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General Disclaimer: All characters depicted belong to Renaissance Pictures/Universal, etc. This story is just for fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.
Violence: Its Xena, what can I tell you? But I will say that this is not a war story, it is first and foremost a love story.
Subtext: The subtext is here and shall not be denied. No gratuitous sex, just a fair bit of innuendo and flirtations involving women in love.
Lucy Lawless Alter-Ego disclaimer: Just for the hell of it I thought Id have Lucy Lawless Xena meet up with one of her alter egos from the past, Lysia from "Hercules and the Amazon Women", but theres no corny "hey you look familiar" jokes I promise....ohh well maybe just a couple in the beginning:-)
Spoiler disclaimer: This story is set after "Bitter Suite" but before "One Against an Army". I refer to the Herc telemovie "Hercules and the Amazon Women" but have chosen to ignore the whole "Zeus sends Herc back in time to fix everything" thing. I loved the Lysia character and wanted to use her, so...As far as Im concerned Herc did go to Hippolytes Amazon village and Lysia did kick the living daylights out of him and it was a satisfying, feminine-affirming experience all round. None of this going-back-in-time-and-having-it-never-happen stuff. Iolaus just stayed home and stopped himself from getting killed. Or maybe he hung around to gawk at the Amazons. But since this is my fantasy world I get to decide what happened and what didnt, and I make no apologies:)
Dedicated to all the writers involved on Xena:Warrior Princess, whose work I admire enormously.
Xena had always been a light sleeper.
With senses quaking and voices lurking around every corner of her darkened mind she was too afraid even to close her eyes. Somehow, nearby, she could feel Gabrielle. The bard was sprawled across her blankets, in her normal style no doubt. No matter how hard she tried she could not make her neck muscles turn so she could look at her.
She could sense another fire off to the left, still smouldering from being banked against the chill hours ago. It bothered the warrior in Xena that she didnt know who was there. All she could feel were presences, strange unwelcome bodies. Strange meant possible threat.
She had tried thousands of times to reach for her sword, but her arms refused to obey even that most instinctive and usual of commands. Her brain registered a suspicion that the weapon was not there anyway, she could not feel its familiar weight tugging at her shoulder blades. Tripping around in circles her mind blazed in anger again.
How dare they take my sword?
She felt the bard stir beside her.
"Xena? Xena are you awake?" Gabrielles voice cut through her fear, piercing deeper than a spear thrust.
Yes Im awake, Im always awake with you.
"Xena can you hear me?"
Of course I can hear you.
"Xena, please talk to me, please tell me youre all right in there..."
I am talking to you, why cant you hear me? Open your mind Gabrielle!
"Can you even just look at me...?" She heard the bard plead. Xenas head felt like it would burst with the effort. The muscles just wouldnt move.
I cant seem to be able to do that Gabrielle. I want to, believe me I want to.
* * *
"She hasnt moved for two days. Its all Gabrielle can do to get her to take some water every few hours. Its almost as if theres just a shell lying there, that Xena is gone."
Ephiny paced along the wall near the main gate of the compound, under Solaris watchful gaze. Around them the other Amazons walked quietly, trying their hardest not to disturb their regent except for the most important of decisions that had to be made for the Amazon nation.
Solari shook her head impatiently. "I know how you feel about her, we all do, but there are some things that take precedence. You have to start thinking of how the village feels about this."
"And how does the village feel about this Solari? That Xena betrayed them? Betrayed us? Dont they understand that one of our warriors has shamed the Amazon nation? She broke the rules of combat by going on her own personal little mission of vengeance."
"Some of them understand how Anya felt. They understand her motives."
"Doesnt anyone understand compassion? Forgiveness? Xena saved my life the day my son was born. I owe her no less." Ephiny stood defiantly, her shoulders squared and tensed in obvious frustration. "And Solari, if that doesnt silence them, let them all remember she is the chosen of our Queen. Gabrielle would spend the rest of her life trying to save Xena if she had to. At least she should know that she has the support of her own people."
Solari nodded wearily to her regent before stalking lithely up the main stairs of the gatehouse. She barked some orders to the sentries there. Solari knew, without being told, that someone had to proceed with the process of keeping the Amazon Nation functional until the crisis was over. Busy warriors disciplined well were less likely to take matters into their own hands and make everything worse.
Ephiny watched her go, sighing to herself. Why doesnt Solari understand this? Weve never really disagreed on anything before. The regent couldnt help thinking it seemed to be symbolic of what was happening all over the Amazon Nation. Warriors were divided on the issue of Xena, some still insisting that Xena be brought to trial and made to pay for her crimes against the Queen and the Nation.
Well, in her current state she cant order breakfast, let alone bear witness to her own actions. Theyll all just have to wait.
Ephiny had overseen the removal of the Warrior Princess from the burial grounds the night before. Gabrielle had stayed close, partly because it wouldnt cross her mind to be anywhere else but by Xenas side, and partly to ensure that Xena didnt suddenly burst out of her catatonic state and kill one of the attending warriors on pure instinct. After the first twenty four hours Xena had stopped flailing wildly at everyone who came near, slipping further and further away from their reach, lost.
Stretchered between Argo and Solaris mare, Xena had lain peacefully on the short journey back to the compound. The strange warrior, Lysia, had hovered nearby, following orders to the letter but otherwise being almost shy and uncommunicative. Anya had recovered from everything but Lysias perfectly placed knife wound, and had been confined to the infirmary, forbidden to move without Ephinys personal approval.
The last thing anyone needed, Ephiny thought to herself, was for Anya to slip a knife into Xenas shoulder blades during the night without anyone the wiser.
* * *
Lysia sat in the hut that she shared with three other warriors. distractedly sharpening her sword. Her pride had been hurt when Ephiny had firmly but politely declined her offer to be a part of the guard squad that provided day and night security outside Xenas hut. She understood of course. Ephiny couldnt afford any more mistakes, she wanted people she knew and trusted to guard the sick warrior. If she were in that position she would have done exactly the same thing.
Gabrielle had not intervened of course. Lysia got the feeling that the Queen - why hadnt Xena told her that? - didnt entirely trust her either. She blames me for letting Xena go off alone, Lysia thought grimly, grating the stone harder and harder against the smooth steel of the sword.
That scraping sound was a sound that she knew soothed and calmed most warriors, and set the nerves of non-warriors on edge.
Gabrielle, you of all people should know that I didnt have a choice. When Xena orders you to do something you do it.
With a small grunt of respect she had to admit to herself that the Queen had probably disobeyed an order or two from Xena in their travels. That was probably why they were both still alive. Xena had been wrong to go off alone, bending to her emotions instead of heeding her warrior instinct. Lysia also knew enough about being a warrior to know that it was mistakes like that that made a warrior human rather than a cold killing machine.
What she didnt know, and would never ask, was the story behind the burial ground, and the frightened look of comprehension that had crossed Gabrielles features when she realised where they were. The Queen had been grateful to her of course, for the knife that had saved Xenas life. Everything she could possibly want was provided for. She was a guest in the camp, not some suspiciously guarded stranger. The hostile looks some of the warriors gave her were understandable, though no less irritating for that fact. She had been Xenas partner in the game and felt like a part of what had happened out there in the forest, but she barely knew the Warrior Princess, not even by her apparently well deserved reputation.
Tiring quickly of the sword sharpening exercise Lysia sheathed the blade and left the hut, determined to find something constructive to do. She surveyed the compound, the dinner hut, the practice yards, all with a trained eye for detail. Her conclusion was a renewed respect for Solaris organisation and efficiency. Of all the women in the camp, she was the only one who looked at a loose end, everyone else had the look of duty or purpose about them, striding quickly rather than loitering in any particular direction, destination and task firmly in mind. Lysia turned towards the practice yards where a group of young women were being led by a strict weapons master in their drills. At her approach the teacher turned and Lysia felt the womans eyes giving her the once over of an experienced warrior.
"You must be the stranger, from Queen Hippolytes tribe, that weve heard so much about." The weapons master said, gesturing to her assistant, a tall, wiry blonde woman, to continue the session. The students never missed a beat, so schooled were they in their routines. Lysia raised an eyebrow in apprehension, but held out an arm in greeting. The weapons master gripped the arm firmly without hesitation. Lysia relaxed a little inside as the expected hostility seemed not forthcoming.
"My name is Lysia."
"Eponin. Weapons master."
"I had a similar position in my village, I think, though without the title."
"Sword, staff, dagger, bow... whatever."
"Chobos?" Eponin inquired, bending to pick up a pair of black, short staffs, clubbed slightly at one end with hand grips.
"Ive never even seen these before." Lysia admitted, intrigued.
"Theyre a little lighter than your average short sword, though weighted at the tips to put more power in the swing. Like this." Eponin demonstrated a series of deadly sweeps with the weapons held firmly in both hands.
"Here, try them out." Eponin held out the weapons and Lysia grasped them eagerly, hefting them to feel their weight and balance in her hands. She was constantly aware of Eponin's critical, appraising gaze, not even slightly concerned that the weapons master would find anything to criticise in her warriors movement. She swung the chobos as Eponin had done, earning herself a nod of approval from the tall woman, surprised to find herself colouring a little under her praise. The Amazon half grinned in return.
"With some practice Im sure youll pick this up in no time."
"Anything is possible...with the right teacher." Lysia quipped suggestively. Eponin gave a smile that showed she was no stranger to the game, and not at all shy about the fact.
"Of course. A good student-teacher relationship is imperative."
"Do you try to develop that relationship with all your students?"
"It wouldnt seem fair to favour some while neglecting others, now would it?"
"Oh, I dont know about that. Im all for favouritism." Lysia smiled. Eponins eyes lingered purposefully over the strange Amazons arms and shoulders as they continued to swing the chobos, still a little clumsily, in their powerful arc. The ripples under her tanned skin betrayed a perfectly conditioned warriors body. She looked up into Lysias casually smiling face.
"Well I suppose its possible to make an exception."
The drill class were finishing up their routine and were busy stretching out, waiting for Eponins instructions. Almost as if nothing had happened Eponin turned and separated the class into groups of four, instructing them quickly in the next exercise, a drill with blunted swords with one warrior pitted against multiple opponents. She turned to Lysia.
"Would you like to help me demonstrate the next exercise?" She pointed to a stack of swords lying on the ground next to the practice mats.
"It would be an honour." Lysia replied honestly. She tested a few of the swords for weight, and, finding one that suited her, joined the line-up of three older warriors who were preparing for the next part of the class. Clasping arms with each one in turn she listened carefully to Eponins speech to the group of young, aspiring warriors.
"We can never count on our enemies being courteous and coming for us one at a time. In situations like this it is better to disarm and immobilise rather than trying for the immediate kill which takes more effort, and ultimately takes your concentration away from the next attacker. Never forget eye contact, it is imperative to second guess your opponent. Where do they think your weaknesses are? Show them a deliberate hole or two, then slam shut the opening when they commit themselves. Dont chase them, let them come to you. And most importantly, fight on your own terms, or look for a good escape route."
Eponin gave the signal for Lysia and two others to come forward and attack. Unsure of the weapons masters fighting style, Lysia chose to hang back initially, watching as the two others charged and engaged the warrior quickly. When she finally approached she came from the front rather than behind, choosing instead the surprise of a full frontal attack.
Taken slightly off guard by a round kick from another opponent, Eponin nearly fell under Lysias sword blow, the strange Amazon marvelling at the strength in the weapons masters shoulders and arms that kept away the smashing blow from above. In a spinning move that Lysia was helpless to prevent Eponin freed herself from the trap and dispatched one other warrior from the mats, roughly and securely so that the woman was not returning hurriedly to the melee. Swinging her sword gleefully, Lysia attacked again, warding off Eponins blows by instinct, the blood rush threatening her momentarily with giddiness.
Suddenly there were only two remaining as the second Amazon warrior bowed out to a sword thrust to the arm that would have, if not for the blunted blade, severed her sword arm from her body. Lysia thought she saw a moment of weakness under Eponins arm, but, the words of Eponins speech still fresh in her mind, she hung back, waiting for an opportunity she herself created rather than a trick opening offered by her opponent.
Her caution was rewarded by a knowing smile from Eponin, who closed the opening almost as quickly as she had revealed it. Holding up a hand to temporarily halt the combat, she turned back to the class.
"Of course, you may always come across an opponent who is too good for the average tricks and whom you must devote your full attention to. The strategy would then be to isolate that opponent early in the combat and dispatch your other opponents, allowing you to concentrate on the stronger opponent one-on-one."
Eponin explained her tactics matter-of-factly to the class, her voice steady, betraying only the smallest hint of the adrenalin coursing through her body. Lysia nodded her head slightly at the compliment and waited for the combat to resume, her sword steady in her hands.
The two Amazons began to circle each other on the mats. Trickles of sweat began to roll down their faces under the hot summer sun, the grips on the blunted swords becoming slippery making the sword more difficult to control. Both women, having trained for such problems, barely noticed the inconvenience, their minds and eyes settled squarely on their opponents.
Swords clashed as the two women sparred off ferociously, eyes locked in what was rapidly turning into something akin to a dance. None of the movements had the viciousness of real combat. The bout had turned into a demonstration of trick swordsmanship, the women spinning and blocking, rivalry being surpassed by a feeling of beauty in an art that both women were passionately devoted to. A powerful spin knocked Eponin to her knees, but a graceful upper-cut with the hilt sent Lysia hurtling backwards with a flip, landing poised like a cat ready for the next surge forwards. Their swords sculpted the air between them.
Almost immediately, the demonstration began to attract the attention of Amazons who were working near the practice yards. The yells and cheers of the students distracted the older warriors from their duties and they wandered over, quickly caught up in the ferocious beauty of the combat. Soon the onlookers had doubled in number, all shouting encouragement to one woman or the other, Lysia for her part attracting as many followers for her unexpected skill as the weapons master attracted through loyalty.
Solari watched from her gate post with bemused interest. She knew that she couldnt let the disturbance go on indefinitely, but her leaders instincts told her that any distraction from the tension of the past days in the camp was a welcome respite. She even gave herself a moment to marvel at the newcomers dexterity, her commanders mind steadily wheeling with possible ways to use and improve this young Amazons already impressive skills.
Looking down she suddenly spotted Ephiny heading determinedly towards the huddled group and moved quickly down from her tower to intercept her.
"Solari, what in Tartarus is going on here? I thought I asked you to keep everyone under control!" Ephiny fumed.
"Relax, Ephiny. It seems Eponin and the new warrior who came in with Xena are testing out each others strengths and weaknesses as a lesson to the students. Just a friendly duel from what I can see." Solari explained. "I was just about to come down and break it up."
"Dont you think weve had enough of friendly games for the moment?" Ephiny snapped.
Recognising the stress in Ephinys voice Solari nodded quickly. "Yes, my Queen. Of course, I didnt think..."
The commander began to move to break up the crowd when Ephiny caught her arm. "No, Solari wait." Ephiny took a deep breath and stepped closer to her trusted friend. "Im sorry. Im just being irrational."
Solari said nothing, just moved her hand to touch Ephinys cheek, brushing her fingertip lightly along a worry line she swore hadnt been under the regents eyes just days ago. For a second Ephiny allowed herself to enjoy the touch, and then, regretfully, moved Solaris hand away.
"Eponin and Lysia? I had no idea Lysia was that good."
"Neither did anyone else it seems."
"Maybe Xena knew." Ephiny stared at the crowd once more, shrugged, and moved away back towards her command hut.
Solari stared after her and frowned. I hate seeing her like this, so stressed and frustrated. The second-in-command let her gaze linger momentarily on the retreating back of her lover and Queen, and then moved over to the first row of onlookers.
Pressing her way through the crowd Solari stepped onto the mats. She held up her hand, a signal that the two concentrating warriors, drenched in sweat and heaving for breath, instantly obeyed. The crowd went quiet, expecting a stern lecture from the warrior, but Solari merely smiled.
"I think, considering that we all need to get back to our duties, that we might call todays combat a tie?"
Eponin and Lysia looked at each other, smiled broadly and clasped each others arms in a warriors salute. The assembled crowd of Amazons whooped loudly, some banging drums and bursting into song as they moved slowly away, back to their assigned tasks within the compound. The young warrior students milled around, questioning the weapons master and the strange Amazon about many of the techniques theyd used in the combat. Eponin looked sheepishly up at Solari. She was surprised when the woman merely threw her friend a knowing grin and the Amazon salute of respect, before striding back to her post in the gate house.
After the group of students had been shuffled off to the dinner huts for their lunchtime break, Eponin flopped down exhausted in the sun. Lysia followed suit.
"Youve got so many moves Ive never seen before." Eponin started.
"It comes from being taught to fight in a completely different environment I think. We fought in the thick jungle, using our balance in the trees and hiding under the debris on the forest floor. There was never quite enough space to manoeuvre those wonderful spinning kicks you have." Lysia replied casually, picking up her real sword and playing with the buckle on the scabbard.
Eponin watched Lysias movements with a knowing eye. Do I make you nervous Lysia? "I wouldnt mind having your ability to fall and just jump back on your feet. Anyone would thing you were a mountain cat." Eponin commented sincerely, keeping her secret thoughts hidden behind the mask of casual conversation. "I guess we could learn a lot from each other." Her voice trembled slightly. Bold, but it might work.
Lysia returned the weapons masters piercing gaze. "Im looking forward to it." The new Amazon jumped to her feet and buckled her sword tightly to her belt. "I think I should go and see where Solari wants me. All this sitting around is enough to make me go stir crazy."
Eponins eyes flashed with sudden inspiration at Lysias words. "I think shell want you here, with me, to teach. Thats if the woman has any sense at all. That was what you did in your home village wasnt it?" Lysias eyes lit for a second, then rational thought calmed her enthusiasm.
"I dont think Solari trusts me enough for that kind of duty."
"It takes time to build trust Lysia. Most of us here have known each other our whole lives, we don't know any other way. Im sure you know what that feels like." Eponin reached out her hand and grasped Lysias shoulder firmly. "But this is what you should be doing. The only warrior Ive ever faced who is better than you is Xena. And between you and me, shes not much of a teacher." Eponin grinned at the doubt in Lysias eyes. "You just leave Solari to me. She wont refuse me a direct request. And then youll earn the trust that I know theyll give you."
"Why do you trust me?"
"Ive seen your face down the end of my sword. You dont want to harm me."
"Not harm, no." Lysia replied quickly, and felt Eponins grip tighten on her shoulder.
* * *
Oblivious to the noise and activity outside, Gabrielle rinsed a cloth in cold water and applied it gently to Xenas forehead, trying to ward off some of the effects of the heat. The hut they were in was warm and stifling, filling her senses with unwanted flashes of memory. Her eyes clouded over and she could suddenly feel the overpowering heat of the purification hut, her pores draining themselves of moisture... and guilt. If she let herself sink into the memory she was sure she could hear Callistos mocking voice, controlling her emotions as the delusions took hold of her.
"You hate her, dont you? You hate her. Dont you? Dont you? Dont you!"
The words had floated around in her head, repetitions prodding painfully against the soreness of her soul. She could feel her body lashing out.
The only delusion she allowed herself now was that she could banish these illusions to the furthest back corner of her mind. Xena lay here now, harmless, defenceless. The same warrior that was capable of so much hate, so much unbidden rage.
Xena had wanted to kill her, and now she was Xenas only true protection. It wasnt the first irony theyd faced in their friendship.
While the warrior lay catatonic they were all in danger. When theyd arrived at the village Gabrielle had instinctively given orders, with Ephinys full agreement, that no one but Ephiny, Solari or herself were to be permitted outside the walls of the compound. If word got out that Xena was in this state, theyd have every warlord and would-be despot in Greece rallying to attack the village. They couldnt take that risk.
Gabrielle heard a light tap on the door.
Ephiny tip-toed inside the hut and shut the door quietly.
"Theres no need to be so cautious. She cant hear you. A volcano could erupt and she wouldnt hear it. Look." Gabrielle started clapping her hands loudly beside Xenas face, clicking her fingers close to the warriors ears. Not even a flicker of recognition appeared in the her eyes. Ephiny sighed loudly and knelt down next to Gabrielle.
"Why don't you let me sit with her? You need a break, go out and walk around the yard for a while. Do some exercise to wear off some frustration. Eponin is still over in the practice yard."
"I cant. I cant leave her Ephiny. What if she were to wake up and I wasnt here?"
"How much chance is there of that, Gabrielle?"
"What are you saying, Ephiny?"
"Nothing that you havent already told yourself a thousand times! You know as well as I do that its possible Xena wont ever come back."
"No Ephiny. Shell come back, I know she will. She promised. I have to believe in that."
Thats right Gabrielle, I promised. Ill be back. I just have to find a way out of here! Dont leave me Gabrielle, please dont leave me.
And then the dreams began.
Physically, all Gabrielle saw was a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eyes. "Ephiny - look! She moved, I saw her move!" Throwing her arms around the warrior roughly, Gabrielle started to shake her. "Xena! Xena! Xena can you hear me?"
Youre fading, Gabrielle! Somethings happening!
The warrior slowly closed her eyes.
"Oh Gods no, Xena, Xena wake up!" Gabrielle slapped her hard across the face, but the warrior didnt move. Nothing else changed, her pulse remained normal, and she breathed as if in a deep sleep.
Gabrielle felt her heart lurch as the one window of light, the only sign she had of Xenas life, shut itself to her. "Fight Xena. Please fight." Gabrielle whispered, and kept hold of Xenas hand, so hard that she could feel the warriors pulse beating against her palm.
* * *
"So. My Warrior Princess has a little confidence problem." A deep, gravelly voice echoed behind her. Xena turned quickly, reaching for the weapons that werent there. Empty handed she faced the wickedly smiling face she knew so well.
"Ares. So youre the one keeping me here. I should have known"
"Ahh, no. Why would I do something ridiculous like that? Youre no good to me here."
"No good to you where? Where in Tartarus am I?"
"Nope, wrong guess."
"Last I saw you were lying like a baby on a cot surrounded by a bunch of...tastily clad women. Oh, and the pesky blonde."
"Gabrielle. You know her name Ares. Why do you hate her so much? What are you afraid of?"
"Afraid? Me? I dont think my fears should be your greatest concern right now. I think you should be more worried about whats happening out there."
"Look at that."
Xena followed Ares gaze until her eyes met wall. As soon as she started staring she found she couldnt drag her eyes away. The wall went up as far as she could tilt her head, and stretched around her like a circle, surrounding her and the God of War on all sides. Sensing a change she spun around. Watching warily she saw the wall grow until it encased both of them in a never ending spun web of silver.
"Spider web? Are we feeling a little ensnared Xena? A little paranoiac arent we?"
Xena felt his words rather than hearing them, her eyes flooding with blue light. She held up an arm to shield herself from the light but it did no good. The silvery web was changing shape, separating into bars, made of a shiny blue metal.
"What is this Ares?"
"The web? The bars? They can be any shape Xena, theyll change to wherever your paranoias take you. Like so..." Ares pointed to the wall just as the bars morphed again into grained wood. "Nice coffin." He mused, stroking the walls lightly with his hand. "Thatd burn with a nice smell. Sandalwood isnt it?" He looked at Xena mockingly. "You planning a funeral already? That would be such a waste."
The wall turned instantly to fire close to the God of War. Ares leaned back slightly and let the flames lick softly around his leather clad form. Xena sneered, dropping almost imperceptibly into her battle stance.
"No need to be nasty now." Ares teased, strolling around the edge of the fire wall. The flames grew and moved with his heavy, warrior steps.
"You seem to be doing lots of preening and no talking Ares."
"You wanna know what youre doing in here? Fine. But I have to warn you, theres only one way out."
"Like Ive always told you Xena, everything is about will. You can bend and mould and shape anything in this life to your will, and you usually do. Or at least...you used to." He waved his arm around to indicate the wall. "This wall, my dear Warrior Princess, is your will."
"My will? My will is keeping me trapped inside my own body? Youre not making any sense Ares." Xena challenged in disbelief. "Why would I choose to remain inside myself?"
"Because youre afraid of what youll be like when you get out. Youre afraid of what you are out there." Ares sniggered. "Youre your own captive Xena. Instead of controlling your destiny, youre letting destiny control you."
Xena took steps towards the fire wall and looked inside the flames. The fire bounced slowly around her thoughts, and she could feel herself being able to control its patterns, its paths. Her mind flared and a rush of red light flooded the space.
An image pounded her brain and flew across the surface of the wall. A horse, galloping. Herself on horseback, the fire in her eyes and in her senses, screaming for blood.
Trailing Gabrielle behind her.
"No!" She screamed, and the image disappeared abruptly. The flames of the wall flickered and died, and she was surrounded by cold, dank stone walls, the floors flooded up to her knees with stinking water.
"Aggh, Xena, if you insist on inviting me into your dungeons could you at least drain the pool first?" Ares mocked, moving smoothly through the muck filled water as if it didnt exist. And for him, it didnt, even though Xena felt keenly the coldness of the sludge clinging to her body.
"Ming Tiens dungeon." Xena whispered, her voice cracking.
"That was a great piece of work, a demonstration of what power really is. You made me proud."
Shaking her head miserably she rid her mind of the image, finding herself back behind the less traumatic, neutral, blue steel bars.
"So, you believe me." Ares ran a casually strong hand through his thick curly hair. "Youre gaining some control over the wall."
"Will that get me out? Controlling the wall?" Xena asked quickly.
"No, itll only make the images more coherent."
"And more able to drive me insane. You said you knew a way out of here."
"Its very simple really."
A voice echoed through the space, reverberating from the steel walls. Fight Xena, you have to fight!
Gabrielles voice washed over her, her body straining to hold itself upright. The weight of the words fell around her like a heavy blanket.
Ares nodded in approval. "For once the blonde and I agree on something."
"Fight? What do you mean, fight? Gabrielle, I dont understand!" Xena yelled into the void, her words reaching only empty air.
* * *
"Ephiny, whats going on?" Gabrielle cried as Xena lurched into more convulsions. The warrior had begun to shake uncontrollably a short while after shed closed her eyes.
"I dont know, just hold her down. Ill find someone to help you. If she keeps going like this shes going to hurt herself!"
The regent ran out the door of the hut. Spotting the weapons master and Lysia in conversation by the practice yard she called out to them.
"Eponin, Lysia, come here quickly!" The two women responded at once, racing into the open doorway of the hut. Ephiny directed them to the bedside. "Help Gabrielle hold her, we need to stop the thrashing. Gabrielle, if she doesnt stop soon well have to give her something, to calm her down." Gabrielle gave Ephiny a sharp glance. "For her own safety." Ephiny continued, ignoring the look.
And everyone elses. Go on Ephiny say it! Say that you think Xena is a threat. I know you think it, I just want to hear you say it. After everything Xena has done for you...
"No, Ephiny! What if shes trying to get out? We dont know what the herbs would do to her. I dont want to do anything while we dont know whats going on!"
"Gabrielle, just think about it."
"Theres nothing to think about. Were going to wait." Gabrielle stared hard at Xenas face, willing the eyes to open and the mouth to say something, anything. "Theres obviously something happening in there Ephiny. I dont see that we have any other choice."
* * *
"Fight, Ares? You mean fight you? I did that already, and we both know who won that time. Give me my sword and we can do it again."
"No, no, no. Its not me that you have to fight. That would be too easy. You cant purge your guilt on me, warrior princess."
"Guilt? What do I have to feel guilty about?" Xena cried defiantly, already knowing the answer, but not willing to give Ares the satisfaction.
Ares waved his hand nonchalantly in the air, and a long, bronze handled sword appeared. He rested the blade casually in his palm, holding out both hands for Xena to have a better view. Xenas eyebrow lifted in an instinctive appreciation of the weapon.
"Take the blade Xena" he offered.
"What does it do?"
"Youll have to hold it to find out."
"And Im supposed to trust you?"
"Its either that, or this." Ares gestured to the wall surrounding them which flared with colour for an instant, betraying Xenas anger.
"The options you give me are rarely the only options available."
"Whether you trust me or not, whether you choose to fight or not, Xena, its your choice. Remember that."
Xena answered only with a scorn filled look. Ares approached, dangerously, his voice dropping to a low, rich timbre as he stared deeply at the warrior.
"You abhor your warrior past, Xena, but at least back then you were more truthful to yourself. You knew who you were, you took responsibility for everything you did. If you conquered it was your victory, if you didnt it was your failure. Black and white, Xena. You understood the meaning of power."
The wall flared again as Xenas emotions surged.
"I dont have to listen to this."
"Finally, you get my point." Ares agreed. With a flip of his wrist the God flung the beautiful sword forward. It flew gracefully through the air, light reflecting off the perfectly forged steel. Xena reached out and grasped the hilt in mid-air, spinning the blade full circle confidently in one motion with a practiced hand.
Before shed even touched the blade Ares had drawn his great long sword from its scabbard by his side. He hefted his own blade menacingly. "You dont have to do anything, but when you do, you better be able to deal with the consequences of it."
Xenas face hardened. "Thats not something Ares would say. Ares has never dealt with the consequences of anything."
"Youre absolutely right." The figure said.
Xena blinked twice as the mammoth form of the God of War shrank and twisted into another form so familiar that it tore brutally at the shreds of sanity still hanging together inside her ravaged mind. Gabrielles small body, toughened to battle hardness, stood before her, brandishing with ease a sword that weighed easily a third of what she did. The blade shifted back and forward between the bards fingertips. A bard no longer, a warrior with blood-lust circling in her emerald green eyes.
"Gabrielle...?" Xena breathed, the grip on her own sword becoming slimy with sweat.
* * *
"Gabrielle...?" The sweating warrior lying on the bed had ceased to thrash. Gabrielle was conferring with Ephiny on the other side of the hut when she heard the cry. The voice was weak and heart-wrenching, but it was there.
"My Queen, Xena just called for you!" Eponin confirmed, shifting aside hurriedly as the bard moved softly to the bedside.
"Xena? Xena Im here." Gabrielle stroked the warriors hair back from her forehead, never taking her eyes off her face. "Xena, talk to me again."
The warrior moaned in reply, her shoulders tensing. Eponin jumped up ready to catch the warrior should she start to convulse again, but the only things twisting and convulsing were Xenas features, contorting in anger.
"Shes afraid of something." Gabrielle whispered.
"Thats fear? She looks like shes trying to kill something!" Lysia snorted, receiving a dark look from Gabrielle. The Amazon shrank back to her position by the bed.
"Something Xena loves is in danger. This is what she looked like when Solan..." She broke off and searched for the right words. "Someones in danger, right there in her mind. Maybe its Solan. Maybe...maybe its me."
"Gabrielle...dont do this..." Xena moaned softly.
The bard couldnt stand it any longer. Rising quickly she pushed through the Amazons crowding around the bed and shoved her way out into the bright afternoon sun. The air hit her like a wave of relief and she breathed deeply, trying desperately to push her deepest fears to the back of her mind.
"Gabrielle? What is it? Whats wrong?" Ephiny whispered from behind her ear, laying a comforting hand on the bards shoulders. The touch forced a sob from her throat and she swallowed back tears of anguish. Shoulders heaving Gabrielle tried to push away from Ephinys touch, but the Amazon was insistent.
"Gabrielle, talk to me, tell me whats going on."
"Ephiny, you were there! You saw how much Xena hated me! Maybe in there shes re-living it somehow, Solans death..."
"If she is its just a dream. When she wakes up..."
"...you mean if dont you?" Gabrielle interrupted.
"...when Xena wakes up, shell know it was a dream, if she can remember it at all."
"I think shell remember." Gabrielle sighed deeply, the sobs racking her body slowing and easing with each deep breath.
"Ephiny! Gabrielle!" Eponins panicked cry ripped through the air.
"Oh by the Gods, what now?" Ephiny cursed as she followed the sprinting Gabrielle back into the hut.
* * *
With the first clash of swords Xenas wall flashed bright crimson. She was taken aback by the young womans strength, long since ceasing to believe it was Gabrielle coming at her with the blade regardless of what face the figure wore. The second pass suspended all thought. Nothing existed for the warrior but the instinct for survival.
* * *
"She went stiff, her eyes just popped open, and she hasnt moved since. But shes still breathing." Eponin babbled.
"Do you usually list the most important facts last?" Gabrielle snapped, then instantly regretted it. Sparing a quick apologetic glance for Eponin, Gabrielle concentrated intensely on Xena. She cupped Xenas cheek with her hand, and was overjoyed as she felt the warrior respond by pushing her face further into the soft touch.
"She felt it." Gabrielle breathed excitedly.
* * *
Xenas attacker staggered backwards as Xena felt a warmth flush through her. The new energy source instantly became a part of her prison wall. Warmth flowed around the space, contrasting sharply with the chilled blue.
Her opponent stood calmly, waiting for Xenas next move. She was curiously unwilling to approach again without provocation, though her eyes still raged, dark and menacing. Xena thought she could see the shape shifting slightly, the edges of Gabrielles form blurring and widening. Something in her was plucking away at her instincts, causing wild flashes of green to surge through the walls. The edges of the figure became more and more indistinct with each surge of warm energy. There was a pin prick in her senses, irritating her concentration.
"Your precious Gabrielle cant save you now." The figure sneered.
"Callisto?" Xena puzzled, trying to distinguish the features of the morphing woman.
"Whos Callisto?" The figure replied.
"The only one who ever referred to her as my precious Gabrielle"
"I was wondering where it came from. Well, it seems like an apt description. Or maybe we should call you her precious Xena, since shes the only one saving you from the justice of the Amazon nation."
"You dont know what youre talking about." Xena spat, spinning her sword in preparation for the new menace.
"You killed an Amazon. The penalty is death."
"Youre lying. No one died. Ephiny told me so herself."
"There are many different ways to die. What should the penalty be for robbing an Amazon of her way of life, her spirit?"
"Thats not possible. No one can rob you of your spirit. You do that to yourself."
"Rather an ironic time for you to come to that conclusion, dont you think?"
"Show yourself! Let me see your face!"
"I cant Xena. You dont know what I look like. You didnt see me as your foot slammed into my leg and broke the bone. You didnt see anyone. You only saw yourself. And for that, you will die, right here in this little prison youve created for yourself."
"Who are you?" Xena growled, impatiently. "I dont know you."
"You should." A voice came from behind her, a voice she recognised. The figure in front of her disappeared and another illusion took its place.
"Why are you here, Xena?" Anya asked calmly, pointing at the wall. Xena jumped back, startled, as her wall turned into landscape. Small wooden huts appeared around a rectangular courtyard. But everything was empty, deserted.
"The Amazon village..." Xena whispered, reaching out to touch the wall. Her fingers reached into the void and red light flashed as her hand connected with her physical boundary. She snapped her arm back quickly. The wall seemed to limit where she could go and what she could touch, but it did not limit what she could see.
"My home. At least it was my home." Anya stated calmly.
"What do you mean, was?"
* * *
"Ephiny!" Solari came running into the hut, grief-stricken features hunting out the form of her Queen.
"Solari? What is it?"
"The infirmary, come quickly. Hurry!" Solari insisted when she saw Ephiny look at Xena, reluctant to leave Gabrielle. The look on her friends face convinced her and she followed, racing through the courtyard to the infirmary on the far side of the village. As they crowded into the small hut Ephiny gagged in horror.
"We found her like that, I think she swallowed nightsbane. Look, her fingertips are purple." Krista, the old Amazon woman who looked after the infirmary, stood and stared at the body in shock.
"How in Hadess name did she find nightsbane in here?" Ephiny demanded.
"Thats the point, she couldnt have. We locked the hut, had guards on the doors and the infirmary was emptied of everything she could have used to harm herself. It doesnt make any sense."
"OK, out! I want everyone out except Krista and whoever it was that found the body. Back to your posts. Solari, give these women something to do." Solari scowled and shepherded the distressed Amazons from the hut. Some were crying, some merely gazed around in shock. Others were visibly angry.
No prizes for guessing who theyre angry at. Ephiny sighed. Anya had done with this one act what shed failed to do by going out after Xena. If the Warrior Princess survived whatever ordeal it was she was suffering through, Ephiny knew that some of the Amazons would demand a reckoning, for Anya, and for her sister.
What price do you put on the soul of an Amazon?
But they couldnt bring Xena to trial for either of the deaths. Both women had killed themselves, though how Anya had achieved her death was a mystery. What they could do, and what the other Amazons would demand, would be to bring Xena to judgement for her attack on the village.
The incident that triggered all of this tragedy and destruction.
She was under no illusions what Gabrielles opinion would be on that subject. And what made any of them think that Xena would stay long enough to be judged? Its not like anyone was capable of holding the her against her will.
With a sick heart Ephiny listened to a young girls account of discovering the dead Amazon, her insides rotting and stinking from the effects of the poison. The guards had not fallen asleep at their posts, and Ephiny had no reason to doubt either of them were lying and had slipped Anya the poison themselves. Solari trusted them, so she did too.
Krista swore blind there was nothing still in the infirmary that Anya could have used to kill herself, and of course nightsbane was not a normal potion to have just sitting around in the infirmary. It had, to Kristas knowledge, no medicinal purposes. Her death would have been quick, but agonisingly painful.
Ephiny thanked the Amazons and sent them on their way, assigning the guards to preparing the body for funeral. Her last task for the moment remained the most difficult. She had to tell Gabrielle.
Gabrielle listened, stone faced, to Ephinys report.
"Theyre blaming Xena for this, arent they?"
"Some will. I cant say how every Amazon will feel."
"Its not Xenas fault." Gabrielle repeated, stubbornly.
"She did what she did Gabrielle. The deaths arent her fault, but she cant deny it was her that attacked the village that day." Ephiny didnt like to state the obvious but Gabrielle obviously hadnt clicked to the worst of it. "Gabrielle, you do realise that its you wholl have to decide if Xena is to stand judgement for her crimes."
"Yes, Ephiny, I know. And you know what my decision will be. Who is in a better position to judge? It was me she came to kill, but she didnt."
Ephiny nodded, her conscience kicking. "I cant in all honesty say I disagree with them, Gabrielle. The attack was bad enough. This is not a death sentence shes facing, probably banishment is the worst she could expect. Maybe it would be good for everyone if Xena stood up and faced what she has done."
"Maybe we should let Xena decide, if she ever wakes up." Gabrielle said coldly, walking away, back to Xenas bedside.
* * *
"You killed yourself? This is a dream, its not happening." Xena calmed herself and walked away from the Amazon, trying to twist her mind around everything that was going on.
"I had no choice. Ephiny would never have trusted me completely again. Solari would have restricted my duties as a warrior. There was no other way." Anya declared calmly. Looking down she stared appreciatively at the blade she held. "Nice sword. Ares?"
"This is not happening!" Xena repeated firmly. "Youre not real, Anya, youre just a figment of my twisted imagination."
"Perhaps. You were right by the way, being inside your head is terrifying."
* * *
"This is not happening..." Xena mumbled. "Anya...youre not real." The warrior twisted on to her side, grappling for invisible figures on the wall. Gabrielle grasped Xenas hands and looked up at Ephiny in shock.
"She said Anya."
"What? She cant possibly know."
"When youre used to dealing with the Gods on a daily basis like Xena, nothing is out of the question." Gabrielle replied, completely serious.
"There are limits, Gabrielle."
"What? You think this is just coincidence?"
"Anya was the last person Xena saw before she went into this state, maybe shes just remembering, hallucinating." Ephiny reasoned. "Its more than possible, its the most logical explanation."
Gabrielle stood without replying and started to pace beside the bed. "Ephiny, she reacted to my hand before, and she still does, a little. Maybe external things could reach her? Things that preyed on her most base instincts so she couldnt ignore them."
"You want to hit her?" Ephiny asked, incredulously.
"Combat? I hadnt actually thought of that." Reluctantly Gabrielle nodded. "You could be right. Fighting could be Xenas most basic instinct."
Gabrielle wandered over to the table beside the bed and ran her fingers lightly along the cool metal of Xenas chakram. Picking it up she clutched it tightly in her hand, feeling the deadly sharpness of the weapons outer edge.
"Weve tried slapping her Gabrielle, it doesnt seem to do anything, remember?"
"She would have sensed she wasnt in any danger. How much harm could she really come to from me? Her instincts wouldnt have been touched at all."
"Gabrielle, why speculate about what does or doesnt reach her? Youve said yourself that all we can do is wait."
"Im just getting desperate, Ephiny. There has to be something...something that we can do." Gabrielle stared at the face of the woman she loved more than life and sent a silent prayer to Artemis, the only God who, to her knowledge, had never done Xena any harm.
Leaning over she brushed her mouth lightly along Xenas cheek and then, even lighter, her lips. Xenas body reacted instantly to the touch, her shoulders lifting slightly from the bed, her body twisting towards Gabrielles. The effect lasted only an instant but Gabrielle was satisfied, and more than a little bit relieved. The warrior was definitely responding to things on the outside, but only those things that reached her innermost instincts.
Gabrielle felt her heart lurch. That small act, that instinct alone, was possibly the most convincing way Xena could ever have told her how she felt about her.
* * *
Xena felt her body scream and she dropped to her knees. She knew it wasnt pain she was feeling, but something from the outside had pushed its way with enormous force through the wall, crashing over her like a wave of water.
"Gabrielle. It must be." She whimpered, picking herself up gingerly, testing the strength of her limbs. Xena saw Anya stagger back too, the force of the blow blurring the boundaries of the image that was her body, teasing at the edges of whatever power had created the Amazon in her mind. The blow seemed to make the Amazon angry, as if she sensed an urgency in the air.
Xena took a step back, startled. She had sensed what the Amazon was feeling. The warrior stared around at the village mosaic that still lay before them. It seemed peaceful compared to the charged air in the space that swam between the two women.
"You gave this up? For what?" Xena taunted. "For me? I promise you, Im not worth it."
Anyas eyes flared and she strode towards the warrior, blade flashing before her.
"I didnt have any choice. I am what you made me."
"Right now you just sound like Callisto. I guess shes as crazy as you are." Xena grinned viciously and twirled her sword, stepping lightly around the Amazon with warriors caution.
"I sound just like Callisto? I guess shes inside me somewhere. Have you ever stopped to wonder, ever stopped to count, how many of us there are Xena?"
Xena felt an absurd, pressing desire to reach out with the sword and strike, the blade flashed and danced in her hand, pulsing with energy that charged at equal beats through the wall. Flashes of red light danced through the Amazon village image that Xena kept stable on her wall. The cost of the effort showed on the warriors features.
"How many of what?" Xena spat angrily, barely holding back.
"How many of us there are out there who are just what you made us?"
"Ive just noticed the biggest difference between you and Callisto, at least she fought instead of standing around spouting about things she knew nothing about." The red flashes increased, Xenas mind struggled to think clearly.
Fight Xena. You have to fight!
I thought you didnt believe in fighting, Gabrielle?
Sometimes we have to fight, you know that. Sometimes we even have to kill.
Gabrielle would never say that! Who are you?
I am what you made me.
I am your guilt.
A flash of realisation threatened to swamp Xenas senses.
"The sword. This sword! Damn you Ares."
"You cant throw away the blade Xena. No matter how hard you try you cant just put down the sword. You have to get rid of it somehow. But you have to kill me first." Anya paced around her, slowly, viciously.
"Dont think I wont if I have to." Xena replied, scowling. Without thinking Xena lunged at the Amazon. Blades clashed as Anya flipped dexterously out Xenas path. The lapse of concentration killed the picture of the Amazon village. It was dark, the wall seemed to be nothing but black, littered above with pinpricks of light.
Stars, her instincts told her.
As her eyes adjusted to the dark, Xenas mind rebelled.
"Welcome home, Xena. I thought Id just pick up our little battle where we left off. But this time theres no treachery in the bushes waiting to save you." The Amazon graveyard emerged slowly, painfully, from the darkness.
"How...? This is my wall." Xena realised how petulant her protest sounded, but her thoughts were reeling too much in confusion to prevent the startled comment from flying out.
Anya chuckled loudly in amusement. "I helped to create it, why shouldnt I steal a little control from time to time? It seems only fair."
"Whos helping you this time? Ares?"
"I may have needed a little divine intervention, but that was just to get in here, to get inside you. Everything I do now is me and me alone."
"Im supposed to believe this, right?"
"Would I lie to you on your death bed?"
"You? Talking about death beds? Thats kind of ironic, dont you think? How about your own?" Xena stared at the warrior, unbelieving. "Dont you understand? This deal with Ares...You can never go back!"
"It was the price I paid. I had nothing to lose. The best part is, even if you defeat me and get out of here somehow, the Amazons will blame you for my death. Theyll seek retribution."
Against her will the sword struggled in her hand. Every instinct in her body cried out for blood. An eerie red light washing the clearing was Xenas contribution to the scenery, something Anya found incredibly amusing. Her taunting only made the warrior angrier. All self control seemed to be fading from her body. The graveyard pattern became more vivid on the prison walls of her mind.
Im losing control of my will!
Swords clashed and Xena felt her body switch into its warrior mode. The guilt in her hands thirsted for blood, and she could feel her soul giving in to its power. For the first time since meeting Gabrielle, she was truly afraid that she would never emerge again.
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