"The Empty Heart" (c) copyright 1997 by firstname.lastname@example.org
This story was originally written in early spring of 1997 and has been sitting around on my hard drive ever since. So it will not include any events from season 3, and only some of season 2. Sorry about this extraordinarily long delay, but I sort of got side-tracked and just never got around to editing the thing.
EXTREMELY IMPORTANT WARNINGS: In this story, there are depictions of sex between two females, so if you don't want to read about that, then it's best to skip this story. This is a dark story, folks. There is a really nasty character who is kinda twisted, therefore she does twisted stuff. Sick stuff, y'know? If the actions of sick and twisted people 'push your buttons' I urge you to read some other story instead of this one. There's also violence and sexual violence in this puppy. So please, if you're sensitive to that, don't read. Absolutely no one under 18 years of age should read this story. Don't make me call your Mom!
IMPORTANT: "The Empty Heart" is a sequel to the events chronicled in both "Truth or Dare" and "The Child", both written by WordWarior. I think it would be tough to figure out a lot of stuff in here if you haven't read those stories, especially "The Child." Both of these pieces are available on Tom's Xena Page at http://www.xenafan.com and the Xena Information Page at http://xenite.simplenet.com.
DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and all characters which have appeared on the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess are (c)copyright MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. Absolutely no copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fiction. All other characters which appear in this story and have not been seen in the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess are (c)copyright 1997 email@example.com. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices and this disclaimer.
"Mama!" the child screamed, her arms outstretched, Xena's hand on her wrist.
Xena tried to hold on but she was being pulled back by half a dozen burly warriors. "No!"
"Don't let go, Mama! Don't let go!" the little girl pleaded as Xena's hand slipped and the child was taken away.
"Xena... Xena..." Gabrielle said softly, shaking the warrior's shoulders.
"Nooo!" Xena shouted, fighting the hands. She opened her eyes and felt Gabrielle take her into her arms.
"It's okay, Xena. Just a dream," Gabrielle said soothingly, now holding her companion tightly to her chest.
Xena looked around. It was deep night with almost no moon. The fire was only embers and the black of the surrounding forest felt smothering and close. She was bathed in sweat, her nails digging into warm flesh as her wild eyes darted frantically, still not quite believing that she had been asleep instead of fighting for her adopted daughter's life.
"Gabrielle...?" she whispered, realizing that the bard still held her. Delicate hands rubbed circles on her clammy back, while surprisingly strong, young arms remained wrapped around her body.
"Yes, ssshhh..." the bard murmured.
Xena pushed away from her lover's embrace, wanting to hide herself in embarrassment. "Stupid of me to get so worked up. I'm sorry. Go back to sleep."
"You can't help it," said Gabrielle.
Quickly, Xena crawled under the blankets and turned her back to the bard. "Damn me," she whispered and closed her eyes.
"You're never going to talk about her, are you?"
"Go to sleep."
"Thor told you that you had to start healing. Talking helps, you know."
"There's nothing to talk about. Now, please. We both need our rest. "
"Uh huh. Xena, I know you cry in secret. Do you think I don't see you? Do you think you can run away from me? From your feelings? Hiding doesn't make the pain go away."
Xena was silent, pretending to sleep. Shut up, Gabrielle! she shouted internally. Do you think it helps to know you can see how weak I am? Do you think I don't know how transparent I am when I fade into the bushes, my face crumbling with pain? The least you could do is pretend to respect me!
"You can ignore me all you want, Xena, but I know you're listening. And this time, you can't put on a stoic face. This time I was there, remember? I know how you felt about Ilsa. I know what it took for you to leave her with the Scandians and turn your back on her future. I know, because I had to do the same thing. But in my heart I'm convinced that we made the right choice."
Xena could feel Gabrielle's eyes staring at her. She knew that the bard could see the tense set of her shoulders, the tightly closed eyes and the fetal curl of her body.
"Such horrible pain," Gabrielle whispered and Xena wondered if she thought her words were too soft to be heard. Then Gabrielle continued, her voice stronger. "And you hold it inside you as if the slightest hint would lessen you in the eyes of the world. Well, I'm your world now, Xena. And I'm not buying one second of this act. Ilsa changed you. Forever. You can't be the unfeeling warrior you used to be. Those barriers have been breached by the strongest force you've ever met -- a three year-old child. Accept it. Accept it and allow yourself to heal."
Xena tried to fake being asleep, rather than face the woman whose words struck too closely to her heart. Not that Gabrielle would believe it for one minute. Instead, the bard would sit and stare, waiting for the time when the warrior would break down and cry in her arms like a damned fool. It wasn't that Xena didn't realize how dangerous it was to hold everything inside. She knew. She knew it wasn't healthy. But the pain was too overwhelming. The depths of it too raw. And in the darkest, most secret corner of her soul, she knew that the guilt of it would kill her.
She had given away her child. Twice. She had handed the baby who had sprung from her womb to Kaleipus, the centaur, in an effort to spare her son a life of pain. Solan would never have to feel the shame of knowing that his mother was a murdering warlord. She had given up this child of her blood so that he could live free and healthy. This was a pain she had come to terms with. This was a pain she had learned to live with.
But never had she suspected she would have to go through it again. This time it wasn't a child of her body, but of her heart. She and Gabrielle had found Ilsa near the corpses of the child's brutally slain parents. They had taken her into their lives and the three-year-old had instantly attached herself to the warrior. 'Szeeneh-Mama,' she had called her. And later, when the bond had been cemented, simply 'Mama.'
Xena could feel her throat closing once again -- the familiar lump stealing her composure. Eyes closed tightly and nostrils flaring, she tried to fight it down with a deep breath. But this wasn't a pain that was easily mastered. Ilsa. My child. My daughter. And I gave her away, she thought. I handed her over to Rolf and Marya of the Scandia. Allowed strangers to have the gift of the rest of her life. At the time, it had seemed the only solution. My life is too dangerous. I have too many enemies. But now... in the quiet of the forest night... I wonder. Did I give in to fear too easily? Did I do what was right for Ilsa or what was right for me and Gabrielle?
The child had called the bard, 'Papa.' Funny, sweet, tender and comforting, the name had come to fit her companion. Xena could hear the clear, high voice, colored with a lilting accent, as the tiny Scandian had said their names. Gods, I never should have let her out of my life, thought the warrior. I should be sent straight to Tartarus for giving up the best thing Gabrielle and I had ever had: a family.
"Gabrielle...?" Xena whispered.
"Yes?" the bard answered immediately.
"I'm tired. I'm tired of being on the road. Tired of living under the sky. I want to stop."
"Stop? Stop what? Stop traveling? Stop fighting for the greater good? Stop working toward atonement? Stop what?"
"Just stop. Stop it all. I want to find that house you talked about. Remember? With the garden? You could write your stories... and we could live out our days... together... in peace."
"What are you saying?" asked Gabrielle incredulously.
"Let's forget about going to the next village, and the next one after that. All those petty problems. They're meaningless. Instead, let's go to the Amazons. Let's tell them... that we want to come home..."
Spring had come early and Alcimede allowed the beauty of the season into her heart -- it truly was a time of rebirth, she thought. Smiling, she took a deep breath of the rain-freshened air. The sun had broken through an hour earlier, giving the village a respite from the spate of storms they'd endured the past few days. Glancing out her cottage door, she watched the farmers as they plowed their muddy fields, readying them for the seeds they would nurture until harvest. Buds exploded from the bare branches of the trees on her small lot. Birds built nests of twigs and laid their precious eggs, holding them close, tucked in feathers built for warmth. Hope and laughter and love and youth should be everywhere; in every heart and mind. Winter was gone at last.
Yet in Alcimede's village, the new season was barely noticed. Briefly, she wondered if she was the only person who was enjoying the gorgeous, spring day. The rest of the village had a pall lying over it as if it lived under a permanent, storm-tossed sky. The villagers wore black and their steps were heavy and somber. Not that it was a mystery to Alcimede why this should be so.
After all, two moons ago thirty-two men had died in a single day. Thirty-two lives had been stolen by a lone woman who had entered the local tavern in the garb of the Ice People, but had left it wearing blood-soaked leather. Thirty-two husbands, sons, fathers, brothers and lovers were gone forever. Thirty-two hearts had been stilled at the end of a single, flashing sword.
Alcimede sighed, her basket on her arm as she went to do the morning marketing. Dull, dull, dull, she thought, glancing at the grief-stricken faces of her neighbors. All of life was dull now that the villagers were steeped in grief and she no longer had her husband to keep her entertained. It was all the Warrior Princess's fault, she mused. How dare she ruin my fun?
For years, Alcimede and Kristos had lived together, raised a son, and found wonderful enjoyment in the manipulation of others. Oh, but people will do anything if you give them a push, she thought. It had been so easy to nudge a mind here or there, put her touch on them and watch as mayhem erupted.
"Did we go too far, Kristos?" she quietly asked the spirit of her late husband. It was difficult to understand exactly what had gone wrong. The small Scandian family had appeared to be such perfect targets. Separated from their people, they were lost and alone. Who would know? So Alcimede had put a word in an ear here and laid her hand on a heart or two there then sat in the woods, watching as her husband and son led the mob. It hadn't taken much. The village men were so full of xenophobic hatred as it was, that it had only taken the tiniest of pushes. And the Scandian couple had made such lovely victims. She, with her blonde beauty. He with his stoic strength. A wonderful afternoon's sport. That's all it was supposed to be.
So where did the Warrior Princess fit in? That's what Alcimede couldn't figure out. Xena had simply shown up at the village, weeks and weeks after the event, and killed every last man who had been involved. Including, thought Alcimede with a frown, Kristos and our son.
And there went *all* my fun.
"Good morning to you, Alcimede," said the shopkeeper in a lackluster voice. Her husband and father had been among the thirty-two.
"It's a beautiful morning indeed," said Alcimede, brightly.
The shopkeeper, a drab girl in her early twenties, sighed. "How do you manage it, Alcimede? I swear, each day that I grow older, you grow younger. What's your secret?"
"Good deeds and pure thoughts," said Alcimede, flashing her brightest smile. Inside, a worry began to tickle her. It was time to move, she realized. Time to leave the village and find another. Soon, they would begin to suspect. Kristos had appeared old enough to be her son's father and that was the story they'd told -- that Alcimede was his second wife, and had adopted the boy. But it wasn't true. Alcimede had lived almost fifty winters, yet her mirror saw only youth. Most people guessed her age to be around twenty-four, though often they thought her younger. There were advantages to having a patron goddess.
Glancing in a small mirror beyond the counter, Alcimede smiled at her own reflection. She was, as always, beautiful, bewitching and sultry. Her hair flamed as red as an autumn sunset, her eyes as green as the verdant fields. Her slender figure continued to draw attention from young and old, male and female. Yet despite all this, Alcimede knew she might have passed through life without ever making a mark -- except of course, for her power. Another gift from her goddess.
"I'd like to settle my account with you, after I get some provisions," said Alcimede on the spur of the moment.
"Oh?" asked the girl, surprised.
"I'm leaving. Moving away. With my darling Kristos gone, there's nothing left for me here. Too many memories," she said with a forlorn expression, checking the mirror to make sure it looked real. "But don't worry about me. I have... relatives I can visit in Thrace."
"Oh, well, then, that makes a bit of sense, doesn't it?" said the girl and Alcimede caught the look of relief on her face.
Do I frighten you? thought Alcimede with a wicked grin. "Yes, time to move on."
The girl hurriedly began packing the provisions Alcimede ordered while the redhead glanced out the shop door at the rest of the town. "Good riddance," she mumbled, tired of seeing dark expressions and mourning clothes.
"Thrace, huh?" said the girl, watching Alcimede closely. "I have family there as well. What village will you be settling in?"
Alcimede glanced back and saw the fright in the girl's eyes. "I'll probably be doing some traveling first," she said airily, knowing the girl was trying to figure out if she needed to send a warning to her kinsmen or not.
"Traveling, ah, well, that's nice, too."
"Isn't it? Want to come along?" Let's watch you panic, young thing, thought Alcimede.
"No! I mean, I can't leave my shop, now, can I? And... and there's my little sister to take care of and all sorts of things and no, it wouldn't do at all. You're not offended, are you?"
"Not in the least. Besides, what I have in mind, I'd probably do best alone." Alcimede smiled, wondering what the girl would be like between the furs then dismissed the thought. Grabbing her purchases, the redhead waved a cheerful good-bye then whistled as she walked back to her cottage.
She had so much to do, she realized. She needed to get rid of the house and lands, sell off her things, and arrange for a very special mount. Oh, she silently added, and I have to find out where the Warrior Princess is right now. After all, if I'm going to ruin her life, I'll have to find her. Shouldn't be too difficult. I'll just whisper the goddess's name. She always answers when Alcimede the Assassin calls...
Widgie stirred the pot, humming softly as she did, breathing in the fragrance of yet another masterpiece.
"We've a full house, Wife," said Jorgos, from the kitchen door. Unlike his massive spouse, Jorgos was thin and lanky, as laconic in nature as his wife was autocratic. Together, they ran a modest inn. But anything ordinary about them stopped there.
A stranger, seeing Widgie for the first time, might only notice her size. Standing taller than most men, and with an enormous girth, she was aptly called a 'mountain' of a woman. But in truth, this was only one minor aspect of the innkeeper's wife. Widgie was a gifted healer, oracle and cook -- known throughout Greece for her skills in all three of these arts. She was domineering, manipulative, a tower of strength and gregarious in her dealings with every kind of visitor. Jorgos, her good-natured and tranquil husband, ran their business and their lives with quiet skill. Theirs was a marriage no outsider could immediately understand. Yet everyone who knew them agreed that they had been fated to be together.
"We've food for all'n, t'ain't so?" said Widgie, tasting her concoction and smiling at the explosion of flavor. "An' pallets aplenty, aye? 'Tis no matter t'feed and sleep 'em."
"Aye," said Jorgos, folding his tall frame into a sturdy kitchen chair.
"Ye've a hunger now, husband?" asked Widgie, pouring him a bowl of vegetable soup and cutting off a shank of lamb dripping with herbs, spices and a crusty coat of glaze.
"Aye. I do that." Jorgos' eyes twinkled at the sight of the portions. Widgie's appetites were larger than anyone he knew, and she always assumed others shared this trait.
Accompanied by the tinkling, jingling clatter of her jewelry, which she wore in the same generous quantities as everything else in her life, Widgie shuffled over to the table and set down the meal. "Eat then. Ye'll need yer strength fer the serving, t'ain't so?"
"Aye," he said, breaking off a chunk of crisp new bread which released a cloud of steam from its moist heart.
Widgie was about to turn away when her entire body went still, her eyes losing their focus. Jorgos continued to eat, as if nothing had just happened to turn his wife into a statue. For long minutes, the only sound was an occasional slurp of soup and the slow, methodical chewing of the innkeeper. Then, in a burst of sudden animation, Widgie began to shake, her jewelry setting off a musical cacophony of sound. Finally, she came back to herself, her eyes regaining their sight and her body relaxing.
"Another vision, then?" Jorgos said between slurps.
Widgie didn't answer. She continued to stare into the distance, her face colorless.
Jorgos glanced up and dropped his spoon. "Widgie, luv? What is it then?" He quickly came to her side and helped her into one of the oversized chairs, specially built for the woman's huge frame.
"Fetch me m'scrolls and quill, Jorgos," she said, her voice thin and hollow.
"It be bad then?"
"Aye. It be bad. I'll be needin' ye t'be warnin' them."
"Someone in the village?"
"Nae. The Warrior and the Bard. They be in great danger."
Jorgos looked at her sadly, knowing that his wife had a special place in her heart for the two travelers.
"The Ice Child as well?"
"Nae. The Scandian chit be gone back to her people. No, 'tis only the Bold One, the Storyteller and--"
Jorgos waited, but Widgie clamped her small mouth shut and didn't continue. "And?" he asked.
For the first time since the vision had overtaken her, she looked at her husband. "And meself. I be touched by th'same danger, m'love. And I are not seeing m'fate beyond that."
The tavern interior was dark, but Xena's mood offset the gloom. Ever since she had made the decision to settle down, Gabrielle had noticed a serenity in her friend that she'd never seen before. It was almost as if she had suddenly decided to put all her demons and memories on hold. As if she was living in the moment, enjoying this last long journey before a roof took the place of the stars and a soft pallet substituted for the hard ground.
"I think we should have lots of vegetables in the garden, but flowers, too. Something to perfume the air. I want our kids to know the more pleasant side of life. In Amphipolis, the spring always brought a lot of blooms and I used to enjoy them as a child. Haven't thought of that for years," said Xena, wistfully, pulling out the bench of the center table, and sitting down.
"Sounds wonderful," said Gabrielle, nursing her drink. "Wonder what kind of food they have here?"
"I don't know, but I'll ask--" Xena stopped, a spontaneous smile breaking out as she spotted someone across the room. "By the gods. Baraeous. I haven't seen him in -- Baraeous! Over here," she said with a gesture.
An older man looked up and grinned in return. "Xena! By Ares' whiskers, it's good to see you!" They clasped wrists enthusiastically, both sets of eyes twinkling. Gabrielle quickly moved over to make room for the battle-hardened warrior.
"Gods, you look old. What happened?" asked Xena.
"Xena!" said Gabrielle, wondering why Baraeous' only reaction was a loud guffaw.
"And you never change." He searched Xena's eyes for a moment and cocked his head, quizzically. "Or do you? Rumors about you are everywhere."
"They say you've left Ares' path."
"And if I have?"
Baraeous chuckled. "You won't find me condemning you, if that's what you're expecting. I did the same seven winters ago. Had my fill of warring, I did."
"Good for you," said Xena, sincerely.
"That's my nephew over there," said Baraeous with a gesture to a young man in the corner. The boy smiled and Baraeous waved him over. "Colton -- this is Xena, the Warrior Princess and..."
"Gabrielle," the bard supplied, smiling at the young man.
"Xena? The actual Xena?" Colton said in surprise.
"Keep your cool, lad," said Baraeous with a chuckle. "He's a bard in training and tends to fall apart when he meets legends."
"'Legends'," chuckled Xena, shaking her head. "You old wolf."
"A bard? Really?" asked Gabrielle.
"Not a good one yet," said Colton as he sat opposite Gabrielle. "But I'm going to try out for the Academy. Uncle Baraeous is taking me -- that's where we're headed."
"The lad is modest. He's going to be a great bard some day." Baraeous switched his attention back to Xena. "It's strange that I should run into you. Just a day or two ago, I ran into Tissame. He had a message for you -- got it about a moon ago, he said -- from Widgie the Oracle."
"He gave it to me yesterday."
"No, just a friendly hello. Widgie and I have some history."
"Tissame told me he'd heard you were in the area. You're camping up on Athena's Ridge, right?"
"Yeah. We've been pushing rather hard lately and I wanted to stop a couple days to rest my horse. I hadn't realized that it would be interesting enough to be discussed."
"Don't worry about that, Xena -- Tissame said he'd merely overheard some lad at the inn mention it. The boy had brought you some supplies or something."
Xena nodded, thoughtfully.
"Truth is, I'd hoped you might come into town, so I could give you a well met."
"How do you two know each other?" asked Gabrielle.
"Baraeous was in my army for several years," said Xena. "One of the finest bowmen I know."
"Uncle can hit the eye of a stag at sixty paces without even aiming!" said Colton.
"That's impressive," said Gabrielle.
"We were going to order some dinner," said Xena. "Would you care to join us?"
"Only if you'll let me buy," said Baraeous. "It truly is a pleasure to see you again, Xena."
"And you, old friend."
As a waitress came to take their order, no one noticed a small man
slip out the back door of the tavern and run darting through the shadows toward a woman with flaming red hair.
"They were nice," said Gabrielle, stretching the waistband of her skirt. Too much food, she decided.
"Yeah, Baraeous is a good man. Hard to imagine him retired. He's been a warrior since before I was born."
Athena's Ridge loomed eerily against the starlit sky and Gabrielle held Xena a little tighter as Argo began to pick her way up the steep trail. "How long are we going to stay here?" the bard asked sleepily, enjoying their interlude.
"We're leaving at first light tomorrow. No more delays."
"Anxious to start our new life?" asked Gabrielle with a yawn.
"Yeah. Besides, it's planting season. If we're going to have that garden, we need to get it started."
Gabrielle smiled. Xena had transferred the passion and focus she used to fight into her newfound fascination with settling down and growing a garden.
Argo neighed, tossing her head several times and Xena stiffened, pulling back on the reins.
"What is it?" whispered Gabrielle.
Holding up one hand to silence the bard, Xena looked around the dark, forested ridge. Sliding off the mare, she withdrew her sword, carefully picking her way in the dark, not making a sound. Gabrielle grabbed her staff and lightly dismounted, her eyes and ears alert for any untoward movement or sound.
Suddenly, from the bushes, a small fox burst onto the path, causing the mare to rear as it ran through her legs. Gabrielle smiled, calling, "Xena -- it's okay. Just a fox."
There was silence for a moment or two, then Xena said, "Over here." When Gabrielle joined her, the warrior was squatting next to some footprints. "A woman. Not a warrior though. Those are sandal marks, not bootprints. Somewhat fresh -- I'd say they were made last night. Strange that neither of us heard anything..." Xena worriedly traced the marks with her finger.
"Maybe she was just out for a walk or something. Saw us sleeping and quietly slipped away."
"I'd agree, except for this," said Xena, following the trail. She pointed and Gabrielle saw the clear markings of hoofprints.
"Out for a ride?" the bard asked, wondering why Xena looked so spooked by this new find.
Gabrielle examined the hoofprints but couldn't see anything untoward. "I don't..."
"Where did they go?" asked Xena, quietly.
Gabrielle sucked in her breath. Xena was right. The hoofprints were there but didn't go anywhere. It was as if the horse had simply appeared in this place by magic. "By the gods..."
"I'm going to check our camp," said Xena, jogging over to the clearing. But after a thorough search, they both determined that nothing was missing or disturbed.
"What's this all about?"
"I don't know," said Xena. "Maybe we shouldn't have gone to the tavern. My army paid this area a visit many winters ago. It's possible the people here aren't too crazy about seeing me again, and have been spying on us, waiting for an opportunity to attack. The spy may have covered the horse's retreat somehow -- brushed the path or something."
"Oh. Well, I guess it's a good thing we're leaving tomorrow."
"Tonight. We don't need a bunch of crazy farmers deciding to pay me back in the middle of the night. You heard Baraeous -- people know we're up here. Get your things. We'll ride through the night and find some place to hole up for a couple hours rest, tomorrow. From now on, we go straight to Amazon country. No more dawdling."
Gabrielle nodded her agreement and went to pack her gear. It was as if Xena was afraid, she thought. What could cause that? Then the bard had a sudden thought that made her hesitate in her packing. Maybe Xena was afraid there'd be a fight. Throughout their journey they had avoided any path that might put them in even the smallest of dangers. Was it possible that the Warrior Princess had lost her nerve?
Though on the surface, this seemed an impossibility, Gabrielle knew that the revenge Xena had taken on the village that had killed Ilsa's parents still weighed heavily on the warrior's mind. Those few times Xena had spoken of the event, Gabrielle had seen a haunted look filled with pain and guilt.
Maybe it had been enough, thought Gabrielle. Maybe that's why Xena wants us to leave -- because the thought of a fight, any fight, frightens her. Maybe the idea of accidentally killing an innocent has scared her out of using her sword. What if one of the men in the tavern hadn't been part of the massacre? What if Xena had simply gotten her fill of killing that night -- there were a lot of men in that tavern. It couldn't have been easy for Xena to walk in there and murder all those souls in cold blood. By the gods, I wish she'd talk to me about it. In one way, it's the kind of miracle I've prayed for -- an end to her darkness. On the other hand, if she has lost her nerve, we could be in real danger...
Alcimede pushed open the doors of the tavern into the common room. About two dozen men sat at long tables eating, talking, discussing old battles and dead enemies. The red-head smiled warmly at the few men who glanced her way then strolled up to the bar.
Baraeous, his eyes riveted on the new visitor, dropped his mug of ale. "Great Zeus, it can't be..." he said.
"What?" asked Colton.
"What a night for warrior women," Baraeous mumbled. At Colton's expression, he said, "It's Alcimede. The Assassin. The most seductive goddess who ever wore a mortal's skin. And the most heartless, as well."
"Goddess? You mean an actual goddess, Uncle Baraeous?"
"Wish I knew. There were times when we thought she might be. Though eventually I decided she was just a woman. A woman who could destroy lives on a whim, reduce men to whimpering fools with a look and could take your heart in her cruel hands then twist it into dust just for the sport of it. If you thought the Warrior Princess had a deadly reputation, she was Aphrodite herself next Alcimede."
"I've never even heard of her," said the younger man.
"No, you wouldn't have. She disappeared nearly twenty winters ago. I thought she'd finally found her match and got herself dead. By Hades, the lads and I had a celebration when we realized she'd gone for good. Made myself sick on wine and women, and gave half my purse to the gods in thanks."
"If she was so terrible, how come she never killed you?"
"Had better things to do, I guess. She was Hades-spawned, lad. Man or woman, didn't matter to Alcimede. She seduced and destroyed them all. I was lucky. She knew me, but never got around to killing me."
"So why is she back now, do you suppose?"
"I don't know. But I pity the wretched fool who's forced her out of retirement. They're gonna die painful," the old man whispered. He looked at his nephew and nodded toward the back of the inn. "C'mon. Let's see if we can escape this place without her seeing us. I've too many winters under my belt to tangle with Alcimede. I simply haven't the strength."
Quietly, the two men rose and headed for the back door. Alcimede asked the barkeep for an ale then turned to look at the room. She spotted the old man just as he opened the door.
"Why, look who's here. Baraeous, isn't it? Aren't you going to say hello to an old friend?" Alcimede said in a clear voice that cut through the din of the tavern.
Baraeous stood still, closed his eyes and sent a quick prayer to Ares for guidance. Slowly, he turned and tried to smile at the beautiful woman staring at him.
"Been a long time, Alcimede. I thought you were dead all these years."
"A rumor," she said, approaching the aging warrior.
He watched her as she moved. Her body was poetry; fluid and graceful. Her green eyes swept over him -- touching his skin, setting off tiny bonfires of desire wherever they glanced. She smiled, watching the effect she had on him with undisguised delight.
"You've kept in shape, I see," she purred.
"And you haven't aged a day," he said, frowning at the truth of his own words. It was unnatural, he thought.
She ran one hand teasingly across his chest, letting it rest over his heart.
Baraeous shivered, wanting to pull away yet too filled with fear to move. He could smell her sweet breath, could feel the heat of her hand on his breast, could sense the sexual power that emanated from her every pore. She was too close. Too real. Back from the dead and touching him. The Assassin's touch. His life could be counted in minutes now, unless he was smart. He had to learn what she needed and give it to her -- willingly and eagerly.
"Where've you been? You just disappeared. No one knew what had happened," said Baraeous, sweat breaking out on his upper lip.
Alcimede laughed shortly, acknowledging his fear by removing her hand and stepping back a pace. "I married Kristos. We settled down in a village in the north country. Had a son. A farm. The locals were too ignorant to know who we were."
"Married? A farm?" said Baraeous, stunned. "I'm having a hard time picturing that."
"Yes, you would. It's not easy to see 'The Assassin' baking bread and plowing fields. But I did."
"What brings you back now? After all these years? And where's Kristos?" Baraeous asked. The two of them were well-suited, he thought to himself. Kristos was as cold-blooded and cruel as any man he had ever met.
"Murdered. The only man I ever cared enough not to wish dead and someone else took his life." Her expression was predatory, her mouth open, her tongue, pink and glistening, stroking the edge of her upper lip.
Baraeous swallowed hard, surreptitiously moving his hands to cover the sudden swelling between his legs. "My condolences, Alcimede. What happened?"
"The Ice People camped near our village. Caused a lot of problems. Kristos and the village men went out to have a talk with them and ran across a young couple who were lost. While trying to guide them back to their camp, there was an accident and the couple was killed. Terrible thing. Our entire town was sick over it for weeks. Time passed and the Ice People went away. We hadn't given it another thought until the Warrior Princess paid us a visit."
Baraeous swallowed once. "The Warrior Princess?" By the gods, Xena, what have you done? he thought. "How does she fit into all this?" he asked aloud. If he hadn't been before, he would have been truly frightened now. Even the thought of The Assassin and the Warrior Princess locking horns was enough to make any man tremble. But Xena had changed. He'd seen it in her eyes. She didn't have a prayer without the full strength of Ares' passion flowing through her veins.
"Have you seen her lately?" asked Alcimede with a guileless smile.
"Interesting you should ask," said Baraeous, stalling. What was he to do? He didn't want to give Xena away, but if he didn't, then both he and Colton were as good as dead. The boy had so much of life in front of him. His late brother's only son... what was he supposed to do? "A friend of mine was looking for her as well. He had been visiting an oracle who gave him a message for the warrior. Said she was an old friend of hers." There, he thought. Maybe that will sidetrack her.
"Which oracle was this?" Alcimede asked, very interested.
"Widgie, the healer."
"Indeed? What was the message?"
"Just a greeting. He went there about a moon ago."
"A greeting? You sure it wasn't a prophecy or something? Perhaps a warning?"
"I heard the message myself. No prophecies," said Baraeous. Alcimede was staring at him, waiting for more. He could feel the panic inside him. He was compelled to please her; to give her anything she wanted. "They're good friends -- the oracle and the warrior. Just a friendly hello, nothing more, I swear."
"I see. How nice that Xena has made some friends. Widgie, the Oracle... I wouldn't have guessed that alliance. Though I suppose it makes sense in its way. Eventually, everyone needs Widgie at some time in their lives."
"Have you?" he asked, remembering the time he had sought Widgie's help in her capacity as a healer. She had saved his life when no one else could.
"Me? No... but perhaps it's time I did." Alcimede chucked him under the chin and winked.
Widgie will be a great loss, Baraeous thought, starting at her touch. But there was nothing he could do to save her now. Damn me to Hades, he thought, I have to watch my words closer. How does she do that? I meant to say nothing yet suddenly I was babbling like a green recruit in his first torture.
"I take it your friend found the Warrior Princess and passed on this greeting?" Alcimede asked.
"I don't know..."
"Is that so? You know what I find strange?"
"Xena was seen coming in here earlier tonight, to get a little dinner. She and that bard friend of hers. I'm surprised you didn't notice them. After all, you rode with Xena for several years, right?"
"Uh... right, I did."
"But you didn't see them here in the tavern? Didn't talk to them? Maybe buy them dinner?"
He could feel himself shaking now. Colton's eyes were filled with panic, and Baraeous wished that somehow, he could save his nephew. He knew now that his own life was forfeit. He had lied to Alcimede.
"Did they mention where they were headed?" asked Alcimede, her smug expression telling him that he'd been caught.
"They... they were going to... uh..."
"The Amazons, perhaps?" she asked. "Baraeous, darling, I really need you to start answering my questions. I'm getting tired of doing it all myself. You're simply not being very helpful."
"Alcimede, please, just put your touch on me and end it. Xena is a friend. I can't betray her," said Baraeous, his voice raw.
"Uncle!" gasped Colton. The boy was shaking now, holding onto his uncle's arm.
"Such a fascinating woman, our Warrior Princess," said Alcimede, as if Baraeous hadn't spoken. "Rumor has it she's on the side of the righteous lately. Do you think it's true?"
"It has to be a rumor. I fought with her. She was a heartless terror. People like that don't ever really change," he said, strongly. There, Xena, he thought. That's the best I can do for you. If she decides to use caution, maybe it'll buy you enough time to escape.
"Perhaps you're right. She was still capable of killing my husband and son, after all."
"So you came out of retirement to seek revenge?" Gods, Xena, why them? he thought. Why did you stir this sleeping viper?
"It seemed like a good way to spend the next moon or two. Now that my family is dead, I've not much else to hold me in one place," Alcimede said with a smile so cold Baraeous felt it in his liver. "Now buy me a drink and let's reminisce about old times." She wrapped herself around his arm, pressing her body against him.
Baraeous could feel the hard point of one aroused nipple through the thin barrier of her filmy blouse. He smiled weakly then turned to his nephew and with the last of his will, said, "I'll see you back at the inn. Now, go. Leave me here to talk with Alcimede."
Colton was about to protest when he noticed the pleading intensity in his uncle's eyes. "All right," he said slowly. He turned and left.
Both Baraeous's and Colton's bodies were found several days later, the cause of death unknown.
They had been traveling hard, using every second of daylight the season could spare. Xena didn't allow anything to slow their progress. They pushed through downpours, slogged through paths deep with mud and slept wherever they could find a patch of ground, instead of searching for comfortable campsites.
Gabrielle didn't mind the pace Xena was setting. Yet the bard was having a difficult time with the change in attitude the warrior had been undergoing since they had camped on Athena's Ridge half a moon ago. It was as if the warrior's enthusiasm had been slowly siphoned from her. As if she had stopped caring about anything or anyone. She never mentioned Ilsa, and had even stopped being affectionate with Gabrielle. They only made love when the bard was insistent and even then, Xena's heart simply wasn't in it. It had gotten to the point where Gabrielle no longer wanted physical closeness with her partner -- it hurt too much to see the indifference in this once passionate woman.
Xena had always a bit distant, Gabrielle thought, but now it was as if... she didn't care about anything. At least that's how it seemed to the bard.
Something must be really bothering her, she thought. Just wish I knew what it was. It's like she's holding everything inside. Doesn't share what she's feeling with me any more, not even the smallest details...
Gabrielle glanced over at her companion. Xena was walking, holding Argo's reins, appearing not to mind the clinging, viscous muck of the rain-soaked trail. The warrior's expression was dull and without animation.
Why is this happening? wondered Gabrielle. Shouldn't she be getting better? We're doing what she wants. We're going to find peace and freedom from the pain of loss. Freedom from war and blood and anger. We're heading toward serenity and gardens and hope. A quiet cottage, just for the two of us...
Suddenly, Xena plucked an arrow out of the air milliseconds before it would have hit Gabrielle. The warrior stared at it, almost surprised at having caught it.
The bard didn't hesitate. She raised her staff and listened with her body in case there was another deadly missile. Suddenly a shout cut through the silence and half a dozen grimy highwaymen burst through the trees, surrounding them.
"Give us your dinars and we'll spare your lives," said the leader, showing his broken, yellow teeth in a lewd smile. "Though I don't promise to spare your virtue -- if you have any, that is."
"You picked the wrong women to mess with, guys," said Gabrielle. "You do *not* want to tangle with us. Trust me. Run along and leave us alone." The bard was relaxed and loose, ready for anything. This group would barely make Xena break a sweat, Gabrielle thought. In fact, she decided, she could probably take them all on alone. It wasn't that she had grown cocky and over-confident, but this motley group of rejects just didn't have the fire for victory that she had seen in so many other, more dangerous, eyes. The bard smiled, thinking this was just what they needed to get rid of a little tension.
Xena dropped the arrow and slowly withdrew her sword. Gabrielle glanced over, ready to coordinate silently which men would be hers to concentrate on, but the warrior seemed strangely distracted. Xena stared at her blade, not even looking at the men who surrounded them. This wasn't right, thought Gabrielle. She should be looking at their eyes. Anticipating their moves. Xena's focus never shifted when there was a possible fight. Suddenly, Gabrielle wasn't so confident any more.
"Oooh, I'm sooo scared!" said one of the men sarcastically, causing all but one of the group to laugh appreciatively.
The leader shook his head at Xena then turned to Gabrielle. "Your big warrior friend there has seen too many battles, girl. She can't even look me in the eye!"
"C'mon, we don't want any trouble," said Gabrielle, moving closer to Xena and covering her sudden nerves with a bold smile. "This is Xena. Yup, the actual Warrior Princess herself." I can take them all, she told herself, repeating it like a mantra in her mind. I thought it before, and I know that it's true. I'll worry about what's wrong with Xena, later. Right now, I have to concentrate. I have the skills, I just have to protect us both and not get hurt. I can do this. I can.
There was a small rustling as the men shifted uncomfortably on their feet.
"Xena?" said the leader, doubt in his voice.
"Oh yeah. Xena," said Gabrielle, confidently. "And if you don't believe me, ask yourself this: do you *really* want her to prove it?"
The highwaymen glanced at each other uneasily. They looked ready to cut their losses, not willing to take any chances. But one man didn't look away from the warrior. He hadn't laughed with the others and his face showed no fear or suspicion. "That's Xena, all right," he said in a low growl. "I fought against her army once. She and her thugs killed every friend I had. I barely escaped with my life."
"Maybe we should do as the girl says then. Leave her alone," said the youngest of the group.
The leader opened his mouth to call a retreat when the soldier spoke up. "No. I've waited a lifetime for this chance. No one is taking it away from me." With a throat-tearing cry, he leapt at Xena, sword drawn, a murderous rage in his eyes. Gabrielle knew instantly that Xena wasn't ready. Quickly, the bard jumped to intercept the blow with her staff. At the loud 'thwok' of steel hitting wood, Xena's head snapped up, surprise clear in the warrior's features. She really *hadn't* been paying attention, thought the bard. May the gods protect us both! Gabrielle wanted to scream at Xena; wake her from whatever daze she was in. In all their time together, Gabrielle had never seen her friend taken by surprise while in such obvious danger.
In an instant, all six men fell upon the two women. Gabrielle fought three of them with her staff, working her skill against knees, arms and weapons. Xena fought the others efficiently, but without the laughter and joy she usually displayed when showing her skill. No battle cry escaped her lips. No mocking taunts were hurled at her weaker opponents. No acrobatics dazzled and confused the enemy. She stood as if rooted and fought quietly and conservatively.
During a moment when two of her foes were temporarily subdued, Gabrielle glanced over at her companion. The warrior was doing a minimal amount of fighting. She was using them against each other, avoiding bringing her own sword into play. Her face was empty. Emotionless. No joy or anger played across her features. This woman bore no resemblance to Xena, and it frightened the bard to her core.
Gabrielle heard the air near her head sing. She ducked the swinging blade with scant seconds to spare. Three well-placed hits with the staff took the man down. Moments later his companion joined him on the ground. The warrior had two men coming at her and was concentrating on this new attack. The bard saw the third opponent circling Xena quietly.
"Xena! Behind you!" Gabrielle shouted.
The warrior had just sent two charging attackers flying. Without thinking, she thrust her sword behind her, impaling the third man, her expression still calm and uninvolved.
The recovering fighters stopped where they squatted. The dead man was the soldier. Without his hatred, they lost their will to engage these superior foes.
"C'mon then, lads!" shouted the leader, helping one of his men to his feet as they all rushed into the brush, disappearing in several directions.
Xena stood staring after them, the soldier still impaled on her sword, his body slumped against her back. She blinked once then let go of her weapon. The corpse fell to the mud with a muted splat. Slowly, the warrior turned to stare at an old enemy.
"Do you recognize him?" asked Gabrielle, taking deep breaths to help clear the adrenaline from her system.
"No. Just another nameless victim, I guess," said Xena softly.
"Well, he was trying to kill you," said Gabrielle, worried at the look in Xena's eyes. They were dull and spiritless -- the eyes of someone who had given up hope and no longer cared. The woman who stood beside her was a stranger.
Xena touched the hilt of her sword. She hesitated a moment then put one boot against his chest and pulled the blade from his body. She looked for a moment at the blood on the fine steel then glanced at her own hands. "Time to get moving," was all she said.
"Okay..." said Gabrielle. She cocked her head and looked quizzically at her companion. "What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing." Xena grabbed Argo's reins. Silently, she began to walk.
"No, Xena, I mean really -- what happened back there?"
Gabrielle frowned. She grabbed Xena by the shoulder and forcibly turned her. "You don't talk about your feelings a lot. I accept that. But one thing you've always done is fight like a woman possessed. Like a woman who wants to live. Xena, that man would have killed you with his first blow if I hadn't stepped in. What's going on? If you're having some kind of crisis, I need to know about it."
"I'm fine," she said, shaking off the warm hand that rested on her upper arm. "Let's go."
"No. Not until you tell me what's going on. Look, if you don't care about your own life, what about mine? I need to know if my partner is unable to defend herself, so that I can fight for both of us." That should get her, thought Gabrielle.
Xena took a deep breath, as she stared into the concerned features of her companion. "I'm sorry. I... guess I lost my edge. It won't happen again." Her voice was a monotone, her eyes empty.
"That's it? You 'lost your edge?'"
"Yeah, c'mon," she said, turning away.
Gabrielle quickly scooted in front of Xena, blocking her way. "No. Talk to me. Now. What's going on?" She reached out to her, but Xena crossed her arms, shrugging away any attempt at contact.
"Nothing? Don't you dare treat me like I'm not important enough to share your thoughts with. I deserve better from you."
"Please, Gabrielle," said Xena, dully. "I have nothing to say."
The warrior's apathy was like a vacuum, sucking the energy out of anything that threatened to get too close. The bard knew that somehow she had to get through to her; had to get her talking. "Okay, then let's figure it out. Together."
Xena looked at the ground, seemingly fascinated by a splash of blood drying on her boot. Finally, she put a hand on Gabrielle's arm, moving her aside as she pulled on Argo's reins and began to walk.
Gabrielle fell in step beside her. "Nothing to say. You almost let some rank amateur cut you in two, but you have nothing to say. I've seen you fight Ares and Hercules to a standstill, but this guy was too tough, right?"
Xena turned to her companion. "You're not going to leave this alone, are you?"
"Not a chance."
Xena sighed, shaking her head. "Okay."
"Good. Now let's get to the bottom of this. What were you thinking about when you drew your sword? You were staring at it as if you'd never seen it before," said Gabrielle.
"I don't know. The last person I killed, I guess."
"We haven't really had much trouble lately. Who was it?"
"One of the villagers. You know, from Thor's revenge. I don't remember much about the guy. Just that he was crying. Huddled beneath a table. I made him tell me what part he'd played in the death of Ilsa's parents. He had been one of the men who had raped her mother, Ingrid," Xena said dispassionately.
"Gods," whispered Gabrielle.
"But he was weeping and pleading, all curled up under the table. I had to push the thing on its side to get to him. Then I killed him. The last guy. Must've been thirty men in that tavern. Blood everywhere. Blood and piss and fear-sweat and crying, cringing cowards who had been big men when they'd attacked a defenseless couple in the woods. Raping and maiming the unarmed made them feel strong, I guess." Though the words had strength, they had been delivered in a monotone, as if Xena was recounting events that had happened to someone else.
Gabrielle was silent, waiting for her to continue. The bard had tried not to think too much about the villagers. She knew Xena had only done what Thor had asked. But it had to have been difficult for her, even with this knowledge, to kill so many in cold blood. Her companion had never been one to enjoy murdering defenseless people -- not since she'd given up her life as a warlord. Destroying the men in the tavern... that had to have felt a little too much like 'old times,' Gabrielle reasoned. Killing a man who was weeping for his life. Gods. No matter how much they might have deserved it, Gabrielle knew that Xena would never have exacted this revenge had it not been for Thor's promise.
"Only one man put up a real fight," said Xena, breaking in on Gabrielle's thoughts. "A worthless son of a Bacchae named Kristos. I saw it in his eyes. He had been behind the attack on the Scandians. He was the reason a bunch of village nobodies became killers. He deserved his fate. But the rest of them probably shouldn't have died." Xena shrugged her shoulders.
"Regardless of who started it, they all participated, right? You spared the ones who hadn't been involved."
"Yeah, they were all there. But I kept hearing the same story. Each of them had wept and moaned that they had been under some kind of spell. Kristos and his wife were... they were different from the rest of the villagers, I guess. And it was his wife who had taken each man aside and told him to listen to her husband. To do what he said. Some of the men said she touched them with her hand and suddenly they felt different about things." Xena stopped walking and turned to her companion. "Gabrielle, I think those men were changed, altered somehow. That night... Half of them couldn't remember it and the other half were so filled with horror and regret, they almost welcomed death." Nothing showed on the warrior's face as she once again grabbed the mare's reins and pushed forward.
Gabrielle didn't know what to say. Xena had never spoken of the tavern before. The bard had thought it was all so cut and dried, but now... if the villagers had indeed been under some sort of spell, then perhaps their guilt wasn't quite as clear. Somehow, she had to give Xena a way to reconcile the pain of her role in all this. For despite her apparent lack of emotion in the telling, Gabrielle knew that her friend had to be feeling a lot of unresolved guilt herself. She was just dealing with it by pushing away her emotions, thought the bard. "Xena, you did it for Ilsa, remember? For our daughter. You had to do it. Thor demanded it!" Gabrielle rubbed Xena's arm, wanting to comfort her.
"Yeah, I had to do it," she said, matter-of-factly. "It was the price Thor demanded to wipe out Ilsa's memories of us. To protect her from the pain of our leaving. My wish to a foreign god, paid for in the blood of Greeks."
"You sound like you're trying to convince yourself that you made the right choice," said Gabrielle, softly. "Don't doubt yourself now, Xena. Please. Don't add that burden to the pain of your loss. The gods know I can barely handle the hurt I still hold. Don't make it even harder on yourself by living with regrets. Please, Xena. Let this one go. It was the will of a god and your love for our child. The villagers, well, they had their own destiny. Remember: that wasn't *your* revenge, Xena. It was only the price you had to pay to protect our daughter."
Xena looked at the bard, seemingly unconcerned. "I know," she said, simply. She turned back to the trail as if nothing of import had been discussed.
Gabrielle was worried. Xena had slipped away to wash up when the moon was still low in the night sky. The bard lifted her head to the heavens, dismayed to see how far the moon had now risen.
Too long, she thought. Xena has been gone way too long. What do I do? I could go looking for her. But what if she's hiding from me; crying those silent, difficult tears of hers? She got so angry the last time I caught her grieving. Yes, but what if she's lying somewhere, hurt? She hasn't been herself lately. In her present state I don't know how safe she is out there, alone with the evils of the night.
Gabrielle shivered. I don't want her out of my sight, she realized. After the pain of parting from Ilsa and then the revenge against the village, she was so vulnerable and hurt. But I thought eventually, she'd get better. Instead, she appears to be getting worse. Time isn't healing her wounds. Her stifled tears aren't washing away her pain. Xena is sinking further and further inside herself and I don't know what to do or how to reach her. May the gods help me. She's erected a wall so strong I don't have any idea how to breach it.
"I can't just sit here waiting," Gabrielle mumbled. She grabbed her staff and a branch from the fire to use as a torch then walked through thickets of scrubby brush toward a small, nearby stream. Not that she expected to find Xena there, of course. She would have finished her 'bath' a long time ago. No, the bard had decided to use the tracking skills Xena had taught her, and try to locate her friend that way. To her surprise, Gabrielle found the warrior immediately. Xena was kneeling on the riverbank, washing her hands in the faint light of the slivered moon.
"Xena? What's taking so long?"
Xena didn't answer. She just kept scrubbing at her hands, frowning in concentration.
Gabrielle drew closer and lowered her torch to look. The bard gasped in horror at what the light revealed. Xena was using a jagged rock as a pumice stone, scraping the sharp edges against her flesh. The skin of the warrior's hands was shredded, blood flowing in rivulets down her wrists. "By the gods, Xena... Stop it! You're hurting yourself!"
"Why won't it come off?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle jammed the torch in the muddy bank, grabbed Xena by the wrists and pulled them apart to stop her from abusing herself further. The warrior didn't resist, but continued to stare at her raw, bleeding hands. The stone fell from her grasp, plopping into the stream with a muted splash.
"Gods, Xena..." whispered Gabrielle, gingerly tugging one arm closer to the flame to get a better look. "What in Zeus' name is wrong with you? Why did you do this to yourself?" Gabrielle's eyes were transfixed on her lover's once strong, well-shaped hands. These were the hands that had held her, touched her, loved her. Hands that had brought her to the heights of passion, and had stroked her hair as she had wept in caring arms. Hands that could gentle a horse, throw a chakram with deadly accuracy, twirl a sword in fanciful patterns, tease naked flesh into sweet arousal, heal a wound, find a pressure point, massage aching shoulders, throw a punch, stroke away a tear... These were Xena's gorgeous, capable, loving hands; now butchered in the night by a mind gone slightly mad.
Suddenly, Gabrielle was very frightened.
Xena was beyond her reach. Her silent pain had driven her to a place with which the bard had no experience. How did she bring her back? How did she reach the wonderful, caring, powerful woman whom she loved?
"He said the blood wouldn't be on my hands, but he lied, Gabrielle. It's there, you can see it," said Xena in a reasonable tone.
Gabrielle tore her attention away from the warrior's injuries and looked for the first time into her eyes. They were blank, lifeless, dull. Even the once vivid blue was so muted the irises appeared almost clear. There was nothing in those eyes. Nothing. No spark of the warrior or the woman.
"What are you talking about?" asked Gabrielle, too frightened to know what to say or where to begin. This is impossible, she thought. Not Xena. Anyone else but Xena. Xena wouldn't crack. She wouldn't lose her mind. She wouldn't leave me here all alone in the night with a broken stranger...
"Thor," said Xena, answering Gabrielle's question. Her voice was dry and emotionless. "He said that if I killed the villagers the blood wouldn't be on my hands. He promised me. He told me he wasn't like Ares. He didn't want my soul. Only this one act of revenge."
"I know," said Gabrielle, releasing Xena's wrists. The bard reached a hand toward the warrior's face but pulled it back without touching. Instead, she covered her own mouth to stifle her despair. Finding her control, Gabrielle let her hand drift down to the base of her own throat, where it remained, balled in a fist. Her other hand rested on Xena's thigh. "Please Xena, you have to pull yourself together. You have to concentrate on--"
"But he lied. He did want my soul. Look," said Xena, holding her hands up in the light of the torch. The dancing flame added a surreal depth to the color of the torn flesh. "It didn't come off. The blood is still there. It's still with me."
Gabrielle sloughed off her own fears and focused on her friend. She grabbed Xena by the shoulders and shook her roughly, trying to awaken some spark of energy or passion in the warrior. "No, Xena. That isn't the blood of the villagers. It's yours. You've scraped your hands raw. You did this to yourself!" I sound like an idiot! thought Gabrielle. Think! Think! What do I say? What do I say to get her back? Gods, please, help me!
"I had to protect Ilsa. You understand that, don't you?"
"Yes, of course, Xena," said Gabrielle, searching for something in those lifeless eyes that remained of her friend.
"I couldn't let her scream again. I didn't have the guts to see her face when I told her I'd never come back. I was a coward and Thor knew it," said Xena matter-of-factly.
How can the gods be silent when I need them so? thought Gabrielle. She fought for control, grabbing Xena's face in her own warm hands and forced her to look into her desperate green eyes. "No, Xena. You're the bravest person I've ever known. What you did takes a lot more courage than just running away from her. I don't know if I could've done it. I don't know who else could've done it. You did what was best for her."
Xena stared blankly at the bard, her expression dull and uncaring.
"Xena, please. Hear me. Come back, okay? I need you. I don't know what to do. I love you, Xena. I'll do anything for you." Gabrielle searched her mind for something -- anything -- that might break through to the strong warrior she knew was beneath this helpless surface. There was nothing. Nothing she could think to do. So she let her heart speak for her, her emotions raw, her voice breaking. "Give me your pain. I'll suffer it for you. I'll take on all your problems, shoulder all your burdens, just come back to me." She grabbed Xena by the shoulders and shook her once, needing desperately to get a reaction -- any reaction from the vacant warrior. "Come on, Xena! You know I wouldn't lie to you. I'll do it, just give me your pain. Please..." Gabrielle trailed off as Xena blinked her eyes rapidly. Was it working? wondered the bard. "Fight this!" she said, tightening her grasp, her voice stronger now. "Fight this dark place you've gone to. You owe me that. You promised me! You promised me that you would fight the darkness wherever you found it. Well it's here, Xena! It's claiming your mind and your soul! And you're letting it, damn you!"
Exhaling, Xena closed her eyes, letting her chin drop to her chest, her shoulders slumped. Then, on a breath, she straightened, nodding her head.
"That's it..." said the bard, choking on the words. Softly, she stroked the warrior's hair. "That's it... c'mon, Xena..."
"Gabrielle..." whispered Xena. "What's wrong with me? I... I feel so empty." She glanced down at her hands. "They should hurt..." She looked up, meeting Gabrielle's loving green eyes with her own bewildered and colorless blue. Finally, gently, she leaned her head against Gabrielle's shoulder. "So empty..."
"Oh Xena," the bard murmured, closing her eyes and allowing her tears to fall at last. She gathered the warrior in her arms and rocked her tenderly.
"Will it ever get better? Will I ever feel like myself again?" asked Xena, her voice clear, her eyes dry.
"Yes," said Gabrielle. "It will. It just takes time. And remember, I'll always be here for you. You're not really empty, Xena. You have my love. Let that fill your heart."
"Yes," said Xena without conviction. "Not empty. I have your love."
Although Xena quickly turned away, the bard caught a clear glimpse of a face that was completely blank, as if the warrior had no emotions at all...
Gabrielle glanced over at Xena, who rode silently on Argo. "Here looks nice," the bard said, looking at a leafy glade just visible through the trees.
Xena glanced at the clearing, then over at the setting sun. She turned Argo's head and led her toward the campsite without speaking.
With the efficiency born of two of years of traveling together, they set up camp, got a fire going, and put some herbs, vegetables and meat in a pot to simmer. Gabrielle had taken over most of the camp duties because Xena's hands were still heavily bandaged, though she claimed there was no pain. Gabrielle had no idea how this was possible as the wounds were quite serious, whole sections of skin had been torn off, and Xena's sword hand had some damage done to the muscle underneath. Dutifully, the bard applied poultices, rebandaging with care each time. Gabrielle was afraid to admit the possibility existed that Xena's hands would never fully recover. The warrior didn't appear to care either way.
The incident at the river had happened two nights earlier and Xena hadn't said a word about it since. Except for the ritual of wrapping her hands, she didn't acknowledge that anything untoward had occurred. Gabrielle watched Xena out of the corner of her eye, as the warrior clumsily brushed Argo.
"Beautiful night, isn't it?" said Gabrielle, breathing in the fresh new scents of the mild spring evening, trying to show by example that it's possible to be aware of the world no matter what you're feeling. Xena continued to groom the mare, her expression blank. "Yes," the bard added, "just beautiful. Perfect temperature. Clear sky with millions of stars..." Gabrielle trailed off. Xena was obviously not listening.
Frustrated, Gabrielle leaned back and stared at the night sky. She sighed heavily, feeling a surge of anger inside her at the taciturn warrior who had effectively cut off all communication for the past few days. A bright flash in the heavens trailed for a moment then disappeared.
"Just saw a shooting star. Make a wish, Xena," said Gabrielle. The warrior stopped brushing for a moment, her body still. Then she continued to stroke the mare. "I didn't say it to upset you," said Gabrielle, sitting up. She paused for a moment then stood, walking over to stroke the mare's long muzzle. "It's okay to let yourself make wishes, you know," she said earnestly. "Want to hear mine? I wish you would talk to me. I need you to talk. Every time I've tried to get you to speak about what you're feeling you shut me out. You ignore me or say nothing or ride ahead -- something, anything, as long as you don't have to voice your problems. Well, you know what? You're not going to make it. You can't hold everything in and expect to survive. Not now. This time, something is terribly wrong."
Xena looked at the bard, her eyes blank, and shrugged her shoulders. "I'm fine. Stop worrying so much."
"You're not fine. Look at your hands, Xena. You're *not* fine!"
Xena glanced at her bandaged hands. "They don't hurt."
"So you keep telling me," said Gabrielle, frustrated. "And that alone should tell you that something's wrong. They *should* hurt. I mean, you can barely hold Argo's brush. How are you going to hold a sword?"
"Uh huh. Go ahead, try it."
"Oh, indulge me," said Gabrielle pointedly, her frustrations mounting.
Xena handed Gabrielle the comb, then reached for her sword. She couldn't get a grip on the hilt that would allow her to unsheathe the weapon. "The bandages are in the way."
Gabrielle grunted in frustration. "It's not the bandages, it's your hands! They're hurt. Bad." She looked at the warrior's uninterested features. "Don't you care? Why aren't you screaming about this? Why aren't you cursing the fates? You can't hold a sword, Xena! And it doesn't even seem to bother you!"
"Stop worrying so much," said the warrior as she awkwardly retrieved the comb and continued to brush Argo as if nothing had occurred.
Gabrielle shook her head sadly. "You know, I never thought you, of all people, could snap. It just didn't seem possible. But I was there at the river and I saw it happen. I can't deny what I saw with my own eyes -- so why are you trying to deny it? Why? Damn you, Xena, you are so frustrating sometimes. How long am I supposed to stand here and watch you crumble? Sooner or later something has to happen. You can't go on forever closing yourself off from me and from the world. You can't go so deep inside that you lose yourself, like you did the other night. I won't let you. And if you're not going to let me help then I'm going to..."
"What?" asked Xena, though she didn't appear interested in the answer.
"I don't know what to do," Gabrielle said placing her hand on Xena's arm. The warrior moved away, and began to brush Argo's tail. "You tell me," said Gabrielle, harshly. "Do I leave you? Do I let you spiral down into madness and say 'have a nice trip?'" She waited for a reaction but there was nothing. Sighing, Gabrielle put her arms around Argo's neck and hugged the mare. "I can't do that. I can't." She looked over at the warrior, who brushed the horse's tail as if nothing of importance had been said. Gabrielle walked over and held Xena's arms gently. There were tears in the bard's eyes, her expression earnest and suffused with pain, love and a pleading intensity. "Don't make me do that, Xena. Don't push me away so hard I can't find my way back. Please, Xena. Please, I'm begging you. Let me in. Let me help you. Let me love you."
Xena looked into the bard's eyes. "I'll be back in a bit." Xena eased herself out of Gabrielle's grip, patted her shoulder unconsciously then headed for the trees at the edge of the clearing.
"Wait!" said Gabrielle too loudly in the quiet night.
Xena turned back, an eyebrow raised in question.
"Where are you going? How long are you going to be gone?"
"I need to be alone. Don't know how long. You're safe here."
"I'm not worried about *me*!" the bard snapped.
"I'm fine," mumbled Xena, disappearing.
"Oh yeah, you're fine! Nothing wrong with you. Nah ah." Gabrielle walked over, stirred the stew then lay back on her blankets. "You're driving me crazy, Xena. I mean it. I don't know how much more of this I can take," she said aloud to the empty forest.
Xena sat alone on a fallen log. She held her head in her bandaged hands, waiting for tears. They didn't come. The emptiness was all she could find. It had been that way for days on end.
Slowly she raised her eyes to stare at the night sky. Reaching into her bodice, she withdrew the small token she wore around her neck at all times. In it was a piece of Ilsa's spirit. It was the symbol of Xena's status as one of Thor's Chosen. An icon to the god of the Scandians, given to the Greek warrior by the Thunder God himself.
"Thor? I don't understand what's going on with me. I can't feel my way any more. And that isn't right. Nothing is inside me. I'm empty. And I don't know how this can be."
She glanced down at her bandaged hands then held them up. "Look. I hurt my hands, Thor. And I got bruised, bad. Right here," she said, placing one hand on her chest, over her heart. "It should hurt. My hands... they should hurt. But they don't. And I never even felt the blow that gave me this," she added, rubbing the bruise, pushing on it in hopes that she would feel the tenderness; feel the pain. "How can I feel nothing at all?"
Xena paused, reaching for anything that would give her direction, a clue, an understanding of this overwhelming feeling of hollowness. She turned her mind to the one thing she still possessed. "Gabrielle says she loves me, Thor. And that should make me feel good, right? But it doesn't. I don't feel anything at all..."
"I used to love her, Thor. Somewhere inside me is that love. It has to be there. It can't just go away, can it? You can't just lose your ability to love?" Xena stared at the night sky, looking for another shooting star so that she might make a wish. "Where did it go? I can't feel anything any more. Nothing. I simply don't care about anyone or anything. And I used to care so much, Thor. I remember it. I remember being able to feel. I wanted to change the world. I wanted to save everyone. Help people. And I wanted to spend every minute with Gabrielle. I adored her so. She was my heart and soul. My lifeline. My path to the light. She's given me so much. And now I look at her and she's just there. I feel... nothing. I could return to our camp, find her dead and I simply wouldn't care..."
Xena dropped her head in her bandaged hands, the icon pressed against her forehead. "Gabrielle told me that my heart can't be empty because she is inside it. But everything that used to matter to me... they're all gone, Thor, I can't feel them anymore. I care nothing for Gabrielle or my mission, my lifestyle, my children..."
Xena looked again at the amulet. "You tell me Ilsa's in here; her spirit is in the amulet. But she doesn't know me. You took her memories of me. How can I hold her spirit if it doesn't know I exist? Especially now that I can no longer feel her in my heart. I've lost Ilsa, too, Thor. She's gone. As gone as Gabrielle. Everything... is gone..."
"Am I weak? Am I without strength? Did I trade it away?" she asked the night. "When I took your revenge on the village, Thor, did you ask another price as well? Did you take my strength? Did you take my heart? My emotions?"
"No, Xena," said a deep, masculine voice. A shimmering light blinded the warrior for a moment and suddenly, he was there. Thor, the Thunder God, Wielder of the sacred hammer, Mjolnir, stood before her.
"Yes, my child. You are my Chosen and you have called to me."
She stared at the Thunder God; at his tall, strong presence. He wore his usual clothing of leather and furs. His golden hair shimmered in the starlight and his wintry eyes looked into and through her to her very soul. The last time she had seen him was by the grave of Ilsa's parents. He had given her back her tears. Tried to help her on the road to healing. And she had finally felt the pain of Ilsa's loss and the regrets over killing the village men. Where did that pain go? she wondered.
Xena stood, facing him. She reached out to touch him to see if he was real, but stopped, catching sight of her bandages. "You told me their blood wouldn't be on my hands," she said, her voice dull.
"And it isn't." Gently, he touched one hand, then the other. Smiling, he removed the bandages. They were whole again. Untouched by injury.
Xena stared at them, turning them in front of her face. "How..."
"These hands were not meant to bear the burden of my revenge."
"Can you heal my mind and heart as easily?" she asked. "Can you take away the emptiness?"
Thor looked at her with compassion. "If I do, then you will feel the pain again. It is a sadness to me that my request caused you such distress, but it is what makes you who you are. You pay a heavy price for all your actions. Your very strength comes from your willingness to shoulder the responsibility and consequences of your life. So few do this. So few. I will not take your pain away, Xena. So precious a gift should not be stolen by a foreign god. But I can make you feel."
"Do it," she said, staring into his wintry eyes.
"Sweet child, do you remember? It is a terrible burden."
"I remember. Just give me back my heart." she hesitated a moment then said, "Please."
"All right." Thor lifted her face with one finger then kissed her gently on the lips.
Suddenly, a flood of emotions swept through her. She was filled with pain and darkness, light and love. It was a raw and horrible thing, yet hope and truth and desire were with her again; making her realize that she could prevail. She thought of Gabrielle and was finally able to love to the depths of her soul. She thought of Ilsa and felt the familiar aching need for her child. She thought of the village and felt the shame of having killed so many. Eager to feel again, she welcomed every sensation, no matter how dreadful or appalling the part she had played. She reviewed her life of sadness and glory and reveled in the wealth of emotions it inspired.
"Thank you, Thor. I can live with this. I can live with pain," she said, smiling. Then her smile faded and she looked at him with suspicion. "Okay, so what's the price?"
"You don't trust me," he said simply.
"No, I don't. You're a god and I've learned that gods aren't really the trustworthy types. Now tell me your price." Xena was having a difficult time holding onto her suspicion as waves of emotions washed over her, filling up the empty places inside her as a raging flood fills a sunken valley.
"Faith," he said.
"You mean worship. Well I don't do that, Thunder God. So you may as well get it out of your head."
Instead of getting angry, as she expected, he smiled. "There are plenty of people who worship me, Xena. I don't need it from you if it makes you uncomfortable."
Xena took a step back, his powerful presence interfering with her thoughts. She could feel him inside her head, reading the newly released layers of her emotions and it unnerved her. "Why do you even bother to speak to me? You're in my mind -- you know what I'm thinking."
"I was wondering if this experience had taught you anything. And I see you have already decided to shoulder your burdens alone."
"Of course. They're my problems, no one else's."
"Let me ask you this: why are you out here alone when there is a woman agonizing and weeping back at your fire?"
"What? Gabrielle... what's wrong? Is she hurt?" Xena asked, turning toward the direction of their campsite. Suddenly, her thoughts of Thor's motives vanished as Gabrielle's safety filled her mind.
"Yes. She is hurt," said Thor, stepping back into her line of sight. "She offered to take on your pain, remember? But you were without feelings when she did so. Now that the emptiness is gone, can you ask for her help? You were able to ask me -- one of those 'untrustworthy' gods. You called out to me in the night, needing a cure. Xena, don't squander this. Give Gabrielle what she desires. Share yourself with her. Share your thoughts, your pain, your need. You love each other deeply. And a love like that, it is always the answer. Remember that. Love is your strength. Will you do this, Xena? Will you let her help you?"
"I'll... try," she said, wondering if Gabrielle would even speak to her after what she'd just put the bard through.
"This pleases me, Daughter. It takes strength to ask for help. Do you see now that you are not weak? That you have the character to draw on your lover's warmth of heart and allow her to help you heal?"
Xena nodded, surprised when Thor reached out and enfolded her in his arms. The power of him flowed through her and she found herself unable to resist feeding on it for just a moment, leaning into his massive strength and siphoning some of it into herself.
"Good," said the god, softly. "I'm sorry that my revenge has caused so much pain for you, Xena. And I offer you yet another gift in return. For I am your god and I love you, my Chosen One. Farewell," he said, shimmering then disappearing.
"Thor?" Xena said, her arms now empty. "What did you mean -- 'faith'?" She looked around the small clearing, wondering how this Scandian god had gotten through her defenses yet again. It was another excellent reason to avoid all gods no matter what. Like Ares, Thor's pull was powerful and hypnotic. Yet unlike Ares, Xena had no idea what it was he really wanted from her. And this was terribly frightening.
She started to leave the clearing when his final words came back to her. "What gift?" she asked the night, unsure if she wanted to know.
"Mama?" came the sound of a woman's voice.
Xena twisted on her heels and was face to face with a young, beautiful, blonde woman, around twenty winters old. The woman smiled at Xena, her features brimming with love.
"Ilsa...?" whispered Xena, her eyes wide, mouth open in shock.
"Ja, Szeeneh-Mama," she answered.
"How...? Thor..." His parting gift. A chance to see her daughter grown. A chance to hold her one last time. "And you recognize me?" Please say you do, Xena thought. I couldn't bear it if this was a trick.
"Ja, Thor has given me this gift of knowing finally my past. He gives me my heart's desire as his Chosen. For my lifetime, I have feelings that I am unknowing. I have for always great curiosity about the Greeks where my people found such pain, but also such love. I learn the language from Per Rolph. I study the remembrances of my people. And always, I feel there is someone whose thoughts are in me. So I am asking Thor during Festival. I am asking him for my memory and he gives it to me. Then he gives me this -- min Szeeneh-Mama. I am coming from the future to see you as you were. As in my new remembrances."
Xena opened her arms and the two women embraced each other across the dimensions of time and space. For a brief moment, all things in the world seemed possible. Xena's heart filled to overflowing, all the anguish and pain of the past couple months forgotten as she held her daughter.
After infinite moments when the two women greedily imprinted every sensation they could feel on their eager memories, Ilsa pulled away to look into her mother's eyes. "Mama, you are so beautiful, as I remember."
"Are you happy? In your life?"
"Ja, there is many good things. I am married to a man who is good and kind and most funny. He gives me laughter every day."
"And we have now a daughter. I am told she is me as a child, in her looks and action."
"Then she must be the most lovable, beautiful child ever born."
"So good to hear agreement with my opinions!" Ilsa said, laughing. "We named her Xena. Not a Scandian name. But a name which is of her spirit, nahk?"
"You did it. You named her for me," Xena whispered, remembering that Thor had promised this to Gabrielle on that last visit.
"Thor instructs me at the festival of her birth. He gives me the name and I am knowing right away that it is her."
Unable to find words, Xena drew Ilsa tighter, holding her close enough to last a lifetime.
"How is Papa?" asked Ilsa.
Xena chuckled. "Gabrielle -- Papa -- is fine. She loves you very much; talks about you all the time."
"You are giving this to her then. From me," said Ilsa, kissing Xena tenderly on the cheek.
"I will. Oh, sweet Ilsa, I love you so. We both love you so," said Xena, reveling in the fullness of her heart and the touch of her beloved daughter.
"There is a pulling at me," said Ilsa, suddenly distressed. "I am being taken now."
"No, please! This wasn't long enough! I need to know more about you! I need more time! I can't let you go yet!"
"You must let me go. Please. You know in your heart all there is, Mama. You give me my hope when you take me from those woods. You give me your love when I was hurting and frightened. And, Mama, you give me back to my people, so I can have wonderful growing up. This... this is impossible to thank you for. Without this, I would not have my husband, who is holding my heart, and not my daughter who is of your spirit. Thank you, Mama..." she said and then was gone.
"Ilsa..." Xena moaned, falling to her knees.
"'Use me to climb...' No, that doesn't work," mumbled Gabrielle, bent over a scroll by the light of the campfire. She had wept, she had railed, she had paced, she had worried. Finally, she had decided to bury her mind in her work. "'Climb across...' 'Climb... up!' Yeah, that's better. 'Climb up my body, Xena said, and I grabbed her thigh as she held onto my bilio--"
"Xena!" Gabrielle shoved the scroll aside and scrambled to her feet. "Where have you been? You've been gone forever!"
"I'm sorry. You won't believe me when I tell you," said the warrior, shaking her head, not quite sure if she believed it herself.
"What... you look different, Xena. What happened?"
"Gabrielle, we need to talk," said Xena. "*I* need to talk."
They camped in the glade for two days. Xena recounted her meeting with Thor and her brief reunion with Ilsa. Together, they tried to work through the pain and regret that Xena felt.
The warrior had difficulty opening up to the bard. It felt wrong to her. She hated burdening Gabrielle with her problems. But Gabrielle was open, eager and gentle, helping her by simply listening when that's what she needed. They discussed the difficult events of the last couple months, sharing both pain and laughter. And at the end of two days, Xena felt as though some of her burden had indeed been lifted. True, the ache of loss was still with her and at times was overwhelming. But the strength of Gabrielle's love and support made it bearable. On the third day, they packed their things and pushed on toward the Amazons. The one thing Xena refused to do was consider foregoing her plan of living in peace. She had to try it, she told Gabrielle. They could always move on if it didn't work out. Reluctantly, the bard agreed. She didn't understand how Xena would adapt to a quiet life, but she was willing to indulge the warrior to help her during this difficult time.
Besides, she realized, she was looking forward to seeing her Amazon sisters again.
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