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Looking into the abyss
Xena awoke with a start, sitting bolt upright in her bed, drenched in perspiration, a deep sense of dread replacing the rapidly fading details of the dream. She threw back the thin blanket which clung to her uncomfortably and rose from the bed. As she moved unsteadily across the room, she wondered briefly if she were ill, but she knew the rhythms of her own body so well that this seemed unlikely. She poured water into a basin and splashed her face and then leaned heavily on the table, cool water coursing down the contours of her face, the hollow of her throat. She caught her reflection in the small mirror above the table and said aloud, "I have to go." Shed been restless for a couple of days and now something was pulling her inexorably back to the road. She had never been a slave to her muse; war, as art, was a concept few could embrace with any genuine understanding. And more often than not, she delighted in denying those sometimes overwhelming impulses to act, or not to act. But today...today the muse would win. She washed and dressed, not in the flattering blue peasant dress, but in her well-worn leathers. She tried to think of a gentle way to break the news to her mother. Things had gone so well between them on this visit. Her mother, Cenon, the townspeople...each had gone out of their way to make her feel at home. She would never again dread riding through the narrow village streets, or arriving unannounced on the threshold of the family inn. Amphipolis was again her home, and she was free...and welcome...to come and go at will. And now it was time to go. She would tell her mother now, and leave before noon. With some hard riding, she might reach Poteidaia by nightfall and surprise Gabrielle. Leaving her armor and weapons hanging from pegs on her wall, she went downstairs to the tavern.
* * * * * * * * * *
Leaning against the back of the cage, with her knees drawn up against her chest, Gabrielle suffered the heat, exhaustion and thirst in relative silence. She found that with effort, she was able to shut out a great deal of the ambient noise in the room -- the persistent murmur of voices, Anthors guttural snoring -- all receded into a dark corner of her consciousness. At the moment, Manus promised metronome was no more than a muffled base, rising from the cavern floor, thrumming through the iron bars of the cage, and thence into her own frame...and yet, it was nothing with which she felt she couldnt deal. She ran her tongue over her dry lips and settled her head against her knees, determined to mine some sleep from her exhausted body.
The bard responded incoherently without opening her eyes.
The voice persisted, "Gabrielle...its me..."
"Oh, please...." she murmured into her lap. "Just five minutes more..."
"You may not have five minutes. Wake up and look at me...and let me hear you say you love me just once more..."
Gabrielles eyelids fluttered reluctantly over her tired eyes. "Oh...hello, Perdicus," she murmured; his pleasant features blurred around the edges. "Am I dreaming?"
"Does it matter? You know the saying: when you think of the dead, the dead hear you."
"Yes," she replied, coming more fully awake to find him a solid presence standing before her. "Yes, Perdicus. Ive thought of you often."
Perdicus squatted outside the cage and caught Gabrielles fingers in his own. "I know. There are some days I hear your voice in my head and it never ceases." His free hand reached through the bars and wiped a smudge of dirt from her chin. "I hear your voice and its almost more than I can stand." He tightened his grip on her hand and licked his lips. "By the gods, Ive missed your smile, your voice...your smell..."
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. "Perdicus, I smell like..."
"Roses," he breathed. "Sweet, white, perfect roses...like the ones that grew outside my mothers house. Do you remember?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes and leaned her head against the bars in a vain attempt to get closer to him. "Yes, I remember."
"And do you remember our wedding night?" She nodded. Perdicus lowered his voice to
a smoky whisper. "How can I know you so well after just one night? I remember everything..." He caught strands of her hair in his hand. "You wore white, and a laurel wreath with tiny white flowers...and my heart...I thought it would break you were so beautiful..."
Gabrielle silenced his reminiscence, laying a finger across his lips, the same perfect lips she
had kissed on their wedding night. "Please, stop..." she sobbed. "I cant bear to remember..."
"No, Gabrielle!" he admonished passionately. "Embrace the memories. I thank the gods for mine. In the beginning, I thought it was a curse, now I can look back on that night and see how I once had it fine, and perfect...how you once loved me."
"I still love you..."
"Do you really?"
Gabrielles brow furrowed. "Perdicus, of course I do! Youre in my heart."
"Then prove it. Do something for me."
She pulled her legs beneath her and looked at him in earnest. Her hands anxiously fretted at the bars of her jail as she breathed intensity into verbal surrender. "Anything."
"Survive. Do what you have to leave this place, whatever it takes..."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Perdicus, you dont know what he wants...he wants me to --"
"Then do it!" He took her face in his hands and looked fervently into her eyes. "As badly as Ive missed you, as much as I love you, and want to be with you, I know that its not your time." He stroked her lips with the ball of his thumb. "I wont have you back under these circumstances. Its not fair to you. You deserve to live a full, rich life...you deserve a future with children, and memories, and captive audiences..." He kissed her through the bars without delay.
"Live for me, Gabrielle," he whispered as he released her. "Do this one thing for me..." He rose and moved away from the cage, all the while keeping his eyes fixed on hers. "Live for me..."
His words faded even as his body lost mass and color until all she could see was the memory of him, and then, not even that.
"Live for me..." she murmured, her eyes suddenly introspective. Live for you...Perdicus, I will.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Good morning, mother."
Cyrene looked up from her work, took note of her daughter's apparel but tried not to let her distress show on her face. "Good morning, Xena," she said brightly and turned her attentions back towards the pot she was scrubbing. "You slept late; that's unusual for you."
"Yeah, well..." Xena muttered, trying to sweep aside the issue. "Did Cenon bring anything by for me? A package?"
"I havent seen him this morning," replied Cyrene absently. "Should I send Petros to look for him?"
"No, its nothing that cant wait," Xena said simply. "What can I do to help? The marketing? I noticed last night that we were out of chicken and salt pork..."
"We have lamb to see us through till tomorrow," Cyrene replied pointedly. "Notus brought by one of his ewes early this morning. Did you -- " she began delicately. "-- have a late night with Notus?"
"Ooh, nice segue, mother," crooned Xena appreciatively. Every night since her arrival in Amphipolis, the farmer, Notus, had been a constant presence at the supper table; he would arrive conveniently at dusk, just in time to dine with them, and stay long into the night. Xena found his company pleasant, but nothing more, much to her mother's chagrin. "No, mother. As a matter of fact, he left shortly after you went up to bed."
Cyrene turned, wiping her hands on a towel. "Oh?" she said innocently.
Xena laughed aloud. "A blatant attempt at matchmaking, mother."
Cyrene placed her hands flat on the bar. "So where's the harm? You're a beautiful, young woman. Notus has his own farm, his own vineyard, and nearly one hundred head of sheep."
"If you tell me he makes his own tunics --"
"And he's quite handsome, don't you think?"
Xena considered a moment. "As men go, yes, he's handsome." She drew a stool up to the bar and proceeded to dry some newly-washed mugs and flagons. "Mother, we've talked about this..."
Cyrene became animated. "Did he tell you he has plans to expand his farm?"
"Yeah. He worked it in. Twice. Casually." Xena reflected that Notus did not excel at casual conversation. "If you think he has such potential, why don't you marry him?"
Cyrene reached across the bar and stilled her daughter's hands with her own. "Xena," she began seriously. "I just don't want to see you alone."
Xena blinked, waited a beat and replied, "But I'm not alone, mother. I have Gabrielle. Speaking of which..."
"You're leaving," said Cyrene, cutting her off. She turned away and once again began scrubbing the pot. "I thought you were enjoying your visit home."
"I was. I am!" retorted Xena defensively. "But you know me -- not one to let the grass grow beneath my feet." Her mothers dead silence was a cutting retort. Xena felt compelled to rise and join her behind the bar. "Mother," she began. "Mother, please look at me."
Determined to keep the emotional upper hand, Cyrene set the pot aside and leisurely dried her hands on a towel before turning to face her daughter, but as she gazed into those fathomless blue eyes, her resolve faltered. "Xena, I had hopes...foolish hopes, I realize now, that you might stay this time. Every morning I held my breath, waiting for you to descend those stairs and tell me you were leaving...and every morning you surprised me...nine mornings..."
Xena rolled her eyes, "Mother, dont make me feel guilty. Youre too good at it. I told you when I first arrived that I wouldnt be staying."
Cyrene lay a hand gently alongside her daughters cheek. "Im jealous of everything that takes you away from me...freedom, adventure...yes, even Gabrielle."
Xena lay her own hand atop her mothers and brushed her lips lightly against her mothers palm. "Mother, you know you have my heart. Ill always come home."
The one that broke the centaurs back
"Focus, Gabrielle..." she told herself. Every sound, every movement outside the small cage was a distraction. Manus' metronome -- deep, resonant pulses, bouncing off the cavern floor, stuttering off the walls in a staccato assault on her senses, her eardrums, her skin -- there wasn't a part of her that didn't scream out for silence. "You can do this..." she muttered, eyes closed, breathing in long, deep breaths through her mouth. It was purely by chance, while trying to employ one of Xena's meditation techniques that she discovered that the heartbeat filling the cavern was her own, pulled straight out of her chest, reflected and amplified with devastating effect. The source identified, she had immediately begun the difficult process of controlling the intensity and frequency of the assault. "Focus...in...out...in..." deep breaths, willing her heart to slow, to steady its rhythm...amazingly, it complied, its meter now a tolerable speed and volume. Tears slipped down the blade of her nose; to have played a part, even a small part in her own relief was immensely satisfying. Success bolstered her morale, and inspired her to wage yet another offensive on the cage lock, which, to Gabrielle's astonishment, sprang fully open after a few minutes of intense banging and jiggling. "By the gods..." she murmured, swinging the door open. "I can't believe it..."
"Given any thought as to how you're gonna get down from there?"
Gabrielle's heart leapt at the sound of the voice...so familiar...so wry...so timely..."Xena!" she
cried, and got hurriedly to her feet, sending the cage into a slight swinging spin. "Xena! Thank the gods you're here!"
On the ground, beside the warrior, Anthor lay unconscious, his bulky frame curled into an uncharacteristic ball. "Hang on. I'll have you down in a second." Xena's strong arms moved the crank with ease and when the cage was within a foot of the cavern floor, Gabrielle leapt from its confines, sprawling in a dirty, exhausted heap at Xena's feet. Momentarily, two hands gripped her shoulders like a vise and hauled her roughly into a standing position. "The predicaments you get yourself into..."
Gabrielle laughed with nervous relief. "I had some help this time," she said and went to hug her friend, who stepped back, putting space between them. "Hey, I know I'm a sight. Nothing a bath and a week's sleep won't cure." Xena's stare was cold, her face set in a grim mask of disgust that Gabrielle had no trouble recognizing. "Xena, what's wrong?"
"This scenario is getting old, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's brow furrowed. "Excuse me?"
Xena put her hands on her hips and made a slow circuit round the disheveled bard. "How many times have we been here? You in some dire trouble. Me coming to the rescue." Xena moved to where Anthor lay unconscious; she prodded him with the toe of her boot, and then regarded Gabrielle expectantly. "How many times?"
Gabrielles response was a wounded whisper, "I've lost count."
"At least you're honest." Without missing a beat, Xena drew her sword and thrust it
once into the unconscious man's chest. From somewhere to her left, Gabrielle emitted a
startled gasp. Xena turned to face her, sword at her side, sword point dripping blood. "What?"
Gabrielle's heartbeat, already fast, became frantic, and once again intrusive in the midst of this strangely callous and poorly-timed sermon. "Xena," she said, shaking her head, "Why? Why did you kill him?"
"This man is dead because of you," retorted Xena, approaching, leaving a trail of crimson droplets in her wake. She tilted her head and regarded the young bard with a vague sense of surprise. "Don't tell me you didn't know I would kill him. You got me here knowing full well that someone was going to die." With a flick of her wrist, she brought the blade to Gabrielle's throat in one swift movement. "Someone always dies." Savoring the terror on the girl's face, Xena caught the hem of Gabrielle's shift and nonchalantly wiped the blood from her blade.
"Xena...I...I don't...I don't understand...I thought we were friends..."
"Oh, please!" Xena threw her head back and laughed. "Your decision to follow me to Amphipolis was never, for one minute, motivated by friendship." She resheathed her sword in one of those casually graceful movements she performed without thinking. "No. It was the opportunity to leave Poteidaia that intrigued you, and you didn't care how you managed it."
"That's not true!"
"Be honest with yourself, Gabrielle. I was a means to an end, nothing more."
"Xena, I don't know what's making you act this way, but you're scaring me. Please," Gabrielle appealed, only to be abruptly pushed aside. "Xena," she stammered, her eyes brimming with tears. "Youre my best friend I love you."
"Never!" Xena wheeled and struck her across the face with such force that Gabrielle stumbled and fell backwards against the wall. Momentarily, Xena collected her thoughts and said in measured tones, "Don't you ever say those words to me again." She paced, hugging the periphery of the cavern, and when she spoke again, her voice was expressionless. "Early in our travels together you appointed yourself my conscience, my moral barometer. I never asked you to save me. I never wanted to be saved by you. Your petty proclamations of faith, loyalty and love offend me, they really do."
The sheer venom with which Xena's words were being hurled at her wounded Gabrielle more than had the physical blow; she sank to the ground and buried her head in her hands, sobbing.
"I've gone about as far as I care to with you, Gabrielle." Xena crouched down beside the girl, searching for just the right tone of voice to deliver her coup de grace. "You dont have to wade through any subtext here, Gabrielle. Ill say it straight out so your tired little pea brain will understand: were finished...as friends and as traveling companions...find your own way from now on."
"No," sobbed Gabrielle, raising her tear-streaked face to look into Xena's. "No, don't say that..."
"Look at you, sobbing like a child. I always suspected you were weak." Xena clicked her tongue in disgust. "Go home to Poteidaia, little girl, if you can work up the backbone to face Perdicus' parents...or maybe I should just do the merciful thing and put you out of your misery right here and now." Putting actions to words, Xena lay her fingertips on the hilt of her bootknife. "Your choice: home to Poteidaia, or dead...dead like Termin, and Mesmer, Marcus, Talus,
Callisto, and Perdicus..."
"Perdicus," echoed Gabrielle miserably.
"Yes, dead like Perdicus." Mesmer. Barruch. Dolas. Linius. Boroas. Agalia. Rhea.
Biton. Marcus. Talus. Ambrus. Farris. Alyssa. Phoebos. Termin. Callisto. Vara. Theodorus. Cletus. Gilles Phantes. Lyceus. M'Lila. Kepa. Cadmon. Fedor. Philamond. Ephiny. Melosa. Neola. Pandora. Orion. Diana. Lila. Perdicus. "Just like Perdicus." She raised an eyebrow and offered a sly smile. "I could've saved him. You know me -- always there for the block...when it counts." Xena squinted at the bruise already coming on Gabrielle's face. "Ooh, that's gonna be a beauty. You should put something on that."
Gabrielle gathered her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. "Oh, gods," she moaned, "Make it stop! Please, make it stop!"
"I can make it stop," Xena offered, trapping the girl's chin between her thumb and forefinger. "I can make it all go away."
In a little girl's voice, Gabrielle asked, "Would you?" She sniffed and fought back tears at the thought of release. "Would you do that for me?"
Xena smiled benevolently and stroked the girl's head. "I can give you peace. I want to give you peace. Submit," she crooned, showing a mouthful of perfect, white teeth. "That's all I ask. Submit."
Heartbeats sounded, echoed, passed, marking the nanoseconds it took for Gabrielle's tired eyes to lock onto those settled just inches from her face. Xena's now-serene countenance promised relief and peace. In a voice not her own, the bard whispered, "Yes."
Xena dropped to her knees before the girl and took her face in both hands. "Whose servant are you?"
Gabrielle returned the fervent, expectant gaze. "Yours, Manus. I am your servant."
The game won, the need for deception no more, it was Manus' coarse hands that held Gabrielle spellbound. Barely able to contain his elation, he ran a long thumb across her brow and murmured, "Sleep, child. Peace is yours." Gabrielle's eyes closed immediately, and her head grew heavy and limp in the high priest's grasp. With uncharacteristic gentleness, he eased her into a more comfortable sleeping position, going so far as to arrange one hand beneath her cheek for comfort. "Sleep, Gabrielle. In sleep, you are mine."
"Was it really necessary to kill Anthor, Lord?" asked Hesperos as he knelt at the sentrys body.
"I felt the extra push was required, and you saw the effect it had on the girl." Manus rose in his own time and turned to face his lackey. "You question my methods, Hesperos?"
"You know your will is mine, Lord. Im simply expressing regret at the loss of an able soldier. We have so few that are truly loyal to Morpheus."
"Agreed, but all that will change when I am once again flesh."
Hesperos regarded the sleeping girl with interest. "The girl was a prime subject...very susceptible to suggestion, but will the conditioning hold?"
"Long enough for retribution to be mine, and victory to be Morpheus. Everything that has transpired within these walls has been preparatory, Hesperos." Manus once again knelt beside Gabrielle. "The real work begins in the dreamscape. Yes," he whispered, stroking her hair.
"The metal is at last ready for the Maker's hands."
* * * * * * * *
Xena tightened the girth on the saddle, giving Argo a possessive pat as she did so. Adjusting the throat latch on the bridle, she casually leaned into the mares ear and whispered, "Is she still watching?" Argo gave a non-committal whinny. "Thought so." Xena braced herself, turned and caught her mother wiping the tears from her eyes.
"So you're off," Cyrene announced unnecessarily.
"Yeah. I want to get going before the sun gets too high." She took the parcel of food her mother offered and leisurely stowed it in her saddlebags, taking those moments to consolidate her jumbled emotions and muster her public facade. With her back to Cyrene, she made small talk. "I figure Ill take the southern route, across the grasslands, give Argo a workout. Shes grown fat on hay and grain. Weve both gotten too comfortable here."
"Thats not a weakness, Xena."
Xena turned, something approaching a smile on her lips. "No, of course not. Look, tell Cenon and Notus goodbye for me. Oh, and make sure Toris knows about that hole in the fence before you lose any more livestock. I mended it with some wire, but it needs his carpenters touch." Wringing her hands, Cyrene nodded wordlessly, and tears ran unchecked down the blade of her nose. Xena: Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations...melted at the sight. "Please, mother, dont cry. Ill be back...like a bad dinar. I promise."
Cyrene watched her daughters face hopefully. "The inn will seem so empty..."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Empty? With all those patrons coming and going, and Lysandra and Cenon under foot?"
"...empty without you," elaborated Cyrene. As tears spilled onto her cheeks, she stepped into Xenas waiting arms and they embraced for a long moment. Before they parted, Cyrene whispered, "Im missing you already."
Xena held her mother at arms length and grinned lopsidedly, "Yeah, missing me like the plague, Ill bet."
"Im serious, Xena."
Xena dropped her voice. "I know, mother. Youve been great; the whole village has been wonderful to me."
Cyrene lifted her daughters chin with her finger. "Youve changed. They see that."
Xena shrugged. "Maybe so," she conceded, but the confusion was plain on her face. "Its not often a warrior achieves a bloodless victory." She gave her mothers slim shoulders a final squeeze before swinging into the saddle. "Oh, tell Cenon for me...uh, never mind." Her sharp eyes picked out the boys white tunic, bobbing and weaving its way through the morning marketplace crowd. She pointed with her chin and winked at her mother. "Look whos coming."
Cyrene turned to see Cenon rushing towards them, shouting and waving a parcel over his head. She smiled. "His ears mustve been burning."
"Xena! Im glad I caught you!" Cenon said breathlessly. "Varian told me youd been by to pick up Argo. Youre leaving town?"
"Yeah. Is that for me?"
Cenon looked at the long, tubular parcel clutched indelicately in his right hand. "Huh? Oh, yes." He passed it up to her. "Ten sheets of the highest grade parchment Cadmon had available. Ive got your change here..." He made a show of patting his clothing, fishing for the few coins she had coming to her. "...somewhere..."
"Thats alright, Cenon," she said, saving him the further embarrassment of having to turn loose probably the first pocket money hed had in months. "You keep it."
Cyrene grinned. "Tell me the parchment is for your frequent letters home..."
"Actually," Xena said, stowing the parcel in a pouch that hung from the saddlehorn, "its for Gabrielle. I owe her. Well..." she threaded the braided reins through the fingers of one hand. "Its a long ride to Poteidaia."
"Take care, Little One...send word when you can..." Cyrene squeezed her daughters free hand. "You know where to find me."
Xena returned the squeeze. "Always, mother. Cenon," she said, her voice playfully dangerous. "Stay out of trouble."
Cenon popped a mock salute and took Cyrene by the elbow, moving her away from the horse. "Goodbye, Xena."
With a lingering glance at her mother, Xena spurred Argo off at a gallop, content at last that she had put a few old demons to rest.
Cyrene kept her eyes on her daughters retreating form until horse and rider topped the hill and disappeared from sight. "...shame she had to cut her visit short." Cenon was saying as he happily played two coins off one another. "I sure wouldve liked to have seen her use that chakram of hers. You know," he began enthusiastically, "I bet she could flick the flies off a horses ear at 200 paces!"
Cyrene turned and placidly regarded the prattling boy. "Cenon?"
"If youre here, whos minding the inn? If so much as a drop of my mead is missing..."
* * * * * * * * * *
Despite the late start from Amphipolis, the day was still young. The weather was agreeable and the sky so blue it hurt her eyes to look. Xena hadnt a care in the world. Shed chosen the more direct but less-traveled southern route to Poteidaia in the hopes that she could arrive at the tiny village by late afternoon, in time to dine with Gabrielle and her family. If the opportunity arose, she might even bring down a rabbit or a boar to supplement the dinner menu.
"Hyahhh!" She urged Argo forward at a gallop. She left the gravel road, taking a shortcut through a grassy meadow blanketed in wildflowers. Eventually, the meadow emptied onto a trail, its meandering path punctuated by fallen trees and small gullies born of snowmelt. Feeling strangely energized, Xena led Argo through a series of jumps, all the while maintaining an unbroken line of dialogue as she coaxed the horse over one obstacle after another.
At midday, they stopped near a stream where Xena dozed in the shade of the trees while Argo fed on the sweet grasses growing at the waters edge. But within the hour, horse and rider were again moving south at a rhythmic canter; Xena knew it was a pace that Argo could sustain indefinitely. As the sun was making its slow descent into the hills, Xena found herself on the outskirts of Poteidaia. From her vantage place atop a hill, she could see small, squat buildings arranged in a rough circle, and a short distance away, the ocean glinting in the waning sunlight. Xena reflected with some fascination that for a fishing village with a good-sized port, Poteidaia had somehow managed to avoid many of the pitfalls that came with being so advantageously situated; it was still small, yet productive, and relatively innocent. She had to smile when she realized that Gabrielle was so much the mirror of her environment. She dismounted, her legs rubbery beneath her as she touched the earth. "We walk from here, girl," she said, rubbing a hamstring. With Argo in tow, Xena started down the hill in the direction of the village. She could see, even at this distance, women mending nets outside the houses, children playing at their feet, the market bustling with last-minute activity before closing down for the day. Like her own home, it was harvest time, and the fields surrounding Poteidaia were being divested of their precious yield. Rows of wheat fell to the onslaught of scythes wielded by hearty village women whose men were no doubt hauling in fishing nets bursting with the days catch. It was a lifestyle Xena appreciated, but did not envy. For her, nothing yet matched the thrill of the road. A womans raised voice reached her ears on the wind and her eyes homed in on the source; a dark harried girl, hands firmly planted on her hips, was engaged in a somewhat forceful debate with a man twice her size. Debate might not be the right word, Xena thought, as the man had yet to utter one syllable in retort. The girl even talks between words. "Thatll be Lila," she said aloud as her long stride cut the distance between them.
As the man threw up his hands and stalked away in the direction of the village, Lila called after him, "...and dont expect to be paid one red dinar until I have those baskets in my hand!"
Lila wheeled, anger still emanating from her otherwise pleasant features. "Xena!?"
The hand clutching Argos reins began to sweat. "Youve grown."
"Yeah, well, it has been nearly two years." Lila brought her emotions under control with a speed that astounded her.
"I saw the way you handled that farmer; Ive had lieutenants under me not half that tough," Xena quipped, instantly regretting the reference. By the gods! how she hated small talk; she never knew how small it could be.
Lila stood facing her, hands on her hips, feet apart, a fine sheen of perspiration present on her upper lip and when she spoke, all traces of anger vanished. "So why are you here?"
"Would you believe me if I said I had an overpowering need to see Poteidaia again?"
Lila was tight-lipped and shrugged, "No. Theres not that much to see."
Xena cleared her throat and stabbed at the ground once with the toe of her boot before meeting Lilas dark eyes again; it wouldve given her a modicum of comfort to look into those eyes and see something familiar, something of Gabrielle. How could they share parents and blood and be so utterly different? "Lila, I know you don't particularly care for me..."
"Xena, don't," said Lila. "Its I who owes you the apology. When Gabrielle left to follow you, I was hurt and angry. I mean, I told her I understood, but I really didnt see how she could choose a stranger over her own family. Part of me thought for sure she would return in a few weeks...and when she didnt, I imagined all kinds of horrible things had happened to her."
Xena shifted her weight and pursed her lips. "Lila, you dont have to do this."
"But I shouldve known better," the girl persisted. "Not only did you protect her, but you taught her, too..."
Xena shook her head. "She learned. Theres a difference. If anything, Ive been her pupil."
"When she came home last year and staged a defense against Damons troops, I knew at last that she was meant for bigger and better things than being a village wife and mother..."
"Hey, theres nothing wrong with being a village wife and mother," interjected Xena, and when Lila rolled her eyes and presented a sweet, goofy smile, Xena thought, At last -- something of Gabrielle!
Lila threw up her hands. "Would you stop interrupting? Im trying to say Im sorry."
Xena searched the girls face, prospecting for sincerity; to her relief and surprise she found it in abundance. "Okay," she said at last.
"Youre always welcome here, Xena."
Xena took a deep breath. "Thank you, Lila. I appreciate that more than you know."
"Now, that aside," said Lila, smiling warmly, "Tell me you dropped my big sister on her arse on the side of the road. I wouldnt blame you at all."
Xena blinked. "What do you mean? Isnt she here?"
Lila quickly grew alarmed. "No. We havent seen her since last Solstice."
"She left me a week and a half ago at the crossroads. She said she was coming home for a visit," Xena said, all the warmth and joy of the past ten days slipping away on the cold trickle of perspiration running down her spine. "I expected to find her here..."
"Xena..." Lilas voice trembled, and fear shadowed her face as she watched the warriors confidence being replaced by dread. Her hands trembled at her lips like nervous birds. "Xena, whatll I tell my parents?"
Xena swung into the saddle with ease. "Tell them Ill find her, Lila. Ill bring her home.
I promise!" she called over her shoulder as she galloped away.
Seek and Go Hide
Stupid! her mind screamed, admonishing herself for her complacence. You've been enjoying yourself while your best friend has been missing, hurt, possibly even -- No! I'd know if Gabrielle was dead. Id feel it. Focus. When she reached the main road to Poteidaia, she at last slowed Argo to a walk and dismounted. Her head down, her steps mechanical and unwavering, she searched the road and adjacent greenery for signs, but found none. As dark was stealing over the land, she reluctantly stopped her search and made camp for the night. She passed hour upon hour plotting search patterns and cursing her complacency for letting her friend travel this road alone. But she did not sleep. When dawn was just an intimation in the sky, she kicked dirt over her dwindling fire and saddled Argo. By mid afternoon, she had reached Thebes where she proceeded to search the town, beginning with the The Fates Inn. Old business associates hailed her to join them for drinks, old enemies settled sweaty hands upon the hilts of their swords, and the innkeeper murmured something about not wanting any trouble. Xena ignored them all, quickly scanned the room by eye, and made a few inquiries -- talkative redhead, about so-high -- all to no avail. On the surface, she knew she wouldnt find Gabrielle in Thebes, but she had convinced herself that a methodical search was the best way to locate her friend. Three hours later, she rode from the town, a solitary and dejected figure astride a galloping horse.
At sunset, she arrived at the crossroads where she and Gabrielle had parted company almost two weeks before. She dismounted and studied the terrain for clues -- trampled brush, broken branches, footprints -- she found these in abundance, but there had just been too much traffic along the road since separating from her friend. Anything, or nothing, might have transpired on this spot. Xena looked up at the approaching night, cursing the need to stop. She led Argo off the road to a clearing and quickly got a fire going before returning to bed the horse down for the night. "Where is she, girl?" she said aloud as she brushed the animals coat. "Its been nearly two weeks." In her minds eye, she replayed their parting at the crossroads, Gabrielle chiding, Come with me to Poteidaia... And her own monosyllabic reply -- No. Xena leaned her forehead against Argos neck and closed her eyes in frustration, running her hand along the horses silky muzzle. "Im an insensitive idiot." The mare shifted and nickered softly and Xena had to laugh. "Youre supposed to disagree."
Returning to the fire, Xena lay a few twigs across it and sat down, chaffing her hands together and trying to ignore her growling stomach. There was food in her saddlebags -- bread, hard cheese and some fruit -- her mother had packed enough for two. How can I eat when Gabrielle may be starving? Consigning her gaze to the flames, her mind conceived scenario after scenario to explain Gabrielles disappearance, none of them particularly appealing and each of which left her feeling more guilty than the last. Eventually, she drifted into a light sleep where...
...she walked through a meadow on the outskirts of Amphipolis...the day was warm and her heart was light and at peace. She bent to gather an armload of flowers, breathing deeply of their perfume. Without warning, the buds opened, emitting a toxic, burning cloud. She threw the flowers to the ground as the meadow grew dark and foreboding. "No!" she screamed as the cloud enveloped her body...burning her flesh, searing her eyes...the dream was cruelly slow to unfold. There was time to see and feel everything.
Then the dream shifted; she was swimming in a calm, gentle lake while Argo fed on the bank. True to the formula, storm clouds blew up, massing in huge purple thunderheads. Lightning stabbed at the earth and heavy rain poured down with such force that it stung her skin. She swam hard for the shore in short, panicky strokes, but the once-calm lake was now angry with frothy, choppy waves. Just as she seemed to be making some headway for the shore, something warm and slimy gripped her ankle and yanked her roughly beneath the water. Time and again she kicked free, cupped her hands downward and parted the waters fighting for the surface, fighting to get a quick breath of air. Her rescue came in the form of yet another shift in the dreamscape...
...she stood on the path to the lake outside her home, a light mist swirling around her. She touched her face --whole, no burns, and her body was warm and dry. But it had seemed so real...
Xena wheeled and found Lysandra, the young bard from her mothers inn standing before her, her arms outstretched in supplication, her soft voice reaching out, too, gently calming her fears. Xenas heart rose and fell in milliseconds; just for a moment, she thought it was Gabrielle. "Lysandra."
"Yes, Xena, its me." Lysandra stepped forward. "We didnt really have the opportunity to talk back the inn."
Xena waved her aside dismissively. "Trust me, now is not the time."
"Now is the perfect time," countered the bard. "Ive been sent with a message for you..."
Wary, Xena cocked her head. "A message?" Her heart leapt. "Is it about Gabrielle?"
"No," Lysandra said sadly. "Ive been sent to warn you. You are in great danger..."
"Thats not an entirely original prophecy. Can you be more specific?" Lysandras form began to shimmer, and wink, gaining and losing solidity at intervals. "Lysandra, whats happening?!"
Lysandra gazed down at her hands, transparent. When she spoke again, there was tremendous fear in her voice, "He knows...he knows Im here. I dont have much time...an unspeakable evil is loose, Xena...controlling the dreamscape...dreams were the only way I could reach you..."
"Okay, its a dream, I got that much. Who is controlling the dreamscape? What unspeakable evil? Wheres Elkton in all this?"
"Elktons powerless..." Lysandra gaped at her disintegrating form with a mixture of terror and awe. "Xena...you must come...hurry!"
"Lysandra! Come back!" Xena came awake, shivering hard, the remnants of the dream still fresh in her mind. She looked about apprehensively. Save for Argo grazing nearby, she was alone amid the ambient sounds of the night. She pulled herself into a sitting position and took a deep breath. Her fire was a feeble glow in the darkness and she wondered how long she had been asleep; she begrudged every minute. She fed the fire with kindling until it glowed so hot and bright she had to turn her face from it. A groping inventory of her saddlebags yielded the wineskin. "No," she said aloud, denying her first impulse to drown the dream images in sweet red wine. Better to have a clear head to make any sense of them, if any sense could be made of them... wasnt a dream just a dream? If so, why should Lysandra play such an integral part in hers? She was deep in the midst of this self-exploration when she heard the snap of a twig at the edge of the camp. In one swift, graceful movement, she was on the balls of her feet, sword in hand. "Show yourself!" Night swallowed her words whole. Opening her eyes wide to let in all the light she could, she peered into the surrounding woods. "I wont ask a second time..." Out of the darkness, a form stumbled slowly into the firelight.
The Sixty-Four Dinar Question
"Gabrielle?" Xena gaped at her friend. "Oh, gods! It is you!" Instantly she swept her friend up in a big hug. "Where have you been?" Xena pulled back, finally getting a good look at Gabrielle; her clothes were dirty and blood stained, her body slouched in exhaustion and at her left temple was a nasty gash, just healing over -- the large bruise on her cheekbone appeared to be more recent. "Here, come and sit down." She guided the obviously-dazed girl to a place by the fire, relieving her of the quarterstaff and satchel. "Stupid question number one: how do you feel?" Gabrielle stared vacantly into the fire, her face taut with a look of extreme exhaustion. "Gabrielle ...hey, Gabrielle, look at me..." Xena had to forcibly turn the girls face from the fire.
When their eyes met, Gabrielles opened wide in unmistakable fear as she leapt from her seat, throwing up her hands in a defensive posture. "Dont hit me!" she cried, cringing.
"What?! Easy, Gabrielle..." crooned Xena. "Take it easy. No ones gonna hurt you..."
Momentarily, the fear and indecision on Gabrielles face resolved itself into a semblance of recognition until at last she regarded Xena with a mixture of surprise and relief. "Xena!?" she exclaimed, and threw herself into her friends arms. She stayed there for several moments, shuddering and sobbing until Xenas strong hands held her at arms length. "Xena," she stammered. "...I got lost...I didnt think Id ever find you again."
Xena grinned, trying to hide her concern. "Well, you found me before I could find you," she said, wiping the girls tears away with the ball of her thumb. "Thats pretty impressive, dont you think?"
Gabrielle nodded slowly and let herself be guided back to her seat. "Dumb luck...I saw your fire...and I was so cold..."
Xena placed a blanket around the girls trembling shoulders. "Well, youre safe now. Just rest
a moment, catch your breath." Xena set a pot of water to warm near the fire and then rummaged about in her saddlebags for the medical supplies. "Well get you fixed right up." Her fingers prodded the bards cheekbone with professional interest. "Oh, thats gonna be a beauty."
Xenas words struck Gabrielle as vaguely familiar. "What did you say?"
"I said thats quite a shiner." Xena began working. "You want to tell me what happened?" She could feel the muscles below her fingers tense.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and focused on Xenas face in front of her. "I'm...I'm not sure, really..."
Xena looked at her friend; in the firelight her eyes were luminous, her face pale. "Take your time," she said, making soft noises of encouragement. "Youre safe with me." She opened a small jar of grayish salve and spread some liberally on a clean square of cloth. "Now...you left me at the crossroads..." she trailed off, her brow knitted in concentration as she worked.
Gabrielles eyes flickered over her friends face and after a moment, she found her voice.
"The crossroads, yes. I was going to take a shortcut, try and cut my traveling time. I didnt want to be on the road after dark...ouch!" Her breath hissed through clenched teeth.
"Sorry..." Xena muttered, but her fears were put to rest by her friends watery smile...it was pale, the ghost of the real thing, but it was a smile. "Go on with your story."
"I remember walking along and coming upon this injured traveler..." Gabrielles brow knitted and her gaze turned inward as she struggled for details. "...all of the sudden these... warriors came pouring out of the forest...there were so many of them...I couldnt..." her voice trailed off and Xena could see that she was clearly agitated.
"Its all right. Thats enough for now." Xena tied a bandage around the girls head and made the whole thing fast with a tidy square knot. "There. Not too shabby. How does it feel?"
Gabrielle tentatively touched the bandage with her fingers. "Aches a bit."
"Ive got something brewing for that." Xena sat on her haunches and carefully framed her next question; she began with a delicate preamble. "Gabrielle, do you remember...did these men ...hurt you?"
Gabrielle swallowed deeply. "Hurt me?"
Sweet Athena, Xena thought. Shes gonna make me say it. "Did they rape you?"
Gabrielles hesitancy was cruelly slow, and Xena couldnt help but think, however briefly, that it was intentional on the girls part. At last, Gabrielle shook her head and uttered a simple,
Xena sighed palpably. Her mind working frantically to make some sense of her friends rather disjointed story, she cast about for still vital, but less uncomfortable information. "This happened the first day?" The bard nodded slowly. Xena placed some leaves in a cup and covered them with hot water. "Willow bark tea...for your head," she said, placing the cup into Gabrielles hands. "So where have you been since then?"
"I...Im not sure..." Gabrielle gripped the cup so tightly that some of its contents sloshed onto the ground. She took no notice as she drank deeply of the tea; she made a face as it went down. "The first thing I remember is stumbling through the woods...and seeing your fire..." She caught Xena watching her closely. "This really is awful stuff," she confessed, finding a smile amidst her confusion.
Xena returned the smile, somewhat relieved. "Hungry?" She pulled some bread and fruit from her pack and Gabrielle descended upon the food ravenously. "Thatll be a yes," she said with a chuckle. "You mustve been wandering for some time by the looks of it..."
Gabrielle grunted noncommittally, but when Xenas expectant gaze didnt waver, she paused, her teeth sunk half-way into an apple. She swallowed and, dreading the answer, ventured, "How long?"
Xena weighed the possible impact of the truth on her friend before replying, "Youve been missing 10 days."
Gabrielles hands fell slowly into her lap. "Ten days..." she muttered in a disbelieving whisper, turning the half-eaten apple over and over in her hands. "Xena...why dont I remember?"
Xena sensed the last of Gabrielles control was fading from her; she reached out to still the girls fidgeting hands. "Its not unusual...you took quite a blow."
If she had been there... Gabrielles suddenly reproachful eyes locked onto Xenas and she parroted coldly, "If you had been there, it would never have happened."
Xenas gaze wavered, stung by her friend's accusation. "Im sorry, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle blinked, shook her head to clear it and made an immediate effort to apologize.
"No, Xena," she said, touching her friends hand. "I'm the one who should apologize. That was a horrible thing for me to say. I'm guess Im just not quite myself." Sleep. "I think I just need to close my eyes for a while."
"Yeah, sure, sleeps the thing," said Xena with a buoyancy she didnt feel in the least. "We'll talk more in the morning." Without further word, Gabrielle lay down beside the fire, drawing the blanket over her legs. The voices of the day still whispering in her head, she drifted off to sleep. Xena moved to a position opposite, spread her own blanket and sat crossed-legged upon it, her sword across her knees. As she sat watching her sleeping companion through slitted eyes, in the midst of the profound relief she was experiencing was the uncomfortable feeling that Gabrielle was not telling her everything she knew.
Sleep... Manus sibilant whisper pervading the dreamplane, falling like foul waters in Gabrielles ear as she dozed in seeming peace at the fires edge. In sleep you are mine...
"Lord?" Hesperos shuffled uncomfortably before repeating himself. "Lord Manus?"
"I heard you the first time, Hesperos," replied Manus, irritation creeping into his voice. "You have news?"
"Yes, Lord. All the arrangements have been made, as you prescribed. Lysandra performed just as you suspected she might."
"Of course, she did. Shes Elktons prize pupil...what better messenger...what better message to bring the Warrior Princess back into the fold...the fade out was an especially nice touch...your idea?"
Hesperos gave a minimal shrug. "It appears Lysandra has a gift for improvisation. Excuse me, Lord Manus, but I thought the girl, Gabrielle, was your chosen tool."
"Gabrielle...Gabrielle is a work in progress. I am hoping to employ her to administer the final blow, the coupdgrace..." The benevolent smile morphed into a thoughtful grimace. "Her will is strong...even after all the pre-conditioning, she resists me. Thats why these moments in the dreamscape are so vital, Hesperos, and why they should be uninterrupted."
"Point taken, Lord."
"Now, leave me. I have seeds to plant."
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