A SIMPLE MATTER OF TRUST
I hold a picture of a time long gone
A time of ease and simple pleasures
And days in shadows not so long
Now with my mind I'm struggling
Holding on to what I believe
Listen to the fragments of my thoughts
That leave me broken and deceived
'Cause I don't know the way
She said "I can take you there,
I can show you places where our time has had no wear"
And as we walked the plains
The skies they opened wide
Revealing all the shame for what's been lost inside
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena opened her eyes in the darkness, unsure of what had disturbed a well-deserved and much needed night of rest. She listened carefully to the night sounds. Wind rustling through the trees, small, nocturnal creatures moving through the woods. An owl called softly near by, echoed by another in the distance; nothing unusual. She took a deep breath, savoring the sweet, rich smell of the dew-drenched earth around her. Beside her, Gabrielle moaned softly and turned restlessly in her sleep. Xena sat up and bent over her.
There was a light sheen of perspiration on her face and though the night was chilly, she had pushed the blankets away from her. Xena felt a dull ache deep within her heart. Gabrielle used to sleep so peacefully, the result of the clear conscience of an untroubled soul. That innocent little girl from Poteidaia was no more, thanks, in most part, to her. She wondered for the thousandth time if she had done the right thing, allowing Gabrielle to follow her, to become her friend. She pondered the mystery, and the irony, of how we always seem to end up hurting those that we love most, the most deeply.
An image of Gabrielle's earnest face appeared in her mind, first at Poteidaia...
You've got to take me with you, teach me everything you know.
Then at Amphipolis,
You're not gonna just leave me here, are you?
And, once more, at her brother's grave,
It's hard to be alone...
You're not alone.
She pulled the blanket up under Gabrielle's chin and rested her hand on the side of her face. Gabrielle seemed drawn by the warmth and leaned into it, sighing softly in the still night air. Xena stared at her for a moment, surprised to feel a tear slide from her eye. Gliding smoothly downward it fell and dropped softly onto Gabrielle's face, gleaming like a diamond in the moonlight. Wiping it away with her thumb, Xena leaned back and gazed into a raven sky alight with a dazzling array of stars. It filled her with wonder and made her feel small and insignificant. She smiled to herself. Now she was thinking like Gabrielle. She never used to notice such things until Gabrielle came into her life. There was so much that was so good between them. Was it enough to allow them to forget past hurts and betrayals?
A shooting star flashed past, leaving a luminous trail in its wake. "Yes," Xena whispered emphatically to the night. "Yes, it is." She so wanted it to be true.
Gabrielle woke near dawn to a sky turning indigo along the horizon. Everything was still, as if the earth was holding its breath before setting the day in motion. Looking out into the woods, she saw a dark shape at the edge of the tree line and shivered as a chill ran through her. Propping herself up on her elbows, she glanced over at Xena. She was sleeping soundly. She felt the presence before she saw it, and closed her eyes against it.
"Hello, Mother." The voice was hard as granite and laced with faint disdain.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked up at the figure shrouded in black standing before her. An icy smile appeared on a familiar face, never reaching the smoldering eyes that burned the soul and froze the heart.
"You're not real," Gabrielle stated flatly.
"Oh, I'm real enough, no thanks to you."
Gabrielle shut her eyes. "No. No, you're not. Leave me alone, Hope."
"I could have changed for you, if you had given me the chance. I wanted to, I really did."
Gabrielle opened her eyes and sat up. "You had every chance I could give you!"
"No, you failed me, Mother, just as you failed her." She nodded toward Xena.
"Yes! You lied to her, betrayed her, because of your own jealousy and selfish desire! She'll never really trust you again, you know. Never!"
Gabrielle shook her head in weary denial. "Please," she whispered, "please, leave me alone."
"Leave you alone? But, why? You are my mother, after all. I just want to hold you, be close to you."
Gabrielle gazed into the barren eyes beneath the hood, seeking some minute spark of hope, of life...there was only emptiness. A pale hand reached out to her. She tried to move away, but felt frozen in place. Hope touched her shoulder, the contact was chilling, icy, disturbing. The grip tightened, pulling her forward. "Hold me, Mother."
Gabrielle tried desperately to pull away. "Let go, let me go!"
With a gasp and a cry, Gabrielle sat up and found herself in Xena's arms.
"Gabrielle...Gabrielle it's all right."
"By the gods!" Gabrielle's voice was tight with fear.
"It's all right, Gabrielle, it was just a nightmare." Gabrielle shivered and Xena released her, pulling the blanket up around her shoulders. She laid a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, and the bard started a bit at her touch. Surprised, and a little unsettled at her reaction, Xena removed her hand. "Do you want to talk about it? Your dream?" Gabrielle shook her head no and Xena stared at her, not knowing what else to do. "I'll build up the fire then, you're freezing." As she began to stand up, Gabrielle grabbed her wrist. Xena looked into her eyes, shocked at the look of distress she saw there.
"Xena..." Gabrielle met her gaze for a moment then looked away, tears blurring her vision.
"Gabrielle, why don't you tell me about it, let me help you. Please."
"Do you trust me, Xena?"
The question so surprised her, she was speechless for a moment. Xena placed her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and squeezed gently. "Gabrielle, look at me."
Gabrielle lifted her eyes to Xena's penetrating blue gaze. Those eyes could say so much, and yet, at times, she got lost in them, trying to find the soul within.
"Of course I trust you; I'd trust you with my life."
And you have, Gabrielle thought to herself. And you almost lost it, because of me.
Xena gazed at her, sensing the pain within, knowing that feeling all too well herself. She wished there were something she could say, or do, to reassure her but words were never easy for her, and she doubted they would do much now anyway. At a loss as to how to help Gabrielle, Xena pulled her close for a moment then leaned back, looking again into the younger woman's troubled eyes. "I wish...Gabrielle, I don't know how..." Xena's eyes narrowed and she shook her head a little, frustrated now, at her inability to communicate her feelings. "Why don't you lie back and try to get a little more sleep?"
Gabrielle stared at her. Xena was unsure of what she hoped to see, but she held Gabrielle's gaze until she finally looked away. Xena wondered if she had found what it was she was looking for, or merely gave up trying. As Gabrielle lay back down, Xena tucked the blanket snugly under her chin. Gabrielle closed her eyes and in a surprisingly short time, slipped into a deep sleep. Xena remained by her side for a while longer, smiling slightly as another memory surfaced.
I'm sending you home in the morning, you know.
I won't stay home. I don't belong there, Xena.
As Xena continued to study Gabrielle's face, her heart filled with something close to despair. She longed for the power to somehow return them both to a time of relative peace and innocence, a time that seemed forever lost to them now. A frustrating sense of helplessness brought an annoying and utterly useless flood of tears to her eyes.
Lying back down herself, closing her eyes, she hoped in vain for escape into dreamless oblivion. Sleep eluded her for a long time. Finally, peace and sleep descended once more, as Gabrielle reached out and laid a hand against her back, as she had done every night from the very first time they lay down to rest together. That small contact seemed to be the talisman that kept the demons away from them both.
Gabrielle woke to the smell of something slightly noxious in the air. Never an early riser, she sat up slowly, blinking owlishly in the bright sunlight. The smell assailed her again. Scrunching up her nose in distaste, she tried to get her wits about her. The sun was higher in the sky than it normally would be to start their day. Xena had allowed her the luxury of sleeping late for a change. Sometimes she wondered if Xena ever truly slept, or just underwent some sort of total regeneration when she closed her eyes. She always rose extremely early and disgustingly wide-awake.
The air was crisp, the day beautiful, ruined only by the permeating, and slightly foul, odor wafting around her. Determining quickly and to her great relief that it was not she, creating this peculiar scent, she rubbed her face vigorously with both hands and looked around.
Xena was bending over the campfire, stirring something simmering in a cooking pot. Since Xena professed no interest, and therefore absolutely no talent in cooking, Gabrielle's first thought was of a witch stirring a caldron. She smiled at that image, as well as the look of supreme concentration etched on Xena's face.
"What are you doing?" she asked softly.
Xena looked up at her. The look on her face changed instantly to that of a small child caught doing something she probably should not be. "I'm making breakfast."
This announcement both shocked and amused Gabrielle mightily. Stifling a grin, lest she offend her friend, she swallowed and tried to speak normally. "Really?" was all she could safely manage.
Xena's eyes narrowed as she studied her. Xena knew her too well and Gabrielle struggled to keep a straight face. Just when she thought she could no longer keep up the facade, a big bubble of something burst forth over the side of the pot. Xena jumped back with a short yelp of surprise. Cursing softly, waving one hand in the air to soothe her scalded fingers, Xena glared menacingly at the pot.
Gabrielle, no doubt fearing the loss of another good cooking pot, covered a snort of laughter by clearing her throat and getting to her feet. She walked quickly over to Xena, who was now busily attacking the pot's innards with a long spoon. Breathing carefully through her mouth, thus sparing her nose another assault, Gabrielle set her face in a mask of seriousness and bent down beside her. "What...uhm, what is it...exactly?" she queried.
Xena turned her watery blue eyes toward Gabrielle's bemused greenish-blue ones. "Fish stew," she replied.
Her reply sounded more like a question than a statement of fact, and Gabrielle bit down hard on the inside of her lip in order to maintain her serious look. "Ah," she said thoughtfully.
"Are you hungry?" Xena asked hopefully.
Well, I was, Gabrielle thought. "Uhm," she answered aloud. Xena again turned a penetrating gaze on her. "What's the occasion?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena returned her gaze to the cooking pot. "Well, I just thought...you always do all the cooking, and I don't want you to think-" She looked back up at Gabrielle, whose face remained innocently questioning, one eyebrow quirked up. Xena cleared her throat. "Look, I know you didn't sleep well last night, and I...well..."
Looking into the fathomless depths of Xena's piercing blue eyes, Gabrielle saw a flicker of something that spoke distinctly and quite directly to her heart. She was, at once, oddly touched, yet vastly amused by the breakfast gesture. She smiled slightly and reached out to touch Xena's shoulder.
Xena jumped slightly at the same time, and turned her attention back to the stew, which was hissing angrily and escaping the confines of the pot again. Muttering a few phrases of which Gabrielle could decipher only a few unsavory words, Xena stood up and removed it from the fire. Absently blowing a stream of cooler air across her now twice scorched fingers, she looked happily at Gabrielle.
"It's done," she announced, again in that tone suggesting a hint more question than fact. Not quite knowing how to respond, Gabrielle wisely just nodded her head. Xena spooned a healthy portion of stew onto a plate and handed it to her. Gabrielle took it, keeping a wary eye on it, and sat down. As Xena turned back to the pot, Gabrielle scrutinized her plate and then wished she hadn't.
She stared in awe at some vaguely discernible fish parts swimming valiantly against a tide of steaming, brackish looking water. For some reason, an image of a moat around a castle popped into her mind. She didn't know whether to laugh, or run screaming from the campsite. Come on, Gabrielle, she thought to herself. How bad could it be? Unfortunately, she found out moments later when she forgot to breathe through her mouth and inhaled an odor that would, most assuredly, rival any within the deepest bowels of Tartarus. Gruesomely fascinated, she surveyed the 'moat' once more. Something that she could have sworn had eyes popped to the surface, solemnly regarded its surroundings, then slowly sank from view. A strong survival instinct overlaid her initial shock and urged her to throw the concoction as far away from her as she possibly could. She overcame that particular urge by gripping the plate tightly with both hands.
Xena sat down beside her with a sigh and cast a somewhat malevolent look at her own meal; she had met the enemy and it lay cowering before her in a plateful of lumpy defeat. Xena turned and smiled at her. Well, maybe more of a manic grin than a smile. Gabrielle matched it with a wavering one of her own. They stared at one another for a moment. Gabrielle felt the laughter begin to build again in her chest, or was it hysteria?
"So..." Xena ventured.
"Mmm-hmm," Gabrielle hedged in return.
Xena was clearly waiting for her to take the first bite. Gabrielle's eyes widened in shock at this realization and let's face it, she conceded to herself, unabated fear. She hid the look by casting her eyes quickly down to her plate. Big mistake, that, because whatever was floating around in there wasn't aging well. She picked up her fork and looked up at Xena, who was staring at her own plate in silent wonder.
Taking a deep breath then rubbing at her nose with the back of her hand, Xena looked back over at Gabrielle. Gabrielle smiled sweetly, carefully foraging around in her plate, looking for the smallest and least offensive morsel - an arduous task, seeing as how nothing on there seemed small and everything was largely offensive. Finally, she stabbed at something, which immediately slithered away from the offending fork and took refuge under a mass of protective greenery at the far side of her plate. Startled, Gabrielle thought that, surely, nothing could still be alive after all that boiling. She glanced quickly up at Xena, and thought, prayed actually, that she detected just a hint of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. But, the look was quickly gone, if it was ever there, and she looked guilelessly into Gabrielle's eyes.
Gabrielle took a deep breath, through her mouth this time, quick study that she was, and tried again. This time, she managed to spear what she hoped was just a very overcooked piece of fish. She stuck it into her mouth quickly, before her mind could completely grasp what she was about to do and had the sense to rebel. She looked over at Xena, who looked somewhat surprised, and maybe a little in awe of her friend. Gabrielle smiled serenely and began to chew. The taste fell somewhere between fish and damp earth, which conjured up ghastly images of earthworms in her mind. In one of the more intense battles of her life, she emerged victorious over the urge to spit and run. She did stop chewing, however, and swallowed quickly. Her throat tightened for an instant, as her stomach made a threatening gesture. Gabrielle clamped her teeth together, and after a brief, but impassioned, general uprising, everything finally settled into an uneasy calm within.
Xena continued to stare at her with newfound respect. When Gabrielle turned her eyes back toward her, Xena quickly dropped her eyes back down to her own plate. As the stew began to cool, it also began a strange metamorphosis. Parts of it began to congeal and break open, exposing little oddities in their depths. Xena became oddly fascinated at the transformation. With Xena's attention focused on her plate, Gabrielle managed to tip her own plate, silently apologizing to Mother Earth, and spilled the majority of her meal out on the ground. As Xena looked back up, Gabrielle covered her transgression nicely with a reach for the water bottle. "Oops!" she offered apologetically.
Xena's already growing respect for Gabrielle's ingenuity elevated to a new level. Gabrielle threw a meaningful glance at Xena's untouched plate. The challenge had been issued; Xena's turn to accept, or turn tail like a coward and flee. Xena decided on a delaying tactic and gave Gabrielle a dazzling smile. This particular smile was so seldom seen, it immediately threw Gabrielle off balance. Recovering quickly, she tore her eyes away from Xena's gleaming teeth and stared directly into her eyes. Xena's smile held for a moment longer, then wavered. Her lower lip jutted out into a slight pout, and then was sucked in beneath her top teeth. Gabrielle fought off an attack of the giggles once more and maintained her passive demeanor.
Xena gathered her courage, like the true warrior she was, and stabbed at a piece of...something on her plate. Immediately taking on a life of its own, it popped out from under her fork. Taking flight like a startled bird, it hit Gabrielle squarely on the chin with a soft splat and landed in her lap with a squishy, moist sssphlop.
Screeching like a banshee, Gabrielle jumped to her feet, beating furiously at her lap. "Augh! By the gods, Xena!" she shouted, doing a little dance about the campfire. She stopped abruptly as a strange strangling sound reached her ears. With visions of slimy sea serpents still firmly entrenched in her mind, she looked swiftly over at Xena. Hand over her mouth, her shoulders shaking and heaving, tears streaming from her eyes, face red, Xena doubled over.
Gabrielle dropped her plate and rushed to her side. Thinking for sure that she was choking to death on a mutant piece of breakfast, Gabrielle began pounding her on the back. "Xena!" Xena raised a hand. Half in a panic now, Gabrielle resumed her pounding.
Xena grabbed blindly for her wrist and finally captured it. "Stop," she gasped, sitting up. "Stop, please..."
Gabrielle looked into her face. Xena's eyes were wide open, teeth clamped shut, a look like a startled deer on her face. "Xena! Are you all right?"
The shoulders began to shake once more. She snorted and closed her eyes. Gabrielle stared hard at her for a moment until she finally realized that Xena was choking all right, not on breakfast, but on laughter. Indignant now and angry with her for scaring her so badly, she yanked her wrist free from Xena's grasp and stood up. Xena opened her eyes and looked up at her, eyes swimming with tears. "It's not funny, Xena!"
Xena clamped her teeth over her lower lip, and tried to compose herself. "I know, I'm sorry," she said contritely. But, unable to keep a lingering chuckle from her apology, it lost most of its intended seriousness.
Unrelenting, Gabrielle scowled down at her. "You scared me."
Xena nodded. "Sorry," she added sheepishly.
"Well, you should be. First you try and poison me then you nearly scare me to death. I thought you were dying!" Xena nodded again. After a moment of head hanging, she looked back up at Gabrielle and then at something just past her. Smile dropping from her face, she suddenly stood up, chakram in hand. Gabrielle swung around and took a step back toward Xena. "What...?" she said, instantly on guard. Xena pushed Gabrielle behind her, and began searching the ground in front of her. "What is it?" Gabrielle whispered, stepping up close behind her.
Xena shushed her, putting an arm out in front of her to keep her back. "I'm not sure, but I think I just saw that piece of stew that attacked you sneaking around," she said gruffly.
Gabrielle stood motionless for a moment, bending around Xena, her eyes intent on the ground in front of them. Ever so slowly, Xena's words began to register. Straightening up, she shifted her gaze to the back of Xena's head.
"It's got to be around here somewhere," Xena told her, turning to look at her.
Gabrielle began to get a familiar Gabrielle-ish look on her face; equal parts anger, amusement and awareness that she'd been had. She looked into Xena's azure gaze for a moment, and then smacked her hard on the shoulder. Xena looked surprised; Gabrielle winced as her fingers tingled uncomfortably after connecting with part of Xena's body armor. They locked eyes for a few moments, and then both dissolved into a fit of giggles that escalated quickly into gales of hilarity. Collapsing onto the ground, they leaned against one another until the laughing fit finally ebbed away, leaving them pleasantly exhausted. The thought briefly crossed both their minds that perhaps it wasn't all that funny, and perhaps, maybe, they were losing it just a bit. But, it felt good, and it was a much needed release of tension. Both of them recognized it as such, and were grateful.
They sat for a short while in contented silence before Xena rose slowly to her feet and looked out toward the horizon. "Someone's coming."
Gabrielle looked at her warily. "Really?"
Xena turned, smiling, and extended a hand out to her, pulling her to her feet. "Honest," she promised. "Horses, four or five, not far off."
Gabrielle nodded and they began to break camp. They both reached for the water bags at the same time. Gabrielle looked into her eyes. "I'll get it."
"Okay," Xena conceded.
Before she turned away, Gabrielle placed a hand on her arm. "Thanks, Xena," she added softly.
Xena's eyebrow rose slightly. "For breakfast?"
Gabrielle smiled a little. "No, for..." she stopped speaking, at a rare loss for words.
Xena reached out and flicked a tiny residue of breakfast stew from Gabrielle's chin. "Laughter is good for the soul, Gabrielle, or so they say."
"Well, I think they were right. Who said that?"
"I think it was you."
Gabrielle laughed, picked up the water bags, and headed toward the stream. When she returned, Xena was kicking dirt over a hole in the ground. "What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked, walking up beside her.
"Burying breakfast, so we don't poison the wildlife," Xena answered straight-faced.
"Good thinking, "Gabrielle replied. "And may the gods have mercy on the worms."
They looked at each other, but before they could succumb to yet another attack of the giggles, they were both distracted by the sound of horses fast approaching.
Xena moved slightly in front of Gabrielle, placing her hand on her chakram as the four horsemen drew near. The lead horseman turned and shouted something to the others; they in turn dropped off and headed in three different directions. Xena lowered her hand to her side as she recognized the lone rider, who was still advancing on them at a fast gallop. Gabrielle took a step back as horse and rider slid to an abrupt halt in front of them, ducking her head slightly as a cloud of dust settled over them. She looked up to find a pair of oddly colored silver-gray eyes staring down at her.
The rider smiled widely, teeth startlingly white against a dust-shrouded face. The eyes, shining and mischievous, shifted to Xena. "Xena! You old horse thief, I've been looking everywhere for you."
Gabrielle studied him. The voice was pleasant, with a slight, lilting dialect that she did not recognize. He was not large in stature, layers of clothing giving him a deceivingly bulky appearance, but he was a commanding presence. Rather nice looking, in a rough sort of way; thick, longish dark hair, olive skin contrasting sharply with those steel gray eyes. A small scar running across his upper lip gave the impression of a slight snarl to his smile. Funny, she thought to herself, that most of Xena's acquaintances, friend and foe alike seemed to have a scar somewhere on their person, herself included. She realized that she was staring and felt herself blush when she realized that he was staring at her also, unabashedly looking her up and down, giving her a quick grin as her eyes met his once more.
Xena quirked an eyebrow up, a half smile forming on her lips. "I never stole a horse in my life, Xander."
Eyes still locked onto Gabrielle's, he snorted out a short burst of laughter. "Yeah, well, then that would be about the only thing."
Xena gave him a Look, shooting a quick glance at Gabrielle who covered up an amused smile by coughing into her hand. "Dusty," she explained, looking into Xena's eyes.
"Mmmm..." Xena replied.
Xander watched this exchange with interest. Pulling his foot from the stirrup, turning sideways in the saddle, he slid off the horse, raising another cloud of dust when he hit the ground. Gabrielle's coughing was for real this time. "Sorry, been on the road awhile. So, who's your friend, Xena?"
Xena gave him another look, but his eyes were again on Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, this is Xander, an old friend. Xander, Gabrielle, a very dear friend."
His smile widened as he took her hand in a firm grip and held onto it a little longer than necessary. As she began to pull her hand away, he massaged the inside of her wrist with his thumb, sending a flash of warmth flooding through her. Her mouth dropped open slightly as she met his innocent gaze.
Xena's face took on a familiar sardonic look as she pointedly cleared her throat. "You said you were looking for me?"
Gabrielle started a bit at the sound of Xena's voice. Pulling her hand away from Xander's, she stepped back, feeling a little disoriented.
The smile left his face as he turned his attention back to Xena. "Rachel sent me."
Xena's face drained of color and she took a swift intake of breath, as though she had been struck. Her body grew rigid, eyes growing distant, unseeing. Gabrielle reached out to touch her and Xena flinched a bit at the contact. "Where..." Xena's voice sounded old, unused, she cleared her throat and tried again. "Where is she?" Xander threw a quick glance at Gabrielle. "It's all right," Xena assured him.
"In the caves, outside Corinth."
"Why? Where's Tomias?"
Xander's eyes dropped to the ground. "Dead." He swallowed, raising his eyes to hers once more.
"No..." She grabbed his wrist. "Bethshea?"
"Her, too. I'm sorry, Xena."
Xena looked stunned. Gabrielle understood none of it. These names, so strange sounding, she had never heard them before. She moved closer to Xena, lightly squeezing her arm. "Xena?" she whispered.
Xena grasped Xander's wrist tighter, pulling him closer, eyes locked onto his. "What happened? Where were you?" Her voice was as cold as ice.
Gabrielle winced at the look of hurt that stole into the gray eyes. Overwhelming sadness and pain; she probably would not have noticed had she not been so familiar with it herself. Xena must have noticed it too; for a brief moment her eyes lost some of their coldness as she stared at him. It returned all too quickly.
"Zagnan!" She spit out the name in a cold fury.
"Yes," Xander confirmed quietly. "Zagnan."
Xena's eyes grew hard, jaw clenching shut. The darkness that dwelled within her rose quickly to the surface. Gabrielle recognized the look and took an involuntary step away from her.
"How did he find her? How?! What does he want, after all this time?"
Her voice was a carefully controlled whisper as she squeezed harder on Xander's wrist. Gabrielle winced again; Xander didn't seem to notice.
"I don't know, Xena, I don't know how he found her, but..."
Her piercing blue glare grew even colder, frightening in its intensity. "Tell me."
"He tried to kill her, too. She's hurt. Badly, I think. I got her away but..." He shook his head. "He's searching for her, has a small army searching for her."
Studying him more closely now, Gabrielle noticed that, beneath the layers of dirt and grime, his face was badly bruised. There was a cut on his forehead running along the hairline and there was stiffness to his movements as he moved closer to Xena.
"Xena," he said softly, "she may be-"
"Don't!" she hissed. "Don't say it. She is not dead. I would know it if she was."
She looked over at Gabrielle, as if for confirmation. Gabrielle, wanting desperately to help, nodded and moved closer to her.
"Why, Xan?" Xena demanded, shifting her gaze back to him. "Why would he want to kill Rachel?"
He glanced at Gabrielle, trying to tell her something, though she had no idea what. Gabrielle took another step closer to Xena.
"She... she's with child, Xena. I think he was trying to kill the child."
Xena just stared at him. "That's not possible."
"That's what I thought, too," Xander replied. "But she is, nonetheless."
Xena turned toward Gabrielle, eyes a little wild, not quite meeting hers, already intent on her next objective. "I have some things to take care of. Stay here, I'll be back."
"I'll come with you," Xander offered.
"No," Xena countered, a little more harshly than she intended. "No, stay with Gabrielle." She turned abruptly, walked swiftly to Argo, made an agile leap into the saddle and rode off, leaving them to stare after her.
Gabrielle turned to look questioningly at Xander and was surprised to see a lone tear track a clear path through the dust on his face. Feeling her eyes on him he angrily brushed it away. "Damn dust," he grumped softly. Gabrielle smiled a little at that and he sighed heavily, shifting his gaze to the ground. "I feel I've let her down," he said softly, raising his eyes to hers, "and I owe her so much."
Gabrielle felt an instant common bond between them and tried to think of something to say to reassure him. She could think of nothing that did not sound hollow and patronizing, finally settling on simply; "I understand."
He stared at her for a moment, nodding his head slightly. "By the gods, I'm tired, Gabrielle."
She had so many questions to ask of him, but one look in his eyes told her that this was not the time. "Why don't you sit down, Xander? I'll make a fire, maybe scrounge up something to eat."
"Call me Xan. And that's the best idea I've heard in days. Just let me tend to my horse."
"I'll do it. Sit down, please."
"You don't have to."
"I know. Just sit, we might as well be comfortable while we wait for her to come back."
"How do you know she'll come back?"
Gabrielle glanced out toward the horizon then fixed her eyes on Xan's. "Because she said she would," she stated, her voice matter of fact.
"You seem to know her very well."
"Sometimes. And then there are times I don't believe I know her at all." And with that, she moved away to tend the horse. As she unsaddled it, it watched her with a wary eye, reminding her of Argo. Whispering soft nonsense to it, she tied a long lead to a log close to the stream and left it to graze.
She returned to find Xan sitting down, back against a tree, fast asleep. A fire burned nearby and the smell of sweet wood smoke made her oddly nostalgic for simpler times. Filling a pot with water and a few herbs, she let it warm for a while over the fire. She soaked a cloth in the mixture then reached over to clean the cut on his forehead.
He reached out suddenly and grabbed her wrist in a bone-crunching grip. Startled, Gabrielle jumped, sucking in air between clenched teeth. Xan released her immediately, sat up with a grunt, and began apologizing profusely. "I'm really sorry, Gabrielle, did I hurt you?"
"No, no, "she replied, rubbing her wrist. "I'm fine. It was my own fault. I know better. I just wasn't thinking."
"Still..." Reaching over, he took her wrist and examined it closely with a surprisingly gentle touch. "Well," he offered with a half smile, "at least I didn't break it."
She returned the smile as she removed her hand from his grasp. "I was going to clean that cut."
"Don't bother, it's nothing."
Gabrielle lifted a lock of hair and examined it; a nasty looking gash, caked with dried blood and dirt. "Trust me, Xan, it's something." Retrieving the cloth, she dipped it in the herb-laden water and began to clean the wound.
Xan sighed and leaned back. "You have a nice touch, Gabrielle."
She looked down into slate gray eyes, expecting them to look as cold and hard as their color suggested. Instead, she found them exceptionally warm and gentle. "Thank you," she replied softly. "This cut is deep, I'm afraid it may leave a scar."
"Really," Xan laughed. "Well then, I guess I'll just consider it an addition to my collection."
Gabrielle touched the scarred lip. "How did you get that?"
His eyes seemed to light up and grow hard simultaneously. "Ah, that one. That one was from a mutual friend."
"Xena?!" Gabrielle's voice held a faint note of disbelief.
"It was a long time ago. It could've been much worse; she could've just as easily killed me." Gabrielle leaned back. Xan gave her a long look. "There may be quite a great deal that you don't know about Xena, Gabrielle."
"It's not that, exactly...it's just that I...I mean, she has never mentioned Rachel, or Zagnar, or you for that matter. Not that she has to tell me everything; it's just a little frustrating at times."
"Nan," Xan interrupted.
"It's Zagnan not Zagnar."
"Nan, nar, what's the difference?" she groused, voice rising slightly.
"I'm not angry."
"You seem angry."
"No...yes, a little, maybe." Frustrated, she stood up and began to pace.
"Gabrielle, I didn't mean to upset you."
"It's not you. And I'm not upset, exactly..." She stopped pacing, exasperated, and threw her hands in the air. "How can I explain this to you? I worry about her. Not that she needs me to worry about her. But, that's what friends do, right? And I want so much to help her, but sometimes I just feel so helpless, and for some reason, I want to blame her for that. And that makes me feel..." She looked over at him once more. "You wouldn't understand. I don't even understand it myself."
"Oh, I think I do understand. Why don't you sit down, Gabrielle, you're scaring my horse." She gave him a bewildered look. "She's a bit skittish, and frustrated women scare her. I try to shelter her from them as best I can."
Gabrielle looked out toward the clearing where Xander's horse was indeed staring at her, muscles tense, ears pointed forward. Gabrielle emitted a short burst of laughter, breaking the tension, and sat down heavily beside him. They sat in silence for a while, watching the light begin to fade from the sky. A perfect formation of geese appeared in the distance, honking noisily as they approached. Their wings made a strange squeaking noise in the still evening air as they flew overhead. When she was a child, Gabrielle always thought it sounded as though their wings were rusted, like an old wagon wheel on an ungreased axle.
"You're very close, aren't you? You and Xena?"
She watched the geese until they were out of sight then turned her eyes to his. "Yes."
She smiled a little. "What makes you think there's a 'but'?"
He returned her smile. "I can feel it; something...not quite right between you." The smile slid from her face. "I don't mean to pry. I'm enjoying the silence with you. We can keep it that way if you like." Her eyes shifted to the lowering sun in the western sky and for a moment he thought she had decided to do just that.
"I...we, had some issues, in the past. We resolved them, but, sometimes...I've been having these dreams lately, I don't know why." Her voice faded.
"Sometimes the past can haunt you," he offered knowingly.
"I wish...wish I could go back somehow, you know? Go back and make things right. She trusted me and I betrayed that trust, sometimes I still feel as though I need to do something to regain it. Most of the things I try just seem to end up making it worse."
"Maybe you're trying too hard."
She shook her head slightly, considering. "Now there's a thought."
"It's a funny thing, trust," he continued. "It is more precious than the purest gold. You think you can earn it, and to some degree I suppose that's true. And then, in one unthinking act, one irreversible moment in time, you lose it. Can you regain it? I'm not really sure. I think either it's there, or it isn't and there is not much you can do about it. But, I'll tell you what I am sure of, Gabrielle." Gabrielle looked into his eyes again. "If Xena did not trust you, she would not be here with you now. And, if you did indeed betray her...well, if she did not truly love you, you would not be here at all." Gabrielle remained silent and looked away. "Do you trust her?" Xan probed gently.
The question seemed to startle her. After another few moments of silence, she looked over at him. "Yes, I do. I don't always understand her, but I do trust her."
"I don't think anyone will ever understand Xena." He had, in fact, heard stories of one woman in a far off land who probably did, but wisely did not mention her name. "I do know, now, that Xena does what she thinks she has to do to protect those that she cares about. Her decisions are not always the right ones and they are not always easy to accept..." - his eyes grew distant for a moment - "and sometimes, the wrong people get hurt. But, most of the time, I think, what she does is right."
"I know. But it's still hard at times," Gabrielle agreed softly. "Sometimes, I find myself wondering where we are going and why, and what we hope to find at the end, if there is an end."
"Ah, but it is the difficult times that make us strong," Xan stated, meeting her eyes once more. "It is the tears that cleanse our souls, the forgiving that binds us closer to one another. Why we go is not as important as who we go with. It is what life and love are all about, Gabrielle. It is not the destination; it is instead, the journey. Occasionally, you even discover that what you have been searching for has been right in front of you all along. "
She stared at him, amazed. Such simple words and yet, for the first time in a long time, she felt the wisdom and the warmth of them begin to melt the icy grip around her heart. And this somehow made her vulnerable. The past, the demons that still haunted her dreams, the hurt, the anger, the doubt, all rose in a flood of tears and emotion that threatened to overwhelm her. She began to stand and a subtle hand stayed her.
Xan's eyes, so light gray they looked almost transparent, pulled her gently down. "It is all right to cry, Gabrielle. Here, just close your eyes."
She did so, relieved to be released from his silvery gaze. A soft touch brushed away the tears from her face. She found herself embarrassed by her loss of control in front of this stranger. "I'm sorry, I-"
"Nothing to be sorry for, Gabrielle." The voice was soft, innocent, yet somehow sensuous, having a somewhat unnerving effect on her. "Personally, I think Xena is extremely fortunate to have found someone...someone like you."
The words faded away as Xan drew nearer. Gabrielle pulled back slightly, startled, as soft lips met hers. Her first instinct was to open her eyes and stand up, and she would have, had there been the slightest hint of resistance by Xan in keeping her from doing just that. But, Xan, wisely, kept very still, and instead, leaning forward once more, Gabrielle found herself surprisingly needful of what she considered a simple gesture of kindness and compassion.
The contact was, at first, merely comforting. But then, it began to evolve into something much more. Slowly, she began to respond to an urgent desire to fill some nameless, aching need within her. She resisted it for a time, trying to regain her hold on a rather frightening loss of control. But the need was proving itself more powerful than her desire for self-control and she began to surrender herself to it. An uncomfortable sense of betrayal slowly insinuated itself upon her. Betrayal? she wondered. To whom? Myself? Or...someone? The answer eluded her, the question lost, swept clean away for the moment, though she would find no peace from it for quite some time.
Then, there was a somber sense of calm, like stepping into a hushed cathedral of the mind. And within that silence drifted a voice of conscience, posing a question whose answer would forever change her. It touched her soul, soft as butterfly wings, and whispered to her heart...Who, then, will you love, as you will never love another?
The answer, if she would but only listen, echoed deep in the canyons of her soul. She need only open her eyes, her heart, and grasp it. But, in a simple twist of fate, or perhaps a cruel trick of the gods, she opened her eyes to find, not the blue fire she expected, but gray smoke instead.
They both blinked, equally startled, and pulled back. There was a moment of absolute silence between them, coupled with something else that neither of them could put a name to. Gabrielle shook her head slightly, stood up slowly, and turned toward the setting sun. "She's coming." The words seemed to echo in the utter stillness of her mind.
Gabrielle's voice was a little breathless and nearly inaudible to Xander whose heartbeat suddenly seemed exceedingly loud in his ears. Xan stood also, squinting into the light, seeing nothing except a line of purple clouds sailing majestically across a horizon drenched in the fiery aftermath of the setting sun.
"How do you know?" Xan wondered aloud. Gabrielle said nothing, but in a few moments, the sound of a horse approaching gradually filled the silence around them. "Huh," Xander whispered. An odd little thrill ran through him; a strange mixture of awe, just bordering on fear. The exact same feeling that he had always experienced when Xena performed this identical, eerie little feat of magic in his presence. "Gabrielle?"
"Hmmmm?" she replied absently, her eyes intent on the darkness closing around them.
"How do you know?"
"How do you know that it's Xena?"
Shrugging slightly, her eyes touched his briefly. "I just...I can just feel her, you know?"
Xan nodded understandingly, not understanding at all. Gabrielle's eyes and her attention deserted him once more, watching, waiting, for Xena to light the darkness with her presence. She bent down and threw more wood on the fire. Xander searched the darkness when he heard the jingle of harness, but did not see Xena until Gabrielle took a step forward. Gabrielle searched Xena's face as her dark silhouette gained both substance and color in the light of the fire.
Xena's own encompassing gaze took in the look of concern in the sea-green eyes, and also the rise of color beginning at Gabrielle's neck and rising high onto her cheeks. With a slight lift of her head, Xena quirked an eyebrow up and shot a knowing look at Xander. Xander's eyes met hers for a moment, then, with an almost imperceptible sideways headshake, they slipped off toward Gabrielle. Gabrielle either didn't notice, or chose to ignore, this exchange. Xena's eyes remained fixed on Xander.
"Is everything all right, Xena?"
"For now. Gabrielle, I...I, uhm, have some explaining to do. We can talk while we travel."
"When are we leaving?"
"Tonight. As soon as possible." Gabrielle nodded. Xena looked over at her, she was busily gathering up blankets. Walking over to her, she laid a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. Gabrielle stopped what she was doing and looked up at her. "Gabrielle, I..."
"Thank you for...I owe you an explanation, but-"
"First things first?" Gabrielle interrupted, smiling slightly.
Xena returned the smile. "We need to get moving. I have to talk to Xan, would you-"
"Mind packing up? No problem, go ahead."
Xena suddenly felt that she needed to say, or do more. She thought of all the things that she, that they both, at times, took so much for granted. The loyalty, the friendship, so much more. Someday, when she had the time...
Gabrielle gave her another brief smile. "It's all right, Xena, really. Time is not something we seem to have right now."
Xena's eyes widened a bit, sometimes she wondered if Gabrielle actually could read her mind. Xena nodded and walked out to the clearing where Xander was saddling his horse.
The silvery eyes met hers over the horse's back. "You don't deserve her; you know that, don't you?"
"Yeah, well, Xan, I didn't deserve you either."
That provoked a short bark of laughter. "Yes, Xena, but we, we are two of a kind." She made no reply to this "I didn't tell her anything," Xander assured her after a moment of silence between them.
"I knew you wouldn't, but thank you, just the same."
Gabrielle watched them from a distance, walking toward the moonlit clearing only after they finished their conversation and shared a somewhat awkward embrace. Xander mounted the horse and raised a hand toward her in farewell. Gabrielle gave him a small half smile and felt an odd pulling at her heart. By the time she raised her own hand in farewell, Xan was lost in the darkness.
Xena walked over to Gabrielle. "Ready?" she asked softly.
Gabrielle shifted her eyes to Xena's. "Ready," she affirmed. Then, again sensing Xena's urgency, she placed her hand on Xena's shoulder. "Xena, if you want to ride on ahead, I can catch up with you later."
"No. No, I want to rest Argo. We'll walk for a bit then we'll double up."
Nodding, Gabrielle began to turn away, Xena took her hand. "Besides," she continued, "I need you...want you with me, I need to talk to you." Xena gave her hand a gentle squeeze before she turned to pick up Argo's reins.
"So, how long have you known Xander?"
Xena cast a sideways glance at her. "A long time."
"Were you...are you close?"
"We were, at one time. It was a long time ago. We haven't been in touch for many years."
"Why is that?"
Xena hesitated for a moment before answering. "It was necessary. Knowing me is not always...not very..."
"Safe?" Gabrielle supplied.
Xena stopped walking and looked closely at her in the moonlight, relieved to see there was an amused grin on her face. Flashing a quick smile of her own, they resumed walking, continuing on in silence for a while.
"Xander is very, uhm, different, isn't he?"
"Well, yeah, I mean, he's not much like other men I've met."
Xena glanced at her again, but a cloud had passed in front of the moon, hiding her face in shadow. "How so?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath, gathering her thoughts. The moon slipped out from behind the clouds, illuminating the road ahead with cool, blue light. "Well, he's very rough looking, yet he is...uh, seems to be, very gentle, sensitive, caring. Actually, he reminds me a great deal of you. He isn't another relative that you've neglected to mention is he?"
Another look revealed that Gabrielle's smile was still in place. "No, we're not related." They walked on a bit further before Xena added, "But, the name isn't actually Xander."
There was a slight hesitation to Gabrielle's step. "It's not?"
"Mm-mm," Xena replied.
"Well, are you going to explain? He uses an alias because...what? He's a warlord, thief, scoundrel, murderer?"
"'Actually yes,' what?" Gabrielle asked, growing exasperated.
Xena faced her with a distinctly Xena-like quirky smile on her lips. "Actually, yes. All of those, at one time or another."
"He has many skills?" Gabrielle borrowed one of Xena's own frequently used lines.
"She," Xena replied absently.
Weary from pulling bits of information out by the roots like teeth, Gabrielle lost the thread of conversation for a moment, and shook her head in confusion. "No, I meant him, not you. He also has many sk-"
"I did, too."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said, 'She.' Xander's name is really Xandra; he's a she, actually."
Gabrielle's eyes widened, she reached over and grabbed Xena's arm. "Wait...what? He is a she, a real woman she?"
"Last time I looked," Xena replied calmly, removing her arm from Gabrielle's grasp. Xena walked on for a short distance before she realized that Gabrielle was no longer with her. She stopped and Argo bumped into her, whickering softly. Placing her hand on Argo's soft nose, she dropped the reins and looked back. Gabrielle was standing like a statue, mouth agape, frozen in place in a pool of pale moonlight. "Stay here," she whispered to Argo, and walked back to Gabrielle, who seemed unaware of her presence. "Gabrielle?" No response. Becoming a bit concerned now, Xena laid a hand on Gabrielle's arm, and Gabrielle jumped slightly at the contact. "Gabrielle, are you all right?"
Blushing furiously in the telltale light of the full moon, she looked into Xena's eyes for a moment, then quickly away. She moved forward hastily and a bit awkwardly, stumbling slightly over an uneven patch of ground. Xena steadied her. Gabrielle glanced down at Xena's hand on her arm and pulled away. "I'm fine," she said shortly and somewhat hoarsely.
Xena's eyebrows rose slightly and an all too familiar impish grin spread across her face. Gabrielle made a sound somewhere between a snort and a grunt and moved on. Xena caught up a moment later and fell in step beside her, Argo keeping pace behind them.
After an indeterminate time of deep silence, Gabrielle looked over at her. "Why do you do that?"
"Do what?" Xena asked, all innocence.
"You know what. I know you are not one for small talk, Xena, but don't you think you could have mentioned this a little earlier?"
"I thought you knew."
"How in Zeus' name was I supposed to know?!"
"Well, you usually have a way of knowing these things...anyway, now you know, so what's the big deal?"
"What's the....the big deal is that I...that we..." At a rare loss for words, she dropped her gaze to the ground and bit her lower lip.
"You what?" Xena questioned delicately.
Gabrielle raised her eyes to search Xena's face, it remained impassive. Gabrielle sniffed and rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. Taking a deep breath and releasing it in a long sigh, she returned her eyes to the road and resumed walking. "Nothing. Let's just move on, shall we?"
Smiling to herself, Xena followed close behind.
Awhile later, Gabrielle turned slightly to look at her. "You know, Xena, it occurs to me that you sometimes drop these little tidbits of enlightenment on me when you want to sidetrack me from the issues at hand."
"And you also do that a lot."
"Answer a question with another question."
"Xena..." Gabrielle said warningly.
"Sorry, what was the question?"
Gabrielle hesitated for a moment, realizing that she had forgotten the question, if there even was one. "You know, sometimes talking to you is just like spitting into the wind."
A smile spread across Xena's face. "Why, Gabrielle, I didn't know you ever spit, into the wind or otherwise."
"Oh, yes, I do. As a matter of fact, I often spit nails after trying to have a conversation with you. I'm surprised you haven't noticed." Xena chuckled, a sound so rare and so dear to Gabrielle's heart that she felt her anger and frustration begin to dissolve, even as she tried to hold onto it.
In a night filled with the unexpected, Xena surprised her once again by stepping in front of her and pulling her forward into a quick, but fierce, embrace. "Love ya, Gabrielle. You know that, don't you?" And, with hardly a break in stride, she continued on. Shocked into silence, Gabrielle followed.
They traveled on through the night, sometimes riding, sometimes walking. They stopped only once to drink from a rushing river; water so sweet and cold it made Gabrielle's teeth ache. Walking again, Gabrielle gradually became mesmerized by the rhythmic beat of Argo's hooves on the dusty road. As the moon began a slow descent toward the coming dawn, Xena stopped and laid a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. Startled out of a sleepwalker's trance, Gabrielle let out a small squeak of surprise.
Xena gave her a half smile. "Sorry."
"Mmph," Gabrielle mumbled, struggling to collect her thoughts.
"We'll stop here for awhile."
"I'm all right, if you want to keep going."
"No. There are some things I need to tell you, before we get to where we are going. It's not far now."
They sat down on a lightning scarred log. Tried by fire, cleansed by the passage of time, it was now worn smooth, pure and white as new fallen snow. The waning moon reflected from an oval pond; a bright seeing eye in a pool of absolute darkness. Gabrielle leaned back and looked up into the sky; an immense blackness interrupted only by tiny pinpoints of starlight. "It's really beautiful, isn't it?" she said quietly.
"Yes, you..." Xena's voice sounded odd; Gabrielle turned to find her staring right at her. "You're right, it is beautiful." Xena shifted her eyes to the sky, a sad half smile on her lips, the one that always did something strange to Gabrielle's heart.
The wind rose, rushing through the trees, showering them with pungent fragrance and pine needles. Xena reached over and brushed a clump of dried needles from Gabrielle's hair. It was a rare, sweet moment of perfect peace between them; they both recognized it as such and remained silent for some time, unwilling to spoil it. Finally, reluctantly, Xena took a deep breath and broke the silence. "I know you think I am a strong person, Gabrielle." Xena averted her eyes, as she often did, on the rare occasions she decided to share her innermost thoughts and feelings. "But sometimes our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness."
Xena looked into Gabrielle's puzzled eyes. "I don't ever want to lose you, Gabrielle." Before she could say anything, Xena reached over and touched a fingertip against Gabrielle's lips. "I have a lot to tell you, Gabrielle, and not much time in which to do it."
"Xena, before you begin, I want you to know that you don't have to explain anything to me, I-"
"Yes, I do. I should have told you this before, especially after...I just never knew how to....I'm not very good at..." Annoyed with herself, Xena shook her head and began again. "I don't have time to explain it all, most of it will have to wait. I'm going to ask that you not ask a lot of questions. Being you, I know that will be difficult." Pausing for a moment, she gave Gabrielle a quick smile. "And I promise, I'll answer all of your questions later."
"All of them?"
"Well, maybe not all of them, I don't think we will ever have that much time."
"Mmm, funny," Gabrielle replied, returning the smile.
Xena stared at her for a moment then fixed her gaze on a point off in the distance. Just when Gabrielle had decided Xena had changed her mind over telling her what was going on, Xena took a deep breath and cleared her throat. "Rachel is my daughter."
Gabrielle thought that nothing Xena could say would ever surprise her anymore, but she was wrong. Xena needn't have worried about her asking questions, she was speechless. Xena's eyes met hers once more. "No one knows this, Gabrielle. No one still living."
Gabrielle shifted her gaze to the dark pond, fixing her eyes on the moon's reflection riding its surface. She was silent for a time, wrestling with this newfound knowledge, and what it meant to her, to them. Xena waited, watching, wanting to reach out, thinking better of it.
"Does she know?" Gabrielle asked, finding her voice once more.
"I...I'm not sure. Rachel is...she sees things, the way that you sometimes see things. Do you know what I mean?"
"She has the gift of prophecy?"
"Something like that, I guess, but she seems to read the past more so than the future. It's hard to explain."
"Good, I hoped that you would."
"Can I ask who the father is?"
"I can't tell you that, Gabrielle, it is a confidence that I cannot break, do you understand?"
Gabrielle nodded, as much as she would like to know, she did understand. Silence surrounded them once more. Xena turned her head a little, listening intently, thinking that things were just a little too quiet.
"Does Xan know?" Gabrielle asked, looking around, picking up on Xena's unease.
"I don't know. I would guess that if Rachel does, then Xan probably does, too. They are very close."
"And Solan? Did he know?" Gabrielle asked, her voice very quiet.
And there it was; the inevitable first step down a path that Xena was reluctant to travel down again. Xena looked into her eyes, hoping against hope that Gabrielle would not return there. And she probably would not have, had she not been so recently plagued by dreams of Hope. Dreams that left her feeling that there was something unfinished, unresolved. Gabrielle's eyes grew distant, lost...
She was lost in a memory. Xena's heart-wrenching scream of despair as she cradled her dead son, the look of absolute hatred in her eyes as she screamed at Gabrielle to leave them. And Hope. Her horror at finding that Xena had been right about her all along. That Gabrielle's 'hope' was truly and irrevocably evil. Her steadfast refusal to accept that fact costing Solan his life, Xena her son, and almost destroying everything they had; their friendship, their trust, their faith in one another.
Her Hope, lying pale, cold and still, dead by her mother's hand. It was the right thing to do, but too late, far too late. Then, lifting the poison to her own lips, hesitating, feeling Xena's presence, seeing the blind fury in her eyes. And always that remaining question: would Xena have let her die?
Xena's hand on her arm jarred her back to the present. Lifting her eyes once more, she saw her own pain reflected in Xena's shimmering, sapphire gaze.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I didn't mean to stir up painful memories. Besides, we are past that now."
Gabrielle nodded. Then turned her head, listening...for a moment, swearing that she could hear the sound of Hope's mocking laughter carried on the wind.
"What is it?" Xena asked, looking around.
"I thought I-" She looked into Xena's eyes once more. "It's nothing. Xena, why...?" She hesitated.
"Why didn't you ever mention her?" Xena lowered her eyes. "You don't have to explain, if you don't want to."
"I don't really think I can. How can I make you understand that as far as I was concerned, Rachel was not my daughter? I could never think of her as such, never."
"I don't understand."
"I know you don't, Gabrielle, but I'm asking you to anyway." Gabrielle stared into her eyes, trying to understand. Xena tried again to explain the unexplainable. "I never expected to see Rachel again, ever. In my mind, she was..." She stopped speaking.
"Dead," Gabrielle finished quietly. Xena nodded. "But, how do you do that, Xena? Just because you tell yourself someone is dead, how do you just-"
"Because I had to," she answered sharply, eyes growing hard. "I believed what I had to believe. And because it hurt too much not to." Xena stood up and closed her eyes, running a hand through her hair, biting back tears and regrets and explanations that she had no time for. "There is only one reason that Rachel would send for me."
Gabrielle looked up at her, waiting. And then the answer became very clear. She stood up and took Xena's hand. "You think she's dying, don't you?"
Xena looked down at Gabrielle's hand. "I don't know why else she...she may already be..." She shook her head and began to turn away.
Gabrielle held onto her hand. "Maybe you're wrong, Xena, but, if you're not, you'll get through this, we'll get through it. Somehow, we always do." Xena turned to face her. "I'll be here for you," Gabrielle promised.
"Always lookin' out for me, right?" Xena asked, with an unsuccessful attempt at a smile.
They looked into each other's eyes and shared a moment of complete understanding. An insight of what the Fates and the gods had known about them all along; that they had the power to understand the incomprehensible, accept the unbelievable, have faith in the face of overwhelming doubt. It was, for them, just a simple matter of trust.
Xena shifted her eyes to the surrounding woods as she placed a hand on her chakram. "There's-"
"Someone out there," Gabrielle finished for her.
"I'm impressed." Xena gave her a wry smile.
"Well, I've learned from the best," Gabrielle told her, returning the smile as she slowly leaned down to pick up her staff.
"Wait," Xena whispered hurriedly, glancing over Gabrielle's shoulder. "There is someone I want you to stay away from, if he is out there. Xan said he is leading the search for Rachel. His name is Baltar. Don't get anywhere near him, promise me."
"But-" The look in Xena's eyes quelled any further discussion. "All right, I promise. How will I know-"
"Oh, you'll know him, trust me." And with that, Xena rose to her feet and unleashed her chakram. It ricocheted off of two trees before laying low two swordsmen emerging from the shadows. Gabrielle ducked as the chakram returned and picked up her staff in time to duck again as another man made a wild dive for her. Passing harmlessly over her head, he landed flat on his back in front of Xena, who, having replaced chakram with sword, dispatched of him quickly.
Gabrielle met the next attacker by simply letting him plow into the end of her staff, then ducked yet again as another swung a sword at her head. Bringing the staff quickly around, before he could recover from the momentum of his swing, she swept his legs out from under him and smacked him smartly on the head. Glancing over at Xena, she saw that she had things well in hand; eyes alight with anticipation, slight grin on her face.
Xena blocked a two-handed overhead sword stroke and kicked her attacker where it had an immediate disabling effect on him. She then executed one of her gravity-defying, high-leaping, backward flips over two more men standing behind her. She side kicked one in the butt, sending him headfirst into a tree. The other she engaged in a bit of swordplay for a few moments before finally ramming the blunt end of her sword into his nose and then kicking him in the chest as he dropped his own sword in order to clutch his ruined nose. Xena looked over at Gabrielle who had just administered another whack on the head to one of their foes who was foolishly attempting to get to his feet again. Gabrielle had to smile when Xena gave her a grin and a quick thumbs up for a job well done.
Xena's smile disappeared as she lifted her head to look at something behind Gabrielle. As Gabrielle turned around to see what Xena was staring at, she found herself momentarily blinded by the sun rising through the trees. Bringing a hand to her eyes to shield them, she let out a gasp of disbelief and took a quick step back, almost tripping over the man lying at her feet. The man advancing on her, who was now effectively blocking the sun from her eyes, was huge. She had to tilt her head back to take in his full height. Xena stepped in front of her and reached back, giving her a slight shove. "Get out of here," she ordered, never taking her eyes from the man in front of them.
Gabrielle was spellbound. The man was not a giant, not like Goliath, but he towered over Xena, who was no slouch in the height department herself. And he was not pretty. One eye was almost completely closed by scar tissue; his face so crisscrossed with scars it was impossible to tell where one left off and another began. He smiled, revealing a surprising number of large teeth. Even more surprising was that they were extraordinarily white and even.
"Go. Now!" Xena said emphatically through clenched teeth, breaking Gabrielle's reverie.
Gabrielle reluctantly retreated.
"Hello, Xe-na," the man greeted her, carefully enunciating each syllable of her name. "It's been such a long time."
"Not nearly long enough, Baltar," Xena replied with a smile of her own.
Looking around, Gabrielle saw that they were at the edge of some sort of old cemetery. She took refuge in the overgrown ruins of an ancient temple that littered the clearing, keeping a wary eye on this new problem, as well as the ones with whom they had already dealt.
Baltar took a step toward Xena and she backed up. He touched the end of his sword to his useless eye. "I was hoping to run into you again. I owe you for this."
"At least I left you the other one."
He threw his head back and laughed. Gabrielle sucked in a sharp breath as Xena deftly leaned away from him. His sword swept the air, passing just inches from her face. He was incredibly quick for someone so large.
"Missed me," Xena taunted.
The smile left his face as he advanced on her. He thrust the sword at her again. She neatly sidestepped it and landed a hard kick to the inside of his thigh. He just managed to grab part of her foot before she pulled back, his enormous strength enabling him to upset her balance and send her hard to the ground. Gabrielle took a step forward as he swung the sword again. She heaved a sigh of relief as it sliced harmlessly into a piece of ground that Xena no longer occupied.
Xena was on her feet in an instant, still smiling. "You're getting slow in your old age, Baltar."
"And you, Xena, are not going to get any older." Taking a firm, two-handed grip on his sword, he moved toward her again.
Xena backed away, unwilling to engage in a battle of merely fending off his sword, aware that his sheer size and strength would eventually just wear her down. Her plan was to urge him on and evade him until he lost his temper and made a mistake, giving her an opportunity to take him down. Unfortunately, what she didn't plan on was backing herself into trouble. As she moved steadily back, keeping her eyes on Baltar, she sensed too late that the ground was giving way beneath her. She had stepped onto an old grave that had been undermined by time and weather. The ground fell away, dumping her heedlessly into a gaping hole behind her. She managed to turn herself in order to break her fall with her hands, but, in keeping with her current streak of ill-fated luck, she struck her head on the grave marker that lay at the bottom. Cursing softly, as blood poured from an open gash above her eye, she struggled both to rise and to fight off a wave of darkness threatening to engulf her.
Gabrielle and Baltar both stared at the spot where Xena had disappeared, both suspecting some sort of trick. Baltar eventually gathered his courage and slowly approached the hole. After cautiously peering over the side for a few moments, a smile spread across his face. His smile sent a chill racing down Gabrielle's spine. She took a few steps forward, then remembered her promise to Xena, and stopped.
Baltar, however, did not hesitate. Looking around, he found the biggest rock he could lift and hauled it over to the open grave. "How thoughtful of you, Xena. Now your friends won't even have to dig a grave for you." Laughing, he got a better grip on the rock and, with a grunt, lifted it high above his head. "Good-bye, Xena, I'll see you in Tartarus some day."
"No!" Gabrielle screamed as she swung her staff as hard as she could at his knee. It connected with an adrenaline charged crack! that made him bellow in pain. Forgetting about the rock, he let it fall and sat down, grabbing his throbbing knee. The rock landed on the side of the pit and began a slow slide downward. Not exactly what Gabrielle had hoped for, but the best she could do. Realizing too late that she should not have let herself be distracted by the whereabouts of the rock, she turned to find Baltar's enraged eyes locked onto hers. She managed to get her staff up in front of her as he sent a backhanded blow her way. It connected with the staff, which then connected with her, the force of it hurling her through the air like a rag doll. Landing hard on her back, she was stunned, breathless for a moment, until fear quickly motivated her to move. She sat up, gasping at a stab of pain in her ribs. Baltar got to his feet and hobbled toward her with murder in his eyes. Looking around, she located her staff and made a lunge for it.
"Oh no you don't, you little bitch!" He lifted his foot and brought it down hard on her hand. Disbelief, a sickening crunch and a colossal amount of pain shocked her into a dumbfounded, open-mouthed silence.
Fortunately, the pain in Baltar's shattered knee intensified with the extra weight on it and he staggered backward with another roar of pain. Gabrielle cradled her injured hand against her chest and forced herself to her feet. She took only a few steps when the shock began to wear off and an onslaught of dizziness and nausea halted her retreat. Baltar was right behind her. Turning to face him, she ducked under his arm as he made another grab for her and aimed a frantic kick at his knee.
"Damn you, little girl!" he hissed, reaching again for her.
Turning once more, she stumbled away from him, but another bout of lightheadedness brought her quickly to her knees. Baltar wrapped an arm around her neck and lifted her to her feet. "Gottcha. You little insect, and I'm going to squeeze the life right out of you, what do you think of that?" He sneered down at her and as he tightened his grip against her windpipe, things began to grow ominously dark.
"No you're not."
"Huh?" As Baltar turned around, Xandra brought her sword down on his arm so hard it shattered bone. He gazed at it stupidly for a moment, before the pain finally registered. Releasing his hold on Gabrielle, he grabbed his arm and tried to staunch the flow of gushing blood.
Xandra heard Gabrielle coughing and thanked whatever gods might be listening that Baltar didn't break her neck. With a shriek of agony and rage, Baltar turned his attention to Xandra, who did the most prudent thing she could think of; she turned and ran. Baltar gave chase, his wounds forgotten momentarily, in his intense desire to punish this puny little nothing who had dared defy him. But this new burr in his side was fast, and the continuous loss of blood from his arm began to take its toll. Looking around, he picked up a rock, and hurled it at Xan's retreating back. Instinct made her duck, but the rock clipped her shoulder and brought her down.
She cursed soundly, struggling to regain her feet. "Damn lucky shot," she groused. Baltar crossed the distance between them in a few long strides and just managed to grab Xandra's coat before she could get away from him. Yanking her back, he threw her down hard to the ground. She bounced back up, surprising him and almost got away.
Almost. Pushing her back down, placing his foot on her chest to hold her there, he picked up another rock. "I'm going to crack your head open like an egg, little man!"
"Woman! You ignorant, half-blind, butt-ugly son of a bitch!" Xan yelled back, trying hard to land a kick on his injured knee.
Slapping her foot away, he squinted down at her for a long moment. "Whatever," he said gruffly, raising the rock once more. "You sure got a mouth on you, girl. I'm going to close it for good."
"Didn't your mother ever tell you it's not nice to throw rocks?"
Baltar froze at the sound of her voice. "Uh-oh..." he mumbled. He spun around quickly, swinging the rock, thinking to catch Xena off guard. But, like many souls before him, he had seriously underestimated her. And, like so many others, he spent his final moments, staring into the icy blueness of her eyes, utterly amazed that something so incredibly beautiful could be so devastatingly deadly.
Xan scrambled out of the way as Baltar toppled to the ground like a felled tree. Getting to her feet, she brushed herself off and took a quick inventory. Immensely relieved to find that everything seemed to be in working order, she walked over to Xena, who was calmly wiping blood off of her sword on Baltar's pants. Xan gave her a tentative smile as she looked up. "The bigger they are..." Xan quipped, absently massaging her shoulder.
Xena's eyes met hers and the look in them said that she was not amused. "I'll deal with you later," Xena said stiffly, moving off toward Gabrielle.
"Uh-oh indeed," Xan sighed, with a nod toward Baltar.
Gabrielle was on her feet, with a little help from her staff, still trying to clear her head.
"Are you all right?" Xena asked tightly, a muscle in her jaw jumping as she clenched her teeth.
"I think-" Gabrielle's voice was more frog croak than human. She coughed, then winced, then thought seriously about throwing up.
"What did you think you were doing!?"
Gabrielle was startled by the anger in Xena's voice. "You-"
"I told you to stay away from him!"
"Xena-" Xan began.
"Shut up, Xan," Xena snapped at her.
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed, temper beginning to rise. "I thought you were in trouble," she said hoarsely.
"I would have handled it. You gave me your word, Gabrielle. And you..." she turned on Xan, "I told you to-"
"Gabrielle was in trouble," Xan jumped in.
"I would have-"
"Handled it. Right. Look, Xena-"
"No. You look. I don't have time to be worrying about you two."
Xan's eyes hardened into a flinty glare as she took a step toward Xena. "I don't recall ever asking you to worry about me." Her voice was deceptively quiet.
Realizing that tempers were beginning to get dangerously out of hand, Gabrielle reached out toward Xena, forgetting about her injured hand, until Xena brushed it aside. Gabrielle clamped her teeth together in an attempt to swallow the hot rush of bile that raced up the back of her throat. She didn't know what kind of sound she made, but both Xena and Xan turned to look at her.
Gabrielle heard a familiar rushing sound in her head and saw warning flash of bright light. "Oh, son of a bi-"
"What happened?!" Xan asked, voice rising in alarm.
"She fainted," Xena stated, kneeling down beside her.
"Why? What's wrong with her?"
"I don't know," Xena huffed irritably. Lifting an eyelid, she peered into Gabrielle's eye, relieved to see the pupil dilate in the sunlight. "She's all right, I think."
"We should get her out of here," Xan suggested, looking around. "I think we are going to have more company soon."
"I agree. And they'll expect us to run. They'll come back looking for signs of where we went, so that's what I'm going to give them. I want you to get some blankets and some supplies and see if you can find somewhere out of sight inside those ruins. I'll take your horse and give them something to follow.
"I'll find her as soon as I lose them. I can travel faster alone. I'll meet you where we planned, two days, no longer."
"What if Rachel or Gabrielle can't make it?"
"Gabrielle will be all right," Xena said hopefully. "But if she isn't, then you'll have to meet me and we'll decide what to do from there."
"But, what if-"
"First things first, Xan. Now hurry."
Gabrielle opened her eyes to find Xena examining her hand. "Ouch," she said softly.
Xena raised her eyes to meet Gabrielle's. "It's broken and a couple of your fingers are dislocated."
"Wonderful. Any more good news? Where are we?" Gabrielle asked, trying to look around and sit up at the same time.
"Lie still." Xena placed a firm hand on her shoulder. "We're inside the ruins, or rather, under them."
"Oh. Well, at least it's not a cave; I'm not very fond of caves." Using her good hand, she lightly touched the gash above Xena's eye. "That looks nasty."
"It looks worse than it is," Xena assured her, pulling back slightly. "I'm going to have to set this. What else hurts?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "You were lucky."
"You must have a different definition of the word 'luck.'"
"Mmmm," Xena replied, teeth flashing in the semi-darkness as a grim little smile made an appearance. Taking Gabrielle's wrist in a firm grasp, she pressed down on a pressure point with her thumb. There was a spike of pain, so abrupt that she didn't even have time to react, and Gabrielle's hand went numb.
"That should help," Xena informed her, "but it's still going to hurt. Ready?"
"As I'll ever be." Gabrielle turned her head away, knowing what was coming. It did still hurt. It hurt a lot. And the sound of small bones being realigned didn't help much either. Gabrielle gritted her teeth, held her breath and tried not to scream.
Xena glanced into Gabrielle's glistening eyes for a moment and her heart performed that odd skip-hop that it always did whenever Gabrielle had been hurt in any way. "Hey," Xena whispered gently, as she finished wrapping Gabrielle's hand in a makeshift bandage that bore a striking resemblance to the shirt Xan was wearing. "I'm going to release the pressure point, it's-"
"Going to hurt, I know."
Xena nodded and pressed her wrist, wincing at the gasp of pain it caused. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle."
"I know. Anyway, it's not your fault."
"I don't think anything else is broken, but you need to take it easy for awhile."
"I'm not going to be of much help to you, am I?"
"You'll be fine. I was planning on going the rest of the way alone anyway. I think it's safer that way, for everyone. Xan will fill you in." There was silence for a moment. "Are you hungry?" Xena asked, changing the subject.
"Thirsty," Gabrielle answered.
"I didn't cook anything; it's safe."
Gabrielle laughed, bringing a smile to Xena's face as well. "Just water, thanks."
"Be right back," she promised, giving Gabrielle's shoulder a quick squeeze.
Gabrielle shut her eyes as Xena moved away, trying to cope with the throbbing pain in her hand. As she tried to shift herself into a more comfortable position, she bumped it, sending a searing bolt of pain from her fingertips to her shoulder. "Ow. By the gods," she mumbled, clutching her damaged hand, cursing her clumsiness. Turning on her side, she closed her eyes and escaped quickly into a protective cocoon of velvety darkness.
"Here you go, Gabrielle," Xena offered, bending over her with a cup of water. "And I wanted to tell you that I'm...Gabrielle?" Setting the water aside, Xena knelt down beside her for a closer look. She seemed to be sleeping comfortably enough, considering what she had been through. Pulling the blanket up around her, Xena lifted a few strands hair away from Gabrielle's eyes, touching her fingertips to the side of her face for a moment. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, releasing it slowly as she leaned down and rested her forehead against Gabrielle's shoulder.
Feeling Xan's presence behind her, Xena lifted her head.
"How's she doing?"
"Sleeping," Xena answered quietly. "She had a rough day."
"I'll say. I guess we all did." Xena gave her a worn half smile. "She means a great deal to you, doesn't she?" Xan asked.
Xena gazed down at Gabrielle for a moment then lifted her eyes to Xan's. "Yes," she replied simply, getting to her feet. "I need to get going, are you set here?"
"Yeah. I think we'll be fine. You can't see the entrance to where we are unless you really look closely. I think you are right; they won't be looking for us here, they'll be looking for tracks to follow."
Xena nodded in agreement. "Are you all right? Your shoulder?"
"It's fine. Thanks for asking though."
Xena hesitated; anxious to find Rachel, yet reluctant to leave them.
"We'll be okay," Xan assured her. "Xena, tell Rachel...tell her I..." Xan averted her eyes.
"She knows," Xena comforted softly, laying a hand on Xan's shoulder.
"I suppose she does, but it still needs to be said. I didn't have time...I should have taken the time..." Xan turned her eyes back to Xena's, making no effort whatsoever to conceal the tears flowing down her face. "God, Xena, please don't let her die. What would I do? Where would I go? I can't begin to imagine a life without her."
Xena took a step closer and enfolded Xan in a tight embrace. "I know," Xena whispered, looking over Xan's shoulder at Gabrielle. "Believe me, I know." She could offer no further words of comfort.
"I don't like leaving you without a horse," Xena looked down at Xan from atop Argo. "But, I can't think of any other way."
"I'm not real crazy about it myself, but I can't either. I'll take care of Gabrielle, don't worry. You take care of my horse, okay?" Xena held out her hand and Xan handed her the reins, giving her horse a quick smooch on the nose. "What?" Xan demanded, catching Xena's look of amusement.
"I didn't say anything." Xena had, in fact, done the same thing to Argo many times herself. Taking the reins, Xena took hold of Xan's hand as she began to turn away. "Xan..."
Xan looked up into her eyes, still amazed at how utterly beautiful they were. She never tired of looking at them. Xena had grown silent, staring thoughtfully at Xan. "I don't know why it's so hard for you to say, Xena." Xan gave her a mischievous smile. "I love you. See how simple?"
Xena snorted, dropping Xan's hand and sitting up in the saddle. "I was just going to tell you to try and remember the plan, and try to stick to it for a change."
Xan's smile widened. "Liar," she admonished softly. A hearty exhale of air was Xena's only reply as she gave Argo a gentle kick. Highly amused at having embarrassed the Warrior Princess, Xan watched them until they were out of sight.
Anxious now, about the amount of time lost, Xena urged Argo quickly on. After leaving a discernible trail from the ruins, she left Xan's horse in the midst of dozen others at one of the small settlements scattered throughout the countryside. Thankful for her luck, she found a lot of rocky ground and a small stream in which to obliterate her own trail. Pushing hard, she reached the caves on the outskirts of Corinth late that evening. There was a labyrinth of caves and tunnels in this area, but Xan had given her explicit directions; besides, she knew them very well, she had been here before.
Striking flint, she lit a torch. It hissed in the moist air. Xena hesitated at the mouth of the cave. A splash of rising moonlight painted the opening a haunting shade of silver-blue. An eerie sense of d�j� vu enveloped her, and something more...What is that?
She closed her eyes, opened her senses, and listened carefully. There. That sound again. Recognizable, now, echoing oddly in the sullen silence; the distant, mundane pounding of hammer against wood. The sound grew progressively louder, becoming somehow threatening, disturbing, each blow driving a tiny spike of horror deeper into her soul.
"My God," Xena whispered, unaware that she had spoken. Shivering, she shook her head slightly and the illusion faded as quickly as it had come. As she moved inside the cave, she heard a wailing that made her skin crawl. The wind, she thought, and decided that she was beginning to dislike caves almost as much as Gabrielle.
Moving deeper, she heard scuttling noises, dripping water. Her torch flickered and almost died, then suddenly flared up in a rush of air that showered her with dirt and icy cold. She lowered her head, blinking dirt from her eyes. When she lifted her head once more, she was no longer alone.
"Any luck with the fire?" Xan asked, dropping a pile of sticks beside her.
Gabrielle jumped, startled. Xan moved as quietly as a cat, seeming just to appear out of nowhere. "Not much," she replied. "It's all pretty wet. I need something dry to get it started."
"Here, try this."
Xan dropped a small burlap bag beside her. Gabrielle picked it up and looked inside. A bunch of dried weeds, with a strong, sweet, pleasant odor. "What is it?"
"I don't know exactly. It grows wild in the fields outside Thessaly. When it dries out, it burns nicely and it smells good."
Gabrielle added it to the meager flame underneath the wood where it immediately flared up, then continued to burn slowly and steadily. She sniffed. "Mmm, it does smell good." Leaning over the fire, she took a long, deep breath of the sweet-smelling smoke. As she sat back, everything in her line of sight seemed to tilt sideways. She must have followed suit, because Xan reached out a hand to steady her.
"You all right?"
She looked down, with exaggerated slowness, at the hand on her arm, and then shifted her eyes up to Xan's; it seemed to take forever to get there. "Other than feeling like I've been run over by a chariot, followed by a Centaur or two, I feel just fine."
Xan gave her a sympathetic look. "I'm not surprised. Baltar knocked you around pretty good. I'm sorry about your hand." Gabrielle looked down at her bandaged left hand and frowned. "Still hurt?" Xan queried.
She shook her head a little. "Not as bad as my throat."
Xan could see four distinct bruises on Gabrielle's throat and realized just how lucky she was to be alive. The sudden thought of Gabrielle dying caused her stomach to take a dive toward her feet. She sat down heavily beside Gabrielle, who looked over at her with rather glazed eyes.
"In fact," Gabrielle said slowly, "if there is a part on my body that doesn't hurt, I haven't found it yet." Xan looked at her strangely for a moment then they both laughed uneasily and looked away. "It's my own fault," Gabrielle added a few moments later.
"I said 'It's my own fault.' If I had done what Xena told me to do, I wouldn't have gotten hurt."
"True," Xan agreed. "But, then she would've been bug pulp."
For some reason, the sound of that struck Gabrielle as awfully funny and she had to bite down hard on her lip to control a burst of laughter. "'Bug pulp,'" she repeated. "Bu-u-ug-pulp. Bug. Pulp. Bugpulp." Each variation sounded funnier to her. "Bug...what?" She'd somehow lost not only the word, but the gist of the conversation.
Xan raised an eyebrow and looked over at her. "You know, squashed, like a bug. Squish...like that."
This time a short giggle did escape Gabrielle and she wondered if she hadn't suffered some sort of serious brain injury. Xan looked at her oddly, but she, too, let loose a small snort of laughter. Gabrielle stared hard at her and she blushed. Gabrielle shook her head slightly, trying to clear it. "She'd have been okay. She probably knew what she was doing."
"I don't think so, Gabrielle. She didn't plan for that piece of ground to give way beneath her. I think she was in trouble. I wouldn't have gotten to her in time. Besides, she told me to stay out of sight, no matter what."
"But you didn't."
"No, well, if I had, then you would've been bug pulp."
They both laughed uproariously over this, and then abruptly stopped. Gabrielle cleared her throat and looked away, wondering what in Zeus' name had gotten into them. "She was angry with me. Really angry," Gabrielle told her, adding a bit more of the sweet smelling weeds to the fire.
Xan rubbed her eyes. "She gets like that when she's had a really good scare."
"She's never scared," Gabrielle huffed.
"Of course she is, Gabber-Gabarri..." Xan shook her head a little. "That's what keeps her alive."
"The thing is, I gave her my word and I-"
Xan reached over and took her hand. "No. The important thing is that you thought she was in trouble, and you risked your life to help her. And she knows that."
Gabrielle gazed into Xan's eyes, which seemed to glow like polished silver.
"Trust me on this one," Xan insisted quietly.
Gabrielle nodded slightly and leaned back. They were silent for a while, contemplating the fire, the smoke, the rocks and everything else within their range of vision. "Bug pulp!" Gabrielle blurted.
Gabrielle giggled again, drawing the same response from Xandra. "Nothing. I'm really hungry, Xan. Are you?"
"I don't know, I suppose I could be." Gabrielle laughed again. "What's so funny?"
Gabrielle took Xan's hand in her own and looked deeply into her eyes. She began to say something then lost her train of thought, captivated by the silvery brilliance of Xan's eyes. "Wow," she breathed softly, then started laughing again.
"What is so funny?" Xan demanded.
"You know, Xan, I have absolutely no idea, but you have really beautiful eyes." Xan blushed deeply then snorted and that sent them both into peals of laughter. By the gods, Gabrielle thought to herself, We have totally lost our minds.
They settled back into a lazy, comfortable silence. Awhile later, Xan looked over at Gabrielle, who was staring intently at the fire. Xan cleared her throat. "So, Gabrielle, is there someone special in your life?" Gabrielle looked over at her. "Boyfriend, I mean, like that."
"I was married once," she answered quietly, eyes returning to the fire.
"Didn't work out?"
She returned her eyes to Xan's. "He died...was killed."
"No." She shook her head, trying to dislodge a sudden bloody image of Callisto running an unarmed Perdicas through with her sword. "No, he was murdered."
"I'm sorry." Xan's voice grew softer. "Do you know who did it?"
"Yes. She's dead, too, Xena..." She shifted her eyes back to the fire.
"Xena killed her?"
"Yes. Several times."
She met Xan's puzzled eyes again, aware of how that must have sounded. "It's complicated."
"I guess." Xan was quiet for a moment. "Serious food for thought, though, for any would be suitors, eh?"
"Well, I mean, one would have to think twice about getting involved with you and screwing up. With Xena around to kill you several times over. Like once wouldn't be sufficient. Zeus."
Gabrielle's jaw dropped. Unable to stop herself, she released a short burst of laughter at the irreverence and absurdity of Xan's words. Then, she burst into tears.
"Oh, hey, I'm sorry, Gabrielle. Damn." Xan sat up quickly and placed a hand on her shoulder.
"By the gods, Xandra," Gabrielle muttered as she tried to stem the flow of tears and a multitude of mixed emotions pouring through her, foremost being total confusion.
"I know. I am sorry."
Xan looked so contrite; it almost started Gabrielle crying again. "It's all right."
"No, no it isn't." Xan looked away. "I never learned how to handle the really serious stuff in life, so I always...uhm...lighten it up, kind of." She turned her eyes back to Gabrielle's. "I'm trying to outgrow it," she said sincerely.
Gabrielle tried to keep an appropriately serious look on her face, but a sudden image of Xena turning any unsuitable suitors into bug pulp made her giggle again.
"What?" Xan asked.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Nothing. Do you feel...strange, Xan?"
"Strange like how?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath and started coughing. Xan absently patted her on the back. It was really smoky inside their little hideout and Gabrielle felt a sudden, overwhelming need for fresh air. She stood up, pulling Xan up with her. Xan lost her balance and stumbled into her. "We need to get some air," Gabrielle stated firmly.
Xan looked into her eyes as Gabrielle struggled to keep both of them upright. "We need something. I feel positively giddy. What do you suppose caused that?"
"The smoke, I think," Gabrielle replied, looking into Xan's glazed eyes.
"And fire...you...I think," Xan added.
This time, Xan shook her head, trying to get control of it, and her mouth, both of which seemed to be running amuck.
"Come on," Gabrielle insisted.
Once outside, the brisk air began to clear their heads. Gabrielle shivered as a gust of wind and a light drizzle of rain washed over them. Xan took off her coat and threw it over Gabrielle's shoulders. "Thanks. Aren't you cold?"
"Uh-uh. Feels good."
Gabrielle nodded. They stood in silence for a while then both began to speak at once. "Gabrielle, I'm-" "Xan, I-" They smiled at each other. "You first."
Xan nodded. "I was just going to say that I'm sorry if I said anything out of line. I didn't mean to make light of ...well, you know."
"I know. Anyway, it's not always such a bad thing. Maybe you shouldn't try too hard to outgrow it." Xan smiled, the smile setting her eyes alight. Suddenly, Gabrielle didn't feel quite so cold any more.
"Still friends, then?" Xan asked, holding out her hand.
"Still friends," Gabrielle answered, taking her hand and giving it a firm shake.
Is a place that I know well
It's the distance between us
And the space inside ourselves
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Rachel's simple beauty took Xena's breath away. Auburn hair, lustrous, even in the dim light of the torch. She was slight and pale, vulnerable looking, yet somehow exuding a sense of great power. Xena looked into her striking, if somewhat disconcerting, familiar emerald eyes. Rachel took a step forward, holding onto her midsection, which looked enormous compared to the rest of her. Xena realized that her child must be due at any moment.
"I knew you would come." Her voice, like everything else about her, was an odd mix of tenderness and strength.
Xena's eyes filled with tears and she clamped her jaw shut on them until they drained away. Though she ached to touch her, to hold this wondrous child of hers, she was unsure if she should do so. "I have missed you, Rachel."
Rachel gave her a small, half smile, one that touched her lips but did not quite reach her eyes. Xena wedged the torch between two rocks. They both took a hesitant step forward. Closing her eyes, Rachel continued forward until there was but a small space between them. Sighing softly, she turned her head slightly and, with infinite care, rested it against Xena's heart. "I need you, Xena, help me."
Closing her eyes, taking a deep breath, Xena leaned down and pressed her lips to the top of Rachel's head. Her heart felt as though it was being squeezed from within by an unseen hand, stealing the breath from her. Raising her head slightly, she lifted her hands and buried them within the softness of Rachel's hair, pulling her closer still. The touch of Rachel's tears against her skin released the floodgates of her own. Never one much given to tears, the depth of them astounded her. Neither of them spoke, the profoundness of their silence speaking volumes in itself. Time passed, and that, too, went unnoticed until a sharp contraction caused Rachel to cry out softly and grab onto Xena for support.
"The baby," Rachel whispered.
Alarmed, Xena grasped her elbow and sat her down on a bed of furs and blankets. "Now?"
Rachel shook her head. "No. Soon though."
Xena covered her with a blanket as she leaned back. "Maybe you should lie down."
"No. This is fine. Lying down is not very comfortable any more. Remember?"
The question caught Xena off guard and she looked up sharply into Rachel's serene green eyes. "I thought it was impossible for you to have children, Rachel," she stated, changing the subject. Rachel held her gaze steadily for a moment, then looked over Xena's shoulder, a question in her eyes, effectively changing the subject once again. "Xan's not here, if that's who you're looking for," Xena informed her, glancing back over her shoulder. "I thought it best for her to stay with-"
"Gabrielle," Rachel finished.
Xena's eyes returned swiftly to Rachel's. She knew she should not be surprised at the things that Rachel knew, but she was, just the same. "You know of Gabrielle?"
"Oh, yes. For a very long time. We are connected to one another, you see, by you. Sometimes I see her and I as two halves of a circle, together at first, then moving apart, with you moving through our center, then connecting again...at the end."
"I'm not sure I understand." Xena's voice was soft.
Rachel smiled. "I'm not sure you really want to."
They stared at one another for a moment, until another contraction brought a grunt of pain from Rachel. "I need to get some water heated," Xena told her. "And some clean-"
"It's taken care of," Rachel assured her, nodding toward a small fire behind the rocks.
"What would you have done if I hadn't come, Rachel? Delivered it yourself?"
"I would come. So you said."
"Yes. You or Xandra. She's all right, isn't she?"
"Don't you know?" Xena replied, a bit more sharply than she intended. "I'm...yes, she's a little worse for wear, but she's fine." Xena had gentled her tone.
"This has been hard for Xan." Rachel leaned her head back, looking up at the flickering shadows from the fire playing across the rock ceiling. "She didn't understand, the baby...the..."
Xena looked over at her. Rachel sighed wearily and lowered her head, massaging the back of her neck. "Do you know how much she loves you?" Xena asked, her voice very soft.
"Yes." Rachel lifted her head once more. "Xan listens to her heart. Right or wrong. Sometimes I think that maybe we would all be better off if we followed her example."
"And if you listened to your heart, Rachel, what would it tell you?"
Rachel looked into Xena's eyes and what she saw there brought tears to her own, for it was like looking into a mirror. "It would tell me," voice solemnly hushed, "that after all is said and done, nothing will ever change the way I feel about her. She is my heart, and my soul. I love her. I will always love her. The same thing that, surely, your heart whispers to you about-"
"Rachel," Xena interrupted. "About Xan..."
"Oh. I didn't mean-"
"It's all right," Xena said gently. "I know who you meant. I just wanted to tell you that I never meant to hurt you, or Xan."
"You hurt no one as badly as you hurt yourself, Xena. When you left us, you had nothing, no one."
"Yes, but I found...I found-"
"Your heart, your soul?"
"Yes. Yes, I believe I did."
"As did we, or so say our hearts. Unfortunately, only the very wise learn to truly obey their hearts." Xena smiled a little and looked away. Rachel leaned back once more. They sat quietly for a time, both lost in their own thoughts. "I watched you that morning, after the fighting," Rachel informed her, voice soft and distant.
Xena looked again into her eyes, surprised, as she realized that their thoughts had led them to the same destination.
"I saw you standing there, in the fog, hand in hand with Death, looking out over the killing fields. And I knew you were done with it; the killing. I saw it in your eyes. There was an instant, a fleeting moment, when Xan could have killed you, and you would have let her. I often wondered if you sensed that I was there, and, if so, if you knew who I was."
Xena didn't answer. She raised a hand and rubbed her eyes, as if trying to erase the images of the past. She began to get up, Rachel took her hand.
"Xan thought you left us because you did not care about us." Xena looked at Rachel's hand and sat back down, keeping her eyes downcast. "Nothing could have been further from the truth," Rachel continued. "You walked away from us, straight into your destiny; yours and Gabrielle's."
Xena looked into her eyes once more. "Are our destinies predetermined then, do we follow a set path?"
Rachel shook her head. "Of course not. We are all free to make choices. Or not. Our lives touch other lives, changing their destinies, sometimes for good..." her voice trailed off.
"And sometimes not. How did I change yours, Rachel? Yours and Xan's?"
Rachel stared intently into Xena's eyes. "There is no simple answer to that, Xena, surely you know that. You had to leave. You and Gabrielle were-" Rachel's eyes grew wide. "Xan," she cried on a tiny exhale of air. She grabbed onto Xena's hand once more, pushing back against the pile of bedding behind her.
"What is it?" Xena asked, keeping her voice calm.
"It's Xan, she-and the baby...now, she's coming."
"So, Xan, how did you meet Xena?" Gabrielle wondered aloud, sitting down on a slab of mossy rock.
Laughing, Xan looked down at her. "I think 'collided with,' may be a more apt description.
"Why am I not surprised?"
Xan leaned her head back, looking into the sky, and took a deep breath, gathering her thoughts. "It was a day much like this one," she began, looking down at her hands. "Foggy, damp, kind of mystical, you know what I mean?" She glanced at Gabrielle, who nodded.
"I was traveling with a rag-tag bunch of mercenaries. We got into a skirmish with Xena and her little band of merry men. The fighting was fierce. I got cut, somewhere, shoulder, I think. I passed out for a while. When I woke up, it was deathly quiet. Not a sound, not a bird singing, no wind, no voices. For a moment, I actually thought I was dead, but I wasn't, not physically anyway. I got up, I was sticky with blood, some of it mine, some not. Disgusting." She shook her head slightly at the memory.
"I picked up my sword and made my way through the woods. The fog made it eerie, surreal. I was moving quietly, partly from habit, partly because I was afraid to disturb the silence. It seemed...alive somehow, ominous." Shivering slightly, she looked over at Gabrielle who was staring at her with rapt attention. "Anyway," Xan continued, looking away once more, "when I got to the edge of the woods, there she was, the Warrior Princess herself. She was alone, staring out over the fields, over the dead and dying. Everything was red with blood; even the mist floating above them, I'd never seen anything like that before. God it was..."
Xan stopped speaking for a moment, and Gabrielle thought about taking her hand then thought better of it.
"She stood there for a very long time," Xan continued. "Not moving, just staring. I made my way around behind her. Finally, she moved. She raised a hand to her eyes and lowered her head, and I made my move. I was very young, very fast and quiet back then, and I had her. I could feel it; I was going to kill her. And I wanted to, dear God, how I wanted to." She paused for a moment. "And she was going to let me."
Gabrielle shivered slightly, unnerved by the passion in Xan's voice. Xan seemed to sense it. She looked into Gabrielle's eyes and Gabrielle was surprised to see that Xan's eyes were filled, not with excitement as she had imagined, but with tears.
"She was such an evil person, Gabrielle. She was not the Xena that you know. You cannot begin to conceive of how truly dark she was back then." Shaking her head once more, brushing her sleeve across her eyes, Xan laughed edgily, blowing out a short gust of air. "And then," she continued, "for just the tinniest moment, I hesitated. I don't know why, I have never been able to answer that question.
"The next thing I knew, I was lying flat on my back at Xena's feet. Her sword was at my throat, my mouth a bloody mess..." unconsciously, Xan touched her scarred lip. "I don't know how she did so much damage in so short a time. I looked up at her...by the gods, she was beautiful." She glanced at Gabrielle, blushing deeply, and cleared her throat. "She stood there, staring down at me, this incredible strength and fire in the coldest blue eyes I had ever seen. I was terrified, yet fascinated at the same time."
She took another deep breath, meeting Gabrielle's eyes again. "And I knew I was going to die. She was going to kill me. And the funny thing was, I was so sick to death of my life at that point, I didn't care, and somehow, she knew it. She got this kind of feral, half smile on her face, and her eyes, her eyes were just...empty. I saw the muscles of her arm tighten as she gripped her sword tighter and I closed my eyes. Nothing happened. And that made me angry."
Xan laughed a little. "I thought she was toying with me, you see? So I opened my eyes. There was someone else there. Xena looked as though she had seen a ghost, maybe she had. I looked up; it was a young girl. Rachel. She was breathtaking. Not just her beauty, though she certainly had that. She had this aura of power about her. This same strength and fire as Xena only more subdued...controlled, do you know what I mean?" Gabrielle nodded slightly.
"I mean, Xena was always like an overflowing dam, ready to burst at any given moment. Rachel is more like the sea; calm, deceiving on the surface, but underneath..." Xan reached over and gave Gabrielle's shoulder a quick squeeze. "Kind of like you," she concluded smiling a bit. "Rachel bent down beside me and touched her fingers to my mouth. I remember trying to turn away, not because it hurt, but because I didn't want to get blood on her. Isn't that odd? I looked up into her eyes," - Xan's voice grew very soft - "and they reminded me so much of Xena's that, for a moment, I swear my heart stopped right in mid-beat. But, Rachel...she was crying and my heart, it kind of...leapt forward again, but it...hurt. It hurt for her. I can't explain."
"I know what you mean," Gabrielle said gently.
Xan nodded. "When I looked around, Xena was gone. For the time being at least. It was almost as though one had replaced the other. The good and the evil, the yin and the yang. So different and yet...not. It was very strange." Xan met Gabrielle's eyes once more. "And that's how I met Xena."
They stared at one another for a moment, a thousand questions forming in both their minds, yet neither one spoke. Xan looked up. The rain had changed from a light, pervading mist into increasingly heavy drops.
"We'd better get back inside," Gabrielle suggested, shivering slightly as a pool of cold moisture dripped from Xan's coat and slid down the back of her neck.
Xan nodded, and then shook her head as Gabrielle began to remove the coat to give it back to her. "You keep it on. I'm fine."
"Thanks. I'm growing rather fond of it, even though it does smell a bit like horses."
"Could be worse." Xan grinned.
"Much," Gabrielle agreed.
They made their way up the steep incline to the mossy, vine covered rocks that hid the entrance to their little sanctuary. Xan gave Gabrielle a slight boost up the face of the fallen debris. "Be careful," Xan warned. "That moss is-"
"Whoa!" Gabrielle yelped, sliding back down the face of the rock, landing smack on top of Xan in the process. Xan tried to hold them both up, but the ground was slick with mud. Her feet slid out from under her, sending them on a quick ride most of the way back down the incline. When they came to rest, finally, they both lay still for a moment, Xan flat on her back, Gabrielle right on top of her.
"Probably slippery," Xan completed her sentence with a giggle.
Gabrielle smiled a little and struggled to get up. Xan gave her another push from behind. Once on her feet, she turned to give Xan a hand, still trying to find purchase on the mud-slick ground. Grabbing her hand, Xan attempted to pull herself to her feet and succeeded only in pulling Gabrielle off of hers once more. Gabrielle winced as various bumps and bruises protested the rude reawakening.
"Umph," Xan grunted, as Gabrielle landed on top of her again.
"Sorry," Gabrielle apologized, looking straight into Xan's sparkling gray eyes.
"It's okay. I've been in much worse positions. Actually, this isn't half bad except for the rain, the mud and the fact that I can barely breathe. No offense."
Gabrielle smiled. Their eyes locked for a moment. Every sound seemed remarkably defined. Thunder rumbled, long and low, causing the ground to shudder slightly beneath them. The wind moaned forlornly through the fallen ruins above them, accompanied by raindrops dripping musically from the rocks and trees. They broke eye contact as another sound intruded upon them.
"Horse," Xan said softly.
"Yes," Gabrielle agreed, awkwardly disengaging herself from Xan, trying to keep her bandaged hand from getting any more sodden than it already was. Regaining her feet once more, she held out her good hand to Xan.
"Oh, no you don't, I'm on to that one."
Gabrielle blushed as Xan maneuvered herself to her feet. Grimacing slightly, Xan grabbed hold of the seat of her pants and shook them. "Eeewwh. Next time, you're on bottom."
Gabrielle grinned, in spite of her slight discomfort at Xan's teasing. "No way. I like being on top." The words escaped her before she even realized they were there and she blushed again as Xan hooted laughter.
They grew quickly serious once more as the sound of a horse approaching drew nearer. "Someone's definitely..."
"Coming!" Rachel hissed through clenched teeth. "She's definitely coming now."
"All right," Xena said calmly. "Try to relax. Don't hold your breath, Rachel."
Rachel squeezed Xena's hand as another contraction hit her. "Xena, there's something-" She let out a small yelp of pain. "Something..."
"Sssh, Rachel, don't try and talk now."
"Something's wrong," Rachel persisted, biting down on her lip.
"What is it?" Xena queried, knowing better than to doubt her.
Rachel shook her head, squeezing hard on Xena's hand again. "I...it hurts. God, it hurts."
Xena looked down, startled, as a rush of blood covered her hand. Too much blood, she thought to herself. Way too much. Rachel cried out again and Xena winced. "I want you to push now, Rachel," she instructed, trying to keep her voice calm. "Come on, push!"
"I am pushing! Damnit!" Their eyes met, Xena looked shocked for a moment and then they both laughed. "B-bad habit I...p-picked up...from Xan," Rachel informed her between gulps of air. "She can swear like a drunken m-mariner."
"Mmmm," was Xena's somewhat distracted reply.
"I don't...know why it...helps, but... does." Xena was silent. "What is it?" Rachel asked, reading the distress in her eyes.
Xena looked up at her. "The baby is breeched, Rachel," she informed her softly.
"He's coming in fast," Xan remarked. Let's get out of sight."
Stepping cautiously, they moved behind a fallen piece of stone wall and ducked down. The horse thundered into the clearing and across the cemetery.
"Fool," Xan muttered, peeking up over the wall, sensing disaster.
Sure enough, the horse stumbled over an up heaved piece of ground, forelegs sliding forward in the mud. The rider, who had been looking back over his shoulder, pitched headfirst out of the saddle. His horse, already spooked by the mud and the fall, regained its feet and bolted as thunder growled menacingly overhead.
"Damnit-all-hell-and-fire!" Xan swore softly, looking down at Gabrielle. "We could have used that horse. Sorry," she added sheepishly at Gabrielle's raised eyebrow.
That was a curse she certainly hadn't heard before and Gabrielle wasn't sure if Xan was apologizing for her language, or the fact that she was more concerned with losing the horse than with the rider.
"Well, let's go see," Xan said disgustedly. "Before whatever he is running from catches up with him." She turned to find Gabrielle already on her way. "Hey, wait up," Xan called after her. "Slow down, will ya?" Xan huffed, reaching her side.
"What if he's hurt?"
"What if he's armed?"
Gabrielle looked over at her. "I can take care of myself."
"Yeah? And what are you gonna do, throw mud pies at him?" Gabrielle gave her a look. "Your hand-"
"I know," she said shortly, exasperated more with herself than with Xan, but she did slow down.
They reached him just as he extricated himself from the oozing mud. He was indeed armed and reached immediately for his sword.
"You don't want to do that."
He stopped, something in Xan's voice giving him pause. He stared at them for a moment then took a step forward. Xan moved slightly in front of Gabrielle. "Xander?"
Xan looked at him more closely as he wiped the grime from his face. "Nathan?" Xan said in surprise as he recognized him, minus the mud.
"Yeah," the man answered, spitting a glob of mud off to the side. "Yuck."
"What are you doing out here, Nathan?"
"We've got to get out of here," Nathan stated flatly, ignoring the question and looking nervously toward the woods. "Zagnan's men are not far behind me."
"How many?" Gabrielle followed his gaze.
Nathan glanced at her. Having not paid much attention to her previously, he now did a double take. His mouth opened, but nothing came out. Xan gave him a swift whack in the chest.
"Answer her. You suddenly gone mute or something?"
"Huh? Oh, uh...two for sure, maybe three," he stammered, rubbing his chest and giving Xan a dirty look.
"Let's get out of sight," Gabrielle suggested. "With luck, maybe they will just pass us by, following your horse."
"Which is probably half-way to Athens by now," Xan groused.
As they made their way back into the ruins, Xan introduced Nathan to Gabrielle. Nathan gave Gabrielle's hand a quick shake and gave Xan a big grin and a suggestive wink. Xan scowled at him, effectively eliminating the grin.
"Where are Michael and David?" Xan asked.
Gabrielle, again, was drawn by the unusual names; they sounded vaguely familiar. She had read about them somewhere...
"They're dead. Both of them." Nathan's blunt words put an end to her musing.
"Zagnan's men found us at the springs. I managed to fight my way out. They...did not." Xan studied him more closely and he seemed uncomfortable under her scrutiny. Nathan turned his eyes to the woods once more then shifted his gaze to Gabrielle. "Are you a friend of Xena's? Did you find Xena?" he asked, glancing at Xan for a moment.
"I..." Gabrielle hesitated; there was something odd about this man, something that she did not quite trust.
"She's a friend of mine," Xan advised him shortly, giving Gabrielle the impression that she felt the same way about him.
"Look," Gabrielle whispered. "They're coming."
"What do you see?" Rachel asked calmly.
"Shoulder," Xena answered, matching her tone.
Rachel sighed. "Well, it could be a lot worse. You're going to have to take her though. You know that, don't you?"
Xena looked up at her. "You're losing a lot of blood, I can't cut you, it would kill you."
"You have to-"
"Maybe I can turn-"
"Xena. You can't. You are just wasting time and you need to hurry."
Xena shook her head. "I'm not going to-"
Rachel grabbed her wrist in a surprisingly strong grip. "Xena, this child must survive. She must."
"At what cost?"
"At any cost!"
"Why? Whose child is this? Who is the father? How do you even know it's a she?"
Rachel drew a deep breath and released it slowly. "Do you believe in miracles, Xena?"
"From the gods?" Xena sneered in distaste.
Rachel shook her head slightly. "There is a greater power. The lesser gods will pass, this One will not. Not ever." She looked into Xena's eyes, ignoring the look of disbelief so clearly evident in them. "You've seen it, felt it, I know you have."
"I've seen a great evil power, if that's what you are talking about." Xena looked away from her.
Rachel frowned. "The Fallen," she stated, voice hushed. "It caused you great pain. You and Gabrielle. I'm sorry, Xena."
Xena met her eyes once more, enchanted by their beauty, saddened by their ageless wisdom, old beyond their years. What have you seen? Xena wondered to herself. Where have you been, and why...? "Yeah, well," she spoke aloud, "it's gone now, so-"
"It will never be gone, Xena," Rachel told her. Xena looked startled. "You're afraid," Rachel whispered.
"I've beaten it before." Xena replied harshly. "I can-"
"You are afraid it dwells within you, this darkness; that it has always been there, and you will never truly defeat it."
Xena was growing confused, and angry. "I don't know what you are talking about, Rachel. Whose child is this? Why is Zagnan looking for you? Who sent him?" Xena insisted, turning the subject back to the matter at hand.
Rachel gasped as another spasm took her. She locked her eyes onto Xena's. "You must...must take this child...now, Xena, or you will lose us both!
"Tell me!" Xena demanded, her voice hard, unrelenting.
"Rome," Rachel stated finally, turning Xena's blood to ice.
Three horsemen exited the woods at a slow gallop, eyes intent upon the ground. They entered the clearing and stopped. After a brief discussion, one rode off, the other two dismounted.
Xan uttered something profoundly profane and looked over at Gabrielle who blinked at either her profundity or her irreverence.
After another quick look, Xan nodded to Nathan, who drew his sword and moved off to his right. Xan drew her own sword and moved left, motioning for Gabrielle to stay where she was, which, to her relief, she did. Xan turned back, pulling a knife from her boot, offering it to Gabrielle, who shook her head. Xan gave her a pointed look and offered it again. Gabrielle returned the look, along with another emphatic headshake. Rolling her eyes dramatically, looking around for a moment, Xan managed to locate a sturdy tree branch about the same size as Gabrielle's staff. Giving her what she hoped was a stern look, Xan held it out to her.
This Gabrielle took, rolling her upper lip into a slight snarl in response to Xan's look. Xan smothered a laugh. Humor in times of stress; she could relate to that. Xan began to move away then hesitated. "Gabrielle," she started, keeping her voice low. Gabrielle looked over at her. "Nathan doesn't know that I'm a woman."
"So I gathered," Gabrielle whispered back.
Smiling, Xan moved off.
Xan pulled back slightly as she located the man below her. The man looked up, not seeing her, but perhaps sensing her presence. He stared a moment, then moved on. Xan released the breath she had been holding and quietly worked her way ahead of him. She found a spot where she thought she could intercept him without first alerting him to her presence and waited. He passed by her; she was on a slight rise about four feet above him. She bit down on her lip as a few pieces of dirt, loosened by days of steady rain, tumbled down the rise. The man began to turn.
"Damn-tarnation," Xan muttered. Forced into moving faster and sooner than she wanted, she lost her footing on mud that was now also covered by a light sheen of frost. Going from bad to worse, the whole piece of ground she was standing on began to give way beneath her. Dropping to one knee, she attempted to get some semblance of control as she rode the cascade of earth and muck down to meet him.
He grunted in surprise when her sword plunged deep within his chest, and she did the same, when his sword slid into her shoulder, entering below her collarbone, just above her heart. They both stared at each other for a moment, neither of them quite sure what had happened. Looking down at her, the man's eyes slowly filled with resignation and sadness. Closing his eyes, he uttered a long, low keening sound and took a step back. The sound he made was so awful it nearly undid Xan. She let go of her sword. He held onto his and it made a wet, squishy, sucking sound as it exited Xan's shoulder, turning her stomach. He fell slowly, almost gracefully, away from her.
"Damn! Damn, triple-dog-damn! Of all the stupid..." Cursing through clenched teeth, Xan stood up, lost her balance and sat down hard. Feeling her life seeping out of her in a warm river of blood, she clamped a hand over the wound and concentrated on not passing out. She took a few deep breaths and attempted to get to her feet again. Quickly abandoning that idea, she decided instead to just sit back and wait for Gabrielle to find her. She struggled out of the vest she was wearing, muttering a string of curses the entire time, and pressed it tightly against her shoulder. Scootching over to a tree, she leaned back and closed her eyes. She opened them a few moments later when she heard a familiar voice.
Riding on a ghostly zephyr, something touched her gently and breathed her name into the frosty silence. "Rachel?" Xan whispered hoarsely in return. Nothing answered but the wind. Taking a shaky, hurtful breath, Xan closed her eyes again and waited.
Gabrielle grew impatient with the waiting and doing nothing. She lifted her head above the wall for a quick look. She saw no sign of Xan or Nathan, but did locate the other man. He was standing at the bottom of the incline below their hidden sanctuary, studying the ground. She was sure there were telltale signs of their little foray down the hillside, so he probably knew that they were here.
As he looked up toward the ruins, squinting in the oncoming darkness, she made her way quietly toward him. She wondered briefly where Nathan was, since he went in this direction. She reached the man just as he started up the incline. Predictably, he slipped, going down on hands and knees, losing his sword in the greedy muck. Gabrielle gripped the makeshift staff tightly in her right hand, using the bandaged left for balance. She swung just as he turned his head toward her. It connected solidly and he went down, almost without a sound, and stayed down. Gabrielle, on the other hand, yelped in pain as the force of the blow and its aftershock awakened every broken bone in her hand.
"Son of a-" she gasped, gritting her teeth. Hearing a noise behind her, she froze. She grasped the stick, bracing it against her side, and spun around.
"Whoa!" Nathan yelled, holding up his hands.
"Zeus, Nathan!" Gabrielle hissed. "Don't you know better than to sneak up on someone like that?"
"Sorry, I didn't mean to sneak. Habit, I suppose."
"Where's Xan?" she asked, looking past him.
"I thought he was with you." She looked into his eyes and he looked past her to the unconscious man behind her. "Is he dead?" he asked flatly.
"No. Have you seen the other one?" Nathan shook his head. "Find something to tie him up with, okay? I'm going to look for the other one and Xan."
"Gabrielle, maybe I should-"
"Just do it, Nathan. I can't manage it with this," she raised the bandaged hand slightly. "Come as soon as you can."
"All right. I won't be long. It's getting dark," he called out to her retreating back. "Be careful."
Gabrielle was moving quickly and with far less caution than she probably should have been, an increasing sense of urgency driving her on. Fog and gloom rolled in with the dusk. Tendrils of fog swirled and danced around her like gossamer ghosts. Tripping over an exposed tree root, she almost fell on top of the dead man. A small yelp of surprise escaped her. Clamping a hand over her mouth, she looked closely at his face, knees going weak with relief when she determined that it was not Xan. Xan's sword, however, was still in place, ironically marking the man's passing like a silent silver sentinel. Gruesomely mesmerized by the sight for a few moments, Gabrielle finally shook her head and moved on.
"Xan?" she called, unease gnawing at her insides like little teeth. She was beginning to get a bit panicky when a cold hand reached out and grabbed her ankle. Letting loose another shriek of shock, she backed away, raising the substitute staff in defense.
"'Bout time you found me, Gabrielle. My butt is damn near frozen right off."
"Xan!" Gabrielle didn't know whether to swat her a good one, or kiss her. "Gods, you scared me half to death!"
"Yeah, well, you scream like a girl."
"I am a g-" Gabrielle stopped, suddenly wondering why Xan was sitting out here in the first place. Dropping the temporary staff and bending down, she saw the dark flow of blood seeping from between Xan's fingers. Her stomach made a sickening lurch. "You're hurt," she said gently.
"Yeah. Stupidest damn thing you ever saw. I fell right on the guy's sword, but if you ever tell anyone, I'll deny it."
"Shut up, Xan. How bad is it? Let me see."
Xan opened her mouth, then closed it, trying to sort out which comment she should respond to. Gabrielle lifted the vest then carefully tore the shirt away from the wound. "Gabrielle!" Xan exclaimed.
"What?!" Gabrielle jumped, startled.
"You tore my shirt! Xena already tore it once, and that's my favorite shirt. Crap. There'll be nothing left of it."
Gabrielle stared at her, astounded. "Xan, did anyone ever tell you that you are absolutely insane?"
"Well, you are. Can you get up, if I help you?"
"Uh-uh, don't think so."
"Okay, I'll go find Nathan. We've got to get you inside."
Xan grabbed her wrist as she began to rise and Gabrielle saw real fear in her eyes. "Gabrielle...you need to hurry."
Gabrielle felt her throat close up as tears prickled at the back of her eyes. "I know," she said softly, covering Xan with her coat. "I'll hurry."
"And besides," Xan said, voice growing weaker. "I'm afraid of the dark..."
Rachel watched in wary fascination as the insidious darkness that roamed the depths of Xena's soul rose to the surface. A seething, cold rage filled Xena's eyes.
"Rome!?" Xena's voice was hushed in stunned disbelief. She locked her eyes onto Rachel's, grasping her wrist tightly. "You mean Caesar?!" She spit out his name with frightening fury, tightening her grip, as Rachel tried to pull away from her.
"I...I think so, yes," Rachel replied, struggling to free her wrist from Xena's grasp. "He, among others. Xena, you're hurting me."
Xena seemed puzzled by the look of fearful discomfort in Rachel's eyes. She glanced down at her hand encircling Rachel's wrist, and released her immediately. "I'm sorry," she apologized softly, unsettled by her loss of control.
Neither of them spoke for a moment. "You're so full of anger and hate."
Xena met her eyes, startled. Her mind raced back, so many years ago, a lifetime ago, her beloved Lao Ma whispering those exact same words to her.
"Stop willing, stop desiring, stop hating."
Xena pushed the words and the woman from her thoughts, focusing on Rachel once more. "Why, Rachel? What could Caesar possibly hope to gain by hurting you, or your child?"
"Xena, I can't explain now. Please you-"
"I'm going to wait until your next contraction, Rachel. Then I'm going to try and turn her, if I can't, I'll take her." Rachel sighed heavily, clearly not pleased. "Tell me, Rachel," Xena insisted firmly.
"There is a prophecy," Rachel began resignedly. "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." Rachel looked away from her.
"I don't understand," Xena said. "What has this to do with you?"
"The prophecy provides three clues to the identity of the person, or persons, who will bring Caesar to ruin," Rachel continued. "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 into Xena's eyes; Xena said nothing, lost in thought, focused on memories of the past.
"I know you are my mother, Xena," Rachel informed her quietly. "And I know your history with Caesar." Xena's eyes met Rachel's for a moment. She blinked, shaking her head a little and closed her eyes. Rachel took her hand. "Xena?"
"I thought as much," Xena allowed, meeting her eyes once more. "But..." Her eyes narrowed as her mind raced through several possibilities, settling, finally, on one. "And, what, Rachel, you think Caesar is your father? And this child-"
"Is he? Is Caesar my father?" Xena opened her mouth, then clamped it shut once more, breaking her gaze from Rachel's. "Xena, I-" Rachel began, and then cried out as a spasm of pain raced through her. Xena shook off Rachel's hand and reached down toward the baby. "Wait, not yet," Rachel managed, biting down on her lip. "It wasn't a contraction." She took a few deep breaths, regaining her composure.
"Xena, it doesn't matter now...what I think. But, it is believed that Caesar...thinks it is so."
"Rachel," Xena stared intently into her eyes. "Did you ever stop to think that maybe Caesar is just using you, to get to me?"
"Yes." It was Rachel's turn to lower her eyes. "Yes, I had thought of that."
Xena studied her for a moment then took her hand once more. "There is more, isn't there? You haven't told me everything." Rachel raised her eyes again and Xena was again unsettled by the look of torment within their depths.
"I have seen such terrible visions, Xena. I am so afraid for us all. I felt that you were the only one who could help me, but now I feel such guilt about sending for you. I may have set something in motion that...I don't know if I have done the right thing."
Seeing Rachel afraid and unsure filled Xena with a feeling of icy dread. "What have you seen, Rachel?"
Rachel didn't answer for a moment; she looked away and then back down at her swollen abdomen. "This child," she said quietly. "This child is truly blessed, Xena. You must believe that. I have seen glimpses of her future. She is a child of peace and light. Given the chance, she could set in motion a force that will forever change the world. She could be an unstoppable force for good, even more so than her grandmother." Rachel stopped speaking at the look on Xena's face. "What?"
"Grandmother?" Xena replied hoarsely, barely able to say the word.
"Well, you are, you know, or will be soon," Rachel said with a wry grin. "Honestly, Xena, after all I have told you, that is what visibly upsets you?"
They smiled at each other. Rachel's smile radiant and warm, her face lighting up like sunlight emerging from the shadows. A slight gap between Rachel's two front teeth gave Xena a glimpse of the child still present within the woman; the beautiful child who grew up without her. Xena reached out to touch Rachel's face, her smile fading.
"I often wonder," Rachel offered quietly, "when circumstance leaves us no alternative, except to leave someone we deeply love, who suffers the most? The one leaving, or the one left behind? Truly, their pain is equal, is it not?" Xena's response to this nearly broke Rachel's heart. For who, other than Xena, could convey so much in the shedding of one simple, eloquent tear.
Rachel reached over and gently wiped it away. "Please, don't despair, Mother. My love for you never changed, it grew only stronger, as did my hope that you would return to us."
"I wish..." Xena whispered, "I wish we had time..."
"Time." Rachel sighed with a small half smile. "It is either flying by, or forever standing still, is it not?" Her smile faded away replaced by a look of pain as she gripped Xena's hand tightly. "We have no more time, Xena. I can't help; I can't bear this child in the normal way. You must take her. You can see that, now, can't you?"
Xena looked fearfully at the bright red pool of blood soaking through the blankets.
Fortunately, Gabrielle found Nathan before she had to waste a lot of time looking for him. They constructed a crude litter and managed to get Xan back inside the ruins. Xan opened her eyes as Gabrielle covered her with blankets.
"Next time," Xan suggested, "we need to pick a hiding place that has an easier access, don't you think?"
Gabrielle looked down at her. "Hey," she replied with a small smile, "we only dropped you twice."
Xan laughed a little then winced. Gabrielle bent down and removed the blood soaked vest. Xan winced again as Gabrielle tore her shirt for the second time. She started to say something but was silenced by Gabrielle's warning look.
"We have to get this bleeding stopped," Gabrielle told her as she cleaned the wound.
Xan's eyes grew large as Gabrielle picked up a crude wooden needle and some type of fine twine that she didn't recognize. "Oh, hey, I don't like needles."
"We have to stop the-"
"I know, I know. Can't you just bandage it?"
"No. The only other thing would be to cauterize it. Would you rather-"
"No, no." Xan relented, taking a deep breath. "Go ahead." Gabrielle bent closer. "Ow, ow, ow!"
"Xan! I haven't even started yet, don't be such a baby!"
"I was practicing."
"Well, stop it, before I practice by sewing your lips together."
Xan made a face at her as she began. "Ow! Shoot, Gabrielle, now that did hurt."
Gabrielle sighed heavily and tried to concentrate.
"Hey, are you right handed, or left handed?" Xan bent her head down, trying to see which hand Gabrielle was using.
"You don't want to know. Get your head out of my way," Gabrielle grumped, getting more irritated by the moment.
"Well, no wonder it hurts, you'll probably leave a big scar, too, and-"
"I said 'It's done.'"
"Oh, well...well, hey, that wasn't so bad, was it?"
"Maybe not for you. By the gods, Xan, you are the most annoying-"
"Me? What did I do?" Xan gave her an innocent look and Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip, determined to keep a straight face. She looked up as Nathan entered and motioned her over. Xan took her hand as she got to her feet; Gabrielle gave her a questioning look. "Thanks, Gabrielle," she said softly, gazing into her eyes. "Seriously."
Gabrielle smiled and squeezed her hand. "I'll be right back to bandage that, I made a poultice to put on it."
"Something that will sting like Tartarus, no doubt."
Gabrielle gave her an evil grin, which made Xan laugh, which did hurt like Tartarus. As Gabrielle moved away, Xan coughed and wiped blood from her lips onto a piece of torn shirt, which she placed beneath the blankets.
Nathan stooped down beside Gabrielle as she gathered up bandages. "How bad is he?" he asked, keeping his voice low.
"S...he lost a lot of blood. He's worse than he's letting on, I think."
"Gabrielle, we need to get out of here." She looked at him as though he'd lost his senses. "When those two men don't report back," Nathan explained, "the one who rode off is going to know something happened, he will bring more men back here."
"Where is the other one, the one who is still here?"
"He's no longer a problem."
The look in his eyes discouraged any further discussion on the matter. Gabrielle decided she would rather not know anyway. "Xan can't be moved."
"Then we'll have to leave him."
"Gabrielle, if we stay here, they will find us, they will kill us all, or worse."
Gabrielle shook her head and closed her eyes, trying to think. "All right," she stated, opening her eyes. "This is what we are going to do. They will be looking for just one person. They don't know we are here. So when they get here-"
"You're crazy!" Nathan said hotly, realizing where she was going. "You want me to wait around until they come back, and then try and outrun them?"
"Well, I won't do it. It's suicide."
"Nathan, you know this area. You could lose them. You-"
"It won't work," he said stubbornly. "I won't-"
"All right! All right, then I'll do it," Gabrielle declared firmly. This time, Nathan shook his head. "Nathan, we can't move Xan, and we can't leave him here without help. If you leave now, they will most likely search these ruins until they find us. It's the only way. I'll go, if you promise not to leave Xan."
Nathan stared at her. "You are crazy, you know. You and Xan must be related."
"You'll do it then? You'll stay with him?"
He looked down at the ground and then back up at her. "All right, I'll go get their horses, have the best one ready to go. Then I'll keep watch."
Gabrielle nodded then returned to what she was doing. Nathan stood, began to say something else, then just shook his head and left.
Gabrielle napped fitfully, subconscious attuned to Xan's slightest move. Wondering and worrying, also, about Xena and Rachel. She finally fell asleep, only to be awakened by Nathan. He came in once to check on Xan and again later to get another blanket.
"Demeter can't decide if she wants rain or snow tonight," he said, gratefully accepting a cup of warm broth from Gabrielle.
"Woman's prerogative," Gabrielle answered groggily. "To change her mind," she explained, in answer to Nathan's puzzled look.
"Ah," he replied, smiling a little. "Go back to sleep, I'm sorry I woke you."
"It's all right. I'm glad you're keeping watch."
He stared at her for a moment, then picked up the blanket and the cup of broth and moved toward the passage that would take him outside.
"Gabrielle..." He paused a moment.
"I...uh...thanks for the broth."
"Welcome." She gave him a sleepy smile.
He looked as though he wanted to say something more, but then just nodded and walked away. Gabrielle lay down near Xan once more and drifted off. She dreamt.
Images of Xena and their journeys, of Poteidaia, her family. In the midst of these, it suddenly occurred to her why the names of Xan's friends sounded so familiar. David. The sensitive young poet who composed the beautiful psalms; David, the giant killer. The Israelites and their firm believe in their One God. And these thoughts, in turn, led to more disturbing images of Dahak and Hope and fire...
She jerked awake, sat straight up and spent a frightening moment trying to figure out where she was. "Zeus," she mumbled hoarsely, as she got her bearings once more. She rubbed a hand vigorously over her face, trying to shake off the unsettling after-effects of the dream. Xan mumbled something in her sleep and Gabrielle got up to check on her. As she laid a hand across Xan's forehead, she opened her eyes.
"No, Xan, it's Gabrielle." She wrung out a cool cloth to lay on Xan's forehead, troubled by how feverish she was.
Xan stared uncomprehendingly at her for a moment. "Ah, Gabrielle," she whispered finally. "You look...you remind me so much of Rachel."
Gabrielle looked into her eyes. "I'm not Rachel, Xan."
"And I'm not Xena," Xan stated.
Both of them seemed a little taken aback at this conversation, neither of them sure what prompted it, and where, if anywhere, it was headed.
"Or, then again, maybe I am," Xan added after a moment. Gabrielle's mystified look drew a half smile from her. "I mean, why else would I feel as though I have known you for years?" Xan explained. "Why else would I trust you so much? I don't even trust myself half the time."
"You are Xena," Gabrielle said with a slight grin.
Xan laughed, which provoked a bout of coughing. Gabrielle helped her sit up until it passed. Xan wiped her mouth and Gabrielle caught a glimpse of the blood stained cloth before Xan stuck it beneath the blanket.
"Not a good sign, I know, but I've survived worse. Really, I'll be fine."
Gabrielle nodded, trying to hide her concern, and busied herself checking Xan's dressing.
Xan stared into her troubled, green eyes for a moment then took her hand. "Gabrielle."
"Hmmm?" She looked up, meeting Xan's eyes.
"I want you...would you tell Xena something for me, when you see her?"
"You can tell her yourself, when we see her," Gabrielle's voice was firm.
"I know. But, just in case we get separated for a while, or something."
Gabrielle drew in a breath, exhaled slowly, and nodded. "All right," she agreed softly.
"Tell her I was wrong."
"You!?" Gabrielle placed a hand over her heart in mock surprise.
Xan grinned. "I know it's hard to believe, but yeah."
Xan's eyes shifted away from her, smile fading. "A long time ago, I convinced myself that it was not possible for Xena to ever truly care for anyone. Rachel tried to persuade me that Xena left because she cared so much for us, but I never really believed her."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to say something then closed it again, waiting for Xan to continue.
"Rachel also tried to convince me that my refusal to believe was just a defense, to make Xena's leaving easier to accept. But, deep down, I was sure that Xena was just too hard, too damaged, too untrusting to let herself..." Xan looked into Gabrielle's eyes once more. "Anyway, I thought that she deserved to be alone. That, because she was incapable of loving, of giving herself, she did not deserve to have anyone."
Xan lifted a hand to touch Gabrielle's face. "But, I was wrong. She loves you, Gabrielle; I can see it in her eyes, when she looks at you. She may be able to hide that side of herself where anyone else was concerned, but not with you." Xan took her hand. "You know this, don't you? You love her, too?"
Gabrielle was silent for a moment. "I think," Gabrielle said quietly, looking away, "I think I have always..." She stopped speaking and looked into Xan's eyes once more. "I think you should rest now, Xan."
"It's hard sometimes, isn't it?" Xan said softly, beginning to drift away. Gabrielle looked questioningly at her. "Right and wrong. Good and evil. What we think we should feel versus what we truly feel. Everything is not always black and white, is it?"
"No, Xan, most of the time, it isn't."
"But, in your case, Gabrielle, you have an advantage."
Xan closed her eyes and did not answer, slipping further away until Gabrielle snuggled the blankets up under her chin.
"Your heart..." Xan's voice was as soft as a sigh.
Gabrielle leaned closer, struggling to hear.
"Always follow...your heart, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle smiled sadly as she slowly leaned back. She sat quietly for a long while, thinking then brushed a hand across her eyes, surprised to find them awash with tears.
Gabrielle managed to get a small amount of blessedly dreamless, undisturbed sleep before something awakened her once more. Xan groaned softly, clearly in pain, struggling to push the blankets away from her. Leaning over her, Gabrielle held them firmly in place. "Leave them be, Xan," she insisted. "It will help break the fever."
Xan opened her eyes, squinting up at her in the semi darkness. "Rachel. I knew you would come, I need-" Xan reached out and grasped Gabrielle's hand. "I need...to tell you...God, my chest, could you...get that Centaur off of me...so I can breathe?" An impish grin spread across Xan's face.
Gabrielle felt a wave of fear wash over her as Xan's words summoned a rush of d�j� vu. "My chest feels...so he-heavy...Rachel?" Xan whispered urgently.
Gabrielle hesitated only a moment before answering. "Yes. You're going to be all right, Xan."
Xan nodded slightly, visibly relaxing. "I know, I'm not afraid...well, maybe just a little. Rachel, would you..."
"Would you hold me? Just for a while?"
Struggling briefly with tears and a multitude of emotions, Gabrielle leaned down and kissed Xan lightly on the lips. Xan held on to her as she began to draw away and returned the kiss with an urgent, tender desperation. Gabrielle lay down beside her and slipped her arms around her, pulling her close. Xan sighed contentedly and closed her eyes. "I love you, Rachel."
"And I love you, Xan," Gabrielle assured her, closing her eyes, wondering, not for the first time, why love always had to hurt so terribly much. Lulled by the warmth and the sound of their breathing, she drifted into a sound sleep.
Gabrielle jumped, startled awake by the voice and the hand on her shoulder, shaking her awake. She lifted her head from Xan's shoulder and found Nathan staring down at her. "It's time." His quiet voice held a waver of fear mixed with adrenaline charged excitement. "They're coming."
Carefully disentangling herself from Xan, she got to her feet and tried to get her wits about her.
"How is he?" Nathan asked, with a nod toward Xandra.
Gabrielle laid her hand on Xan's forehead. "I think the fever broke, but he's still having a hard time breathing."
"He's strong. I've seen him survive worse, really."
Gabrielle smiled a little, grateful for the comforting words.
"If I can't talk you out of this, you'd better hurry; they are not far off." Gabrielle nodded and picked up her staff. "Look, Gabrielle, I've got an idea. I'll explain on the way out. Here, wear this." He held out a heavy hooded cloak, which covered her from head to foot when she put it on. "Zeus," he said with gruff laugh. "You look like an executioner."
"Well, I can't see very well, but at least it's warm."
"Mmm," Nathan replied. "You should take this, too."
Gabrielle shook her head at the object Nathan was holding out to her. "No."
"All right then, suit yourself. Are you ready?"
Gabrielle leaned over Xan, pulling the blankets up, touching her face for a moment. Xan mumbled something unintelligible. "Be well, Xan," she whispered gently then turned to follow Nathan. "Nathan, could I ask you something?"
"When you and Xan were talking, you mentioned David-"
Nathan stopped abruptly and turned to face her. "That wasn't my fault!"
Gabrielle drew back a little in the face of his anger. "I wasn't suggesting that it was."
He stared at her for a moment then lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry," he apologized, voice softening. "What is it you want to know?"
"I met a man named David once, he was with a group of people fighting the Philistines, I just wondered-"
"Not the same man," he informed her gruffly, turning away. "We'd better hurry."
Gabrielle stared after him for a moment then followed.
They made their way down the passage and out into the chilly, overcast morning. Gabrielle took a grateful deep breath of the clean, moist air. Nathan turned and held out his hand, helping her down the slippery rock. He stood still for a moment, staring down at her, breath vaporizing in the chill air. "You said you had an idea?" Gabrielle asked.
Nathan nodded. "I'm thinking if Xan is able to travel tomorrow or the next day, we should just meet you at the springs, then we could join up with Xena and Rachel. If...when you lose Zagnan's men, it doesn't make much sense to come back here."
Gabrielle gave him an odd look before answering. "I don't think Xan is going to be able to travel that soon, Nathan."
He shrugged. "Well, maybe you're right. Look, why don't you tell me exactly where they are, if Xan can't travel and he recovers enough for me to leave him for a while, I could at least go tell them what's happened."
"Let's let Xan decide," she suggested. "When he's better."
As she began to move past him, he reached forward and grabbed her arm. "Tell me where they are, Gabrielle."
Pulling away from him, she backed away, raising the staff. He took a step toward her. "Don't!" she warned him.
He lifted his head slightly and she sensed something behind her, a slight whisper of cloth, a minute disturbance of air. Turning, she was greeted with an evil smile and a sword pointed at her throat by the man she assumed Nathan had killed. She looked quickly back to Nathan, his betrayal earning him a look of seething anger and disgust.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I-"
"And I owe you one, you little bitch!"
"Don't-" Nathan began.
She instinctively pulled back, but not far enough to escape the savage blow to her temple.
"That wasn't necessary!" Nathan said angrily.
"Yeah, yeah," the man sneered. "Why should you care? Pick her up; we've wasted enough time here already. Zagnan's waiting."
Gabrielle didn't remember much of the trip, coming fully back to consciousness only after they sat her down roughly in a chair. She clenched her teeth against the sharp stab of pain in her head and looked around. The room was cold and filled with impenetrable shadows. She started slightly, as someone leaned toward her. He slid silently from the darkness into the dim light, like a snake from beneath a rock. Everything about him was dark, from his clothing to the ebony pools of his eyes. He reminded her somewhat of Ares, but even Ares had a flicker of humanity in his eyes. If the eyes were windows to the soul, then this man had none, for looking into them was like staring into an abyss.
He gave her a predatory smile, teeth gleaming, like a tiger ready to pounce. His eyes gained no warmth from the smile, if anything, they grew colder. Gabrielle suppressed a shiver. "What is your name?" His voice was velvety soft, an unsettling contradiction to his appearance.
"My name is Gabrielle, I..."
He held up a hand to silence her, candlelight winking off of a large band of gold adorning his index finger. "My name is Zagnan. Of course, you have probably already surmised as much. You have information I require."
The slap was hard, fast and vicious, catching her so totally unaware, she did not even feel it until she heard the sharp crack. The sting brought tears to her eyes and she glared angrily at him. He looked amused, which angered her further.
"Don't deny knowing where they are, Gabrielle. I know that you know, and you will tell me. Why not save yourself a lot of discomfort and me a lot of time, and tell me now?"
She said nothing. He hit her hard enough this time to knock her off of the chair, again striking so quickly she didn't see it coming. Someone lifted her up and dumped her back into the chair. The room seemed to tilt at an odd angle and she lowered her head as a feeling uncomfortably reminiscent of seasickness washed over her. A dull ache began to assert itself in her jaw, adding itself to the already merciless, painful throbbing inside her head.
"Look at me." She raised her eyes to his, heart racing, a trickle of fear just beginning to nudge aside her anger. He reached toward her and she steeled herself, refusing to back away from him. He stared at her a moment, eyes narrowing.
"I can see that this is getting us nowhere." He sighed heavily. "I must be getting old. Lately, I have begun to feel a distinct lack of patience needed for an interrogation such as this." He leaned back, deep in thought for a moment, fingers drumming on the table.
Gabrielle became slightly mesmerized by the candlelight reflecting off of the gold band on his finger. She started a bit when he stood up and moved behind her.
"Perhaps the example of your execution will serve to loosen other tongues. It is a shame, though. I am not fond of wasting such beauty. And you are quite lovely, Gabrielle."
She closed her eyes as he leaned into her, his mouth close to her ear, his hands sliding over her shoulders, resting lightly on her breasts. "Tell me now, have you any last requests, golden child?" he whispered seductively. "Anything that I could...personally do to make up for all you will never see," - his hands lightly caressed her - "never feel, never experience?"
Gabrielle leaned back, shuddering slightly under his caress. "You...your hands..." she whispered.
"Yes?" he urged, leaning closer still.
"You can get them off of me."
There was dead silence in the room. He leaned away from her, his hands tightening painfully for a brief moment before sliding back up to rest on her shoulders once more. She turned her head and met his eyes. Something moved behind his, something almost human. The beginnings of what may have emerged as a genuine smile began to etch itself across his face. But it quickly disappeared, as if even the effort itself was just too alien to maintain. He began to laugh; a coarse, humorless sound, which, combined with the absence of a smile and the burning malice in his eyes, was truly horrifying. He sat down again.
"Ah, Gabrielle, had I but a hundred such as you, I believe I could rule the world." He continued to stare at her for a few moments. She watched, transfixed, as the fire smoldered in his eyes and went out, leaving them frighteningly cold and empty. She flinched a little as he reached across the table and touched her mouth. Pulling his hand back, he looked thoughtfully at the blood on his fingertips. Surprised, Gabrielle raised a hand to her mouth, wincing as she touched her split lip. His eyes shifted, drawn from the glistening blood, to the dressing on her hand. She attempted to lower it out of sight, but he quickly reached over and engulfed it within his own.
"You've hurt yourself," he observed quietly, eyes catching fire once more.
"Zagnan hurt you, didn't he, Rachel?" Xena asked. "That's why Xan thought you were-"
"Yes." Rachel nodded. She was growing visibly weaker, life, strength, will, slipping quietly away from her. "Hurt inside..." she managed. Xena leaned closer. "I've been bleeding...I can't..."
"Sssh, Rachel, don't talk any more. You need to rest now."
"Give me your hand, Xena."
Xena did so. Rachel grasped it tightly and closed her eyes, concentrating. Xena felt a strange tingling sensation in her hand. Her eyes widened slightly as it quickly spread. An eerie warmth flowed through her; it hummed and sang, alive with heat and energy.
"So much more to tell you. I'm sorry, Xena, I-"
Rachel's eyes opened suddenly. She stared at a point beyond Xena then focused her eyes on their hands. Her face grew ashen at the quick succession of images; a ragged bandage, a bright band of gold, a bloody sword. Tearing her eyes away, looking up, she forced down the scream climbing up the back of her throat as two black, malevolent eyes slowly dissolved into shimmering blue. "My God," she cried out softly. "Hurry Xena, you must hurry."
Unnerved by the look of raw terror in Rachel's eyes, Xena nodded slightly, took a deep breath, and picked up the blade.
"Xander. Xander wake up!"
Xan reluctantly pulled herself up from the darkness and opened her eyes. Nathan was bending over her, peering into her face. She lifted a hand that felt weighted with lead and pushed him back. "Get out of my face, Nathan." Her voice was harsh, abraded by pain, and dry as desert sand.
"Come on, Xan," Nathan encouraged with a slight grin. "You've been sleeping long enough. Here drink some water; you look like you need it."
Xan sat part way up, grimacing at the pain in her shoulder, and took the ladle, choking a bit on the water. Taking a deep breath, she looked around. "Nathan, where's Gabrielle?"
A strange expression settled over Nathan's face. "She's, uh, she..."
"She's not here."
"I can see that. Where is she?"
"Now, before you go flying off the handle, Xander, I want you to hear me out."
Xan started to get a very cold feeling in the pit of her stomach. "I'm listening."
"We made a plan. She's carrying out her part of it."
"What kind of plan?" Xan asked, eyes narrowing.
"She, uhm, she took the horse, see, and she's leading, uh, leaving a trail to throw off Zagnan's men."
"She's what!!" Xan reached up to grab Nathan's shirt but he backed out of her reach.
"It's a good plan. She'll lead them off, we'll go meet Xena and Rachel and she'll join up with us there."
Xan could barely control her rising temper. She fought it down, along with the urge to throttle Nathan. Something was terribly wrong here and she needed more information from him before he bolted. "And what happens if they catch her?"
"Well...uh, well then see, if that happens, which it probably won't, mind you, she will lead them to where we meet Xena, but we'll be ready for them. She'll lead them right into a trap."
"And Gabrielle agreed to this?!" Xan's voice rose an incredulous notch, thinking she had never heard anything so unbelievably asinine in her entire life.
"Well, yeah, most of it."
"Which 'most of it', Nathan?" He looked down at his hands and Xan lunged up and grabbed onto his shirt, yanking him back down to face her. "She agreed to lead them away from here, that much I believe. She did it because you wouldn't do it, isn't that right, Nathan?"
"Is she in on the part where she is supposed to tell Zagnan where they are?"
"Well, not exactly, but-"
"'Not exactly'! 'Not exactly,' Nathan?! You damn fool. Zagnan will kill her, or worse!"
Nathan pushed against Xan's shoulder and pulled away as Xan hissed in pain, losing her grip on his shirt.
"You're wrong, Xander," Nathan insisted, sticking out his lower lip. "It's a good plan. Zagnan won't kill her if he thinks she can take him to Xena and Rachel. When she tells him, he will take her along, to make sure she's not lying and we will-what are you laughing at?"
"You, Nathan. I'm laughing at you, you sorry piece of dung." Anger flared in Nathan's eyes. Drawing his sword, he bent over her once more. Xan ignored it, fixing her eyes on his.
"Let me tell you something, Nathan, see if you can grasp it. Gabrielle won't tell them anything, even if she knew, she wouldn't tell them. Because unlike you, you traitorous piece of scum, she is brave and she is loyal and she wouldn't sell out her friends. Ever!"
"I don't know what you are talking about! We made a plan, it was her idea, I-what do you mean, even if she knew?"
"Ah, it sunk in, did it now, Nathan, through that thick skull of yours? Gabrielle doesn't know where they are." It took a moment for that to register and while Nathan was processing it, Xan tried to maneuver herself closer to her sword.
"I don't believe you." Nathan told her, moving closer.
Xan snorted. "I don't give a rat's ass what you believe, Nathan."
Nathan's face went through a series of contortions as he tried to think what to do. Xan moved closer to her sword, stopping when Nathan bent over her once more. "Well, then, Xander, smart-mouth, you'd better tell me where they are, so I can go get Xena and get to Gabrielle before Zagnan does kill her."
"And tell me, Nathan, how do you know where Zagnan is, how do you know he even has Gabrielle?"
"I...well, I don't, but-"
"When did you turn, Nathan?" Xan hissed. "Did you trade your stinking life for Michael and David's, or did you just sell out Gabrielle and I?"
Xan winced as Nathan suddenly let loose a howl of rage and slammed the sword down inches from her head. Xan reached under the pile of bedding and came up with...nothing.
"It's not there," Nathan said quietly. "I moved it. The knife, too."
Xan looked up at him. Nathan's eyes were filled with the frantic resolve of a cornered rat. He smiled grimly. "Actually, I offered your sword to Gabrielle, she wouldn't take it, not that it would have done her much good anyway."
"You set her up. You set us both up. It was all a lie, the men following you, everything."
"Yes," Nathan agreed shortly. "Zagnan. He's a very smart man, you know, very persuasive. Tell me where they are, Xander."
Xan laughed softly. "Or what, Nathan? You'll kill me? That's what you stayed behind to do, isn't it? Well, what are you waiting for? Do it!"
"I will, Xander, so help me-"
"Well, you'd better do a thorough job of it, because I swear to you, Nathan, I will find you. I will follow you to Hell and back, and I will cut out your heart for what you've done."
Nathan laughed, with a lot more conviction than he actually felt. "Kind of hard to do, Xan, if you're dead, don't you think?"
Xan stared hard into his eyes and Nathan took an involuntary step back from the fierce, silvery heat of them. "That won't matter, Nathan." Her voice was frighteningly cold, dangerously restrained. "That won't matter at all."
Nathan stared at her for a moment, and true to his nature found himself wanting to run, to turn and run from it all. His hands began to tremble and the sword wavered in his grasp. "You...you can't hurt me," he muttered. "You are already dying, Xander, you can't hurt me." His words gave him courage and he stepped forward once more, pushing the sword against Xan's wound. A small trickle of blood appeared, startlingly red against the white dressing. He pushed harder and Xan clenched her teeth, her face betraying nothing.
"You will tell me, Xander. I am going to kill you, of course, but I can make it quick and relatively painless, or I can hurt you for a long, long time. Your choice, Xan."
Xan sighed softly and looked up. She fixed her gaze on a tiny speck of light shinning through some small crevice in the fallen temple above them; it sparkled like a diamond in the darkness surrounding it. "Go to Hell, Nathan," she whispered and closed her eyes.
Zagnan stared into Gabrielle's eyes and she winced as he tightened his grip on her hand. "Did you cut yourself, or is it broken?" he inquired, shifting his gaze to the frayed dressing, squeezing a little tighter.
She did not answer, clamping her teeth so tightly together against the rising pain that her aching jaw began to throb.
"No matter," he said softly, looking into her eyes once more. "It is obvious that it causes you...some discomfort." He leaned forward, pulling her hand hard against his chest, bringing a sharp gasp of pain from her. "Where are they, Gabrielle? You do know, don't you?"
And she did, wishing now that she didn't. Understanding, also, why Xena hadn't wanted to tell her, knowing that she wouldn't be able to lie convincingly enough to this man to save herself if she fell into his hands. And worst of all, she was deathly afraid that he might actually force her to tell him. He tightened his grip and the pain drove her to her feet. She began to tremble, tears filling her eyes, nausea rising, as the bones begin to shift and grate against each other. He grasped her jaw in his other hand, forcing her eyes to his.
"The pain, it is exquisite, is it not? A burning, living thing. You want to escape it, but I'm not going to let you, Gabrielle, not even for a moment." He saw the fear there now, as well as the pain. She tried to close her eyes and her mind against it, but he brought her back with another jolt of pain.
"Tell me!" he hissed, knowing he had her now; it was just a matter of time. "Come on, Gabrielle. What is Xena to you, after all? This type of loyalty means nothing to her. You are nothing to her. She would not suffer so for you, not the Xena I know." His eyes narrowed as he saw a spark of something in hers. A very slight lifting of the corners of her mouth, a look, and he knew immediately that he had said too much.
It was a look of fierce defiance, filled with secrets that he would never fathom, never even begin to understand. And he knew, in that instant, that pain and terror and he, himself, had lost their hold on her. With a roar of frustration he slammed her hand down on the table, causing even the guards to jump in surprise. The pain was horrific, unbearable and she slid gratefully down as the soft, welcoming darkness rose up to meet her.
The wind whispered, revealing not a hint of what was to follow. The animals sensed it first and quickly began to seek shelter. The sun was swallowed by an eerily colored sky, bathing the earth in sea green light. Trees swayed nervously in the fitful wind, first in one direction and then another, seeming, almost, to be listening. Leaves began to dance and twist, turning silvery underbellies to the beguiling breeze. The wind gusted, sounding annoyed. It grew suddenly angry and howled like an enraged beast as it unleashed a torrential rain across the land. Thunder raised its voice against the wind. Low and grumbling at first, then building and climbing to a crescendo of roaring fury and crackling light. Not to be outdone, the wind intensified, forcing trees almost horizontal to the ground, savagely uprooting those refusing to bend to its power. Rain hammered furiously, wave upon wave, driven by the wind. Creeks and riverbeds overflowed, obliterating all things delicate, ravaging and laying low those remaining. The rain began to slow, promising reprieve. Thunder reverberated in the distance. Plants and trees and all things living took a deep, shuddering breath and cautiously raised their heads. Thunder immediately roared its displeasure. Jagged streaks of lightning tore across the heavens, ripping them open, spewing small, icy blue spheres of hail. They careened and bounced off of every surface, nesting in clusters of intricate crystalline formations before melting into oblivion. The wind died, rain poured and then poured harder still, driving everything into submission under its onslaught. As quickly as it began, it ended. A last, faint echo of thunder could be heard in the distance, then silence.
The sun knifed its way through, piercing and scattering clouds. A steaming mist rose from the ground. Brilliant rays of sunlight slanting through the moisture transformed each drop into a tiny prism, creating miniature rainbows of color. A bird sang, tentative at first, growing more confident with each note. Most life went on, some did not, fading, as other life, rejuvenated by the cleansing storm, began anew.
And when the stars have all burned out
You'll still be burning so bright
Cast me gently into morning
For the night has been unkind
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena swiped absently at the sweat trickling down into her eyes, leaving a splash of bright red across her forehead. Eyes and mind focused on the baby, she tried to ignore the alarming amount of blood flowing over her hands. Finally, she lifted the child clear. The baby drew in a gulp of air, sputtered once and let out an indignant wail. Xena smiled at the wonder of her.
She cut the umbilical cord as soon as it stopped pulsing and delivered the afterbirth, shaking her head as the troublesome bleeding continued unabated. Gently cradling the baby, she carefully cleaned blood and fluids from eyes, mouth and nose. Wrapping her quickly in a soft, clean blanket, she turned back to Rachel. She laid the child down close beside her mother and began the arduous task of sewing, trying to stanch the bleeding as best she could. She looked up a little while later to see Rachel smiling down at the baby in her arms.
Xena's heart sank as she gazed at Rachel; she looked so small, exhausted, pale as death. Rachel shifted her gaze to meet Xena's eyes and held out her hand. Xena took it and moved closer, pulling the blankets up around Rachel and her child. "She has your eyes, Xena," Rachel whispered reverently, her voice ragged.
Xena looked down into solemn blue eyes, which were studying her, seemingly, with great concentration. "They may change, Rachel. Lots of babies have blue eyes when they are born."
"No. They won't change. They will look just like yours, always."
Xena was silent for a moment, wondering, but not questioning. "She's so beautiful, Rachel, she looks just like you did when-" She stopped speaking and Rachel gently squeezed her hand.
"Xena...I..." Xena looked into her eyes once more. "There is so much I want...need to tell you...I'm so tired."
"You rest now, Rachel, we can talk later."
"No...I...give me your hands."
Xena held out her hands, a little reluctantly this time. Rachel smiled understandingly before folding them firmly within her own. "Close your eyes, Xena."
She did so, and they sat silently. Xena began to get fidgety and was thinking seriously about standing up when the first image suddenly appeared. Her mouth opened slightly and she began to pull away, but Rachel held on firmly.
"Wait," Rachel said softly.
Xena waited for what felt like a very long time. She grew very drowsy and a little dizzy. Another image, a face; Gabrielle. Then Xan. Xena smiled slightly then frowned: a golden band, a rough wooden table. A woman dressed in black, a young man holding a small silver ball. None of it made any sense.
Now it was dark, and she was finding it hard to breathe, very hard. Another face, shimmering in the distance, one she felt she knew very well; she reached out and it vanished. A long tunnel with many passages, she hesitated, not knowing which one to take. Another face, a woman made of light. Xena reached out, then drew back quickly as the light burned her fingers. Then, a blue, icy coldness; snow; blindingly white, tainted with blood. Roman soldiers and crosses. And finally, a feeling of absolute helplessness and loss. All of it culminating in feeling of hopelessness so devastating, it almost caused her to cry out in despair.
Xena's eyes flew open as she drew in a sharp, jarring breath. She looked around fearfully, shaken and disoriented. She looked down at her trembling hands for a moment, and then at Rachel and her child. "Rachel," she whispered fearfully, leaning over her.
Rachel opened her eyes. "Did you...see?" Struggling now, for every breath, her voice was barely a whisper, fading away with each word she spoke.
"Yes. But, I don't understand."
"What...did you...I'll try to-" She stopped speaking abruptly and looked around.
"It's so...dark. I hate...the dark. God, I'm so tired."
Xena took her hands as her breathing slowed even more. "Rachel. Rachel, hold on. Come on, I know you can. You're strong, so very strong."
Rachel turned her eyes to Xena's; Rachel's were startlingly bright in her pale, bruised face. "I love you...so much, Mother."
"Then stay with me."
"I'll always be with you. Always, I promise. Take care of..." Closing her eyes for a moment, Rachel pressed her lips to the baby's forehead. Opening her eyes, she lifted them to Xena's once more. "Mother, please don't cry. Please."
"Don't go, Rachel. Stay with me."
Squeezing Xena's hand, Rachel's gaze slowly shifted to a point beyond her. She smiled, releasing Xena's hand, and reached out. Xena glanced over her shoulder, sensing something, but seeing nothing. Xena turned back as the light began to fade from Rachel's eyes. Rachel whispered something that she could not hear. "What?"
Rachel looked at her briefly. "Xandra?" she whispered. "I love you. I'm so sorry."
An angry wind rose, sweeping swiftly over the hills and down into the valley. Bullying its way deep into crevices, softly shrieking like something alive, it rushed on, searching. Finally, pushing its way into the cavern, it paused, wrapping them in sullen coldness before dying with a soft wail of protest.
The baby began to cry. Xena bowed her head.
Nathan emerged from the ruins and blinked, bowing his head in the bright sunlight. Somehow, he expected it to be dark, at least as dark as his soul felt. Thunder rumbled off in the distance and he looked up.
The sun burned into his eyes. That's what was causing them to tear up so badly, he told himself. Stupid, looking directly into the sun like that. He wiped his sleeve across his eyes and was startled to see it come away covered in blood. He looked at his hands and they, too, were awash with it. Looking down, he discovered that his clothes were soaked with it.
"By the gods!" he muttered, wiping his hands down the front of his coat. It didn't help, in fact, it made them worse. The sword slid from his hand and bounced down the incline, clanging sharply in the silence of the crisp afternoon. He began a slow turn, tearing off his coat, pulling his shirt open. His chest was covered with it, too. It oozed downward, a warm, sticky stream down the front of his pants.
"Not mine!" A strangled utterance. "It's not mine, not mine...get it off, get it off!" Frantic now, he began to spin, hands sluicing blood and slinging it everywhere, but still it came. He kept spinning, a low moan escaped him, escalating into an unearthly howl that sent birds to wing and froze everything else in their tracks.
Finally, dizzily exhausted and sobbing, he dropped to his knees, face buried in his hands. He rocked back and forth for a time, hugging himself, until he slowly regained control. "It's all right it's all right...I'm all right...I..." He opened his eyes and looked down. The blood was gone, except for a small smear of it on the back of his hand. He quickly wiped it away, shuddering at the stain it left on his pants. He tried to slow his breathing, gulping in great lungs full of air. After a while, he was almost calm again, even laughing, albeit a little shakily, at his little tirade.
"Damn you, Xander," he hissed. A cold gust of wind brought his eyes up to the entrance of the ruins. For a moment, he was sure there was someone standing there, watching him. Which was not possible, of course, since he-
He stood up quickly, losing his balance and stumbling a bit. Gathering his courage, he walked over to the dark passageway and peered in. Nothing. "Of course there's nothing, you damn fool," he berated himself.
"Damn fool," the cave whispered back to him.
He leaned back, startled, until he rationalized that it was just an echo, carried by the wind. Still, staring again deep within the thick darkness, he gasped a little as he saw something shining back at him. "All right! All right, that's it," he declared, growing angry with himself and his obviously over-active imagination.
Looking wildly around and up, he spotted a loose spill of rocks above the passage. Laboriously making his way above them, he sat down and started kicking at them. They held firm and he grew angrier with their resistance. "It's your own fault, Xan! Ugh!" He grumbled, kicking harder. "I never wanted to hurt you. Ugh, ugh! I never wanted to hurt anyone. But we all have to do what we have to do to survive, you know? UGH, UGH, UGH, DAMNIT!"
He stopped for a moment, breathing heavily, lowering his head into his hands and finding, to his dismay, that he was crying again. A slight touch to his shoulder made him jump and he slipped halfway down the rockslide. Craning his neck around, he looked back up, seeing nothing. Geeze, Nathan, get a grip, he ordered himself, it was just a muscle spasm, that's all. He sat for a moment, rubbing his shoulder. "You can't hurt me, Xander! Do you hear me!?" he suddenly yelled aloud, surprising himself. Leaning back against the warm rock, he began to laugh. "But, I hurt you, didn't I? I...why couldn't you just TELL ME, DAMN YOU!"
A faint rumble beneath him answered his question. "What in Tartarus..."
The rocks shifted, subtly at first, then they quickly gathered momentum and he found himself in a wild slide amidst a cascade of rock. He landed hard, face smashing into the ground, a miniature avalanche of rocks and dirt raining down on him. Covering his head with his arms, he held his breath and waited. It stopped as quickly as it began and he cautiously raised his head, wincing at the pain of a multitude of cuts and bruises over most of his body. He stood up, relieved to find himself in one piece and with nothing apparently broken.
He looked up at the passageway, which was now completely covered by rocks. He stared at it for a long while, then shook his head and turned away. "Nice try, Xander, you son of a bitch. Nice try, but you missed me. Ha ha." He made his way slowly down the incline. Made bold, once more, by his escape, defiant in the face of peril, he began to smile, began to feel invincible, untouchable. Something tripped him and sent him face down again in the mud. He scrambled to his feet, looking fearfully back up the incline. Gabrielle's staff, wedged among the rocks. She must have dropped it when she...after...
After you betrayed her, a nasty little voice in his head supplied.
Taking a long, shaky breath, no longer so sure of his immortality, Nathan limped down the hillside toward Zagnan's camp.
Pure evil traveled the night, oozing through the velvety darkness. Always present, always searching for a conduit to the light.
It preyed upon the innocent, the weak and injured souls. Relentlessly haunting them, turning their dreams to nightmares, leaving them alone, afraid, and praying for the dawn.
The voice pulled her up from the depths of another fever-induced dream. Opening her eyes, she squinted into the darkness, wondering if she was truly awake. She had spent so much time in the darkness, she wondered, fleetingly, if the sun still really existed out there somewhere. A tall, dark form moved beside her.
"Xena?" The form was silent. Gabrielle closed her eyes, refusing to get her hopes up, thinking that she was most likely only dreaming again.
"Just once, Gabrielle."
Opening her eyes once more, she struggled to identify the muffled voice. She tried to sit up, but found the effort caused her way too much discomfort and sapped what precious little energy she had left. "What?" she asked, lying back.
"Why couldn't you do what I told you to do, Gabrielle, just once?"
It took a moment for that to sink in, when it did, she thought, surely, she must have misunderstood. "I don't understand. Is that you, Xena?"
"Why didn't you stay at the ruins, like I told you?"
Gabrielle stared, saying nothing. She was hurt, then angry. "It is you, then," she stated, struggling to sit up again. "I couldn't," she said defensively. "Xan was-"
"Xan is dead."
The abrupt cruelty and absolute finality of the words hit her hard. She suspected as much, but still clung to the small hope that maybe, somehow, Xan had survived Nathan's treachery. "Oh...oh, no..." Gabrielle closed her eyes. She had tried to prepare herself for this possibility, but it hurt more than she ever imagined. Tears overwhelmed, drowning strength and hope, flooding her heart and soul with grief.
"I'm going to deal with Zagnan. I'll send someone back for you."
The coldness and unthinkable implications of those words opened her eyes once more. "You'll send someone back for me?" Silence. "What are you saying? Xena, look at me!"
"I'm not coming back, Gabrielle. I can't, not any more."
She turned, but Gabrielle still could not see her face clearly. "You're not Xena. Xena wouldn't-"
"I can't do it any more!"
The anger, the anguish in that voice, silenced her, words dying on her lips. A hand reached out to her then drew back.
"Please understand, Gabrielle. You, of all people, you must understand. I can't be responsible any more. I can't watch those that I love be hurt any more. I can't watch them die." She turned away, moving quickly into the darkness.
"Don't. Please, Gabrielle. One word, one word and I'll turn around and if I turn around, I'll want to stay. I'm asking you, please, if I mean anything at all to you, just let me go."
Gabrielle was silent, biting down so hard on her lip, she drew blood. She closed her eyes for a moment and when she opened them, there was nothing there but the darkness. "It wasn't real." Tears stung her eyes as an aching emptiness seeped inexorably into her heart. "It was a dream. It was just a dream."
Darkness fell quickly this particular night. The sun, in a now-you-see-me-now-you-don't motion, ducked below the horizon like a gopher down a hole. Thunder growled off in the distance. Nathan, who had scarcely lifted his head during his trudging journey down this rutted road, blinked and looked up as the light faded. He had come to a crossroads. Straight ahead lay Corinth, to his left, Zagnan and to his right, Athens. He looked longingly to his right, toward the anonymity of Athens, but he knew that Zagnan would find him, sooner or later. He hoped that Gabrielle had given Zagnan the information he desired and yet he feared it, knowing what it would have cost her.
"Damnit," he muttered, and then winced as the word conjured up images of Xander. Moving to the side of the road, he sat down, leaned back against a tree, and closed his eyes. Gods, he was tired. And thirsty and hungry, though his stomach rebelled at the thought of food. He heard thunder again, closer this time. He started a small fire, figuring the oncoming rain would probably douse it soon if he fell asleep. Exhaustion claimed him; finally, head lolling forward, he slipped into an uneasy slumber. His dreams were disturbing and he awakened a short time later un-rested, uneasy and not alone.
Lightning flashed above him and he opened his eyes. Keeping his head down, he felt something snuffling around his foot. Resisting the urge to yank it away, he lifted only his eyes with the next flash of light. They widened in shock at the size of the animal at his feet. Now he did yank his feet back in a panic, head cracking painfully against the tree in back of him. The animal, too, started and retreated a step. It was so black Nathan could barely make it out against the darkness, but he had no trouble at all seeing its glittering white teeth. Dog, he thought. Really big dog, or a wolf. Pushing back against the tree, he quickly got his feet under him and stood up, reaching for his sword.
"I really wouldn't do that, if I were you."
The voice from the darkness was pleasant, matter of fact, rather than threatening; a woman's voice. She stepped from the darkness as if she were part of it. He squinted at her in the meager firelight. For a moment he thought it was Gabrielle, for she was covered, head to toe, by a dark, hooded cloak. But she was much taller than Gabrielle, so much so that he had to look up at her.
"She won't hurt you," she assured him, laying a hand on the dog's massive head, "unless you give her reason to."
Nathan dropped his hand to his side. "Who are you?" He asked, embarrassed by the tremor he heard in his voice.
As he spoke, three more dogs appeared at the woman's side and sat down, obeying a small hand command from their mistress. They gazed up at him with shinning black eyes; hungrily, he thought with no small discomfort. Their eyes seemed to hold the firelight, rather than reflect it.
"You have reached a crossroads," she told him, ignoring his question. "And you were wondering which way to go, is this not so?"
He looked around him, wondering if she was speaking of his life, or his current physical location, deciding it really didn't matter, since the question applied to both. "Yes...that's true, I suppose." His answer rode on a heavy sigh. He lifted a hand to rub his eyes and quickly lowered it as all four dogs instantly regained their feet.
"You must excuse my girls," the woman said by way of apology. "They are very protective of me, you see?"
"Uh-huh," he answered, striving to stand as still as humanly possible.
"I can help you, Nathan."
He peered intently at her, trying to see her face inside the shadowed hood. "How do you know my name?"
She waved a dismissive hand at the question, or, at least, that was what the motion of the voluminous sleeve enveloping the hand suggested. "You are wondering whether or not to return to Zagnan, since you do not have the information he requires."
He began, again, to ask how she knew this, but sensed he would receive no answer in return. He nodded wearily instead.
"But, you have given him what he needs to find Xena, and the child."
He looked at her again, interest sparking in his eyes. "And that would be?"
She moved nearer to him and he could barely discern her eyes deep within the shadowy hood. Like the dogs, her eyes seemed to burn with a light of their own. She smiled and he recoiled a bit, having no trouble at all perceiving the startling whiteness of her teeth.
"You have provided him with the one thing she loves most in this world and, therefore, the one thing that makes her vulnerable. And I can provide the means for taking full advantage of that vulnerability."
He stared at her, and suddenly had the discomfiting feeling that he was being slowly swallowed by the darkness surrounding her. "Gabrielle," he whispered.
"Yes-s-s-s!" she hissed eagerly. "Gabrielle. Xena will come for her, she will bring the child."
"Is no longer a concern."
Nathan continued to stare at her, thinking hard, then shook his head. "Even if she comes, how will we-"
"I have the means to stop her, permanently. It will be given to you."
Nathan drew back, shaking his head once more, trying to think clearly. "Why?" he asked, forcing his eyes away from her. "Why me? What will I owe in return? Who are you and what do you want from me?"
She closed the distance between them and laid a hand on his arm, eyes eerily bright within the hood, chilling him to the bone. "Why, I want only that which you have already lost, dear boy. I want your soul. I collect them, you see."
The torturous, throbbing pain of the mangled flesh and bone that was once her hand let her know that she was awake and, most likely, still among the living. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes and looked over at it. Resembling more a claw, now, than a human hand, it lay like some otherworldly object, connected to her only by a bright band of pain. She stared at it for a long time trying to will the pain away, but found no relief at all. It was some time before she realized that she was not alone. Or at least she thought she was not alone. She had become lost, somewhere between landscape and dreamscape, and was never quite certain of which realm she was in. At least there was some light this time; a soft, hazy, half-light of sorts. She started slightly, as a hand briefly touched her hair and moved on to lie across her forehead. The touch was comforting, cool against her fever, yet pleasantly warm at the same time.
"Gabrielle." The voice was also comforting, familiar somehow. A face came into view, but all she could really see were the eyes. She felt a great wave of hope surge through her, for those eyes were very familiar indeed.
"Xena," she whispered, her voice hoarse, raspy from disuse.
"No, Gabrielle, not Xena. I am, however," the woman hastened to add, at the look of hopelessness that filled Gabrielle's eyes, "very much a part of her."
Gabrielle studied her for a moment. Aside from the brilliance of her emerald eyes and the burnished glow of her auburn hair, she seemed ethereal, ghostly in the pale half-light. "Are you alive?" Gabrielle asked.
"Don't I look alive?"
"No." The woman looked startled for a moment then laughed softly. "Sorry," Gabrielle apologized, embarrassed by her bluntness.
"No, no. That's all right. I did ask, after all. "
Something about the woman's crooked smile and the lift of her eyebrow pulled strongly at Gabrielle's heart. It took a huge effort for her to quell a sudden rush of tears. "Who-"
The woman placed a finger against Gabrielle's lips. "I don't have much time, but I can help you, a little. And also..." the woman's hand moved to the side of Gabrielle's face, her eyes now glistening with tears in the uncertain light. "I wanted to see you. I'm sorry they hurt you so."
Gabrielle felt another peculiar tug at her heart at the sight of the woman's tears. She lifted a hand to comfort her. The wrong hand, it turned out, and the pain forced a sharp gasp of pure agony from her. Gabrielle cursed through clenched teeth then stiffened as the woman gently took her hand.
"Trust me," she said softly, looking into Gabrielle's eyes. The woman's eyes were mesmerizing, deep and green as the sea.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and tried to relax. Moving slightly behind her, she placed Gabrielle's arm straight out by her side. Gabrielle looked away from the grotesquely frozen fingers clawing toward the heavens.
"Lie still," the woman commanded gently.
Gabrielle nodded and closed her eyes. For a while there was silence. She began to think she was dreaming again when she felt a very slight touch to her wrist. It remained there for a moment, warm and delicate, and then moved on. Feather-light fingertips traced a gentle path. From her wrist, up her arm, hesitating, tracing minute circles at the bend of her elbow. Moving on to softly, but firmly, massage her shoulder and neck then back down her arm once more. It was unbelievingly calming, sensual, almost sexual, and Gabrielle lost herself in its magic. Eventually, the touch moved to the palm of her hand, tiny circles, gently caressing, never ceasing. Amazingly, she began to feel her fingers go slack, twisted nerves and tendons loosening under the insistent persuasion of that touch. The woman began to massage each of her fingers and the muted stab of pain Gabrielle experienced each time slowly began to dissipate.
"It's all right," the quiet voice assured her, close to her ear; and it was.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked down at her hand. Her fingers looked almost normal now, though the constant ache would remain with her for a long time to come. She watched, fascinated, as the woman's hand covered her own. Palm to palm, fingertip to fingertip, pressing firmly, until she felt their pulses, their heartbeats become one. Exhausted and shaking, Gabrielle looked again into the woman's eyes, tried to speak, and found she could not. The woman smiled; one of the loveliest, saddest smiles Gabrielle had ever seen; it flickered briefly, like a candle, and was gone. Lifting Gabrielle's hand, the woman placed a soft kiss on her palm before laying it gently down. She then removed her heavy cloak and covered her with it, but Gabrielle still could not seem to stop shaking, nor could she find her voice.
"Rest now, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle made one final attempt to speak and failing that, she did what the woman asked and closed her eyes. Sleep came quickly, pulling her swiftly down. She could still hear the woman's voice and she battled the darkness for a few moments more with her.
"You will journey far, Gabrielle, but what you seek is very near."
Gabrielle felt a tender kiss against her brow.
"Take care of my mother, Gabrielle."
And with that, and the little riddle floating around in her consciousness, Gabrielle surrendered herself to the dark, praying that she would not wake to find that it had all been just a dream.
The cold woke her, miserable and shivering beneath the cloak, which was strange, because when she woke for a few fleeting moments earlier, she was on fire with fever. She wasn't sure which was worse. Then again, she could be dreaming. Pulling her hand from beneath the cloak, she stared at it, wiggling her fingers a little. They ached, but at least they were whole and they worked. She heard some small scuttling sounds around her and something else. Voices. She closed her eyes as they grew nearer.
"Look! Look at 'em all!" came an excited male voice. "Gods, I hate those things."
Gabrielle heard a sharp chink! of metal hitting the rock wall beside her. Something heavy bounced off her shoulder, stinging sharply, before falling to the ground.
"Fool! You kill that girl throwing knives at rats and Zagnan will have your heart for dinner."
"Hah. She's going to die anyway. Look at her. If the fever or the cold don't kill her, the rats will."
"And I say it's your heart he's going to make a meal of, Nathan," another voice added.
Gabrielle's heart leapt at the mention of his name; it was all she could do to keep her eyes closed.
"Yeah, Nathan, looks like your grand plan wasn't so grand after all; the girl won't talk, Xena is nowhere to be found, you couldn't even make Xander give it up."
"Just how long did it take for your old friend Xan to die?"
"Shut up!" Nathan snarled at them. "Just, shut up. When Zagnan sees what I have, when he knows what she means to Xena, he'll be kissing my ass."
"I sincerely doubt that, my boy." Zagnan's voice rolled across the room like muted thunder. "Because when I finish with you, your ass will be planted so far up your throat, you can kiss it yourself."
The other two men howled with laughter. Nathan leapt to his feet, spilling the contents of a burlap sack across the floor. Zagnan looked curiously at it. "Well, well, what have we here? Could it be a crossbow? What do you plan to do, Nathan, shoot Xena with a poison arrow while she attempts to rescue her friend?"
Nathan looked up at him, surprised. Gabrielle opened her eyes a slit.
"Yes. I mean, no, not exactly. You know about her?" A nod toward Gabrielle.
"That she is Xena's traveling companion? It wasn't all that hard to figure out, Nathan. But, until we know where Xena is, until Xena knows where Gabrielle is, it will be rather hard to use this." Zagnan nudged the bag with his foot. "Don't you agree?"
"Speak up, boy! Did you, by any chance, use that worthless head of yours and leave Xander alive enough to tell Xena where to find us?"
Nathan said nothing and Gabrielle again fought to hold back her tears.
"By the gods, you are totally useless!" Zagnan hissed, drawing a knife from a sheath at his side.
Nathan's eyes widened in terror as he retreated from Zagnan, the two men behind him grabbed him and pushed him forward. Falling to his knees in front of the bag, he began frantically digging through it. Zagnan took a step closer and Nathan thrust a small, leather drawstring pouch up at him.
"Wait!" he cried. "Wait, please. It's all been arranged. She's coming; she'll bring the child. And this," he said, shaking the bag, "will kill her."
Zagnan looked at him as though he had lost his mind, which Gabrielle sincerely hoped he had.
Nathan looked up at him. "Look inside. Look!" he pleaded. Zagnan sheathed his knife and pulled the pouch open. "Be careful," Nathan warned. "Don't spill it."
Zagnan stared down at him. "If this is some kind of trick, boy, I will feed you to the dogs a bloody piece at a time."
"It's not. I swear it!"
Zagnan held out his hand and cautiously poured the contents of the pouch onto it. A coarse, black, odd smelling powder slid from the bag, followed by four tiny, shinning metal balls, one of which dropped to the ground. Nathan picked it up and got to his feet. The two men moved closer for a better look and Gabrielle struggled to see around them without letting them know she was awake.
"What is it?" Zagnan asked, looking into Nathan's eyes.
Nathan reached down and picked up the crossbow. "You can't kill Xena with a crossbow," one of the men said derisively. "I've seen her catch arrows right out of the air."
"It isn't a crossbow, is it?" Zagnan said wonderingly, his eyes fixed on the weapon.
"No. It's not."
The men separated to get a better view and Gabrielle could see it, too. It looked like a crossbow, but instead of an arrow, it had a slim, smooth tube of metal where the arrow should lie. It was open at the far end and closed at the breech end except for a small opening at the top. It was a bit longer than a crossbow and the wood was rounded at the back.
"Where did you get this?"
"I, uhm, I would rather tell you later. In private," he added, glancing at the others.
Zagnan studied him for a moment and seemed to reach some sort of decision as Nathan stared calmly back at him. "What does it do?" Zagnan's eyes were suddenly alight with anticipation.
"I'll show you, but I can only show you once. This is all there is, we can't get any more."
Zagnan nodded and poured the black powder and shiny metal balls back into the pouch. Nathan took the pouch from him and poured a small amount of the powder into the metal tube. He then removed one of the metal balls and dropped it in also.
"The metal ball will be dipped in poison, just to be sure," Nathan stated, glancing over at Zagnan. Taking a round, thin strip of metal from the bag on the floor, he inserted it into the tube, tamping down the whole concoction toward the breech end of the tube. He then pulled a torch from the wall, handed it to one of the men, along with the thin strip of metal. They all watched, mesmerized by his actions. "Hold the metal to the flame," he instructed.
The man looked at Zagnan, who nodded. When Nathan was satisfied, he set the weapon down and looked around. Spotting a bale of straw in the corner, he dragged it over in front of the big oak door and stood it on end. "Give me your coat, Olean," he ordered one of the men. The man gave him a dirty look.
"Do it!" Zagnan hissed, losing patience in his growing excitement.
The man stuck out his lower lip for a moment, but grudgingly took off his coat and threw it at Nathan. "Why don't you use your own sodding coat?" he muttered.
Nathan draped the coat over the bale of straw, then went back and picked up the weapon. He placed the rounded wooden end under his arm, pointed it toward the bale of straw and held out his hand for the red-hot strip of metal. The man handed it to him.
"Stand back a little,"Nathan told them. They did. Nathan took a deep breath and held it then he inserted the hot metal strip inside the tiny hole in the tube. Nothing happened for a moment and Zagnan took a step forward. There was an almost simultaneous, incredibly bright flash of light and a muted pop! The weapon jumped in Nathan's hands startling everyone in the room. They all stared in silent awe at the little puff of smoke pouring from the end of the metal tube, leaving a smell of rotten eggs in the air.
"By the gods," Gabrielle whispered aloud, eyes wide with surprise.
Zagnan touched Nathan's shoulder and he jumped like a scalded cat. "What happened? What did it do?"
Nathan licked his lips and nodded toward the bale of straw. Zagnan and the men moved toward it. Zagnan bent down and inspected the coat, seeing nothing.
Olean peered over his shoulder. "Hey," he said, bending closer. He reached out and stuck his finger through a tiny hole in his coat. "Look at that," he groused, looking accusingly at Nathan. "You've put a hole in my coat with that thing."
Zagnan's eyes grew wide. He pulled the coat off the straw and looked in vain for another hole.
"The door," Nathan said quietly. Zagnan turned to look at him. "Look in the door."
Zagnan pushed the bale of straw aside and studied the door. His mouth dropped open as he spotted the small splintered hole in the huge oak door.
"Holy Zeus on Mount Olympus," one of the men whispered in awe.
Nathan glanced over at Gabrielle, whose eyes were now wide with fear. "Xena can't stop what she can't see," Nathan declared, dropping his eyes, looking a little sick.
They all left her, Zagnan exclaiming over his new toy, Olean still bitching about the hole in his coat. Nathan was unusually quiet. The door shut with a soft thud and the lock clicked in place; so much for trying to get out, even if she had the strength.
She sat up and pulled the cloak tightly around her, she couldn't stop shaking and only a small part of it was because of the cold. She tried to think and could not focus. She had to do something. But, what? Xan was dead. She tried not to think about that, which made her think about it more. She cried a little then made herself stop. Time to grieve later. First things first. She had to warn Xena.
She was coming, with the baby. Why would she bring the baby? Where was Rachel? The answer to that was obvious, and too painful to dwell on. She had to do something. She stood up slowly, staggering like a drunk. She had not eaten much and had had very little to drink because she knew they were drugging the food, or the water, maybe both. She ate and drank only enough to stay alive, but still the drugs and the fever played nasty tricks on her mind. She was never quite sure what was real. She made her way over to the door, running her fingers over it until she felt the splintered wood around the small hole.
She peered inside the hole and a small reflection of light on silver winked back at her. She dug at the hole a bit until she ran a splinter of wood under her nail. "Ow!" she hissed, sticking her bleeding finger into her mouth. Well, that was real enough.
Taking a step back, she tripped over the bale of straw, ending up on her butt in a dank, freezing cold puddle of water. "Ah, son of a stinking Bacc..." She started to cry, which somehow turned into laughter and that really scared her. Clamping a hand over her mouth, she got to her feet and zigzagged her way back over to the grimy collection of blankets and rags that made up her bed. She half sat, half fell into it, her heart beating wildly in her chest from the exertion. She half laughed again. Oh, yeah, Gabrielle, she thought, some great help you are going to be. She closed her eyes, trying to get her breathing under control before she passed out. She could not remember a time when she had felt so hopeless, or so totally helpless.
She slept for awhile, or at least she thought she did. She opened her eyes, feeling another presence in the room. "Xena?" Her voice was a wisp of blue frost within stillness as deep and dank as a tomb.
"No, child, not Xena."
The voice startled her and she sat straight up, wincing at all the new little discomforts the dampness and cold had bestowed upon her while she dozed.
"Darker than Xena," the voice continued. "Though not by much". Laughter then, sounding old and raspy, not from old age, but rather from disuse.
Gabrielle stared, finally discerning a shape, just slightly darker than the darkness surrounding it. The shape moved closer, along with something else that looked like patches of dirty gray fog. The fog coalesced into three dark shadows that surrounded her and transformed themselves into three black dogs. O-o-o-o-kay, she thought to herself. Now this has to be a dream and it's quite a doozy, if I do say so myself.
"You are not dreaming, Gabrielle."
One of the dogs stuck its snout in Gabrielle's face and she pulled back.
"They won't hurt you."
Gabrielle looked up at the apparition in black for a moment until her attention was drawn back to the dog. "Gaaa," Gabrielle uttered disgustedly, shoving on the dog's massive chest, pushing it away from her. "Its breath is enough to kill someone. What do you feed it, roadkill?"
The dog looked first surprised and then rather hurt. It tried growling to no effect; Gabrielle leaned back and ignored it. It finally wiped its cold, slimy nose on her hand and was rewarded with a sound of pure disgust as it stepped back out of reach of Gabrielle's backhand. The woman in black looked on in unaccustomed amusement, quite a novel state for her. She was totally silent for quite sometime.
Gabrielle rubbed her eyes and looked up at her, somewhat surprised that she was still there. The dogs sat stoically at her feet, staring curiously at her. "If you are real, who are you and what do you want?"
The dogs looked from Gabrielle up to their master, as if they understood every word. This, Gabrielle thought, was getting more bizarre by the moment.
"I can help you."
"Can you get me out of here?"
"I can do better than that."
Gabrielle waited; the woman moved closer. Gabrielle didn't actually see her move, but suddenly, there she was, kneeling beside her. Gabrielle caught a glimpse of dark eyes outlined by the palest face she had ever seen.
"You have a great desire to return to your past, to make things right. I could make that happen." She smiled a little at the dubious look on Gabrielle's face. "You don't believe me."
"I don't believe you," Gabrielle agreed. "I don't even believe you exist."
"You think you are dreaming?"
"Dreaming, hallucinating, take your pick. It's hard to tell any more."
"And this," she held out a small handful of the black powder. "Is this a dream? And this?" She reached down, grasping Gabrielle's wrist, nodding at her once mangled hand. "Did you hallucinate the healing?"
"That wasn't you."
"I didn't say it was."
Gabrielle was silent, the grip on her wrist making her shudder slightly. The woman released her wrist. "These are strange days, are they not, Gabrielle? There are many forces at work. The gods are restless, the spirit roads; heavily traveled."
"And who are you? What are you?"
The woman smiled from beneath the hood. "My name is Hecate." There was a slight spark of recognition in Gabrielle's eyes. "You have heard of me?"
"Yes...but I can't quite remember..." She leaned her head back against the wall behind her, trying to think.
"It is not important at the moment. What is important is that you don't have much time, nor does Xena."
"Where is she?" Gabrielle leaned forward once again, interested now, in spite of her doubts.
"She is on her way here, of course. Did you doubt that she would come for you?"
"Of course you didn't. And you will do well not to doubt that this," - she nodded at the black powder - "will be the end of her."
"Yes, Gabrielle! How could she possibly defend herself against this? A tiny poison ball propelled by a fiery force straight from Tartarus! You saw it. You even smelled it. You know it was not a dream, not a hallucination. You can't stop it. You can't help her. You're too sick, Gabrielle, too weak."
"Stop...just stop. What do you want from me?"
Hecate was silent for a moment. "I told you, Gabrielle. I can help you. I can take you back, give you the opportunity to change the past and, therefore, change the future."
"Is it? Nothing is impossible, Gabrielle. Surely, you know that by now." Gabrielle said nothing, still unconvinced. Hecate sighed. "Have you ever heard of d�j� vu, Gabrielle?"
"What is it, do you think?"
"It's a feeling, of having been somewhere, or doing something that you have already done before." She looked into the Hecate's eyes, seeing where this was leading. "It's just a feeling."
"Is it? Are you so sure of that?"
Gabrielle thought about it for a moment and found she had no answer. "Why, then? Why would you do this for me?"
"Well, dear girl, that should be obvious, I want something in return."
Gabrielle blew out a short gust of air. "Forget it. I owe a debt to a god and I have the distinct feeling that it is going to cost me more than I ever bargained for."
"Don't you even want to know what it is that I want?"
"You are going to tell me ahead of time?"
"But, of course. How could I hope to persuade you, if you have no idea what I expect in return?"
Gabrielle swallowed uncomfortably, remembering a time when she had agreed to just that very thing. She closed her eyes, knowing in her heart that she should not be listening to this. She was sick, and so very weary, not thinking clearly at all. But, some small part of her wanted to know, wanted to hear the rest. Besides, she thought, at this point, what have I-
"What have you got to lose?" Hecate's voice blended with the one in her head, or was it the one in her head?
"All right," she agreed warily. "I'm listening."
"I'll take you back-"
"Back to where?"
Hecate was silent for a moment, thinking. "You long to save Xena's son, and your daughter, too, if possible. I will place you in a position to try."
"I cannot guarantee you will succeed, but you will have the opportunity, it is the best I can do."
Gabrielle closed her eyes, looking for the catch she knew must be hidden within the offer. "And if I don't succeed?" she asked, looking up once more.
"You can return. You will return here, to this time, this place, and you will be indebted to me."
"And if I do succeed?"
"Well, then, you will never see me again, the debt would be canceled. If you change your past, you will change your future as well."
"It doesn't make sense," Gabrielle shook her head. "If I do succeed, then there is nothing in it for you. No offense, but I really can't picture you giving anything away."
Hecate laughed again, an odd sound, just bordering on unpleasant. "No offense taken, little one, and very perceptive of you. But, I am a gambler, of sorts, I play the odds."
"Then you think I'll fail."
Hecate shrugged. "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose." She leaned a little closer to Gabrielle, eyes bright beneath the hood. "But, I always love playing the game."
"This is a game to you?" Gabrielle demanded, growing angry. "Playing with people's lives like this?"
"Yes. It is." Leaning down, she placed a pale hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Life is a game. Trust me."
Gabrielle leaned away from her touch and looked her straight in the eye. She saw a light there for a moment, and reflected in that light, an image. An image of a woman with three heads, serpents entwined about her neck. She blinked and the image was gone. She shook her head a little and averted her eyes. "I don't trust you at all, and I like you even less."
Hecate laughed, a firm, solid sound this time, not just something rattling in the wind. "O-o-o, Gabrielle, you are a smart girl, aren't you? And I, on the other hand, am beginning to like you immensely." Hecate straightened up and all three dogs rose at the same time, startling Gabrielle, who had forgotten they were there. Hecate remained motionless for so long, Gabrielle began to think she was just another shadow in the dank cellar. Gabrielle heard her sigh, then, and she walked several paces away, muttering something to herself. The dogs began to follow, when she suddenly turned and walked back to Gabrielle's side. Confused, the dogs looked at each other for a moment, and then sat down again.
"What say you, Gabrielle, do you want to hear the rest, or not?" All seriousness now, no sign of humor in her demeanor. A tall, forbidding entity, at one with the darkness.
Gabrielle was a little surprised by this sudden change and her first reaction was to say no. She would wonder, later, if this were Hecate's intent. "Tell me then," Gabrielle said quietly, against her better judgment.
"Actually, it is something that should appeal to you. It is something you would probably do any-" Hecate stopped speaking and looked over her shoulder. Gabrielle looked also, seeing nothing in the darkness, but she felt something. An icy draft of air swept over them, then was quickly gone. Had it not been for the fact that she could see Hecate's breath when she faced her again, she would have thought she imagined it.
"What was that?" Gabrielle's voice was hushed.
Hecate bent down until she was staring directly into Gabrielle's eyes. "I told you, the gods and the spirit's are restless, there are many who seek you. You and Xena."
Hecate smiled her mirthless smile, eyes looking more than a little crazed. She waved a hand in the air. "Oh, you know; as Xena goes, so goes the world," she prophesied offhandedly. Gabrielle just stared at her as she hurried on. "If you fail and you desire to return here, all you need do is repeat a single act exactly as you did it before."
"Shush," Hecate placed a finger to her lips. "You will know; if it comes to that. If you return here and survive," - she looked around her again, - "about which I am beginning to have serious doubts, I am going to whisper a name to you, you will remember it. When...if this person enters your life in the future, their life will be in your hands, you will do all that you can to spare it. Do you understand?"
"That's it? You want me to spare someone's life?"
"Not as simple as it sounds, others may not be of the same mind."
Gabrielle stared at her. "And what will this person have done? Slaughtered innocent women and children?"
Hecate looked insulted. "Of course not, are you mad?"
No, Gabrielle thought, but you are. Without a doubt.
"Not mad enough to demand something of you that you are incapable of doing."
"Stop doing that!" Gabrielle insisted, putting her hands over her ears.
"Doing what?" Hecate asked innocently.
"Reading my thoughts, my mind, whatever..."
Hecate chuckled a bit as she pulled one hand away from Gabrielle's ear. "What, child, do you think your thoughts are leaking out your ears?"
"Funny," Gabrielle intoned, yanking her hand out of Hecate's grasp.
"It was rather humorous, wasn't it?" Hecate looked surprised and then pleased. "You know, I have not done that in a long, long time." Gabrielle looked up at her. "Said something humorous," Hecate replied to her questioning look.
"Yeah, well it wasn't all that funny," Gabrielle informed her with uncharitable bluntness.
"Still..." Hecate reflected. She sobered, suddenly and looked behind her once more. "I know. Not at all becoming for the Goddess of Darkness."
"What? Who are you-"
Hecate turned back once more. "Nothing, nothing. I have been here much too long, time grows short." She looked warily at Gabrielle. "You talk too much, child."
"So I've been told."
"Tell me, then, do you wish to return?"
"I need time to-"
"No more time. Decide. You have only the coming day and night, if you decide to return."
"It will be enough. Trust me." Hecate held up a hand. "Forget the 'trust me' part," she surrendered wearily.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and leaned back, trying desperately to think. She knew that what seemed too good to be true usually was. She knew, too, that she should not trust this woman - she knew that name, why couldn't she remember? - but, a chance to change the past, to undo all the damage that she and Hope had done. And Hecate was right, what chance did Xena have against Nathan's weapon? What did she have to lose? The answer came to her as clearly as if someone had spoken it aloud. She looked up at Hecate. "If I can't change the past and I return here?"
"Yes?" Hecate impatiently urged her on.
"When the time comes, what if I can't save this person's life, the person you want spared, what happens then?"
"I ask only that you try your best to do so."
"And if I don't? If I merely refuse to save him, or her?"
"Then you forfeit your soul to me, Gabrielle."
"Ah. And you were going to tell me this when?"
"Before you made your decision, of course."
Hecate bent down and stared into Gabrielle's eyes. "Frankly, Gabrielle, I don't think it will come to that. And to tell you the truth, I don't think I want your soul. I fear it would never give me a moment's peace."
She stared a moment longer and for some reason, Gabrielle believed her.
Hecate straightened up abruptly and all three dogs jumped to their feet. "What have you decided?"
Gabrielle swallowed her doubts, as well as her fear. "Send me back," she whispered.
"You are sure?"
"No. But, do it anyway."
"It shall be as you wish."
Hecate paused as she exited the underground room. The night was black as pitch, not even a star to pierce the darkness. She felt the presence behind her, but did not turn. "An unusual girl," Hecate observed softly.
"She and Xena. Together. Now that's disturbing. No wonder you fear them."
"I fear nothing." Hecate snorted. "You doubt me?"
"Everyone fears something," Hecate replied.
"Then why bother with them?"
"They are a distraction."
"Do not be flip with me Hecate. Remember your place."
She stiffened at the words and turned around. Coldness emanated from her. Her eyes were as black as the night, untold terrors dwelled within them, shifting and moving, like smoke behind a veil. "My debt to you is paid. I owe you nothing. Do not threaten me and do not call upon me again." And with that, she turned and seemed to simply become one with the night. The dogs followed, one by one, and the thing that stood in the darkness, stood alone.
Gabrielle never expected to just close her eyes one moment and wake up the next in the past, but that's exactly what happened. One moment she was lying in her dank, underground prison and the next she was standing in the room where Xena told Solan to wait for her. She turned around slowly, taking it all in, remembering. She could still see Xena's anguished face as she held her dead son's body. Hear her nightmarish scream of hopeless despair; see the look in her eyes as part of her, part of them, died forever. It was almost too much to bear.
Taking a deep breath, she pressed the heel of her hand into first one eye and then the other, pushing back the tears before they could overwhelm her. She turned toward the sound of a door opening and suddenly Hope was standing in front of her. She looked just as startled as Gabrielle and they both just stared at one another for a moment.
"M-Mother, how did you...what are you doing here?"
It took a moment for Gabrielle to find her voice; when she finally did, she was relieved to hear that she at least sounded as if she were in control. "I came to stop you, Hope. And to help you."
"I don't know what you mean, mother. You sent me here to be safe from Callisto and-"
Gabrielle moved closer, placing her fingertips against Hope's lips, silencing her. "Don't! Don't lie to me, Hope. I know why you've come, what you've done, and what Dahak has planned for you and I'm telling you, I am your last chance at life."
It was clear from the look in Hope's eyes that she was completely shocked and, for the first time ever, Gabrielle saw something else there as well; fear. Hope turned to leave and Gabrielle grabbed her. "Hope, wait!"
Hope turned back to her. "Let me go, Mother. You can't help me, surely you know that. No one can help me."
"Yes, I can! I can help you, but you have to let me, you have to trust me."
Hope stared into her eyes, threw a quick glance over her shoulder and then looked down at the floor. "He will never let me go," she insisted. "Never!"
"We can fight him. I know he can be defeated, I promise you."
Hope looked up at her, eyes filled with tears. "He will kill you; he will kill us both, if I don't-"
Her look turned curious now, still disbelieving, but maybe just a little hopeful, too. She began to say something when the door slammed open behind them and Xena almost stumbled over Hope as she rushed in.
Gabrielle grabbed Hope's arm and pulled her around behind her. Xena's eyes were manic blue fire, she drew her sword and Gabrielle grabbed her arm as Hope scurried to the back of the room.
"Where's Solan?!" Xena hissed. "Where's my son!" Pulling her arm from Gabrielle's grasp, Xena moved determinedly toward Hope.
Gabrielle forced herself between them, holding up her hands, trying desperately to slow her down. "Xena, wait!"
"Get out of my way." Xena's voice was quiet menace through tightly clenched teeth.
"Solan's not here, he's safe, he-Xena listen to me!!" She grabbed Xena's arm with both hands and hung on tightly, using her shoulder to push Xena back a step. "Xena, by the gods, stop! You don't understand!!"
"No! No, Gabrielle. You don't understand. She is evil! Why can't you see that? I will end this, right here, right now. Now get out of my way."
They both heard it, or sensed it. Xena looked up over Gabrielle's head and Gabrielle saw her eyes widen slightly. Gabrielle unconsciously tightened her grip on Xena's arm. Xena's eyes touched Gabrielle's for the briefest of moments before she nearly lifted her off of her feet and swung her around, putting herself between Gabrielle and Hope. Something hit Xena hard from behind and she stumbled forward into Gabrielle's arms. Gabrielle looked up at her. Xena opened her mouth and a tiny trickle of blood leaked from the corner of it.
Xena shook her head a little, a look of utter disbelief on her face. She released her sword and placed her hand on her chest. The sword hit the floor, ringing like a pure, silver bell. Another small stream of blood spilled over Xena's fingers and when Gabrielle looked closely, she could just see the tip of a piece of pointed metal between Xena's bloody fingers.
"No," Gabrielle whispered, looking again into Xena's eyes, shaking her head. "Oh, no, no..."
Xena looked with awestruck wonder into Gabrielle's eyes. She lifted a trembling, blood soaked hand, first to touch the side of Gabrielle's face, then to grip her shoulder, leaving a warm smear of blood on Gabrielle's jaw. Leaning forward, she began to slowly collapse. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's waist, lowering them both gently to the floor. Sliding her hands carefully up Xena's back, Gabrielle pulled her gently forward against her shoulder. She stared in horror as her fingers brushed the bloody, feathered end of a crossbow arrow. The short, lethal arrow had passed through Xena's back, piercing her heart on its deadly way out. Gabrielle closed her eyes and lowered Xena onto her lap, arm supporting her upper body, trying not to drive the arrow any deeper.
"Gabrielle?" Gabrielle looked down into Xena's eyes. "Don't turn your back..."
"What?" She strained to hear what Xena was saying.
"Hope..." Xena's words flowed quietly together, on an exhale of tortured breath. "Don't turn your back on her." Gabrielle closed her eyes and shook her head. "Gabrielle."
"I'm here, Xena, I hear you."
"Swear to me. Swear you won't let her...hurt my son, please.
"It will be all right, Xena."
"I swear it."
Xena's burning blue eyes searched Gabrielle's for a long time before she finally seemed to find what she was looking for. "I never thought I would...that we would...why, Gabrielle?"
It was the last thing she said before the blue fire flickered, grew increasingly cold and went quietly out. Gabrielle sat for a long time with Xena cradled in her arms, before realizing that Hope was sitting silently beside her. Gabrielle raised her head slowly and looked over at her.
"I didn't mean to, Mother. I swear, I didn't mean to hurt her." Gabrielle said nothing. "I was afraid and I thought she was hurting you. I just wanted her to let you go. I picked up the crossbow and I just wanted to scare her. I-"
"Hope, stop. Just... stop, please," Gabrielle pleaded wearily.
"You don't believe me," Hope said, standing up. "I don't blame you. She was your friend and I hurt her. If you don't want to help me, now, I will understand."
Gabrielle stared hard at her and began to say something when they both heard Solan's voice in the distance, calling for Xena.
"Oh, no," Hope said quietly, looking down at Xena.
Gabrielle laid Xena down and stood up, wincing at the dull ache in her back, wondering how long she had been sitting there with Xena clutched tightly in her arms. Looking around, brushing tears from her face, she grabbed a blanket and threw it over Xena just as Solan burst through the door. Gabrielle moved between him and the still form on the floor.
"Gabrielle!" Solan exclaimed, surprised to see her here. "Where's Xena?" He rushed on, "She told me to meet her. She's going to take me with her when she leaves, isn't that great?"
Tears glistened in Gabrielle's eyes as she looked into Solan's face, flushed with excitement, his eyes filled with joy. She took a step toward him. "Solan..."
He looked up at her, the look on her face subduing him a bit. "It's all right isn't it? You don't mind if I come with you, do you?"
"Of course I wouldn't mind, Solan, but-" she stopped; she could not find the words to tell him, could not force herself to be the one to forever destroy the happiness she saw in his eyes.
Solan looked around and finally noticed the blanket covered form on the floor. His eyes found Gabrielle's once more. "Who..." His voice cracked and faltered as he saw the answer in Gabrielle's grief stricken eyes.
She reached out to him and he backed away from her, shaking his head in denial. "No. No it isn't her, it isn't her. She promised."
"Solan, I'm so sorry."
Still shaking his head, he stepped around Gabrielle and slowly knelt beside the body on the floor. Reaching out toward the blanket, he pulled his hand back, wiping it on his pants. Gabrielle watched silently, keeping her distance. Taking a deep breath, Solan reached out again and with a trembling hand, lifted the blanket.
The sound that he made pierced Gabrielle's heart like a blade. A mournful, utterly lost, wounded animal wail. Uncomprehending, inconsolable, forever frozen in its agony. Gabrielle sat down beside him, gathering him into her arms, crying with him until he slumped against her, exhausted by his grief. He quieted after a while and she thought that he had fallen asleep. "It will be all right, Solan," she comforted.
He sat up suddenly, startling her, and pulled away. "Who did this?" he demanded, his voice eerily calm.
"Who?!" he cried loudly, getting to his feet, hands clenched at his sides.
Gabrielle stood also. "It was my fault, Solan."
He leveled a hard glare her. "No. I don't believe you. You wouldn't, you couldn't."
Gabrielle said nothing as he stared wildly into her eyes, struggling to control his tears, his rage. Tearing his eyes from hers, he looked back down at Xena."She loved you," he accused, returning his eyes to Gabrielle's.
"She warned me. She told me there was only one person I could truly trust. That if I needed an answer, I need only go...only go..." He closed his eyes and Gabrielle moved close to him once again.
"She was right, Solan. Xena was the only one you could truly trust, the one you could always go to."
He stepped back from her, looking her straight in the eye, surprising her by releasing a harsh bark of laughter. "No."
"No! Don't you see? She wasn't talking about herself, Gabrielle. She was talking about you. You! Well, who do I trust now, Gabrielle. If it was your fault that she died, who do I go to now?" He spun around, staring down at Xena, hurt and anger pushing him over the edge, out of control. "You lied to me!" He screamed down at her, eyes wild, sobbing, shaking his head like a wounded beast.
"By the gods, Solan," Gabrielle cried.
He bent down and picked up Xena's sword, bringing it smoothly up, clutching it tightly with both hands, turning on her. She took a step back from him, remembering that same wild, furious look in his mother's eyes, the one that would forever haunt her dreams.
"Go away," he whispered hoarsely. "Go. While you still can."
His eyes caught fire and he raised the tip of the blade to her throat. "I will be a warrior. Just like her. I will find out who killed her, who betrayed her. I will find out who killed her, and my uncle, and I will bury this sword in his heart. I swear it."
She stared into his blue eyes, so like Xena's, and she knew he was lost, beyond reason, consumed by his hurt and his rage. She put her hand on the sharp blade and slowly pushed it away from her.
He turned from her and stared down at the mother he would never know. "Go away," he whispered, his misery all-consuming. "Go away."
Gabrielle sat down in a familiar clearing in the woods, aching, defeated, weary beyond measure. Hope sat down beside her and tentatively took her hand. "I'm sorry, Mother. I'm so sorry."
Gabrielle looked into Hope's tear filled eyes and tried to feel something beyond the numbness in her heart. "Where did you get the crossbow, Hope?"
"The crossbow, where did you get it?"
"It was lying by the fireplace, with a bunch of other weapons."
Gabrielle nodded. It had been there, she had seen it herself. Could Hope actually be telling the-
"We will have to kill Solan now, won't we, Mother?"
Gabrielle's jaw dropped. Stunned into silence, she stared at her daughter for a long moment. "What did you say?" she managed, finally.
"Solan. He's going to come after us, you know. If he's anything like his mother, he will figure out what happened. He will never stop looking for us."
"Did you hurt Solan's uncle, Hope?"
Hope looked guilelessly at Gabrielle, eyes narrowing for a brief moment before she answered. "Callisto killed him, I saw her."
Gabrielle closed her eyes against the lie. "How did you know Xena was Solan's mother?"
"You told me, Mother, don't you remember?"
Gabrielle opened her eyes and studied the child sitting in front of her. This child of hers, from which lies and deceit flowed effortlessly in an infinite stream of evil. Unmoved, Hope looked away after a moment. "I'm tired and I'm thirsty, mother. May I have some of that, please?"
Gabrielle just continued to stare at her.
Hope wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and lay down on the blanket, sighing contentedly. "We can go to sleep now, Mother."
Gabrielle smiled bleakly at the irony of her words. Gazing down at the small wineskin in her lap, she realized one of the great truths in life. You couldn't go back. No matter what you did, no matter how hard you tried, you could never go back and make things right. If you doubted the truth of this, you need only ask her, because she had, for the second time in her life, just destroyed her best friend and poisoned her only child. Her tears had frozen inside her; cold, wicked shards of ice, slicing her heart as painfully as a blade. She sat; dry-eyed and motionless, patiently waiting for Hecate to deliver her from this nightmare back to the one she had tried so desperately to leave behind.
She thought, suddenly, of Xan. Remembering her simple knack of so eloquently expressing her deepest emotions, her greatest frustrations in a single word: "Crap," Gabrielle thought to herself, which pretty much said it all.
The trip back was pretty much the same, one moment she was present in the past, the next she was present in the future. Or, was she present in the present? It gave her a headache just thinking about it. Had time gone on without her while she was away? Apparently so, for now Zagnan and his merry mercenaries had joined her once more.
"...find her!" Zagnan shouted irritably. "Not all of you!" he yelled at their retreating backs. "Some of you stay. Hide yourselves down here, like good little assassins. I'm surrounded by idiots." This to Nathan, who nodded in agreement. "Is it ready?" Zagnan asked, rubbing his hands together.
"Almost." Nathan removed one of the tiny silver orbs from a bowl of liquid sitting on a table in front of them. He dropped it carefully down the metal tube. Since he was wearing gloves, Gabrielle rightfully assumed that the liquid was highly lethal. Zagnan used the narrow strip of metal to tamp it firmly down inside the tube. He looked up at Nathan who nodded once more. Taking the narrow metal strip from Zagnan, he laid the tip of it on the end of a burning log in the fire pit at his feet. Zagnan used the end of the weapon to move the little bag of black powder across the table, safely away from the flames.
"Wonderful," Zagnan said softly. "When Xena shows up, she will have quite a surprise waiting for her."
"Isn't that nice? I just love surprises."
The quiet voice surprised them all. Nathan jumped and moved slightly behind Olean, who took a step back and bumped into him. Gabrielle felt her heart fill with hope for the first time in days, Zagnan merely smiled.
"Xena. How nice of you to join us," Zagnan remarked easily. "Who are my men out chasing this time?"
"Argo. She does love a good chase." Xena wore a mean little grin.
Zagnan laughed. "And what have you brought me?" he inquired, eyeing the blanket-covered basket in her hand.
"Ah, so sorry, Zagnan." Xena settled the bundle in back of her, eyes never leaving Zagnan's face. "The invitation didn't say anything about bringing a gift."
"Come now, Xena," Zagnan urged, beginning to lose patience. "You have come to trade; let's just get on with it, shall we? Besides, I am very anxious to see this child, the one who strikes such terror in the heart of the mighty Caesar."
"Trade? I don't think so, Zagnan. You don't have anything that I want."
"Oh, but you are wrong, Xena, I have something that you want very badly. Get her," he demanded, glancing at Nathan.
Gabrielle's eyes were locked on the basket, she watched as the blankets moved slightly. Rachel's child? Surely Xena would not bring her here.
She had to do something. She tried to get up and ended up sliding backward on her hands. Something hard and sharp opened a bloody gash across her palm. The pain was a minor annoyance at this point, and her sense of hope grew immensely as she looked down and spotted the source; the knife that Olean had thrown at the rats. She grabbed it and hid it under the cloak just as Nathan reached her, grasped her arms and pulled her to her feet. Dizzy, weak from hunger and fever, she struggled to keep her balance. Nathan half walked, half-carried Gabrielle to stand beside Zagnan.
Xena's face remained impassive, but her heart screamed inwardly at the sight of Gabrielle. Face pale and bruised-looking, the cloak hanging on her gaunt frame like a death shroud; she looked more dead than alive. A small muscle bunched and twitched in Xena's jaw and no one saw the black rage rising up in her except Gabrielle. Their eyes met for a moment and everything they felt, everything they needed to say, was conveyed in an instant of perfect understanding.
Zagnan took Nathan's arm, moving him slightly in front of him. Using him as cover, he turned his head slightly and whispered into the darkness, "Kill the child, as soon as Xena goes down."
As Gabrielle opened her mouth to warn Xena, Nathan twisted her arm up behind her and clamped his hand over her mouth. Xena took a step forward and Gabrielle watched in mute horror as Zagnan lifted the weapon and Olean touched the white-hot strip of metal to the small opening in the tube.
The next few moments, it seemed to Xena, evolved in a dreamy, otherworldly slowing of time. Gabrielle's eyes met hers and Xena could see, could actually feel, the nearly frantic, fearful warning in them. She saw the glint of metal as Gabrielle lifted the knife from beneath the cloak and swung it back, burying it up to the hilt in Nathan's thigh. Nathan shrieked in agony, pushing Gabrielle away from him. She fell to one knee and turned, grabbing for the weapon in Zagnan's hand. There was a brilliant flash of light and a resounding pop!
Gabrielle felt something pass so close to her ear it ruffled her hair on its way by. Xena sensed, rather than saw, something rushing toward her. She moved slightly to her left as that something took a small, stinging bite from her side, hit the stone wall in back of her, and ricocheted around the room like a maddened hornet. The men who were scattered around the area dove for cover. Zagnan stared wildly into Gabrielle's eyes for a moment before hitting her with a solid backhand that sent her crashing into the table. Drawing his sword, he moved toward her with murder in his eyes.
"Damn you, Gabrielle!" he hissed angrily.
Gabrielle reached back, found the pouch of black powder, and without a second thought picked it up and threw it. Zagnan's eyes widened, mouth dropping open in utter surprise as the bag landed beside him, smack in the middle of the open pit of burning logs. He smiled dourly, giving her a small salute with the tip of his sword as he calmly awaited his fate.
"Run!" Gabrielle turned and yelled, knowing that Xena was close behind her, and started running herself.
Xena spun around, grabbing the basket, and dove behind a pile of crates and water kegs. The explosion was deafening, the impact hurling Gabrielle forward like a leaf in a hurricane. There were a series of sharp cracks, groans and an ominous rumble as the already unstable structure above them started to shift and collapse. It fell with a roar of tortured timber and rock, filling the air with choking dust and debris. After a while, everything grew eerily silent.
Xena opened her eyes, took a deep breath and started coughing. Sitting up slowly, she rubbed at her burning eyes and shook her head, swearing as a tiny avalanche of dirt from her hair filled her eyes again. "Gabrielle?" she called out cautiously. Looking around in the gloom and settling dust, she listened intently to the tomb-like silence surrounding her. A shaft of sunlight carved a bright path from a jagged split in the ceiling above her, dust motes dancing merrily in its wake. She got carefully to her feet, grimacing at a jab of pain. Her fingers come away bloodied as she touched her side. She brought her fingers to her nose and sniffed, drawing back slightly at the pungent odor. A timber creaked and bowed, breaking the silence with another spill of dirt and rock. "Gabrielle?" she tried again.
A low groan answered in return. Xena made her way toward it, carefully pushing rock and pieces of timber out of her way. "Gabrielle?"
Xena's breath caught when she finally located her, lying on her back, beneath a huge crossbeam from the ceiling. "Gabrielle!" Xena bent down beside her.
Gabrielle opened her eyes, staring up at her for a moment. "Whoa," Gabrielle whispered hoarsely.
Xena's lopsided smile appeared for a brief moment at one the supreme understatements of all time. And Gabrielle surprised herself by thinking that she would, without hesitation, blow up a hundred temples just to see that smile.
Xena stood up, swaying slightly, a little off balance, and examined the beam. "You're going to be all right, Gabrielle. Gabrielle looked up at her and snorted. "What?" Xena asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Xena, I have been stomped on, hit in the head and slapped around. I'm sick, tired, hungry, thirsty and have somehow managed to screw up my past for the second time. Now I've blown up a temple, most of which seems to have landed right on top of me. Only you would tell me I'm going to be all right."
Xena was silent for a moment, deep in thought. "I can get you a drink of water," she offered softly.
Gabrielle stared at her for a moment then began to laugh, which quickly turned into a fit of coughing. Xena bent over her and lifted her head a little until it passed. "Better now?" Gabrielle nodded. "I'll get you out from under there." Xena stood up then stooped back down. "What do you mean; you screwed up your past for the second time?"
"Long story...tell you later," Gabrielle promised. Xena stared at her for a long moment then stood back up. "Xena!" Gabrielle grabbed her hand.
"What is it?"
"The baby!" Gabrielle cried, suddenly remembering the blanket-covered basket.
"The baby! Where's the baby?" Gabrielle insisted, pushing against the beam, trying to get up.
Xena bent over her, placing a firm hand against her shoulder. "She's not here, Gabrielle. Stop that, you're going to hurt yourself."
"But the basket, I saw the blankets move. Xena-"
"Stop fussing and I'll show you."
Xena walked away into the shadows and returned with the basket. Kneeling down beside Gabrielle, she lifted the blanket. A pair of shinny black eyes peered up at them and Gabrielle let out a small yelp of surprise when a small brown rabbit jumped out of the basket. It turned, giving them an indignant look, before scampering off with long ears flying and a final, defiant flip of white tail. Gabrielle stared after it for a moment before looking into Xena's bemused blue eyes. "Will it be all right down here?"
"It'll find its way out."
Gabrielle looked around her, for the first time really seeing the destruction she had caused. "Will anyone else?"
Xena followed her gaze. "Not very likely."
"Where is the baby?"
"Rachel named her Catherine. She's safe. I left her with Ephiny."
"Ephiny?" Gabrielle repeated, surprised. "How did you-where did you-"
Xena raised her hand, effectively silencing her questions. "Long story. First things first, okay?"
Gabrielle nodded, wordlessly acknowledging the pain in Xena's eyes. Xena gave Gabrielle's shoulder a gentle squeeze and stood up, thus leaving the biggest question unanswered and hanging over them like a great, dark cloud. If Rachel's child was with Ephiny, then where was Rachel? What would separate her from her child? The most obvious answer brought tears to Gabrielle's eyes and she hastily brushed them away before Xena found her crying; she had enough to deal with. Gabrielle watched as Xena cleared most of the debris away from the beam.
"Are you in pain?" Xena asked, bending over her once more, noting the wetness in her eyes.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Not a lot. It's kind of hard to breathe. I don't know if that's good or bad. Not being in pain," she clarified at Xena's questioning look.
"I think the beam is just lying on top of you. Something kept it from crush-if it would have fallen directly on you...well..."
"Mmm, I get the idea. Can you get it off?"
Xena bent down and tried lifting it, which caused her head to spin and little dark spots to dance before her eyes.
Gabrielle reached over, touching her side. Xena pulled away with a little hiss of pain. "You're hurt," Gabrielle told her quietly.
"It's all right." Xena placed a hand over the wound.
Gabrielle reached up and grabbed her other hand. "Xena, was it from the weapon Zagnan fired?" Xena looked around, absently attempting to free her hand from Gabrielle's grasp. "Was it?" Gabrielle insisted.
"Yes," Xena said, looking back down at her.
Gabrielle swallowed, saying nothing for a moment. "It was poisoned, the shot was-"
"You have to do something, it-"
"It just grazed me, Gabrielle. Hopefully, I'm just having a mild reaction to the poison."
"There's nothing I can do about it."
"There must be something. Xena-"
"No, there's nothing. Let it rest, Gabrielle."
The look in Xena's eyes quelled any further discussion and Gabrielle reluctantly dropped both the conversation and Xena's hand.
Gabrielle stared dubiously at the arrangement of wood and rock Xena had concocted. "Are you sure this is going to work?"
Xena gazed down at her. "It should. Why? Do you have a better idea?"
"What is it supp...going to do?" she inquired curiously, shifting her gaze from Xena's.
"When I push down on this," - Xena placed her hand on a good sized piece of timber she had wedged under the beam and over another piece of timber lying crosswise beneath it - "I should be able to lift it enough for you to pull yourself out. Do you think you can do that? Pull yourself out?"
"I think so, yes."
"Well, don't take too long. If I can lift it, I don't know how long I'll be able to hold it."
"Just don't drop it, okay?"
Xena smiled a little. "Wouldn't even think about it." Gabrielle returned the smile. "Ready?" Xena asked.
"As I'll ever be," Gabrielle attested. Xena swiped a hand across her forehead as a small bead of sweat trickled down into her eye. "Are you nervous about this?" Gabrielle asked, giving her a look.
"Not really, are you?"
"Should I be?"
"Probably. Here we go."
"Great," Gabrielle muttered under her breath.
"I said, 'Great, I'm ready.'"
Xena took a couple of deep breaths, wiped her hands on her thighs, placed them on the piece of timber and pushed. Nothing happened. Gabrielle put her hands on the beam and pushed up, stopping when she felt a sharp pain in her chest.
"You okay?" Xena repositioned her hands on the timber and pushed harder.
"Uh-huh," Gabrielle fibbed.
Xena redoubled her effort and the beam slowly began to shift upward. It rose slowly and Xena's arms trembled with the effort. "Now, Gabrielle, move!"
As Gabrielle attempted to squirm her way out from under the beam, the whole thing began to shift. Xena pushed down harder. "Wait!" Xena gasped, "I'm losing-I can't hold it!" Xena struggled to reposition herself and regain control, but the beam began to slide down the crosspiece of wood beneath it. Worse, the whole thing shifted left towards Gabrielle. Afraid that the beam would slide off the crosspiece and crush Gabrielle, Xena began to lower it. Muscles screaming, head spinning, heart thumping wildly in her chest, she fought to hold it. With a sound like a crack of thunder, the crosspiece snapped and the beam fell with a muffled thud and a spray of dirt and dust.
"Gabrielle!" Horrified, Xena dropped to her knees and tried to see her through the nearly impenetrable cloud of dust. "Gabrielle," Xena whispered. Dread squeezed her heart so tightly she could scarcely breathe until she finally heard Gabrielle coughing. The dust began to settle and Xena stifled a curse as she looked around. The crosspiece, fortunately, hadn't collapsed completely and was still partially resting on the piece of timber that Xena had used as a fulcrum beneath it. The beam had shifted further down the crosspiece and now the whole mess lay like a huge, grotesque cross on top of Gabrielle. A vague, hazy-blue image of a crucifixion stole into Xena's consciousness for a moment, raising gooseflesh on her skin and cold dread in her soul, then it was gone. Xena stared for a moment, shaking her head slightly. Unaccustomed to having her plans go so miserably awry, she cursed soundly.
"Xena?" Gabrielle tried to move and the crosspiece groaned ominously.
"Lay still, Gabrielle."
"What...happened?" she asked, struggling to breathe.
"Shush. Let me think." Gabrielle looked down, then raised an eyebrow and looked up into Xena's blazing eyes. "Don't say it," Xena warned.
"Not a word," Gabrielle promised and sucked in a quick breath as the crosspiece moaned again and the beam pressed down harder still.
Xena studied the beam and the crosspiece. If she tried to move either one of them and the crosspiece broke completely, that would be the end of it and the end of Gabrielle. But she couldn't just leave it like that; it was a miracle that it was still holding at all. Maybe she could get another piece underneath somehow. She closed her eyes and swiped a forearm across her sweat-drenched face. Her head spun madly for a nauseating moment and she quickly opened her eyes again. She shook her head a little, trying to form a plan, but found her mind a frightening blank slate.
"Xena," Gabrielle's voice was hushed and small. Xena looked down at her. "You don't look so good."
"Yeah, well, neither do you." Gabrielle gave her a wan smile. Xena stared at her dust-covered face, trying to think. She stood up. "Be right back."
Gabrielle watched with concern as Xena winced slightly and absently placed her hand on her side as she stood and moved away. Gabrielle closed her eyes as the beam shifted minutely downward once more.
She opened her eyes again as Xena lifted her head a little and placed a blanket under it.
"Can you drink some water?"
Xena lifted a battered cup to her lips, keeping a wary eye on the beam. Gabrielle lifted her head a little and sipped thirstily, nearly emptying the cup. "Not too much. It'll make you sick."
Gabrielle reluctantly leaned her head back. "Did you-is there more?" Gabrielle asked, feeling guilty about drinking so much of it.
"There's plenty. Plenty of food, too. Zagnan was storing supplies here. Luckily, they are up front and not buried back there." Xena wet a cloth and wiped Gabrielle's face clean of the dust and grime.
It felt wonderful and Gabrielle closed her eyes again, relieved to be rid of it.
"Hmmm?" she replied somewhat dreamily, opening her eyes once more.
"I think you should-I want you to stay awake, okay?"
"Okay." She paused for a moment, finding it much easier to speak if she did so on an exhale of breath. Xena stared intently at her, and Gabrielle found herself floating; down, down into burnished pools of endless blue.
"Gabrielle." Xena touched her shoulder.
"Listening," Gabrielle assured her, focusing once more.
"I don't know how much longer this is going to hold. I don't know what else I can do without help."
Gabrielle held her gaze for a moment then looked up at the fading shaft of sunlight. "See there," she stated, returning her eyes to Xena's. "And I thought...things couldn't get...any worse." She laughed a little, which made her cough again, which in turn, made her chest ache like someone was pushing a very dull knife into it.
"Does it hurt?" Xena asked softly.
"Only...when I laugh," Gabrielle answered and giggled. "Ow." Xena's wry smile appeared for a brief moment. "Now what?" Gabrielle wondered.
"I've got to get help."
Xena began to stand and Gabrielle grabbed her wrist. "No!" she cried vehemently, bringing on another bout of coughing, and another menacing groan from the crosspiece. "No, please, Xena...don't leave me here...alone."
"Gabrielle, I have to get help. I can't get you out without help."
"And can you find help before it falls?"
Xena looked away for a moment. "I don't know," she admitted quietly. "But, I have to try." She returned her eyes to Gabrielle's. "I'm not just going to sit here and wait for it to fall. It will kill you, you know."
"I'm not afraid to die, Xena. But, not... alone."
"I'm not going to let you die."
"Stay with me. Please." Xena said nothing; Gabrielle squeezed her hand. "Please."
Xena sighed and looked around her. "All right. All right, I'll stay. I'm going to try and find another piece of wood, or something, to shore this up." Gabrielle nodded. "Stay still and stay awake."
"Promise. Cross my heart...hope to..." Xena flinched slightly and Gabrielle stopped to reconsider her choice of phrases. The effort defeated her, she studied Xena instead. Xena's face was flushed and moist, her eyes glassy, bright and troubled. Gabrielle reached up and laid a hand against Xena's forehead. "You're burning up."
"I'll be fine. You relax, I'll be right back."
Xena stood and walked into the shadows. She stumbled slightly, catching herself before she fell. Her vision was blurring, her head felt as though it were filled with liquid fire. Dizzy, and achingly sick, she leaned against the cool rock wall and tried not to pass out. Whatever the poison was, it was strong and relentless, if the shot had done more than just graze her, she had no doubt at all that she would be dead right now.
She lifted her head. There were numerous pieces of wood and rock among the debris, but most of them were either huge or too small to do her any good. She slid her hands under one of the smaller ceiling beams and found she could not lift it more than a few inches. She struggled with it briefly before a bout of dizziness and nausea forced her to drop it. Angry and frustrated, she straightened and gave it a vicious kick before stumbling away and making her way back to Gabrielle's side.
She felt her heart very nearly stop as she stared down at Gabrielle's quiet face, dropping to her knees beside her, she could detect no movement whatsoever. "Gabrielle?" Xena whispered, giving her a slight shake.
"Wha..." came a murmured reply.
Xena's heart began beating again, thumping so hard in her chest, it hurt. Gabrielle looked into Xena's glistening, frustrated eyes. "I can't-I don't know what else..."
"It's all right, Xena." Gabrielle enveloped Xena's clenched hand within her own.
"It's not all right, Gabrielle. I can't help you, don't you understand that?"
"You need to rest for a while, Xena. You can barely stand. Just rest. We'll think of something."
Xena stared at her. Gabrielle was obviously having trouble breathing, which was not surprising, she was lucky to be breathing at all. But, she was right; she had to rest for a while. Xena sat down heavily beside her. Gabrielle closed her eyes. "Gabrielle."
"Don't fall asleep. Don't let me fall asleep."
"Okay," she agreed, but did not open her eyes.
"Come on, Gabrielle." Xena took her hand again. "Stay with me here. Tell me a story...Gabrielle!"
Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked into Xena's insistent gaze. "A story?"
"Yes, a story. You know, from one of your scrolls."
Gabrielle smiled a little and took a deep breath as Xena stared expectantly at her. "Once, a long time ago," Gabrielle began, shifting effortlessly into bard mode. "There was a very young bard from Poteidaia."
Xena raised an eyebrow as Gabrielle continued, pausing after each sentence to pull in a breath. "And this bard found herself in a bit of trouble, which was not an unusual occurrence for her. But, this time, the trouble was much too big for her to talk herself out of, which was somewhat unusual. Just about the time she had pretty much given up hope of getting herself, and those around her, out of this trouble, a woman appeared. Now, this woman, this woman was like no other the bard had ever seen. Tall, strong, beautiful...very mysterious. And she fought; fought with amazing skill and a frightening ferocity, much like the Amazon warriors the bard had once read about. The bard found herself strangely drawn to this woman warrior, not only was she fascinating, but there was something oddly familiar about her."
Gabrielle paused for a moment and Xena gave her a strange look. "Later that night," Gabrielle continued, "with scarcely a moment's hesitation, the bard decided to follow the woman. Her sister mocked her. "'A hardened warrior and a little bard from Poteidaia, are you crazy?'" her sister demanded. "But the bard was determined and without a second thought, well, maybe one or two, she left all that she had known and followed the warrior woman."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and Xena placed a hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle..."
The sea green eyes opened once more and Gabrielle took another labored breath and continued. "The warrior, understandably, was not altogether pleased when the bard appeared and attempted to join her on her journey. She informed the bard, in no uncertain terms, that she was sending her home in the morning."
Gabrielle looked into Xena's somnolent blue eyes and Xena's mouth quirked up in a small smile. "'I won't stay home,'" the bard declared. "'I don't belong there any more.'
"And eventually, the warrior relented. Maybe she just felt sorry for the bard, or maybe she, too, felt something oddly familiar about her. Or, maybe, just maybe, she saw something in the bard that no one else could see. Whatever the cause, she relented and allowed the bard to join her on her journey. And so they began a new life; together. The bard; wildly eager to embrace her future, and the warrior..." Gabrielle looked into Xena's eyes once more. "The warrior desperate to escape her past."
Xena's expression did not change, but her heart ached within.
Gabrielle drew a difficult breath, noticeably tiring now, and continued. "They traveled far and had many adventures and life was good. And sometimes...not so good." Gabrielle paused for a moment and looked away from her. "But," she continued, so quietly now that Xena could barely hear her, "the young bard, who matured rather quickly on her journey, never regretted her decision."
Gabrielle reached over and gripped Xena's hand. "Never!" she avowed, voice gently insistent. "And she never will, because..." - she looked intently into Xena's eyes - "because when they are together, only then, does the bard feel truly whole...and secure...and..."
Gabrielle's voice, which had been growing increasingly distant, now completely faded away. Xena bent close to her. "Gabrielle," she whispered urgently. Gabrielle opened her eyes, feeling her heart lift, as it always did, at the sight of Xena's resplendent blue gaze. Xena laid her hand gently on Gabrielle's face. "I love you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle smiled. "And loved, yes. I said that, didn't I?" The smile grew wider. "Who would've ever believed it? The warrior and the bard, still together, after all these years." Gabrielle's smile faded as Xena's grip on her hand slowly slipped away.
"Xena?" Her quiet voice fell heavily into an ominous stillness. Straining against the confines of the debris above her, she found Xena's hand once more. The crosspiece whined beneath the weight of the beam and Gabrielle closed her eyes. The cold, formidable silence descended over them like a shroud.
Xena slept while her body fought the fever and the poison racing through her blood. Her dreams were not pleasant, filled with violence and loss, tears and pain. She dreamed of reaching out, and with a single touch, destroying everyone and every single thing that she had ever cared about. She ran for miles, through bitter cold and scorching heat, trying to outdistance her demons. When she finally stopped running and turned to face them, she found nothing but a mirror image of herself. When she reached out to touch it, it shattered in a thousand pieces.
"Help me!" she cried aloud, startling herself awake.
She couldn't remember where she was for a moment, which unsettled her more than she cared to admit. A raging thirst and a draft of cold air cleared her head a little and brought her fully awake. She sat up and felt sick. Head pounding, every muscle in her body aching, she made her way slowly to her feet. Dizziness returned with a vengeance and she staggered for a few steps before regaining her equilibrium. "Gabrielle," she said softly, remembering.
Making her way back across the room toward the beam, she reached Gabrielle's side and sat down heavily beside her. Gabrielle was sleeping, the crosspiece was still holding. Xena pulled her feet up, crossed her arms over her knees, rested her head on them and closed her eyes. She sat this way for a long time before finally realizing that she was not alone. She lifted her head, gazing down at Gabrielle, but it was not her presence that she sensed.
The voice was soft, musical, flowing over her like warm water. She recognized it immediately. "Lao Ma." Xena's voice was taut with wonder and emotion.
She appeared out of the darkness like an apparition, which, when Xena thought about it, was what she had to be. Xena struggled to her feet and moved toward her, halting when Lao Ma's image seemed to fade as she drew nearer. "This is a dream," Xena declared.
"No, Xena, it is not."
"You left me," Xena accused.
Lao Ma smiled gently. "I believe it was you who left me, Xena.
"Why are you here? Why now?"
"You desired it."
"If it were that simple, you would have been here long before this." Lao Ma said nothing. Xena looked over her shoulder at Gabrielle. "Help her."
Lao Ma's words spilled over her, draining her of hope. She stood motionless for a moment, strength ebbing away. She took a stumbling step back, and sat down hard, not exactly falling, but not quite in control either.
"Only you can save her, Xena."
Xena closed her eyes, shaking her head, never for a moment suspecting that these words would come back to haunt her in the future. She opened her eyes. "I can't. I tried."
"It is unlike you to give up so easily, Xena."
Xena's eyes narrowed. "I guess I'm not quite myself these days. There is something about trying to fight death that is defeating."
"There are worse things than death, Xena." Xena stared silently at her. "You have a power within you, Xena. You have possessed it from the day you were born. You have used it, sometimes abused it, in many ways."
"In the land of Chin," Xena supplied.
"But I can't get it back. I've tried."
Lao Ma gazed into her eyes. "You need not get back what you never lost to begin with."
Xena lowered her head and rubbed wearily at her eyes. "I'm telling you, it's gone. I can't feel it, I can't call it up. I don't know if it is real. I don't even know if you are real." Xena looked up at her once more. "You are dead, Lao Ma. You are not real. It's the fever. I am dreaming, you are an illusion."
"I am real to you."
"I can't touch you."
"Can't you?" Xena raised her eyes to Lao Ma's. Lao Ma was silent, but her eyes, the lift of her jaw, issued a challenge. "The line between what is real, between this world and what lies beyond, is thinly drawn. In your experience, have you not found this to be so, Xena?"
Xena kept her gaze locked onto Lao Ma's, perhaps drawing strength from it, perhaps fearing that if she broke it, she would sever the fragile bond between them. At first, there was nothing but cold emptiness around her. Then, a rush of pure, sweet air gently flowed past her, surrounding her in its warmth. Xena closed her eyes. Drawing in a long, deep breath, she could smell her now, could almost taste her; an odd, familiar mix of exotic spices, incense, deep forest earth, and sun-filled air. It drenched her senses, leaving her breathless, immersing her in sweet images from the past. "Lao Ma..." A sudden longing, an overpowering need; Xena reached out...and gasped at the gentle touch of fingertips against her own. The pressure increased as their hands closed together. Xena felt their energy merge and expand, sending a strong, radiant surge of heat throughout her body. Xena kept her eyes firmly shut, terrified to open them and find that this was just a dream, an illusion brought on by the fever and the poison in her blood.
"Don't cry, Xena."
She hadn't realized that she was, until she felt Lao Ma touch the tears on her face. Xena opened her eyes and looked directly into the golden warmth of Lao Ma's soft brown eyes. Her mouth opened, but she could not utter a sound, she could only stare. Lao Ma's small, secretive half smile, her quiet, unassuming beauty that women would kill for and men gladly died for, and the tender look of pure love in Lao Ma's eyes. For many years she had not let herself remember how much she missed her, how much she needed her. She had never felt about anyone the way she felt about Lao Ma except...
Xena turned slightly to look at Gabrielle, lying pale and silent in the gloom, looking more like a vision than Lao Ma. She felt a disturbing sense of betrayal toward them both somehow and turned back to Lao Ma. The half smile had not left her face, but a touch of...what? sadness? longing? had filled her eyes.
"You were destined to be together, Xena, in this life, as well as the next."
Xena felt at once relieved, elated and overwhelmingly sad. "I miss you, Lao Ma. I was such a fool."
"Your heart was hard and consumed by rage, I could not reach you, Xena. When that rage was finally spent and your heart was empty, you received a gift. One with a heart so pure and innocent, a love so unconditional it became your anchor between the darkness and the light. Gabrielle did not defeat the beast within you, Xena, but it respects her and it no longer rules you."
"Help her," Xena pleaded.
"I cannot. Only you can save her, Xena. It will remain forever so."
Xena shivered as Lao Ma's words spun away from her. Caught up in the folds of time, they were swept away; into the dark, into the waiting hands of The Fates.
Xena began to speak, but Lao Ma placed a hand over Xena's heart, silencing her with a single look. "You have only to believe, in yourself and the power within you. Believe in the bond between you and that which you truly love. Believe in the truth you feel in your heart. That is your true strength; that is the power you seek."
Xena lowered her eyes, thinking, wanting to believe.
Lao Ma framed Xena's face with her hands. "It is simply a matter of faith, Xena." Xena raised her eyes to Lao Ma's once more. "Did you know that the eyes are windows to the soul, Xena?" Xena looked deeply into her eyes. "What do you see, Xena?"
"I see the purest, most mysterious soul I have ever known." Lao Ma's tender smile appeared. "And what do you see, Lao Ma?"
"I see the most frighteningly beautiful soul I have ever known."
Xena continued to gaze into her eyes, not quite sure what to make of that statement.
"I have a gift for you," Lao Ma said gently. She leaned forward and placed her lips on Xena's. Xena closed her eyes as a tremor of pure ecstasy shook her to her soul. It was something far beyond sexual, rather a joining of spirit and light and everything that was pure and good between them. It was golden sunlight, filling her, healing her, cleansing her. Lao Ma drew back, leaving Xena breathless, legs trembling like a newborn foal.
"I will always love you, Xena."
Xena opened her eyes and Lao Ma was gone, as Xena knew she would be. Xena lifted her face to the heavens and the bright band of jagged sunlight reflected her tears like diamonds.
Xena sat down beside the wooden beam and placed both hands on it. She spread her fingers across its width and drew in a several deep breaths. Closing her eyes, she felt the power build within her, saw it as a golden wave of light, filling her entire being. She held her breath, letting the energy grow until her hands; her whole body began to tremble. She released the breath and the power simultaneously, pushing it with her mind, from the center of her essence through her body and outward. The beam trembled under her hands and she opened her eyes. A sharp crack! shattered the silence and fissures opened all along its surface. It shuddered and moaned like something alive. Cracking and snapping, with a final screech of submission, it finally just crumbled like clay beneath her touch. Xena lifted what remained of the shattered crosspiece away and leaned close to Gabrielle, brushing away pieces of the sweet smelling wood.
"Gabrielle," she breathed out softly. Taking Gabrielle's hand, she placed her fingers beneath Gabrielle's jaw and turned her face toward her own, whispering close to her ear. "Gabrielle, please..." Nothing; she was cold to the touch and still as death.
Xena closed her eyes, thought for a moment then pressed her lips to Gabrielle's, imagining, willing, a warm, healing stream of golden light between them. Gently at first, then more intently until, finally, she felt Gabrielle begin to respond. She drew back slightly as Gabrielle opened her eyes and gazed up at her.
"Is it time to get up?" Gabrielle asked hoarsely. Xena half laughed, half sobbed with relief. They stared at one another for a long moment before Gabrielle raised her head and looked around. She tried to sit up and gasped as a burning arc of pain shot across her lower back.
"Easy," Xena cautioned, laying a hand on her shoulder. "How do you feel?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath and winced. Her ribs throbbed, a dull, constant ache. "Like I've been kicked by a mule and it sat on me for a week." A tiny smile lit Xena's face for a brief moment. "How do you feel?" Gabrielle asked in return.
"Xena, how did you-"
Xena shook her head slightly. "Rest now, we'll talk later." Xena raised her head and looked around her. The room began a slow spin, the floor sinking inexplicably from her view.
"I'm going to get another blanket," Xena mumbled.
"Wait. Why don't you just-"
Xena stood up and everything grew ominously dark. Closing her eyes, she watched, fascinated, as a molten river of purple ebbed and flowed through the ebony darkness. Gabrielle's voice sounded very far away and she started a bit when Gabrielle touched her. Opening her eyes, she found herself lying down, cheek resting uncomfortably on the rough, gritty surface of the rock floor beneath her. Now, how did that happen? she wondered. She heard Gabrielle swear painfully under her breath as she maneuvered herself close behind her and laid a deliciously cold hand across her forehead. "You're freezing," Xena informed her a few moments later.
"Perfect," Gabrielle replied. "You're on fire; should work out fine."
"We'll be all right."
Xena closed her eyes. The darkness caressed her, teasing for a moment, then surged hungrily forward, trying to swallow her like a great black beast. Reaching out, she found Gabrielle's arm lying protectively across her waist. "Gabrielle?"
"Don't let go."
"Never," Gabrielle promised without hesitation, tightening her grip. "Just hold on."
And in the days and nights that followed, that was about all she could do. Barely able to move without sending the muscles in her back into spasms of blinding pain, Gabrielle held on. Held on to Xena while she fought the dark poison as it made a final, all out effort to take her; held her while she trembled and shook, her body alternately wracked with cold and fever; held her, mourned with her, heart breaking, as Xena wept uncontrollably for her children; held her while she was violently ill, staring fearfully at the bloody froth bubbling from Xena's lips.
Gabrielle slept fitfully, dragged under, finally, by sheer exhaustion, only to be awakened once again by Xena's desperate, tormented cry.
"It's all right," she whispered.
"No. No, don't... not again, please."
"Xena." Gabrielle pulled herself painfully up and leaned over her. Xena opened her eyes and stared uncomprehendingly at her for a moment. Then, fumbling clumsily, she located Gabrielle's hand and brought it close to her face. She studied it with a feverish intensity, first the palm, then, turning it over, the back, then the palm once more. Finally, with a sharp little exhale of relief, or pain, she relaxed a little and looked up into Gabrielle's puzzled eyes. Saying not a word, she squeezed Gabrielle's hand and laid it over her heart, covering it with her own.
Gabrielle continued to study her as her eyes closed once again. The unnatural, fierce flush of the fever was gone, leaving Xena's face pale and drawn. Her breathing was slow and even now, her heartbeat steady and strong beneath Gabrielle's palm. She was sleeping. Gabrielle breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief and settled herself carefully down by her side.
Gabrielle was dreaming. It was a comforting dream, one she had experienced many times before. She was writing. She could feel the quill between her fingers, feel the stiff parchment, and even smell the old leather binding. Even though it felt very real, she knew it was a dream. She stopped writing and watched curiously as spidery characters continued to emerge from within the yellowed parchment. Both the style and wording were unlike her own.
Blue is the color
Of your eyes
She smiled a little.
Mysterious and deep
As a midnight sky
Her smile faded a bit as a vague sense of unease settled over her.
Blue is the color
Of dreams undone
Growing even more uncomfortable now, she looked away for a moment. A quiet voice urged her to turn away and not look back. But, a deeply entrenched sense of curiosity effectively silenced the voice and she returned her eyes to the parchment. The writing had paused, as though it had been waiting for her. It waited patiently as she read the verse again.
Blue is the color
Of your eyes
Mysterious and deep
As a midnight sky
Blue is the color
Of dreams undone
A sudden coldness seized her as the next words divulged themselves.
As we perish
'Neath the dying sun.
Bitter cold and mild shock brought Gabrielle fully and uncomfortably awake. Exhaling sharply, she opened her eyes and watched as her breath, frosty white in the meager torch and firelight, dissipated into the darkness. She reached out for Xena and found her gone. Gabrielle had been sleeping nearly sitting up; the only position that seemed to ease her tortured back. Looking around, she finally located Xena. She was sitting beneath the crack in the ceiling, head bowed, bathed in the eerie, silvery-blue light of the unseen moon. Sensing Gabrielle's gaze, Xena lifted her head and looked directly into her eyes. Xena's eyes were an unfathomable darkness within the ghostly paleness of her face and Gabrielle's dream whispered softly to her;
Blue is the color
Of your eyes
Mysterious and deep
As a midnight sky
They stared at one another for a moment, until Gabrielle found her voice. "What are you doing?" she asked softly.
Xena drew in a deep breath and rubbed at her eyes with fisted hands. She looked, Gabrielle thought for a whimsical moment, like an exhausted child, up past her bedtime.
"Just thinking," Xena answered.
Gabrielle felt a gentle nudge at her heart. She seldom saw this side of Xena. The fearsome warrior within was absent for the moment. Xena looked drained, battle weary, saddened, and so very vulnerable. Gabrielle suddenly ached to go to her and she silently cursed her injuries for making that impossible. She leaned forward a little and ground her teeth together as her back muscles shrieked a soundless warning. Xena rose gracefully and walked toward her. Gabrielle marveled, once again, at Xena's almost god-like ability to heal. Xena sat down close beside her and Gabrielle studied the untrammeled blueness of her eyes. She knew, though Xena's body was rapidly recovering, that her heart, her soul, had once again sustained wounds that would never heal. There were a hundred questions on Gabrielle's lips. A thousand emotions she wanted to voice. And though she searched, she soon discovered that there were times when words of the heart were not easily found. She took Xena's hand in her own. It was disturbingly cold and she wrapped her other hand around it as well, trying to warm it.
"I want to tell you about Rachel," Xena said quietly.
Surprised, Gabrielle merely nodded. She listened intently, not interrupting, as Xena told her about the prophecy, and the birth, and what Rachel had said about her child. Xena seldom looked at her as she spoke and for this Gabrielle was grateful, for there were times when her tears could not be contained and she feared that they would distract Xena from her story. They sat in silence for a time after Xena finished; Gabrielle had not released her hand. Xena turned and looked into Gabrielle's eyes.
"Ask," she said.
Gabrielle drew in a breath and released it slowly. "Do you think Caesar suspected that Rachel was your daughter?"
"Yes," Xena answered, with a certainty that surprised Gabrielle.
"Do you think he believed he was her father?"
"That's very possible, I suppose."
"Do you think he believed the prophecy, or was he just trying to draw you out through Rachel?"
"Both, I think. I'll ask him when I see him."
Gabrielle felt the coldness. Looking into Xena's eyes, she saw that dreadful, dark emptiness of pure evil flicker within their depths. And in that single unguarded moment, she was afraid of her. Xena blinked slowly and the moment quickly passed, but not before leaving a touch of icy dread lingering in Gabrielle's heart.
"Caesar was not Rachel's father," Xena declared.
"Thank the gods," Gabrielle replied without thinking.
Xena raised an eyebrow and gave her a mirthless little smile. Their conversation was suspended for a time, testing the limits of Gabrielle's patience, while Xena collected herself under the guise of ministering to Gabrielle's injuries. After accomplishing the impossible; helping Gabrielle turn over and lie down without sending the muscles in her back into fits of petulant rage, Xena began massaging in a pungent, soothing, warm oil. The only sound was an occasional grunt, of either pain or pleasure, from Gabrielle as Xena's strong hands worked their magic.
"Did I hurt you?" Xena asked after a particularly heartfelt grunt from Gabrielle.
"A little," Gabrielle admitted, "but, it's okay." It did hurt like Tartarus at times, but the end result was worth it. It was an odd mix of pleasure and pain, the former making the other at least tolerable. "The liniment seems to be helping," Gabrielle mumbled."
"Good," Xena stated.
"At least I knew enough not to drink it this time."
Xena stopped for a moment, lost in thought, then chuckled as the memory came back to her. It seemed, now, like a lifetime ago. "Sorry," she said, as Gabrielle raised her head and gave her a look.
"Mmm-hmm." Gabrielle laid her head back down on her arms.
"You have to admit," Xena offered a few moments later. "Looking back now, it was pretty funny."
"Funny to you, maybe. You didn't have a slug for a tongue with accompanying drool for days afterward."
Xena had to bite down hard on her lip to keep from laughing out loud. She cleared her throat and quietly resumed her massage.
Getting Gabrielle re-situated and not hurting her was a job in itself.
Gabrielle nearly bit a hole through her tongue trying not to scream and Xena, noting the bright pain reflected in her eyes, apologized once again. Gabrielle shook her head a little, dismissing her apology as unnecessary.
"Could be worse," she ventured, after a few moments. Xena agreed. "How long will it take to heal, do you think?"
"Hard to say. Broken bones are more forgiving than muscle; they usually heal rather quickly. Strained muscles can be cranky. Bruised ribs even more so."
Gabrielle sighed. Even eating was a chore and when they finished, Xena left her for awhile. Gabrielle stared longingly at her as she picked her way through the rubble and made her way outside. She was, presumably, checking on Argo and getting fresh water. But in reality, Gabrielle knew, Xena needed to escape the confines of the walls surrounding them.
Gabrielle breathed deeply when she returned, savoring the scent of fresh air and sunshine that she brought in with her.
"I'll get you outside soon," Xena promised.
Gabrielle said nothing, fully aware that it would be a while yet before she would be able to manage the somewhat treacherous climb to the small window Xena had found to the world outside. Xena handed her a ladle of cool, fresh water and sat down beside her. Gabrielle wondered if she would continue her story, and somewhat to her surprise, Xena did.
"There are certain times in our lives," Xena began, "when we meet someone who has the power to profoundly change us." Xena shifted her eyes toward Gabrielle. "If we let them."
Gabrielle smiled a little. Xena's mouth quirked up in a small half smile for a moment before she looked away. "I was a different person before Cortese attacked our village. I was young, happy, fairly innocent, and..." Xena looked over at Gabrielle. "I was in love."
Xena looked away again, before Gabrielle could reply and continued. "His name was Alexander, he had once been a gladiator for Rome until it began to wear on him and he returned to Greece. You would have never known he was a warrior; he was the most incredibly gentle man I had ever met. Alexander was...well, he was very different. He gave me, not necessarily what I wanted, but what I needed at that time. He was such a contrast; a farmer, a warrior, a killer, a healer. He taught me to love, he taught me to fight. The man was a true enigma." Xena smiled a little. "And he made me laugh."
Xena looked again into Gabrielle's eyes. "Yet there was such sadness in his eyes, nearly invisible within the light that shone there, but it was there."
Xena was silent for a time and Gabrielle sat patiently waiting. She seldom heard Xena speak in this way and she was deeply moved by the simple eloquence of her story.
"His own people thought him blessed," Xena continued. "They called him a prophet; a title he detested and denied. He believed that the insights and visions that he sometimes had were much more a curse than a blessing. But, he was special, in his way, and he certainly gave me something special. He gave me a child."
"Rachel," Gabrielle whispered.
"Yes. Rachel." Xena took a long, deep breath and closed her eyes, leaning back against the wall. "It took us both a while to get used to the idea that we were going to have a child. I can't honestly say that we were overjoyed at first. It was a bit of a shock, you see?"
Xena opened one blue eye and fixed it on Gabrielle, who nodded and thought, I can just imagine.
Her face must have reflected the thought, because Xena opened both eyes and shot her a look, then closed them once again. "It didn't take us long to get used to the idea though, and we found that we were truly very happy about it. His people were ecstatic. It seemed we had fulfilled another one of their numerous and somewhat annoying prophecies. Time passed quickly, as the good times do. It was one of the most peaceful and happy times of my life, which was why it came as such a shock when I found him crying one night."
Xena opened her eyes and leaned forward, capturing Gabrielle's gaze with the intensity of her own. "I remember that night so clearly. It was fall, there was a harvest moon; a huge, golden ball just rising against the deepest, bluest sky I had ever seen. The air was crisp, but not yet carrying winter's bite." Xena stopped and looked around her, shaking her head a little. "Anyway," she continued, leaning back once more, "I sat down beside him and asked him what was wrong. It was so very odd, seeing him like that. I don't believe I had ever seen him cry. And it scared me." Xena shifted a little and looked into Gabrielle's eyes. "He turned at the sound of my voice and stared at me, but I don't believe he was really seeing me. He laid his hand on me," Xena's fingers touched her chest above her heart for a moment. "And I remember thinking how cold I felt and how wonderfully warm his touch was." She paused for a moment and looked away.
"I don't remember what I said exactly. Something about it being the happiest time of our lives and asking him what could possibly make him so sad." She sought Gabrielle's eyes once more. "I looked into his eyes, Gabrielle, and wherever he was, I knew I didn't want to be there. I stood up to leave, but he took my hand. His touch had grown cold, almost as cold as the lifeless words he spoke to me."
Gabrielle felt an apprehensive chill crawl up her spine.
"He said, 'Everything changes, Xena, everything.'"
They sat quietly for a while before Gabrielle gingerly edged herself closer and took Xena's hand. She felt a trembling, and wondered if it was her, or Xena, or perhaps the both of them together. Gabrielle was so cold. It was an eerie cold; an isolating emptiness that iced the blood and assaulted the soul. Gabrielle shivered and Xena turned to settle the blanket more closely around her. She rolled up another, placing it carefully behind Gabrielle's back, easing her gently against the wall by her side. Gabrielle moved nearer to her, sharing the blankets, the closeness giving them both some measure of comfort against the chill of Alexander's hauntingly familiar words.
Xena cleared her throat and Gabrielle looked over at her. "Xena," she said quietly, "you don't have to-"
"Yes. Yes I do. I need to tell you now, while I can, if you want to hear it."
Xena pushed a hand through her hair and continued. "Everything did change, of course. And I learned once again that the pure and the good can fall before a greater evil. That love and hate tread a thin line and Death can take the innocent as effortlessly as the corrupt. Evil, in this instance, showed up in the form of Cortese and his armies. My brother Lyceus and I wanted to stand and fight. Alexander...well, he disagreed. In the end, Lyceus and I got our way. Alexander took Rachel to safety, hiding her among his people." Xena looked over at Gabrielle once again.
"I changed after Cortese destroyed our village and Lyceus was killed. I chose a path of violence. Fighting only to protect Amphipolis at first, but somewhere along the line, that changed. I never went back. There was always another battle to fight, another enemy to defeat. There were still a few times in my life when I could have chosen a different path. One of those times was shortly before I met Caesar and I became...whatever it was that I finally became." Xena rubbed her eyes; Gabrielle was silent. "Do you remember me telling you that when Goliath and I fought Gareth I was badly injured?"
"Yes, and Goliath protected you."
Xena drew in a breath and Gabrielle watched as a look of profound sadness stole into her eyes. Goliath had lost his family in that battle and had laid the blame for his wife's death squarely on Xena's shoulders. Gabrielle knew that, no matter what Xena said, she would forever carry that guilt with her.
"Yes. He did," Xena agreed quietly. "And he also got me out of there. He took me to an old friend of his from Rome. Sometimes, it's a very small world..."
"Alexander," Gabrielle quietly concluded.
"Yes. Alexander. He and his family nursed me back to health. His younger brother, Benjamin, reminded me a lot of Lyceus. His older brother, Tomias and his wife, Bethshea, had just given birth to their first child."
The names triggered a spark of instant recognition in Gabrielle's mind. And sadness. Xena had asked Xan about them; they were dead.
"My enemies found me," Xena went on, "quite by accident, but they did find me. Alexander's people, it turned out, had in their possession a box, a chest rumored to contain a great fortune, and an even greater power. A power so great that it rivaled the gods, even greater than Zeus himself. So, naturally, when you possess something of that nature, ultimately, someone will try and take it from you."
Something stirred in Gabrielle's consciousness; this was beginning to sound very familiar to her.
"My enemies decided to do just that," Xena continued. "Needless to say, they were overjoyed when they found that, not only was the box a reality, but I was there to sweeten the vengeance pot."
Gabrielle felt Xena stiffen suddenly and then go limp, as if an overwhelming weight had settled on her shoulders. Gabrielle turned her head and found herself staring into the twin pools of Xena's blue eyes.
"We hid the women and children in the caves outside Corinth. They were not a violent people. Most of them had never encountered the ruthlessness of men who killed for the pure pleasure of killing." Xena leaned back and rubbed at her eyes for a moment. "Alexander asked me to stay with Rachel at the caves. But, I couldn't stay hidden in the caves, of course. I went back to help.
"I had not fully recovered from my injuries. I should have stayed where I was, maybe if I had..." Xena took a deep breath and slowly released it. "The box held a wondrous power all right," she went on, "but it was not what they expected when they finally captured it and opened it. Tomais put it fairly simply, being a man of few words; 'They opened it and it turned on them and ate them alive.' That pretty much said it all. The few that survived, those who weren't looking at the box when it was opened, retreated. But they had already done a devastating amount of damage; Benjamin died defending Tomias who was badly injured. And Alexander, he died protecting me. I never...I never got to say good-bye; Rachel lost her father."
"Oh, Xena..." Gabrielle gently touched her hand, offering comfort.
Xena hurried on, she seemed driven now, unable to stop the flow of words rushing from her lips. "Rachel. She had been born premature, you know, so tiny, so frail. But, she was a survivor. Seeing her again, being with her. She was beautiful. So much like her father. She-" Xena suddenly hesitated as her attention was drawn to an unexpected spill of sunlight across the floor from the cracked ceiling above. She watched as it crept toward her feet, and then pulled away as though she feared it would burn her. She returned her eyes to Gabrielle's. Xena's eyes were compelling, stunning, tragically beautiful and luminous with tears. "I loved her, you know, Gabrielle. Loved her completely."
Gabrielle felt tears burning behind her eyes and fought a losing battle to control them. She laid a gentle hand against Xena's face.
Xena, grateful for the gesture, closed her eyes and absorbed the warmth of her touch for a moment before she drew slightly away and continued on. "I knew, even then, that she was a special child, and Alexander's people knew it, too. I think they believed she was a miracle from God; that One God that they served so faithfully. Maybe they were right."
"One God. The Israelites," Gabrielle surmised as it suddenly all fell into place for her. "The box, the Ark, they called it. The Ark that Autolycus later helped us recover for them. That's how you knew about it."
"You left them? You left Rachel with them?"
"Not the people that you met," Xena confirmed, "but yes, I left her with them."
"Why? Why didn't you stay with them?"
Xena looked into her eyes. "Because I changed, Gabrielle. Everything changed. I tried, but it was not the same, never was going to be the same. The joy was gone, the peace. The anger returned, it grew inside me, it burned, stronger and stronger until I thought I would go mad with it. Even Rachel could sense it. She was a wondrous little child, Gabrielle. She used to stare at me with those knowing eyes, exactly like her father's, and she knew, I believe, even then she knew I would leave her. And as much as I loved her, I knew I could not stay. So, I left her. I left her where they could nourish her father's light and goodness. I knew they would always protect her. They knew, as I did, that she would never survive if she stayed with me."
"But-" Xena looked over at her and touched a finger against Gabrielle's lips. Gabrielle was momentarily distracted by the glistening, crystalline blue pureness of her eyes.
"It was the right thing to do," Xena whispered hoarsely. "It was."
Xena leaned away from her. Gabrielle swallowed with difficulty and said nothing. There was nothing left to say. There would be no more questions answered now, even if she had the heart to ask them.
I will be the answer at the end of the line
I will be there for you while you take the time
In the burning of uncertainty I will be your solid ground
I will hold the balance if you can't look down
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"I lost them," Xena spoke after a while, startling Gabrielle, who was deep in thought. "I gave them up to save them, and the moment I entered their lives again, I lost them both forever. Where does it end, Gabrielle? When do we stop paying for sins of the past?"
Gabrielle leaned forward, ignoring the wrenching pain in her back, and took Xena's hands in her own. "I don't know," she answered gently. "I don't know, but I'll stay with you. I'll be with you, until the end, I promise."
Xena turned and stared into Gabrielle's earnest gaze. Gabrielle struggled to find the words to dispel the tiny flicker of doubt she saw there. "Well, you're my hero, ya know?" she said, finally. "I don't have time to go looking for another one."
Xena raised an eyebrow. Gabrielle gave her a tiny shrug and forgot all about the pain that flared across her lower back as Xena pulled her into a gentle embrace.
"You're right," Xena whispered close to her ear. "Heroes are hard to find. But, sometimes, you get lucky. I did."
What is evil lives forever
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Looking for something?"
The great black dogs tensed and turned as one at the sound of Xena's voice. The heavily cloaked and hooded figure straightened slowly from her position above Gabrielle. She turned; a careful, fluid movement, her hands palm up and open before her. Two of the dogs stood rigidly by her side, their eyes bright and alert, staring curiously at Xena. The third, however, laid back its ears and took a snarling step forward. Xena stared down at it, her lip curling back in an unconscious imitation of its snarl.
The woman in black touched a hand to the dog's massive head. "Tess," she admonished quietly. The dog glanced up at her, returned its eyes to Xena's for a moment then took a reluctant step back and sat down.
"I apologize for Tess' ill manners. She is embarrassed that we did not hear you approach. It's made her a bit testy. " Xena lifted her eyes to the face hidden beneath the hood and said nothing. "You must be Xena," the woman surmised, looking her over carefully.
"Something I can help you with?" Xena replied sardonically.
"To be perfectly honest, I rather expected you'd be...taller."
Xena huffed out a short breath. She could see little of the woman's face within the black hood, a hint of dark eyes against a pale face, a glint of whiteness - teeth? - in the shadows. "And you are?" Xena inquired, lifting an eyebrow.
"My name is Hecate. And," Hecate continued after a brief pause, "I can see from the look on your face that you know who I am."
"Hecate," Xena stated. "The Goddess of Night, or nightmares, as the case may be. To be perfectly honest, I thought you'd be scarier."
Hecate laughed; a short, sharp sound, like a piece of pottery breaking against a wall. "You have been the cause of more than a few nightmares of your own, have you not, Xena?"
"What do you want?" Xena asked, ignoring the jibe.
"I've come only to collect that which is mine." Xena waited, saying nothing. "Two souls," Hecate declared. "One male," she glanced over her shoulder and nodded at the fallen debris. "And one female."
Xena felt a chill as Hecate's gaze rested Gabrielle. "Don't," Xena warned firmly as Hecate reached down toward Gabrielle. The hood turned slowly back toward her, the dogs rose once more. "Don't touch her, Hecate."
A glint of white inside the hood again. Smiling? For some reason, Xena found that extremely disturbing.
"I was told she was dead," Hecate said simply.
"Then it seems you were misinformed."
Hecate looked down again at Gabrielle. "Apparently so." They were quiet for a moment.
"You have no claim to Gabrielle's soul," Xena told her.
Hecate raised her eyes to Xena's once more. "Oh, but you are wrong, Xena. She is indebted to me. If she fails, or dies, before the debt is repaid, her soul is mine."
"Gabrielle would not bargain with you, not if she knew who, knew what, you are. You tricked her somehow."
Hecate stepped closer to Xena and Xena could see her face more clearly. She also saw much more than she wanted to see of the cold, dark eyes, burning with unholy fire beneath the hood.
"I did not lie to her. She recognized my name. She may not have known exactly whom I was, but she was well aware that I was no Hestian virgin, come to salvage her pure little soul."
Xena took another step forward, until they were nearly nose to nose. "She was sick, hurt, half out of her mind with fever-"
"She nearly talked me to death!"
Xena's mouth quirked up in quick smile. "That much, I believe." Hecate's eyes remained locked onto Xena's for a moment. Xena stared at the face beneath the hood. It never seemed to look exactly the same; it shifted subtly, like mist drifting across dark water. She never actually saw it change, but it was always different somehow.
Hecate laughed abruptly and took a step back, half turning to look at Gabrielle. "She is a remarkable child," Hecate observed, almost to herself. "I gave her what she desired." She faced Xena once again.
"She desired to change her past. I gave her the opportunity. She failed."
"That's ridiculous, she wouldn't-" Xena hesitated, remembering her own failed attempt at altering her future by trying to redeem herself in the past. "Only The Fates can change the past," Xena stated.
Hecate was silent for a moment. "These are unusual times, Xena, unusual times call for unusual methods. There is a power at work, a power that...concerns the gods."
"You mean you're afraid of it."
Hecate lifted her chin, her eyes burning with cold fire once more. "We respect it. We are not fools."
"Hmph," Xena snorted.
"It would not hurt for you to show a little respect yourself, Xena." Xena eyed her coldly. Hecate sighed. "But then, you never have, have you?"
Xena said nothing, shifting her gaze to Gabrielle, she stared at her for a long time. "Where did she go?" she asked quietly.
"Gabrielle. When she went back, where did she go?"
"I think you know."
Xena shifted her gaze to Hecate. "What happened?"
"That, you will have to ask her." Hecate stretched and pulled in a deep breath, the dogs rose to their feet. "I do have one soul to collect. At least my time has not been totally wasted. "Come to me, boy." Hecate turned to the fallen debris behind her and Xena clenched her teeth as a cold wind stirred the dust. An almost inaudible groan made the small hairs on the back of her neck stand straight up. "I don't want Gabrielle to be indebted to you, Hecate."
Hecate hesitated for a moment then turned her attention back to Xena. "Meaning?"
"Meaning just what I said. I don't want you coming for her some day."
"You wish to cancel her debt?"
Xena hesitated only a moment before answering, "Yes."
"Well. Well, this is highly unusual." Hecate's eyes gleamed once more and the cold wind subsided, leaving their breath vaporizing in the frigid air.
"Cut the crap, Hecate."
Hecate looked up at her, surprised. "What did you say?"
"You heard what I said. You are here for a reason; you used Gabrielle for a reason, just as you used that boy. You want something, what is it?"
Hecate continued to stare at her for a while then she began to laugh, an unnerving sound, one that troubled even the dogs. "You are a clever woman, Xena. The two of you, together, no wonder-" She stopped speaking abruptly and moved closer to Xena. "There is one way, only one way."
"And that is?"
"You must kill the person she is supposed to save. Kill that person and the debt will be canceled. She will not remember the name. She will not remember me."
Xena swallowed, biting on her lower lip. Thinking.
"Come, Xena. Will you not kill to save her soul? She was willing to wager it to save you, willing to give it up, all to save you."
"Shut up, Hecate."
She did, wondering at herself, and at this woman who fearlessly commanded the gods to silence.
Xena stared at Gabrielle. "Give me some time with her."
Hecate nodded. "All right. But, not too long, Xena. If you want me, call me. I will come. Everything will be arranged. Oh, one other thing, Xena. You cannot tell her, cannot discuss it with her. "
"Because those are the rules. Break them, and the game is over." Xena gave her a look, which made her draw back a little in spite of herself. Hecate motioned to the dogs and they jumped to their feet, eager to be gone. Backing away, she turned and mumbled something to herself.
"What?" Xena called out to her.
Hecate turned back to face her, eyes unfathomable pools of darkness, cold smile in place again. "I said, 'It's funny. You seem much taller now.'" And with that, they melted into the night, leaving a backlash of cold air behind them.
Gabrielle sat, with a steaming mug of broth in her hand, and stared at Xena, who had been unusually quiet for the past few days, even for her. "Xena?" Gabrielle spoke quietly.
Xena lifted her eyes from the fire pit she had reclaimed from the cave-in. A residue of the black powder still sometimes sizzled and popped, spitting out brief licks of multi-colored flame. "Hmmm?"
Gabrielle was silent for moment and Xena studied her; she was still pale and haggard looking, but was slowly recovering her strength and flexibility. Having to be waited on hand and foot, and unable to be outdoors for more days than she cared to dwell on did not improve her disposition much. Thank the gods for the jagged tear in the ceiling. That, at least, showed her the passing of day and night and gave her some idea of the weather outside. Gabrielle had spent many hours watching smoke from the fire drift upward, creep along the ceiling and spiral outward to freedom. She sat, spellbound, as tiny, and sometimes menacing, little faces hiding in the shadows were banished by the light from sun, only to reappear under the more forgiving light of the moon. She watched as moonlight and sunlight alike stealthily slipped over the ragged edges of rock and splashed to the floor below. When it rained, she followed the path of miniature rivers as they ran through minute canyons in the rock, gathered in little pools, and finally spilled over the side, scattering silvery drops of moisture across the floor. Once, Xena had awakened her to see a brilliant and perfect rainbow seep through, riding the coattails of an early morning mist. Though fascinating for awhile, she soon grew tired of these everyday miracles and longed to be on the move. Or, even able to move, for that matter.
Xena had to feed her like an infant for a while, much to Gabrielle's chagrin. Xena smiled briefly, remembering...
"I can do it," Gabrielle insisted, reaching for the cup. Xena raised an eyebrow, but handed it over. Gabrielle managed to get it almost to her lips before losing her grip on it and spilling it down the front of her. "Oh, by the GODS!" she hissed in frustration, throwing her head back against the pillows.
Xena calmly picked up the mug and began sopping up broth with a cloth. "I don't know if you are just being unusually stubborn, Gabrielle, or if you are afraid I'm going to poison you." Gabrielle raised her head and gave her a hard, green-eyed stare. "It's just broth, you know. Even I can't screw up broth." Gabrielle's mouth twitched in an involuntary smile. "I ate it," Xena added.
"You," Gabrielle shot back, "could eat anything that didn't eat you first." Xena looked a little hurt and Gabrielle sighed softly. "Sorry. I just...I just hate you having to take care of me. Don't you ever get tired of it?"
"Do you? Get tired of taking care of me?"
"I seldom have to."
"More than you realize," Xena told her a little distractedly, lifting a spoonful of broth toward her. "Here, now be a good girl, and eat your soup."
"Something's bothering you, Xena. You want to tell me what it is?"
Xena was roused from her reverie by Gabrielle's voice. "What?"
"I asked you what was wrong."
Xena was alternately pleased and often times dismayed at Gabrielle's uncanny ability to seemingly read her thoughts.
"I'm not reading your mind," Gabrielle said, doing exactly that. "I just know you."
Xena looked her straight in the eye. Gabrielle's breath caught at the awesome, cobalt-blue splendor of Xena's eyes, her arresting beauty. After all this time, one would think she would get used to them; she hoped she never did.
"I have to leave, Gabrielle," Xena informed her quietly.
"Leave?" Gabrielle echoed, mentally prying herself loose from Xena's gaze.
"Yes. I have to go."
It took a moment for that to sink in and when it did, it left a small, cold spot of unease deep within Gabrielle's gut. "When?" she managed, finally, around the lump that had suddenly formed in her throat.
"Soon. Today," Xena answered, not looking at her.
Gabrielle swallowed; the lump seemed to be growing in direct proportion to the unease that was quickly spreading through her. She stared wordlessly at Xena for a few moments, until the cold swept through her like an icy wind, leaving her shivering in its wake.
Xena turned toward her and took her arm. Gabrielle just stared at Xena's hand, as her dream, her nightmare came back to her. She heard the words so clearly, not certain if they were in her mind or if Xena was actually speaking them
"I'll send someone back for you. I can't do this anymore, Gabrielle..."
"Gabrielle!?" Concerned now, Xena gave Gabrielle's arm a firm shake.
Gabrielle looked up at her. "You're not coming back, are you," Gabrielle stated flatly, her voice so deathly quiet, it was more piercing than a scream.
Startled, Xena opened her mouth, a declaration of denial forming on her lips. It died there, in the heat of Gabrielle's blazing turquoise eyes. Xena averted her gaze. "I'm not sure. But, that's a definite possibility." Xena winced inwardly at how cold that sounded.
You're going to hurt her again, an angry little voice in Xena's head rebuked her. I have to. I'm sorry...she'll understand.
Gabrielle stared at her. Her feelings rapidly moving from anger, disbelief and sorrow to pain so intense, she didn't think she could stand it. "Are you-" her voice sounded a thousand years old. She cleared her throat and tried again. "Are you at least going to tell me where you are going and why?"
Xena still could not look at her. "I can't." Her voice was so low, the soft moan of the wind nearly obscured it.
"I said, I can't!" Her voice turned harsh, as she turned to face Gabrielle, who drew back a little. "I can't," Xena repeated, softening her voice, laying her hand on Gabrielle's arm. "I...I need to ask you to trust me, Gabrielle, believe that I'm-"
Gabrielle pulled away from her touch, shaking her head. "No. No, Xena. Not again. Don't ask me to do that. It's wrong and it's unfair. You can't just walk away like this, for whatever reason you think you have to, for whatever quest you feel you have to go on, and expect me to understand. I won't stand for it, any more than you would. I don't need you to protect me any more; I need you to trust me." Xena remained stoic and maddeningly silent for so long that Gabrielle began to lose her adrenaline charged anger and finally fell back against the pillows.
"You're right, you know."
Gabrielle jumped at the sound of Xena's voice; the silence had lengthened between them to the point where she had begun to think - pray - that she was dreaming again. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes.
"I was going to ask you to be strong." Xena laughed a little, a short, bittersweet sound. "But you have always been the strong one. I was going to ask that you find Catherine, because she needs you. And you are right, it is unfair and I wouldn't stand for it. But, I'm asking you anyway." Xena waited, Gabrielle said nothing, would not look at her. Xena stood and gathered her things.
Gabrielle's voice halted her after a few steps. "Don't do this Xena, please..."
Gabrielle's voice held a note of such sad desperation it almost undid her and her firm resolve to leave. She knew if she turned around, she would be lost. That persistent little voice in her mind nagged at her, asking if she were doing the right thing. She ignored it, having already had this debate over what her head insisted she had to do, and what her heart wanted her to do. "I'll always be with you, Gabrielle, always love you. And I do trust you, if you believe nothing else, at least believe that."
And before Gabrielle could answer, before the sound of her voice could draw her back, without another word, without a backward glance, she was gone.
Just as if somebody's world had not ended,
The sun began to rise
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle shielded her eyes as she stepped out into the sunlight and took a long, deep breath of the sweet smelling air. Her relief at finally being outdoors again was so great she was literally dizzy with it and had to sit down. She had no idea how long she had been captive beneath the ruins. After Xena left, she thought she might have gone a little mad from the hurt and pure loneliness. And, sometimes, in the night, with only the feeble torchlight to keep back the dark, she thought she heard Zagnan laughing at her from within his stone tomb.
Anger and despair battled within her for a while; fortunately, anger won out. She did not allow herself to cry, and swore that by the time the sun had shown itself through the jagged tear in the ceiling seven more times she would be strong enough to leave her prison behind. She had done it in five; a small miracle of sorts. Looking around her, she saw that another miracle had occurred, it was spring. The promise of green was just beginning to be evident on the trees and daffodils bravely raised colorful heads up through the mud and patches of lingering snow.
A sound made her turn and she nearly fainted in surprise. "Argo," she whispered, getting carefully to her feet. The horse lifted her head and snorted. Gabrielle rubbed her eyes and looked again, the horse was still there. Gabrielle walked slowly toward her and Argo tensed. "Whoa, Argo. Easy, girl." Gabrielle laid a hand on the mare's neck and gently stroked the silky coat. Argo pushed her nose under Gabrielle's other hand and she rubbed her thumb over its velvety softness.
"So, she left you, too, did she? I'm not sure if that's a good sign, or a really bad one." Argo whickered and pushed Gabrielle with her nose. "I assume she left the saddle, too?"
Argo ignored the question and bent down to graze on the lush new grass at Gabrielle's feet. Gabrielle tilted her head back and gazed up at the bright blue sky. "So, Xena, you promised you'd always be with me, you want to give me a sign? I mean, Argo is good, but I'm hardly convinced." Argo lifted her head and looked around expectantly at the sound of Xena's name. Not finding her, she shook her head, giving Gabrielle an oddly human look of mystification before returning to her grazing.
Gabrielle continued to study the heavens for a while longer, until the motion of a fleet of fast moving clouds across an ocean of blue sky began to make her feel a little seasick. She sat down and put her head between her knees. The nausea passed after a while and she cautiously lifted her head. For a moment she thought it was snowing then she realized it wasn't snow at all. Tiny butterflies, hundreds of them, surrounded her. Green, white, blue and yellow, she watched in open-mouthed amazement as they bounced and careened drunkenly on the breeze like fragile spring blossoms carried by the wind. They lingered for quite some time, landing on various objects, including Gabrielle, who was delighted, and Argo who twitched her ears in annoyance. Then, they suddenly lifted en masse, hitching a ride with an invisible zephyr which scattered them like colorful confetti into the valley. Gabrielle watched until they disappeared from sight.
"Not bad," Gabrielle conceded to the invisible Xena. "I'm impressed. So, how about one more time, just to be sure it wasn't a fluke?" She sat and waited and finally noticed Argo staring at her. "What?" Gabrielle inquired of the mare. "Don't you believe in magic?"
Argo muttered a rude reply; obviously, in this case, she did not. Vaguely insulted and slightly embarrassed by a horse, no less, Gabrielle went in search of the saddle, located it just inside the ruins, and lugged it gingerly back out to Argo. She threw the saddle blanket over Argo, who immediately raised her head and threw her ears back.
"Now, don't start with me, Argo," Gabrielle warned. "I am not in the mood." She lifted the saddle, grunting with the effort, feeling a slight twinge of pain in her lower back, and Argo sidestepped her just as she released it. It fell to the ground, landing in a puddle of mud. "Argo!"
The horse gazed calmly down at her as she bent down and picked it up again, shaking the mud off of it, almost dropping it again. "Now, hold still!" Gabrielle demanded sternly. "Quit fooling around." She lifted it again and Argo moved away. "Argo! Stand still, you four footed daughter of a-"
"That's not a very nice way to talk to a lady."
For the second time that day, Gabrielle felt as though she were going to faint. And she was seriously thinking that maybe she wasn't as well as she thought she was. She held her breath and waited to hear the voice again. She heard the wind scattering dry leaves across the ground and birds and the sound of Argo's chewing, but nothing else. The weight of the saddle was making her arms ache, and the muscles in her back were beginning to sit up and take notice, she dropped it at her feet.
"Don't I even get a hug?"
The voice was almost directly behind her this time and she jumped. She knew of only two people who could move that silently. "Xan," Gabrielle whispered and turned around.
She looked tired and her skin showed an unhealthy pallor beneath her tan. Her arm was in a sling underneath her coat and her clothes hung loosely on her now. Even the silver of her eyes had faded to a paler shade of gray. And Gabrielle thought she was the most beautiful sight she had ever seen.
"By the gods, Xan..." Gabrielle stepped forward and wrapped her in a fierce embrace.
"Gabrielle," Xan wheezed. "You are squeezing the air out me. If you don't let go, you are going to be wearing my breakfast."
Gabrielle laughed and cried at the same time and stepped back, but she would not let go of Xan's arm. "I thought you were dead."
Xan gave her a small, bleak smile. "Yeah, that makes two of us. I had my doubts about finding you in one piece, too." Xan looked closely at her. "You look like scrambled dung, Gabrielle. No offense."
"None taken. You look pretty wonderful, too." Xan grinned at her and her eyes regained some of their silvery fire, Gabrielle almost wept with joy. "Let's sit down," Gabrielle suggested.
Xan looked toward the ruins. "Do you want to go inside?"
"Not in this lifetime," Gabrielle replied grimly. Xan nodded understandingly. Gabrielle still could not bring herself to release her arm.
Xan placed her hand over Gabrielle's. "I'm real, Gabrielle, I'm not going anywhere," she promised gently. Gabrielle blushed a little and let go of her arm.
"How did you-" "What did you-" They both started talking at the same time and laughed.
"We always seem to be doing that. You first," Gabrielle offered.
Xan settled herself on a blanket and leaned back against Argo's saddle. "It was Rachel," she said simply.
"I thought she was-" Gabrielle stopped when Xan looked up quickly and met her eyes. "Is she all right?" Gabrielle finished.
"I don't know. I don't remember much, I've been looking for her. Her and Nathan, that son of a bitch."
"Good. I hope it was painful. Was it?"
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder at the ruins. "I'd say that was a pretty safe bet."
"May he rot in Tartarus. Sorry," she added, searching Gabrielle's face.
"Not a problem," Gabrielle assured her.
Xan took a deep breath and winced a little. "Anyway, I've been trying to find her and Xena. And you," she added, blushing a little, looking away.
"Xan..." Gabrielle touched her arm again.
"Rachel's dead, isn't she?" Xan asked, not looking at her.
Gabrielle glanced down at her hand on Xan's arm for a moment. She flexed her fingers a little, remembering the healing. She had been so sure that it had been Rachel, but now, that did not seem possible. Then again, she had witnessed stranger things. "I don't know for sure, Xan. But, I do know her baby is alive."
"What?" Xan sat up, facing her once more, and grabbed her hand. "Are you sure? Where is she?"
"She's safe. Xena left her with a very good friend."
"Ephiny. Do you know who she is?"
"I've heard of her," Xan confirmed. "She's an Amazon, isn't she?"
"Amazon Queen, actually," Gabrielle corrected.
"Even better. Thank you, God," Xan whispered, closing her eyes, leaning back once again. She was silent for a while and Gabrielle sat quietly, waiting.
Xan wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve, a habit that Gabrielle would forever associate with her, then looked over at her again. "I think Rachel is alive, too. I think if she were dead, I would know it. I would feel it. I can't explain...I..."
"I know what you mean."
"I'll find them."
"I know you will."
Xan drew in a long, shaky breath and released it slowly. "Where are you going, Gabrielle?"
It was Gabrielle's turn to look away. "To find Xena."
Her voice was such a strange mix of steely resolve, anger and sorrow, Xan didn't know what to say. "I thought she might be...I was afraid..."
Gabrielle looked up and Xan stared at her for a moment before reaching over and gathering her gently into her arms. Gabrielle stiffened slightly then let herself relax in her embrace, closing her eyes, laying her head on Xan's shoulder, she wrapped her arms around her and held on tight.
"You need to cry, Gabrielle," Xan advised softly.
"I can't," Gabrielle whispered.
And she did.
They slept under the stars that night, wrapped in each other's arms, warding off the cold and the demons that plagued their dreams. It would a long time before either of them could comfortably sleep anywhere but outside again.
Gabrielle woke to the sight of the sunrise reflected in Xan's eyes and thought she had never seen anything so curiously beautiful. Xan looked down at Gabrielle as the sun settled itself majestically in a royal purple sky. A huge dark cloud knelt respectfully before it and the sun set it ablaze, throwing orange bands of light in all directions.
"Wow," Gabrielle whispered in awe, looking back into Xan's eyes. "Isn't that gorgeous?"
"Uh-huh," Xan agreed.
Gabrielle smiled a little and turned back over. Scooting back against Xan, she intended only to watch the sunrise for a while longer, but ended up falling back asleep, lulled by Xan's warmth and the feel of her heartbeat against her back. When she woke again, the sun was much higher in the sky and Xan was throwing a piece of wood on a small fire. Gabrielle sat up and Xan turned to look at her.
"Not much of a morning person, are you?"
"Not much," Gabrielle admitted.
"I would have made breakfast, but in your weakened state, my cooking could be fatal."
Gabrielle laughed and it felt strange and wonderful at the same time.
"I have something for you." Xan said, as Gabrielle got stiffly to her feet and shivered slightly in the crisp morning air. Xan rummaged through a worn leather saddlebag and pulled something out. "Ta-da!" she said, handing it to Gabrielle with a flourish and a small bow.
Gabrielle laughed and took it. It was Xan's coat. And with all that had happened, it was that simple gesture that almost brought her to tears. She swallowed several times and looked up at Xan.
"You forgot it when you left," Xan said softly. "I have your staff, too."
Gabrielle brought the coat to her nose, sniffed suspiciously, and raised an eyebrow. "It smells like horses," she replied gruffly.
"Could be worse."
"Much," Gabrielle agreed.
They spent the rest of the morning walking through the newly flowered meadows. They did not talk much, content and comfortable in each other's silent company. They stumbled across an area of hot springs and washed out their clothes. Then spent so much time reveling in its cleansing warmth, their fingertips and toes were white and puckered when they finally forced themselves out. By early afternoon they were back at the ruins and stood staring at each other in the warm sunlight.
"I'll come with you."
"No. No, Xan. Thank you, but you need to find Catherine. If Caesar finds out she's still alive...well..."
Xan's pale face grew even paler at the thought. "I was thinking," Xan said carefully. "Maybe Catherine is the reason I don't feel like Rachel is...gone. Because, a very big part of her is still here."
"And here," Gabrielle placed her hand over Xan's heart.
Xan gave her a small, sad smile and took her hand. "You know, Gabrielle, I believe I'm a little in love with you."
Gabrielle felt a great warmth rise within her; it flushed her face with color and set her heart racing. She opened her mouth and Xan laid a gentle finger against her lips.
"You don't have to say anything, in fact, I'd rather you didn't."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and took Xan's wrist, pressing her lips against the palm of her hand. Xan's eyes shimmered like quicksilver as she pulled Gabrielle close to her. "God, I hate good-byes."
Xena stood silently, a tall, dim shadow in the darkness, staring down at the man she was about to kill.
Moonlight glinted off of the chakram in her hand. The man stirred slightly, perhaps sensing her presence, perhaps sensing death, which tonight, were one and the same. Xena chewed on her lower lip while she stood thinking, still trying to figure out how this man's death, or in Gabrielle's case, the sparing of it, would serve the gods. One thing was certain, unlike Ming T'ing, Lao Ma's treacherous son, this man had never harmed either of them, not yet anyway. If she did kill him, it would be murder, plain and simple. And it would be the end of her and Gabrielle; for she vowed to never again look Gabrielle in the eye and knowingly lie to her. And if she told Gabrielle the truth about what she was about to do, that she murdered a man, even to release Gabrielle's soul from Hecate's grip, Gabrielle would never forgive her. Never.
All she had to do was step away, she reasoned. All Gabrielle had to do to repay her debt to Hecate was to somehow save this man in the future, something that was as second nature to her as breathing. So why didn't that make her feel better? Because that was what Hecate wanted, which meant that no good would come of it.
Frustrated, she clenched her fist and felt something sticky and warm seep through her fingers. She had forgotten the chakram and she stared blankly at the blood, thick and black in the darkness, dripping from its edge to the floor. Silently cursing her stupidity and the lack of focus that could easily get her killed, she passed the chakram to her other hand and wiped the blood on the black cloak she was wearing.
The man turned restlessly in his sleep as Xena hovered over him like a great dark bird. If she killed this man tonight, she would never see Gabrielle again, of that, at least, she was certain. Was it worth the cost, would Gabrielle be better off without her? Unsettling visions still haunted her dreams. And the image of Hecate, calling that boy's soul to her, made her blood run cold.
The moonlight shimmered on the chakram; she had never felt so alone.
Fell by the wayside
Fell on my knees
Stood at the crossroads
Took a long look at me
Sometimes you don't know where you are
'Til you leave
Home to where the heart is
Where it's been all along
Sometimes you don't know what you've lost
Until it's gone
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle woke when a bright spear of sunlight managed to penetrate the dense stand of fir trees she was sleeping under. It fell directly on her face. Groaning, she opened one eye and immediately covered her head with the blanket after it was viciously assaulted by the tenacious sunlight.
I should get up, she told herself. Get up and get moving, make some decent headway this morning. She thought about it for a moment then tried to fight off the depression that always seemed to be lurking. She failed miserably, it settled over her like a thick mantle of fog. "Crap," she muttered, lifting the blanket an inch or two, peeking out at an impossibly blue sky. One day around Xan and already her language was deteriorating. A smile flickered at the thought.
Taking a deep breath, she sat up and rubbed her eyes. Her nose wrinkled as she caught a whiff of some slightly rancid odor. Lifting the edges of her bedroll, she looked around her, praying she hadn't bed down on something foul in the dark last night. Nothing. "Huh," she said, rubbing her nose.
Movement off to her left compelled her to reach quickly for her staff. Mentally scolding herself for being so careless, she took a careful survey of her surroundings. She saw a campfire, with a battered old cooking pot hanging above it, but no one was in sight. Standing up, grimacing at a multitude of aches she was beginning to think were never going leave her, she made her way cautiously to the fire. There wasn't much there. A water bag, a small bedroll and an old black pot. She looked around again, seeing nothing.
Okay, she thought, so someone else made camp here last night, no big deal. She lifted the lid covering the pot and peeked in. "Phew!" she gasped, hastily dropping the lid and backing away a few steps. Gods, what are they cooking in there, skunk stew?
"I made breakfast..."
The voice froze her, literally stopping her heart for a split second before it lurched painfully into motion once more. She couldn't breathe, couldn't talk, couldn't move, terrified to turn around.
"I know you didn't sleep very well last night, and I-"
The words released her, and her knees almost buckled beneath her, she had to grip the staff with both hands to keep from falling. A great, wrenching sob began somewhere deep within her. It rose like a massive wave and broke, finally, in a cleansing flood of tears she had not yet dared allowed herself to cry. Strong arms surrounded her, pulling her close. The sweet, exquisite, warmth of that touch, the familiar, earthy smell of sun, horses, leather and steel enveloped her senses, filled her with absolute joy and overwhelming relief.
"Gabrielle..." The voice was husky, tender, yet incredibly strong.
Closing her eyes, dropping the staff, she turned around slowly, scarcely daring to believe it was true. Gentle hands encompassed her face, lifting it slightly, thumb lightly tracing her lips, her jaw, wiping her tears away.
"Gabrielle, I'm so sorry."
Gabrielle shook her head and opened her eyes, still not believing. If this were but yet another dream, she would not be able to bear it. One look in those extraordinary, brilliant blue eyes dispelled all of her doubts. She felt suddenly lighter. The fear, the loneliness, the overwhelming sadness, magically fell away, freeing her heart and her soul as well. "By the gods, Xena, how..." Barely able to speak, she lifted a hand to touch Xena's face. "You came back."
Xena graced her with a tiny, crooked smile. "Someone very special once told me that only the very wise learn to truly obey their hearts. I decided she was right."
Gabrielle stared at her for a long time before moving her hand to the back of Xena's neck, urging her gently down. She hesitated, looking into Xena's eyes, searching, and waiting; What are you waiting for? she asked herself, and in a moment, she knew.
Xena turned her head slightly, closed her eyes and pressed her lips gently against Gabrielle's. She was home again, and she intended to stay there.
Gabrielle rubbed a hand over her nose as Xena emptied the contents of the cooking pot into a hole in the ground. "You know, you promised you wouldn't do that again."
Xena glanced up at her. "Well, how am I going to learn to cook if I don't practice?"
"If you keep this up, you are going to contaminate the water table from here to Athens."
"What are you saying?"
"I should do the cooking?"
Xena grinned widely. "Great. I'm glad we got that settled."
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes, suspecting that she had been out maneuvered somehow; again. Picking up the water bag, she handed it over to Xena who secured it to Argo's saddle. Xena lifted herself into the saddle and extended a hand down to Gabrielle.
"Want to ride?"
"Uhm, yeah. Thanks." Xena pulled Gabrielle up behind her and gave Argo a gentle nudge with her knees, urging her forward. "You know..." Gabrielle began.
"Ye-e-e-es," Xena replied, giving her a look over her shoulder.
Unfazed and undaunted by the look, Gabrielle continued, "Remember you said you would answer all my questions?"
"Uh-huh," Xena answered, while seriously thinking about finding Gabrielle her own horse.
"Well, first, how did you do that thing with the butterflies? And how-" Gabrielle stopped speaking when Xena reined Argo in and turned around to look at her.
"The butterflies. You know, outside the ruins. You did that, didn't you?"
"Did what?" Xena turned back around and nudged Argo forward once more.
"The butterflies." Gabrielle repeated, growing a little exasperated. "You know, when I asked for a sign and-"
"Did you put the camp fire out?" Xena interrupted.
"What? Yes, I put out the fire. I think. Didn't I?"
"I don't know, Gabrielle, I'm asking you."
"I'm sure I did. Should we go back and check?"
"Not if you're sure."
Gabrielle was silent for a moment, thinking. "I did," she said firmly.
"Where was I?"
"You were wondering if you put out the fire."
"Yeah. No I wasn't...ah, by the gods, Xena," Gabrielle sighed dramatically.
Xena smiled to herself. "Gabrielle?"
"Don't spit, okay, we're downwind."
Gabrielle snorted, which made Xena laugh. Gabrielle gave up and leaned her head against Xena's shoulder. Soaking in the warmth and the peace, taking in the scenery, she was half dozing, watching shape-shifting patterns of shadow play along the side of the road, when she heard the voice.
"You still owe me a debt, child."
She lifted her head from Xena's shoulder and saw a dark shadow detach itself from the trees and drift into the road. Startled, Gabrielle stared down at it as it transformed itself into a tall, monk-like figure, covered from head to foot by a black cloak.
"Hecate." The name slipped into Gabrielle's mind as smoothly as silk flowing through her fingers. Gabrielle opened her mouth, but before she could speak the name, the hood lifted and an icy finger touched her leg.
"Brutus," Hecate hissed at her in a voice older than time. "You will remember this name, and the debt that you owe!"
Gabrielle craned her neck around as they passed and watched as Hecate disappeared back into the shadows. "Brutus," she repeated quietly.
Brutus. At the mere mention of his name Gabrielle was able to foresee his destiny. And had she been allowed to remember it, she may have somehow been able to change it. But, that was not to be.
She saw it all; the lives, the destinies, the deaths that would forever change the world. And Brutus was the key. Ephiny, Pompey, Caesar, Gabrielle and Xena. Brutus would inevitably touch them all and in doing so, ultimately seal their unthinkable fates.
"Did you say something?" Xena asked.
"Uh, no, nothing." Gabrielle suddenly felt as though she had been on a long and very strange journey.
"You all right?" Xena looked back at her over her shoulder.
Gabrielle rubbed absently at an odd numbness in her leg for a moment then tightened her grip around Xena's waist. "I'm with you, it's a beautiful day and you get your first cooking lesson tonight. What could be wrong?"
"Hardy har. Go back to sleep." Xena gave Gabrielle's knee a squeeze before moving on.
"I wasn't sleeping."
"Do you snore when you're awake?"
"I don't snore!"
"Sure you do."
"I do not." Gabrielle placed her hands on Xena's sides.
"Don't even think about it," Xena warned.
Gabrielle grinned, highly amused with her secret knowledge that the nearly indestructible Warrior Princess could be tickled into a state of near helplessness. "I do not snore."
"Not only do you snore, Gabrielle, you snort like a wart hog."
"Oh, now that does it! Prepare to die laughing, Warrior Princess!"
Argo lifted her head, pulling against the bit, and snorted herself, sending Xena and Gabrielle into peals of laughter. Gabrielle leaned contentedly against Xena's shoulder once again, determinedly banishing the tiny, niggling feeling of unease that had settled itself deep within her.
Wherever they were going, whatever they would face, she felt safe and secure in the knowledge they would be all right as long as they faced it together.
Timeline: Sometime between "Forget Me Not" and "Sacrifice."
Author's Note: I would like to take this opportunity to thank Xena Torres not only for the honour of hosting these stories on her website, but also for her tireless support and encouragement, for the gracious sharing of her energy, time and talent, and finally, for her invaluable assistance and knowledge of all things Xena which keeps me honest and helps make these stories what they are. 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: PG - for violence
Edited by Xena Torres