Most of these characters belong to Studios USA and any other owners of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This story was not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended.
A few ideas came from Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, "When Irish Eyes Are Killing," episode written by Grant Rosenberg. No copyright infringements intended toward DC Comics, Warner Brothers, or December Third Productions. NO, this is NOT a Xena/Superman cross-over. This is classic alt Xena/Gabrielle
Kallerine is back. Once again, this is not a Buffy/Xena crossover. Kallerine is an Amazon bacchae slayer who just happens to look like Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Violence: Take one warrior princess, blend thoroughly with a bardic Amazon queen, toss in the king of thieves, add one feisty red-headed druid, sprinkle in a few greedy villains, mix liberally with a handful of Amazons, and yeah, some swords are likely to cross.
Maintext: Rated R. Two women in love who sleep together as often as possible.
Questions/Comments/Suggestions welcome: email@example.com
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Setting: This story falls sequentially after "Divinity." For those new to the Xena/Gabrielle series, it is in order, "March the 16th," "A Solstice Treaty," "The Sixth Sense," Cleopatra 4 A.D.," and "Divinity." To read them, go to my website: http://home.earthlink.net/~texbard and click on the link for my stories.
Additional Background Info: My Xena/Gabrielle series parts ways with the show after the 4th season. The series begins after "The Ides of March" 4th season cliffhanger, and parts ways with the show at that point. No pregnant warrior, no Eve, no 25-year ice cave time warp, no dead Olympian gods, no new chakram, no angel Callisto, no Japan (ever). Their friends and family are still alive. Joxer is dead because he died in my first story. Callisto is in Hell. Xena's Norseland history is part of her history in the series, but only up to the part where she locked up Grindle with the ring.
Note on Tamara Gorski: For Herc fans, she was Morrigan, and appeared in half the 5th season episodes.
THE EYES OF EIRE
(a.k.a Amazons, Druids & Thieves, Oh My)
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~The snow sparkled in the light of the slanted afternoon sun, blinding at times as it broke through bare tree branches. The air was perceptibly warmer, in a relative sort of way. Their breath still created steamy white puffs and it was still cold, but wind was non-existent and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Xena broke the path ahead of them with Gabrielle close on her heels. A tight-lipped Morrigan followed a little ways behind with Kallerine bringing up the rear, the slayer's keen eyes constantly scanning the woods around them for enemies, of which they had encountered several that day.
Just as she started to relax, Xena's ears perked up and she groaned, a low frustrated growling sound from the gut. With an almost imperceptible hiss, she stopped and drew her sword, widening her stance, peering to her left, waiting.
"More trouble?" Gabrielle withdrew her sais, backing up to the warrior in a posture that had become increasingly familiar as the day wore on.
"Yeah." Xena nodded her head toward a thick pine grove. "Over there. Four of them, all with swords."
"At least the odds are even this time." The bard inclined her own head, listening.
Morrigan's dagger caught a shaft of sunlight, the beam glancing off the clean sharp blade as she twirled it absently in her hand, drawing closer to warrior and bard and looking off in the same direction toward the trees. "Here we go again," the druid muttered under her breath.
Kallerine had a blade in each hand, her eyes still roving the small grove. Ahh. She heard it now, the snap of a twig breaking and the sloosh of leather snowshoes on fine damp powder. Her nostrils flared, smelling oiled leather and tangy brass. A shift of air and clumps of thick wet snow fell from the tree branches as their attackers were suddenly exploded upon them.
The snow erupted in a cloud of flying powder and slashing metal, as each woman chose an opponent and set to work, methodically engaging the dark-clad warriors in their fourth battle of the day. They were tired, but adrenalin won out, in an instinctive will to survive and push forward to an uncertain destination. They were very near the entrance to the underworld, and it was Xena's theory that the series of attacks had been made by soldiers who guarded the underworld.
"Dammitalltohades," the warrior cursed, her sword almost wrenched from her grasp by a blow that rattled her to the bone. Her attacker was easily twice her weight and topped her by at least a foot. Covered head-to-toe in black leather and armor, his beady black eyes
glaring at her from behind a black facemask were the only sign he was human. She grimly altered her grip on her sword hilt and went on the offensive. "You're after the wrong people," she hissed. "We just want to visit, not stay."
A guttural grunt was the only response as the soldier deflected her blows with seeming ease. His eyes dropped to the chakram at her belt and he reached out with his sword, trying to free it from its loop. It was a mistake.
"Uh uh uh." Blue eyes flashed gleefully as Xena got inside his defenses, her blade making a sizeable gash in his upper thigh. She was rewarded with a fine spray of warm blood and a rather impressive scream. "So you are mortal." Another blow and his sword went flying. She spun, landing a solid kick to his throat, and heard the sickening sound of his windpipe as it crunched closed.
She turned to see utter chaos. Gabrielle was backed against a tree, her sais flying in a blur as she deftly fended off blows from a sword almost as long as she was tall, her attacker towering over her. At the same time, Kallerine was on her back, rolling back and forth and lashing out with her twin swords, just missing having her head lopped off. Only Morrigan was holding her own, the druid running swift circles around her attacker, keeping him off balance each time he swung his weapon.
Blue eyes tracked upward, over the bard's head, and she instinctively found her chakram with her fingertips. "Gabrielle, duck!" She let fly with the chakram, the familiar hiss ringing through the cold air as it lofted upward. It connected with a thick snow-laden branch, which fell with an unceremonious thud, pinning the bard's attacker into a snow bank and rendering him helpless. Xena watched her partner roll clear and nodded in satisfaction. Good girl.
She tucked and leaped, spinning through the air and landing behind the slayer's opponent. She tapped the soldier on his back and he whirled around in surprise. His eyes grew wide for a split second, before a brass sword hilt slammed into his face and he dropped soundlessly to the snow, blood gushing from his busted lips.
"Uggh." Kallerine rose to her feet, dusting snow from her cloak and leathers. "Thanks, Xena. Fighting in snow sucks big time." She swiped at a large cold clump on top of her now-damp hair.
"Yeah. Welcome." The warrior was about to step in and aid Morrigan, when the druid found an opening, skillfully plunging her dagger into a seam in the soldier's armor, piercing his heart and killing him instantly. She swiped her blade into the snow, cleaning it of blood before tucking it back into the sheath at her hip. "Good work," Xena looked around the small glade. It was once again quiet, but no longer pristine, the snow liberally painted in bright red in several spots.
"Let's take a break." The warrior dropped down on a log, uncapping a water flask and taking several healthy gulps before passing it around to the others. Gradually, disturbed winter birds began to sing in the trees overhead.
Morrigan sat across from her on a boulder, perching thoughtfully on the edge, her knees drawn up to her chest. She dug around in her pack and pulled out a portion of dried venison, biting into it viciously and tearing at it, chewing in quiet anger. "They're keeping me from gettin' to ma daughter."
"Don't you worry." Blue eyes met blue. "If Alti has her, we're gonna get her back. She's messed with one too many children, and it's gonna stop here."
The druid blinked, nodding slowly, a spark of hopeful belief in her eyes.
"Xena," Gabrielle trudged over, plopping down next to the warrior and shaking snow from her hair. "Do you think this is the welcome all humans receive if they try to enter the underworld while they're still alive, or do you think someone … or something … doesn't want us in particular to get in?"
"Don't know. I figure not many humans willingly try to enter the underworld, alive or dead." Xena smiled wryly and offered over the water. "It's not Alti, at any rate. She wants us there. I'm almost surprised she hasn't intervened, except she probably enjoys watching us struggle, if she's watching us at all right now."
"Do you think she is?" Kallerine was leaning quietly against a tree trunk, and she visibly shuddered, unconsciously bringing a hand up to the healing fang marks at her neck.
"I don't think so." The warrior looked around. "I don't feel her presence right now. However …" She stood, walking around in a circle, studying the branches overhead. "Okay. Show yourself." Her nape hairs bristled and her voice dropped to its lowest register.
"Ares?" Gabrielle stood up uncertainly. "All the way up here?" She followed the warrior's gaze, spotting only a lone raven perched high overhead on a branch. It looked right at her and cackled loudly, making her jump.
"No." Xena crossed her arms over her chest, tapping one snowshoe impatiently. "Come on, I don't have all day."
The raven swooped down, landing gracefully in the snow a body's length away from her. In a flash it materialized into a man, with long grayish white hair and a noble beard and moustache. "Hello, Xena." The man strode closer.
"Hello, Odin." She stood her ground.
So that's Odin. Gabrielle watched in fascination. She reflected that her partner must have been very close to the Norse god at one time, given Xena's ability to sense his presence, not so unlike her ability to sense Ares whenever he was around. On the surface the warrior was all business, a 'don't mess with me' attitude firmly in place. Only the bard caught the slightly different set to her posture, her head not held quite as high as normal, her eyes almost meek. She's afraid. Gabrielle looked closer. No, not afraid. Remorseful.
"Long time no see." The alto voice softened.
"Let's cut the pleasantries, shall we, Xena?" The god's eyes were hard. "The last I heard of you, you'd stolen one of my horses and ridden away in the middle of the night."
"Yeah, well." The warrior looked down, kicking at the snow. "It was that or face off with a half dozen enraged Valkyrie and three really pissed Rhine maidens. Not to mention what you would have done to me if you'd caught me. I was saving my sorry hide, Odin. It was my only option if I wanted to live."
"You had the ring, Xena." He cocked his head in question. "You could easily have fought us off with it."
"I … what?!" She felt her knees almost give way, and made a conscious effort to remain standing. "You … you don't know, do you?"
"Know what?" The god sputtered. "That you stole my Rhinegold and forged it into an evil ring, that you injured one of my maidens, that you played me for a lovesick fool, or that my lover was last seen chasing you down? Which thing do you think I don't know?"
"Oh Gods." The warrior buried her face in her hands for a long moment, then raked her fingers back through her hair. "I can't tell you how sorry I am for all of those things. But no, what I meant is, I don't have the ring, Odin. She …" Xena trailed off. He doesn't know what became of Grinhilda. Amazing. Do I tell him? Her expression grew sober. No. Not until I'm ready to do something about it. "I lost it in a fight." The truth, at least in part.
"What!?" The god stepped closer, caught between rage and terror, his face red and his nostrils flaring. "You mean to tell me that something as powerful as the ring is out there somewhere?"
"No." Xena was acutely aware of three pairs of eyes centered firmly on her back, one pair in particular. So much for waiting to explain the Norse lands. "You've heard of Grindl, haven't you?"
"You mean that hideous monster that's locked up in the far north woods? Of course I have!" he barked. "I have to send out regular patrols to make sure it's still safely locked up. Can't figure out where the damned beast came from, but the lock on the cage must have been forged by Hephestus himself."
"It was," Xena answered quietly. "I'm the one that locked it up. But not before it managed to wrench the ring from my finger. Your ring is most likely still in the cage with Grindl. I can't imagine it would have parted with it."
"Are you certain of that?" Bushy white eyebrows rose in question.
"Yeah. I am." Her voice was listless, and Gabrielle could almost see the sorrow rolling off the sad slumped shoulders.
"Well that's a relief. The monster must love something, or else it could have used the ring to escape by now." Odin's entire posture relaxed.
"Yeah. It must love something," Xena echoed softly, unable to meet his gaze. "Listen, Odin, I know I need to make some things right by you, but I've got more pressing matters right now. Those your soldiers who've been attacking us all day?"
"Yes." He circled her slowly, his cloak swirling about his legs as he moved. Gabrielle caught the gleaming head of a battle-axe hanging from his belt beneath the thick material. "My dear Xena, you are a dangerous woman. My scouts reported to me that you were near the entrance to the underworld, accompanied by three women warriors." He heard Gabrielle suppress a chuckle and stared at her until she stopped. "Something funny, Blondie?"
Why do all gods call me 'Blondie?' "No. Nothing at all." The bard swiped a hand across her own mouth and tried her best to maintain a serious expression. She wasn't used to being referred to as a warrior.
"As I was saying," the Norse god continued, "You're a dangerous woman, and I can't allow you so near to Loki. I know you, Xena. You're power hungry. I wouldn't put it past you to cut a deal with him if it would serve your own selfish purposes."
"Odin, you listen to me." The warrior was suddenly in his face. "I am not the one you need to worry about. I'm here to stop someone from possibly releasing Loki. If you don't believe me, send some of your scouts into the underworld. They should find a shamaness named Alti in there. She has a powerful mask -- the Eyes of Eire. You ever heard of it?"
"Yes." Odin suspiciously stroked his beard. "I thought it died out with the death of the druids."
"They didna' all die." Morrigan strode forward, holding out her hand. "I'm Morrigan, the guardian of justice."
Odin stepped back in reflex. "Really? And how did you survive Dahak's slaughter?"
"I wasna' with the druids. I was with Hercules at the time." She met his gaze, completely unafraid. "If it weren't fer Hercules, I would have perished with ma fellow druids."
"Hercules." Odin reflected. "I've met him. Good fellow. So … this Alti has your mask. Do I even want to know how that happened?"
"Long story," Xena interjected. "The point is, she has it, and for all we know she's the one who's cut a deal with Loki. If I don't get to her, she will use the mask, one way or another. Do you want to hold me back and risk Ragnarok, Odin?"
"I don't need you to stop her, Xena. I'm a god, remember?" He laughed condescendingly. "If she's down there, I can handle her."
"Don't be so sure," the warrior countered. "For some reason, she wants me down there. Listen, Odin, my history with Alti is complicated. We go back. Way back. We are destined to meet in battle time after time. She's got incredible power, Odin. Enough to outwit the gods, at least some of them, if she so chooses. Please, let me handle this, okay?"
"Why should I believe anything you have to say?" His eyes narrowed in anger. "You led me on, used me, and lied to me. Why should this time be any different?"
"You're just gonna have to trust me." She allowed her voice to take on a pleading tone.
His laughter rang out like great bells, reverberating off the trees. "Trust you?" He snorted. "What kind of fool do you think I am, Xena?" He eyed her carefully. "Okay, prove it. Leave your little blonde girlfriend with me until you return." He watched her brows shoot into her hairline. "That's right. I've been watching you long enough to know she means a great deal to you. It's obvious."
"I can't do that." The warrior held a hand behind her back. "Gabrielle, don't even think about it."
The bard halted in her tracks. "But Xena, if that's what it takes to prevent Alti from destroying the world …"
"No." Her voice was low and cold. "I'm not leaving you behind ever again. Especially not now. Not with Alti involved." She thought quickly and smiled. "Here." She unclasped he chakram from its loop. "You've seen this, right? You know how much I value it."
"It is beautiful." Odin nodded affirmatively, studying the glittering metal with its inlaid jewels. "Go on."
"It's one of a kind, Odin. Crafted by Ares for me personally. Will that do until I return?" She blinked meekly, holding the weapon out in front of her with both hands, her thumbs caressing the cold metal.
"Okay." The god slowly stepped forward. "What if I decide to keep it, not give it back?"
A feral smile appeared on the warrior's face. "I'll come after you."
Odin smirked. "I could crush you right now, Xena."
"Maybe." She flipped the chakram up, spinning it on her fingertip. "Maybe not. But you touch me, or try to abscond with my chakram, and Ares will be knocking on your door."
"Fair enough." Odin finally chuckled. "Okay, Xena, give me the chakram and go on in. My warriors won't bother you again. But my watchers will be keeping an eye on you. One false move and I'll enter the underworld myself and finish you, much as I detest the place. You come back out without wreaking havoc down there, and I'll give you back your chakram."
"Deal." She held out the chakram in one hand, her other hand extended to seal the agreement.
"One more thing." He took hold of the weapon. "Someday, Xena, I do expect you to come to Valhalla and put things right. You said you locked up Grindl and Grindl has my ring. I want it back, Xena, no matter what you have to do to get it."
"Okay." She clasped hands, closing her eyes in quiet anguish. Their arms touched briefly, then he vanished in a flash of golden light, along with her chakram.
"Xena …?" Gabrielle moved cautiously closer, anxiously watching Xena's rigid back.
"Not now, Gabrielle." She slowly turned around to face her lover. "I want to cover as much ground as possible before nightfall. Let's get moving."
"But Xena, your chakram …" the bard trailed off, an unreadable expression in the blue eyes stopping her.
They softened, crinkling up at the edges. "You're worried about me?"
"Yes." Relief washed over her. "It scares me to think of you facing Alti without your chakram."
"Oh, that." Xena smiled and draped an arm over her shoulder, steering her across the glade toward their discarded packs. "I wasn't planning to take it with me anyway. My sword either."
"Huh?" Gabrielle's head spun around in shock.
"Look." The warrior stopped, placing a hand on each of her partner's shoulders, willing her to relax. "Don't worry. I've got a plan and that's part of it. I … I have a lot of explaining to do, I know." Her hand came up, stroking a cold cheek. "Can it wait until we make camp tonight?"
Gabrielle smiled, laying her hand over Xena's. "It can wait as long as you need it to."
"Thanks." The warrior impulsively kissed her, oblivious to their thoughtfully watching companions.
"To understand who I was in Valhalla, you have to understand where I'd been." Xena kept her eyes trained carefully on the campfire, unable to meet the intense green ones that were locked on her from so nearby. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." She picked up a pinecone and hurled it savagely into the flames, watching as blue and green sparks crackled around it. "First Caesar betrayed me, then Borias."
"But you went back to Borias after you left Lao Ma, didn't you? Solan. You had him after …" Gabrielle stopped, unconsciously drawing up inside herself, bracing herself for the conversation at hand.
"Solan was the product of a relationship of convenience." She shook her head. "But we're getting ahead of the story. Yeah, I left Lao Ma and took up again with Borias, but my eyes were wide open. No one … and I mean no one … was going to betray me again after that. At least I thought, at the time, that I could control that."
"I'm sorry." The bard's voice was soft and strained. "I never … in Chin … I didn't know …"
"Gabrielle." Xena finally looked up. "Long forgiven. Besides, your motives were a lot more pure than any of the others."
"But I was jealous." The green eyes watered up, threatening to spill over. "I went there, partly because I hated that you loved Lao Ma."
"And because you loved me, right?" The warrior smiled, the tiniest smile, encouraging her partner.
"Yes. That too." Gabrielle hesitantly slid closer, until their legs were touching. She barely noticed the cold at her back, or the bumpy uneven surface of the log they were seated on. All she knew was the warmth of Xena's presence, so close, and an overwhelming need to understand her partner, and an even greater need to make Xena understand that the love she offered was unconditional, no matter what happened in Valhalla. "I always will."
"Gabrielle. No one ever cared about my soul more than you. Your methods may have been faulty, but your motives were pure, for the most part. You went to Chin for my own damned good, and we both know that." The warrior pressed her hand against a leather-clad leg, curling her fingers around the bard's knee and giving it a brief squeeze.
"Caesar, he misled me. Borias, he threw me away, all for an alliance with Lao Ma." Her lips pressed into a thin grim line. "I hated both of them. Truth is, Gabrielle, Borias had every right to hate me, a lot more than I hated him." She averted her eyes again. "I ruined his life. Being with me was poison, just like it was for dozens of others before and dozens of others after. Because of me, he lost his wife, two sons, and ultimately, his life."
"Two sons?" I thought there was only Solan. "But … his wife? Xena, did you marry Borias?"
"No. He was married when I met him. To Natassa, a hot-tempered woman from the north. But she loved him, and they had a son, Belach. I seduced Borias, and I made sure it was at a time when Natassa would know about it. She … caught us …" The bronzed cheeks reddened in shame, the heat burning her face. "I convinced him to ride away with me. He left Natassa and Belach behind. As far as I know, he never saw them again. I think that's why he so badly wanted to make a family of me and Solan." She blinked, sending a scattering of her own tears down her cheeks. Gabrielle reached up, brushing them away with her fingertip.
The warrior felt her lover's gentle touch, then the warmth of the bard's hands wrapping around her biceps, and Gabrielle's head pressed against her shoulder, blonde silky hair tickling her face. She closed her eyes, resting her head against her partner's. "Anyway, that's how it all began. We took off, went East. It was after Caesar … I was still limping, walking with a cane. I was angry. So angry. I'd lost my men and M'Lila, all because of Caesar. I took out my rage on the world. Borias was good at negotiations. I was good at strategy. He was a good warrior. I taught him to be a great one. But he never had the fire I did. He wanted possessions and lands. I wanted blood."
"We blazed a path of terror from Greece to the far eastern regions of Chin. Borias, he kept fighting me -- fighting my desire to conquer and kill indiscriminately. He understood people a whole lot better than I did … had the ability to figure out who would be good allies. Me, I sabotaged them for him, every last alliance. First Lao Ma, then the Northern Amazons. Finally, the Centaurs. He kept trying, and I kept destroying." She breathed a great sigh. "I was so sure I knew it all. In reality, I was so clueless."
"He must have loved you, to stay with you through all of that." A matter-of-fact statement, not meant to sting. She reached down, taking Xena's hand and rubbing her thumb against the back of it. "Even back then, Xena, there was a lot inside of you to love. You just needed …"
"I needed you." She kissed the blonde head. But I'm so glad, my love, that you didn't know me back then. "You've heard all about Lao Ma, and that time. You know that in the end, once again, I rode away with Borias. But the emotional wounds were too raw. We fought all the time. I didn't trust him and he didn't trust me. What we shared, was an animalistic attraction and a desire to rule the world. But I wasn't sure if I was ready to be with him again. And I was still consumed with rage for Caesar. I wanted to build an army with Borias and go after Rome. Borias wanted to focus on becoming rich. So I left him again. Took off."
"And went to the Norse lands?" Green eyes looked up, drinking in this new information about her lover's past.
"Not right away. I wandered around, fighting my way from Mongolia to Gaul, and exercising my legs until I lost my limp. I was in a tavern in Gaul when I learned the legend of the Rhinegold." She paused, leaning over and tossing another log on the fire. It hissed and flared, increasing the warmth. "Hades, Gabrielle, I didn't even know if it was true, but if it was, I had to have it. With that kind of power I could have defeated Caesar all on my own."
"I made my way to the woods near Valhalla. Learned everything I could about the Norselands. I stalked Odin for weeks, watching his comings and goings as best I could. My first meeting with him was no accident. I played him for all he was worth. It took some time, but I gradually won him over." He eyes shone, in spite of herself. "He made me a Valkyrie. We … were supposed to honor Odin's chosen warriors by taking them to Valhalla after they died in battle. I … all I really did was send them into battle to die, and left the other Valkyrie to clean up after me. I had Odin wrapped around my little finger." Her brows furrowed. "I still don't know exactly how I managed that."
"I can't imagine," the bard intoned drolly, her eyes drifting from long dark tresses, to pale blue eyes, to soft tanned skin, to the long muscular, yet very womanly body next to her. Mmmmm …. Stop that right now, she verbally chastised herself. We're having a serious conversation here, for Artemis' sake.
"Yeah. Mystery to me." Xena shrugged in genuine puzzlement, and continued. "What you heard from Odin this afternoon, that's pretty much it in a nutshell. I gained his confidence and talked him into telling me how to find the Rhinegold. I charmed a Rhine maiden into taking me to it, busted her face, stole the gold, and forged it into a ring of ultimate power."
"Xena." Gabrielle stretched her legs out, crossing them at the ankles. "Yeah, that was bad. But you never used the ring to hurt anyone, did you? You keep talking about Valhalla like it's the worst thing you ever did. That's really not as bad as a lot of other things you've told me about. You used other people. Stole other things. You certainly beat up a lot of people worse than that Rhine maiden." Not to mention crucifying them. She shuddered. "You said you locked up a dangerous monster. That seems like it was a good thing. I don't get it."
"That monster was Grinhilda." The warrior's voice was hoarse with pain.
"Grinhilda? Who's …?" Oh. Gabrielle put two and two together, recalling Odin's references to his missing lover. "Oh, Xena. No."
"Yes." The warrior held her breath, waiting for the tongue-lashing she surely deserved. Instead, she felt gentle fingers stroking her scalp, the bard pressing up tightly against her. "The Rhinegold … the ring … no one should touch it unless they've forsaken love. If they do, they'll destroy the thing they love. Not so terribly different from this mask we're after. Grinhilda and I had a horrible fight. She got the ring from me and put it on. She became Grindl, the monster. What she loved most was her beauty and her strength. Actually, I think she loved those things because Odin loved them. In a way, she destroyed Odin too. He was never the same after she disappeared, from what I hear. Anyway, the ring took away her looks, and replaced her cunning human strength with ugly brute force. Grindl is formidable. Grindl with the ring would be unstoppable, if Grindl … err .. Grinhilda … ever forsakes love. So I locked her up and left her there, and never told anyone what became of her. Until now."
"Is there anything we can do to help her be herself again?"
"WE … aren't going to do anything to help her." Blue eyes narrowed obstinately.
"No." She reached across, cupping the bard's face. "Gabrielle, please. I really don't want to fight with you about this right now. I owe Odin. I know that. But getting that ring back from Grindl … it would be foolhardy, even for someone like Hercules. Me … you … I don't know. I can't … can't … think about that right now. We're about to go face Alti. Please. Let's get through this battle first. Then we'll talk about Valhalla, okay?"
"Okay." The bard sniffed the air delicately. "I think dinner's almost ready."
"You think?" Xena peered behind them, toward a small cave where Morrigan and Kallerine had readily agreed to make camp and cook dinner, sensing their need to be alone for a while. The glow of the cook fire inside reached out, reddish-gold fingers painting the surface of the white snow on the ground near the entrance.
"So … what's the plan?" Gabrielle's stomach growled loudly.
"You, my bard, haven't eaten more than a couple of handfuls of nuts and berries since breakfast." Xena stood, drawing her up with a strong arm around her waist. "Let's get you fed and then we'll talk about the plan. I need to let the others in on it too, if we're gonna pull it off."
They carefully put out the fire before them, then turned, walking arm-in-arm toward the cave.
"Are you going to explain the part about the flying horses?" The bard playfully bumped hips. "Sounds like fun."
"Yeah, sure." Xena rolled her eyes and kept walking.
Dense pines surrounded them, and thick dead undergrowth covered in a heavy layer of snow. What little bit of skin that was exposed was liberally marred with fine scratches from thorny brown shrubs that were dry and sharp, and snapped at the slightest step or push of a hand. Time and again, they had to stop and untangle curled clutching twigs from the crossed wooden slats and leather bindings of their snowshoes. It had been, by far, the most tiresome leg of the journey.
And we're not even in the underworld yet. Gabrielle's sober face stared solemnly ahead, focused on her partner's black woolen cloak and the deer-hide backpack strapped against her shoulders. An eerie wind whistled through the trees, swirling around them and reaching a high unnerving pitch that grated against their ears. The bard's skin crawled at each tiny noise, and she was certain they were being watched. She was cold to the core. I'm so tired of this frigorific weather. If I never see snow again after this trip, it will be too soon.
There was a tiny silver lining. True to Odin's promise, no more soldiers had challenged them, and their main adversary became nature itself. Kallerine continued to bring up the rear, and she was constantly peering back behind them, also feeling their watchers. She shivered. None of that, she chastised herself. You've slain dozens of Bacchae. What's one tiny trip into the bad place? She shuddered again. Afraid they're going to want to keep you? Maybe you belong there, huh? Those Bacchae used to be human after all. You're as good as a murderer, aren't you? She stopped, pushing her hood away and raking her fingers back through light brown locks, closing her eyes in an effort to chase the unsettling thoughts away.
"Hey." Gabrielle fell behind, waiting for the slayer to catch up to her. "You okay?" She reached out, placing a hand on Kallerine's shoulder.
"Yeah." The slayer stood up to her full height. "Just wondering."
"Wondering what?" The bard dropped her hand, needing it to keep heavy branches from slapping back against her.
"Vague stuff, mostly. Wondering if I'm on the right path, I guess."
Oh boy. The bard studied the serious face, remembering her own search for her way. "Does it feel right?"
"Mostly, I suppose." Kallerine swiped at some low tangled branches, using a dagger to good effect.
"I knew nothing about the world when I left Potadeia to follow Xena. I knew only the worship of the Greek gods and life in a simple farming and shepherding community. I had never been any further than the next town." Gabrielle smiled, remembering her young wide-eyed self. "Just following Xena to Amphipolis took me further than I'd ever traveled. I saw my first Cyclops. Spent my first night sleeping under the stars. I left in the middle of the night, so no one would stop me. I hadn't a clue who I really was or what in the name of Artemis I was doing. All I knew was that I couldn't spend another day in Potadeia. I'd seen another way."
It seemed like a lifetime ago. She hugged Lila one last time and slipped through the door of their shared bedroom, not daring to look back lest she lose her nerve. A few tiptoed steps across the main room and she was out the front door, past the barn, and through the gate. It swung closed behind her with a resounding squeak, making her jump. Only then did she turn around, stopping to imprint her childhood home in her mind -- the low slope of the stable roof, the long covered front porch, and the half-dozen chickens nesting under the barn's outer eaves. She wondered if she'd ever see it again.
What am I doing? She wondered if she had lost her mind. A pair of pale blue eyes came to mind, eyes that saw right through her. Xena, the warrior princess, had crashed into a small clearing outside town, saving her life and changing her worldview forever. I can't believe I dared speak to her. She chuckled into the moonlit darkness.
'You've got to take me with you, teach me everything you know.' Where did that come from? When had she become so brazen? What, exactly, did she expect the dour warrior to teach her? By the gods, Gabrielle, you can't even swing an axe with any grace. What in Tartarus makes you think you could ever be a warrior?
All she knew was that the warrior represented everything she wanted -- everything she'd ever hoped to be. Xena was brave, free, and answered to no one. She traveled where she wanted when she wanted to. She wasn't afraid and could hold her own against a dozen armed men that were bigger than her. She was untouchable. And yet … a tiny smile played at Gabrielle's lips. Underneath that she'd caught a glimpse of something. She wouldn't have come to our house if she didn't want to.
Maybe the warrior was just being polite, not turning down the hospitality of simple village folk who had no other means to thank her than to offer her a cup of water and a bite of stew, and to tend to a few minor scratches that Xena probably barely felt. Maybe she wanted to see them safely home, make sure none of Draco's men doubled back and tried to come after them again. Maybe she just wanted to sit down, take a break from her travels.
She thought about that and frowned. Since when do warriors shed their armor and bury their weapons? What had Xena been doing in that clearing, right before the slavers chased her and her berry-picking companions there? Maybe she didn't want to be a warrior anymore. No. This woman was surely a warrior. Xena didn't just fight. She gloried in battle. The skirmish in the clearing had been a simple lark for the warrior, barely an exercise. Gabrielle shivered in idle pleasure, remembering the gleam in the blue eyes as Xena took on Draco's men.
She was enjoying herself.
So why did she bury her weapons and armor? More importantly, what happened in that clearing that made her pick them up again? In a flash, one thing became crystal clear to a young girl from Potadeia. We may not have another single solitary thing in common, but I think we share at least this one thing. We're both looking for the answers.
She shook her head in quiet resolution, firmly turning her back on the only house she had ever lived in, shouldering her bag and taking her first certain step in a very long time. She followed a thin worn path to a side trail, which led to a pair of wagon ruts, the main street of Potadeia. Less than a half candle mark later her home village was but a memory.
It was dark and she should have been afraid out there, unarmed, hearing the shuffled scurrying of night creatures she couldn't identify, as they moved in the woods just off the lonely path. But she wasn't afraid. She was excited. She knew not what lay ahead. Only that something bigger than herself was drawing her to a town called Amphipolis. It was insane.
Nothing had ever felt more right.
"I've known a lot of uncertainty since then." Gabrielle stepped up and over a felled tree, her snowshoes sloshing in loose powder. "But there was one thing I was always certain of."
"What was that?" Kallerine followed her, jumping over the log in a flurry of snow.
"Being with Xena felt right. I explored a lot. Tried on a lot of hats. Studied a lot of different cultures and philosophies. Xena was the one solid constant thing through all of that." She smiled, looking up at the late afternoon sky, a few puffy white clouds floating in clear cold blue. "If something feels right to you, Kallerine, I've learned that generally, it is. I've also learned the hard way that it doesn't pay to ignore your gut. It's rarely wrong." She looked ahead, where Xena and the druid were in quiet serious conversation, their heads drawn together. "You're a lot like her, you know."
"Like who?" Kallerine snorted. "Xena? Get out!"
"No. Really." Gabrielle watched a faint blush creep across the slayer's cheeks. "Xena knows the dark side, and she fought who she was for a very long time. It's so funny, now, to look back. We were trying to become each other. In India, we learned that it was okay to be true to our own internal nature. She's a warrior. I'm mostly a peaceful poet. Our strengths and weaknesses balance each other. Krishna told her that she had to follow the path of the warrior. I saw it then. She relaxed, and quit beating herself up so much. We have to be what we were meant to be. We were just lucky enough to get to be who we are together."
"Where do you think you'd be if you hadn't found each other?" The slayer re-sheathed her dagger, as the tangled undergrowth began to clear.
"She'd be dead, and I'd be off somewhere serving as someone's slave girl. Maybe we'd both be dead." Amazing really, she mused, how one small glance had changed everything. Everything. In the middle of a life-and-death battle, in chaos, their eyes locked. In that brief moment, volumes were spoken. A defeated soul who desperately needed someone, anyone, to believe there was something good left in her. A young girl, downtrodden in spirit, who desperately needed someone to believe in.
"You're sure of that?"
They walked on in silence, Kallerine's thoughts inexplicably drawn toward a tall redhead they'd left back in Morrigan's village.
It was dusk when they finally reached their destination. Xena debated. Make camp and go in in the morning, or go in now? She snorted. Like we'd get any sleep at all camping just outside the portal to the underworld. I can just imagine the nightmares some of us might have, myself included. She shivered, remembering a spinning cross in Tartarus, her own body lashed to it, her head full of Gabrielle's anguished sobs, begging her to come back. No, thank you. Once was enough.
They were standing at the bottom of an ominous hill, the top covered in snow, while the ground around them was a mucked mess of soggy dead vegetation and mud. The snow underfoot had gradually melted away some distance back, and it was perceptibly warmer than it had been earlier in the day. Although … the warrior closed her eyes, testing the air. Her head was still cold, but the ground underfoot was warm, a few tendrils of steam rising from the wet earth.
She looked up at the top of the hill and then at the sun, gauging place and distance. "The entrance is very nearby."
"Maybe over there, do ya think?" Morrigan pointed toward a mass of thick tangled vines. "Kernunnos said he had to cut his way through some heavy growth after he got out of there."
"True." Xena drew her sword and took a step, her boot making a sucking sound as she withdrew it from ankle deep sludge. "Ugghh. Those are gonna be fun to clean up later. Follow me." She began hacking her way through the thick foliage, a mix of thorny vines and ivy. She looked at the ivy more closely and sighed. Figures. "Don't touch any of the leaves if you can help it. There's poison ivy mixed in with this stuff."
"Great." Kallerine scratched her neck involuntarily. "I can just look at poison ivy and get it."
"Pull up your cloak hood." Morrigan reached out, tugging at the slayer's wrap. "Cover yourself as much as you can."
"I would, but it's so blasted hot here." She swiped her hand across a dewy brow. "What's up with that, anyway?"
"Early thaw?" Gabrielle hazarded a guess.
"Underworld." Xena stopped, peering intently at a large slab of stone that marked the end of the trail before it reached the side of the rocky hill. More steamy fingers were emerging from beneath the edges of the slab. "Errfff." She knelt down, grasping one side of the slab. "Give me a hand, will ya?"
The other women each took a place on the three remaining sides of the slab and with great effort, they lifted it. "Whoa." The warrior teetered on the edge of a deep dark hole. "Careful." They all stood, holding onto the slab, waiting for instruction. "Gabrielle, move out of the way. The rest of us are gonna heave this thing in your direction."
The bard complied, quickly moving to Morrigan's side, to assist the druid, while Xena carefully stepped around next to Kallerine, and they held the slab on only two sides. "Okay, let's move it over here and lower it carefully. I'd hate to break the door to the underworld."
With a loud thud, they dropped the slab in the mud, feeling the jolt as it hit the ground. Xena moved back to the round open hole and got down on her stomach, inching toward the edge and peering down. It was hot in there, no doubt, the waves washing over her face like an oven. It was deep, and way down at the bottom, she could just make out a faint reddish glow. Her nostrils flared, the scent of brimstone and fire reaching her nose. It tickled something in her memory, and she realized it was similar to the scent that Ares always produced when he flashed in and out in his characteristic red puff of smoke.
"Hmmpph." She sat up, scooting away from the opening, and began to methodically remove her weapons, backpack, and cloak. "Kernunnos didn't mention having to climb out."
"Kernunnos …" Morrigan reflected, "… knowing what I know of 'im, I'm surprised 'e gave us good directions at all."
Gabrielle sat in pensive silence, folding her cloak and carefully tucking her sais inside its soft folds. "Xena, are you sure about weapons?"
"Gabrielle, you and the others can take anything in there you want. I already explained to you why I'm leaving my sword behind." She stood, picking up all her belongings and stowing them behind a log. She reached into her vest, withdrawing the last remaining weapon, her breast dagger. She flipped it around in her hand, her eyes far away, thinking. After a long silent debate, she tucked it back inside her vest. "I'm taking that, but it's the only weapon I'm carrying in."
"You're certain about that dream?" The bard moved carefully to her side, rolling her tense shoulders, glad to be rid of the pack and the cloak.
"I know you think I'm crazy." The warrior looked down, swiping her boot against the log in an attempt to remove some of the mud. "But I played the dream over and over in my mind, and it was definitely my sword I was going to stab you with. I just figure … if Alti was showing me the future, like she did with those crucifixion visions, if I can remove the physical elements that make up the dream, maybe I can keep it from happening."
"Xena." Gabrielle's hand wandered up a leather-clad side, her fingers finding the exposed skin of the warrior's neck. She made little circles with her thumb, watching the blue eyes flutter closed. "It's not going to happen. It's just not. I hate it when you do this to yourself. Last time …" Aw, Hades. Gabrielle stopped too late, her partner's blue eyes reflecting deep remorse. "I … didn't mean to bring that up. I'm sorry." She moved closer, tentatively touching Xena's now-bare arm. She had shucked the long-sleeved undershirt due to the heat.
"I know. I'm sorry too." Shove it down, Xena. You spent a half a year driving her and yourself crazy, avoiding anything that remotely resembled Rome or snow-covered mountains. It didn't make a gods-be-damned bit of difference in the end, now did it? It's always going to be between us and you just have to live with that. "I can't help it." She looked down, studiously plucking at the brass and leather armored vest.
"Hey." The bard offered her a half-hearted smile. "Don't know why I'm worried anyway." She grasped Xena's hands, tugging them away from the vest and brushing her thumbs across scarred knuckles. "These alone have gotten us out of a lot of fixes, huh?"
"Yeah." The warrior finally looked up, meeting hesitant green eyes. "Guess they have."
"Although I still don't understand why you wouldn't take your chakram in." She wrapped one finger around the hook at Xena's waistline. "That is, if you still had it. It wasn't part of the dream, was it?"
"Nope." Xena fluffed the bard's bangs. "But my chakram could more than likely sever the chains that bind Loki. I wouldn't want to take even the slightest chance that someone could get hold of it and use it to that end."
"Good point. I hadn't thought of that." Gabrielle had begun removing the heavy beaded long shirt she had worn for most of the trip, replacing it with the woven leather halter top she had purchased in Egypt. She smiled as she turned and Xena automatically helped her tighten and tie the laces in back. "Thanks. That feels a lot better. I was starting to bake in that shirt."
"You gonna put the skirt on too?" The warrior waggled a suggestive eyebrow.
"Nope." The bard grinned at her knowingly. "Not very practical for what looks to be some rappelling. And I figure the long pants will protect me better if the terrain gets too rough down there."
"True." Long fingers reached out, tracing the bard's ribs. "I missed doing this." She tickled her partner and laughed.
"Yow!" Gabrielle jumped back in mock outrage. "Cut that out!"
"Okay." She made one last pass at the bard's belly button, then withdrew her fingers. "It's one of my favorite of your parts."
"You say that about all my parts." Gabrielle giggled and shook her head. "They can't all be your favorite."
"Sure they can." The warrior drew her lover close, dipping her head and whispering low. "Whichever part I'm playing with is always my favorite at that time."
"You're so bad." Gabrielle backhanded her in the gut.
"Yes I am." Xena pecked her on the lips, then reluctantly stepped back. She retrieved a long rope from her pack and carefully ran her hands along its full length, checking for any weakness. Satisfied it was sound, she made her way back to the edge of the hole, walking around it, judging angles and studying the trees near the entrance. She nodded to herself, then secured the rope around the sturdy trunk of a thick oak tree, it's large gnarled roots spidering out all around its base.
"Ya need some help there?" Morrigan knelt down, taking the end of the rope as Xena offered it to her.
"Yeah. Drop this into the hole and see if it reaches bottom." She lit a torch. "I'll toss this in so we can see it better."
The druid uncoiled the rope and flicked her wrist, flinging it into the hole. She crouched down, watching as the rope fell for an endless moment. Xena crept up next to her, releasing the torch. They watched in silence, as the rope reached its limit while the torch kept falling quite a ways past it. A muffled hiss signaled that the torch had reached bottom, its flicker very small so far below them.
"Damn." Xena stood. "I was afraid of that." She retrieved a second rope. "I'm going in first. When I reach the end of the first rope, I'm gonna have to find a place in there, hopefully to secure the second one. If I'm really lucky, I'll find a place to plant another torch near it, so you all can find it easily. In fact …" she dug in her pack, locating yet another rope. "… I'm taking this one, just in case."
"Okay." She secured the extra ropes, a water skin, and two unlit torches to her person. "Everyone gather round."
Kallerine turned from a pile of arrows, stakes, and daggers she had removed from her belt and boots. She gave her quiver and bow a loving pat, and cast one last wistful glance at the small arsenal she normally carried, then turned her back on it. "I've decided to only take in one dagger as well."
"So've I," Morrigan chimed in. "'Though I'm not so certain it's any great sacrifice fer me. Ma dagger is gener'ly ma weapon of choice."
"I'm not taking in anything." Gabrielle stood pensively at Xena's side.
"We're in this together," the slayer declared, her determined eyes locking with the warrior's.
Xena swallowed, her own eyes speaking volumes. "Thanks." She motioned them all closer and knelt down, her forearms resting casually on her thighs, waiting as they all followed suit. "From here on, we really have no idea what to expect. None of us have ever been in here, and we only have what Kernunnos told us to go by. We assume Alti's in there. We know Loki is. We may have to rescue some friends … and Bridgid … when we get there. We don't really know Alti's objective is, and we don't know if she's with Loki or against him. She could be listening to us right now. She has powers that go beyond what I learned when I was her apprentice. I've picked up some stuff on my own since then, but she's got a very large bag of tricks. Be prepared for anything."
"Xena," not ta put too fine a point on the obvious, but we don't know, do we, exactly how we're ta get the mask from 'er?" Morrigan's face contracted in a frown. "Ideally, I'm ta be the only one ta touch it, but what happens if she keeps me at bay?"
"Then we go to plan beta." Xena fiddled with a bootlace. The plan, what little of one they had, given their limited information, was for Xena, Gabrielle, and Kallerine to distract Alti as best they could, while Morrigan located and took possession of the mask. They had no idea if Alti would have the mask near to herself, or hidden away somewhere. Morrigan had learned from Maven that as a druid, she should be able to sense the mask's presence, if she were near enough to it.
"And what's plan beta?" Kallerine's large doe eyes peered anxiously at her.
"I'll let you know when I figure it out." Xena looked at each of her companions in turn. "I won't lie to you. I'm working by the seat of my pants here. I don't know anything more about this place than any of you do, so we're all on equal footing here."
"Like Kallerine said, we're all in this together." Gabrielle squeezed her partner's arm. "We're a team. We go in together and we come out together."
Xena blinked, finding Kallerine's face. Their eyes met in memory of a promise. The slightest nod of the slayer's head indicated her silent resolve. If anything happens to Xena, it's my job to get the Queen safely out of here, and back to Greece. The look on the warrior's face was almost indescribable, a rare raw openness. She allowed it to surface for a split second, then it was gone, firmly shielded by stony determination.
She stood, brushing her thighs off in the process, and checking her supplies once more. "Okay." She turned toward the portal. "Let's get this show on the road."
Xena knelt next to the hole, pulling a length of the rope back up, just enough to give herself something to hold onto while dropping into the entrance. "Here's the plan. I'm going to climb down almost to the end of the rope, tie myself off, and find a place to tie the other rope."
"Xena, why don't you just tie off one rope to the other?" Kallerine asked in a no-nonsense tone.
"I don't like the idea of having all our ropes linked together where someone up top could draw them all out. This way, if someone decides to get cute and try to trap us in here, we'll have at least two ropes left to work with." She yanked at the rope with a good deal of her strength, testing its security.
"Do you think that's a possibility?" The bard didn't like the idea of having to let go of one rope and grab hold of another.
"Gabrielle, from what I've seen on this trip so far, anything's possible." She patted her partner on the arm. "Don't worry." I'm gonna climb down first. After I get the other rope tied off, I'll wait at the bottom of the first one for you to follow me. Kallerine, you go after Gabrielle, and Morrigan …" she eyed the druid speculatively. "Do you need the rope?"
"I'm afraid I do, Xena. I can run on water, but the gods didna see fit to give me the ability to walk on vertical walls." She secured her dagger sheath to her upper thigh, making sure it wouldn't dangle loose and possibly catch on something while rappelling. "I'll go last."
"Good enough. Everyone be careful." The warrior grasped the rope and stepped off, taking small hops, bouncing down the rough rocky surface of the tunnel wall. After a few hops, she fell into a rhythm and allowed her senses to take in her environment.
It was hot. Steaming hot. The scent of brimstone and smoke grew stronger, and her ears picked up faint far away cries. The cries of the damned. "Some things are universal," she muttered. Her eyes quickly compensated for the darkness, and she could just make out the scurrying of small creatures as they scrambled to escape her … rats … a few bats … the odd lizard. The clicking of rat claws made her skin crawl, as a rather large specimen scrambled by directly in front of her, at nose level. Rats. Uggh. Far below her, their torch continued to flutter weakly, and the eerie red glow from the underworld grew brighter.
Her hands expertly worked their way down the rope, while sure footing hit the wall solidly with each bounce. A few trickles of sweat ran down her face, and her bangs were quickly plastered to her forehead. She could feel sweat tickling her between her shoulder blades, and was grateful she'd thought to remove the long-sleeved wool undershirt. These long leather pants are gonna be a bitch in this heat. Her arm muscles flexed and strained, but didn't grow tired, the reward for hundreds of pull-ups and countless candle marks of climbing trees and cliffs.
She thought of her partner and smiled. Not gonna be a problem for you either, is it my bard? Gabrielle's body had changed so much since they first began traveling together, it was hardly the same body at all. The girl from Potadeia who grew tired after only a few candle marks of walking, had evolved into a strong self-assured woman, who could press her own body weight if necessary. Probably mine too, for that matter, Xena mused, remembering a fall from the mast of Ronan's boat, on the way to Egypt, her life saved only by Gabrielle's strength as the bard held on until she could regain her footing.
She reached the end of the rope and stopped, hanging on with one hand while she tied the end around her waist with the other. Now … she lit a torch, both hands freed up. Where to tie this other one? She gazed around, studying nooks and crannies, a few rocks coming lose at her probing, falling to the ground below with a muffled breaking sound. Nothing. She inched first to the right and then to the left, finding no obvious place that would do. Good thing I brought these.
She dug into a pouch at her belt, retrieving a long thick metal spike and a small mallet. With deft strokes, she pounded it into the rock, then looped the second rope around it, using a combination of sailor's knots to secure it. She chose to imbed the spike high enough that there were several feet of the first rope hanging down, overlapping the beginning of the second one. She grabbed hold of the second rope, using her own body weight to test its soundness, trusting the first rope to hold her if the spike gave way. It held fast. Good. Those should be easy enough to transfer between.
She re-pocketed the mallet and untied herself from the first rope, dropping the end and giving it a tug. "Gabrielle!" Her voice projected above her and her soulmate's face appeared over the side of the hole. "Come on down."
"Coming." The bard grabbed the rope and carefully climbed over the edge, her booted feet scraping against the rock. Okay. She took a deep breath, refusing to look down. I can do this. As a general rule, she was afraid of heights, something she discovered after several near misses, in which Xena's quick reflexes had snagged her from the jaws of death.
With careful steps, she began inching her way down the wall, sweat pouring down her face and neck, a combination of fear and the oppressive heat. "Sorry I'm so slow," she called out.
"It's okay, sweetheart. You're doing fine." The warrior's eyes never left her partner, willing every step, every grasp of the bard's hands on the rope to be a secure one. "Take your time."
Gabrielle continued her quest, finally reaching the top of the second rope. "I made it." She smiled.
"Yes you did." The warrior crept down far enough to give her partner some space on the second rope. "Now grab hold over here and we'll climb down this one together."
The bard reached out, grasping the second rope and letting go of the first. Too late, she felt a sweaty palm begin to slide down the rope. "Ahhhhh!" Her feet slipped as well, and she fell head first, her stomach lurching into her throat. She saw the ground, way down below, rushing toward her with lightening speed, and closed her eyes. And felt her body jerk to a halt as a strong hand wrapped itself around her ankle.
"Gabrielle." Xena's heart was pounding so hard, she could hear it. She pitched her voice low and steady, willing away the shakiness. "I'm gonna pull you up, okay?"
"Up is good." A nervous laugh escaped her lips. "Here, I think I can get the rope here." She grabbed it, holding on in her upside down position."
"Okay, that works better. Hold on, I'm going to climb down and try to flip you back up." 'Course that's gonna be fun with only one hand, she mused silently. Somehow, she managed, working her way painstakingly down to her partner, never letting go of the bard until she was next to her, hanging onto a solid waist, Gabrielle still head-down. "Can you kinda …. um … grab onto me and right yourself?"
"Yeah, I think I can. Just let me …" Gabrielle maneuvered, using various parts of her partner's body as handholds, until she was once again right side up, wrapped around the warrior with both arms and legs, Xena's biceps bulging with the effort of holding them both up. "There." Gabrielle looked up sheepishly, relieved blue eyes shining back at her.
"Gabrielle." Xena finally breathed. "You gotta let go of me and hang onto the rope."
"I feel safer this way?" Pale lashed batted hopefully.
The warrior sighed. "Can you climb around and hang onto my back?" She felt the bard moving tentatively, until Gabrielle's arms were clasped around her neck and her legs circled her waist, the bard' solid body pressed against her back.
"Everything okay down there?" Morrigan's worried voice met their ears.
"Yeah. Loving every minute of it," the warrior responded through clenched teeth.
"Should I start climbing down?" Kallerine's face also appeared, the slayer's eyes round as saucers.
"Yeah. First rope's freed up." She turned her head, looking over her shoulder. "Hang on."
"You bet." The bard tightened her grip as her warm warrior transport began to move.
"You know," Xena chuckled. "This vaguely reminds me of Icus' well, except the view isn't nearly as inspiring."
"The view?" Gabrielle could feel the body she was pressed against, strong muscles shifting as Xena made her descent.
"Yeah. You were above me. Looking up gave me a rather interesting view. You were wearing that short rust-colored skirt, remember?" She felt a pinch to her side. "Hey! You're gonna make me lose my concentration."
"I'll give you concentration." Sharp teeth nipped at her earlobe, followed by a peck of the bard's lips to her neck. "Keep climbing, warrior princess."
The second rope ended a few feet from the ground, and they finally reached it, their feet gratefully touching the solid sandy tunnel floor. The warrior pulled her partner into a silent hug, feeling Gabrielle shake. "Hey. It's okay. We made it."
"Thanks to you," the bard muttered against her chest. "Again. I'm such a liability sometimes."
"You are no such thing." Xena hugged her more tightly. "You're my reason for living," she whispered. She felt a quiet nod of acknowledgement.
It was sweet, that simple admission, there in the strange glowing tunnel of the underworld. They were going to face Alti, and gods knew what else was in store. She should have been terrified at what lay ahead, but somehow, Gabrielle just couldn't muster up the appropriate amount of fear. It was kind of hard to do, surrounded by a tall solid body that had become her world, and her safe harbor in the most horrible of storms. She let out a little grunt of pleasure, and burrowed further into the warrior's body, letting the love engulf her. No matter what happened, she would always have this.
Xena kissed her head, then looked up, watching Kallerine move from the first rope to the second, while Morrigan began her own descent. She silently urged them on, willing them to make it with no further mishaps. The tunnel had her nerves in fine-twitch mode, and she was anxious to have all of them back on solid ground.
Kallerine clamored down the last few feet of rope and jumped down, clenching and unclenching her fists, releasing the tension in her small hand muscles after holding onto the rope. "Guess we can look forward to climbing back up those in a little while, can't we?"
"Yeah." Xena nodded. "The sooner the better."
Morrigan was making the transition from one rope to the other, when a familiar lilting laugh rang out around them. They had all come to recognize the laugh, and each woman cringed. The sound whirled up, swirling around Morrigan and moving toward the top of the tunnel. The druid felt the first rope go slack, and she jumped, just grabbing the second one as the first one fell to the ground at Kallerine's feet.
Morrigan cursed under her breath, frantically scrambling down the rope as fast as she could. Her hands and feet moved at break-neck speed, dislodging rocks and bits of gravel, which rained down on the three women below, who all ducked for shelter against the opposite wall. The laugh came rushing back down and Morrigan found herself swinging out away from the wall, the rope making a wide arc, hanging from invisible hands. She judged the distance and made a quick decision, tucking her knees up and flipping, tumbling through the air.
She watched the second rope fall past her, hitting the ground a split second before she landed next to it. As a final insult, the metal spike came hurling down, bouncing off the distracted warrior's head before it hit the ground. The laughter sounded one more time and faded away, trailing down the only opening leading away from the vertical tunnel.
"Ow!" Xena rubbed her scalp, then picked up the spike, spinning it in the palm of her hand. "So much for climbing back up."
"T'was a nasty thing to do." Morrigan scowled, wiping her hands off on the front of her plaid tunic. "I've a mind ta see that the shamaness pays fer that."
"Are you okay?" Gabrielle patted her on the shoulder.
"Yes, I am. No thanks ta the she-demon." Pale blue eyes snapped in the bright red glow. "I swear by the Great Mother 'erself, if she lays a hand on Bridgid …"
The bard squeezed her arm. There were no adequate words that could be spoken to comfort a mother who was worried about her child, as Gabrielle knew all too well. Their eyes met in anguished understanding. The bard felt another pair of eyes on her back, knowing the warrior also shared in that understanding.
Gabrielle turned, moving fluidly toward her soulmate, sliding an arm around her waist and hugging her close to her side. There was nothing to say. "Shall we move forward?"
To the others, it was a simple question, almost rhetorical. Between warrior and bard it meant so much more -- the silent agreement that there would be no more re-hashing of the past. They knew it would come up, seemingly at the most unexpected moments, like this one. There was no avoiding that. It would always be there. But all was forgiven, washed clean by a love that was stronger than all the hate they had faced. Not Dahak, not Caesar, not Callisto, and certainly not Alti, could touch it. It was unbreakable.
Xena's eyes glowed, focused on a face that meant everything. She spoke softly, "Come on. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we get out of here." She bent over, retrieving the fallen ropes, coiling them and hooking them at her belt. As she stood, she cocked her head to one side, listening. The clatter of running feet, and the hiss of metal as swords were drawn from scabbards, reached her ears. Great. "Heads up. I think our first welcome committee is on the way."
Morrigan and Kallerine drew their daggers and Gabrielle grabbed a large rock. Xena's body took on a defensive stance, and she briefly wondered if leaving her sword behind had been such a good idea. She unconsciously balled her hands into fists, bouncing lightly on her feet in anticipation.
The first assailant reached them and she launched forward, feet first, kicking him solidly in the chest, sending him flying backward. He collided with a half dozen others, and they all went rolling, their bodies tumbling back in the direction they had come from, weapons skittering uselessly along the ground and hitting the walls. She saw her opening and took it. "Come on!"
They didn't need to be told twice. Xena ran, purposefully trodding across the sprawled bodies, hearing curses in her wake. The others followed close behind, helping out as they followed her footsteps with more of their own, keeping the lot of attackers on their backs until they had passed them. The warrior reached the end of the first tunnel, and ducked through a narrow opening, looking back to make sure her group was still with her.
As soon as they were through the entrance, she looked around, spotting what appeared to be a door. She grabbed hold, tugging at it. It was a thick heavy slab of stone, thankfully hinged, and it slammed shut with a resounding echo against the high walls and ceiling around them. "Well I'll be damned." As it closed, she realized there was a long pole attached that fit into a slot on the wall. She swung the pole down, effectively locking it. Muffled angry yells and the pounding of fists could be heard just on the other side.
"Now what?" Kallerine re-sheathed her dagger and wiped the back of her hand across a sweaty brow.
They were in a large inner chamber, with high rocky walls and a domed ceiling. Across the chamber on the opposite side was what appeared to be another tunnel opening, the source of the bright red glow. An odd susurration could be heard from far away, gradually growing closer. The noise materialized, the flutter of hundreds of bat wings. "Duck!" Xena yelled, throwing herself over Gabrielle as a heavy black cloud of the furry creatures emerged from the far tunnel, sweeping low over them before lofting upward to perches far above them.
Kallerine reached out with her dagger, piercing one of the small bodies. She studied it as she waited, bringing it close to her face. Her skin prickled and her lip curled up in reflex. "Bacchae bats." Dammit. I knew I should have brought a few stakes with me. She fumbled with her belt pouch, finding a few silver arrowheads she always kept there. True, there were no shafts to go with them, but she had practiced enough. With the correct flick of her wrist, she could hurl one of them hard enough to pierce the heart of a Bacchae, shaft or no shaft.
The flutter of wings gradually died down and the chamber grew silent, save for the quiet chirping of the bats, so far overhead that they were mere tiny specks. "Let's just hope there aren't any Bacchae to go with them." Xena slowly stood, giving her partner a hand up. "Everyone okay?"
The others responded with mute nods of affirmation. "I thought Alti wanted you down here." Gabrielle sidled up to her, tucking a hand into the crook of her elbow, her rock still clutched firmly in her other hand.
"She does." The warrior looked around, making sure the two tunnels were the only way in and out of the large chamber. "I have a feeling there may be others who don't."
"Such as?" The bard fell into step, the others following several paces behind them. They exited the large chamber and entered the second tunnel, which was much longer and narrower than the first one, the walls oppressively close on either side.
"Gabrielle, when I was in Valhalla, I sent a lot of people to their graves." Her heart was heavy with the weight of it. "I can only assume I probably sent some of them here. Did you notice the helmets some of those guys back there were wearing?"
"I was too busy running to assess their wardrobe, honey." The bard gently bumped her partner's hip, eliciting the briefest laugh.
"Guess so." She felt just a little of the darkness lift. "Those were Norse warrior helmets, the ones that were thick metal with horns on either side. A true warrior of Odin always wears a helmet with ram's horns attached."
"I thought Odin wasn't going to send anyone else after us." Gabrielle kept up the line of questioning, trying to distract herself from a growing discomfort with their surroundings. The heat made her chest feel heavy, and the overwhelming stench of brimstone was making her stomach queasy.
"I don't think those soldiers were sent by Odin. I think they've been here a long time, ever since I put them here." She closed her eyes in shameful memory. "The Valkyrie, they're supposed to help fallen soldiers of Odin on their journey to Valhalla. However, even Odin has rules, just like Hades. Some of those soldiers may have had pasts too awful to allow them into Valhalla. There's every chance that some of them are here instead. Gabrielle, I did terrible things as a Valkyrie. Odin's soldiers were supposed to trust the Valkyrie implicitly. I always sent them into battle, even when the odds were most assuredly against them. I sent them knowing they were going to die."
"Why?" Gabrielle would never understand certain parts of her partner's history, but one thing she did understand. Xena was a savvy tactician. She never went blindly into any battle. There was always a plan, and if she felt herself outnumbered, she would find a way around the obstacle before taking action. "It's not like you to send your army to certain death. I don't understand."
"It wasn't my army." Blue eyes focused steadily ahead of them, purposefully avoiding her partner's face. "I sent them so I could watch them die. It was an excellent opportunity to use Odin's soldiers as an experiment. I'd watch them fall, and figure out strategies for my own army, for when I got back to Greece, so that I could avoid some of the pitfalls I sent Odin's men into."
What do I say to that? The bard, strangely, wasn't surprised. It was one more facet of Xena's past, a past she knew was full of things too horrible for Gabrielle to fathom. Xena was brilliant, she knew. Combine brilliance with evil, and it made sense, in a terrible way, that the warrior would have taken advantage of any opportunity to learn something that would further her own cause. She drew a deep breath, deliberately tightening her grip at Xena's arm. "The world is a very lucky place."
"Huh?" The dark head spun around in shock. She had expected something, anything, but that. A quiet rebuff. Silence. Anger. Sorrow. Anything but her partner's calm confident statement. It blind-sided her. Lucky? I don't think so.
"The world is lucky," she repeated. "Someone, Xena … the gods … Athena … maybe Aphrodite. Someone saw who you were, and what you could become. They took that bright mind of yours and turned you around, because someone like you, who can see fifty steps ahead, and plan strategy like you do, and who can envision the big picture with so little effort, someone like you was needed on the side of good. So … like I said, the world is a very lucky place, that someone saw that in you, and set your feet in a different direction."
"Gabrielle." Her voice caught and she paused, clearing her throat. "Don't you know?"
"Know what?" The bard looked down, watching her steps on the gravely floor.
"That someone was you." She waited until misty green eyes looked up at her. "The world isn't lucky to have me, love. It's lucky to have you."
It washed over her like a warm blanket and she felt her carefully built up confidence from earlier waver. She was afraid, and there was no more hiding it. She'd faced Alti once, in India, and had barely survived it. She'd never been to any underworld, Tartarus or otherwise, but Xena had, and her stories were bone chilling. She knew the entire world was at stake, and that Alti or Loki might cut those chains at any moment, and unleash Ragnarok. But if Xena didn't survive, or if she herself didn't, if this mission somehow ended with them separated, it just wouldn't matter, because that would be her own personal Ragnarok.
"Xena, the world can kiss my bardic butt. You're all that matters to me." Her voice broke. "Promise me, please, that no matter what, we're going to come out of this together."
"Already promised." She opened up her arms, and wrapped them around her lover. "Come here." She stroked the short fine hair. "Shhh. It's all gonna be just fine, I promise you."
Morrigan watched them, a few words reaching her sensitive ears. She saw the bard break down, and Xena's comforting touch, as she pulled the smaller woman into her embrace. She held out a hand, stopping the methodical Kallerine from moving forward. "Let's give them a minute, shall we?"
"Oh." The slayer looked up from her musings regarding the Bacchae bats. "Yeah, I guess we should."
They moved to the side, leaning against the wall. "I think I know how she feels," the slayer commented. "They're just about to start their lives together, and it would really really suck to lose something that good when you've just found it."
"Yes, it would." Morrigan drew her knee up and propped one boot against the wall.
"I know, when I get back to your village, it's time for Amarice and I to have a long talk." Kallerine smiled shyly. "Watching the queen and Xena, and seeing what they have … knowing I might have a chance at something like that, let me tell you, if something were to happen to keep me from having that talk, I'd be plenty pissed, that's for sure."
"Good to hear you've decided to talk to 'er." The druid smiled back at her. "Love doesn't see fit to bless us very often, Kallerine. You've got to grab hold of it when ya can, and don't let it be gettin' away from ya."
"You know," the slayer eyed her speculatively. "That's good advice for just about anyone, don't you think?"
Morrigan looked down, smoothing her tunic. "Yes," she replied softly. "I do believe it is."
"Hey." The warrior's voice called back at them. "Let's get moving."
"Guess they got that settled." Kallerine chuckled. "Xena's got that 'don't mess with me' look plastered back on. The one she always puts on when she's been caught being mushy."
Morrigan smiled, glad for the diversion. "Like this?" She furrowed her brow, allowing her features to take on a hard edge, her eyes narrowed and her nostrils flaring slightly.
"Ooo, yeah. Just like that." The slayer mimicked the face. "How's this?"
"Almost perfect." Morrigan slapped her on the back affectionately. "Keep practicing and we'll get ya yer own personal copy of the warrior handbook."
"Handbook?" She tugged at the druid's arm. "There's a handbook?"
Morrigan trudged on ahead, doing her best to keep the smile off her face. She turned a smirk into a cough. She was about to answer, when the ground under their feet began to shake. "What in blazes?" She grabbed the wall to steady herself. "Earthquake?"
"Don't know." Kallerine braced herself against the opposite wall. She looked up as acrid dust fell in her face and she sneezed. "Whatever it is, I don't think this is a safe place to be."
The druid watched small bits of rock falling around them and heard the crack as larger pieces of stone began to shatter. "Run!"
Warrior and bard turned, feeling the tremors under their own feet. Xena's eyes grew wide, watching the walls behind their companions crumbling, collapsing as they stayed one step ahead. "Come on!" She grabbed Gabrielle's hand and pulled her along after her. The end of the tunnel was just ahead of them, along with the ever-present bright red glow.
As they neared the exit, the warrior felt a hard shove to the small of her back, as if a boot had kicked her. She went flying, feeling Gabrielle's hand slip from her grasp. Xena cried out as she was propelled forward through the doorway, ducking and rolling as her body impacted the ground. The force was greater than she expected and she didn't stop until she slammed into the far wall.
She shook her head, collecting her wits, and turned. "No!" She watched as a large slab dropped in front of the exit, blocking her view of Gabrielle's shocked face. "No!" She was on her feet, bounding back to the slab. It was another hinged doorway, only this time it seemed to be locked from the other side. She tugged at it, digging in until her fingernails tore and bled, but it didn't budge. "Gabrielle!"
She heard the rocks on the other side, as they continued to fall, along with three muffled screams. "Gabrielle!" Her heart raced and she felt her knees go weak. She pounded at the unmoving door, knowing she was bruising her hands. "Gabrielle." This time more weakly, as her forehead pressed against the hot stone in defeat. She turned her head, listening, as the screams on the other side died down and then went silent. The ground quit shaking and she heard the last rocks on the other side fall. Then there was nothing. Not a single sound, but her own labored breathing.
She stood back, looking at the door in disbelief. She threw her head back. "Gabriellllleeeee!" Her anguished cries reverberated off the walls around her and came back, slamming into her ears. She slowly sat down on the floor, crossing her legs and burying her face in her hands.
To be continued in Chapter 8
Note as of April 6, 2002: Sorry for the long delay on this chapter. Real life has been very busy. Thanks for your patience. Also, apologies for the cliffhanger. I was originally going to wait to post this chapter until the next one was ready as well, but I've received enough e-mails asking for this one, that I decided to go ahead. A rough draft of chapter 8 is complete, it just needs some editing and re-writing, so hopefully it won't be as long before chapter 8 is ready for posting.
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