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The large, well-trained army complied, and final preparations were made for the assault on the modest village nearby. No one had any idea what the village was called, but it did not matter. Their commander wanted it destroyed, so it would be done.
Satisfied that the orders were being carried out, the commander stalked over to the group of lieutenants milling around the command tent.
The group quietly looked on as their commander paced back and forth before them, eager for the coming battle. Many had the same question racing through their minds. How had such a lovely young girl become such a fierce warlord?
The commander kicked up dirt with her scuffed black leather boots. Strawberry blond hair blew gently out behind her in the light wind. Her emerald eyes were hardened, full of bloodlust. The black leather outfit clung tightly to her tanned, muscled body, a battered sword hanging at her side.
"What preparations have the villagers made?" she asked her second-in-command, coming to a stop before the other woman and looking up into her face. The commander gazed into the familiar deep blue eyes of her second-in-command, but her bloodlust blinded her to the worry and sadness there.
"They've set up barricades and they have a row of archers ready for us. Other than that, there isn't much they can do. It'll be a quick defeat for them," said the second-in-command, her voice controlled, not betraying her true feelings.
"Good," the commander said, an evil smile forming on her face. She turned to face the assembled lieutenants. "Go! Get your units ready. We'll attack when you're ready."
The men nodded and walked off, leaving their commander and the other woman alone. The commander turned her attention back to the raven-haired woman who was her second-in-command and smiled.
"This is going to be fun, isn't it, Xena?" The commander asked, rubbing her hands together in anticipation.
Xena just stared the young commander in the eyes, silently pleading with her to put an end to this marauding and return to her old, caring self.
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked, her voice thick with emotion.
The commander looked at Xena for a moment before narrowing her eyes. She knew what Xena wanted.
"Go! Get ready. We attack soon!" she ordered coldly, spinning on her heels and walking over to her mount. Xena looked despondently at her friend before finally obeying the order.
Once Xena was mounted, she trotted Argo over to where Gabrielle proudly sat atop her magnificent black stallion. For a second, Xena's lips curled upwards at the memory of Gabrielle's fear of riding horses. Alas, it was but a memory, as was the sweet, innocent, talkative bard who used to be her friend. Her expression turned grim once more. The young woman before her now was nothing like before.
Xena remembered how everything changed. She and Gabrielle had stopped in Potidaea to visit Gabrielle's family for a few days. Xena always regretted that the bard didn't get to spend more time with them, and she decided to make up for it - for a few days at least. She owed Gabrielle that much.
One morning, the two had headed out into the woods nearby to practice with their weapons. It was a ritual they performed every day; there was no room for a soft warrior on the road. If you weren't sharp and on your guard at all times, you'd soon be dead; Xena knew that. As they trained together, the faint hint of smoke reached their noses and made their eyes water. At once, Xena was seized by a deep dread.
The pair had run back to the village as quickly as their feet would carry them. What they found when they arrived sickened and horrified them. Half of the city was ablaze, the long tendrils of smoke reaching up to the heavens. A small band of grim mercenaries was slaughtering everyone in sight.
For a second, Gabrielle stood in shock. Then her shock was transformed into action and she rushed down the short incline into the village, all the while screaming "NO!" She frantically searched for any sign of her family in the village streets. Finding none, she ran toward her parent's house and kicked the door open. The sight that greeted Gabrielle made her nauseous. Her mother and father were lying on the floor in sticky pools of their own blood, throats slashed.
Tears of anger welled up inside Gabrielle and her staff dropped from numbed fingers. Suddenly, she heard a piercing cry coming from the kitchen. Gabrielle reacted instantaneously and flew toward the rear of the house. Once inside the kitchen, she saw her beloved sister Lilla butchered before her eyes.
Gabrielle heard the sick laughter of the marauder who had
killed her sister. He stood there satisfied, his back turned to Gabrielle. As the young woman watched her sister slump to the floor dead, an uncontrollable rage seized her. She grabbed a dull knife off the kitchen table, a knife that earlier that morning had been employed in chopping up carrots, and caught the mercenary's attention with a maddened cry.
The marauder quickly turned toward the sound and once he saw the angry young woman advancing toward him, a smug grin appeared on his face. Before he could kill her, as he had her sister, Gabrielle drove the knife solidly into his chest. The marauder gasped in surprise before falling to the ground. As the man fell, Gabrielle stared one last time into his lifeless eyes. When she heard the thud of his dead body hitting the floor, her eyes flew wide open, the sudden realization of her deed crashing over her. Staring down at the dead body, a horrified gasp escaped her lips.
After Xena had managed to drive off the rest of the invaders, she somberly walked toward the home of Gabrielle's family. A great, overpowering dread once again took hold of her, every movement she made seemed jerky, and her vision narrowed until all she could see was her destination.
Xena pushed open the battered wooden door. The first thing she saw was Gabrielle's parents sprawled out on the floor, their vacant eyes staring up at her accusingly. Xena's heart ached at the sight. Then she heard sobs coming from the kitchen. Suddenly, she felt sick to her stomach, a sweat breaking out and turning her body clammy, cold with dread. Slowly, she walked toward the sound. What she saw when she entered the kitchen haunted her even now, three years later.
Gabrielle was kneeling on the hard wooden floor, grasping her sister's lifeless body tightly to her chest, rocking it back and forth. In between sobs, she kept repeating the word, "NO!" over and over again. Not five feet away lay the bloody body of her first kill.
"XENA! Are you ready?" The harsh voice startled Xena out of her reverie. She focused her eyes on her young friend. So much has changed in her since then, Xena thought. I once said that after you kill, everything changes - apparently I was right.
"Yes, Gabrielle," Xena wearily answered. "Let's get it over with."
Her young friend grinned evilly in anticipation of the coming battle. Drawing her sword, Gabrielle thrust it high into the air.
"All right then. LET'S GO!" she shouted to her waiting army. The well-trained band of soldiers rapidly fell into formation behind her.
Xena noticed the murderous smile on Gabrielle's face and shuddered. I used to be like that, enjoying battle and bloodshed above all else. Now I dread each fight knowing that you are what I once was, what you helped me to fight against, what I turned my back on...
Xena pushed her thoughts aside and sped to catch up and ride alongside Gabrielle. I'll never leave you, though. I love you too much for that, she thought. I owe you too much for that. Besides, this is all my fault anyway. Those marauders came to Potidaea looking for me and they did much more than kill me. No, they did much worse - they destroyed my soul, my Gabrielle.
Gabrielle crested the hill and looked down at the unimpressive village. It was just like every other village she'd ever seen, ever conquered. As she examined the sparse preparations her prey had erected, a terrible laugh erupted from her throat. Did they really think those poor barricades would stop her army?
Xena also inspected the scant fortifications, and a wave of apprehension swept over her. This was going to be too easy. Something was definitely not right.
Gabrielle lifted her sword high once more and a brilliant gleam reflected off the battered but still magnificent weapon.
"TAKE THE VILLAGE!" she shouted. Then she was off, her army racing close behind. Xena followed after her friend, concerned for her safety. The villagers had something up their sleeves and she was going to make sure nothing happened to Gabrielle. Even if it cost Xena her own life.
At once, Gabrielle was in the village, her sword mercilessly butchering the few defenders stupid enough to oppose her. The archers Xena had warned her about were firing, but their aim was so poor that not one of Gabrielle's men was hit before they reached the village. The archers, seeing their enemy overrunning the outer limits of the town, retreated deeper into the city.
Xena watched the archers fall back into the town. Suddenly, she realized what the villagers intended. It was a trap! Spotting Gabrielle going after the archers, Xena raced after her. Sometimes the girl can be so dense, she thought, terrified at what she knew would soon happen.
After galloping through several narrow alleyways and ducking under clotheslines stretching from building to building,
Gabrielle emerged into a wide city square, Xena right behind her. All the other entrances to the area were barricaded. The archers were lined up behind the barriers, waiting for their victims.
Gabrielle immediately realized her mistake and quickly reined in her horse. The horse reared frantically, throwing the young woman violently from her seat. Gabrielle's head struck the cobblestone with a loud crack.
Xena heard the snap of the woman's ankle as it twisted to an impossible angle upon striking the pavement. Xena watched in horror as the frightened horse fell to the street, mere inches away from crushing the young woman's leg. As the horse rolled away, Xena could see the bloody arrow protruding from it's muscled neck.
Xena instantly leaped off her own horse and ran to her friend's side, unmindful of the danger around her. The thick press of Gabrielle's army stormed into the square and chaos ensued as they were picked off one by one, ripe for the slaughter. Xena's thoughts, however, were for Gabrielle alone.
A thick pool of blood developed under Gabrielle's head as Xena worriedly looked on. This will be one tremendous headache she'll have when she wakes up, if she does, Xena dismally thought as she knelt by her friend.
Xena gathered her unconscious friend into her arms and carried her back to Argo. The screams of the dying men of Gabrielle's army coming from all sides went unnoticed as Xena managed to get her friend up onto the horse. Then she jumped up behind Gabrielle, got a good hold of her, and spurred Argo out of the death trap.
None of the villagers managed to stop them from escaping through the streets. Argo raced out of the village like a demon, and before she knew it Xena was far away from the slaughter. Now she just needed to find a place where she could help Gabrielle.
As they raced through the countryside, Xena saw a crofter's hut at the edge of a nearby forest and she directed Argo toward it. When they arrived, Xena dismounted and, as gently as she could manage, transferred Gabrielle from the horse's back to a wood pile near the door.
"IS ANYONE THERE?" Xena shouted frantically, banging on the door. "My friend has been badly hurt and she needs help! HELLO?"
Xena knocked on the door once more. As soon as she was satisfied that no one was home, she kicked in the door. Hurriedly, Xena picked Gabrielle up and carried her inside. Frantically, she looked around for a flat place to set her down. She found a bed and tenderly laid Gabrielle down upon it. She absentmindedly stroked Gabrielle's bangs out of her face while she scanned the room for the necessary supplies.
Apparently, the previous tenants of the hut had left in quite a hurry for there were things strewn all about the house. The table was on its side near the front of the house, and a few odds and ends had been knocked off their perch above the fireplace. Xena saw an old dress lying discarded by the door and she quickly ran over and picked it up. She tore it into strips, ready to tend to Gabrielle's wounds.
Xena examined Gabrielle's head carefully. There wasn't much she could do besides stop the bleeding and hope for the best. She took one of the cloth bands, wadded it up, and tried to staunch the flow of blood.
Still holding the cloth tightly to the young woman's head, Xena turned her attention to Gabrielle's ankle. It was starting to swell up; Xena could tell that it was broken. She went back and tied another cloth strip around Gabrielle's head to hold the compress tightly in place before she went to work fixing Gabrielle's ankle. As she started on it, Xena's mind was racing.
I am so sorry, Gabrielle. I am sorry for everything...
Xena finished wrapping up Gabrielle's ankle and once again checked on the young woman's head. The wound had stopped bleeding earlier and she wanted to make sure that it had stayed that way. After a thorough examination, Xena was sure she had done all she could. She righted an overturned chair and pulled it over to the bed, sitting down wearily.
Xena gazed down at her comatose friend's face. Gabrielle was so beautiful, and while she lay there she also looked at peace. It had been a long time since Xena had seen her friend like that, and her mind traveled back to the day Gabrielle's family had been killed, the first night of the new Gabrielle.
Gabrielle had been inconsolable in the kitchen that day. When Xena had finally managed to pull the grief-stricken Gabrielle off her dead sister's body, Gabrielle had collapsed in her arms and cried there for nearly an hour. Xena tried desperately to soothe her, whispering into her ear that everything would be all right.
After a while, Gabrielle mustered up enough strength to begin preparations for her family's funeral. The two women worked together in silence, digging a pit for the pyre with rusty shovels they had found in Gabrielle's father's shed. When the pit was done, the bodies of the dead were laid in it and set ablaze. As the two watched the flames reach toward the sky, Xena sang a dirge for Gabrielle's family.
Gabrielle merely stood, motionless, and watched the flames grow, her sorrow reflected by the searing heat. Xena tried once to put a comforting arm around her friend's shoulders but Gabrielle pulled away, craving time alone to mull over the events of the day.
That night the two camped just outside of the town; neither could stand to look at the other survivors of the attack or the pain and confusion on their faces. Gabrielle remained silent as she lay on her bed roll and stared into the flickering flames of the fire. Xena was at a loss for what to do.
After watching her young friend quietly, sadly, for a few minutes, Xena crossed over to Gabrielle's side of the campsite. Kneeling down beside her, Xena laid a comforting hand on her friend's shoulder.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Xena asked quietly.
Gabrielle just kept quiet and continued gazing into the fire. Tears started to well up in her eyes, but she fought to hold them in.
Xena stayed by her friend for some time. Finally, she realized that Gabrielle wasn't going to talk about what had happened. Xena squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder in reassurance and leaned her head close to her friend's ear.
"If you ever need to talk to someone, I'm here for you," she whispered. Xena then crossed over to her blanket and laid down.
The rest of the night passed with the both of them sleeplessly staring into nothing, lost in their own thoughts. Tears streamed down Gabrielle's face as she relived the events of the day; the death of her parents, her sister, and her innocence. Xena worried about her friend - not only had Gabrielle lost her family, she'd lost her sense of peace as well.
"Xena?" a weak voice whispered from the bed. Immediately Xena was out of her chair and by her friend's side. She realized she must have dozed off when she noticed the faint rays of the rising sun peering through the window.
"I'm right here, Gabrielle," Xena hurriedly said, relief washing over her as tears spilled from her eyes. Tenderly she brushed the bangs out of Gabrielle's eyes with one hand. Reassuringly, she grasped one of Gabrielle's fists with her other hand. Xena looked into Gabrielle's confused eyes and was overjoyed that her friend was awake.
"What happened?" Gabrielle asked feebly.
"We were caught in a trap and your horse threw you. You cracked your head pretty hard on the cobblestones and your ankle was broken." A smile broke out on Xena's face. Thank the gods nothing more happened, she thought. Gabrielle was going to be all right!
"My horse? What was I doing on a horse?" Gabrielle inquired, chuckling a bit before the movement caused intense pain in her head and she stopped. Then she focused her eyes on a long scar that ran down Xena's right cheek. Gabrielle reached out a trembling hand and traced it with her index finger. "And when did you get that?"
Xena's eyebrows furrowed in confusion. She recalled when she gotten the scar like it was yesterday. She also remembered how it had been acquired. Gabrielle should have remembered, too.
It was some time after Gabrielle had obtained her army. Xena had stood up to her, trying to make Gabrielle see reason and turn from her destructive path. Gabrielle, however, had not been in the mood to listen. She had lashed out with a hunting knife and screamed that Xena had no right to challenge her. Everything was Xena's fault, after all...
Xena's mind returned to the present and she fixed her deep blue eyes on Gabrielle. "What's the last thing you remember?" she quietly asked.
"What? Well, I remember that we'd just left the temple of the Three Fates. You were honoring your brother's memory and then some thugs attacked. You sure were acting strange then." Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand as firmly as she could. "Don't change the subject, though. Where'd you get the scar from?"
By the gods, Xena thought. That was five years ago! Does Gabrielle really not remember anything that has happened since then?
"Oh, it was just an accident, Gabrielle. I was acting careless. It's nothing to worry about." If she really doesn't remember, there's no need to disturb her, Xena told herself. Even though Gabrielle had spent weeks begging forgiveness after the incident, Xena knew the young woman would not understand what had happened. Gabrielle didn't need to carry such guilt with her now.
Gabrielle just gave Xena a look, then realized she wouldn't receive a straight answer from her friend. She decided to change the subject to more pressing matters.
"Do we have any food? I'm starving!" As if on cue, her
stomach grumbled at the thought of food.
Xena smiled as Gabrielle's cheeks turned red from embarrassment. Then her face fell a little bit as she searched the inside of the hut with her eyes.
"No, we don't have anything, I'm sorry. I could go into the forest to look for something, but I don't want to leave you here like this," Xena told her.
"Go on. I'll be fine, Xena. You worry too much." Gabrielle smiled encouragingly at her friend.
Xena hesitated a moment, but seeing the look on Gabrielle's face, she decided she would go get some food. Xena groaned and rolled her eyes, just for show, but she knew there was nothing Gabrielle could ask of her that she would not do.
"All right," Xena mumbled. "I'll be back before you know it, though." She squeezed Gabrielle's hand, kissed her lightly on the forehead, and left.
Gabrielle stretched her arms and yawned heavily. She managed to sit up on the bed with considerable pain. Looking down at her body, Gabrielle noticed the black leather outfit that she wore for the first time.
"Where did this come from?" Gabrielle wondered aloud. Then as an afterthought, she added, "And why is Xena acting so strangely?" Satisfied that she wasn't going to find out any time soon, Gabrielle looked out the small rectangular window and was awed by the beauty of the new dawn.
Xena kicked up some dirt in frustration, but after a few moments she made up her mind. There's no reason to tell Gabrielle anything yet. Why not let her stay happy and innocent while it is still possible?
After sometime, Xena headed back to the hut with a few berries she had managed to scrounge up and some fish. She both dreaded seeing her friend again and looked forward to it; she feared the possibility of letting something slip and shattering Gabrielle's world. Determinedly, Xena set her mind to making sure that didn't happen.
When she got back, Xena found Gabrielle sitting up in her bed admiring the sunrise.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Gabrielle asked simply.
Xena turned and looked at the slowly rising sun, admiring the way the soft glow it emanated enhanced the beauty of the landscape. Gabrielle was the only person who could ever get her to look at such a vision - the old Gabrielle, that is. Then Xena thought joyously - she's back with me now!
"Yes, it is," Xena replied warmly. She was riveted to the spot until she remembered the food in her hands. Xena turned and walked over to Gabrielle, handing her the berries, before she set about making a fire in the fireplace to cook the fish.
"Thank you!" Gabrielle happily exclaimed before devouring the small, juicy red fruit. "Don't you want any?"
"No, you can have it all. I'm not that hungry." Once Xena finished with the fire and had the fish cooking, she returned to her seat beside Gabrielle. She smiled when she saw the impish grin on the young woman's face.
"I guess I really was hungry. I've already finished the berries," Gabrielle said, smiling warmly at Xena.
The grin on Xena's face broadened and a comfortable silence followed. The only sounds came from the crackling fire.
Gabrielle lowered herself back down on the bed, her head throbbing severely. "By the Gods, my head hurts," she mumbled.
Xena was quickly out of her chair and kneeling by her friend, checking the wound and re-bandaging it. "I'm not surprised. That was quite a blow you took," Xena told her. Then she started to massage Gabrielle's temple, hoping to soothe some of the pain.
Gabrielle smiled and said, "Thanks. That feels good."
The two friends remained quiet as Xena tried to help her friend - both by relieving the pain of her injuries and also by keeping silent about the past few years. She hadn't seen Gabrielle so totally full of life and happy in such a long time. Xena didn't want to ruin it now.
The day slowly passed and night fell upon the land. The flickering fire threw shadows around the hut while Xena contemplated the events that had recently befallen her and her friend. She was so engrossed in her thoughts that she didn't notice Gabrielle awaken from her peaceful slumber.
"Are you okay?" Gabrielle asked, worried to see her friend so entranced. A smile and a nod from Xena reassured her. "Do you want to hear a story, then?"
Xena was startled at the question, but she managed to keep it from showing. Gabrielle had long ago given up her bardic talent; it didn't have much of a place in the life of a warlord.
Xena looked into her friend's eyes and saw the old Gabrielle staring back at her. It's been a long time, Gabrielle, but I guess you've had other things on your mind, Xena thought. I can't tell you how wonderful it is to hear you ask such a question.
"I'd love to," Xena quietly answered. She pulled her chair closer to the bed, ready to become lost in Gabrielle's tales once again. Gabrielle used to be such a phenomenal bard, she remembered wistfully.
Gabrielle smiled. She loved to tell a good story. The young bard moved to a more comfortable position to begin her tale.
"I sing the song of..." Gabrielle started and she began to masterfully weave her narrative. Xena was totally taken in, and as she listened to the words' pour forth from Gabrielle's mouth, she thought that she had never been so happy. The old, sweet, marvelous Gabrielle has returned to me, and there's nothing quite like absence to make you realize just how much you need something, Xena reflected as she became lost in the bard's tale.
As the tale ended, Gabrielle brought her full attention back to Xena. She saw that the warrior had been staring at her the entire time and tears were streaming down her cheeks. Alarmed, Gabrielle quickly reached out and wiped them away.
"What's wrong, Xena? Did I do something wrong?" Gabrielle asked, distress evident in her voice.
"No," Xena managed to say, her voice low and hoarse. "You've done nothing wrong, Gabrielle. I... you just told that story so beautifully."
Gabrielle's eyes brightened and welled up with tears. The warrior never wasted compliments. Xena sat on the edge of her bed and hugged her friend tightly to her. Gabrielle had told a good story, but that wasn't the cause of the tears. The reason was that Xena was overjoyed to have her old, dear Gabrielle back again.
Weeks passed. Gabrielle's injuries healed to the point where she could now hobble around, but her memory showed no sign of returning. For that, Xena was grateful.
Gabrielle had asked many questions, but Xena always managed to avoid telling her the truth. She just hoped the young woman didn't become too suspicious.
Every night, Gabrielle regaled Xena with her tales, her technique just as magnificent as ever. Xena watched her friend with wonder, almost forgetting everything that had happened since that fateful day Gabrielle lost her family and her innocence. Xena wished things could stay like this forever, and she hoped her friend never regained all the painful memories of the past few years. However, the thought that eventually Gabrielle would find out the truth always persisted in her mind and pained her deeply.
One night, the two friends lay at the edge of a clearing in the forest through which a clear stream trickled. Xena had her back up against a large boulder, her arms circled around Gabrielle. The young bard lay against Xena, her head resting on the warrior's shoulder. She was in the middle of one of her stories, and Xena's eyes were shut tightly as she let Gabrielle sweep her into the tale.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked, ending her story.
"Hmmm?" Xena answered sleepily, keeping her eyes closed.
"Could we go back to Potidaea? It's been so long since I've seen my family, and I miss them. They must be worried sick, too! Anyway, we could stay there while I recuperate. I'd even be willing to ride Argo there. I just want to go home."
Xena remained silent, but her mind screamed out and her body tensed at the question. She always knew it was just a matter of time, but that still didn't prepare her for this. This wasn't something she could bring herself to lie about.
Xena opened her eyes and looked down at her friend. Gently, she lifted Gabrielle's chin until she was looking into her magnificent emerald eyes.
"Gabrielle, we need to talk," Xena said simply.
Alarmed, Gabrielle pushed away and tensed up. "What is it?" she asked, anxiety clear in her voice and eyes.
Xena sighed deeply. So this is what it comes down to? She took a moment to prepare herself for the admission, and then she decided to just let it out.
"A while back, some raiders attacked your village... looking for me. Your parents and Lilla were killed in the battle," Xena said regretfully. "I'm sorry."
Shock hit Gabrielle full force and she fell back on to the ground and buried her head in her hands. After a moment, a question escaped her lips.
"How long is 'a while back'?"
Gabrielle raised her head suddenly, her eyes full of pain, and looked Xena straight in the eyes.
"THREE YEARS!?!" she exclaimed. "What... why... why didn't you tell me this sooner?"
"I hadn't seen you so happy and carefree in a long time, and I didn't want to ruin it for you."
"Didn't want to ruin it for me, OR FOR YOU!?" Gabrielle asked angrily, reality crashing down around her.
"Both," Xena admitted, her voice a harsh whisper.
"When were you planning on telling me this? THREE YEARS! By the Gods, so much lost time! Why can't I remember?" Gabrielle gasped, tears streaming down her face. Frustrated, she started banging the sides of her head with her heel of her palms. "Why?" she despondently sobbed.
Xena moved forward and grabbed Gabrielle's wrists, efficiently stopping her friend's self-abuse. She leaned forward, ever closer to Gabrielle, and dropped her chin to her chest.
"I'm sorry. I just wanted to help you. I am so sorry!" Xena quietly said, grief for her friend gripping her heart. She knew now that lying to her friend was not the right thing to do, no matter the reasons.
Through her tears, Gabrielle saw just how regretful Xena really was. She broke Xena's grip on her wrists and flung her arms around the warrior's neck, hugging her tightly.
"I'm sorry too. I know you just wanted to protect me," she whispered into Xena's ear.
The two friends held each other for a long while, trying their best to comfort each other and understand what had happened.
Finally, Gabrielle broke the silence. "So, what else haven't you told me?" she asked quietly.
"Shhhh, I'll tell you later. You've had enough surprises for one day," Xena told her, slowly moved back to lay against the rock once more. Pulling Gabrielle along with her, Xena tried to calm her friend.
Gabrielle started to protest, then she changed her mind and settled in against her friend, laying her head on Xena's shoulder once again. She's probably right, Gabrielle thought. I'm not sure how much more I can take tonight.
Gabrielle sat in stunned silence. What Xena had just said, it couldn't be true... could it?
Xena reached out and held her hand reassuringly, looking deeply into her confused eyes.
"Are you all right?" Xena asked, worried for her friend.
"Yeah, I guess. I just..." Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't know."
Xena hugged her friend. That had to have been quite a shock, she thought, and she wanted to let Gabrielle know that she wasn't alone in this. Gabrielle tried desperately to regain some self control, but she failed miserably.
"Do you remember any of it?" Xena asked.
"No," Gabrielle quietly admitted. She tried to remember any part of what Xena had just told her, but all she could think was that this was all wrong. It had to be a mistake. How could she have become a warlord?
"It'll be all right, I promise," Xena told her.
Gabrielle pulled back from the embrace and looked up at her friend's anguished face. She ran her hand along the scar on Xena's cheek once more.
"I did this," Gabrielle said, more an assertion than a question. Xena nodded once. "I'm so sorry..." Gabrielle whispered.
Xena slowly took hold of Gabrielle's hand and held it tightly, keeping it against her cheek. "You have no reason to apologize, Gabrielle," Xena told her.
"But nothing. I understand, Gabrielle. That wasn't really you. You had become twisted by circumstances beyond your control. If anything, I should apologize to you now. That army attacked Potidaea looking for me."
"No! You couldn't help that, Xena. It's not your fault."
The two women just stared into each other's eyes for a long time before Gabrielle started to laugh. Xena soon followed suit.
"Look at us," Gabrielle managed to say. "This is pathetic. What do you say we go out for a walk?"
"Are you sure you're up to it?" Xena asked, concern evident in her voice. "I mean with your ankle and all."
"If I don't go outside, I'll just go out of my mind, Xena," Gabrielle smiled. "Besides, as long as I have you there to support me, I'll be fine."
Xena smiled in return. "Okay, let's go then."
She stood up and helped Gabrielle to her feet. With Gabrielle leaning heavily on her, the two left the hut for a quiet, contemplative walk through the forest. They both had a lot to think over, but at least they could do it together.
The fire flickered in the hearth, causing odd shadows to be cast throughout the small hut. Gabrielle stared into the flames, trying desperately to remember something - anything - about the past few years. All she ended up with was darkness. Her memories eluded her; all she had of that time was what Xena had told her.
Gabrielle sighed and turned over in her bed, gazing down at her best friend. Through all the pain and suffering, Xena had stood by her, loyal through it all. A tear fell from Gabrielle's eye and hit the soft pillow below. Despite everything that she had done - to Xena, to everyone - her friend was still here, and, if anything, more fervent in her friendship.
Restless, Gabrielle shifted in place so that she could stare at the ceiling. Is this how Xena used to feel, and perhaps still does? Trapped by inescapable despair, dark emotions constantly hammering away inside. By the Gods, I always used to make life sound so simple; I had no idea what Xena was actually going through.
Xena had always tried to make amends for her evil past and through it all she managed to keep her own pain hidden so well. Gabrielle had thought she could see it and understand it, but now she knew how deep it really went. She realized how wrong she truly was.
Suddenly, like a crashing wave, an even more painful thought crossed Gabrielle's mind and she squeezed her eyelids shut tightly. What have I cost Xena? She was working toward the greater good, but I twisted her feelings for me so that she would join me in my mad crusade. Have I cost her a chance at the Elysian Fields? Will she be tormented for an eternity because of me?
Instantly charged, Gabrielle hurriedly threw herself off the bed and hobbled as quickly as she could toward the door. She stepped outside and the cool, crisp night air blew against her warm skin. Agonizing over her recent thoughts, she took off through the woods, ignoring the pain each step caused her, and kept going until she came upon the peaceful little stream once more.
There she stood, quietly grieving over her revelations, when she felt an unmistakably strong presence behind her. She turned and saw Xena standing quietly at the edge of the trees, watching her.
"Gabrielle?" Xena quietly said, sadness tingeing her voice. "What's wrong?"
"EVERYTHING!" Gabrielle yelled, sending the few forest creatures nearby scrambling away. "Everything," Gabrielle repeated, quietly this time, and more grief-stricken, before collapsing to the ground.
Xena was quickly at her side, kneeling down close to Gabrielle and putting an arm around her shoulders. Xena crossed her legs a moment later and sat down beside Gabrielle, gazing into the tear-filled eyes.
Gabrielle managed to control the surge of emotions threatening to overwhelm her. As she looked into Xena's pale blue eyes, the faint moonlight reflecting in them, she felt a bit more calm and sedate. Finally, Gabrielle mustered up the strength to continue on.
"I've failed you, Xena," she said quietly, and Xena had to strain her hearing to understand the words.
"What!?" Xena asked incredulously. "How could you ever do that?"
"When we first met, you were trying to make up for your past, trying to make up for your days as a warlord. And then look what happened. I dragged you back into that life. I used you and made you a part of my army. I am truly sorry."
"Gabrielle, you have nothing to be sorry for. I had already given up when we met, but you changed that. There were so many times I just wanted to give in, give up, let my life be done with, but you kept me going. If you don't know it by now, Gabrielle, you've saved my life, my soul, hundreds of times over. I owe you for that, and... I love you."
Gabrielle started trembling again, another surge of emotions hitting her full force. "But I brought you back into your old life. Did I save your life just to turn it back to the wrong path?"
"Gabrielle, that was not your fault. I said I'd do anything, go anywhere, for you and I meant it... I still do. It was always my decision, and as long as I'm with you I'll never consider it the wrong one. You mean too much to me for that."
Gabrielle stared into Xena's eyes and all she could see was the love and honesty there. Tears started to well up in her eyes again. Quickly, she moved forward and threw her arms around Xena again.
"Thank you," Gabrielle whispered to her friend. After a short pause, she gathered up the courage to continue. "Xena, I love you too."
The next morning, Gabrielle awoke to the sounds of breakfast being prepared. Groggily she opened her eyes and squinted against the bright sunlight pouring in from the window.
"Good morning, sleepyhead," Xena teased, but when Gabrielle looked into her eyes, she could see the affection and devotion there. Xena smiled in response.
Gabrielle yawned and then sat up, casting hungry eyes around the small hut.
"What are you cooking? It smells delicious," Gabrielle declared, licking her lips in anticipation of the food. As she scanned the hut, she noticed just how much different the place looked compared to when they first arrived. Xena had done much to the abandoned house, and she'd found plenty of supplies in the forest to stock the cheery abode.
"I caught a pheasant this morning. It's almost done," Xena answered, crossing the room to stand by her friend. With concern etched on her face, she asked, "How are you feeling this morning?"
"Much better." Gabrielle smiled up at her friend reassuringly. "Thank you."
Xena smiled back at Gabrielle warmly but quickly regained her train of thought. She pulled out some plates that had been left behind by the previous tenants, set them on the short wooden table, and retrieved the pheasant, setting it down on a plate on the table. With a flourish, she turned to Gabrielle and bowed.
"Breakfast is served, m'lady," Xena intoned in a mock serious voice.
Gabrielle got up off the bed and crossed over to her friend, a sly smile crossing her lips. "This is all for me?"
"Of course, who else is there?" Xena laughed.
"I thought you didn't like to cook," Gabrielle teased.
"For you, I would do anything." Gabrielle sat down and Xena pushed the bard's chair in a bit before going to sit across from her friend.
"Very nice," Gabrielle said, admiring Xena's handiwork. I'll have to get her to cook more often, she thought to herself.
The two started their meal and soon it was over. They lounged contentedly in their chairs, watching through the window as the sun climbed higher in the sky, content just to be in each other's company.
As the fire burned down in the hearth, Xena groaned. "I guess I should get some more wood," she told Gabrielle, rising slowly out of her chair. Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's arm and motioned for her to sit back down.
"I'll get it."
"No buts. After everything you did for me this morning, you deserve a break," Gabrielle said.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, besides, I could use the exercise. You've been spoiling me rotten lately and now it's my turn," Gabrielle told her friend, and then she swiftly left the hut.
Outside, she admired the landscape: the lush green grass, the magnificent trees standing proudly in the forest, the creeping vines growing up the side of the hut. She walked over to the wood pile and leaned over to pick some of it up.
At that moment, a hawk screeched from overhead and took off from its perch atop the roof. As the bird took off, a wooden shingle was broken loose from its place and it careened downward, contacting fully with Gabrielle's head. She collapsed forward, unconscious.
Suddenly, memories and visions of the past sprang up in Gabrielle's mind. She remembered the first time she saw Xena, how powerful and self-assured the warrior had seemed. She recalled all the times and experiences they had together as she slowly learned what made Xena tick. Gabrielle remembered all the pain that seethed beneath the warrior's tough exterior. She remembered everything about her best friend.
Another vision came to her, of her parents lying dead on the floor, innocents caught in the middle of evil's terrible grasp. She remembered seeing Lilla die, then her first kill, how the knife slowly tore through the murderer's chest. She recalled all the pain she felt at the funeral pyre for her family, and of the sleepless nights she spent thereafter.
Visions of herself slowly descending into darkness, of the bitterness that crept into her heart, came next. Her loss on that one fateful day had led to the death of her peace, her cares. She had recklessly fought all comers, nearly suicidal in her rage. She remembered raising an army to "fight for justice" or so she had termed it. She'd razed the countryside, convinced that she was in the right, that she had some just purpose for murdering innocent villagers. Everything was for a greater cause.
Most of all, Gabrielle remembered her friend. Xena had stood by her through it all, refusing to give up on Gabrielle's intrinsic goodness. The warrior fought with her, had tried to make her realize it too. Even in the darkest of times, Xena had believed that a kernel of goodness still existed deep down in her friend. She would not give up and leave. Xena stayed and challenged Gabrielle, stayed to help her find her true self again, to assist Gabrielle in her battle against the bitter hatred which had consumed her.
Even when Gabrielle's attacks became emotionally or physically abusive, Xena was by her side through it all. She would never leave the young woman who had so totally captured her heart and soul. Gabrielle would doubtlessly have done the same for her without a moment's hesitation.
Gabrielle felt her heart numb as she remembered all she had done to torture Xena, to make her turn away. Sending her out on guard duty in the cold, wet rain for nights on end. For nearly a week afterward, Xena had been so sick she was barely able to move.
Then there were all those nights when Gabrielle had taken her fury out on her friend, verbally tearing the warrior apart while she rained blow after blow upon Xena until the warrior could no longer stand. More horrible still was the night she'd left Xena with a long scar on her face just because the warrior had tried to make Gabrielle see reason.
Gabrielle felt overwhelmed by her guilt. She wished for everything to end, right then and there. But darkness overwhelmed her, and for a long while she thought no more.
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle!" Xena shook her friend. "Wake up!"
Slowly Gabrielle opened her heavy eyes and looked up into Xena's worried face.
"By the gods, you're all right. This damn house is falling apart. That was quite a hit you took on the head... again," Xena said, searching Gabrielle's eyes for any hint of trouble.
Gabrielle just groaned in response.
"Are you okay? Do you think you could manage to get inside to lie down for a bit?" Xena asked
Gabrielle slowly nodded her aching head, and Xena lifted her up off of the wood pile and half carried her inside the house before she laid Gabrielle on the bed.
Xena quickly found an already full cup of water, then took some herbs from the shelf and mixed them with the water. She heated it a little, then handed the cup to Gabrielle.
"Here, drink this. It should help with the pain," Xena told her. Gabrielle complied; the young woman even finished the liquid despite gagging after tasting it.
Noticing the look on Gabrielle's face, Xena quickly apologized. "I'm sorry, we didn't have any wine to cover the taste with. That's the best I could do."
Gabrielle finished drinking the vile concoction then handed the empty cup back to Xena. Xena placed the cup on the table and returned to Gabrielle's side. She put her hand on Gabrielle's forehead to brush away the stray hands of strawberry blond hair that were getting into her friend's groggy eyes.
Gabrielle caught her friend's hand with her own and squeezed it tightly. She then managed to capture Xena's gaze with her eyes.
"I remember," she said simply. She felt Xena tense up and saw the frantic, worried look in her eyes.
"What do you remember?" Xena asked, trying to keep her voice even and calm despite the fact that her mind was reeling at the moment.
"Everything." Gabrielle whispered as she looked at Xena for a few moments longer. Finally, her own burning inquisitiveness forced her to speak up again. "Why did you stay?"
Xena smiled sadly, and squeezed Gabrielle's hand in comfort.
"Because our friendship means the world to me... and I love you. I could never leave you."
Gabrielle smiled back up at her friend as the tears gently cascaded down her cheeks.
"Thank you," was the bard's only reply.
Xena and Gabrielle stayed at the hut a while longer until all of Gabrielle's various wounds were healed completely. Finally, though, they decided to leave and so they set out one morning, never to return.
The two friends walked side by side down the dusty dirt road, Argo trailing along behind them. A companionable silence accompanied their progress, the only sounds being the dirt crunching underneath their boots and the birds singing to welcome a new day.
"So, what happens now?" Xena finally asked, glancing over at Gabrielle.
"I don't know. I guess I'll go wandering around for a while, working for the greater good, like a certain warrior princess I once knew," Gabrielle said, smiling warmly at her friend.
"Oh, well, do you mind if I tag along? It can get quite lonely out there on the road, you know?" Xena grinned.
"Well, I don't think I'll ever have to worry about that," Gabrielle said, her tone turning serious. "I know that I'll always have you by my side."
Gabrielle threw her arm around her companion as they walked on. She hugged Xena tightly to her side, grateful that she would always have a friend.
"Forever," Xena said, smiling.
"Forever," Gabrielle whispered quietly.
I'd like to thank my good buddy Phil for editing this story and helping me smooth out the edges on it. Thank ya, friend. :)