"Breakfast, Your Highness," said a cheerful female voice as she entered the Sovereign's bedroom. "Come now, you can't still be sleeping!" The woman bent over the ruler's body, shaking one shoulder. The flesh was cold to the touch. "By the gods...!" she whispered. She ran to the door. "Fetch the healer! Hurry!" she screamed and a guard went running.
"What is it?" asked the Captain of the Guard, rounding the corner at a run.
"He's... he's dead! King Lias is dead!" she said, already sobbing.
"You!" shouted the Captain to a soldier. "Get Princess Diana and be quick about it!"
"Sweet Persephone, he wasn't even ill..." whispered the cook's assistant. "I must tell Meg. She'll be devastated, poor dear. She loved him like a father." The woman ran from the room, heading toward the kitchens and Meg, the chief cook.
The Captain approached the body, his face showing no emotion, but his heart breaking. He had been with King Lias for over fifteen winters. He would gladly have died for him. The Sovereign had always been fair-minded, a good ruler and a valued friend. Though the Captain took comfort in the fact that the king had obviously slipped away in his sleep, it still hurt to lose this kind and gentle man.
"What's wrong?" asked the healer, rushing into the room.
The Captain stepped out of the healer's way, knowing that no words need be said.
The healer felt the King's pulse points. "Ah, poor King Lias. Safe passage to the Elysian Fields, my friend," said the healer. The Captain nodded mutely. Making sure of his diagnosis, the healer checked King Lias' eyes, felt for the stiffness of rigor mortis, then began a more thorough examination. "Here now, what's this?" he muttered, as he gingerly moved the Sovereign's nightshirt further aside to reveal a darkened bruise over the King's heart.
"Do you suppose that's what killed him?" asked the Captain, suddenly uneasy. He had assumed the king had simply died in his sleep. If he had been wounded, then something was frighteningly amiss.
"I don't know. Could be. It looks strangely familiar, though..." said the healer, deep in thought. "Where have I seen that particular mark before?"
The Captain looked closer. "Odd. It tickles my memory as well. Perhaps a battle injury of some sort? But how would King Lias sustain such a thing?" The Captain and the King's healer were of an age and had fought together years before. The soldier's uneasiness was growing moment by moment.
"Battle injury..." muttered the healer, the words dredging up a deep memory. "Something... something... long ago..."
"We fought together in the Battle of Lokris. Could it be from that long ago?" asked the Captain, the brutal campaign popping unbidden into his mind.
"Lokris..." Suddenly the healer's eyes widened in shock. "By the gods!" he said in a whisper.
"What is it, Millan?" asked the Captain, reaching out a hand to his friend.
"It can't be...! By Zeus's beard, Rabeaous. She's... she's not in Tartarus after all. The Assassin lives!"
"The Assassin? No, that she-demon died long ago, Millan. You're mistaken." Even as he said it, Rabeaous realized that Millan's words had made sense. But he fought the idea with everything in his heart and soul. Not Alcimede. Let it be anything but Alcimede, he thought.
"I tell you, she lives. This is her mark! I'd know it anywhere. The gods know I saw enough of her victims twenty summers past. By the Helm of Hades, Rabeaous, our kingdom is doomed."
The two men looked at each other when suddenly, the Captain's eyes widened. "Princess Diana...! If it *is* The Assassin, then the Princess will be next!" Both men ran from the room.
It took several days for anyone to notice the decomposing body of the stable boy. The Kingdom had been too devastated by the loss of the entire Royal Family, including the child heir. The only other death was the cook, and the theory was that Meg had been killed because of her resemblance to the Princess. A case of mistaken identity. The Captain of the Guard sent a messenger to find Xena. He knew she would want to be told, and in his heart of hearts, he hoped she would help him find the monster who had caused this.
"Tyldus, be reasonable," said Queen Gabrielle to the leader of the centaurs. "This can be resolved without fuss if we both put our minds to it."
"I've been reasonable. But the solutions you offer involve great sacrifices on our part and very little on yours. Now it's time for *you* to be reasonable, Queen Gabrielle."
Xena stood at Gabrielle's side, not allowing her own inner turmoil to show on her face. The negotiations had been going on all day, and the warrior knew that Tyldus was nearing the end of his patience. But Gabrielle still appeared calm and unaffected by the lengthy proceedings. Too calm, thought Xena. Since Gabrielle had become queen, she had gradually withdrawn further and further inside herself. Not that she isn't doing a great job as the ruler of the Amazons, thought the warrior. She's better than even I thought she would be. But it's changed her. On a very deep level. It's as though she's cut herself off from her emotions, in order to play the role. And it isn't just when she's on duty, but all the time. Even with me.
Xena had been seeing this change gradually since coming to the Amazons. At first she had ignored it, assuming that Gabrielle was simply getting used to her new role as Queen. But it had soon become obvious that something was terribly wrong. And no matter what Xena had said or done, Gabrielle had refused to discuss it.
It's as if nothing matters to her anymore, thought Xena. She doesn't smile. Or laugh. She doesn't get angry or frustrated. She sits in that chair for hours on end and regardless of what she's dealing with, she's just... there. Logical, at times almost cold, she solves problems, deals with tempers, hears people out -- and nothing affects her. Then she comes home at night, reviews some scrolls and falls asleep. I can't even remember the last time we made love -- or she even let me hold her in my arms...
I've been trying so hard to give her time to adjust to being queen that I've avoided confronting her on all this. Well, that stops now. Something is very wrong with her and I'm through being patient and pretending to be blind to it. I can't live like this. This person isn't Gabrielle. Not the woman I know. It's time to find out what in Hades is going on.
Xena looked up as Gabrielle spoke in a calm monotone to Tyldus. The centaur was barely able to control himself, but the Amazon Queen acted as if the negotiation meant nothing to her.
"We're talking about a strip of land no wider than this square. How can that involve great sacrifice?" Gabrielle asked.
"If that's all you think of it, then you'll gladly acknowledge our claim and we can end this debate right here."
The Queen's expression was blank. Tyldus stamped his hoof and flicked his tail.
Xena's eyes swept the ceremonial grounds in the Centaur Village, looking for any hint of trouble. She glanced at her cordon of Amazon warriors, to make sure they were alert. With a nod to one young woman, she silently instructed her to shift her position so that the soldier would have a clear path to leap in front of Gabrielle, should there be a need. Having satisfied herself that all was secure, Xena let her mind drift as the Amazon Queen and the Centaur leader danced their diplomatic reel. Trying to keep thoughts of the changes in Gabrielle out of her mind, she concentrated instead on her own new job.
Xena had known immediately that she had made a mistake when she had volunteered to be Captain of the Guard. The associations of leading a well-trained army were too close to the experience of her warlord days. It had brought up too many regrets; too many unresolved emotions to suit her taste. She and Gabrielle had come to live with the Amazons to find peace. Yet all her days were filled with the activity and strategy of war.
And despite all her digging, not one clue could be found about the Amazon-killers. No new attacks had occurred. Everything had been as peaceful and tranquil as if there had never been a threat.
Even the Utan were behaving themselves. Cagily, Xena had appointed Viktalia as her lead lieutenant. The warrior had been able to prove to the Amazon, by working closely with her, how much this former warlord had changed. One evening, after a long day's exercises, the two seasoned warriors had sat together, drinking port while discussing the Utan campaign in great detail. Xena had been honest and forthright in her description of the fight she'd had with Viktalia's mother and sister. Viktalia had wept a little, realizing that her illusions were gone forever, and had thanked Xena for the mercy she had shown them. From that point on, the beginnings of a friendship had started between the two women.
"Then we have an impasse, Tyldus. Would you prefer a war to these talks or are you willing to compromise?" said Gabrielle, the word 'war' cutting into Xena's thoughts.
By the gods, I will not be a party to a war with the centaurs, she thought. There has to be an easier solution than that.
"Gabrielle, Tyldus," said Xena, suddenly seeing the obvious way out of the stalemate. "The centaurs don't operate well around trees. And the Amazons aren't comfortable in the open. Why not divide the land at the edge of the forest, deeding the open strip to Tyldus and keeping the woods for ourselves. This way both parties get what they want."
Gabrielle glanced at Tyldus, who was beaming in appreciation of the suggestion.
"That would be equitable for us," said Tyldus when Gabrielle didn't speak. "I'm only ashamed I hadn't thought of it myself."
"Yes, it does solve the dilemma. I'll have the scrolls drawn up immediately for your signature," said Gabrielle.
"Agreed," said Tyldus, reaching out his hand. Gabrielle grasped his wrist and they shook on the bargain. "You are indeed an asset to the Amazons, Queen Gabrielle. As is your Captain of the Guard," he added with a nod to his former enemy. Xena nodded back somberly, admiring his willingness to forgive the past.
"Yes, isn't she?" said Gabrielle, looking as if she had to force herself to smile.
Jorgos eased himself off his horse and limped cautiously toward the prone figure on the ground. "Here now, are you hurt?" He touched the shrouded figure's shoulder. The body fell onto its back, revealing the face of a beautiful woman. She moaned. "Stay still," he cautioned. "Have you any wounds?"
"No... no, I just... fainted. Haven't eaten..." she mumbled.
"That's easily solved then," said the innkeeper, returning to his pack for a loaf of bread. He helped the woman sit up and she gratefully nibbled the food. "That's good," he said, "not too fast. Don't want to make yourself sicker."
"You're so kind," the woman said, staring into his caring face with her blazing green eyes. She pulled the shroud from her head to reveal a thick mass of bright red hair. "Would you mind terribly if I traveled with you, for just a bit? I do so love the company of a handsome man whose heart is warm enough to help a stranger."
Jorgos hesitated. He could be at the Amazon camp that afternoon if he rode hard. And he knew that he could ill afford any more delays as it was. He had made good time at the start of his journey but half-way to the Amazons, he had been attacked by a group of highwaymen.
They had been five in number and Jorgos, having wanted to avoid trouble, had offered them his pouch of dinars. Ordinarily this should have worked. But the thieves had given their souls to violence and were not satisfied. They had come at him with swords drawn and in a desperate attempt to save his life, he had told them that he was a friend of Xena, Warrior Princess. What he hadn't known was that Xena had killed one of their members in an earlier battle. Sheathing their swords, they had decided to take their revenge on her, through Jorgos, by beating him to within an inch of life.
They had left him, broken and bloody, at the side of the road. A merchant had found him and had brought him to a healer, who had carefully nursed Jorgos back to health.
When he was able to walk again, Jorgos had limped out into the night, determined to complete his mission. The healer had loaned him a horse, and Jorgos had ridden day and night in an effort to make up for lost time. And now, as he was finally within reach of Xena and Gabrielle, he was faced with yet another delay.
"I won't let you lie here, I won't. I'll get you to an inn and you can rest up there. But I can't do more'n that. I must be hurrying. I've a place to go," he said, looking at the beautiful woman but thinking only of his wife and the threat to her life. It never occurred to him that he, too, could be in danger.
"Why did you undermine my authority?" asked Gabrielle in a dull voice. They were in their hut after a long day spent negotiating the treaty with the centaurs. The queen sat with the treaty scrolls in her hands while Xena leaned against the doorway.
Xena stared at Gabrielle through narrowed eyes. "What are you talking about?"
"I would prefer -- if you have a suggestion -- that you present it to me privately," said Gabrielle without emotion. "It doesn't look good for a soldier to offer her opinions. Any solutions should have come from me."
"A soldier? Is that what I am to you now?" Xena said, anger bubbling just below the surface.
"When dealing with other cultures, yes, that's what you are. The Captain of the Guard. It wasn't your place to speak, Xena. That's all I'm saying." Gabrielle yawned. "I'm going to bed. Good-night."
"Oh no you're not," said Xena, furiously. She launched herself toward the bard, grabbing her by the shoulders. Gabrielle's expression was startled but showed little else. "I've been as patient as I know how," said Xena. "More than I ever thought I could be, actually. I've left you alone because I knew you were having a difficult time being the queen. But I will not stand here, let you call me a mere 'soldier' and then watch as you go to bed without me yet again. Now start talking, Gabrielle. What in Hades is wrong with you?"
"Let me go. I'm tired," said Gabrielle, evenly. "I'm sorry I called you a soldier. I won't do it again."
Xena took her hands off the bard, picked up a chair and smashed it against the ground. Furiously she kicked the pieces out of her way, then stood within inches of Gabrielle. "Fight with me! Get angry! Get excited! Get passionate! Just react, damn you!" she shouted. Gabrielle simply looked at her out of the same dead eyes she'd had for days.
Xena growled through clenched teeth then took a deep breath. For long moments, she stared at the woman who had captured her heart. A wash of pain spread over her, at war with her anger. After several moments of conflict, her rage dissipated in the strength of this overwhelming emotion. She exhaled her breath on a sigh. Gently, she took the bard's face in her hands, searching it for any clue, her voice tender and thick. "What's wrong with you, Gabrielle? What's happened to you? Why have you turned so cold and distant? You have the biggest heart of anyone I've ever known, and suddenly, you're... Please tell me, Gabrielle. Please tell me what's wrong."
"I don't know, Xena," said Gabrielle softly. "I feel like I'm frozen or something. Nothing matters to me anymore."
"We're leaving here tomorrow. I'm getting you away from this place; from your duties as Queen. Then you'll be okay. Then you'll be like you always were."
"No, Xena. We can't leave." Gabrielle pulled away from the warrior, turning her back to her. "I have a duty to fulfill. As long as the Amazon-killers are out there somewhere, I have to lead my people. I have to stand by them."
Xena hesitated. "What about me?" she asked, her voice filled with pain.
"You have a duty, too."
"I don't mean that. I mean, what about you and me? Are you tired of me? Do you not love me anymore?" Gods, I sound pathetic, Xena thought. I don't know what to do. It feels like my heart is overflowing with love, like I've somehow stolen her ability to feel and given it to myself. "I need you so much, Gabrielle," she said, unable to remain quiet.
"I'm sorry," said Gabrielle, still unwilling to face her lover.
"Don't be sorry! Be happy. You always used to love it when I admitted how much I need you." The bard was silent, so Xena slipped behind her and tenderly pulled Gabrielle to her warm body. "It's been so long since you've even let me touch you. Though we share the same pallet, you're always in bed before me and hold yourself apart, even in sleep. How can you treat me like this, Gabrielle? How could you -- the most loving, caring, wonderful woman I've ever known -- turn into this barren soul I see before me?"
"I... I can't explain it, Xena. Do you remember how you felt when you were at the river? You said you were empty. That your heart was empty. Well, that's how I feel. Like every emotion I had has been drained out of me. I can't tell you why or how, but it's the truth."
Xena blinked away a tear. The memory of how horrible it felt to be empty of feeling would live with her forever. And now Gabrielle feels it too? "I don't understand," she said. "When I felt that way it was because I'd lost Ilsa and had all those regrets over the village. But you were dealing with the loss of our daughter and you have nothing to regret. Why should you feel that way?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I need to get some sleep. I have a long day tomorrow." She pulled away from Xena's circling arms. Gabrielle was still dressed in her ceremonial garb, and she fumbled with the armor which clung to one shoulder.
"Let me help you with that," said Xena. She removed the armor from Gabrielle's shoulder, then unlaced the back of the bard's bodice. Her eyes kept drifting to the creamy roundness of her shoulders. Impulsively, the warrior leaned down and placed a tender kiss at the base of the bard's neck.
"Please, Xena. I said I was tired," said Gabrielle.
"Then when, Gabrielle? It's been ages since we've shared so much as a kiss. Maybe you would feel better if we--"
"I just don't want to, okay? Besides, I have the Wound of Artemis right now."
"So you've been saying. But it's nearly at an end, isn't it? After all, the moon goddess doesn't keep you bleeding forever."
Gabrielle sighed. "Does it really matter? I don't want to. That should be enough for you."
Xena held still. In a controlled voice, she said, "It is enough, Gabrielle. I would never force myself on you. You should know that."
Gabrielle turned to face the warrior as she slipped out of her bodice. "Yes, of course. I didn't mean that."
Unable to resist, Xena reached out and brushed a stray hair from Gabrielle's face. The bard put down her bodice and raised her hand to push the hair away herself.
Xena gasped. "Gabrielle...? What is that? What happened?" she asked, staring at the large bruise on the bard's chest.
"What?" She glanced down and covered herself. "Oh that. I guess I bumped into something."
"Bumped... do you remember doing it? Bumping into something?"
"No, but -- maybe I got it when I worked out with Ephiny. She got a few good licks in with her staff. I didn't do well. Out of practice."
"Is that true or are you guessing?" asked Xena, intensely.
"I know what you're thinking and you're wrong, Xena. It's not the same thing as the Amazon-killers. You remember. You had one, too. It's just a bruise. And nothing fatal, I assure you."
Xena's mind was churning. The bruise and the emptiness had happened simultaneously for her, and now suddenly Gabrielle was going through the same thing? This couldn't be coincidence. Something was terribly wrong.
When the warrior didn't answer, Gabrielle said, "Yeah, well, good night, Xena." She crawled into bed and within moments, was asleep.
Xena didn't go to bed that evening. Instead, she spent the night watching the bard sleep, guarding her against... something Xena couldn't name.
Alcimede withdrew a scroll and looked at the list of names. Some had been crossed out. Others were still untouched. "Darius, a farmer. Check," she said, smiling as she remembered his frenzied love-making and uneasy death. "Hypocrites, a healer. Check. Joxer, a... what was he, anyway? Oh well, doesn't matter. Check. Torus, Xena's brother. Check. Helen of Troy, a... damn good time!" The red-head glanced at the moonlight and groaned deep in her throat as she recalled the heart-stopping beauty of the woman. "Ah, Helen. Little did I know when I started that I'd have the chance to absorb all the love you've felt! Such a shame to live in beauty and die with such ugliness. Oh well, couldn't be helped. Check. Hmm... Jorgos, an innkeeper. Not sure if I should cross him off or not. Hate being interrupted at the kill. Oh, but he had so little life left. Just a breath or two. I'll give him a check."
She skipped over several blacked-out names, looking further down the list to those that still remained. "Minya and Hower, peasants. Senticles, a toy maker. Kaleipus, a centaur. Tyldus, another centaur. Yuck. Hate centaurs. Let's see... Lila, Gabrielle's sister. Ilsa, child of the Scandians. Solan, Xena's son. Hercules, a demi-god. Iolaus, a... friend of a demi-god. Huh, the two friends are both ex-lovers. Oooh, kinky, Xena, I like it! Let's see... Widgie, Oracle/Healer. Cyrene, Xena's mother. Gabrielle, Xena's lover... Hmm... So many yet to kill. No rest for the wicked!"
She withdrew a map from her pack and studied the series of marks she had made. "Okay, after I hit a few more of these lesser names, I'll do Widgie, Cyrene then Solan. It's time I stopped working on Gabrielle. I've been a little greedy with her already. So delicious, that one. But she's drained about as far as I can take her. Any more and she'll go mad. Can't have that. I need her cold and uncaring toward the scrumptious Warrior Princess."
Alcimede closed her eyes and breathed deeply, trying to quell the tingling jolt between her legs. Every time she thought of Xena, it was the same thing. A feeling so deep and primal she was almost beyond controlling it. She spent half her day obsessing about the warrior, wondering what she was doing, remembering favored expressions that she'd seen on her face, hearing the low lilt of her voice in her mind's ear. The Assassin couldn't stop thinking about Xena, no matter how hard she tried. It had made the killings all that much easier, because she had been consumed with jealousy that these people had known the warrior before Alcimede had met her.
"I could spend the rest of my life just looking into those gorgeous blue eyes and never want for more," she said aloud. Finally, she shook herself back to the present and pushed away the image of her obsession.
Businesslike, she glanced over the scroll one last time, then rolled it up. "This ought to make a nice little package of 'loved ones' to deliver to my beloved Warrior Princess. Come on, Pegasus, off we go." The winged steed reared, backing away from the redhead. Alcimede frowned, holding her hands near the stallion's eyes and concentrating.
"I will not have any more displays like that, beast. You are *mine* to control. When I don't need you anymore, you can go back to doing good deeds or whatever silly things magic horses do, but for now, I am your master and can use or abuse you as I wish. Remember that." Unable to fight any more, Pegasus dropped his fine head and waited for the woman to mount. Alcimede hopped onto his back and spurred him into the air. She leaned down and stroked his neck, once again giving thanks to Hera for all of her patron goddess's gifts.
"Ephiny! I need to talk to you," said Xena, waving down the Amazon.
Ephiny paused, her face drawn. "Yes?"
"I want to ask you some questions about the Amazon-killers."
"The queen has requested me, so it'll have to be fast. Let's walk and talk."
Xena fell in step beside her. She noticed that Ephiny's eyes didn't have the sparkle they usually did. Xena stopped.
"What?" said Ephiny impatiently. "Come on, I told you I have to be--"
"Ephiny -- are you feeling some odd... effects, lately? Tired, listless... empty?"
"Of course not, I'm fine." She paused as Xena's piercing blue eyes seemed to see inside her soul. "All right, yes, but I'm probably not getting enough sleep."
"Uh huh. Do you have a large bruise, right around here?" Xena asked, circling her hand over her own left breast.
"How did you know that?" asked Ephiny, surprised.
"Last question. The Amazons who were killed. You mentioned they all had bruises, like they were hit with a club, you said. Did the bruises look anything like the one on your chest?"
Ephiny shook her head, as if clearing her mind. She looked up at Xena, puzzled and a little frightened. "Somewhat... I mean, theirs were bigger -- deeper, more discolored -- but... yes, I suppose it's similar..." she said, slowly. "Xena, what does this mean? What are you saying?"
"I'm not sure. Just that none of this is coincidence." She thought for a moment, then asked, "Have you noticed a change in Gabrielle?"
"She's just adjusting to being the queen."
"That's what I thought, too. At first. But it's not true, is it? When you were made queen, you didn't lose touch with your emotions, did you?"
"No, but I--"
"And yet now you are. Day by day you find yourself less able to care, don't you? As if nothing matters any more. Like you're frozen. Empty. Losing touch with reality. You can't even feel pain like you used to, right? You can spar and get hit and it doesn't even hurt. Am I right? Tell, me, Ephiny!"
"Yes! Yes, you're right. All of it," said Ephiny, her eyes lost. "What in the name of Artemis is going on, Xena?"
"I wish I knew. But somehow, this is all tied to me. I can feel it. Yesterday, I noticed that Viktalia was showing the very early signs of this. She hadn't before. Not until we became friends. As soon as we patched up our differences, the changes began. It happened to Gabrielle first. Then you. Now Viktalia. Yet none of the other Amazons seem affected."
Xena began walking toward the meeting hall, where Gabrielle was sitting in judgment on the day's petitions. Ephiny fell in step beside her. They were silent for several paces until Xena began speaking softly to herself. "Before I got here, Amazons were dying from this. Now, the deaths have stopped and instead it's the slow decline of everyone close to me."
"What's causing this?" asked Ephiny. "And why would whatever it is kill off so many of our sisters before you ever got here, if this is supposed to be about you?"
To draw me here? thought Xena. Perhaps it was coincidence that this was where we were headed. Maybe I was supposed to hear about the deaths from some other source. And if I had, Gabrielle and I would have come immediately. Yes, that must be it. Who or whatever it is that's causing this wanted me with the Amazons. "And now they have me here, and they're still active. The security measures aren't working. There *are* traitors among us. But who? How do we catch them? And how are they doing it?"
"Maybe it's a disease or a poison," said Ephiny.
"Could be... Perhaps it's being placed in your food. Or spread on your clothing. Or in your water. I have no idea. So how does it work? The Amazons who were killed -- were they ill before they died? Did anyone mention this emptiness?"
"No, actually, all those deaths were very sudden. They would be fine and then found dead. Bruised on the chest but otherwise untouched."
They arrived at the meeting hall and entered. Queen Gabrielle had just finished the last petition.
"Ephiny. You took your time getting here," said Gabrielle placidly.
"Xena has something you need to hear," she answered.
"Oh? What is it, Xena?" asked Gabrielle.
"Ephiny has a bruise on her chest, just like the one on yours. And she's feeling a similar effect -- emptiness, lack of emotion -- all the things which have happened to you."
Gabrielle sighed. "The bruise again? Fine. Do you have any idea what's caused this?" she asked in her now familiar monotone.
"Not yet, but I'm working on it. As a precaution, both of you should stop eating and drinking anything served to you, and prepare your own food. And throw away your clothes. Get new ones made, but supervise it. Or borrow randomly from others. We have to eliminate the possible ways this thing is being administered."
"This is ridiculous," said Gabrielle. "I don't have time to supervise seamstresses or prepare meals."
"It's important, Gabrielle," said Xena. "Please."
"I'm not convinced that any of these measures would be of the least help in curing a bruise. Besides, I'm fine, Xena. Sure, I'm a little tired, but really, I'm fine."
"Don't even try to pass yourself off as 'fine' to me, Gabrielle," said Xena, dangerously.
"I cannot believe the lengths you're going to," said the queen. "Just because I'm not paying enough attention to you. You're making a fool of yourself, Xena."
Xena couldn't believe what she was hearing. "This has *nothing* to do with you 'paying attention' to me! This is life or death, Gabrielle!"
"Very dramatic. I never realized how overly emotional you can get, Xena. You always hid it so well with your silences. You're acting like a fool and I've had it with your warnings and your questions and your constant touching and emotional outbursts. It's all very tiresome."
If only your words had been said with a shred of anger, thought Xena. You can't even hear the dullness in your voice, can you? You say hurtful things with the same cadence as you would order another loaf of bread from the market.
Suddenly, Xena knew what she had to do. "If you're that unhappy with me, I should move, Gabrielle. I'll get my things this afternoon and be out of your hut for good."
"Suit yourself," said the queen, distracted as an Amazon guard hurried through the door. "Yes, Sherana?"
"Word just came," answered Sherana, breathless from running. "The centaurs. Tyldus..."
"What about Tyldus?"
"He's... he's dead."
Xena sat on the edge of the pallet waiting for Gabrielle to return from the centaur camp. The warrior had given Viktalia the duty of accompanying the queen. Xena didn't have the heart to listen as Gabrielle spoke dispassionately with the new leader about the death of someone she had grown to respect a great deal.
Her packed saddlebag was on the pallet next to her, and she stared at it, seeing in this small possession endless days on the road with Gabrielle. Xena was overwhelmed with sensations as she mentally reviewed a thousand tiny moments that added up to a happiness that she had never expected from her life. And now, that happiness was gone. In its place was the cold, empty woman that Gabrielle had become.
"I see you're packed," said Gabrielle, entering the hut. She almost fell into her chair, causing Xena to look closely at her. The queen looked exhausted, her eyes rimmed with dark circles, her mouth drawn at the corners.
"Yes," said Xena, desperately trying not to let her own emotions show. I can't break down, she thought. I can't. To see that look of indifference in her eyes as I fall apart in front of her -- I won't put myself through that. The only way to escape with any dignity is to stay strong. I won't be shamed before her.
"Which hut have you decided to take?"
"None. I'm leaving the Amazons."
Gabrielle raised her brows, nodding her head slowly. "I see. I wish you'd change your mind."
"Do you?" asked Xena, the barest glimmer of hope in her voice.
"You're an excellent Captain of the Guard and it looks like we might be going to war. A warrior with your skills would be sorely missed."
Xena stared at Gabrielle for several moments, then shook her head, sadly. "So that's why you want me to stay? For my... 'skills?'"
"Well, that's one reason, yes. On a personal note, I would prefer it if you remained, Xena. We've been very important to each other for quite some time. I imagine I'd miss you if you left."
"You don't even know?"
Gabrielle shrugged noncommittally, appearing to search her mind for words that wouldn't come.
I remember how it felt, thought Xena. I remember that soulless feeling all too well. I remember knowing that I didn't love you anymore. That you were simply there. By my side but without any impact on me emotionally. I remember understanding that I should feel bad about that, and I'm guessing that's how you feel, too, but you don't know how to say it. You want to tell me that you remember, too, don't you? That you can remember cherishing me. But that the feeling is just out of reach. Like the fruit that grows in the upper branches, you can see it, you can even smell it if the wind is right, but you'll never taste it while it's fresh. You can only remember that once you had enjoyed it.
"I'll miss you, too, Gabrielle. More than you can know."
"Then why leave?"
"Because it hurts too much to stay here and see your indifference toward me. I'm not blaming you, Gabrielle. I'm not trying to figure out whose fault this is. I think it's something outside of us. Something or someone is doing this to you and to Ephiny and even to Viktalia. Whoever it is did it to me on the way here. And the only reason I survived it is because Thor healed me."
"Have you considered asking Thor to do his magic on us as well?" asked Gabrielle, puzzling through the logic as always, in her now familiar, dispassionate way.
"I have. He hasn't answered me. So I have to find the cure myself. And that's what I plan to do. That's why I'm leaving, Gabrielle. I have to see if I can track down whoever is doing this and stop them once and for all." She didn't add that it was also for Gabrielle's own protection that she was leaving. With Xena out of the picture, it was possible that the effects would stop.
"Will you ever be coming back?" asked Gabrielle without any indication that the answer interested her.
"I don't know," said Xena, truthfully. "I'm not sure what I'm up against. And if I can't find the people behind this, then there'd be no reason for me to return. I can't look at you, Gabrielle, and see lifeless eyes where once I saw love."
Gabrielle nodded, understanding. "Yes, that makes sense. I imagine it would cause you pain."
Xena grabbed the saddlebag and stood. She couldn't stay here any longer, hearing rational, logical, unfeeling comments from a woman who had overflowed with love only a moon ago. "Think twice before going to war. It's unnecessary," she said, worried about the political mess she was leaving behind.
"Prothemis, the new leader of the centaurs, thinks Tyldus was killed by an Amazon. A woman was seen in the camp, dressed in Amazon clothes. She was spotted leaving Tyldus' quarters the night he died."
"Find the evidence to disprove it. It wasn't an Amazon. I can't tell you how I know this, you'll just have to trust me. But don't go to war."
"I don't wish to be at war, but proof will be difficult to find, I think. And Prothemis is ambitious. He wants to make his mark as leader, right away."
Xena shifted impatiently. She didn't want to get into a discussion about centaur intrigue and matters of state. She wanted to get out and quickly. "I'm sure you'll do what's best. You're a very good queen, Gabrielle. I mean that. You've always had a fine mind."
"Thank you, Xena."
"Yes, well, good-bye, Gabrielle."
Xena hesitated. I want to hold you. Kiss you. Make love to you. I want to touch you. Something. Something to connect, if only for one last time. I want to feel your skin with my fingertips so I can remember its warmth. I want to taste your lips with mine, so I can remember their sweetness. I want to smell your scent, hear your laughter, see your smile. I want something to remember, Gabrielle.
The queen stared at her expectantly, as the silence grew. Reluctantly, Xena walked to the door of the hut then looked back. "I love you," she whispered.
Gabrielle's face was a blank mask. "Be careful, Xena." She paused. "I won't forget you."
And Xena knew that was as close as the soulless bard could come to returning her sentiment.
That night, a woman crept into the Queen's hut. Quietly, she walked to the pallet and looked down at Gabrielle's sleeping face.
There are so many things I wish I could've told you, thought Xena. So many secrets, so many feelings, all unexpressed. And now, you wouldn't care no matter what I said. But I couldn't leave you without saying good-bye properly. I tried. I left the Amazon territory. In fact, I went to the centaurs and had a talk with Prothemis. There won't be a war, Gabrielle. I promise you that. I wouldn't leave you if I didn't know this.
I showed Prothemis the bruise on Tyldus' chest, and I told him of the dead Amazons. The new leader is young, but he's bright and cares deeply for his subjects. He listened to me. And he agreed to let me try to find whoever is behind this, before making war on the Amazons. I told him not to tell you of my visit. Told him I was retiring as Captain of the Guard and wanted to fulfill a final duty in silence. This is a tradition with the centaurs, so he understood. Honored it, in fact. That's my gift to you, Queen Gabrielle. Peace, not war.
And now your gift to me. While you sleep, I can pretend that you are unchanged. I can pretend that you love me as deeply as I love you. So I ask nothing more than for you to go on sleeping. Please, let me kiss you good-bye without waking you. I need this. I need to feel my lips on yours one last time. That's all. I came to steal a kiss and then I'll leave.
Xena lowered herself to her knees, and smoothed a stray hair out of Gabrielle's face. Gently, she leaned down and covered the bard's lips with her own. The sensations of countless remembered kisses flooded Xena's memory. Sweet. Teasing. Passionate. Comforting. Ardent. Arousing. Tender. She withdrew her lips and for long moments stared at the face of the woman she loved.
Why did this happen, Gabrielle? Why were you taken from me? And why do my prayers go unanswered? If I only knew who did this to you -- I would gladly give them my life in exchange for your heart.
Desperately, she tried to keep her anger at bay. Rage had been building in her since she had discovered the bruise and now it almost overwhelmed her. Someone had done this to Gabrielle. Someone had stolen the love from her heart. And that someone was going to pay.
Carefully, Xena pulled aside the blanket. She looked again at the bruise on the bard's chest.
I'll find whoever did this, Gabrielle, I promise. In honor of you, I'll try not to turn to the darkness. But I need to find this beast and learn how to make you whole again. And if that means turning into a monster or sacrificing myself, well, I hope you'll understand. I'll pay any price, Gabrielle, if it brings you back.
Tenderly, she placed her hand over the bruise, hiding it from her sight. The skin was warm, and she could feel the heat in her fingers and palm. Xena swayed slightly on her knees and she blinked rapidly several times, the room spinning before her eyes. She removed her hand and looked around. Everything was normal again. She put her hand back but nothing happened.
She stood, reasoning that her own emotions had just overwhelmed her and it was time to get away, and fast. She left the hut, nodding to the two guards, then hopped on Argo. She dug her heels in the horse's sides and the mare leapt into a gallop. Xena didn't turn her head for a last look. She thought there was nothing left for her at the Amazon camp.
Had she stayed only a few moments longer, she would have seen the bruise on Gabrielle's chest begin to disappear.
Gabrielle woke with a start.
"Xena?" she whispered, turning to the spot where the warrior always slept. Gabrielle was alone in the bed.
Tears instantly filled her eyes as she remembered their parting earlier in the day. "Oh gods, what have I done?" she asked in a voice so full of despair it almost didn't sound human.
Quickly, she wrapped the blanket around herself and ran to the door.
"Where is she? Where's Xena?" she asked the guards, her voice panicked, her hands digging into the flesh of Katora's arms.
"Gone. She dropped by, said she forgot something, then took off like an arrow."
"About an hour ago." Katora touched the shoulder of the frantic queen, concern etching a frown on the guard's face. "What's wrong? Did she harm you?"
"No... No, I just..." Gabrielle pushed herself away from Katora, closed the door of the hut and fell to her knees. She couldn't seem to stop sobbing. Her grief and loss were overwhelming.
"Gods, Xena, I drove you away..." she said, gasping. "I was so empty, I couldn't find anything to say or do to make myself care. And you stood by me through so much. I was horrible to you, but you were always there. And now I feel so alone, Xena. So alone."
Though she was lost in her desolation, gradually a thought insinuated itself past her grief.
"I can feel," she whispered. "I can feel...!"
She threw the blanket aside and looked at her chest.
The bruise was gone.
"Please come back, Xena... I can feel..."
Argo drank deeply from the rushing stream while Xena sat on a fallen log, her eyes glazed, her shoulders hunched.
Oh Gabrielle, she thought, I miss you so. I can't sleep, I can't think, I can barely breathe knowing that you aren't here by my side. Every day without you is a torture. My instinct is to run back to you. Suddenly, it doesn't seem so bad to know that you don't love me if only I could be near you. I hadn't realized how much I relied on seeing your eyes. How much joy I felt at the sound of your voice. In any state, a world with you, Gabrielle, is better than a life alone.
But I can't. I can't condemn you to living like that for the rest of your life. Not knowing how deep your heart can be. So I have to look for whoever did this to you.
And if I can't find them? Then what? Then I am lost, Gabrielle. My mind tells me that despite my heart's lament, I can't live with your indifference. So if I don't discover the source of the heart-bruise, then I'll never see you again. And this shatters me. How do I accept a life without you? How could I live with that failure?
I can't think about failure. Not now. Somehow, I have to find the Amazon-killers and I have to do it quickly. Before you lose your ability to feel... forever.
I told Thor I could handle pain, as long as I had the ability to love. I hadn't thought about the consequences of that. I hadn't realized that I could lose the love in my life so that all that is left is the pain. Oh, how I wish I had that emptiness now. I wish I could think about you, and not feel my throat close. I wish I could hear your voice in my head and not feel my eyes sting... I wish I could forget how much you mean to me, Gabrielle.
But that's impossible. You are my life and I am the walking dead until I find a cure for you.
Xena held her head in her hands, the despair overwhelming her; the sorrow taking control once again.
How many tears have I shed? I've lost count. Some strong, stoic warrior I turned out to be. Turned into a pile of mush because I no longer have your stories, your laughter, your touches, your smiles. I'm less than half a person now. I'm less than I've ever been in my life.
A snapping twig nearby caused Xena to leap to her feet, sword drawn.
"Ah! Please, don't hurt me!" said a blonde woman, her hands raised, weaponless, the reins of her horse held loosely. She was smaller than Xena, though not as small as Gabrielle. Her eyes were wide and innocent, her face stained from travel.
"You should be wary of sneaking up on a warrior," said Xena, her sword pointing at the woman's neck, her steel blue eyes sweeping over the stranger's form to assess any possible danger. She appeared harmless, though looks could be deceiving.
"Not advice I usually need because ordinarily I'm a real clod. I guess you must've been distracted or something, huh?" the woman said, smiling.
Though nothing showed on Xena's face, she was shaken by the realization that she had indeed been distracted. This woman was obviously no warrior and should never have been able to get as close as she had without being detected.
"Do you mind putting that away?" the woman asked, nodding toward the upraised sword. "Sharp things make me nervous when they're pointed at vital areas."
Xena hesitated, then slid her sword into the scabbard on her back. "Who are you?"
"My name is Hariklea. Though you can call me Hari. Everyone does."
"What do you want, Hariklea?"
"Got it. You're not 'everyone.'" Hariklea smiled but it found no answer on the warrior's face. "Okay... as to what I want, I was sent by Rabeaous, King Lias' Captain of the Guard. I have a message for Xena. And unless I miss my guess, you're her. Am I right?"
Xena liked the elderly King and had great affection for his daughter, the Princess Diana. But nothing was further from her mind than playing games of royal intrigue. She needed to find the Amazon-killers. Everything else would have to wait. "I'm sorry, but you'll have to tell him I haven't got time right now. I'm working on something else and don't know when I'll be available."
"Oh, whoops! Guess I've come a long way for nothing, huh?" said Hariklea without rancor. She smiled at Xena and sat down on the fallen log. "No big deal. After all, I saw some gorgeous scenery and improved my horseback riding -- which really needed improving, let me tell you! I'm sort of used to the occasional wild goose chase anyway, being a messenger. Terrible hours, but the benefits package is fabulous."
Xena grabbed Argo's reins and patted the mare's neck. "Well, have a safe journey back and please give my best to King Lias and Princess Diana. And if you will, say hello to their cook, Meg, as well."
"Well... that's the thing. I can't," Hariklea said sadly.
"Part of the message was that... they're all dead."
"What?" said Xena, shocked.
"Yeah, terrible, isn't it? Such a nice royal family and that cook was a whiz with spices. Her Souvlaki was out of this world."
"Meg is dead, too?" asked Xena, feeling an uncomfortable pang in her stomach. What was going on?
"Yeah. Anyway, they were all murdered and Rabeaous wanted you to come back to see if, you know, you could find the person who did it. The whole kingdom is in chaos because of it. And it looks like the woman responsible has just disappeared."
"The woman? So they know who did it?"
"Yeah. At least they think so. Some old-timer named Alcimede. Nasty piece of work from what I hear."
"Alcimede..." said Xena, searching her memory for the name. "Yes, I've heard of her. Also known as The Assassin, right?"
"Right! But no way are you old enough to remember her -- how in Athena's name did you know that?"
"There were some vague comparisons between us several winters back. But nothing very specific. I don't remember if I ever knew any details about her," said Xena, trying to recall the things she had learned about The Assassin, but her mind was blank.
"Yeah, well, not someone to emulate from what I've heard. She does something to a person's heart, I guess. Leaves a big bruise on the chest. Her calling card."
"A bruise?" asked Xena, her attention now completely focused on the messenger. She pulled the woman to her feet, trying desperately to control the intensity of her voice and eyes. "Tell me everything you know about her. Now."
"Please, it's not much!" Hariklea was frozen in Xena's grasp. Her eyes were black with widened pupils, her face tensed with fear. "I... I think I just spilled all I know."
"Why did she kill King Lias and Diana? And why Meg?" Xena was holding the woman by her blouse, her fists clenched around the cloth. She held her face inches from the blonde's, her eyes burning.
Hariklea swallowed once, shaking her head. Her words came out in a rush. "We don't know. Far as anyone could tell, Alcimede has been dead for twenty years. But the healer is pretty sure this is her work and Rabeaous agrees. Like I said, she has some kind of power or skill that kills people by a touch to the heart." The messenger paused for a moment.
"Tell me everything," said Xena dangerously.
"Well, the rest is just rumor. I heard, through some other messengers, that she's out for revenge. Someone killed her husband and son. Killed half the men in her village actually, but I don't know who that person is or why Alcimede targeted King Lias and Diana. They rarely leave the castle, let alone go on killing sprees. And now you know everything I do, so please -- don't hurt me!"
Xena let the woman go, and stared at the rushing water in the stream. Gods, she thought, Thor's revenge. Could it be the same village? Could that be the cause of all this pain and torture and death? So many innocents targeted because of me? "Okay. I'll go back to King Lias' castle with you. I need to know everything I can about this woman."
"Hey, thanks! That's great. So you'll help us find her?"
"Yes. She's been hurting some friends of mine lately. I want her found and fast."
"Yeah, they said you were friends with the royal family."
Xena glanced over at Hariklea, working on keeping her emotions in check. She needed to build her walls and fast. She had to remain focused and not let the pain take over again. The Assassin was out for revenge and finding it by killing her friends. So many of the Amazons, King Lias, Princess Diana, Meg, Tyldus -- all dead. And Gabrielle, Ephiny and Viktalia had all been damaged but still lived. Somehow, there had to be a way to predict Alcimede's moves. And Xena had to figure it out. After all, there could be more friends slated to die. More people that Xena loved, admired or thought of with affection. The warrior frowned, her eyes troubled. "Let's go."
Hariklea nodded happily, awkwardly mounting her horse while Xena leapt on Argo. If Alcimede had hit Lias, then she had wandered far away from the Amazons. At least this meant Gabrielle and Ephiny would be safe for awhile. Maybe Xena had enough time to catch The Assassin before she could make the long journey back.
Viktalia was leading a small contingent of Amazons as she went through her rounds, inspecting the outpost guards. She took her new job as Captain of the Guard very seriously, wanting desperately to fill the shoes of the warrior who had held it before her. She found herself missing Xena and marveled at this fact. The very woman she had hated for so many years had fast become a hero to her. Viktalia had suspected for a long time that the story of the Warrior Princess versus the Utan wasn't based on the whole truth. After all, she had known about the festival and yet every retelling had purposefully left out that ignominious detail. She had often wondered if her mother and sister, who had been only average warriors, were truly the martyrs that the Utan legends had made them out to be. Now, for the first time, she felt she knew the truth.
"Viktalia -- over here!" said Sherana, pointing to a small movement in the bushes.
Cautiously, Viktalia approached the area, sword drawn. She motioned to the rest of her party to circle around. Then, when everyone was in place, she swept aside the shrubbery. What she saw surprised her.
Lying in the brush, his arms outstretched in the Amazon salute, was what appeared to be the body of a middle-aged man. He was tall and thin, with lean features. A rabbit scurried away from the body, and it was to this small creature that Viktalia attributed the movement Sherana had spotted.
"Is he dead?" asked Sherana, peering over Viktalia's shoulder.
"I don't know." Viktalia carefully leaned over for a closer look and spied a scroll tucked in his belt. She removed it and read it quickly. "His name is Jorgos and he's married to Widgie."
"Widgie! But... she's a legend! The Great Unifier's husband... wow..." said Sherana, in awe.
"Yes. Oh, this is tragic," said Viktalia, looking again at the innkeeper. "Look at his hands. He's giving us the salute, even in death."
The women gathered around, removed their masks and hung their heads to honor his sacrifice. Viktalia touched his outstretched hands in farewell. To her surprise, they were still warm. Quickly, she felt for a pulse. "He's alive!" she said. "But just barely."
Hastily, they picked Jorgos off the forest floor and carried him back to the camp.
"This is such a gorgeous spot! How did you know about it?" asked Hariklea, as she finished the last of the roasted rabbit.
"A friend and I found it last summer," said Xena. She had been pleased to learn that Hariklea could cook, and was quite satisfied with the evening's meal. She had been going hungry due to her own lack of prowess in that area, or occasionally, when she thought of it, eating at taverns.
"A friend, huh? Was it Gabrielle?" asked Hariklea, smiling. Xena nodded. Hariklea sighed. "She sounds so amazing. A bard, a wonder with the staff and now the Amazon Queen. I'd give anything for just *one* of those gifts!"
Pride washed across Xena's face. "Gabrielle is a remarkable woman. I've never known anyone like her. But her greatest gift has nothing to do with being a storyteller, a queen or skilled with a staff. It was her heart. Gabrielle had the biggest heart of anyone I've ever known."
The warrior glanced over at the messenger, pain apparent. "She was... injured. Her emotions -- they were stolen. By the same woman who has been killing my friends. Alcimede."
"I'm so sorry, Xena. I didn't know..." Hariklea broke off.
Xena saw the sympathy on the blonde's face. "Yeah, well, that's why Gabrielle isn't here with me."
"I had wondered... But I'll do my best to help you through this. I'll do whatever I can to make you comfortable. I'll do the cooking, the cleaning and, well, anything you need to have done. Anything. And we'll catch The Assassin. I promise."
The warrior looked away, not wanting to talk to this 'stranger' any more. She's not you, Gabrielle, Xena thought. I don't want some other woman traveling with me. I want you. I want my wonderful, emotional, funny, intelligent, teasing, storytelling Gabrielle.
"I don't even know her, but I admire Gabrielle so much," said Hariklea, causing Xena to wonder if she'd mistakenly spoken aloud. But a glance at the blonde told the warrior that Hariklea was deep in her own thoughts. Earnestly, the messenger said, "I'm just so clumsy sometimes. I've always wanted to be like you or Gabrielle. You, Xena, you're so graceful and move so fluidly. And although I know I talk way too much -- I've heard *that* my whole life -- I'm not so sure that what I have to say is interesting to anyone but me. Not like a bard, y'know? I'll bet Gabrielle was always interesting."
"You're okay," said Xena, and despite her thoughts of moments ago, realized that she found the woman's chatter comforting in a strange way. No, she's not Gabrielle, but at least I'm not alone. At least there's another voice to fill the void besides my own dark thoughts.
Hariklea smiled shyly, then hurriedly began talking to cover her embarrassment at the praise. "When I got the job with King Lias, I was so excited. I thought being a messenger for a king was just about the most glamorous thing in the world! I'd get to travel and I'd be carrying important scrolls and news and I was determined to make myself indispensable. But Capt. Rabeaous, well, he thinks women aren't as good at some things as men. He's a nice enough guy and all, but he's old and sort of stuffy."
Xena nodded absently.
"I hate the way some men are. I had to beg on bended knee to get this assignment and I only got it because everyone else is out looking for you, too, and one more pair of eyes couldn't hurt. The murders kinda threw everyone into a whirlish, y'know?"
Xena looked over, puzzled. "A whirlish?"
"You know, like a whirlpool and spinning and going crazy? I made up the word, but I think it fits."
"Huh. You make up words often?"
"Sometimes. I do it so I can be more specific. I like there to be a word for everything. Then maybe people won't misunderstand me so much."
"But if you make up words, how are people supposed to understand you at all?" asked Xena, perplexed.
"Whoops. You're right. Gosh, that is kinda dumb." Hariklea laid down on her blankets across the fire and stared at the night sky.
The warrior glanced over and the corner of her mouth twitched. It wasn't exactly a smile, but it was the closest she had come in days. "Don't worry about it. After all, one of your words may catch on someday, and then everyone will understand you."
The blonde looked over at the warrior, grinning. "Maybe. That would be something, wouldn't it? You know, you don't say much, Xena, but you are one very cool woman. Thanks for coming back with me. Old Rabeaous is gonna drop square piles when he sees that you're with me and all those other messengers are empty-handed. I can't wait to see his face." The blonde was silent for several moments, then she turned over and sighed. "Good night, Xena."
"Good night, Hariklea." Xena fell instantly into an exhausted sleep. But her dreams, as usual, were filled with images of Gabrielle. And her broken heart was no nearer to being mended.
Alcimede looked at the sleeping warrior.
Don't worry, my adorable Warrior Princess, I'm not here to hurt you.
She held her hand over Xena's heart.
Ouch! My, my, my, so much pain! You *are* having a time of it, aren't you? You know, that bard of yours isn't in much better shape. Don't know how she managed it, but she's got all her emotions back. Not that it matters to me. The important thing is that you two are apart. In fact, the irony of it is just too delicious by half! I wish I'd thought of it. I'm kicking myself for being so blind to such an obvious device. I guess good Queen Hera, goddess of my heart, must have put her hand in. The only thing I can think of to explain it.
Alcimede leaned over Xena's body and looked at the blankets across the fire.
Do you like your new slut? Do you think she's pretty? Are you amused by her? Do you want her? Does she get you hot? As hot as that little queen? Are you wet, Xena? Hmmm... maybe I should check and see...
Alcimede drew back Xena's blankets and lifted her shift. But instead of touching her, she paused, frowning.
How can you have this affect on me? How can you make me hesitate? Why does it suddenly feel wrong?
For long moments she stared, her hand hovering over the apex of Xena's legs. She began to tremble violently with the strain of it, but still she did not touch.
I'm not used to feeling wrong, Warrior Princess. I'm not used to this at all.
Gently, she smoothed Xena's shift modestly back in place, then covered her again. Tenderly, she stroked the warrior's hair.
I don't understand any of this. And it's making me angry, Warrior Princess. But don't worry, I'm too smart to give in to emotions. Emotions are for fools, dreamers and children. Besides, I'm taking a little vacation. I've done what I wanted to do. All finished. Now I get to watch what happens. You should be getting reports soon. So many messengers running around with scrolls, looking for the Warrior Princess. Why you're the most sought-after woman in Greece!
She stared at Xena, frowning.
I can't leave like this. I have to show you, don't I? I have to show you who controls who.
Alcimede took Xena's face in her hands and lowered her lips to the warrior's mouth. She kissed her softly, drew back then kissed her again, pushing her tongue between Xena's lips. She moaned deep in her throat, tasting the sleeping woman's tongue, teeth and lips; delighting in every sensation.
Yes, that's more like it. The other was a momentary aberration. Goddess, but you're exquisite. Soon, my beauty. Soon...
"Jorgos?" said Gabrielle, her face suffused with pain and concern as she ran into the healer's hut. "How is he? What's wrong?" she asked as she made a bee-line toward the stricken man.
"The Amazon-killers got him," said the healer.
"The Amazon-killers? But why would they hurt him? He's not an Amazon. And a kinder, gentler soul you'll never find."
"He must've gotten in their way or something."
Gabrielle touched his pale cheek then gathered his hand in hers. Tears fell from her swollen eyes as she looked at the good-natured innkeeper, now dying with every breath. "Oh, Jorgos. Why did this happen? What are you doing here?"
"We found this scroll on him," said Viktalia, stepping respectfully forward, honoring the queen's grief. She looked with concern at Gabrielle. Ever since Xena had left, the Amazon Queen had been an emotional wreck. One more blow could destroy her. "Do you know him well, my queen?"
"He runs an inn, up in the north country. He's married to Widgie, who is one of the most extraordinary women I've ever met. They're both very special people, Viktalia. Very dear." Gabrielle took the scroll and read its contents quickly. "It's from Widgie. She needs Xena and me to come help her. She had a vision."
"So she sent him out to get you," said Viktalia.
"Yes, I guess the vision didn't show her what would happen to Jorgos." Gabrielle knelt by his side and felt his forehead.
He groaned and stirred, his eyes opening weakly. "Amazons..." he rasped.
"Yes, Jorgos. You've made it. You're with the Amazons. It's me, Gabrielle. Do you remember me? The Bard?"
"Gabrielle..." he whispered, his eyelids fluttering in an effort to focus.
"What happened? Who did this to you?"
"Woman... wraith of... fire..."
"Wraith of fire? I don't understand."
"Yes. I have the scroll. Widgie needs help. But who--"
"Aye..." he said, swallowing hard. Gabrielle grabbed the mug of water on the table and helped him take a sip. He appeared to rally a bit after he had taken a small amount. "Xena... Xena and you..."
"Yes, Jorgos. We'll go to her. I promise. Xena and I will go to Widgie. But please, can you tell me anything about the woman who hurt you?"
Jorgos moaned. His breathing was rasping and shallow.
"Please, Jorgos, you have to hang on. You have to fight this."
"M'heart... can't feel... empty..."
Gabrielle felt a new wave of tears as she heard his forlorn words. She knew that emptiness all too well. And knew how impossible it was to fight for love when no feelings existed. Carefully, she pulled back his shirt to reveal a deep bruise on his chest.
"Mark of the Amazon-killers," said the healer. "There's nothing we can do."
"No. There has to be something. I survived it, so can he." Gabrielle leaned down to whisper in the innkeeper's ear. "Fight it, Jorgos. Fight the emptiness. Find a way to feel again. Your love for Widgie is strong, Jorgos. So strong. Find even the tiniest piece of that and use it to come back."
Jorgos looked at Gabrielle, gathered his strength and shook his head. "Got... here. Gave th'scroll... Finished now..." he said. He took a final breath. Then he was still.
"No," whispered Gabrielle. "No. I won't let you give up... I won't let you!" she said, shaking him. The healer and Viktalia came quickly to her side and held her.
"He's gone, my queen. Let him cross over to the other side," said the healer.
"Leave me alone. Jorgos isn't supposed to die! Not like this," she shook off their comforting hands. "C'mon, Jorgos! Come back -- Widgie needs you." The innkeeper lay still, his spirit obviously gone. But it was too difficult to accept his death. Gabrielle didn't want to believe that the thing she had survived could take someone she had felt great affection for. Jorgos had always treated her with respect and kindness. When she had battled for Xena's life, sight and sanity, Jorgos had been there for her; a quiet yet caring presence.
The bard felt helpless and alone. Xena was the one who knew how to treat the stricken. She could probably help him. "Xena. I have to find Xena..." mumbled Gabrielle.
"Please, my queen, she's gone. Don't do this to yourself..." said Viktalia, sadly.
Gabrielle looked up at Viktalia, a lost expression on her face. "Why is this happening? Why did Xena leave me? Why did Jorgos have to die?"
Viktalia didn't know how to respond. Rumors had swept the Amazon camp when Xena had disappeared. But only the queen knew the true story. Unable to think of anything to say about the warrior, Viktalia glanced down at the innkeeper and said, "He was brave and died serving the Amazons, by being true to his wife's wishes. Widgie would be proud."
Gabrielle looked at his lifeless features. "Widgie... By the gods... I have to find Xena. We have to go to Widgie. I have to find Xena."
I don't care how much it hurts, she thought. I don't care that she doesn't want me anymore. She came to me in the night, gave me the cure and left me to feel her loss. Why did you do that, Xena? Why did you cure me and leave? I keep asking but I can't find an answer. I can't think about this now. Widgie needs us. Xena may not care about me anymore, but I know she cares about Widgie. I'll explain that I only came to help our friend. And maybe, while we're traveling, she'll tell me why she cured me. Why she left me able to feel when all that remains is pain.
The bard touched Jorgos briefly on the shoulder then stood. She looked at Viktalia and the healer, both of them fearing for their queen. "It's important. Xena will want to know. Widgie needs us," said Gabrielle simply, as she brushed past them and ran to her hut to pack.
Widgie lay dying, but she fought it with all her strength. When the attack had come in the night, one small part of her had been aware. Unable to struggle against the sleeping spell, she had quickly placed herself in a trance and had been able to hide a fraction of her emotions from the draining. It was to this she had clung. And it was this that had kept her breathing; kept her hoping. She knew she didn't have a lot of time. But she was determined to stretch it as long as possible, knowing that Jorgos would find Xena and would bring the warrior to her. Her husband wouldn't fail her. She knew this. For it was a portion of her love for him that she had rescued.
She had remained in her trance, conserving her resources. Breathing only once a minute. As long as her tiny spark of love was nurtured and used sparingly, she could live.
Suddenly, her eyes opened.
"Jorgos..." she whispered.
"I'm sorry," said Hariklea as she handed Xena the scroll.
"Another one?" asked the warrior, dread in her voice. Hariklea had gone alone into the village to get supplies because Xena didn't want to face the possibility of any more messengers. It had become Hariklea's pattern, protecting the warrior from the pain of seeing a messenger in the distance, knowing he carried news of more deaths.
Hariklea nodded. "A scroll. Actually, this one was for Gabrielle, but your name is on it, too."
"For Gabrielle?" asked Xena, opening the scroll. She read quickly, then let it fall to the ground. "Oh, gods..."
"Who are they? It just has the names. Doesn't mention who they--"
"Her parents. And her sister, Lila. Her whole family. Dead. Because of me."
"Stop that! It's not because of you!" said Hariklea, strongly. "You can't think that way! You'll go mad, if you do!"
"Of *course* it's because of me!" Xena shouted. "Don't you get it? *I'm* the one who killed those villagers -- killed her husband and son. And now Alcimede is destroying everyone who has ever been important in my life! Scroll after scroll -- everywhere we go, someone is looking for me. Carrying news of death. They're all gone, Hariklea," Xena said, her voice breaking. She had been trying to hold off the pain for days. They were no closer to King Lias' castle because they had made several detours, all of them holding only more pain. So many deaths. So many people who had touched her life.
She had attended the double funeral of Minya and Hower. She had seen her brother Torus cremated on a pyre of flame. She had watched as Joxer's body was laid to rest. She had even seen the somber procession mounted to honor the passing of two heroes: Hercules and Iolaus.
There were countless scrolls and messages telling her about others. Currently, Xena and Hariklea were on their way to Amphipolis. The warrior dreaded what she might find there. Was her mother still alive? And what about Solan?
What about Gabrielle?
"I don't understand," mumbled Xena. "How can Alcimede be so many places at once? How can one woman be everywhere? And how can anyone be safe from her?"
Hariklea sat down next to the warrior and put her arm around her shoulders. "I don't know, Xena. I wish there was something I could do. I wish I could ease your pain somehow."
Xena laughed. It was a short, bitter sound. "I had that once. A complete lack of pain. Empty of all emotions. Funny how wonderful that sounds right now."
Hariklea pulled Xena toward her, holding her. "No, it doesn't. That's a horrible thought. We *are* our emotions. Without them we could never feel love or joy or contentment or any number of wondrous things." Hariklea's hands gentled the warrior, running soothing patterns on her back, arms and shoulders. "We'll find her, Xena. I swear we will. We'll find her together."
Xena glanced over at the blonde woman. "Why are you here?" she asked, softly.
"What?" Hariklea said, startled by the question.
"Why are you here? Don't you get it? Everyone who touches my life, dies. No one is safe. It doesn't matter how little the contact, if you know me, you're dead. Period. So why have you stayed?"
Hariklea hesitated, then smiled. "Well, if that's true, then it really doesn't matter if I stay or go. If she's going to kill me, then she'll kill me. But at least this way, I might be able to help you until it's my turn to go." Xena opened her mouth to speak, but Hariklea put a tender finger over the warrior's lips. "No. Don't say it, whatever you were going to say. It's my choice, Xena. Mine. I've had a good life. I've traveled, met kings and done pretty much what I wanted to do. And I didn't tell you, but in that last village, I heard someone say the word 'whirlish.' I had said it earlier at the inn, remember? Well he overheard me and thought it was a good word. I think that's about the best thing that could've happened to me. Maybe that's my legacy. Maybe some of my other made-up words will get repeated, too. That's about the most I could've hoped for. I'm no hero like you or Hercules. And I'm no queen, like Gabrielle. I'm just a messenger for a dead king. I like thinking that maybe my words will live past me."
Hariklea smiled self-consciously. "I know. Not a lot of dreams. Mostly talk. That's all I've ever been. And now I'll talk even more, because I can't stand the thought that I haven't said this."
"What?" Xena asked, once again fighting the waves of pain which threatened to steal her control. Gabrielle's family. Gone. Is she with them in the Elysian Fields? Is Gabrielle gone forever as well?
"I'm in love with you, Xena."
The warrior's mind snapped into the present as she pulled away from Hariklea's encircling arms. "What? You can't be!"
"Oh, but I am! I'm very impulsive. I seem to feel and do everything quickly. And I fell for you the minute I met you. Couldn't help myself."
"No, no, don't do this. Don't tell me these things."
"I have to. I want you to know. And don't worry, I know all about the fact that you love Gabrielle and don't feel that way about me. Can't say I like it, but I understand. Really, I do. But that doesn't change how I feel."
Xena stood and walked away from Hariklea, her mind in turmoil. She had been ignoring the small signs that should have told her this, she realized. They had been together for more than half a moon. Xena readily admitted to herself that she hadn't really been paying much attention to the blonde woman who had been riding with her. It was easy not to. Hariklea seemed to know instinctively when to talk, when not to, what to do to ease their travel -- all sorts of subtle things. She cooked, she cleaned, she took care of many of the details that used to be Gabrielle's job.
That's why it was so easy, realized Xena. Without any hesitation, she has taken Gabrielle's place and I never even noticed. I've been so focused on the deaths, and trying to determine Alcimede's patterns that I've barely paid attention to what Hariklea has been doing.
Xena turned back to look at the messenger, now sitting forlornly on the fallen log, her head in her hands.
I haven't even been very nice to her, she thought. I treat her like Argo -- expect her to do her job and occasionally give her an offhanded pat on the shoulder. No, that's not true. I treat Argo better than I've treated Hariklea. Because I don't want her with me. I want Gabrielle. I miss her so terribly. And I'm no closer to finding the woman who has been hurting her. Without Alcimede, I cannot return to the Amazons. I can't return and see the woman I love staring at me with indifferent eyes for the rest of our lives. I have to succeed. I have to find the cure. I need Gabrielle whole and filled with love. I need to believe that Gabrielle is still alive...
So what do I do about Hariklea?
"Xena?" asked the blonde.
"What?" the warrior said impatiently, still wrestling with silent questions.
"Don't tell me to go away."
"Huh?" Xena turned back to Hariklea, her expression puzzled.
"Well, I don't know what you were thinking, but you were obviously trying to figure out what to do with me. And I'm afraid you're going to decide to send me away. I think it's only fair to tell you I won't do it. If you try to get rid of me, I'll only follow you."
Xena was still, looking at the blonde with a thoughtful expression on her face. "You really aren't afraid of Alcimede, are you?"
"No, I'm not. I don't care what she does to me. As long as I can be of some help to you before it happens, it'll be worth it."
"It's surprising that she hasn't done something already," said Xena.
"No, actually, it doesn't surprise me at all."
"Because you don't care about me. She only kills the people you care about."
Xena was silent. A new thought had just formed and she needed time to think it through. If she was right, then the last thing she should be concentrating on was Gabrielle.
Hariklea continued to look at her, her last words still hanging in the air between them.
"You're wrong, Hariklea," said Xena, slowly approaching her. "I do care about you. True, it's not the same way you feel about me, but only moments ago I realized how much you've been doing for me. How much you've been helping. I'm grateful for that. And I've been wrong to treat you the way I have."
Hariklea's face glowed in response. "You care? Really?"
"Yes, I do. Really," said Xena, sitting next to her. "And I promise that from now on, things will be different. It's time I tried to get over Gabrielle. Will you help me? Will you help me heal?"
"Oh yes, Xena," whispered Hariklea. "Yes. Anything. I'll do anything for you. And I'll do anything I can to help you come to terms with your lost love."
Xena stared into Hariklea's eyes and knew that the woman had spoken the truth about her being in love. It was all there. Written in her gaze. The warrior could feel the desire and longing coming from the blonde. "It won't hurt you, being with me, knowing that I don't feel about you the way you do about me?"
"I prefer to think that's only temporary. That someday, you *will* want me. That you'll realize we're perfect for each other. I think the gods sent me to find you, Xena."
"Perhaps they did," said Xena, smiling. "I certainly needed an ally. And there you were."
"We'll find Alcimede," said the blonde. "I swear it. Because only after you've found her will you truly be free enough to love me back. I know this."
Xena didn't speak. There were no words to say. There was only a vague thought that was becoming clearer with every moment.
How did this happen? You're confusing me, Warrior Princess. I was supposed to have so much fun. You killed my husband and my son -- took away my entertainment. It seemed so fitting that you should take their place; that you should become my plaything so I could watch you suffer. And now that I've succeeded and I can feel your pain, it's becoming my pain.
Alcimede stared at Xena, who slept unaware of her presence. The warrior was dreaming but her expression held no peace. Occasionally, she would mumble unintelligibly, not words so much, as groans of despair.
I hadn't thought about how much hurt you've had in your life, Xena. I hadn't realized that you'd lost so many before I ever came along.
Alcimede reached down, pulled back Xena's blankets, and crawled in beside her. Gently, she laid her head on the warrior's breast, holding her close.
I need to stop caring about you. I need to stop caring so I can enjoy your pain. I didn't plan to fall in love. I didn't want to feel anything. It was just for fun, Xena, just for my amusement...
She lifted her face and kissed Xena softly on the lips.
I watched you without your knowing. I came to you at night while you slept. Funny, how I never saw the danger in this. Never considered how it might affect *me*. I thought you would be the one who'd suffer. Not me. Never me. But here I am, in your arms and wishing you would hold me as I hold you.
A tear slipped from Alcimede's eye as she breathed in the warrior's scent.
What do I do now? What purpose does my life have without you? I've never felt like this before. Like a young girl, yearning to be admired by a beautiful hero. But I know that if I come to you in daylight, you will want only my death. I'm such a fool. I should be gloating about your pain, not feeling it. I should be laughing at your losses, not regretting them.
Alcimede raised herself on one elbow.
I should kill you now before I've lost my soul completely.
She held her hand over Xena's heart. For long moments she kept it there -- hovering in the inches above the warrior's skin.
No. My heart needs you alive. Sleep well, Warrior Princess.
After kissing her gently, Alcimede slid out of the blankets and left the sleeping woman's side, her hand still shaking from having been denied a touch.
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