See Chapter 1 for disclaimers.
While Gabrielle was teaching Marina how to cook, Xena poured over the maps recovered from the ship. She knew roughly where they were when the storm struck. By her reckoning they had only been in the storm-tossed seas for a candlemark or two before they hit rocks, but for the life of her she couldn't see any islands within that vicinity on any of them. This island simply didn't exist. That thought tickled the back of her brain. If the island didn't exist to the mortal world...
That raised even more questions though. Had they been deliberately steered to this island, and to what end? Did only the three of them survive? Where was everyone else?
Marina proudly walked up with a bowl in her hands. "Dinner mama!"
"Thank you sweetheart. What have we here?"
"Fish stew. Gabby showed me how to make it."
"Well, thank you Gabrielle." She looked up to jade eyes watching the two of them with quiet joy. My family.
"Now, let's eat." Xena kept her suspicions to herself, to wanting to add to their already complicated circumstances.
"Oh, by the way... I found this in one of the sacks you brought back yesterday." Gabrielle handed over the tattered piece of parchment. Xena put down her bowl and examined the paper. It contained a set of nautical directions. She suspected where those directions would lead, but she put it aside until she was alone
Around the campfire, the three of them sat and talked and laughed at little word games. Xena even showed Marina the star gazing game she and Gabrielle played from time to time. Finally, sleep overtook the child and her mother carried her to bed, tucking her in with her makeshift dolly.
She came back to the fire and sat down.
"Do you want to tell me what's going on in that brain of yours?"
"Nothing's going on." But that didn't appease the young woman seated across the fire.
"C'mon Xena. Stop trying to protect me. You've figured something out and you're afraid to tell me." There was silence. "That's it, isn't it? How bad can it be?"
"Bad." That was all she said. What more could one say? She bowed her head in silence. Xena could feel those eyes boring a hole into the top of her head. Damn! "You may wish you hadn't asked."
"Let me be the judge of that. I think I have a right to know all the facts."
"Keep in mind these are just my suspicions, not fact."
"Well, your suspicions are just as good as anybody else's facts." That brought a smile to the older woman's face.
"I've studied the maps and this island is not on any of them."
"Are you sure you're looking in the right place?" Blue eyes came up to meet her own. "Stupid question – of course you are. You wouldn't make those sorts of mistakes."
"I'm only making an intuitive leap here, but I figure if this island doesn't exist to the mortal world, then –"
"Then perhaps it belongs in another plane of existence. Such as, say, a playground of the gods?" Gabrielle completed her thought.
Smart girl. She's gonna keep me on my toes in our old age.
"Why are we here, then?"
There was silence across the campfire. "This isn't something that's going to come back and bite me in the butt, is it?"
"Maybe. I've done a lot of bad things in my life, Gabrielle, so it could be connected to any one of them. Then again, it may just be coincidence that we are here. Be very careful what you ask for, Gabrielle. You may not want to know about my past. It's not pretty."
"Didn't we go through this last time? How much worse can it be than what you did as a pirate?"
Again that silence. Gabrielle was quickly realizing that she didn't know the woman she was in love with at all. C'mon girl, pull yourself together. You knew that loving her meant everything she was. Besides, the woman in front of you isn't anything like what she is going to tell you. Remember that.
"I want to know." Gabrielle stood up and moved around next to Xena. Seated, she took her partner's hand and waited patiently.
Xena took a deep breath then began her tale. "When I was fifteen summers old, my village was attacked by the warlord Cortese. During that attack, my younger brother died and Cortese laid waste the township. On the head of Ares, I swore revenge for my brother's death and set off in pursuit. While I could fight and was strong and determined, I had no direction for my rage. So, with my youthful exuberance, I went off in search of blood, death and revenge."
"I stumbled into the first temple to Ares I could find and offered my sword arm and demanded justice. To my surprise he appeared before me and offered to train me. He became my mentor, Gabrielle."
During her speech she hadn't been courageous enough to look into her lover's eyes, fearful of the horror she would find there. Eventually, her curiosity got the better of her and she looked up to be met with a patient gaze.
"So he trained me to fight and offered me an army to exact my revenge with. I didn't realize then how strong and seductive that sort of power can be. I was young and passionate and soon was overtaken by the power of having an army under my control to do with as I wished."
"I'd forgotten about Cortese, only to discover later that I had become him. I was doing what he was doing. Raiding villages, disrupting lives..." Xena hung her head in shame. "Destroying families."
"So, Gabrielle, if I had been at home and not in Rome, you could very well have been facing me that fateful day in Potadeia." A lone tear trickled down the high-planed cheek, followed by another.
Gabrielle thought long, hard and very carefully about what she was going to say next as it would have a big impact on the distraught woman next to her. Long moments passed before she spoke. "That may be, Xena, but I believe that we were meant to be together no matter what. I think you would have felt what was between us, even then."
She moved down onto her knees, facing Xena, before continuing. "The fact that you are agonising now over what you have done tells me that you have changed. It's in the past, let it go." Xena seemed unconvinced. She was going to bear this guilt for the rest of her life, no matter what Gabrielle said.
"Don't feel guilty, Xena. Ten years in the gladiatorial arena is more than enough punishment for your past deeds. Be happy with the way things are now."
Eyes brimming with tears met her own. "I am. You know I'm happy. There are just times, like now, when it all comes back and threatens to swallow me whole."
"I will always be here, Xena. You won't be alone anymore."
The stars moved slowly overhead as the two women took consolation in one another, just enjoying the simple contact of a gentle hug.
"So, who do you think is responsible for this then?"
"It could be anyone. I made a lot of people angry, gods and mortals alike, in my time."
"That piece of parchment you gave me had nautical directions on it. So yes, a mortal could have been responsible for this."
Xena watched the blonde's features harden. "Well, I don't care who it is, he's in for a fight then. I own your heart and your soul and I'm not going to let them destroy you! No one is going to take away what is mine!"
Xena couldn't help but smile at the girl's possessive nature. Gods, she is so cute whenshe's all fired up! "I want you to do something for me." Gabrielle nodded. "If you can get off this island, please get Marina home for me."
"No. No, I'm not leaving you. We're in this together. I'm not running away at the first sign of trouble, Xena." Gabrielle started pacing, getting agitated at all this talk of separation.
"Calm down!" Xena pulled her partner into her lap but Gabrielle was having none of it. She was angry and feeling very self-righteous. "This is only if something happens to me. I want to make sure Marina is taken care of, that's all."
"If something happens to you, Xena, you better try your hardest to get back to me, because if I have to come after you, even if I have to stand in front of Hades himself, I will be well and truly pissed off!"
Taking great gulps of air, Gabrielle could feel her heart trying to jump out of her chest. She knew logically that Xena would never abandon her but it scared her that what was to come was out of her hands. She wanted to fight for her lover but the war could be over before she even had the chance to take a swing at whoever was responsible for this...
Xena observed her partner in her agitated state and couldn't help but feel pride for her defence of their love, ready to face anyone and everyone. Blue eyes darkened in arousal as she watched her stalk around the fire, arms waving wildly in frustration, her blonde hair in disarray, her skin flushed and damp, breasts heaving, those green eyes flashing with sparks of fire and her body quivering in indignation. Maybe we should make the most of the quiet time we have.
"Gabriieeelllleee." The young woman stopped short at the deep rumbling of her name. She looked over to see those blue eyes nearly black. Oh. Her body answered the call and all thoughts of gods and battles disappeared in a puff of smoke.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The sun had barely begun its path across the sky when Xena awoke. Gabrielle had attached herself like a clinging vine and she hadn't the heart to disengage herself from the soft body nestled next to her. Snuggling back into the warmth of the embrace, Xena floated in a state of semi-wakefulness, her mind filtering through all the information of the past few days, formulating a plan here and there.
She heard a nearby rustle and knew Marina had woken up. Her eyes opened to see the girl looking at them, a look of hurt on her face. "Come here sweetheart," she whispered and her daughter climbed into bed with them, burrowing into the welcoming arms of her mother. Surrounded by her family, Xena gave up trying to get up and let herself slide back into the land of dreamless sleep.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Marina, come on! Don't be silly. You can't have a bath with your clothes on." Xena had decided to follow Gabrielle's example and stood at the water's edge naked. She was trying very hard not to laugh at the outraged look on her daughter's face. Marina was steadfastly refusing to take her clothes off. "All right then, don't complain to me when you start to itch."
She waded into the gentle surf, enjoying the cool water on her skin. She looked back up the beach to see Gabrielle watching her with hooded eyes. It constantly amazed her how easily they could affect each other this way. A look, a sigh or a word and they would be looking for a quiet hideaway.
The young blonde strode over to Marina and seemed to be in deep conversation with her. She could see the mop of black hair bob up and down and her shift was removed. The child came screaming down the sand and leapt into her mother's waiting arms. She still had her breeches on but it was a big step from being fully clothed.
Gabrielle went back to her task under the shade of a nearby tree. Gods what that woman could do to her! The rope looked a mess at present. She had been trying to separate it into a number of strands, some of which would be used for a makeshift bow or two. Xena had found some flexible wood good enough for the bow itself but they were short the string.
Nimble fingers went back to their task while pale green eyes watched mother and daughter playfully bathe in the surf. Slowly and painstakingly, she managed to separate half a dozen strands thin enough for stringing a bow.
After washing, Xena took the opportunity to start teaching Marina to swim. White foam from flailing arms and legs made it near impossible to see if the child was if fact going anywhere. The amount of energy Marina was burning up to swim would guarantee that they would get some peace and quiet that afternoon.
Gabrielle watched the tentative swimming lesson continue, and enjoyed the look of utter joy of such a simple task plastered all over Xena's face. So intent had everyone been on Marina's progress that no one had noticed a fin in the water, slowly weaving its way closer to shore. The shark was just about on top of them before Gabrielle screamed out a warning. Xena swivelled to meet her attacker, barely able to get her arms up before the creature was on top of her.
Gabrielle watched in horror as the shark attacked, and it took precious seconds for her to respond, grabbing her knife and running down the sand into the water. She splashed through the surf, heading for Marina while Xena wrestled with the beast.
Marina thought mama was funny, splashing around in the water with great enthusiasm. She stood stock still watching, not aware of the imminent danger. Gabby grabbed her arm and pulled her towards the sand, pushing her over before turning to run back into the water.
"Xena!" Her voice was hoarse with emotion. White wash made it impossible to see where her partner began and the shark finished. She held hope though; at least the water wasn't red. She waded up to her stomach, feeling around underwater for familiar skin. Touching an arm she grabbed hold tightly and pulled, lifting Xena out of the water.
The creature was proving to be quite strong and determined and it was taking all her skill to stop those powerful jaws from closing around one of her limbs. The shark was crafty and managed to keep her below the surface. Her lungs were slowly leaking her dwindling air and the pressure began to build in her chest. She needed to get to the surface for air but the creature kept nudging her down to the bottom.
She had just about reached the point of no return when a small hand latched onto her arm and pulled hard, lifting her towards the surface and her salvation. The shark had broken away and was now circling them both, the predator of the sea moving in on its prey.
Pulling in great gulps of air, Xena kept herself between Gabrielle and this denizen of the deep, and now armed with a knife, she waited her chance. But her nemesis was clever, trying to herd them out into deeper water where they would be easier targets.
As getting back to shore was now no longer possible, Xena was going to have to end this, once and for all. Gabrielle was barely able to stand in the deeper water, the gentle pull of the outgoing tide nudging her in the direction of her hunter. Xena spared a quick glance at her partner, her eyes glowing with the richness of their love, and imparted all that she was in that one look. "Go." Taking a steadying breath, she dove into the water towards her enemy, knowing that one of them would not be returning.
Gabrielle felt helpless as she returned to shore. She had to be there with Xena, but putting herself in danger by staying was not an option; they could not leave the child alone. Silently, on the sand, Marina and Gabrielle stood hand in hand, as the life and death struggle took place not fifteen paces away, watching events unfold before them.
Xena went after the shark but it swam just out of her reach, waiting for that elusive chance when she would have to re-surface for air. This was a wily creature and was not acting like a normal shark.
It's funny what goes through one's mind in a life and death struggle. Sometimes it's the worth of one's life, or the loved ones left behind. Sometimes it's what to cook for dinner. Xena's mind contemplated the island they were on. What was going on? These were not shark-infested waters, and this creature hunted like a human. Instinctively, a shark should just attack, not manoeuvre her or wait for an advantage. This was not normal in any respect.
The pain in her chest intensified as her need for air increased. She was either going to drown or be eaten. With the last speck of air in her lungs and the dwindling strength in her body she lunged at it, sending it skittering away. With that precious few seconds, she broke the surface of the water and gasped, working furiously to get oxygen back into her blood. A menacing fin broke the water not far away, picking up speed as it came towards her.
This was it. The shark was just about upon her when she forced her hands through the water, landing on its snout and vaulting herself over the top of it to land with a splash behind. She grabbed the knife from her teeth and swiftly cut through the tail. The fish swam out of reach, trailing blood in its wake from the deep gash.
Xena tried to wade back to shore but the shark made another pass, its teeth grazing her thigh, leaving a deep cut of its own. Now they were even. She was standing in waist deep water and better able to stand. The water was clearer here and she could see the menacing eye of her hunter, and the malevolent intelligence residing there.
This beast, she surmised, had to be a product of the gods; perhaps a guard to stop anyone escaping the island. There was obviously something on this island worth killing for.
Xena and her opponent faced off against one another, like combatants in a gladiator ring. She had lived, breathed and fought in this type of battle for the last ten years of her life. This she understood only too well. Kill or be killed.
The creature moved towards her, its movements now sluggish and ragged because of the damaged tail fin. Xena could feel the warm blood ooze out of her leg, its heat dissipating as it hit the cold sea water. The stinging from the salt galvanized her senses, focusing her attention on the killing machine coming right at her.
She could feel her blood pump in slow even pulses, as it always did in battle, as her mind narrowed down to one object in her field of vision. The shark came closer and closer, its giant head raising up in the water as it prepared to attack. Massive jaws filled with rows of jagged teeth were now clearly visible, opening wider and wider until they nearly obscured her vision.
Knife in hand, she waited until the last possible moment. Just as the beast's mouth closed around her, she pushed the knife up through the roof of its mouth up into its brain. Razor sharp teeth grazed her back as she made her escape. She stood back and watched the death throes of this ungodly creature.
With the remains of her energy, she staggered back towards the beach, landing clumsily in the bubbling surf. She turned to watch her enemy continue to struggle until life left its body. Lifting her head to the sky, she closed her eyes in relief.
"Are you alright?!" Xena could hear the panic in Gabrielle's voice.
Xena barely had the energy to answer. "Hmmm." Everything ached. Her head pounded from the beginnings of a massive headache and the various nicks and cuts were making themselves known.
"C'mon, Marina's worried." She helped her partner up onto her unsteady feet. That's an understatement. It had taken a considerable amount of Gabrielle's strength to stop the child from running to help her mother. Then again, it had taken the rest of her strength to stop herself from doing the same thing. Standing there helpless, trusting her partner to take care of it, had been the hardest thing she had ever done in her life.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"I thought you would have been half-way down that path by now."
Xena leant back, observing her handiwork on her bleeding leg. Their provisions were poor for needle and thread, so there was not much gut to hold the gash together. "I'm not going until I'm ready." She pushed aside the throbbing in her leg.
Gabrielle's studied the damaged leg, wincing every time the bone needle pierced her partner's skin. "How can you do that?"
"How can you do that to yourself?"
"Someone has to do it. You want to do it?" The momentary lapse of concentration took her mind off the pain.
"No way! I couldn't push a needle through you, Xena."
"But what if it's on my back where I can't reach? Then you'd have to. Here." Xena handed over the bloodied bone needle.
Gabrielle extended a shaking hand and took the offering. She looked at the sharp point and then the wound, trying to settle her queasy stomach.
"I can't do this."
A large, warm hand touched her cheek, causing her gaze to lift to calm blue eyes across from her. "It's alright Gabrielle. You can do this. Try."
She took an experimental stab with the needle, feeling the skin give way under the sharp point, sliding the bone until it re-surfaced on the other side of the wound. Her stomach turned at the sight. Gabrielle looked up at Xena for a reaction and was met with a look of cool disinterest. If she didn't know better, it was as if Xena didn't even know that she was stitching her up. The hand on her cheek continued its gentle caress, affirming that everything was fine.
"I hope you're not going to make a habit of this. I'll do it, but I won't like it."
"Good girl." The comment was so quiet that Gabrielle wondered if she had heard it at all.
To take her mind off what she was doing, Gabrielle continued the previous conversation. "I just don't understand why you're taking your time about this. Why aren't we walking down that path now?"
"Because we don't have the supplies to just go stumbling on in there. We're just about out of fresh water and I want to try some hunting a little later." She hesitated, "And I want to have a bit of time to teach you the staff."
She could see the gathering storm clouds in her partner's face. "Don't fight me on this, please Gabrielle. If something happens," she held up a hand to stop any reply, "if something happens, I want you to at least have a chance of fighting back. I know I can't teach you much in the time I have, but if I can explain some things I know, you can figure out the rest if needs be."
"Why are you talking like this? It's scaring me."
"There's something more going on here, and if my suspicions about this island are correct, then it's going to be very dangerous. I'm just trying to give you every chance to survive if something goes wrong."
"If something happened to you, I'd be right behind you." A gentle tear rolled down the young woman's cheek, to be intercepted by a work-roughened finger. A quiet understanding passed between them. "But I know I have to live for Marina, so please give me every chance to live a long joyous life with you."
"I'm not going to throw my life away, Gabrielle. It's taken me all my life to find you and I'm not going to waste this opportunity, but things happen unexpectedly." Xena thought for a moment, wanting to express what was in her heart. "I want you to know that you are the best thing in my life, and both you and Marina have brought me great joy. These last few weeks have been wonderful, and I will do everything in my power to make sure that continues."
Marina observed the two women from her hole in the sand. Lately they'd been hugging and talking a lot, and looking very sad. A frown creased her brow as she saw Gabby starting to cry. She picked up her seashells and wandered over to her mama.
Gabrielle started crying harder at the unexpected present from the young girl.
"Thank you, sweetheart."
"Why are you so sad Gabby?"
"Because she didn't like hurting me with this needle." Xena interjected as she held up the offending object. She glanced over to Gabrielle and pleaded silently not to say anything.
"Yeah. I can't stand to see your mama in pain." Gabrielle hated lying to the youngster but acceded to her partner's wishes.
"So how about you two come looking for water with me, eh?" Xena was desperate to move the conversation away from potential disaster.
Gathering up the empty flasks, they set off into the forest behind them. Xena strung the bow and took her new weapon with her, slinging the arrows in its makeshift quiver over her shoulder, in case the opportunity for food presented itself. Of course, she never went anywhere without her trusty sword either.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Ancient trees towered overhead as Xena slashed her way through the undergrowth. Their legs and arms were a mass of scratches from dry brush and an eerie silence hung over the area. It was like the very air itself was alive.
The atmosphere was oppressive and it felt as if the forest was physically closing in on them. Stumbling through the mass of bushes, they burst onto an open meadow, with a small stream trickling beneath a grove of weeping willows. The scene before them was strangely peaceful and at odds with the wild untamed nature outside the grove.
The water was cool and sweet and a welcome treat after sweating through the outside barrier. They filled all their flasks, testing their weight and knew it was going to be tough going getting them back to camp.
Gabrielle and Marina dangled their hot feet in the cool stream, watching the water gently cascade over the well-worn rocks. Xena checked the perimeter, looking for anything that would be of help to them. Using her new bow, she managed to bag a couple of rabbits, her mouth already watering at the thought of fresh meat for dinner.
Wisps of smoke finally caught her attention and she called over her two travelling companions. They approached the small hut slowly, continually watching out for a trap to be sprung.
It was a strange little house, a single room structure with windows and shingles. Out the front was a tiny vegetable garden. How civilized! Xena couldn't help but make mental sarcastic remarks at the absurdity of such a dwelling.
The thick windows gave out no light and looking in proved fruitless. Xena was about to knock on the door when it opened unexpectedly. A wizened old man, bent with age and sporting a long white beard, greeted her. "Come in Xena."
Stranger and stranger. "You know who I am?"
"I've been waiting a long time for you."
"You have? How come I didn't know that?"
"Your destiny was foreseen long before you were even born. Xena, the great warrior. Great things are expected of you, my dear. All three of you have an important role to play in the great tapestry of life."
This is rubbish. "I think you may have me mixed up with someone else."
"No, no mistake. You are Xena of Amphipolis, are you not?"
"Yes, but ..."
"And you, little bard, are Gabrielle of Potadeia?" This mysterious man had all the answers.
"Bard? I'm not a bard." Gabrielle was confused.
"Not yet..." He just smiled knowingly.
"Enough of this. Why are you here? Is this island real?" Xena wanted some answers.
"As real as it needs to be." Now he was talking in riddles.
"No word games, old man. Does this island exist in the mortal realm?"
"I think you have answered your own question, warrior."
"Stop calling me warrior. I'm no warrior. Who are you?"
"My name is Theron, but you have not heard of me."
"Whom do you serve, Theron?"
"I serve the gods, but I am directly responsible to the Fates. It is by their will that I am able to foresee your destinies."
"Do you know why we've been brought here?"
"All will become clear soon, Xena of Amphipolis. You will be sent on a quest, warrior, and it has been ordained that I warn you. The journey will be fraught with danger and your very lives will be at stake. The prize itself may not turn out to be what you expected." Riddles again.
"What is the name of this island?"
"Demnos, little bard."
"Never heard of it."
"I doubt that anyone has."
"What is the prize?"
"I can tell you no more, warrior, except beware. What may seem a great prize could turn out to be a terrible burden. Think carefully before acting."
"No, no more. I have revealed too much already. I am pleased to meet you, hero. Now it is time for you to go and prepare yourselves for the great task ahead of you." The seer extended his hand for a handshake and it was only then that Xena could see that he was blind. She grabbed his arm and offered a warrior's farewell.
"You may like to help yourselves to some of the vegetables from my garden on your way out. The island is not very productive for food, so feel free to return if you need food or water. The gods are watching you, Xena." With that final statement, he closed the door.
"What was that all about?" Gabrielle didn't really expect Xena to have an answer and she seemed as perplexed as she was.
"I have no idea. But I won't pass up any vegetables though." She emptied one of the canvas sacks holding the water flasks and began digging. Her stomach rumbled at the thought of rabbit stew.
The return trip to their camp seemed a lot easier than the earlier trip from the beach. It was nearly as if the forest had given them permission to pass through. Since meeting with Theron the island seemed more hospitable towards them.
A great quest, eh? Well, he said that we were destined for great things. So, does thatmean we will survive this? She didn't want to take his prophecy as truth, as destinies had a way of going awry...
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Continued in Chapter 5
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