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The Penitent

by Tim Wellman

"Xena," Gabrielle said, "Do you think we'll ever stop?"

Xena looked down at Gabrielle who was walking beside her. "I told you, you could ride if you wanted."

Gabrielle looked up at Xena on Argo's back and shook her head. She was using her staff as a walking stick, putting most of her weight on it with every stride. Since morning, they had traveled the dusty road without stopping. She didn't know where they were going; she hardly ever did. But she trusted Xena, trusted her instinct, her ability, and most of all, her motives. Anywhere Xena went, it was the best possible place to be. "Maybe we better stop," she said. "Just for a moment?"

Gabrielle stumbled on a rock and nearly fell. Xena looked down, and sensing trouble, she stopped Argo. Gabrielle was short of breath, and leaned against her staff for balance.

"Gabrielle? Are you all right?"

"I just need to take a break," she said.

Xena hopped down from her horse and tethered it to a tree, then grabbed Gabrielle's shoulders just as she started to fall. She softly laid her down and put Gabrielle's head in her lap. Gabrielle looked up and tried to smile, but it was impossible. Her eyes rolled back and slowly closed.

"Gabrielle?" Xena slapped her cheeks, and not being able to wake her, put her face next to Gabrielle's mouth. She was still breathing, but unsteadily. Xena picked her up and carried her from the road and laid her in the grass. She poured some water into the palm of her hand and touched it to Gabrielle's lips. There was no response. "Gabrielle, I don't know what to do," she said. She fought to hold back her tears, but the battle was lost. "Gabrielle?"

Xena stood and looked around for anyone, anything to help, but there was no one there. She felt completely alone. As the cool breeze of evening crossed her back, she shivered and knelt down beside her friend. Gabrielle's body was shaking, from shock or cold, she didn't know. She lay down next to her and held her in her arms, warming her with her own body. With her head on Gabrielle's chest, she listened to every weak breath, counting each one as a precious gift.

"You there!" Xena was startled by a voice. She jumped to her feet, and put her hand on her sword. But the voice came from a simple villager, traveling the same road. He walked to her and Gabrielle, without looking at Xena, and bent down to Gabrielle. "Have you been through Elixia?" he said.

"Yes," Xena said. "We passed through there this morning." She watched the man carefully, but his compassionate touched kept her from moving him away.

"The entire village is fallen, just like you friend," he said. He loosened his scarf, and finding the water jar, soaked it and put it on Gabrielle's forehead.

"The villagers," Xena said, "How are they?" She wanted to hear any encouraging word.

"Dead, mostly," he said, still attending to Gabrielle.

"Oh, Gabrielle," Xena said. Her voice quivered. She knelt down and held her hand, trying to rub warmth back into her. "You can't leave me," she said. She smiled as tears rolled freely down her face. "There are still so many places to see. Such a big world for you to experience."

"This is not sickness," the man said. He put his hand in front of Gabrielle's mouth, trying to feel her breath.

"What do you mean, not sickness."

"This is enchantment," he said. "This is a spell."

Xena grabbed the man's shoulder and turned him around. "What do you mean?"

Suddenly the man's face turned to anger. It was the first time he had looked at her face. He pulled himself away from her grasp and stood. "Xena," he said. There was only hatred in his voice. He backed away from Gabrielle and put his hand on his knife. "Are you back to destroy us again?"

She looked at the man and tried to place him, place anything about him or the local villages. There were just so many nameless places in her past, turned to ruin. "Look, I'm sorry. Please, you've got to help Gabrielle, if you can."

"You can watch her die like I watched my wife die, struggling in the dirt as your army rode overtop of her," he said.

Xena wiped her face with the back of her hand, smearing dirt across her cheek. "That was so long ago," she said. "Please, help her." Her voice cracked as she spoke. She bowed her head in shame and worry. "Don't let her die."

The man looked at her for a moment, then he knelt back down and touched Gabrielle's cheek. "For her," he said.

"What do you need?" she said.

"We need to take her to a woman I know," he said. "She can help."

Xena bent down and took Gabrielle into her arms. She carried her to Argo and draped her over his back. The man followed, still not trusting Xena or her motivation.

"How can the warrior be so concerned over one life," he said.

"This is not one life," Xena said. "This is the only life I have. She has my soul locked away in her heart."

"Follow me," he said, leading them off the road and into a wooded forest.

The night air grew colder, and Xena watched Gabrielle's body shaking. She could barely lead Argo along. "Is it much further," she said.

"Only through the trees," he said. And as they emerged from the forest, a small house came into view. "Wait here."

The man ran into the house, as Xena pulled Gabrielle from Argo and held her in her arms. "Just hold on, Gabrielle, hold on," she said. She was surprised at the strength that remained in her voice. She noticed the house was just like the one she lived in as a child; she looked and waited.

Gabrielle started to choke and gasp for air. Xena knelt down and pressed Gabrielle's head to her breast, and brushed her hair from her face. Gabrielle moved her head slightly and Xena grabbed her face and held it in her hands. "Xena?" Gabrielle's voice was weak and quiet as a whisper. "What's happening?"

Xena kissed her cheek and tried to hide her tears. "I don't know," she said. "But someone is helping."

Just then, the man returned with three others, and before Xena could react, they grabbed her arms and pulled her away from Gabrielle. The three men held Xena to the ground and out of the corner of her eye, she could see the man she had met pick up Gabrielle and carry her away. A shooting pain went through her heart and seemed to move to her head. Then blackness.

When she awoke, nothing remained; Gabrielle, the men, the house, all were gone. She stood up and then had to lean against a tree for support. She tried to brush the dirt and leaves from her body, but soon saw it was futile. She suddenly felt completely alone for the first time.

The sun was just breaking and she was finally able to stand on her own. She whistled for Argo and he came crashing through the trees. Xena patted his back, "At least you're here," she said. She examined the area. How could everything just vanish? She looked in every direction, not even knowing which way to start. But Gabrielle was out there, somewhere. She couldn't allow herself to think anything else.

She walked over the area where the house was, but there were no clues. Drawn into the dirt, as if a child had been playing, was the word 'Xena'. She led Argo through the area, clinging to his reins, tethering herself to the only familiar thing in her life. And as she turned to look at him again, she spotted something different. Hanging around his neck was a small pendant. She loosened the chain and held it in her hand. On it's face, there were four arrows, their shafts tied together with a red rope. She clasped the pendant in her hand. It was her only clue, and it had been planted.

She looked up and Gabrielle was running toward her. "Gabrielle!" she said; she smiled and opened her arms, but just as she seemed to feel Gabrielle's body in her hands, the apparition disappeared. Her heart broke. "Oh, nice going," she said. "Kick a girl when she's down." She looked at the pendant again, burning the design into her memory. She wasn't sure if Gabrielle was a vision, or if it was just her mind beginning to falter.

The only direction she knew to travel was to go back to the road, and return to Elixia. It was several hour's journey and she started out slowly, with the sun in her eyes. In her mind, she listened to Gabrielle's stories, again and again, along the way. By noon, she could easily imagine Gabrielle walking by her side. She began talking to her; it seemed to lesson the feeling of being alone.

She met no one along the way. And as she finally entered into Elixia, the village was empty. Only yesterday, there had been children playing in the streets, a thriving market, people everywhere. But where were the bodies? There was no trace of humanity, living or dead.

"Xena." She turned to face the voice, but there was no one there.

"Not only am I talking to myself," she said. "Now, I'm starting to answer."

"Xena." Again, the voice. But this time, when she turned, there was a hooded figure walking toward her. He was dressed in black, and holding a spear. She drew her sword and backed away.

"What do you want?"

"Your question is directed at the wrong person," he said. He lifted his hand and pointed at her. "What do you want?"

"I don't understand," Xena said. "Do you know about Gabrielle?"

"You are the only one here," he said. "Ask yourself that question."

"Listen, I don't have time for this," she said. "My friend is dying, and four men took her away."

"Four men, like arrows tied by a crimson rope," he said.

The man had described the pendant. Xena realized she had traveled to the right place, but the cryptic words of the hooded man confused her. "What do you know of this?" she said.

"It is the sign of the penitent," he said.

"I don't understand," Xena said. "Please, help me."

"Your soul is dying, Xena," he said. "When you revive it, you will find your friend." He pointed his spear at her and the village disappeared around her. Only the man remained, standing alone in front of her. "The answer is in your heart, just as your family's house was only in your heart."

Xena watched as the figure vanished, and around her, a thriving village appeared. It was Elixia, as she remembered it. She was standing in the street, covered with dirt, holding her sword, as the simple villagers walked around her.

"Is this Elixia?" she said to a woman passing by. She didn't hear. Xena tried talking to someone else, but they seemed not to notice her. She reached out to grab someone by the shoulder, but her hand passed right through. Was she a ghost, or were they?

As she stood there, she heard the sound of approaching horses. She turned to face the sound, and rushing into town was an army, swords drawn, slashing as they entered. Xena ran to help the villagers, but as she got closer to the onrushing horde, she stopped, dropping her sword. It was her army, and she was at the head of the warriors, leading them through the village, yelling instructions, and laughing. Villagers dropped as her sword cut through them, children, suddenly orphaned, were trampled under the hoofs of her horse. She picked up her sword again, and ran toward her army, but just as she swung her sword, the army disappeared. Only the dying remained.

She made her way through the street, trying to help. A small child reached out to her and she picked it up; then suddenly, her hands were covered in blood and the baby lay dead at her feet. "No!" she said. She wiped the blood on her body, and felt the pendant. She held it up in the light, and as she looked, one of the arrows disappeared.

And as she turned, she faced total darkness. There was nothing of the village, nothing but blackness. The air was thick and hard to breath. She felt her way along, but there was nothing to bump into, nothing to touch. Losing her balance, she fell to her knees and when she looked up, her brother, Lycius, was standing in front of her. He was carrying a sword, and yelling her name. He turned around, and Xena saw herself walk up, kiss him on the lips, then drive a dagger into his chest. It was more than she could bare; she put her face in her hands and cried out her brother's name. "I am sorry," she said, "Sweet child, forgive me."

As she uncovered her face, she was back on the road. She looked around, but she was alone, except for Argo. She looked at the pendant and only two arrows remained. "I don't understand!" she said. "Can you hear me?" she yelled. "I don't understand." She stood up and ran her hand across Argo's back. "Tell me what you want!" But there was no answer, no sound at all, just the quickening beat of her heart as her fear turned to anger.

She started walking again, not knowing which direction she was traveling; she didn't even know whether it was morning or evening. She just knew she had to walk. "Gabrielle!" She looked to each side of the road and yelled Gabrielle's name again. She started to laugh, but it quickly changed to crying.

"Who are you looking for?"

She turned around and saw an old man walking down the road. He was wearing a villager's tunic, and carried a staff for support. As he made his way closer, Xena ran to him. "You can see me?"

"Of course, I can see you," he said. "I'm old, not blind." He smiled at her, then noticed how bloody and dirty she looked. "What happened? Were you robbed?"

"I don't know," Xena said. She thought for a moment. "Robbed? I'm just lost."

"Well, you're just outside Elixia," the old man said. "Although you're heading out of town. I just came from there."

"You came from Elixia?" Xena said.

"I just told you. Yes, I was just there."

"The villagers, the children? They were there?" Xena said.

"Of course," he said. He looked at Xena, then reached into his bag and brought out a piece of bread. "Here, you look like you need this." Xena took the bread, but didn't eat. "You know, you better eat. You don't live into the fourth age of man by not eating when you get the chance."

Xena looked into his eyes. "The four ages of man?"

"Yea, you know, the baby, the child, the adult and the old," he said. "Old man, in my case."

Xena looked down the road. "I've got to go back to Elixia," she said. She looked at the old man. "Do you need me to travel with you?"

"Been traveling by myself for seventy years, don't guess I need any help, now," he said.

She touched him on the arm, then mounted Argo and started to ride back into the village.


She turned, stunned that the old man knew her name. "Yea?"

"You must forgive yourself," he said, "I am the old, you are the fourth." Then he slowly faded away.

She turned Argo and rode to where the old man was standing. On the ground was the piece of bread he had offered her. She hopped down and picked it up, but as she turned it, thousands of maggots started crawling on her hand. She threw the bread to the ground and brushed off the worms. She looked at the pendant and there was one arrow left, still tied with the red rope.

She got back on Argo and rode to Elixia.

The village was normal, this time. Children played in the street; the market was crowded. She hopped down and grabbed a man on the street. "Do you know of a girl, very sick," she said.


Xena smiled. It felt good to hear someone else say her name. "Yes, do you know where she is?"

"Follow me," the man said. She tied Argo to a post and followed him inside a nearby house. Candles were burning on an altar and the smell of incense filled the air. "She's in there." He pointed to a small room.

Xena walked through the door, and her heart sank. There was Gabrielle, lying on the bed. She was pale white, and still. She ran and fell by her side, grabbing her hand. It was cold and stiff. "Oh, Gabrielle," Xena said. She laid her head on Gabrielle's chest, as her tears dripped from her face and fell on Gabrielle's body. Then, strangely, everywhere a tear fell, the flesh turned red. She raised up and touched Gabrielle's face. Her eyes moved. "Oh, Gabrielle!" she said. She slapped her face, still allowing her tears to fall. Her head moved, then slowly, her mouth opened.


"Yes!" Xena shouted. She hugged Gabrielle's neck, lifting her body into her arms. She looked at her face and Gabrielle smiled. Xena kissed her on the lips, then lingered near, to feel her breath.

As she slowly let go of her grip on Gabrielle, she felt dizzy and had to close her eyes. As she opened them again, Gabrielle was leaning over her, wiping her forehead with a damp cloth. She had to focus her eyes to see.

"She's coming around," Gabrielle said, turning to face someone behind her. She grabbed Xena's neck and hugged her. "She's going to be all right."

"I don't understand," Xena said, suddenly feeling very weak.

"The fever," Gabrielle said, wiping tears from her eyes, "I thought you were going to die."

"Me?" Xena said. Then she smiled. Gabrielle helped her sit up in the bed. "It was a hard thing to get over."

"Really had me worried," Gabrielle said. Then she reached down and picked up something from Xena's chest. "I never noticed this before," she said. She picked up the pendant. "Must be one of the villager's good luck charms." She looked at it closely. "I don't know how lucky it could be." She turned it so Xena could see. "It's blank. There's no decoration, no symbols, nothing."

Xena smiled and touched Gabrielle's face. "You're all the luck I need."

Gabrielle smiled and looked at the pendant again. "Blank, just like a new life."

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