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Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle Argo and the Amazons are not mine and belong to Renaissance/MCA/universal. They are used without permission. No copyright infringement was intended.
Hurt/Comfort: This story can be classified in this category so be careful when reading.
Violence: It’s a Xena story; therefore, there will be violence which at times may be graphic.
Author's Note: This is a follow-up story to "That Road Once Trodden" and, while it is not necessary to have read it, some references are made to it in this story and it may help you follow this one a little more easily.
On a more personal note I’d like to thank Pruferblue for all her inspired suggestions, her support when I’d wanted to quit because I couldn’t get the story to say what I wanted it to, and her proofreading--and there was a lot to do. But mostly for her continued friendship.
"Two may talk together under the same roof for many years, yet never really meet; and two others at first speech are old friends."
Mary Catherwood (1847–1901) US writer. Mackinac and Lake Stories, ‘Marianson’
© 1994 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. All rights reserved.
And finally, thank you to all of you who e-mailed me on the last one, your encouragement is greatly appreciated. Like it or hate it drop me a line to let me know at
BEHOLD A PALE HORSE
by Karen Surtees
Thunderous dark clouds covered the skies. The deluge of water washed the dust from the Village Square, sending the Amazons scurrying for cover from the sudden storm. Great forks of lightning lit the ominous skies; strong violent gusts of wind shook the trees to their roots. Every now and then a sharp crack could be heard in the surrounding forest as one of the ancient trees lost its battle against the ferocious battering the storm was inflicting.
Lissa, Priestess of Artemis, stood just within the entrance of the temple welcoming her sisters into the shelter of her domain. She felt a shiver run through her body and looked to the sky, seeing the darkness of the clouds building. Something was coming; she could feel it in her bones, that fear and anticipation at the unknown.
A fierce pull on her wrist turned her around to face one of her acolytes. "We need to shut the doors. Everyone's inside." Lissa nodded her head and indicated to the clustered Amazon warriors to close the doors. Three women took each door and fought against the invading winds, until eventually they'd closed the howling tempest outside. Deep booming echoed around the temple halls as the doors were locked. All that could be heard was the harsh breathing of the gathered Amazons, the banshee wail of the wind and the drumming of rain on the roof.
"Okay, everybody." The women lifted their tired heads to the bedraggled blonde Amazon who was struggling to her feet. "Head count, I want to know who's missing." Slowly the Amazons sorted themselves into guild order as the heads of each particular guild counted their people and then one by one reported to the Amazon Regent.
Ephiny sat at the back of the main hall. Members of the ruling council were quietly gathering around her as the reports of the missing trickled in. Glancing up at the collectively worried faces she gave a small smile. "Don't worry, it's not as bad as it could be; we're only missing the hunting party and the trade delegation. The hunting party isn't due back for another three days, so I'm refusing to worry about them just yet. The trade delegation were checking the storage caves before moving out, hopefully they had the sense to stay there once the storm hit. Again, I'm not going to worry about them until I hear otherwise. Let's get some fires going and rustle up a meal and warm drink for everybody." Relief showed on all the faces before they left to attend to their duties.
It was several candlemarks later that the wind finally stopped screaming its rage against the temple doors, and several more after that before the pounding rain finally stopped. The Amazons had been tidying up for some time, anticipating a return to the main village. Eight warriors were lifting the locking beam from the doors, and others grasped the leading edges of the doors and pulled them apart. Ephiny called Eponin and Solari to her, the rest of the Amazons would stay in the temple while the two warriors checked the state of the village.
Ephiny was thanking Lissa when Solari burst back into the temple. "Ephiny, you better grab the healers and come quick..." The warrior was running back out of the temple before the Regent could reply. Swiftly, Ephiny rounded up the healers and a few of the warriors and followed Solari out of the temple. The skies were still clouded but held none of the aggression that they had earlier; large pools of water covered the ground. Solari was halfway across the Village Square, already running to the eastern entrance of the village. Ephiny ran after her. Picking up speed in the treacherous mud, she lost her footing trying to round the corner by the healer's hut and slid into the stationary Eponin. She grabbed the hand that the weapons master held out to her and hauled herself up.
"What is it?" she asked, looking at the anguished face of her friend. Eponin's head dropped and the Regent frantically scanned the area, her gaze coming to rest on what had upset the Amazon. Just outside the eastern gate lay a palomino war-steed, its flanks, battle-scarred and torn, heaving against the exertion it was taking to breathe. By the war-horse's side lay two bodies, the larger of the two curled protectively around the smaller. Ephiny took a step forward, seeing the strawberry blond hair that signified their Queen, and the round-bladed chakram of her partner. "Sweet Artemis."
"Something Wicked This Way Comes"
"Eponin, round up the Guard and get everyone here quickly. Get Falla as well; see what can be done for Argo." The Regent grabbed hold of Cassandra, one of the village healers, and walked nervously towards the prone bodies of Gabrielle and Xena. Gabrielle was curled into a tight ball, clutched into the warrior's vicelike embrace. Xena had obviously tried to protect the young bard with her own body from whatever had been threatening them. Vicious gashes marred the warrior. Whatever blood had been present had been mostly washed away by the rain; bruises covered her face, and her left arm looked as though it had been shattered. The healer slowly knelt down beside the two friends as Solari came to Ephiny's side. "Are they alive?"
The healer was gently touching for a pulse on the neck of their Queen then moved her hand to the warrior. Cassandra looked up, her face a mask... "I can't tell, they're too cold. We need lots of hot water. I'd say two tubs but I don't know if I can separate them."
"We can't use your hut, it's trashed inside." reported Solari.
"How about the Royal Quarters?"
More Amazons were arriving at the eastern gate every second. Eponin had the Royal Guard and Falla was on her knees next to the exhausted and injured Argo.
"We need to get them moved and start warming them up quickly." The concern the healer was feeling was apparent in her voice and Ephiny began issuing orders.
"Solari, take two of the Guard and get a room sorted out up at the palace. Find as many blankets as you can and start a fire. Eponin," she yelled, turning to the weapons master who ran to her side, "Get as many fires going as you can, we need hot water and lots of it..."
"Why don't we just take them up to the springs? We wouldn't need to wait for the water then. I know the pools are deep but if some of us got in we could keep them afloat."
"Good thinking, Eponin. How about it, Cassandra? Could we get them to the springs?"
"Yes, but can we get moving? The longer we wait to do anything the harder it will be on them."
In the end it took eight of the Guard to lift their Queen and her partner. Cassandra had wrapped them in thick blankets. She and two of her apprentices had been rubbing them until a stretcher that could carry them both had been brought, then the whole entourage had made their way out of the village towards the hot springs. There were several smaller pools that were for private use, but it was the larger communal pool that they were heading for.
The healer was bustling along beside them occasionally checking her patients. "We'll keep them on the stretcher and just lower them in. I'm afraid that most of us will have to get in with them, to keep their heads above the water. As soon as we manage to separate them, get them out of their clothes. This may take some time, so you'd better prepare yourselves."
They arrived at the spring just over a candlemark later, as the day was drawing to a close and dusk began to crawl into the sky. Some of the Amazons broke off from the group to light torches around the main pool. The others lowered the stretcher to the ground and removed their outer garments.
Cassandra and her apprentices entered the pool first and guided the Amazon warriors, carrying the bard and warrior, into the water. "Steady, now, lower them slowly. The heat will be a shock to their system; we don't want to make them any worse than they already are."
The stretcher was lowered gently into the water, each of the Amazons frighteningly aware of their precious cargo. The two apprentices, Ariana and Gina, tried to get in between the warriors to their patients' heads but found the stretcher in the way.
"Okay, forget the stretcher," Cassandra was directing operations. "You four," she said indicating half of the warriors holding the stretcher, "take hold of the Queen and Xena, the rest of you get the stretcher out of the way." The stretcher was removed, leaving the two friends cradled in the arms of the Amazons. A quarter of a candlemark later, the healers managed to separate the bard and her warrior.
"Carefully. Don't pull too quickly, we don't know what other injuries they may have. Be careful of that arm, that’s it," Cassandra was beginning to feel the strain of having two critically ill patients on her hands and having half of the Amazon nation looking over her shoulder. At least, now that they were separated, she'd be able to concentrate on them one at a time.
"Get Xena's leathers off, Ariana. Splint that arm and start tending to those cuts on her back." Leaving the warrior in the hands of her apprentice, she turned to her Queen, apprehensive of what she might find. She lifted her and tentatively touched the bard's neck, feeling for a pulse; the thin, thready flicker beneath her finger assured her that life still remained. Looking up at the four Amazons who were staring at her intently, she smiled reassuringly, "Hold her steady while Gina and I get her out of these clothes."
Tenderly, the two healers removed the clothes of their Queen, cautiously avoiding the abrasions and bruises that littered her form. The bard's body began to tremble beneath their hands and a flush spread across her flesh. "There doesn't seem to be anything too serious here. She's warm enough to come out now."
Looking up on the bank of the pool, she nodded to the gathered Amazons, "Get some blankets ready. As soon as she's out, dry her off and get her back down to the village. Ephiny should have a room set up in the palace by now." The four Amazons holding Gabrielle smoothly handed their charge over to those on the bank.
"You four, better get out and get yourselves dry before you catch a chill. I've got enough on my hands with these two; I don't need any more patients, thank you very much." She turned away from them and waded across the pool to where Xena was being tended.
Ephiny was conducting a general cleanup of the village when the party carrying Gabrielle arrived back. She hurriedly directed them into the already prepared room. "How is she?"
"Cassandra said there was nothing serious, just a bit banged up," came the reply, as the Amazons gently laid their Queen into the bed.
"Thank the Gods. Xena?"
"Don't know, we left before Cassandra got to her. They should be back soon though; the Queen warmed through pretty quickly once we got her in the water. Is there anything else you need us to do?"
"Yeah, Falla's trying to get Argo moved into the stables. She could use a hand." The Amazons quietly left the room, leaving the Regent alone with their Queen. Ephiny sat on the side of the bed and tucked the blanket snugly under the chin of the bard. Her hand gently caressed her face, sweeping the blond hair out of her eyes. "And just what have you and your warrior been getting up to this time, huh?"
She felt the bard stir beneath her hand, a barely heard moan escaped from her mouth. "Gabrielle? Gabrielle, can you hear me? It's Ephiny." She continued to caress the bard's face, "Don't worry, you're safe now and so is Xena. You made it to the village."
The bard's movements started to become more frantic as she fought against the blankets covering her. Ephiny was having a hard time trying to calm her down. And then the screaming began.
Cassandra was having a harder time dealing with the warrior than she had dealing with her Queen. For a start, Xena's leathers seemed to be glued to her. She had to resort to cutting them off of the battered body. Then, as they'd peeled her clothing off, several of the cuts that marked her body were reopened and stained the waters red with fresh blood. She had bound the shattered arm to Xena's chest to keep it out of harm's way.
"Gods, nothing is ever simple when it comes to this one, is it?" asked Cassandra to no one in particular. "Come on, let's get her out. She's not quite warm enough yet, but we'll never get that bleeding stopped in here." Together they moved to the edge of the pool and placed her on the side. Most of the other Amazons had left with the Queen, leaving Xena's care to those in the pool.
The Amazons got out quickly. While half of them dried off, the others wrapped blankets around the warrior and rubbed her dry. The first sign that life was present was the violent trembling that shook the fighter's body. "Cassandra!" called Ariana urgently, "I think she's going into convulsions." Cassandra swiftly moved to her side. The warrior's body continued to thrash about.
"Hold her down or she'll open every wound on her body again." The Amazons did their best to follow Cassandra's orders but little could be done to stop the warrior. Then the screaming began.
They were halfway back to the village with the almost uncontrollable warrior, who was still unconscious but screaming herself hoarse, when they met a runner from the village. "Cassandra, Ephiny sent me."
"Queen Gabrielle, well she seems to be in the same state as Xena. At first Ephiny thought it was just a nightmare, but we can't calm her down. You'd better come quickly."
Cassandra burst into the bedchamber without knocking; the wails emanating from within made her forget etiquette. Six struggling Amazons, carrying Xena, closely followed her. Ephiny looked up gratefully as Cassandra moved her out of the way and knelt by the Queen's bed.
"I've readied another room for Xena," yelled Ephiny over the screams.
"No, leave her in here. I can't watch them both if they're in different rooms."
"Where should we put her?"
"Normally, I'd say the bed was big enough for both of them. But with all this thrashing about, put her down on the bed and drag another one in here. We should be able to prevent them from hurting each other for a few minutes." The six manoeuvred the warrior onto the bed and quickly left to pull in another. They needn't have bothered. The screaming stopped almost instantly and the thrashing subsided as the two friends sensed each other's presence. Gabrielle rolled across the space separating her from the warrior and snuggled into her, the warrior's arm wrapped gently around her waist.
"Well, I guess that solved that little problem, didn't it?"
The Amazon council was gathered in the outside chamber of the palace. Although the council chambers had survived virtually unscathed by the storm, Ephiny hadn't wanted to leave the Queen and her partner. For three candlemarks they had discussed repairs to the village. The hunting party had returned with only a few minor injuries and the trade delegation had sent word that the storage caves were unharmed and an excellent place to shelter from freak storms.
Then came the hard part--trying to field the probing questions on what had happened to their Queen and the Warrior Princess. "To be quite frank, I have no idea where they've been or what they've been up to. I can say that I hadn't heard of them being in this area for over a moon. The last I'd heard, they were up near Athens."
"How is our Queen now?" asked one of the council members.
"I'm not really qualified to say, so I've asked Cassandra to come and speak to you."
The healer bustled from the back of the room on cue and turned to face the council members. "There is not a terrible amount to tell you. Queen Gabrielle has relatively minor injuries, mainly bruising and a few abrasions. The brunt of the attack seems to have been taken by Xena. She has a nice blunt head wound, her back looks as though somebody has been using it for sword practise and her left arm is broken."
Seeing that she had their undivided attention, the healer carried on, "As to their condition earlier, they were almost frozen together. I have no idea why. The weather here hasn't been bad enough, despite the storm, to drop their body temperatures that low. Xena's leathers were literally frozen on her. They both have slight fevers now but that’s to be expected."
"What was all the screaming and commotion about earlier?"
"When you get as cold as they were, your body shuts or slows down all its systems. When you warm up again those systems restart. I'd imagine that they were reacting to being separated, since when they were reunited here they calmed down almost immediately."
"Will they be okay when they wake up?"
"I can't answer that. What I will say is that whatever they've been through has been very traumatic for them. We will have to tread very carefully around them when they wake, and we will have to make allowances."
The door to the bedchamber opened and the healer's apprentice, Gina, entered the room and whispered into Cassandra's ear. The healer nodded; her gaze followed the girl back to the room she'd just left. Cassandra's eyes locked with Ephiny's.
"I think that’s all for now, we will reconvene in two days' time," Ephiny rose from her seat and followed the healer as she returned to her duties.
"Gabrielle is stirring. I am hopeful she will wake."
As it was, four very long candlemarks passed before Gabrielle awoke. Ephiny wasn't even convinced the bard would wake at first. When they'd entered the room Gabrielle had been a little restless but other than that there seemed to be no change in her condition. It was only as Ephiny watched closely that she saw the subtle differences. Every now and then her grip on the still unconscious warrior would tighten as if to reassure herself Xena was still there. Her eye movements became more frequent and, occasionally, a small sigh would escape from her lips.
If the Regent hadn't been watching, she would have missed those precious eyes opening: a small flutter of eyelids, a tightening of her grip and then her eyes were open. Her first action on awaking was to look up at her partner's face. A smile creased her face, then her eyes took in her surroundings and she saw Ephiny sitting on the edge of the bed.
"Hello there, sleepyhead. Good to have you with us."
Gabrielle frowned. "Ephiny?" she croaked. Ariana appeared by her side and offered her Queen a skin of water, which she drank from greedily. "What are you doing here?"
"I live here, Gabrielle. You're at the Amazon village."
She tried to sit up but was only able to manage it with Ephiny's help. Still holding onto the Regent's arm, she gazed around the room recognising it as her own in the palace. "But that’s impossible." She again gazed at her partner.
"Well, I must say that your appearance WAS kind of unexpected."
"No, Ephiny, you don't understand. We were leagues away from here on the coast." Her hand clenched tighter on Ephiny's wrist, "You don't just suddenly appear in another place leagues away."
"Shh, calm down," Ephiny was rubbing Gabrielle's arm, trying to relieve some of the building anxiety she could feel within her friend. "At this moment, it doesn't matter how you got here. All that matters is that you’re here and everything is going to be okay."
Ephiny suddenly realised that whatever had happened to the bard had shaken her confidence to the core; her voice was that of a young child asking her parents to keep the closet monster away. "Oh, sweetheart," she said, pulling the bard into her embrace, "you're with us now. We won't let anything happen to you or Xena."
At the sound of her friend's name, she jerked from Ephiny's arms, "Is she going to be alright?" Her emerald eyes delved deeply into Ephiny's.
Cassandra stepped from the doorway where she'd been observing the Queen. "Nothing that a few days of rest won't cure, for the most part. She's a little more battered than you are and she broke her arm. Other than that, she should be okay."
Relief spread across Gabrielle face. "Now, why don't you settle back down and get a little more sleep? I'm sure you'll be the first to know if she wakes up."
Gabrielle gave the healer a shy smile and wrapped herself back around the warrior, who, though still unconscious, adjusted her position to make the bard more comfortable. The bard's hand gently cradled Xena's injured one, as her eyes closed and she slipped back into Morpheus' realm.
The waking of the warrior the next day was a little less benign. Having awoken again in the evening, Gabrielle had been persuaded to eat, and had talked with Ephiny about inconsequential matters. On waking the next day, Cassandra and Ariana had coaxed the bard into taking a bath in the room next door.
Gina had been left to watch Xena. The young apprentice, though, quickly bored of sitting and watching the warrior and had turned her attention to tidying the various medicines and herbs that scattered the surfaces of the tables. Sitting and watching the warrior would have been the only way to tell she was waking; unlike Gabrielle, she made no sound.
Xena became more and more restless, fighting against whatever was restraining her left arm from moving. She also became aware that the comforting presence of the bard had left her side. Her befuddled mind had no idea where she was, and Xena had become convinced someone was holding them captive. The first that Gina knew about Xena's rapid rise into consciousness was when she heard the tearing sounds of the strapping holding the warrior's broken arm. Seeing Xena struggling, the apprentice immediately went to her assistance, not realising the warrior was in that place between wakefulness and sleep. Her touch, meant to be reassuring, brought Xena into sudden wakefulness. Not understanding where she was, Xena threw the young girl clear across the room, screaming Gabrielle's name at the top of her voice.
In the room next door, Cassandra and Ariana were helping their Queen out of the bath, when a fierce crashing, followed by Xena's yell for Gabrielle, stopped them in their tracks. The two healers were standing perfectly still, listening, so even in Gabrielle's weakened state she was the first to react. She thrust the door open, seeing Gina clambering to her feet unscathed by her recent flying lesson.
Xena, now fully awake, still hadn't realised where she was. Gabrielle saw her partner frantically trying to get out of the confines of the bed. Ignoring the Amazons who were piling into the room in response to Xena's cry, Gabrielle threw herself across the bed, wrapping her arms around her trembling friend. "Hey, hey. Shh. I'm here." She was slowly rocking the warrior back and forth in her embrace. "I'm here, it's over. We're safe now. We're with the Amazons." Her hand gently stroking the raven-coloured hair, Gabrielle looked up at the assembled Amazons, "Could you leave us, please?" Still rocking the warrior, she caught Ephiny's concerned gaze. "I'll talk to you later, Ephiny, I promise, but I need to be alone with Xena for the moment." The Regent nodded and ushered the rest of the Amazons from the room.
Ephiny, Eponin and Solari were sitting outside on the steps to the palace, enjoying the sunshine and keeping a circumspect eye on the entrance to Gabrielle and Xena's room.
"What do you think's happened to those two since we saw them last?" Eponin's voice was full of concern.
"Hades, if I know," replied Ephiny. "I haven't spoken to Gabrielle about it, yet. I wanted to wait and let her rest a bit. I suspect that, now Xena's awake, she'll tell us of her own accord."
"Do you think they're okay in there?" Solari let her eyes shift to the door.
"Yeah, Gabrielle wouldn't have sent us out if there was going to be a problem."
It was dark when Gabrielle finally sought out Ephiny in her quarters within the palace. The Regent lifted her head from the parchment she was working on as Gabrielle poked her head into the room, "Okay to come in?"
Ephiny smiled up at her, "Of course, it is. How's Xena?" The bard looked at Ephiny, and the Regent felt a growing horror in the pit of her stomach, at the expression she saw on the bard's face. She slowly stood and walked toward the young girl. "Gabrielle, what is it? What's happened to you two?"
The bard's face crumpled. Ephiny quickly pulled the sobbing bard into a chair and crouched at her feet. "Oh Gods, Ephiny, it's all my fault. If I'd only listened to her, none of this would have happened."
"Gabrielle, please tell me what's wrong."
"Ephiny, the reason Xena reacted so violently when she woke up is because she didn't know where she was."
"You mean she has amnesia?"
"No, I mean for the last week Xena hasn't been able to see or hear anything. She took a blow to the head, shielding me. She's been totally blind and deaf since. The only thing she recognises is me."
"Okay, tell me what happened." Ephiny could feel her friend shivering beneath her hands. Looking around, she grabbed a blanket from the back of the room and tucked it around the bard’s shoulders. "You gonna be okay?"
Gabrielle nodded and wiped the tears from her face. "Oh, Eph, if I’d only done as she asked, none of this would have happened."
"Gabrielle, honey, I can’t help you unless you tell me the whole story."
The bard took a deep breath and let it out raggedly. "We had an argument, well, actually it was more like a heated discussion..."
"Xena! Xena, don’t turn your back on me. I know what you're going to say and the answer is no." Gabrielle was storming around the clearing, packing away their camp.
"It’s too dangerous for you, Gabrielle. I know you know how to protect yourself, but this is different." Xena was starting to let her frustration show through her voice. They’d been having this discussion since last night. Gabrielle hadn’t chosen the best of times to make a stand on this issue. They were heading to a coastal city known as Kanth. It had a growing reputation for piracy and slavery. Normally, in those circumstances, Xena wouldn’t have wanted the bard out of her sight. However, Kanth had an extra kink to its makeup; all of its temples were dedicated to Ares, God of War.
The last time she’d entered the city had been at the head of Ares’ army; her reception had been awe-inspiring. The city was fanatical in its worship of Ares, and they just couldn’t do enough for one of his chosen. She had been treated as a Queen; nothing but the best had been presented to her. Unfortunately, that fanaticism would work against her now. Having renounced Ares, her life was forfeit within the city walls. All it would take was somebody recognising her and she’d have the whole city down on her. No, it would be safer for Gabrielle to stay here. That way, she could sneak in and recover the maps she needed, from where they were hidden, and get back out again, hopefully, without being spotted. The problem was, if she told Gabrielle all of this, there would be no way she’d stay and let Xena go into the city by herself. But they really did need those maps.
Xena turned her attention back to the bard just in time to catch the saddlebag that Gabrielle had hurled in her direction. "I wish you’d listen to me when we’re arguing. Now, why is this city different from any other?"
"Let’s just say I’m not exactly welcome here."
"What’s new with that? You’ve not been welcome in most of the places we’ve visited."
"All I’m going to do is get those maps. I need to do it quickly, without being seen." Xena pulled the bard down to sit on one of the logs that had ringed their fire last night.
"Look, Gabrielle, I would like nothing more than to have you at my side. I trust nobody to guard my back as you do. But it is harder for the two of us to go unnoticed. Okay?"
The bard sighed and looked into her friend’s crystal blue eyes. "Okay, but I’m not happy about it." Gabrielle was rewarded with one of those smiles that seemed to light her very soul.
"Thank you. Now, you wait here; I’ll be back before nightfall."
Gabrielle turned toward Ephiny as she handed her a mug of cider. "Well I didn’t stay. I waited about half a candlemark and followed her. She’d told me where she’d hidden the maps, so I was pretty sure I could find her. And I knew that, once I was there, she wouldn’t send me away."
She sighed again, putting the cider to one side. "I was convinced she was just being overprotective, as usual. She gets like that sometimes, especially if we’ve been in a few scrapes. Ever been to Kanth?" Ephiny shook her head. "Believe me, you don’t want to. I mean, how was I supposed to know the only God they worship there is Ares? It's not exactly like Xena would tell me that piece of information, is it? Anyway, when she was at the head of Ares' army, she was their idol; now that she’d split with him, there was a massive bounty on her head."
"So, what did you do?"
"I went to the stables where she’d hidden the maps. I didn’t try to disguise myself in any way; nobody would recognise me, right? I keep forgetting that travelling with Xena sort of gets you known. Anyway I was followed."
"You led them straight to her?"
"No. She’d been and gone already when I got there. I decided to go back and wait outside the city gates. I didn’t get that far. I was arrested and taken to the main temple."
The temple was big and they obviously wanted to intimidate those who entered. Flames burned high, from some unknown source, to either side of the entrance. The temple was dimly lit within; deep, foreboding shadows leapt from every crevice and alcove. Although the heat was oppressive outside, Gabrielle felt deathly cold.
The two guards with her had been frighteningly polite; they hadn’t laid a hand on her. Of course, she knew it was futile to try to escape. She’d briefly thought about it in the City Square, but the twenty or so city militia surrounding her had made her think twice. She was silently cursing to herself. Xena was going to kill her. She could picture the scene already. Xena would quietly set up camp; she’d have that moody expression on her face that she always wore when she was brooding. She wouldn't speak a single word. Gabrielle would see the frustration building on her partner’s face until she couldn’t take it any longer and she’d start apologising.
The thing that always made it worse, when they had these little talks, was that Xena wouldn’t get angry and shout at her. She’d just sit there, with that hurt look on her face, convinced that Gabrielle didn’t trust her enough to listen and do as she was asked. They had always managed to sort it out in the end by talking it through. They’d see where they both could have prevented the problem in the first place. Making up afterwards could be fun, though. It almost brought a smile to her face until she realised she was in a bit more trouble than usual. She was brought to a halt near a large altar.
After waiting for nearly a candlemark, with still nothing happening, Gabrielle’s inquisitive nature got the better of her and her eyes started to prowl around the temple. Now that her eyes had become used to the dim lighting, she was able to pick out the intricate details of the carved reliefs on the temple's buttresses and walls. Each one finely depicted a battle scene in frightening reality. She looked at her black-robed guards and smiled.
"Great temple you guys have here." She got no response. Her guards were as talkative as Xena on a good day. Silence descended once again, with Gabrielle nervously fingering the leather bindings on her staff.
A small noise from the darkness caught her attention, as another black-robed figure shuffled towards the altar. He stood placing various parchments onto the chilled stone surface, and then he started pulling items from pockets within his robes. Finally he stopped and looked up.
"You’re the bard that travels with Xena, aren’t you?" The question was a simple one, but it sent chills down Gabrielle’s spine. She didn’t know whether to answer the question or not. Seemingly, though, her silence answered it for her. "I thought so." The priest, at least Gabrielle thought he was a priest, walked to the end of the altar and looked back at her. "I‘m assuming since you’re in the city, that the Warrior Princess is here as well." He paused then walked towards her. "Or, was she so frightened of being caught that she sent you to do her bidding, instead?"
Gabrielle took offence and replied, "Xena’s not frightened of this place!" She shut her mouth quickly before she could say any more, realising what she had done.
"Ah, in that case, she must be in the city. It looks as though my Lord Ares' wishes are about to be fulfilled." He waved his hands at the guards, "Accommodate the girl, but be gentle. No harm is to come to her. Then make sure everyone knows that we have a new guest. I’m sure the Warrior Princess will want to visit."
"I was taken to a room and locked in," she looked up at Ephiny. " I wasn’t touched at all. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the door was locked, you would have thought I was an honoured guest." She was restless now and wanted to work off some of the excess energy that was building up. Standing, she began to pace the room. "I knew we were in trouble. I knew as soon as Xena heard I’d been arrested she’d come for me. I expected her to sneak in and break me out. I didn’t expect her to walk in the door, and that was exactly what she did."
The door opened and Gabrielle stood up. Her face broke into a smile as Xena walked though the door. Her mouth turned dry as she saw the expression on the warrior’s face.
"Are you okay?" Xena’s voice held no inflection of emotion.
"Yeah, they’ve treated me well. I didn’t expect you to walk through the door."
"Well, it’s hard for me to break into a temple of Ares without him noticing."
"So, how are we getting out of here?"
"We’re not. You are. They’ll escort you back to our camp. Pack up and take Argo. I suggest you go to the Amazons or to the Academy in Athens."
"What about you?" Gabrielle’s face held a stricken look that struck pain deep into the Warrior's soul, but she managed to stop herself from showing it.
"Gabrielle, I have a price on my head in this city. They're prepared to let you go, so get your things and leave."
"You're telling me that, even knowing you had a price on your head here, you were willing to risk getting caught?"
Xena’s face was still as cold as Gabrielle had ever seen it. "I didn’t get caught. I walked up and knocked on the door when I realised a certain bard wasn’t where she was supposed to be. Now, stop making things difficult, and leave."
"They took me back to our camp the next morning. It was mostly packed away already so it didn’t take me long to clear the rest up. I thought about riding Argo, but you know what I’m like with that mountain of a horse. She being looked after?" Ephiny’s face dropped at the mention of Xena’s loyal steed.
"Falla’s been looking after her, Gabrielle, but it doesn’t look too hopeful. Argo had some vicious wounds and was totally exhausted when we found you. She’s still going, but some of the wounds aren’t healing as well as they should." Ephiny’s concern for her Queen was growing. How much more could the young girl take before cracking?
Gabrielle ran her hands through her hair with a despondent chuckle, "Things just get better, don’t they?"
"Don’t despair, yet. That horse is just like its owner. Doesn’t know when to give up." She stood and put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder giving her a tight squeeze. "Come on, you can tell me the rest over some food."
The dining hut was empty except for the cooks, who, on seeing their Queen and Regent, began to pull food out of the cupboards and off of the fires for the two women. Gabrielle looked once around the room and gave Ephiny a rueful smile
"Had this all planned, didn’t you?"
"Sort of. Didn’t think you’d want everybody around, but thought you’d like to get out of the palace for a while."
"Thanks, Eph, I really do appreciate it."
"Hey, that’s what friends are for. Right?"
"Yeah, I guess they are."
"Come on, let's eat."
Gabrielle had cleared one plate and was beginning on another when Ephiny prodded her to continue. "So, if they let you go, how did you both end up here?" When no answer was forthcoming she looked up. "They did let you go, didn’t they?"
The bard shook her head. "One minute I was walking out of the clearing, the next I was waking up back in the room I’d been in earlier."
"So they said they’d let you go only to get Xena to co-operate."
"So it seemed. They hadn’t been as polite this time, either; I was covered in bruises. I was worried, as well. I didn’t have a clue what was happening to Xena; as far as she was concerned I was on my way here."
"How long ago was this?"
"How long have we been here?"
"In that case, we got out of Kanth about eight days ago. I was in the room for two before that."
"So how did you get out?"
"I don’t know what they’d been doing to Xena, but on the second night they dragged me up to a big hall."
The hall was brightly lit, except for a circle in the middle of the room that seemed to absorb all the brightness around it. The floor surrounding the darkness was carved with intricate runes. Gabrielle stumbled to her knees, as the guard pushed her forcefully into the hall and slammed the door shut behind her. She picked herself up off the floor gingerly, feeling every one of her bruises.
Once on her feet, she stood, unsure as to what to do. The door behind her was locked and she could see no other exit. Gabrielle slowly walked around the room, avoiding the dark circle at the centre, examining the walls for some means of escape. There were none.
A creeping sensation started at the base of her spine and crawled its way up her back to her neck. Someone was watching, she was sure of it. Her eyes investigated the room until they came to rest on the dark centre circle. Taking her courage in both hands, Gabrielle walked silently to the edge of the darkness and peered in. At first she could see nothing except darkness, but as her eyes became accustomed to the poor light, she was able to make out the form of a figure spread-eagled within the circle. Chains secured the figure to the floor, at the wrists and ankles. Gabrielle wondered how long that poor soul had been tethered there.
Reaching out her hand, she was almost able to feel a physical barrier where the darkness began. The anger and hatred that emanated from the area was almost palpable. It started slowly at first, so slowly that, as near to the circle as she was, she didn’t notice the room getting darker, while the centre became brighter. The door behind her swung open. Gabrielle turned to watch, as priest after priest filed into the hall.
It was then that she noticed the lighting in the room was reversing itself. She looked back at the still form in the growing circle of light. Her breath was taken from her in shock, as she recognised the armour and leathers of her warrior partner. The light in the circle was nearly blinding now, the outer room in total darkness. The chanting of the priests was almost imperceptible at first, but the volume steadily grew.
Gabrielle stood transfixed at the edge of the rune circle. A bolt of lightning flashed from above, Gabrielle instinctively flinching away from its glare. But its aim was not for her, but for her partner chained, helpless, on the floor. Gabrielle watched, tears falling down her face, as bolt after bolt impacted on her friend. Each bolt sent the warrior arching in pain but no scream echoed from her mouth, no cry for mercy.
The lightning show ended as suddenly as it had begun. A single priest stepped forward into the light and laid Xena’s weapons at her feet. Gabrielle was confused, even she could see the reasoning behind the torture of her partner, but to rearm her after what they had just put her through was dumb, really dumb.
The bard watched in growing fascination as the chains about Xena's wrists and ankles undid themselves and slithered away. The chanting grew in volume again, but Gabrielle was unable to understand any of it. Xena managed to stumble to her knees; Gabrielle ached to go to the aid of her partner but was unable to move through the outer edge of the light. Unsteadily, the warrior picked her sword up and resheathed it; the chakram was hung in place at her waist. Crystalline eyes searched the room but seemed to see nothing.
Xena drew herself up to her full height and stood waiting. An armed warrior appeared from the darkness and ran, sword drawn, at Xena. Still, she stood seemingly unaware of the screaming warrior bearing down on her; Gabrielle yelled out a warning, but still Xena didn’t react. Gabrielle had convinced herself it was too late, when Xena, finally, seemed to sense the attacker's presence. She ducked under his swing and sent a punch into his stomach that lifted him off his feet and dumped him on the floor, where he disappeared from existence.
The sword screeched as Xena drew her weapon from her back and stood ready for the next attack. She didn’t have to wait long, but, again, she didn’t sense the attacker until he was almost upon her. Attack after attack was thrown at the warrior but she repelled each one with growing ferocity. The attacks were doubled, as now two of the enemy would approach at the same time; again, the warrior fought them off, accepting the injuries that were starting to cover her body as the price for her life.
Suddenly, Gabrielle found herself pushed into the circle with two of the attackers. Each of the men ran in, trying to entice Xena to attack, drawing her closer and closer to Gabrielle. The two attackers sandwiched the bard between them; the one in front, swinging viciously at Xena’s stomach, dropped to the floor as the one behind pushed her forward into to the path of Xena’s blade.
Gabrielle could see her life ending right there, at the hand of her best friend, who didn’t even know she was in the room. The blade stopped just before it sliced through the tender flesh of her neck. Gabrielle let out a choked sob of relief. Xena reached out her hand and grabbed hold of the bard, pulling her to her side; she lifted the bard’s hand to her shoulder and gave it a reassuring pat, then turned around. Gabrielle started to move her hand away, so that she wouldn’t impede her friend’s ability to fight, but Xena’s hand quickly came up and held it firmly in place.
"It was then that I realised she was blind, and it didn’t take me much longer to figure out she couldn’t hear, either." Gabrielle had finally finished eating, but neither she nor the Regent was in a hurry to leave.
"Okay, so that explains how you got back together, but it still doesn’t tell me how you got out of there or how you got here."
"Hey, she may not be at full working strength at the moment, but she’s still Xena. How does she normally get herself out of these situations? She fought her way out. I have no idea how she got us through that barrier of light, but she did. Once we got through that, it was just a matter of getting out of the temple, which was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be. Most of the priests ran for it and those that didn’t were killed. It was really frightening; she didn’t even try to stop herself. I suppose not being able to see your opponents makes it a little more difficult to leave them alive, still, it was really horrible to see. I managed to grab my bags and, for someone who couldn’t see a thing, Xena did a great job of getting us to Argo."
"Then what? You just got on the horse and rode out of the city?"
"Basically, yeah. Of course, it couldn’t be that simple for us, could it? No. We had to have nearly the whole of the city militia on our tail. I think that’s how Argo got most of her wounds. Once we got going, Xena wouldn’t stop for anything; we rode all through the night. I finally got her to stop for a while the next day. And that’s how we were for the next few days, either walking or riding. A couple of times, some of the militia would find us; but I had my staff back, and Xena still fought like a harpy, so it wasn’t too difficult to get away from them.
"It must have been the fourth or fifth day out of Kanth when we ran into the bulk of the militia. I couldn’t believe they were still looking for us; we were already out of their territory. There were too many of them to fight. Xena knew that, I could tell; she pulled me up in front of her on Argo and held me real close. She had this terrifying smile on her face and she started to whisper something, which scarred me even more ‘cause she hadn’t said a word since we left Kanth, except for my name.
"She’d become clingy, though, still is. Gets very upset if I’m not around. I think that it scares her; it would me. Not being able to see or hear anything. Anyway, she started whispering something and then charged them, the whole militia. I don’t know who was more scared, them or me. And that’s it, the next thing I remember was waking up here." She looked at the Regent from beneath her eyebrows.
Ephiny gave her a warm smile and squeezed her hand. "Well, as I said, you two don’t know how to go about things quietly. But, don’t worry, we’ll get Cassandra to have a look at our warrior friend and see if she can figure out what’s going on."
Solari stood perfectly still, unwilling to move for fear of startling the injured Xena further. She, along with most of the village, had been told what had happened to the Queen and her warrior. Unlike most of the village, she was experiencing it first hand. Gabrielle had requested that someone stay near the warrior at all times, to alert her when Xena woke. Members of the Royal Guard had taken up this duty without question. The healers had also decided to keep someone at the palace at all times.
At the moment, Solari was on duty with Baria, who had recently completed her healer's apprenticeship. They’d had a quiet duty until this time, but Solari had crossed the room just as the warrior was waking. Xena had tensed immediately, facing Solari unerringly. Xena seemed to be able to sense anybody within five feet of her, but outside that distance she was totally unaware of those around her. Bearing in mind what had happened to Gina when she’d got too close, Solari had frozen in place when that unseeing gaze had latched onto her. Baria had gone to fetch the Queen. Solari was fervently wishing they’d hurry up, Xena’s stare was unnerving and a cold sweat had broken out on the Amazon's brow. Xena knew someone was in the room close to her, but the person hadn’t made a sound or a move toward her, Solari was desperately trying to keep it that way. Her sigh of relief was audible as Gabrielle hurried into the room, followed by the Regent and Cassandra.
"It’s okay Solari, just step back." Gabrielle stood in front of the Amazon as she slowly moved back away from Xena. Solari knew she was safe as soon as Gabrielle had stood in front of her; Xena had relaxed and reached out her uninjured arm to the bard. Gabrielle grabbed hold tightly, and carefully helped Xena into a sitting position. The bard slid behind the tense warrior and pulled her into a tight embrace. She waited until Xena had relaxed against her before nodding at Cassandra.
"It's okay, come on over. She won’t do anything while I’ve got hold of her." Cassandra eyed the warrior warily, remembering several close calls she’d had with her in the past. She edged closer carefully and, when Xena didn’t react to her presence, her step became more confident.
"Right then, my Queen," she said, kneeling at the bedside. "I need to take a good look at her head and eyes. Will there be a problem if I touch her?"
"I don’t think so, she knows I’d never let anyone harm her. Let’s keep it real slow, though, just in case." The healer smiled in acknowledgement then noticed that Xena’s unseeing eyes were following her.
"Let’s find out what’s going on then, shall we?" She reached for a candle that was burning on a nearby table. " I need to find out whether her eyes can recognise light. Do you think you could cover her eyes for me and then uncover them when I say?" Gabrielle nodded and gave her friend a reassuring hug as she covered Xena's eyes with her hand. They waited forever, or so it seemed before Cassandra asked her to remove her hand. The healer then lifted the candle towards Xena’s eyes noticing, as she did, their black centres constricting into pinpoints. She put the candle to one side and watched as the black circles grew again. She lifted her hand and ran it gently over the bruise that covered half of the warrior’s face.
"You say she was blinded by a blow to the head?" Cassandra moved her eyes from her patient to her Queen.
"She couldn’t see after the lightning bolts at the temple, but that had been getting better until the head injury."
"When did she get the blow to the head?"
"We’d been out of Kanth for two days. We ran into a group of militia. She took the hit to the head near the end of the fight, from a half staff."
"Did the blow knock her out?" Xena flinched away from the healer, becoming restless as her touch became firmer. Gabrielle hugged her close again and rocked her until she calmed.
"No, she hardly seemed to notice it at the time. We had to stop later, though, it was causing her a lot of pain."
"What do you think, Cassandra?" asked Ephiny from the doorway.
"I’m not sure, to be honest. I don’t see too much wrong, physically. Her eyes react, as they should; nothing seems to be broken. There’s just some swelling. She should be able to see things fine. I doubt whether the head injury has made anything worse. I think there’s something else going on here."
"Can anything be done?" That quiet question came from Gabrielle.
"My Queen, I wouldn’t even know where or what to start treating. For the moment we should let her get as much rest as possible. I need to talk to a few people, maybe they can come up with something." Cassandra patted the young Queen's hand then rose and left the room, taking Baria and Solari with her.
Ephiny stood by the door for a moment longer, before walking over and quietly sitting on the bed next to Gabrielle. The young Queen was still hugging the warrior who was now asleep in her arms. "It’s weird to see her like this. She looks so vulnerable. You both look exhausted."
"Tell me about it," sighed Gabrielle. " It’s been a hard season for us, so far. When this is all over I’m going to sit her down and insist on a few weeks off." Ephiny smiled at her friend, pleased to see her sense of humour was still tucked away inside that tired body.
"Why don’t you lay yourself down next to your partner and get some rest as well? I’ll come and wake you when it's time to eat." The bard grinned at her friend and shifted position so she could snuggle closer to the warm, muscular body she was holding.
The mid-afternoon sun was still beating down when Cassandra left the palace. Her face had become solemn as she’d left the Queen and her warrior.
"You know something, don’t you?" The healer startled slightly at Solari’s voice in her ear.
"I’ve seen something similar, before. I need to speak with Lissa before I could definitely say."
"Then you’ll be able to help Xena?"
Cassandra turned and studied the Amazon, trying to judge how much she could tell this woman. "If what I think happened, actually did, we may be able to help. But so help me, if it did, I’d love to know how she’s still alive. As I said, I need to talk to Lissa."
"Come on, then. No time like the present." Solari took hold of the healer's arm and guided her towards the temple.
Lissa sat silently staring at the deepening blue sky, a small frown creasing her brow. She was mentally reviewing the conversation she’d just had with the healer, Cassandra, who stood, fidgeting, behind her. "It’s possible," she said eventually. "I never heard of it, but it’s definitely possible." She turned to face the healer. "She should be dead. Nobody can break a Geas bond and survive."
"That’s my point, I don’t think they were successful. I think they needed her to kill the Queen before the binding was complete."
"But she didn’t do that," interrupted Solari
"No, she didn’t, did she? But then they wouldn’t have her have to kill anybody for a Geas ceremony." Lissa began to pace the small ornate courtyard they stood in. "So, they perform a Geas ceremony trying to get Xena to kill the Queen, but, if what you believe to be is true, they can’t complete the ceremony without killing the Queen."
"It’s the only thing that makes any sense," replied the healer.
"But that’s not possible... that would mean..."
"Yes, it would."
"But only Artemis could...I need to see them, now." The Priestess hurried from the courtyard into the temple and out into the village.
Ephiny was sitting on the palace steps, talking to Eponin, when Lissa approached her. Cassandra and Solari were not far behind. "Good evening, Ephiny, may I talk to you for a moment?"
"Take a seat, Lissa. What can I do for you?"
"Cassandra has been filling me in on a few details. We may have more on our hands than we realise."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that the priests of Ares tried to perform a rather complicated ceremony, it’s called a Geas. It has the ability to bind people against their will. Now, it obviously didn’t work with Xena. But there’s a problem with that. There are only two ways to stop a binding. One is death and the other is that the individual is already bound to another. From what Cassandra was telling me, the priests were trying to get Xena to kill Gabrielle, and, even though she couldn’t see or hear, she knew it was Gabrielle who stood in front of her."
"So, you’re saying that Xena and Gabrielle are somehow bound to each other?"
"I’m not sure. Normally, we would have to perform a bonding ritual and Artemis would have to bless the union. We haven’t performed a bonding ritual for the Queen."
"So, either she’s somehow managed to bond to Gabrielle, or she’s bound to someone else."
"Yes, basically. Someone, or something, else."
"How can we find out which?"
"I should be able to tell by a ritual that is empowered by Artemis."
"When can we conduct this ceremony?"
"The sooner I do, the sooner we’ll know if we can truly help Xena."
"Alright, they are both getting some much needed sleep. Do they have to be awake?"
"It would help if Queen Gabrielle was awake."
Yeah, well, wake one wake them both, I’m afraid.
The door swung open easily without a sound. Lissa peered into the darkened room, seeing the couple curled tightly together, their roles slightly reversed. Instead of Gabrielle being held tightly in Xena’s arms, Xena was being held tightly in hers. Lissa stepped into the room with Ephiny. "Before you get any closer, Lissa, let's wake Gabrielle. Xena’s a bit jumpy at the moment; tends to hit out if Gabrielle isn’t with her. I don’t want to know what she’ll do if she thinks you’re after Gabrielle."
"So, what do we do, yell?"
"Well, it's not as if we’re going to wake Xena, is it?" Lissa shot the Regent a look, as Ephiny tried to wipe the small smile that had appeared off of her face. The Priestess and the Regent began to call Gabrielle’s name, increasing in volume until she began to stir. Gabrielle slowly blinked her eyes open and wiped the sleep from her eyes. She lovingly brushed long raven hair from her partner’s face before turning her attention to the Priestess and Regent.
"Is there a problem?"
"No. No problem. We just need to speak to you."
"Well, you're going to have to come to me I’m afraid." Looking down at her partner she smiled. "She’s out for the count and isn’t going to be letting go anytime soon." Lissa and Ephiny moved closer to the bed; Lissa dragging a chair with her while Ephiny perched on the edge of the bed.
"I might have a few answers for you, my Queen."
Lissa studied her Queen closely; she’d known her for some time, now. She was a good judge of character; it came in handy, being a Priestess. When she’d first met Gabrielle, she’d been a young, naive girl. Along with the rest of the tribe, Lissa had watched her grow; she’d seen her growing love for her warrior partner even when Gabrielle herself hadn’t known about it.
The youngster had taken the Queen's mask and used her position wisely; the Amazon nation had benefited from her gentle and diplomatic ways. As she studied the young girl before her, Lissa knew that there would be some hard decisions to be made in the coming days, but Gabrielle's poise and devotion to the Amazons, and her partner, reassured Lissa that she’d be able to make them.
"From the description of events that you gave to Cassandra, it looks as though the priests at Kanth were trying to perform a ceremony that can bind someone’s soul to another person or a God. It obviously wasn’t successful because Xena is here, wrapped tightly with you. This does, however, present us with a few more questions. Normally this type of ritual doesn’t fail. There are only two things that can prevent it from working; death and already being bonded to someone."
"What you're saying, then, is that the mere fact that Xena is here means that she is already bonded to somebody?"
"Yes, and seeing that the priests at Kanth were rather eager for Xena to kill you, we think that somehow..."
"Somehow, she’s bonded to me." Lissa nodded her head.
Ephiny took over the explanation. "The problem is, Gabrielle, as the Amazon Queen, for you to be bonded to anybody you would have had to have been joined here at the village, with Artemis’ blessing."
"And I’ve had no such ceremony or blessing." Ephiny shook her head. "What happens if we were bonded before I took the Queen's mask?"
"You couldn’t have taken the Queen's mask if you’d been bonded before. Gabrielle, you were bonded to the Amazons and Artemis when you took the mask."
"So, you need to find out if I’m bonded to Xena. If I am, how does this help us?"
"If you are, Artemis has obviously blessed it, and it opens certain avenues to us that might help Xena. If it's not you, then we need to know who she is bonded to, and quickly."
"The ceremony was a failure because Xena is already bonded; the ceremony was never completed. If the priests at Kanth can kill Xena’s bondmate, then there is a possibility that death may complete the ceremony and Xena would be bound to Ares no matter how unwilling. She would, in essence, become his puppet."
Gabrielle was becoming nervous now. "How do we find out if we’re bound."
"I can do a simple test here, but sometimes it's not that conclusive. All bonds are different. Some are so strong that the bondmates know instinctively if their mates are troubled or injured. Others don’t even know they’re bonded." Gabrielle took a deep breath and then let it out slowly; she looked at Ephiny who smiled her encouragement.
"Well, let’s do the test then."
Lissa looked at the sleeping warrior and then back up at Gabrielle. "It may be better to wake Xena for this."
"Er, well the test consists of administering a small amount of pain."
"Yes. You see, if you are bonded and it is a strong one, you’d each feel each other's pain."
"Just how much pain are we talking about here?"
"I’ve never experienced it myself, but it should feel about the same as a hard slap."
"So you’re going to HIT us?" Lissa let a small smile cross her face at the bard’s disconcerted tone.
"No, my Queen. Artemis has granted her Priestess the power to inflict a small amount of pain without having to resort to physical violence."
"This could be a problem. It’s not as if I can explain to Xena what’s going on. I doubt she’s going to react very well to someone hurting her."
"I know, but it’s the quickest way to find out. A temple ritual would take a day or two to set up and we have no idea whether or not Ares or his flunkies will be looking for you two."
"Well, I’ll be honest with the both of you," said Ephiny. "I’m not half as worried about inflicting that type of pain on Xena, she’ll hardly notice it. But, if they are bonded, and you inflict any type of pain on our Queen here, she’ll react. Hades, look at what she did to Kiaya."
Lissa and Gabrielle sent worried looks at the Regent. "Do you have to be in the room to do this, Lissa?" The Priestess nodded. "Well, let me get Eponin, Solari and a few of the Royal Guard here before we start." Ephiny left the room.
Gabrielle’s room had quickly filled with Amazon warriors. There were six in all, including Eponin and Solari. Lissa stood at the doorway with Ephiny in front of her; Cassandra and Baria were just outside the room. Gabrielle had woken her partner while Ephiny had gone to fetch backup. Between the two of them, Lissa and Gabrielle had decided it would be better to ‘slap’ Xena first. Not knowing how she would react to this test, they didn’t want to have to calm her down only to re-inflame her when they repeated it on Gabrielle.
"Everybody ready?" asked Ephiny. The Royal Guard around the room indicated their readiness. "Okay, then, let's get this madness over with."
Lissa took a step forward and gave one final reassuring smile to her Queen who sat on the bed holding her warrior's hand. "You’ll have to let go of her, my Queen."
Gabrielle didn’t look at all comfortable with the Priestess' request, but she let go of Xena’s hand after giving her one last comforting pat. Lissa took a deep breath and slowly and quietly recited a prayer to Artemis. A small glowing white light began to glow around her hands as she lifted them from her side. The white light leapt from her hands and flashed across the room into Xena’s chest. The bolt almost knocked the unknowing warrior from the bed; Lissa’s aim had not been the best and almost half the bolt had hit Xena’s injured arm. The cry of pain from her partner brought tears to Gabrielle’s eyes as she looked to Lissa for permission to go to her. Lissa nodded, and Gabrielle was quickly at Xena’s side taking the trembling warrior into her calming embrace.
It had taken over a candlemark for Gabrielle to calm the warrior down enough for the second part of the test to commence. She released her hold on Xena and moved across the bed out of her reach, her anxiety growing. If, by some miracle Xena felt this, she was going to go berserk.
"Ready?" asked Lissa. Gabrielle took a deep breath and nodded. Lissa began her prayer again. Ephiny was watching Xena, looking for any sign that she might feel what was about to happen to her partner. It was probably that which saved Lissa’s life.
The warrior was on the move almost before the white light struck the bard. If Ephiny hadn’t been standing in front of her, the enraged warrior would have had an open path to Lissa. As it was, the weight of Xena’s body hitting into Ephiny sent her crashing back into the Priestess. Then it was just a pile of flying Amazons rushing over to pull the warrior off of them. Gabrielle, meanwhile, was trying to catch her breath from the thump to the chest that she had received... that was nothing as insubstantial as a slap. No wonder Xena had been in such a state.
She watched the struggling Amazons, in dismay, as one of the guards got overzealous and grabbed hold of Xena’s injured arm. Gabrielle almost felt sorry for the woman as she hit the wall and slid unconscious to the floor. The bard managed to get to her feet, still struggling to catch her breath. Despite not being able to see, and having a broken arm, Xena was coming out on top in this battle.
Cassandra appeared at the door, taking in the scene, seeing her Queen trying to get to the warrior. Looking back at the writhing mass of Amazons, Cassandra noticed that Xena seemed to be focused on Lissa. No matter where the Priestess moved, the warrior unerringly followed her.
Cassandra turned her gaze back to Gabrielle who was staring intently at the commotion. "Gabrielle! Quick close your eyes." Gabrielle shot her a glare. "Please, my Queen, stay where you are and close your eyes." Seeing the concern on Cassandra’s face, Gabrielle closed her eyes. "Lissa, get yourself over here." The Priestess pulled herself away from the melee of bodies.
Xena lost her focus on the Priestess and began to take her frustration out on those holding her down. Gabrielle felt a hand take hold of her arm. "Don’t open your eyes until I get you to Xena, okay?" Cassandra guided the bard towards the still struggling mass. "Everybody, back off," yelled the healer as they approached. The Amazons parted, leaving a clear path to the warrior.
"She’s right in front of you; keep your eyes closed until everybody is out of the room." Gabrielle nodded to the healer to let her know she’d heard, then grabbed hold of the body in front of her. Cassandra stood back, keeping an eye on the pair in front of her, making sure Xena recognised her partner before the healer ordered everyone out and closed the door behind her.
Gabrielle opened her eyes gazing straight into Xena’s crystal blue eyes. "Gabrielle?" came the hesitant question; the bard folded herself into Xena’s arms in reply.
Cassandra leaned heavily against the door looking at the crowd of panting Amazons before her; Baria was treating the unconscious guard who had been dragged from the room. The healer let her gaze rest on the Priestess and the Regent. "Well, that was certainly interesting, don’t you think?"
Lissa gave the healer a disgusted look before answering. "It gave us some answers, at least."
"And they were?" asked Ephiny.
"That Gabrielle is not bonded to Xena. But, by the Gods above, Xena is definitely bonded to Gabrielle."
"Is that possible?"
Lissa looked at the Regent and chuckled. "Whether it is, or not, Xena is bonded to Gabrielle."
Lissa turned back to the healer. "How did you figure out she was using Gabrielle’s eyes?"
"Because every time you tried to get away from her, she knew where you were."
"Well, it was good thinking anyway. I don’t know about the rest of you but I could use a drink." Ephiny stood and walked to the door. "Anybody coming?"
The moon was high in the sky when Gabrielle quietly left the room. Ephiny and Lissa were sitting, talking, in the audience chamber; they stopped as their Queen walked in.
"I brought you some food," offered the Regent. "Thought you might be hungry. How is she?"
"Asleep again. She’s started having nightmares and I think Cassandra needs to look at her arm again. Thanks for the food, Eph." She dropped into a nearby chair as Ephiny handed her the platter of food.
Lissa handed her a mug of wine. "How are you, Gabrielle?"
The bard smiled at the concern in Lissa’s voice. "Lissa, have you ever been on the receiving end of one of those bolts?" The Priestess shook her head. "Let me let you into a secret. I’ve taken softer hits in fights on the road than that bolt you let loose this evening."
"I’m sorry, my Queen, I didn’t realise," said Lissa in an abashed tone.
"No need to worry, it got you the answers you needed, didn’t it?"
"Yes, it did."
"So, what happens now?"
"Lissa and I were just discussing our options, Gabrielle. None of them are exactly easy, but the way ahead lies in your hands."
"What are our options, then?"
"We have two," began Lissa. "The Geas ceremony uses a lot of drugs that alter the mind. At the moment Xena is working on instinct alone, there is no real conscious to her. That's why she has not even tried to communicate with us. Her conscious mind is locked behind barriers that Ares' priests erected with the drugs and, most probably, the torture she endured. We have got to unlock those barriers and wake her up, if you will. Now, somewhere in Kanth, there will be a small vessel or container that holds some of Xena’s blood. If that were to be broken, she’d be released."
"That would mean travelling to Kanth, which would take weeks. And, if Ares is looking for Xena, you would be a target all the way and you’d most probably have to fight your way into Kanth." Ephiny poured the bard another drink. "But, it is still an option."
"The second option we have doesn’t involve travelling to Kanth but could be just as dangerous, if not more so." The Priestess moved closer to her Queen. "You see this is all playing out in Xena’s mind, so, in theory, we can use the dream passages to break down the walls she’s trapped behind. The only problem with that is, we’d have to travel in her dreamscape. As you know, Xena’s dreams aren’t exactly pleasant and we have no idea what Ares' priests have planted in there for us to find. If someone was hurt or killed in there, then they would be hurt and killed here, as well, and, of course, you only have a limited time to find her."
Gabrielle sat back and closed her eyes, thinking over what Ephiny and Lissa had told her. "There’s not much choice, really, is there? Going to Kanth with anything less than an army would be suicidal, and I don’t think we’d make it that far before running into trouble. Xena would probably go crazy in that time. So I guess that leaves us with the dream passage; at least, Xena and I have some experience with them. So how do we go about it?"
"All the darkness of the world cannot put out the light of one small candle"
"We can’t just rush into this, my Queen. We have to prepare properly. Sending people to a dream passage is not that difficult, keeping them there, for any length of time, is. The body uses up its resources at a frightening rate while in the passage. And, we’d have to limit the number of people we send."
"Okay," said Gabrielle. " How many can we safely send?"
"I’d not want to chance sending any more than four."
"Fine, then. All we have to decide is who goes with me." Lissa looked at Gabrielle, intently, knowing from the tone of her voice and the look on her face that she would not be able to dissuade her, but knowing that she had to try, anyway.
"Gabrielle, if anything were to happen to you in there it might seal her fate."
"Lissa, the chances of anyone else surviving in there are much lower if I’m not with them. I know Xena, I know how she thinks, and I even know her nightmares. She knows me. If we manage to find her in there, she's going to need some proof that we’re not some illusion sent by Ares before she’ll do anything to help us. We’re all sitting here assuming that Ares has locked her up behind these walls. Well, I’ve been thinking that Xena wouldn’t allow that to happen without fighting it. She wouldn’t just be lying there if Ares had imprisoned her; she’d be struggling against it. What if she’s erected these walls, what if this is how she’s fighting Ares’ priests?"
"It is always a possibility, my Queen. The truth is, we won’t know until you find her."
"Okay, so we’re agreed that Gabrielle goes," said Ephiny. "So, who goes with her?"
"It doesn’t matter whose passage you go into, there is always danger." Lissa stared at Gabrielle trying to emphasise her point. " With Xena I couldn’t even begin to think of the horrors you might face. You’ll need to send the most experienced fighters you have and, preferably, ones that have some knowledge of Xena herself, especially her fighting techniques."
Gabrielle could see from the look on Ephiny’s face that she would be putting herself forward for this mission and the bard knew that what she was about to say would most probably upset the Regent. "Ephiny, you can’t go with me on this. Before you say anything, listen to my reasons. I’m the Queen; you're my Regent. We’ve already agreed that I have to go, but we can’t leave the Amazons without a ruler; we can’t risk both of us dying in there. You have to stay."
Lissa and Gabrielle watched Ephiny’s face flow through all the emotions from hurt and anger to resignation and fear, before she begrudgingly agreed, "Fine, I stay here, but you’ll take Eponin and Solari with you. I’ll let Eponin choose who else goes. Lissa, how much time do you need to prepare for this?"
"We could most probably have everything ready for the morning after next."
"Get everything ready, then. Gabrielle, why don’t you go and get some rest. I’ll let Eponin and Solari know what’s going on. Anything else that needs to be sorted out, we can do tomorrow."
The whole village rose at dawn the next day to help with preparations for the upcoming dream passage ceremony. Gabrielle looked exhausted when she finally emerged from her room that morning.
"Bad night?" inquired Ephiny, as Gabrielle entered the outer rooms.
"Yeah, you could say that. I don’t know who had the most nightmares, Xena or me."
"You okay? Would you like me to bring you and Xena some food over?"
"I’m fine, and yes, food would be a good idea. Can you see if you can find something other than a nightshift for Xena to wear? I want to take her over to Argo."
"I’m sure I can dig something up for her. I’ll just go get you that food."
There was a sombre atmosphere in the stables when Gabrielle guided Xena over to see Argo. Several of the Amazon horse trainers were standing around the birthing stall at the back of the stables where Argo had been housed. They soon parted, as they saw their Queen and her partner arrive. Gently holding onto Xena’s arm, Gabrielle guided her into the stall.
Gabrielle was shocked at the sight that greeted her, and was relieved that Xena was unable to see her faithful steed. Cassandra had said that Xena was most probably able to use Gabrielle's eyes only when her strong protective streak felt fear from their connection, and that seemed to be holding true when they’d tested it this morning. Gabrielle was glad for this, because Argo looked as though she was already dead. Her once pristine coat was lank and sweat laden, her bright eyes were now dull, each heaving breath was an effort for the war-horse. Gabrielle helped Xena to her knees and helped rest her hand on her beloved animal. Looking up, she saw that the horse trainers had left the immediate area, giving Xena and Argo some privacy; the only one that remained was Falla.
"It doesn’t looked good, does it?" inquired Gabrielle as she walked over to the Amazon, whose eyes remained on the warrior and her horse.
"No, my Queen, it doesn’t look good. Argo should be dead three times over, but I think she was waiting to say goodbye to her friend, there." Gabrielle turned and watched as Xena lovingly ran her hand down the horse’s flanks then rested her head on the horse’s shoulder as she wrapped her good arm around Argo’s neck. It was like watching two lovers; even Falla could feel the emotion pouring between Xena and her steed. "It’s a beautiful sight to see something so loved."
"Yes, it is, isn’t it? Will it be long?"
"No, my Queen, a couple more candlemarks at most. If you want to leave Xena here with us, we’ll happily look after her. We’ll all be here until it’s over."
"Thank you, Falla, I appreciate that and so does Xena. Will you send someone for me when it..."
"Yes, my Queen." Falla placed her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder and gently squeezed. "Someone will get you." With that, Gabrielle took one last look at Xena and Argo before leaving them.
The sun was shining as Gabrielle left the quiet of the stables. Her thoughts had turned in on themselves as she contemplated what was to come. Lissa had been very thorough in explaining what could go wrong in the dream passage. It hadn’t occurred to her before that Xena had taken such a big risk to save her, so shortly after they had started travelling together.
Being honest with herself, she was scared. Scared that they wouldn’t be able to find Xena, scared that she wouldn’t be able to help her if they did and scared that she and Xena were once again putting others at risk. It seemed to be a never-ending circle with them, always dragging their friends into danger along with them. Normally, their friends were eager to assist, but Gabrielle couldn’t help the feeling that one day someone would be seriously hurt or killed because of them.
It was at times like this when she would sit down and seriously think about the choices she’d made in life. How one chance meeting would change her forever, would alter her course in this world to such an extent, that a young girl from Poteidea was now Queen of the Amazons. If she could go back, would she change anything? It was a question she often asked herself, knowing that Xena had been given that choice and had returned to this life. It wasn’t something that Xena would often talk about, but Gabrielle knew that her warrior had made a great sacrifice to return to her.
Things would be perfect if only the fear and hatred that followed them around and caused so much despair would leave them alone. A lot of it, she knew, came from Xena’s inability to forgive herself, that inner drive that pushed her to atone for her warlord days. But what point was there to atonement if she could never forgive herself?
Gabrielle looked up and found she had wandered over to the practise grounds. She sat on the benches and watched as the younger Amazons practised with sword and staff. She was so deep in thought that she didn’t notice when Solari and Eponin came and sat beside her. The two warriors sat next to their Queen, offering her their silent support. When she finally noticed her surroundings again, practise on the field had stopped and the only people present, besides her, were the two warriors. She smiled sheepishly at them both.
"Hi, how long have you two been sitting here?" Her voice was quiet but curious.
"About the same amount of time you have," replied the weapons master.
"You looked a little out of it, so we thought we’d keep you company." Solari stood and stretched. "Lunch has been and gone but the cooks have saved you a meal if you’re interested."
"That sounds like a good idea, Solari, I want to check on Xena, first, though."
"Yeah, we heard she’d spent the morning over at the stables. Couple of the trainers came barrelling out of there earlier but it’s been quiet other than that."
The stables were pretty much as she’d left them, the horse trainers still gathered inside, though some of them were in Argo’s stall, now. Xena sat with Argo’s head resting on her lap, her hand still steadily stroking the ailing horse. Argo’s breathing had become slower and shallower in the time that had passed; she seemed much calmer now that her mistress was beside her.
Falla rose from her crouched position in the stall when Gabrielle came in. "I was just about to send for you. It won’t be long, now. We made them both as comfortable as we can. I tried to get her to leave but, even in her weakened state, I wasn’t about to argue when I couldn’t get her to move."
"That’s okay, Falla, I doubt even I could get her to leave Argo, now. I’m going to sit with her. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like the stables cleared. If there’s nothing more to be done for Argo, then I think Xena would prefer this to be private."
"I’ll have the stables cleared, immediately, my Queen." The horse trainer gave her a sad smile before clearing the rest of the stables. As Gabrielle watched the trainers trickle out of the doors, she noticed Eponin and Solari still with her.
"Would you two mind keeping a watch on the doors? I don’t want us to be disturbed until Argo’s passed over."
"It would be an honour, my Queen." Both Solari and Eponin gave her a deep bow before they left closing the door behind them. With the doors now closed, the only light came from the flickering lamps around the stalls. The stables had an almost preternatural quiet to them as if even the rest of the animals knew what was taking place in the birthing stall. Gabrielle took a deep, calming breath before she walked over to where Xena sat with Argo. She paused before entering, resting her head on the wooden post at the entrance.
Falla was right; it is wonderful to see something so loved by another.
A shiver ran down her spine as she realised that Xena loved her in the same way. She could see it in her eyes when she looked at her, hear it in her words though they were few. For someone who didn’t show emotions that often, the depth of those that the warrior was showing now was apparent to everyone. Gabrielle felt a lone tear escape from her eye and quickly brushed it away with the back of her hand. With another deep breath, she calmed herself again, then slowly walked over and lowered herself to Xena’s side, slipping a comforting arm around her and resting her head on her partner's shoulder.
A lone warrior stood, sword drawn, upon a hillock in the dark barren landscape. This was her refuge; the place she came to when doubt or fear clouded her thoughts and mind. It had always been there within her, though its present condition saddened her. This meadow had once bloomed with bright coloured flowers; its grasses were once a luscious green, and its trees strong, yet supple, able to bend with the strongest winds. Now it stood barren, the grasses now frail and brittle, its flowers gone; the trees were skeletal and held no strength. What once was her haven was now her prison.
All was not lost, though. She knew that her friendship with Gabrielle had always managed to light a small corner of this now barren land. This hill that she so closely guarded held the last remaining vestiges of that light; a small, budding sapling grew there. She’d protected this place for three years now, stood guard over it in her darkest hours. As long as the sapling still grew, she would stand against everything that Ares could throw at her.
It was a wonder to behold that small living thing in such a dead landscape, but the friendship and love of that small bard had nurtured it for three years now. Each time she felt Gabrielle's loving presence, it would grow, and each time that love was threatened, it would stand strong.
She could feel a warm glow on her back as though the sunlight had returned at last to this realm, but she knew it was not so, there was a long way to go before that light returned. No, this was the familiar glow of her friend approaching and holding her close within her arms. Wrapped in the warm, safe embrace, knowing that Ares' minions would not dare attack while such a soul was near, her thought turned to her other companion, Argo. Her proud, beautiful war-steed lay close to death in her arms. She could almost see the mighty palomino galloping across the meadow towards her. Her faithful steed that had not once let her down, who had never left her even in the dark depths she was now trying to escape.
Her love for her horse had probably been the only thing that had kept her heart alive while she had been Ares' general. For surely someone who still had the ability to love was not beyond redemption? She wished that, for just one second, she could tell her steed just how much she meant: how her faith in her mistress had helped to anchor her in the bad times, how her welcoming whinny in the mornings had reaffirmed her courage when she doubted herself, how her warm shoulder had always been there for her to cry against, how her speed and strength in the gallop had brought her joy. But it was not to be, the fates had decreed, and Argo would cross over without the knowledge of her mistress’ heart.
The village outside quietened as the trainers left the stables. The Amazons were loath to rush around when such a profound moment was taking place within the stables. Work came to a halt and small groups of women gathered, all eyes finding their rest on the stables, all their hearts reaching out to the two women inside.
The bright day darkened momentarily as a lone cloud obscured its light; the surrounding forest became silent. Within the Amazon stable a mighty war-horse breathed her last. A long, bronzed arm reluctantly withdrew from around a beloved mare's golden neck, and a warrior and her bard held each other close.
The village mood had deepened into one of sadness. Gabrielle had managed to pull Xena away from the stables as the sun had set the previous evening. They weren’t seen again that night. Eponin and Solari had kept everyone away from the stables, then they had followed the grieving couple back to the palace and had taken up residence outside their door, allowing no one to enter, not even Ephiny.
Lissa had come to the palace, at first light, to inform them that the ceremony would take place in three candlemarks' time. Solari had quietly entered the room and told Gabrielle what time they were required at the temple.
Nothing in the temple itself had been changed except for the four sleeping cots arranged around the temple altar. Large urns, containing the oil required to help the travellers, were placed at their sides and the acolytes had been assigned their charges. Lissa had been concerned at first, the ceremony required that Xena be asleep which would, of course, mean drugging her; but Gabrielle had said she would give her the sleeping herbs and Cassandra reassured her that she would be able to keep Xena under as long as was necessary.
As the time for the ceremony drew near, the Amazons started to gather at the temple. Eponin and Solari had been relieved from their duty to bathe and prepare themselves. Eponin had chosen Kiaya as Gabrielle’s third escort. The young Amazon had felt the brunt of Xena’s anger several moons ago but, since then, had become an ardent pupil of her techniques, as well as being one of her most vocal supporters. Gabrielle had been rather perplexed at Eponin’s choice and wasn’t entirely comfortable with it until she’d met the girl once again. It was obvious to the bard that Kiaya wasn’t going on this mission for her Queen; she was going to help someone she considered a friend, Xena. Gabrielle knew, without a doubt, that Eponin and Solari would defend her to the last even if it meant sacrificing Xena. Now, she also knew that, apart from herself, somebody would be looking after Xena's interests.
Gabrielle walked into the temple with Xena on her arm. She had done her best to reassure the warrior that all was well and Xena seemed to have understood what she had been trying to do. There had been no outbursts of violence, no nightmares since Argo’s death; the warrior seemed to be resigned to the goings on around her.
The bard guided Xena over to Lissa who was standing by the altar. "Are you ready, my Queen?"
Gabrielle gave the Priestess a half-hearted smile before answering. "As ready as I’ll ever be."
"Well, then, let's get our friend here back to sleep and we’ll be able to get started." Gabrielle sat Xena down on the altar and wrapped an arm around her waist as she gave her the herbal brew that would put her to sleep. Once Xena had finished the brew, the bard helped her lay on the altar and stayed with her until her breathing became deep and even, and her normally tense muscles relaxed. Gently sweeping the hair from her partner's face, Gabrielle leant down and kissed her forehead before turning back to the Priestess.
"Okay, let's get the rest of this over with, shall we?"
Lissa nodded and guided her Queen over to the pallet nearest the altar. "Now remember, my Queen, there are consequences; whatever happens in there, happens here. If you get hurt, your body here will be hurt; if a body dies, it dies here as well. To get out of the dream passage, you must fulfill your quest; Xena, herself, will return you to our reality. You have a limited amount of time, four candlemarks at the most. You must travel swiftly and, most of all, remember this is not your dream passage. You cannot change or influence anything directly, only Xena can do that."
"Don’t worry, Lissa, I’ve had plenty of practise influencing our stoic warrior. We’ll be okay. Is everybody else ready?"
Lissa looked around seeing that Eponin, Solari and Kiaya were all ready. "Yep, everything’s ready to go. You take care in there. Alright?" Gabrielle nodded and drank the brew offered.
Sleep was never something that had been difficult for the bard to achieve; in fact, it was one of the things she was most passionate about, apart, of course, from her story telling and a certain warrior. As such, dreams were no stranger to her either, but she could never remember waking in such a dark place as she now stood.
It was the darkest of nights but there were no stars to light the sky. If she looked really hard she could just tell the difference between the pitch black of the ground and the deep darkness of the sky. She stood still, trying to get her bearings, before deciding to move off in search of the others. She didn’t have to go far before she tripped over Solari’s crumpled form in the brittle grass. The Amazon warrior moaned softly, before trying to get into a more comfortable position. Gabrielle chuckled to herself.
If only Xena could see this, me awake before everyone else. Gods, the Amazons would never live it down.
She knelt down and shook Solari’s shoulder. The Amazon sat bolt upright. "What? Where?" she said in a confused voice.
Gabrielle gave her a grin. "Well, it's nice to see you awake at last, good sleep?" Gabrielle stood, and Solari struggled to her feet not far behind.
"I take it we’re there, then?" Solari looked out across the desolate land.
"Yep, we’re here. Come on, let's find Eponin and Kiaya. They can’t be far off."
"Well, there’s Eponin," Solari pointed up ahead to the weapons master who’d just stood up.
"One down, one to go." Gabrielle started off across the bleak meadow. It was then that she noticed she had her staff in her hand. She glanced back at Solari and saw her sword at her side, up ahead Eponin was similarly armed. A frown creased her brow and an increasing feeling of foreboding came over her.
"This is a dream passage, you’d think that waking up would be a little more comfortable," moaned Eponin as they came within hearing distance.
"Ah. You forget, Eponin, this is Xena’s dream passage. When have you ever known Xena to make anything comfortable?"
"She does a pretty good job where you’re concerned."
"Yeah, well, I’m the exception to the rule. Right, let's find Kiaya." Gabrielle looked around her, "Anybody any idea where to start?"
"You’re the Xena expert."
"And you’re the Kiaya expert, Eponin. Where would she be?"
"Anywhere Xena is."
"Well, I vote we go this way," said Solari, wandering off in the direction of what had once been a grove of trees. Gabrielle and Eponin gave each other a rueful glance and followed behind.
Things weren’t going so well. The darkness had returned with a vengeance, once Gabrielle had left her side. Ares must have been having a laugh at this. At first it had just been a feeling but now the attacks were physical. The God of War’s minions were using everything in their arsenal. A reliving of Cortese's attack on Amphipolis and Lyceus’ death; only this time she’d had a chance to stop it, she knew what was about to happen. If she’d moved, she could have prevented his death. But moving meant leaving that tiny part of her soul that Gabriele inhabited alone; she had watched her brother die again. She felt the sharp stabbing sensation in her chest where her heart beat out its rapid rhythm; she’d felt the rage burn anew, but she stood firm.
There had been a brief lull when they realised their ruse had failed. Then came the replay of every atrocity, every cold-blooded murder, she had ever committed. She didn’t just see it, she felt it: the anticipation of the attack, the flow of the blood lust through her veins, the exhilaration and joy of the kill. The surge of the memories was almost overwhelming, the need within her to feel the power again almost irresistible, as her conflicting natures fought against each other. Ares' priests might have been orchestrating events, but Xena’s own fears were providing them with the weapons.
She hadn’t truly been alone since she’d turned from her path of destruction. Gabrielle had always been at her side, holding the light up high to show the way. When Xena had stumbled, Gabrielle's courage and belief had kept her going; and when temptation had been strong, her bard had been stronger. Now she was alone, facing everything--all that she had ever been, all that she had ever done.
Kiaya awoke, alone in the dark, her sword in her hand. She sat up, slowly scanning the area around her; she could feel the danger about her, the charge in the air. It was very dark; her nerves began to play tricks on her. A rustling in the undergrowth pushed her to her feet, her pulse began to pound. A cry in the distance swung her around. She could see it, a small but definite glow surrounded by a writhing mass of darkness. That was where she needed to be.
When she had first met Xena she’d been young, sure of herself, overconfident in fact. Her meeting with Xena had changed that. When she had faced Xena on the practise ground after injuring Gabrielle, she had seen the power the warrior held in check, had felt her controlled rage and knew that all that had kept her alive was Xena’s knowledge that, if she killed the Amazon, Gabrielle would be disappointed.
Kiaya had thought herself a warrior until Xena had shown her otherwise. She had been a bully and nothing more. All the skills in the world couldn’t have made her liked within the village; people had talked to her because they were afraid. Xena had opened her eyes to what being afraid meant; she hadn’t liked it, but she had learnt from it. She was respected in the Amazon community, now, and she owed that to Xena. She considered the warrior her friend despite what had occurred. Even more, Xena was her mentor, and a smile or a word of praise would keep the Amazon's spirits up for months. Now it was Xena in need and Kiaya would do all that was required to help her.
Another cry from the distance shook her from her thought; the darkness around the light had grown. That was where Xena would be battling against her foe. Kiaya sheathed her sword and set off toward the glowing light at a fast jog.
Solari had continued to walk ahead of Gabrielle and Eponin, sometimes running ahead to scout the lay of the land. This desolate land unnerved her. Was this what it was like for Xena all of the time, was it this blackening of the soul that she fought against? It sent a shiver up Solari's spine. That cold chill hit her again and she stopped, her eyes nervously scrutinising the surrounding area.
"What is it?" Gabrielle’s voice sounded close in her ear.
"I don’t know, just a feeling that something’s watching us." She turned her body around looking for danger. Eponin could now feel the threat; it seemed to pervade the area, a creeping sensation started in the base of her spine. A snick of a crossbolt release was the only warning they had of the attack. Eponin roughly pushed Gabrielle to the side and the bolt flew in between them. Shadowy figures emerged from the skeletal trees and encircled them. A rasp of metal broke the silence as the Amazons drew their swords.
"Looks like we’re in for a little exercise," said the weapons master as she blocked the first blow of the battle.
Eponin ducked the twirling blade directed at her head and slammed her arm backwards feeling a grim satisfaction at the crunch she heard as her elbow connected with someone’s face. She was enjoying herself and had a grin plastered across her face. Despite being outnumbered, they were definitely holding their own, if not winning this fight. The weapons master swayed backwards, giving Gabrielle’s staff a wider berth, as the bard neatly rapped one soldier across the temples, sending him crashing to the ground. Two down, a few more to go.
Solari was fighting several attackers on the other side of the bard. The Amazon had somehow lost her sword and was fighting hand to hand with the soldiers, peppering them with a series of complicated punches and kicks. The look on the soldier’s faces was actually amusing; they were at least two moves behind the Amazon and couldn’t figure out where the next blow was coming from. Unfortunately for them, Solari dropped to the ground, managing to pick up her sword. A pleasant smile crossed her face as she launched into them with her weapon.
So engrossed was she in watching her partners fight, Eponin misjudged the flashing blade of her attacker and felt the razor sharp metal slice into her flesh. Ignoring the pain, she returned her attention to her own battle and proceeded to impale her opponent on her sword. Solari held her own against three attackers and Gabrielle had just dispatched the last of hers, before targeting one of Solari’s. The three friends faced off against the last of the attackers, Gabrielle skilfully parrying the overhead slice the attacker aimed at her.
Solari jumped backwards, barely getting out of the way of a backhanded thrust to her stomach. She dropped to a crouch, sweeping her left leg in front of her, taking the attacker's legs from beneath him. Her sword arced over and severed his head from his body.
Eponin made swift work of the last one of the soldiers. Ducking his wild blows, she thrust her elbow backward into his face snapping his neck. Then, as suddenly as they’d come, they disappeared. No bodies remained; the three companions stood back to back surveying the area.
"Well," panted Solari, "I hope they’re all as easy as that. Pony, you’re bleeding."
"Yeah, I know, but it’s just a scratch. No permanent damage done. I’ll be fine." The weapons master looked over at Gabrielle as she produced a clean strip of cloth from one of her belt pouches.
"Let me just bind that up for you. Then we’d better find Kiaya and Xena," Gabrielle wrapped the cloth tightly around the wound, and smiled at Eponin. "There, all done."
Lissa stood and gazed down at her Queen, then across to the three Amazon warriors. Each of the bodies poured with sweat as the acolytes attending to them washed their skin with oil. Nearly a candlemark had passed but nothing untoward had occurred; Xena had stirred once or twice but Cassandra was keeping a close eye on her.
Ephiny sat apart from the sleeping pallets, her gaze constantly on the move from one sleeper to another, though, more often than not, it rested on the young girl who was her Queen. The rest of the Amazons had been shooed out of the temple earlier, but that hadn’t stopped them congregating outside. A sharp intake of breath caught her attention; it was the acolyte attending to Eponin. A wicked gash had appeared on Eponin's right arm, just above the elbow. Baria, one of the village healers, quickly moved to her side and started treating the wound. Lissa’s gaze returned to her Regent; the unease on Ephiny’s face had grown. Lissa made a mental note to herself to keep an eye on her; waiting here could be just as bad as being in there.
Xena’s breath was coming in laboured gasps; her head was pounding as she threw off yet another attack. It was becoming increasingly difficult to withstand the tormenting visions and feelings. The priests had stepped up their campaign and warriors from past conflicts kept appearing to challenge her. She had almost laid down her sword when Borias had appeared in front of her, but instinct had taken over as his blade swung down on her, and she fought him off.
She was tiring, this war had been going on for days now, and her resistance was crumbling. She crouched down, trying to relieve some of tension in her legs, the blade of her sword dug into the ground, as she rested her head on its hilt. Her eyes closed as she took a deep breath, and her thoughts turned to her bard.
Oh, Gabrielle, I could really use a hand right now; a smile or even just a hug would do just fine.
She felt the pressure build up around her.
Here they come again. I hope you can figure out a way to get me out of this one, because, my bard, I am about done for. I’m tired, my head is killing me and I miss you.
She stood and stretched, eyes darting around.
Come on then; let’s see what you’ve got this time.
The soldier appeared directly in front of her, her blade flashing up to deflect his strike. A prickling sensation in the muscles of her shoulders told her they were coming from behind as well. She heaved her blade up, off balancing her foe; a sharp kick from her left leg sent him tumbling away from her. She dropped to her knees and swung her sword around gutting the soldier attacking from behind.
As quickly as she was defeating the soldiers, more were appearing. Three or four attackers advanced on her each time, now. Her arms were shaking as she defended herself, yet again. The tide was turning; the attackers were getting through her defences, rivulets of blood slickened her grip. She could feel herself weakening and knew her time was short. Tears of frustration clouded her vision. Gabrielle was going to kill her. She’d held out as long as she could. The will was there, but her legendary strength had been exhausted.
A blow from behind brought her to her knees as she blocked a thrust from the side; she twisted but knew she would not be quick enough to block the blow that would be coming. A wistful thought of Gabrielle came to her mind as she sent her a silent message.
Sorry, my friend.
She felt the flow of air against her neck and awaited the inevitable.
Lissa nudged Ephiny; the Regent looked up tiredly as the Priestess handed her a warm drink. They had been waiting for two candlemarks
"How are they doing?" Ephiny asked as she sipped the drink.
"Well, apart from Eponin’s gashed arm, there have been no other injuries. We just have to assume that they're okay. How are you doing?"
"I’m fine, just worrying as usual. I don’t like the thought of our Queen and our best warriors messing around in Xena's mind."
"Hey, I thought I was the one opposed to Gabrielle going."
"Yeah, well, Regent's prerogative to change her mind when she can't go with them."
Lissa smiled at Ephiny, then turned as she heard a concerned voice call her name. "What is it, Cassandra?"
The healer’s attention was focused on Xena. "Think you better take a look at this." Lissa hurried over to the healer with Ephiny close behind. The warrior’s body was littered with cuts and bruises. "Her heartbeat just went through the roof and her breathing has become very shallow. I thought that, because it was her dream passage, injuries would have no effect on her physical body."
"You’re right, they shouldn’t be affecting her. Then again, we have no idea who else might be playing around in there. Treat them as best you can. We’ll just have to hope that Gabrielle can work some magic and get them all out of there."
Gabrielle was hoping for a little magic herself at that precise moment; she was beginning to think that they were walking in circles.
"I’d feel a lot better about this if we were making some progress in finding Kiaya and Xena," said Eponin as they slowly trudged through the remains of what once may have been a forest.
"Come on, Pony, it's not like we haven’t had anything to do," said her Amazon compatriot.
"Solari, fighting people who disappear as soon as you kill them is not my idea of fun. I’d much rather have them stay right where I left them."
"Well, we got these bows off of them, didn’t we?"
"Yes, we did, but if they had stayed where we killed them at least we’d have some way of telling if we’d been here before."
An evil laugh echoed around them. The three friends stopped.
"Be careful what you wish for, Eponin. It may just happen," the voice surrounded them.
"I know that voice," Gabrielle’s voice was hushed. "That was Xena." A twig snapped behind them. "I got a bad feeling about this." A dark shadow flitted between the trees, as the laugh echoed around them again.
"Come on, Eponin. Fancy a little sparring practise?" All three of them stared as Xena stepped into the open. Gabrielle looked at her partner intently. Something was different. The way she wore her armour, the way her hair fell about her shoulders. Her eyes, her eyes were not blue.
"Eponin, this may look like Xena, it may even sound like Xena. But this is not our Xena. Look at her eyes."
Xena laughed, "Oh, Gabrielle, how wrong you are. Of course, this is me." The warrior drew her sword and rested it on her shoulder as she strolled up to the bard and traced a finger down her cheek. "What would make you think that it wasn’t?" Gabrielle shuddered at the cold touch; a sliver of fear ran through her. The only other time she’d seen Xena anything like this had been when they’d faced the Horde.
"So the Amazons don’t want to play today then, Eponin? Well, let’s give you a bit of an incentive. I’ll give you a head start to the count of one hundred and then the chase is on. The one who is left standing at the end gets Gabrielle."
"Xena, we’re here to help you, not to fight you," Solari’s voice held firm even against her fear.
"I know what you’re here for, Amazon. Did you really think you could just appear and make everything right? You’re not the only ones here, you know. Ares' priests are having a day out as well, but she’s handling them at the moment."
"She?" Gabrielle frowned, "Who’s she?"
"Why, miss goody two shoes, of course. I had thought about going to help, I have no liking for Ares, either. Then I thought to myself that Ares' goons could play and wear her down, then a rematch would be in order. Of course, having you by my side would make it all the easier to defeat her. She wouldn’t want you hurt, now, would she?"
"Are you telling me that there are two Xena’s here? Sort of the good and the bad?" That made sense. Gabrielle had always thought of Xena’s dark side as being a part of her; she’d never considered it might be a totally different personality.
"Three of us, actually, but we don’t mess with the other one. She’s not ours to control. So, are we up for the game, then? I could just take you, but playing games is so much more fun."
For the first time since the dark Xena had arrived, Gabrielle had a plan. "Okay, we’ll play." The bard stared down the looks of consternation from Solari and Eponin. "But if you win, you get me. What do we get, if we win?"
The towering form of the warrior glared down at her. "You’re up to something aren’t you, Gabrielle?"
"Well, you're going to have to play to find out, Xena. That is, unless you don’t think you can win?"
"Fine, what do you want if you win, little bard?"
"Safe passage for us to my Xena, and your help against Ares' priests."
The tall raven-haired warrior stepped back and gazed into Gabrielle’s eyes. "You have a deal, my bard."
"Oh, one more thing. I go with the Amazons; you have to defeat us all."
Xena gave her a chilling smile. "I don’t see that as a problem. You have until the count of one hundred before I start chasing. Better get going." Gabrielle didn’t wait around to be told twice, she turned and pushed Solari and Eponin in front of her and started running.
"I hope you know what you’re doing," yelled Eponin.
"So do I," replied Gabrielle.
A clash of metal rang behind her and a gleeful laugh sounded.
"Nah," came an Amazon voice she recognised, "you just gotta do better than that."
Xena sat staring dumbfounded at the Amazon warrior before her. Together they had managed to defeat the last attack from the priests, and were now sitting on the hill, because Xena no longer had the strength to stand.
"What are you doing here?" Xena’s voice was perplexed as her stare continued to linger on the Amazon.
"Looking for you, actually. Lissa and Cassandra managed to figure out what was going on from Gabrielle’s description of what happened in Kanth. So we mounted a rescue operation. Gabrielle, Eponin and Solari are here, somewhere, as well."
"Lissa sent us all into your dream passage."
"Oh, brilliant, I’ve got Amazons messing about in my head. I hope you have a plan?"
"Er, well, actually that was Gabrielle’s department. I was brought along for extra muscle, just in case we ran into anything unfriendly."
"Well, your timely arrival saved my life. Thank you, Kiaya."
"That’s what friends are for," replied the Amazon looking at Xena's weary form. "You okay? You look a little beat."
"I’ll be okay, if I can rest for a while."
"You sit right there and rest, then. Queen Gabrielle would kill me if I let anything happen to you now that I’m here."
"Yeah, well I wish she’d hurry up and get here herself. I’d like to hear her plan to get us out of this one."
Eponin was leading, though only the Gods knew where, closely followed by Gabrielle, with Solari bringing up the rear. It felt as though they’d been running for ages though, in reality, it hadn’t even been half a candlemark. The skeletal forest was never-ending, and the corpse-like trees seemed to jump into their path. Eponin had nearly taken her head off, twice, by failing to avoid low-slung branches. It was a surprise, then, when they burst through a thick patch of petrified wood into an open field.
Eponin stopped dead, causing Gabrielle and Solari to crash into her, almost knocking her from her feet. In the field below the small hill they were standing upon, a silent battle was taking place. Two armies clashed but no sound could be heard and, unlike the rest of this strange landscape, the scene was painted in vivid colour. Dismembered bodies were strewn everywhere, their blood painting the dark grass red.
Gabrielle stepped out from behind Eponin’s tall form and gazed out over the field. She felt sick to her stomach at the scene playing out before her. She’d heard the stories told about Xena before she’d joined her, who hadn’t? She’d even experienced it somewhat when they’d faced the Horde; but she had never expected to come face to face with the death and destruction that stood before her now. Her emerald eyes tried to pick out discerning features of the competing armies but there seemed to be little difference between them. The only person that stood out amongst them all was the tall, dark-haired warrior fighting in the thick of the battle.
The dark-eyed Xena appeared abruptly at Gabrielle’s side, her gaze glued to the battle in front of her. Solari and Eponin backed away, trying to pull Gabrielle with them, but she refused to move as the warrior spoke, "Amazing isn’t she?"
"What do you mean, she? That’s you," Gabrielle’s voice held no fear, only repulsion at what she was seeing.
"No, no, Gabrielle, that is not me. But this is," she swung around drawing her sword. "You should have kept running, my bard. Then again, I knew you wouldn’t be able to pass this little show without balking at what I’m capable of." Xena advanced on the still backing up Amazons. Gabrielle quickly placed herself in front of them.
"Wait!" she said, holding her arm out in front of her. "You said that the warrior out there wasn’t you. Why would I have any concern about that battle if it wasn’t you?"
"Gabrielle, Gabrielle. I've already told you that there is more than one of us here, but we are, after all, the same person, aren't we? It doesn't matter that your Xena didn't fight this battle. It doesn't even matter that I didn't fight it. All that matters to the world is that one of us did. All that matters to you is whether or not your Xena even tried to stop it."
Gabrielle felt a catch in her throat; this is what she needed to know. Would the Xena she knew stop these darker personalities from taking over? Was she strong enough to do that?
"I can see by the look on your face, Gabrielle, that this bothers you. Shall I tell you the answer?" The dark warrior had stepped up close to the bard, towering above her; she bent slightly so that she could whisper into her ear. "Neither of us can. Your Xena may be able to control me, all her anger and hate," Xena glanced over her shoulder at the continuing battle, "but only death can control that one. Now I think we've come to the end of our game, don't you? I believe the deal was the last one left standing." She arched her eyebrow and an evil chuckle echoed around her, "Time to pay up."
The tall warrior tried to push past the bard but the young girl stood her ground. "You're going to kill them, aren’t you?" asked Gabrielle in a very calm voice.
"Of course, I am." A bemused smile crossed Xena’s face.
"Because they stand between me and what I want."
"But you said I was what you wanted and I’m standing right in front of you. Why don’t you just take me?"
"But that wasn’t the deal, was it?"
"So, you intend to stick to our deal, then?"
"I gave you my word, didn’t I? I don’t normally break my word to you, do I?" The warrior’s attention was riveted solely on the bard.
"No, you don’t. For a warlord, you’re pretty honest when it comes to keeping your word."
"Good. Then you won’t mind if I keep it this time, will you?" Xena pushed past the bard and looked up, but the Amazons were gone. She turned sharply, looking for them, but could see no sign of their passing. An alert look came over her face as she listened. She could hear them; they had split up, one to either side of her. She almost laughed as she realised they were going to try to use arrows against her.
A smile crossed her face and she looked back at the bard, "Do they honestly think they can take me down with arrows?"
"Well, they must think so." Gabrielle thought furiously. Arrows would never work against Xena, but, then again, if she were concentrating on catching arrows, would she be able to defend against a blow from a staff? There was only one way to find out. Gabrielle tensed herself.
Xena stepped forward and laughed, "Well, give it your best shot, then!" Xena held her arms wide in a welcoming manner. Two arrows shot from the trees. Xena stepped in to catch them and Gabrielle followed her, swinging her staff.
Xena saw the arrows' flight and reached to grab them from the air. There was a sudden movement behind her and she knew she had made a mistake. Catch the arrows or stop the bard? The arrows won; they were more painful if they hit.
Gabrielle felt the impact of her staff against Xena’s head, and saw the warrior collapse to the ground. She took a cautious step forward, and stood, stunned, over the unconscious woman. Eponin and Solari emerged from the skeletal trees.
Gabrielle looked at them both. "I never expected that to work," she remarked incredulously.
Eponin and Solari looked at each other, then at Xena, and back to their Queen. "She’s going to be really pissed off when she wakes up," grinned Eponin.
"Yeah, but we’re the last ones standing," smiled Gabrielle.
Kiaya felt as bad as Xena looked and she’d only been at this for about a candlemark. Ares' priests had been attacking their position almost constantly, but between the two of them they’d managed to hold them off. Kiaya would now have a few new scars to show off to her fellow warriors when they got back. Xena had regained some of her strength from the short break in the fighting when Kiaya had appeared, and had fought with her usual terrifying prowess; but Kiaya was worried just the same. Except for the covering of blood, Xena was a deathly shade and each attack sapped more of her strength. They were standing back to back, swords drawn, which was why, when Xena appeared in front of her, she was rather shocked.
"Xena?" she asked.
"Yeah?" came the tired reply from behind her. Kiaya turned and saw the warrior, sword drawn, at her back. She looked forward again but Xena was standing there, as well. Then Gabrielle, Eponin and Solari appeared behind the warrior. This was getting confusing.
"Er, Xena would you do me a favour and take at look at something for me?"
"What is it Kiaya?" Xena turned and saw Gabrielle and the other two warriors standing next to her. "Oh." She took a step forward only to be met by a flying bundle of bard, who wrapped her arms around her in a fierce hug. Gabrielle held on tight before relaxing her grip and looking up into well-known sky-blue eyes; a smile crept onto her face.
"Hi," she whispered, all her emotions pouring forth in that one word.
"Hi there, yourself. You okay?" Xena’s gaze was fixed on her alter ego. The bard nodded, too overcome with having her arms around her partner to be able to talk. "Eponin, Solari." The two Amazons walked around her darker self. Eponin held her arm out in greeting. With one arm still tightly holding onto the bard, Xena clasped it in return and inclined her head to Solari. After a final strong squeeze, Xena managed to peel Gabrielle from her and handed her off to Eponin. "Stay here for a minute, would you?" She released the bard and walked over to her darker half.
Gabrielle watched in silence as the two Xena’s came face-to-face. They seemed to size each other up but no words were spoken. Then they walked up to the group, together. This wasn’t like having Princess Diana or Meg standing next to Xena. Gabrielle could normally tell who was who by their body language.
The only differences between these two were the eyes and the intensity of power that emanated from them both. Her Xena was calm; but that coiled rope of strength was lurking beneath that calm exterior. The other had a darkness surrounding her that made the hairs on the back of Gabrielle’s neck stand on end. So much alike, yet so different.
"She give you any hassle?" Xena flicked her head towards her other half.
"Nothing that I couldn’t handle," grinned Gabrielle. "We had a little wager going and I won. She won’t give us any problems, she’s here to help." Xena didn’t reply, she just turned and raised her eyebrow at her other half, in question.
"Okay, okay, so I didn’t realise your little bard had gotten so sneaky and I underestimated her." Her voice was full of self-disgust.
"Are we working together on this then?" asked Xena.
"I gave my word, so I guess we are."
"Good." She held out her hand to her darker half, who grasped hold of it.
"Always said we were stronger together anyway," said her dark half.
The Amazons and Gabrielle gazed in fascination as the darker Xena began to fade before their eyes. Gabrielle focused her gaze on her partner, as she seemed to grow in size and developed a deadlier edge to her stance. Only one Xena stood before them now.
Xena took a deep breath as she felt the strength flow into her body from her alternate self. She felt invigorated; energy poured into her body. She opened her eyes and could feel the change within her as her darker half settled and stirred the anger that lay just below the surface of their joined consciousness.
Gabrielle felt her breath catch as Xena turned towards them. Her eyes were still blue but now they held a feral glint in their depths that sent a shiver across her soul.
"Xena?" she asked.
"Don’t worry, Gabrielle, I’m still here." But Gabrielle did worry. Xena's voice no longer held the loving tone she was so used to hearing from her partner. "Kiaya told me you had a solution for my, or should I say our, dilemma."
"Well, not exactly. We had two ways of getting you back. One was to go to Kanth and try to break the stone urn of your blood that they have there. The other was to use the dream passages to get to you. Any ideas?" The darkness seemed to have settled in her partner now and Gabrielle could see more of her Xena asserting herself. A small wave of relief rolled across her as Xena gave her one of her quirky smiles.
"No, but I’m sure that together we’ll come up with something." Her small smile deepened, "Thank you for coming after me."
"Anytime. Xena, I need to ask you something; can we talk?"
"Sure. I think our Amazon friends can handle anything that comes along." She took hold of Gabrielle’s hand and began walking up the hill towards a small branching sapling. "We can talk up here." Xena sat and crossed her legs waiting for the bard to get comfortable. "So, what do you want to talk about?"
"You." Gabrielle’s voice was hesitant as she spoke, "You know, when we were looking for you and Kiaya, that we came across your darker half," Gabrielle looked from beneath her brow at the warrior. "Well, we came across someone else, as well." Gabrielle saw her partner tense. "We didn’t actually meet her, just saw her across a battlefield. But you said some things, or rather your other self did, that sort of raised some questions."
"You want to know who she is." Gabrielle strained to hear her partner’s voice it was so quiet.
"Yes, I do. Xena, what I saw was horrifying; it wasn’t just a battle, it was a slaughter. I need to know who that is." Gabrielle could see that Xena had hung her head and wondered if she would get an answer.
Xena, her eyes downcast, idly played with a stalk of brittle grass, then lifted her head and gazed around her before letting her gaze rest on her friend before her.
"This used to be a meadow, in fact, it’s the one outside Amphipolis. Lyceus and I used to play here when we were young. We met Cortese on it the day Lyceus was killed. The blood that soaked into this field on that day was incredible, but it has always been a refuge to me. I could close my eyes and walk through the grass and smell the flowers and climb the trees; no matter where I was, or what I was, I always had this.
"There was a young boy; one of the ones who followed me from Amphipolis. He was called Johnas. He’d been one of Lyceus’ best friends. He was with me for a long time, Gabrielle. I can remember him as a sweet young lad. My best memory of him was with Lyceus; they were helping the village smithy move some metalworkings, and they were having fun, a smile on both of their faces. Innocence, Gabrielle, that was what it was; they didn’t have a care in the world.
"He died in my arms, but things had changed. He was no longer innocent, he was one of my best fighters; brutal, his blood lust was almost as great as mine, for his brother and sister had been killed by Cortese. But as I held him, he cried, knowing he’d never see them again."
She gave a small depreciating chuckle, filled with anguish. "He apologised to me, because he wouldn’t be able to say 'hi' to Lyceus for me. His pain tore at me; he’d been a good friend. I owed him my life, more times than I can tell." She became silent for a minute and gazed into the distance over Gabrielle’s shoulder, then sighed. "So I made a deal, in return for his entrance to the Fields."
Gabrielle stared at her friend. This hadn’t been what she was expecting at all. "What did you give, Xena?" Not knowing whether she truly wanted to know the answer.
Xena looked at her long and hard before she spoke. "I gave a piece of my soul, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle took several deep breaths before she managed to ask her next question, praying fervently that it hadn’t been Ares. "Who to, Xena, who did you give it to?"
Xena's face turned sad as she realised what her bard was thinking. "No, it wasn’t Ares, Gabrielle. I gave it to Hades."
Gabrielle’s face now showed puzzlement; at least she understood what the other Xena’s cryptic comment about death controlling the third meant. "But, why is she so..."
"She wasn’t always like that; used to be that she'd complete the tasks set by Hades and then disappear until she was needed again. But, after Caesar, she was the only one strong enough to keep us alive. She fed on our combined hate and each death at my hands made her stronger, until there was nothing else but her. Hercules broke her hold and gave me the opportunity to chain her, but you, Gabrielle, are the one who’s kept her chained."
"I don’t understand."
"It’s simple, really. Your belief, your trust, your love have given me the strength to keep her chained. She only gets out when she’s called on now, but I have to keep her occupied. So, she relives all of our battles, sort of keeps her amused." Xena was looking into Gabrielle’s eyes trying to gauge how she was reacting to this revelation.
"Who is she?"
"She’s one of Hades' messengers of death, Gabrielle."
Xena stood and left the stunned looking Gabrielle behind her as she walked to the Amazons who were standing in a group, chatting. The conversation died as she got near and the Amazons, one by one, fixed their gaze on the determined warrior.
"I have an idea, but, after what I’ve just told Gabrielle, she’s not gonna like it. I need you to look after her for me. If everything goes according to plan, you’ll be out of here soon. Okay?" Xena relaxed as each of the Amazons nodded.
The warrior turned around and went back to Gabrielle and crouched down by her side. "You okay?" Gabrielle nodded but didn’t say anything. "Can I ask you a favour?" This time the bard made eye contact with her, but her face still showed the shock she was feeling. "See this tree?" continued the warrior. "Well, that’s three years of hard work. That’s three years of your friendship and trust. It’s the one ray of life in this barren mind, and I need to keep it that way. I’m gonna get us out of this, but I need you to look after my tree for me. Can you do that for me, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle stared at the young tree in front of her, listening to Xena’s words, struggling to comprehend what she was hearing. "Yes," she whispered in reply to Xena’s question. She felt a strong hand squeeze her shoulder as the warrior left. She lifted her head and quickly turned. "Xena!" The warrior turned her head. "Take care."
"Don’t I always?" she smiled at the bard and faded out of sight.
"No," whispered the bard, a lone tear running down her face.
Xena walked among the silent soldiers battling each other on the field Gabrielle had so recently gazed upon in revulsion. She knew that the bard loved her and considered Xena a major part of her life, but she also knew that Gabrielle wouldn’t be able to reconcile herself with the creature of death buried within her soul. So, by going now to that thing within herself, over which she had no control, she knew that her relationship with the bard would be forever changed, but as long as Gabrielle kept that small oasis of life alive in Xena’s soul there was always a chance.
The soldiers fought on, not even seeing Xena as she made her way to the centre of the battle. The woman didn’t stop fighting as Xena approached. As each of her sword thrusts accounted for another life, a grin of joy washed across her face. The fighter knew Xena was there, how could she not--they were one and the same--but she refused to acknowledge her presence until Xena grabbed her sword arm.
The Amazons had moved to sit by Gabrielle who was quietly staring at the tree sapling growing on the hill. Eponin was concerned at Gabrielle’s unusual silence and reached out to take the young Queen's hand. "Gabrielle, are you okay?"
The bard took a deep breath and looked at the weapons master seated next to her. "I don’t know, Eponin. I really don’t..."
Kiaya suddenly rose to her feet, turning quickly, looking all around. "Trouble," she hissed. Eponin and Solari stood and drew their weapons.
Gabrielle grabbed her staff and stood next to them. "How do you know?"
"I can feel them, and after a candlemark and a half of defending this hill, I just know."
The two warriors faced each other; Xena’s hand clenched around the other's arm in a vicelike grip, preventing her sword from inflicting any more pain and death. They ignored the continuing battle, concentrating only on each other. Sky-blue eyes searched deep into ice-blue. This woman had never shown remorse, never hesitated to kill, she had only one aim and that was to destroy all that stood before her. But for all her faults she also had power, incredible strength and determination. She was one of Hades' own; she could walk in realms that, as a mortal, Xena couldn’t. As Hades' messenger she had options. As Hades' messenger she could get to Kanth in the blink of an eye. As Hades' messenger she could call on the other Horsemen to come to her aid. But as Hades' messenger she had no control: if an army stood before her it would be vanquished, if a city stood before her it would be razed; destruction would be inevitable.
But would Xena be able to stop it? Time was running out. She could feel Ares' priests building for their next attack. She didn’t have time for a battle of wills with this creature. Slowly, she felt herself fall into the depths of the frozen eyes before her.
Twinned warriors faced each other, hands clasped, as one slowly faded from view. There was now only one, blue eyes sparking fury at those around her as her battlecry echoed through the air.
Gabrielle felt a cold chill ripple down her spine as she heard Xena’s battlecry echo around her; a dark presence began to build around the hill. It was almost as if a dark cloud had suddenly fallen upon them. She gazed around, seeing formless shapes solidify into soldiers. More and more appeared until the field around them was overflowing. A cry rang out and, as one, they attacked.
It was a small dimly lit room just off of the main hall of worship, but for the last fourteen days and nights it had been the heart of the God of Wars' temple. Five priests were seated in a circle facing a small stone urn. Each one of them had tried for days to break the will of the Warrior Princess, but each one had failed. Failure was not something that the God of War understood.
They had started to pool their resources; two, then three had combined their will hoping that together they would succeed where one had failed. But their success had been limited to wearing the warrior's strength down. It had been decided that they would combine their total power for a final attempt at defeating her. For several candlemarks they had been immersed in their meditations, hearing nothing, seeing nothing, and feeling nothing that wasn’t part of the dream passage they were in.
The Amazons formed a circle around their Queen forcing her, despite her protests, to stay in the centre as far away from danger as they could keep her. Each of the Amazons fought fiercely, blocking and parrying the myriad blows and thrusts aimed at them. Occasionally, one would come within reach of Gabrielle’s staff and she would dispose of them for her protectors. As she stood there, Xena’s words came back to her and she realised just what this little sapling represented to the warrior. This was a representation of the small spark of light that remained in her soul, and Gabrielle had agreed to protect it for her as she had done, unknowingly, throughout their friendship.
The sky above the Amazon village boiled as dark clouds formed; the gentle breeze that had stirred the fallen leaves around the temple grew strong. An ominous roar filled the air and lightning flashed. Falla ran from the stables as the first drops of rain began to fall, heading for the temple. She raced up the steps just as the heavens opened and what had been a few drops turned into a downpour. She shook the water from her hair, her eyes searching for the Amazon Regent whom she found standing by the Queen's cot.
The horse trainer hadn’t been among those who had helped to prepare for the dream passage ceremony. She’d been tending to Argo and had seen to the horse's cremation. She had been in the stable tidying when she first noticed it was missing. At first, she thought that maybe one of the other trainers had moved it, but her search had proved fruitless. She had spoken to everyone who’d been in the stables but no one could remember exactly when it was last seen. It was hard to believe that somebody had stolen it, but that was the only explanation she could come up with.
Ephiny looked up as she stood by her shoulder. "Falla, is everything alright?" The horse trainer looked nervous.
Falla took a breath. "Someone’s stolen Argo’s tack from the stables."
"What do you mean, stolen?"
"I mean that everything, saddle, bridle, bit, blanket, the lot has disappeared. No one can remember when they saw it last and nobody has moved it; it’s just gone."
Lissa paced the temple floors, restlessly. They were running out of time, it had been over three candlemarks since she’d sent the sleepers to the dream passage and still they showed no signs of waking up. She walked between the pallets, gazing at each one of the sleepers. Her pacing stopped next to Kiaya’s cot. Cuts and lacerations were beginning to appear on the young Amazon's arms, legs and face. She looked up to find one of the healers and saw that Eponin and Solari had injuries appearing, too.
The armies disappeared as the battlecry faded from the sky. The warrior sheathed her sword and laughed, "Freedom!" She felt anticipation scour her soul. What joy to be free again, to be able to ride the land before a mighty army. Ares would be pleased, except for the fact that his city would be the first to fall. Try to bind her with magic, would he? Well, he’d pay for that. She whistled loudly and waited. The pounding of hooves thundered across the meadow, as a mighty, golden war-steed galloped into view.
The thunder had become a continuous roar over the Amazon village, and the Amazons were again taking refuge within the temple. The women congregated around the walls, leaving space for those involved with the sleepers to continue their work. Cassandra sat next to Xena, studying the pale warrior closely. The wounds that had appeared on her body had all been treated but the warrior's colour was too pale for her liking. She reached out and touched Xena’s brow, checking for a temperature, horrified to find the woman ice-cold. She stood and yelled at one of the nearby Amazons to bring a blanket and some warm water. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Ephiny was talking to Lissa when a startled cry erupted from across the temple. Both looked up to find Cassandra staring at an empty cot. Xena had disappeared.
The Amazons were tiring against the ferocious attack. More and more of the soldiers were able to inflict injury on the warriors. Gabrielle stood, clasping tightly to her staff, wanting to help her friends, but not wanting to betray the trust Xena had placed in her.
Three Horsemen sat quietly atop their mounts, gazing at the walled city below them. A thunderous clap of thunder announced the arrival of the fourth as her golden war-steed reined to a halt beside them. All four looked at each other, anticipation on their faces. It was time to play.
The watch change for the city militia was huddled tightly together at the bottom of the temple steps as the black thunderheads grew over the city of Kanth. Lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating the City Square and sending the population running for their homes or the nearest inn. At first, they thought it was just another clap of thunder, but the screech of metal on metal told them differently. A cry of alarm reached them from the city walls. The city was under attack.
Kiaya ducked, as the soldier in front of her swung wildly at her head. She thrust out, impaling him on her sword, and pushing the body off of her blade with her foot as she turned to parry another blow. Her arms, aching with the tension of keeping her sword in position against the unending wave of soldiers, were now slashed in several places where she had been unable to prevent the soldiers from getting through her defences.
Eponin and Solari were being forced closer and closer together by the press of bodies that fought against them. Mindful of the fact that their Queen stood behind them, they rushed the oncoming soldiers trying to regain the few feet of territory that they had relinquished. Kicking and punching, stabbing and slashing, they clawed back the ground they had lost, but not without damage. Solari had a vicious wound to her thigh and Eponin had a taken a sword thrust in her shoulder.
Gabrielle’s frustration was rising as she saw the injuries her friends were sustaining. She watched helplessly as Eponin was unable to block a sword thrust to her left shoulder and saw as the blade bit into her body. A sharp cry of pain turned her attention to Kiaya. The young warrior had slipped and was on her knees, parrying blows from two different attackers.
Unable and unwilling to stand by any longer, the bard rushed to Kiaya's side, knocking a sword from one of her attackers and stunning the other with a forceful reverse sweep of her staff. Kiaya looked up as the attack on her lessened and managed to get to her feet as her Queen kept the soldiers out of reach. Her gaze travelled across Gabrielle’s shoulder and a look of horror crossed her face as a soldier broke through their lines.
Kiaya watched as the soldier raised his sword. But he was not aiming at any of the Amazons or Gabrielle; he was swinging for the small sprouting tree in their centre. Without thinking, she flung herself across the small space towards the soldier.
Gabrielle's fear had left her, now that she had joined the battle. Kiaya had picked herself up and seemed okay despite the wounds scattered across her body. The bard saw the look of horror cross her face and felt her move. Risking a quick glance over her shoulder, she watched as the Amazon threw herself at a soldier who had broken through into their circle. Comprehension dawned in Gabrielle’s eyes. Ares' priests had never been after Xena’s body here; they had been after her connection to the bard. The small tree was that connection.
Kiaya hit the soldier in a pounding body tackle that took them both off of their feet. Both lost their weapons as the impact on the ground shook them. Kiaya reached for her blade as she jumped to her feet, but never saw the dagger that pierced her leather tunic just below her right shoulder. The soldier pushed the Amazon from his blade and advanced on the small sapling. Picking up his sword, he swung it to cut the tree from the ground. But Kiaya was an Amazon and buried the pain she felt in her shoulder. She hauled herself to her feet and threw herself, again, at the soldier.
A cry echoed around the temple. Lissa and Ephiny spun away from Gabrielle over to Kiaya’s pallet. Cassandra was by her side, having left Xena’s cot to tend the wounds of the Amazons, while Baria had gone to get fresh supplies. The healer’s hand was covering a bloody wound at the Amazon's shoulder, blood seeping through her fingers.
"Baria, get over here with those bandages, now!"
The battle had moved swiftly inside the city walls; many of the militia had run in terror as they’d seen what was riding towards them. All worshipers of Ares knew who the Horsemen were, knew what they were capable of. All the soldiers needed to decide was whether they wanted to face certain death at the hands of the four riders or possible death at the hands of Ares. If he bothered to turn up after all, it would be a glorious battle.
The Four Horsemen forced the militia back to the City Square, torching houses and buildings as they went, killing anything that got in their way. The woman warrior dismounted outside of the temple, battle lust burning, ice-like, in her eyes. Several soldiers rushed her, trying to overwhelm her in numbers, and buried her beneath a mountain of bodies. Bodies flew in various states of dismemberment as the warrior surged up, throwing the soldiers off of her, killing those that still stood before her, or who couldn’t get out of her way. Her sword hung in her hand by her side, leaving a bloody trail, as she marched up the steps of the temple.
Gabrielle dragged Kiaya off of the disappearing body of the soldier the Amazon had killed with his own dagger. Blood was pouring from her shoulder, but the girl was still conscious. As Gabrielle looked around, there seemed to be a natural lull in the fighting and she pulled the injured warrior up to the small sapling and knelt by her side.
"I can’t decide whether to hug you for what you did or yell at you for taking the risk," Gabrielle sighed and shook her head, then pulled some more cloths from her seemingly unending supply in her pouch pocket and pressed them tightly against the wound. The bard sat the warrior up so that she could look at her back, letting out a sigh of relief on finding no exit wound. At least she only had one gaping hole to deal with.
Kiaya was taking big gulping breaths trying to control the pain but it kept rolling over her. "Did I stop him?" she hissed as another wave hit her.
"Er, yeah." Gabrielle hastily looked up but Eponin and Solari were holding back the soldiers. "You got him," she said looking back down at the Amazon. "I’m gonna bind this wound but you’ll have to keep it still. It's deep and it will keep bleeding if you move it."
"Thanks," said Kiaya as Gabrielle tightened the bandage a little more. "Will you pass me my sword?"
"Kiaya, you’re not fighting, you’re staying put even if I have to sit on you."
"I’ll stay here, but at least if I have my sword I can defend myself, and you can give Eponin and Solari a hand."
"Okay, but if you so much as move for any other reason, so help me I’ll hit you myself."
Kiaya gave her a pain-filled grin as she accepted her sword. "Yes, my Queen."
The blood-soaked warrior strode through the wooden doors of the temple, paying little regard to the ornate decorations that surrounded it, and even less to the raging fires at either side. The temple seemed deserted. No acolytes or priests could be seen wandering the aisles, and any worshipers that had been here had fled or had joined the battle outside.
Her stride didn’t falter as she prowled down the main aisle making her way to the doorway at the back. She pushed the door open and walked through and began to search the rooms on the other side. They were here, somewhere. Those priests that thought to break her were here, somewhere. All she had to do was find them. Then, as was said, revenge would be sweet.
The fighting grew in ferocity as Gabrielle rejoined the battling Amazons. Swords and staff parried blow after blow. The three friends fought back everything that was thrown at them, and still the soldiers came. Gabrielle was counting her blessings that they hadn’t thought of using arrows against them, but didn’t want to say anything out loud in case she tempted the fates.
Although they had managed so far, it was obvious to the bard that they were fighting a losing battle. All of them were injured and tired, and no matter how many they fought off there were more soldiers to replace them. She hoped that Xena was near to getting them out because they wouldn’t be able to hold on for much longer. She braced herself as she blocked a soldier with her staff, her body working automatically to defend itself.
Eponin slipped, but Solari’s strong arm was there to prevent her falling. They were losing ground all the time now. Only a small space remained behind them, that housed Kiaya and the small sapling that Xena had nurtured for three years.
The tall raven-haired warrior peered into the dimly lit room and smiled. Five of them together, what more could she ask for? She stepped over the threshold of the room, sword in hand.
The pressure on the three Amazons suddenly eased as a whole division of the soldiers they were fighting disappeared, though there were still plenty left to defend against.
She withdrew her blade from the body of the priest; it was almost too easy. They were so involved with playing their little mind games that they hadn’t even considered a physical attack. She felt the shift in the room’s atmosphere as they realised their power in the dream passage had been weakened by the death of one of their number. She laughed aloud as two of the priests opened their eyes.
"Good afternoon," she growled. "Were you, by any chance, looking for me?" Her pleasure increased as she saw the look of terror on their faces.
The fight had slowed to almost a training session as two more swathes of soldiers disappeared. Obviously, whatever Xena was doing was working. Gabrielle just wished she’d hurry up. Even though few soldiers remained, they were still fresher than the Amazons were. More of the soldiers disappeared, leaving only twenty to defend against.
She easily killed the first priest to open his eyes; he hadn't even had time to defend himself. The second was a little more difficult. He called on his god given powers and summoned lightning bolts, but they had no effect on the enraged warrior who stood before him. He died quickly, as her blade sliced through his neck.
The priest may not have defeated the warrior but he had provided enough of a distraction for one of the two priests remaining to waken. Realising that his unearthly powers were unlikely to have any effect, he drew a short blade from his robes.
She felt the pain as the blade embedded itself in her shoulder but ignored it and turned on the priest, closing her hand around his throat and lifting him off of his feet, pinning him against the wall. "That wasn’t very nice of you, now, was it?" Her hand slowly closed, choking the priest and eventually crushing his windpipe.
The remaining priest had felt the passing of his brother and knew his time was short. In one final, desperate effort he channelled all his strength into one last-ditch attempt to break her bond.
The remnants of the soldiers charged all at once, the suddenness of this desperate rush taking the Amazons and their Queen by surprise. Solari went down in the onslaught but the soldiers didn’t stop to finish her, they just rushed towards Kiaya and the sapling.
The warrior dropped the priest, still twitching, to the floor and turned to face the last one, an evil smile on her face. She stepped across the still twitching body of the priest she’d just killed, her foot catching a small stone urn placed on the floor. She looked at the offending object disdainfully, then kicked it out of her way, and proceeded over to her last tormentor.
The little stone urn flew tumbling through the air, dropping toward the floor some ten feet away from where it had been.
Kiaya saw the oncoming soldiers and knew she was about to die. Despite her Queen's insistence that she not move, she struggled to her feet, prepared to defend, with her dying breath, the sapling Xena so treasured. She raised her sword as the first soldier approached.
The stone urn completed its falling arc toward the floor and shattered.
Gabrielle turned and saw the soldiers rushing toward the sapling and Kiaya. She saw the Amazon stand, clutching her sword in her uninjured left hand, raising it in a defensive posture. Gabrielle ran, knowing she wouldn’t be able to reach her side, but trying in any case. She could feel her heart breaking as the young Amazon buckled beneath a stunning sword blow. Gabrielle felt a scream of frustration leave her throat. Then the world turned black.
The warrior gave the blood-soaked room a final glance before she left, leaving the dismembered bodies of the five priests in her wake.
Gabrielle’s head was pounding; the mere thought of opening her eyes made her nauseous. She could vaguely make out voices around her, several of them, in fact. She decided she wanted to know what was happening and cracked her eyes a little. When she felt no ill effects, she opened them fully and found herself gazing into Ephiny’s eyes.
"Hi there, good to have you back with us." Ephiny’s face broke into a smile.
"Everyone okay?" croaked the bard, remembering Solari falling beneath the rushing soldiers and the injured Kiaya buckling in the last attack.
"Everyone made it back, Gabrielle, though you all have wounds. You’re tired and you’ve been through a lot, lay back and get some rest."
Gabrielle felt the Regent's soothing hand caress her face. She felt her eyes begin to close before she blinked them open again. "Xena?" She saw Ephiny’s face frown with concern and fear.
Ephiny knew her face was showing Gabrielle everything and decided to tell her outright. "We don’t know, Gabrielle, she disappeared nearly half a candlemark ago." Gabrielle tried to rise but exhaustion hit her and she couldn’t even muster the strength to get up onto her arms. Her eyes closed and Morpheus took her.
The city lay in ruins, buildings still burned as night fell, not a soul stirred within the fallen remains. The warrior stood, silently surveying the broken wreckage, pleased with her work. The other Horsemen had long since left to return to their other lives. But she remained to view her conquest. The wild delight of battle still burned within her, but with each beat of her heart she felt that lust dying.
Xena fought the darkness within, using all her strength, drawing on everything she and the bard had ever shared. All the love and friendship, all the trust. With agonising slowness, she managed to separate herself from her darker side.
The warrior felt a ripping pain through her head and her vision dimmed. "NO!" she silently screamed. She would NOT be chained again, and she brought all of her dark strength to the battle.
Xena had fought her way back to the hill, the sapling still stood. With the renewed strength the sight gave her, she fought for control of her body. The darkness would not win against a power such as that.
Night had fallen heavily before the storm began to abate, and the Amazons slowly emerged from the temple. Ephiny sent scouts into the village to check for damage but there was nothing to report. All the huts still stood and were relatively dry. Ephiny instructed the gathered Amazon warriors to move the four sleepers back into the village. Gabrielle was well enough to be moved to the palace, and Eponin was taken to her own quarters, but Solari’s and Kiaya’s injuries were serious enough that Cassandra didn’t want them out of her sight. The temple was tidied and, as the last of the Amazons left for the village, Lissa gently closed the large wooden doors, still wondering where Xena had disappeared to.
Cassandra had left the two sleeping warriors to Baria’s care and walked to the back of the infirmary. Today’s adventure had left her herbal cache depleted; hopefully the storm wouldn’t have damaged her herb garden too seriously. The healer gave the rear door a hard shove, dislodging the debris that always seemed to collect there during a storm.
The brilliant moonlight shed enough light that the healer could see her garden was relatively unscathed and she bustled out, grabbing a small basket as she went. She made her way to the rear of the garden near the lopsided fence several of the younger Amazons had built her to keep the forest animals out. Removing a fallen branch, she checked beneath to see that the herbs and plants she was most short of had survived the battering of the storm. She got to her knees and began selecting the best of the herbs and plants. A soft noise drew her attention to the trees outside her garden; her eyes studied the darkness but saw nothing and she returned to her plants. The noise came again, just a shuffling of bushes but louder this time.
Dusting off her hands, the healer stood and peered out into the darkness. She could just make out the vague outline of a horse, a figure slumped over its back. It was several heartbeats before a glint of recognition sparked in her eyes; she quickly turned and ran back into the hut.
Ephiny was storming around the palace, opening cupboards and trunks, scattering their contents over the floor. Gabrielle was safely tucked away in her bed, with Ariana, the healer's apprentice, watching her. Ephiny was now on another mission; she looked up as one of the Royal Guard entered the room.
"Anything?" The guard just shook her head. "Great. Gabrielle is gonna throw a fit when she wakes up. First we lose Argo’s tack, then we lose Xena, and now, to top it all, Xena’s armour and weapons decide to join the vacation. Nothing else can go missing, can it?" she asked as someone banged on the door. The guard, deciding it was a rhetorical question, didn’t answer but opened the door. Gina, the second of Cassandra’s apprentices, stood there.
A worried frown crossed Ephiny’s face. "Gina, is there a problem? Are Solari and Kiaya okay?"
"Yes," gasped the panting girl. "But Cassandra says you’re to come quick."
Ephiny followed the running girl around to the back of the healer's infirmary. Several Amazons, including Falla, were clustered around a golden-coloured palomino war-horse that Ephiny would have recognised anywhere, but it couldn’t be standing before her, as it was, because it had died yesterday.
The horse trainer turned at the questioning voice, and saw her Regent standing there, eyebrow raised. "I have no idea if it is, but it certainly looks like Argo." The crowd of Amazons parted, carrying a body between them. Ephiny pushed past several of them to stare into Xena’s face; the warrior was unconscious. Ephiny looked up to Cassandra.
"Not a scratch on her; even her damned broken arm is healed. But she’s as cold as Hades. I’ve got hot water being drawn now. We’ll get her warmed up and then bring her over to the palace."
The Amazons, bearing the warrior, hurried into the village, leaving Ephiny where she stood. This can’t be happening. Oh, yeah, and how many times have you said that around Xena? But horses don’t just come back from the dead like that.
The Regent thought about it for a second and looked at the horse Falla was leading to the stables. Argo’s saddle looked resplendent on its back and, come to think of it, Xena was in her armour.
Well, I guess that explains that. And we are dealing with the Warrior Princess who came back from the dead, so why not her horse? The Regent shook her head and walked slowly into the village. At least she’d have something good to tell Gabrielle when she woke up.
Good news isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, thought Ephiny as she watched the tall raven-haired warrior storm out of the palace and head for the trees. It had been fourteen days since they’d found Xena on that dark night, but all was not well between the Queen and her warrior. All was not well with the warrior full stop. She’d woken up the following day, next to Gabrielle, sight and hearing restored; but there was a dark edginess to her.
She was constantly in motion, wouldn’t settle for a moment. Her temper was short and she flew off the handle at the slightest provocation. The Amazons could see the violence threatening to erupt, but so far she’d managed to stop herself by storming off into the trees.
Ephiny, concerned, had her followed one morning. She'd gone to a clearing a candlemark or so away. The trees around it had been totally destroyed by the battering they had taken from Xena in one of her rages. The warrior's behaviour was beginning to cause alarm in the village.
Ephiny stood before the Palace, hearing the muffled sobs from inside. Gabrielle sat in the chair, tears pouring down her face, not even trying to stop them. She didn’t hear the door open, but recognised the comforting arms of the Regent as they slipped round her shoulders.
"You okay?" The young bard nodded her head and tried to get herself under control. "You sure?" Gabrielle’s control broke again and she fell into Ephiny’s embrace.
The tears and sobs had eventually stopped and Ephiny handed Gabrielle a mug of cool water. "Can you tell me what happened?"
Gabrielle sighed and wiped her face. "I told her about Kiaya’s arm." The young Amazon warrior had been left crippled by the dagger thrust to her right shoulder. "She just went berserk. I’ve never seen her like this, Ephiny, I honestly thought she was going to lash out, but she thundered out of here instead.
"I thought a few weeks of rest would help but it only seems to be getting worse. One minute she’s fine, the Xena I know and love, then this darkness creeps into her eyes and she’s gone. How long can this go on before she hurts somebody?" Gabrielle gazed at the Regent hoping she had some answers.
"I don’t know, Gabrielle, but I have to be honest and say a lot of the village are already concerned about her violent mood swings. Eponin has stopped the warriors from sparring with her because she nearly killed one of them yesterday."
Gabrielle looked up in shock. "Why wasn’t I told of this?"
"Well, no one was actually hurt, just a near miss. But Eponin was concerned enough to call a halt to it."
"I’m going to have to do something about this, Ephiny, or someone’s going to get hurt."
"What are you going to do?"
"I’m not sure, Ephiny, but I’ll think of something."
"Well, don’t make any rash decisions that you’ll regret later." Gabrielle gave her an unfathomable look.
Xena returned to the palace several candlemarks later, covered in sweat from the run she’d been on. Gabrielle sat waiting for her and the raven-haired woman acknowledged her presence with a look but said nothing.
"Xena, we have to talk." Gabrielle’s voice was strained. "Please, Xena, just stop. Sit down and let me talk to you." The warrior turned and looked at her, but remained standing. Gabrielle got up and walked up to her. "I can see you're fighting this, Xena, I really can, but we can’t carry on like this. Someone’s going to get hurt and it will be one of the Amazons, not you." A flash of pain crossed the warrior’s face but she remained silent. "I’ve been thinking hard about this. You need time to sort yourself out and regain control and I don’t think you can do that, here, surrounded by warriors. I think you need some..."
"Are you asking me to leave, Gabrielle?" Xena’s voice was quiet.
The bard paused and took a breath. "Yes, I am."
"You won’t be coming with me, will you?"
The bard paused and looked up into her friend’s cobalt-blue eyes. "No," she said, her voice cracking on the word; her eyes remained on Xena’s face. For an eternal second she saw her Xena appear and lift a hand to caress her face and then she was gone and the warrior had returned. The hand dropped to her side.
The warrior moved across the room picking her things up and shoving them into her saddlebag. The bard followed, talking to her.
"This is just temporary, Xena. You don’t need me around while you get this under control. I only seem to be making it worse. When you’re ready, come back and get me." The warrior gave her one last look and walked through the door.
Ephiny and Lissa were standing on the temple steps as Xena thundered past on Argo, heading out of the village. Both of them saw the saddlebags and sleeping roll. Ephiny ran off, leaving Lissa to watch the disappearing form of the warrior.
"What did you do?" asked Ephiny as she barged through the door.
"I told her to sort herself out before someone got hurt."
"You told her to leave, didn’t you?" The bard nodded, tears already flowing down her face. "Oh, Gods, Gabrielle, I’m so sorry." The Regent wrapped her arms around the girl and hugged her, hard.
In a dark, barren landscape, a tall raven-haired warrior sat on top of a small hill next to a leaf-laden sapling. A tiny spark of light remained, but it was surrounded by a deep, foreboding darkness, pushing against the barriers the warrior had built. But, for now, they held strong.
To be Continued in Degrees of Separation.
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