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Darkness shrouds the valley and a strange mist rolls along the forest floor. The mist moves as if it were alive, seeking it's final destination. It tumbles over a small hill and settles into the hollow at the bottom. The mist creeps along a stream bank and enters a small camp site. In the camp site, the mist swirls around two sleeping forms. It leaves one alone. The other it enshrouds, and with each new breath the mist is slowly drawn into the sleeping form.
The fire has burned down, and only embers remain. In the dim light, two sleeping figures can be seen. The smaller one is sleeping peacefully, her beautiful red hair spilling out onto the blankets that are her bed. The larger form is thrashing around, her dark hair flying back and forth as her head twists from side to side. A man suddenly appears out of thin air.
"Xena, Xena, I've come for you!" he softly calls.
The thrashing stops and the dark haired woman sits up slowly and looks around. She sees the man, but something is wrong with him. He is not fully formed and the trees behind him can be seen through his translucent body.
"Xena, I've come for you," the man softly whispers as he motions for Xena to follow him.
"Marcus? Is that you? What are you doing here?"
Marcus only smiles and beckons for Xena to follow him. Xena looks over at Gabrielle, who is still sleeping soundly, and then back at Marcus. Grabbing her sword, Xena slowly gets up and starts to follow Marcus. Xena can feel that something is not right, but she follows Marcus anyway. Deeper and deeper into the forest they wander. In the darkness, Xena stumbles and loses her sword. Sometime later, she realizes that it is not in her hand, but she didn't care. The only thing she can think about is Marcus and she blindly follows him. He disappears around a huge boulder and Xena follows after him. Suddenly she can't move. Sticky strands cling to her face. Xena tries to wipe the sticky thing off of her face, but her hands won't move. The harder Xena struggles, the harder it becomes to move. A strange numbness penetrates Xena's body everywhere the sticky stuff touches bare skin. The numbness spreads and Xena is overcome by an intense desire to sleep. She closes her eyes and gives in to the desire, unaware of the danger that lurks directly over her head.
The sun broke over the mountains and cast a warm glow over the valley. A small patch of sunlight fell on Gabrielle and caused her to stir.
"Just a few more minutes Xena," Gabrielle muttered as she covered her head with the blanket. After a few minutes, Gabrielle realized that she didn't hear anything. She was sure that Xena had just told her to get up.
"Xena?" Gabrielle called out as she sat up and looked around. Gabrielle spotted Xena's empty blankets and crawled over to feel them. They are cold. Xena must be out practicing Gabrielle thought. Gabrielle looked over at the tree where Argo had been tethered last night and noticed that she was still there.
"I thought Xena usually took you with her when she went out to practice," Gabrielle said to Argo.
Argo nodded her head up and down as if she understood Gabrielle.
Gabrielle picked up the blankets and put them away.
"You stay here while I go find Xena!" Gabrielle said as she grabs her staff and walks away muttering to herself.
Gabrielle expected to find Xena in the clearing south of their camp. "Xena!" Gabrielle shouts as she enters the clearing, "Argo's mad that you left her at camp. Xena?" Gabrielle looks around and can see no sign of Xena. The hair on the back of Gabrielle's neck is starting to stand on end.
"Okay, calm down Gabrielle. Maybe Xena's just out hunting." Gabrielle tried to push the doubts out of her mind but it wouldn't work. Something was bothering her, but she couldn't put her finger on it. Gabrielle walked back to camp trying to think like Xena.
"If I disappeared, what would Xena do? She would look for my tracks."
Gabrielle started with the area where Xena was sleeping and easily found Xena's tracks. "Well, I don't see any other boot marks except for Xena's, that means she left of her own accord."
Gabrielle followed Xena's tracks for a few minutes and determined that Xena was not hunting. The tracks were in a fairly straight line and had not veered off in places where game would probably be found. The panic was starting to rise in Gabrielle's throat and she could hear her heart pounding in her ears. She returned to camp and tried to calm down.
"Focus, I must focus." Gabrielle thought back to the comments she had heard at the inn in the last village that she and Xena had stopped in. While they were eating, Gabrielle had heard a couple of people at the next table talking about the strange things going on in the forest. Whole hunting parties had disappeared. No one who had ventured deep into the forest had ever come out. There were tales of weird animals and strange apparitions. Xena had dismissed it as nonsense, but Gabrielle was starting to wonder.
The sunlight glistened on the drops of dew that clung to the sticky stuff that held Xena prisoner. As Xena opened her eyes, she was confused. "How did I get here and where IS here?" Xena thought as she struggled to clear the fog out of her head. Her body felt strange and was slow to respond. Xena moved her head slightly and realized, to her horror, that she was trapped in a giant spider web. As Xena struggled to get free, vague memories of the night before floated through her mind. Suddenly the whole web started to vibrate. Looking straight up, Xena spotted a huge spider slowly descending with it's mandibles opening and closing. Anger surged through Xena. No spider was going to end the life of the Warrior Princess. By sheer will alone Xena forced her right arm free. Luckily her chakram was dangling by her side. One by one Xena cut the strands of web away. Just as Xena freed her legs the spider was on top of her. A sharp burning sensation pierced Xena's sides and she cried out in pain. The burning sensation spread as Xena stumbled away. She turned around to see if the spider was pursuing her. It wasn't. The spider just sat there watching Xena, waiting for her to die. Xena threw her chakram, which was still in her hand, directly at the spider. The chakram hit the spider's thorax, severing it in two, and bounced off the rocks. With her head swimming and her eyes seeing double, it took all of Xena's concentration to catch the returning chakram. As soon as it hit her hand, Xena sank to the ground and her consciousness slipped away.
Gabrielle became increasingly uncomfortable as the minutes went by. It was obvious that Xena was not coming back. "Come on Argo, we have to go find Xena," Gabrielle said as she saddled Argo. Leading Argo by the reins, Gabrielle set off to find Xena. Gabrielle knew that her abilities to track were not as sharp as Xena's, but Xena's trail was not hard to follow. The deeper into the forest they went, the tighter Gabrielle gripped her staff. Xena was out there somewhere and Gabrielle was determined to find her, in spite of the growing fear that had turned her stomach into knots.
As Gabrielle and Argo were winding there way through a grove of old growth trees, the glint of sunlight on metal caught Gabrielle's eye. Very cautiously, Gabrielle approached the spot were the glint had come from. As Gabrielle neared a tangled mass of roots, she could see the hilt of a sword sticking up between a couple of roots. Gabrielle pulled the sword free and her heart sank. It was Xena's sword. Xena would never leave her sword behind! Gabrielle now had proof that something was very wrong. Gabrielle took a deep breath and tried to steady her nerves. She looked around, but could find no other trace of the Warrior Princess. Gabrielle tied Xena's sword to the saddle horn and continued her search.
Hours later there was still no sign of Xena. Gabrielle stopped Argo in a small clearing to rest and untied Xena's sword. Leaning back against a tree, Gabrielle started wondering about what had happened to Xena as she traced the hilt with her fingers. It's not like Xena to leave in the middle of the night, especially without taking Argo. Why didn't she wake me? Was she trying to protect me? What if Xena's hurt? Or what if she's......... Gabrielle could not finish the thought. Xena was alive. She just had to be.
Xena could feel the sun beating down on her leather. Sweat poured from her body. She rolled over and held a hand up to block the sun from her eyes. She tried to focus but her eyes wouldn't cooperate. Out of reflex, Xena hooked her chakram on her armor. Her entire body felt like a pin cushion that was on fire. Xena tried to stand but her legs buckled underneath her and she crumpled to the ground. She crawled over to a tree and leaned back. "I'm so thirsty. I've got to find water." Xena looked over at the spiders severed body. "Did I kill that spider? I don't remember." Xena's head started spinning and she slumped back against the tree as unconsciousness claimed her again.
Xena's eyes fluttered open and she licked her dry, cracked lips. The prickly feeling had disappeared, but she felt so hot and thirsty. Her mind was numb and thinking was difficult. On a barely conscious level Xena knew she was in trouble. If only she could think clearly. She needed water and could focus on nothing else. Holding on to the tree, Xena pulled herself to her feet. Stumbling from tree to tree Xena searched for a source of water. Finally, after what seemed and eternity, Xena found a large stream. Kneeling in the middle, Xena plunged her head into the water and drank deeply. The cool water flowed over her cracked lips and down her parched throat. Xena was so hot and the water so inviting, that she rolled over on her back and let the stream run over her fiery body. The water felt so good and Xena realized that she was exhausted. She closed her eyes and let the sound of the water lull her to sleep.
Gabrielle followed Xena's trail until she came to a huge boulder. As she neared the boulder a sickening stench filled her nostrils. Rounding the boulder Gabrielle found the source of the stench. A huge spider that had been severed in two lay hanging from what was left of it's own web. Gabrielle gagged at the sight and smell of the dead spider. Gabrielle inspected the area and found the imprint of a body a short distance from the web. The circular print in the dirt must have come from Xena's chakram. Gabrielle felt panic welling up inside of her. "If Xena was on the ground, she may be hurt!" Gabrielle knelt down to inspect the imprint Xena's body had left when she collapsed. On each side of the imprint, about waist high, the ground was dark and wet. Gabrielle rubbed her fingers against the wet dirt and sniffed at the residue left on her fingers. It was blood. Gabrielle swallowed hard, trying to force the panic back down. Xena was injured. Gabrielle looked over at the spider and wondered if Xena's wounds were from the spider or something else. There was no blood trail, so the wounds themselves were not serious Gabrielle surmised. But, if the spider bit Xena, how much time would she have? Gabrielle thought back to the time Xena fought off the poison from Callisto's dart. Xena survived, but that was just the poison from one dart. Gabrielle looked back at the spider. An involuntary shudder shook her body.
With a new sense of urgency, Gabrielle set out to find Xena. Her trail was not hard to follow. She had stumbled from tree to tree. Every few yards, Gabrielle could see the imprints where Xena's legs had given out and she had slammed into the ground. With each step, Gabrielle's fear increased. She tried not to think about what would happen if she didn't find Xena in time.
As the sun sank deeper into the western sky, Gabrielle heard the sound of running water. As she cleared the brush on the stream bank, she stopped dead in her tracks and her heart leapt into her throat. There, lying face-up in the middle of the stream was Xena. Gabrielle dropped Argo's reins and rushed to Xena's side. Xena's face was very pale. With a shaky hand, Gabrielle reached out and touched Xena's cheek. She was warm! A flood of relief swept over Gabrielle and she threw her staff on the opposite stream bank. Grabbing Xena under her arms, Gabrielle carefully pulled her out of the stream and up onto the bank on the other side. Argo crossed the stream after taking a long drink and gently nuzzled Xena's hand. Her master didn't respond.
Gabrielle found a sheltered spot just a few yards from the stream. Laying Xena down in a grassy spot, Gabrielle quickly gathered some wood and tinder, and started a fire. Argo stood there untethered and simply watched Gabrielle at work. With some difficulty, Gabrielle pulled Xena's greaves and boots off. By the condition of the leather, Gabrielle knew that Xena had been in the water for sometime. Carefully, Gabrielle removed Xena's armor and the rest of her wet clothing. After placing Xena on a blanket, Gabrielle carefully inspected the puncture wounds in Xena's sides. The wounds were sealed over and strange purple streaks radiated from the wounds. Gabrielle was puzzled. The wounds should not have healed this fast and the purple streaks were like nothing Gabrielle had ever seen before. As Gabrielle covered Xena with her blanket, she noticed how hot Xena's skin was. She's awfully warm for being in the water for so long Gabrielle thought.
Gabrielle unsaddled Argo and tied her reins around a nearby tree. Searching the stream bank, Gabrielle retrieved her staff and sat down next to Xena. She then pulled off her own wet boots to let them dry. Tenderly Gabrielle took Xena's hand in her own. Tears formed in Gabrielle's eyes as the days events began to overwhelm her.
"No, I am not going to do this!" Gabrielle said to herself, "Xena needs me and I won't let her down!"
Gabrielle sat back a little and tried to remember everything Xena had taught her about healing. She was so absorbed in her own thoughts that she almost didn't feel Xena squeezing her hand. Gabrielle looked down and saw Xena's eyes slowly open.
"How do you feel?" Gabrielle asked with the concern showing on her face.
"Thirsty," Xena said weakly.
Gabrielle grabbed a waterskin and lifted it to Xena's lips. Xena drank the water greedily, gasping for breath when she finished.
"Xena, you've been poisoned by a spider and I need to find an antidote."
"A spider?" Xena looked confused. "Yes, I remember," Xena shook her head, "no antidote."
"What do you mean? There has got to be a way to treat this!" Gabrielle said with panic starting to show in her voice.
"There is a moss that......" Xena's eye's rolled back into her head and she lost consciousness.
"Xena! What moss?" Gabrielle gently shook Xena's shoulders, but the Warrior Princess would not respond. "Think Gabrielle!" the bard mumbled to herself as she racked her brain for the answer. Try as she might, Gabrielle could not figure out what moss Xena was talking about.
Gabrielle sat beside Xena, watching over her friend. With each passing moment, Xena's breathing became more labored. Gabrielle folded Argo's blanket and carefully placed it under Xena's head and shoulders to ease her breathing. Gabrielle's heart began to ache. If she didn't figure it out soon, her best friend would die and she would be powerless to prevent it. Silently the tears streamed down Gabrielle's face and dropped onto the blanket below. "I've failed you Xena, I'm so sorry!" Gabrielle whispered as she wiped the tears from her face. Worn out from the extreme emotions, Gabrielle laid down next to Xena and mumbled a small prayer to Athena to help her friend. Sometime during the night Gabrielle drifted off. Suddenly she sat bolt upright with a strange look on her face.
"Argo, you watch over Xena," Gabrielle said as she pulled on her boots and grabbed a tree limb to use as a torch. Silently Gabrielle melted into the forest.
A short time later, Gabrielle returned with a hand full of a light colored moss. Gabrielle threw the torch into the fire and put the moss down on the blanket beside Xena. Grabbing a dagger and some rags out of one of Argo's saddle bags, Gabrielle returned to Xena's side. Gabrielle uncovered Xena and gently slipped a bandage around her waist. Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle reopened the puncture wound on Xena's right side. The blood flowing out of the wound was a strange purple color. Gabrielle quickly pushed some moss into the wound and reached over and repeated the process on the wound in Xena's left side. Gabrielle tied the bandage around Xena's waist to hold the moss in place. As Gabrielle covered Xena back up, she noticed that the purple streaks had spread across Xena's stomach and up towards her heart. Gabrielle hoped she had acted in time. She didn't want to think about what would happen if she hadn't.
After putting a couple of logs on the fire, Gabrielle took her place at Xena's side. There was nothing to do but wait. Gabrielle gazed at Xena's face as the firelight flickered across it. How many times had she looked at Xena's face and wondered what was going on beneath the warrior's mask? Xena could hide her pain from most people, but not from Gabrielle. Even though the cause of Xena's pain was not always evident, Gabrielle always knew when she was hurting. Sometimes she could even feel it. Gabrielle softly touched Xena's cheek with the back of her hand.
"Oh Xena! Why won't you let me in? I've tried so hard to show you that your past doesn't matter to me! You're so afraid that I will leave you if I see the real you. I will always be here for you! How can I convince you of that?"
The rest of the night, Gabrielle held Xena's hand and periodically stroked her hair. By morning, Xena's breathing was even and deep. As the sun popped over the ridge in the distant east, Xena opened her eyes to find Gabrielle smiling at her.
"I'm glad you're back," Gabrielle said as a single tear rolled down her cheek. Xena smiled weakly. Gabrielle held a waterskin to Xena's lips and gave her a drink.
"Gabrielle, what happened?" Xena said licking the water off her lips.
"You don't remember? For some reason you left camp in the middle of the night two nights ago. When dawn came, and I discovered that you were missing, I followed your trail. You were bitten by a huge spider and I found you lying in the middle of the stream over there. Beyond that, I'm not sure what happened. Speaking of spiders, I had better check your wounds." Gabrielle pulled the blanket back and untied the bandage. The moss in both wounds had turned purple from the poison it had drawn out of Xena's body. Gabrielle noticed that the purple streaks had receded from Xena's chest and the middle of her stomach. Xena winced as Gabrielle packed fresh moss into the wounds and retied the bandage. After covering Xena with the blanket, Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena's forehead.
"Your fevers gone and your color looks better," Gabrielle said as she dropped her hand and let it rest softly on Xena's shoulder.
"Xena, are you hungry?"
"No. Just tired." Xena looked up at Gabrielle and noticed the dark circles around Gabrielle's eyes.
"Why don't you get some sleep, you need the rest," Gabrielle said, gently squeezing Xena's shoulder.
"You look like you could use some rest too. Why don't you lay down, Argo will warn us if someone approaches."
Gabrielle nodded in agreement and settled down beside Xena, her hand still resting on Xena's shoulder.
It was mid afternoon when Gabrielle felt Xena stir. She sat up and handed Xena the waterskin.
"You look better, how do you feel?" Gabrielle asked, taking the waterskin back.
"Much better. Gabrielle, how did you know what kind of moss would draw out the poison?"
"I had a dream. I could see the cave that the moss grows in and I could see the moss. I just had a feeling that this was the moss you were trying to tell me about."
"So, you weren't sure it would work?"
"No," Gabrielle said looking away from Xena. "But I had to try it. I didn't know what else to do. I......I was afraid you were going to die," Gabrielle said softly with tears silently running down her face.
Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's arm and gave a gently squeeze. She knew that Gabrielle had turned away to hide the tears.
"Are you hungry yet?" Gabrielle asked without turning around. Without waiting for a reply, Gabrielle continued, "I think I'll try to catch some fish."
Gabrielle pulled her boots off and waded into the stream. Xena watched Gabrielle slowly work her way up the stream, feeling under the rocks for the fish. Xena wondered if she sometimes wasn't too hard on Gabrielle for being emotional. Sometimes Xena just didn't know how to handle it. She was getting better though. Slowly, she was learning how to comfort Gabrielle and how to let Gabrielle comfort her. It had been a long time since Xena had opened her heart and allowed anyone inside. Long ago she had buried everything except the pain and the anger. Those were the only two emotions she felt with any intensity. Even the pain turned into anger, because that was the easiest way to deal with it. The emergence of long buried emotions was difficult to deal with. Without Gabrielle's help, Xena knew she could not handle it. A tangible enemy is easy to deal with, but the one inside is not. Looking at Gabrielle, Xena wondered where she would be without her. It was something that she didn't think about often, but ever since Gabrielle was injured in Thessaly, Xena had thought about it more often than she wanted to.
Xena closed her eyes and sank back down on the blanket. Her body didn't hurt as much and the fiery feeling was gone, but she was very tired. She must have fallen asleep, because she awoke to the sound of Gabrielle rummaging around for a knife. Gabrielle noticed Xena open her eyes.
"The fish will be ready soon. Are you hungry? I'm starved!"
Xena smiled at Gabrielle and watched her string some of the fish on a stick to smoke.
"Looks like the fishing was good."
"Yes, we should have enough fish for several days."
"Gabrielle, will you help me get dressed?"
Gabrielle frowned, "I don't think you've healed enough to put your leather on, but I will help you with your shift."
Xena tried to sit up by herself, but the pain in her sides made it impossible.
"Let me help you!" Gabrielle chided as she wrapped the remaining fish in clean leaves and put it on to cook. Grabbing the shift, Gabrielle knelt down by Xena. With Gabrielle's help, Xena sat up and put on her shift. As Xena looked up at Gabrielle to thank her, the world suddenly went white and her head started to spin. Gabrielle knew from the look on Xena's face that something was wrong.
"Xena! Xena what is it? What's wrong?" Gabrielle screamed as Xena fell backwards and her body started to twitch uncontrollably and her face grimaced in pain.
"Hit me," Xena said through the convulsions.
"Hit me in the stomach."
Gabrielle jabbed Xena in the stomach, but the punch had little force behind it.
"Harder!" Xena growled.
Gabrielle hesitated for a moment.
"Do it Gabrielle!" The look in Xena's eyes scared Gabrielle. There was only one other time that Gabrielle had seen such a wild look in Xena's eyes, and that was when Xena thought her father had been killed by the villagers in Lotia.
Gabrielle doubled up her fist and punched Xena in the stomach as hard as she could. Gabrielle fell backwards and watched in horror as mist poured from Xena's nose and mouth. Xena's body rose part way off the blanket as if the mist were pulling her with it as it exited her body. As the last of the mist was expelled, it pooled together and disappeared into the ground. Gabrielle sat there, not moving or speaking for several moments until she heard Xena hit the ground with a sickening thump. In a flash, Gabrielle was at Xena's side. Xena's body was limp and she was barely breathing. Gabrielle tenderly wrapped her arms around Xena and lifted her up.
"Xena?" No response. Gabrielle was starting to get anxious and unconsciously pulled Xena closer. "Xena?" A low, guttural moan escaped Xena's lips and she slowly opened her eyes. Gabrielle hugged Xena tightly and then gently laid her back down on the blanket. "Are you okay?" Xena nodded yes.
"What WAS that?" Gabrielle asked.
"I don't know," Xena said looking confused.
Gabrielle pulled the fish off the fire and unwrapped the leaves to let it cool. "Xena, are you hungry?"
Xena nodded and let Gabrielle help her to a sitting position. The fish tasted good and the friends ate in relative silence as each thought about what had just happened. After Gabrielle had finished her fish, she looked at Xena and noticed that she looked a little pale. "Xena, are you finished?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes," Xena said, the exhaustion evident in her voice.
As Gabrielle put her arms around Xena to lower her back down onto the blanket, Xena put her head on Gabrielle's shoulder and sank into her arms. Gabrielle was surprised, but more than happy to hold her friend if that's what she needed. Sometime even a Warrior Princess needs to feel safe. Gabrielle held Xena until she fell asleep, gently rocking her back and forth. Carefully, Gabrielle lowered the sleeping Xena onto the blanket and covered her up.
While Xena slept, Gabrielle took care of the smoked fish and tended to Argo. After a long drink and some fresh grass, Gabrielle brushed the mare's coat and gave her some oats. With the sun poised to set over the mountains, Gabrielle decided that she better find some more firewood. With an adequate supply of firewood on hand, Gabrielle grabbed her staff and Xena's weapons and sat down beside Xena. She didn't like the idea of spending another night in this forest and wanted to be prepared, just in case.
As the last rays of light filtered through the trees, Xena woke up.
"Hi, how do you feel?" Gabrielle inquired.
"Much better, thank you," said Xena as she looked deep into Gabrielle's eyes. Gabrielle understood what Xena was trying to say and smiled.
"I need to check your sides, okay?"
Gabrielle replaced the moss in each wound and tied the bandage again. She was relieved to see that the purple streaks were almost gone.
"I think most of the poison has been drawn out. You should feel much better in the morning."
Xena smiled faintly and then her expression changed.
"Xena, what is it?"
"I remember something. It was Marcus."
"Yes, I followed him into the forest."
"I don't know, that's what troubles me."
"Do you think the mist had something to do with it?"
"I don't know, but I'm going to find out!"
Gabrielle added some wood to the fire and Xena arranged her weapons so they were in easy reach.
When the two had first started traveling together, the silence around the campfire at night could be quite uncomfortable. Gabrielle would often try to talk, but getting Xena to do so was impossible. Xena was used to silence and often preferred it. Now, there was an easiness about the two friends that could only come from their closeness.
Both women were tired and it wasn't long before they were asleep. The night passed uneventfully and Xena woke up with the sun. There was a dull ache in her sides and her body felt stiff, but her senses were sharp. Xena shifted her body and accidentally bumped Gabrielle who jumped up in a defensive position with her staff in hand. The wild look on Gabrielle's face was so funny that Xena started laughing uncontrollably.
"You think that's funny?" Gabrielle said nudging Xena with the end of her staff in feigned anger.
"Yes I do!" Xena said clutching at her sides as she continued to laugh.
Gabrielle sat back down with a thud and smiled at Xena. "You must be feeling better this morning!"
Xena nodded her head and sat up. "Gabrielle, do you remember where that spider is?"
"Good. I want to go back there and take a look around."
"Xena, you're not well...."
"I'm fine Gabrielle."
Gabrielle knew from the look on Xena's face that she was determined and there was no way that Gabrielle was going to change Xena's mind. With a sigh, Gabrielle relented and went to retrieve some biscuits from one of Argo's saddle bags and a couple of the smoked fish.. Gabrielle handed Xena a biscuit and a fish and sat down to eat her own breakfast.
Gabrielle looked over at Xena, "You know something, don't you!"
Xena looked up at Gabrielle, "I'm not sure yet, but Ate may be involved."
"Ate? You mean another god is after you?"
"Goddess," Xena corrected, "She's the goddess of hate."
Gabrielle looked up and caught Xena's gaze.
"If Ate is involved, then this whole thing may have been a test," Xena said without breaking eye contact with Gabrielle.
"What kind of test Xena?"
Xena looked away from Gabrielle, unsure how to best answer her question. Discussing their relationship was not easy for Xena. "A test to see how close we are," Xena finally said.
"Xena, I don't understand?"
Xena looked uncomfortable with having to explain.
"Ate is the goddess of hate. She wants people to hate. Before you, that was all I really felt," Xena's voice trailed off. After a moment, she continued, "I think she knows that if something happened to you, that I would...."
"No Xena! You promised me!" Gabrielle interrupted, grabbing Xena by the shoulders. The fury in Gabrielle's voice startled Xena. "You promised me that no matter what, that you would not become a monster!"
Gabrielle sat back and watched Xena, trying to determine what she was feeling.
"Gabrielle, I want you to..."
"I'm not leaving Xena."
"Gabrielle, you could be in danger!"
"So could you!" Gabrielle's expression softened, "Xena you would have died if I hadn't been here!" Gabrielle reached out and lightly touched Xena's arm. "I know that you are just trying to protect me, but my place is here!"
Xena nodded in agreement, but under her breath cursed Gabrielle's stubborn streak.
Gabrielle went over to Argo's saddle bags and returned with some clean, soft rags. "Lay back," Gabrielle commanded and softly pushed Xena back. An obedient patient, Xena reclined and closed her eyes. She didn't want Gabrielle to see the worry there. Gabrielle untied the bandage and removed the moss. She then folded the rags and covered the wounds. With the bandage secured, Gabrielle stood up and offered to help Xena up. Slowly, Xena stood up. With Gabrielle's help, Xena put her leather and armor back on. The leather was stiff and there were a couple of holes from the spider, but nothing that couldn't be fixed. Gabrielle packed up their belongings while Xena watered and fed Argo. Usually Xena saddled Argo, but this time Gabrielle did it. As Gabrielle adjusted and tightened the saddle, she watched Argo nuzzle Xena as Xena rubbed the horse's neck.
"Xena, do you want me to help you up?"
"No, I think I'll walk for a while."
Gabrielle took the lead and headed toward the clearing where Xena had killed the spider. Gabrielle moved at a slow pace, but it wasn't long before Xena mounted Argo. It was less painful to ride. They could smell the decaying spider long before they walked into the clearing. Xena could see the dead spider hanging in it's web. She gingerly climbed off of Argo and stood by Gabrielle.
"Does anything look familiar?" Gabrielle asked.
"Vaguely," Xena said as she knelt next to the imprint her body had made in the soil two days before. Xena stood and walked over to what was left of the spider web. "This is where Marcus disappeared."
"Xena, do you remember anything else?"
"No," Xena said unsheathing her sword and cutting the web away from the boulder.
Xena mounted Argo and put her hand out for Gabrielle, "Come on, we're both going to ride." Gabrielle gave Xena an inquisitive look but extended her hand and let Xena help her up. Gabrielle slid her arms around Xena's waist, mindful of Xena's wounds, and held on.
"Where are we going?" Gabrielle asked.
"I want to know where Marcus was taking me," Xena said.
The trail Xena was following took them deeper into the forest towards the mountains. The hair on the back of Gabrielle's neck was sticking up again. She thought about saying something to Xena but didn't. Instead she rested her head on Xena's back and let the rocking motion of Argo's gait assuage her fear.
It was late in the afternoon when the trail started to wind it's way up the side of the mountain. The change in Argo's gait had brought Gabrielle out of her daydream and she could tell from Xena's posture that she was exhausted. Xena guided Argo off of the trail and over to a small, level area near the face of a small cliff.
"We'll camp here for the night." Xena's voice was high and tight and Gabrielle could tell that she was in a lot of pain.
Gabrielle slid off Argo's back and positioned herself to help Xena down. With great effort, Xena swung her leg over Argo's back and dismounted. Gabrielle quickly slipped her right arm around Xena's waist, while pulling Xena's left arm around her shoulders. Grateful for the help, Xena let Gabrielle lead her to a tree. With a slight wince from the pain, Xena sat down and watched as Gabrielle made camp.
Xena had mixed emotions about Gabrielle's presence. She knew that Gabrielle was in danger, and that bothered her, but she was also glad that she chose to stay.
Xena closed her eyes and drifted off. The crack of rock against rock woke her up. She opened her eyes to see Gabrielle starting a fire. It would be cold tonight. The temperature had already dropped several degrees in the short time since they had stopped. Xena tried to move, but her body had stiffened up. She looked over at Argo, who was tethered to a nearby tree, happily eating oats.
Gabrielle blew on the smoking tinder and the fire sprang to life. With a pleased look on her face, Gabrielle approached Xena and held her hands out. Grabbing Gabrielle by the wrists, Xena slowly pulled herself to a standing position and walked over to the fire to warm herself. Gabrielle had already spread their blankets out next to the fire and Xena sat down on hers, laying her sword beside her. Gabrielle sat down next to Xena and handed her a smoked fish and some berries that she had found while she was out gathering firewood.
While they ate, Gabrielle kept looking over at Xena. She was worried about her. The poison had been drawn out of Xena's body, but she was still weak and in no condition to fight.
"Are you in much pain?" Gabrielle asked.
Gabrielle didn't believe her. Xena ate the berries and some of the fish and then stretched out to sleep. The sun dipped below the tree tops and the temperature started to drop. Gabrielle tossed some more wood on the fire and carefully covered Xena up. She sat there for awhile as the light faded, watching Xena sleep. As was her custom, Gabrielle was going to record the events of the past few days, but she was so tired that she put the blank parchment down. As soon as her head touched the ground, Gabrielle was asleep.
In the dim light of the moon, a strange mist rolled down the face of the cliff and surrounded Gabrielle. Slowly, the mist disappeared into the young woman's body.
A cloud covered the moon and the night became very dark. Gabrielle was dreaming of Perdicus and the life they would never share. They were outside of Poteidaia in a beautiful green field having a picnic. Perdicus was gathering wildflowers to give to Gabrielle while Gabrielle wrote a beautiful story on a piece of parchment.
"Gabrielle! Come with me!" Perdicus beckoned Gabrielle to follow him.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and saw Perdicus standing there with an outstretched hand. Even though Gabrielle's eyes were open, she still saw the green field outside of Poteidaia.
"I'm coming Perdicus!" Gabrielle put the parchment down and stood up, letting her blanket dropped to the ground. Perdicus smiled and took her hand in his.
"Come with me, I have something to show you," Perdicus said.
Hand in hand they walked off into the night. Perdicus lead Gabrielle along the same path that Xena and Gabrielle had been following. It was very cold but Gabrielle didn't notice. In her mind they were in Poteidaia. The path went farther up the mountain and entered a narrow, deep canyon. The canyon path was barely wide enough for a horse, with the mountain on one side and a steep drop-off on the other. Perdicus and Gabrielle walked arm in arm and Gabrielle didn't notice that her right foot kept slipping off the trail. Half way up the canyon, the path was on solid rock. At a sharp bend in the path, Perdicus stopped Gabrielle and turned her to face him.
"I have to tell you something Gabrielle, but you won't want to hear it."
"What is it, Perdicus?" Gabrielle said smiling at him.
Perdicus grabbed Gabrielle by the arms, "It's Xena, she's using you! She doesn't really care about you! She's just trying to get to the Elysian Fields!" Perdicus' voice had turned cold and full of hate.
"Perdicus! What are you talking about? Xena's my best friend!"
"No she isn't Gabrielle, I am!" said Perdicus., tightening his grip on Gabrielle's arms.
"Perdicus, you're hurting me!" Gabrielle screamed.
"Xena's just using you! If she really cared about you she wouldn't have let Callisto kill me, would she!"
Gabrielle looked stunned. She didn't know what to say. "No Perdicus! Your wrong! Xena IS my friend!" said Gabrielle as she tried to pull free of his grip. Right before Gabrielle's eyes, Perdicus changed into Xena. The last thing Gabrielle heard was "I hate you Gabrielle!" as she was pushed over the edge into the dark canyon below.
Gabrielle couldn't believe her eyes or ears and then she abruptly realized that she was not in Poteidaia and that she was falling backwards into the night.
As the first rays of light appeared in the valley below, Xena opened her eyes. The first thing she noticed was Gabrielle's absence. Xena jumped to her feet despite the pain and stiffness in her body. Lying on top of Gabrielle's blanket was a piece of parchment. Xena snatched the parchment up and started to read it.
I'm leaving. I only joined you to find adventure and I can do that on my own now. Don't come after me because you won't find me. I don't need you. I can take care of myself.
The letter was left unsigned, but Xena recognized Gabrielle's handwriting. Xena stood there for a moment, not wanting to believe what she was reading. The letters on the parchment blurred as tears fill Xena's eyes and she started to shake violently.
"Noooo!" Xena screamed as she sunk to her knees and buried her head in Gabrielle's blanket.
"This can't be happening!" Xena thought as sobs wracked her body. The one thing that she feared most had finally happened! Gabrielle had left her.
Xena could feel the numbness creeping into her heart and soul. It was the only way she could deal with her pain. She looked up with a tear stained face and stared at the valley below her.
"It's not real, it can't be!" There was a pleading in Xena's voice that no mortal had every heard before.
Xena looked at the parchment again. The handwriting was indeed Gabrielle's, but the words were not, they couldn't be.
"She wouldn't do this to me!" Xena looked around the camp and noticed that Gabrielle had not taken her staff or anything else.
"Ate!" Xena screamed. "It won't work! I will not turn into a monster again! Do you hear me!" Xena rolled up the parchment and tucked it into her gauntlet for safe keeping.
Xena quickly packed up camp and set out to find Gabrielle. She followed Gabrielle's trail up the mountain and into the canyon. At the mouth of the canyon, Xena climbed off Argo. It would be easier to lead Argo by her reins. Xena noticed that Gabrielle had almost slipped off of the trail several times. In each of the places where Gabrielle had slipped, Xena looked down into the canyon with trepidation, expecting to see her friend dead at the bottom. Half way up the canyon, Gabrielle's trail disappeared. Xena followed the trail a little further up the canyon, but she could find no trace of Gabrielle. Coming back to the place where Gabrielle's trail ended, Xena stopped to rest and think.
Something was bothering Argo. She kept pulling at her reins and looking over the edge into the canyon below.
"What is it Argo?"
Xena stood next to Argo and peered into the canyon. At first she couldn't see anything but trees and an occasional glimpse of the stream that ran through the canyon. Then she saw her, lying at the bottom of the canyon in the branches of a huge tree.
"Gabrielle! Can you hear me? Gabrielle!" There was no response. It was a long way down to the canyon floor and it was too steep for Xena to climb down. Frantically looking around for a way down, Xena noticed that the canyon opened up a short distance away. Running as fast as she could up the canyon trail, Xena found a way down. There was no trail in the bottom of the canyon so Xena had to follow the stream back down. Coming around a bend in the stream, Xena spotted Gabrielle.
The color drained from Xena's face and her heart started to race when she saw Gabrielle hanging in the branches. Gabrielle was laying awkwardly across a large limb with the lower half of her body dangling free. Xena couldn't figure out how Gabrielle was staying on the branch until she saw the wood sticking out of Gabrielle's shoulder. Gabrielle had been impaled on a broken branch. Blood ran down Gabrielle's right arm and dripped into a pool at the base of the tree.
A shudder shook Xena's body as she realized that it would be a miracle if Gabrielle were still alive. Xena grabbed her whip out of Argo's saddlebag and with a quick flip of her arm, wrapped the end of the whip around a branch and pulled herself up to Gabrielle. Gingerly, Xena reached out a trembling hand to see if Gabrielle was breathing. A sense of relief flooded Xena as she felt Gabrielle's breath on the back of her hand. Xena knew that the tree branch was stemming the flow of blood from the wound. If she moved Gabrielle off of the branch, Gabrielle might bleed to death before the wound could be cauterized.
There was no place to camp in the canyon, so Xena knew that she would have to move Gabrielle back to their old campsite. Xena threw her whip over a branch directly above Gabrielle and tied the end of the whip around her friend. Xena hopped out of the tree and drew her sword. Pulling down slightly on the handle of the whip exposed the base of the branch that Gabrielle was impaled on. With one carefully placed stroke of her sword, Xena cut the branch away from the limb and freed Gabrielle. Xena gently lowered Gabrielle, cradling her in her left arm while she untied the whip. Xena examined Gabrielle and found that she had a badly bruised ankle and a rather large bump on her head, but no broken bones.
Xena gently picked Gabrielle up and laid her across Argo's saddle. By the time Xena made it out of the canyon, and back to the campsite, it was late afternoon. She gently placed Gabrielle on her side on a blanket and then started a fire, placing a dagger near the flames. Xena retrieved the necessary items to treat Gabrielle from Argo's saddlebag. Kneeling next to Gabrielle, Xena loosened her top and prepared to remove the piece of wood. With the hot dagger in one hand, Xena used the other hand to pull the wood out and quickly slip Gabrielle's top down over her shoulder. The wound bled profusely when the wood was removed and Xena could smell the searing flesh as she plunged the dagger in. Xena had done this many times before, but this time the smell made her sick. With the bleeding stopped, Xena bandaged the wound and pulled Gabrielle's top back up. Xena pulled Gabrielle's boots off and tightly wrapped her injured ankle. She then covered Gabrielle with another blanket. Leaning back against the face of the cliff, Xena fell into a fitful sleep as exhaustion over took her.
It was almost dark when Xena woke up. It would be cold again tonight and their supply of firewood was low. Xena fed and watered Argo after removing her saddle and left to find some more wood. After building up the fire, Xena sat with her back against the face of the cliff and pulled a blanket over her legs. In the flickering fire light, Xena removed the piece of parchment from her gauntlet and read it again. She was almost certain that Ate was behind this, but a nagging doubt lingered. Xena looked over at Gabrielle and then back at the parchment. She rolled it up and tucked it back in her gauntlet. Xena closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, hoping that her worst fear had not become a reality.
When Xena woke up in the morning, Gabrielle hadn't moved. Xena revived the fire and grabbed a rag and the waterskin that she'd left by the fire last night. She wet the rag and tenderly cleaned the dirt and blood from Gabrielle's face and body. As Xena worked, an overwhelming sense of guilt filled her heart.
"It's all my fault Gabrielle! I knew you were in danger and I didn't protect you! I wouldn't blame you if you really did want to leave." A single tear rolled down Xena's cheek and dropped into the dirt below. Xena took a deep breath and tried to gain control of her emotions. She stood up and realized that she hadn't eaten in a long time. Looking for firewood last night, Xena noticed the bush were Gabrielle had found the berries a couple of days ago. Grabbing a waterskin to fill on the way, Xena went to gather some berries.
When she returned, Gabrielle still had not moved. Xena ate the berries and sat down next to Gabrielle with the skin of fresh, cool water and a clean rag. The bump on Gabrielle's head had turned a nasty purple-black color and the swelling had not gone down. Xena soaked the rag in cool water and gently placed it on the bump.
Argo, who had patiently been waiting since last night, whinnied and pawed at the ground demanding attention. Xena complied and brushed Gabrielle's blood out of the mare's coat. Xena then turned her attention to her saddle and cleaned the dried blood off of it.
Xena rinsed the rag and placed it on Gabrielle's head. She was starting to get worried. Gabrielle should have regained consciousness by now. Xena sat next to Gabrielle and let the emotional war inside of her rage. Fear, anger, frustration and guilt were tormenting Xena's heart. With the back of her fingers, Xena stroked Gabrielle's cheek.
"Please come back!" Xena whispered.
With a heavy heart, Xena leaned back against the cliff and closed her eyes as she struggled to stop the tears. Her senses were so overloaded that she failed to notice Gabrielle move. With a start, Xena opened her eyes to find Gabrielle standing over her, her own sword leveled at her heart.
"You tried to kill me!" Gabrielle growled.
Xena sat there, momentarily shocked. "Gabrielle, what are you talking about?"
"You pushed me into the canyon! You said you hated me and then you pushed me over!" Gabrielle screamed.
Xena looked Gabrielle in the eyes and realized that both eyes were entirely white. With a swift upward kick, Xena knocked the sword away and jumped to her feet.
"Gabrielle, you've got to listen to me! The mist is controlling you!" Xena said as she picked up Gabrielle's staff.
Gabrielle thrust the sword at Xena who easily blocked it with the staff.
"I didn't try to kill you, you've got to believe me! Ate is behind this!"
The two women circled around the fire pit. Gabrielle leapt over the fire pit to confront Xena.
"It was you! I saw you with my own eyes!" Gabrielle lifted the sword over her head and brought it down hard, attempting to bury the blade in Xena's skull. With two hands on the staff, Xena raised it over her head and blocked the blow. Xena didn't notice the parchment fall out of her gauntlet. With Xena's arms over her head, her body was exposed and Gabrielle landed a solid roundhouse to Xena's left side. Xena crumpled to her knees in pain. Out of reflex, Xena swept Gabrielle's feet out from under her and Gabrielle landed hard on her back. Xena staggered to her feet as Gabrielle jumped up. Gabrielle raise the sword above her head and ran at Xena. Xena whipped the staff around and caught Gabrielle hard in the stomach with the end. Gabrielle crumpled to ground and dropped the sword. Xena swiftly picked the sword up and twirled it in her hand. The mist poured from Gabrielle's nose and mouth, lifting her limp body like a string puppet. As the last of the mist left Gabrielle's body, she crumpled to the ground in a heap.
The mist swirled around and formed into Marcus. Xena leveled her sword at Marcus' throat.
"It's not going to work Ate!"
Marcus dematerialized and the mist swirled again, changing into the goddess Ate.
"Xena, what happened to you? Your heart used to be filled with hate and rage. For every villager you killed, you left several behind to hate you. You might have worked for Ares, but you worshipped me! Come back Xena and I will once again fill your heart with hatred!"
Xena looked over at the crumpled form of Gabrielle and back at Ate. "No," Xena said simply and threw her sword down.
Ate's face filled with rage. "This isn't over Xena!"
Xena stared at Ate as she dissolved into mist and disappeared into the ground. Tenderly, Xena picked up Gabrielle and cradled her in her arms. Worn out from physical exertion and emotional turmoil, Xena sat down, still cradling Gabrielle. Hugging Gabrielle tightly, Xena let the tears flow. "How many times has Gabrielle been hurt because of me?" Xena sat there a long time, holding Gabrielle and silently crying. When she could no longer cry, Xena stood and carried Gabrielle over to her blanket. As gently as she could, Xena placed her friend on the blanket and covered her up. Xena sat there holding Gabrielle's hand until the last rays of light faded. With the temperature dropping, Xena started a fire and gave Argo some oats and water. Xena returned to Gabrielle's side and slipped her hand into Gabrielle's.
Late in the night, Xena opened her eyes to find Gabrielle watching her.
"Xena, what happened?"
"I found you in the bottom of a canyon, injured."
"How did I get there?"
"Shhh," Xena whispered, smiling at Gabrielle, "we'll talk in the morning!"
Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand and closed her eyes.
Gabrielle held Xena's hand all night. When Xena woke up, she didn't dare move for fear of disturbing Gabrielle. She gazed at her friend's face and gratitude filled her heart. Xena closed her eyes, and in a hushed voice, recited a poem from long ago:
Whisper from the Heart
I was lost in darkness
Until you came
To lighten my life
And restore my name
I lived in anger
And a world of hate
To Tartarus born
I controlled my fate
With a heart of stone
And a sword of steel
I sent to Hades
Against their will
Reborn of sorrow
For loss of life
To the world I come
Full of strife
A beacon guides me
On my way
As I strive for justice
That light is you
My eternal friend
Our souls are joined
To the very end
Xena wiped the tears from her eyes and took a deep breath. As carefully as she could, she let go of Gabrielle's hand and stood up. Slowly stretching, Xena winced at the pain in her side. The spot where Gabrielle had kicked her was tender.
The cool morning air was invigorating and Xena decided to take Argo for a walk. There was a small pond at the bottom of the ravine next to the campsite. Leading Argo by the reins, Xena walked her mare to the pond. There was an abundance of sweet grass around the pond and Xena let Argo graze freely. Dipping her hands into the cold water, Xena washed her face and arms. With Argo now watered and fed, Xena returned to camp. As she came over the top of the ravine, she spotted Gabrielle sitting up with her head in her one good hand. Xena looped Argo's reins around a tree branch and approached Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?"
Gabrielle raised her head and Xena saw her tear stained face. Xena was puzzled until she saw the parchment in Gabrielle's lap. Xena swallowed hard, she didn't know what to say so she sat down next to Gabrielle.
"Xena, I.....where did you get this?"
"I found it on your blanket the morning after you left," Xena said, turning slightly to face Gabrielle and trying not to let her voice quiver. The fear and panic from the first time Xena read the parchment returned. She felt more tension in the air now than in any battle she had ever fought. Xena knew that Gabrielle didn't mean the things that were written on the parchment, but she desperately needed to hear it from Gabrielle.
Gabrielle sat there, trying to read the expression on Xena's face. She couldn't remember writing this, but she knew it was written by her hand. Gabrielle looked at Xena and felt the hot tears on her cheeks.
"I feel like I've betrayed you," Gabrielle said softly.
Xena closed her eyes, unaccustomed to the intense feelings washing over her.
Gabrielle didn't know how to interpret the response, so she continued speaking.
"Xena, this is not how I feel! I would never say these things to you! Please say you believe me!"
Xena closed her eyes tighter, trying to fighting back the tears but it was a losing battle.
Gabrielle saw the tears rolling down Xena's face and realized that the words on the parchment had hurt Xena more that any physical wound ever could. She slipped her hand around Xena's and gave a slight squeeze.
"Xena, can you ever forgive me?"
Xena tightened her grip on Gabrielle's hand and slowly opened her eyes. The pain in Xena's eyes broke Gabrielle's heart and she let go of Xena's hand and instinctively pulled Xena close.
"Oh Xena, I am so sorry," Gabrielle whispered.
Xena felt Gabrielle's strong embrace and all resistance melted away. She listened to Gabrielle's heart, beating in time with her own. For the first time since her childhood, Xena felt that someone loved her for who she really is. A sob escaped from Xena's lips and Gabrielle held her tighter, knowing that for the first time, no walls stood between them. It was then that Gabrielle realized just how much Xena cared for her.
Xena pulled away from Gabrielle and looked directly into her eyes. Taking Gabrielle's hand in her own, Xena started to explain what had happened.
"None of this was your fault Gabrielle! Ate was behind this. She knows that I need your help to stay on the right path. Without you, she thought I would return to my old ways."
"Ate did this to me?"
Gabrielle dropped her gaze and looked at the ground, pulling her hand out of Xena's.
"I remember that I tried to kill you," Gabrielle said, choking on the words.
"Gabrielle, it wasn't you! It was Ate! She turned into a mist and invaded your body just as she did mine. She was controlling you. It wasn't your fault! You have to believe that!"
"I know that, but I still feel guilty."
"Do you really think you could have killed me?" Xena said with a slight smile on her face.
Gabrielle looked up at Xena and smiled, "No!"
Xena put her arm around Gabrielle and gave her a quick hug.
"How does your shoulder feel?"
"It hurts, but I'll live,"
"That arm will have to be immobilized for a while. I'll make a sling for you."
Xena went to Argo's saddlebag and took out a long piece of material and tied the ends together.
"Gabrielle, are you hungry?" Xena asked, putting the sling over Gabrielle's head and slipping her arm into it.
Gabrielle bit down hard on her lip and waited for the pain to subside, "You know I am!"
Xena laughed and retrieved the last of the smoked fish and handed them to Gabrielle. While Gabrielle ate, Xena saddled Argo and prepared to leave.
"Xena, where are my boots?"
"Packed, you won't be able to pull your boot over that ankle for a day or two. We'll both ride Argo."
Xena led Argo over to Gabrielle and helped her onto Argo's back. Xena climbed on behind Gabrielle and they headed west, both grateful to be leaving this strange place behind.
I would like to thank steelmagnolia for her unfailing support, without which this story would never have been finished. Thank you steel!
I am but a humble bard and without your comments, I have no way of knowing the value of my work. Robotx@kdcol.com
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