There was a part of her that didn't understand. She knew she should. She knew that everything was as it always had been, yet a small voice inside her screamed that something was terribly wrong.
Xena stood next to Lyceus, the battle raging all around her.
"Get a sword," he said.
"No," she answered then turned, and with a yell, punched, head-butted and kicked a soldier until he was down.
"Arm yourself!" Lyceus pleaded.
"I can't!" she replied with equal passion.
Another soldier attacked and with a quick elbow to the face she defeated him. Lyceus, knowing that Xena couldn't last long without a weapon regardless of her skill at hand to hand combat, threw her a sword.
Expertly, she grabbed it in mid-air, then looked back at her brother, anguish in her eyes. She gripped the cold steel firmly, frightened by its hold over her. Her eyes were glued to her brother's face for she knew that if she used the sword -- drew blood in anger -- his life would be forfeit. One stroke of her blade and her wish for peace would be gone. In its place, her past as a former warlord would return to hideous reality. I can't, she thought and turned away from her brother.
A pair of kicks took care of her next opponent. Again, her eyes were drawn to Lyceus.
"Don't fight destiny," he said.
She wanted to scream at him. To tell him that he didn't understand; couldn't understand. Yet she knew that what he'd said held in it the ring of truth. For a long moment they stared at each other, his eyes beseeching, hers filled with the pain of potential loss.
A sword fell near Gabrielle's feet. Quickly, she grabbed the hilt. The weapon felt heavy and eager. She stared at it, wondering if she had what it took to use it.
Mezentius rushed across the room, the murder of his unwilling slave uppermost in his mind.
"Gabrielle!" shouted Xena, warning her friend of the onrushing danger.
Gabrielle turned and with a thrust, she forced the blade into his soft flesh. His face showed his shock. "Here's your 'sweet thing,'" she said, murderous joy spreading across her features as she twisted the blade inside him. When she withdrew it, he fell heavily to the ground, dead. Without remorse or emotion, Gabrielle studied the bloodied steel, her question answered.
Xena observed her with both horror and grief. Gabrielle had become a killer; had taken the first step on the road which Xena had tried so desperately to leave behind. It was too much to bear. Her mother was dead, her brother was fighting for his life, probably minutes away from death. Her son, Solon, never existed. The Amazons and centaurs were a beaten people. Nothing was right. She had to do it. She had to get her old life back.
Xena turned toward the next attacker and thrust, but he parried the blow. They fought, they countered, they danced a swordsman's reel, each waiting for the chance to taste the other's blood. Xena turned her back, defending herself with an uncanny ability to know her opponent's moves without seeing them. She had to see her brother one last time.
"Good-bye, Lyceus," she said, knowing she would never see his smile, hear his laughter or feel his arms around her in a brotherly bear hug again. He had become a sacrificial lamb on the altar of true reality, and Xena was his executioner.
Rage replaced her melancholy, giving focus to all the frustrations of knowing what could've been and the realization it wasn't any better -- in fact, was far worse. She was destined to be the Warrior Princess. She was destined to spill blood and spend a lifetime atoning. It was fated.
She readied her blade for a fatal thrust behind her, knowing the soldier was inches from his defeat.
From above, an archer took careful aim. He had her in his sights. She was fighting his lover and this was something the archer could not bear. She was too good, too practiced, too agile for his loving Petrius, who would surely lose. He let the shaft fly, satisfaction in his eyes as he saw its flight was true. Before he took a breath -- a second, then a third arrow followed the first.
Xena fell to the ground, two shafts falling from her hands, a third deeply embeded in her heart. Even as her eyes began to glaze, she stared at the archer, bewildered. This wasn't supposed to happen. She was supposed to get her life back. Was supposed to return to Gabrielle. She wasn't supposed to die...
Petrius lifted his sword in a salute to his beloved then struck the final blow, severing Xena's head from her body.
"Lyceus! Behind you!" screamed Gabrielle. Lyceus turned and saw the onrushing warrior. Lyceus disarmed the thrusting sword with a parry, tripped the soldier then placed the tip of his sword at his neck. Without a helmet, a cherub's face was revealed.
"Get up," he said, disgusted that the 'warrior' was little older than a child. "You've got a second chance. Swear you won't waste it by killing."
"I swear it!" said the boy.
"Get outta here."
The boy turned and ran.
Gabrielle approached Lyceus, the battle over as swiftly as it had begun. "He dropped something," she said, bending down to pick up the lost piece of jewelry. "A chakram token. Huh," she said, looking at the unusual necklace.
Lyceus took the token from her and studied it. The chakram had been Xena's favorite weapon. She'd always carried it with her. And on that long ago day when she had led the army to defend Amphipolis, she had saved Lyceus' life with a toss of the disk, only to fall to an enemy arrow, scant minutes later. A small, knowing smile twisted Lyceus' lips. He grabbed Gabrielle across the shoulders, pulling her to him affectionately.
"What's this for?" she asked, bothered as always when he touched her.
"Just for being you," he answered, pretending not to notice her chill. Someday, he knew she'd find the love for him that he hoped existed. He wasn't going to push. He'd tried in the past and was always rebuffed. Gabrielle simply needed time, thought Lyceus. And time was something he had in abundance.
They camped near the temple that night. Gabrielle still feeling disturbed and unsettled.
"You're awfully quiet. What's wrong?" he asked her.
"Nothing..." she answered, her voice small and unsure.
"C'mon, Gabrielle. Tell me. Please -- you know how much I care for you, yet you guard your secret thoughts as if I'm your enemy."
"It's just... I have this terrible feeling. Ever since the temple," she said, giving in because he was a good man. He was kind to her. And he loved her deeply. But she also knew that their marriage was a sham -- had been since the day she'd agreed to plight her troth, so that she could escape Poteidaia. At the time, it had seemed the perfect solution. When he had saved her from the slavers, her gratitude had been almost boundless. He was handsome, noble, heroic -- all the qualities she had thought she had admired. So, when he had asked her to marry him, she had accepted. But something inside her had refused to give him her heart. And the longer she was with him, the more unbearable the pain had become.
"What sort of feeling? Are you hurt? Let me--"
"No. Not a cut or something. Inside. I feel a pain inside, as if... as if I'm living someone else's life."
Lyceus laughed. "What utter nonsense!"
Gabrielle pulled into herself, flinching at the rebuke. "This is why I don't talk to you about how I feel," she mumbled.
Lyceus stopped laughing, but couldn't quite rid himself of the smile. "Now, now, don't freeze me. I'm sorry. So whose life are you living, if it's not yours?"
Gabrielle turned away from him, her face red with embarrassment. "I don't know. Mine, but not mine..."
Lyceus reached out a hand and touched her on the shoulder. As always, her muscles clenched the instant he came in contact. But he didn't get angry or hurt, instead, he thought about her words, taking her seriously, as he knew she wanted. "I think I know what's wrong. I upset you earlier, at the temple, when I told you about my sister. About her life and how she died in the battle with Cortese."
"Upset me? No, not at all. I love it when you talk about Xena. She was so..." Gabrielle stopped, unable to frame into words the affinity she felt for this mysterious woman she'd only heard about. Composing herself, Gabrielle said, "From what you've told me she was an extraordinary woman. I wish I'd had a chance to know her."
"Xena would've liked you, I think," he answered with a smile.
"I doubt that," said Gabrielle with a short laugh. "She was so strong and sure of herself. And I've always been, well, more comfortable with words than with actions. She was... she was a somebody -- the kind of woman bards tell legends about. If she'd lived, of course."
"Happily, you aren't a 'somebody.' You're a wife. That should be enough for any woman."
"Would being a wife have been enough for Xena?" asked Gabrielle, stung at this assessment of her life.
"Xena was different. She was... But you're..." he trailed off, knowing that whatever he said wouldn't come out right.
They were both silent for a moment. Lyceus never knew how to talk to his sullen wife. It had long been obvious that nothing he did or said was right in her eyes. It was as if he wasn't the person she'd wanted to marry; as if she wasn't the woman who had matched his soul. And yet...
And yet when they'd first met, there were sparks of attraction. He couldn't have been wrong about that. She had been drawn to him, telling him that she'd dreamed of meeting someone very much like him her whole life. Eagerly, she had told him stories of a Warrior Princess, a character that had reminded him of the older sister he'd worshipped. But soon he had realized that although the stories were simply the stuff of her imagination, the Warrior was often more real to her than her flesh and blood husband.
"Maybe you should tell me one of those Warrior Princess things. That used to cheer you up," he said, reaching for anything to bring back the peace he'd had so long ago. How had it come to this? he wondered. Were things so bad that he would allow her to speak on this taboo subject? Long ago he had forbidden his wife's storytelling -- especially anything that concerned the Warrior Princess.
"I can't. The stories are gone. There never was a Warrior Princess. It's all just make-believe," Gabrielle said bitterly, then curled up in her blankets, praying to the gods that he wouldn't join her. She didn't know if she could stand it if he did.
Lyceus watched his wife turn her back, curling into a fetal position, making as small a target as possible for his amorous hands. He'd battled enough for one day, he decided, and let her have her solitude.
She tried to dream the dream again. She concentrated on conjuring up the pictures, hoping that the images alone were enough to initiate the night fantasies that she'd lost. Intently, she visualized the Warrior Princess approaching from the lush green hill, her dazzling smile lighting up the countryside. Gabrielle imagined blue eyes searching until they found her. She envisioned raven hair, strong thighs, glossy leather and firm breasts. There, she thought. I have the image, now enter my dreams so I can feel alive again. Please...
The crack of a twig startled Gabrielle and she almost screamed in frustration. How dare someone interrupt her when she'd nearly succeeded! The dream was the only source of joy in her sorry life and she feared it had gone away forever.
"Sorry," said Joxer.
Lyceus put down his sword and welcomed his friend warmly. "Never sorry to see you, old chum," he said.
Gabrielle watched the two of them from under her lids. She tried to keep her breathing deep and regular, feigning sleep. The last thing she needed tonight was that idiot Joxer hanging around, making a miserable life even more miserable by the minute.
"I have a message from Cortese."
"Cortese!" exclaimed Lyceus, hating the very taste of the name on his tongue. The fact that Cortese still lived was a source of endless torment for Lyceus. "What does that scum of Tartarus have to say to me?"
"He wants to meet you."
"To battle to the death or to sign a truce?" asked Lyceus.
"I don't know. Nobody ever tells me much."
"Yes, well, I've been a thorn in his side for a long time and I imagine he's reached the end of his tether by now."
"Yeah, could be. He didn't say," said Joxer, uneasily.
"It's probably a trap."
"Then I'd better oblige him, no?" answered Lyceus.
Gabrielle shuddered. Lyceus was no match for Cortese. No living person was.
Xena's restless spirit walked through the Elysian Fields, not seeing the beauty or feeling its peace. For the millionth time she felt again the strange overwhelming awareness that she didn't belong in the land of the dead. Was she the only one who felt this way? Guardedly, she'd asked some of the others how they perceived the afterlife. "I'm at peace" was always the answer. No one thought anything was amiss. Not even those who had been murdered. There was nothing but peace, calm, and endless satisfaction in the Elysian Fields.
Then why do I feel so differently? Xena asked herself for the hundredth time that day. The only thing that gave her any peace, any sense of rightness was looking at the Portal of Life.
In the center of an ornate temple was a reflecting pool and in it, one could see the people in the living world. Xena had gone there originally to check on Lyceus, compelled to see how both her brother and her army had fared against Cortese without her leadership.
Lyceus had been an adequate general, but didn't have the fire of his sister. Even so, Cortese had eventually abandoned the attack, deeming it too much trouble, and for this Lyceus had been hailed as a hero by the citizens of Amphipolis, though there had been heavy losses. Having had a taste of heroics, Lyceus had dedicated his life to righting wrongs, always standing up for the little guy against the vicious and unjust. He'd had some moderate success. Xena was proud of her brother for the good that he'd done.
She looked up, noticing the large stone temple was in front of her. She hadn't meant to come here. She had made a resolution to stop her all too frequent trips to the Portal. It wasn't accepted behavior in the afterlife to care too much about the living world. Usually, people only came here when they were freshly arrived. Soon, they tired of it and never returned. Xena had made it a daily trip for so long that others had noticed. Being noticed meant trouble. So lately, she had stayed away, forcing herself by strength of will, to stop watching Lyceus and his bride.
His bride. His wife. His Gabrielle. The woman had become an obsession with Xena, and the warrior knew it was wrong. Very wrong. For deep down, in a place she fought against every minute of every endless day, she wished that Lyceus had been the one to die, and that she, Xena, had lived to rescue and then cherish Gabrielle.
Xena would invent adventures that the two of them might have had together. She would have been her protector, the sword at her back. Gabrielle could have lived her dreams, becoming a great bard, instead of just being a wife to Lyceus.
So wrong, Xena thought. So wrong of me to covet my brother's life. So wrong of me to want what he has. So wrong of me to think that Gabrielle would have been happy with me at her side, instead of with my brother, her husband. So wrong of me to want her. So wrong.
She stared at the temple, fighting the urge to enter. "I won't do it," she said aloud. "I have to let it go. It's why I've not found peace -- this constant envy of the living."
"Envy of the living?" asked a man at her shoulder. He was a head shorter, his build stocky and soft. "Why would anyone envy the living? All that pain and blood and suffering and dirt and poverty and struggling and for what? To get here. Well, you're here now, so the struggle is over. Why would you want to go back there?"
Xena stared at him, not wanting to let him see how deep was her unrest. She was already different from the others, a pariah to some, a thing to be avoided by most. "Of course you're right," she said evenly. "This is the goal of every life. To rest forever in the Elysian Fields." She had repeated the doctrine so many times, her voice was mechanical in its cadence.
"Exactly. Now turn away from that Portal to a Lesser World. That's for the new ones; the ones who haven't learned to let go yet. You know better than to visit here at your stage."
"Thank you for your guidance," Xena said humbly, wanting to strangle the pompous ass.
"Think nothing of it. My name is Clovisius, so if you feel the need for more of my wisdom, merely indicate and I shall instruct you further."
Fat bloody chance, you arrogant, conceited, self-righteous bore, thought Xena. "Thank you," she said. She waited until he was out of sight, hiding her face to disguise her seething emotions. No wonder he's dead, she thought. Had I met him in life, I would've sent him on his way merely to relieve the suffering of those around him.
Determined, she strode up the temple steps, knowing that now more than ever, she had to visit the Portal.
Gabrielle stopped repairing the hole in Lyceus' trousers and looked up. She had the uncanny feeling she was being watched. She listened for a change in the chatter of the forest creatures, as Lyceus had taught her, but could determine no difference. She waited, every muscle tense.
Her husband had left early that morning, Joxer in tow, for a confrontation with Cortese. She had allowed him a farewell kiss, because she knew this could be the last time she would ever see him. She worried about him, not wanting him dead. He is a good man, she repeated to herself like a mantra. And every time she had the thought, she wondered why she wasn't satisfied; why she hated his touch, the sex feeling wrong and foreign to her body. As if she had never been built for his eager but clumsy thrusting -- so fast, so painful at times. What was wrong with her? she wondered.
The Warrior Princess would know, thought Gabrielle. The Warrior Princess knew all about life and men and women and battles and love and tenderness and...
Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.
It did no good to let her thoughts stray like that. And even though the Warrior Princess' face was more real to her than the few people she knew, she was nothing but a shadow. But how can I know a shadow so well? she wondered. How can I, with no trouble at all, instantly picture those eyes, those lips, that black mane of hair, the smile that flashes strong, impossibly white teeth; the same smile that curves her cheeks, crinkles her eyes...
Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.
This way lies madness. She should be thinking of Lyceus. He was out there somewhere, risking his life. A real flesh and blood hero. Always, he put himself on the line so that villagers and farmers could live free and without fear. Lyceus, that's who she should be thinking of, not about some woman who exists only in a dream.
...Until the dreams went away, she thought, tears filling her eyes. Why did that happen? Why would she leave me?
Gabrielle put down the sewing and curled up in her blankets, praying to Morpheus to bring her Princess back to her dreams.
"She's so unhappy..." said Xena, in a small voice.
"They all are, dearie," said an old woman next to her. "After all, we're gone now. They have to deal with that. I had many a death hit my living years, so I know how it feels." Then the old woman cackled joyfully. "Isn't it wonderful? Can't you feel the power their grief gives you? I never knew how fantastic the Elysian Fields could be 'til I got here. I'm so... at peace..."
"Hades be with you, Wise Grandmother," said Xena politely then slipped away from her side. The last thing she needed was a lecture from a newbie. Gods, she thought, where is the peace *I* was promised? Where is *my* Elysian Fields? It's not here, amongst these simpering sheep.
She looked into the Portal and saw a weeping Gabrielle. The girl was alone, frightened, and filled with a depthless melancholy so strong, her observer felt every emotion in her own lifeless soul. Xena slowly reached a finger toward the surface of the pool, wishing she could touch the source of her obsession as easily. Delicately, she stroked the water with the tip of her finger, causing ripples to spread across Gabrielle's image.
"This is my touch, Gabrielle. Feel it. This is my caress. Let it envelop you. Let it enter your soul and soothe your grief," whispered Xena.
Suddenly, Gabrielle's tears stopped. She felt as though a power greater than any god had reached out and touched her very soul. A warmth spread across her body, soothing her, calming her, bringing her peace at last. The young woman wiped the tears off her face, no longer needing their comfort.
What just happened? she wondered. What made me feel for the first time in my life that I might some day find whatever it is I've been searching for?
She pushed these questions away, fearing that even wondering about it would leave her empty again, the comfort withdrawn because of her lack of faith. So she let herself get lost in the feeling, wound it like a blanket around her body and mind and finally, fell into blissful sleep.
And at last, she dreamed again of the Warrior Princess.
Lyceus motioned for Joxer to remain silent. They'd been observing Cortese' encampment for two days, desperately trying to figure out a plan of attack. But the most famous warlord in the realm hadn't become so by being sloppy, and so far, it had seemed to be an impossible task.
"Maybe you should just see what he wants," whispered Joxer, nervous at being so close to the encampment while in the company of Cortese' enemy.
"And likely die for my curiosity," answered Lyceus. "No, there has to be a way. Somehow, I've got to get in there so I can find out what is in Cortese' mind."
Joxer wished he had his father's skill and knowledge. Warcraft had all but been a family instinct until he'd been born. He hated that he was the one boy in this stalwart line of warlords who never quite understood the way of the warrior. What would his dad do in this situation? he wondered. Joxer's mind, as always, was blank.
"Look -- over there!" whispered Lyceus urgently. He pointed to a peddler entering the gates. "That's the answer. I'll disguise myself as a merchant and gain entrance that way. Once inside, I'll keep my eyes and ears open until I find out what I need to know."
Even to Joxer the plan sounded simplistic and doomed. But then, he rarely understood the nuances of Lyceus' ideas, so gamely he looked his friend in the eyes and said, "What do you want me to do?"
"I'm going to have to go this one alone. Stay safe and if anything happens to me, go to Gabrielle. Take care of her for me. She's so helpless and sweet, she needs a protector."
"She doesn't like me," said Joxer, hurt because he'd never understood his best friend's wife or her enmity toward him.
"Of course she does. I've learned not to listen to the things she says. She's as easy on the eyes as any girl I've known, but she hardly has a thought in her head. All those sullen silences. I think she was born a bit dull, y'know? Ah well, doesn't matter. Just the thought of her stirs me." He paused for a moment, picturing his wife's face. Then he turned to Joxer. "Promise me you'll go to her; protect her. Promise me you'll never leave her side."
"I promise," said Joxer, wondering what it would be like to have Gabrielle as a wife. For surely, to keep his promise, he would have to marry her.
Two guards passed nearby and the men ducked behind the bushes. When they'd passed, Lyceus grabbed Joxer's arm in a tight grip. They exchanged a look between them, knowing it could be the last time, then Joxer silently faded back into the forest.
Lyceus gathered his weapons and slipped away, hurrying toward a nearby village to purchase his disguise.
Xena was sitting on a bench, staring sightlessly at happy couples, laughing children, cooing babies, and all sorts of banal people, joyously doing nothing more than feeling at peace. Xena wondered if spirits could go insane.
Suddenly, a huge, swirling vortex of infinite power opened up in the very fabric of the Elysian Fields. It was as if the sky itself had been transformed into a whirlpool of roiling black terror; the edges corruscating with dimension-warping power, the interior nothing but a gaping emptiness. Incredibly, it began sucking souls into its maw, ripping the inhabitants from their peaceful lives, tearing at their shadow-bodies and leaving no one undisturbed.
Xena jumped up, her eyes darting about, searching for a way to escape. Before she could make a move she was lifted off the ground and was inhaled into the center of the churning chaos.
Gabrielle was weaving a small carrying basket, humming softly to herself when a man crashed through the bushes and fell at her feet.
She leaped up, ready to flee when she sensed a familiarity about him. Quickly, she turned him onto his back and sucked in her breath in surprise. "Joxer? What's wrong? Are you okay? Where's Lyceus?"
"Cortese," Joxer gasped. "Lyceus... captured. Torture. He's... to be executed."
"Gods," she whispered, fear, anger and horror sweeping through her at the thought of Lyceus in the hands of that madman.
"Go. Run... Hide... Can't stay... here," said Joxer, summoning his reserve to fulfill his promise to his friend.
"They're coming... for you."
"Who? Who's coming?"
"Sweet Athena, then we have to get out of here. Now!"
"Go," said Joxer, the arrow wound in his chest stealing the last of his life. "I'm... already dead. Please... go!"
Gabrielle heard the death rattle and watched as he went limp. What was she supposed to do now? Where was she supposed to go? She couldn't survive on her own; not without someone to watch over her. Not without Lyceus!
In the distance, she heard the rumble of men's voices. She looked around desperately, grabbed a skin of water and dove into the bushes.
There were screams -- hideous, soul-tortured screams -- all around her. The former residents of the Elysian Fields were being beaten, burned, and brutalized. Horrid misshapen monsters tore at their flesh. Eternal fires sizzled and crackled at their feet. Giant, brutish beasts assaulted them with chains, whips and maces.
"This is Tartarus," whispered Xena, shaken by the realization. What had happened? she wondered. How did babies and children get transported to Tartarus? How did grandmothers and parents and humble villagers who'd never done a day's wrong end up in the pits of Hades? And how was she going to get back to the Elysian Fields? For suddenly she realized that as unhappy as she had been there, it contained the one thing that had made her death bearable.
She had to have access to the Portal.
A studded whip cracked against her back and she arched in pain. It came for her again and she grabbed it, pulling hard enough to steal the weapon from the beast who wielded it. He snarled in rage, drool dripping from huge spotted yellow fangs; his red eyes flashing. More animal than man, he swiped at Xena with daggerlike claws but she rolled away, narrowly avoiding their cutting path. She leapt to her feet, kicked him in the face, spun into the air and landed near an ornate door, guarded by several more man-beasts. They growled at her, licking their swollen lips in anticipation of the shapely meal in front of them.
Screaming her war cry, Xena ran up the body of one while punching another. As she spun through the air, she kicked three of them in the face then landed square on the back of one of the fallen. In a flurry of flashing fists and feet she made short work of her opponents.
With the door now unguarded, she pushed with all her strength and finally, opened it enough to slip through, only to find herself back in the Elysian Fields.
But this time, there was no peace. Instead, the Fields were filled with Tartaric scum, fighting, swearing, raping, slashing -- violence was everywhere. Xena stood, her back to the door, wondering how in Hades everything could have been turned upside down in the space of an eyeblink. It was time to get some answers.
Gabrielle felt as though she had been running for days. She was near to collapse but she kept driving her legs forward, needing to put as much space between her and Cortese' soldiers as humanly possible. She had barely stopped to do more than drink a couple hasty sips of water before the urge to flee overcame her once again.
Unsure of where she was going, she decided not to think about destinations. She wanted only to run. Food, shelter, a change of clothes -- all were meaningless. Running. That was her life now. Just running.
"Water...?" croaked Lyceus. His head was exploding with pain. His face was unrecognizable, so battered and beaten that the features no longer seemed human. He had been in the cell for days. No food. Only a thimble of water once each morning. Life had become nothing but pain and unconscious sleep. The manacles on his wrists, ankles, waist and throat chafed, cutting into his flesh. He was suspended by chains from the ceiling, spread eagled, the weight of his own body a torture. Through swollen eyes, he could see a small section of the roofing. He had counted the stones up there a hundred times: 759 of various sizes. Once, when being questioned, he'd told them about the 759 stones. His jailers thought he was being flippant and cut off a finger as punishment. "Water..." he croaked uselessly, wondering if anyone would ever hear his voice again.
Four men held her down while one untied his pants. They were laughing, overly pleased at the prize they'd caught.
"Save a bit for me, Daggert!" said the trollish oaf who held her right arm.
"And for me, ya crazy sod!" said another, his slobber spilling onto Xena's cheek.
She relaxed her muscles, whimpering in cringing, feminine tones. She closed her eyes, fearing her attackers might see the steely strength of them. The troll loosened his grip, twisting to see her face better, stimulated by her terror. Instantly, her fist connected with his groin and he rolled away moaning in pain. She reached over her head, grabbing the drooler by the hair and flung him several feet through the air. The man who had her left arm trembled. Soon he joined his friends in an unconscious heap.
Daggert was watching all this in utter shock, his pants still open. He looked over at his three buddies, all lying in broken piles, then back at Xena.
"I'd put that away if I were you," she said, indicating his limp penis.
He looked down and before he realized his mistake, he was screaming in agony as she simultaneously crashed her fists on his neck and kneed him in his exposed groin. Doubled over in pain, he rocked back and forth, no longer a threat to anyone or anything.
There was one man left. He'd quietly tried to slip away when the fighting began.
"Ah-ah-ah!" said Xena, grabbing him by his shirt. Rapidly, she hit several pressure points. "You're already dead, so nothing's going to happen to you. Except, of course, all that pain. Can you feel it? Bet it hurts, huh?" The man could only grimace, his eyes begging her for release. "I can get rid of it. Or I can leave you here to feel that pain for eternity. Which would you prefer, hmm?"
"Soon as you help me. I need to ask you some questions. Why have the villains of Tartarus switched places with the righteous of the Elysian Fields?"
"Atyminius. He stole the Helm of Hades," replied the man, his eyes blinking away the sweat which pooled on his lids.
"Where is he now?"
"When you answer the questions," Xena said in a reasonable tone. "Where is he?"
"Don't know. With the Helm, he's invisible."
Invisible? Xena searched her memory for stories of the Helm but found herself unable to access any. She hadn't always paid attention in school, and the town bard had been a drunken bore. "What other powers does the Helm have?"
"Life. It can give you life."
Xena relieved the pressure and the man fell over in a faint. She walked away from the carnage, toward the Temple of the Portal.
"Life..." she whispered.
Gabrielle crouched in the bushes, her face swollen and bruised from a fall down a blind cliff earlier that morning. She had been on the run for three days. She was weak from hunger, and lack of sleep. Cortese had the entire area so completely under his thumb that she hadn't dared seek help or succor. She was, for the first time in her life, completely alone. Even the Warrior Princess had left her. And this time, it felt more permanent than ever before. Not even the hint of her presence was in Gabrielle's secret heart. And more than anything, this loss felt impossible to bear.
Her breathing was labored, her water pouch empty, and she wondered why she struggled so to live. What was the use of living without anyone to care for her? Why go on? Her meaningless life hadn't added up to much, so why continue fighting?
Once, when she was young, she'd had dreams and goals. She had wanted to be a bard; to tell the stories of the gods and the heroes. But marriage to Lyceus had cut that dream out of her heart, as he had disapproved of his wife having ambitions.
Eventually, she'd forgotten the stories she'd heard, and let silence replace her voice. So why did she fear eternal silence? Why not simply let Cortese' men catch her and send her to the Elysian Fields? It was peaceful there. And it would end her earthly torment forever.
"I know I saw her go this way," said a male voice off to her right.
Gabrielle held herself still, at war within her soul, wondering what she should do.
"Cortese is going to slash us all for letting it take this long. Spread out and bring me that stupid bitch or you sons of bare-assed Bacchae are going to feel my blade on your necks."
A pair of boots stopped inches from the bush which hid Gabrielle. She held her breath and closed her eyes tightly, her muscles so tense she feared even the bushes would tremble. Suddenly she felt herself being grabbed by strong hands and pulled from her hiding place.
"Well, well, well," said the leader's voice. Gabrielle opened her eyes and found herself staring into the face of a filthy, bearded warrior. The stench of his breath hung in a cloud about him, and Gabrielle felt bile in her throat. "Lookee here," he said. "You've been an awful lot of trouble, young thing."
"Bet if we clean her up she won't be half bad," said one of the men.
"Maybe so," said the leader. "Well, nothing wrong with a little sport before we bring our prize to the big man, eh boys?"
Gabrielle's eyes widened as the men's laughter surrounded her.
"No! Gods no!" screamed Xena, gripping the edge of the Portal while watching in horror as the men circled around Gabrielle. The warrior was alone in the temple. Frantically, she reached toward the image, her grasping hands sinking into the water doing nothing more than causing the scene to dispel. She was of no help to Gabrielle from here. Somehow she had to find the Helm. But how do I find something you I see? Xena fell to her knees, defeated before she'd begun.
The warrior knew that Cortese' men wouldn't kill Gabrielle, a fate which, though unthinkable, would at least end the girl's torment. No, they'll rape her, beat her, then rape her again. And when they've had their fill, they'll bring her to Cortese and he will do worse. Through it all, I would be helpless -- unable to do anything more than watch the destruction of Gabrielle's soul.
Blinding rage overtook her and she bolted from the temple. One thing had become clear: there was no power in Hades strong enough to keep her from finding the Helm.
"I have good news for you, 'hero,'" said his guard, the title spoken with contempt.
Lyceus could feel his own death approaching and was no longer sure he cared. He had been scheduled for execution days ago but for reasons no one would share, he'd been kept alive.
"We've got some men out looking for your wife! Soon they'll bring her in. If you ask nice, you might get to watch as Cortese has his fun with her."
Every muscle in Lyceus' body jerked but the chains held fast. Not Gabrielle! he thought. Anything but that! Tears slid down his cheeks as he pictured his innocent wife being manhandled by Cortese and his army. "Please..." he said, his voice barely audible. "Please, no... torture me, kill me, but don't hurt Gabrielle..."
"Awww, ain't that noble? Why, I'll run right now and tell Cortese what you said. I'm sure he'll listen to the likes of you!"
"Please..." Lyceus begged, but though his laughter still echoed, the guard was gone.
Xena launched herself into the mass of battling villainy -- punching, kicking, leaping -- like a fury unchained and unfettered, rage giving her strength. Somewhere was the holder of the Helm and it was imperative that she find him as fast as possible.
The purity of Gabrielle's body, mind and soul depended on her actions now. With every chopping left to an unguarded adam's apple, every crushing knee to an unprotected groin and every lightning kick to soft, spongy tissue, Xena imagined herself coming closer to achieving her goal. Somehow, the destruction she was causing had to get Atyminius' attention. Xena picked up a combatant and with almost superhuman strength, tossed him away from her, watching as others scrambled out of the way of the falling body. And always, as she battled, her eyes swept the melee for evidence of an invisible warrior.
Then she saw it. A man was thrown to the ground by an unseen assailant.
Leaping and twisting in the air, Xena hurled herself at the place where she guessed Atyminius might be. Though nothing blocked her view of the ground, her sandals hit something with a thump several feet in the air. She landed lithely, and watched as the Helm rolled away and a man was revealed.
Not waiting to finish the battle, Xena grabbed the Helm, placed it on her head and, now invisible, ran for the Portal. En route, she concentrated on righting the chaos Atyminius had wrought, mentally resorting the afterlife into its former order. She glanced over her shoulder and saw the vortex open, sucking out the scum of Tartarus and replacing them with the residents of the Elysian Fields.
That accomplished, she tore into the temple, summoned up the image of Gabrielle and leapt into the Portal, knowing without wondering how she knew, that it was a doorway to anyone who possessed the Helm of Hades.
Gabrielle's mind had shut off. She knew that within seconds her body and soul would be violated beyond endurance, but she no longer cared. Death was all she wanted; hoped for; prayed for. Somehow, she had to trick them into killing her.
Then a sound echoed through the woods. It was an unearthly scream; a screeching howl of pure rage. The men who held her were suddenly torn from her body and flung aside like weightless dolls. Heads snapped back from invisible blows, bodies tumbled and spun without cause. Gabrielle wondered if she had, in fact, been murdered and this was all a vision as she rode in Charon's boat.
Then as suddenly as it had started, it ended. The woods were silent, the moaning of the men faded into an unconscious stupor. Gabrielle lifted herself off the ground. She could feel the sun on her cheek. She could smell the breeze as it carried flowered scents. She could taste the blood from her lip where she had been struck only moments earlier. But how could this be? How could she feel so alive when surely she must be dead?
In the clearing, a shimmering image slowly took form and Gabrielle saw a woman removing a helmet from her head. "...Artemis?" the young woman whispered, using the only explanation she could imagine.
"No," said a low, throaty voice. "It's me, Xena. Your Warrior Princess."
Hades paced his office while Persephone watched. "So who has it? If it wasn't one of the Tartarus thugs, then who took my Helm from Atyminius?"
"Whoever it was, he put everything right," she said.
"Put it right then disappeared. Without the Helm I'm helpless. The barrier between realms is too weak to withstand the hoards of Tartarus for long. I must retrieve my Helm. I must get back my power."
"Ask your brother Zeus. He may be willing to help."
"I'll not beg like a dog before that pompous sibling, not without my godhood. There has to be another way."
"way," said alternating female voices. In front of Hades stood three women: a maiden, a mother and a crone.
"The Fates," said Hades, hearing the quaver in his voice -- for even gods fear fate.
"Yes, Hades, it is we," said the maiden.
"And with us is the solution," said the mother.
"But you must find her," said the crone.
"Who?" asked Hades, nervously. "Who must I find? Who has my Helm?"
"All answers will be revealed"
"when you find Xena."
"But first a promise."
"Xena?" he asked, searching his mind until he put the name to a face. "Xena has the Helm?" He remembered her now. She was the restless one; the one who did not feel she belonged in the afterlife. If an error had been made, it would explain her unease. So what did The Fates have to do with this? he wondered. If they had been involved then it was very possible a mistake could have slipped by him -- their power was separate from the Pantheon, yet equal -- almost greater in some ways. "What promise? What do you want of me? Without the Helm I'm powerless."
"Xena must fulfill"
"her destiny. And when she does,"
"return her to us."
Hades scowled. "What destiny?"
"to return her"
The Fates shimmered and were gone.
"Damn me, but I hate enigmatic visitors," grumbled Hades. He kissed Persephone and resolutely stalked away.
"Xena?" whispered Gabrielle. "Lyceus' sister, Xena? That Xena?"
"But... but you're dead!"
"I got better," she answered, a wry smile lifting the right side of her mouth.
"This isn't possible," mumbled Gabrielle, turning away from the tall woman in front of her. Every vision she'd ever had of the Warrior Princess was the spitting image of this woman. But the Warrior Princess wasn't real! She was make-believe! A character Gabrielle had invented from whole cloth. And what did her husband's sister have to do with Gabrielle's imaginary... and how could she have materialized like a wraith right in front of... it was a trick. Had to be. She spun back. "Who are you really? And how do you know my name?"
Xena walked toward her and reached out a hand. Gabrielle recoiled from her touch, her eyes darting like a trapped animal. Pain flashed across the warrior's face, but she controlled herself, knowing how traumatic this was for her sister-in-law.
"I know this is difficult," Xena said softly, using her warmest tone. "You're frightened, confused -- I don't blame you. But you must trust me. We can't stay here. These men will awaken any minute and we have to be far away when they do."
"Trust you?" whispered Gabrielle, her rational mind screaming alarms even as her secret heart wanted to leap into her arms and hold her for eternity. "Why should I?"
"Because you have no choice. You know what they were going to do to you," Xena said indicating the prostrate bodies of Cortese' men. "What's worse? Being raped until you're senseless or trusting me, your Warrior Princess, to bring you to safety?"
Gabrielle searched her eyes -- the same incredible eyes she'd seen a thousand times in a thousand different dreams. And in them, she found the truth. Lyceus' sister was indeed her Warrior Princess. Her savior. Her Xena.
"Give me one minute," she said.
"Gabrielle, we don't have ti--"
"We have time for this. You're wearing a shroud. That's going to draw attention to us. And you're unarmed. We need to get you weapons, and make you some clothes." Gabrielle walked among the unconscious men, grabbing pieces of their leather garments as she went. She handed Xena a pair of boots from one of the smaller men, then continued to fill her own arms with bits of brass from the soldiers' armor. Xena inspected the weapons of the fallen men and chose a long straight sword in a wide leather scabbard.
"Okay, let's go," said Gabrielle in a commanding voice. Xena quietly followed her.
Xena self-consciously approached the Inn. There hadn't been time to take much material from the unconscious soldiers, so her new clothing consisted of a leather bustier, cut generously across the breasts and a short skirt made of the leftover leather strips. Her brother's wife had then made armor of the bits of brass, enough to cover her breasts and ribcage, part of her back and her shoulders. The long sword and scabbard hung between her shoulder blades.
Xena felt exposed in the outfit, having worn a shapeless shroud in the eternity of the Elysian Fields for as long as she could recall. But it was the best the two women could do with the materials at hand and Gabrielle had pronounced the outfit both appropriate for a warrior and attractive on a figure as beautifully proportioned as hers.
"Now, you know what to do," said Gabrielle.
"I don't think this is a good idea. It's not right. My mother owns a tavern and I don't think I can st--"
"We're talking survival here, Xena. We both need food and shelter and we haven't a dinar between us. We can pay it back later, but for now, we need to do something drastic."
"Okay," said Xena, placing the helm on her head. She shimmered into invisibility. "But I'm not crazy about breaking the law. I've never done anything like this before. I've never stolen anything."
Gabrielle put on her most winning, persuasive smile. "Not true. You stole the Helm of Hades, and I figure a couple of dinars isn't too bad compared to that."
Gabrielle waited for reassurance that Xena understood how important this was. She could smell the stew cooking in the kitchen and was almost faint with hunger. But no answering voice could be heard. "Xena?" Gabrielle waved her arms in the air, trying to find the spot where she thought her new friend was standing. "Xena? You there?" Her arms merely fanned empty space.
A traveler approached her and cleared his throat. "You need help crossing?" he asked.
"Take my arm, I'll be your eyes 'til we get to the inn, unfortunate one," he said, placing her hand on his arm. Flustered, Gabrielle let him lead her. "Shame to see one so young afflicted, but it happens. Had a cousin with no sight."
"Oh. Yes, well, I get by on the kindness of people like you, a natural sense of my surroundings and... uh... a really good sense of smell," she replied, then tripped.
"Careful of the roots there. Sense of smell? My cousin always spoke about his hearing, but never his sense of smell."
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Yes, well, I hear pretty good, too, but my powerful nose tells me more. For instance, you have traveled far, have brown hair and haven't shaved for about three days."
"You can smell 'brown'?" he asked, staring at the girl.
"It's a gift," she said with a smile, making sure to look past him.
"Incredible. Must tell my cousin," he mumbled, then pressed a few dinars into her hands. "Some alms to help you in your travels."
"No mention. But I'd sure like to know what brown smells like."
"Well... it sort of smells like nut bread. But with only half the nuts."
"Nut bread," he muttered and left her at the door as he turned to the stables. He plucked a hair from his head and sniffed it as he disappeared inside.
When he was out of sight, Gabrielle counted the dinars in her hand. It was enough for a night's lodging and two bowls of stew. At that moment Xena shimmered into view.
"I couldn't do it, Gabrielle. I'm sorry."
"No matter. I'm quite resourceful, you know. Look." She showed her the dinars. She grabbed Xena's arm and pulled her into the inn. Before the warrior could ask about the money, Gabrielle said, "Did you ever hear the story about the man who buried his dinars, hoping they would grow?"
"No, but I--"
"Well... there was this man and he had a hundred dinars but it wasn't enough, because he was as greedy as King Midas, so he decided to..."
Hades was the unhappiest god in the pantheon. He was dressed in rags, his face hidden by a cowl. His powers were all but gone, so his search for Xena and the Helm had to be carried out on the earthly plane. He hated the land of the living, it was so messy and chaotic. And he abhorred being around non-spirits as they were often loud and vibrant. But his only hope of retrieving his godhood was to find the warrior woman, Xena.
"Something to fill your belly, stranger?" asked the innkeeper.
Hades sighed. "I suppose I'll have to. Bring me a shank of venison, some cut fresh greens, a distilled beverage and a loaf of your finest bread. Don't be long, there are strange sounds emanating from inside my body."
The innkeeper stared at him a moment then walked away. He returned with a bowl of stew and a mug of ale, dropped them unceremoniously in front of Hades, grunted and walked away.
Hades sighed. And these people actually fought to stay alive. He'd never understand it.
Lyceus was dragged into the presence of Cortese, and dropped on the ground in front of the warlord.
"Good evening, Lyceus," said Cortese, politely. "I trust you're enjoying your stay?"
Lyceus glared at the warlord. He opened his mouth to speak but no words could get past his raw throat.
"Please, you embarrass me! You needn't gush about my hospitality. I'll let you return to your fine suite of rooms momentarily. I just had a quick question for you."
Lyceus pulled himself painfully to his elbows. "Where's Gabrielle?" he managed to croak.
"Amazing! You must be a seer to have anticipated my question so well." Off Lyceus' confused expression, Cortese said, "It seems my men had her in their possession when a mysterious 'force of nature' subdued them. Now your wife has disappeared. Any idea what happened?"
"Joxer..." Lyceus muttered, thanking the gods for the loyalty of his friend.
Cortese laughed. "Joxer was many things, but a 'force of nature?' Be serious."
"Oh, yes, an archery incident. I guess the arrow interfered with the workings of his heart. He did manage to warn your crafty wife of my... interest, though. Bad luck, that. Gave her time to run off. We did find her, of course, but then her mysterious ally showed up. An invisible one, from what my men say. I figured you'd know something about this and would be eager to share it with me."
Lyceus' confusion was apparent. Joxer was dead? He put that pain away, not having the strength to grieve for his friend just yet. No, he needed all his wits to puzzle through what Cortese had just said about an invisible ally. "I... don't understand. Gabrielle was alone... but for Joxer there's no one else."
Cortese kicked Lyceus in the face. "Wrong answer. Let's try it again, shall we?" There was no response. Lyceus was crumpled on the ground. Cortese sighed and called to his lieutenant. "Someone get this man in shape to be questioned. Give him some water, a little food -- nothing with taste, don't want to spoil him. And tend a couple of the more serious wounds. He's the only clue I have to this 'force of nature.' And something that powerful, well, it's only right that the mightiest warlord in the land should gain possession, right?"
His man nodded agreement, then lifted Lyceus' limp body onto his shoulder, grateful for the excuse to leave his lord behind. Cortese had become a man obsessed and the lieutenant was fearful enough of his leader under ordinary circumstances not to understand the evil tidings of his master with an unfulfilled desire. The soldier secretly wished the 'force of nature' had wiped out the contingent sent after the prisoner's wife. Then no wild stories would have met Cortese' ears and he wouldn't have to mobilize the troops to find the unfindable.
"Pray that you have the answers, boy," he said to Lyceus' unconscious body. "Or what you've been through will seem like a walk in the Elysian Fields."
Gabrielle sat quietly on the pallet while Xena washed and dressed the cuts on the woman's face.
"Xena... I haven't thanked you yet for saving my life back there, I--"
"Shhh. Don't speak until I finish." Xena carefully put a paste of various herbs on the cut near Gabrielle's hairline, gluing the torn flesh together in hopes of diminishing any chance of a scar. The warrior knew that it must hurt, but the patient bravely kept her face still, fighting the urge to grimace. "You're going to be fine, Gabrielle. It's not too bad. There. Done."
Gabrielle touched her forehead tentatively, then smiled, the plaster holding. "Thanks. I guess I didn't pay too much attention to where it hurt -- there was so much else going on."
"Mmmm," murmured Xena. "Please take off your blouse. I need to tend the gash on your back."
Gabrielle colored slightly as she removed her garment. Xena was, after all, a stranger. Only Lyceus had seen her nude flesh for as many years as she could remember. She covered her breasts with her arms and turned, her back to Xena.
"Is it bad?" she asked.
"Could be much worse. This will sting a little." Xena washed the wound then put more of the herb paste on it.
"Ow! What's in that stuff?"
"Just herbs, leaves, a bunch of things, really. The healer in Amphipolis used to tell me how to use the medicines of the forest. She was quite good and told me I had a gift for it. In fact, there was a time when I'd considered being a healer myself. That was before Cortese came."
"Lyceus told me you'd always wanted to be a warrior. Even when you were young."
"That's true. But I believe in having many skills."
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder and studied Xena's face. The woman was concentrating on her work, her brows drawn together, a slight grimace on her face as she dabbed carefully at the wound. Her eyes were dark, the pupils large in the dim lighting, but the clear blue of the irises were not lost. To Gabrielle, it was the most beautiful face she'd ever seen.
"Hand me that cloth," said Xena, pointing to a roll of material they'd begged from the innkeeper's wife for bandages. "Thanks. Now hold your arms out -- I have to wrap this around you." Xena held one end of the cloth near the edge of the wound and reached her other arm around her patient's body. Her hand brushed across Gabrielle's breasts and the nipples instantly hardened.
"Cold in here, huh?" said Gabrielle, trying to hide the tremor that had radiated through her. She squirmed a bit, and started in surprise as she felt a warm moistness between her legs. Although she'd heard the girls in the village talk of such things, she'd never experienced it herself. It had always been more evidence that there was something horribly wrong with her. But now, from the smallest of touches, Gabrielle suddenly understood what everyone had been whispering about. Was it possible to feel this way about a woman?
Gabrielle's strict parents had sheltered her and had tried to keep worldly knowledge as far away as possible from their daughters. When she had married Lyceus, he had admired her innocence and took up where her parents had left off. She had never accompanied him on his heroic missions. Always she had been left behind in hidden forest glades, to tend to the mending and the cooking. She'd had no friends or acquaintances other than her husband and the occasional appearance of Joxer. But she'd never really cared as long as she had the Warrior Princess in her dreams. Now, suddenly, the dream was reality and her body was reacting in ways she'd never imagined.
"You're cold?" asked Xena and stopped bandaging long enough to rub Gabrielle's arms in an effort to warm her. Gabrielle shivered, but it had nothing to do with the temperature of the room.
"It's okay. I'm fine now," she said, color warming her cheeks.
Xena went back to winding the bandage around her patient's back and across her breasts. When she'd run out of cloth, she tied off the ends, placed her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and turned her so they were face to face again.
"Be careful for a couple of days -- try not to jar it open," said Xena. "It's right near the left shoulder blade so be aware of your arm movements. I'll keep an eye on it, keep it clean and change the dressing, but you need to baby yourself for a little while."
"Okay," said Gabrielle, aware of her taut nipples pressing against the fine cloth of the bandage and marveling that this woman could have such an effect on her. Gabrielle's entire body felt as though it was on fire, while raw, undreamed of feelings raced through every nerve ending. Lyceus had never once awakened these responses. But Xena... Xena could do things to her with a word or a look -- could make Gabrielle feel all sorts of sensations she'd never had before. A small smile curved her lips. Maybe there wasn't anything wrong with her after all. Maybe she had not been with the right partner. Maybe, her body had simply been waiting for Xena.
Xena smiled warmly. "You're going to be fine. Nothing will happen to you while I'm here."
"I don't know how to thank you, Xena. I..."
"There's no need. Being here, with you, alive -- it's more than words can express. None of it would've happened without you. If I hadn't seen you in the Portal..."
Gabrielle smiled shyly. "It's still weird to think that you were watching us. Lyceus always said that he felt your presence; your strength. Whenever he needed it, he could draw it from you."
"He needs it now more than ever," said Xena, a flash of pain on her face. "As much as I'd like to linger here and get your wounds well on the way to healing, we can't. We have to go to Cortese' camp and rescue my brother."
"I know. He might still be alive."
"He is alive. If he were dead, I would know. The Helm -- it lets you feel the thoughts of the dead. And Lyceus isn't among them. He lives. And I vow that I will bring your husband back to you."
Gabrielle forced a smile. She was heartened to hear that Lyceus was alive. And she truly did want him to be safe. But the thought of returning to her life as his wife, now that she knew Xena, well, it was a thought almost unbearable to contemplate. "Yes," she said, her voice cracking. She cleared her throat. "We'll get him back. You love your brother very much, don't you, Xena?"
"Yeah," she answered and silently added, but not as much as I love you.
The morning dawned bright and clear. Xena and Gabrielle paid the innkeeper and were left without a dinar once again.
"How did you and Lyceus keep going if you never had money?" asked Xena.
"We kept our money with our stuff. When I ran away, it got left behind. I'm sure Cortese' men found it though, it wasn't in a very good hiding place. Lyceus is pretty trusting with money. It's never meant much to him."
"Sounds like my brother, all right."
"Yeah," said Gabrielle, not wanting to talk about Lyceus. Well, actually, I'd love to talk about him, she thought. I'd love to tell you how unhappy I was. That he treated me like I was brainless. He didn't want me to tell stories -- not after we married, that is. Before that he was always asking for them. But once we started traveling he kept telling me to be quiet. And he never seemed to care what I wanted. It was always him -- his ideas, his fights, his quests. His hunger determined when we'd eat. His fatigue when we'd sleep. His desires when we'd... I don't even want to think about that. I want to erase it from my mind, as if it never happened; as if the marriage never happened.
Gabrielle shuddered, beginning to understand what she had been missing. The barrenness of her life before Xena kept assaulting her senses. When I wanted something, she thought, he'd smile indulgently, tell me I was pretty, then forget I'd said anything. I never knew what unhappiness was until I realized that this was going to be the rest of my life.
And then you came along, and suddenly I'm aware of so many things. With you, my words have meaning again. You listen to me. I'm not invisible any more.
"What's it like to be invisible?" asked Gabrielle.
"Mmm?" murmured Xena, her concentration on something up ahead.
"Wait here. I'll be right back," said Xena and she began to sprint ahead, then turned around. "And you're not invisible. I'll answer in a moment, just let me see what this is up here."
Gabrielle watched her go, but couldn't get the smile off her face.
"Stupid beast! Don't know why I put up with the likes of you!" said the man as he whipped the large mare again and again. Suddenly, his whip was pulled from his hand. He looked around to see a tall warrior woman, a scowl on her face and a very large sword pointing at his neck.
"Touch that horse again and I'll introduce you to Hades," said Xena.
"It's my horse!" he blustered. "I can do as I please with it."
"Fine. This is my sword and I can do what I please with it."
"You wouldn't kill me over a horse beating!" he said, his nerve deserting him.
"I might. What did the horse do to upset you?"
"She keeps trying to eat the grass."
"Have you fed her recently?"
"There's no time! I need to get to Thrace or I lose my contract. I'll feed her when we get there."
Xena went to the horse and patted her neck. The horse nuzzled her shoulder and whinnied softly. "You don't deserve a mare this fine. You're using her as a pack horse and she's obviously a war horse."
"She'll be whatever I tell her to be."
"No, I don't think so. You've lost the right to own an animal like this. Go on your way. She's mine now."
"What? You're going to steal Argo?" he asked, dumbfounded.
"What's the cost of your contract?"
"Okay. Tell me where you live and I'll deliver 100 dinars to you, for the horse. Try to keep her and I'll give you one dinar to ride on Charon's boat. Your choice."
"Triphides. And I don't know why I'm trusting you."
"Because I have an honest face," said Xena, giving him her brightest smile.
The man looked at Xena, looked at his horse, then at Xena's sword. He sighed, defeated, then grumbled, "Well, you're welcome to her. Argo has been nothing but temperament since I bought her. And I'll expect 120 dinars, because that's the contract plus what I paid for the stupid beast. Should've known I was being suckered by the low price, but I can be a fool." He stared at Xena for a moment. "Like now, for instance."
"You'll get your money. Now take your things and go on. I'm in a hurry, too."
"A horse? You bought a horse? With what? We haven't a single dinar between us!" said Gabrielle, staring with suspicion at the large mare who was happily cropping the tall grass.
"I bought her with a promise," said Xena and she jumped onto the horse's back. Argo whinnied softly while Xena patted her neck. "There, there, Argo. Good girl." She reached a hand out to Gabrielle. "C'mon."
"I'm not getting on that thing!" she said, backing away.
"Yes you are. We can't waste time. I need to stop at Amphipolis for something and then we have to get Lyceus out of Cortese' hands."
"Amphipolis? What for? Why do we have to stop there?" asked Gabrielle suspiciously. Not that she needed to ask. It was obvious what was in the warrior's mind. Xena needed someplace safe to leave Gabrielle while she went off to do her heroics. She was just like her brother after all.
"Get up here, we'll talk on the way."
Resigned, Gabrielle extended her hand. With a smooth yank that didn't hurt the wound on her back, Xena pulled her up behind her on the saddle.
"Put your arms around my waist. We're going to need to move if we want to get there before dark."
Gabrielle complied. Then with a "Hyah!" Xena dug her heels into Argo's sides and the horse leapt into a gallop. Gabrielle buried her head in Xena's back, her arms tightly clasped around her waist. She'd never liked horses and this one was so large. But after awhile, she became used to the speed and the sensation and relaxed against Xena, wondering how the woman and the horse could seem so right together when they'd only just met.
"What do you mean she stayed here last night?" demanded Hades.
"What I said. They was in the room two doors from yours. How's I supposed to know you was looking for them?" said the Innkeeper with a shrug.
"I told you when I arrived that I was seeking a tall, black-haired, blue-eyed woman dressed in a white shroud, who probably had no dinars and would beg for a room. An imposing woman, carries herself like a warrior. You said no one like that was here. Now you tell me she was?"
"For one, that weren't no shroud. For two, she and her friend had plenty of dinars. For three, I ain't your bloody keeper, okay?"
"Of all the impertinence! When I retrieve my Helm I'll -- her friend? What friend?"
"Her little blonde friend. The chatterbox."
Who was this? wondered Hades. How could Xena have found a traveling companion so soon after leaving his realm?
"Do you know where they were headed?"
"Heard them mention Cortese. Maybe they was his doxies."
"Cortese? He's sent more than his share to me, that's certain." If Xena was after Cortese it could be trouble. The Fates had said that she was to be given to them after he had retrieved the Helm. It wouldn't do for her to be back in the Elysian Fields when he did so. Somehow, he knew that The Fates wanted her alive and not under his power. "Which road did they take?" The Innkeeper gave him a blank stare. "Just point!" said Hades and stormed off in the direction indicated.
Xena stood on the crest of the hill, staring down at her village. It had been so long. An eternity in the Elysian Fields. Desperately, she wanted to see her mother, to talk to her, hold her in her arms, tell her she loved her. But she knew she couldn't do this. To explain to her mother that her dead daughter had returned to life...
"No, I can't," said Xena.
"Can't? Can't what? We came all this way and now you 'can't' something?" asked Gabrielle, hoping she meant that she couldn't do without Gabrielle's company.
"I just meant..." Xena frowned and looked at Gabrielle. "Would you be willing to do me a great favor?"
"Sure," said Gabrielle, sighing in defeat.
"I need to know how she is. My mother. If she's okay..." Xena paused. "If she still remembers me," she said in a soft voice.
"Oh! Oh, of course, I'll do that. Not a problem. You just leave it up to me."
"Thank you. I don't know what I'd do without you."
Gabrielle's eyes glowed with pleasure. She couldn't remember the last time anyone had said something like that to her. "Um... what will you do?"
"I'll be around," said Xena and placed the Helm on her head. Her image wavered and was gone.
"Okay -- see ya!"
"Very funny, Gabrielle," said a dry voice.
"Who's a girl gotta punch to get a drink around here?" said Gabrielle with a smile.
The tavern keeper turned and her face lit up. "Gabrielle! Oh, how are you? Where's Lyceus? Is he outside?"
Gabrielle hugged her mother-in-law. "No, he's out doing the usual heroics -- saving villagers, rescuing orphans, that sort of thing. But we passed by here and I asked if I could visit, so here I am!"
"Well it is good to see you. You've lost weight. Isn't he feeding you?"
"I've been on the road a bit lately. Haven't had as many chances to cook," she said easily. How was she supposed to casually mention Xena when it was hard enough trying to pretend all was well with Lyceus?
"Well, I'll put some of that back on you in no time. You are staying for awhile, aren't you? The place has been so lonely lately, without my children around..." she stopped awkwardly then put a smile on her face. "So have you had any adventures you can share? I know you used to talk about being a storyteller or something."
"A bard, but Lyceus didn't like it, so I don't do it anymore. But that doesn't mean I can't tell you of an adventure or two," Gabrielle said with a smile. "Where are my manners? You were about to say something about missing Lyceus and Xena -- please go on."
"Well, you can't blame a mother for missing her son, right?" she asked, tidying up the bar.
"He, um, wanted to come, but you know how it is," said Gabrielle, frustrated. She felt odd trying to manipulate Xena's mother into mentioning the child she thought dead. It probably hurt to think of her daughter. But Gabrielle had made a promise and she was determined to see it through. "You know, Lyceus told me what it was like to grow up here. With you and Xena. He really admired her, didn't he?"
"Oh he was devoted to her. What would you like to drink? I'm sure you'd appreciate washing the dust from your throat."
Gabrielle smiled, frustrated but determined to be patient.
Xena stood at the entrance, drinking in the sight of her mother's face. The cadence of her mother's voice was a balm, her words flowing over and around her like petals borne on a gentle breeze. Oh, mother, I've missed you so.
She walked toward Gabrielle, and smiled at how hard her new friend was trying to fulfill her promise. No matter what Cyrene said, the would-be bard kept twisting the conversation to include a mention of Xena.
Xena approached her mother, standing only inches away, but unable to reach out; unable to touch the face she loved so dearly. You've got some new wrinkles, she thought. Did I put them there? And your hair, it has dustings of grey.
Her mother seemed smaller, too, as if life's woes had stolen her stature. Oh mother, I wish I'd lived long enough to make you proud of me. I wish I'd been what you wanted me to be. A dutiful daughter. Married with lots of grandchildren for you to spoil. But it wasn't meant to be. Had I never died, it still wasn't meant to be.
It 's better this way, Xena thought. Better her mother never knew she'd found life again. Because it wasn't going to last.
Xena had already decided that as soon as she rescued Lyceus, she would return the Helm to Hades. Gabrielle didn't deserve to have her sister-in-law hanging around, mooning after her, interfering with her marriage. Her brother wouldn't appreciate the way she looked at his wife either -- for if Gabrielle was near, her eyes always found her. Xena didn't belong on the earthly plane. She belonged in the Elysian Fields, she knew that now. It had taken a second chance at life for her to come to terms with her own death, but she finally felt capable of finding peace.
Gabrielle's voice skipped on, the cadences energetic and cheerful. Her mother's eyes sparkled in amusement at the tale being told.
You are the love of my life, Gabrielle, thought Xena. And the love of my death. I found you across dimensions rarely crossed for you are the part of my soul I've always been missing. But because of this; because I love you so deeply, I will let you go. I will let you live the rest of your life with your husband. Somehow, I'll find a way to rescue Lyceus and then I'll disappear. Forever this time. Please accept my death as a testament of my love for you, darling Gabrielle. You deserve happiness and a long, loving, fruitful marriage. Lyceus can give you children. Lyceus can give you what you've had all this time together, a loving bond. I can give you only my eternal heart. It's not nearly enough. If I thought for a moment that you... No. It wasn't meant to be, that's all. Accept it, Xena. It wasn't meant to be.
Xena reached out a hand and stroked the air next to the cheek of her heart's desire. Then she walked away from the two happy women, and disappeared into the back of the tavern.
The door of the tavern swung open and a man entered.
"Where is she?" he said, interrupting Gabrielle's story. "Where's Xena? I know she's here. And she has something of mine," said Hades.
Part 2 -(End)
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