Truly, Madly, Gabby
Gabrielle stumbled forward, thrusting her hands out to break her fall. The leash around her neck tightened, and for a moment she actually wondered if she could possibly be throttled when she was already dead.
She knelt where she was, on her hands and knees, breathing hard.
Her vision was filled with the sight of two dusty boots and she looked up into the face of her tormentor.
He hauled up on her collar and she dragged herself up, using the front of his tunic to get some leverage. Her hands encountered the huge wound that gaped in his chest.
As she snatched her hands away he grabbed them back and pushed them hard into the cavity. "You don't like?" He mocked. "That's your whore woman's work. She did this to me."
Gabrielle met his gaze. "From what I hear you were asking for it."
Darfus pushed her away from him, and she landed in a heap on her behind. He circled her, never letting go of the leash. "You know she rutted the son of Zeus, don't you."
Gabrielle pointedly turned her face away from him.
He kicked her in the small of her back. "Look at me!"
Gabrielle gasped as pain radiated from the blow. She looked up into the eyes of the man who jerked savagely on the chain.
"You meant nothing to her." He said, hauling her to her feet. "And now you're here."
"I know how she felt." She said, pulling back with her hands on the leash. "And I'm here of my own free will. I knew the consequences of another night with her."
"Oh I don't think you did little girl. I don't think you realise exactly what you've done."
He grasped her shoulders roughly and turned her to face the men filing into the small area ahead of them. They all held short, sturdy batons.
"You're going to follow in her footsteps, Gabrielle. I thought it was appropriate." He shoved her slightly forward.
Xena had told her some of what happened when she ran the gauntlet. In the end Gabrielle could listen to no more of the account of her lovers suffering. She knew she wouldn't have survived the beating that Xena took.
However. Gabrielle now knew that she would survive this. Only to go through it again and again.
A harder shove in her back and she began to walk towards the two lines of men.
Xena suddenly became aware of a pain in her neck. She opened her eyes and felt the sharp pain intensify. The tip of a shining sword pressed into the smooth skin of her throat.
"Mastacles." She said, seeing the bearer of the sword.
"So who had the honour of putting you down bitch?" Said the dead warlord.
"Wouldn't you like to know." Xena crossed her hands behind her head and took on a bored look.
"I'm sorry it wasn't me, I had you at my mercy once, if it wasn't for those damnable Amazons..........." He shook his head slightly. "No matter, I'll have your head now."
He raised his sword above his head and brought it down... on nothing.
Xena regarded him from a few feet away.
"Sorry." She smiled. "But I don't have time to play." She pulled her chakram from its place at her hip and let it fly from her grasp.
Mastacles` hands flew to his throat to find nothing but air. His head fell between his feet with a sickening thud.
The eyes of the dead man watched her as she caught the chakram and disappeared into the mists of Tartarus.
It was the chains on her ankles that first caused Gabrielle to trip. A blow to her right shoulder spun her around, and then another to her jaw propelled her into the line of men on her right. They shoved her back into the centre. She staggered under the pummelling, and sank to her knees.
"Enough!" Called Darfus, pushing the men away from the fallen bard.
He watched as she toppled onto her side and then crouched beside her. "I'll be back." He said, and then left her to her misery.
She heard the other dead men walk away and waited til all was quiet. Gabrielle curled into a tighter ball and willed away the pain on her back and in her face. She wondered if this was what Xena felt when she went through the same thing in another lifetime. And strangely the memory of her warrior brought a smile to her battered face.
She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder, but the gentleness didn't immediately register and she flinched away from the touch.
She heard the voice, such a beautiful sound. But how cruel. Was this another punishment? After such a beating would she always hear and feel the voice and touch of her lover. Would she have to go through torment before a small snippet of her past happiness?
"Gabrielle, look at me."
Another gentle touch on her cheek, turning her face towards the voice.
"No." She said, forcing her battered body away from the vision in front of her. "What have you done? You promised me!" The blonde scrambled away from the warrior who rose to her feet.
"Gabrielle!" Xena reached for the injured woman. "It's me."
"I know. You said you'd go on. Go on without me. I told you to live." Gabrielle shook her head, squeezing her eyes shut tight.
Xena reached for the hysterical girl anchoring her to the spot. Tentatively she pulled the smaller woman into her arms. "Actually, we never finished that conversation." She pushed Gabrielle away from her for a moment, holding her at arms length. "I'm not dead." She said. "I've come to take you home."
Gabrielle, the bard, was speechless. She stared at the face in front of her. She badly wanted to believe what she was hearing, what she was seeing. She wanted to accept that the hands on her shoulders were those she had felt loving her many times before. She wanted to dismiss the small voice that was telling her that this was another torment of Tartarus.
Xena ran her thumb along a particularly unpleasant gash on Gabrielle's cheek. "We have to go." She said and pushed the pale hair off of the blonde's forehead. She took the small manacled hand in her own and started to pull the bard away.
"I can't leave this place Xena." Said Gabrielle, pulling back lightly, causing the Warrior to turn towards her again.
"Never say that Gabrielle. Anything is possible if you believe in us." She bent her head and kissed the trembling lips. " I called in a favour or two."
"It's that simple?" Asked an incredulous bard.
"Not quite." Said Xena, looking over the shorter woman's shoulder to see Darfus emerging from the mist.
"Xena!" the dead lieutenant bellowed. "Someone up there is a famous warrior today."
"Hello Darfus," said Xena, putting herself between the bard and the leering man. "You're looking well."
"I'm a happy man." He gestured towards them both. "My eternity has just looked even more pleasurable."
"Sorry to disappoint Darfus, I'm not staying."
The smile slipped from the dead man's face.
Xena pulled her sword from the sheath on her back and advanced towards Darfus, who also pulled his sword.
Xena kept Gabrielle behind her, catching the soft sound as the bard slumped to the floor once more. She knew she would have to make quick work of the warrior in front of her, and she knew she couldn't kill a dead man.
She easily dodged the first two blows, and a quick clean swipe of her sword severed the dead warrior's sword arm. The limb fell to the floor, still clutching the hilt of the sword it held.
Xena reached down and pulled the bard to her feet. A slash and the chain between the blonde's manacled feet fell apart.
Pulling the blonde behind her she ran into the swirling mists of Tartarus, the sound of an enraged inhabitant of the underworld echoing behind her.
After a few moments of running she felt Gabrielle pull back on her hand.
"Where are we going?" The bard gasped.
It was then that Xena suddenly realised she had no idea.
She could hear the approaching sounds of a pack of men, they were searching for her, and their sport this day in Tartarus was a hunt.
"Hades!" Xena shouted into the mist. "Show yourself."
The God appeared, strutting from the mist in a regal swagger. "I see you found her."
"It wasn't hard. I just followed the sound of a beating." She walked up to within a hair's breadth of the God. "She didn't deserve that." She growled.
"Do you still want my help?" asked Hades, ignoring her anger.
"You know I do."
"Very well." He stepped aside and an opening appeared in the solid wall behind him. "The way out." He said, pointing to the exit.
Xena shook her head slightly. "What's the catch," she asked. "There's always a catch."
Hades shrugged. "I would have thought that was obvious. In the real world Gabrielle is dead. You take her up there, she's dead."
Xena spun away from him. "So what is the point of all this?" She said throwing her hands into the air. "I can understand you tormenting me, but why her?"
She spun to face him. "You told me............."
"I told you there is a ritual to undergo once you get her out of Tartarus. That is still the case." He took a step towards her. "Go. I'll see you above."
The God disappeared and Xena reached forward and grabbed the bard's manacles wrist, pulling her into the opening.
As soon as they entered the dark tunnel Gabrielle grasped her chest.
"What? What is it?" Said Xena peering at the blonde intently.
"My chest hurts." Gasped the girl. "It hurts to breathe."
Xena closed her eyes for a long moment. "We have to go on." She said. "Can you do that?"
Gabrielle nodded and allowed herself to be pulled along by the ex warlord.
As they moved further along the tunnel it began to slope upwards. And the further up they went the weaker the bard became.
Eventually Xena had to reach down and scoop the exhausted girl into her arms.
"Xena?" the girl managed to whisper.
The dark head inclined so that she could hear the faint words. "What is it?" She said on a smile.
"I'd brave Tartarus again for another hour with you."
Tears sprang to the warrior's eyes.
"We have the rest of our lives, love."
"But, if this doesn't work?"
Xena shook her head. "I told you I was taking you home. Didn't I?"
Gabrielle nodded weakly. "It's cold."
Xena held the bard tightly against her chest. "Just a little longer."
"I love you."
Blue eyes heavy with tears, found the pale face. "And I love you." Said Xena.
So intent on her lover was she that Xena almost ran into the heavy doors at then end of the tunnel.
Using one strong leg she shoved the doors open.
She found herself in what appeared to be a temple of some sort. Stone sarcophacus line the walls and a large alter took up the centre of the room.
Three women stood behind the altar, their faces covered by the pale veils that surrounded their bodies.
Xena walked slowly towards the trio, the now limp body of the bard in her arms.
"What do I do?" she said, becoming annoyed at the women's lack of instructions.
The woman in the middle pointed to the altar, and Xena gently placed the bard on the cold stone surface.
She stepped back and waited.
"What will you give?" The voice came from behind her and Xena spun to find the God of the underworld approaching her.
"Give?" Xena asked.
"Yes, I want something in return. What will you give?"
Xena squared her shoulders. "Anything. Everything."
"Will you give your life?"
"Yes." She said without hesitation.
Hades approached the altar and put a hand on the bard's head. Then he reached a hand to Xena.
Xena took his hand and immediately fell to her knees, the life force draining from her. As her vision darkened she felt secure in the knowledge that her bard would survive her. That she'd done what she promised, she'd gotten her home.
She fell at the base of the altar, hearing with her last conscious sense the sound of the bard taking her first gasping breath.
Xena was hot. But she kept her eyes closed a while longer, knowing when she opened them she'd find herself back in the mists of Tartarus.
The warrior knew that voice. Loved that voice.
Hades had promised, her life for the bard's. What was this?
She opened her eyes to find a puzzled looking bard staring down at her. "What are you doing?"
Xena glanced around. She was sitting in her campsite. Off to the side Argo munched happily on long grass. The only things out of place were the bodies strewn around the campfire.
"Did you get hurt?" She asked, crouching down to peer into the blue eyes.
"You're alive." It wasn't a question.
"Um. Yes?" she said, reaching out a hand and feeling the warrior's forehead.
Xena grasped the hand and pulled it to her lips, tears escaping her lids and falling from the high cheekbones.
Gabrielle was becoming increasingly alarmed. "Xena?" she ducked to see more easily into the blue eyes. "What is it?"
Xena shook her head. "It's nothing. It's just..................." A deep breath. "Sometimes I wonder what would happen to me if something happened to you." The amazingly blue eyes softened. "You're my life, you know that don't you?"
"As much as I know that you're mine." Gabrielle stood. "You look hot, let me get some water."
With that the blonde stood and walked across to where their bedroll still lay and retrieved a water skin.
Xena watched the bard walking back towards her, and smiled at the sight of her lover, alive, whole, and very gorgeous. Her smile disappeared, however, as Gabrielle stopped beside the body of one of the men. She looked for a moment at him and then began to kneel beside him.
"No." Xena's voice was nothing more than a whisper. "No!" she said again, louder this time.
The bard's head snapped up when she heard the distinctive whine of the chakram and heard its metal edge strike something equally unyielding.
Xena was on her feet before her weapon returned to her hand and was securing it at her waist as she reached Gabrielle and hauled her to her feet.
"Are you hurt?" Asked Xena, crushing the bard to her chest.
She felt the fair head shake against her chest, and then Gabrielle's breath warmed the skin above her leathers. "No, nothing." Said the bard.
Xena released a long breath and held her lover at arm's length.
"He called to me. For water." Said Gabrielle looking back at the dead man.
"He had a knife."
Gabrielle shook her head again. "I didn't see it." She whispered, snuggling again into the strong embrace.
"That's ok, everything's ok." Said Xena, and rested her chin gently on the bard's golden hair.
They made it to Cyrene's Inn later that afternoon and that night Xena lay in her childhood room, a sleeping bard tucked securely against her side.
She couldn't sleep however, and gently disentangling herself from the blonde she threw on a robe and crept out into the balmy evening.
"Hades." Her voice was little more than a whisper. "Why?"
She felt the God arrive to her left, and turned to face him.
The God of the underworld smiled as he approached. He took her hand in his own. "Others have come to me and asked for a life to be returned. They were all given the choice. Their lives for that of their loved ones. You were the only one to accept. You are the only one to take a soul from Tartarus." The God began to fade from sight. "When your time comes Xena, you will be fairly judged."
The God disappeared, leaving a smiling Warrior Princess, her face wet with tears, looking forward to her life, and beyond with the woman who was the other half of her soul.