Pegasus nudged Gabrielle again.
"Wha..." she muttered. Opening her eyes, she saw the long face of the winged horse. "Peg'sis..." She tried to raise her arm to pet him but a sharp pain ran through her. Carefully, she lifted her head to inspect her injuries. Her leg was bleeding, her left shoulder felt dislocated and she hurt bad on the inside. "Need... healer," she murmured, recognizing the seriousness of these symptoms. Pegasus snorted. "Can't..." said Gabrielle, knowing the horse was willing to take her, but unable to rise. "Get... help..."
Pegasus snorted again, pawing the ground with his hoof. One of the highwaymen groaned. The horse picked the man up by his shirt and took off into the air, circling once then disappearing.
"No..." moaned Gabrielle, afraid she would never see the winged steed again.
"You be th'biggest fool I ever knowed, Warrior," said Widgie. She was on her feet again, still weak but gaining strength with every passing moment.
"I don't need this from you, Healer," said Xena. They were in the kitchen, safe from a raging storm which lashed the small village. Xena had made it to the inn with only moments to spare before the full fury of the tempest had unleashed and now, only a short time later, she was trapped there. The paths in and out of town were impassable with mud and a nearby river had already overflowed its banks. Many of the villagers who lived in the flooded area had taken refuge in the inn. Xena had offered to heat up some food for them but Widgie had flatly refused to let the warrior touch anything in her sanctuary. Instead, the Oracle was hard at work, cooking up a concoction that filled the room with delightful aromas.
"You need worse than I be giving you, t'ain't so? Leavin' th'Bard on th'trail and showin' yer own sour mug like it'd be welcome 'thout her."
"Yeah? Well it was this 'sour mug' that brought you back to life, not that you've thanked me for it," said Xena, petulantly. She had managed to avoid thinking of Gabrielle since the morning of their fight. Every time the bard's voice or face crept into her mind, Xena had pushed it away. It was a constant battle from sunup to sundown since it appeared that the bard was all that her heart and mind wanted to think about. And now the storm was keeping her at Widgie's when all she wanted to do was get on the road back to her companion. Xena prayed Gabrielle had taken her advice and had returned to the Amazons. At least she would be safe there.
"I be not fergettin', Warrior. I just be thinkin' why't should be thanks, aye? Ye've brung me back t'loss an'grief. M'Jorgos b'ain't 'round no more."
"I'm sorry about Jorgos, Widgie. Truly I am," said Xena, sincerely.
"Aye. I knows that, Warrior," said Widgie, her eyes once again filling with tears. She leaned on the kitchen counter for several moments then turned back to her cooking. She stirred the small pan in which she sautéed several herbs then began opening cupboards, searching for something. "Hist! Where be it?"
"Some fool taked m'best stewpot whilst I were beyond!" Angrily, she threw a kitchen towel across the room.
Xena lowered her head, recognizing the healer's displaced emotion. Unable to deal with her grief over Jorgos, Widgie was concentrating on something mundane. Something she could deal with. Xena's heart ached for her. "Let me help you look."
"T'ain't here, I tells ya! Someone taked it."
"All right. Uh... if you want to talk, just holler." Xena stood, wanting to give Widgie some time alone. It's what she would have wanted and she had always felt that she had a lot in common with the oracle. Xena turned to leave but felt a meaty hand on her shoulder.
"Leavin', are ya? Better you should find a use fer yerself. Bring me m'stewpot and mark them what took it. A black eye or broken bone be th'price I were considerin'."
"You want me to be your 'muscle'?" asked Xena, shaking her head with both amusement and sorrow.
"Aye," said Widgie.
"I'm not going out in this storm for a stewpot."
"Whoosh, Warrior, be ye afraid of a raindrop then? Now off w'ya. Git!"
Xena shrugged her shoulders and left the kitchen. At least it was something to do, she realized. Now who had the guts to steal from Widgie? she wondered, setting off in the downpour toward the deserted village square.
Her eyes opened slowly, blinking in the sunlight. Gabrielle glanced around, surprised to see that all the highwaymen had disappeared.
"Pegasus?" she whispered. There was no answering snort of recognition from the winged horse. "Must've dreamed..." she muttered, closing her eyes again.
I think I'm dying. I think I've lost this time. Never thought I'd die alone. I always saw myself crossing to the other side from the haven of Xena's arms. Doesn't seem fair. Alcimede is dead. No one else should have to die now. She took so many.
Gabrielle groaned as another pain shot through her side into her back.
I'm sorry, Widgie. Sorry I couldn't help you. Hope Xena got there in time. Xena. I'll think of you with my last breath. You are the love of my life. Maybe it's better to die if I can't be with you. Xena. Xena...
She slipped from consciousness into a darker place, unaware of her surroundings. She never felt the horse pick her up by her clothes and place her on his back. Nor did she feel the powerful thrust of mighty wings as he leapt into the air, heading north toward storm-tossed skies.
Xena walked into the kitchen and placed the stewpot on the counter next to the healer. The warrior was soaked to the skin, her boots caked with mud. "Here."
"Didja mark'em then?"
"They won't be taking anything else, if that's what you're asking."
"Do they need healin'?"
Xena shook her head, a half smile on her face. "No."
"Yer a softie, Warrior," grumbled Widgie. "Thinkin' you be s'tough but inside yer mush."
"Yeah, right," said Xena, her own voice hollow as she remembered, despite her defenses, the look of revulsion on Gabrielle's face when she had told her the truth about herself.
Widgie glanced over and frowned. Her eyes took on a speculative look, narrowing slightly as she stared at the self-loathing written across Xena's features. "Take this t'th'dining room, then. There's mouths t'feed."
Silently, Xena grabbed the large bowl. Widgie watched her walk toward the door and shook her head. "There be th'one what needs healin'," she muttered, then returned to her tasks.
The dining room was packed with villagers, all eager to delight once again in the miracle that was Widgie's cooking. Two local girls had come to help serve, so Xena slipped away from the crowd, thankful to be alone again. She knew it was best to stay busy. That way she could keep the image of Gabrielle out of her mind for moments at a time. But the noise and the laughter and the celebratory atmosphere of a town that had regained their favorite citizen was too much for the warrior.
Bracing herself, Xena walked out into the storm. Her head bent, she pushed against the slashing rain toward the stable, needing to visit her old friend, Argo. Halfway there, she felt a break in the storm. She looked around, puzzled. The tempest continued all around her, but where she stood was clear and calm. It made no sense.
Suddenly, she heard a small, unfamiliar nicker. She spun around in a circle yet saw nothing. "Is someone there?" she asked, her muscles tensed and ready, still unnerved by the corridor of quiet in the midst of the storm. She listened with her body for the source of the sound.
Slowly, she looked up.
Widgie sat in her chair, dominating the room. She didn't join the laughter of her townsmen, but nodded kindly when they each found an excuse to make their way to her table. They all wanted to offer their condolences about Jorgos and at the same time, welcome her back. They spoke of their love for her, and how much they had missed her and her healing and yes, her cooking.
A young couple, looking quite abashed -- and unmarked by injury -- stood in front of her. "...and you understand, don't you? We thought you were dead. We never would have taken it otherwise."
"Aye. You be not stupid. You knows I could crack you both w'naught but a finger, t'ain't so?"
"T'so..." they said in unison.
"Tells me then. What foul things be put'n m'stewpot, aye? I has t'know how t'clean't, t'ain't so?"
"Nothing! We never actually used it. We were--"
The door of the dining room smashed open and a wild-eyed Xena stood in the entrance, holding a bloodied bard in her arms. "Widgie..." she said, her voice breaking.
Widgie was on her feet, her ponderous weight moving swiftly through the parting crowd. "In t'room w'her, Bold One. Stavroula, Kiriapseli -- get m'bag, boil water and be bringin' clean cloths." The dining crowd was frozen at the sight of the warrior and her injured friend. "*Now*!" shouted Widgie and instantly, people began running to do her bidding.
With infinite care, Xena laid Gabrielle on the pallet. Once, in this very room, I was the one who lay here, injured and dying, she thought. It was you who waited anxiously for the healer to arrive, while I, lost in the dark, fought for each breath. How I wish it was that way again. It's so much easier to be the injured one. No pain I've ever suffered from a wound can compare to the hurt I feel now, looking at you, wondering if you'll...
"Widgie!" Xena shouted. "Get in here, damn you!"
A young boy ran full speed into the room and slid to an ungainly stop.
"Widgie -- she says she's coming," said the boy then left quickly, frightened of the fierce warrior.
"Hang in there, Gabrielle," she said, tenderly. "It won't be long now. So don't go dying on me. You gotta promise. Tell you what -- I'll make you a deal. You get better, and I'll be whatever you want me to be. I mean it. I'll do whatever you want. If that means no more killing no matter what, well then that's what I'll do. And I'll never give in to the darkness again. Never. Because that's what happened, you know. I let the darkness take me. That's why I was with Alcimede like that. Well I promise -- never again. But you have to keep your end of the bargain, okay? You have to get better. And if you want to live with the Amazons and be their queen, then we'll do it. We'll live there forever, if you want. Anything, just be okay. Just be okay..."
Xena's voice broke on a sob. No, she thought. I'll weep later. Now I have to be strong. For her. I have to show her I mean it -- that I have the strength to follow through on my promises. How else can I bring her back to life? I have to--
Her tears stopped instantly as her face lit up. '...Bring her back to life...!'
Xena ripped open the laces on Gabrielle's short top, baring the bard's breasts. Quickly, the warrior placed her hand over her partner's heart, closed her eyes and waited for the warmth.
"C'mon!" she screamed. "C'mon! Heal, damn you! Heal!"
Her hands were cool on Gabrielle's warm skin. Just cool, dry, ordinary hands...
"No, Bold One... Na'this time," said Widgie as she entered the room. A young man followed, holding her chair, while three women carried hot water, a large medicine bag and a stack of freshly washed linens. The man caught a glimpse of Gabrielle's exposed chest and looked away respectfully.
"Put't there, Bilious, and leave us, aye?" said Widgie, softly. The man placed the chair, stole one furtive glance at Gabrielle then left the room. "He be a good lad, Warrior, but shy and randy fer th'maidens, who don't pay him no mind, t'ain't so?" she added looking at the three young women. They looked away guiltily. "T'so. Kiriapseli -- y'might consider'im fer th'festival. He be a fine dancer..."
"Shut up!" shouted Xena, hovering over Gabrielle's body, her face twisted with pain. "Just shut up! I don't care about dances or shy boys or any of that crap! Heal her, Widgie! Make her well!"
Widgie didn't move. Just stared at the warrior for a heartbeat. "Y'might be steppin' aside, Bold One, so's I c'n do so, aye?" she said evenly. Xena stepped back. Widgie settled herself in the chair and looked at Gabrielle, ignoring everyone else in the room. "Ah, Chit, what be y'doin' gettin' yerself all hurt and such? Ye've no heart fer fightin, t'ain't so?" The healer felt the wound on her leg and dismissed it. Next she examined her head, seemed pleased and walked her fingers to the bard's shoulder. With a wrenching twist, Widgie slipped the joint back in place. One of the girls ran from the room, her hand over her mouth.
"Those who ain't got th'stomach, git," said the healer. One more girl left.
Efficiently, Widgie felt Gabrielle's arms and hands, moved to her collarbone and used deft fingers to prod her ribs and chest, looking through touch for anything untoward. She moved further down and stopped. "Here be a problem," she said, delicately exploring Gabrielle's right side. "Got a blow t'th'kidney. Did damage. Just a bruise, though. Not fatal."
Xena took a deep breath, nodding her understanding. There had to be something else. Gabrielle wouldn't look so sick with only a bruised kidney and a shallow gash on her leg.
Grabbing one of the clean cloths, Widgie doused it in warm water and bathed Gabrielle's wounds. "Blood poultice," she said to the last girl who instantly ran from the room.
Xena began to pace. She looked at her hands. Useless things, she thought. How dare you cure, kill and resurrect but you leave her to suffer. Look at her. Lying there all helpless and hurt. And why? Because I left her alone, to fend for herself. Just took off, thinking only of my problems and didn't do a damn thing to protect her. I should have stayed nearby. I should have watched out for her, making sure she was okay. I should have never left her in the first place...
I'm the biggest fool who ever lived. What was I thinking? Was I trying to make her suffer a bit? Make her realize that she *does* need me. And what did I learn? That I need her more than she'll ever need me. I was lost without you, Gabrielle. My heart would never survive being alone again. Not now. Not now that I've known what it's like to love and be loved by you. Oh gods, you were right. I *did* need to talk to you. I needed to show you who I was. I needed to know that you could love me despite who I am. But I never gave you a chance, did I? I showed you and ran away like the coward I am. I ran because I was afraid to find out if you could love me in all my truth.
"What are this?" mumbled Widgie, her hands now exploring her patient's abdomen. The healer's face was furrowed with worry.
"What? What did you find?" asked Xena, intensely, instantly at the healer's side.
"Warrior... sit down."
Xena knelt next to Gabrielle, stroking her forehead. Without looking at Widgie, she said, "Talk to me. The truth, Healer."
"Aye, that it'll be. Prepare yer heart, Bold One. She be dyin'."
"No. Don't play games. What's wrong and what can we do to change it?"
"There be nae changin' this'n, Warrior. Her bowels be bleedin' filth all over inside. She be poisoned by her own guts. In't back, I founded a blade. Broke off at th'haft. She be cut through, and fouled within. Alls we c'n give'r now's a coin fer Charon's boat..."
"This isn't happening," mumbled Xena. She stroked Gabrielle's cheeks and forehead, holding the bard's hand firmly. "C'mon, Gabrielle, fight this. You can't let go now. I won't let you. I was wrong. So wrong. I should've talked to you. I should've told you a long time ago how it felt to be me. The real me. I should've taken my chances and allowed you to make your own decisions, instead of letting you love your image of me. It just felt so good, Gabrielle. It felt so good to be loved like that." Xena was no longer aware of anything or anyone else in the room, her concentration solely on the bard.
Widgie remained quiet, not letting her presence be felt by the warrior, though she continued bathing Gabrielle's fevered body with cool water.
"You were right to be angry," continued Xena after a long pause. "Right to push me. And I understand -- I really do -- I understand how it is with you. Why you liked being the queen, why you felt like you were in my shadow until then. I never meant for you to feel that way, it just happened. But you were wrong about one thing, Gabrielle. I *do* respect you. I've always respected you. I know you're capable of so much. Look at what you've taught me already..."
"She were th'queen then? Took the duties, aye?" Widgie asked, breaking her silence.
Xena, suddenly remembering that she wasn't alone, looked over at the healer. Before she could get angry at having been overheard baring her soul, Widgie's question sunk in and a look of unadulterated pride washed over the warrior's features. "She's the best queen the Amazons ever had."
Widgie smiled in understanding. "She be a good thinker, our Bard, when she's a mind to't."
"She was fair and creative and everyone loved her," said Xena. She looked back at Gabrielle. "Weren't ya?" she added tenderly.
"There's naught I c'n do, Warrior. I'll leave ya'wich yer love then." She stood, then turned back to the bard, bowing her head. "Farewell, m'queen," she said and left the room.
Xena didn't appear to hear Widgie, her concentration again focused solely on her companion. "The best there ever was," she whispered.
Gabrielle's breathing was shallow, her face bloodless with a waxy pallor. Xena felt her pulse and had trouble finding it. "Noooo..." the warrior moaned, deep in her throat. "You can't..." Quickly, Xena rubbed her hands together to warm them and placed her palm against the skin over the bard's heart. "Please, Thor. I'm begging you now. I'm asking a lifetime favor. You'll never have to grant another wish, or help me in any way again. But you have to help me now. Give me back the power. Give me back the healing power. Don't you see? Gabrielle shouldn't die. If it hadn't been for the village there would never have been an Alcimede and Gabrielle and I wouldn't have had that fight and I wouldn't have left her alone where she could get hurt. So you can't let her die, Thor. You can't let her blood be on my hands. You promised me, Thunder God. You promised..."
Xena buried her face against Gabrielle's chest. The warrior's hand was still cool and dry. Great wracking sobs escaped Xena's throat and she found herself unable to stop the flood of tears. It was as if all the love in her heart was pouring into the bard's body -- draining from Xena, forever -- flowing irretrievably into her young companion.
"C'mon, Gabrielle, fight this. You have to--"
Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open. "Xena...?"
"Yes! Yes, Gabrielle, I'm here," said the warrior, bringing her head close so she could hear the bard's small voice.
"Xena... I'm sorry... I... I re... spect... you..."
"Ssshhh, it's okay, everything's going to be okay."
"No... please... listen..." she said, her voice just a thread of sound. She was fighting with everything she had.
"You can't die, Gabrielle. You can't. I won't let you. I love you," said Xena her hands fluttering uselessly, wanting to touch her everywhere, wanting to heal but unable to.
"...love you... was wrong... please... don't stop... loving be... cause of... me..."
"Gabrielle, no, please don't leave me alone, please," begged Xena.
"I promise. Anything. I promise, just--"
"...promise you'll... love again..."
"Oh, Gabrielle...!" Xena could feel herself losing all hope of control. Her voice failed her as she croaked out a whispered, "I promise."
"...I... love you... Xena..."
"I love you, too, Gabrielle, now please you have to--"
The bard took a deep breath and let it out on a rattling sigh. No more breaths followed.
Xena was still. "Gabrielle...?" she whispered. "C'mon, Gabrielle," she said, louder. Panic raced across her features and she hit Gabrielle's chest, put her mouth on hers and blew her breath into the bard. "Gabrielle! Come back!" But what had worked once, in a temple far away, wasn't going to work again.
Strong hands grasped the warrior's shoulders. "Bold One. She be passed. Leave her be," said Widgie, her voice deep with sympathy.
"No, Widgie, you don't understand. She has to come back. I died once and I came back. You came back. It isn't right for her to-- I won't let her leave me." Xena continued to pound on the bard's chest, then stopped, her fist in mid-air, her eyes brightening. "I have to find ambrosia. That's it. If I can find some ambrosia I can bring her back..."
"Warrior. There b'ain't no ambrosia, aye? Where would y'be going for suchlike?"
"I don't know... but I'll find it somewhere. The lava flow. Maybe the bag of ambrosia fell clear. Maybe it's still there. I'll take her body with me... I'll need a travois so Argo can-- wait! Pegasus. If the winged horse is still around, I'll ride him. I can get there in a day and I'll--"
Xena's eyes were manic and Widgie held the warrior's shoulders firmly to keep her from bolting.
"Let go of me! I have to find Pegasus before he leaves!" Xena screamed, fighting off Widgie's arms. The healer calmly engulfed the warrior in a bear hug and held her close. Xena continued to struggle until finally, her body went limp.
"There now, Bairn. You be fine. You be gettin' through this'n, but 'tis time ye'll be needin', t'ain't so?" Widgie rocked her gently, humming a tuneless melody. "Mayhaps we be workin' through our grief t'gether, aye? We's both strong wimmin. Love big and feel big and t'ain't s'good for losing."
"She died because of me, Widgie," said Xena in a lost voice. "It was all my fault. I just left her there. Thinking only of myself."
"Be that why y'comes straight t'Widgie's then, aye? 'Cause y'be thinkin' o'naught but yerself?"
"No, I'd heard you were--"
"Aye. I were needin' you, Warrior. And t'weren't yerself you was thinking of, t'ain't so? You were thinkin' o'Widgie, then."
"But I just left her, all alone, with no protection."
"She be not capable o'defendin' herself w'that stick then?"
"Oh no, she's very good with the staff," said Xena, defensively.
"Ah. So she were not defenseless."
"I know what you're getting at, but you're wrong. She's good with it, but whoever attacked her had swords and knives and there were probably several of them. If I'd been there, she'd still be alive. It's my fault. I told her... I told her that if she stayed with me, I'd destroy her like I've destroyed everything good in my life. She should've listened to me. She should've gone back to the Amazons."
"And what be makin' y'think she dint try then?"
"You don't know Gabrielle. She would've followed me."
"Because... she loved me..."
"Aye. And when th'storm abated, where was you thinkin' a'goin?"
"Back to her..."
"Why are you doing this to me, Widgie? Why are you torturing me?" Xena asked, wrenching herself away. The warrior fled to the corner and stood, her back to the wall, her arms hugging herself.
"D'ya not see that all wh'happened were because't had to? What be different if't could be changed?"
"I wouldn't leave her."
"T'so? E'en though what you touches you destroys?"
"Yes. No. Oh, what difference does it make? I killed her. I killed Gabrielle..." said Xena, looking at the body which still held the warrior's heart and soul. "I abandoned her on that trail. And now she's left me. Forever..."
The scrape of whetstone against steel was loud in the silence of the forest. Xena was in a large clearing hidden in the woods behind Widgie's Inn. The storm had moved on and the land looked deeply green, fresh and new. But to Xena, the colors mocked her. She had preferred things grey and muted. She had no patience for beauty.
She had stayed with Gabrielle's body through the night and in the morning had watched the bard get placed in a casket to be prominently displayed in the common room, as was custom. Xena allowed this, having decided to take Gabrielle's body to the Amazons when the village was through paying their respects. The Amazons would want to send off their queen in the traditional fashion. And Xena had no stomach for a lonely burial among strangers.
When the villagers began to gather, the warrior had slipped out the back of the inn. She couldn't be with people who hadn't known Gabrielle, and would only pay lipservice out of respect for the healer. Widgie would understand, thought Xena. The oracle looked ten years older since learning of the death of Jorgos. It was going to be a long road for both women.
I wish I could understand what it was all for, thought Xena. I wish I knew why. Why did so many people have to die? Thor said there would be no blood on my hands, but all I see is death and pain and heartache and it's all because of me. Where did this start? If I could go back in time, what could I change so that none of this would happen? Would I leave Ilsa alone in the clearing? No. I couldn't do that. Would I have kept silent and not asked Thor to trade her memories for the village? I couldn't have borne the pain of hurting her that way. Could I have reneged on our deal and spared the village? That would have dishonored Thor. Who knows what he might have done?
Then what? What could I have done differently? Oh Gabrielle, you're so much better at this sort of thing than I am. You always know what's right and wrong. What were my mistakes? What did I do to cause all these deaths? Your death? Why did you have to be taken from me? That's what I truly don't understand. It was supposed to be over. We had destroyed The Assassin.
If only you hadn't walked in just then. If only you had come earlier, before I had tried to seduce Alcimede into death. If only I hadn't believed that rumor. Thinking that she could die only at climax -- was I a fool to have believed that? Was that my mistake?
Or my wish?
Sex and death. Why must they be so tied inside me? I don't think of death when I make... made love to you, Gabrielle. And no one has ever satisfied me like you have. No one ever came close to making me feel the way you did. So why, when I thought you were gone, did I immediately fall back into my old pattern?
Because the pull is so strong. Even now I feel the call to raise an army and lay waste to anyone and anything that stands in my way. Conquest. Heady, euphoric, passionate, powerful conquest. I'm pulsing with the need for it. I want to see my sword bathed in blood, to pay back the world for taking my Gabrielle from me.
And what would that accomplish? Would it honor your memory? Hardly. Would you be pleased to see me kill on your behalf? Nothing could be further from the truth. So how do I deal with these feelings? How do I resolve my grief? How do I live *your* life -- *our* life. For that's what I must do. Live for both of us now. Yet I don't even want to live for me...
Xena stopped sharpening her sword and held up the weapon, examining the blade as if it was the first time she had ever seen it.
I want to kill. And it would be so easy. I could kill and keep killing until finally someone bested me and then I'd be no more. Bathed in blood. Covered in it. Reeking of it. Swimming and wallowing and breathing and living the blood. Dying in it. I want to kill. And I'd start by searching for whoever took your life. They would die slowly... So slowly... Screaming for mercy and hearing only my laughter...
Quickly, Xena sheathed her sword. It was too seductive to stare at the blade, she decided. She had to think about something, anything else. By the gods, it's difficult to fight the darkness without Gabrielle, she thought.
'By the gods...' The words echoed in her mind.
Why don't the gods listen to our prayers? I thought Thor was different. I thought he was a loving god who cared about his Chosen. But he ignored me just like the others. Are there any gods who truly care about us? About me?
Xena tried to fight it. She tried not to see his dark, handsome face, hear his rich voice, but her mind couldn't shake the image.
The god of war loves me, she thought. He's shown me many times how much he wants me back. All it would take is a word from my lips and he would give me whatever I ask. Even you. Ares would give you back to me, if I raised my sword in his name.
Xena lifted her eyes to the heavens.
"Are you there?" she asked aloud, not quite willing to speak his name. "If I return to you, will you bring back Gabrielle?"
She stopped, startled, looking around the clearing in case the god had heard her.
What am I saying? she thought. You would hate me for that bargain, Gabrielle. But I'm desperate. I've run out of options. I can't live without you and I can't bring you back. The gods are my only hope. Ares could rescue you from Hades, don't you see? It would be worth it. To have you alive again, it would be worth any price. Even if you did hate me, at least you'd exist. Only a god could give us this. Only a god.
"So you turn to Ares, Xena?" said a deep, masculine voice. Xena was instantly on her feet, her sword drawn, facing the intruder.
"Thor," she said, angrily. "You let her die!" Xena thrust her sword at the god, but slashed only air as he disappeared. Xena shook her head confused, heard a sound behind her and spun, only to be faced with a scowling Thunder God.
"This is how you show reverence?" he asked.
Again, Xena attacked, and again he vanished, reappearing beside her. The warrior swept her weapon toward him and it clanged against Mjolnir, Thor's hammer. While Xena recovered from the shock of the impact, the god reached easily for her sword and took it from her.
Deflated, Xena sank back onto the fallen log. Thor looked at her sadly then walked behind her, sheathing her sword. He placed his hand briefly on her shoulder then returned to stand before her.
"Why didn't you save her?" asked Xena. "You could have. I know you have the power. Why didn't you appear when I prayed to you?"
"Daughter, you have come to rely too heavily on the generosity of your god. I do not exist to solve your problems and give you gifts. I am yours to worship and revere, if you so choose. And you are mine to love and cherish, which I *do* choose."
"What kind of 'cherishing' is that? You had me murder half a village and because of it, everyone I've ever loved is dead. That's some special kind of religion you got there, Thor." Xena put her head in her hands and whispered, "Why are you here?"
"You are my Chosen and called to--"
Xena leapt from the log and stood toe to toe with the giant Norse god. "Shut up with that 'Chosen' crap! I've had it with all this talk of how special I am to you. You don't care about me! If you did, you never would have sent me to kill those villagers. And you never would have allowed Alcimede to murder my friends and my family. And Gabrielle would be alive. She'd be *alive*!" screamed Xena. She wanted to hit him. To beat him and run him through with her sword, but the Thunder God stood implacably, apparently unconcerned by her outburst. Finally, unable to look at him any longer, she turned her back, saying, "Why are you still here? Shouldn't you be off dazzling some idiot Scandian who doesn't know what a lousy god you are?"
"I came to keep a promise," he said.
"What promise is that?" Xena said, finding herself on the verge of laughter. It was all so ridiculous, she thought. Why was she standing here, in the middle of a forest, screaming at a foreign god when Gabrielle lay cold and lifeless, mourned by strangers.
Thor raised Mjolnir high. "I call on Odin, Lord of Valhalla, to open a doorway to the palace of souls!" he said, his voice booming in the silence of the forest. Xena spun around as thunder roared and lightning crackled from the giant hammer. A swirling doorway of white light undulated before her. Wild winds whipped her hair into her face and she squinted against its power, but nothing could steal her gaze from the portal opening in the center of the clearing.
Slowly, something took shape and out of the light stepped Meg, King Lias and Princess Diana who, with Philemon on her arm, carried her child.
"What is *this* freak show gonna be about?" asked Meg as she stepped onto the dewy grass. Diana and Philemon helped the king across the threshold and joined their cook.
More forms took shape: Tyldus, Helen of Troy, Darius, Baraeous, Colton and Joxer.
"Hey Xena! You won't believe where we've been! It's this place where only the finest warriors go and I-- hey! Quit shoving!" shouted Joxer as hundreds of Amazons, led by Ephiny and Viktalia, poured through behind him, nearly trampling the warrior wannabe.
The Amazons were followed by a procession of familiar faces. Autolycus walked out and Thor reached in the thief's pocket, removing a jeweled rune stone, shaking his head. Gabrielle's parents and her sister Lila were next, confused and clinging to each other. But the parade didn't end. Friends and loved ones continued to emerge, including Hippocrates, Minya and Hower, Torus and Senticles. Jorgos smiled sweetly as he led the way for Kaleipus, with Solan riding on the centaur's back.
"Solan..." gasped Xena, having never even heard of her son's death.
Finally, Hercules, Iolaus and Cyrene walked into the clearing, beaming with delight.
"Mother... " said Xena, tears in her eyes. "Hercules... Iolaus... You're all okay..." Xena turned to Thor. "They're all okay? This is real? They're alive again?"
"Yes, Daughter. I promised that your hands would never bear the blood of my revenge. They were all taken because of what you did in the village. Not wanting to anger your Pantheon by interfering, I stole their souls before they reached Charon's boat and hid them in Valhalla. I have kept them there, cared for and treated well. All is as it should be now."
Xena looked at the milling crowd, who were still dazed and confused by their experience, and shook her head. "I don't see her. I don't see Gabrielle. Where is she? Is she still in the tunnel?" Xena ran to the portal, but it disappeared just as she arrived.
Thor waved his arms, Mjolnir held high, and intoned, "Begone to your lives and remember not what you have seen!" The clearing full of people vanished in a roar of thunder.
Once again, the warrior and the god were alone in the forest. In the distance, she heard Widgie cry out in joy then a cheer erupted from the gathered villagers.
"Thor," said Xena, trying to control herself. "Where is Gabrielle? Why didn't she walk out of the portal like everyone else?"
"Gabrielle was not killed by Hera's assassin. She was beset by highwaymen. Her blood is not on your hands, Xena."
"That's not true! If I had been with her she wouldn't have been killed but we'd had an argument because of Alcimede and--"
"Hush, Daughter. I know the events. But this is not part of my promise. Gabrielle's death was unfortunate, but due only to the men who took her life. She did not go to Valhalla, but rather crossed the river Styx. And once a soul has passed that stygian stream, I no longer have the power to retrieve it. There is nothing I can do."
"No," said Xena, shaking her head. "I won't believe that. You're a god. You just saved all those people. Surely you can bring back Gabrielle." Xena looked around the clearing wildly, wondering if he was saying this because the Greek gods were listening. Quietly, she said, "Please, Thor. They don't have to know. Hades and Hera -- you can figure out a way. You have to. I'll do anything you ask. I'll fulfill any task, I'll worship and revere you until my death, if you will only bring her back to me, whole and healthy. I'll dedicate my life to you -- just bring her back!"
"Daughter, you must accept--"
"I won't! I won't accept anything that includes Gabrielle's death," said Xena. "There has to be a way. Please, I'm begging you -- there has to be."
Thor looked at her sadly. "What would you have me do? There could be no hiding my presence. If I were to take Gabrielle, Hades would know instantly that a soul had left him -- and that I was to blame. I will not start a war with your gods for the sake of one shadow."
Xena's mind was racing, devising plans and rejecting them. Suddenly, an idea formed. "What if you did a switch? What if you put a Scandian's soul in the Elysian Fields and put Gabrielle in Valhalla? Then it would be easy to bring Gabrielle back. Just open the portal and she can walk out. And that way, Hades won't feel the loss of a shadow."
"Daughter, you don't know what you ask."
"Yes I do. It probably stretches some god rule or something, but it would work, right?"
"It might be enough to confuse Hades, but there are no guarantees and I have told you -- I have no need to take chances with other gods. And none of my Chosen deserves to spend eternity in a foreign resting place. They have spent their lives honoring me and have earned their eternal reward."
"It wouldn't have to be forever. When Gabrielle dies naturally, you can switch them back. Her entire life would be a blink of an eye compared to eternity. Please, Thor, I'm begging you."
The Thunder God looked at Xena's earnest expression and her too-bright eyes, rippled with grief. "Xena, you are my Chosen. And I love you as I do all of my children. But beyond that, I have grown to enjoy you, for you are a true warrior, an honorable woman, and are filled with strength. I have watched you struggle with your darkness, cheered your victories and shaken my head at your defeats." He stopped speaking, his ice-blue eyes far away. He turned to her again. "If I refuse you, would you turn away from me and into Ares' arms?"
"Yes," said Xena, coldly, knowing that she would. "But it doesn't have to be that way." Come on, Thor, do it, she thought. The Scandian soul won't care and Gabrielle shouldn't be dead at all. It's not right that she was killed this way. And if Ares refuses me, then I would rather fall on my sword than live without her. At least then we could be together in the Elysian Fields.
"You wouldn't be, you know," said Thor.
Xena stared at him, startled. She had forgotten that he could read her thoughts. "Oh? Why is that?"
"Because to die by your hand would be a dishonor and I would place your soul far from the Elysian Fields as a punishment. I am a loving god, but not always forgiving. I don't suffer fools easily, Xena. Taking your life would displease me."
The warrior shivered at the threat. Suddenly, this god whose eyes could hold such warmth was the most frightening force she had ever met. "You would do that?"
"I would," he said. Then his expression softened. "But it would be best if you don't test me. I will speak to my Chosen in Valhalla. I will see if any are willing to make this sacrifice for a stranger. If so, I will consider your request."
"You really do care about them, don't you? I didn't think a god would worry about things like what mortal souls might want."
"Some gods don't. But devotion strengthens me and I have found that love is the greatest power of all. Your Gabrielle understood this."
"Yes... she did."
"If I do this, I will need a gift from you."
This is how it all began, she thought. I traded him his revenge on the village for Ilsa's memories. And that revenge got me here -- bargaining with a god for Gabrielle's soul. "I know from the past that your price can be high. What would you ask?"
"I will make that decision in my own time. Are you willing to trade an unknown gift for Gabrielle's life?"
Now what do I do? she asked herself. If I say 'yes,' then it's as though I have learned nothing from all of this. He could ask anything he wants and I'd have to do it. It could set in motion another holocaust of death and suffering. I can't agree -- it's too much to ask.
But if I refuse, I've lost Gabrielle forever. What do I do? How do I answer?
"Yes," Xena whispered.
Thor nodded his head slowly, smiling. "Courage," he said, admiringly. He paused, then said, "And courage such as that deserves a reward. I won't make you wait. This is the gift I request: You must learn to love yourself. For how can Gabrielle love you fully if you refuse to see your own worth? Now don't interrupt," he said, placing a finger on her lips, anticipating her protest. "You must forgive yourself. You must see the good in yourself. And finally, you must honor yourself. Can you fulfill my request?"
"I... I don't know. There is so much darkness in me. I've tried to do those things, but I have... there are urges inside me that I can't..."
"You must promise me that these will become your goals. And that you will do what you must to achieve them."
"I'll need Gabrielle's help," said Xena.
Thor smiled. "You do amuse me, Xena." The god placed his hands on her shoulders then pulled her to him. He embraced her in his great arms and after her initial surprise, Xena felt herself drawn deep into his warmth. And while he held her, she loved herself, honored herself, saw the good in herself and forgave herself because all seemed possible in the arms of a god. He winked at her. "See? It can be done. This was just to let you know how it feels." He leaned down and placed tender lips on hers, kissing away the last of her anxiety.
"I'll make my decision about Gabrielle known to you, at a time of my choosing. Farewell, Xena," he said and disappeared.
"Farewell," she murmured, still feeling the glow of his final gift of self-love. And even though she could feel it begin to fade, she knew now how to recognize it. It gave her a clarity and understanding she'd never had before.
She waited in the clearing until the sun set. Finally, unable to be alone any longer, she returned to the Inn. Widgie and Jorgos were in the kitchen, bustling about, preparing for the evening meal. It was business as usual except that every few minutes, Widgie would reach out and touch Jorgos on the arm, or stroke his cheek or put a hand on his shoulder. The innkeeper, as placid as always, accepted these small affections with a soft smile.
Gabrielle's casket had been moved to a shed out back, waiting for Xena to start her journey to the Amazons. The warrior hadn't told anyone of her conversation with Thor, though her worries were increasing with every passing moment.
"Time means naught t'a god, Bold One," said Widgie, from out of nowhere.
"Huh?" Xena stared intently at the oracle.
"I heared th'thunder on a day bright w'sun. I knows you've had truck w'th'Ice Peoples. Then m'Jorgos be appearing from naught. 'Tis a god's work and nae else, t'ain't so?"
"How much do you remember, Jorgos?" asked Xena.
"Naught," he answered. "I remember speaking to young Gabrielle at the Amazons, making the trip home and walking into the inn, seeing my Widgie. She told me I'd been dead."
"Aye, but 'tis m'calling what telled me that. Th'villagers, they be thinking he were returnin' from a journey, as was what m'mind was tellin' me. But m'vision says diff'rnt."
"Aye. Though I clearly remember traveling from the Amazons to home, if Widge says I was dead, then dead I was."
"Turn yer head, Warrior, if'n you be dislikin' affection 'tween marrieds," said Widgie, as she took her husband's face in her hands and kissed him tenderly.
Xena didn't turn away. She watched the couple with longing in her heart, remembering how it felt to be able to take a loved one's lips simply because they were there. "I'm happy for you both," she said, sincerely.
"Have we you to thank then, Xena?" asked Jorgos, smiling. "For my return?"
"To thank and to blame, I'm afraid. Let's call it even."
"Could yer god not bring back th'Bard then?" asked Widgie, sympathetically.
"I don't know. He's... working on it."
"Hades got'er then, aye?"
"Yes. Thor is a powerful god, but he's not eager to tread on the territory of the Pantheon."
"He be wise then. E'en gods have rules and boundaries, t'ain't so? Th'power o'em demands't."
"Aye," said Jorgos, thoughtfully. "I'm happy to be just a man."
"So, 'just a man', be settin' these bowls out then, aye?"
"Aye," Jorgos said, leaving with his arms full of savory delights.
"You're a lucky woman, Widgie," said Xena, wistfully, wanting what they had -- a life of comfort with a loved one.
"Nae, Warrior. Luck'd naught t'do w'it. T'weren't his time. Knew that from th'start. Nor mine, t'ain't so?"
"Is it Gabrielle's?" Xena asked, suddenly afraid.
Widgie turned away. "Yer god, he be workin' t'change that, Warrior. Put trust'n yer heart and stop askin' questions y'don't want answered."
Xena looked at the oracle, who caught a glimpse of blue eyes that held too much pain. The warrior hung her head, pushing away her fear. If you can hear me, Thor, she prayed, know that I mean to keep every promise. I will learn to love myself. I will give you whatever you ask. Just bring her back to me.
Xena sat on her pallet, her chin cradled on crossed arms resting on the window sill. The moon was bright, the stars were out in their patchwork splendor, and a warm breeze blew tendrils of hair around her face in tickling patterns. An owl hooted somewhere in the distance, giving the lonely night an eerie edge.
For eight days and nights, Xena had been waiting for the sound of thunder.
Sighing, she watched a field mouse scuttle out of the bushes under her window.
When do I accept that you are truly gone, Gabrielle? When do I begin the journey to the Amazons? I can't wait forever at Widgie's Inn, though I've found a comfort here I never expected. The healer is... she's become a friend. Perhaps it was because we shared our grief, or maybe because I brought her back to life, I don't know. But she seems different now. And she wants to help me.
I should accept that help. I know this. It's what you'd tell me to do, isn't it? You'd want me to reach out to Widgie and Jorgos, letting them teach me how to love myself.
The field mouse foraged rapidly, his movements sharp and quick, pushing his quivering nose under leaves and twigs, searching for anything that might be edible.
Did you know that Widgie was once an Amazon Queen, just like you, Gabrielle? She told me this a couple of nights ago, when we sat in the dark on the porch, talking in whispers about your reign. She was the Queen who had united all the tribes. 'The Great Unifier' they call her. The Amazons had been warring against each other, each leader trying to take the title of Queen, and Widgie found a way to bring the separate nations together under one banner. She was young then. Not even twenty winters, but already stronger than any four women combined in both her mind and body.
And then she met Jorgos. It's a beautiful love story, Gabrielle. If you were here you'd write a sonnet or two, I'm sure. I'd love to hear that. I'd love to hear your voice and see your face as you told an inn full of travelers about the Amazon Queen and the quiet man from the north.
She gave up her right of caste and left her life as an Amazon behind. Widgie said she didn't leave because Jorgos forced her to or anything. He would've stayed with her. No, she left because she felt she could help more people if she lived in 'the world.' That's how she put it. Said living with the Amazons limits a healer and an oracle. She likes helping everyone equally.
The field mouse had found a scrap of food and was sitting on his haunches, chewing happily. Xena smiled as she watched his cheeks fill with his bounty.
I forgot to tell you -- Widgie showed me how to cook this soup thing she makes. Mine turned out wretched, but she swears she'll keep after me until I get it right. Said I couldn't go out on the road and starve. That I should know at least one dish. Imagine that, Gabrielle. If I can just figure out what I did wrong, I'll be able to cook soup if I need to. I figured you'd be proud of me for that. You're always after me to...
A sob suddenly broke from Xena's throat, surprising her. She hated the suddenness of grief. One moment she would feel like she was holding up just fine and the next she would break down completely. As if her feelings were waiting just beneath the surface, looking for a chance to assault her. It never took much. She would hear a phrase that Gabrielle used to say, or see a village girl with strawberry blonde hair or hear a tune that her companion had admired and suddenly, Xena would go from coping to collapse in the blink of an eye.
"Oh, Gabrielle... I miss you so," Xena said, her voice high and broken.
"Then it's a good thing I came back..." sounded Gabrielle's voice from the darkened doorway.
For a moment, neither woman could move. They simply stared at each other across the moonlit room, frozen as if in a tableau, drinking in the sight of each other. Then Xena rose shakily, stumbled toward the bard and held out her arms. Gabrielle fell into them, the tears in her eyes matching those of the warrior. Neither spoke. They simply held each other close, breathing in the scent of each others' skin.
"Oh, Gabrielle..." said Xena, breaking the silence with a whisper. She couldn't find anything else to say. The euphoria of holding the bard in her arms was too profound for mere words. They remained like that for endless moments until Xena murmured in the bard's ear, "I thought I'd lost you forever. You were gone, Gabrielle. Really gone."
Gabrielle shook her head, soundlessly, most of her weight supported by the warrior's arms. "I heard your thoughts," she said, her voice raw. "I tried to send my love to you. But it didn't work. Your tears... your thoughts... my heart broke, Xena."
"I'm so sorry for everything. I never should have left you alone on the trail--"
"No. That's what I wanted to tell you." Her voice was stronger now, her eyes sparkling in the moonlight as she looked up into the darkened features of the warrior. "You weren't to blame. Those highwaymen, they're the ones who killed me, not you. You saved me, Xena. You held me as I died and then found a way to get me back." Gabrielle glanced around the small room and smiled. "It's our room again. This is where we first made love. And I remember discussing what to do about Ilsa in here, lying in your arms. So many memories... Xena -- truth or dare?"
Bright teeth flashed as Xena smiled broadly. "Dare," she said with all the love in her heart. It was a child's game, played by women who had once used it to break down the unbreachable barriers between them. 'Dare' meant only one thing to the warrior and the bard.
With infinite tenderness, their lips met. Time disappeared, as did heartache, pain and regret. The only thing that mattered in all the world was the wonder of this single kiss. The image of Alcimede faded away. The harsh words exchanged on the road north became muted and still. The hurt and emptiness and pain of parting vanished. Instead, there was hope and love and almost impossibly -- a future.
Eventually, Xena knew, she would have to end this kiss. And words would have to be spoken again. Words are so important to Gabrielle, she thought. I have to give her what she needs.
The warrior pulled away reluctantly. "The things I said to you... before I left you..." said Xena, before she lost her courage. "I didn't mean any--"
"Yes, you did. We shouldn't try to fool ourselves or each other, Xena. Not now. You meant them, and so did I. But we've both had time to think. We've both had a chance to see some of our own mistakes. Our own weaknesses. You were right, Xena. When I became queen, I changed. And not just from the heart-spell."
"No, it was my fault. I should've been more understanding. I should never have blamed you for what you did because of Alcimede's touch."
"Please, Xena, I have to finish. I have to tell you this. I had a chance to really examine my own heart and I realized that I liked being Queen. I liked the power. I liked being out of your shadow. I never knew that about myself before. I had convinced myself that I had no need for things like that, but now I know that something inside me does. Maybe it's one of the things that drew me to you in the first place. Your own sense of power. And your past as a warlord. Not the darkness of it, but the strength it took to lead your men. You've always been aware of this being a part of you, but me... I didn't know..."
Xena led Gabrielle to the pallet. The bard was weak, still not fully used to the feeling of life. They sat down, remaining close, touching, filling their vision with the sight of each other. The warrior bowed her head, playing with one of Gabrielle's hands. "Power is one of the most compelling things there is," Xena said softly. "I'm not sure anyone is immune, given the right circumstances."
"I thought I was."
"Don't confuse power with darkness, Gabrielle. As a queen, you were good and caring. As a warlord, I was cruel and untamed. Both positions brought a certain amount of power. But they're very different."
Gabrielle smiled then, touching Xena's cheek. "I have the feeling you'll be able to help me come to terms with this. You always see inside me, know just what I need, what to say."
"That's not true," said Xena, sadly. "I've made so many mistakes. On the road here, all I needed to do was reassure you -- prove that I loved you. But I didn't. Instead I hurt you. Because your lack of faith hurt me. I lashed out. I'm sorry."
"We were both to blame for what happened, Xena. I pushed you until your back was against the wall. What else were you supposed to do?"
"Well, I shouldn't have abandoned you. I should have stayed and protected you. I failed you, Gabrielle."
The bard shook her head emphatically. "No, Xena. You can't protect me forever. Can't be responsible for both of us." Before Xena could protest, Gabrielle put her fingers on the warrior's lips. "Hear me out. I am forever telling you that I'm not a child anymore. Well, on the road here, you didn't treat me like one. You opened your soul to me, let me see inside you to all that you are -- good and bad. And then you left me, trusting me to take care of myself. You showed me so much respect, Xena."
"What good is respect if you're gone forever?" Xena's tears caught the moonlight as they fell.
"It meant something to me..." Gabrielle hung her head, breathing deeply. "Xena... I'm not sure I wanted to live. I didn't even hear them coming. And though, on the surface, I did what I could to escape, I don't know if I really wanted to survive. Not that I wanted to die, but just... that I didn't want to live. Does that make sense?"
"I remember lying in the dirt, bleeding, and thinking to myself that I was dying. And the only thing that bothered me was that I wasn't in your arms."
Silently, Xena pulled Gabrielle to her. She could feel the tears splashing on her shoulder as she held her.
"Xena... I love you so much. I've thought and thought about what you said and I was so wrong not to accept you fully. You were right -- I didn't believe in your darkness. I had an image of you in my head that I kept forcing you into, whether it was real or not." Gabrielle sniffed loudly, then pulled away just far enough to look into Xena's eyes. "What I found out about myself was that I love you anyway. In all your complexity. And if I have to spend the rest of my life convincing you of this, well, then let's start now..."
Gabrielle offered her lips and Xena captured them in a searing kiss. Within moments both women were feverish with the need to touch, hold, caress and feel. They could not be close enough. Couldn't hold back. Couldn't let even a second pass without reaffirming that they were alive, and together, and forgiven.
Gabrielle was ravenous with her caresses and Xena had never been so gentle and tender. Both women wanted to show the other that all problems could be worked out, and that tonight, it was their partner whose pleasure mattered.
Eventually, sweat-soaked and spent, limbs intertwined, they slept, their hearts full at last.
The morning dawned clear, the sun waking both women with its first bright tendrils. Gabrielle opened her eyes to the sight of sun-soaked blue.
"So it wasn't a dream," whispered Xena.
"No... it's really me."
They were silent then, their breaths in concert, the slow rise and fall of their chests a study in symmetry.
"I suppose we should tell Widgie," said Gabrielle.
"I imagine she already knows," said Xena with a smile.
"Yeah, she probably does. I'm glad you got here in time to save her."
"I didn't. She was already in her coffin when I arrived. But Thor's healing was still in my hands, so I managed to bring her back. They're all alive, Gabrielle. Everyone we lost. Thor saved them all."
Gabrielle nodded. "You told me. In your mind." She smiled up at Xena, kissing the edge of her strong jaw. "You know, for a god, he's not such a bad guy."
"Xena -- he saved all our friends, he even saved me!"
"Yeah. I just wish I knew his game."
"You don't trust him?"
"I don't understand him. Why didn't he just kill the villagers himself? Why have me do it? And then, when Alcimede started killing everyone, why didn't he just stop her? He let all those people die -- then he brought them all back. It just doesn't make sense to me."
"You are very difficult to impress, Xena," said a deep masculine voice and suddenly, Thor was in the room, sitting casually on the edge of the pallet. Gabrielle scrambled to cover her nudity while Xena slowly sat up, unconcerned at her state of undress.
"You know, it's not really polite to eavesdrop," said Xena, a defiant sparkle in her eyes, her lips in a small smirk.
"You question my motives and expect me to stay away?"
"I guess that's a lot to ask, huh?"
Thor picked up a blanket and gently draped it around the warrior's shoulders. "Go on, ask me your questions."
"You heard me. Why did you do it? Why send me to take your revenge?"
"Gods are kept powerful through worship. There are many of us, and over time we have all found our own territories; our faithful. By agreement, we stay within our boundaries. It wouldn't do for a member of one pantheon to start 'campaigning' for worshipers in another's homeland. Unlike mortals, we cannot afford to invade and conquer. We're too powerful -- conflict among us could easily destroy this fragile world. No, better that all things remain balanced."
"Yeah, you've said that kind of thing before. But it seems to me you had to do a whole of interfering to kidnap all those souls. Wouldn't it have been easier to destroy Alcimede from the start? Or better yet, do your own dirty-work and kill those villagers. Alcimede couldn't have taken any revenge if you'd been the 'hand of justice'."
"Alcimede was the daughter of Hera. I couldn't kill another god's child."
"She was Hera's *daughter*?" asked Gabrielle, startled.
"Yes. A child spawned from a dalliance with a mortal -- a revenge on Zeus for one of his many infidelities. Hera laid with a criminal the night before his execution, so there would be no witness. At the moment of his death, only hours later, she gave birth. Immediately, she put the child in a pouch and sent Pegasus to earth. She wanted to hide the child, in case Zeus decided to take his revenge. But the king of your gods dismissed Hera's story as fabrication. He didn't believe his wife capable of duplicity. However, it achieved her immediate goals, for it was years before Zeus sought another woman on whom he'd spend his desire."
"I never heard this story," said Gabrielle, a look of concern on her face.
"Hera wanted her child protected and therefore made sure the bards never knew of her existence. Otherwise, it might have gotten back to Zeus, who would surely have sought revenge on Alcimede."
"How do you know all this?" asked Xena.
"Just because we don't invade another pantheon's territory, doesn't mean we don't keep a close eye on all the heavens. And when Alcimede incited her village to destroy my Chosen and her husband, I knew that I could not interfere. Hera was watching very closely."
"So you sent me," said the warrior.
"In a fair trade for Ilsa's memories. At the time, you were content enough with the arrangement."
"And the souls you 'stole'?"
"In the instant before death, I transported each victim to Scandian soil, so that their last breath was taken in my land -- therefore, their souls were mine to place in Valhalla. Then I returned the bodies to Greece. It was too swift for Alcimede to notice and Hera paid no attention to the victims -- only to her child. It was a risk, but I had made a promise to you, Daughter. Your hands would not bear the blood of my revenge. I keep my promises."
"Wow," said Gabrielle, her eyes wide. "I've never heard of a god who cared like that."
"As fascinating as all this is," said Xena, fighting to keep her own expression neutral. "Why are you here with us now? Isn't every appearance a 'risk' for you?"
Thor chuckled. "And that is why I'm here. I came to bid you farewell."
"What?" asked Xena, puzzled.
"Your pantheon is getting nervous. Ares and Hera suspect me of interference. Ares is very... covetous of you, Daughter. So I've decided to cease my visits." He glanced at Gabrielle. "You're looking well. Any ill effects from your death?"
"No, I'm fine," she said, smiling. "Thank you, Thor. For my life."
He nodded in acknowledgment then turned back to Xena. "To bring Gabrielle back, one of the souls in Valhalla had to volunteer to take her place in the Elysian Fields. I would appreciate it if, occasionally, you would think of her, so that she can be comforted while she awaits her release."
"Who is it?" asked Gabrielle.
"Ingrid of the Scandia."
"Ilsa's mother..." whispered Xena, sending up silent gratitude to a woman she had never met, but with whom she felt a bond.
"She considered it her way of thanking you both for rescuing her daughter."
"We'll think of her often, Thor," said Xena, sincerely.
"Good, good. Well then, this is good-bye, Daughter. If, in the future, you need me -- please travel beyond the realm of your pantheon before calling my name. You will always be my Chosen, but there's no sense angering the locals," he said with a grin.
"All right, Thor," said Xena, smiling in return. Gabrielle nudged her with an elbow and the warrior dropped her eyes. "Uh... Thor..."
"I... look, I'm not real fond of gods, as you know. You're all too powerful for my tastes. But you, well, you're okay," she said with a shrug of her shoulders.
Thor chuckled softly. "That was painful, wasn't it?"
Xena looked up, her eyes sparking with defiance.
He held up his hand. "No, don't bother. I can read your thoughts, remember? And I do appreciate the... concession. I am going to miss your fire, Xena."
Smiling sheepishly, knowing she had just been set up, she said, "Yeah, well, maybe you should get out of here. Don't want you to get in trouble."
"Good-bye, Gabrielle," said Thor with a nod to the bard. Gabrielle gave him a small wave, still clutching her blankets. "Good-bye, Xena," said Thor, running a finger across the warrior's jaw, then chucking her on the chin. Then he disappeared in a flash of light.
"Good-bye, Thor," Xena said softly.
"Ye've still things t'work out, t'ain't so?" said Widgie as Xena and Gabrielle finished their last breakfast at the inn. "Whyn't stay a day or two more then?"
"We'd love to, Widgie, but I think we're both getting a little restless. And the truth is, we can just as easily talk on the road as here."
"Whoosh, I'll not be understandin' yer wanderlust when good food and pallets be your'n right here, aye?"
"Yeah, well, we're both a little crazy, I guess. There's something about the hard ground and a starry night, warm blankets and the woman you love that gets our juices going," said Xena with a smile.
"I'll not touch that line, Warrior," said Widgie with a jingling chuckle. She waddled away to serve another couple who were also leaving at first light.
"You're so beautiful," said Gabrielle, studying Xena's features by the light of the morning candle.
Xena smiled, cupping Gabrielle's face in her hands. "As are you. Such soft skin. Wonderful eyes. So many colors in them. Blues and greens and every shade inbetween."
Gabrielle kissed the hand that held her face. "Part of me wants to stay here, in this moment, for the rest of my life."
"Maybe a part of us will."
Gabrielle's smile surfaced then, a twinkle in her eyes. "You can be so poetic sometimes. You always surprise me."
Embarrassed, Xena leaned back, crossing her arms and looking around the room. She was silent for several minutes, deep in her own thoughts, then looking back at a now curious Gabrielle, she said, "I said I wanted to settle down. But it's wrong for me. I can't live that life."
"I know. I always knew."
"Yet you indulged me. Why?"
"Because I wanted to try being Queen. That's wrong for *me*. But mostly, I just wanted to see you happy. To be with you. I'll follow you anywhere, Xena."
"There's a lot we still need to talk about," said Xena, seriously, holding her impulse to drift back into touching and speaking of being in love. This was too important.
"Yeah. And we will. I had a lot of conversations with you, in my head, when I was walking the road alone. I think I understand you better now, but there's still some things I'm going to need to hear from you."
"Then let's get started," said Xena, rising. She walked over to Widgie and was crushed in a bear hug of epic proportions.
"Take care, Bold One. And be visitin' yer Widgie when ye've a chance, aye?"
"Count on it," said Xena with a smile. Then added, "I'm very happy that you're alive, Widgie. Keep it that way."
"Whoosh, Warrior. I were only deaded cuz th'witch got me in me vulnerable part, t'ain't so? M'heart. I were always a softie."
"Oh yeah!" said Gabrielle, laughing. Widgie picked up the bard and hugged her close, stealing the breath from Gabrielle's slim body. "Oof!"
"Ye deserves that, fer upstagin' me release from Hades, Bard." She set the girl down amidst much jingling and jangling. "Jorgos put food in yer bags, so be off. There's naught more f'yer here."
"Good-bye, Widgie," said both Xena and Gabrielle as they exited the inn.
With a final hug to Jorgos, they mounted Argo and rode away from the small, northern village.
"So where are we headed?" asked Gabrielle.
"We should probably go back to the Amazons, to return the mask to Ephiny in one of their endless ceremonies. And then I thought we might drop in on Solan then head over to Poteideia."
"It's been awhile since you've said hi to Lila and your folks. It's not good to let loved ones languish too long. You never know when they'll be taken from you."
"You're right. And after Poteideia, we can go to Amphipolis."
"Yeah, thought we might."
"Huh," said Gabrielle, her arms wrapped happily around Xena's waist as Argo picked her way across the trail.
"I thought you were going to tell me we were off to find those highwaymen who attacked me. I had this whole speech ready, to talk you out of it."
"I can't pretend I haven't thought about it. But I think seeing our families and our friends is more important than seeking revenge," said Xena. Gabrielle squeezed her around the waist. "What's that for?"
"Because I don't think we have as much to talk about as I thought."
Xena laughed, then clucked to Argo, urging her to a trot as another day on the road began for the two travelers.
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