Twilight's Eve Part II
by Trisha Von Doss
In the past Xena had always kept a tight reign on her emotions... And with good reason. While none but the Bard, and perhaps her mother had ever known it, hers was an ocean of feelings so deep she could easily drown in its waters. So she had honed their control to perfection... Bottling them up tightly and allowing them purchase on the present only when it had fueled the rage she needed for survival.
Knowing the Bard had changed that... Some. Gabrielle had become an anchor of sorts in those tumultuous waters... one Xena had held fast to when the waves she had so long surpressed threatened to overwhelm and pull her under. The unconditional love and acceptance her friend had always offered her had gradually allowed Xena another, safer, outlet for repressed emotions that had always been the well spring of her fury.
But twenty five years spent in Ares' icy prison, listening to her soul mates subconscious, had subtly affected a control she had otherwise managed to maintain. And now, Gabrielle's questions about those years began to twist Xena's well disciplined mind into contortions.
Questions that brought back years of isolated fear and pain, but worst of all, loneliness, and longing. Separated from Gabrielle physically and yet one with her through her memories and emotions. Xena had not known where they lay, or how much time had passed, only that the Bard was somehow with her, and she with the Bard.
She had found herself overwrought with the intensity of Gabrielle's unbridled emotions the moment her mind had sensed them. It had taken her slowed intellect several candlemarks to place the origin of the internal chaos, but in some way it had felt familiar. Searching her own memories she had finally recognized it from a time when her soul had perched on the edge of existence... caught between the world of the living and Charon's shores. She had been mortally wounded, and her spirit had let go of life and begun the journey to the other side. But the Bard had called her back... And her essence had shared Gabrielle's body and mind while together they had fought for the Ambrosia, the nectar of the Gods, that had ultimately reunited Xena with her own body.
It was that same overwhelming onslaught of emotions Xena had first grappled with in the darkness of that long cold sleep.
Gabrielle watched the graceful sway of Xena's torso in the saddle, as rider and horse moved in synchrony, down the deserted road in front of her. Scampering squirrels noisily lectured them as they passed, lest they consider stopping long enough to find the rodent's winter stores of seeds and nuts. As they moved into the foothills, leaving the valley and the falls skeletal remains behind, the scent of evergreens, carried on a crispening wind, became pungent in the air.
The Bard crossed her arms and rubbed her shoulders, grown a bit cold from the chill air. The thought of Xena's natural body heat behind her in the saddle was inviting, but she needed to think right now... Sort things out. And she always did that better when she walked.
Xena's answers to her questions about the entombment had been cryptic and detached. But then her own replies hadn't been much more forthcoming. As Gabrielle thought back to their earlier conversation, she considered every subtle change in her soul mates eyes, expression, and tone.
The Warrior often struggled to communicate, especially when it came to her most intimate thoughts and feelings. It had been particularly difficult for Gabrielle to cope with in their first few years together. There had been times when she'd thought the lack of verbal interaction would surely drive her mad. And more than one occasion when she'd snuck off to have a conversation with a rock just to be sure it didn't.
In those days, she had considered it an act of bravery to approach Xena about much of anything. Her stoic friend had shown little patience for Gabrielle's incessant need to talk, or her driving desire to find meaning in every turn of the fates wheel.
Xena tended to accept rather than analyze events after the fact.
And the more Gabrielle had learned about her friends dark past, the more she had come to understand why. Xena's trenchant manner and iron grip on her emotions were the only protection she had managed against what might have otherwise been lethal introspection.
So she had learned, over their many years together, to be patient, and to listen as much to Xena's body as to her words.
And there had been something today... When she had first asked... A suspended moment of change in those deep blue pools... A flicker of emotion she'd recognized but couldn't quite put her finger on ... yet.
She chastised herself, Xena as much as said that she didn't remember anything... you always do this to yourself. Leave it alone. Besides, you didn't exactly tell the whole truth, and weren't you the one who made her promise there would be no more secrets? It wasn't really a lie, she rationalized, Xena hadn't had the same experience...telling her about it wasn't going to change that. Besides, she couldn't even be sure if it had been real... It had been so vague... Just on the periphery of her conscious thought.
Maybe it was just one really long, really weird dream scape. It had almost been as if she had been viewing her own life from another place. The melange of visions that had come to her during that deep sleep seemed distant now. The feelings they had elicited were a much clearer memory.
A gauntlet of emotion... Pain... Sorrow... Fear. Through it all she had sensed another presence. At first it had been faint...almost imperceptable...like the last remaining ember of the early mornings dying fire. But it had been there...she had felt it. And though her mind had never consciously identified it, she now knew that all along, it had been Xena.
"You tired of walking yet?" Xena had pulled Argo to a standstill and was waiting for Gabrielle to catch up.
"'Spose." came the Bard's brief reply.
"Feeling alright?" Xena asked, finally voicing her concern over an unusually long period of silence for her normally talkative companion.
"Yeah...little cold though. Guess winters finally really here. I'm not much looking forward to the weather further up." Gabrielle turned her head and nodded her chin toward line of mountains they were approaching. Perpetually capped in cones of white, the altitude of the range maintained some level of snow year round. Oncoming storms would soon cover them with its icy blanket entirely.
"If we're lucky we'll get through the pass before the first of the storms hit," Xena answered Gabrielle's unstated worry. "All the more reason to keep moving." Xena smiled warmly, and reached a hand toward the Bard in invitation.
"Can I ride in front again?" Gabrielle asked as she stepped up and grasped Xena's forearm in her left hand.
Xena used her other hand to steady her partner as she swung her leg over Argo's neck. "What, you think I'm gonna let you drive? Not after that last time. I nearly got my head taken off when you took us under those trees at a dead run Gabrielle," the Warrior teased.
"Well there oughta be an occasional benefit to being shorter," Gabrielle laughed as she settled in in front of Xena. "No, mostly I just wanna ride up here so I can keep warm and see the sights."
"Uh huh," Xena responded skeptically, the edge of her mouth pulling into a grin, "And when was the last time you actually managed to stay awake long enough to see the sights, Gabrielle."
A soft snore was the only answer she received.
Xena smiled and wrapped a protective arm around the waist of her sleeping lover.
As Gabrielle slept the sun slid into its mid-day high, and hung just on the cusp of the tallest visible peak. The road they traveled carried them up toward the base of the mountain range, where the rolling waves of the foothills became less gentle and irregular rock hewn surfaces began to emerge. Having fought each other for a foothold in the last of the deeper soil, the trees came closely spaced, allowing only brief and filtered fingers of sunlight between them.
The air was edgy here, sharper... Xena took a deep cleansing breath... She could smell the granite and shale, pine... And the cold stale smell of old snow. She cringed at the memory now linked forever to that smell. The smell of imprisonment. Her mind exerted its will and she shoved those thoughts roughly back into its recesses. Another time. And her gut quieted in response to her own well worn lie.
Right now she needed to think about what they were going to do if they found Eve. When they found Eve, Xena corrected herself. She couldn't allow herself to think about the alternative.
The bloody aftermath of her daughters last horrible deeds haunted her. These she couldn't push away, couldn't close off from her conscious mind completely. She didn't want to. There was a sickness to it she knew, but there was some kind of twisted satisfaction she garnered from punishing herself with those images. Eve was her child, had been born with her bad blood. The dead in that village had been as much the fault of her heritage as they had Ares' corrupting hand.
Ares. He said he loved me. *snort* As if. As if he had any idea of what that meant. Selfish bastard. He loves the sickest part of me. He loves the part of himself he see's in me. He can't have an heir so he keeps trying to recreate himself in those he seduces. Me. Mavican. Eve. And he would have tried to do it with Gabrielle too...if he could have.
Xena smiled. Gods, she has no idea how strong she really is does she? She's worked so hard to become a warrior, hone her body and her skills... Because she thought she wanted to be just like me. And the truth is she is so much stronger. Even when Ares bathed her in his power, let her feel what it would be like to be a God, to be unstoppable... She just walked away. Xena curled her arm slightly tighter around her partner. Oh Gabrielle....
And then suddenly went rigid, "Gabrielle," her voice commanded her saddle mate awake.
"Huh? wha? What is it Xe..?"
"Shhhh... Ahead, in the trees, 6 on the right, 5 on the left. 3 crossbows, loaded and ready. At least 4 have swords...," Xena cocked her head slightly, "1..no 2 maces, a staff, and...an idiot...with a skinning knife," Xena said evenly into the Bards ear.
"I wish I knew how you did that," Gabrielle shook her head, "Don't say it... I know... Many skills. So... You wanna take 'em all yourself or you wanna little hel..."
Gabrielle's monologue was cut short by a two crossbow arrows, one on either side of her head, plucked from thin air by the hands of her Warrior Pillow.
"Why don't you just go back to sleep, I can handle this," Xena teased, as she turned the arrows back toward their origins, cocked both arms back, and let them fly.
"Oh yeah right...Fat chance... That was my head they were aiming at... Now it's personal," Gabrielle snorted back.
Two heavy grunts and one large thud, as the returned arrows hit their marks.
"Watch out, here they come!" Gabrielle hollered over the noise of the oncoming attack.
Xena launched herself from the saddle up onto Argo's back and let loose a yell as she landed a crunching kick to a man with a sword approaching from the right. Blood splattered onto the Bards midrift and leg from the man's split lip and head.
"Lovely," the Bard said as she landed another kick to the man's mid-section. "Why don't they ever just stay down?"
"Would kinda blow the whole point of attacking us wouldn't it?" Xena asked as she pushed up powerfully with both legs, this time striking at targets on either side. She landed feet together on Argo's hind quarters and immediately drove up and out again, flipping her self off of Argo and toward the flight of the skinning knife, which she caught mid-flip and buried into the chest of the man who had thrown it as she touched down on the other side of the road.
"Ouch." Gabrielle said as the knife in Xena's hand found its mark. "Uh oh..." Her distractibility was gonna cost her... She couldn't see the crossbow but she heard it being cocked... And the rush of air as the mechanism fired...
"Gabreille duck!!!" Xena screamed, kicking a man with a mace in the stomach and, when he doubled over, vaulting herself off of his back and into the air toward the Bard, who was still atop Argo.
Gabrielle twisted both hands into the horses mane and pulled herself down toward the animals neck just as Xena came flying horizontally over her back, catching the arrow in her outstretched hands. She neatly tucked and rolled as she hit the ground, coming full circle to her feet and letting the captured target fly free again as she did, toward a bushy outcrop to their left.
A moment later a cross bow dropped with a clunk to the ground in front of those bushes. Followed by the man who had a moment earlier been alive and holding it in his hands.
"Nice," Gabrielle said. "How'd you know where he was?" She flipped her right foot over the saddle and dropped to the ground, tired of trying to fight from an unfamiliar perspective. Just as her feet hit the earth the man with the staff swung at her head from the left. She ducked and as she did she pulled the Sais from their boot sheaths and flipped them handles forward into her hands.
The fact that the man was using her former weapon of choice had spared him the sharp end of the Sais. It did not however, spare him the full force of the Bards powerful arms. As the man was carried away from her by the force of his own swing, Gabrielle pummeled his now open side with alternating blows from either hand.
"Angle of the arrow's flight," Xena answered as she parried the thrust of a broad sword with her own. She caught offending weapon near the hilt with her blade, and with a flick of her wrist sent it flying skyward. The man she had relieved of it went down with one well placed kick to his chest, and passed out as his own sword fell to earth, point down, a hair's breadth from his ear.
Gabrielle flipped her Sais back to their places in her boots and captured the staff of her attacker as he fell. Instinctively she checked it's balance in her hands, as she braced herself to absorb the impact of the a large man hurling himself toward her with a mace. He was swinging his weapon in wild widening circles over his head as he ran, the momentum of the mace threatening his balance and making it hard for Gabrielle to figure out which part of his anatomy might be within the saff's reach first.
The dilemma was solved by the intended target himself, who in his excitement had escalated the speed of his swing so much that he carried himself right past her... And into the sword of one of his own men. On impact, the man held fast to the mace, and it continued its circular flight until it had wrapped itself around both he and his impailer.
Gabrielle couldn't help but grimace at the crunch of bone as the spiked ball of the mace finally ended its motion against one of her assailants heads.
"Eeeewe." Gabrielle said aloud.
"Stay down!" Xena said as she gave one last kick to the man who had formerly wielded the staff, knocking him senseless. Once she was satisfied he was going to obey, she turned toward her blonde companion, "Hey I think we're missing one."
Gabrielle just happened to be in the middle of counting at the time. "Yep... You're right... We started with 11 and I only see 10 here."
Dyou count the one in... ?" Xena's question was cut off by the sound of fleeing footsteps behind her. She grinned ferally. "Found him." She pulled her Chakrum from its place at her belt and cocked her wrist to throw but was stopped mid-motion by Gabrielle's voice...
"Xena...just let him go."
"Gabrielle, look around, we aren't gonna get any information outta these guys anytime soon. And what if there are more from where they came from?" Xena impatiently fingered her weapon.
"Well that one isn't going to be much use to us either, if he bleeds to death before we can talk to him," Gabrielle nodded toward their retreating assailant.
"Hmmmm... good point." Xena replaced her Chakrum and picked up a large rock and tested its weight in her hand. She cocked her arm back over her shoulder and let the rock fly toward the now barely visible escapee.
A distant thwack and a thud told her she'd hit her mark. A painful groan confirmed he was still conscious.
When they reached their fallen escapee, he was on his hands and knees, shaking his head, muttering something about the sky raining rocks.
Unaware of his audience, he rolled himself back on his haunches, and was preparing to rise to his feet, when he felt the weight of a booted foot on his back, forcefully pushing him flush to the ground.
"Ok, the way I see it, you got two choices, you can either talk now, and leave here amongst the living...with all of your body parts in working order," Xena bent down on one knee and leaned to within inches of his face, "or leave here on Charon's boat."
She grabbed hold of the man's tunic and stood, pulling him with her as she did, and held him suspended a few inches from the earth. The already dilated pupils staring back at her doubled in size."So, which is it? You wanna keep sharing air with the rest of us?"
He nodded his head emphatically.
"Good, you're smarter than you look" A sardonic grin. "Now...why did you attack us?"
"Paid to do it." The man choked out, going flush with the effort.
"By who?" she demanded, twisting the collar of his shirt more tightly about his neck.
"Ooohhhh... Not a good start." Xena opened her hand and let loose the tunic, dropping him without warning back to his prone position in the dirt. "Gabrielle, hand me the skinning knife, guess we'll start with an ear."
Gabrielle, playing along with the ploy, walked over to the saddle bag and pretended a search for the knife.
"W...wait... 'twer a woman, that's all I know...Hagin...the big 'un back there with the mace...'twer him that got the job for us."
Xena pinned the man with her eyes, "Hagin...he the one that ended up on the wrong end of his mate's sword?"
A quick nod.
She flitted a look at Gabrielle, "Figures," then turned her attention back to the man, "What'd this woman look like?"
The thug's face contorted oddly in response.
"Listen," Xena snapped, "I'm gonna be keeping company with a tired and cranky Bard soon, just because you and your buddies decided to attack us in the middle of her nap. And when she's cranky," Xena tipped her head toward Gabrielle and growled, "I'm your worst nightmare."
"So...you're gonna tell me everything you know. And if you don't, you lose a finger for each and every thing I think you've withheld when we're done."
He shifted his gaze worriedly toward his fingers and nodded.
Gabrielle, still pretending pursuit of the knife, rolled her eyes at this last bit. Gods Xena, and what if he doesn't answer, not like you'd actually do that to him. Harboring a momentary doubt, she glanced back over her shoulder at the posturing Warrior... Nah.
She closed the saddle bag and turned back toward the interrogation empty handed, "Guess you'll have to use your sword."
Xena crossed her arms over her chest and flashed a shrewd smile at the Bard. The man's color paled considerably, and he suddenly became a much more willing informant.
"'Twer young, maybe 20 or so summers, but with a tenor that'd make your skin crawl and turn your toenails inside out. And her eyes... tweren't natural lookin'. They be pitch black and empty...like a night when there be no moon nor stars. She be wearin' a mask, so it's all I can tell you."
Gabrielle set aside the picture her mind had been painting, a picture of Eve, when the thug had added that last bit. The rest, she thought sadly, would have fit...at least up until Eve's "revelation" at the temple.
"What kind of mask?" She mentally shuffled through their known and still living enemies.
When the man's answer was slow in coming, Xena's booted foot came down again, this time on his hand, with a crunch nearly loud enough to drown out his grunted pain.
"Yaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh....Ok... Ok..., I dunno what kind it 'twer...could be an Amazon mask fer all I know... Never seen one...'twer black mostly, red stripes, had a lot of feathers, that kind of thing."
Gabrielle cast an uneasy glance toward Xena, "What did she say she wanted with us?" .
"She didn't say... Just paid us to attack you and told us she'd give us twice again as much plus yer spoils if we brought ye back to 'er... ... Dead'r alive."
Green eyes fixed on blue for a long and measured moment.
Another unknown enemy.
"Who do you think it is Xena?" Gabrielle asked, half-turned, one eye focused on the thug, now tethered behind Argo on a long rope, his hands tied securely in front of him.
Xena, who was walking between Argo and Gabrielle, nearly shoulder to shoulder with the War Horse's right front quarter, glanced briefly back at their captive, "I guess we'll find out when we get to Adin. I'm betting he was telling the truth when he said that they were supposed to meet her back there. It's the last village this side of the pass, nothing else within 3 days ride or more, so it makes sense."
A blond brow furrowed, "What if it's one of the Gods...maybe we should take another route?"
"If it was one of the Gods, they wouldn't have sent these guys Gabrielle... They would've come themselves... Or sent and army, or Athena's archers. Besides, I have a feeling Ares hasn't let his siblings in on our little secret just yet."
Xena looked back over her shoulder again at their prisoner, "I'm gonna go check that guys hands, make sure he's not gonna wiggle free. I'll see if I can't find out anything else while I'm at it."
Gabrielle followed Xena's gaze, then wordlessly nodded her agreement and accepted charge of Argo's reins.
She watched as Xena fell in beside the man and checked his bindings. As she turned back toward the road in front of them, her mind reverberated Xena's words and the War God's name. Ares. She swallowed hard to keep the bile down she felt rising in her throat. She hated him. She told herself it was because of all he'd done...to her, to Xena...to Eve. But deep down, in that little part of her that still cared about truth, still held it sacred, she knew it was more than that. She was jealous. The little seeds of insecurity that Ares had endlessly tried to plant in her mind, about Xena, and about Xena's love and appreciation for her, had finally taken root.
Rationally, she knew better...knew that giving in to those insecurities was exactly what Ares had always wanted her to do...what he needed in order to help him drive a wedge between she and Xena. And she had battled hard with herself, for as long as she could remember, not to allow that to happen. But a year of constant running and fighting had battered her as much emotionally as it had physically, and had weakened her resolve. So the shift in Xena's intense attention from she to Eve, after the baby's birth, perhaps even before, had created a slowly growing distance between them..one she had found hard to bridge.
And the simple gestures of love they had once shared so easily...familiar touches, knowing smiles, understanding words, had become an effort...one they'd made less and less frequently since Eve's birth. The absence of affection between them in the months following had left a painful emptiness inside her that nothing else could fill. And the fact that the one person who could have eased that ache was rarely more than an arms length away, had only served to intensify it. But each time her need found its voice she had consciously pushed it down again...another victim in a year of practiced silence. A year of negotiating her own values, and of setting her own needs aside...of setting herself aside. A choice she'd made willingly... to protect first Xena, then Eve.
Gabrielle knew that Xena had been hurting too, though the Warrior's reaction to the distance between them had been very different from her own. During Athena's attack on Amphipolous, Xena had flirted with and nearly thrown herself at Ares in a ploy to save Eve, and the village, from his sister. And in Egypt there had been the tryst with Antony. Gabrielle recognized these for what they were, Xena's attempts to alleviate her own painful emptiness. But knowing the impetus for her partners behavior hadn't made it hurt any less.
After they had awakened in Ares icy tomb, confused and freezing, they had clung to each other for comfort and warmth. The contact had melted more than the cold. As they lay there in one another's arms, holding on to each other for dear life, the tender endearments and tearful apologies that they exchanged had become the first small steps toward closing the distance that had grown between them, and healing the pain.
So it had come as no surprise to Gabrielle that she still felt somewhat threatened by Ares, or had such a strong reaction to the War God's name. What would have shaken her to her very core, had she admitted it to herself, was that despite what it meant to Xena...perhaps because of it...some small part of her subconsciously hoped they would never again find Eve.
"Yaaaaaaahhhh! Gods Xena...you know I hate it when you sneak up on me!" The quiet greeting nearly startled Gabrielle out of her skin.
Xena chuckled, her blue eyes catching the waning sunlight as she did and sending little dancing bits of light bouncing off of them. "Since when is walking up beside you, whistling, considered sneaking up on you?"
"Oh... you were whistling?" Gabrielle quickly forgot her original complaint. She hadn't heard Xena whistle, or laugh much for that matter, in moons.
"Yeah...on purpose...you kinda looked... like... you were in deep thought, and I didn't wanna startle you. Guess it didn't work though." Xena copped a curious half-grin.
"Um...yeah... I was... thinking I mean. Hey...did you find get any more information from our guest back there?" Gabrielle intentionally changed the subject. There was no use trying to talk to Xena about her feelings until she had them sorted out a little better herself, she rationalized.
"Not much...guess they were supposed to meet her just outside of Adin, in some caves near the base of the pass. Supposed to send advanced word through a messenger when they caught us. Chances are the guys we left behind have already sent word that we escaped capture."
"Think they'll be waiting for us in Adin?" Gabrielle asked.
"Not really...it's one thing to send a single messenger an alternate route, but that whole group going the long way around in time to get there ahead of us isn't likely." Xena tipped her head sideways a bit as she talked, her eyes scanning Gabrielle's face openly.
"What? What is it? Do I have dirt on my face?" Gabrielle asked self consciously.
The corners of Xena's mouth turned up ever so slightly, and her eyes crinkled at the edges in a smile. "No...it's just...it's been a long time since..." a sigh...What ? Since I've had time to even notice you? Since I've had time to appreciate how beautiful you are...how much you've grown...how much you mean to me? "...since I've seen you that lost in thought."
Things were still a bit too raw. The physical contact was almost easier Xena thought. After the void they'd finally had to cling to each other for warmth in order to survive. Ironic, wasn't that really what they'd always done, clung to each other to survive? Somehow she'd lost track of that after Eve's birth. She had just closed that part of herself off, shut it down. She hadn't even realized it until she'd read Gabrielle's scrolls when they were with the Northern Amazons. By then, even though her heart had wanted it, she couldn't make her hands reach out for the Bard.
Now, it was everything she could do to keep her need for physical contact with her partner in check. Having spent 25 years listening to her lover's subconscious, she was all too aware of Gabrielle's inner demons, her doubts and fears, and the depth of Gabrielle's love for her. She also knew about the pain. Pain she herself had been the cause of. And now she wanted more than anything to ease that pain. But she knew she had to give her partner time...and the space she needed to sort things out for herself. She owed her that.
What made it hard were moments like these. Moments when her companions conscious and subconscious feelings insinuated themselves into her own thoughts during their waking hours. Moments when Gabrielle's pain was palpable and all Xena wanted to do was hold her and make it go away. It wasn't that simple though, and she knew it. And she was pretty sure telling Gabrielle that she'd been eavesdropping on her private thoughts and emotions for the last 25 years plus wasn't going to do much to help.
And the truth was, she had no idea how to go about telling her anyway. So she had tried hard to keep her mind busy...occupied enough that it wouldn't be so receptive to sensing things from the Bard. Due to her iron will, and years of practiced discipline regulating her own thoughts and feelings, she'd had some success too. But it had still happened more and more since the Void, in spite of her efforts.
"Xena...did you hear me?"
Xena shook her head to clear it... Unsure for a moment if it was Gabrielle's real voice or her subconscious thoughts she'd heard. "Huh?"
"I said, 'Don't you think we ought to make camp soon?' The sun will be down in another candle mark or so." Gabrielle repeated her question.
"Oh...yeah, good idea." She looked back over her shoulder at their captive again. "Too bad we won't reach Adin until tomorrow, I'm not looking forward to having to keep one eye peeled at this guy all night."
Gabrielle followed Xena's line of vision back to their charge. "Yeah...well maybe we can keep watch together for a change."
Xena smiled a full, warm, toothy white smile. "I'd like that."
Gabrielle went swimming in two deep blue pools for a moment, before she consciously pulled herself out and smiled back. "Me too."
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