Dying wasn't so bad, Gabrielle thought. Her body felt as though it was floating peacefully in the warm, comforting waters of a dark, endless sea. The drug mother had injection into her veins had peaked and now she was riding a downward spiral toward final oblivion. She thought of her life as she drifted along with no apparent direction and no need to have one. Funny, how the world can seem so marvelously convincing until death collapses the illusion and evicts us from our hiding place.
She decided to relax and enjoy the ride, only mildly curious as to where her soul was going, where it would end up once the journey was done. Truly, life was a dream; only a sleeper could possibly consider it real. Now, she was waking up and all Gabrielle hoped for, as she drifted in the darkness cradled in fates' gentle arms, was that her soul ended up somewhere near Xena's, wherever that might be. Even though centuries separated them now, dying had a funny way of making all things equal.
"You're not dead."
The voice was like nails on a chalkboard - it sent a horrible shiver up her spine.
Furrowing her brow, Gabrielle turned her head and concentrated, intent on ignoring the voice altogether.
"No, no - no death for you yet."
The voice was closer, more threatening. Gabrielle groaned, wanting very badly to get away from it and continue along her journey.
"You don't get off that easy."
Cold fingers pinched her cheeks and lifted her head. Gabrielle was forced to open her eyes and acknowledge the presence. As her eyelids fluttered open, the inky blackness of eternity faded to a gray dim and the shadowed outline of a face that bore a disconcerting resemblance to her own.
"Hope," Gabrielle rasped, her throat dry. Slowly, painfully, she was pulled away from the pleasure of drifting to full consciousness and became all too aware of the throbbing ache in her shoulders and a rolling nausea in the pit of her stomach. She shifted uncomfortably, fighting the urge to vomit.
"Don't you dare spew on me." The cold fingers pinching her face released Gabrielle's cheeks.
"Hope," Gabrielle repeated, swallowing bile, "I thought you were dead." She blinked to clear her vision and the blurry face shifted into focus.
Mother was absolutely furious.
"I lost the election, you bitch," she said through clenched teeth, then drew back her hand and slapped Gabrielle, hard.
Slumping briefly, the slap jerked Gabrielle the rest of the way back to reality. The cold wall at her back, she pushed herself up into a stronger position and stared at her Mother with a blank expression, refusing to let her see any weakness. With the tip of her tongue, she casually licked away a small bit of blood from the corner of her mouth.
"The election. It's over. I lost." Mother began to pace back and forth through the shadows of the dark cellar. "My connection to the past is gone. My power. Dahak. Everything! It's all gone!" She turned on Gabrielle, her eyes flashing anger through the dimness of the basement. "The police found my agents, along with your friend, Evelyn."
Mother had Gabrielle's full attention now.
"Your friend is dead, Gabrielle. That stupid idiot, Peter, must have gotten away. Useless traitorous assholes! One of them must have spilled their guts to the police. You just can't hire good help anymore! It's on all the channels, all over the news. I'm finished!"
Mother stomped forward, coming nose to nose with Gabrielle, who was still trapped, shackled against the cold cement wall in the dark cellar.
"You and that bitch, Xena have ruined everything!"
"Hope," Gabrielle said, her voice soft and sad, ignoring the rage pouring from her daughter. "Hope. You have no idea how much I wish things could have been different."
The use of her true name stopped Hope cold. She stared at her Gabrielle, opened mouthed, eyes wide, her expression a mixture of anger and hurt. "Don't call me Hope! I'm not your daughter! I'm your Mother!"
"Hope, listen to me. I know who you are. You used Dahak's power to steal my soul and bring me here, but that doesn't make you my Mother," Gabrielle pressed on ignoring her daughter's denial. "I know why you did it. I understand everything now."
"No you don't. You don't know ANYTHING!"
Suddenly, Gabrielle felt wise beyond her biological age. "I know this was all my fault, and I'm sorry, Hope. I'm sorry for everything."
"Don't you dare," Hope choked out after a few moments of outraged silence. "Don't you dare try to tell me you're sorry."
Gabrielle shifted, standing up straighter, stronger. "Hope, I am. I am sorry. I'm so sorry." Tears welled up in Gabrielle's eyes. "Every day for the rest of my life, for as long as my soul endures, I'll wish I had not sent you down that river. I'll wonder what would have happened, if I had kept you with me."
Hope closed her mouth, hiding a slight quiver in her bottom lip. She forced a smile that sent an eerie reminder to Gabrielle that they looked exactly alike, that Hope's face was truly a mirror of her own.
"Do you think you could have saved me? Like you saved Xena, the Destroyer of Nations? Do you think you could have turned me away from the darkness, into the light? Onto the path of goodness?"
Gabrielle swallowed, her throat dry with sorrow. "Yes," she answered in small voice.
Hope lifted her hand and ran it along Gabrielle's cheek, feeling the wetness left behind by a trail of falling tears and her eyes softened.
"We could have lived happily ever after - is that it? A happy family - traveling to and fro - hither and yon - fighting the good fight for the greater good?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes and let herself imagine it. Images of the beautiful baby she held in her arms filled her mind. Her beautiful child. She dreamed of sitting on a log cooing at Hope as little hands waved happily and innocent, adoring eyes stared back up at her. Gabrielle smiled, sensing a presence approaching. Xena walked up and straddled the log, sitting behind them. The warrior wrapped the both of them up in her long, strong arms and gave her a tender kiss on the cheek.
"Yes," she answered again softly, the dream so real, she could feel the warmth from Xena's lips as though they still lingered there.
"You, me," Hope cooed, continuing to caress Gabrielle's cheek, "… and Xena?"
The gentle caress halted, its absence immediately noticeable. Gabrielle opened her eyes to find Hope glaring at her.
"What a bunch of total bullshit!" Hope backed away from Gabrielle, laughing. "You're delusional! That cocktail I shot arm in your arm might not have killed you, but obviously it damaged your brain." She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. "Do you seriously believe that Xena would have allowed that?"
"I … I," Gabrielle swallowed, the dream vanishing, "I would have convinced her."
"Convinced her? Convinced her of what? That I was only a baby? That I deserved a chance? That your love could save me?"
Gabrielle looked away, her eyes turning to the floor. "Yes."
"What a naive fool." Hope turned and walked away, hugging herself.
Gabrielle lifted her head and studied her daughter. Hope had turned her back and was hiding her face. "You wonder the same thing," Gabrielle said breathlessly, realizing she had stumbled upon a truth. "All this hate built up in you - your quest for power. This elaborate plan to bring Dahak into the world."
Gabrielle shook her head, continuing on. "All of it was to get back at us - get back at us for not loving you. No, you don't hate Xena. And you don't hate me. You love us both. And all you want is for us to love you, too." She leaned forward against her restraints. If she could have, she would have touched Hope's cheeks. "There's still hope for you."
"No, you're wrong. There's no hope for me and there never was. Xena was right." Hope growled, turning around. Through the darkness, Gabrielle saw a flash of light along the razor sharp edge of a very long knife. "I hate that bitch. And I hate you, too."
Helpless, Gabrielle watched as Hope rushed at her, the knife clasped in a white-knuckled grip, ready to strike.
Peter stumbled through the door of the basement, his lungs burning from the effort of running. The sprint from the car through the door of the mansion down long endless halls that seemed to go on forever had left him frantic and straining for breath.
He paused at the top of the stairs and hefted the heavy gun to a better grip in his hand.
"Please," he whispered, praying to the golden haired statue with the ethereal smile, "whoever you are, please. Let me be in time to help her."
With one deep breath, he kissed the gun for luck and then half ran, half stumbled down the long narrow staircase into the ominous blackness of the cold, dark cellar.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the lack of light. What he saw nearly stopped his heart. A flash of a blade and Peter knew that Gabrielle's mother was about to stab her own daughter in the chest.
"NO!" he shouted and lifted the gun.
Hope froze mid-strike and stared at the source of the shout.
Peter aimed at her, shut his eyes and squeezed the trigger.
The gun's barrel flashed in the darkness and Peter was propelled backward by the force of it. An ear-shattering echo bounced against the walls, filling the cellar with a deafening blare.
But the bullet missed the target completely.
Instead, it slammed into the cement wall just above the shackle restraining Gabrielle's left wrist. With a spray of dust, the bolt cracked and Gabrielle took no time to tug her arm the rest of the way free.
Before Hope realized what had happened, Gabrielle had a strong grip around her wrist and was struggling for control of the deadly blade. Hope smiled evilly and snatched Gabrielle by the throat with her other hand. She squeezed with all of her might, chuckling as Gabrielle's face began to turn red.
Peter tried to get to his feet to help, but he slipped again, tumbling clumsily down the wooden staircase and onto the hard cellar floor.
As Gabrielle's struggled for air, her strength began to wane. Slowly, the dagger inched downward toward her chest. Eyes wide, Gabrielle tried with all her might to push the blade back, but could only watch as the sharp tip descended perilously close, aimed right at her heart. She choked, desperate for air.
Gabrielle and Hope locked eyes; Gabrielle's pleading with her daughter to stop, begging for forgiveness; Hope's a cruel mirror of her own green.
With the last of her strength fading, Gabrielle knew she was about to lose the battle once and for all.
"I love you Hope," she rasped out with the last bit of fading breath. "I'll always love you."
The choked admission caught Hope by surprise and her malevolent expression faded. A second later, the knife plummeted downward.
Peter scrambled up off the floor in time to see the blade plunge down between Gabrielle and her mother, disappearing between the two struggling bodies.
"NO!" he cried out in dismay and rushed to his friend, pausing in horror just at their side. Blood, thick and black in the darkness, pooled at their feet.
His eyes locked with Gabrielle's and she smiled at him sadly. Together, they watched as the evil green flicker in Hope's eyes faded and she slid along Gabrielle's body down to the floor. The knife buried to the hilt deep within Hope's chest was clearly visible, even in the dark shadows of the basement.
Her airway finally free, Gabrielle choked, gasping for air. The sound pulled Peter away from gaping in horror at the body that was lying on the floor, at the dead eyes that stared back up at him, so similar to his friend's, yet so different in a very fundamental way.
"Gabrielle, are you alright?" he asked with concern, fumbling with the shackle lock until Gabrielle's other wrist was free.
"I'm fine," Gabrielle replied as her coughs subsided.
Peter wrapped an arm around her waist and helped her away from the wall, guiding her as she carefully stepped over the dead body.
"You killed your mother, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle looked down at Hope's body with a curious lack of emotion. "That wasn't my mother."
At their feet, the darkness shimmered and Hope's body appeared to melt away, down into a puddle of black mud. The mud bubbled and simmered for a few seconds before it disappeared all together, evaporating into a dark gray mist that drifted upward into the flue of the cellar's old hearth and was sucked away.
"That was disgusting!" Peter stated, accentuating his distaste by waving a hand in front of his nose. "Where did she go?"
"Who knows? Who knows where dark souls go? All I know is that no matter how many times we defeat evil, it keeps coming back at us. It might be a different face, at a different place and in a different time - but it's the same damn thing. Again and again and again."
"Then it's a good thing," Peter commented.
Gabrielle stared up at her friend, dumbfounded. "What do you mean, it's a good thing?"
At Gabrielle's blank expression, Peter shifted her arm across his shoulders for a better grip. "It's a good thing I'm here because apparently, my soul's handled this kind of thing lots!"
Gabrielle stared at him fondly. "Right, Peter. Whatever you say. Let's … let's just get out of here, okay?"
"Yeah, sure, Gabby. Anything you want."
Helping his friend to walk, Peter negotiated the stairs, leaving the darkness of the cellar and the last few days behind them. With their arms around one another, they took their time to walk down the long, lonely corridor of Gabrielle's childhood and out of the mansion into the light of the fading day.
Together, they stood just outside of the entrance to Gabrielle's home, the huge, heartless mansion that had kept her soul a prisoner for all of these years in a place she had never belonged.
"What's going to happen now?" Peter asked as they stood, supporting one another and staring at the setting sun.
Gabrielle extracted herself from her friend's arms. "I'm free."
"I'm free, Peter. My soul is free." She looked wistfully at clouds. "My soul was trapped here, by her - my mother … I mean, my daughter, Hope."
"Wait a minute," Peter turned with his typical look of confusion on his face. "Your mother was your daughter. No. Your daughter was your mother. Right?"
Gabrielle shook her head, laughing. "Never mind, Peter. Whatever, now my soul is free."
"So, if it's free, where will it go?"
"I'm not sure."
"Back to Xena?"
Gabrielle's smile crinkled the bridge of her nose.
Peter huffed, a little disappointed. "So that's it then. You're just gonna go back to Xena?"
Without warning, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Peter, giving him a heartfelt hug. "Thank you, Joxer. Thank you for always being there to help us," she whispered in his ear and then kissed his cheek.
Peter backed out of Gabrielle's arms and turned away, suddenly bashful. He rubbed the cheek where he had just been kissed as his face turned a bright, ruddy red. "Awww, Gabrielle, whatcha go and do that for?"
But when he looked back to his friend, she was gone. The only trace that Gabrielle had ever been was a gently blowing breeze that flitted against his cheek and the last fading ray of a setting sun.
"Goodbye, Gabrielle," Peter whispered to the wind. "See ya in the next life."
Still rubbing his cheek, Peter walked away from the mansion to Evelyn's car. He tugged open the door and slipped into the driver's seat.
"Wonder when my soul is gonna get it right?" he mumbled as he turned the ignition key, revved the motor and drove away.
Xena finished the last few words, scratching carefully against the scroll's fine parchment with the tip of the quill. She paused and tapped the feathered end against her lip as she tried to decide whether or not she should sign the document.
She read the last sentence, parting words on the last of many scrolls that revealed her innermost thoughts on the way of the warrior - the way to wage war.
Only the dead, her hand had written in strong, bold strokes - the same handwriting that had penned countless missives and ultimatums resulting in the destruction of entire nations - only the dead, will see the end of war.
She shuffled through the pages, looking at her notes in the softly flickering candle light and snorted.
See what boredom will do? She tossed the pages aside, rejecting the notion of a signature.
A dinar for your thoughts, Xena. And that was about all these scrolls were worth.
At that moment, the tent flap swung open, letting in the harsh light of the midday sun.
"How are you feeling?" Alexander's smooth voice greeted Xena.
"Get in here," Xena ordered, shielding her eyes from the bright light, "Close the flap, idiot."
Alexander did as he was bidden, stepping inside the tent and let the canvas door close.
"Some fresh air would do you good, ya know," he advised, pacing over to her side. He looked down at Xena and at the pile of scrolls sitting on her lap. "What's that?"
"Instructions for what?"
"Instructions for you. Siddown." Xena shifted over making space on the pallet and motioned for Alexander to sit.
The young general did, shifting the sword on his hip to the side. "What are you talking about, Xena? Instructions for what?"
"I'm feeling much better, Alexander. In fact," Xena shifted in bed, lifting her body up against the pillow so she could sit up and talk better, "I'm as good as new."
"That's not what the healer said," Alexander stated, looking poignantly at his commander's hands and the scars from the puncture wounds that were still very much visible there. "I bet you can barely hold a sword and you're still limping."
Xena's eyebrow lifted impatiently. "I'm leaving, Alexander," she blurted.
"Xena, we are not leaving until the healer says we can."
"I didn't say we."
Now, it was Alexander's turn to raise a brow. "This army is not marching one step closer to Persia without you."
"If you wait any longer, you'll be trapped here by winter. You know the success of your attack depends largely upon surprise. Darius expects you'll act like good Greek soldiers and wait until spring. If you stick with the plan and cross at Sesto now, you'll have strong winds and virtually no Persia opposition."
"Another week or two won't hurt us. Besides, why do you keep saying 'you'? This is your army. How can the army leave, when its Supreme Commander has broken legs?"
"Because you're the Supreme Command and your legs aren't broken."
Xena's statement brought the young general to complete silence.
"You are the Supreme Commander, Alexander. I'm naming you."
"I told you … I'm leaving."
Xena gathered up the scrolls in her lap and shuffled them into an ordered pile. She presented them to Alexander and, with a small smile, urged him to take them. "It's fatal to enter any war without the will to win it. Alexander, I'm done with this … I can't do it anymore."
"Don't argue with me, Alexander. Take the scrolls!" She shoved them at him now, forcing Alexander to take the stack of parchment lest they drop to the floor. Alexander grabbed them out of the air, almost dropping a few. "What are they?"
"They're a few words of advice."
Alexander looked down at the pile of papyrus in his hands, each one covered from top to bottom in writing. "A few words?"
"Of advice," Xena explained, "on the campaign, the route for the march, the way to feed the troops, maintain supplies, weapons, intelligence, strategies for different terrains, a few thoughts and tidbits on …"
"Tidbits?" Alexander read one of the pages, his dark brows lifting high up on his head as he ran his fingers along an illustration for a war machine, heavy artillery the likes of which Alexander had never seen. "Xena, this is a manual for how to wage war!" His eyes lifted and he stared at Xena in amazement. "You wrote this?"
"I scribbled it while I was lying here bored to death," Xena waved her hand in dismissal at the book. "I had nothing better to do."
"You had nothing better to do," Alexander repeated in awe as he glanced through a few more pages. The document was nothing less than a work of art. "When were you planning to leave?"
"In the morning."
"In the morning! Xena, you can hardly walk!"
"I wasn't planning on walking. I am going to take my horse with me, you know."
"Xena, you can't go."
"Yes, I can, Alexander. I can and I will."
"I can't possibly fill your shoes. You're the strongest warrior in Greece!"
"It's skill, not brawn that makes the finest leader."
"How can you expect me to take over for you? I still have so much to learn. Xena, you have a gift for this that I just don't have."
"The gods don't give us all our gifts at once, Alexander. Besides, most of the time, it isn't a gift at all - it's a combination of experience and skill. Skill is something we get through hard work and determination. And experience? Well, you know all you need to know. And what you don't know is in there." Xena indicated the scrolls with her hand. "Even a fool learns something once it hits him in the head. You'll learn, too"
"Thanks … I think," Alexander smiled ruefully at Xena. He had been waiting for this moment for years - dreamed of it - the day he would hold the title Supreme Commander. He imagined many scenarios, most of them revolving around a great and glorious death for Xena in battle. In all of his wildest dreams, he had never considered the idea that she would one day hand it all over to him on a silver platter. "I don't understand you, Xena. Why leave? Why leave now, when you're on the brink of winning the greatest war that Greece has ever known? Now is the time for soldiers and generals! There'll never be another war like this one!"
"As long as there are men, there will be war, Alexander. I was never meant to walk this path. I know that now. This is your time. Take it. Take it and run with it. You're the right man for the job, I'm sure of it. You've never doubted me before, have you?"
Alexander squinted at her suspiciously. "That question has a sharp double edge to it. You are such a sly fox, Xena." He looked down at the scrolls in his hand and sighed. "What are you going to do? Where are you going to go?"
"I'm not sure really." Xena shrugged and leaned back against the pillow, crossing her arms. "Home maybe."
"Home? You mean Amphipolis?"
Xena nodded and Alexander laughed out loud. "You must have been knocked in the head harder the healer thought."
When Xena didn't react, he looked at her more closely. "This is about her, isn't it? That woman. That blond woman. The one at the party."
Xena didn't answer immediately, but played with the wool of the blanket a bit before glancing back up.
Alexander stared at her incredulously, but the clear blue eyes that stared back told him all he need to know.
"You're in love."
Suddenly, the weight of the scrolls in his hands seemed much too heavy.
"Xena," he said shaking his head. "Xena, are you telling me you are leaving … giving up everything, all of this - the power, the glory, the victory … all of it … for a woman?"
Xena's lips lifted in to a tiny, rueful smile. "What better reason? What better reason than love?"
She left before dawn, slipping out of camp in the quiet moments before night's darkness was broken by the kiss of day's light. No one saw her depart, save Alexander who watched from the shadows saying nothing as she limped out of the tent. The holes in her hands ached dreadfully both from the cold and from grabbing the saddle horn to hoist herself up, but Xena remained stoic. She settled into the saddle, pausing to nod once at Alexander then pulled on the reins.
"It won't be enough!" Alexander called out. "For people like us - a woman like you, Xena, - love just isn't enough!"
"When you cross the Dardanelles and reach Rhoeteum," Xena had answered without looking back, "throw a spear into the Persian soil for me." She raised her hand in farewell, and then rode away.
Argo's hooves echoed softly against the canyon walls as she took her time, making her way down the mountain, away from the Shiptka pass, retreating from a destiny that was never her's and leaving history in Alexander's capable hands.
Besides, everything he knew, he learned from the Warrior Princess. He couldn't lose.
At least, not at war. Xena smiled as she rocked gently back and forth, relaxing in the saddle to mimic her horse's easy gait. The sun had risen well up over the mountains and the chill of the fall air had warmed enough to sooth the dull ache in her still healing wounds.
There were no corpses in the trees - only birds. Their song brought Hephaestion to mind, the young bard who was Alexander's constant companion. There was no doubt Alexander still had a lot to learn, especially when it came to love and that was something Xena hadn't covered in her scrolls.
Go to Irresistible Flame Part 12
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