A Web of Spun Crystal Part Two
by Cecily Hawkins

Disclaimer recap: Whole lotta borrowin' goin' on. No harm intended to the
original copyright holders. Violence: Disney. Subtext: By the end of this
section, you should have the answer to that question.

Chapter Six
Friends and Enemies

Gabrielle's longer legs enabled her to catch up with Salmone easily, but
the crashing sounds were approaching with disturbing speed. Looking ahead
into the dark distance of the tunnel, she knew that there was no chance
of following it to an exit before the water came and swept them away.

But there's always a chance, she thought. That's how the Labyrinth works.

Suddenly her eye caught a darkness off to the left of the dwarf's light.
She grabbed him and hauled him into it - an alcove. He struggled in
panic. "Let me go!"

"Look!" There was a metal ladder set into the alcove, leading up. No exit
was visible overhead, but at least it gave them something to hold on to.
Gabrielle let the shorter Salmone go first, then took hold and began the
climb herself.

It was awkward to climb holding a staff, and she had only gained a few
rungs when a rushing torrent swept through the tunnel. Gabrielle hooked
elbow through the ladder and held on tightly. That grip and her sheltered
position in the alcove kept her from being too badly buffeted as the
water thundered in. Salmone's torch - amazingly, he hadn't lost it either
- was too high to shed much light, but she thought she could see dark
forms thrashing as they were swept by. There was still airspace at the
top, but if the water kept coming and couldn't find a place to drain...
"Move!" she called to the dwarf above.

"What?" She guessed that was what he had said; it was difficult to hear
over the water.

"Climb!" she tried again, louder.


"We have to get up..." But the flood was quieting. The water was less
forceful and, yes, the level was dropping. A few minutes later, there
were only puddles and drips to indicate its passage. Gabrielle blinked.
"Well, that was fun."

"I'm glad you're enjoying yourself!" Salmone said shakily. "Now get out
of the way so I can get down."

She stayed where she was. "This has to go somewhere..." She reached with
her staff as high as she could over the dwarf's head and bumped into
something solid. She pushed on it. It shifted. She braced and shoved
harder. The resistance slid away - a lid? - and fell out of sight,
landing with a clang as light splashed into the hole.

"Oh, good," mumbled the dwarf. "A way out." He clambered up the last few
rungs, then offered a hand to Gabrielle. She handed him her staff, then
climbed the rest of the way herself, eager to see blue skies again, even
if they were in a nasty, dark, confusing labyrinth.

Her head cleared the opening. It was a garden. A formal garden, with
neatly trimmed, perfectly straight hedges, and little white statues in
the corners. The grass was a uniform height and shade of bright green.
She wondered vaguely if it were artificial, and then decided that with
all the strange things she'd seen already, grass that naturally grew to
look fake was nothing special.

The hatchway she was climbing out of was the top of a large ornamental
urn, and a metal cover lay to the side where her staff had shoved it. She
reclaimed the item from Salmone and began slapping water out of her
clothing, as there wasn't enough spare fabric to wring without first
taking it off.

"Now do you believe me about the Queen?" grumbled the dwarf. "One wrong
word and she has you drowned."

"You're not even wet," Gabrielle pointed out. Since he had been above her
on the ladder, he hadn't caught so much as the spray.

"But we could have been killed!" he insisted.

"If Xena wanted us dead, I'm sure she could do it easily enough," the
girl said practically. "She was just making it more of a challenge, like
she said. We probably would have been all right, even if the water had
caught us. I can swim, after all."

Salmone dropped the torch, still lit, down the hole, and watched it smack
and sputter out against the wet tunnel floor below. "I hope you don't
believe that the next time she tries something. You'll wind up dead."

"She wouldn't hurt me," Gabrielle said without thinking, then paused.
"That's funny. I don't know why, but I feel like I know that. Like I know

"What does someone have to do to be your enemy, cut off your head?"

"She wouldn't."

The dwarf, still looking down the hole, ran a hand over his receding hair.
"I can't swim," he said at last. "I don't think you could have saved us

"Oh," she said faintly.

"And she said she'd boil me." He straightened. "I can't take you any
further. You're on your own from here." He spread his hands. "I'm sorry."

"I..." she started, then nodded. "I don't want you to endanger yourself
for me." She held out a hand. "Friends?"

He shook it gently. "Friends." He pointed towards a gap in the hedges.
"The castle's that way."

She nodded again and set off. She did not look back. If she had, she
would have seen a folorn Salmone standing beside the urn, twisting his
robes miserably.

Gabrielle made her way through the garden, turning and twisting dizzily
here and there. It was hard to keep track of which direction she was
supposed to be going. Dead ends kept throwing her off the track, and so
many places looked alike. What if she were wandering in a giant circle?
Should she have stayed in the tunnel and not taken the ladder? What if
this were all a puzzle that Xena had set so that she would waste her
remaining time?

She shook her head. There was no point in driving herself silly worrying.
She just had to do the best she could.

Alley, turning, dead end, shrub, alley, on and on.

Rounding one corner, she barely avoided walking directly into a statue
that, for no apparent reason, had been placed in the middle of the
walkway. She looked closely at the white stone. It was a woman, posed
defiantly with her hand on her sword hilt. Could it be the Goblin Queen?
The face, though determined, seemed so young. What would the dangerous
tyrant that Salmone feared have been like as a young woman? What had
brought her here, among the goblins?

A terrible scream from somewhere nearby jolted her out of her thoughts.
At first she glanced around wildly, fearing an attack from some swooping
avian monster, but then, as the noise repeated, she realised that it
sounded more pained than dangerous.

Gabrielle gripped her staff, circled the statue, and made her way towards
a gap in the hedge. Peeking cautiously through it, she saw a large tree
with a very dirty man dangling from it. His left foot seemed to be caught
in some sort of snare looped over the branch, so he was upside down and
flailing wildly. Beneath him were three twisted little creatures in
helmets and armor - goblins! - holding pointed sticks and poking at him,
causing more yelps and swinging. Though the man waved his arms, he
couldn't seem to hit them. Gabrielle reasoned that being upside down and
spinning on a rope like that would probably upset anyone's aim.

The man wore only some sort of fur covering, which apparently did little
to protect him from the jabs of the goblins, who cackled as he howled.
Gabrielle had seen enough. "Yaah!" she yelled, rushing towards the little
figures. She swung her staff and, almost to her surprise, connected with
one of the goblins' heads. His helmet spun around, leaving him
staggering, but apparently unhurt. The goblins, though, perhaps afraid of
someone so much taller than they, dropped their spears and fled
chattering into the hedges.

"Serves you right," she muttered. The man, still dangling, shrieked and
waved his arms again. "Stop that!" she snapped at him. "Can't you see I'm
trying to help?" His yelping quieted to a whimper. "Now, do you want me
to get you down?"

There was a moment of silence in which she wondered if he could speak at
all, but finally, "Down," he said miserably. She nodded and reached for
the rope, untying it from the tree. The man fell to the ground with a
thump. She winced, realising she'd just dropped him on his head, but he
seemed none the worse for wear. So to speak. He was filthy, but extremely
pale under the dirt, and his hair was brown and wild. He climbed
to his feet and grinned at her, looking more like a monkey than a man.

She nodded cautiously. "I'm Gabrielle. What's your name."

"Me Attis," he said proudly. "Gabrielle friend."

She smiled. "That's right. And I'm trying to get to the center of the
Labyrinth. Do you know the way?"

For a moment, his eyes lit up as if he would speak, but then, he shook
his head sadly, and his shoulders slumped.

Gabrielle sighed. "I wonder if anyone knows."

Chapter Seven
Slip of the Tongue

Gabrielle walked past the hanging tree. Attis, still wincingly sore,
followed. Behind the tree, the rough hedges led to a corner that was
formed of stone walls, with two high doorways set in. The doorknob for
each was round and smooth and set in the center of the door. No
decorations distinguished them.

She looked from one to another. "Well, Attis, which way should we go?"

He grunted noncomittally.

"Hrm." Gabrielle reached for the knob of the left door and tried to twist
it. It didn't budge, but out of the corner of her eye, she thought she
saw something moving. She released the doorknob and stepped back. "Who's

"Attis here," said her companion, confused.

But Gabrielle was staring closely at the walls. There was something
there... or rather, something not there, some disturbance in the air or
the light, only noticeable when it moved. "Who are you?"

"No one," whispered a faint voice.

"Huh." Well, she didn't really have time to argue with someone who didn't
feel like existing. She had to get through the Labyrinth. "Do you know
where these doors go?"

"No," whispered the voice, and the air shifted again. "I'm just the walls."

"Don't you mean a wall?"

"No," the voice corrected, getting fainter. "I'm the walls." And then it,
and the rippling, was gone.

Gabrielle frowned, but reached for the left doorknob again, pushing
instead of turning. The door resisted, but slowly, she managed to shove
it open. Cautiously, she put her head through the doorway. Giggles and
splutters and some sort of clicking, tapping sound leaked to her ears,
and she instinctively began to smile. She stepped through the doorway,
not waiting for Attis.

She was in a sunlit plaza, with hard stones underfoot. All around her,
she could hear people laughing and singing and... dancing! Her legs began
to twitch, her toes to tap. Before she knew it, she was stomping and
waving her arms, spinning in circles, dancing frantically to some unheard
music. Letting the spirit move her. Her staff flew from her grasp and
clattered against the doorway.

Gabrielle blinked. Dancing? She wasn't a dancer. She wasn't very good at
it, and she certainly didn't tend to do it spontaneously. She stared in
confusion at her hands and feet, which seemed to be under the control of
someone else entirely. And she was moving too fast, burning too much
energy. It was exhausting! Stop, she thought desperately. I'm getting
dizzy. Stop. But she danced on.

As she pranced and twisted and clapped, she caught sight of Attis, still
standing in the doorway, watching her sadly. He stretched out a hand. By
focusing hard on him, she managed to propel her dancing in his direction,
until at last he could take hold and pull her back through. She collapsed
in front of the doors, gasping for breath.

It took her some time to recover. Attis watched over her anxiously, until
she finally was able to stand up and give him a small smile. Luckily,
her staff was close enough to the door that she could grab it without
being caught again, then pull the door shut. "Guess that was the wrong
door," she commented shakily. "Nothing to do but try the next."

This door swung open easily, revealing a dark, forbidding forest. The
darkness simply sprang up on the other side, regardless of the light on
this side of the wall. Gabrielle stepped through and waited for Attis to
join her. He followed reluctantly, and the door swung shut behind them.

Gabrielle shivered. The sky was a dark and metallic gray, and the plants
around didn't look healthy, and there was a decidedly unpleasant smell
leeching into her senses. But still, things in the Labyrinth weren't
always what they seemed.

There was a path before her, so she took it, peering ahead into the
gloom, hoping for any sign of where the castle might be. There was a tall
tree before her. Maybe if she climbed it she could see. She began testing
branches, and did not see the ground open up beneath Attis, swallowing
him so quickly that he didn't even have a chance to cry out.

Gabrielle took hold of the lowest branch and put her weight on it. It
snapped off at her touch, dry and dead. The whole tree shuddered, and she
stepped away quickly, afraid it might fall. Then she realised she was
alone. "Attis?" she called, peering this way and that. "Attis?" No answer.

The dead trees creaked and groaned. The darkness seemed to deepen.
Frightened, she began to walk quickly, speeding into a jog, running away
from this awful place.

In the murk, she didn't see the twisted man until she stumbled right into
him. She screamed.

Back in the hedge maze, Salmone was wandering aimlessly, unable to decide
whether he should flee the Labyrinth to avoid Xena's wrath, or go after
Gabrielle, who probably needed his assistance. The faint scream froze him
in his tracks. A second scream set him into motion. "I'm coming!" he
called out.

He rushed around a corner straight into a pair of knees.

Xena was wearing her cloak and looking quite handsomely fiendish. "Well,"
she said pleasantly, "if it isn't you."

"It isn't me," Salmone said, trembling.

"And where are you going?"

The dwarf stared at his reflection in the Queen's boots. "Nowhere."

"Aren't you going to help her?" The voice sounded concerned, not mocking.

He looked up. "If... if you wish it, your majesty?"

Xena smiled warmly, her blue eyes glittering. "We wouldn't want anything
to happen to our visitor, would we?"


"And you know I wouldn't hurt her. In fact..." With a wave of her left
hand, Xena produced a crystal bubble from the air. She tossed it to
Salmone, who found a red plum in his hand. "I have a present for her."

He looked at the fruit. "What is it?"

"A gift, nothing more." Her smile was once again dangerously edged.
"And you will do as I say. Give her the fruit."

In miserable obedience, Salmone nodded.

"And Salmone," the Queen added. "If she ever kisses you, I'll drop you in
the Boiling Lake."

The creature that had leaped out in front of Gabrielle was more startled
than she was, and matched her scream with one of his own. Looking at him,
she could not decide if "creature" or "man" was more fitting, for while
there was certainly a basic human-ness about him, it was something like a
human painted by Picasso. His head was swiveled around the wrong
direction and tilted back, his body was all bumps and angles, and he had
entirely too many fingers. "What's happening?" he demanded.

Gabrielle opened and closed her mouth helplessly. There had just been too
many of these crazy encounters. She had run out of words.

"Now cut that out," said a female voice. Gabrielle turned to see a thin
woman with green eyes and brown hair with her hands behind her back. She
looked entirely normal - and then she turned. She was scratching her own
back, and reaching areas that Gabrielle was sure she couldn't manage
without dislocating something. The thin woman sighed with pleasure.

More misshapen figures were materializing in the gloom. "What do you
want?" Gabrielle asked, staff ready but not yet threatening.

"Woohoo!" one replied. "We're just out to have FUN!" Laughter echoed around.

"Oh," she said, confused. "I see."

"Come and join the party!"

And she found herself being pulled along to a clearing where a bonfire
was roaring. The twisted people were clumped in groups of two or three -
or more - giggling and twining together in the most fantastic ways.
Gabrielle caught herself staring and jerked her attention back to
the flames. She had never imagined a girl's leg could hook around like

She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to see a man sitting on a
boulder with his legs crossed behind his head. "Hey, sister," he said,
"you gotta get *loose*. You gotta *bend* a little."

"Thanks, I'm fine."

"How can you be fine, all straight like that?" asked a voice at her feet.
She couldn't tell if the figure was male or female, but its legs and arms
were bent the wrong way beneath it. "You don't wanna be straight, do
you? You don't wanna be uptight? You wanna party!"

"I - "

"Here, let us help. We can bend you!" giggled a group of girls tied in a

"I have to be going!" Gabrielle cried, and set off running again. Those
people were crazy! They'd break her bones if they tried those things with

She thought she could hear crashing sounds behind her as she traveled.
Were they following her? And then, suddenly, there was a wall in her
path, too high to climb. She slapped a hand against it in frustration.

A rope tickled her nose.

"Grab it!" Salmone yelled from overhead.

She did, wondering how on earth she was going to climb a rope in a skirt
holding a staff. But once again, the dwarf's surprising strength kicked
in, and he pulled her up himself and helped her clamber over the
battlements. They were standing on the top of a turret. To either side of
them the stone platform of the Great Goblin Wall ran as far as she could
see, rising and falling, turning, crenellated all the way, turreted at
regular intervals.

She turned to face Salmone. "You came back!" she said warmly.

She threw her arms around him. The dwarf, horrified, tried to brush her
away, but she leaned over and planted a kiss on his head.

The earth opened beneath them.

Chapter Eight
Troubled Waters

The paving stones on which they were standing flipped open like trapdoors
and precipitated them into a dark chute. They skidded helplessly down it.

The chute skittered them down to a sort of vent, and they tumbled out of
it onto a narrow ledge, about halfway up the immense inside face of the
Great Goblin Wall. Salmone spat out first, landing sideways, and as a
result, rolling over the edge. Gabrielle, arriving just behind him,
luckily landed on her feet, and was immediately thrown forward onto her
hands and knees, where she lost hold of her staff but was just able to
grab Salmone's hand before he dropped. With her help, he managed to
scramble back up to that precarious perch.

Then, with the momentary crisis out of the way, they noticed the heat.

Looking down, they could see, far below them, a vast lake, its surface
rippled by bubbling and distorted by the waves of steam rising above it.
If we fell into that, Gabrielle reasoned, we'd be cooked in a trice.

The ledge that the two of them were standing on was narrow, but the
pathway that it connected to was even more so. Worse, some of the stones
that made it up were clearly unstable, and others had fallen away. It was
not a pleasant prospect for travel, but unfortunately, going back was

Salmone sighed. "I wish you hadn't done that."

"What, rescue you?" She was bewildered.

"No. You kissed me."

"Oh. Sorry," she said, wondering why it bothered him, but making a note
not to do it again.

Gabrielle picked up her staff and eyed the pathway. She really ought to
have both hands free to try and travel that, in case she had to hold on
to something. But the old stick had come so far with her already, she
hated to leave it behind.

She was spared from making that decision when the ledge the two of them
were standing on collapsed.

Gabrielle landed on something furry, and then, "WHOOF!", Salmone landed
on top of her. A few rocks from the broken ledge hailed onto their heads.

"Ow!" someone wailed.

"Attis?" Gabrielle gasped.

The three of them disentangled themselves and stood. They were on a
little shoal beside the lake which had been hidden by the ledge. The
heat, at this distance, was mildly uncomfortable, but not intolerable.

She quickly made introductions. "Attis, this is Salmone, Salmone, this is
Attis. You're friends."

"Friend?" Attis asked.

The dwarf looked up at the dirty wild fellow. "Yeah, sure."

Gabrielle looked around. To one side, the land dead-ended between the
lake and the wall, to the other, it rose upwards in a steep hill. Further
on, she could see a bridge leading over to another forest. Whatever
madness might be there, it was better than trying to wade in that
scalding water.

She took the lead, and they began the ascent, Gabrielle grateful for her
staff, as it was hard walking. Eventually they approached the bridge,
with the water once again a safe distance beneath them. It was not a very
wide gap, possibly close enough for a good jumper to cross without the
bridge. Which, she noted glumly, wouldn't be a bad idea - the wood looked
very old and rickety.

They were only a few steps away when a figure ran out from behind a
nearby stack of stones.

"Stop!" she said authoritatively.

She was short, the top of her head just level with Gabrielle's nose. Her
hair was dirty blond and curly. She wore a sleeveless top, skirt, boots,
and a decorative metal arm bracelet. In her right hand, she held a spear.
All together, she gave the impression of someone who was used to being

Gabrielle had had it with challenges and obstacles. "Get out of our way,
we're crossing the bridge."

"No one may pass."

Gabrielle sighed and decided to try the friendly approach. "Hi. I'm
Gabrielle. Who are you?"

The woman bowed. "I am Eppie of the Amazon guard, my lady."

"Aren't you a little short for an Amazon?"

Eppie pulled herself to her full height. "I may not be tall, but I am
fully capable of performing my duties." And she whirled into motion,
twirling and feinting with the spear, demonstrating that she would be
quite a lot of trouble if she decided that they were enemies.

"Go," pouted Attis. He shuffled his feet sulkily.

"We really do need to get across this bridge," said Salmone, and then,
reluctantly, "I'll give you a gold piece for it, but that's my final offer!"

"No one may pass."

"Well, someone must be allowed to pass, or what's the point of having a
bridge?" Gabrielle asked.

"No one may pass until my mission is fulfilled," Eppie clarified.

"Well, then, what's your mission?"

"I await the arrival of the Amazon Princess."

"But I *am* the Amazon Princess!"

Eppie looked closely at Gabrielle. "Why, so you are!" She bowed again.
"I am at your service, your highness."

"Good. Now, we have to get across this bridge." Indeed, now that the
guard's attentions were distracted, Salmone was scuttling across it.

"Of course, my lady!" And Eppie, too, crossed the bridge, light on her
feet and completely unconcerned.

Gabrielle turned back to look at Attis, who shook his head. "Attis wait."
So she eased herself out onto the rickety span. The wood creaked and
shifted beneath her. The only thing that kept her moving forward was the
knowledge that she really had no other choice.

But as Attis eyed the bridge suspiciously, chunks of mooring broke away,
falling into the seething waters below. The bridge suddenly sagged and
swayed. Gabrielle looked back and forth in terror and then launched
herself forward in a leap for the other side.

She didn't make it.

The bridge crumbled beneath her.

Gabrielle was dangling in mid-air, her staff wedged between the two sides
of the gap. Well, she thought fearfully, that water can't *really* be
boiling, I'm not getting steam burns, so maybe I'll be okay here...

The staff, which was, after all, nothing more than an old broomstick,
began to give.

"HELP!" Gabrielle yelled.

The wild-haired man stepped up to the edge. "Attis call rock brothers!"
began to howl.

Eppie eyed him warily. "Got any rope?" she asked Salmone.

"Not anymore," he said, worried.

Attis' noises continued as Gabrielle's staff slipped further. Then, with
a grinding noise, the faces of the hills themselves began to change. Rock
outcroppings grew beneath Gabrielle's feet, and as the broomstick snapped
in half, she landed safely on a new rock bridge. Almost as an
afterthought, handholds developed on either side, for ease of climb. She
scampered up to the other side. "That's amazing!"

Attis ceased his howling and took a few steps back, then ran and leaped
across the gap. He grinned foolishly at her.

"How did you do that?" Eppie asked.

"Rocks friends."

Gabrielle felt oddly defenseless without the old stick. "Well," she
sighed, "we don't have much time left. We'd better get going."

"Right away, my lady!" agreed Eppie. "Where are we going?"

"To the castle at the center of the Labyrinth. But you don't have to come."

"Of course I do! If you're braving that castle, you most certainly need a

Gabrielle couldn't argue with that. "Do you know the way!"

"I do indeed."

"At last," she sighed. "Someone who knows." She rubbed her growling
stomach. "I just wish we had time to stop and hunt for lunch, but maybe
we'll pass some berries or something."

At this, Salmone, lingering at the back of the group, knew the time had
come. Whether the Queen had meant it as a gift or something more
sinister, she had proved that she was watching - that fall after the kiss
had been no accident - and she had insisted that he deliver her present.
He forced himself to think positively. Gabrielle trusted Xena, after all.

The dwarf dug the plum out of a pouch. "Here you go." He offered her his

In it Gabrielle saw the most luscious fruit, so rich and ripe and
tantalizingly juicy that it appeared to be glowing, so large and
delicious that they could each have a mouthful. "Salmone, you're a
lifesaver," she said gratefully, taking the fruit.

She wondered if perhaps she should offer it first to the others, but
Salmone was watching her expectantly, and the scent was beautiful... the
plum was almost too lovely to spoil. But that was what fruit was for,
wasn't it?

Her teeth sank into its flesh.

The taste was beyond description. "Heaven," she murmured past the juices.

And then the world began to spin around her. She staggered dizzily
against a tree. "Everything's dancing..."

In a strangled voice, Salmone cried out, "Damn you, Xena! What have you

Chapter Nine
In Your Eyes

Xena rolled a crystal ball between her fingers, the smooth sphere
flicking in and out, catching and twisting the light. With a flick of her
wrist she sent it into the air, where it hung and swirled like a soap
bubble before drifting on its way, turning and gleaming out, into the
dying light of dusk.

Gabrielle was still leaning limply against the tree, too dizzy to move,
when the bubble descended from the sky to hover before her. The crystal
seemed to capture the light, set it dancing within, and she could hear
music, slow and stately, but tinkly, like a music box. A music box with a
woman on top of it, in a fancy gown.

Eppie and Attis had reached the edge of the forest and were looking out
across a bare plain to the walls of the castle. "There it is, your
highness!" stated the Amazon. There was no response. "Your highness?" She
turned to look.

There was no sign of Gabrielle. Only a glass ball floating off into the

Shoes. White shoes. With flowers beaded onto the toes. They move. I am
wearing these shoes, Gabrielle thought. Why am I looking at my shoes? She
shifted in place, and then again, listening to the rustling sounds of
silk. The skirt was a pink so pale it could hardly be distinguished from
cream. She smoothed the material with hands covered by white
gloves, and adjusted the pink pearl bracelet.

She looked up. The ballroom's size was hard to judge, distorted by
reflections. Between glittering cornices were hung many long chandeliers
where the dripping wax had formed stalactites. The silk drapery of the
was faded in places, but covered over with webs of golden thread. Hanging
crystalline bubbles decorated the room. A tall, gilt, thirteen-hour
clock stood in a corner. It was almost twelve o'clock.

A hand touched hers. She turned to see a young woman, about her own age,
in a bandeau top connected to a choker by three strands of beads, an
exotically colored waistband, and a black satin skirt. Her black evening
gloves were cuffed with the material of the waistband and beaded fringe
hung from their length. Her skin was dusky and her eyes as gold as the
hoops that dangled from her ears, her hair black and up in a high twist
wrapped around with chains of turquoise. She spoke not a word, but bowed
her head respectfully to Gabrielle, then spun off into the dance.

The dance was already in progress. There were men with silken shirts open
to the waist and tight velvet breeches, faces hidden behind golden
half-masks of cats and other creatures. Some wore wide hats with
plumes, others boasted capes or canes. There were women in gowns of
every color and style. One there in deep purple silk and veil, with
clusters of golden bracelets on her arms, another in teal green taffeta
lace, one in burgundy with golden roses and a little tiara with curls
escaping to frame her face, another with a one-shouldered gown of
sparkling midnight blue and a Japanese flower in her upswept hair. There
were men and women in brightly colored leotards and glittered body paint,
and others in outfits of tight, shining black. The pairings were male to
male and female to female as often as not, as the patterns of the dance
wove in and out.

Those who were not dancing lounged against the decorative columns, or
reclined on cushions, or fed from trays of fruit offered them by quiet
maids and footmen, or watched, and watched each other watching. Many
covered their faces with the little half-masks, and their smiles were
sharp as knives.

Gabrielle, in innocent pink, was the focus of much attention.

But she did not sense the eyes that watched her over their fans. She
walked slowly around the edge of the room and paused to look at her own
image in a tall mirror, lightly touching the pearl earrings. Behind her,
the dancers swirled and swayed. Then she saw something that made her
gasp: the reflection of Xena, dancing with a tall blonde in a sleeveless
tea-length black gown, a woman with an imperious sneer that seemed to be
directed at Gabrielle.

She whirled around, but the couple was gone, lost in the crowd. She
craned her neck this way and that, so intent on her search that she did
not sense the figure's approach until, once again, there was a touch on
her hand.

"You are very beautiful, my lady," murmured a rich alto. Gabrielle
turned, surprised, to see a masked woman in the loose shirt and tight
pants that so many of the men were wearing. The curves of her breasts
were displayed by the open fabric. She tossed her head back and laughed
at Gabrielle's expression, then melted into the crowd again.

Gabrielle was tense now, self-conscious, among people she could not
understand but who behaved as though they knew something that she didn't.
She moved hurriedly around the ballroom, searching for Xena. She did not
know why she wanted to find her, or what she would say to her. She just
knew that it was vitally important that she did.

Another dancer in French lace caught her eyes, smiling knowingly and
licking her lips, slowly, with the tip of her tongue. Gabrielle blushed
and looked away in embarassment. She found herself looking into another
tall mirror. Behind her she saw Xena, standing alone. She was a
resplendent figure in a midnight blue frock coat, diamanté at the neck,
shoulders, and cuffs, with pale gray silk at her throat and wrists. She
held a horned mask on a stick, but away from her eyes, lowered to look
straight at Gabrielle in the mirror. Around her, the dancers whirled. She
held out her hand.

Gabrielle turned, half afraid that the woman of the mirror would no
longer be there. But there she stood, hand outstretched, dazzling but not
quite intimidating. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to be
in her arms, swept into the circles of the dance, Xena leading - I
suppose a Goblin Queen outranks an Amazon Princess, she thought dizzily.
The hands that touched her body were strong and sure and sent warmth all
through her. The ground seemed far away.

"You are beautiful," Xena murmured huskily.

Cheeks burning, "I feel... I feel like I'm in a dream... but I don't
remember ever dreaming anything like this."

The Queen chuckled fondly. "I think you can find a way into the part,"
and whirled her on around the room.

You are so much more than beautiful, Gabrielle thought, lost in those
amazingly blue eyes. How can I tell you that? And more than that, there
was a depth in Xena, a sense that she was truly feeling and enjoying the
moment, not going through the motions like so many of the painted dancers.

"And when you've found a way in, stay in your dream," Xena's eyes were
looking straight into hers. "Abandon it, and you will be at the mercy of
someone else's dream. They will make you into what they want you to be.
Forget them, Gabrielle. Believe in your dream."

Gabrielle was spellbound.

"Believe in me," Xena said, bringing her face close. "Can you do that?"

She nodded, and looked up with anticipation. She was going to kiss her.
Gabrielle closed her eyes. That was the way to do it.

Something made her open her eyes again. It was the silence. The music had
stopped. They were surrounded by other dancers, leering and giggling at
them. Annoyed, Gabrielle slipped free of Xena's grasp. This wasn't the
way it was supposed to be. This wasn't the way the story went.

The clock struck twelve.

Gabrielle felt like Cinderella at the ball. Something was wrong, horribly
wrong, although she couldn't remember what. She had to get out of there.
She began to push her way through the crowd, not looking back at the
Goblin Queen. Jeering faces melted around her. She stumbled towards the
edge of the room and into the shimmering membrance of the giant bubble.

Beside her was a small wooden chair. She picked it up in both hands and
swung it at the smooth surface. The chair crashed through it. As the
bubble burst, Gabrielle was flung outwards into darkness.


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