The warrior was long limbed and blue eyed and arrogant. She wore no armour and her hair was provocatively long, flaunting her contempt for any possible opponent. She hadn't bothered to draw her sword, despite the fact that she was facing four of Mitos' bodyguard. Instead she leaned her elbows on the counter behind her and looked through them to where Mitos himself stood, massive and threatening. After a moment, an eyebrow lifted and her mouth sneered.
Sitting to one side, in shadows as usual, Mitos' lieutenant's own mouth thinned in a tight smile of recognition. He set down the cup in his hands and leaned forwards, fixing his gaze on the scene before him. Just looking at her made the hairs lift on his arms. He always knew when a moment of destiny was upon him. This was one. Perhaps the greatest of all. He was aware of his attention narrowing, of the edges of the room darkening, of time slowing down. Anticipation prickled along his fingers and at the back of his neck. Relief flickered deep within him as well. There might a point to this after all. He had had to suppress shame when he became a raider chief's lieutenant; ageing mercenaries took what work they could find. But perhaps the chance for honour had not deserted him, after all. He drew a breath, and held it.
"I see the rumour was right." During the lengthy pause, the men had grown more tense and the woman, if anything, even more relaxed. Her voice was deep and rich and held a hint of lazy amusement.
Mitos cocked his head. He knew the power of silence as well.
"You could do with some quality help. With more than mere muscle." She lifted an eyebrow, evidently having decided it was time to move the game on to a more rewarding stage. In the shadows, the lieutenant smiled a little, watching as a flicker of chagrin crossed Mitos' face: the warlord always disliked being made to feel that he had lost the initiative.
From his vantage point, the lieutenant saw one of the raiders, Etias, never the quickest witted, tauten, saw his hand tighten on his sword. He shook his head. Fool, and about to pay the price for it, he guessed. Even so, even though he had anticipated something very like this, he was surprised by the savage swiftness of the woman's response. She still hadn't drawn her sword, but the breast dagger which sliced open Etias' neck and sprayed all those around with blood was obviously razor sharp. Her movement had been so quick that it was over before anyone realized quite what she was doing.
She's so good, the lieutenant thought admiringly, in the silence that followed. His concentration intensified, and for a second he felt he was standing outside himself, and above. Below him, Etias' huddled form, still leaking a little blood onto the sawdust of the floor. A circle of faces, spotted with red. One man, younger than most, lifting his hand to the warm touch of wetness on his face, his eyes disbelieving. Mitos, massive and brooding, his face carefully blank. The woman leaning against the counter of the bar once more, as relaxed as before.
In the hearth, a log caught and flared, spitting sparks into the room and sending shadows flapping over the forms briefly frozen in their shock. Outside, a gust of wind howled round the eaves of the stone-built Keep. The lieutenant imagined he could smell the surrounding forest on it, damp and dark and rotting, and then something more made itself known to his senses. Something alert and aware and turning its attention towards all of them now.
Then he shook himself, and flicked a glance to Mitos. Who was watching for it, and inclined his head a fraction in his direction. The lieutenant stood up, aware of his advantage in height, taking his time so that the woman would have the opportunity to notice as well. He moved slowly, letting her assume him to be as ungainly as his weight and breadth suggested, shifting until he stood in the open, a clear space between them. "He has more than mere muscle," he said, softly, smiling. She lifted her gaze coolly, apparently unimpressed. "He has me." He drew his sword, still taking his time, approving of her nonchalance and refusal to take her eyes from his. Very blue eyes, he thought, like a summer sky.
"Not for much longer." She was smiling now too, one hand moving to grasp the sword hilt which jutted over her shoulder. His peripheral vision caught the smooth slide of her muscles as she unsheathed it.
Soon now, the lieutenant told himself, that extra sense which had carried him safe through so many raids and battles aching and raw to the occasion. As happened in such moments of destiny it flowered, took in hints of sounds and scents and movement. It created in his mind an image of the whole event, inside the Keep and out of it, freeing him of the particular instant of time and making him aware of the currents which flowed through it. The circle of watching men, the Keep, the clearing around it, the forest around that: all became distinct to him, and more. The darkness in the forest had weight and texture, he realised, had purpose and was taking an interest as well. What is this? he asked himself, fighting the distraction. Something which lurked in the forest and was drawn to the blood which they shed.
Aloud he said, "What's your name? I like to know that when I kill someone." But he thought he knew, and was not really listening as he readied himself.
Just before she answered, before she moved, when he should have been most focused in mind and body, something else claimed his attention once more. The thing from the forest was very close now, was just outside the Keep, avid and lusting. He was sure. And perhaps the certainty he felt that this was the case slowed him down. Or perhaps it was his surprise when she said, "Cottys." But perhaps she was really that fast. The lieutenant had no time to feel much as her blade flashed towards him, as inevitable as night. So beautiful, he thought, aware he was seeing a wonder of the warrior's art, fleetingly awed at the sight. A sight to die for. It was as though he was part of a predestined pattern aching with loveliness: his neck seemed to bend to complete it. He marvelled at the glittering arc of the sword's descent, and then he passed through it and into the dark.
Gabrielle slitted her eyes and tried to see through the fog. She rubbed both hands over her face, her fingers slipping a little on the moisture gathered there. It was exhausting, having to peer ahead through the dingy gloom to try to make out trees or other obstacles before they thwacked into her, and at the same time attempt to watch her footing. The earth was soaked and spongy, her boots skidding continually in the mud, saturated clumps of moss betraying her or roots tripping her. She drew a deep breath and clasped both numbed hands together. It was so cold. The streams she met ran darkly and slowly under thin sheets of cloudy ice and puddles crackled when she stumbled through them. And then there was the doubt. Was this really the track, or just a deer run, or the trail of some other animal? She couldn't be sure. This region was nearly deserted; there would be no other traveller on this route.
Steady, she told herself. Steady. Keep a clear head. Concentrate on moving. One foot after the other. She could hear Xena's voice, in her head, offering the advice in her familiar cool tones. Her eyes teared and her breath caught. "Not now. Keep moving," she said out loud, just to hear the sound of a human voice. She had been walking for a day and a half, and after a nearly sleepless night at a half ruined hut she was all but exhausted. Making a camp and waiting to be found would certainly have been better advice, but she didn't have that choice, any more than she could have stayed at the Inn, although Xena had told her to. She settled back into her steady, dogged trudge, and let her thoughts drift back to that last conversation with her partner.
"You're not going without me!" Gabrielle had tried to sit up, but either her brain or the world seemed to have turned into jelly; the inn's cramped room was swimming around her head.
"Lie back." Xena's hands were cool on her forehead. "You were very ill." She went to the table and picked up the beaker which stood there. Slightly scented steam swirled above it. "Here. It's ready." She had watched while the bard sniffed suspiciously at the brew.
"Is this going to send me to sleep?" She frowned at her partner, who looked unsettlingly distant in the rough jerkin and breeches of her disguise. "I'll be okay. You'll be there - what can go wrong?"
Xena had sighed. "The fever hasn't gone yet." She let her hand rest on Gabrielle's cheek a moment and looked at her steadily. "Give yourself a chance." The bard set her mouth stubbornly and stared back. Xena leaned closer. "You won't make it. I'll have to bring you back and that will lose valuable time. More people will die."
Gabrielle flinched, but kept her eyes on Xena's face as she lifted the beaker and took first one sip, then another, buying herself time as she tried to think of an alternative. When she realised there was none, she had to blink back tears, but she did not look away. Finally, she nodded. She couldn't bring herself to say the words.
Xena smiled at her. "Then we'll do what I said. When you're better, move on to Kalpos. I'll meet you there." She had shown it to Gabrielle on the map, the evening before; a fishing village two days' walk to the south of the inn and the forest. "You'll like it. They tell a weird story there - about people sometimes finding their wife or husband in the sea."
Gabrielle had rolled her eyes, and Xena gave a half-abashed grin. Still, "You know I'm right," she persisted.
Gabrielle lowered the beaker, which by now was half empty. She had to clear her throat before she could get any words out. "How long?" she managed.
Xena had shrugged. "As long as it takes." Then her face had softened a little. "Not long, I promise."
"Six days, Xena," Gabrielle grumbled as she plodded on. "Six days is long. Believe me." She paused. The track, such as it was, had divided in front of her. "Oh, Hades," she muttered, and recalled Xena's map with an effort. It wasn't much help; the best thing she could do, she decided, was keep walking north and east, towards the part of the forest Xena had been headed for. She checked the position of the sun, visible only as patch of slightly greater brightness in the sky. "So if the sun is there," she recited to herself, "east is there. I think." And north by east was there. One fork of the path, she was relieved to see, led off in that direction. Into darker and deeper forest. She hadn't liked the look of it on the map either, where it was just a darkly shaded mass. Forbidding, was that the word which suggested itself? She needed something stronger, more threatening. Malevolent? She shook herself briskly. "Okay, that's enough frightening yourself to death. Let's get moving, bard." She said this particularly loudly, aware she was trying to cheer herself up. And after all, it was better than being cooped up in that stuffy little room, worrying about the dreams.
Remembering these, Gabrielle frowned and unconsciously picked up her pace. She felt there wasn't much time, that she would arrive too late to do any good, a sense she had been unable to shake off. The dreams had started just after Xena left, and kept coming back. They were merely filled with vague dreads at the beginning, but got clearer each time they returned. The vision which slowly crystallised kept predicting one particular catastrophe: a room filled with shadows like snakes which whipped around and hissed and tied themselves into an ever-tightening knot around the warrior. A second Xena standing above the writhing ball that contained her first self, wielding a knife which flashed as she slashed it down to slice through the knot. Xena lying dead in streams of blood that scrawled over the ground like black ribbons, the blade in her heart. "No," the bard whispered fiercely to herself. "It's not going to be like that. Not if I can help it."
The cry which caught her attention shortly afterwards was faint and reedy. If the forest had not been silent, she would not have heard it at all. It seemed to be coming from in front and to the left of her. "Hi there!" she called, after a moment's thought, deciding she must take the risk. "Where are you?" The heavy, damp air seemed to soak up the sound. There was no response for a time, though she held her breath and listened as hard as she could. Then, as she was about to try casting about in the hope she'd stumble on whatever it was by chance, she heard it again. A wail really; no words, just crying. And just a few paces away.
Gabrielle pulled back a branch. The dead leaves on it were spotted with mould. They quivered damply and a few drifted off. Behind, a very young child huddled, wrapped round itself so that all she could really see was the top of a bony back emerging, blue and shivering, from a rough woollen tunic. She threw aside her pack and kneeled, shaking back her hair impatiently, then gently touched the little lump, setting her hands gingerly on its shoulders.
"Hey." She kept her voice as soft as she could make it. "Hey. Don't cry. I'll take you home." When that brought no response, she worked her hands down the child's arms and finally found her fingers. "You're so cold," she gasped, and pulled the child close, loosing one hand to reach for the clasp of her cloak and shrug it off so that she could drape it round the figure before her. She rubbed at it vigorously, peering down, trying to get a glimpse of the face, but the child stayed curled and resistant. Finally, Gabrielle stood up, balancing precariously, juggling her pack and the child. For the first time, she was glad she had left her staff and her scrolls together with Xena's armour, back at the Inn. "Okay, let's look for your Mummy and Daddy," she said, bracing the child against her shoulder with one arm and increasingly alarmed at its stiffness and silence. She made her way back to the track, and continued along it.
The homestead was a blackened ruin, though she guessed it must have blazed brightly when it was first fired. More than a day ago, probably. The last embers were cold. It had not been very far down the track; she would have smelled it if there had been any movement of air at all. "Gods," she breathed, glad for the first time that the child still had not stirred, still lay with its head pressed into her shoulder. It had been that way all the time she had carried it. Cupping the child's head with one hand, Gabrielle looked around and spotted a ramshackle structure which had kept most of its roof. It turned out to be the byre. Once inside she made a fire and settled the child in front of it on her sleeping skin before steeling herself to face what lay outside. There was a lot to do before sunset.
Much later, a movement from the form huddled in her lap woke Gabrielle from the doze into which she had lapsed. The child, a girl of perhaps two or three, she now knew, was looking up at her, her brown eyes red rimmed and cloudy. "Okay," she said, "Hello. Let me get you something more to drink." She'd cleaned the girl thoroughly when she had briefly woken, earlier, and had since kept water warming over the fire. Now she made tea for the girl, who grabbed at the cup, then clutched it between fingers which were still white with cold. As she sipped, Gabrielle stirred water into meal and wished she had something to sweeten the mess. But it was the best she could do, and the girl swallowed several spoonfuls before falling asleep.
She was, Gabrielle admitted as she wiped cornmeal off pallid cheeks and chin, not a prepossessing child. Her mother had been quite tall, with hair the colour of wheat, but her daughter's looks came from the other side of the family. Her hair was as rusty red and her skin as freckled as her father's had been, and two of her brothers. Gabrielle swallowed down tears. She'd seen the wounds on the bodies as she buried them and had all too clear an idea of what had happened. About ten men, she thought, judging by the tracks, well armed and mounted on shod horses. They'd taken their time killing the homesteaders, amusing themselves first. Then they had systematically plundered the place, butchering the livestock and rooting out whatever stores they could find. Not that there could have been much; the family was barely producing enough to keep itself alive. What they hadn't taken, the raiders had broken or burned. These must have been the ones, she thought. The ones Xena is after.
The realisation frightened her. Was Xena all right? These raiders hadn't behaved as outlaws normally did. Yes, they might kill, but out of panic. And they took everything they could carry, then left as quickly as they could. These had been in no hurry, killing for the fun of it, picking out only what they wanted, and going out of their way to spoil everything else. What she had seen as she dragged the girl's family to their grave had not merely turned her stomach and distressed her, it had frightened her too. There was something inhuman about it. Tears started to her eyes again, and this time leaked out. She wiped them away impatiently with her fingers, and flinched at the unexpected stinging she felt. Examining the inside of her hands she counted blisters ruefully. Not even life on the road with Xena had prepared her palms for the effects of digging that grave.
By morning, it was clear the child was getting worse. Her breathing sounded laboured and she was barely conscious. Gabrielle, who had managed a few hours' restless sleep, coaxed more tea into her, and then felt for her pulse. It was very fast, and her skin was hot and clammy. The bard bit her lip, and stared into her own beaker of tea, watching the dark leaves drift through the pale green fluid. A restorative: what she had been drinking since her own illness. She smiled, just a little, thinking of Xena, who could never say what she felt, but who somehow found other ways to express it.
Gabrielle looked out through the byre door. The mist was there, again, turning the opening into a dull grey oblong, blank and featureless. Rather like the forest, according to Xena's map. No road ran through it, though major routes had to divert in order to avoid doing so. There were several villages in the outskirts of the forest, but the nearest was the settlement she had left, and that was two days away. Too far for the child. The outlaws, however, lived much closer, if Xena's guess were right. A good deal less than a day away. And Xena would be there, with her medical knowledge.
Xena will be so mad. Gabrielle's face puckered in a wry grin. Just when she thinks she has things all under control, I turn up with a snotty nosed child. She sighed. This expedition was ill advised anyway, she admitted. Hanging about in hiding outside the outlaws' camp on the off-chance she would be in the right place at the right time to save Xena's life was not the most inspired of her plans. And now she would have to abandon its only sensible element and walk right into the outlaws' midst. Though perhaps it would be all right. Perhaps Xena had already got herself into a position to challenge the leader and take over the gang.
Well, she couldn't wait. The child was visibly failing. Stiffly, Gabrielle got up, then arranged the harness of old blankets she had fashioned the previous night so that she could carry the girl on her back. The blisters on her hands stung as she grasped the strapping, and her muscles protested as she started out. There was no point in thinking about that, though. Gritting her teeth, Gabrielle walked to the edge of the cleared land and then followed the outlaws' trail deeper into the forest.
The commotion roused Mitos' new lieutenant. At some point during the morning she had started cleaning her sword, and she was still obsessively drawing the whetstone along the blade. She stopped abruptly, taking a deep breath, trying to reorient herself. She had not slept well since she came to this part of the forest, nor been at her ease during the day either. She was far too aware of the shadows outside, and the sense that something was lurking within them, something which was watching her, sizing her up, wanting her for its own. It seemed to invade her dreams as well; shattered images from the most recent lingered behind her eyes. An army spread out like a solid silver flood under the sun. A standard, which she was sure was hers, carried by a man in black armour who bowed low over a heavily muscled charger, galloping to her left. A throne before which a dark figure stood with a crown in its hands, offering to her. A gentle face with sea-green eyes, turning towards her, smiling.
She took a deep breath, her head clearing, her own mouth quirking just a little in response. Peripherally, her eyes registered the different angle of the light through the window and her mind supplied, It's after noon. Her skin prickled as she realised how long she had been up here in her room, barely conscious. Then her attention focused on the sounds from below and she was up and seizing her sword in that instant, then at the door and opening it silently, senses raw and alert. She could not make out the words, but that voice was all too familiar. Briefly the stillness of her face wavered, before its expression smoothed into one of intense concentration as she stopped at the head of the stairs and looked down into the hall of the Keep.
A small woman was standing at its centre, dwarfed by a guard who had one huge hand wrapped round one of her upper arms. He must have brought her in. She looked far too pale and gaunt, the warrior thought worriedly. If that brute didn't let her go soon, he'd be minus a hand. What was she doing there? Why could she never do what she was told? And what was in her arms? Then the bundle moved a little and became distinguishable, just, as a child wrapped in a worn, fern-green cloak. The small woman's cloak. Wispy strands of red hair spilled over its edge, but she could make out very little else of the child.
The woman was quiet now, ignoring the raiders crowding around her, her eyes fixed on someone sitting directly beneath the warrior. Mitos, of course, who would be in the massively carved chair he had claimed for himself and placed on a dais to one side of the hall. She took a step towards him and said, "Please, sir, my daughter is very sick." The warrior above stiffened a little, despite herself. "We've been walking all day," the small woman went on, "looking for a healer. Do you have one?"
The warrior could detect the note of fear underlying the woman's voice, but she doubted anyone else could. They would be hearing a desperate mother who had no suspicions that she had wandered into a den of thieves and worse. She wanted to catch her eye, to reassure the small woman that she was near, but restrained herself. She couldn't be sure what the woman might do.
"That depends." Mitos' voice boomed out from beneath her. He must have leaned forward, because now she could just see the top of his unkempt head, though nothing else. Plenty of hair, she thought sourly. Pity he never saw fit to wash it. She tensed as her imagination painted his face flushed and his eyes greedy for the young woman facing him, and the warrior's hands clenched themselves into fists.
"On what, sir?" The small woman was doing a good job of keeping her voice guileless and innocent. "I have a few dinars."
"They might not be enough." He was toying with her. The warrior saw the woman's eyes snap with temper, then saw her suppress it.
"I can earn more, sir. I'm a bard," she said. Good, the warrior thought. Good. Keep calm. Meet his eyes.
Mitos laughed. "I live my own stories. No, I have another kind of entertainment in mind." His lieutenant snarled silently, then heard wood creak as he got up and walked forwards until he towered above the bard. After failing to stare her down, he circled behind her.
"Let's see her, then."
The small woman, obviously resisting the urge to look over her shoulder, carefully loosed the folds of her cloak and let them fall. Pressed against her shoulder, the child's face was chalk-white and damp with sweat.
"She's dying," Mitos said, after the briefest of glances. "Far too late to do anything. Now, what you should be doing is thinking of yourself." He leaned down and brought his face close to the small woman's head, then his hand snaked out and snagged a lock of her hair.
The warrior was already moving, was already half way down the stairs and about to launch herself at him when he looked straight at her and said, "Cottys, there you are."
The small woman's eyes tracked up towards her. The warrior kept her face still, though she could feel her heart in her throat. Don't say anything, she pleaded silently. Then, as their eyes met, as the bard's expression did not change, she realised. She knew I was there all the time.
Mitos smiled at her. "Suppose this stray and her waif were assassins. Why weren't you ready to put yourself between me and their knives?" He let his hand rest on the small woman's neck. The warrior saw her lips tighten as she struggled not to flinch away.
"I figured you could take care of yourself against women and children." The lieutenant let herself sound a little contemptuous, silently promising him a terrible death if he harmed her bard.
"It's bad luck. Ill fated." This was the bard, her voice hardly shaking at all. "To let a guest die in your house without doing anything to stop it, I mean."
They were both looking at her now. "Like inviting death in. You'll offend the hearth gods."
"You're not a guest." Mitos sounded amused for a moment, but then his face paled a little and he looked behind him, towards the keep's huge oaken door. "Still, no point in tempting fate, I suppose." He frowned, sucked in his lower lip, flicked a glance at his new lieutenant. "You seem to have a smattering of herb lore." He'd searched her baggage then; she'd known he would. "See what you can do."
Gabrielle wrung out a cloth and wiped the child's face. She had just gone on getting worse. Her skin was clammy and beaded with sweat and had a greyish tint the bard recognised with dread. Her heart contracted and she blinked back tears, angry with herself for weeping yet again "Are you feeling sorry for the child, or yourself?" she hissed with contempt. "At least do something to help first." But she knew she had done all she could. In the end, she simply stretched out beside the child, hoping she would know she was not alone. When she could trust her voice, she took the girl's hand and started to tell her a story. It involved her falling into a mineshaft and Argo having to go to fetch Xena to rescue her, and it rambled a good deal, but comforted its teller at least.
Xena still had not returned by the time she finished. The child was lying still, silent except for the rasping of her breath. Gabrielle stood, stretching to ease the ache in her muscles and joints, and walked to the middle of the room, clenching her fists, ignoring the sharp pangs of pain from her blisters. She wanted to rush out and see what was happening. She wanted to go to Xena and tell her the child needed her attention straight away. She did - but Xena knew that. If she could, she would be here. Gabrielle forced her hands to open and rubbed them over her face, wishing the skin she was touching was Xena's. Then she made herself relax still more, and looked around her.
There was not much sign that this was Xena's room, just her saddle bag, but that in itself made it distinctive of the warrior. It had been chosen, obviously, for reasons other than cosiness. For its round shape, for its stout stone walls, for its single doorway, for its window opposite, tall and narrow, though wide enough for a tall, supple warrior to slip through. Gabrielle smiled, gently, almost able to hear Xena's thoughts while her partner assessed the advantages of the place and approved it. The stable, she was fairly certain, would be just below the window. She went to the slit, unfastened the shutter and peered out, feeling the damp chill of the evening air on her face. It was, as she had expected, difficult to see anything clearly through the murk. Ah, the stable was there. She could just hear a muted, staccato disturbance which suggested large bodies shifting now and then, and shod hooves stamping occasionally on straw-covered dirt.
Then she stiffened, leaning forward further and trying to see past the enclosure around the keep and out into the forest beyond. There was something there, she was sure of it. If only she could see. The pale twilight seemed to swell and stretch before her eyes, but she could make out nothing. The dank air stirred a little, however, and she caught her breath, gagging on a stench that made her think of a place deep underground where something had died and rotted.
She was recoiling in disgust when Xena finally came into the room. Gabrielle turned towards her, but didn't need the hand her partner flung up to know she should keep silent. Xena stood by the door for some time, listening intently. Finally, with a creak of floorboards even Gabrielle could hear, whoever had lingered on the other side of the door moved away, and the warrior relaxed and came over to her, detouring only to set a jug and a plate carrying some scraps on the table.
"How is she?" Xena said. The warrior's voice was pitched very low, but Gabrielle had no trouble hearing how very angry she was. First things first, though. She got out of the way and, while Xena began her examination, softly sketched in an outline of how she had found the child. "I think she must have been hiding somewhere and seen it all, then just run away," she finished. She watched Xena's face closely, praying that the warrior would not be blaming herself, for allowing the raid, or for not stopping it, but aware there was nothing she could do to prevent her partner doing that.
At length, Xena straightened and walked over to her pack. Gabrielle followed and watched as her partner unrolled the length of soft, pocketed fabric which contained her store of herbs. "I'm sorry," Xena said quietly, keeping her eyes on her long, clever fingers as they selected a mixture of dried leaves. "There's not much I can do. She must have been half starved to begin with, and now she's been terribly shocked as well." She looked straight at Gabrielle, her face carefully blank. "She doesn't really want to go on living, perhaps."
The bard nodded, unable to find words for the occasion, then went for water and a cup and continued to observe silently as Xena mingled and infused the leaves, then coaxed the child to sip the concoction. Tears stung her eyes once more as her partner rested her knuckles on the pale, sweaty brow. I've done it again, she berated herself. Made things worse for her. She was always doing this, she thought in despair, adding to Xena's burden. A sense of helplessness gathered itself inside her. She should stay away, give Xena a chance of happiness. She went on watching and bit her lip as she saw the warrior's shoulders lift in a sigh.
"Shall I go?" she said suddenly, not having planned to say anything, but overwhelmed by a sense of worthlessness. "I'm so terribly sorry, Xena. I shouldn't have come." She didn't dare look at her partner, but stared out past her instead, at the darkness which contained the forest and the presence she had sensed within it.
"And the child?" Xena's voice was still very quiet, but had a dryness about it. Gabrielle gathered her courage and met her gaze. Xena's eyebrow was raised and she stared at the bard coolly for a moment longer. Then her expression softened, just a little. "Suppose you tell me the rest of it."
Gabrielle did. At some point in her narrative Xena settled on the room's only bench, placed, Gabrielle had already noted, exactly where someone seated on it could see both the door and the window of the room. She wanted to join her partner, but felt she had not earned the right, so she kept standing stiffly and awkwardly in the centre of the room, like a soldier expecting a rebuke. Then Xena shifted, clearly making room for her, and she sucked in a breath and went over gratefully.
"And you?" Xena said when she had finished. "The fever hasn't come back?"
She reached her hand over to Gabrielle's forehead and the bard leaned into its elegant coolness gratefully, closing her eyes.
"Yes. Yes, I'm fine." Suddenly the roiling sense of self-contempt subsided within her and her thoughts cleared. It was the tiredness, she thought, and the worry. And hunger. But trust Xena to bring me my supper. She risked a small, teasing gibe at herself, safe now and contented in Xena's regard for her. Though a brief, snake-like flicker in the corner of her eye recalled her dream for a moment, and a worried voice nagged, Or perhaps there's more to it; perhaps there really is something out there in the forest. Something which doesn't want you here.
"They why?" Xena's hands had slid down to her own, were opening them up so she could assess the damage the digging had done.
Gabrielle understood what Xena wanted to know. "It was just a, well, a feeling." She moved closer to her partner, revelling in the sheer solidity of her presence. "I knew I had to come and warn you." When Xena said nothing, she hunched up a little and admitted, "It was a scary dream." Gabrielle shuddered as the memory returned to her. But when she tried to tell Xena about it her confidence in her storyteller's gift deserted her, and each word sounded sillier than the one before. "It kept coming back," she mumbled in embarrassment, editing out most of the dream's content. "I knew you were in terrible danger. That you should watch yourself."
"So you came to warn me I was in danger, and to take care." Xena's voice was deadpan. "I'm pretending to be a murderer in a nest of murderers, and you felt I needed warning to be careful."
Gabrielle felt herself blush, hotly. "It felt more than that," she said defensively. "Something even more dangerous. Something deadly. Something you can't expect. Something you can't plan for. Because things aren't as they seem to be here." She could feel her confidence slipping away again.
"I don't plan everything." Xena was smiling. "I know you tend to think I do, but really, Gabrielle, sometimes I just do what seems a good idea at the time."
Gabrielle looked into her eyes and was both startled and charmed to see to see they were dancing with teasing little lights. So she said, "I knew that!" and waggled her eyebrows. "It's all part of the plan." Some of the strain faded from her partner's face. "You need someone here," she persisted with growing assurance. "Someone whose only job is to watch your back."
"And who'll watch yours?" Xena's lifted the bard's hands and placed a thoughtful kiss in each palm.
Gabrielle hesitated, then shrugged off the implication. "We always do better together." She put as much confidence as she could into the statement, and let herself grin, cockily. "Trust me. I know I'm right." In a corner of her mind, the thought came that it was better Xena not know every detail of the dream; that it might make her question herself, and that could be equally fatal.
Xena kept her waiting for a long moment. "Yeah," she said, finally, and smiled back, before moving off to find some balm for Gabrielle to rub on her blisters.
When it happened, Xena was sitting opposite Mitos, lounging back and watching him. The evening meal had petered out and most of the men were settling into a serious bout of drinking. Mitos, however, had eaten very little and drunk nothing at all. Instead he was absorbed in staring at his carving dagger, holding it balanced between his two hands, turning it round again and again like a spindle, watching gleams gather and flash out as the shining metal of the blade caught the candle-light.
There was something weird going on with him she thought. Something which made her deeply uneasy. He was - she sought for a word. Gabrielle was so much better at this. What had she said just before Xena left her to return to the Hall? "Too big for his skin." That was it. Then the bard had blurted out, "Keep away from him, Xena. I'm afraid he's going to burst." Afterwards the younger woman had looked surprised at herself for saying this, and blushed. But she was right, Xena decided. And it was time she started. She could take Mitos now, could have done so easily at any time in the last three days, at least. She wondered, as she had not thought to wonder until Gabrielle arrived, why she had delayed this long.
Too long, as it turned out. Somehow, she had missed the warning signs. It seemed part and parcel of the disorientation which had beset her here. The odd feeling that she was living in a dream, and that she could stop it whenever she wanted, could step outside of it and simply watch, that nothing in it could touch her. Now only the chill silence which fell upon the Hall alerted her, and the sense that everyone was looking her way, by which time she could only react, not dictate the course of events.
She turned slowly; to show any sign of concern would also show weakness. She let one eyebrow rise and stared back at the crowd staring at her, letting her gaze touch each of them one after the other, not lingering on the stranger in their midst, though he must be the source of the trouble. She was aware of Mitos straightening, moving away from her. He'd been slow to pick up on the threatening change in atmosphere too, she noted. This was odd too. She wondered if he shared her delusion of being somehow not really part of what was happening.
A middle-aged raider with a thickening gut stepped forward. Peros, she thought. She recalled he had been on guard duty. She had sent him out herself, reinforcing her authority as lieutenant by posting sentries on the approaches to the Keep. Another of Mitos' oversights. Peros was pulling with him the stranger, an unremarkable man in nondescript village clothes. A plant, of course; an informer. She should have known. She should have expected there would be one in every village. Why hadn't she considered this? What had she been thinking of?
"He says that he knows her," Peros said, jerking his thumb at the stranger, pointedly talking only to Mitos. "He says that she's Xena. That she's here to take us out."
Mitos said, "Well, that's a surprise." Xena's belatedly stirring instincts prickled. He sounded very relaxed about it. Too relaxed. She considered the possibility that she might had underestimated the raiders' chief. Or that she had been lulled into doing so. Xena shifted her weight, very slightly, slipping her hand down into the pocket of her jerkin where the chakram lay concealed. She had already plotted a course for it which would plunge the Hall into darkness and disarm several of the raiders.
Why did I wait so long? Now it was too late. Gabrielle was in danger, and the child. Getting them out safely must come first; Mitos' murderous little army would have to wait. She snarled at herself in frustration. He must have been expecting this. He'd have a man on the stairs. More likely two. So. She took a deep breath. Mitos first. Now, while he was still expecting her to try to bluff her way out. He'd have to go with them, she realised resignedly.
And the other? The thing in the forest? She shook her head slightly. There wasn't any time to worry about that. It wasn't Ares, in any case. As to what it was, well, no doubt it would announce itself later. Now she was flying into its hands, it had her just where it wanted her. But at least she would have Mitos in hers.
Xena gathered herself and leapt up and over Mitos' head, landing behind him, her dagger at his throat, her chakram in her hand and poised ready to throw all in an instant. "Tell them to clear my way to the door." She said it very loud and calm, making sure they could all hear . "Do it now." She tightened her arm and knew the blade would be parting the skin of his throat, just a little, almost tenderly. There wouldn't be any blood, just a thin white line and a quick, burning sting. She needed to keep him off balance.
While he still hesitated, swallowing, wavering a little on his feet, she flung the chakram. It curved high away from her and made a circuit of the Hall, snuffing out torches, severing tendons, rebounding off heads as it returned to her hand. She was already on the move through the newly darkened hall, bundling Mitos with her, shoving him in the opposite direction to the one she hoped his men were now expecting her to take. When they got to the foot of the stairs she stopped him, and leaned forward till her lips were just above his ear. "Get them down. Quietly."
This time he obeyed her. The creak of the stairs told her where they were in the pitch darkness as they edged down towards them, and the chakram took both out. She kicked aside the tumbling bodies and shoved Mitos up before her, keeping them both as soundless as possible, gaining the door of her chamber in seconds. How long before the raiders realised she was not making for the door, Xena wondered. Not long enough; knowing my luck lately, someone will be looking this way when I open the door. We'll have to be quick. By now they were in, and Gabrielle was starting up from her perch on the end of the bed, her eyes huge as she took in Mitos, the dagger at his throat, the warrior's taut urgency.
"Get the kid ready," Xena hissed, but Gabrielle was already on the move. Their packs leaned against the window and the child was lying on the bed, dressed and wrapped in the bard's cloak once more. Gabrielle paused by her and looked back expectantly, fixing her gaze on her partner's face. Xena smiled, swiftly, and nodded, just once. Then she pushed Mitos towards the window, and jerked her head at it. Gabrielle unlatched the shutter and flung it back.
Xena whistled, piercingly, and knew Argo would be on her way. "Under the bed," she said next. Gabrielle got down on her knees and probed the shadows, hauling out the rope she found there and tying it round one of the legs before she threw the other end out of the window. "You first." The bard hoisted herself up and over the sill, her red-gold head disappearing in seconds. Xena could feel Mitos gathering himself, guessed that quite soon he would try to get free. "Now you!" She jabbed Mitos in the neck, heaving his suddenly flailing body towards the window as she did so. "You've thirty seconds if you want to live."
It took a tremendously strong man to function handicapped like that, and she didn't much care whether he managed or not. But the alternative to leaving him behind or sending him down ahead of her to perhaps threaten Gabrielle was to kill him here and now, and she knew the bard would expect more of her than that. Mitos rolled his eyes, lurched through the window and, gasping, grabbed the rope and slid down, with no more control than a sack of grain. His hands must be burning she thought, without compassion, as she scooped up the packs and slung them out after him. Then she picked up the child, secured her with the roughly made harness Gabrielle had laid ready, and climbed down herself, reaching the bottom just in time to release Mitos. It was almost pitch dark, she noted with distaste, and very damp. If his breath hadn't been hoarsely rasping in his throat, she might not have found him. The mist must be all round. Though at least it would help confuse their pursuers.
She heard a soft jingle, and knew Gabrielle was checking Argo's saddle and tying on their packs. Her eyes must have adapted to the dark already. Xena wished hers would get a move on. "You ride," she ordered, and heard the bard suck in a breath, followed by the creak of leather as she mounted. She passed up the child, summoning a smile for Gabrielle, whom she knew would be looking down at her with an uncertain pucker between her brows. She could just make her out in the gloom now, and saw her nod and her small, capable hands gathering the reins. Xena heaved Mitos up onto his feet. "Get going," she snarled. When he took a long look at her, she added, "You're our safe conduct," and was surprised when she heard him choke and then - really, the only word was giggle. But he lurched forwards, with her right on his heels, into the forest. Into the arms of whatever was awaiting them there.
Gabrielle settled down on a sleeping skin, the child in her arms. Just behind her, Argo shifted and huffed heavily, then dipped her head to tear at a few blades of grass. The bard drew back the folds of her cloak to look at the girl's face. It was drained of colour and beaded with little drops of sweat. She knew, despairingly, that it would not be long now. She tightened her embrace, dipped her head to brush her lips on the icy forehead. "It'll be okay. We've got you," she said, tiredly aware it was to cheer herself up more than anything else.
She glanced over to the other side of the glade, where Xena was tying Mitos to the rough, fraying trunk of an aged pine tree. "You won't get away." His voice carried easily in the heavy stillness of the night. He was staring up at her partner, his eyes slitted. "It knows you're here. It wants you. It's looking for you now." He jerked his head at the sky. Perversely, the bard thought, the mist had cleared at last, and a three quarter moon was spilling light so extravagantly it could almost kindle ghostly colours in whatever it touched.
"And what does it do with its discards?" Xena finished with her knots, straightened and stepped back.
"I've stayed loyal. You're the one who told it no. You tell me." Gabrielle realised he was trying to provoke the warrior, unbalance her, force a mistake.
"I shouldn't hold your breath." Xena was looking about her, sniffing the air.
Mitos kept his gaze on her. "If you ever had a chance to run, you lost it when you saddled yourself with them. And the child's as good as dead. Why not dump it? You can't be doing it any good anyway. And your little friend might have better luck on her own."
Xena slid her chin over her shoulder. Her eyes met Gabrielle's, held the contact for a long moment. "You're the only one I'm dumping, Mitos." Her voice was measured, calm, the bard observed. She nodded back at her, once, decisively, and Xena smiled.
"You've lost already, you know." Mitos was warming to his theme. "My men will find me. We'll catch you. We'll watch you die. You and your slut and that brat. Then we'll go back, and we'll..."
"And what?" Xena had moved until she was leaning against Argo's flank. "What are you doing now, Mitos? Raiding, marauding, slaughtering some dirt-poor peasants and carrying off their scraps. Oh, you've talked a lot, but where's the Kingdom you wanted to forge. With barely half your men, in a quarter of the time you've had, I conquered most of Greece." She dropped her hand, let it tangle idly in Gabrielle's hair, then drop to her shoulder. "All you've done is feed that thing out there. Given it blood. That's all you are - its butcher."
Gabrielle lifted her own hand, rested it over Xena's. Yeah, you tell him, Warrior. Her heart filled with pride for her partner. Then she thought, And Mitos has been feeding too. On power, directly.
Mitos jerked forward, straining against his bonds. "It'll be there when I make my move. Behind me." Anger roughened his voice. "When I sweep through Greece and make it mine, it'll get all the blood it wants."
The hand under Gabrielle's turned and intertwined its fingers with hers. "No." Xena squeezed gently. "No, Mitos. You're not the man for that. You can't control your need for it, and it hasn't the brains for conquest by itself. That's why it wanted me." Gabrielle felt Xena shift behind her, then squat down. Her lips were close to the bard's ear now, and her partner's voice was pitched so low it resonated in her bones. "Don't count on it, Mitos. Don't count on anything. Your time's up. I've seen to that. It knows it can do better than you." And, with that mercurial shift of feeling Gabrielle had come to expect and relish, sympathy, almost regret, tinged Xena's words.
But now fear filled her. Paradoxically, if Xena had intended to reassure her, she had failed. That's it, she thought. The threat to Xena, out there in the forest. It wants her. She gathered her determination. You can't have her. She projected the message, silently, defiantly. She's not for you. She felt her need to keep the warrior safe grow inside her till it filled her chest and made her throat ache with the desire to shout it out loud.
Xena settled beside her, slipping back the folds of the cloak and looking at the girl closely. Her brow briefly puckered, then she rested the back of her hand on the greyish hued cheek before tucking the cloth back neatly again.
"We have to get going," she said quietly.
Gabrielle nodded, treasuring the "we". She met the warrior's gaze squarely and summoned up a smile for her, waiting till Xena's eyes warmed in response and she nodded back. "Right," she responded, and Xena set her hand on the bard's shoulder and levered herself up, then vaulted onto Argo. She checked the girth, reached down for the child and finally handed her back once the bard was mounted behind her.
Neither woman turned to look at Mitos as the mare began moving, following a trail which led directly to the edge of the forest. Gabrielle was not, however, surprised when they changed direction once they were well out of Mitos' hearing, veering off onto a course which paralleled the boundary instead. Xena would continue along this route for some time, she thought, then strike out for open country once she found a stream or some other feature which would cover their tracks.
She wondered what was wrong with her. She should feel relieved. They would be free and clear within hours, surely. Yet instead she felt afraid, and more so with every passing minute. She concentrated on cushioning the child from the worst of the jolting, trying to ignore the cramping pains which started to shoot through her arms. The child was pitifully light, but she had been carrying her for a long time. Focusing on this, she kept herself from guessing what might lie to their left, in the heart of the forest. If she did so she would be utterly terrified. Or perhaps she already was, and that was why they seemed to be dizzily floating over the ground on a silent tide of misty moonlight.
Xena drew to a halt, after some time. "Argo could do with a break," she remarked, glancing over her shoulder. "We could too."
Yeah, Gabrielle thought wryly, right. But Xena's unspoken attentiveness charmed her, as it always did, and she found standing on firm ground settled her panic a little. She sucked in some deep breaths, waiting while Xena spread their sleeping skins out into a little nest for the child, then stooped to lay her down on them. The girl had not moved, had not made a sound, for hours. For a horrible moment, Gabrielle thought she was looking at a waxen effigy, and straightened up abruptly. Her arms, relieved of the weight, began to tingle with returning circulation, and she knew this was just the prelude for something worse.
Biting her lip, Gabrielle looked about her. The moonlight was, if anything, brighter now, bright enough to show up detail on the bark of the trees where it touched, looking like silver traced all over with a crazy filigree. Each needle and root on the ground cast its own shadow, and in those places where the moon did not shine it was inkily black. Like a cage, Gabrielle thought, looking frantically at the strident striping around her, wanting just to be out. But the shadows had given an extra dimension to the forest, made it seem immeasurably, inescapably deep. Come on, come on, she chided herself. No time for that now. Xena needs you.
"You okay?" She had not heard Xena come up behind her. Turning too abruptly, she nearly lost her balance, and the warrior reached out to steady her. "Easy now, easy."
"I'm fine." She glanced up at her partner and tried to smile. When the dark eyebrow quirked, she felt her lips curve without further effort. "Just tired, is all."
"Yeah." Xena looked at her consideringly. "Sit down."
Gabrielle did. Xena hunkered down facing her and began to feel over her arms. "You're all knotted up in there," she commented quietly, and began to knead and ease her muscles for a time. "Better?" she asked eventually.
"Ah." Gabrielle surfaced reluctantly and tried to gather her scattered thoughts. She flexed her arms, then held them out. Her hands were perfectly steady. "Yeah - great. You could make a living with that."
The instant she said the words, she wished she could call them back. Xena did not move, something shut down in the warrior's face. Something drew back. What? Gabrielle thought. What did I say? Why can't I keep quiet once in a while? To cover her confusion, she went over to Argo and collected one of their packs, rooting through its neatly stowed contents for some trail bread. They had nothing for the child, she realised, and had to suppress a sucking feeling of failure again. Perhaps she'll eat some if we soak a little in water? She glanced round towards the girl, and saw Xena was ahead of her. She had pulled the child into her lap and was trying to get her to take some water. Very little was getting in, however.
Breaking the trail bread in half, she handed Xena a portion, watching as the warrior first studied it disinterestedly, then took a bite and chewed doggedly. The clean line of her jaw moved smoothly under her skin, her throat muscles rippled as she swallowed. She's too quiet, Gabrielle thought worriedly. She gave up her own attempt on the stuff, which seemed to have the texture of wood. What's going on in there?
She tucked a chunk of the trail bread in her cheek to soften, then put the rest in a mug and poured on some of the water, mashing it into a paste. Squatting down beside Xena, she leaned over to look at the child and saw that, for the first time in hours, her brown eyes were open.
"Hi!" she said cheerfully. "Got something for you to eat."
The child's head moved slightly, from side to side. No, she was clearly signalling.
"You have to keep your strength up. If you want to grow to be like Xena." Gabrielle glanced at the warrior, who gazed back without expression. She suppressed an unexpected, sharp jab of irritation and merely held out her arms, accepting the child into them. After a moment's rapid thought, she started on a story which involved a little girl called Selena, lost and wandering in a dark forest, who came upon a house containing a table on which three bowls were set.
"She sat down and looked at the first bowl. It contained a delicious soup. She knew she shouldn't eat any because it wasn't hers, but she just couldn't say no, she was so hungry 'Just one spoon,' she thought to herself. 'They won't notice that.' So Selena got some soup in the spoon and drank it up." The child's clouded eyes were wide open and fixed on Gabrielle, who took the opportunity to coax a little of the paste into her mouth. "Of course," the bard went on, "she couldn't stop at one. She took another and another, and soon the first bowl was empty. But she was still hungry, and now she looked at the second bowl it looked as though it would be even more delicious than the first. In fact it was - as Selena found when she dipped her spoon in it."
By the time the paste was half gone, the little girl in Gabrielle's story had embarked on the third bowl. "This was the best of all," the bard continued. "It tasted of honey and cream and summer all mixed together." The child in her lap refused the next spoonful, turning her head away. Her eyes were closing, and Gabrielle realised she was feeling sleepy too.
The story, however, continued to unfold in her head. It gathered pace and took a turn she wasn't ready for. Something was coming out of the dark forest and was creeping up to the house, something which didn't take kindly to little girls who stole the food off other folk's tables. The thing turned into a blot of shadow on the ground, then grew a peak and rose until it became a long and heavy cloak draping a form which came closer and closer. Except now its destination was the Keep and its target was Xena, while its weapon was a writhing net of shadow.
Then Xena was caught in the net, was strangling in it, and the Keep had dissolved somehow, had become the white, barkless trunks of dead trees, or pillars of stone, she couldn't be sure. And now it was she who held the knife, and was raising it ready to slash it down, but she was, somehow, no long standing over Xena, but over the child. And then the knife was in the girl's breast instead.
Her head was pounding and there was a sour taste in her mouth. At first she couldn't work out where on earth she was, but eventually the jumbled shapes began to make sense and she realised she must have dozed off for a moment. She shuddered; what a dream! What did it mean? She didn't want to think, and looked around instead for Xena. Who was sitting motionless nearby, arms wrapped round her legs, chin resting on her knees, watching her.
"You okay?" The warrior's voice was low and expressionless.
Gabrielle shrugged, afraid to tell her anything, aware that Xena was all too likely to think herself responsible. "Is she getting better?" she said instead, looking down at the child. "She ate something." She was aware that hope had tinged her words; Oh, get real, bard. What do you want? Xena to perform a miracle? Give the poor woman a break.
Xena paused, then shook her head. "It's just a matter of time. At least she's not in pain, and not afraid."
Gabrielle tucked her cheek down into her shoulder, trying to mop up the tears she didn't really want her partner to see.
But the warrior was suddenly close to her, and smoothing them away with a finger. "Sorry," Xena said, awkwardly.
"It's not your fault." Urgency lent force to Gabrielle's voice - Xena must not feel she was to blame. "No one could heal her."
"No." Xena looked down at her hands, which had folded themselves tightly together. She swallowed, then said with difficulty, "If I'd acted as soon as I arrived I might have saved her family. And her. But I didn't. I should have, and I didn't."
Gabrielle loosed her grip of the child and laid her own hands over Xena's. "You didn't know. How could you? You must have felt you were doing the right thing at the time."
The warrior shook her head. "I'd lost my focus. I'd let myself lose my focus." Her hands clasped each other even more tightly.
Gabrielle rubbed the rigid knuckles with her thumbs, trying to find the right words to say. Suddenly, she knew. "It's that thing. It gets inside your head, somehow, twists your thinking. It wasn't you, Xena."
"Yes it was, in a way."
Gabrielle sighed. I should know better than expect Xena to go easy on herself. Well, if she could not talk Xena out of this bout of self condemnation, she could at least face it with her. "In what way, Xena? How could you be responsible for what it did to you?"
Xena seemed to brace herself. "It was sucking me in because I was letting it. It got to the thing inside me that loves being a warrior. A killer. What I used to make my living at, if you remember."
Her partner's lips twisted in scorching self contempt, and Gabrielle had to forcibly restrain herself from embracing her, from trying to make the pain go away. It needed to come out, all of it, and now.
After a moment, Xena went on. "I was enjoying the sense of what I could do if I wanted. The sense that there was nothing to stop me from doing just as I pleased. I haven't felt that way for a long time." She took a deep breath and met Gabrielle's eyes. "Thank you. You reminded me of everything I'd lose. We're still in danger, but at least I know it now."
Okay, she said it. Now you say something. Try to make her feel better. Come on, since you think you're so clever. Gabrielle took a breath herself, and leaned forwards carefully over the sleeping child, until their foreheads touched. Then she summoned all the confidence she could. "You'll beat it," she said. "I'm not afraid."
"Okay." Xena's eyes closed briefly, and she took a deep breath. "Okay," she said again, and stood up, reaching down a hand to haul the bard up after her. "Let's get going."
They had only been riding a few minutes when they heard the sound of the pursuit. Too soon, Gabrielle realised. Xena must have hoped they would be out of the forest before this happened. Now their only chance was to outrun them. And Argo was carrying three, and already tired. She felt the warrior stiffen, and then turn in the saddle. "I'll hang on," she told her, summoning up a note of jaunty confidence from somewhere. "You let Argo do her stuff."
Xena gave the mare her head at that, and within seconds Gabrielle was grimly swallowing down nausea. The weaving of Argo's body as the mare negotiated a winding route through the forest, and the speed at which the mare travelled, made the bard feel terribly seasick. She shut her eyes against the reckless flickering of tree trunks as they threaded their way between them. But not knowing was even worse, and she opened them again, fixing her gaze desperately on the familiar form in front of her, and finding an anchor there. She had no hand free to grasp Xena's waist, for both were wrapped round the child; instead she tightened her legs round the mare till they screamed with the strain and leaned gingerly forwards, trying desperately to shadow the warrior's every move.
Gabrielle was not sure how she knew, despite her ignorance of the forest, that they had missed their path and were heading deeper and deeper into it. But she did know this. A cold hollow opened under her breastbone. We must be mad, she thought. She was suddenly all too aware of the root-riddled ground underfoot, the trees and their flailing branches all around. But what else could they do? Stand and fight? That would be still madder, even if they got out of this labyrinth of trees and found open ground.
Suddenly she wasn't sure whether she was upright or prone, riding Argo or tumbling endlessly through an immense darkness. Which breathed. And then she could see them all, Xena, the child, Argo, herself, tiny and scuttling, inching their way down an immense, winding tunnel. No, a maw. Being swallowed by an enormous creature which had tree trunks for bones. She felt a scream building up, filling the coldness inside her, and choked it down. Don't distract her. Don't let her down. She clutched the child closer, hunching tighter into Xena's back, feeling the warrior's hair flap around her like black wings.
And then the forest was gone. They were galloping across what seemed to be a vast river of frozen quicksilver with nothing between them and the gibbous moon high above. Argo slid to a halt, and all Gabrielle could hear apart from the mare's hoarse panting was her own heart beat hammering in her ears. "Are we clear?" she wanted to ask, but her throat was too dry. How could they be out of the forest, though? They had been heading into its heart. She turned her head and looked about, and her breath caught in shock.
She had felt they were in an emptiness, but in fact they still seemed to be surrounded by dark trees through which a pale light shone. It was just that...her mind balked, then flailed about as she tried to find any bearings. Like a fish thrashing out of water, she thought in that small, remote part of her mind that noted, recorded, stored details for future use in her stories. And it was there that she steadied herself, began to make sense of the nonsense surrounding her, found a way to categorise it. Inside out. That was it; reversed somehow. Get a grip, bard. Think it through. Bloated shapes floated in front of her eyes, like the smudges of light left printed on the back of one's eye lids if one shut them in a bright place. These aren't the lit spaces between tree trunks at all; these are outgrowths of some kind, and solid, but they aren't tree trunks.
And then the scene around her snapped into place. Behind them was the forest, but in front of them was another kind of forest, of what seemed to be rocky outcrops and spires. Narrow pathways ran between some of them, twisting here and there and all soon coming to turns which blocked any sight of what might lie beyond. Something had grown over the mounds, some mould or lichen which seemed to be exhaling a phosphorescent gas. It glimmered around their outlines, then sank to the ground and lagged it with a sickly green glow.
Gabrielle swallowed hard. So you don't like this. So you know there's something here you're not seeing? So what? We can't go back. Let her know you can hold it together, so she doesn't start to worry. She cleared her throat. "Xena?" she whispered hoarsely, relieved that her voice was working again, and heartened, as always, just by being able to say her partner's name.
Xena's shoulders lifted as she took a breath. Then she looked behind her. "Are you okay?" Gabrielle took in the gleam of her eye, the white curve of her cheek beneath it. She nodded, swallowing again, and tightening her grip on the child. She was about to say something more when they both heard it. Men cursing, armour jangling, horses whinnying with fear, faint with distance, but audibly strengthening. The hunt was almost upon them.
The sound sent a jolt through Xena, dispelling the fatigue she had been fighting for hours. She could feel her muscles tighten, the little hairs rise on her arms and her neck. They must be only a few minutes away, she realised. There was no time to do anything more than move, get out of sight before Mitos and his men cleared the forest. She pulled in another deep breath and centred herself, banishing the panicky swimming in her head and licking the sweat from her upper lip. Gabrielle needed her. The child needed her. Even Argo did. She felt the mare's tension, her nervous fidgeting, the jingle of her bit as she chewed it. Xena took in the ground before them, the uneven footing, the treacherous light, the way possible pitfalls were masked by the trailing fog. This was no place to ride a horse.
She slid to the ground and reached up to help Gabrielle dismount, the child still in her arms. The bard's skin had taken on an ashen cast. It must be the light, but... She spared a moment to look at her closely in concern; her partner was swallowing all the time, and blinking. Realising how close the smaller woman must be to breaking, Xena settled both hands on her shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. "Hang on. This isn't going to beat us," she said, and felt Gabrielle gather herself, summon a smile from somewhere. One thing which would never let them down, she thought. Gabrielle's courage.
Xena swung back, and chose an opening in the thicket of outcrops at random. She wished she could take the child, but that would mean letting go of Argo, and she wasn't sure the mare would enter this place for Gabrielle, or if left to her own devices. They might need the mare later on, too. If the terrain improved, Gabrielle could ride her. In the meantime... In the meantime, it seemed, Gabrielle would carry the child on her back. She had burrowed into the pack and pulled out the rough harness she had made earlier, and was shrugging into it once more. Xena smiled her approval at her, gathered up Argo's reins close to the bit, and led the way forwards.
It was worse than she'd feared. The ground underfoot was slippery with what she guessed must be sodden moss, which was growing over everything. It glowed as well, and what with this and the fog and the uncertain light, she couldn't be sure from one step to the next where she was putting her feet. There was no keeping to a steady pace, nor even to a single course. Sometimes they met obstacles so high they could not be got over, and had to back up until they found a clearer route. Xena found the frustration was adding to her difficulties, her temper fraying as each new direction led to a dead end and forced her to admit defeat. At least Mitos won't be any better off, she thought wryly, not as reassured as she had expected to be by the fact that there was silence behind them again. It was not as though she could be certain there was nothing there, after all.
When, after some time, they came to an unusually open space, Xena halted with relief. She looked round at Gabrielle and saw that she had bent over, hands on her hips, trying to catch her breath. I should have stopped sooner, Xena thought guiltily. "Here," she said aloud, "give me the kid. You get some water."
Gabrielle shrugged off the harness and silently handed her over, then went up to Argo. The mare's coat was damp with sweat, and she was trembling slightly. Badly spooked. Like the rest of us, Xena thought. She glanced down at the girl. At least she's out of it. Best thing.
The warrior watched Gabrielle pat Argo, whispering something softly. The mare calmed a little, and a little more when her partner poured some water into the palm of her hand and rubbed it into her muzzle. "Good girl. Brave Argo," Gabrielle said, a little louder now. Her voice sounded husky and Xena winced, guessing her throat must be dry and hurting. When Gabrielle held out the skin she nodded it back at her. "You first," she insisted, and watched with satisfaction while the bard took a long pull. Then she handed the child back, and helped to coax a little fluid into her before finally allowing herself to suck in some thirsty gulps.
"We'll take a break," she said when she finished.
Gabrielle looked nervously back the way they had come and then up at her. "I can keep going," she offered.
"We have to pace ourselves. We need a rest; and the way we've been wandering about, we must have lost them for a while. It'll be dawn, soon enough. We could do with the light." Xena flicked up an eyebrow, challenging the bard to deny any of this. Gabrielle drew in a breath, then met her eyes, and grinned reluctantly. "Okay. Set her down." Xena spread out a sleeping skin and, once the bard sat down on it, settled close beside her, taking back the girl once more.
"I wish we knew her name." Gabrielle's voice broke into a silence which had extended for several minutes. Xena glanced down, seeing the bard was troubled and not quite sure why. "It's just that we're treating her like a parcel, I suppose," her partner explained without needing to be asked. "Like a doll. We don't know anything about her, and she can't tell us anything either." Gabrielle sucked in her lower lip, then shook her head. "No. I'm being an idiot." She laid her hand briefly on the child's swaddled form, then drew it back to dash it across her eyes. "There's nothing we can do. Ignore me."
"Never." Xena shook her head at her partner gravely, trying to think of something more to say. But when a blush spread over the bard's face and she ducked her head quickly, she realised that she had, somehow or other, managed to say enough.
To give Gabrielle time to collect herself, Xena diverted her gaze back to their surroundings. What was it with the light in here? She looked at the pillars encircling them, which seemed to hang above the mist-enshrouded ground like greasy, sluggish flames. They were actually giving off light, she realised, and so had the broken masonry they had threaded their way through earlier. Or rather whatever covered them was. The pillars and the tumbled blocks and the long flat stone at the centre of the arena were all radiating the stuff, more than enough to tinge the moonlight green.
Pillars? Masonry? Arena?
"It's a city," Gabrielle said at that moment. "A city right in the middle of the forest."
Xena nodded. Yes. They had been walking between the ruins of houses, mansions, palaces, colonnades, avoiding jumbled rubble and cellars which had collapsed in on themselves. We were lucky to have got so far.
"The forest came later." She was not sure how she knew. "Grew around it."
"So old, no remembers it was ever here," Gabrielle said, her voice hushed. Xena felt her partner start to shudder, then suppress it. "Wow!" The bard's voice was artificially bright. "Will we have a story to tell."
Xena smiled back, acknowledging her attempt to settle their nerves.
"Do you think the Keep was built by the same people?" Gabrielle was looking about her, two small furrows between her brows. Xena guessed she was trying to put the place back together in her head.
"That would make sense. Some sort of guard post?" Or perhaps not.
"Or perhaps not," Gabrielle mused. "Perhaps it came later? To stop something getting out." She stopped abruptly, her face startled.
Xena shook her head. "Who knows?" They had talked about this long enough. The last thing she wanted was to get Gabrielle's imagination going. Though once the bard started working at a puzzle, she never gave up. "Gabrielle, we need to get started." She got ready to hand the child back to her partner. "Here," she started to say, but broke off. From Gabrielle's gasp she knew the bard had heard them too. Mitos and his men, close on their heels again. How had they done it?
"That's just great!" Gabrielle said. "What have they got? A street map?" She was staring at Xena, trying to keep a valiant grin plastered to her face.
"Right." And that thing on their side. Xena looked at her, at the child, at the place. They were nearly at the end of their strength. If they ran, they'd be hunted down within the hour. Easily. And if they stayed? Well, at least I'll get my chance to go down fighting. Then she realised she had been staring at her partner the whole time. And Gabrielle? She fought down a fierce pang of grief. Perhaps there was a place the bard could hide. That stone. She loped over towards it, Gabrielle close behind.
Close up, it was larger and more complex than she had supposed. A solid white oblong, about as long as a man and almost as wide, nearly as high as her hips. It was not flat, however. Instead a pattern of grooves was carved into the surface, spiralling in to form a deep well.
"Like the pathways," Gabrielle said suddenly, her fingers tracing the outmost channel. "I bet they all lead here."
Yes, Xena thought with resignation. So much for our chances of escape. We were always going to end up in this place. It was a trap, she knew, and she had led them both right inside it. Anger rose up within her, and she tamped it down. There were better ways to use such energy than by railing at fate. She felt the skin of her face shift and tighten and knew she would be smiling, just a little, though she doubted that this time their enemy was human enough to be intimidated by her grimly cheerful defiance.
"Xena?" She shifted her gaze back to Gabrielle. "We stand and fight? Yes?" the bard asked.
Xena cocked an eyebrow. Despite the hopelessness of their decision, she could feel her pulse quicken and a charge of excitement course through her. She let the smile broaden to a grin, watched a tinge of colour return to the bard's cheeks in response. "Get the kid behind this stone, and keep your head down." It might give them a little shelter. And they weren't the target. She was.
"Xena?" Gabrielle said again, and this time her voice was just a little reproachful.
"Look, I'll fight better if I know you're safe." Xena gave into her impulse and cupped Gabrielle's cheek in her hand, rubbing the curve of her jaw gently with her thumb. "And keeping the kid safe too."
The bard held her gaze, her own unfathomable. Xena wondered if she knew. But of course she did; her silence on the subject was a give-away. When Gabrielle said nothing more, Xena didn't push it. At a time like this, Gabrielle should make her own decisions. But it won't get you, my bard. Nor me. She'd kill them both herself, before she'd let that happen.
Trudging back to where the child lay in its stupor, Gabrielle felt tiny, conspicuous as a fly on a shining shield, and just as pathetic and vulnerable. She crushed the idea. That thing out there, she thought. Trying to spook me again, trying to make me useless to Xena. Though she couldn't be sure about that. Even if it were just Mitos, there wasn't much she could do. But it wasn't. She doubted even Xena knew how to defend herself against this attack. She'll find a way. She always does. Gabrielle concentrated on her defiance, while she bent down over the child. Has she any idea what is going on? Did she understand what the raiders did to her family? Does she know where she is now? Gabrielle hoped not. She sighed, gathered the small bundle up, and carried her back to the stone.
Stone? Who was she trying to kid? The thing had to be an altar of some kind. But perhaps not. Perhaps the city magistrates presided here, or the King held formal audiences, or something. She laid the girl on its top and was turning away, meaning to collect her pack, when a glint caught her attention. There. At the bottom of the spiral well. Moisture must have gathered in it, she thought nervously. That was why it glittered like an eye.
She was on her way back across the arena when some trick of the labyrinthine twining of pathways through the rubble brought the sound of the hunt to her again. Much closer now; she looked across at Xena. The warrior had stripped Argo of her harness, and was standing before her, carefully untangling her forelock, then rubbing her hand slowly down the front of the mare's face. While Gabrielle watched, her partner stepped back and said, "Go on. Find your way out of here." Argo hesitated, clearly torn, but then a man's voice rang out, sounding as though he were almost upon them, and she half reared, her eyes rolling wildly, pivoted round on her haunches and bolted.
She feels it too. Whatever it is. Nothing a horse could help with, anyway. Argo at least should have a chance to survive. But Xena's face was too carefully blank. She's relied on Argo much longer than she has on me. Gabrielle stopped short, ashamed of her jealousy. She should be thinking of Xena, she reproached herself. When Xena swung round, clearly looking for something, she made herself smile and jerk her thumb upwards when their eyes met. After a second, Xena smiled as well.
Not long now. Xena was taking up position midway between the stone and the opening the sounds were coming from. Gabrielle slipped quickly back to the child, twitching aside the folds of cloak. In the bleaching light of the moon, she saw shrunken, waxen cheeks, blue lips slightly opened, tugging in tiny sips of air. Not long now, Gabrielle thought again. She bent to kiss her moist forehead, then froze as, startled, she saw the eyes open. Two dark, lucid pools stared back at her, in each of them a bright, steady reflection of the moon.
"Hush now, hush," Gabrielle said in reflex. "Go back to sleep." She had never felt so inadequate. The girl looked back silently, her face very calm. What is she thinking? Gabrielle looked closer, feeling herself drawn down, drawn deep. How can a child know that? Feel that? The bard shuddered, straightened abruptly, gasping. She felt so cold; the ragged shadow of what she had seen fluttered at the back of her mind, refusing to reveal itself clearly, refusing to leave altogether. She wanted to deny it, to turn her back on the child and pretend she had seen nothing, but she could not bring herself to do so. Is it even her at all? She shuddered again, let her hand rest gingerly on the stone surface. It felt cold and damp. That was all, surely; the anger, the hatred, the need for revenge - those were her own feelings, weren't they? How could they be the child's? She shifted her hand until it was close to her, and turned to face the coming battle.
When the men came into the open, they were still on horseback. Gabrielle wondered how they had managed that, then took on the foam on the horses' flanks and the slashes where spurs had gouged their sides. With great difficulty. Her lips pressed together in distaste. The mounts were thoroughly cowed now, slipping through the opening like shadows, then fanning out smoothly till they formed a long line opposite Xena.
Gabrielle found it difficult to look at them. She hoped there was nothing wrong with her eyes, that it was just the lurid phosphorescence of the place which was making the shapes distort and multiply before her. It was Mitos and his men, she told herself. You know that. They're just a gang of murderers. But they looked different, she thought. They looked somehow alike, were moving in unison, even the horses. As she noticed this, the line began to move forwards, its tips faster than the middle, and she realised the aim was to encircle her partner.
After ten paces, and without a word of command, the line came to a halt, at the same time drawing their swords with a single ringing rasp. The rider in the centre, his face almost covered by his helmet's brow and cheek plates, kept going though, stopping a length ahead of the rest. It had to be Mitos, Gabrielle told herself. But he seemed to be bigger, and not to be wearing armour but a scaly skin which oozed slime and radiated a ghoulish light. Some of that mould stuff must have brushed off as he rode past it. That's why he's glowing like that. She glanced down swiftly at the girl. Her eyes were closed again now, their unsettling knowledge, their hungry anticipation just a memory in the bard's own mind.
"One last chance." It wasn't really Mitos' voice. Barely raised above a whisper, it was icily distinct. "Come to me willingly and I'll let your bard and the brat go. If you don't, I'll make killing them yourself my first order. And you'll laugh when you obey me."
Gabrielle watched Xena's back. Any minute now.
"You just a messenger boy now, Mitos?" The warrior's hand would be on her chakram, Gabrielle knew. "Well, tell your master I decline his invitation." And now the chakram was out and flying, angling so that it could slice across the naked blades behind him. Yes! Gabrielle waited for what should come next, the sound of iron snapping, curses, horses rearing, riders thrown as they reared or stumbled, Xena's body soaring through the air as she vaulted onto the back of Mitos' horse.
It didn't happen. The chakram bounced off the blades harmlessly, the line held steady as it whirred by, and then Mitos flung out his hand and snatched it out of the air. As Gabrielle released a gasp she hadn't even realised she was holding, Xena straightened from her crouch, miraculously still balanced, still unmoved.
"An interesting weapon." Mitos held the chakram in front of him, examined it minutely. "Not really my kind of thing though." He tossed it back and Xena caught the shining hoop without even bothering to take her eyes off the man. Or what had been a man. Who said, still without raising voice, "It's time."
At that instant, the line of horses moved forwards, settling into a gallop so smooth it did not jar their riders at all. Gabrielle watched them, fascinated. They were coming straight for the warrior, and for her. Yet while she could see bloodied saliva spray from the horses' bits and stones and clods of earth splatter from around their hooves, she could not make out their faces at all.
And now Xena did move, somersaulting high into the air and coming down behind them, casting the chakram at the same time. This time the abrupt change of direction and the sting of the metal ring's edge had some effect. Horses screamed, a few bolting, some snatching their bits and ripping their reins out of their riders' hands. One reared up so high it was nearly vertical, and then twisted as it came down, toppling as it did so and knocking into the horse immediately beside it. A man leapt clear, but the other was lost in the kicking tumult of limbs, and Gabrielle winced involuntarily.
Now she could not see Xena, though she strained forwards, trying to pick her out through the melee. She would be trying for a horse, the bard guessed, still aiming to get to Mitos and capture him. It was the only realistic course of action available. But before she had time to take it, the riders were once again in control, and the line had formed once more. Now their backs were to the bard, and she could see Xena on the other side, sword in one hand, the chakram back on its belt hook. Slowly, gracefully, Xena pulled back her sword arm till the tip of the blade drew level with her ear, then held the pose still, as effortlessly as a statue. And for a few moments, nothing moved in the arena.
Their next charge would overwhelm the warrior, Gabrielle was sure of it. "Gods, protect her," she said out loud. I have to do something. "I'm so sorry," she muttered, and touched the child tenderly for the last time. Someone should stop here with her, she thought. No one should die alone like this, especially not a child. But she could not stay. "There's no one to back her up, you see," she whispered. "That's my job. Forgive me."
Gabrielle stepped away from the stone, moving towards the line of horses, trying desperately to think of something she could do, some weapon she could use. One of the men had dropped his sword, and she paused by it, but she didn't rate her chances highly with a blade. Then she noticed some stones lying close to it, and bent and gathered a couple. They felt heavy and oddly shaped, and she glanced down at them curiously. Bits of shattered paving stone, smashed then eroded. She wondered what had broken them so violently.
Now! Gabrielle urged herself. Without stopping to think, she flung both stones, and watched with satisfaction as one hit the rump of a horse, throwing up a puff of dust, while the other clattered as it rebounded from a rider's armour. She was already stooping, then throwing two more stones, and two more again, running forwards, yelling, screaming at spooked mounts, feeling a grin stretch over her face for no better reason than because she was getting herself closer to Xena.
Xena was already on the move herself, using the diversion to take out two more riders, one with a flying kick, the other with a casual slash of her sword. Landing behind their horses she slapped the flat of her blade across their rumps and screamed her war-cry, sending them bucking into the rest of the hunt. It began to mill around, riders yelling, their horses' terror mounting out of control, for the first time in serious danger of losing cohesion.
That's the way, Xena exulted, looking for her next victim, smiling as he selected himself, dashing out of the churning mass of horses straight towards her. She waited till the horse, a frantic bay, was almost upon her, then jumped straight up into the air, hearing her boot connect with the rider's helmet with a satisfying crunch. She was down and rolling before he hit the ground, then up and reaching for a horse's reins, yanking them out of the rider's hands and heaving at his leg, levering him out of the saddle. Whipping the beast round, she slapped it across the muzzle, making it lash out its rear hooves. She was aware of a horse behind falling sideways, its rider screaming and unable to scramble clear, but was already running again, working her way through the press.
She knew Gabrielle was close before she saw the bard. Hurling herself into the sweating flank of a raw-boned grey, she forced it to one side and saw her. Her partner was turning round slowly, a stone in each hand, yelling hoarsely, while three of Mitos' raiders circled her, silent, deadly. Xena got her shoulder under the thigh of the man on the grey and heaved him off, shoving the horse so that it trampled him to keep its footing. Unlatching the chakram, she loosed it under-arm and grimaced with satisfaction as it buried itself in the nearest rider's spine, clearing her way. Then she was standing beside the smaller woman, the familiar presence warming her as nothing else ever had, or could.
In the small pocket of quiet that formed around them, she became aware of a strange mixture of emotions. Regret pierced her to the heart, for what they would now never have, and gladness as well, for what they had had, and for this last moment as well. It was not what she had wanted for them, on those rare occasions when she had let herself want anything and plan for the future, and it was far less than she felt Gabrielle deserved, but she was profoundly grateful that they were nonetheless together. One promise I will keep, my bard. We'll always be together. Xena risked a glance at the smaller woman and saw she was looking back at her, sea green eyes in a parchment white face, sparkling with defiance and with love. Some people, she reflected in what seemed to have become a timeless moment, fought because they loved to do so, and some fought simply because they loved. She felt her lips curve into a smile as Gabrielle nodded at her, a fierce, businesslike bob of her head, and nodded back.
Then the warrior turned her attention back to the battle. The quiet had spread out, had enveloped the arena. Mitos was yelling something, she could see that, but she could hear nothing. All around her, his men were getting their horses back under control, getting themselves back into formation. There was something odd about the way they moved though, something she couldn't at first put her finger on. Then, as she watched a horse shake its head against the bit, she realised. It was moving so slowly; she had time to see each hair of its mane, the individual sinews and muscles flex and straighten in its sides and its legs, the blood vessels stand out under its coat.
The riders were wheeling now, facing them, reining in their steeds before they began their charge. It would not be Mitos who gave the order, she sensed, but the thing which wanted her. She could feel it whispering in her mind, offering to spare Gabrielle if she would give herself up to it, taunting her with this death she had chosen, fighting a nameless enemy in a lost battle which no one would ever hear of. "Some hero," it mocked her, when she refused. "Frightened to let down a bard. You've gone soft." She shook her head, took her sword in a two-handed grip, felt Gabrielle beside her hefting her stones in her hands, and prepared to sell their lives dearly.
But the charge never came. Instead, from somewhere behind her, she felt a tremendous presence suddenly erupt, one which towered above her head and arched over, plunging towards Mitos, his raiders and the darkness which rode with them. She was feeling, she realised remotely, a wave of terror. It burnt its way up her spine and exploded in her head in a great flash of white, and she sank to her knees under the impact. Dropping her sword, she grasped around her until her fingers encountered a warm, supple form which wrapped tightly itself about her.
Hold on, she kept saying in her head, since she couldn't seem to find any breath to draw into her lungs so that she could speak. Whether she meant it for herself or for Gabrielle, or for them both, she wasn't sure. Hold on. The wave was flowing through her, filling her head with images from a life she had not lived. Hold on! The city stood undamaged before her, in stark black and white as if lit by lightning. Terrified citizens poured through its streets to the central arena, screaming in a language she did not understand, and did not want to. Hold on! But her own grasp on herself seemed to be weakening. With a sense of remote horror, she felt her brain writhing, re-aligning itself, and becoming one with the eerie image from the past. Hold ...
The enemy outside the gates was no respecter of their city's age or eminence, was not impressed by its beauty or achievements in art and philosophy. For months they had ignored the threat, assumed that their greatness would somehow, in itself, be enough repel the invader without their having to lift a finger. Now it was too late. Now the darkness was about to overwhelm them. But the Priest, who for months had been predicting this, had been telling them it was punishment for having neglected their services to the gods for so long, he said that there was a chance. That they must make their repentance clear when they asked for help, though. Must prove it.
So they were here. All the citizens, save those who had tried to stand in their way and been trampled. All afraid to look at what was before them, and afraid to look away. The child was poor, sickly, its parents a whore and a thief. And what citizen would not give his life to save the city itself, if he were worthy? So why this sense of despair as the flint knife fell and the blood gathered in the well of the navel stone? Why this sense of taint, or violation, as the power beneath the city raised herself, shamed and raging at the disgrace, to tear the enemy apart?
...on. She groaned, aware only of a terrible taste of bile in her mouth, of nausea roiling in her stomach. Memories still poured through her head, leaving her flailing in the torrent. Who was she? Which of these victims of panic and self disgust? All of them, or none? She felt them turn on one another, tearing at the pain, trying to rip it out, discovering they each carried it deep within themselves, that the only way to exorcise it was to stab and slash and sever. But while she had lost her own name, she still had something to hold on to. Someone. Someone whose name she remembered. Gabrielle. She breathed the word to herself in relief. Gabrielle. She tightened her embrace, burrowed closer into the bard's, anchoring herself to her partner, being anchored by her.
Finally, Xena began to become aware of the world around her again. Small sounds first, her leather creaking, the bard's breathing, then the movement of air over skin wet with sweat, chilling it. She sucked in a deep breath and drew back a little, slitting her eyes, willing herself to see; that strange burst of brightness inside her head still dazzled her Very faintly, just a slightly more solid cloud to begin with, then gaining substance and texture, Gabrielle's face appeared in front of her, and she let out the breath in a sob of relief, which was echoed by the figure in her arms.
After a while, when the sensation of being alive and whole had become less astonishing, she staggered to her feet, dragging the bard with her, tucking an arm round her shoulders to keep her upright and close. Dazedly she took in the scene around them, unable believe her eyes at first. Whatever had swept through the place had dismembered Mitos' raiders, to the last man and horse. Gabrielle moaned, "Gods!" and doubled over, retching, and she rubbed the bard's back absently, unable to look away from the carnage. Even long ago, she had never dreamed of a slaughter as total, as ruthless as this.
Now Gabrielle was straightening, had reached out and clutched her hand. "The girl!" she gasped, and broke away, weaving slightly, heading for the stone.
"Gabrielle!" Xena easily outstripped her, turned in her path and blocked her view of the stone. A foreboding had gathered itself in her. What had saved them? Where had it come from? And why? She had answers, but she did not want to think about them. "Wait. Let me look first."
The bard looked up at her, then away, rubbing one hand tiredly over her brow. "She's my responsibility," she said dully. "I'm the one who dragged her here. I'm the one who left her lying on that thing." She started forwards again and Xena, reluctantly, stepped out of her way. The warrior kept pace with her, however, and so they reached the stone together.
At first she thought the child had been spared after all. The bundle of clothing was still there. But when Gabrielle leaned forwards and flipped aside the fold of her cloak, there was nothing inside.
"Xena?" Gabrielle reached a hand behind, blindly, and Xena caught hold. "She can't have run away. Can she?"
The warrior shook her head. She unwrapped the cloak completely. Inside were the child's own tunic and leggings, still fastened. Beside her, Gabrielle shrank in on herself, and muttered, "No. It can't be!" and Xena stepped behind her, wrapping both arms about her.
"Steady," she said quietly, her eyes busy taking in the surface of the stone. Something was different, but she wasn't sure what.
"What's that in the well?" Gabrielle's voice was a raspy husk of itself.
She was right. A dark, treacly fluid had filled it and now trembled at its very brim. Cautiously, fighting distaste, Xena loosed a hand and dipped one finger in, then pulled it back quickly. The tip was dark in the moonlight. She watched as a drop gathered itself, then sluggishly parted from her skin and plopped heavily back again. It would be dark red in daylight, she thought distantly.
"Oh gods." Gabrielle sagged in her arms and, alarmed, Xena swung her up and carried her back to the edge of the arena. All the time, she was aware of Gabrielle looking over her shoulder, her eyes never leaving the stone. She did not look away when Xena set her down and busied herself finding their water skin, either, and shook her head when the warrior offered it to her.
Xena sat back on her heels, staring at her bard. "It isn't your fault," she insisted, aware she was echoing Gabrielle's own words. Perhaps nothing happened. Perhaps we're still in that moment. She wrenched herself out of the sickening feeling of disorientation with an effort of sheer will. "How can it be?" The heady relief had already dissipated, been replaced by a sour gnawing of fear.
"It is." Gabrielle would not meet her eyes. "It is," she repeated, and turned her back on the warrior. "Don't look at me," she whispered, lying down on her side and curling into a tight ball.
Xena knelt beside her, tried to coax her into uncoiling. When she failed, she lay down next to the bard, folded herself round her, smoothing the short strands of sweat-dampened, red gold hair, rocking her gently. You've won, after all, she told the darkness. She hoped Mitos' shade, wherever it was, was enjoying its victory.
Twilight came to the edge of the sea where it made landfall at Kalpos. Thin threads of spume traced the crests of the waves, as if a net fine as cobwebs had been cast out to catch them. The evening was quiet, except for the sound of water sifting through shingle. And something more. Someone weeping, someone hushing her quiet. Two women, one tall and one short, both sitting on the big rock which marked the highest point reached by the tide. The small one's knees were drawn up and her chin rested on them, while the taller one squatted beside her. In the last light of day, bronze glinted under her cloak, while a breeze toyed with the wisps of her friend's cropped, red gold hair. She sat stiffly, hunched in on herself, braced by the tall woman's arms.
Then the smaller woman started up, tore herself free from her friend and ran to the brink of the sea. Her companion was by her side in an instant, but though her arms reached out to restrain her, she halted the gesture and merely stood close, though she was weeping. The small woman's eyes were as green as the sea, and quite dry. For a time she leaned into the breeze that blew over the water, then, at the last moment, she flung out one arm. Her friend seized it, and each clung to the other. Like drowning sailors, clutching at spars.
The wind rose, just a little. It scoured the sky clear till it gleamed. Close to sinking, the sun was the colour of bronze, heated and glowing, and smooth as a coin which has passed through hundreds of hands. Foam crusted the waves now, and these curled over troughs which were tinted the colour of blood. Leaning in on each other, the women returned to the rock. For some time they stayed quiet, but then the smaller one began to speak, flinging out words as though they were stones. "I must have known all along." Her face was wracked with self hatred. "I just wouldn't face it, so I lied to myself, pretended I didn't understand and that there was nothing else I could do."
"But there wasn't." The taller woman played with her friend's red gold hair, separating silky strands, combing them through her long, gentle fingers, constantly, soothingly.
The silence returned for a while. "I didn't tell you about the dream I had after we got out of the Keep," the small woman said suddenly. "Do you want to know why?"
"Tell me why." The tall woman kept up her stroking.
"Because the dream foretold the sacrifice. I saw myself holding a knife and then the child lying dead. I didn't want you to know that, and I knew if I said it out loud I couldn't hide it from myself any longer." Her face contorted again, but she did not cry,
The warrior's voice was deep and calm. "That's hindsight. But we don't even know now what really happened there. Not for sure."
"I put the child down. I asked for help. We got the help. The child was taken in payment." She paused. Her throat worked as she swallowed. "You saw it too, didn't you? What happened in the city? What destroyed it? That's what I recreated." With each sentence the small woman's hands clenched tighter and tighter as she turned her anger in on herself.
Her friend reached round her shoulders and captured her hands, coaxing them open. "Oh, Gabrielle," she sighed softly, when she saw blood beading cuts from the small woman's nails. She lifted one hand to her lips, then the other. After a moment, she said, "The child was dying. If you had left her in the forest she would have died there. If you'd left her in the Keep, she would have died there. She died on that stone. You didn't kill her. You couldn't save her. Everything else was just coincidence."
"Which conveniently saved our lives and killed everything else." Gabrielle's voice was heavy with self contempt.
"And which you didn't intend."
Gabrielle drew away a little. She shrank further into her herself, clasped arms tightly around herself and began rocking backwards and forwards.
"You didn't, Gabrielle. Whatever was going on there, it had to do with what happened a long time ago. When the thing which had taken over Mitos first attacked the city." The warrior had loosened her grip, but she kept close to her friend. "Listen to me. You aren't sure about anything at the moment, and neither am I. We both know that thing was in our heads some of the time. Messing with our thoughts."
Gabrielle sucked in a sob and began to rock herself faster. The warrior flinched, but gathered herself and carried on. "I'm sure of something, though. Just one thing. I'm sure about you. You hear me? Gabrielle?" She reached out and shook her, very slightly. "Listen." Now her voice took on a pleading note. "I'm not going to lose you, Gabrielle. Don't you leave me."
Gabrielle freed a hand and rested it on one of the warrior's, but she said nothing.
The woman drew in a breath. "I know a lot about guilt," she said. "I'm the world's greatest expert. I know how it feels. I feel guilty all the time. You want to know how I keep going?"
The smaller woman nodded, very slightly. The tempo of her rocking had slowed. Now it stopped.
"Because of you. Because you tell me, again and again, that I can. Because I trust you."
The hand which covered hers tightened a little. Knuckles whitened, veins showed blue under taut skin.
The warrior paused for a moment, took another breath. "Well, now it's time for you to trust me. I know you, Gabrielle, better than you know yourself sometimes. I know you're feeling guilty. People like you think and worry and care about others, and still you feel guilty, because you think you didn't do enough. And if you can't do anything, you feel most guilty of all." She renewed her embrace, drew the small woman back against her, resting her chin on her head. "But even though you can't always help people the way you want, you'd never hurt them. You hear me, Gabrielle? You're not guilty. Trust me on this."
Gabrielle turned a little, craned round till she could look up into her friend's eyes. "Then why do I feel as though I am, Xena?"
"Oh, love. Because you survived. I learned a long time ago not to punish myself for that. Now you've got to learn it too. You can't help being alive."
Gabrielle held her gaze for a long moment. Then she relaxed suddenly, settling back into her friend's arms with a sigh which was half a sob. "Okay," she said. "Okay. I'll try." She sucked in a breath, then another, her face crumpling. Soon she was weeping in earnest.
"That's my bard." Xena kissed the top of her head, and rocked her gently as she cried.
The sun sank lower. Rocks already submerged in the bay sent long shadows over the beach, pointing to land. The waves lapped closer and closer. It was nearly high tide. "Come on," Xena said finally. She slid off the rock and pulled her friend after her. "Let's get back to the village."
Gabrielle nodded. "Thanks, Xena. For everything."
"Nah," the warrior said, "self preservation. I need you, my bard." She settled her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and looked at her silently for a minute. Then she smiled.
The smaller woman put her hands over Xena's. Very slightly, her lips curved in a smile. "That was some sensitive chat," she said softly, and the smile widened into a grin, though tears still slid down her cheeks, as salt as the ocean.
"I've had a good teacher." Xena continued to study her partner for a time. Then she freed one hand and wiped her cheeks dry with her thumb, before, arm in arm, they walked back from the edge of the sea.
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