Noctem Aeternus
By L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
Copyright © October 24, 2001 L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
All Rights Reserved

Disclaimer:  Xena Warrior Princess, its characters, and all related materials are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures.  The other characters are mine.  Like the show, I'm playing around with time lines, as well as items which could not have possibly existed in Greece during Xena and Gabrielle's time.
Rated:  NC-17
WARNING: This story is not intended as a children's ghost story. Contents may be too frightening for young readers.
Violence:  Yes.
Sexual Violence:  None
Subtext:  Yes

All Feedback Welcomed at:

Xena's eyes snapped open the moment she heard the strange sound. Like the wailing of pain, it floated over the tree tops, then disappeared in the wind. For a moment, silence covered the campsite until it was broken by the single crooning of a crow.

Unlike the past few nights, this time it was not a dream. The first night she had dreamt of Solan's smiling face as he ran over a lush green meadow covered with wild flowers. He looked so young, so innocent….so alive, and then the dream was gone and the blue eyed warrior was awake, the tears of longing for her dead son moistening her bedroll until she was able to fall back to sleep.

It was not until the second night that the warrior remembered the dream when it reoccurred again. Except the second dream took on a sinister quality. Rather than Solan in the meadow, she found herself alone in the middle of an open field. The howling of the wind brushed past her form as she glanced around the darkness. A shiver of fear crossed her spine as she heard the beating of her heart deep within her. All around the warrior, the wind swayed past the branches of the tall trees. Their limbs flew in the air like graceful dancers of the night. Like an arbitrator casting forth its decree, the wind grew still and the huge trees all peered down at Xena, each one sending forth their judgment. In her dream, the warrior gulping down her fear as her mind continually reminded her that this was a dream, and not real. Just then fingers of wind brushed over her face and through her hair. The surreal images of the forest, the grass, and the nearby animals swirled within her vision. Then, she heard a thunderous pounding on the earth. Instinctively, Xena reached up to cup her ears, hoping that her hands could muffle the earsplitting sounds.

In the dream, Xena glanced all around her, searching for the cause of the noise. She fought down the urge to flee. Just when she thought she would turn away, she saw it . A dark, forbidding figure, riding the largest black stallion she had ever seen in all of her years as a warrior. Xena realized that the horse's hooves upon the earth were what sent the thundering sound through the meadow. Unable to stand the deafening clamor of hooves, the Greek warrior kept her ears cupped with her hands as she watched the figure approaching. The rider wore a cape that covered his dark armor and a black iron mask protected his head. Like a demon phantom, the facemask was cast in a sinister smile. Behind the mask, glowing red eyes like empty holes glared down at her.

Although she knew it was a dream, Xena's instinct was to turn and flee from the scene, but she was frozen in place. Like a thick mud that oozed from the center of the earth, it held her captive until all she could do was scream as she watched the masked man remove his helmet. Hidden under it was the hideous white shape of a picked clean skull. It's eye sockets appearing empty and devoid of life one moment, the next they glowed bright red-orange shades of color as it seemed to peer right into her soul. As she stood rooted in horror, the figure released a roaring laugh as the skeleton hands reached up and removed its own skull before throwing it directly at the warrior princess.

The nightmare had been so intense that all Xena could do was sit bolt upright in her bedroll. She released a muffled scream, gasping for air as she fought to release herself from the fragments of that dream. At her movement, Gabrielle had awakened and pulled her close. Just as she used to do the first year they began to travel, the smaller woman hugged her, her tender hands brushing through Xena's dark tresses as she cooed words of comfort until the warrior was able to fall back into a fitful sleep.

But now the dream had seemed to return to Xena without warning. At the distant sound, the tall warrior rose quietly from the bedroll. Once her mind had discerned that this was indeed reality, and not a dream, she listened for every minute sound around her. With sword in hand, Xena glanced around the campsite. Instantly alert for any trouble, she moved slowly from under the covers as she strained to hear the familiar sound that had shaken her from slumber. The only thing that greeted her senses was the silence of the night broken by an occasional snore from the bard. At the loss of her bed warmer, Gabrielle grumbled in her sleep before rolling over and curling deeper into the blankets. Careful not to waken her lover, the warrior princess crouched as her eyes scanned the darkness around the camp. Just as she felt her pulse rate increase the sound of crickets was loud and fireflies blinked nearby. High within a tree, an owl called down to her from above. As her mind tried to remember the noise that had awakened her, she grabbed her leathers and armor and quickly dressed.

For a brief moment, Xena thought of waking her companion, but when she gazed down at the sleeping form, she changed her mind. 'If it's nothing, I don't want to wake Gabrielle,' she thought with a grin as she moved to the outer perimeter of the camp. 'She needs about as much sleep as she can get.' Then she lost her grin as she concentrated on her task. With sword in hand, the tall Greek warrior woman moved silently through the forest. She ducked the low branches that threatened to slap her face. As her imagination conjured frightening images, her mind tried to find a rational explanation to what had wakened her. 'Perhaps it was a night owl,' her thoughts tried to convince her already fearful mind. By the light of the full moon, she made her way past the nearby outcropping of rocks. As she pushed aside a low branch, she stepped into an open clearing. The shadows of the trees cast an eerie blanket of dark gloom over the green grass. As Xena's eyes focused on the shadows, she heard the familiar sound that had awakened her.

Childish giggles echoed in the darkness. A slight movement pulled her attention to the center of the field. With unbridled glee, the small figure of a child giggled as he ran through the deep grass. Xena felt her lips turn upward into a smile as she returned her sword to its scabbard. The warrior walked slowly toward the boy as she mentally calculated the distance to the nearest village. 'This one will be in trouble for being out so late,' the warrior chuckled to herself, wondering if Solan was prone to these same escapades, as she walked to the child.

The boy had long dark hair, as long as Solan's. He wore a linen tunic with light colored pants and leather boots. His bright white smile brought dimples to his cheeks. As she approached, the boy looked curiously up at her with light colored eyes.

“Hi. Where's your family?” Xena asked the boy as she knelt on a knee to get at eye level with the child. His smile disappeared as he stared at her. The warrior mentally scanned the boy, attempting to determine if he had been injured or was in shock.

“You're an awfully long way from home, aren't you? Isn't it a bit late to be out?” she asked the boy who looked to be no more than nine summers old. He stared at her, his eyes vacant as a sadness seemed to come over him. With a soft smile, she reached out and lightly touched his arm. “Hey, what's the matter? Poor thing, you must be freezing!” Xena stated as she lightly ran the palms of her hands over the boys freezing cold arms in an attempt to warm him.

Without saying a word, the dark eyes grew wide. His mouth opened in a silent scream as he stared past Xena's shoulder. Before the warrior could speak, she heard a thunder of hooves behind her. Like an army in pursuit, the hooves beat a steady cadence across the earth. As she turned toward the distant clearing, Xena rose, drew her sword, and waited for the approaching horses. When she saw the looming shadow, she glanced over her shoulder, making certain that the boy was safely behind her. Then with knees bent, she waited until the rider drew near. With sword at ready, she maintained her stance as the large dark horse approached.

As the horse came closer, Xena took only a moment to examine the rider. Wearing a cape of black, the figure was shrouded from view. By the light of the moon, the metal glint of his sword flashed as he lifted it into the air. With an inward growl, the warrior waited until the figure was nearly on top of her and then she sprang forward into a front flip over him, adrenaline coursing through her body.

For a split second in mid-air, she heard the familiar clang of metal on metal as their swords clashed against each other. The bone jarring strike reverberated from her fingers all the way through her forearm until it settled in her shoulder. With a growling snarl, Xena landed nearby. When she swirled around, her instinct was to grab the boy and keep him safely behind her. Yet when she glanced in the spot where he had been, it was empty.

If Xena had taken the time to contemplate the situation, she might have noticed the hairs standing on the back of her neck and would have felt the shiver run through her being. But she did not have time. Instead, she found herself turning from the dark rider; her legs began to move her across the open meadow. She poured every ounce of energy into the actions of her pumping legs as she tried to reach safety. As she felt the cold sweat running down her back, she heard the thunderous sound of the horse's hooves moving closer and closer. Without another thought, the warrior broke through the thick bushes, then turned to face the rider.

As if it were all a mirage, the meadow remained silent. Save for her own presence, there was no one near. Panting, Xena looked cautiously around the meadow as she tried to understand where the horse rider had gone. As the gentle fingers of the wind brushed over the tall grass, the warrior princess heard the distant sounds that had awakened her from her slumber. Like a gentle cadence, the child's laughter floated in the wind and then disappeared as if it had never existed.

With sword lowered, the tip pointing toward her toes, Xena's mind raced over various possibilities. She had battled gods and demons, yet none had sent the intense fear as this encounter had. When only one solution to what had just happened came to mind, the tall woman shivered as she turned and made her way quickly back to camp. Once in the camp, she took some wood and placed it on the dying embers as if this would keep the dark creature away. With each added piece of kindling, Xena felt her calmness replace the fear as the fire's light banished the dark shadows away. Then, as she cast wary glances toward the darkness, she settled down on a log near the sleeping bard, took out her sharpening stone, and began to methodically sharpen her blade. It was almost a form of meditation for the warrior and she felt herself growing calm.
Next morning, Xena did not tell the bard about the incident. Instead, she kept silent as she pondered the situation. Once they had finished breakfast and cleaned up the camp. Gabrielle settled down to write in her scrolls while the warrior decided to investigate the area where she had been the night before. With only a few words to her friend, she walked away from the camp toward the meadow.

What had looked sinister at night, now held a brilliant radiance. The birds were singing the songs of spring high above Xena's head. Without giving them a thought, she walked past the large out cropping of rocks and then pushed past the low branches of the trees until she stood at the outskirts of the meadow.

As her mind wandered over the possibilities, she glanced around at the luscious wild flowers that grew like a blanket over the meadow. Their brilliant colors seemed to beckon weary travelers near. With a sigh, Xena frowned in thought.

“Wow! When did you find this?” Gabrielle's voice from behind her nearly made Xena jump. With only a slight frown, she glanced down at the smiling blonde as she pushed past the warrior and glanced out over the lovely meadow. Looking back up at Xena, the bard's brows creased, “What?”

“Nothing. I, uh, just thought you were busy catching up with your writing.” Xena answered as she moved to the outskirts of the meadow, then crouched down and examined the ground around her.

The bard was gazing around at the beauty and drew in a deep breath of the heady scent of flowers. “Xena, it doesn't look like this place has ever been touched by human feet!” Gabrielle exclaimed, then frowned as a trail of broken flowers caught her attention, “Oh, well, except for right here. Look, there's an even line of flowers that have been trampled.”

“Yeah, I know,” Xena answered as she retraced her steps from the night before and moved further into the meadow.

“How do you know?” The bard followed closely.

“Because I was here last night,” the warrior answered as she stood at the end of the trail, deep in the center of the meadow. Looking all around, she tried to find any evidence of the child or horse, but saw only her own trail.

“Last night?” Gabrielle asked, then looked up at her lover with calculation. “All right, Xena, what's going on?”

“I don't know Gabrielle…” the taller woman answered with hesitation. At the look of concern in the green eyes, Xena shrugged, then sighed, “I think I must have been dreaming,” she offered as she began to make her way back to camp.

“Yeah, dreams are funny things, Xena. They sometimes feel so real,” the blonde's voice was softly soothing. As she spoke she snaked her arm into Xena's and the closeness was reassuring to the warrior. With a smile, Xena took Gabrielle's hand in hers, their fingers intertwined as they made their way back to camp.

Gabrielle was right. Dreams sometimes were more real than they needed to be, the warrior thought as a slight smile escaped her control.
However, that night when darkness crept in around them once more, the warrior's worry came back full force. Xena told herself that she was being foolish. 'Scared of the bogeyman at your age, Xena?' she thought contemptuously. But she found herself wishing that she had suggested to Gabrielle that they move on and find another place to camp. Rather than voice her concerns, or tell the bard about the dream's disturbing content, she kept her silence hoping that the images were a thing of the past. Now, as the familiar noise woke her from a dead sleep, the warrior was wishing she had spoken up.

At the familiar sound, the Greek warrior rose from the bedroll and quickly dressed. Once again deciding not to awaken the bard, she moved silently from the camp. The ever-present fear from the night before consumed her. High in the trees she heard the crow call out its warning as she continued through the darkness. When she reached the edge of the clearing, she glanced out at the dark meadow. With arms spread out, the boy giggled as he spun in a circle in the center of the clearing. Knowing what could be near, Xena glanced at the opposite end of the meadow where the skeletal rider had emerged, then she moved carefully toward the child.

“Who are you?” she asked the boy who stopped his merriment and glanced up at her. At his silence, she knelt down to him and reached out, “Are you here to give me a message from Solan?” Xena asked, a small hope glowing within her.

The boy tilted his head slightly as his eyes narrowed to slits. He seemed to be examining her, then he looked down at the ground, his body seeming to sag in defeat. Confused by his action, Xena reached towards him and softly touched his cheek.

“I don't know what you want from me,” she whispered as she gazed into his tear filled eyes. “If you aren't here to give me a message from Solan, then why are you here?” Before the child could respond, the wind grew suddenly cold, the breeze blew a gust through the treetops as each limb creaked in protest. As the sense of doom fell over Xena like a cold night rain, the warrior pulled away from the boy and glanced up at the dancing trees. The air from her lungs causing a sudden mist before her eyes as a chill sank deep into her bones.

Like a never-ending nightmare, the thundering echo rang through the meadow. With wide eyes, the boy glanced over her shoulder, his little body trembling in fear as he stared into the darkness. Before she could turn to the rider, she looked down at the frightened boy and saw the damp patch forming on the child's britches as he wet himself in fear. At his open terror, Xena took hold of her own fear in an attempt to reassure the child.

Xena no longer cared if it was a man, ghost, demon or phantom. All she knew was that anger raged within her at the thought that something could so maliciously frighten this little boy. With a shout of defiance, she turned and faced the darkness. Sword and chakram drawn, she stood at battle ready as she waited for the approaching figure. Somewhere off in the distance, she thought she heard a hawk cry as its wings carried it high above the trees into the darkness of night. The beating of the animal's hooves quickly drowned the screeching of a night owl out. With no other thoughts but to end this madness once and for all, the tall warrior remained defiantly in place as the sound of the hooves matched the beating of her heart.

As the wind brushed through the meadow, the dark figure broke from the trees. In slow motion, she saw the long black cape flying in the wind. Each hoof landed on the earth and caused a miniature dust cloud to form in its wake. With a guttural growl, Xena released her chakram into the air, then ran toward the horse and rider with her sword held high. As she ran she heard the metal weapon ricochet off a nearby tree, then a boulder, before spinning off of another tree as it headed toward the dark rider. With a single slash, she lowered her weapon across the rider's arm, then tucked and rolled out of the way of the stallion. Her chakram flew through the figure's head with no affect whatsoever, bounced off of a nearby tree and back into Xena's waiting hand.

Just as it had happened before, the child had disappeared leaving only the rider and horse in the meadow. As if sensing that she would be his only trophy for this night, the rider reared his horse, then pulled its reins until it turned and faced Xena. By the light of the full moon, Xena saw the horse's red eyes glaring at her. A white cloud was pushed through its nostrils with each puff of breath. In the blink of an eye, the armored warrior urged his beast towards her with a kicked into it's the sides.

As she had done before, Xena turned and tore off toward the protection of the forest. With each breath she took, she felt the sweat of fear and exertion rolling down her back. Her heart seemed to beat a hundred times with each step she took. Terror filled her soul as she tried to escape the night rider. Although she saw the trees growing nearer, she felt as if she was moving in slow motion. From behind her, the thundering of the horse grew near with each step she took. When the trees were close enough to touch, Xena took one last jump and flew through an opening in the branches. As she came out of her roll, she glanced back in time to see the horse's legs pulling in right before it jumped.

'This is not like last night!' Xena thought as she rolled to her feet and began to sprint through the trees and bushes. Glancing over her shoulder, she noticed the dark rider breaking through tree limbs as the horse stomped on everything in its path.

“Gabrielle!” she felt a scream from deep within her throat as she tried to warn her bard of the approaching danger. After one final glance, Xena turned in time to see a knee high rock in front of her and the glow of their camp fire behind it. Using it like a springboard, she bounded onto it, then leapt over a low branch toward the open campfire. She felt herself soaring through the air for only a moment before she landed on something that was definitely soft and warm.

Gabrielle grunted in pain as the wind was knocked from her sleeping body. Only half awake, the bard struggled under Xena for a moment. In the tangle of arms and legs, the Greek warrior managed to push herself up, her eyes staring in the direction from where she had just come from.

“Xena, do you mind?” Gabrielle's less than pleased voice pulled her attention back.

When Xena glanced down, she saw her left hand filled with the softness of the blonde's naked right breast. As if it were a live wire, the tall warrior pulled her hand away as she sat up on her knees. “Uh, sorry, Gabrielle. Are you all right?” Xena asked her smaller lover as she lightly brushed down the disheveled locks of her bards hair with her hand.

“Damn it, Xena!” she gasped. “You didn't need to jump on me! You could have just gently said, 'Gabrielle. Honey? Wake up,' the way you usually do when you have your needs! That, I would have understood! I'm sorry I didn't feel like it the other night. I'd had a long day…” The bard huffed as she pulled some leaves and broken twigs from Xena's hair, her face scrunching up as she saw the dirt clinging to the taller woman's legs and arms. “What in Hades have you been doing to yourself?”

“Gabrielle, that's not…I mean…” Xena's breath was short as she glanced up at the forest, the attack she thought would happen never transpiring. With a shake of her head, Xena stood up, covering the bard in the process, then faced the dark forest.

“Another dream?” Gabrielle asked as she rose from the bedrolls, the cool night chill forcing her to wrap a blanket around her shoulders. “Xena? What's going on?” The bard's voice was soft as she placed her hand on Xena's arm.

The warrior princess looked down at her lover, and saw the concern etched in the emerald green eyes. With a halfhearted smile, Xena covered Gabrielle's hand with hers and patted it softly.

“I'm all right,” was all she could say as a cold shiver crossed her spine.
Next morning, Gabrielle awoke to the familiar clinking sounds of Xena sharpening her sword. With a yawn and a stretch, the bard sat up and smiled at her lover. The tall women merely nodded as she cast a wary glance toward the forest.

“I'm glad you're up, Gabrielle. It's about time we get started,” Xena's voice was firmly commanding. She made certain to convey to the bard the urgency of their leaving.

“Leaving already? Xena, is this because of the dreams, and whatever happened last night?” the bard frowned as she rose from the covers, shivered in the early morning breeze, and quickly dressed in her clothing.

Xena's silence was all the answer she needed as she saw the warrior shrug, then stand up from the log and glance around their camp. Gabrielle tried to understand her lover's reaction. Although she had not experienced the dreams or vision, she tried to understand the warrior's reluctance to discover their origins. Confused by Xena's hurry to leave, Gabrielle pulled her boots on as she glanced at the open fire. At the sound of her growling stomach, the blonde began to shake her head.

“Xena, I know you're in a hurry to leave, but didn't you even catch anything for breakfast?” the smaller woman was spurred on by the emptiness in her stomach

“Gabrielle, we can eat later, down the road! Now let's just pack up and get ready to move on,” Xena's voice held urgency as she moved to the bedrolls and began to roll them into tiny bundles. 'Damn, of all the times for one of Gabrielle's hunger attacks, this is not it!' Xena thought to herself as she fought to contain her fears.

“Xena, what's going on? I've never known you to run from anything. Why now?”

The warrior glanced over at the bard, then shrugged her shoulders as she attempted to look nonchalant. “No reason, Gabrielle. I'm not running from anything, I just think we should be leaving.” Xena lied, trying valiantly to mask her fears of the unknown

With arms crossed in front of her, the bard's eyes narrowed as her scrutiny bored a hole into the back of Xena's head. To anyone else, Xena's actions would have gone unnoticed and unquestioned. For Gabrielle, she found herself not only starving for breakfast, but also curious about Xena's sudden fear of dreams.

“O.k., Xena, what is going on? You've had the dream about the little boy in the meadow again, so why are you in a hurry to leave without finding out why the boy is reaching out to you?” she asked as she moved to her friend and mate.

“Gabrielle, th-there is nothing that I can do to help the boy. For whatever reason he is in the meadow, I can't help him with it. I just think it's time to get moving,” the taller woman shrugged as she avoided the bard's eye. Kneeling next to the taller woman, Gabrielle reached out and lightly touched the warrior's muscular shoulder.

“Xena, this is me, remember?” the blonde's voice was soft.

For a moment, Xena remained frozen from the touch. She found it hard to avoid Gabrielle's questions, yet she was not certain how she was going to answer them when she herself was unsure. Rather than search for an illusive answer, Xena sighed as she left the bedrolls untouched on the ground.

“Something else happened last night, Gabrielle,” her voice was low as she avoided the bard's eyes.

“Another nightmare? Was Solan in it again? Do you think there is something happening in the Elysian Fields that we need to look into?” Gabrielle's mind was moving a mile a minute.

“No, not this time,” Xena explained as she turned to her companion and sighed. “It was the dream that woke me…b-but, it's what happened after I woke that I'm not sure about.” The warrior tried to keep her voice from faltering as she explained about the nightrider. With slow, deliberate phrases, she described what the rider had looked like and although she had gone up against demons and gods alike, she had to admit to her lover that this creature was something entirely different. Something that she had never seen or felt before, and she feared she could not beat. Although she had no proof, she felt as if the creature would be able to suck the very life out of anyone who crossed its path.

The bard's compassionate green eyes remained fixed on the warrior as she listened to Xena's tale of the night before. Even as the sun began to chase away the shadows surrounding their campfire, Gabrielle felt a slight chill cross her spine as she absorbed her lover's words.. In silence, she tried to understand what it was that the warrior had seen. She tried to imagine why a child would be near them so late at night, and she wondered who, or what the horsemen was, and why did he chase Xena.

When the tale was finished, Xena glanced back at her friend and waited for a response. With only a sigh, Gabrielle stood up and paced toward the edge of the camp. Fishing for any logical answers that did not delve into the realm of gods, the bard turned to the tall warrior.

“Xena, is it possible that the rider was the child's father, and once he got the boy, he took him home?” Gabrielle asked, but once she voiced her thoughts, she smiled slightly and shook her head, “No, that doesn't make sense because if he were the father, he wouldn't have raised a sword to you.” She looked seriously at her friend. “Look, Xena. I think you gotta face this thing, whatever it is. Remember what you told Eli that time? Once you start running, it's almost impossible to stop and it'll never really end."

The Greek warrior nodded in agreement, then joined her friend by the edge of the camp, her mouth set in a grim line. “The whole thing doesn't make any sense. Gabrielle, you are right, I've got to find out what is going on, otherwise this….thing may never leave me alone!” Xena filled with a new determination, smiled grimly at her friend. “I let this thing spook me. Thanks for snapping me out of it.”

“That's what friends do,” the bard smiled, touching her arm gently.

“Thanks … friend.” The warrior's voice was full of love. “Now let's go find out what this is all about.” She said as she made her way through the forest to the meadow.

Gabrielle followed close behind. Unlike Xena, she did not know what to expect once they reached the meadow. Nor did she understand why her lover was the only one affected by the apparition, but her place was by Xena's side and her footsteps never wavered.

When they reached the meadow, Xena glanced out over the dew covered flowers. The morning birds were chirping in nearby trees. Unlike the shadows of the night, the fragrance of the meadow under the sun was inviting. Ignoring the beauty around her, the warrior moved across the tall flowers. She purposely retraced her steps until she was standing in the center of the field.

“The rider came from that direction?” Gabrielle asked as she pointed toward the farthest end of the meadow, the dark trees sending cold shadows over the land. Xena nodded in answer.

As the bard began to make her way toward the shadows of the distant trees, Xena glanced around the meadow. She was not certain of what she hoped to find, but continued to examine the ground below the flowers. As her eyes scanned for any clues, her heart skipped a beat when she noticed the oddity of the meadow. Near her feet stood a small, clean patch of green grass. When she turned her attention to the flowers around her, Xena's mind tried to find a logical explanation for the existence of the patch of grass that was surrounded by wild flowers.

The tall warrior knelt on a knee as she ran her fingers over the nearby flowers. The white powder of pollen dusted her hand as she examined the grass below. When the sun shined on the crystal dew, it cast a brilliant glow in the early morning sun. At the slight change in colors, Xena pulled aside the flowers and stared at the patch of grass. It was then that she saw the evidence she was searching for.

Eager to uncover the mystery, she removed her breast dagger and began to dig around the whiteness that protruded from the ground. Nothing within Xena's mind could explain how she was able to see such a small fragment throughout this whole meadow. As she began to uncover more of the item, she removed her sword and began to break apart the hard earth that was packed around it, then dropped to her knees and began to pull the dirt away with her hands.

When Gabrielle returned, Xena took only a moment to glance up. With a frown, the bard shook her head, “No trace at all,” she stated as she glanced down at the grass. As if understanding Xena's urgency, the bard knelt down and began to pull earth away with her hands.

Xena did not know how long they had been digging. As her heart pounded in her ears like the phantom horse's hooves, she clawed and dug her way through the hard, compacted earth until the item was clearly seen. The white object turned into one digit that connected to a small palm and five small digits. With each part of earth removed, more of the skeletal remains became clear until finally, with a pile of dirt nearby, the entire body could be seen.

“Oh, Xena!” Shock was clear in the bard's soft whisper.

With a frown, Xena glanced down into the shallow grave they had just dug up. The small skeletal frame was laying face down, the remainder of linen clothes just fragments on the body. The gaping hole in the skull was the only evidence of how the boy died.

“It looks as though this is where he died….” Xena said as she observed the way the skeleton was lying “It was quick; a blow to the back of the head by a rider. The bastards didn't even bother to bury him properly,” the words hissed from her lips in anger.

“Xena…w-we can't leave him like this. Maybe that's why you keep having your dreams, so that you would discover him. He needs to rest, Xena. Someone needs to mourn for him,” the pain in Gabrielle's voice was evident.

“The poor boy's spirit is probably reliving that day over and over again,” Xena agreed as the moisture filled her blue eyes. With a shake of her head, the brave warrior sighed as she looked around the meadow, the sounds of the songbirds rising in the air. “Poor baby…” she whispered. “To him, his killer must seem like a monster.”

At Xena's words, Gabrielle wiped the tears from her own eyes, then reached over and touched her lover's arm reassuringly. With a nod, the warrior sighed as she felt the first trickle of tears down her cheeks. When she had seen him, the child had looked to be Solan's age before he died. 'He was so small and fragile,' Xena thought sadly as she and the bard began to gather what remained of his body.
After clearing an area and gathering wood, the bones of the child were laid upon the funeral pyre and his remains burned to ashes. Once it was completely consumed, they carefully gathered the ashes into a linen cloth. Then they chose a place where the child would rest forever. Not wanting to leave him in the place where he had died, they took his ashes and buried them by the lake under a large tree.

As Xena's voice rang over the treetops, Gabrielle knelt by the new grave. She placed some wild flowers over the new marker as the soulful voice of her lover sang a song of sorrow. When it was complete, the bard spoke softly to the spirit of the child as she wished him a safe journey to whatever paradise awaited him. Then, wiping away her tears, she rose and moved to her warrior's side.

“Will he be a peace now, Xena?” She asked as the warrior mounted the honey colored mare. With the camp cleaned, and their packs ready, Gabrielle reached up and took Xena's hand as she jumped and was pulled onto Argo's back.

“I think he will be at peace now,” Xena said, as she silently wished the boy a peaceful ever after. She reined Argo around as they began to make their way back to the dirt road.

“Now maybe you won't have any more nightmares,” Gabrielle sighed as she wound her arms around Xena's waist.

“I don't think that I will,” Xena agreed as they continued on their journey together.

That night, Xena dreamed of Solan again. He smiled and waved at her, then he turned to greet a new friend. Together, Solan and his dark haired friend ran joyfully out upon an open field, their boyish laughter and delight rising in the brilliant sun of the Elysian fields. Neither boy would know fear again, and this pleased the warrior mother.


The silent horseman sat alone in the darkness of the night. The creature peered at the open meadow, searching for its prey. The steel claws of its bones reverberated for a soul to catch, to torment and feed upon.

The dark rider was neither human nor spirit. It was not a phantom nor demon. It was not even a god. It was simply a thing, which was born out of the darkness of human souls. To some, he was known as the shadows of war while others referred to him as the evil in men's hearts. But to the creature, he was none of these things.

For as long as hate, pain and suffering existed in the world, the dark rider would live trapped within the eternal darkness. Like a ship drawn to a beacon in the night, he would wander towards the fears that men created. He would always be near during times of hate and times of strife. Patiently, he would wait until his prey was released into his realm. Then, he would take the fears and pain of his new conquest into himself, building himself stronger until he was able to break free of his dark realm and enter into the world of the living.

Like the anguish that brought him into existence, the night rider did not care who his victims were. The very young and the very old, the weak and the strong, both men and women and infant babies, they were his desire. They were his nourishment as well and once their souls were freed into his world, he swooped upon them before the gods could transport them to their paradise, and he would take the terrified souls into himself.

As the rider gazed around, he felt the absence of his prey. The child's spirit was now free of his bondage. With whatever consciousness existed within the dark one, he realized that there would be no more food for him in this place. Once, long ago, angry warriors had ridden to this place and, upon seeing a helpless and innocent child of those they had declared their enemy, had slaughtered the boy in cold blood. Their anger…their hatred would have been enough to sustain the dark rider's hunger for a short time, but when they gave him the boy, he was able to stay and feed upon the spirit child's fear, each passing moment making him stronger.

In silence, the dark rider reached out through the night with the tendrils of its being until it found another place filled with hatred where men once again slaughtered innocents of different beliefs. Then, as the large beast blew a white puff of air through its nostrils, the rider reined the phantom horse around and guided it toward the new place to feed. When it was strong with the fear and hate, then the rider would be able to break free from his realm and enter into the world of man. Once there, the dark one would ride the land, consuming all within its path. For as long as there were men who held hatred in their hearts and waged war against their brothers, nothing would sway the horseman from his journey through the eternal night.

The End

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