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This story contains mild violence. If this disturbs you, you may wish to read something else. Then again, how do you stand to watch the show?

Spoiler Warning! This story takes place during the fourth season, after "Family Affair" and before "Crusader." If you have not seen through these episodes, you may want to discontinue reading.

I would love to hear from you. Write to me OfcrRipley@aol.com and let me know what you think about the story, or just chat about Xena stuff in general. I can never talk too much about my favorite show!

Continues from here.

 

Twist of Fates

By Ripley

 

BOOK III

~~ Chapter XXI ~~

 

Xena glanced up from her task as the door to her chamber creaked open.

It was Queen Philonoe. She smiled and pushed her way into the room. "How many times can you polish that thing, Xena?" she asked gently.

Xena set the chakram on the floor and stood up, stretching her arms out in front of her.

"It passes the time." She glanced at the figure of the storyteller in a bed across the room. Philonoe walked over to the bed and leaned close to the body.

"Her breathing sounds a little better."

"Not much." Xena came and stood beside her. "As long as that poison is flowing through her . . ." She didnít finish the thought.

"You took a big risk even putting those poultices on her wounds. One slip andó"

"Not nearly as big a risk as she took for us." The warrior princess turned and looked at her. "Howís Bellerophon?"

The young woman smiled. "Sore. Already complaining about that splint on his leg and the fact that he canít do whatever he pleases."

Xena returned the grin. "Typical male. At least his leg will heal. If it had been Pegasus . . ."

Philonoe shuddered. "Theyíll both be fine. I hope she will, too."

There was another knock on the half-open door and Polyeidus entered.

"Howís our bard?" he asked, trying to sound cheerful.

Xena placed her hand on her hip and began to pace near the window. "Polyeidus, youíve been with Iobates. Assuming this is the same curse, can she get over this? Will she stay in this poisoned state?"

The old man shook his head. "I canít say for sure. I do know that Iobatesís wounds and burns did eventually heal. They left scars, but he didnít stay forever in that condition. I think our young friend here stands a chance."

It was quiet for several seconds.

"Xena," began Philonoe. "Why donít you let one of us sit with her and you come down and eat something?"

"No." Xena returned to her chair. "I misjudged her. The least I can do is sit here and watch over her."

"But we all misjudged her," said Polyeidus. "I thought she had sacrificed someone to Bacchus."

"And I thought she was just like my father."

"But you didnít hold those things against her. You were willing to trust her. I deliberately put her in danger because of my own hatred and prejudices. If everyone acted that way, what kind of chance would I have anywhere? Polyeidus,even you mentioned the fact that anyone who trusts me is having to blot out all they know about my evil past."

Polyeidus shook his head. "Look, Xena, I was just upset by the whole episode."

"No," she said again quietly. "None of you lost your heads, and I did. Weíre lucky that no one was killed, but if I had acted without hatred she might be telling us a story oró" She stopped.

"What is it?" asked the queen.

"Polyeidus, the bard mentioned something about the Temple of the Fates. She said that you thought they could help her."

He cleared his throat. "Well, I canít say for sure. She has this card, very similar to the one you told me you had dropped at the castle."

"Hadaraís card."

"Yes, although she said it was from Athens. Anyway, itís the exact image of the mountain range near their temple."

"Yes, I know about it. Iíve visited their temple before. Do you actually think they could help her?"

"It is one thing that Iobates never tried."

"Then that is where she is going. The three of us will leave if and when it appears she can travel."

 

 

 

Gabrielle found herself swimming in a dark pool. The black water filled her eyes, mouth, nose, and even her lungs. Every once in a while, she would manage to reach the murky surface and grab a small gulp of air before returning to the black depths. Struggling up for air again, she thought she saw a little sunlight. Fighting with every nerve in her body, she reached the surface, and slowly blinked her eyes. Strange, there werenít trees and sunlight, only a stone-walled room and some small candles. She must still have water in her eyes, because everything was blurry.

Someone was across the room. And there was a strange scraping sound.

Xena.

She snatched another small breath of air, and blinked as her eyes watered up and made everything even harder to see. Her body felt as if it were made of rock. She couldnít move if she wanted to. All she could do was watch, but this she did quite contentedly.

Gabrielle sighed. Always sharpening some weapon. Iím glad. I like that sound.

She squinted her eyelids, the only part of her she felt capable of moving, and looked at the warrior.

Same old Xena. Except for that look about the eyes. The one I noticed when I first saw her at Mnemosyne and I kept seeing around the campfire. What is that? I saw it before, back when she knew me, but when?

And then suddenly it came to her. It was long ago, when she had first met the warrior princess. A green village girl following around after her idol. Xena had gone to the tomb of her brother Lyceus. Sheíd heard Xena talking to him, vowing to do what was right. And then Xena had told him it was sometimes hard to do those things alone. And Gabrielle had stepped in and said,

"Youíre not alone." She didnít even realize it had actually come out of her swollen mouth until she saw the look of surprise on Xenaís face. The warrior jumped up from the chair and came quickly toward the bed.

Even now, she realized she had said too much. The priestess had told her that she should do nothing to remind Xena of their past together, and the gods knew she had done plenty wrong already. They were no longer to be connected, and yet . . . she had to say it again. She couldnít help it. The effort to speak was carrying her back into that pool. Still, she fluttered her eyelids and took a short breath.

"Youíre not alone."

Darkness.

For a long time, Xena stood motionless beside the bed, watching the labored breathing of her charge. When she did finally return to her chair, her blue eyes were unusually soft, and a strange shudder of faded recognition went down her spine over what she had heard.

Miles away, the priestess of the Temple of Mnemosyne stared in disbelief at Gabrielleís Candle of Remembrance. For one moment, the very tip of the wick had glowed, and a tiny stream of smoke had wafted into the air.

Careful, Gabrielle. Your time is running out.

 

~~ Chapter XXII ~~

 

It was several days before Xena felt the storyteller was up to traveling. For a while, they didnít even know if she was going to live, but evidently, her curse was similar in every way to that of Iobates, including immortality. When they were finally ready, Xena constructed a litter behind Argo and they wrapped Gabrielle in her cloak and got her on it. They had obtained a gentle old mount for Polyeidus, and Xena turned to Philonoe and Bellerophon, the latter of whom was hobbling about on crude crutches.

She clasped his shoulder fondly. "Donít forget about your parents. I made a promise to King Glaucus."

He smiled. "I wonít, Xena. I promise. As soon as my leg is healed, Pegasus and I will take a trip to Cenchreae. Then I can let him go at the fountain. Heís served us well. He deserves his freedom."

Xena nodded and turned to Philonoe, who hugged the warrior princess. Xena awkwardly patted her back, obviously unused to such displays. "Rule wisely and well, Philonoe. Iíll return your chief counselor to you safe and sound when weíve done all we can for the bard."

Philonoe blinked back tears and then she and Bellerophon leaned over Gabrielle.

"We canít ever repay you for what youíve done," said the young queen. "Know that you will always have friends here in Lycia, should you want to return."

Gabrielle simply nodded, her eyes showing the depth of her gratitude. It was hard not to cry, knowing as she did that she would never be able to return to this place or any other that was full of people. She had done enough harm already, interfering with those around her. The sooner she was back in exile, the better. Maybe she could convince Xena d and Polyeidus to just leave her at the Temple of the Fates.

The three of them slowly headed off on a small trail through the woods. Xena wasnít taking any chances, especially with the cursed young storyteller. They didnít need any delays or problems. The sooner they got to the temple, the sooner this girl might have her troubles solved, and Xena could relieve herself of the burden of guilt she felt over her.

 

 

 

The warrior princess stared at the temple. It had been some time since she had been here. The Fates had taught her a valuable, but difficult, lesson. She glanced at the pale young woman on the litter. Did the storyteller have such hard lessons in front of her?

She dismounted and went back to help the girl, but was dismissed with a wave of the hand.

"I can do it. Youíve endangered yourself enough. Iíll have to face them alone in there anyway. I might as well get used to it."

"Youíre not alone."

Gabrielle jerked her head up at the familiar phrase. "What?"

"Youíre not going to be alone. Polyeidus," Xena tossed him Argoís reins. "Take the horses over there and let them graze. Unhitch that litter, too, until we return."

"Xena, I donít think itís a good idea for you to go with me."

"Either I go with you, or you donít go at all. Youíre in no condition to do anything alone."

"Xena, you always think that!"

The other woman looked up. "What did you say?"

Gabrielle felt her face growing red. "Nothing. I mean . . . nothing."

"Letís go."

"Xena!" Polyeidus called from the trees nearby. She strode over to him.

"I find it odd that you both have those cards. Remember yours. If hers led her to this place, perhaps some answer for you lies within."

Xena nodded and clapped the old man on the back, making him cough. When she turned around, the young bard was nowhere to be seen. "Why that littleó"

She jogged up to the temple and entered the gloom within. As soon as she did, she heard the storytellerís voice coming from the front by the altar candles.

"I have been told by many that you can help me. If this is so, I beg you to appear before me and show me the way."

It was quiet for several minutes. Xena crossed her arms and leaned up against a large pillar. Suddenly there was a soft noise, as if bells were chiming, and three women appeared just in front of the bard. Having the appearance of a child, a mature young woman, and an old crone, Xena knew that they were Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, the three Fates.

"What is it you want?" asked the Maiden, the youngest of the three.

"I have been cursed."

"Yes, the living death," said Lachesis, the Mother.

"Can you help me?"

"What kind of help do you seek? Do you wish the curse to be lifted?"

"Do you wish sanctuary?"

"Or do you desire the end of your existence?" Each Fate spoke one after the other, almost as if one mind had spoken all three questions.

There was no answer from the young woman for several seconds. Finally, she bowed her head and whispered hoarsely, "Whatever the goddesses desire."

Xena clenched her teeth and stepped forward. Thatís the biggest bunch of centaur droppings Iíve ever heard. Whatever they desire! Theyíd better help her oró

"I see you have returned, warrior." This came from Atropos, the old one.

"Iíve come to help her. Sheís in pretty bad shape, as you can see. She fought the Chimaera."

"Perhaps she doesnít want your help."

Upon hearing this, the bard whirled her head around to look at Xena. Xena walked closer and looked hard at her with those steely eyes.

"Sheíll accept my help. She has no choice."

"How do you know, Xena?"asked Gabrielle.

"Because you want to make it through whatever they have in store for you in order to find an end to your curse. You can barely walk on your own. It stands to reason that youíll need someone just to help you get around." Xena cocked an eyebrow. "And it looks like Iím it."

Gabrielle stood up and leaned on her staff. Xena grabbed her elbow, making sure to touch nothing but cloak.

"Letís go," said the storyteller resignedly.

"So be it," said the Fates in unison, and then they were gone.

Hearing a creaking sound, Xena and Gabrielle looked up to see two large wooden doors slowly swinging open at the far end of the temple. Beyond them there appeared to be nothing but darkness. Slowly, they started for them. The voice of the old Crone echoed above them.

"Three doors. Three bridges. Pass them and the curse is lifted. Lose your way and be lost forever. The choice is up to you."

Xena and the bard looked significantly at one another, then walked into the blackness . . .

 

 

 

. . .Which wasnít a blackness at all. Both of them blinked. Gabrielle fought the urge to cover her ears to dampen the sound of a deafening crowd.

"Why this isó"

"The Roman Coliseum." Xena drew her sword and tensed her muscles. Gabrielle began to spin her staff, her eyes darting in all directions around the huge arena.

"Xena!"

The warrior princess whirled around, and a trickle of perspiration ran down her cheek. "Caesar," she snarled.

Her old enemy stood in his customary place, at the center of a special balcony high above the coliseum. He was not dressed in his usual finery, but the breastplate and helmet of his battle garb.

"My friends," he said, addressing the mob. "Today I give you a rare opportunity, even in the spectacle of this arena. This is Xena, the Warrior Princess. Greek harlot and enemy of the Roman people."

The people began to shout and wave their fists.

Caesar climbed to the wall just in front of his chair and waved for silence. "She has been here before. In fact, she has been in the clutches of our Empire before, but she has always managed to slip away." Angry shouts issued forth from the people. "This is becauseó" he jumped down into the arena, and the people gasped. "I have left her capture to others. Today, I will personally take care of this barbarian, and all of Rome will see that no one is more dedicated to the Empire than Caesar!"

The people screamed and shook their fists in delight and admiration. The ruler drew his sword and began to slowly move across the dirt towards the two women.

"What, Caesar?" said Xena, baring her teeth in disgust. "No guards? No army? Since when have you ever been brave enough to fight on your own?"

"Since I decided that Iím the only one capable of taking you out, Xena. You know I can do it, too. Itís my destiny, and you canít fight destiny."

"Watch me!" She bent her knees, ready to jump, but was stopped by a cry from the storyteller.

"Xena, wait! Look!"

Xena looked in the direction Muriel was pointing and saw several peasants chained to posts at the far end of the arena. Several paces away, mounted on a large wooden structure, were bows armed with arrows and pulled taut, ready to fire. The strange thing was that there were no archers on the structure. The strings on the weapons were being pulled out by wooden arms that were mounted on screws and held across the back by a thick rope. The rope ran through each arm, and was secured into the ground with a large metal post. Next to this post stood a hooded guard with a torch.

Caesar nodded to him, and the man leaned down and touched the torch to the rope. Ever so slowly, it began to smoke and burn.

Xena turned back to the ruler. "Why youó"

"Uh ,uh, uh," he said, twitching his finger at her. "You donít have time for name-calling, Xena. Besides, it seems beneath you, donít you think? The only thing standing between you and those paeansó" Xena watched in amazement as he rolled deftly to her left and wound up behind her, "óis me."

Xena nodded to the storyteller. "Go see if you can help those people. Iíll take care of this little problem."

For one moment, Gabrielle hesitated. "Go on! You do as I say!" Xena yelled.

The storyteller ran towards the people chained at the far end. Of course, the hooded Roman was not going to make things easy for her. He stepped away from the structure, still clutching the torch.

Xena began to circle Caesar, slowly swinging her sword from side to side, making an invisible hourglass pattern in the air around her. Her eyes were darting like an animal, and she was grinning in a predatory way.

Julius Caesar was smiling too, though it was really nothing more than a sneer. Lunging forward, he swung his weapon high over his head and brought it toward Xenaís face. She blocked it just inches from her nose, then spun underneath her weapon and broke the deadlock. Continuing with this flow of motion, she thrust her sword straight ahead, hoping to pierce him just below the breastplate, but he knocked her blow awry, then hit her in the face with his elbow.

Xena cocked an eyebrow and backed off. He was better than she had thought.

And Iím letting my own hatred get in the way.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle was backing toward the prisoners, all the time keeping her eye on the executioner who was stalking her with torch in hand. When she was about ten paces away from the people, she stopped. It wouldnít do to get knocked into one of them and kill the poor person. Sheíd have to stand and fight. She readied her staff, and none too soon, for the heavy man charged her, swinging the torch wildly. She dodged him quite easily, hitting him in the backside for good measure. He fell headlong into the sand, and some of the chained prisoners yelled with delight. Glaring at them and shaking the sand from his face, the man got up and grabbed the torch once again. This time he stalked slowly towards Gabrielle, keeping his eyes on her feet and hands. She saw his face light up and realized where his gaze was directed. He had seen the wounds in her shoulder and throat from the Chimaera. He had probably also noticed by now that she was dragging that foot and barely using her left hand to support the staff. Immediately, he stepped forward and swung his torch towards her left side.

Gabrielle felt the weight of the blow before she even noticed the searing pain from the flame. She fell to the earth with a scream.

Xena turned to see the bard lying on the ground, the executioner standing above her, ready to deliver another blow.

She heard a sound to her left and flipped to her right just in time to miss a blow from Caesarís sword.

"Thatís the difference between you and me, Xena," he panted. "You are distracted by petty people and petty things, like your friend and those peasants from the streets. I see a vision and I do whatever it takes to fulfill it. I can keep my eye on the greater good. The overall plan. That is why I will win in the end."

"My overall plan is for you to die," Xena said, grasping her sword with both hands. "And believe me, I have no trouble focusing on it." She gave a frightening war cry and leaped through the air, landing just behind her opponent. Pushing him hard in the back with her foot, she swung her sword and nicked his shoulder. He stumbled forward, but didnít fall. When he turned to face her, he touched his shoulder with his other hand and stared in disbelief at the blood. Then the look changed from disbelief to one of rage.

Now Iíve got him, Xena thought, the look of a cat with prey spreading across her face. She had forgotten all about the bard. This was something she had waited for all of her life.

Gabrielle rolled to her right and just barely avoided being struck again by the torch. Snatching her staff from the ground, she was just in time to block another blow from the man, although even this effort sent her sprawling back to the ground again. She risked a look at the warrior princess. The woman was swinging her sword madly, and Caesar was feebly trying to block her blows above his head as he backed across the ground.

Well, this is it, Gabrielle. No Xena to protect you. Youíre finally on your own. Just what you were always wanting. How does it feel?

The crowd roared in delight as the hooded thug raised his torch and prepared to drive it straight into her face. Gabrielle decided independence wasnít all it was cracked up to be. Turning her staff so it lined up with her body, she grasped it with both hands and thrust it straight towards the midsection of her enemy. As she did so, she closed her eyes and turned her head, fully expecting to have her face burned off at any moment. It was the disappointed sigh from the crowd, even more than the soft give at the end of her stick, that let her know something good had happened. The executioner stood above her, and even through the small holes in his hood, she could see that his eyes were bulging. He dropped the torch and it fell harmlessly into the earth next to her. It was only when he brought his hands to his wounded area that Gabrielle realized that she had struck home a little lower than his midsection. He dropped to his knees and Gabrielle used her staff to push herself to her feet. Swinging her weapon from her right side, she delivered a blow to his thick head. He toppled over like a large tree, still clutching his groin. Just for good measure, she whacked him in the face, then ran off to the prisoners to see about their chains.

"Alalalalalalalalalalalala!" Xena was absolutely in her element. She had nothing to worry about, no one to think of. Her only thought was to destroy Caesar, and it looked as though she was going to get her chance. And in front of his adoring hometown crowd, too. How absolutely perfect. The young ruler wasnít down yet, but they both knew it was just a matter of time. The warrior princess swung at him from every angle, and although he was still blocking her blows, that was all he was doing, and he was losing lots of ground. Soon heíd be into the wall of the coliseum, and as long as his guardians didnít interfere, she could finish the arrogant son of a gryphon off. Of course, he was too conniving not to let his guards interfere. That was the problem, and she knew it. She would have to let him make a come-back, and then deliver the final blow by surprise. Theyíd kill her in the end, but as long as he went first, sheíd gladly follow him to Hades.

They had reached the wall. She lowered her sword slightly, her face an exact image of the arrogance she had seen so many times from him. "Looks like youíve been the one distracted, Caesar," she hissed. He struck out blindly, as she knew he would, and she felt a slight pain in her arm as he nicked her upper bicep. Feigning surprise, she backed up slightly. Grinning, he stumbled toward her, grasping at any chance to win. Quickly they began to go back the way they had just come, Xena deftly blocking all of his blows, but doing so in such a way that it appeared she might fall at any moment.

Iíll let him get me into the wall. In the shadows, I can kill him before his guards know what is happening.

Within moments, they were near a wall again. Xena felt some droplets of liquid, and realized that the citizens of Rome were spitting on her. No matter. She could take any amount of that if it meant the death of their despised leader.

"Xena!" Risking a glance towards the voice, she saw the storyteller standing near the executionerís killing machine. She and Caesar had backed up to a wall that was only about twenty paces away from it, and about thirty-five from the doomed prisoners.

"Thereís nothing I can do about this rope! Itís about to go. And itíll take a sword to break their chains!"

Rage was boiling up inside her. Caesar. Concentrate on Caesar.

With a twist of her weapon, she sent Ceasarís blade arcing into the air. Grabbing the top of his breastplate, she swung him hard into the wall and placed the sword at his throat.

"Your guards canít save you now," she whispered in his ear. "You die at the hands of the Greek harlot!"

"Xena, now! You have to break their chains! Thereís no time!"

Xena cut her eyes wildly to the side, and her grip relaxed ever so slightly on the young ruler. Suddenly the bardís voice seemed very close.

"Youíre in this for them, Xena. Not yourself! I know you. Youíre not that person you were years ago. Xena, you have to act before itís too late!"

"Eeeeeeiyaaa!" The leather-clad figure flipped through the air, landing just next to the prisoners.

"Duck!" she yelled, and swung at the chain hooked into the post next to her. There was a mighty clang, and sparks flew across the sand as the sword struck home. Pulling down with all their strength, the prisoners felt the chain that had bound all of them give way as it began to slide through their manacles. They fell to the ground almost as one. There was a creaking sound from not far away, followed by a screeching noise as several razor-sharp arrows snapped loose from their bows and landed with a thud in the posts where the prisoners hearts had just been located.

Gabrielle exhaled with relief, resisting the urge to collapse on the ground, and waited to hear the disappointed booing of the crowd.

She was amazed to hear nothing. Absolutely nothing at all. Glancing up, she saw that the arena was entirely empty. No spectators, no guards, no prisoners, no Caesar.

Just Xena.

They heard a creaking noise at the far end of the coliseum, and a large wooden door slowly swung open.

"The first door is opened. Enter." It was the voice of Clothos, the youngest Fate.

Gabrielle looked at Xena, admiration clearly written all over her face. "That was a brave thing you did. I know how hard it was for you."

Xena didnít find herself feeling very brave at the momentójust confused and ashamed. Caesar had been right. She had lost her focus, and it had almost cost those people their lives.

"Letís go," was all she said as she headed towards the dark passage.

 

~~ Chapter XIII ~~

 

Gabrielle cautiously tapped her staff in front of her, feeling into the blackness. She could hear Xena moving near her, and she stopped, afraid she might run into the warrior princess. For a moment she felt disoriented, dizzy, and then she knelt to the ground as she was almost blinded by a blaze of light.

Daylight. They were outdoors again. And this place, too, looked familiar. All around there was a thick growth of trees and foliage, except for just ahead. Stepping out onto an open embankment, she saw a crude, triangular rope bridge. Xena stepped out next to her and drew her sword again.

Gabrielle looked down into the ravine. A river of molten lava slowly slid by like some enormous serpent.

Of course, she thought, sweat beginning to trickle down her neck. This is where--

"Here you are!" She looked up with a start. Standing at the entrance to the bridge was a muscular woman dressed in the garb of an Amazon. Her dark hair was pulled back, and her clear blue eyes revealed that madness had overtaken the mind behind them. She held a sword high above her, and the grin on her face matched the insanity in her eyes.

"Iíve been waiting for you."

"Velasca!" Gabrielleís voice shook just slightly. All of her old fear and loathing came back in an instant. This woman had hunted her like an animal, anxious to claim the throne of the Amazons from the young bard. It had only been through the intervention of Xena and a power-crazed Callisto that Velasca had not succeeded. As if reading her mind, Xena stepped in front of her.

"Iím glad," Xena replied with a smile. "Ready for another beating?" With one deft motion, she unhooked her chakram and hurled it at the Amazon. Velasca rolled forward, thrusting her sword into the air above her head. The round weapon hit it with a loud ring, then flew off into the trees towards her left. Never taking her eyes off the enemy, Xena whispered to Gabrielle, "This must be the bridge the Fates spoke of. Iíll draw her away, and you get across. Thatís all they said you needed to do."

"But what about you?"

"I can take care of myself. Now go on."

She took a step, grinning at Velasca, baiting the woman. It worked. The Amazon warrior immediately started forward, concentrating solely on Xena.

Just a few more steps, thought Gabrielle, as she moved over the ground cautiously. Then she ran toward the bridge behind Velasca, using her staff to propel her injured foot the best she could. Velasca turned with a snarl, but was unable to do anything else because she was knocked to the ground by Xenaís flying feet. No sooner had Xena landed on her, however, than the warrior princess leaped forward again, landing at the edge of the rope bridge. This put her squarely between Velasca and Gabrielle, who was making her way across the rope as quickly as she could with that numbing injury.

Stepping forward, Xena delivered a blow toward Velascaís head, expecting any moment to see those blue eyes light up with an unnatural light. The last time she had encountered this woman, Velasca had partaken of the ambrosia of the gods, giving her immortal powers. This time there was no unholy light. Just anger and madness. Velasca blocked her blow, then screamed with rage as she saw Gabrielle making her way across the bridge. Swinging her sword high above her head, she delivered a blow of her own to Xena, who blocked it as well.

But this time it was different. Xena heard a strange sound, and suddenly felt her weapon giving way, despite the fact that her arms were strong and steady with the block. Leaning to her right, she felt the flutter of air from Velascaís weapon as it just missed slicing down her left side. Without thinking, she back-flipped onto the bridge and stared at her sword in amazement. There was nothing left but the hilt. The Amazonís blow had separated the blade from the handle.

"Not much good to you now, is it?" Velasca sneered as she came towards Xena.

Gabrielle, nearing the end of the bridge, heard this strange comment and turned to see Xena unarmed and facing the raging Velasca. Without hesitation, she began to go back toward the two women. Xena felt the bridge shaking underneath them, and saw Velascaís eyes light up as she caught a glimpse of something behind the warrior princess. Nevertheless, it was the light of madness and revenge, not immortality.

She has no powers. In this altered reality, she hasnít had the ambrosia. With a sharp cry, Xena pushed with all her might and flew over the head of the Amazon.

"Storyteller!" she called, as Velasca turned and began swinging her sword at her. "Touch her!"

Still advancing toward Xena, Velasca called back over her shoulder to Gabrielle. "Do whatever you like, usurper! As soon as I finish off your protector, here, Iím going to touch your throat with my blade!"

Gabrielle hobbled her way toward her mortal enemy, her heart racing in her chest.

This is simple enough. She raised her staff and hit Velasca in the back of the neck as hard as she could. The woman screamed in rage as one foot slipped off the heavy rope. She went down on one knee, grappling for one of the other ropes with her free hand.

All I have to do is touch her on that shoulder. Sheís dead. She stretched her hand towards the madwoman. I have the power of the gods at my command. Just brush her skin with my fingertip.

She stopped and looked at Xena, who was watching in fascination and not a little glee.

No, wait. Something is wrong. This isnít like before. Velasca has no powers.

Three doors. Three bridges.

Turning abruptly, she began to make her way as fast as she could toward the other end of the bridge.

"What are you doing?" Xena called in disbelief.

Velasca let out an evil laugh. "Sheís running like the little coward that she is. Turn around if you like, coward!" she screamed. "And watch your warrior friend die. At least she will have an honorable death. I wonít give you the same satisfaction!" She raised her sword high above her head and brought it toward Xena.

At that instant, Gabrielleís foot touched the ground on the other side of the bridge.

The blow Xena had steeled herself for never came. There was no one there to give it. Shakily, she got to her feet. Turning slowly, she headed back into the brush where they had first emerged.

"Xena?" Gabrielle called shakily.

In a moment, the warrior princess appeared, carrying her chakram. She crossed the bridge without a word.

"Are you all right?" asked the bard. There were lines of worry etched in the corners at her eyes.

"Fine," muttered Xena. "Never had my sword do that." She had barely glanced at Gabrielle.

"Xena, Iím sorry, but I suddenly knew it was wrong to use my curse on her."

Xena turned to her, and her nostrils flared in anger. "How? How did you know? You put both our lives at risk!"

The storytellerís voice shook slightly as she answered. "I donít know exactly. I guess it was you and Caesar."

Xena snorted. "Me and Caesar."

"Xena if you had killed him, youíd have proven yourself no different from him. But you didnít. You forgot your personal interests and came through for those people. If I had used my touch on Velasca, how would I have been any different from her? The lust for power had gone to her head. For one moment, I realized what that was like, and I knew it was horribly wrong. You told me to make it across the bridge. Suddenly I knew that was what I was supposed to do."

Both women jumped as a voice filled the air around them. "She is correct. The bridge is passed. Move on."

Xena stared hard at her companion for a moment, and then Gabrielle felt a thrill as the older woman smiled at her for the first time in a long while.

"Letís go, bard. I just hope I donít need my sword again." Somehow, the way things had been going, both of them felt this was not going to be likely.

They walked forward into the dense brush. Within moments, it had dissolved into the dim interior of the temple again. Clothos stood there, pointing towards a fire and steaming bowls that were next to it.

"Eat. You will need your strength for the next passage."

"Which will involve what, exactly?" asked Xena in an exasperated tone. "What was the purpose of that last mess?"

The young girl stepped forward. "The storyteller has come here asking for something. Nothing comes without a price. You made it over the Bridge of Desire, overcoming your baser wants for a higher good. But there are more tests to come."

Xena opened her mouth, but was interrupted by the Fate. "Do not argue with us, warrior. As the old womanís card indicated, you are along simply on a quest. This is truly not your concern. The storytellerís fate is in question here. We deal with herónot you. Not yet."

The youngest Fate vanished. Gabrielle looked at Xena reluctantly, then sat down to eat her soup. Xena paced back and forth for awhile, fingering the chakram at her side. Gabrielle decided a distraction couldnít hurt.

"Xena, why do you think Velasca didnít have her godly powers? She did when we were really at that bridge beó" She stopped abruptly, realizing what she had done.

Xena stepped toward her. "What?"

Gabrielle coughed, and tapped her forefinger to her head. "My gift from Bacchus, remember? I know all about your previous adventures."

Xena sat down and stared at her. "But you said Ďwe.í ĎWhen we were at the bridge.í"

"Itís a, uh, silly habit I got into long ago. I see everything so vividly, itís almost as if I was there. Sometimes I even put myself into the story." She pulled on her hair. "Kind of arrogant, really."

"Hmm," was all the reply she got. Xena continued to stare at her for a few moments.

"Youíd better eat your soup. Who knows when weíll eat again."

"Right." Xena grabbed the bowl and downed the liquid in several gulps. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she continued to stare at the bard, who was blinking nervously and looking around the room.

"I donít know."

Gabrielle jumped. "What?"

"Your question about Velasca. I donít know exactly. I have dealt with the Fates before. The past and future they show you is not always the way you remember it. They can change the situation, the surroundings, even the people. Iím sure it had something to do with using your gift, curse, whatever you want to call it. If she had been godlike, you wouldnít have had to make the choice."

Gabrielle nodded and smiled with new understanding. "Right."

They both came to their feet when a large door to their left slowly creaked open.

"I guess itís time to go," muttered Gabrielle.

They stepped through the doorway.

 

~~ Chapter XXIV ~~

 

They were in a barn. Shafts of sunlight speared through the roof and cut the gloom. Gabrielle could see dust and hay particles swirling through them. Nearby, a horse snorted and stomped its foot. She turned to Xenaóonly she wasnít there. In her place was a young girl, maybe twelve or thirteen, with dark hair and startling blue eyes.

"Whereísó"

"The storyteller?" finished the young girl.

The blue eyes grew wide in amazement. "Muriel?"

"Xena?"

Gabrielle looked down at herself. She was dressed in peasantís clothing, similar to what she had worn in her home town of Potidaea. And she seemed even closer to the ground, as if that were possible.

The Xena teen ran to an opening in one of the slats of the barn and peeked out.

"I donít know where we are, but it doesnít look good out there."

"Never mind that," said Gabrielle. "Am I as young as you look?"

"Younger, Iíd say," said Xena with a cursory glance at her.

"What do you think is going on? We never knew each other as children."

Xena moved away from the wall and peered at her suspiciously. "We never knew each other as adults, for that matter."

"Well, right."

You are so stupid, Gabrielle, thought the bard. Youíre determined to ruin everything thatís been done so far.

"So what looks so bad out there?" she said, hoping Xena would let it slip. Evidently, she was going to, because she moved to the large barn door.

"Come and see for yourself."

They stepped out into the daylight, which seemed very dim. Gabrielle decided it must be a cloudy day, but then she saw black smoke wafting towards the sky, and her nostrils were filled with the stench of burning wood. Or maybe it was something else.

It could be anything. Everything around them was black and smoking. What had once been houses were now empty shells, nothing but a few sticks standing over dark holes. Underneath their feet, bits of pottery and broken tools lay scattered in every direction, and in the distance flames still flickered in the fields where crops had once grown.

However, it was the bodies that were the most horrifying. They lay everywhere--some scorched by flames, others pierced and covered with blood. Women and children cradled some of these men, others just wandered aimlessly, blank looks on their faces.

Xena gently grabbed one woman by the shoulder. "Who did this?"

The woman stared at her absently, then shook her head, staring into the distance. "Donít you know, girl? It was a devil with glowing eyes and fire spewing forth from her lips. Spawned from the blackest pit of Hades." She continued on her meandering path, now humming to herself.

Young Gabrielle approached Xena. "Callisto?" she whispered.

"No," muttered Xena cryptically. "Somehow I donít think so." But she didnít give another suggestion. Looking down at the ground, she pointed to hoof tracks in the blackened earth. "They went this way."

"Are you sure you want to follow?"

Xena whirled and glared at her.

"I mean, youíre not exactly in prime battle shape right now," Gabrielle said, raising her brows at the young girl.

Xena curled her mouth on one side, still adept at that sarcastic look, even at this age. "You obviously havenít been near a mirror yet. Throwing stones is not a good idea."

Gabrielle shook her head. "Okay, okay. Never mind. Letís go."

 

 

 

They followed the trail of the marauders for days. It wasnít hard. All they had to do was look for the next smoking village or razed town. As they went, the two girls became quieter and quieter, each wrapped up in her own thoughts. Gabrielle became convinced that such destruction had to be attributed to Callisto, or perhaps Cortese, the warlord who had destroyed Xenaís girlhood village. That would explain their ages, anyway. Young Xena had given no theories on the matter, and Gabrielle finally gave up asking.

This particular night they sat huddled in the bushes, watching the glowing campfires of the killers in the valley below. Gabrielle was freezing and starving, but she wasnít about to mention it to Xena.

If she can take it, I can, she thought.

There was a slight brushing noise behind them, and Xena whirled around.

"What is it?" asked Gabrielle, wishing she had her staff.

Her question was answered by the grip of strong fingers on her arm. Fortunately, they only touched her sleeve. She didnít know if Bacchusís curse was part of this younger body or not. Her Chimaera injuries were gone, but she didnít want to take any chances.

"Well, well. What have we here? You know what they say, girls. Curiosity killed the cat!" Two swarthy warriors emerged from the ferns and threw both girls to the ground. In an instant, Xena was on her feet, giving her war cry. She got a good blow into the midriff of one of the thugs, but the other took her out with a hit to the head. Gabrielle didnít dare help her to her feet.

"Xena, are you all right?"

The man who had delivered the blow guffawed. "Xena? Just wait until we get you back to camp. The boss is going to get a big kick out of this!"

The two men began to push and shove their captives down the hill toward the camp. Gabrielle went along as quickly as she could. The less she was touched, the better. Xena evidently had the opposite idea. By the time they could see figures moving around the fires, both men were having to drag her along.

They reached the center of camp, picking up more and more hooting men along the way. Throwing Xena to the ground, one of the men said, "Iíll go get the boss."

Slowly, Xena stood up. "Muriel," she whispered.

"Yeah?"

"I think youíd better be prepared. I know who this leader is."

"Yeah?"

"Well, itís not easy toó"

She was interrupted by a cool female voice.

"You brought me out of my tent to show me this? What, Terramides, did you think they were a severe threat?"

The men gathered around began to laugh, and Gabrielle whirled to face the owner of that voice, although it wasnít really necessary. She already knew who it was.

"Xena," she breathed in awe, as she faced the leather-clad warrior. She glanced sideways in complete shock at her companion, but young Xena wouldnít even look up.

"No, listen, Xena," stuttered Terramides. "They are the ones that have been following us, and the big one there packs quite a punch." There was more laughter from the crowd.

"Maybe I should give her your job," smiled the warrior princess as she began to circle the two girls like a cat.

"Whatís more," continued the man, "sheís taken your name. The little one called her Xena in the woods."

"Really," purred the woman. "Then I should be flattered." She grabbed a handful of young Xenaís hair and yanked her head back until their eyes met. For a moment, she looked startled by what she saw, but this lasted only momentarily. "But Iím not." She threw the girl to the ground. "I donít know if youíre worthy of my name. Somehow I doubt it."

"Hey!" Gabrielleís mouth was running before she even quite realized it.

The warrior turned those icy eyes on her.

Gabrielle gulped, but continued. "You . . . You really shouldnít be treating people like that, Xena." The woman stalked towards her. "I mean, I mean," Gabrielle lifted her head and sneered. "Itís not very warriorlike, is it? Kind of cowardly for the great leader of such a powerful army."

Xena stopped just in front of her. "Youíve got spunk," she said with a smile.

Gabrielle grinned. "Well, I--" Something hit her hard in the face and she found herself flat on her back. She decided that it must have been Xenaís booted foot.

"I donít like spunk."

Gabrielleís eyes watered, but she refused to cry. Reaching up, she checked to see if her nose was broken and she still had all of her teeth.

Xena turned back toward her tent. "Take my namesake and chain her to that post over there. She can serve all you men in the morning. Maybe she knows how to cook better than the rest of you." The men dragged young Xena off with great glee, howling like animals.

"Hey!" Xena raised her finger and everyone stopped. "No one touches her, you got that?" They grunted in disappointment. "Bring the little one to my tent. They wanted to know what itís like to follow Xena, weíll show them."

Gabrielle struggled to her feet and waved her hands. "Iím going, Iím going. No need to get rough."

She followed the warrior princess into her tent, not quite sure if this was a good or bad thing.

 

 

 

Over the course of the next several weeks, she found that it was a bad thing. Very bad. Xena had decided to make Gabrielle her own personal slave, complete with demeaning remarks and beatings. She liked to use her foot or her whip for such reprimands, however, so she conveniently avoided touching the girl directly. Much to her dismay, the young storyteller found herself regretting this.

She had heard about Xena before, of course. Even Xena had told her what she was like. But this . . . She stared at the woman, who was at this moment waving a chicken leg at her tantalizingly. This monster. I never imagined her like this. I keep looking for something redeeming, but thereís nothing.

"Hey, you little rat!" Gabrielle felt something whisk by her ear and thud into the tent pole behind her. It was Xenaís dagger. "I told you to get me some more water! Hurry up! If you go fast enough, Iíll give you this bone. If you donít, Iíll make it part of your anatomy." She grinned and took a huge gulp of wine.

Gabrielle grabbed the bucket and headed out toward the nearby creek. She had long since given up hope of escape. Xenaís tent was always in the center of camp, and there were at least a dozen eyes watching her on every errand she ran. When she reached the creek, she found to her delight that young Xena was there.

"Hey," she whispered to the older girl. "Are you okay?"

"Fine," came the reply. "And you?"

"Iíve been better. Look, I hate to say it, but you werenít the sweetest person back then."

"I thought you knew that." Xena tapped her head with her finger. "What happened to Bacchusís gift?" Her voice was bitter.

"Well, most of what I know came after you met Hercules. I donít deal much with this part of your story."

"Well, maybe you should, Muriel! Maybe itís time you looked at the whole Xena, not just the glamorous parts. All of life isnít a fairy tale or some morality play. Itís full of death and hate. And all of that is part of me, whether you like it or not!" Xena grabbed her bucket and stumbled toward camp, ignoring Gabrielleís pleas for her to come back.

This has got to end. Gabrielle staggered back to Xenaís tent, rage boiling up within her. Staying with this power-hungry creature is twisting the real Xena all apart. What can I do?

When she entered the tent, she was struck in the forehead by the chicken bone. "Too long, little goat! Put the bucket down and go chain yourself up like a good doggie."

Gabrielle did as she was told, chaining herself to a tent post. The fact that this actually kept her out of the weather and provided some little comfort for her had obviously not crossed Xenaís mind. Otherwise, sheíd be outside with the horses, she had no doubt.

Terramides had entered the tent and was poring over a map with his leader.

"What about this Potidaea?" He pointed his finger at the map, and Gabrielleís head flew up.

"What about it? Do they have anything we need?"

"Some women and children. A bunch of farmers."

"Then weíll get some food and burn the rest of it to the ground."

"No, Xena! Please!"

Both her captors looked up in complete shock, although Xenaís look quickly changed to one of rage.

"You sit down and shut up!"

"But thatís my village! Please! Have mercy!"

"Havenít you learned anything by being with me?" Xena rushed over and grabbed Gabrielleís blouse, practically yanking her off the ground. "Mercy. Pity. These things get you nowhere." Her lip curled in disgust. "And neither will whining." She hurled the girl against the post, then turned to her second-in-command. "Tell the men we attack at dawn. Weíll take whatever we need, then burn the village to the ground!"

Terramides went out and Xena threw herself onto a cot and blew out the nearby candle, leaving both of them in complete blackness.

Gabrielle sat there, barely daring to breathe lest she break out into sobs. That would definitely get her into a mess. After what seemed like ages, she heard the steady breathing that signified sleep across the room.

Her sorrow turned to rage as she thought about her family. How old would her sister be now? Seven? Six? And what about all her friends? Perdicus would be about ten, like her.

Xena, Xena, I never could have imagined you this way. I knew you were bad, but I couldnít ever really see it. Itís a wonder someone didnít take you out long before you were able to change. Maybe someone should have. How many lives would have been saved?

Her breath caught in her throat as she suddenly thought of something.

The knife.

Slowly, slowly, she stood up, making sure not to rattle the chain at her feet. Running her hand along the wooden post, she inhaled in disbelief as it touched something smooth buried right at eye level. Moving the hilt up and down, she began to work the weapon loose from its mooring. It was buried deep, and her ten-year-old hands didnít hold much strength.

This is going to take a while, she thought. But it was still dark and quiet outside when she finally felt it come loose.

Now came the hard part. Straining her eyes, and trying to make out objects in the gloom, she began to take one step at a time towards the sound of heavy breathing.

Take it easy, Gabrielle. Take it easy. Donít blow it now.

She felt the chain tug at her heel, and knew this was as far as she could go. She listened to the breathing and patiently let her eyes adjust to the area in front of her. It was far enough. There was a long lump about hip high just in front of her. It was Xena on her cot. From the breathing, she could even tell where the head was. This was it. One good plunge into the throat and she probably wouldnít be able to scream. Besides, if Gabrielle touched her skin, there was always the chance sheíd turn as black as Hades.

She raised the knife and held her breath, then lowered it again.

For the godsí sakes! This is XENA, Gabrielle! What are you doing?

Not my Xena. This woman is power-mad and cruel. I never knew it was like this. Thereís nothing redeeming about her.

Who are you to judge?

I judged that cruel Roman warrior Crassus, and it was for the best. Besides, my Xena is outside. This woman is breaking her spirit. My Xena never attacked Potidaea. This is just a trick of the Fates to test me.

To test you for what?

She raised the knife again.

For what?

In the back of her mind, she could hear Xenaís voice. " Maybe itís time you looked at the whole Xena. All of life isnít a fairy tale or some morality play. Itís full of death and hate. And thatís part of me."

Gabrielleís breath caught in her throat. Itís not seeing this Xena thatís breaking her spirit, itís me seeing this Xena that is. She accepted this part of her a long time ago. She had to.

Can I?

She flung the knife to the ground and returned to her post.

Get some sleep, Gabrielle. Youíre going to need it.

 

 

 

"Hey! What happened? Are you okay?"

She opened her eyes. Xena was standing over her and she hopped to her feet. "Iíll get your breakfast. Whereís the bucket? Iíll go get the water!" It took her a moment to realize that this Xena was dressed slightly differently, and although Gabrielle was still shorter, she was at least past the other womanís waist.

She looked around. They were in a gloomy temple.

And not just any temple. "This is the place where Dahak was demanding human sacrifices!"

"Right!" muttered Xena, grabbing her chakram.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

 

~~ Chapter XXV ~~

 

At the moment, the place was empty. Both women looked around, remembering the details from their past. To the left and above was a balcony. Callisto had stood there once, but there was no one there. Ahead, a deep pit resembling a well had once contained the fire of Dahak, but it was dark and empty now. The only thing that was the same was the huge opening in front of them, that Gabrielle knew spiraled down into the heart of the volcanic mountain nearby. Even from here, the glow of the lava could be seen on the walls of the temple. The silence made her nervous and she turned in all directions, expecting at any moment to see priests of Dahak rushing toward them.

Xena must have felt the same, because she was doing the identical thing, even looking up at the ceiling.

"Whatíd you do back there anyway?" she asked unexpectedly.

"Huh?"

"Back in my camp. You must have done something. I certainly didnít do anything, and weíve moved past the second door, I guess."

"Oh, I uh . . . I resisted the urge to kill you."

Xena looked over at her, her mouth twisted and that brow up. It was clear she didnít know whether to believe the bard or not. Neither one of them had time to pursue it, however, for there was a blinding flash, and when they looked up, a woman who was the exact image of Gabrielle stood just in front of the lava pit.

"Hope," murmured Gabrielle.

Xena threw her chakram immediately, and Hope deftly moved, but not before the spinning weapon had left its mark on her side. Blood began to slowly trickle through her ceremonial robe, and she clutched at her wound, staring in disbelief at it and then at the warrior princess.

Sneering, she squinted her eyes and Xena sprang into the air just as a battle ax came off the wall and flew at her by itself. Evidently this Hope had all of her previous powers.

And the same mindset. She fastened her gaze on Gabrielle.

"You can see that I am a god. Your curse would not affect me." She stepped down from the wall in front of the pit. "Wouldnít it be nice to feel the embrace of someone again? Can you even remember what it feels like?" She paused and looked at Xena then back at Gabrielle. "Mother?"

"Mother!" The word sounded like a curse on the lips of Xena.

Gabrielle turned to her. "Xena, wait!"

"You lied to me!" she screamed. "You lied to all of us!"

"Xena I didnít really have a choice. You were going to kill me, and you needed me to face the Chimaera."

"I needed you to tell the truth! You are this thingís mother, and you tell me that you donít even know anything about it?" Her chakram was clutched tightly in her hand.

"Xena, Iím sure that youíve told a lie or two in your time. As a matter of fact, I know you have, if you know what I mean, and nobody is holding that against you."

Xenaís body was shaking, and there were tears in her eyes. Gabrielle had never seen her look this way, and it was breaking her heart.

"You deserve to be with your daughteróin Hades!" She threw the chakram.

Iím going to die. Gabrielle was surprised at how calm she felt. She guessed it was all too fast for her. She closed her eyes and waited.

And waited. She opened them again. There was no chakram. There wasnít even a Xena or Hope. Just the empty temple.

"The last part of your journey must be traveled alone, Bard," a female voice boomed above her. "Move on."

Gabrielle looked and saw that the lava pit had grown enormous and that there was a stone pathway bridging it.

The second bridge. She sighed and slowly made her way across it.

Just what you always wanted, Gabrielle. To do things on your own. To see how you fare with no Xena.

If the pain in her heart was any indication, she wasnít going to fare too well.

 

 

 

Xena blinked and shielded her eyes from the bright sunlight.

"Xena! Why did you do that?"

It was Polyeidus. She barely had time to register shock at what she was doing with him before she felt it again over what he was saying.

"You shouldnít have tried to kill her, Xena. I thought we went through all that at the Esen River. Youíve got an awfully hard head."

Reaching back instinctively, she found that her sword was gone.

"This is some trick of the Fates. Donít come any nearer," she warned him, raising her hands to strike.

"This is not some trick. Youíre not even in there anymore. Look!" He pointed behind her at the Temple.

She still didnít relax. "Then how did you know what was going on with me and the storyteller?"

"Come with me, my dear." Polyeidus began to hobble off ahead of her. Noticing that she didnít follow, he gestured more emphatically. "Come on!"

Xena strode behind him, her eyes searching the area for any sign of something strange. Within moments, they had reached a small pond, the clear water as still as the surface of a mirror. Argo and Polyeidusís mount stood nearby.

The old servant pointed at the water. "This is how I know."

Xena looked at the water, but saw nothing. "Look, your tricks wonít work on me, old man."

"Have some respect!" he said indignantly, and indicated the water again. "This is the Pool of Reflection. I had always thought it was an old wivesí tale, but when I brought the horse down here, I wished out loud that I could see what the two of you were doing, and there you were in the water!"

Xena put her hands down. The only danger from this old man might be catching his madness.

"Do you expect me to believeó"

"I wish to see Philonoe!í he shouted.

Immediately, the water shimmered and rippled. Within moments, they could see the young queen sitting on her throne at Xanthos, listening to a farmer who had come to make some sort of request. The two of them could be seen and heard quite clearly.

"Youíre telling me that if we want to see the storytelleró"

Polyeidus nodded like a young schoolboy and said this wish directly to the pond.

There she was, the traitor! Xena fingered her chakram and glared at the water.

The storyteller was in a temple, but not that of Dahak.

Where is that? Iíve been there before.

There was a strange hissing sound and a dark and handsome man appeared next to the bard.

"Ares!" muttered Xena through clenched teeth. "Iíve seen enough! Letís go!"

"No wait, Xena! Iím telling you that youíve misjudged that girl again."

"Are you telling me that she isnít the mother of that monster?"

"No, but I am telling you that you donít have the whole picture. You didnít see what she did in that tent when she was with youóbefore your change, I mean. And you donít know what sheís doing right now. Just listen, and wait. Please. What can it hurt?"

Xena looked hard at the little man, then looked back into the depths of the pool

 

 

 

"Ares!" Gabrielle shook her head. "Arenít you in the wrong place? Itís usually Xena that you want."

The god of war leaned close and put his mouth near her ear. "Usually, but I have a proposition. For you, not for Xena."

Gabrielle stepped away from him. "The last time I made a deal with you, it nearly cost Xena and I our lives and our friendship."

"Ah, yes. The friendship. And how are things with the beloved warrior princess? Where is she? I thought you two were inseparable."

"Get to the point, Ares. Iíve got things to do."

He sidled next to her again and ran his finger down her arm. She hadnít been touched in so long it made her jump. How she hated that! He would find any sign of weakness and use it.

"Oh thatís right. Youíve got to get rid of that awful curse, donít you? You know, Bacchus and I were related."

"I see the family resemblance. Those snake eyes. Predatory teeth. Arrogant smile. Definitely."

He remained maddeningly calm. "Which means that I might be able to help you. You know, one god gives a curse, another takes it away."

"Spare me, Ares. Athena already told Iobates that it couldnít be done."

"Then why are you here?"

"The Fates control our existence. I thought they might be able to do something."

He clicked his tongue in derision. "Tsk, tsk, tsk. And yet here you are, undergoing all of this. Youíve lost Xena again, and nothing has happened, has it? Catch!" he called. A rose appeared in his hand and he tossed it at her. Without thinking, Gabrielle caught it. It immediately turned black and the petals began to fall to the ground. She flung it down.

"Nope. Still the same old curse of Bacchus. Hereís the deal," he said, clasping his hands together, and walking away from her. "Iíd like you to write me a story."

"What?" Gabrielle just knew she had heard him wrong.

He waved his hand, and a table and chair appeared before her. On it were a quill, some ink, and a scroll.

"Go ahead. Sit down. Get inspired. Letís see what you can do."

"Since when have you been interested in my stories?"

"Oh, Iíve always been interested in your stories. Letís see what you can do under pressure."

She raised her eyebrow at him, and then sat in the chair. "Okay." Picking up the quill, she dipped it and started to write. The parchment disappeared.

"Hey!"

Ares pursed his lips and waved his hand. "Just a slight fluke, Gabrielle. Try again."

She saw the parchment reappear and started again. This time the quill vanished. She jumped up, overturning the chair. "All right, Ares, enough of your games! Let me go. Iíve got things to do."

"No, no, no. Not so hasty. I think I see the problem. What were you planning on writing about?"

"Not that you care, but I was going to tell about the time that Xena met up with her older brother Taurus."

"Ah, thereís the problem." He leaned next to her again, and his voice was oily and seductive in her ear. "No Xena stories."

"What?"

"That quill and scroll wonít accept any tales about the warrior princess."

"What are you saying?"

"Iím saying that I might be able to get you out of here. I might even be able to lift that curse. Ifó"

"If I donít tell any more stories about Xena."

He nodded smugly. "Yeah, thatís pretty much it."

Gabrielle drummed her fingers on her chin. "And thatís it? Nothing else?"

"You have my word as the god of war that Iíll require nothing else of you."

"You know, Ares, my mother used to tell me not to accept any wooden dinars."

The godís nostrils flared and he clenched his jaw. "Meaning?"

"Meaning that if something doesnít look quite right, then it probably isnít." She turned to face him and her expression was full of disgust. "This isnít about me. Or Xena, either, is it? Itís about the stories I tell and how they spread her reputation far and wide."

"Think about her candle, Gabrielle. Then think about yours."

"I am thinking about them! As a matter of fact, Iím thinking clearly for the first time in a long time. Xenaís legend grows every time I tell someone about her. And as that legend grows, so do all the things she represents. Courage. Bravery. Independence . . . hope. She inspires people to face their fears and live out their dreams, and you canít stand that. You want to control people in your own petty way, and if they forget you or stand up to you, that wonít be happening. Youíre terrified of looking around one day and seeing that we donít need you anymore. Xena believes in making her own destiny. So do I. And part of that is me telling others about her. You know, Ares, I got this wound because of Xena." She indicated the puncture marks on her neck.

The god of war snorted. "And thatís a good thing?"

"Yes, it is, because I never would have had the courage to save Bellerophon and Pegasus if I hadnít seen Xenaís courage first. Thatís what my stories do for people. They give them the courage to do things they never thought they could. And I wonít take that away from them, even if it means living forever as this walking corpse."

"And what of your sword-wielding Muse? She wonít be around anymore."

"I have years of adventures with Xena stored right here." She pointed at her heart. "Thatís enough for a lifetime of storiesóeven an eternal lifetime."

"Youíd better hope so, Bard," he said with disgust, and disappeared in a veil of light and smoke.

Gabrielle heard the voice of Lachesis. "The Door of Sacrifice is opened. Move on."

The doors to Aresís Halls of War creaked open, and Gabrielle slowly went through them.

 

~~ Chapter XXVI ~~

 

Xena stomped back and forth beside the Pool of Reflection, which had returned to its serene and clear state.

"What in Tartarus is going on here, Polyeidus?"

The old man templed his fingers and began to tap them against each other. "I donít know. I donít know. Youíre telling me that youíve never heard of this girl?"

"No. Never." And yet. Gabrielle. Gabrielle. It sounded so familiar, like a rhyme that she had known since childhood and briefly forgotten.

"But she spoke of friendship," continued the old man. "Do you think she meant the small amount of time youíve had together?"

"What else could she mean? I never met her before Mnemosyne."

Polyeidusís eyes lit up, and he ran toward the horses. When he returned, he had the bardís satchel in his hands. He dumped the contents out on the ground and sorted through the scrolls and quills. Yanking up the fortunetellerís card, he held it up to Xena. "Gabrielle went to Mnemosyne seeking answers because of this card, but the card indicated the answers were here."

"Yeah? So?"

"So get out Hadaraís card."

Xena rolled her eyes, but pulled the card out of her tunic just the same. He snatched it from her and put it beside the other.

"Theyíre the same, Xena. I donít care where that girl said she got hers, itís from Hadara. And if her answers lie within this card, so do yours."

"Balance. Temperance," muttered Xena.

"Thatís right."

She stalked over to Argo and removed Bellerophonís bow and placed his quiver over her shoulder. Now she was glad he had insisted she take it.

Polyeidus was right behind her, his voice full of excitement. "What are you going to do?"

"Iíve got an idea. Wait here. I assume youíll know if things work out or not." She gave a nod towards the pond.

"But the Fates said the storyteller must travel the last part of her journey alone."

"From what I can tell, Polyeidus, sheís traveled alone enough. I somehow failed back there in the Temple of Dahak. If I hadnít I believe Iíd be with her. I think Iím still supposed to be with her." She walked to the edge of the pool and stared hard into he water, even dipping in her hand.

"Arenít you going back to the Temple?"

"Yes, but not the usual way. Thatís what they expect. No," she whispered as if in a trance. "This pool is the key. Itís connected somehow to the Temple. Take good care of Argo." She dove headlong into the pool, causing the old man to gasp. Surely sheíd hit bottom in a moment and come spluttering back up. What was she thinking?

But Xena didnít hit bottom. Pushing through the water with her one free hand and both powerful legs, she found that the Pool of Reflection was far deeper than one might have imagined. She continued downward until the sunlight from above barely filtered down into the murky depths. Looking about quickly, she saw what she wanted. There. A dark hole in what appeared to be a wall. She pushed toward it, having to twist the bow and her body to make them fit into the opening.

It was as black as pitch in here, and she grabbed whatever crevices in the stone she could with her free hand, trying to speed herself along.

Maybe this wasnít such a good idea, Xena. You might just end up a rotting, forgotten corpse down here in this tunnel.

Her lungs were beginning to feel like they were on fire. Suddenly, she thought she saw a dim light up ahead. She kicked frantically, knowing it would put more pressure on her to breathe, but also knowing it didnít make any difference now anyway. She reached the end of the tunnel and pushed off the ledge as hard as she could, forcing her way up. There was light from above, but she couldnít tell how far.

Youíre not gonna make it, her mind screamed at her. Her lungs were going to explode. Instinctively, she opened her mouth to take in a gulp, knowing it would be nothing but water, and that she would die.

She sucked in anywayó

--and burst through the surface. Coughing and sputtering from the gulp of water she had taken, Xena made her way to the edge of the water and climbed out onto a smooth stone floor. The light she had seen came from several torches that were suspended in the room, which was round and contained only one door. She made her way to it and pushed. It opened easily, revealing a series of stone steps that made their way through the middle of the next room, winding up through space until they reached another open door in the wall about fifty paces above. Other than the steps, the room was filled with black water. Xena placed her foot on the first step, and heard a familiar voice behind her.

"Wait! Didnít you forget about me?"

In one deft movement, she whirled around, and placed an arrow on her bowstring, the pointed tip trained on Hopeís heart.

"That wonít kill me," croaked the goddess.

"No. But it sure will hurt."

Xena pulled the string taut, and heard a creaking noise above. Looking up, she saw the door at the top of the stairs beginning to swing closed.

She heard her own voice in her head. All you have to do is make it across the bridge.

Hope is trying to distract me. I have to accept her presence and move on.

Flinging down the bow, she turned and began to run up the steps, taking them two at a time. She could see the door, swinging steadily closed, the space growing steadily smaller--two paces. An armís length. A handís breath. Drawing her chakram, she leaped through the air, flipping once and landing in front of the door. She shoved the chakram in the crack of light between the door and the frame, then kicked her right leg with all her might.

The door flew backwards and she ran through.

The chamber echoed with the voice of the second Fate. "The Bridge of Knowledge is passed."

"What knowledge?" Xena panted.

"The knowledge that Hope is a part of the storyteller. The storytellerís knowledge that the warrior princess is a part of you."

Xena leaned against a wall and caught her breath. "And the acceptance of it," she whispered.

Lachesis appeared before her. "That is correct."

Xena stood upright. "Take me to her."

The Fate looked at her, scrutinizing her in every way. Finally she turned away and waved her arms. "As you wish."

 

~~ Chapter XXVII ~~

 

Xena looked around her. She was behind a huge set of rocks in a large cavern. Below her gaped an enormous abyss, black and fathomless, wisps of smoke wafting across the mouth. The storyteller stood at the edge, staring down into it.

"What is it?" she seemed to be asking the stones around her.

Atroposís voice rang out. "It is the Chasm of Oblivion. Why are you here?"

"I was hoping you could lift the curse of Bacchus."

"Why?"

"So I wonít risk hurting anyone else, especially those I love and care about."

"Especially Xena."

"Especially her," whispered the bard.

"No god can lift the curse, storyteller. No human can end your existence. There is only one solution. This Chasm has no bridge. Do you understand?"

"Yes," came the quiet response. She stood there for awhile, her head bowed, then lifted it with determination.

"My stories. Does Polyeidus still have them?"

"Yes. However, there will be no memory of you in them."

Gabrielle actually smiled. "It doesnít matter." Take that, Ares! She stepped to the edge of the abyss. "Iím ready."

"No!"

Gabrielle jumped as a tall figure leaped out of the rocks high above and landed ten paces away.

"Xena!" She was thrilled and horrified to see her. "What are you doing here?"

"Saving your life! Get away from the edge!"

Gabrielle smiled for one instant, and then her face fell. "My life was lost long ago, Xena, when I got this curse. Stay out of this." She held her breath and prepared to step over the edge.

Xenaís eyes were wild. Donít react. Act. She yanked her whip off her hip and swung it at the girl just as she stepped over the ledge. It immediately went taut and she braced both feet in the dirt, sliding several paces before she was able to stop the momentum. Leaning back and straining every nerve in her body, she began to hoist the rope toward her, hand over hand. Much to her relief, Gabrielleís head soon appeared just above the edge of the chasm.

"By Zeus, Xena! That hurt!" The girl twisted away, obviously struggling with the whip wrapped around her waist. Suddenly she gave a yelp and her face disappeared again. Still holding the other end, Xena scrambled near the edge.

Thank the gods! There she was. But she was struggling with her life-line, trying to unwrap it.

Xena was growing frantic. "Stop it!" she yelled in frustration, pulling up with all her might. As she did so, she saw Hadaraís card flutter to the ground. Something odd clicked in the back of her brain, but she ignored it and pulled on the whip.

If only I had some way to anchor this, I could get to her. My sword. I could have shot the bow and anchored the rope, but all those things are useless to me now.

Temperance.

Great gods above, thatís it! She scrambled to the edge and looked down at the storyteller. "You canít let go. You canít leave me!"

Gabrielle looked up, confusion etched into her face. "Why not?"

"Because we balance each other. The sword and the hilt. The bow and arrows. The quill and scroll. Temperance. I donít know why, but somehow weíre better together than we are apart!"

There was a rumbling sound, and Xena looked up to see a stone bridge forming its way across the chasm out of thin air.

"You see, Gabrielle?" Gabrielle . . .Gabrielle! She looked into the green eyes below her.

 

 

 

The Priestess of Mnemosyne stared in amazement at Gabrielleís candle. With a sudden snapping sound, the wick burst to life and became a steady flame.

Time just ran out, Gabrielle. I hope you know what youíre doing.

 

 

 

"Gabrielle." Xenaís voice was hoarse, strange. Gabrielle looked up at her, and saw recognition in her eyes.

"You know me," she breathed.

"How could I not?" The blue eyes were watering up with tears. "How could I not?"

Gabrielle didnít know whether to be ecstatic or devastated. It felt wonderful to be recognized at last by the one person she cared most about in all the world. And yet . . .

She began to struggle with the whip at her waist, grabbing the end and unwinding it.

"What are you doing? Give me your hand!"

"No, Xena! Iím sorry you ever remembered me. I was trying to spare you this, but I have no choice. Donít you see? Iíll still have the curse of Bacchus."

"Then weíll deal with it together. We can handle anything together. Havenít you learned that?"

"Let me go, Xena. Itís for the best."

One more coil. The whip began to slip. She looked up. "Goodbye, Xena. I love you."

The whip came loose. There was no time to think. In one last desperate move, Xena threw down her left hand and felt it tighten around Gabrielleís forearm. Her right hand flicked the whip towards the stone bridge. Then she tumbled head first into the chasm.

She closed her eyes, feeling her stomach churn as her body spun through space, only to be stopped abruptly midfall. Both of her shoulders were nearly jerked out of their sockets as she kept her grip on both the whip and Gabrielleís arm.

She looked above them. They were suspended from the stone bridge. But it wouldnít last for long. The whipís hold was tentative, at best. She pulled on Gabrielle. "Climb. Fast!"

It took the girl a moment to realize that it was Xenaí voice yelling at her. And that Xena wasnít a blackened corpse. With superhuman strength, Xena pulled her up until Gabrielle could grasp the whip with her own hands. "Hurry up!"

Gabrielle began to scramble up the whip, Xena helping by pushing on her legs, then her feet. Clasping the edge of the bridge, she hoisted herself onto it with all her might. Without stopping to catch her breath, she turned around and reached out for the warrior princess. The whip made a singing noise and raced like a snake around the stone bridge.

"Xena!" Gabrielle reached out and managed to grasp Xenaís empty scabbard. She placed her other hand on the back of Xenaís leather outfit and pulled with all of her might. With a groan, Xena wrapped her fingers around the edge of the stone and hoisted herself to chin level. The whip flew by her head and disappeared into the blackness far below. With Gabrielle still tugging on her, the warrior strained every muscle and brought up one knee, then the other.

They were up. Both women collapsed.

In a moment, Gabrielle wearily sat up. "Xena?"

"Yes."

"Youíre not dead."

Xena sat up and cocked an eyebrow at her. "It would appear that way, yes." The young bard stared at her in disbelief. Then a look of pure joy passed over her face and she flung herself at the warrior princess, wrapping her arms around her neck in a tight hug. Xena did the same, leaning her cheek against Gabrielleís head. She hugged the girl even tighter.

"What did you think you were doing?" Her voice was hoarse with emotion.

"I was just doing what was best, I thought."

Leaning back, Xena cupped Gabrielleís face in her hands. "That will never be best. I found that out when I lost you the last time."

The bard looked at her a moment, then hugged her again. "I know that now."

"Finally," harumphed the oldest Fate from somewhere above them. The voice grew louder, echoing through the cavernous depths.

"The curse is lifted. The Bridge of Sacrifice is passed."

Xena blinked. She and Gabrielle were back in the Temple of the Fates. Just in front of them, the three goddesses were spinning thread, weaving an elaborate and enormous tapestry.

Xena stepped toward the spinners. "And what did you think you were doing? Putting us through all that?"

Clotho stepped forward. "You dare to question the Fates?"

Xena squinted her blue eyes at them. "Always."

"The two of you doubted each other," began Lachesis. "Before you ever reached Xanthos."

"What?" said both women in unison.

"You, Xena, were full of selfish interest, wondering what it would be like to have forever been on your own and not have anyone else to worry about."

Gabrielle cast a judgmental look at her companion.

"And you, Gabrielle, were full of pride, wondering how great your own star might be if it were not constantly dimmed by that of Xena." The bard suddenly stared intently at her boot.

"Hopefully," began Atropos, "You have learned your lesson."

"Which is?" asked Xena.

 

"Do not pretend ignorance with us, warrior. You said it yourself." The old Crone pointed at the loom behind her, then gently grabbed the thread on the spinning wheel. For the first time, Xena and Gabrielle noticed that it was two threads, tightly twisted together. "Look closely, mortals. Two threads, yet one. Together they are a part of lifeís tapestry."

"Better together than apart," whispered Gabrielle. Suddenly, she frowned. "But what about all those bridges and doors?" She crossed her arms. "Was that really necessary?"

"As the old fortuneteller said," replied Lachesis. "Your learning would take place in the journey. Yours, Xena, through the quest."

"You learned at the first bridge that you must overcome your petty desires to accomplish good."

"The second bridge revealed to you the worst of each other. In order for mortals to build strong relationships, they must see both the good and the bad in others and love them just the same."

"But what about the curse?" asked Gabrielle. "Why was I able to touch Xena? You said you couldnít remove it."

"And we spoke the truth. We did not lift it, Gabrielle; the two of you did. That was the Bridge of Self Sacrifice. Only through sacrificial love could Bacchusís touch of death be removed."

"But what about Iobates?"

"He never loved anyone deeply and they never loved him. There was no chance for sacrifice."

Gabrielleís nostrils flared slightly. "So did you give me the curse in the first place?"

"No. Iobates gave it to you. Through extreme hatred, it could be given to others. You saw that hatred when he discovered your connection to Xena. Had you touched Velasca at the Bridge of Desire, she would have received the touch and you would have died."

"What was going on with my memory?" asked Xena. "How could I have forgotten Gabrielle?"

"Would you like to explain?" said Lachesis with a disdainful nod towards the girl.

"Well, Iím afraid that was all me, Xena. I blew out my Candle of Remembrance at the Temple of Mnemosyne."

"Was that necessary?" Xena asked the Fates.

"Great heavens, no! We thought the foolish girl would never get here."

"Hey!" Gabrielle pointed her finger accusingly at all of them. "Three bridges. Mnemosyneís got three rivers. I think it was a pretty honest mistake."

Xena shook her head with a smile, and then stepped toward the three goddesses. "I just wanna know one thing. Why did you do this? Since when do you owe us anything?"

"Since the Temple of Dahak," said one.

"Ares used us to pit the two of you against one another and toy with your lives. He has since proven himself to be friend to neither Olympus nor Earth. We let him use us as pawns, placing us below him and in debt to you. We do not play with the threads. Our purpose is sure. Now we owe nothing to god or man. We are even. You may be on your way. Expect to solve your own problems from now on."

"Weíll count on it," Xena said with a grimace.

 

 

 

The morning sun shone brightly on the two travelers as they made their way along the dirt path. A breeze played in the trees and bushes on either side, and the sound of birds calling to each other echoed through the air.

Xena took a deep breath and stretched one arm, listening to the steady thud of Argoís hooves in the soft earth. To her right, she could hear the whooshing sound of Gabrielleís staff as she spun it lazily back and forth.

"How much longer to Tiryns and Joxer?"

"Half a day. Weíll be there by dusk."

"Great. That will give me plenty of time tonight to tell him about our adventures in Lycia. I can just hear it now." Gabrielle stopped spinning her staff and thrust it out in front of her dramatically. "It all starts as the warrior and her bard move through the dangerous streets of Xanthos, searching for the missing son of Glaucus, King of Cenchreae.

"It was hot that day, and Gabrielle decided they should go to a tavern and refresh themselves. Little did she know that danger awaited her at the watering hole . . ."

Xena pushed up in the stirrups and glanced all around with her sharp blue eyes. With that constant chatter, it would be hard to hear any enemies that might decide to attack from those thick bushes. There could be highwaymen, warlords, or even wild beasts drawn right to that bubbling noise that was echoing through the trees. Gabrielle knew better, but she was obviously caught up in the thrill of having things as they used to be.

Xena sighed and decided to join her friend in the rare pleasure of enjoying the moment. Forget the warlords, animals, and robbers for now. Even forget that vision. Just for now. Sheíd take up those burdens again soon enough, she knew. Just for now she was going to stretch her tired muscles, feel the warmth of the sun on her face, and accept the lesson the Fates had taught her. For just this little while, she was going to be with Gabrielle.

Closing her eyes, she eased back down in the saddle and smiled indulgently, listening to the familiar cadence of that beloved voice.

"Lyciaóa land in turmoil crying out for a hero. She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle . . ."

 

THE END


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