: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and any other characters or text mentioned from the original series are owned by Renaissance Pictures, Studio USA, or whoever has the rights now. No copyright infringement is intended. This is fan fiction just for fun. Any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental. Some of the characters may be theirs but the story is mine. Copyright Feb 2001.

Rated as adult material for some violence and a loving relationship between two consenting adults and because anything can happen in my stories. If you are easily offended please read something else.

Email me at: kenrogers2002@yahoo.com

Constructive comments and criticisms or just plain chats good or bad are most welcome. No flames please.

Suggestion: If you havenít seen ĎThe Last Battleground: A Friend in Need you may want to wait to read this as it contains spoilers!

Ken Rogers

Lost Soul, Part 7 Ė Strained Relations

Continued from Lost Soul 6 - Endless Journey

 

Xena stood on the hill surveying the battlefield. Thousands of warriors had died here, the land turned red with their blood. Everything was in ruin as far as the eye could see. She felt a great sense of satisfaction at her accomplishments here, mixed with a sorrow for the deaths of the warriors she commanded, but she must continue now, while the enemy was in disarray. There was no time for celebration or remorse. She must strike while the enemy was not expecting it. She had them on the run and she must keep them on the run until she drove them into the sea. She turned to study her own army, frowning. Already they were letting down from the peak of battle and she couldn't let that happen. They needed rest but there was no time for rest. If they let down now and the enemy found out, they would ride over them and all their gains would be lost. Resolutely she started down the path to the command tent. The game had just begun to swing in their favor. She needed action and she needed it now. She strode into the tent, her features set hard in determination.

*

Gabrielle stood at the bow of the Greek ship watching the forbidding continent rise from the sea, her stomach in a knot. The last time she had seen this cursed land was over a year ago when she left it after Xenaís death. She had spent most of the past year desperately trying to return here, but had been blocked at every turn. In the end, her persistence had paid off and now she was only a few hours from Japa. Her mind in turmoil from all the emotion brought back to her, as if that horrible battle had just occurred.

A year had passed against her best efforts to return. A year in which she had fought many battles and crossed many lands. A year in which she had been wounded, captured, beaten, nearly skinned alive, almost died of thirst in the desert, come close to drowning, and even closer to dying of a sickness. It had taken her months to recover from the sickness, time when she had no more strength than a small child and was tended by a peasant woman and her seven children. Where all other attempts on her life had failed, the sickness nearly succeeded. When she finally reached a seaport, she had to fight her way on to an Egyptian ship. She had started a near riot when she tried to get passage to Japa, because Chin was at war with them. The Egyptian ship had taken her to India. It took a while but she had finally found a Greek ship bound for Japa. Now, at last, she was on the last leg of her journey.

In that long arduous year, her mission had changed and her sorrow had deepened. When she left the little mountain village in Chin so very long ago, her mission had been to return to Japa in hopes of finding Xena's spirit and working out their differences. She had made a horrible mistake leaving Japa and her impatience to return had gotten her in an unimaginable amount of trouble. When she started, she had hoped Xena would forgive her, that her spirit would still be there so she could try to make it up to her. Now a year of feeling the rage of the Xena of the far past had changed her mission. Gabrielle was convinced that Xena had reverted to her evil ways, and though her heart was torn apart she was on her way to end the reign of the Destroyer of Nations, she was so sure had been reborn.

Now she watched the hated land rise from the sea with a heavier heart than when she left. Xena was her soulmate, half of her soul. On this land of violence, the woman she despised, the hated Akemi, had taken Xena from her, turning Xena away from her. On this land, her most horrifying nightmares had been real. She had sought and found Xena's headless body. She had found Xena's head on a table in the rain. She had burned her body and taken her ashes to Mt. Fuji in hopes of returning her to life. Perhaps her most painful memory of all was on that sacred mountain, when Xena's spirit reached a hand out and stopped her from bringing her back to life. All her worst memories, all of her most painful experiences, all of her nightly nightmares happened on the land rising from the mists and the sea in front of her. Yet, even those horrible memories faded in the face of what she planned to do. Her one prayer was that she was wrong, but the continued rages that seized her made that prayer a forlorn hope. If Xena had truly returned to her old ways then it was her responsibility to find a way to stop her, no matter what the cost. She had released the monster Xena had so carefully locked away. It was her fault Xena had reverted, so it was her responsibility to end her reign of terror.

Just the thought of what she must do made her sick, as it had been doing for a long time now. Because of her folly, she must destroy the one thing she loved above all else. She must find a way to destroy her soulmate. Life would end then. She had no doubt of that, but she would welcome her own death no matter the consequences of her actions. No punishment, any Hell or Tartarus she knew of could mete out, would punish her more than the punishment of having to destroy half of her soul.

Gabrielle studied the port they entered, up the eastern coast of Japa, north of Higuchi, the place they had landed last time she was here, the place where her life had been destroyed. Higuchi and Miyatsu, the small town where she had left Xena's ashes and belongings, and from which she had left Japa, were further south, but Japa and Chin were still at war and the Greek Captain would not venture there. He feared they might have been taken by now. This port was much larger than either Higuchi or Miyatsu had been. Gabrielle watched as the piers grew in her sight, crowded with ships and people. In other circumstances, she would enjoy the sight and be fascinated by what she saw before her, but not now. Now it only brought her a little closer to what she must do.

She was ready when the ship docked and was the first one to leave. The captain stood on deck and watched the beautiful blond walk through the crowds of people as if she were alone. Her height and her golden hair made her visible until she was far down the street and turned onto another street of the sprawling city. She had been on his ship for over a month and he knew little more of her now than when she boarded. Oh, he knew the fantastic tales told of her, which he had scoffed at, until he first saw her and looked into those wise, but sad green eyes. That she was a great warrior he no longer doubted. She fairly exuded the power of a warrior in her graceful movements, her strength, and those lovely eyes. She had worked out daily with her weapons, but other than that he seldom saw her and when he did, she stood at the bow staring ahead at the endless sea. He knew that he had walked with greatness when he had been with her. He didn't know why she had wanted to return to Japa but he hoped it would lift the sadness from her heart. Silently he wished her well, then turned to the task of unloading his cargo.

Gabrielle wandered through the city, stopping once to purchase a meal and again for some supplies for the trail. Other than those two stops, she ignored all the wares that she passed. It took her most of the day to reach the edge of the city. When she did, she sought out a stable and purchased a warhorse and tack. The horse was a good one, well trained and strong, if a little old. She was grayish-yellow in color with a black mane and tail. The color was different but the contrasting mane and tail reminded her of another horse that had saved her life in the frozen mountains of Chin, then been shot from under her in the wastelands of Mongol. It seemed an eternity since then, though it had been less than a year ago.

The roads were clogged with refugees streaming north and Gabrielle's spirits dropped even further. What she had feared most was happening and she was sure Xena was in the midst of it. Her progress was agonizingly slow against the press of people trying to go north. In less than an hour, she had been accosted by petty thieves twice. She had quickly convinced them to look somewhere else.

When evening came, she found a quiet place quite a ways off the road for her camp. Mt Fuji hung over her camp like a premonition of doom. She could hardly stand to look at the place where she had lost everything. She made no fire and slept sitting up, alert to the sounds around her. Her own screams woke her. The nightmares, in the shadow of the mountain where they had happened were worse than they had been for some time.

She skipped her morning meal; her stomach tied in knots. She was back on the trail before the sun rose. To her dismay the first thing to be brightened by the rising sun was Mt. Fuji, the summit aflame with golden light while she still rode in the gloom that presaged the rising of the sun.

Today was worse than yesterday had been. She saw many wounded warriors, and hundreds of people that had been driven from their homes. Several times, she chased robbers away from wagons and once she was engaged in an all out battle with several heavily armed men to protect a caravan.

Late in the afternoon the crush of people died to a trickle and she was able to make better time. Then virtually all but the stragglers were north of her and she rode a desolate road alone. Her heart grew heavier with dread with each hoof-beat south. Then, near dusk she crested a ridge and pulled up so sharply she was nearly thrown from her mount.

"No!" she whispered, her voice sounding strangled. Before her lay a vista of destruction like she had seldom seen in all her many travels; everything was destroyed, nothing was intact. "Oh, Xena, no!" she cried in despair. Not a tree, house or living thing stood. Bodies of men and horses were strewn everywhere. The land was trampled into ruin.

She moved slowly down the hill, tears streaming from her eyes. The carnage was appalling and the stench even worse for this battle was days old. Many of the bodies had been stripped of their weapons and armor, but most had just been left to rot where they fell. Already new growth was pushing up all over the battlefield. Gabrielle covered her nose and mouth as she rode through the battlefield. The entire valley was in ruin, but over the next ridge only a small swath on both sides of the main trail showed signs of the passing of major armies. Most of the signs of their passage were already being covered as the trampled grasses recovered and reached for the sun.

She hurried south, noting the occasional signs of battle along the way, and then she was in familiar territory. She had been here before and the very sight of the familiar trail brought the horrors of that maddening ride to Mt. Fuji back to her.

Gabrielle entered the forest, her horse holding back and grumbling her anxiety. The sun was nearing the western horizon and long shadows fell across everything. She saw the first body, barely more than bones and armor. Her horse shied and she got down.

"Come on girl. I know a nice little meadow where you can stay," she said, in a calming voice, while rubbing the horseís neck. She led the mare around the beginnings of the old battle and into a small clearing. She stripped her gear and piled it next to a tree, turning the mare loose with a few reassuring words.

She turned to the forest again, the shadows even longer now in the light of the rising moon. She took a deep breath to calm her fluttering heart and shaky body, squared her shoulders, then moved into the eerily silent forest once more. The trail was not hard to follow and she located the spot where she had discovered the bloody chakram with ease. The trail of moldering bodies led her to where Xena had died, bodies piled thick in that area, then nothing beyond. She fell on her knees, the tears renewed. This was where the end of her world had taken place. The rest was just false hope nurtured by the eternally damned Akemi. She was there a long time, unaware of the passing of time. Nothing disturbed her as she once again released her sorrows for everything that had happened since that fateful time, now a year gone, but still as horribly fresh in her mind as if it had just happened.

When she rose, it was well past sunset, the forest cast in the eerie shadow of the nearly full moon. A mist seemed to rise out of the ground around her, helping create the complete absence of any sound. She turned away from the site of her heartbreak and continued through the woods, her course steady and sure.

When she stepped into the clearing, she was surprised. The teahouse looked just as she remembered it. Carefully she stepped onto the wooden walkway across the small pond, her heart pounding. When she got to the door, she paused for a shuddering breath then slid the door aside. The sight that greeted her was the very last thing she expected to see and she gasped. Akemi knelt facing the door.

Gabrielle was frozen in place for a moment, unable to move, then all the feelings of hatred that had grown for this woman welled up in her, her rage building out of control.

"Akemi!" she screamed as she rushed across the room. "Damn you!"

She twisted her hands in the girl's hair and pulled her to her feet bending her head back.

"Gabrielle!" Akemi cried out in pain.

"What are you doing here, Akemi?" Gabrielle shouted.

"I am condemned to stay here because I betrayed XenaÖ and you."

"What?" It was like a hard slap in the face to hear her words, words known in her heart but never confirmed.

"Xena didn't have to die, Gabrielle. You were right. I tried to take her from you."

The words confirming her suspicions were such a shock she thought her heart had stopped. She let go of Akemi's hair and Akemi fell to her knees looking up at her. "I cannot leave here until you forgive me."

Gabrielle's blood boiled. "Forgive you!" she screamed. "You heartless bitch, I'll never forgive you!" Her katana flew into her hands and she watched Akemi's head fall from her shoulders. "Never, Akemi! I'll never forgive you." She turned from the sightless eyes and stalked from the teahouse her rage out of control.

*

Tanaga stood alone in his tent. Well, his sub-commanders were gone anyway. He was tired, much too old to wage war, but the duty had fallen on him because of his incredible abilities in the art of war. Only he knew better and he had been standing talking to his mentor, struggling to understand her silent gestures when she suddenly doubled over as if in great pain, her eyes going wide in horror.

"Xena, my friend. What's wrong?" he asked in concern as he stepped towards her.

She went to her knees and doubled over until her head touched the ground and all he could do was wait helplessly. If his commanders came in and saw him now, knelt down staring at empty air they would think he had lost his mind. He longed to comfort this valiant woman, that he knew suffered immeasurable pain, but there was nothing he could do. He waited helplessly watching her shoulders shake with heavy sobbing.

*

Gabrielle stood outside the teahouse gulping in fresh air, just becoming aware of what she had done, her rage suddenly replaced by an icy calm. She stared at the blade of the katana as if seeing it for the first time. With this blade and her incredible rage, she had just decapitated a woman who had been dead when she was just a little girl, before she ever met Xena. Slowly she turned and looked back into the teahouse. Akemi's headless body lay crumpled in a heap. Her head lay two paces away staring sightlessly at her. Slowly she closed the door with a trembling hand and turned away. Absently she slid the spotless blade into the scabbard as she returned to the forest.

After the rage, an emotion stronger than anything she had ever felt before, her mind was numb; without emotion, as if she had used it all up. She walked as if drunk, hardly paying attention to where she was going, seeing only enough to avoid bumping into things. She felt weak, as if her anger had drained her strength. Her mind was in a fog unable to think as she struggled with what she had heard and done. Her stomach reacted before her mind did and she fell to the ground retching. She had killed an unarmed person, without remorse or regret, in an all-consuming rage like nothing she had ever felt, except from Xena this past year, and her rage had equaled the worst she had felt from her soulmate. She was a murderer, cold-blooded, calculating, and vicious, no matter that the woman was already dead, no matter that she may deserve it. She, Gabrielle, the gentle peasant girl from Poteidaia had purposely struck her head from her shoulders while she knelt defenseless in front of her.

She climbed to her feet again, her stomach barely under control. She was dazed, unfelt tears fell from her eyes as she wandered aimlessly through the forest. It was all true, her worst fears were true; her soulmate had been purposely kept from her.

Somehow, she was back near her gear. Without thought, she gathered her bedroll and spread it out then crawled into it. She felt cold, like ice. She feltÖ empty.

*

When she sat back up, the horror was gone from her face, but pain filled her haunted eyes. Large tears still fell down her cheeks. She looked to the man kneeling before her and reached a tender hand to touch him, knowing he couldn't feel it, but she needed the comfort of his strength.

"Xena. What has happened?" he asked and she read the compassion in his eyes. She shook her head, attempting a slight smile that failed miserably.

"Please. I can see you are very upset. What has happened?"

"Gabrielle," she mouthed slowly so he could catch it.

"Gabrielle?" he asked. "Something happened to her?"

She nodded, her eyes wide in fright, the tears still flowing.

"What, Xena? What happened to her? Is she all right?"

She shrugged but at the increasing concern in his eyes she gathered her strength and tried to tell him what had happened, what she had felt. It took a while.

"You felt rage? From Gabrielle?"

She nodded.

"What does it mean, Xena?"

She shook her head and shrugged. She didn't know but it had been so powerful it had staggered her and brought her to her knees. She had known immediately that it was from Gabrielle. The rage, the horror, the revulsion, and hate, all had come from her soulmate. She had felt nothing from her since the battle last year and was sure she had passed on into the next life. It had been hard to realize that she would never see her again, that Gabrielle would move on while she was stuck here forever. It had continued to be difficult, every day and night, until only moments ago. If she knew nothing else, she knew her soulmate was alive, or had been during that incredible wave of hatred, but the hate itself was driving her mad with worry. Gabrielle was not a hater. She had known Gabrielle to have very strong emotions, even hate, but not like that, never like that.

Slowly she stood on shaky legs unsure of anything anymore. What could trigger so much hatred in her soulmate and why had it cut off so suddenly? What had happened? Did she just learn that Gabrielle was still alive only at her moment of death? What was happening? She turned from Tanaga and left the tent climbing the nearby hills to the highest peak where she stood staring into the darkness. Gabrielle was out there somewhere. She strained her senses but could not sense her presence. Where was she? What had happened? A black cloud of fear drew around her and for the first time in many months the black emptiness of her punishment drew around her and she was unable to see, hear or touch anything. Why would it return when she was feeling so lost and helpless. Slowly she sat down and put her head on her knees, wrapping her arms around her legs.

*

Gabrielle woke suddenly, startled awake, to find her horse nudging her with her nose. The sun was already up, well above the horizon. She shrugged away from the horse's nose and pushed her gently away.

"Okay, Iím up, girl!" she said smiling up at the horse, though there was no humor behind it. "Give me a minute to get my eyes open." She sat up rubbing at her eyes and looking around. She was amazed that she had slept so late and that her horse had been able to come right up to her and actually touch her before waking her. For a moment concern, that she had been that insensitive to what was going on around her, furrowed her brow. Normally the muffled snapping of a twig some distance away, or a change in the background noises would waken her.

"Thanks for waking me up girl. I guess I was really tired," she said, knowing that wasnít really the true cause. She got to her feet and rubbed the horseís neck then scratched at the base of her ears, talking to her softly. The horse leaned into her gently, enjoying the attention. "Yeah, you like that, donít you?" She gave her a last scratch. "You go on now and let me get myself together."

Gabrielle quickly assembled her gear and saddled her horse. She skipped yet another meal, the thought of food knotting her stomach. Her emotions still seemed to be gone and she still felt a profound emptiness. Xena had been purposely taken from her. She was amazed that she could still function at all, but she could and she went efficiently about her business, though more by rote than conscious thought. When she was ready, she led her horse to water, splashing a little on her face and filling her waterskins, without really paying attention. It was as if she were standing off to the side watching herself walk through life.

She climbed into the saddle and walked the horse through the silent forest, avoiding the section littered with the dead. When her horse came into the clearing, she was only mildly surprised to see that the teahouse was a shambles, barely standing. She stepped down from the saddle and walked through the shattered door. The interior was open to the elements on all sides, litter strewn everywhere. There was nothing in the teahouse, except the small, kneeling form of Akemi, her head bowed, her hands tucked into her sleeves.

Akemiís presence didnít surprise her; after all, you canít really kill the dead. Still no emotion touched her except the icy emptiness. Without a word to her greatest enemy, she turned and walked away. She went to her horse, climbed into the saddle, and rode away.

*

Xena came to the realization that the sun was peaking over the horizon bringing her another day of torture. She had slept, or become nothing, or whatever she did when she seemed to sleep. She woke with the thought that Gabrielle was back in the forefront of her existence. Not that she had ever forgotten her. That wasnít possible. No, she had tried to close her out of her thoughts but she couldnít. Xena had come to believe her soulmate was dead, beyond her reach, and thoughts of her were always in the forefront of whatever she did. Everything reminded her of Gabrielle, everything. Even in the midst of the intense battles they had been in, Gabrielle was on her mind. Would Gabrielle approve of what she was trying to do? Would she do it differently? Now, though nothing had changed, everything had changed. They were coming on a major battle and all she could think of was Gabrielle. Where was she? What had happened to her to cause such rage, such hatred? Was she hurt? Was sheÖ dead? Did she ever think about her soulmate at all? Was she still angry? Did she hate her? Did she even care at all, one way or the other? Her mind was a clutter of unanswered questions, questions only Gabrielle could answer. She rose wearily to her feet and stared down at the command tent, busy now with constant traffic as Tanaga commanded his men for the coming battle. She should be there to guide him, to point out strategies on the maps. She knew that Tanaga was a competent commander in his own right but he depended on her and she couldnít let him down. Resolutely she squared her shoulders trying to force thoughts of Gabrielle into a corner of her mind, only partially succeeding. Gabrielle would understand. She would want her to do this.

Xena hurried down the trail to the command tent. As she feared, the tent was full of arguments over minor details. They were bogging down in the nonessential. Tanaga sensed her presence and looked up, the relief on his face so plain that she was surprised someone didnít comment on it. She had caught the gist of the arguments as she entered the tent and strode confidently to the maps. Looking only at Tanaga, she pointed out things on the map and worked out what had been done and what hadnít, as his commanders, oblivious to his cryptic conversation, rambled on.

"Enough!" Tanaga roared, when they were arguing again, and his commanders silenced immediately. "Nothing has changed, the enemy is positioned as they were yesterday," he said, more for Xena than for them. "The plan stands. We attack at once. I want continuous updates on the situation, now go to your men."

They bowed to him and departed. When they were gone, he slumped into his chair, seeming to age twenty years. He waved to his aid. "Leave me. Bring me immediate word of the initial attack!"

His aide bowed and left. He slumped even further into the chair.

"I donít think I can take much more of this, Xena. My time is past. I should be tending my garden while my children tend to my affairs," he said in little more than a whisper. She felt sorry for him. He was right. He was too old for this. War was for young men. If they didnít end it soon, it would kill him. She went to him and placed her hand on his.

He looked up at her and smiled. "I wish I had known you before, Xena. I would enjoy talking tactics and battles with you. You know so much that I never even dreamed possible. Iím glad I never had to face you in battle, my friend."

She nodded and squeezed his hand.

He looked down, then back up, his smile broadening. "I felt that. Thank you."

She looked at him puzzled.

"Oh, itís not like I can feel your hand, but I felt a gentle pressure when you squeezed. Itís a comfort to an old man. My country will never know the debt we owe to a Ďforeign devil.í I wish they did." He sat up and became all business as the noise outside increased. "Now it begins. Stay if you can, Xena. Just your presence comforts an old man."

She nodded and smiled. "Iíll stay, I promise." She mouthed and he nodded curtly then looked up as the first runner came into the tent.

*

Gabrielle set her course around Higuchi. She was not ready for the town or the people. She needed to get on with her mission and do whatever she had to do. Her greatest hope was that she was wrong about her soulmate and her greatest fear was that she was right.

It was but a short distance, less than half a day to the city of Miyatsu and she approached it with some trepidation. This was where she had left Xena's ashes and her gear in the hands of a gentle man named Tanaga. This was where she would begin to find out what was happening. This was where she should begin to find out if her soulmate was the cause of the slaughter that she had seen.

The road was winding and trees lined the way. Though not very hilly, the town was hidden from view until she was almost upon it. She rounded the last bend and stopped, her skin crawling, a chill running down her back. The buildings she had expected were gone, replaced by charred ruins already partially washed away. Slowly she walked her horse forward until the town came full into her view. She could see clear to the sea over the ruins of Miyatsu. Not a single building remained standing. Slowly she walked her horse along the deserted street between the ruins. She found the square and the location of Tanaga's Inn. There was nothing left but a few charred boards marking where the inn had been. She searched in vain for the little house she had stayed in but could not locate its ruins. Everything was gone.

"Xena!" she screamed, but there was no answer, only the eerie silence of a dead city. She searched in vain for any sign of movement; any sign of life but there was none. It dawned on her that she had seen no bodies, no charred bones and her spirits rose a little. They must have had warning and escaped. Then her spirits dropped again. If they escaped, they would have gone north in the tide of humanity she had struggled through, or even before. She would never find Tanaga if he had gone north. There were just too many people. Xena's ashes and her belongings were lost to her, unless she could find Tanaga, and he could be dead.

There was only one thing to do. She must turn south and find the army that was causing this destruction, the army that had been driven south. She had to know if Xena led them. She had to know. Resolutely she turned her horse back to the trail west, breaking into a gallop. At the crossroads she turned south, following the trail of death and destruction, praying it had not been caused by her soulmate.

*

Two days had passed and Xena stood on a knoll, well back from the battle, surveying the scene below, high winds blowing dust across the conflict, making it hard to see. Deep in her soul, a premonition of doom seemed to grow by the hour and she could not force it down. They had lost ground in vicious fighting, the enemy reinforced from across the sea. The struggle had been too much for Tanaga and he lay unconscious on his bed, attended by his aide. Xena was alone again. Tanaga had not returned to consciousness since his collapse. She watched the action in frustration. Too many of Tanagaís commanders were without imagination or afraid to act on their own. Without Tanaga, the battle was going against them and there was nothing she could do. The feeling of doom surged, then turned to rage.

"Xena!"

Startled she turned and stared in disbelief. Gabrielle stood not ten paces away. "GabrieÖ."

"What are you doing, Xena?" Gabrielle screamed as she stepped forward.

Suddenly Xena noticed the rage on Gabrielleís face and the katana in her hand.

"Stop this, Xena!" she screamed, advancing another step.

"WhatÖ IÖ. Stop what?" she asked, confused.

"The killing, Xena! Stop the killing!" She advanced another step and her katana rose. "Stop it now!"

She was in shock, unable to think. "IÖ I canítÖ"

"Stop it now!" Gabrielle screamed again. "You started it, stop it!"

She was stunned. Gabrielle thought she was to blame for the war! How could she think such a thing?

"No, Gabrielle, I didnít!"

"I felt the rages, Xena! I felt your hatred! You promised me you wouldnít become a monster, but Iíve felt it!"

Suddenly she noticed the tears streaming down Gabrielleís face, the anguish in her eyes.

"Oh, Gabrielle, Iím so sorry my rages hurt you so, but they arenít what you think." She dropped to her knees, tears welling in her own eyes. "The monster is dead, Gabrielle. I promise you, sheís dead. Please believe me. What I do here is for good, not evil. Tanaga commands, I only advise him."

Gabrielle stood over her, her katana still raised, her eyes locked to Xenaís eyes. Slowly the rage left her face. She began to tremble violently and the katana dropped from her hand, unnoticed. She stumbled forward on wobbly legs and fell into Xenaís arms.

"Gabrielle!" Xena cried in alarm as she realized Gabrielle had passed out. She crushed the blond to her, filled with relief that she was here and alive, and anguish that she had continued to cause her soulmate problems even from beyond the grave.

*

Gabrielle woke with a start, her eyes going wide in fright. "Xena!"

A gentle hand caressed her forehead. "Shush, Iím right here," came the voice she craved to hear above all others.

She looked up to see Xena smiling down at her as she lay in her lap. Tears of happiness ran down her face.

"Oh, Xena, Iím so sorry! I never should have doubted you," she cried as she lifted up and wrapped her arms around her.

"Itís okay, Gabrielle. What else were you to think? You had nothing else to go by." She stroked her hair gently. "I'm sorry I upset you so."

"I should have trusted you," she sobbed into her neck.

Xena chuckled. "We make mistakes, Gabrielle. I should have trusted you."

Gabrielle pulled away from her and looked into her eyes.

"Trusted me, how?" she asked.

Xena sighed and hugged her again. "Because for most of a year I thought you were dead, Gabrielle. I thought you had died and gone on without me and I was stuck here forever. I thought Iíd never see you again. I should have known youíd find a way back."

"Why did you think I was dead?" she asked, her curiosity getting the best of her.

"Because I lived a nightmare battle through your eyes. You were wounded and fleeing many riders. You were wounded again, then your horse was killed and you were wounded twice more. The last time you fell against rocks and thatís all I saw."

"You saw that battle?" she asked in surprise.

"No, Gabrielle. I lived that battle through your eyes and your pain. I thought you had died, becauseÖ" she took a shuddering breath, "because that was the last thing I ever sensed of you, until just a few days ago."

"Oh," she said then looked back into Xenaís eyes. "What happened then?"

"I felt your rage, your hate. It was more powerful than anything Iíve ever felt before, but I knew it was you."

"Oh," Gabrielle said softly and looked away.

"What caused that, Gabrielle? Iíve never known you to hate like that."

"Akemi told me what she had done," she answered, her voice going hard and flat.

"Oh," Xena was silent a moment. "Did you forgive her?"

Gabrielle looked up, anger on her face again. "No! Iíll never forgive her, Xena. She caused your death, to keep you from me!"

Xena studied the anger there and wisely remained silent. Instead, she hugged her again. "Iím glad youíre back."

Gabrielle pulled away from her. "Iím glad youíreÖ okay." She got to her feet suddenly nervous, looking around. She bent and retrieved her katana. Reluctantly Xena got to her feet. Gabrielle pointed to the battle. "Whatís all this about, Xena?"

"Chin wants to take over Japa, without the population. They have been destroying everything and everyone. We had them on the run but Tanaga has fallen ill and his commanders are not good at working without him."

Gabrielle turned to her. "Take me to him. Maybe I can help."

"They donít know you, Gabrielle. It could be dangerous for you," Xena answered.

Gabrielle gave her a look, then started down the hill towards her horse. "Iím going. You can come if you like."

Xena hurried after her. "Gabrielle, his men are very nervous with him down. You could get hurt."

"Yeah, as if that hasnít been possible before." She went to her horse and got her medical kit and a white cloth, then gathered the reins of her horse, turning to Xena. "Tanaga was very kind to me when I needed it, Xena. Iím going to see if I can help him. Why donít you run ahead and see if heís awake. If he is, get him to let me in, otherwise Iím walking in there and taking my chances."

Xena studied her eyes and the set of her face, then turned and ran.

She entered his tent and went immediately to his side, ignoring the aide sitting beside him. His eyes were closed, his breathing shallow.

"Damn!" she growled in frustration and his eyes opened staring up at her. The aide leaned over him directly in her way.

"Tanaga san," is all he said.

Xena wanted to scream for him to get out of the way.

Tanaga pushed him back. "Junji, my friend. Bring me water, please."

Tanaga looked at her and smiled as his aide went for water. "Good to seeÖ." he started, then stopped when she waved frantically at him, her face fraught with concern. "What is it?"

"Gabrielle!" she said. "Here! Tell guards to let her in!" she said, mouthing it slowly."

"Gabrielle is here?"

She nodded impatiently.

"Junji!"

The aide returned quickly with the water.

"Junji. Listen carefully. There is a woman, a warrior, approaching our camp."

He looked to Xena and she said, "Walking, with a horse. White cloth!"

"She is walking, leading a horse. She's carrying a white cloth. Go meet her. She must not be harmed in any way! Bring her here!" he sagged back onto the bed, exhausted.

Junji looked at him strangely but nodded and left.

"Thank you," Xena said and he smiled.

"I'm glad she's back Xena. Perhaps her presence can ease your burden."

She shrugged but smiled a little. "Hope so."

They turned to the entrance at a commotion, to hear Junji and the guards arguing, then Gabrielle's voice. "Let me past, I can help him!"

The guards denied her entrance, though Junji assured them Tanaga was expecting her.

"Guards! Let her in!" Tanaga bellowed, then slumped down, breathing hard.

Gabrielle pushed past the surprised guards and entered, Junji and the guards hot on her trail.

Gabrielle knelt down beside the bed and took his hand.

"It is good to see you well, Gabrielle," he said, his voice weak again.

"It's good to see you, Tanaga san, but you do not look so well. What is wrong, my friend."

"I'm just tired, Gabrielle. I'm too old for these games."

She smiled down at him and laid her hand on his forehead. "I can well believe you are tired. If youíve been trying to keep up with Xena, you are probably worn out, but you are also warm. I think that perhaps you also have a little sickness to pull you down. Let me fix you something." She turned to the aide. "Get me some hot water."

Junji looked to Tanaga and at his nod went for the water.

Gabrielle turned back to him. "Are you trying to run this war by yourself Tanaga?" she grinned and he smiled.

"Xena is running it for me. I just get in her way occasionally."

Junji returned immediately with a pot of hot water.

"I'm going to fix you some tea with some strong herbs in it."

He nodded and she turned to her medical kit.

Junji bowed to Tanaga. "The battle is ending for the night, sir."

"Gabrielle," Tanaga called, and she turned from what she was doing.

"I must talk to my commanders. Do not put me to sleep."

She studied him a moment then nodded. "All right, but if it goes on too long I'll kick them out, Tanaga. You need your rest."

"Thank you," he said.

A moment later, she brought him the drink and had the aide prop him up almost to a sitting position. "Here, drink this. It will strengthen you and make you feel better, but it won't last without sleep."

He took the mug and sipped at it, making a face at her, then grinning. "Gabrielle. This is terrible," he said and she grinned back at him.

"Of course. Medicine doesn't work unless it tastes bad. The worse it tastes the better it is."

"Then I should be well in a moment," he answered. He took another swallow.

"Tanaga. I haven't just come to give you terrible medicine. I've come to help."

He studied her. "Thank you, Gabrielle, but are you sure you are up to it?"

She gave him 'the look.' "Tanaga, Xena is my mentor. Before she died, she taught me everything she knows. You know there are none better than her. Now, Xena tells me your commanders are reluctant to act without you."

He sighed. "They're good men, Gabrielle, but they are not used to war any longer. Most of them are like me, too old for war, too cautious."

She put her hand gently on his. "I don't doubt they are good men, Tanaga, or you wouldn't have them, but good men, without direction, can lose you the war. Let me help you."

He looked to Xena and she nodded. "She's very good, Tanaga," she said.

He nodded then turned back to Gabrielle. "We are a proud people, Gabrielle. Our women do not wage war. It will be hard to convince them."

"You don't have the time or the strength to convince them, Tanaga. Order them," she replied.

"Gabrielle, it's not that easy."

She stopped him. "Tanaga, it is just that easy. You can't do it. They can't do it. Either Xena and I do it or your country falls. I don't care what you tell them. Tell them I'm a foreign devil you hired to win the war. Tell them whatever you like, but convince them or send everyone home to wait to die."

He studied her for a moment then smiled. "You must be soulmates. You're as stubborn as she is."

Gabrielle grinned at him. "She did train me but I must take credit for being the stubborn one."

"Very well. You are right. We need your help. This is not the time for foolish pride."

"Good. Now finish your tea. It will help you for a while." He complied and Gabrielle turned to the entrance as the commanders began filing in. The looks she got from them were surprise, then curiosity or hostility. Most of them dismissed her, looking to Tanaga.

"He waited until they were all in, then quietly asked for their reports. They went down the line telling of the problems that they had had, the frustrations, the setbacks, and the losses. Only one, a relatively junior, younger officer spoke of success and even he had to say his men had to fall back or be cut off. When they were finished, they stood waiting for his anger, his scathing words for their failures. The tirade didn't come. Instead, he said, "I know you have all done your best and I thank you. It is unfortunate that your best will lose the war. If we do not do better, we will all die and our country will fail."

"We need help from the north, Tanaga," one of them said.

Tanaga nodded. "Yes, we do, but they will not provide it. The war does not yet concern them. We must do this ourselves." He paused for a moment. "With help. My friends, I would like you to meet the Dragon Warrior of Higuchi."

There was murmuring among the men as they turned to study Gabrielle again.

"Her name is all but unpronounceable. It is Gabrielle, a beautiful name in another language, but barely comprehensible in ours. I'm sure she has forgiven me for my inability to say her name correctly. I am also sure she will forgive you, but you will learn to say it the best you can and with a great deal of respect. As of this moment, right here, right now, Gabrielle is your supreme commander."

There was uproar from his commanders and he waited patiently for several minutes. Gabrielle sat quietly beside him watching them. Finally, he raised his hand and they quieted, but most of them looked openly hostile.

Tanaga sighed. "Is there anyone here that wishes the army of Chin to destroy this land?" He waited while they all said no. "Anyone think we have the option of surrender?" The replies were much louder this time. "Anyone that thinks we need not defeat them?" Again resounding denials. "Which of you will lead us and defeat the armies of Chin? You can see I can no longer do it." No one came forward. "Are you all still willing to fight for your homeland?"

"Yes!" they shouted.

"Then you have no choice. You need a commander. You need one now, not in a week when I may be better. If you want to save this land then you must let Gabrielle lead you. Most of you have known me for a long time and you trusted me to lead you. Now trust my judgment."

"She is a foreigner! We cannot trust her!" someone shouted and they began arguing again.

Tanaga held up his hand and they quieted.

"This woman assisted in destroying the Eater of Souls, one of our greatest enemies, at great loss to herself, and you dare say you cannot trust her! Already she has given more to our country than all of us! She has offered to help an old man save his country. She is a friend and you dare insult her in front of me!"

"It's all right, Tanaga," Gabrielle said softly, trying to calm him, but he held up his hand to silence her, staring at them.

"You have insulted me, by insulting her. She offers her life to aid us and you disparage her because she is different, not one of us."

"She is a woman, Tanaga!"

"Yes. She is a woman. She is also a warrior. She has offered to try to help us save our country with the skills she has, which I might add are much greater than any one of us have, and you worry she is a woman? Why? Does it shame you that she might know something you do not? If it does, then you are fools. We cannot afford the luxury of turning away from someone as valuable as she is, not if we truly wish to save our country."

"What can she know of battle tactics?"

Tanaga laughed. "More than you, my friend, or I. Her teacher is the one that taught me the very things you have insisted I become your commander for. My friends, Gabrielle was trained by the one who destroyed the Eater of Souls and his army, at Higuchi. You've heard the stories. Many of you, like me, have seen the evidence of her prowess. You saw and heard what the army of Higuchi thinks of both of them. This woman, in her young life is already a legend in our country!" he said, his voice rising. Gabrielle was blushing and wishing he would quit. He quieted, lying back again. "You have a choice to make. Accept Gabrielle as your supreme commander and have a chance of winning this war, or turn her down and you will have no chance. I leave you no choice. Due to my health, I resign. Get out. Bring her your decision at midnight."

*

Tanaga was sleeping. Gabrielle had given him another herbal tea after a couple of hours of him putting her off, insisting he sleep. Finally, he had given in and taken the medication.

It was nearing midnight and Gabrielle stood over the maps discussing them with Xena and Junji. Junji was young and after a short time, with Tanagaís assurances, had doubtfully accepted that Gabrielle was talking to her soulmate. Now, after nearly two hours of listening to her one sided discussion of battle tactics with Xena, he was convinced.

"Xena, if weíre going to end this then we need to get behind their lines and get their commanders, back here. It all comes back to that, no matter what we try."

"Yes, we do, but you will never make it through here. This is a perfect trap. Iím sure they will have it covered. I would."

"So would I, so it means we need another way. Any ideas?"

"You need to make an all out attack here, Gabrielle, to draw them off. When they are committed, they will realign their forces. That will weaken them enough that a sudden attack here should be able to breach their lines. Then your strike team can get through here."

Gabrielle nodded, while studying the map, while Junji just looked confused as Gabrielle traced their plan on the map.

"Okay, Xena, I see that, but what about the archers stationed here? They will cut the special team to ribbons."

"Good girl. I knew youíd spot that. What you do is send a dozen archers with your strike team. Instead of moving through here, you take a little longer way here and come around behind their archers. Your archers should be able to take them out from here with support from the strike team. Once they do, you are free to move on the command center."

"That gives the enemy more time to respond to our attack here. The strike force will be cut off."

Xena nodded. "If your strike team succeeds with our plan then they should retire here. The enemy forces should crumble without their leaders. You push them back and recover your team."

"If they succeed. Thatís a big if, Xena. If they fail they are cut off and we lose them all."

"Gabrielle. If they fail it wonít much matter. With the forces you have, you canít stop them. They are still being reinforced from Chin. Either you take out their command, or youíve lost. You donít have the forces to wear them down."

Gabrielle studied the maps in silence looking for any other way, but there was none. She sighed. "This will be expensive, Xena."

"Not as expensive as not doing it, Gabrielle," she answered.

"I know, but it doesnít make it any easier," she sighed. "Okay. Iím ready." She looked up at Xena. "Of course this was all just an exercise if they decide against me."

"Unless they are complete fools that wonít happen, Gabrielle. They are out of options."

Gabrielle stood back up and stretched. "Junji? Do you think I could get something to eat and drink, while we wait? Iím starving."

"Yes, commander. Right away." He turned and left.

Gabrielle did a couple of stretches then rubbed her neck. "Looks like I have an army of one so far, Xena."

Xena smiled. "Here, let me do that." She began to massage Gabrielleís neck with strong, but gentle fingers."

"Oh, the gods! Iíve missed that, Xena," Gabrielle moaned.

"So have I," Xena answered. "Iíve missed you. Iím glad youíre back."

Gabrielle straightened abruptly, pulling away. "We have a lot to talk about, when this is over." Her voice had tightened up.

Xenaís smile dissolved. "Youíre right, we do," she answered, feeling her eyes water up. The barriers were still there.

Gabrielle sat down at the table and rearranged the maps to give her a little room. She picked up a few parchments then put them aside.

"Gabrielle, Iím sorryÖ."

"Not now, Xena. Give me a little time, please." She didnít look at Xena.

"All right," her voice broke and Gabrielle looked up, seeing the brightness of her eyes.

She stood and went to her. "I didnít mean to upset you, Xena. I justÖ I canít deal with it right now. I need time when we will be alone without interruption. Right now, I have to think of this war. If I think about us, I wonít be able to function. Please understand."

Xena nodded. "Okay. I understand."

Gabrielle reached up and brushed away the tear that had started down her face. "Thank you."

Xena managed a feeble smile. "You have company."

Gabrielle turned to find Junji just inside the entrance looking embarrassed and undecided. She turned to him.

"Come it, Junji," she said, giving him a little smile.

"I didnít want to disturb you, commander."

"Junji, have you decided to be my aide and serve me?"

"Yes, commander!" he answered.

"Then you have a reason to be here. I sent you to do something. As long as it has to do with your job then you have the right and the obligation to disturb me, if necessary. Am I clear?"

"Yes, commander!"

She nodded. "Good. Now donít go all stuffy on me. I would like to count you among my friends, if I may."

He bowed. "I would consider it an honor, commander."

"Good. Then get over here and help me eat some of this food. Iíd like to get to know you a little better."

He was very rigid at first, but few people could ever resist Gabrielle if she set her mind to it. By the time they had finished eating, she had him in the palm of her hand. They had a few moments to get ready for the commanders, who were now known to Gabrielle by name from Junjiís description, which she had matched to her memory of them.

She was standing in front of the maps when they entered. She waited until they were all standing in front of her then said, "I need your decision. Do you agree to accept me as your supreme commander or not?"

Commander Erizawa, the oldest and appointed spokesman, stepped forward. "We require some assurancesÖ."

She stopped him with a raised hand. "Commander Erizawa. You get one assurance from me, only one. If you approve me as your commander, I will do everything in my power to win this war for your country.

"But weÖ."

Again, she held up her hand. "Thatís all I can offer, commander. I need your decision. If Iím in, you get everything. If Iím out, you get nothing." She stared him straight in the eye as she spoke, her voice firm.

He studied her for a moment then bowed slightly. "May we have a few more moments?"

"Of course, commander. Would ten minutes be enough?"

He bowed again. "Yes," he answered then turned to the others. Silently they filed outside.

"Doesnít look promising, Xena," Gabrielle muttered.

"Donít worry, Gabrielle. They have no options. Itís you or nothing and they know it."

"They may prefer nothing."

"Then itís out of your hands."

They waited in silence for the remainder of the time.

*

Silently the seven commanders reentered and stood before her. Once again, Commander Erizawa stepped forward and bowed. "We have agreed four to three to accept you as our commander. The three of us that disagree will, of course, resign."

Gabrielle made him wait for a moment. "Commander Erizawa, Iíll not hold anyone against their will, of course, but I must tell you that your country needs all of you right now. Can you not set aside your differences until we have defeated the enemy?"

He returned her gaze. "We do not think you will succeed. Since four of us think you will succeed, we would not want to get in the way of your attempt."

"I see. Now let me get this straight. All of you were willing to fight to the last man, even though you expected to lose without Tanaga, yet rather than have me as your supreme commander you would guarantee our defeat by leaving?"

"I donít see that that is the case. We will merely step aside so that you can function without opposition."

She leaned forward on the table and looked him straight in the eye. "Commander, I am willing to die to save your country and until a moment ago you indicated you were too. Are you telling me you are no longer willing to fight for your country?" She saw the anger in his eyes.

"I am willing to die for my country! I think this is folly! You cannot succeed!"

"Because Iím a woman?"

"Yes!"

"But you were already resigned to fail without Tanaga, is that not true?"

"Yes," he acknowledged warily.

"Well, you can do no worse, even with a woman leading you. Does it matter if you fail without a commander or with a woman commander? Failure is failure, is it not? I can do no worse than what you already expect."

"True," he conceded after a moment.

"Then, donít make our struggle harder than it will already be. Help me. If we fail we will die with honor, but you will know you did your best. Give me a chance to prove you wrong. Let me help you defeat this enemy. To die well, facing an enemy is very honorable, but to defeat that enemy is an even greater honor. Help me defeat them."

He stood studying her for so long she thought she had lost, but then he turned and looked at the other two dissenters, giving them an almost imperceptible nod. They both nodded solemnly back. He turned back to her and bowed. "Very well commander, what are your orders?"

*

Gabrielle stood on the hill, Xena beside her, with twenty runners waiting for her orders, behind the hill. Only her aide stood on the hill with her. Already two small skirmishes were in progress, just to get the enemyís attention and turn it in the proper direction.

"What are we missing, Xena?" Gabrielle asked softly.

"I think youíve got it covered, Gabrielle. All we can do now is watch it play out."

"Iíd rather be down there than up here, Xena. Down there, youíre responsible for your troops and yourself. Up here youíre responsible for everything and everyone, but it seems so impersonal, so distant."

"So would I, Gabrielle, but someone has to take charge and be responsible. This time youíre it."

"Iíll be glad when it gets going. The waiting drives me crazy. I never was very good at waiting."

Xena smiled. True, but youíve gotten better."

"I still donít like it."

An arrow arced towards them but fell well short.

"Someone wants you to know they are watching, Gabrielle."

"Yeah, well theyíll have to get closer to get my attention."

She watched nervously as her army prepared to attack. Setting up the new strategy had been done in the middle of the night, her warriors moving to their new positions quietly and in small groups so as not to alert the enemy. They may have noticed some movements but they would have been small. Now everything was ready.

In the distance, she could see the opposing commanders watching from their vantagepoint and was sure they wondered what she was doing standing here.

"Itís time, Gabrielle," Xena said softly.

"Yeah, I know," Gabrielle replied. "Give the signal Junji."

"Yes, commander!" he answered then raised a red and white banner and waved it.

All along the front her warriors surged to the ready while her archers sent several waves of arrows into the enemy positions. The warriors to her right attacked the line in heavy force while the archers kept up the onslaught at any target of opportunity. The force she had gathered there overwhelmed the enemy line and pushed them back. She watched the opposing commanders send runners to realign their troops to counter the onslaught and breathed a sigh of relief. The enemy had fallen into their trap. She had feared they would figure out the ruse and attack her weakened lines instead but they hadnít. After several days of pushing her forces back with no real direction to her troop movements, the other side had become overconfident, as Xena had predicted they would. They waited while the enemy moved into position to crush her breakthrough forces, then she sent the signal for them to regroup and they pulled back, holding the stronger force. Her archers, unused to her tactics, were just becoming confident with her demand that they not fire in unison but actually pick out targets and fire on their own. They were much more effective now, in this situation, and were beginning to realize it. Her right flank consolidated and held the stronger force while the archers harassed them at every opportunity. They were being held, unable to move forward against her forces. Now if her forces could just hang on long enough.

Suddenly her left flank erupted and in short order had pushed through the enemy. She watched her special team, commanded by Commander Narita, the young man that had shown initiative before, move through the gap into the cover beyond. The enemy quickly moved to contain her breakout but met stiff opposition and more archers. Now all they had to do was wait and hope their team made it through.

Gabrielle watched the whole thing intently. She was surprised. Her commanders, given explicit direction were very competent. They were doing well, adapting to changes in the forces against them, compensating for new problems. She had to send several runners but not as many as she had feared she would need.

"Talk to me, Xena," she said and Xena noticed her nervousness was gone now that the battle had begun.

"Youíre doing fine, Gabrielle. Youíve got everything covered right now."

"Good. Talk to me anyway. I need to know Iím not missing anything. I donít want to lose a single life I donít have to."

"Okay, but talk back to me. I could miss something too, you know."

"Oh, yeah, right," Gabrielle scoffed. "Just make sure I donít miss anything."

The battle droned on, Gabrielle making comments to the air and listening to Xenaís comments. Junji listened to Gabrielleís comments but did not act unless she expressly addressed him. He was continually amazed. She seemed to see everything, even the minutest details.

Outwardly, she seemed calm but he could see the tension in her body. She was strung tight, ready to react to anything. She immediately spotted the attack of her special force on the archers. She seemed to relax slightly after they had defeated the enemy and moved on. A short time later the five commanders on the far ridge died in a rain of arrows and the force with them was destroyed. Per her instructions, the dead enemy commanders were tied to their horses and the horses sent off towards their own lines. A short time later pandemonium broke out and the enemy lines dissolved. Gabrielle watched as her army surged after the enemy and destroyed them. Junji was surprised to see pain and tears, for the enemy, in her eyes, and hear it in her voice.

"Letís go back to the tent, Xena. I canít watch this."

"It could have been your army, Gabrielle. You commanded it, you should watch it and support your troops."

"Youíre right, of course," she answered softly, stiffening her back, her face losing any emotion. She stood stiff and alone, watching the slaughter of the enemy. Junji wished he could comfort her somehow, but there were no words. He was sure his admiration of her battle tactics would not help her. Xena too, wished she could comfort her, but was afraid to touch her or say anything to her, so she stood helpless beside her, watching the battle play out, knowing how painful it must be for her soulmate.

*

A hectic week followed as they chased the enemy to the sea. Gabrielle was kept constantly busy insuring that her army didn't do something foolish in their exuberance. She had won over her commanders completely, especially it seemed, the three that had doubted her most.

Gabrielle sat on her horse watching the last of the ships of Chin slide beneath the waves. Only two had escaped, the rest sent to the bottom in flames.

"Such a waste, Xena. All those lives wasted on war, all the time, energy and materials. Just think what could have been done for people with all that."

"I know, Gabrielle. Someday people like you will make that happen, but not today. Come on now, you've been here for hours. The camp is ready. Let your commanders finish. You need rest. You've hardly slept in days."

"All right. I just had to see it through to the end. As someone reminded me, I commanded it, I should be there for my troops."

"It's over now. You need rest."

Gabrielle turned her horse towards the tents behind her and let her have her head, setting her own pace.

"I could sleep for a week, Xena," Gabrielle said, her voice sounding more tired than Xena could ever remember. "I'm so tired of battles."

"Your tent is ready, Gabrielle."

"I see that, but I should stop and see Tanaga."

"Tanaga is fine. You need sleep."

"And a bath."

"You need sleep more. The bath can wait."

"I guess you're right."

Gabrielle dropped from her horse in front of the command tent, now exclusively hers, though she had spent very little time there. Tanaga was in a smaller tent a short distance away. As she stepped from the saddle a guard took her horse's reins and led her away. The second guard held the tent flap for her, then closed it behind her.

Inside, the tent was lit by several candles. A meal already waited for her on the table. She stopped and drank down most of the spicy drink but ignored the meal. She went to the pallet and sat down, unhooking the chakram and her katana from her belt, then lay back on the pallet.

"You'll be more comfortable if you get out of those clothes, Gabrielle."

"TooÖ tiredÖ." she sighed and was asleep.

Xena sat on the edge of the pallet and watched her sleep.

*

She walked through the early morning fog, death all around her. Everywhere she looked, the butchered bodies of warriors covered the ground, lying in a sea of red. She knew what she had to do; there was no longer any doubt. She had to kill the Destroyer of Nations, before she destroyed the known world. She moved through the gloomy fog toward the sounds of battle and suddenly she was there in front of her. Her katana slid from its scabbard and she advanced on her, so far undetected. The woman was a machine, cutting down mighty warriors as if they were unarmed statues, her katana and arm covered in gore, her body covered in blood. She stepped closer and drew back her katana. The Destroyer turned as she struck. Her blade sliced through the fair neck and she watched the head of the green eyed blond fall. Her own head. She was the Destroyer.

*

"Gabrielle! It's okay, Gabrielle! You were dreaming!" Xena cried as she held the screaming woman, trying to calm her. "Come on, easy, it's okay."

Her guards rushed in, their swords drawn, looking for enemies.

Seeing her frightened guards, Gabrielle managed to get herself somewhat under control, though she still shook. She assured them it had only been a bad dream and that she was all right. They were reluctant to leave, concerned for her safety. Just as they were leaving, Junji appeared. Satisfied that she was now in good hands, the guards returned to their posts.

Junji was obviously concerned for her. "What can I do for you, commander?" he asked.

Gabrielle straightened up and pushed her hair back, her hands still shaking. "I, umÖ I could use something to eat, then a bath would be nice," she said, her voice tightly controlled.

"Right away, commander," he acknowledged, bowing to her and hurrying from the tent.

"Gabrielle, the sun won't be up for at least an hour. You should try to get back to sleep," Xena said, coming up behind her.

Gabrielle turned to her and wrapped her arms around the warrior, laying her head on her chest. Xena could feel her trembling. She placed her hand on the back of her head.

"It's all right, Gabrielle. It was only a dream."

Gabrielle clutched her tighter. "I know," she whispered but continued to cling to her desperately.

"Do you remember it?"

"Yes," she answered in a faint voice and shivered.

She was silent and Xena thought she would say no more, but finally she said, "I was in the middle of a battle, mutilated bodies everywhere, the ground covered in blood." Again, she was silent. "I caught up with her andÖ I killed her."

Xena felt a deep sense of dread. "Who did you kill, Gabrielle?"

"TheÖ the Destroyer ofÖ Nations," she sobbed and Xena felt a deep chill of fear.

"GabrielleÖ I promise, she is dead," she said softly.

Gabrielle looked up, tears staining her face. "You don't understand, Xena. The Destroyer of Nations wasn't you. It was me; I was the Destroyer, Xena." She buried her head against Xena's neck, sobbing.

"Oh, Gabrielle, no. That could never happen to you," she whispered against the golden head.

Gabrielle stepped back away from her and looked up, her face had hardened, and her voice was cold. "Really? How can you be so sure? You have no idea what it cost in lives for me to get back here. I'm the leader of an army that just destroyed a larger force, just annihilated them. Less than two hundred escaped my wrath. How can you be so sure, Xena?"

"Because I know you, Gabrielle. You could never become that evil person."

Gabrielle laughed, but it was a bitter sound, there was no humor in it. Xena shivered. "You're wrong, Xena. You don't know me nearly as well as you think you do. The woman you knew died in Higuchi. In her place is a woman who was deceived by her soulmate, lied to, left behind. A woman who has crossed Chin and Mongol alone against thieves, warlords, brigands and even sheepherders that wanted to kill her or sell her or use her. A woman who was dead inside, crushed by her soulmate! A woman that sought only escape and found only death. A woman who's sword ran red more times than she can count. A woman who returned to kill her soulmate and who now leads an army killing hundreds of people. No, Xena, you're wrong. You really don't know me at all." She turned and left the tent leaving Xena standing, stunned.

*

When Gabrielle returned she ignored Xena, her face stony. She took a quick bath, ate a little of her meal while she dressed then was gone, leaving Xena alone and miserable. Some time after noon a group of men came to move the commander's tent. Xena left and wandered to a nearby hill looking for Gabrielle. She found her out in the field with the men, talking to her commanders. Preparations were being made to move northward but she could also see a coast watch garrison under construction. Gabrielle was taking no chances that Chin would land again after they left.

She watched her soulmate the entire afternoon as she worked with her men and it was obvious that her army had taken this unusual woman to their hearts. They treated her almost as if she was a god and in a way Xena could understand it. Their beliefs would allow them to believe in a miraculous being in the shape of a woman much easier than they could believe that a real woman had done what Gabrielle had done. They avoided having to deal with the truth by elevating her to a higher power.

Xena could see that Gabrielle was right. She didn't know this woman anymore. The changes were apparent even from high on a hill. The woman she watched was much more reserved, more aware, more decisive. The exuberance of the Gabrielle she had known was gone. Throughout the afternoon, she saw several reserved smiles but nothing more of the bubbly spirit of her soulmate. A chill ran down her back. She could see much more of herself in her soulmate.

After all the tents had been taken down, a small contingent had gone north, Tanaga among them. The main force was busy with the coast watch garrison and preparations for their own move in the morning.

The day wore on and darkness fell. Gabrielle did not return. Xena spent a miserable night alone in the black nothingness, unable to sleep. With the rising of the sun, Xena was again released, to find the army already on the move and no sign of Gabrielle. She hurried after them.

*

Gabrielle rode north along the eastern coast, in advance of her marching army. Twenty riders were with her. They checked every bay and marked several observation points for garrisons. Until they knew the intentions of the great nation to their west, they could take no chances. The coast would have to be watched. She already had another contingent checking the western coastline, but here is where Chin had chosen to attack so they would secure it first.

It was mid afternoon when two things occurred at nearly the same time. First, she topped a rise above a sheltered cove. Six ships of Chin lay at anchor with warriors forming on the beach. She dispatched a rider to lead her troops here then waited, watching their deployment, looking for gaps in their defenses. They were not ready yet. Her army needed to be here, now. Second, while she studied the enemy below a rider approached from the west. When he got close, she could see that he was wounded and she moved rapidly to meet him.

He reined his steed in next to her, leaning heavily in the saddle.

"We were attacked, commander."

"Who was with you?" she asked as she stepped down from her horse. "Step down warrior. You are wounded."

"I was with the advanced scouts. We escaped and returned to warn the others. I came to warn you."

She helped him down from his horse while her guard spread out to protect them. His wound was bad but if she tended it, he had a good chance. As he talked she tended his wound, removing the arrow and tying it up with a piece of cloth handed to her by one of her guards.

"Who attacked you, warriors of Chin?"

"No, commander, warriors of Japa; warriors from the north.

"There must be a mistake," Gabrielle said in shock.

"No, commander, they were definitely from the north."

Gabrielle finished tying the bandage and turned to one of her guards. "Escort this warrior to the main camp. See that his wounds are tended immediately."

"Yes, commander!" the guard said.

Gabrielle vaulted into the saddle and turned to her guard. "Narita, you and three men stay here to guide our warriors when they arrive. Drive the enemy back into the sea.

"Yes, commander!"

"I'm going to see what is happening in the north. The rest of you come with me." She wheeled her horse and galloped off with her escort trailing behind.

She heard the battle before she saw it. Her warriors had taken a stand to slow the advancing army and let her camp caravan retreat. She came up over the hill and into the valley at a full gallop, her escort following her. She threw the chakram at a line of enemy archers then plowed into the advanced line of the enemy, her katana swinging furiously to her battle cry. She literally drove a wedge between the enemy and her forces, giving them time to regroup and present a better front. She was wounded once, then again, but she didnít slow, catching the chakram and sending it at another group of archers. Several arrows struck her horse and two struck her leg. She continued to fight even as her horse fell from under her and she leaped over its head, her katana clearing her a path. Her warriors were galvanized by her amazing performance and surged into the enemy, overwhelming them, driving them back, away from their wounded leader, but she went with them, screaming her war cry. The enemy broke as she rampaged towards them katana and chakram destroying all around her. Suddenly there was no one in front of her, they were fleeing ahead of her, ahead of her army. She stopped, exhausted a wave of intense fatigue washing over her as her body slowed. She staggered almost going to her knees then turned to see Xena a short distance away, a look of horror on her tear stained face. Gabrielle staggered towards her and stopped just in front of her.

"Now you have seen for yourself what this hell of a year has done." Her eyes rolled back and she collapsed into Xena's arms.

Xena caught her and lifted her into her arms ignoring the cries of fear around her. She turned and walked towards the emergency camp only a short distance away. Junji caught up to her and walked beside her while everyone else shrank away. He told them their commander had a special spirit watching over her. Xena ignored him and carried Gabrielle to the pallet that was made ready for her and laid her gently down. Junji immediately took over, working with two women trained by Gabrielle. He removed the arrows and the women bandaged her wounds. Her worst wound was a gash in her side from a sword. In all he counted nine wounds, yet she had fought on as if untouched.

Xena stood helplessly by, oblivious to the warriors passing up to the front or the flying stories of her soulmateís prowess and her eerie transportation by an invisible spirit. When they left her, Xena sat beside her, watching her, her face still tear stained. She was afraid for her. Afraid Gabrielle's wounds would overcome her. She held her soft unresponsive hand against her face as her tears continued to fall. Gabrielle needed her and she wasn't there, couldn't be there, not the way she was needed, and Gabrielle still refused to accept her the way she was. All the pain of her punishments seemed insignificant to the pain she was feeling now. Once again she was failing her soulmate and Gabrielle needed her more than ever. Today she had seen the Destroyer with her own eyes. Gabrielle had the potential, the ability and the army. Xena hoped with all her being that Gabrielle was strong enough to meet the challenge. If she wasn't, Gabrielle could fall into the same traps that she had, so long ago. The possibility was there, although Xena didn't believe it would befall Gabrielle. She feared the wounds much more than she feared that Gabrielle would lose that battle.

*

Gabrielleís eyes opened and the first thing she saw was Xena. She was seated beside her, holding her hand and watching her. It was dark and only a single candle was lit in her tent.

"Hi," she croaked, her throat dry.

Xena smiled slightly and her eyes watered up. "Hi yourself. You had me worried."

When she heard Gabrielle speak, Ikuyo, Tanagaís oldest daughter appeared with some water and helped her drink. When Gabrielle finished she said, "I will tell my father and Junji that you are awake."

Gabrielle grabbed her hand to stop her. "Ikuyo, give me a few moments before you call anyone, please."

She bowed slightly. "Not too long or my father will be upset."

"Thank you," Gabrielle said softly, giving her a wane smile. She turned back to Xena, waiting until Ikuyo left. "What of the battle?"

"You chased them away and your army nearly destroyed them. Tanaga met with the warlord and allowed him to leave peacefully. He left in shame. They had come to take advantage and seize the lands. I suspect he had a date with his ancestors for shaming his family."

"What of Chin?" she asked quietly.

"Your army pushed them back to the sea. There has been no further sign of them. Itís been two days since you fell."

Gabrielle studied her for a moment and Xena didnít like what she was seeing. Her eyes were dull and lifeless, her expression unreadable. "Itís over, Gabrielle. You won. Tanaga has taken back his command until they are satisfied with their garrisons, then he can go home.

"He doesnít have a home, Xena. Miyatsu is in ruins," she said, her voice lifeless.

"Then he will rebuild, Gabrielle. Besides Miyatsu isnít his home, just his business. The point is, you can stop worrying and let them take care of their own affairs," Xena replied softly.

"Good," she responded then was silent a moment. "Where are my weapons?"

"In the corner over there, why?" Xena asked, puzzled.

"I have to end it, Xena," she said starting to sit up.

"End what, Gabrielle?"

"I have to kill the Destroyer, before itís too late," she said as she struggled to a sitting position."

"What?" Xena fairly screamed, "No, Gabrielle!"

"I have to, Xena. There isnít any choice." She tried to rise but was having difficulty in her weakened condition.

"Gabrielle, no! You donít have to do this!" she cried, tears already marring her face.

Gabrielle looked up at her. "I do, Xena. I wonít let myself become that woman."

"Youíre not, Gabrielle!"

"I saw it in your eyes and on your face, Xena. The horror I felt in my heart. I have to stop it before itís too late."

Xena was suddenly kneeling in front of her, her hands on Gabrielleís shoulders. "Oh, Gabrielle, no! What you saw was my horror, my fear at your wounds. I thought you were fatally wounded."

"But the DestroyerÖ."

Xena placed her shaking hand gently on Gabrielleís cheek. "No, Gabrielle. You arenít the Destroyer."

"But I could be, Xena. I felt the rage, the hate."

"Gabrielle, everyone has that demon in them. Everyone has the potential in them to become the Destroyer, but you arenít her. Iím proud of what you did. You stopped the new army cold and drove them away in fear. You protected your own, Gabrielle, nothing more."

Gabrielle searched her eyes, wanting desperately to believe her. She raised her hand to Xenaís tear stained cheek. "Iím so afraid of becoming her, Xena."

"You arenít, Gabrielle. Trust your soulmate, I should know. I was her for a time." She pulled Gabrielle into a gentle embrace.

"I couldn't bare it if I became that monster, Xena," she said, holding tight to the warrior.

"I understand, Gabrielle, I know that fear well. Trust me, you arenít even close. You just did what you had to do to stop them." She squeezed her in a tight embrace for a moment then released her. "Come on now. Tanaga will be here and heíll chew my ears off if he sees you up."

Gabrielle smiled and lay back on the pallet. "And you look so scared, too."

"I am, I really am," Xena answered.

"Xena?" Gabrielle asked, looking up at her.

"What?" she asked in return, leaning down to her.

"Promise me if I ever start to become that monster you will stop me."

The pleading in her eyes almost broke Xenaís heart. "I promise, Gabrielle, but you wonít. You're much too good a person, deep inside to ever fall that far."

"Just remember your promise, just in case," she said.

"I will. You have my promise. Weíll watch out for each other."

"Thank you."

 

Continued in Lost Soul 8 - Immortal Fear

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