Ownership of characters: they belong to TPTB (MCA/Universal, Renaissance Pictures), not me. (I just borrowed them and *really* wish I could keep them.) No copyright infringement is intended - this is just for fun.
Subtext/Sex between women: yep, it's here, but it's not explicit. People who are disturbed by this or are underage should leave now.
Violence: Less physical violence than you'll find in an episode of the show. There is some psychological violence.
Angst: Major. This story was written long before the third season started, and so it doesn't include any references to that Rift-BUT it has one of its own. And there is some exploration of the dark side of human emotions, which some readers may find disturbing.
This story was greatly influenced by the writings of Gilliland, Ella Quince, and Catherine M. Wilson. Kit, Ella and Emperor Penguin provided encouragement and immensely valuable feedback on various drafts. And my extraordinarily skilled editors were Donna Trifilo and Corae Litton. My heartfelt thanks to all!
It was a small village, and probably only the locals knew its name. But I remember it clearly, because we fought there, and we didn't often fight.
There was nothing particularly notable about the place; a collection of houses, some dingy, some well kept, a stable, and one inn. The inn was a luxury, allowable because Gabrielle's talents as a bard had brought in some dinars when we'd passed through a larger town. Now she wanted to spend some of them on the pleasures of sleeping indoors in a soft bed. She took some time trying to convince me that it would be a good idea. Soft bed, hot bath... I don't usually pamper myself like that, but the truth is, I like it well enough. Enough that it makes me nervous if I do it too often. But it's hard to deny Gabrielle such simple gifts. The gods know she has enough to put up with, travelling with me. And the dinars were hers, after all. So I pretended to resist, then agreed without too much fuss.
There'd been a planting festival the day we passed through, and people had come in from the surrounding countryside to celebrate. We'd been lucky to get a room. The tavern below the inn was a meeting place for locals as well as travellers, and was mostly filled by the time we made our way downstairs. The food was simple but good, and there was a decent local wine.
In a way it was unlucky that it was festival time, because a lot of that wine had been drunk over the course of the day, loosening inhibitions, producing an air of expectancy and recklessness. I wasn't in much danger-a farmer or merchant would have to be pretty drunk to try to try to talk me into his bed. That "warrior stare" that Gabrielle teases me about stands me in good stead. But Gabrielle, smaller, softer, and clad in the Amazon garb that more conservative villagers consider indecent, was an appealing target, and so I kept a wary eye on those around us.
They always leave Xena alone, unless they're soldiers, and then sometimes they see her as a challenge. Though that phase doesn't usually last long: just until she demonstrates how dangerous she is. I'm pretty good at taking care of myself, but my abilities aren't so obvious, so I have to put up with a lot more harassment. That evening, as usual, it was mostly verbal, and easily deflected with gentle humour, but it was wearing. I do get tired of it.
Maybe I should wear leather and armour too. Hm. Well, maybe not, that would bring its own set of problems.
I avoided a groping hand, sighed, and carried another plate of food and a flask of wine to our table. Xena raised an eyebrow.
"Nothing I can't handle." I grinned. "And if they're too persistent, I'll tell them to talk to you." She snorted, and poured the wine. I can always use Xena as a threat, and I know she doesn't mind, but I hate needing to do it.
We ate dinner in amiable companionship, listening to the talk around us and occasionally commenting to each other. It was a pleasant evening, and even Xena seemed to be relaxing. It's rare that we have opportunities to sit quietly and interact normally with the people in a village. There had been a planting festival, and people were happy and a bit drunk, so they took less notice of Xena than usual. And she seemed to be enjoying herself. She doesn't like crowds, and usually makes it clear that she would rather camp in the woods than stay in a town, so I don't ask too often. But I think she likes sleeping indoors occasionally. The baths had been hot, the food was good, and the room was clean and warm. I could scarcely have been happier.
A motley assortment of men, very drunk and singing badly, tumbled into the inn. It was getting late, and most of those with families had gone home. The atmosphere had a rougher edge. "I think we should leave before things get any wilder," I said to Gabrielle, and she nodded. "I'm going to get more wine."
"I'll get it," she said, and went over to talk to the innkeeper. I was waiting for her, keeping my eye on the noisy newcomers, and didn't notice the short, burly farmer who had been drinking all evening lurching up to intercept her. I didn't turn until I heard her voice, a bit breathless, say, "No! Stop it!"
He had trapped her in a corner. I could see his soft, wet lips near her face, and his hands, red and rough from labouring, were on her waist. "Ah, c'mon," he was whining. "I jus' wanna play... jus' a l'il kiss...."
Maybe I had had a little too much to drink myself. I felt something rise in me, like thunder.
I didn't know whether to try to reason with him, waste a good jug of wine smashing it over his head, or simply bring my knee up hard between his legs. He was too drunk to be dangerous, which meant that he was likely too drunk to be sensible, but I try to avoid violence.
But I was saved that decision when a hand caught his shoulder, snatching him away so fast it left me blinking, spinning him round and sending him crashing into a wall. "Leave her alone," said Xena.
He came blundering off the wall with his fists up, cursing, and took a swing at her. She moved a little, very fast, and he missed. He swung and missed again.
Xena hit him, openhanded but hard enough to send him staggering. "You're not paying attention," she hissed. She hit him again, harder this time, knocking him into the wall, then caught him by the throat. I could see her eyes, and I didn't like what was in them. I pulled at her arm, protesting, but it was as if I wasn't there. His expression showed that he had come to his senses enough to realize the danger he was in and become very frightened indeed. "If a woman says she doesn't want to play, she means it. Forgetting that may mean that you won't have anything left to play with." She bared her teeth in a brief, feral grin and pulled out her breast dagger. The man whimpered, and wet himself. The room was very quiet, and I could feel every eye on us. Xena smiled.
Suddenly I was furious, and caught her arm hard. "Stop it! Let him go!" She stared at me, and it was like looking at a stranger. "He didn't do enough to warrant this, Xena."
"I think he did."
"Let-him-go." I spaced out each word, and stared her down. Finally she looked away from me and loosened her grip.
"You're very lucky, little man. She's much kinder than I would be." He sidled away uncertainly, then broke and ran. She stared after him, then looked around the room. The other patrons abruptly went back to their drinking and began talking to each other, but their feigned disinterest was not very convincing. Their eyes kept sliding nervously toward us. She looked at me, her expression still cold.
I was still furious. "I had it under control, Xena!"
"It didn't look like that to me."
"I wasn't in danger. He was a farmer, for the gods' sake! I don't need you to rush in and protect me every time something happens. I can take care of myself!" I stood toe to toe with her. "And he didn't deserve that kind of treatment. You go too far sometimes. Sometimes I think you enjoy it!" And I pushed past the startled innkeeper toward the stairs, my back stiff with anger.
You always think you have to protect me, I thought to myself. You treat me like a child, Xena. And I'm not. When will you finally get that through your thick warrior skull?
I stared after her and shook my head, trying to clear it. Gabrielle....
The room suddenly seemed hot and airless. I turned sharply, walking out of the tavern, off down the narrow, dark street. Apart from the inn, the town was very quiet. Eventually I found myself by the stable, and stopped.
I thought of his hands on her, and felt the tightening in my chest. His hands. Not mine. His mouth. Not mine.
In the familiar darkness that smelled of hay and horses, I found Argo, and rubbed her soft nose gently. Finally I sat on an overturned water bucket and stared at nothing in particular. She doesn't understand. How could she?
She makes stories about me. But the truth... The truth is, I do go too far. The Beast is always there, and sometimes I let them see it. And sometimes I do enjoy it.
I don't think you understand just how far I could go, just what I could become, to protect you. You certainly don't understand why. Ah, Gabrielle, I don't want you to hate me...
I shook myself, bleakly depressed, and tried to put the worry, and the pain, away.
Just... forget it, for now. Apologize to Gabrielle. You owe her that. I walked slowly back to the inn, tried to ignore the nervous glances of the patrons, and made my way up the stairs and down the empty hall to our room. Opened the door. A single candle cast an uncertain light.
Gabrielle had gone to bed, her back to the room. I carefully and quietly removed my armour, then sat on a stool and pulled off my boots, setting them tidily beside me. The flask of wine was on the small wooden table in the corner, but I no longer felt like drinking it. I leaned back against the wall, let my head fall back, and shut my eyes. The fire was out, and the room was cold. I knew I should get up, finish undressing, and slide into bed beside Gabrielle, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. Couldn't bring myself to risk the silent anger, the stiff, unyielding back. Couldn't let myself get that close, and chance the rejection-because I needed her forgiveness, and the casual brush of her shoulder against mine, far too much.
There was a rustle. "Are you coming to bed?"
I opened my eyes, blinked. "Yeah. In a minute." Searched for words. "You were right. I was out of line. I'm sorry."
"It's not me you should apologize to," she said, but her tone was gentle. "Though I don't suppose he'd let you get close enough to apologize."
I caught a hint of humour in her voice and looked at her for the first time. She was fighting a smile. I sighed and relaxed. I finished undressing and slid into the warm bed beside my friend. Gabrielle lay looking at me, her head resting on her arm. "It's when you treat me like a child that I get upset."
"I don't-" I started, and then stopped. Maybe I do. "I don't think of you as a child, Gabrielle," I said, finally.
"Then let me take care of things myself, sometimes. Don't you see," she raised herself on one elbow and gazed at me seriously, "if you're always protecting me I'll never learn to look after myself. Then what will I do if you're not around?"
I'd been so angry with her. By the time she came back to our room that anger had dissipated, but I knew that we would have to talk. This sort of thing happened far too often: it couldn't go on. I was a grown woman, and she needed to accept that.
I'd expected her to deny that she treated me as a child, and she did, but she stopped herself mid-sentence, so maybe she had begun to admit that there was some truth in what I said. I wasn't sure she would understand why it upset me so much. I'm not sure I understood it myself. So I tried to explain it in terms of safety, because that's something she understands and responds to. As I did, I saw something flicker in her eyes, but it was gone before I could identify it. She looked away from me, and said quietly, "You're right. I'll try not to be... over-protective." She looked at me again with a perfectly expressionless face, and said, "You understand, it's because I don't want anything to happen to you."
I smiled. I knew how hard it was for Xena to say even indirectly that she cared for me. I didn't mind. "I understand that," I said, and squeezed her arm. Xena nodded, leaned over the edge of the bed to blow out the candle, then rolled onto her back and shut her eyes. I didn't move for a minute. Something wasn't quite right, but I couldn't figure out what it was. I lay back and puzzled at it for a bit, but sleep took me long before I'd come to any conclusions.
I lay in the darkness and stared at the red pain inside my eyelids.
I wish I could think of you as a child, Gabrielle. You've no idea how hard that is. It's not my maternal instincts that make me want to protect you.
And there will be a day when I'm not around.
When you've left me, whether it's for a husband and family, or simply because you tire of this life and this irritable, frustrating warrior, then you're right, I won't be around to look after you. You won't be in so much danger, then, either. That will be better for you. But for me.... oh gods. I should hope that day comes soon, to get it over with, and know you're safe. But I can't.
We kept travelling, after that. I tried to remember what Gabrielle had said, tried not to treat her as a child. But it was hard, because it meant acknowledging that she was a woman, and that was dangerous ground. I think I succeeded, most of the time, in finding a balance.
And so we went on, having adventures here and there, trying to help people in need. Gabrielle recorded it all, and sometimes told her stories in the villages, bringing in some dinars. She's a very good bard. Sometimes I might hunt game to sell or barter for supplies. But most of our coins came from Gabrielle's hard work.
And then there were the warlords, playing their petty games and destroying innocent lives. There was always that kind of work for me, though I would take no payment for it. That was why we'd come to Stagira, not far from Gabrielle's home town of Poteidaia. There was trouble there; we'd arrived just in time to help drive off a raiding party. One less village fallen to a ravaging warlord; fewer dead and injured, at least, and for once no woman raped and brutalized. In the days when I had been a warlord it had been satisfying to plunder a village, satisfying to fight and kill and loot. Raiding was necessary in order to maintain an army, and it had never occurred to me to question what I was doing. Now I fought against that kind of brutality, and it was satisfying in a different way. There was still a pleasure beyond words in fighting well, in feeling my body move in an instinctual dance of deadly speed and grace. And there was the knowledge that I did make a difference, that my actions saved lives instead of wasting them.
But sometimes there seemed to be nothing but blood and anger and memories. Sometimes it all seemed so pointless, and I saw only a grey and colourless world. This had been one of those days, despite-or perhaps because of-our success against the raiders.
Who am I fooling? I thought bitterly. I was no better than those we drove off-the truth is, I was far worse. Nothing can erase the evil I've done, or my memories; nothing can bring back the dead I've left behind or heal the pain of the survivors. Nothing.
Afterwards, while I was assisting the healers and explaining how to improve the town's defenses to the village elders, I saw the odd mix of thankfulness and fear in the faces of the people who looked at me, and felt the noose of pain tighten even further. It doesn't matter how many lives I save, how many villages. It doesn't matter how much I rebuild. It doesn't matter. They will still fear me. And they're right. Nothing changes... the Beast will always wait in the shadows.
I saw the grim tightness on her face, and sighed. I'd learned early on that this black humour could come over Xena from time to time, and thought I guessed pretty accurately what went on in her mind. But there was little I could do about it. Xena shields her emotions very well, and simply refuses to talk when she is distressed. It took me a long time to realize that the cold withdrawal was not directed at me, and didn't mean that Xena was angry, even when she roughly fended off my concern. You can't talk to Xena about this sort of thing, at least not easily.
But over time she had come to tolerate my touch, if no one else's, and I had learned to use that privilege when the darkness settled on her spirit. It wasn't much; just sitting a little closer than usual near the campfire, so our shoulders connected, or offering to braid her hair, or casually but deliberately touching her when making a point in conversation. It wasn't much, but I thought the terrible depression seemed to lift a little faster. Sometimes I wondered if Xena knew exactly what I was doing; there wasn't much she missed.
Sometimes, greatly daring, I would put an arm around her, saying nothing; and she would let it stay there. And if the night was even slightly cold, I used it as an excuse to roll our blankets together. In the darkness, if the horror took her dreams, my arm was there to curl protectively around her.
If Xena knew what I was doing, she never spoke of it. And I was glad, because I knew that to speak of it would be to put an end to it. And I wanted-I needed-to hold her, to comfort her. It comforted me.
But the truth was, that wasn't the only reason I wanted to lie next to Xena. In fact, I liked it rather too much. It made me think of other ways I could offer comfort, ways that unsteadied my breathing and kept me awake at night. Snuggling against Xena was delightful, and very unsettling.
I was quite aware of the nature of love between women. But Xena had never extended an invitation, and so in the beginning I'd mentally shrugged my shoulders and turned my attention elsewhere. It hadn't seemed important.
But in the time I'd travelled with her, many things had happened. I had grown, and learned a good deal more about the world, and Xena, and myself. And when Xena had died.... Everything changed, then, I thought, watching the tense face of the woman I loved as she spoke to the village elders. And yet nothing changed. She thinks I'm a child. Gods. I sighed. If I can't be her lover, I'll be her friend. She needs a friend. Oh, but I wish....
But there was nothing to do about it. It was getting late. We would sleep in the village, and I would hold her in the night if she dreamed, and hope that was enough.
We made good time after leaving Stagira, and were two days along on our way to Poteidaia; Gabrielle wanted to visit her family, and it seemed like a good idea. We took a short cut, bypassing the main road. This part of the forest was deep and dark, and we had seen no other travellers. We were in less populated lands now; in some ways more and in some ways less dangerous. When we stopped for the night I went hunting for game to add to the stew pot, and was lucky, taking a brace of hares. With the fresh vegetables the villagers had given us and Gabrielle's skill with herbs, it would be a fine meal.
It was a fine meal, and as we sat by the fire afterwards I felt a great satisfaction and an almost frightening happiness. Like all warlords, I had essentially been solitary; I had quickly learned that it was far too dangerous to let anyone come too close, too dangerous to allow trust to grow. And then Gabrielle found me, and poked and prodded at the prickly defenses I had set around myself. Accepted me as I was, offered her friendship, and ignored rumour and reputation to stay at my side. Stubbornly refused to leave. Until I finally realized that it was possible for me to love and trust someone, and, more surprisingly, for someone to love and trust me. That friendship saved my life. It brought me happiness and as much peace as I thought I would ever find. It brought me days like this.
We cleaned up the camp and spread our bedrolls under the dark lacery of the trees. After that I went to groom Argo. I was brushing her flank when I felt the grove go still and unnaturally silent. The hair on the back of my neck rose. Something was wrong. I dropped the brush, my hand finding my sword, bringing it forward in a sweeping motion as I spun around. It quivered in my hand as another sword met it.
This did not bode well. I drew back my sword. "Ares. What do you want?"
He raised an elegant eyebrow and gave me a charming smile.
I sighed and sheathed my weapon. "Nothing has changed. You may as well leave."
"Ah, yes. Nothing has changed." He spun his sword in his hand, brought it to my throat. "You're still the best, you know. None of the other warlords can touch what you were. Even the other day... that village skirmish was nothing to you, was it?"
I pushed the tip of the sword away. "What exactly is your point?"
He smiled. "Watching you at work... you really haven't changed very much, have you? Simply a-redirection-of your energy. It wouldn't take much for you to change back."
"Am I? I don't think so. I watch you fight, most of the time. You still love it. There really is very little difference between fighting for good and evil, if the fighting is what you love. They're just two sides of the same coin, after all. Toss the coin-and it's all luck which side comes up." He gave a wolfish grin and sheathed his sword. "Your little friend-she's only seen the one side. Does she have any idea what the other side is like? Does she know how close it is?"
My stomach shifted uneasily. "Ares-"
"She's an unfortunate influence on you, Xena. She keeps telling you that you've changed, and you half believe her, even though you know better. But then, she never really met the true Xena, did she? You were too busy going through the motions of 'being good' when she met you. She has a gentle soul, and I don't think she'd like the warlord much. On the other hand, I do like the warlord." He ran a finger along the side of my jaw, and I shivered. I have never hated anyone as much as I hated Ares; but he is a god, and a human body will always react to the touch of a god who intends to provoke desire.
He stepped back. "This-friendship-sustains you in your fantasy. But you'll never really change, Xena. We both know what you are. We both know that you're mine. Gabrielle has never understood that. But she will."
He stepped sideways into nothingness, and was gone. I whirled, panicked. If he'd done anything to Gabrielle....
I burst through the bushes, sword in hand. Gabrielle shot to her feet, startled. "Xena? What's wrong?"
There was no sign of anything unusual nearby, no sign of disturbance. I circled the clearing carefully, but nothing was amiss. Finally, reluctantly, I sheathed my sword. "Ares came to me. He's up to something. I don't know what."
"Ares!" Gabrielle's voice showed her uneasiness. "What did he want?"
I snorted. "The usual. Me. He apparently watched our fight two days ago. He still wants me to become a warlord again."
"Doesn't he ever give up? Doesn't he realize it's useless?" The incredulity in Gabrielle's voice comforted me.
"I guess not."
"Well, this probably means he'll be tempting you with something."
"I suppose so." I hoped so. Temptation was something I knew I could deal with. But I had a feeling that this would not be anything so simple.
* * *
It was late, and we went to bed soon after. Gabrielle fell asleep almost instantly. I lay watchful for considerably longer, but finally drifted into an uneasy sleep. And realized, too late, where the danger lay.
"Nightmares, my sweet? Or simply memories?" a voice whispered. "What do you dream, Xena?" An image struggled to surface, and I fought it back. Horror. "Minds work differently in dreams. Boundaries drop." I felt a presence. I felt Gabrielle's mind. "It's so easy, when you know what to do. She's here, Xena." It was true. I couldn't sense her thoughts, but there was a sleepy, confused consciousness touching mine. "She's watching. She's living it with you. Sweet dreams, Xena." I heard his laugh.
I fell into nightmare.
Darkness, and blood. Shouting. The hot metallic smell of death. Screaming. Blood dulling black leather. Blood lapping at the laces of my boots. Blood on my hands. Hatred and contempt: these are not humans. Madness, and rage, and slaughter. The breath of the Beast is between my teeth.
Cheering. I smell the sour stench of fear, hear the hiss of hot iron on shuddering flesh. The ragged breath of men too lost to scream. I hold the knife that draws the bloody map of truth and lies.
Flesh beneath my hands, trembling. Cries of pleasure, or pain. Release.
Darkness,and blood, and fire.
And beside me, Gabrielle. Watching it all.
It wasn't nightmare, of course, but simply memories. The memories of my years as a warlord, unfolding in appalling clarity and perfection.
I was clever, and I was arrogant. I had savaged the land with my army. I had used my body as a weapon, taking men as trophies. I had raped women, and called it something else. I had left behind a trail of broken bodies and broken lives, and I hadn't cared. I was driven by rage and ambition and a need for power. And when I had power, I wielded it with little care for the consequences. I had embraced it, I had gloried in it, and in the end I had seen little difference between life and death.
This was what I had turned from. This was the truth, the shame that I carried every day, and could never leave behind. This was the truth about me that Gabrielle had never known. I could feel her horror.
And it went on and on.
I woke with a hoarse shout, and was running before I came to full consciousness. I ran in complete and absolute panic, unable to see where I was going in the dark, crashing into trees and bushes. I fell hard, rolled to my knees, vomited violently, and felt like I would never be able to stop. When the retching eased I ran again. Kept falling, scrambling up again; a couple of times I hit trees hard enough to half-stun myself, but somehow stumbled up and kept going. Once I splashed into a stream, tripped and fell headlong into icy water, then found my feet and fought up through mud and branches and ran on. I don't know how long I ran. I ran from my own evil, from the knowledge of what I was, from Gabrielle and her horror and disgust. Eventually I fell hard, and lay fighting for breath.
I came to myself enough to realize that I couldn't keep running; it was dark and dangerous. And there was no point; running couldn't save me from anything. It was amazing that I hadn't hurt myself badly in my headlong flight. I sat up and wrapped my arms around my legs, and rested my head on my knees, shivering with cold and shock.
I had lost Gabrielle. She was kind and gentle. The kind of cruelty and violence she had seen in me would literally make her sick. She was good, and I was-I was not.
Now she would understand that.
I had lost everything.
I had lost people before; friends, lovers. But I had never let anyone as near my heart as Gabrielle. I had never felt the kind of pain I felt now. There was nothing I wouldn't have done to make it stop. I was beyond weeping; my eyes were dry. I could only pray for an end to it, or an easing, for some kind of oblivion.
The light came, slowly. I was filthy and aching, covered in scratches and scrapes. The anguish I felt had been tempered by a precarious numbness, and a grim determination. I don't think I was quite sane; my mind moved strangely. But I wasn't mad. I could function again. Ares knew what Gabrielle meant to me, knew exactly what this would do to me. He thought that losing her would tip me into the wild darkness that had once ruled me, or at least enrage me to the point that I would turn again to violence. Would turn to him again. Well, it wouldn't happen. He was right, he knew exactly what I was-but I could still choose not to act on it. I could still control it. And that would be my choice. Because sane or not, I would never let him win. I would rather die. And I would die by my own hand, if he forced me to it, rather than submit to that darkness.
I will never free the Beast.
I sat there unmoving for a good part of the day, trying to think about what I could do next. Finally I staggered to my feet. I had nothing: no weapons, no supplies. I needed them in order to survive. Well, maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing not to survive. But that was giving in to Ares, and I couldn't do that. And there was Argo. I had to go back. But what about Gabrielle? She had quite likely fled, but if she hadn't I would have to find a way to retrieve Argo and my belongings without her seeing me. Gabrielle is no good at dissembling, and I knew I could never face what I would find in her eyes.
I'd left a clear trail in my panic-stricken flight through the woods, so it was easy to find my way back. I stopped at the stream to wash off the worst of the blood and dirt. The water was cold, and helped clear my head. I would approach the camp after dark; with luck, Gabrielle would be gone. She might still be there; if she was not asleep, I would wait until she dozed. I made no real plans; I was only determined that we would not come face to face.
No. No. No. I can't. I can't-
Oh, gods. This can't be real. It's a dream, a horrible, unspeakable nightmare. She didn't do those things. She can't have. She can't. Who did these things? It doesn't feel like a dream, but it must be. I'm going to wake up, and she'll put an arm around me and tell me it's all right and stroke my hair and hold me. She's not like that. She can't have done those things. She's not like that.
Where is she? Why isn't she here? She's left her sword, and she never goes anywhere without it. And her chakram is here. And her boots and armour. Nothing is gone-but she is gone. I smell acrid smoke; the corner of one of her blankets is smouldering where it lies too close to the coals.The wood for our breakfast fire has been scattered. Why isn't she here?
Everything is quiet. There's no sign of danger, but I can't stop shaking. I'm terrified, and I don't know what I'm afraid of. She's gone. It can't have been real.
Oh gods, it was real. Oh, gods.
She was gone. My gear lay as I had left it; hers was missing. I hadn't known it, but part of me had thought she would still be there, and that part of me quietly shattered. I knew then what I would have to do.
I will never again be Ares' tool. I will never again allow myself to touch another human being, or be touched. The gods want to destroy me, and to do that they will harm anyone I care for. And what little they leave, I destroy myself. I will never again allow that to happen.
She had taken my sword. I didn't know why; she couldn't use it. Perhaps she thought it would make her safer on the road. I looked for the signs, and saw that she had taken the trail that led to Poteidaia. It wasn't far, just a long day's walk. She would be safe there.
Argo nickered at me as I found my boots and pulled them on over bruised, aching feet. I took her halter off, let it slip to the ground beside the useless saddle and bridle. Leaned my head against her shoulder for a moment. No. Everything must go. Stood back and slapped her hard on the rump, watching her startle and canter along the trail toward Poteidaia. Someone would find her, look after her. She was a valuable animal. I could not take her where I was going. I could not afford to worry about her. I slowly put on my armour, gathered my gear, and walked into the trees, toward the wilder part of the forest. Toward the mountains. I would not come back. I could no longer bear the company of humans.
I am not mad. I know myself too well for that. I can never lose myself in that way. I wish I could.
But I am changed.
I will take myself out of the game.
I have never been so frightened in my life as I was then. I ran, in the morning, at first light. I took my things and followed the trail to Poteidaia. To my home.
I have to get out of here. I can't see her. I can't talk to her. I can't think about this.
How can I face this?
I am afraid.
I am wind. The emptiness whistles along my bones, and I move in the branches lightly. I am rain, and I sink into the earth and stretch my arms toward the stone. I am the small bright eyes that crouch in the spaces between things. I am the wings that stoop, and the claws that strike.
I am nowhere.
I am nothing.
I made a shelter, in a cave in the curve of a cliff's embrace. I gathered nuts and berries, and took game as I needed it. The winter will be hard, but I will survive.
I will always survive; that is my gift and my curse.
Ares came, once, and tried to talk to me. I think he was angry. I turned my back, and sometime later he was gone.
I am not here.
The Beast is here. It stands before me, hot red breath and eyes that want. It is power, and strength, and taking. I will never let it take me.
My family was pleased to see me, and pleased that I was alone. They had never liked Xena much. They asked questions I couldn't answer, about the sword, and where Xena was, and how long I would stay. I said that I was keeping it for her, and that she had needed to travel to other lands, and that I had not wanted to go with her, and that I wasn't sure how long it would be before she returned. They weren't very sensible answers, but no one questioned them. They didn't seem to notice my evasions. I settled into my family home. Winter would be coming soon. The village was familiar, and safe.
I dreamed, and the dreams were not safe at all.
I am hunger.
One of the villagers found Argo on the road. She had no harness or saddle or bridle. She wouldn't carry him, and so he wanted to sell her. I used the last of my savings to pay him for her. My family can't understand why, and I can't tell them.
Sometimes I let Argo run in the meadows with the other horses. There is a stallion there, a handsome bay with a white blaze on his nose. She seems happy, and kicks up her heels. You would never know she is a warhorse. My family is pleased; they see profit in it if the stallion gets her in foal.
I am teeth in the night.
There is no word of Xena. News travels surprisingly quickly among small towns, even in winter, and there are always stories of people like her. But there is nothing. It's as if she doesn't exist.
Is she alive? She could have been injured that night. And if she was, I might have helped her. She may be dead, now, because of my fear. No, she must have lived, to have turned Argo loose.
She might still live, and be hurt, and in need. And yet I cannot lay my fear aside. I cannot go back.
She told me what she was, and I thought I believed her. Now I know how little I understood.
I am the thing that moves in the forest when the moon is hidden. I can feel the breathing of the trees; they tell me of the small birds, and the deer. They tell me of the streams, and the setts where the badgers go to ground, and the panther's lairs.
They tell me of intruders.
The village has been plagued by raiders for the last year or so. Not soldiers, just men from a neighbouring territory who come by forest trails to plunder outlying farms. So far no one has been killed, but it is only a matter of time. The village elders have not known what to do. Yet this winter, when the weather has been harsh and things are difficult for every village, there have been no raids. It doesn't make sense.
Hunters from Poteidaia went after deer, in the darkest time of winter when everyone was hungry. They saw something moving, and followed it deeper into the woods, never quite catching up with it. But they did come upon a small group of raiders, heavily armed and obviously headed for our village. They were all asleep around the embers of their campfire, bowls of stew half-eaten, weapons and gear strewn carelessly. They could not be roused, so they were bound and carried back, and eventually they wakened, groggy and disoriented. They could not explain what had happened to them, and thought they must have been enchanted. They were not released until they swore powerful oaths not to trouble us again. The village elders kept their weapons.
I am the darkness beneath the flame.
It is early spring, and there are rumours now, from the forest. A merchant passing through heard a faint singing. He said that it was not from a human throat; he had never heard such a melancholy, beautiful sound.
Perhaps it was a naiad, though it is a long time since any have been seen in this part of the country.
I am the secret words.
They are saying there is a ghost in the forest. Nothing is ever seen, but now that the roads are open and there is more travelling, people have been comparing stories. Travellers speak of uneasiness, of a sense that the forest is alive. Sometimes loaves of bread, or eggs, or vegetables, disappear from outlying farms. Sometimes small game appears on those doorsteps in the night.
The merchants are nervous, and do not want to travel the forest trails, though none have ever been harmed. But armour has been found in the forest, more than once, with no sign of the men who wore it, or their weapons. People remember the sleeping raiders and are afraid. Yet no evil comes to Poteidaia.
All who travel there agree that something in the forest watches them. The men of our village still hunt there, but they say the forest is haunted, and they are unsettled when they return.
I am the sun on water, blinding in beauty.
I have tried not to think of it. I am afraid; I cannot face this. But the dreams continue, and I cannot eat. I cannot sleep. My mother asks if I am ill, and I cannot answer.
I never really knew what she was, I said to myself. How can I face that? How can I face her, knowing the truth? My mind skitters away from this contemplation, terrified.
It was easy to be afraid of her memories. She frightens me, I told myself. She is everything I hate, everything I am afraid of.
I have been lying to myself.
These are not Xena's memories. They are my dreams. In my dreams, I kill. I kill, and it is very easy. I feel the strength and power, and it pulls me in. I want to do these things. It is something like lust, a dizzying surge of feelings I have never known. Sometimes it is lust. I see a woman under me, and I take her, and I don't know if it is rape or love. I can't tell. I don't care.
I want to do these things.
This is not me.
This is me.
In the dreams, I don't know who I am. Sometimes I am Gabrielle. Sometimes I am Xena. Is there a difference? I can't tell.
Sometimes the woman beneath me is Xena.
Sometimes I am beneath her.
There is no difference.
I have her sword. I don't know why I took it. I look at it now, see its hard reality, its killing shape. This is not a dream. This is real. This is what she tried to show me, and what I would never see.
It is spring now, and the roads are clear for travel. I didn't tell my family I was leaving, but I left a note, so they wouldn't worry. I took Argo with me. I didn't tell them the truth. I said that a message had come. I said that I was going to meet Xena. I didn't say that I was going to find a ghost.
There is a stranger in the forest; her scent is on the wind. Why has she come? I must keep away. I cannot see her. I cannot speak to her.
I do not know her.
I have found the place where we camped. I know it is the same place, because Argo's saddle and bridle lie there, half rotted and covered by leaves.
I can feel the breathing of the forest.
I will wait here.
This is a trap. I will not come here. I will not be caged.
Here is the truth. Here is the reality. Here, in this forest.
She has my sword.
The horse was tethered near the camp. She nickered softly when I came close, and I moved to silence her. I touched her flank, felt coarse hairs, the shifting of solid warm muscle, a strong scent in my nostrils. I ran my hands along her, moving forward. Her head came round, and she butted my shoulder. Something moved in me, and I was suddenly afraid. I spent a moment leaning against her, my eyes closed, stroking her nose. The forest slowly withdrew.
I opened my eyes.
A small still form lay under blankets; in the fire ring embers glowed softly. I looked around the clearing at the small branches gathered for tomorrow's fire, the neatly arranged gear. It was a camp I might have set up.
My sword was under her hand. She must have decided to sleep with it for safety. I thought about it for a moment. I did not want to wake her. But I wanted my sword; it was made by a master, and I knew its balance and temper. It was a part of me. I needed my sword.
I stared at the dark leather of the sheath, the scrolled delicacy of the hilt. My fingers closed reflexively. I could almost certainly extricate the weapon from her grip without waking her. And even if she did wake, I was a ghost.
I moved silently over to her bedroll, squatted down. Looked carefully at the way she was lying, the angle of her hand on the sword. Checked the regularity of her breathing. She seemed to be sleeping deeply. Very cautiously, I reached out, took hold of the sword, and slowly began to ease it from her grip.
Unexpectedly, a hand shot out and caught my wrist. Two blue-green eyes, very wide awake, looked into mine. I jerked my hand back, but she held tightly. I held the sword, Gabrielle held my arm.
"Let go of the sword, Xena."
Oh, no. I don't think so.
"I want to talk to you."
But I don't want to talk to you, Gabrielle. I can't.
"Xena, I know that if I let go of you, you're going to run." She sat up, but her hard grip on my arm never faltered. "There are only two ways you can get your sword back. One is if you agree to talk to me. The other is to take it by force. And I promise you, to do that you'll have to hurt me."
My eyes slid away from her. This was my worst nightmare. My mind felt strange, sluggish; I was sweating, my heart was hammering, but I couldn't move. I knew that Gabrielle meant what she said. I didn't want to hurt her. And I knew that I could not talk to her. I wasn't sure that I could even listen to the things she had to say. My mind retreated.
I was dimly aware that Gabrielle was prying my fingers off the sword. I let her; what did it matter? Her other hand was still holding my wrist firmly. She was saying something; I let it pass over me like a receding wave. Sooner or later, she would let go.
A hand caught my chin, pulled my face around, and then struck my cheek, stinging, shocking me into awareness. "Xena, listen to me. I know what Ares wanted to do. It didn't work. Do you hear me? It didn't work."
She was thinner than she had been, but she was still Xena. I spoke to her. And then I looked into her eyes, and it was like looking into the eyes of a wild animal. There was no one there. It frightened me. And then I struck her, and I saw her come back from wherever she had been.
"All those memories-they were true, weren't they?" I asked, and her face answered me.
Yes. Of course. And her eyes began to change again, and I knew I was losing her. I had forgotten all the words I had practiced. I tried to find them, to make a net to hold her.
"Xena, I know what Ares wanted to do. He wanted me to hate you. But it didn't work. You're not like that anymore."
Something else came into her eyes, then, something dark and dangerous. And then she smiled, and I saw contempt. She stood, lifting me easily as I desperately held on to her arm.
"Do you really believe that?" she said, and her voice was hoarse and strange. I lifted my chin.
"I know it."
The Beast is here.
"You know what I've done, Gabrielle," she said in that stranger's voice. "Do you really think you're safe with me?"
"Yes," I said, but it was in a whisper.
"You're wrong," she said, and stepped toward me, lifting her hand.
Rage consumed me, frightening me. She thought she knew me, but she didn't. She could never understand what I had been-what I still was. She could never understand what I could do to her. I wanted to hurt her. I wanted to drive her away. It would be easy to do; it is always easy to make people hate you.
I am the wind in the mountain pass. I am the mouth of the volcano.
I leaned toward her. I put my hand on her throat, and left it there. It could have been a caress, but it was not, and she knew it. She swallowed hard, and I could feel her pulse hammering.
There was terror in her eyes. It was the reflection of my own. And there was anger. But then, as I watched, her expression changed. She looked at me with steady determination, and said, "I'm not wrong." Raised her fingers to brush against my temple. "I've been in here." Let her palm slip along my cheek. "And I love you." And very gently, lifted her lips the scant distance to mine and kissed me.
My rage was abruptly gone. I backed away from her, struggling to breathe through the pain in my chest. She stepped forward, and I turned away. Heard her moving behind me. "Go away," I said to the night. She was by my side, moving around to face me. I couldn't.... "Go away, Gabrielle." I swung away from her. But she followed. I snatched up my sword, a flick of my wrist freeing it from its sheath, and held it before me threateningly, bare blade glinting in the moonlight in my shaking hands. She kept coming. I backed away. There was a tree at my back; I could go no further. There was no fear in her eyes now. She lifted a hand and pushed the blade aside, stepped inside my guard. I couldn't strike. How could I strike? And she knew it. She knew. She reached for the hilt, pried it from my hand, and threw the sword aside. The tree was rough against my back. She was very close. "No," I said. I couldn't breathe.
"Yes," she said, and reached up to touch my face again.
"Leave me," I whispered, feeling her fingers burn on my skin. She can't touch me.
"Never," she said.
I was on my knees before her, and my hands, traitor hands, had reached out to her, had caught the fabric of her skirt, crushing it. I can't touch her. My face was against her stomach, and the scent of her.... Her hands were on my head, like a blessing. "Gabrielle-"
"It's all right," she whispered.
"No." It wasn't all right. Nothing was all right. I was not all right, and I never could be.
"Yes." She dropped to her knees, trapped my face between her hands, forcing me to look at her.
"You don't understand," I said, desperately.
"Yes, I do." Her voice held absolute conviction. "I've been there."
I shut my eyes, and then her lips touched mine again, and I tried to take my hands away from her. I swear I tried. Her lips were soft and warm, and I couldn't stop myself, I kissed her back, needing her. Her mouth opened under mine. Sweetness, and desire.
She pulled me down into the forest leaves, and stripped me of my leathers. My shaking hands fumbled with the laces of her clothing. I tried to stop. Her hands finished what I had started, and she stretched her body over mine.
I am the eyes of the ocean. I am the heart of the stone.
I don't know where she learned how to touch me. Her hands and mouth spoke to me, words I was afraid to hear. I was alive, where I had been in death's hands. I was burning. I was afraid. "I can't," I shouted into the darkness.
"Yes you can," she said, and moved with me. "I love you," she said again, and I shattered. Breaking, falling, and she held me against her as I wept.
There was a summer storm in her eyes, all brilliant rage and danger. There were words that could not be spoken. There was power. There was a promise.
There was a wildfire running behind her fingers. The smoke of fear rose between us. I was suffocating in it. And then I felt it slip away.
She tried to run from me, but I wouldn't let her. All my instincts said, hold on, don't let her go. Love her. So I did. And in the end, she lay in my arms and wept like a child.
I could hear her heart, strong and steady under my ear. Her hands gentled me, stroking my hair, moving slowly over my shoulders. My cheeks were wet, and my tears ran over her breast. "I'm afraid," I whispered.
"I know." I felt the warmth of her arms tighten around me.
"I don't want to hurt you," I said, feeling the tightness binding my chest. I didn't know how to explain that I would hurt her, that I would not be able to help it. That I always harmed the ones I loved.
"Xena...." She shifted under me. "Look at me." I opened my eyes reluctantly, saw sea-green oceans that threatened annihilation. "I'm not afraid of you."
"I thought-" I could barely speak. "You left-"
"That wasn't why," she whispered.
"Gabrielle-" I let my eyes close, felt her shifting, pulling me closer.
Her fingers were very gentle. "How can I be afraid?" Her voice caught. I opened my eyes and knew I would never be able to look away. "Don't you understand? You are my heart."
I was shivering. "But if..." I couldn't speak.
She kissed my eyes, and then my mouth again. She, she who makes a world with her words, spoke without them. She held my heart between her hands, and gave it back to me.
I wept again, and clung to her, and she comforted me. She had faced the Beast, and she still believed in me. She still loved me. She had risked everything. Perhaps... After a bit my tears eased, but my hands still held her. I began to touch her, trying to memorize her body, to find the reality of her. She lay very still under my explorations, her hand tangled in my hair, resting lightly on the back of my neck. I felt her breathing deepen.
I needed to see her face, to know what she was feeling. I lifted my head to look at her. She gazed back at me with fierce eyes and said roughly, "Love me...." And I was lost.
She read me so well, her hands and mouth giving me what I needed. She was unexpectedly tender at first, then meeting my urgency with rough passion, then sweet and gentle again. She took me into places I had never been. And in the end, when my cries had stilled, I heard her whisper against my breast, words I had never dared hope for.
"I love you."
The world, in her eyes.
My heart, in her hands.
I am here.