argo."
Xena's mouth quirked up in a quick grin. "You said your backside is warm?"
"Well, why don't you back it on over here then."
Gabrielle grinned, turned over, and spooned herself into Xena's warmth, breathing a sigh of heartfelt contentment. Xena laid an arm across her waist, "Better now?"
"Oh, yeah, uh-huh."
The night returned to peaceful serenity for a few moments.
"What in Tartarus!" Gabrielle yelped.
"My feet are cold," Xena said matter of factly.
"Cold?! They feel like clumps of ice!"
"You're right. Maybe I'll just go warm them by the fire."
"No, no. Leave them, they'll warm up eventually, I suppose."
They lay in silence for a while.
"Isn't it nice how we've learned to share?" Xena whispered into Gabrielle's ear.
Gabrielle snorted. Xena smiled. Life was good.
Timeline: Shortly before "Endgame"
Author's Note: I would like to thank Xena Torres for her invaluable assistance, patience and encouragement. Also, regarding the quotes I have included from various songs and poems; I borrowed them because they are outstanding and, I believe, added something to the telling of the story. They are also not intended to infringe on anyone's copyright.
Legal Disclaimer: Xena: Warrior Princess is the sole copyright property of Renaissance Pictures, Universal Studios and Studios USA.
Rating: 14A - for violence
Edited by Xena Torres