Chapter One: "The Loss"
Spring brings with it renewal, rebirth, and young men and women trying to impress the person they love. Our not so young warriors, Xena, Gabrielle, and Deerdra are walking along a dirt road in a lightly forested area in Greece. Deerdra is showing off for Gabrielle by placing an increasing number of coins on her elbow then quickly catching them before they hit the ground. Not an easy trick to perform while walking. The constant 'ka-clack' of the coins is wearing on Xena's nerves, and Deerdra knows it.
Xena tries not to sound annoyed. "Is that something you usually do when you travel?"
Deerdra gets that she's referring to their talk by the lake. "When I'm bored I do. "
Gabrielle is amused by their attempts to bicker in a nice-ish way, not that it has made it any easier for her to choose to be with one or the other.
They come to a grassy clearing and stop. There is a gray, seven-foot tall tree stump sitting smack dab in the middle of the road. It has two limbs, one on either side like arms.
Gabrielle breaks the silence. "That's odd. How could a tree grow in the middle of a well traveled road? There aren't any tracks going around it."
Deerdra wonders as well. "It couldn't. What do you think, Xena? Keep going or turn back?"
Xena thinks for a moment. "Keep going but give it a wide berth."
They take a couple of steps forward before Xena comes to a dead stop putting Gabrielle on alert.
"What? What's wrong?"
Xena lowers her voice. "The birds have stopped singing."
As soon as she speaks the words, the forest ahead of them slowly fades to black. The hair on Deerdra's arms stand at attention. "Maybe we should turn back."
An idea of hers that Xena can support. "I agree."
They turn around and watch as that section of forest fades to black as well.
Gabrielle's palms begin to sweat. "Something wants us to go across the field."
That something has a voice. "Gabrielle."
The trio freeze. Gabrielle's name echoes in their heads as this thing communicates to them mentally.
Deerdra whispers to Gabrielle. "A friend of yours?"
Gabrielle shushes her then they cautiously turn back around to face the tree stump.
Deerdra notices a change. "Is it me or does that stump look different? Darker maybe?"
Xena sees it as well. "It isn't you."
The voice is in their heads again, but this time they notice that the tree quivers when the voice speaks. "I've been waiting for you, Gabrielle."
Deerdra tries to keep it light. "Not something you want to hear from a disembodied voice."
Gabrielle isn't paying attention to her. There is something familiar about that voice. When it dawns on her, her blood runs cold. "No, it can't be. It just can't." She looks over at Xena, pale as a ghost. "Xena, that's--" She can't finish the sentence, she doesn't have to. Xena pulls out her sword and readies her Chakram.
Deerdra doesn't know what's going on, but if Xena is gearing up for a battle, so is she. She unsheathes her swords. "I gather that's more than a talking tree."
Gabrielle's answer is barely above a whisper. "It's Dahak."
Deerdra's pulse quickens. She stands one of her swords in the ground and reaches into her boot then hands Gabrielle a bloodstained dagger. "Then you'll need this."
Gabrielle marvels at the steel in her hands. "The Hinds' Dagger? Where did you get this?"
Deerdra grabs her sword. "Ares gave it to me for safekeeping."
Xena joins in on the interrogation. "How did he get his mitts on it? Hercules--"
Deerdra grits her teeth. "Now isn't the time. What's the plan?"
Dahak gives her an answer. "You hand Gabrielle over to me then be on your way."
Xena's response is expected. "Over my dead body!"
Dahak chuckles. "That can be arranged, Xena. With pleasure."
Xena does have a plan, which no one likes. "Go with Deerdra. I'll stay here and distract him."
Deerdra would rather it be the other way around. "Xena, I can better handle--"
Xena clenches her jaw, her mind made up. "Go!"
Gabrielle's heart sinks at the prospect of losing her again. "Xena..." Her voice trails off.
"I'll be fine, Gabrielle. Just stay behind Deerdra." She gives Deerdra a hard look.
Deerdra knows what's Xena is risking. Her admiration for her just became real. "You don't have to threaten me, I'll keep her safe."
Xena nods then prepares to face off against whatever Dahak has in store for them.
Deerdra leads Gabrielle toward the open field to Xena's left. Unfortunately for them, Dahak has other plans. Their boots no sooner touch the grass when, in the blink of an eye, the tree sprouts more limbs and like a rubbery octopus shoots those limbs forward and, ignoring Xena, starts grabbing at Gabrielle.
Deerdra steps in front of her as she back flips out of 'his' reach and Xena flings her chakram slicing through that group volley. More limbs take their place, sprouting as soon as they are cut. This next group entangles Xena, seeking to separate her from Gabrielle. Deerdra cuts her free then it is chaos. Each yell at each other to watch out as swords, sais, daggers, and chakram fly. They don't seem to be making any headway as limbs are everywhere.
Dahak senses victory. He laughs. "Give up Xena. You can't win."
Xena slices and dices. "Never!"
Deerdra is still positioned between Dahak's tree and Gabrielle and she's worried. If she and Xena go down, Gabrielle will be on her own and that won't end well. She hits on an idea she prays will work. "Gabrielle, when you see an opening use the dagger!"
Gabrielle doesn't see an opening, but Dahak does. Deerdra lets her attention waver just long enough for a branch to impale her smack dab in the middle of her chest. She drops her swords and flails around as the limb snakes up her back and wraps around her neck, finally piercing her skull and entering her brain. Time slows as she slumps to the ground.
Gabrielle's eyes get as big as saucers. "Deerdra!" Then with all her might, she heaves the Hind's Dagger at the tree. It hits its mark with a dull 'thud.' The tree screeches and goes all wobbly, yet does not release its grip on Xena or Deerdra until the stump catches fire. A flash fire for sure as stump and limbs instantly disintegrate bringing the ambush to an ashen end. The only evidence anything happened is a large black circle in the middle of the road with the Hind's Dagger laying harmlessly in its center.
Not that that's the last of they'll hear of Dahak. "This isn't the end, Xena! It's just the beginning! Ha,ha,ha!"
Xena dusts off the ash. "Swell. Are you okay, Gabrielle?"
"I'm fine. Deerdra went down, though."
They look in her direction and see that she isn't moving. Xena snatches up the Hind's Dagger as they rush over to check on Deerdra. It isn't a pretty sight. Blood is everywhere and the wounds to her chest, back, and head are open and raw. Xena examines her. Eyes--glazed over. Pulse--none. Breathing--no. If it was anyone else, Xena would declare them dead.
Gabrielle has the same thought, but these wounds...She's panic begins to creep in. "Her wounds will heal, won't they? All of her other ones did. She's immortal so she'll be okay, right?"
Xena isn't sure but she doesn't want to add to Gabrielle's panic. "Sure she will. It'll take more than some overgrown bush to do her in. You do your best to dress her wounds while I set up camp on top of that hill over there." She point to a grassy knoll far away from any trees.
Xena does venture far enough into the forest to gather wood to make a fire. She joins Gabrielle after she gets the fire going then they carry the heavily bandaged Deerdra over to and lay her next to the roaring fire. Her blood-soaked bandages has quelled their appetite but not their worries.
"Xena, what do you think he meant by 'this is just the beginning'?"
"Trouble. You paid too high a price last time to defeat him, and now that he can take on any form..." She sighs. "And now. Now I don't know."
Gabrielle studies Xena's face which is lit by the orange glow of the campfire. A question has been eating at her since before the fight began. "Why didn't you let Deerdra distract him while you and I got away? She is stronger and he can't kill her, I don't think." She casts a concerned glance at Deerdra.
Xena is anxious for her to heal as well. "That's why. If he managed to kill me, she would be there for you no matter what he did or tried to do to her. She can come back from something like this, I can't."
"That's true." Gabrielle peeks under the bandage on Deerdra's chest. "I'm worried, though. Her wounds haven't begun to heal yet."
Xena masks her concern. "These aren't wolf bites, Gabrielle. It's going to take some time."
"I suppose so, but I'm getting a bad feeling about all of this." The day's events have caught up to her. She yawns and stretches. "Oh, gee am I beat."
"Then lay back and get some rest." "I'm going to stay up a bit longer."
Gabrielle manages a slight smile. "To stand guard, you mean." She goes over and snuggles up next to Deerdra to help keep her warm. "Goodnight, Xena."
"Goodnight, pleasant dreams."
Another yawn. "I sure hope so."
Gabrielle was right, Xena does indeed stand guard. She waits until she's sure Gabrielle's in dreamland before positioning herself into defensive mode--muscles tense, ready to pounce on anyone and anything that even thinks about coming near Gabrielle.
Morning finds that Gabrielle is still laying next to Deerdra, the fire has gone out, and Xena is nowhere to be found.
Gabrielle wakes up and looks around. "Xena? Maybe she's getting breakfast." She checks on her sleeping partner. "Deerdra?" No response. She gives her a gentle shake. "Deerdra?" She checks the chest wound. Still raw but not bleeding however, she is pale and cold to the touch. A wave of panic washes over Gabrielle. "No! No! You can't be dead! Xena!"
Xena sprints over to Gabrielle, who, at this point, is laying across Deerdra and sobbing. "She's dead."
Xena squeezes Gabrielle's shoulder. "I know. I noticed it this morning. I've prepared a funeral pyre next to a small lake for her."
Gabrielle looks at Xena, tears stream down her face. "But how? She was an immortal. She isn't supposed to die--not like this at least."
Xena wipes at Gabrielle's tears. "I don't understand it either. I guess no one, not even a demi-god is a match against pure evil." She stands up behind her. "Come on, let's go give her a proper warrior send off."
"Okay." Gabrielle caresses Deerdra's cheek then kisses her on the lips. "Goodbye, Deerdra."
They wrap Deerdra's body in a blanket and carry her to the pyre. It's a few feet from shore, in shallow water. The lake Xena chose has a clear view of Mt. Olympus and flows in its general direction. Gabrielle is moved by her thoughtfulness.
"This is the perfect area, Xena. I'm sure Deerdra will like it." Her chin quivers and her eyes well up.
Xena's heart aches for Gabrielle but this is the one kind of hurt that she can't do anything to make better. "Yeah, I though so too. She died defending you, so she deserves to have someplace nice to look at. I wonder where immortals go when they--." Gabrielle bursts into tears and buries her head in Xena's chest. Xena tries to comfort her. "Shh.I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking."
After this wave of tears pass, they place Deerdra's body on top of the pyre, her swords crossed across her chest. They set the wood on fire and as the flames grow, Xena sings the funeral song. The melody carries across the lake, filling the land with sorrow. A fresh wave of tears washes over Gabrielle and she clings to Xena. She again tries to console her, but this death has upset her as well. A tear rolls down her cheek as she holds Gabrielle tight.
With their eyes clouded by tears and smoke, neither of them notice the water beneath the pyre billow and churn as a rather large watery hand reaches up and envelops Deerdra's body, shielding it from the flames. When the bottom of the pyre gives way, the hand pulls her body into the lake leaving a ripple of a trial as it leads away from Xena and Gabrielle.
They are still holding each other as the flames die down to glowing embers. Xena gives Gabrielle a comforting squeeze before alowing her some time alone. "I'll wait for you back at camp, but don't stay too long, okay?"
Gabrielle wipes the tears away and nods an okay. Alone with the smoldering pile of ashes, she searches for the words to express what she's feeling--aside from heartbroken, that is. "Deerdra, I was fascinated by you from the beginning. But I still have so many questions about your life. What were you like growing up? Did you always know that you were different?" She sighs. "On our journey, I envisioned a life for us at Lorrania. But all of that has been taken away and now we'll never know." Her sobbing drowns out the sound of shoes crinkling the leaves behind her.
"Was it someone close to you, dear?"
Gabrielle nearly jumps out of her skin. She whirls around to see who is speaking to her. It is an older peasant woman. "What? Who?"
"I didn't mean to startle you, hon. I saw the smoke and was concerned that there might be a grass fire. Was it your husband?"
Despite the woman's sudden appearance, Gabrielle isn't alarmed. "Husband? Oh, no. She was a close friend. She died unexpectedly."
"Oh, dear. I am sorry for your loss. Are you going to be okay? You're not out here alone, are you?"
Gabrielle wipes under her eyes and her nose. "No, my friend Xena is just down the hill a little way packing up our gear."
The old woman's smile is disarming if a bit crooked. "Good, good. I live not too far up this road and if the two of you aren't in a hurry, you're more than welcome to stay. You can have a home cooked meal and a soft bed if you like. Oh, my where are my manners! I haven't even introduced myself to you yet. My name is Lenora."
Gabrielle wasn't looking forward to sleeping in the forest that night. "Thank you for the offer, Lenora." "I'll ask Xena about it. I'm Gabrielle, by the way."
Xena walks up, a bedroll under each arm with Argo and Deerdra's horse following close behind. "Ask me about what?"
"Oh, Xena. This is Lenora. She's offered us a hot meal and a warm bed for tonight."
Xena wasn't crazy about sleeping outdoors either. "Pleasure to meet you. Dinner and a place to stay. Sounds good."
The walk down the road through the forest was uneventful, although the horses were skittish. Xena chalked that up to her own nerves being strung taut. Lenora's house was in the typical thatched roof style. She had a barn and chicken coop with the whole property marked with a stone fence. All of it was in need of repair, even the fence. The inside was better, if a bit dusty. There was a dining area /kitchen and two bedrooms. There is a pot of stew cooking in the fireplace and three bowls and cups on the table.
"Come in an make yourselves comfortable. I know it's not much, but it serves my needs."
Gabrielle knows not to bite the hand that is about to feed her. "This is a very nice home you have here, Lenora."
Xena know it as well. "Yeah, better than some of the places we've stayed."
Lenora realizes they are being nice, but appreciates their effort. "Thank you, you're very kind. Please have a seat. The stew should be ready." She fills their bowls and sets out fresh bread, humming as she goes. She sits next to Gabrielle. "This is very nice. It's been quite some time since I've cooked for someone other than myself."
Xena tears off a chunk of bread and dunks it into the stew. "How long have you lived alone?"
"Oh, dear. It must be ten, no, fifteen years since...since they were taken from me." She looks down as her eyes well with tears.
"Since who was taken?" Gabrielle asks in a gentle voice.
Lenora's lip quivers. "My family. SHE took them from me."
Xena coughs, nearly choking on her food. Gabrielle thinks " Oh, no. " Leery of the answer, Gabrielle asks "She who?"
Lenora sniffles. "Death. She came and took my babies and husband."
Gabrielle is relived and saddened. She puts her hands over Lenora's. "I'm so sorry."
Lenora smiles at Gabrielle's kindness. "Thank you. It happened so quick yet, so slow." She takes a deep, ragged breath. "My oldest girl became very ill. All feverish and no appetite. There wasn't anything we could do, so I just held her and rocked her in my arms. She was in so much pain, it broke my heart to feel so helpless." She pauses to wipe her eyes and gather her thoughts.
"Then my baby boy became ill as well. He and his sister died just a few minutes apart. My husband and I were beside ourselves with grief." She sighs. "The pain and guilt were too much for him. He died that next night of a broken heart. I've been all alone ever since."
Xena and Gabrielle sit in stunned silence, unsure of what to say. Finally, Gabrielle clears her throat. "I don't know what to say. That's horrible. I'm so sorry you had to go through all of that."
Lenora runs the back of her hand down Gabrielle's cheek. "My little girl would be about your age now. You remind me of her. You have similar features."
Gabrielle is flattered and a little embarrassed. She smiles a warm smile then looks over at Xena, with a 'now what?' expression on her face.
Xena stands up and stretches. "Well, Lenora, we don't have to be anywhere right now. Mind if we stick around for a while?"
Lenora's face lights up. "Mind? Not at all! I would love the company!"
Gabrielle gives Lenora's shoulder a gentle squeeze then stands up. "Let us help you clean up this mess."
Lenora springs to her feet. "Oh, no! You two go on to bed. You must be exhausted after the day you've had."
The warrior and the bard hadn't noticed that the sun had set. Gabrielle glances out the window at the waning light and her eyelids get very heavy from the strain of the day. "I am pretty tired. Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Gabrielle - and you too, Xena."
Something about that pause bothers Xena, but she shakes it off, attributing it to her own tiredness. "Night."
Lenora starts humming again as soon as they leave the room.
* * * * *
Xena eyes the bed. It's just big enough to hold the both of them, if they sleep on their sides, squished together. "Looks like there won't be any tossing and turning tonight."
Gabrielle rushes to Xena's arms and begins to sob. "Oh, Xena. Her story..."
Xena rubs her back. "Shh. We'll busy ourselves fixing up this place and maybe it won't hurt as much, okay?"
Gabrielle looks up at her through watery eyes. "You think so?"
Xena doesn't want to lie to her, but she also doesn't want her to get her hopes up. "Not really, but it's worth a try."
"Yeah, well. It'll be nice to sleep in an actual bed for a while."
Morning, and the three women are sitting at the table digesting a hearty breakfast and making their plans for the day.
Xena laces her fingers then stretches her arms out in front of her. "Alright, what should we do first today?"
Lenora thinks for a moment. "Well Xena, you can start on the roof while Gabrielle helps me gather eggs in the hen house."
Xena cocks an eyebrow. Her expression says it all. 'Are you kidding me?'
Gabrielle agrees with Xena. She wants to do something more strenuous than carry a basket of eggs. "I could fix the holes in the rock wall instead."
Lenora won't have it. "Oh, no sweetie. You stay with me. Xena can fix the wall when she's through with the roof. You don't mind, do you Xena?"
Xena's answer is a tad sarcastic. "Noo, I don't mind. You two go on and tend to the chickens. Don't want the little buggers to get lonely."
Gabrielle mouths the words "I'm sorry." Xena shrugs then waves her off.
The next several days is more of the same. Xena doing the heavy lifting while Lenora dotes on Gabrielle. Xena finally reaches her breaking point one hot afternoon. She's clearing rocks from the pasture. Gabrielle sneaks away from Lenora and begins to help. Too late, Lenora sees her from the window. She rushes out and stops her then pulls her away toward the house.
Gabrielle protests this time. "Lenora, Xena needs some help. Let me go!"
Lenora's grip is strong for an old woman. Gabrielle can't break loose. "No, sweetie. I need your help inside." Her tone is calm without a hint of anger.
Xena can't hear their conversation, she just sees Gabrielle being lead away. This ticks her off. She throws down the rock she was holding then marches over to the stables. "That's it! I'm riding into the village!"
Xena's back is to Gabrielle so she doesn't see the tug-of-war going on. "Xena, wait! I'll go with you!"
Xena's too angry to have company on her trip. "No, you stay with Lenora and do - whatever! I'll be back before dark." She hops on Argo and tears down the road.
With Xena gone, Lenora loosens her grip. "Don't worry about her, dear. She's just been working herself too hard and needs a break. Come inside and sit with me for a while."
Gabrielle is reluctant. Lenora has been treating Xena like a slave all week, but one look at the old woman's kind face and she gives in.
At the kitchen table, Lenora sits a little too close to Gabrielle for her comfort. She scoots over in an attempt to get some space between the two of them.
Lenora takes notice. "What's the matter, dear? Are you tired? I know of a place where you can relax and unwind."
Gabrielle tries to hold her temper. "Xena's the one who needs to unwind. I should be helping her with the hard work, not grooming the horses while she's cleaning the stalls."
Lenora plays on Gabrielle's heartstrings. "I'm sorry. It's just ...you look so much like my little girl that I don't want to let you out of my site. I don't want to loose you-her again." Her eyes well with tears.
Gabrielle's defenses crumble. "Nothing is going to happen to me--not so long as Xena's around." She holds Lenora's hands. "I'm not going anywhere, not for awhile at least. Now, where's this place where Xena and I can go and relax?"
Lenora perks up, although the invitation wasn't extended to include Xena. "A cave not to far from here has a natural hot springs pool. I spent a lot of time there after..." Her voice trails off. "I spent a lot of time there."
Gabrielle smiles. "I do enjoy those hot spring pools. I guess it wouldn't hurt to check it out - for Xena's sake."
Lenora jumps to her feet. "Good, good. Let's go--now."
Gabrielle chuckle at her enthusiasm. "Hold on. I need to leave Xena a note first, then we can go."
Gabrielle goes into the bedroom to retrieve some parchment. An evil grin slowly spreads across Lenora's face. "Yes, please leave Xena a note. I don't want her to miss a single moment of the show."
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