Special Disclaimer: For the first part of this chapter, things stay a little dark. Okay, Temora...maybe more than a little. But I promise, if you stick with it, the sun will come out again. Also, there is a scene of physical intimacy towards the end. It isn't particularly graphic, but if that sort of thing offends you, you might want to skip it.
Gabrielle came to slowly, as if she was waking up from a terrible dream. Her head was pillowed on someone's lap, and a rough cloak was thrown haphazardly over her shoulders. Something was wrong. Blindly, she reached out, searching for the other half of her soul.
"Xena?" she called out hoarsely.
Her eyelids fluttered open, and her blurred vision gradually cleared until she could see Jared's sincerely worried face peering down at her. They were alone beneath a tall, barren oak tree, and the full moon shone through the empty branches. She sat up, confused, not remembering. Then it hit her. Dalton. Dahak. Xena. Oh gods, what had Xena done? Frantic, the dazed bard started to scramble to her feet, but Jared held her back.
"Gabrielle, no," he said, struggling to hang on.
"Jared, let me go! I have to get to Xena," she shoved him as hard as she could, and he fell backwards, hitting the ground with a jarring thump that took his breath away.
She spun around, looking for the cave where she had been held captive. Where Xena had... .No, don't even think that, Gabrielle told herself firmly. She spotted it several yards away, concealed in the mossy rocks. She broke into a run, tripping over a root protruding from the earth. Pain shot through her wrist when she fell, but Gabrielle barely noticed it as she picked herself up and stumbled towards the cavern. The entrance was blocked, packed tightly with rocks and other bits of rubble, and she slammed her fists against it, screaming in frustration. She heard Jared's footsteps as he caught up to her, and he approached her tentatively.
"Gabrielle, I'm so sorry. But nobody could have survived that cave-in."
She whirled to face him, and he took a step backwards, surprised by the intensity in those green eyes.
"Don't you say that," the bard told him angrily. "She is not dead. I would know it if she was." Gabrielle paused as the memory of the cave became clearer in her mind, and she remembered something that Dalton had said. "He didn't want her life," she whispered. She laid her hand flat against the debris that had sealed the cave, more certain than ever that Xena was alive.
Jared stared at her, puzzled and unsure. He had no idea what he had stumbled into here, and he ran his fingers through his reddish, sweat-caked hair as he tried to figure out what to say. Gabrielle seemed barely cognizant of his presence.
"Dalton and the others left after you blacked out," he volunteered, hoping to snap the bard out of her trance.
Flat, empty eyes stared at him, and finally, she gave him a tiny nod. She seemed so lost, he thought, not at all like the bright, confident young woman he had met on the long journey from Greece. Xena had told him to protect Gabrielle, if anything happened to the warrior, and Jared was determined to do just that. He laid a comforting hand on Gabrielle's arm and watched in dismay as her eyes dully tracked down to follow it.
"Let me take you out of here," he offered earnestly. "Xena wouldn't want you to stay here like this."
Gabrielle simply stared at him, unable to respond, and he began to gently pull her away from the ruins of the cave. She stopped suddenly, and he turned to look at her quizzically.
"You don't understand," she whispered sadly.
"No, I don't," he admitted.
She started to laugh hysterically, and the laughter quickly turned to wrenching sobs. Gingerly, Jared took the bard into his arms, fervently wishing that he could do something to ease her pain. Gabrielle clung to him desperately, sobbing into his chest until she was exhausted. Sniffling, she pulled away, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. She looked at Jared and he could see the deep sadness there.
"It all started when I met Khrafstar," she began.
Standing there in the pale moonlight, Gabrielle told him everything. She told him about Britannia, and Hope, and Solan, ending with Xena's sacrifice in the cave. When she was finished, the sky had turned a pale grey, heralding dawn's approach. Jared was speechless. He wondered how any two people could have survived such a horrific ordeal and still remained friends. It was a testament to the strength of their bond, he realized, and he knew that even if Xena truly were gone, Gabrielle would never be his.
Gabrielle stared blankly into the distance while Jared absorbed everything she had just told him. A plan began to coalesce in her mind.
"I have to find Dalton. He'll have the answers," she said resolutely, walking away.
Jared hurried after her, determined to help, even if he wasn't completely sure that she was right. But, what if she was right? Could Xena be alive? He thought about what Gabrielle had told him, about Dahak wanting the warrior's soul, and he shuddered, gooseflesh covering his arms. If Xena was alive, would she still be Xena?
The sky was a rosy pink when Gabrielle and Jared staggered back into the camp, shivering and exhausted. The outer sentries saw them coming and shouted for help, and several people came running to assist the pair. Still dazed, Gabrielle succumbed to their attentions, letting them lead her to a healer's tent. Numbly, she sat on a low cot while a tiny, middle-aged woman probed at her injuries.
"Gabrielle? Can you hear me?" the healer tilted the bard's chin and looked into her eyes, taking note of her dull, glassy stare. "Here, drink this, child," she commanded, pressing a mug filled with steaming tea into Gabrielle's hands.
Automatically, Gabrielle complied, the strong herbal tea prodding her deadened senses. She frowned slightly, realizing that her left wrist was wrapped in bandages, and she flexed it experimentally, wincing as pain shot through it. The healer clucked at her disapprovingly.
"Now you leave that alone so it can heal properly. It's a nasty sprain. My name is Cianna, by the way," the healer spoke so fast that Gabrielle's tired mind could barely keep up.
"You just rest now, dear," Cianna patted the bard on the shoulder.
Gabrielle's eyelids were heavy and she felt as if she was drifting in the sea. The tea had been drugged, laced with something to help her sleep. She fought against its numbing effects, needing to stay awake so that she could search for Xena, but the combination of the sedative and her own exhaustion was too powerful. She barely felt it as gentle hands eased her back onto the cot and tucked a warm blanket around her thin frame.
"Xena," she mumbled softly, just before sliding into unconsciousness.
She was lying flat on her stomach, her cheek pressed against the cold, damp mud. The rich, heavy scent of the earth filled her nostrils, and she breathed it in deeply. It had been so long since she had smelled anything at all. Slowly, she opened her eyes. A winged insect buzzed about in the leaves near her head, and she watched it, fascinated. Then, like lightning, her hand shot out and she seized the flying thing between her thumb and forefinger, bringing it closer to her face. It twisted and squirmed in her grasp, and a delighted smile spread across her lips and lit up her dark eyes like a child with a new toy. Abruptly, she sat up and her vision blurred momentarily at the sudden movement. Solemnly, she regarded the struggling insect in her hand.
"Don't worry. It'll only hurt for a moment," Xena told it as she methodically tore the creature's wings from its body.
Xena stood, discarding the dead insect, and she wiped her hands on the hem of her leathers. She examined her hands curiously, able to feel the awesome power coursing through her body. She half-expected flames to shoot from her fingertips, but they were just hands. Strong warrior hands, yes, but hands just the same. Dirt and blood were caked under the nails, and she picked at the grime absently. Behind her, a throat cleared nervously, and she turned.
Dalton's blood turned to ice and he nearly lost control of his bladder at the sight of her face. The hair on the back of his neck prickled, and gooseflesh covered his body. The thing before him may have looked like Xena, on the surface, but it wasn't her. Blue eyes that had once been vibrant and alive were now completely dark. Risking a closer look, he thought he could see fiery stars dancing deep within those empty, jet-black orbs. It was like staring into an endless void. A tiny whimpering cry escaped his throat and he tore his gaze away quickly.
"Xena?" His gravelly voice cracked as he hesitantly called out the warrior's name, knowing perfectly well that it wasn't really her.
A cruel, cold smile curled Xena's lips and she chuckled, a foreign sound that dripped with malevolent glee. The voice that spoke through the warrior's lips echoed through the priest's mind, forcing him to his knees. Cowering, Dalton pressed his forehead to the frozen ground and he trembled violently.
"Xena isn't here right now," the voice crowed triumphantly, moving closer to the terrified, prostrate priest.
Dalton dared to glance up, and he was drawn in by those soulless eyes. He sank deeper and deeper into their depths, shrieking in pain as this thing that was not Xena ripped through the layers of his mind. It felt as if razor-sharp claws were carving spidery patterns into his brain. He covered his head with his arms, trying to escape the torment to no avail. His eyes widened in horror as he began to understand the abomination that he had helped unleash upon the world. This couldn't be happening. Dahak had promised him an exalted place in the new order. Dalton wanted to crawl away, but he was locked into place by Xena's unwavering gaze. Warm wetness coursed down the inside of his leg, and for a moment, Dalton felt the hot burn of shame color his cheeks. Then, like blood from a corpse, the sanity drained from Dalton's mind, leaving a drooling, gibbering idiot huddled in his place. Spreading her arms out wide, Xena threw her dark head back and gazed defiantly at the sun.
"This world will finally be mine," she declared, laughing.
Xena peered into the distance where a small village was visible on the horizon. A cool breeze ruffled her hair, bringing the distinctive, salty smell of the sea, and she knew that she was near the shore. A god needed worshippers, whether they bowed willingly or not, and this village seemed as good a place to start as any. At an unhurried pace, she began to walk towards the sleepy, unsuspecting town. After a few steps, she paused and glanced over her shoulder at Dalton, disgust evident on her stony face. He was still on the ground, curled into a tight fetal position, whimpering. She snapped her fingers.
"Here boy," she hissed.
Xena stood in a dense copse of trees just outside the tiny fishing village. The sun was high overhead now, and she squinted up at it, ignoring the brawny priest groveling at her feet. It had taken some getting used to, moving about in this mortal body. As Dahak, there had been far too much time spent as a disembodied spirit, awaiting a vessel to enter the world. But now, now there was such lithe power and grace in every movement. Xena wiggled her fingers, watching the minute working of muscles and tendons with amazement. She laughed again, loving the deep, rich texture of the sound.
"Not Xena." Dalton muttered, pointing at her accusingly, his deep-set eyes rolling fearfully in his head.
It was the first coherent thing he had said since she had rid him of his sanity, and she glared at him irritably. She kicked him savagely in the gut, letting out a sigh of almost sensual pleasure at the whine that emerged from his throat.
"notxenanotxenanotxena," he repeated, cringing away from the presence looming above him.
She bent down and seized his chin, turning his face towards hers. Her nose wrinkled at the stink of fear that rose off the terrified man. She smiled at him mirthlessly.
"You're a fool. Did you really think I would have let you rule anything? You were useful to me for a while, but that usefulness has ended."
A thin, ropy line of spittle hung from the corner of Dalton's mouth, and Xena watched it in disgust as it swayed in the breeze. He was making a high, keening sound now, and his eyes had rolled back into his head until only the whites were showing. She loathed this ugly, pathetic mortal. She tightened her grip on his chin and jerked it hard to the right, snapping his neck with brutal efficiency. His limp body slid to the ground, and she tilted her head, regarding it thoughtfully. Mortals were so breakable. She stood and turned her gaze towards the village. She would make an example of them.
Gabrielle stifled a groan as she opened her eyes, her head still swimming in the thick haze caused by the sedative she had ingested. She blinked rapidly to focus her vision, her gaze settling on a familiar, but battered, figure sitting at her bedside. She opened her mouth to speak, but only a weak whisper emerged.
"Here, drink some water," Kieran fumbled with a stone pitcher, his left arm supported by a makeshift sling.
He put the mug to the bard's cracked lips and she drank greedily, swallowing the water in huge gulps. Gabrielle sputtered and coughed, and Kieran pulled the mug away, wiping her mouth with his sleeve, as if she were a small child.
"Easy now, don't you go drowning on me," he said.
Gabrielle pushed herself up on her elbows, taking care not to put too much weight on her bandaged wrist, and she surveyed her surroundings. She was in a large tent. Wounded soldiers lay all around her, some of them moaning in agony as healers scurried between patients. The pungent smell of medicinal herbs and blood permeated the air. She looked at Kieran, wincing at the extent of the big soldier's injuries.
"That bad, eh?" he smiled at her faintly.
Kieran had been badly beaten. One eye was swollen shut, the puffy flesh around it colored a deep, angry purple. His nose had been broken and ragged stitches held together the edges of a wide cut on his cheek. It would leave yet another scar on his proud face. His broken left arm was bound in a splint, and from the stiff way that he was sitting, Gabrielle suspected that he had some cracked ribs, as well. With his good hand, Kieran scratched at his unshaven jaw.
"Well, I was never much to look at anyway," he joked.
"No, Kieran, it's not that. It's just, I ..."
Without warning, Gabrielle burst into tears, covering her face with her hand. Kieran looked around quickly, but all the healers were busy with more grievously injured patients. He sighed and slid his bulk over to the edge of the bard's cot, and he patted her arm awkwardly.
"There, there," he mumbled in what he hoped was a comforting tone.
Hiccupping, Gabrielle swallowed her tears and scrubbed at her face angrily. She reached past Kieran for the mug of water on the small table next to her cot. She drank, using the time to compose herself.
"I'm sorry," she apologized to the distinctly uncomfortable soldier. "I don't mean to fall apart on you, it's just been a really bad day."
That was an understatement, she thought wryly. Looking at Kieran, she noticed that he was fidgeting and refusing to meet her gaze. Her heart sank and took up residence somewhere in the vicinity of her stomach.
"Kieran, what is it? Oh gods, is it Xena? Did you find her?"
Kieran shook his head sadly. "No, lass, I'm afraid there's been no sign of her. You've been asleep since early yesterday, by the way. Not to worry, though. The healers tell me you'll be fine. Anyway, Jared took a bunch of men back to the cave, but they didn't find her. They're searching the countryside now."
No sign of Xena. That was good, right? It meant there was a chance that she was still out there somewhere. Gabrielle clung tenaciously to that tiny shred of hope. She closed her eyes and pictured herself and Xena, wrapped in each other's arms, standing on the brink of a wind-swept cliff. She believed with all her heart that Xena was alive. She had to be. The alternative was far too painful to think about, and she quickly forced her mind to a different subject.
"Where's Siobahn? Is she okay?" Gabrielle asked.
Kieran's eyes were downcast and he sighed heavily. "She's gone. Murdered by her wretch of a cousin. It was his group that did this to me," he said, gesturing at his injuries. "I gave a few of them something to remember me by, though. And when I find Dalton, I think I might just skin him alive and feed him to the vermin."
He seemed deadly serious, and Gabrielle shuddered at the image he had painted in her mind. "What about Caesar?" she asked.
Kieran grunted and rubbed his eyes wearily. "Retreated. Off licking his wounds in the hills someplace. He lost over half his legions," he reported proudly. "He'd be a fool to come after us again, but I guess we'll worry about that when the time comes."
Gabrielle digested this information silently. Caesar had been driven back, but the cost had been high. Siobahn and countless others were dead. Hundreds more were wounded, and some of them probably wouldn't survive. And Xena was still missing. Gingerly, Gabrielle probed at the tender lump on the back of her own head.
"Brandt and the others. Have they been found?"
The battered soldier's eyes hardened and he nodded once, all traces of humor gone from his expression now.
"Jared and the others brought them back last night. Found them lurking about that damned cave. I've questioned a few of them myself, but they don't seem to know much. Apparently Dalton wasn't the type to share his plans with them," Kieran told her.
Gabrielle swung her legs over to the side of the narrow cot and she stood shakily, leaning on Kieran's uninjured arm for support. She took a deep breath to steady herself, as Kieran watched her anxiously.
"I want to talk to them," she announced quietly.
Kieran sensed the determination in her, and in spite of his better judgment, he agreed. A tiny hiss escaped his lips as he rose, the movement causing a painful twinge in his side. Gabrielle looked at him in concern, and he smiled and assured her that he was fine. She linked her arm through his, and he wondered who was supporting whom as he escorted her out of the healer's tent.
The weather had turned again, and the skies were dark and threatening. A cold wind blew across the camp, and Gabrielle shivered, having forgotten her cloak. It was eerily quiet as everyone seemed to be nursing their wounds and regaining their strength in the solitude of their own tents. There was no air of victory here, and Gabrielle wondered how much of that was because of Siobahn's death at the hands of one of their own. Nothing like a little betrayal to bring down a mood, the bard mused darkly. Snow crunched loudly beneath her boots as Kieran led her to one of the supply tents. He hesitated outside the entrance.
"We're keeping Brandt in here," he said. "He's bound, but keep your distance. He's a snake."
Gabrielle steeled herself for a confrontation as she ducked inside the tent with Kieran right behind her. She had tried to get the big soldier to wait outside, but he had steadfastly refused to leave her alone, and she had simply given up arguing with him. Her eyes adjusted quickly to the dim light, and she sucked in a shocked breath at the sight of the prisoner.
Brandt was tied to a chair in the center of the tent. He had been stripped to the waist and lash marks criss-crossed his chest and shoulders. She suspected he would have more of the same welts across his bare back. Large bruises covered his cheek and his sides, contrasting sharply with his pale skin, and dried blood stained the corner of his mouth. Brandt lifted his head at her entrance and pure hatred burned in his eyes. He spat at her, the thick gob of saliva landing at her feet. Kieran growled at him and started forward, but Gabrielle held him back. She stepped closer, noticing the blue tint to the prisoner's skin.
"He's freezing. Get him a blanket or something," she commanded angrily as Kieran blinked at her in confusion. "Now, Kieran!"
Kieran mumbled something under his breath, but he complied. He turned to paw through the baskets of supplies lining the tent walls. Gabrielle returned her attention to the tightly bound man, feeling an odd mix of rage and sympathy toward him. Sure, he had deceived them and kidnapped her, but he was being treated like an animal now. Worse than an animal, actually. She shook her head, disturbed by the level of cruelty being shown to him. She wondered if the other prisoners were being treated the same way.
"Brandt, no one here is going to hurt you anymore," she said softly. Kieran handed her a thick blanket, and she wrapped it around the beaten man's shoulders.
Pale blue eyes filled with suspicion met hers, but Brandt relaxed slightly. Gabrielle inched a little closer, ignoring Kieran's small noise of warning.
"I need some answers, Brandt. I need you to tell me where I can find Dalton and what he's done to Xena," she said.
Brandt stared at her defiantly for a long moment, and she feared that he wasn't going to answer her at all. Finally, he let out a short, mocking laugh, and he shook his head slowly, his long hair falling into his eyes.
"I'll be executed whether I talk or not, so why should I tell you what you want to know?"
Gabrielle turned to Kieran, seeking confirmation of Brandt's sentence. Kieran nodded at her grimly. The traitor had been condemned to death. She turned back to Brandt.
"What if I promise I can get them to spare your life? Will you help me then?"
"Gabrielle!" Kieran's voice rang out behind her in shock, but she ignored him.
Brandt stared at her shrewdly. From what he knew of the bard, she wasn't the type to make promises lightly. But he also knew that if he betrayed Dahak, he would just be signing a death sentence of another kind. He decided he much preferred the executioner's block. At least that would be quick. He shrugged his shoulders and turned his face away.
Gabrielle fought the urge to rush forward and shake him. Instead, she turned and stormed out of the tent, feeling tears threatening at the back of her eyes. Kieran followed her quietly. She spun to face him, and she looked so lost and sad. He felt his chest tighten.
"Do you have to kill him?" she asked desolately.
Kieran was stunned. This man had hurt her, kidnapped her, and quite possibly had a hand in the death of her newly-discovered love, yet she wanted to spare his life. Mindful of his wounded arm, he pulled the bard into a rough bear hug, feeling her body quaking as she choked back tears.
"Gabrielle, we don't have much choice. We're a fierce people and we deal with our enemies severely," he told her.
She looked up at him, her eyes red and puffy. "There's always a choice, Kieran."
"Gabrielle, if I had a daughter, I'd want her to be just like you," Kieran pressed his lips to her temple in a fatherly gesture. He sighed. "But, Brandt is a dangerous man and he will be put to death, according to our laws. It's already decided."
Gabrielle nodded, staring at the ground. "What about the others?" she asked in a small voice.
Kieran scratched his head thoughtfully. Most of the other prisoners were uncooperative like Brandt and he didn't want to expose Gabrielle to more of that unpleasantness. He met her gaze and his heart ached at the sight of the hopelessness taking over those once-sparkling green eyes.
"Elannah," he said finally. "You might be able to get through to her."
Gabrielle searched her mind until she found the image of a very tall, thin blonde woman. Elannah had been one of their best archers. She frowned, scrunching her eyebrows together. She hadn't remembered seeing the blonde woman at the cave, but it had been dark and most of them had been wearing hoods. She looked up at Kieran.
"Take me to her," she said firmly.
Elannah was being held prisoner in Siobahn's tent, and Gabrielle spared a moment to mourn for the fallen woman as she slipped inside the dwelling. Like Brandt, Elannah was tied to a chair, her wrists bound tightly behind her back, but she appeared to have received better treatment. Other than a small cut at her temple, she seemed unharmed, and Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief. The blonde woman watched them curiously as they approached, a faint, self-deprecating smile on her lips.
"Let me guess. You want me to tell you everything I know," Elannah said before Gabrielle could speak.
The bard nodded mutely, hope springing up in her chest as Elannah's expression softened slightly. Her eyes pleaded with the captive woman.
"Dahak will kill me if I tell you anything. Kieran will probably kill me if I don't. Not much of a choice," Elannah said flatly. She laughed then, and it was the sound of woman who knew she had nothing to lose.
"Like a fool, I followed my husband into this. He's dead now. They killed him trying to escape capture," she continued. "Gideon and Dalton grew up together, you see. And when Dalton wrote to us, telling us about a new god who would reign supreme over the land, Gideon believed him. The son of a bitch promised us that my husband and his friends would be kings on earth."
"That explains why Gideon joined Dalton. Why did you?" Gabrielle interjected.
Elannah smiled without humor. "He was my husband," she said simply. "The reasons don't matter anymore. You need to know that Xena is alive."
Gabrielle gasped and tears filled her eyes again. A hundred different questions tumbled from her lips, but Elannah silenced her quickly.
"Gabrielle, listen to me! I know things that I shouldn't because no one pays attention to a woman hanging around. I heard things that even my husband didn't know. Xena is alive, but she may not be the woman you remember."
Gabrielle stared at her in confusion. What did that mean? Xena was alive. That was all that mattered to her. She told this to Elannah and was surprised when the woman laughed at her.
"Don't you understand, Gabrielle? It was never about you, at least, not this time. I overheard Dalton once. He promised Xena's soul to Dahak. You were just the bait. Xena is alive, yes, but she belongs to Dahak now. Her body is his vessel."
Gabrielle's knees sagged and she would have fallen if Kieran hadn't caught her. Her mind went numb as she processed Elannah's words. Dalton had used her to get to Xena, because he knew the warrior would do anything to protect her friend. She recalled the incident on the ship and realized that it had been calculated to make Xena angry. Now, according to Elannah, Xena was Dahak's vessel. Like Hope had been.
Elannah watched her closely, seeing the look of horrified comprehension on her face. She actually felt sorry for this young woman. She had lost her love to Dahak's plan, and she was determined to help Gabrielle save hers, if she could. Dahak would not be merciful, but Elannah figured her life was over either way.
"I can help you," she offered quietly.
"You've done enough, I think. We've got no reason to trust you," Kieran glowered at her, posturing protectively.
A bitter smile edged her lips. "No, I guess you don't."
"Kieran, untie her," Gabrielle said. "Please."
Grumbling in disagreement, the grizzled warrior did as he was asked. He kept a close eye on Elannah as she rubbed her chafed wrists and stared gravely at the bard. He suspected that traitorous bitch was taking advantage of Gabrielle's kind heart, offering her help in order to save her own neck.
"Thank you, Elannah, but I won't need your help. I'll find Xena on my own." Gabrielle said, refusing assistance.
"Are you out of your mind?" A familiar voice called out incredulously.
Jared stood in the entry to the tent, staring at them like they had all lost their minds. He was filthy and unshaven; dark circles stood out beneath his tired eyes. He hadn't slept since the night before the battle. After taking Gabrielle to the healer's tent, he had gathered a group of men and gone out in search of Xena, returning once with prisoners, before setting out again. As he crossed the tent towards them, one hand on the hilt of his sword, Gabrielle could see that he was ready to collapse.
"Jared, you look exhausted," Gabrielle said in concern.
He blinked at her tiredly and wiped his eyes with a dirty sleeve. "I'm fine. Look, Gabrielle, you can't go searching for Xena on your own. For one thing, it's too dangerous for you to be out there by yourself. Dalton's still out there, and so are the Romans. Also, we've looked everywhere and there's just no trace of her. How would you even know where to look?"
Gabrielle waited until he had finished his little speech before replying. "I can take care of myself, Jared. If what Elannah says is true, if Xena doesn't know who she is, then I stand a better chance of getting through to her if I'm alone. All of you would just make her nervous. And you're not fine. You're about to drop and I'm asking you to go get some rest. Please, as a friend," she put a gentle hand on his wrist and looked directly into his eyes.
Behind her, Elannah spoke up. "I don't necessarily agree with his opinion of your skills, but I do think he's right about one thing. You shouldn't go alone. It's more than a simple case of amnesia, Gabrielle. Dahak's spirit inhabits Xena's body, and the only way to get him out is to destroy the vessel. Could you do that? Could you kill Xena if you had to?"
"I refuse to accept that," Gabrielle returned heatedly. "Even if she is his vessel, or whatever, there is still some part of her in there, too. So there just has to be another way. I lost my child to him. I won't lose Xena."
She stormed out, turned left between two tents and promptly threw up. She hung her head until the violent retching had stopped, and then she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Kieran came up beside her silently and offered her a small flask from his belt. Without a word, she took a long sip from it, rinsing her mouth out with the strong wine.
"Don't try to talk me out of this, Kieran," she warned, handing the flask back to him.
He folded his arms across his massive chest and stared at her soberly. "I wasn't going to," he told her. "I can tell your mind is made up. I told Elannah she's free to go, but if I ever see her again I'll slit her throat. She's probably halfway to Gaul by now. I'll make sure the lad doesn't follow you," Kieran paused. "He's desperately in love with you, you know."
Gabrielle managed a weak smile. "I know. He understands that I only see him as a friend," she paused. "Thank you for letting Elannah go. I don't think executing her would have served any real purpose. She lost a lot too."
"Maybe," Kieran grunted doubtfully. "Like I said, I won't try to stop you. Just promise me that you'll be careful."
Impulsively, Gabrielle threw her arms around the startled man and hugged him warmly. She planted a gentle kiss on his stubbly cheek, feeling the rough whiskers prick her skin.
"Thank you," she said simply as she walked towards the tent she and Xena had shared.
As quickly as she could, she collected her staff and a few other things. She wanted to travel light so that she could cover a lot of distance. At the last moment, she turned back and dropped her cloak on the ground. Turning to Xena's neat, orderly pile of belongings, she pulled the warrior's cloak out of her bag and held it to her nose, breathing in deeply. It smelled like leather, brass, and the unmistakable scent of Xena, herself. Tears sprang to her eyes, but she forced them back. There was no time for that now. She wrapped the warrior's cloak around her own shoulders, fastening it tightly. Gabrielle took a long look around the tent. Had it been just a few days ago that they had shared their first kiss here? She shut her eyes tightly and swore to herself that she and Xena would be together again. No matter what. Her face set and determined, she walked out of the camp without looking back.
Xena's chair was tipped back against the wall, balancing on two wobbly legs, and her boots were propped up on the edge of the table. Her hands were folded, resting on her stomach and she scowled, examining the splotches of fresh blood that stained her knuckles. Grabbing a rag off the table, she wiped her hands clean and discarded the scrap of linen on the floor.
She was in a small house at the center of the tiny fishing village. The occupants of the house were dead. She lifted a mug of ale and drank deeply, wiping the foam from her lips, as she regarded the body of a middle-aged fisherman slumped in the chair across from her. Her breast dagger still protruded from his chest. He hadn't even had time to rise from his seat when Xena kicked the door in, descending upon him in a cold fury, flinging the blade at him without a word of explanation. The fisherman's younger brother had tried to run, but she had caught him, slamming her fist into his face until his eyes stared sightlessly at her from ruined sockets. She had thrown his body out into the village square as a warning to the other residents.
Her dark head cocked to one side, and she listened to the angry voices rising outside as several of the braver men had gathered in the square. They were thinking about burning her out. Xena chuckled, hoping they would be stupid enough to try it. She got her wish as a blazing torch flew through the open door and landed on the straw-covered floor, igniting it. Two more torches followed, and flames raced across the floor. Thick black smoke filled the small house, but still no one emerged. Then, like a demon from the depths of the underworld, Xena sprang through the thatch roof, screaming in rage. She landed on her feet in front of the villagers, her eyes dark and smoldering, her sword drawn. She laughed, sensing their fear.
"Which one of you is in charge here?" she asked, her voice throaty and dripping with danger.
A man of average height and build stepped forward. He was deeply tanned and his hair was bleached nearly white from the sun. Light brown eyes stared at her rebelliously.
"What do you want from us?" he demanded.
Xena smiled at him, and it chilled him to his core. Slowly, she sauntered towards him, her sword pointed at the ground. She seized the collar of his rough, homespun tunic and twisted the fabric, pulling him closer. Her face was scant inches from his, and she stared deeply into his eyes, probing his thoughts. His name was Ioan and he was terrified of her. Xena's eyes narrowed and she probed deeper, ignoring the choking noises coming from Ioan. Her smile broadened and she brought her lips close to his ear.
"You find me attractive, Ioan," she whispered, releasing him.
He staggered backwards, his eyes wide. "How do you know my name? Who are you?"
Xena's gaze swept the small crowd gathered in the village square. Fifteen people, both men and women, were watching her with a mixture of fear and curiosity stamped on their faces. The rest of the villagers, she surmised, were cowering in their homes. This little backwater town was hardly worth the effort, she thought. Still, she had to start somewhere.
"You can call me Xena," she said. It was close enough to the truth. "You will all kneel before me, or I will slaughter every last man, woman and child in this town."
To prove her point, she dragged a struggling man out of the crowd and held her sword to his throat. She jerked her hand sideways, and his blood poured over her blade. He fell with a gurgling sigh. Xena held her sword up, inspecting the blade critically. She glanced at the villagers again, a dark eyebrow raised in annoyance. Instantly, the remaining fourteen dropped to their knees. She nodded approvingly.
"Good. Now you're getting the idea."
Gabrielle stumbled through deep snow drifts that reached to her knees. Her leggings and boots were soaked through, and she knew she had to stop soon or risk frostbite or worse, but she was reluctant to lose valuable time. She'd lost track of how many days had passed since she and Xena had been separated. Using her staff to help her, she grimly forged ahead through the snow.
After leaving the army camp, she had returned to the waterfront town where she and Xena had first met up with Siobahn. No one there had seen Xena. Gabrielle had stayed a few days, hoping that the warrior would show up, then word had begun to trickle in about a small fishing village to the west that was being held hostage by a crazed warlord. Despite the approaching storm, Gabrielle had departed immediately.
"Xena, where are you?" Gabrielle asked aloud, her lips dry and cracked from the cold.
She paused, taking a small sip from her waterskin as she surveyed the land. There wasn't much in the way of shelter, but she spotted a small cluster of trees that might offer a bit of protection from the elements. By the time she reached the grove, she was breathing hard and sweating, in spite of the cold. She dropped her traveling bag and sank to the ground wearily, oblivious to the dampness. After a few moments, she roused herself, knowing that she would freeze to death if she sat still too long. She gathered the driest wood she could find and built a meager fire, huddling close to its warmth.
Gabrielle stared dejectedly into the crackling flames. The news from the village hadn't been good, and it had seemed to confirm Elannah's claim that Xena was not herself. As she drew closer to the remote fishing village, the bard had begun to question her resolve. She remembered Elannah's words. The only way to get rid of Dahak was to destroy his vessel. Tears burned in her eyes.
"No. Don't think about it," she told herself. "There has to be another way."
The snap of a twig underfoot alerted her to a presence somewhere beyond her campfire. Warily, Gabrielle rose, gripping her staff in a defensive posture. She scanned the darkness carefully, but saw nothing.
"I know you're there. Come out where I can see you," she called out.
More branched cracked to her right, and she whirled, ready to meet any attack. She relaxed slightly as Elannah stepped out of the shadows. The blonde archer's bow and a quiver full of arrows were strapped to her back and her long hair was tied back from her face. Gabrielle wasn't sure if she should be relieved to see the woman or not.
"What are you doing here, Elannah? I thought I told you not to follow me," Gabrielle said.
Elannah shrugged, moving closer to the fire. She crouched, warming her hands by the flames. After a moment, she looked up at Gabrielle.
"I wasn't following you. I was heading home," Elannah replied. "I passed through a town about a day's walk from here, and I heard a rumor about a woman possessed by a demon. They said she was terrorizing a village near here, so I went to have a look."
Gabrielle closed her eyes. Part of her desperately wanted it to be Xena, but the other part of her hoped it wasn't. If she ever got her Xena, the real Xena back, she knew that her friend would never be able to forgive herself. She opened her eyes again and looked at Elannah mutely. Elannah nodded, and Gabrielle felt a strange combination of fear and elation.
"It's Xena. Or, rather, it's Dahak in Xena's body. She's got that entire village trembling in fear. Anyone who doesn't obey her will is killed and left on display as a warning to the others. It's bad, Gabrielle," Elannah told her seriously.
Gabrielle sucked in a sharp breath. This was what she had feared the most. She'd always known that Xena was capable of horrific violence, but she had firmly believed that part of her warrior friend was buried forever. Now, Dahak had reawakened that bloodlust and he was using it for his own evil purposes.
"I found Dalton's body outside the village. His neck was broken. I guess Dahak decided he didn't need a second in command after all," Elannah went on.
"I have to go. I have to get to her before it's too late," Gabrielle stood suddenly.
Elannah rose too, and she grabbed Gabrielle's arm. Angrily, the bard shook herself free and glared at the archer. Tension crackled in the air between them. Slowly, Gabrielle brought her staff up to show the blonde woman that nothing would get in her way. Elannah eyed her, an amused smile on her lips.
"You don't want to fight me, Gabrielle."
"No, I don't," the bard replied truthfully. "But I will if I have to. I need to get to Xena."
Elannah let out a short bark. "And what will you do when you get there? Ask her to stop? Maybe if you say pretty please, she'll listen to you."
"I don't know what I'm going to do," Gabrielle admitted.
The archer drew the short sword from her belt and held the hilt out to Gabrielle. "I'll tell you what to do. You take this, and then when she's not looking, you sneak up behind her and ram it through her back."
Gabrielle stared at her, taken aback by Elannah's callousness. She shook her head slowly. She could never kill Xena, that much she knew.
"Even if Dahak is in control, I know Xena is still in there somewhere, and I have to try to reach her."
Elannah shrugged her shoulders. "She'll kill you."
Gabrielle blinked at her. "So be it."
"Well, just so you know, if I can get close enough, I intend to put an arrow in her back," Elannah told her coldly. "I've done some truly awful things lately, and there's a lot I need to make amends for. So, I'm not about to let that monster live just because you think the one you love is in there somewhere."
Turning away, the blonde archer disappeared into the night, leaving Gabrielle alone again. The bard stared after her for a long moment, then in a fit of frustration, she slammed her staff against a tree. She attacked the thick trunk furiously, ignoring the bolts of pain shooting through her sprained wrist with every blow. Bits of bark, dislodged by her relentless assault, showered down around her, catching in her hair. Out of breath, she stopped and leaned heavily on her staff, gasping for air.
Once she had recovered enough to breathe normally, Gabrielle methodically dumped double handfuls of snow on the small fire, dousing its flames. Wisps of steam rose from the wood with an indignant hiss. Still tired and hungry, she picked up her bag and started to walk again, moving purposefully to the west.
"Hang in there, Xena. I'm on my way," she declared to the silent stars.
She traveled through the night. The moon lit her way, casting its silvery glow over the vast expanse of snow surrounding her. The occasional eerie howls of wolves drifted across the air, but Gabrielle trudged on, unafraid of the predators. Elannah's footprints carved a path through the snow ahead of her, and she followed it carefully, knowing that the archer would lead her straight to Xena.
By the time the sun rose, Gabrielle was standing in a copse of trees on the outskirts of a small fishing village. Dalton's frozen body lay partially covered by snow, and she avoided looking at it. His sightlessly staring eyes chilled her blood. She had lost Elannah's trail over a rocky part of the path a few candlemarks ago, but she wasn't concerned. Elannah was probably already in the village somewhere. Gabrielle knelt and tightened her boot laces, giving herself time to gather her courage. When she straightened up, her face was set. Xena was in that village someplace, and Gabrielle was determined that they would be together again, no matter what it took. Taking a deep breath, she started down the path towards the small cluster of ramshackle homes.
As she passed the first house, the stench of death assailed her. A swarm of flies buzzed eagerly in the doorway, and a quick glance told her all she needed to know. Dark, dried blood was pooled just inside the entry, surrounding a motionless figure sprawled on the floor. Bile rose in the bard's throat, but she swallowed it down and moved on, her eyes cautiously darting back and forth. It was far too quiet in the village, and though she could see no one, Gabrielle sensed that she was being watched.
She reached the rough clearing in the center of the village and stopped, aware that she was extremely vulnerable out here in the open. Tightening her grip on her staff, she looked around nervously, checking for signs of an ambush. Two more men lay dead in the square, their bodies barely visible beneath the snow. A low moan came from her left, and Gabrielle turned, searching the shadows. What she found turned her blood to ice. Spread-eagled in the darkened doorway of a small hut, a tanned, white-blond man stood with his back to her. He'd been stripped completely, and his wrists and ankles were bound to each side of the door. Drying blood covered his back and ran down his legs, and ribbons of flesh hung in tatters from a series of vicious whip marks. Gabrielle put a hand to her mouth to stifle her cry. Without regard for her own safety, Gabrielle rushed to his side. He lifted his head and looked at her in silent plea for help.
"Shh. It's going to be okay. I'm here to help you," she told him, smiling bravely.
Gabrielle fumbled in her bag for a small, sharp cooking knife. Hurriedly, she sawed through the thick ropes binding the man's hands and feet, and she grabbed his waist as he sagged. She helped him to a chair and sat him down, and then yanked a blanket off a straw pallet nearby. He took the covering gratefully as she searched for something to treat his wounds.
"Get out of here. Get out before she finds you. She's a demon," the man whispered faintly.
"Did she do this to you?" Gabrielle asked, not really wanting to know the answer.
He nodded weakly. "I wouldn't bow to her. So she said she'd teach me a lesson. You have to get out before she comes back for me."
His eyes widened in fear as a long shadow fell over them. Gabrielle whirled to find Xena blocking the doorway. Her dark hair was wild and unkempt and her leathers were splattered with blood. Gabrielle stared at her, aghast, as she realized that Xena's eyes had changed color. Instead of their usual brilliant blue, her best friend's eyes had turned the darkest black she had ever seen. She shuddered at the malice she could feel radiating from those ebony orbs. Elannah had been right. This wasn't Xena.
"Gabrielle, welcome. I've been expecting you." Xena smiled savagely.
Swallowing her fear, the bard stood and faced her friend. Grimly ignoring the revulsion she felt, Gabrielle stared directly into those alien eyes, searching for some small glimmer of the Xena she knew. Her brain screamed at her as she saw ultimate evil lurking behind that malevolent stare, and somehow, she knew that Dahak intended to enslave the entire world.
"See anything you like?" Xena asked, moving closer, her voice sultry and dangerous.
Gabrielle forced herself to stand her ground, even though all her instincts were telling her to back away. Xena kept moving towards her, toying with her, closing the space between them until they were almost touching. The bard bit back a scream as she felt Xena's fingers under her chin, tilting her head up. She closed her eyes and focused on the love she felt for the warrior, instead of her fear of this thing in front of her.
"Don't I even get a kiss hello?"
Xena leaned in towards her, and Gabrielle brought her hands up to the warrior's shoulders, shoving her backwards with every ounce of strength she could muster. She succeeded in moving Xena back a few steps, and just for an instant, the mask dropped and she saw Dahak's snarling face. An audible gasp left her throat. Xena threw her head back and laughed wickedly.
"Xena, please don't do this," Gabrielle appealed to her.
Xena began to circle her like a hungry shark, and Gabrielle turned with her, keeping her eyes on the warrior.
"I'm not Xena."
"Yes, you are," Gabrielle argued desperately. "You are Xena, warrior princess. Mother of Solan, daughter of Cyrene. My best friend. My heart."
Xena laughed again, and the harsh, guttural sound grated on Gabrielle's ears. Xena shook her head pityingly.
"You were always so naïve, Gabrielle," she spread her arms wide, looking down at her own body. "This is the true Xena. This is who she was meant to be. Powerful, vicious, bloodthirsty. She and I are a perfect match."
"No. I don't believe that," Gabrielle whispered, her chest aching.
Xena tilted her dark head and regarded her appraisingly. She smiled and reached behind the door, emerging with a sword. She held the hilt out towards Gabrielle, who stared at it in confusion.
"I like you, Gabrielle. You amuse me. So I'm going to give you a fighting chance."
Gabrielle shook her head and backed away. "I won't fight you."
Xena beckoned to someone standing beyond the open door, and she stepped aside. A man and a woman, neither of them meeting Gabrielle's eyes, dragged a third person between them. The man grabbed the unconscious prisoner's hair and lifted her head. It was Elannah, badly beaten, but still alive.
"I think you will fight me," Xena said smugly. She pointed at Elannah, then at the man still slumped in the chair. "This is what happens to people who defy me. Isn't that right, Ioan?" Xena raised her voice to address the half-dead man. She returned her gaze to Gabrielle and threw the sword down at her feet. "Fight me, or I will slaughter everyone in this pathetic little village."
"Xena, please," Gabrielle pleaded.
Xena's face twisted in fury and she drew her sword, lunging at Gabrielle with a roar.
"I am not Xena!"
Acting on pure instinct, Gabrielle picked up the sword with both hands and raised it just in time to ward off Xena's strike. The blow rattled her teeth, and she tensed the muscles in her arms to keep the warrior's blade from pushing into her throat. Steel scraped against steel. Gabrielle shifted her weight to her front foot and thrust her arms forward, throwing Xena back.
A low, vibrating chuckle emanated from Xena's throat, and Gabrielle's stomach churned. She knew that laugh, but she had never been on this side of it before. No, that wasn't true. Xena had laughed like that on that terrible day at the Amazon village, after Solan died. Xena had meant to kill her that day, and this stranger before her meant to kill her now.
Xena dragged the tip of her sword along the floor as she circled her prey, toying with the bard. She could smell the sharp, tangy scent of the young woman's fear, and it ignited the bloodlust in her. Moving with blinding speed, she launched into a vicious attack, raining blows down on her faltering opponent with savage intensity.
Gabrielle stumbled backwards under the onslaught. Only three years of watching Xena fight gave her the edge she needed to hold off death. Barely, she managed to anticipate Xena's moves, bringing her blade up just in the nick of time. Her shoulders ached from the strain of wielding the heavy sword. A hard kick to her midsection caught her off guard, and Gabrielle staggered back and tripped over a pile of dishes on the floor. She fell, and the sword skittered out of her hand. Xena yelled in triumph and plunged her sword down towards the unarmed bard.
At the last second, Gabrielle rolled forward, right into Xena's feet, knocking her off balance. The sword tip buried itself into the floor behind her head. Scrambling to her feet, Gabrielle dove for her sword, catching her injured wrist as she fell. She cried out in pain. Elannah had come to, and she looked down at Gabrielle dazedly.
"Destroy the vessel," the blonde archer directed groggily, before a vicious cuff from one of her captors silenced her again.
Xena had recovered her feet, and she was moving toward the bard, anger blazing in those soulless eyes. Gabrielle started to climb to her feet, but a stinging backhand sent her flying, and the sword fell from her hand again. Xena kicked the weapon away, out of reach. She approached slowly, her blade raised.
"No," Gabrielle whispered. "No, Xena. I know you're stronger than this. Fight him."
Xena faltered, uncertainty flickering in her eyes. Gabrielle noticed the change and saw a tiny spark of hope. Taking advantage of Xena's temporary distraction, she rose to her feet, staring deeply into the warrior's eyes.
"I know you're in there, Xena. Fight him."
"No!" Xena shouted, her voice had taken on a strange, distorted quality, as if she was speaking through a mouthful of wax. "No, Xena belongs to me."
Green eyes flashed defiantly. "You're wrong. Xena's heart belongs to me, and I want it back."
"NO!" Xena howled, lifting her sword higher.
Gabrielle flinched and shut her eyes, expecting to feel the blade slice through her. Instead, she heard the sword clatter to the floor. Cautiously, she opened her eyes and saw Xena, holding her head in her hands as if she was in terrible agony. Gabrielle could tell there was a serious battle going on inside the warrior's head.
"That's it, Xena. Fight. Come back to me," Gabrielle encouraged her.
Behind her, Dahak's minions crept toward her, and she whirled, glaring at them threateningly. They backed away, dropped Elannah's limp, semi-conscious form, and fled. Gabrielle turned back to the struggle for Xena's soul. Beads of sweat rolled down the warrior's forehead, and she clawed at her temples.
"No, this world will be mine and the Age of Darkness will begin," Xena declared. "The land will run red with the blood of innocents. Beginning with you." She started towards Gabrielle, hands outstretched toward her throat.
Gabrielle let her draw closer. As Xena reached for her, she grabbed the warrior's
hand, hanging on tightly as Xena fought to pull away. In a last, desperate effort
to reach her beloved friend, Gabrielle brought the warrior's hand to her lips.
"Xena, I need you. Please come back. I love you."
As Gabrielle watched, an agonized shudder ran through Xena's body, and she jerked her hand free from the bard's grasp as if her touch burned. Xena sank to her knees and buried her face in her hands as a tortured, anguished scream ripped its way to the surface. She felt like every inch of her was on fire, like her insides were melting. Her body convulsed, and Gabrielle reached out to touch her, feeling the unnatural heat of the warrior's skin. Xena screamed again, sounding like a wounded animal, and Gabrielle felt a surprisingly cold burst of air rush past her.
Slowly, the warrior's hands slid down from her face, and Gabrielle held her breath anxiously. Xena's face lifted towards her, and her eyes opened. Gabrielle covered her mouth with her hand and burst into tears. The warrior's eyes were puffy and red-rimmed, but they were a wonderfully bright blue.
"Gabrielle?" Xena gasped, as if she had just awakened from a dream.
Crying openly, Gabrielle pulled the warrior into a fierce embrace. She pressed her lips to Xena's dark hair. Her head spun as weeks of exhaustion finally caught up to her, and she dropped to her knees beside the bewildered warrior. Putting a hand on either side of Xena's face, the bard gazed wonderingly into those beautiful blue eyes. She smiled through her tears.
Xena's brow wrinkled in confusion. "Where have I been?" she asked.
Gabrielle shook her head and kissed the warrior's temple again. "It's a long story. I'll explain it all later."
Xena nodded, still perplexed. She had the vague feeling that something horrible had happened, but everything was a blank. She looked around curiously, wondering where on earth they were. Her eyes fell on a savagely beaten man slumped unconscious in a chair and then tracked down to a familiar blonde woman sprawled on the floor. Images flashed through her mind, and she frowned, picturing herself standing in a cave, reaching out towards a strange, living flame. Had that been real, or was it just one of her nightmares?
"I remember a cave," she said hesitantly.
"Shhh. Not now. Don't think about that right now," Gabrielle shushed her and kissed her tenderly, and Xena couldn't help kissing her back.
Gabrielle drew back and smiled gently at the warrior. Xena would be devastated when she found out what she had done, and Gabrielle was determined to protect her from that knowledge for as long as she could. She stroked the warrior's cheek, wiping away a smudge of dirt.
"I love you, Xena."
Xena smiled at her tentatively, sensing the bard's sadness and fearing that she had caused it.
"I love you, too, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle resisted the urge to pull the warrior into another embrace. Her wrist throbbed painfully, and she fiddled with the bandage as she planned their escape. They had to get out of this village, quickly, before the remaining townspeople came to seek vengeance. Behind her, a faint movement caught her attention, and she turned. Elannah had risen to a sitting position, and she cradled her battered head in her hands, groaning miserably. Gabrielle examined the archer's injuries and determined that, though painful, none of them were life-threatening.
"Elannah, I need you to do something for me," Gabrielle said.
The tall, willowy blonde peered at the bard through bleary eyes. Looking past Gabrielle, she saw Xena, and she inhaled sharply, fumbling for her sword. Gabrielle grabbed the woman's wrist and shook her head.
"It's Xena," she said, hoping Elannah would understand.
Elannah dropped her hand away from her sword, but she continued to regard the warrior suspiciously. Xena stared back at her, hiding her confusion beneath her outwardly calm exterior.
"Xena and I have to leave here," Gabrielle said. "I need you to stay and make sure this man gets taken care of," she pointed at the unconscious Ioan. "And keep the villagers from following us, if you can," she added.
Still eyeing the warrior distrustfully, Elannah grunted her assent and slowly climbed to her feet. Xena appeared to be back to normal, but the archer had learned that it was best not to take chances. Even in her current perplexed state, Xena was an intimidating presence, but at least she wasn't looking at them like a rabid, hungry animal anymore.
"I guess you were right, after all," the tall blonde told Gabrielle with a grudging smile. "Go on, get out of here. I'll try to keep these people off your backs. Go in peace, Gabrielle."
"And you, as well," Gabrielle replied sincerely, clasping the archer's hand. "Thank you, Elannah."
Xena observed the exchange with a raised eyebrow, but she said nothing. As far as she remembered, Gabrielle and Elannah barely knew each other. There were a lot of blank areas in her head that she would need filled in, and she made a mental note to press Gabrielle about it later. Right now though, Xena lifted her head, listening intently. Irate voices were approaching, and although she didn't know why, Xena had the distinct impression that she was the focus of their rage.
Gabrielle heard the voices, too, and she and Elannah traded a quick glance. The tall blonde archer sighed and nodded, rubbing her sore head as she moved towards the door. The villagers were demanding Xena's blood, and they swarmed around Elannah eagerly, hoping to hear that she had slain the demon in their midst. While she distracted the crowd, Gabrielle took Xena's hand and quickly led her out of the house, unnoticed. They could hear Elannah telling a ridiculous tale about her battle with a monstrous, shape-shifting creature as they ducked behind the cluster of houses and stealthily made their way out of the village.
Gabrielle was sure they were going to be spotted at any moment, and her insides clenched as she prepared to run. She could almost feel the hateful stares burning into her back, between her shoulder blades, and she fought the urge to glance over her shoulder. Xena sensed her tension, but still, she said nothing. They walked in silence until they had left the tiny fishing hamlet well behind them.
Xena raised her face and sniffed the air, detecting the heavy smell of the sea. She looked around at the unfamiliar terrain and knew that she had never seen this part of Eire before. There hadn't been quite so much snow on the ground either, last she remembered. A chill gripped her as she realized that there were days, perhaps even weeks, of her recent past that were unaccounted for. Xena stopped, digging in her heels stubbornly, and Gabrielle turned to face her, inwardly dreading the questions she knew the warrior was about to ask.
"Where are we?" Xena decided to start with an easy question.
Gabrielle sighed and pushed her hair out of her eyes. She gestured to a low, flat rock formation just off the deserted path.
"Come on, let's go sit down for a bit," she tried to lead Xena over to the rocks, but the warrior pulled back obstinately.
"Tell me what's going on, Gabrielle."
The ghost of a melancholy smile flitted across the bard's face and bittersweet tears glittered in her eyes. How could she tell Xena everything she had done, knowing that it would break her best friend's heart? Then again, she knew that keeping this secret from the warrior would be even worse. Secrets had a habit of coming back to haunt them.
"Please. Let's just sit, okay? I'll tell you everything, I promise."
Xena acquiesced and she followed the bard over to the wide slab of granite, fearing the worst. She sat down stiffly, refusing to meet Gabrielle's eyes. Instead, she examined the dirt and muck caked beneath her torn, ragged fingernails. Her thigh muscles tensed as Gabrielle gently touched her knee.
"We're on the western coast," the bard said, answering Xena's original question.
"The western coast," Xena repeated dully, not looking up.
Gabrielle paused to collect her thoughts, trying to figure out the best way to break the news to Xena. High, thin clouds skittered across the cold grey sky, and a light veil of fog was beginning to roll in from the sea. Steeling herself, she plunged ahead.
"What do you remember?" she asked.
Xena shut her eyes, piecing together events in her mind. It was all so jumbled inside her head, and she wasn't sure what was real and what wasn't.
"The battle," she said, finally. "Siobahn's plan was working and the Romans were completely disrupted. I was worried because I couldn't find you, but then things cleared a little, and I saw you. You smiled at me," she stopped, eyes narrowing as the images became sharper.
"Brandt. He hit you," Xena whispered, half to herself. "I tried to get to you, but there were so many people in the way. By the time I got there, you were both gone. Did he hurt you? I swear, I'll rip him apart if he..." she broke off as Gabrielle took her hand, interlacing her fingers with the warrior's.
"It's okay, Xena. He didn't hurt me." It was almost the truth. Aside from a nasty bump on the head, she'd come out of the ordeal more or less unscathed, physically, anyway.
"Go on." Gabrielle urged, prompting Xena's memory.
Xena sighed heavily. This was where things really started to become mixed up.
"Jared and I tracked you to a cave in the woods," she said. "Then everything starts to get strange. It was like something out of one of my nightmares, and I can't be sure what was real and what was just a dream."
Gabrielle pressed the backs of Xena's knuckles to her lips before she picked up the explanation. In a halting voice, she told Xena everything. About Dalton and Dahak. And about how she felt as if half of her soul had been ripped away in that awful moment when Xena had offered herself to Dahak. She could feel Xena moving further and further away from her, barricading herself behind her protective warrior shell.
"I became a monster," Xena said, her voice flat and empty.
It all came flooding back to her. She remembered being engulfed by Dahak's flame, and waking up in the mud later. She remembered stealing Dalton's sanity, and the sadistic glee she felt when she snapped his neck. She remembered the village. A tiny, horrified moan left her lips, and she yanked her hand out of Gabrielle's as she stood.
"Xena, it wasn't your fault," Gabrielle rose too, trying to console her devastated friend.
Xena stared at her, wide-eyed in shock and disbelief. "It wasn't my fault? Gabrielle, I tortured and murdered innocent people. How can you stand there and say that I shouldn't blame myself?"
"Because it wasn't you. It was Dahak that did all of those terrible things. Not you," Gabrielle reached for Xena's hand again, but the warrior pulled away.
"Don't touch me!" Xena trembled with shame and self-loathing. The redemption that she had worked so hard towards had never seemed further out of her reach. It seemed like every good deed she had ever done had been wiped away, erased by Dahak's brutality.
"Stay away from me, Gabrielle. Stay as far away from me as you possibly can before I drag you down to Tartarus with me."
Xena started to walk away from the stunned bard. Gabrielle recovered herself quickly, and she lunged forward to seize Xena's arm, spinning her around. Furious green eyes blazed at the distraught warrior.
"And then what?" Gabrielle demanded heatedly. "Should I just pretend that I never met you? Or that I don't love you? Tell me, Xena, what exactly am I supposed to do without you?"
Xena opened her mouth to say something else, but Gabrielle cut her off.
"Don't you dare say another word! I know you're hurting, Xena, and it kills me to see you in so much pain. I wish that I could take it all away for you, especially since all of this happened because of me." Gabrielle cried out bitterly.
Immediately, Xena's anger with herself faded into the background was replaced by aching concern for her young friend. Her outer shell cracked slightly as a tear spilled over and left a burning trail down her cheek. She wiped it away.
"Gabrielle, none of this is your fault. How can you even think that?"
"I brought Dahak into our lives in Britannia. I let Brandt kidnap me during the fight with the Romans." Gabrielle's voice began to rise as pent-up emotion poured out. "You gave up your soul to save me, Xena. How could you do that? I would rather have died! How could you just leave me like that?"
Crying out, Gabrielle struck the warrior with her fists. Xena just stood there, shocked, as the bard pummeled her chest. She barely even felt the stinging blows. Finally, Xena shook herself out of her daze, and she gently grabbed Gabrielle's wrists. Tilting her head down, she gazed deeply into the bard's eyes for the first time in what seemed like ages, and she knew that for the rest of her life, she would always remember the unconditional love and forgiveness she saw there.
"I'm so sorry," Xena whispered, fighting to maintain her composure.
Forgetting her earlier words, she pulled Gabrielle to her and held her tightly, vowing to herself that she would never let go of this again. She rested her cheek on the top of the bard's head and breathed in her scent, letting it soothe her tortured soul.
"Don't ever leave me again," Gabrielle mumbled into the warrior's chest.
"I won't," Xena promised.
They parted and looked at each other, a bit awkwardly. Hesitantly, Gabrielle smiled at the warrior, and Xena responded, with a small, sad half-grin, and the bard knew that her friend was far from being okay. It would take time, she mused.
"I want to go home."
Xena exhaled pensively. "Yeah, me too. But there's something I need to take care of first. For Siobahn."
Six days later, Xena and Gabrielle stood, hidden in a thick grove of trees atop a gently sloping hill. In the valley below them, a rich, burgundy pennant snapped crisply in the breeze, signifying the presence of Julius Caesar. Xena absently drummed her fingers against her thigh as she observed the movements of the Roman troops. They appeared to be in a holding pattern---not preparing for an assault, but not retreating either. Caesar was merely waiting, and Xena suspected that he was waiting for her.
It was a clear day, rare for this time of year in Eire. Golden sunlight filtered through the thicket of bare tree limbs, casting dappled shadows on the both of them. Out of the corner of her eye, Gabrielle watched Xena closely. The warrior's face was half in the shadows and half in the light, and Gabrielle thought that pretty much summed up Xena, herself. Fair eyebrows knitted together in deep concern as the bard noticed the haggard, haunted look in her friend's eyes. That same look had been in the warrior's eyes since they reunited, nearly a week ago. Especially since Xena had remembered striking her. She'd been utterly appalled and she'd kept a healthy distance from the bard ever since, despite Gabrielle's frequent assurances that she wasn't angry.
They had stuck mainly to the back roads and had seen very few fellow travelers along the way, which suited them both. Xena had been unusually quiet, even by stoic warrior princess standards, and Gabrielle was really starting to worry about the despondency she could see in Xena's face.
"Dinar for your thoughts," Gabrielle said, her voice sounding unnaturally loud in the stillness.
The dark head turned towards her, just slightly, though Gabrielle had noticed that Xena rarely looked her in the eyes anymore.
"Keep your money for something more worthwhile, Gabrielle." Xena resumed her study of the Romans as she began to formulate a plan.
She cocked her head to one side as a familiar figure emerged from the large tent in the center of the encampment. Brutus. She could tell by the stiffly erect way that the Roman lieutenant carried himself. He was walking, alone, towards the outskirts of the camp, and he appeared to be rather upset about something. Xena had always had a sort of grudging respect for Brutus, and she thought he was smarter than the average Roman. He was definitely more rational than the raving egomaniac he served. Perhaps Brutus could be reasoned with, Xena thought.
"I'm going down there," Xena announced, shifting her shoulders to adjust her armor.
Gabrielle retrieved her staff from where it had been leaning against a tree trunk and prepared to follow her friend.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" she asked.
Sober blue eyes flicked briefly to her face before darting away again. A thin, humorless smile touched Xena's lips as she spoke.
"Nope. That's why you're staying here."
The bard opened her mouth to protest, but she was silenced by a direct, pleading look from the warrior.
"Please, Gabrielle, stay here. I can focus better if I know you're out of danger."
Gabrielle sighed and nodded unhappily. She put her arms around the warrior's neck and kissed her cheek, hiding her hurt as Xena involuntarily flinched away from her touch. She brushed Xena's ear lightly with her lips.
"Be safe," she murmured. A sad, lopsided grin was her only response.
Moving at a steady lope, Xena headed down the hillside, taking care to stay behind the line of trees that hid her from view. It was imperative that she get to Brutus without being seen. When she had drawn near enough, she grabbed hold of a sturdy tree limb above her head and easily pulled herself up into the dense lattice of branches. She settled in, resting her back against the trunk as she waited for Brutus to approach.
Caesar's second in command had moved a short distance away from the main camp, and he was pacing irritably and muttering to himself. Brutus paused, hearing a faint rustle in the branches above him, and he started to look up. Like a jungle cat pouncing on its prey, Xena dropped silently out of the tree behind him and clamped her hand over his mouth.
"Don't make a sound," she warned.
Brutus swallowed nervously and nodded, his prominent adam's apple bobbing in his throat. An icy sweat broke out on his forehead and under his arms, turning his skin cold and clammy. His heart thundered so loudly in his chest that he was sure it would alert the sentries. He inhaled deeply as Xena slowly removed her hand.
"We heard you were dead. Then we heard that you were a demon," Brutus said. "Apparently neither is true."
Xena smiled grimly. "Don't be so sure."
She eyed him carefully, trying to decide whether or not she could trust Caesar's closest advisor. Xena sighed. She had no choice, really. Unless she could find an army somewhere within the next few days, it was just her and Gabrielle against the Roman legions. Even the warrior princess had to admit that the odds were not in their favor.
"I need your help, Brutus. I need to know what Caesar has planned."
Brutus' eyes darted around anxiously, searching for the patrols that occasionally swept through this part of the woods. He licked his lips to moisten them as sweat continued to roll down his temples.
"Why should I help you? Caesar would have my head if he knew I failed to bring him his most coveted prize."
Xena let out a derisive snort, and she suddenly seized the top edge of the Roman's silver armor, pulling him within inches of her own face. She could smell garlic and wine on his breath, and she grimaced at the pungent odors.
"You should help me because it's in both of our best interests," she said, averting her face slightly. "Your legions' morale is crumbling. They won't be able to withstand another attack." As far as Xena knew, there was no attack planned, but she figured Brutus wouldn't know that.
Brutus stiffened at the insult to his troops. "The Roman legions are the greatest fighting force in the history of the known world. They will not fall to some uncivilized tribe of barbarians."
Xena scowled at him, shaking him by his armor. Ferocious blue eyes bored into his.
"Cut the crap, Brutus. I've been watching your legions for most of the day, and anyone can see that they've lost their hearts. They want to go home. You and I want to go home," she paused, sensing that he was receptive to her suggestion. "Convince Caesar to leave this obsession behind. Tell him I'm dead. Make him believe that another army is preparing to defend these shores. Do whatever it takes. Just go back to Rome."
Brutus looked at her speculatively. It was true that Caesar's objective had changed since Xena had joined this little game. Before, the goal had been Eire. Now, the warrior princess was all that mattered to the single-minded Roman commander. Brutus longed desperately for the familiar comforts of Rome, and he suspected that Xena's idea just might work. If he could convince Caesar that she was truly dead, he might be able to get his leader to give up this futile crusade before they lost the other half of their army.
"It'll take more than my word to persuade Caesar that you're dead," Brutus began slowly.
Wordlessly, Xena produced her breast dagger from the hidden depths of her cleavage. Brutus took a startled step backwards, and she rolled her eyes. If she had wanted him dead, she'd have done it already. Flipping the blade around, she handed the hilt to Brutus.
"Give him this."
Brutus took the dagger and tucked it away in his belt. He glanced at the chakram hanging from Xena's hip, and he gestured towards it.
"He'd be more inclined to believe me if I brought him that." Xena's cold, unflinching stare unnerved him, and he retreated hastily. "Forget I said that. The dagger will be enough. I'll do what I can."
He stared after the warrior as she retreated into the trees once more. Brutus called out to her.
"Why are you doing this? Why not just go back to Greece and leave Eire to her destiny?"
Without looking back, Xena tossed a reply over her shoulder.
"I made a promise to a friend."
Three more days passed, and Xena and Gabrielle found themselves in the same inn they had stayed in when they first arrived in Eire. Brianne, the serving girl that Xena had helped, recognized them when they walked in and greeted them with some welcome news. The Romans were leaving. Caesar had given up on his quest to conquer Eire, at least for the time being.
To celebrate, the normally dour innkeeper had rolled out his best barrel of ale and was offering a free drink to anyone who happened by. He tried to press a dripping tankard into Xena's hand, but the warrior declined.
"Gabrielle, see if you can get us a room for a couple of nights. I'm gonna go find a ship back to Greece," Xena said, slipping away from the overly attentive bard.
She pushed her way out the door, feeling Gabrielle's eyes burning into her back as she left. Things were still strained and awkward between them. Xena was tormented by the memory of her actions while she was inhabited by Dahak's spirit, and Gabrielle was frustrated by her inability to help her beloved warrior.
Over the past several days, Xena had pretty much stopped talking entirely, while Gabrielle had felt compelled to fill the silence with inane chatter. A brief, bitter smile flashed across the warrior's face. It was almost like the old days, when they had first met. When Gabrielle had been so full of innocence and youthful enthusiasm. Now, Xena could see the deep sadness in the bard's eyes, and she cursed herself daily for putting it there.
She wandered aimlessly for a long time, completely oblivious to her surroundings. A hopeful merchant called out to her, and she paused in front of his disorganized stand, eyeing the intricate silver jewlery that he was displaying. She ignored the pushy merchant as he tried to sell her a bracelet, promising to throw in a pair of matching earrings for half-price. The tall warrior scowled at him darkly and he meekly backed away, allowing her to peruse his goods in peace.
Finally, Xena's feet automatically carried her down to the docks. She jostled past the throngs of merchants and sailors loading and unloading goods. Spotting a Greek ship, she headed towards it, hefting the leather pouch in her hand to determine how much money she had left. It wasn't much. She grimaced. Maybe she should have let Gabrielle handle this, since the bard was much more adept at bargaining. Xena was a few hundred yards from the ship when someone spoke to her.
"I still don't think you deserve her, you know."
Xena knew that voice. She turned to find Jared grinning at her. He looked different than he had when she had seen him last. His rust-colored hair was longer, nearly touching his collar, and the stubbly hint of a beard covered his jaw. But it was more than that. The boyish softness had left his face, replaced by the hard experience of manhood. He was older. They all were. She smiled back at him tolerantly.
"You're right I don't. You should tell her that again. She might listen to you, this time."
Jared stared at her as if she had gone stark, raving mad. He shook his head slowly, causing his hair to fall into his eyes, and he pushed it back with one hand.
"You're kidding right?" he peered at her shrewdly, seeing the tinge of despair in her eyes. "Gods. You're not kidding." Jared paused, scratching at the sprouting whiskers on his chin. "Xena, when I heard that she had found you, and that you were alright, I thanked the gods. I admit, I would've been the first to step up if you had truly been gone, but I know she never would have loved me. Not the way she loves you."
Xena just stared at him, unable to speak. She knew Gabrielle still loved her, but she didn't think it was the same. How could the bard still want to be with her after what she had done? Xena was sure that their chance to be together had passed.
"I would give anything to have someone look at me the way she looks at you. To love me as wholeheartedly as she loves you. Can't you see that?" Jared continued.
Xena's chest ached, and her voice was choked with emotion. "But after everything I've done..."
"She. Loves. You. In spite of everything you've done." Jared replied forcefully. "You want my advice? Snap out of this self-pitying warrior phase. Go back to the inn, take her into your arms, and tell her that you can't live without her."
Xena's eyes narrowed as her brain processed his words. How did the kid know that Gabrielle was at the inn? Her face hardened with suspicion, and he noticed the change in her expression. He grinned nervously.
"Okay, okay. I was upstairs at the inn when you guys came in. I came down after you left and saw Gabrielle. She told me a little bit about what happened. The rest, I just sort of put together myself."
Jared gulped as the warrior's jaw tensed, and he scrunched up his face, certain that she was about to hit him. Instead, to his surprise, Xena started to laugh, a soft chuckle that tickled his ears. She put a hand on his shoulder.
"You're a good friend, Jared. I'm sorry I thought about tossing you overboard on the way here."
Jared frowned. He hadn't known that. "Uh, thanks. I think."
A sudden commotion rose around them, and the crowd parted to reveal a thickly-muscled man with deep-set eyes and a heavy brow. He lumbered forward, glaring angrily at Xena. In his hand, he hefted a badly dented battle axe. He stopped in front of the wary warrior, and a miasma of stale, sour ale seemed to hover in the air around him. He belched loudly, wiping his mouth with his sleeve.
"Are you Xena?" he demanded belligerently.
Xena eyed him coolly, one dark eyebrow hiked up into her hairline.
"Depends. Who wants to know?"
"I heard what you did at that village, you she-demon. You murdered my brother-in-law," he accused her.
Xena froze. It was the first time that someone had confronted her about that, and she felt a wave of guilt and shame crash over her. She studied the angry man's face, wondering which of the men she had killed had been his kinsman. She remembered each violent death in vivid detail, and she knew that these images would plague her nightmares for years to come. Maybe for the rest of her life.
"Xena, look out!" Jared's cry jerked her back to her senses, and she looked up just in time to see the heavy axe swinging down towards her unprotected head.
Lunging forward, Jared leaped in front of the seemingly paralyzed warrior. At the last moment, the big attacker cursed obscenely and managed to turn his blade so that only the flat part struck the young man. Instead of having his skull cleaved in two, Jared merely sank to the ground, unconscious.
Shaken by the near miss, Xena put aside her remorse for later. She had an entire lifetime to feel guilty. With a smooth, swift motion, she drew her sword and brandished the blade menacingly.
"You don't want to do that again," she warned.
Bellowing with fury, he charged at her, swinging his axe wildly. He was clearly drunk, and it was easy for Xena to sidestep his attack. She brought the hilt of her sword down hard on the top of his skull as he passed her, and he dropped like a stone. She took a moment to stare at his prone form, and a tiny shiver ran down her spine. He might have killed her. Jared was right, it was time for her to move past her self-loathing before it got her killed. For Gabrielle's sake, if not for her own. Xena frowned as a thought occurred to her. Where was Jared?
She looked around and spotted the young man picking himself up carefully. Xena took his arm and helped him to his feet.
"Are you okay?" she asked, peering into his eyes to check for a concussion.
He winced, rubbing his head painfully. "Yeah, I think so. Lucky for me, I've developed a pretty thick skull recently."
Xena flashed a grin at him. Then her expression sobered. "You could've been seriously hurt. Don't ever do that again."
Jared threw her a jaunty salute. "Aye, Captain," he said. He was feeling oddly giddy, and he assumed it was a side effect of having his brains rattled.
Xena looked at him curiously, but she just shook her head in bemusement. The kid seemed to be more or less intact. She glanced down at the drunken man who was already starting to stir.
"We should go before he wakes up," Jared said, echoing her thoughts. "I was going to book passage back to Greece on that ship," he pointed at the same vessel that Xena had been contemplating. "If you want, I'll secure a place for you and Gabrielle, as well."
Xena hesitated, weighing her options as her natural wariness rose to the surface. She unhooked the coin purse from her belt and bounced it lightly in her palm. Finally, she relaxed. Jared had proven his friendship more than once, and she decided she could trust him with something as simple as paying a ship's captain. Besides, she really wanted to get back to the inn and start bridging the distance that had grown between her and Gabrielle. Xena handed him the pouch and Jared grinned at her happily as he bounded off to accomplish his task. She watched him go, wondering briefly if she had ever been that young. The man at her feet groaned weakly and she glanced down at him.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. Stepping around his prostrate form, Xena headed back towards the inn.
When she returned, the celebration was in full swing and she could barely hear her own thoughts over the raucous revelry. Standing on her toes to reach the tall warrior's ear, Brianne informed her that Gabrielle was waiting for her upstairs and they would be staying in the same room they had been in before. She smiled and winked at the clueless warrior. Xena nodded her thanks quietly, a little puzzled. Using a combination of rough elbows and icy glares, she cleared a path to the stairs.
Xena paused outside the door to gather her thoughts. She had no idea what to say to Gabrielle, and it bothered her more than she cared to admit. Before this whole mess, she had allowed herself to be closer to Gabrielle than she had ever been with anyone, and now, there was a strange gulf between them that Xena wasn't sure she could cross.
"Maybe I should just kiss the girl," Xena muttered to herself. "Seemed to work pretty well the first time."
Suddenly, the door flew open and a petite blonde crashed straight into her chest. Instinctively, Xena reached out to steady her.
"Oh!" Gabrielle cried out, startled.
"My fault, sorry," Xena mumbled sheepishly at the same time.
They looked at each other and grinned tentatively. Gabrielle backed up, allowing Xena into the room. The bard had built a small fire in the fireplace, and the soft glow of the flames flickered along the walls. A bottle of wine and two cups sat in the center of the teetering table and Xena raised a questioning eyebrow. Gabrielle shrugged.
"Brianne insisted," she explained.
"Ah." Xena replied.
Xena glanced around again. The wine, the cozy fire, it all seemed sort of ... .seductive, and she began to wonder exactly what Gabrielle had in mind. Before she could follow through with that thought, she found a cup being placed into her hand as hesitant fingers worked at the buckles on her armor.
"Can't let it go to waste," Gabrielle said with a tiny, nervous grin. "The wine, I mean."
Xena took a sip, letting the dry sweetness of the wine roll over her tongue. She had the distinct impression that she was being set up, and oddly enough, she found that she didn't mind it at all. She smiled back at the bard and ducked down to let Gabrielle lift her breastplate up and over her head.
"No, I guess we can't," she said. She bit her lower lip thoughtfully, but Gabrielle spoke before she had the chance.
"Xena, I know things have been difficult between us these past few weeks," the bard began, working to remove the rest of Xena's armor. "I just want you to know that my feelings haven't changed."
Gabrielle held her breath and waited for Xena's reaction. The warrior had been incredibly moody lately, with good reason, she admitted, and Gabrielle wasn't sure if Xena was ready to let go of her guilt. She stared at the floor, afraid to meet Xena's eyes, afraid that she wouldn't find what she was looking for there.
Xena took a long, deep breath and exhaled slowly. Her fingers trembling, she brushed an errant lock of reddish-gold hair out of Gabrielle's eyes, waiting until the bard looked up at her shyly. Xena leaned down and captured the bard's lips, kissing her gently.
"Mine haven't either," she murmured into Gabrielle's hair. "I just hope you can forgive me."
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the warrior and squeezed tightly, feeling the aching tension in every muscle in Xena's body.
"I forgive you," she whispered.
She pressed her cheek to her soulmate's chest and closed her eyes, listening to the familiar sound of Xena's heartbeat beneath her ear. Tears burned unexpectedly in her eyes. She had feared that she would never hear that sound ever again. Needing to feel the strength of their bond, Gabrielle slid her hand up to the back of Xena's neck and pulled her head down for a more passionate kiss.
Xena's breath caught as Gabrielle tangled her fingers in her dark hair. The bard leaned her head back as the warrior's lips traveled down to the base of her throat, while her hands began to roam across her body. A soft, incoherent moan escaped her as Xena nibbled gently on her earlobe. She pulled back suddenly, and the warrior stopped, a bit confused.
"Are you okay?" Xena asked, stroking Gabrielle's cheek with the back of her hand.
Gabrielle nodded vigorously. "Oh gods yes. It's just...I'm a little nervous. I mean, there was Perdicas. Once. But there's been no one else."
She dropped her gaze, suddenly feeling incredibly embarrassed and naïve. Not for the first time, she wondered what Xena saw in her. Long fingers tilted her chin up, and Gabrielle found herself lost in a dizzying sea of blue.
"We don't have to do this," Xena said. "If you're not ready... I don't want you to be afraid."
Gabrielle looked inside herself and realized that she wasn't afraid. All she felt was overwhelming love and desire. She smiled at Xena.
"I trust you," she said, seeing the warrior melt at those simple words.
Then, all coherent thought was lost as Xena gently eased her towards the waiting bed. Somehow, Gabrielle wound up on her back, with the warrior stretched out on her side next to her. Xena's lips left trails of fire all over the bard's suddenly bare skin. She plucked impatiently at the warrior's leathers, desperately wanting to feel Xena's skin against hers. Xena sat up and quickly stripped away her own clothing before returning to the slow, leisurely mapping of every curve of Gabrielle's body.
Using light, feathery touches, Gabrielle's hands began to wander over Xena's lithe, powerful frame, feeling the surprising softness of the warrior's skin beneath her fingertips. Xena chuckled deep in her throat as the bard hit a ticklish spot. Gabrielle shivered in anticipation as strong, yet gentle fingers drifted across her thigh. She cried out as the intensity rose and built steadily, finally cresting and washing over them both in a wave of tingling sensation. Tears of pure happiness streamed down Gabrielle's cheeks, and Xena kissed them away lovingly, holding the bard tightly until the last shuddering spasm had passed.
"I love you," Gabrielle whispered, snuggling closer into Xena's embrace.
"I know. I love you, too."
"Xena? Let's go home."
Xena gazed deeply into Gabrielle's eyes and smiled at her tenderly.
"I am home."
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