Disclaimer: Xena and co are copyrighted characters owned by Ren Pics and Universal. This fan fiction picks up where the last ever episode, 'A Friend In Need', ended. It's a comedy drama, so be prepared for anything.
I'd like to thank the members of the Bards' Village mailing list for reading it first and helping me to knock off the rougher edges. That goes double, or even treble, for Stacia for doing the final proofing.
Gabrielle and Xena (deceased)
By Mark Annetts
The small black urn felt reassuringly heavy in her hands. Looking out over the prow of the fishing boat she'd managed to board in Alexandria, Gabrielle watched the sun set. No matter how many times she watched a sunset it still happened. A lump would form in her throat and it was all she could do to refrain from crying. Nevertheless, it was now a ritual she was more than happy to perform, whenever she had the chance. Bringing out Xena's ashes from the safety of her scroll bag, so that they might watch the sun go down together, was something she would never stop doing, nor something she'd ever really get used to, she felt, so painful were the memories it invoked.
"Eleven months, Xena, and still it hurts worse than a sword thrust. Time is supposed to heal all, but for the life of me it doesn't seem to be helping," she spoke softly, absently rubbing the jar. "Egypt didn't help, either. After all you did for them it's still a deeply divided land - the Romans still have their dirty claws in the place. I know I should stay to help, but, honest to gods, Xena, all I really want to do is go home. I'm tired and lonely and my soul hurts more than I can say. I'm just about running on empty here. I know the dead can hear our thoughts, and I know you're in my heart, an' all, but by the gods, Xena, I'd give up everything for one more moment in your arms, truly I would."
As had happened so many times before, the only answer was silence. In the gathering gloom she made her way back to her bedroll at the aft end of the boat, carefully placing the urn in her bag, packing her scrolls around it for protection. She lay next to the bag, her hand resting on it for comfort. "In another two days we'll be home, my love, and you can be with your family again. Then I'll truly be on my own. I know some days I've been able to imagine you at my side better than others, but it scares me sometimes. I wake up and for a moment I can't remember what you looked like, I have to think really hard to see your eyes, your smile. This is slowly killing me, Xena. People tell me I must move on, but... I'm afraid if I do, I'll never... be able to remember you again." A tear slid down her face as she looked at her implacable scroll bag.
"Hey, I'm getting really good with the chakram now. I can bounce it off six different things and still get it coming back to me. The other day, without thinking, I somehow split it in two and threw both halves double-handed. They did their work and both came back to me, rejoining just before I caught it. You'd have been so proud!" She grinned enthusiastically, lost for a moment in the pleasure of the memory. Slowly her grin faded as the scroll bag came back into view.
She rolled onto her back, looking up at the familiar night sky. "Gods, Xena, I do so miss having you here to talk over the day with." The boat rocked gently on the placid sea, soothing her into a state of drowsy calm. "At least I don't get sea-sick any more, old friend," she said, smiling and reaching out absently to touch the bag. "You taught me so many things, I don't even know where to begin. Not that you haven't heard it all before, I know. But our little late night chats keep me sane, my love, they keep me sane," she said softly.
She lapsed into silence, the only sound being the splashing of the water on the bow as it sailed towards Greece. An hour passed in silent contemplation of the stars, along with memories of past times spent watching them with her lost love. "I think I'll sleep now, Xena. I'll see you in the morning," she said, yawning and rolling over to hold the bag close to her.
* * *
The bay cantered amiably along, eating up the miles with apparent disdain for the distance they were covering. Haggling for the animal had been a simple pleasure she'd almost forgotten just how much she enjoyed, so long had it been since she needed to do it. Another night would see them overlooking the town of Amphipolis - and her destination, Xena's family crypt.
"Not long to go now, Xena," she said, leaning forward and stroking the horse's neck. They'd stopped for a quick rest and a drink. She didn't bother removing the saddle as she didn't intend to remain for long. What she had to do could really wait, but the nearer she drew to Amphipolis, the more impatient she became. Tucking her hand into the samurai armour she now always wore, she touched the small roll of paper to reassure herself.
"Do you think she'll ever forgive me, boy?" she asked the horse quietly. It shook its head and snorted. "No, I don't suppose she will, but I've got to try. If it doesn't work, I'll turn you loose and you can go round up some nice lady horses and live happily ever after. I, on the other hand, will die happily ever after. One way or another, Xena and I will be back together again come tomorrow night." She kicked her heels into the horse's flanks, urging her new friend on.
* * *
The mausoleum was overgrown and filled with spiders' webs. She did her best to wipe the worst of it off Lyceus' and Cyrene's sarcophaguses, but it would take a concerted effort to get the place really clean, and she simply didn't have the inclination.
"Guess this is the moment of truth," she murmured to herself. She took the urn from her bag and placed it on the small altar by the wall, adjacent to the two stone coffins. She unfurled the roll of paper that the priest in Japan had given to her, with its special blessing. She couldn't read the words, but they looked beautiful to her anyway. Wrapping the jar in the paper, she picked it up and touched it to her forehead, then kissed it before placing it back on the altar. She clapped her hands three times above the urn then stepped back, kneeling on the floor and bowing low till her forehead touched the ground, as she had been taught by the priest.
Taking out a small vial of powder she'd acquired in Egypt from a holy man, she began chanting, at first in Japanese, then in Egyptian, finally in Greek. As she spoke the last words she tossed the powder up in the air. The motes of fine dust sparkled and shimmered as they caught in the shafts of sunlight coming in through the open door of the chamber.
Gabrielle held her breath expectantly. The dust continued to sparkle as it slowly fell to the floor. Nothing happened. She closed her eyes, her hands falling limply to her thighs. The empty glass vial fell from her open palm and rolled across the stone floor.
"Should've known it was a crock," she mumbled, angrily wiping tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand.
Taking a deep breath she slowly forced herself to stand. She lifted the chakram from her hip, staring at its mute shiny surface. 'So beautiful, yet so deadly,' she thought. 'Just like your former mistress. Well, guess I won't be needing this anymore, will I.' She placed it reverentially against the urn on the altar. Next she placed her two sais in a cross and leaned them against the urn too. Drawing the glittering red-handled katana from its scabbard across her shoulder she felt its familiar and comforting weight. "I'm glad I never found Xena's sword. I don't think I'd be able to do this with it," she said, whirling the blade about in a complex pattern of slices that were too fast for the eye to follow.
Abruptly the display ceased as she spun the blade around, holding the point towards her stomach with one outstretched hand.
"I'm sorry, Xena, I can't do this without you any longer," she said, tears streaming down her face.
"Wait," a familiar voice spoke calmly behind her.
The blade juddered to a halt an inch from her stomach. Gabrielle opened her eyes, slowly turning around.
"Xena?" she said, hesitantly.
"Who were you expecting, Aphrodite?" A tall woman stepped out from the shadows, dressed in a simple white robe, a narrow gold chain tied at her waist, her long black hair tied up in an elegant knot at the back of her head, a more than dazzling smile playing on her face.
Gabrielle dropped the sword, her hand instinctively covering her mouth in shock and elation.
"Xena, is it really you?"
"I was going to say 'in the flesh' but I don't think that's strictly true."
"Oh, gods, Xena..." Gabrielle's words trailed off as she ran towards Xena, her arms outstretched for a familiar hug.
She grasped at Xena with an overwhelming need and desire, but her arms passed straight through the dead warrior.
"Xena, I... I can't touch you."
"Yeah, well, if you will go yanking a gal from the Fields while she's in the middle of a nice recital from a pretty young poet, what did you expect?"
"You... you were in the Fields?"
"I wondered if you'd made it. I prayed every night to any god who would listen that you had."
"I know, I heard most of them. Thank you."
"Did I really bring you back?"
"Well, if you didn't, I don't know who did. Pretty tricky mumbo-jumbo you got there. I knew if anyone could do it, you could."
"Why did you leave me?"
"Gabrielle, I had no choice. It was my time."
"You promised you'd never leave, even in death you said you'd never leave me," Gabrielle managed to squeeze out between the sobs that were racking her body.
"I know, and I kept my promise. I've watched you every moment I could, I've whispered to you in your dreams. I've tried every which way I could to get back to you, if only for a moment so that we could talk."
"Who's in charge of the fields now, now that Hades is not there anymore?"
"It's... complicated, it's erm, under new management."
"I'm not sure you'd fully understand. Michael's sort of involved."
"Two minutes and already I don't know if I want to kiss you or hit you. How do you do it?"
"I have many skills."
Gabrielle broke into a happy smile, but still continued to cry. "You don't know how many times I prayed that I'd hear you say that just one more time."
"Well, get used to it, 'cause I think you're stuck with me. For the time being at least."
"Why, what do you mean?"
"I mean that now that the cat's out of the bag, I don't think she's going back in."
"You mean I've pulled you permanently from Elysium?"
"I reckon so."
"Oh, gods, Xena, I'm so sorry. I had no idea. I was told this would resurrect you, not trap your spirit here."
"This is what you get for mixing up your spells."
"Um, how were the Fields, did you meet anyone you knew?"
"Sure, my mom, my brother, Joxer, Solan, they were all there. We were waiting for you to join us."
"What about Ephiny and Solari?"
"They're not there, they're over in their own afterlife. They visit sometimes, but it all gets a little formal and stiff."
Gabrielle reached out and passed her hand through Xena's arm. "Why can't I touch you, I could in Japan when you were first a spirit?"
"That was before the sun set on the second day and I passed on to the Fields."
"Will I ever be able to touch you?"
"I... I don't know. Maybe."
"What does that mean?"
"It means I don't know yet. I'm just getting used to this, the same as you are."
"What if I die, will you, um... I mean, will you still... um..."
"Dunno. Don't think so. I think I'm tied to you. Where you go I go."
"Just like before."
"Something like that."
"Nice duds, by the way."
"You like them?"
"Nice, but somehow, I don't know, they're just not you."
"How about this?" Xena said, closing her eyes and flashing out of sight for a moment.
"Xena?" Gabrielle called to the empty room, panic rising in her voice.
"Calm down, Gabrielle," Xena smiled as she reappeared in her familiar brown leather outfit, her hair flowing freely down over her shoulders once more.
"Whoa," exclaimed Gabrielle, jumping slightly as Xena reappeared unexpectedly beside her. "Don't do that, Xena, you'll have me joining you faster than you expected," she said, holding her hand to her chest, panting.
"You mean this," said Xena with an evil grin, as she blinked out and back in various different locations surrounding Gabrielle. The blonde spun round and round trying to keep up with the playful ghost.
"Enough!" Gabrielle shrieked, holding her hands to her temples and closing her eyes.
"Since when did you lose your sense of humour?" Xena pouted.
"On the side of Mount Fuji," Gabrielle ground out through gritted teeth. She couldn't help it; now that the shock and elation at seeing her long lost love was wearing off, anger was taking over.
"Let me remind you, oh noble warrior of mine, you chose to abandon me for the greater good. You chose your own desire for redemption over my happiness." As she spoke she punctuated each consonant with a thrust of her finger. "You've been spending each day in Elysium, over and over, care free and in a state of grace, while I've been left behind, shattered, hurt, and lonely. You took the easy way out, leaving me to take the shitty end of the stick... you... you... what's the matter, Xena?"
"Can't you feel it?" Xena whispered back.
"Feel what?" she ranted, still in full flow.
"You're touching me."
"You're prodding my chest with your finger."
"Oh," Gabrielle said in astonishment.
She tentatively reached out her hand, gently trying to feel Xena's neck, but her hand passed through once more.
"How is that possible?" she asked, puzzled.
"I don't know. One minute I'm Miss See-through, and the next I can feel you prodding me, and now I'll have a bruise on my boob, thank you very much!" she said indignantly.
"Can ghosts bruise?"
"Yeah, well, you shouldn't have buried your armour, should you!" Gabrielle snapped, prodding her once more, again making contact.
"That's it!" exclaimed Xena. "When you're worked up about something, the emotion forms a bridge between us, allowing you to breach the spectral plain and touch me."
"Do you think it will work in reverse?"
"I don't know. I'll give it a try."
Xena concentrated, flexing her hands and closing her eyes to narrow slits, then slowly reached out to stoke Gabrielle's face, but her hand slid through the warm flesh, leaving a strange tingling feeling in her hand.
"Crap!" she said, slamming her fist down on the coffin. The lid shuddered with the impact.
"You did it!" said Gabrielle happily.
"Yeah, but not where it counted. What's the good of me able to punch coffins if I can't touch the face of my love?"
"Give it time, Xena, I'm sure with a bit of practice we'll soon be in each other's arms again."
"I hope you're right," the angry ghost replied.
* * *
"So, how much do you remember of your death?" asked Gabrielle as she led her horse back towards Xena's family tavern. Xena walked alongside, seemingly lost in a haze of wonderment, taking in every detail around her.
"What," the distracted ghost said. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I was miles away there. What were you saying?"
"I asked what you remembered of your death?"
"Oh, that, not much," she said dismissively.
"You don't remember the climax to your own life?"
"Nah, where I've been, it's not considered all that important. Wow, would you look at that?"
Gabrielle turned to look at where Xena was pointing. "It's a man juggling some flaming torches. What's so special about that?"
"We just don't get anything like that in Elysium. It's more recitals and plays, that sort of thing."
"Doesn't sound much like your cup of tea to me, Xena."
"No, it's funny that, now you come to mention it. I wonder why I liked them so much?" She stopped and pondered it for a moment, frowning. "Weird!" she said, shaking her head in puzzlement.
"Maybe they put a smiley-happy spell on everyone so that they'll enjoy their stay?" offered Gabrielle.
"Could be. Still I'm here now, and free of their mind games, thanks to you, my love," she said, grinning, trying to grab Gabrielle for a hug but passing through the bard instead. "Damn, that's disconcerting," she grumbled. "And it tingles too."
"Yeah, I can feel something when you do that. Sort of like a cool breeze, but on the inside."
"Hmm, that might have possibilities," Xena said, waggling her eyebrows at Gabrielle.
"Don't you dare do what I think you're thinking."
"What am I thinking?" Xena said, grinning evilly.
Gabrielle shrieked, jumping out of the way, pulling one of her sais in a fluid motion as she rounded on the warrior.
"Pretty fancy, Gabrielle. I'm impressed. Nice move."
"You think so?" Gabrielle grinned, sliding the weapon back in her boot.
"I'm proud of you. You've come on so much, in such a short space of time."
"I've known you for nearly forty years, even if some of them were frozen or asleep. I'd hardly call that a short space of time."
"Yeah, but I mean since I left. I mean, you were good, probably as good as anyone I've faced, over the years, but now, well, you're so fast. How did you get so quick in only a week?"
"Xena, it's been nearly a year since you died."
"It has?" Xena stopped and frowned again. "This dying thing really messes with your head."
"Well, you did kind of lose yours in the process." Gabrielle winced as she said it, expecting some sort of upset from Xena.
Xena smiled. "Yeah, I did, didn't I."
"Did it... you know... hurt?" asked Gabrielle, suddenly filled with morbid curiosity.
"Didn't feel a thing. Arrows kinda nipped a bit though."
"I don't want to dwell on the past, Xena, but why didn't you tell me your plan? I would've understood."
"I know, Gabrielle, it was very selfish of me, but I... I just couldn't bear the thought of you dying too. I knew what I had to do, and I knew with absolute certainty that I wouldn't allow it to happen to the one person who means the most to me, in this, or any other world.
"It hurt, Xena. It really, really hurt."
"I know," the warrior said softly, unable to look her partner in the eyes. "Can you ever... I know I have no right to ask really, but... can you ever... I mean..."
"Yes," she whispered.
"Xena, there's nothing to forgive. You did what you did because you love me, I understand that. I just wanted you to know that I think you were wrong. There hasn't been a day goes by since our time on Mount Fuji when I haven't wished I'd gone with you."
"Yeah, I know. I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry, Xena. What's done is done. And look at it this way, if you hadn't been selfish, we wouldn't be here talking now. We'd both be enjoying meaningful poetry recitations and not having a care in the world. How dull would that be?" she said, grinning.
"Yeah, looking back now, pretty damn dull."
"That's one of your many skills, my love."
"Your ability to win through, no matter what the odds, and how many dumb mistakes you make."
"Don't pretend you don't make 'em. This is me you're talking to here, not some greenhorn country gal, remember."
Xena narrowed her eyes and flicked her hair imperiously, striding past Gabrielle.
"Huffy too, sometimes. Same old Xena," the bard said, smiling, as she pulled on the horse's reins, urging her mount to follow.
* * *
Cyrene's tavern hadn't changed much since they were last there. The hauntings had ceased, though now Xena was in a position to provide some of her own. A large banner hung above the front doors, proclaiming that the place to be under new management.
"Looks like Eve never came back to claim her inheritance," said Gabrielle.
"No." Xena stood with her hands on her hips, scrutinising the building's facade. "Come on, let's see what they've done inside." She strode purposefully towards the swing doors, her hand out ready to push them open. Instead they barely moved as she passed through them.
"You got a little jiggle on them," said the bard, following behind, using them in a more conventional manner.
"Humph," grunted Xena.
"Gabrielle!" a voice boomed out from behind the bar. A man leaped over and ran towards the surprised bard, passing through Xena on the way.
"The one and only!" he said excitedly. He grabbed the startled woman, sweeping her up into a huge hug. "By the gods, it's so good to see you, it's been so long."
"Yes, yes it has," she said giggling, caught up in the man's enthusiastic welcome.
"Where's Xena, we heard some terrible rumours."
Gabrielle smile vanished. "She didn't make it," she said, the pain suddenly catching her unawares, in spite of the warrior's ghostly presence.
Virgil dropped her to the floor and pulled her into a gentle embrace. "I'm so sorry, Gabrielle."
"Yeah, so am I." She couldn't help the tears as she clung to the man, the pain of her loss hitting her as hard as any time previously. He gently walked her to a secluded table near the back of the tavern and sat her down, still holding her hand.
"Is there anything I can do?" he asked sadly.
"No, I just came through here to place her ashes in the family crypt. I don't think I'll be staying long, we have to be moving on."
"Er, no sorry, I meant just me."
"That's okay, Gabrielle, you stay for as long as you want. This is your place as much as anyone's. Just say the word and it's yours."
Gabrielle sniffed then blew her nose on the cloth Virgil offered her. "Thanks, but I don't think running a tavern is what I was meant to do."
"Not what I had in mind either, but I guess we have to play the deal the Fates give us."
"Maybe," Gabrielle smiled half-heartedly. She looked around for Xena, but there was no sign of her anywhere. "How come you've ended up here anyway?"
"I tried to make a go of it with mom and my sisters in Athens, but I felt so hemmed in there, I knew I had to get back out into the country. I took to the road, eventually found myself here. Saw the tavern was up for sale. So," he shrugged, "here I am."
"Have you heard from Eve?" A cloud passed over his face for a moment. "No," he said, shaking his head.
"I know what she did to your father was unforgivable, but it was a long time ago now, and so much has changed.
"I know," he said softly. "She's just never been back. I've no idea where she went."
"She was heading off to India and Chin, last time we saw her. She wanted to spread Eli's message to the world."
"They've got a temple the other side of town, though they call it a church. They occasionally come round here trying for a few more converts. It's not too hard since Xena killed most of the Olympians."
"Amazing days," Gabrielle said.
"What happened?" he asked softly.
"It's a long, complicated story. One day I might write it all down in one of my scrolls."
"That's some fancy armour you're wearing, by the way. I've never seen anything like it. And that sword is like nothing I've seen before either."
"They're from an island off the coast of Chin called Japan. It's where Xena... met her end."
"Was it heroic?"
"This is Xena we're talking about, of course it was heroic. She took on a thousand Samurai warriors so that she could free forty thousand trapped souls. She died as she wanted to. And she released the souls."
"Was it really heroic?" said Xena, popping in beside the sitting bard, a big silly grin on her face.
Gabrielle jumped in surprise. "Don't do that, I said!"
"Do what?" asked Virgil puzzled.
"Oh, nothing, sorry, don't mind me," she said, glaring at Xena, who was still grinning wickedly.
Virgil stood up and shivered. "Brrr, does it suddenly feel cold to you?" he asked.
"Warm as toast," said Xena putting her feet up on the table. "Nice of you to ask, though."
"Behave!" Gabrielle whispered angrily, out of the side of her mouth.
"I'm sorry, I know it must be hard for you, coming back here with all your memories an' all. I'll try and remember that." He stood up and kissed her on the cheek. "Stay as long as you want. Really, I mean that."
"Thank you, Virgil, you're most kind. Unlike some people I can think of," she said, elbowing Xena in the side.
"Ow, that hurt!" the startled warrior exclaimed.
"Tell me, Virgil, do Eli's ministers still perform exorcisms?" Gabrielle asked, smiling sweetly.
"Xena, where do you go, when you pop out like that?" asked Gabrielle, frowning. It felt odd, her riding the horse and Xena ambling alongside on foot. The role reversal was almost complete. She had the chakram and the horse, while Xena didn't even have a weapon.
"What, when I do this?" replied Xena, disappearing from view.
"Yeah, that's what I meant," said Gabrielle, slowing her horse and looking around for any sign of the errant warrior.
"Thought so!" said Xena, reappearing behind Gabrielle's line of sight, causing the blonde to spin violently in the saddle, bringing her back to face the grinning warrior.
"Am I going to have to put up with this for the rest of my life?"
"I'll send for one of Eli's priests, Xena, so don't push your luck."
"Nah, don't think so, you're stuck with me, like it or lump it."
"Think you're so clever, too."
"Well, aren't I?"
"Is it my imagination, or has dying actually increased your cockiness?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," the warrior replied airily.
They were two days out from Amphipolis, on their way to Poteidaia. Virgil had been a charming host during Gabrielle's stay in Xena's home town, being both supportive and understanding. In fact, a little too supportive for Xena's liking. Their farewell hug and kiss had gone on far longer than Xena thought acceptable, even for close friends.
"Thought Virgil would have wanted to come along for the ride."
Gabrielle remained silent, just nudging her horse into a slightly faster walk.
"He could've read you some of his poetry at night, help you sleep."
"You know, anyone'd think that you were jealous."
"Me, jealous? You're kidding, right? I haven't got a jealous bone in my body... if I had a body, that is."
"Of course, who ever heard of a jealous warrior princess? Couldn't happen, not in a million years."
They progressed down the road in silence.
"So, what is it between you and poet boy?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," mimicked Gabrielle airily.
"That boy's got the hots for you, Gabrielle, don't pretend you don't know it."
"Don't be silly... and, besides, what if he has?"
"What do you mean 'what if he has?'" demanded Xena, rounding on the bard, her hands on her hips in indignation.
Gabrielle's face slowly cracked into a huge grin. She licked her finger and wrote an imaginary roman numeral one in the air.
"It's not nice to mess with a ghost, Bard, we have many skills that you don't wanna find out about."
"Oh yeah? What ya gonna do, moan at the top of the stairs and rattle some chains?" Gabrielle said, laughing at the glaring warrior.
"No, but I can do this." She passed her hand through the horse's hindquarters. The animal's head snapped up, its ears flattening in alarm at the strange and unexpected sensation. Without a second thought it took off down the road at a full gallop, with Gabrielle holding on for dear life, having been caught by surprise.
Eventually she got the spooked horse under control, pulling it to a halt a few hundred yards away. Xena popped in next to them.
"Enjoy your ride?" she asked nonchalantly.
"That was unnecessary, I could've been thrown and broken my neck," Gabrielle said, annoyed.
"Dying's not so bad."
"Maybe not, but I'd rather do it my way, thank you very much."
"So, what is it between you and Virgil?"
"Oh for God's sake." Gabrielle narrowed her eyes, growling, pulling her horse in a tight arc and cantering off down the road. Xena popped ahead and leaned against a tree in front of them, examining her nails. Gabrielle sped past, her top lip pulled up in a sneer. She whipped the horse into a faster gallop, but once again Xena appeared ahead of them, smiling a cheeky grin and waving her fingers as they sped by.
Eventually Gabrielle pulled her horse to a slow trot and finally a full stop. Sliding out of the saddle, she patted the horse on the neck and lead her off the road into a small clearing in the woods, letting her free to eat some grass and cool down after their gallop.
Xena appeared next to Gabrielle, but before she could say anything, the bard held up her hand signalling Xena to remain quiet. "Not one word!" the angry bard exclaimed.
Xena pursed her lips for a moment then tried to say something but Gabrielle's hand flew up again.
"Fine!" Xena said with a huff and stomped off to sit under a tree, where she sat grimacing at the bard, her eyes narrowed into slits as she sulked.
Gabrielle's head dropped onto her chest as she tried desperately to cover up the laugh that was bubbling up to the surface.
She walked over and sat down next to the pouting warrior.
"Xena, have I told you lately how much I truly love you?"
"No." Xena replied testily.
"Well, I do." She took one of the warrior's hands in her own and leant over, kissing her on the cheek.
"I'm sorry, my love, I know that under the present circumstances it must be hard for you. I'm the only one that can see or hear you, but everyone else sees a lone woman who just might be looking for a new partner. Please believe me, Xena, I have my partner, and even though I'm the only one who knows it right now, that's all that's required. Everyone else can go to Tartarus, or Hell, or wherever else people go to these days. Even in death you won't leave me, and even in death I won't leave you."
Xena's shoulders slumped in relief. "I was so worried that you'd go off and find somebody else. I know it's selfish of me to expect you to stay with just a spirit for a partner, but I know we can do it. We always have been able to overcome anything before. This is just another hurdle for us to conquer."
"You know we're holding hands and I just kissed you, don't you?"
"Yeah, I know."
"Guess the old link between us is coming back full force, huh?"
"Looks like," Xena said, smiling, pulling Gabrielle's hand up and kissing it in return.
"Not sure that I'll ever get used to the lack of body heat though."
"You saying I'm cold?"
"Not cold, exactly, but not the real hot body I remember."
"Not sure that there's anything I can do about that."
"I don't mind, Xena, I'd have traded anything to have you return to me, and here you are, back in my arms again. I couldn't be happier."
They sat under the tree, Gabrielle's head resting on Xena's muscular shoulder, nestling in the soul-warming glow of her beloved warrior.
"What are we going to do, Xena?"
"I thought we were going to Poteidaia, to see your family, or what's left of them."
"No, not at this moment, I mean, in the future, about you?"
"I'm not exactly sure that there is anything we can do. I have no body."
"There must be something we can do."
"I'm kind of fresh out of ideas on the subject."
"Is there no one that can help?"
"One of the gods maybe, I don't really know."
"What about if we got you some ambrosia, or one of Odin's golden apples?"
"They're for the living, or newly dead, Gabrielle, not for stirring into a pot of ashes."
"Well, it's true."
"You don't have to be quite so gross about it."
Xena's top lip curled slightly, but she grudgingly mumbled an apology.
"How about Ares or Aphrodite, both of them owe you big time."
Xena shrugged. "I'd rather not be owing either of them, if you don't mind."
"I can understand that, but these are special circumstances, don't you think?"
"I suppose we could go and sound out 'Dite and see what she has to say."
"That's the spirit... if you'll, um, forgive the remark."
"I guess I'm going to have to put up with more comments like that, till you get bored of them, aren't I," sighed the warrior.
"Could be," the bard smiled.
"Come on, let's go find us a temple. I think there's one on the outskirts of Poteidaia." Xena stood up, hauling the startled bard with her.
"You're getting good at the solid body thing."
"Only with you, lover."
"Reckon you might be ready for a little... you know what?" Gabrielle said, waggling her eyebrows.
"Soon, my darling, soon." Xena smiled.
* * *
"Aphrodite!" shouted Xena as she walked around the ornate temple. "Show yourself, I know you can hear me!"
"Perhaps she's away somewhere, or sleeping, or... otherwise engaged," said Gabrielle.
"Aphrodite, I'm not gonna call again!"
"That should work, threatening one of the only people who might be able to restore you."
"Restore who, Babe?" Aphrodite appeared behind Gabrielle and blew down the back of her neck, making the bard jump and spin round in one fluid motion.
"Hey, good reactions, all those years with Mopyhead's really paying off. You look so... warrior babe-like, ooh, it's so delicious, I could just eat you up with a spoon." She grabbed Gabrielle's cheek and squeezed, giving the bard a friendly shake.
"Cut that out, Aphrodite," Gabrielle said, shrugging free of the Olympian's grasp.
"Not another one," groaned Xena, watching the interaction between bard and goddess. "Gods, does everyone have a thing for my partner?"
"Behave!" hissed Gabrielle.
"Hey, no need to get so huffy, Gabby. After all you're the one coming into my temple, not the other way around."
"She can't see me, or even feel my presence," said Xena in astonishment.
"That's not possible, is it?"
"Sure seems that way to me, Sweetpea, who else would have brought you here?"
"Not you, Aphrodite."
"Huh?" said a puzzled goddess.
"Are you feeling all right, Gabby? I heard about the terrible news. Gods, Ares was beside himself for weeks when we first heard. I don't think he's really come to terms with it, even now."
"Yeah, I'm feeling better, thanks. For a while there it was touch and go, but something good finally happened and I feel much better now."
"Really, you look a little pasty," said the goddess, putting her hand on Gabrielle's forehead.
"What are you doing?"
Aphrodite shrugged. "Don't ask me, Babe, all I know is mortals do this a lot. I was just trying to make you feel better."
"Ares was upset?" said Xena, grinning wickedly.
Gabrielle ignored Xena's display of malice. "Aphrodite, can I ask you a question?"
"Sure, Honey, you can ask me anything. You're my favourite mortal, you know that, right?"
"I'm... honoured. Now, is it possible to bring someone back from the dead?"
"Sure, piece of cake."
"Yeah, if I want to give up my godhood, and, like that's gonna happen, right? Been there, done that." She burst into a fit of giggles.
"It's not funny, Aphrodite. Isn't there another way, beside using up your godhood?"
"You're serious, aren't you?"
"Damn right I'm serious!"
"Oh, Darlin'. Now I understand," she said, putting her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I'm sorry, after all this time, it's just not possible. Xena's long gone. I might be able to persuade Michael to allow you a visit for a short time. But last time they met, well, Xena did try to, um," she winced. "Like drown him."
"I know, I was there."
"Well, in that case, you know how they feel about each other. It might not be possible to even visit with her."
"But you're a goddess, Aphrodite. You've got immense powers."
"I wish it were true, Honey, but I was never the strongest, and now with nearly everyone turning away from us, to Eli's god, well, let's just say that things ain't what they used to be."
"Is there anyone else you know who might be able to bring Xena back?"
"Honey, she's gone, let her rest."
"I... I can't."
"Can't or won't?" said Xena.
"Yeah what?" asked Aphrodite.
"Er, yeah, can't or won't?"
"Can't, Babe, I don't know of anyone, sorry."
"What about Ares?"
"Leave him out of it," said Xena.
"Someone call my name?" said the god of war, materialising next to his sister.
"Aw shit!" grumbled Xena.
"Ares, what an unexpected pleasure," said Gabrielle, her top lip pulling into a sneer.
"Don't be like that, Gabby," grinned the arrogant god. "It's been a while. You lost my girlfriend, I hear. Very careless of you, if I may say so."
"She's not your girlfriend and never was," ground out a very annoyed bard.
"No, then how come her soul's mine in perpetuity?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You mean Xena never told you of our little agreement?"
Xena suddenly looked uncomfortable and started looking anywhere but at the bard.
"I asked you a question!" Gabrielle said, prodding the god in the chest.
"We're to be married in Xena's next life, and the one after that too. In fact in every life for ever more."
"Cross my heart and hope you die," he said, grinning.
The god's smug grin slipped for a moment. "Seems I can't at the moment. A certain double-crossing warrior princess stole the binding agreement. But I'll find it, don't you worry, and then she's mine," he said, disappearing in a flash of blue light.
Gabrielle turned to Xena. "Is this true?" she asked.
"Don't ask me, Honey, what the warrior babe and my bro got up to is none of my business."
"Er, right, Aphrodite, thanks."
"I guess Ares isn't gonna be of any help either," said Aphrodite sadly. "I'm really sorry, Hon, really I am. If I could help, I would. I miss her too, ya know."
"You do?" asked Gabrielle. Even Xena raised her eyebrows and looked at the goddess.
"Yeah, just between you an me, I thought she was the tops. So butch an' all. Man, I'd watch her fight and I'd be swinging away right along with her. Damn, but there'll never be another one like her," she said enthusiastically, punctuating her remark with an accomplished high kick and a 'yeehar!'
"No, I don't reckon there ever will," the bard said, turning to Xena, smiling. "But actually it was more a 'She-ya!'," she said, as she completed a perfect forward flip, landing next to a surprised goddess.
"Ooh, you're so goood." The goddess fluffed her outfit, returning it to some semblance of normality after her uncharacteristic display of gymnastics.
"So, what're your plans now, Gabby?" she asked, patting her already immaculate hair back into place.
"I thought I go home and see my family, if they're still around."
"I don't know. I do know I have to find a way to bring her back."
"Oh, Gabby, Honey, I really wish I could help." The goddess paused for a moment, as if deep in thought. "Hey, I've a cool idea. Why don't you and me go for a vacation, just the two of us. We could go anywhere you wanted, what d'ya say?"
"Over my dead body," interjected Xena. Gabrielle rolled her eyes and shook her head.
"Maybe later, Aphrodite. I'd like that, I think."
"You got a date, Sugar, whenever you're ready." She clicked her fingers and disappeared in a shower of yellow sparkles.
"Well, that was helpful," said a disgruntled warrior.
"She was doing her best."
"Don't be unkind, Xena, she was, and you know it."
"So, that strikes out the Olympians. Shoulda known they'd be a wash."
"What was Ares talking about?"
"How should I know," Xena answered defensively.
"Because I know you, and I know when you're trying to wriggle out from under something you don't want to talk about."
"All right, all right. I made a deal with him to get you back after the lava pit thing. No big deal. There, now can we talk about something else, please?"
"What sort of deal?"
"Nothing that he can call me on."
Xena pursed her lips and shrugged. "I kind of stole the agreement between us and hid it. He'll never find it, only me an' Joxer knows where it is, and we're both dead."
"That's not funny, Xena."
"Anymore revelations you'd care to share with me, like, oh I don't know, passing husbands, lovers, children, that kind of thing?"
"I'm sure, Gabrielle. To tell you the truth I'd almost forgotten about it myself, I was so messed up with losing you. It was a wonder I was thinking straight at all."
"Were you really that far gone?"
"And then some."
"And yet you still put me through the same thing," the bard said, gently, with no recriminations
"I... Oh god, I can't tell you how sorry I am, Gabrielle. It just seemed like the only thing I could do to put things right. I..."
"Shsssh, it's all right, Xena, I know." She pulled the stricken warrior to her, pulling her into a deep and passionate kiss. Gabrielle's tongue tingled at the caress of the warrior's spectral touch. It wasn't quite how she remembered their kisses from the past, but it still connected them at a profound level.
They broke apart, Gabrielle breathless and panting. Xena, not needing to breathe, could have continued indefinitely. The look of lust and love mingling in the warrior's eyes convinced the bard they should be moving on swiftly. Whoever heard of couples making out in one of Aphrodite's temples?
* * *
"Still looks lived in," Gabrielle remarked as they walked towards her family home. Memories of her last visit came flooding back - the meeting with an ageing Lila, and the stark news of her parents horrific deaths at the hands of the despot, Gurkhan. She didn't return with Sarah, instead letting her find her own path to reconciliation with her mother.
"Think Sarah made it home?" asked Xena, as if able to read her lover's mind.
"I hope so. There was a lot of hurt there that needed healing."
"You want me to come in there with you, or would you rather be alone with your family?"
"What sort of a question is that? Of course I want you with me."
"Hey, there's no need to take it out on me, you know. I'm just your friendly neighbourhood ghost."
Gabrielle looked at her partner and sighed. "I know, I'm sorry, Xena. It's just so many painful memories here. And none of it will help with our quest to get you back."
"You never know. I've found that help often comes from the most unexpected quarters, and often when you least expect it."
"I hope you're right, 'cos right about now I could do with a lucky break, or ten."
Gabrielle nervously reached up to knock on the front door. Before she could do so, it opened and her sister, Lila, flew out into her arms.
"Is it really you?" Lila asked, tears rolling down her cheeks in happiness.
"Yeah, it's me, little sister." Gabrielle returned the hug with equal measure. "Gods, it's so good to see you." They kissed and pulled apart.
"Is it... is it true?" asked a pensive Lila.
"Yeah, it's true," Gabrielle replied sadly. It still hurt, even with Xena being back.
"Oh Gods, I'm so sorry," gasped Lila, pulling her sister into another hug.
"It's all right, Lila, I'm sort of getting over it a little now."
"How... how did it happen?"
"It's a long story. Let's go inside and I'll tell you all about it, over a cup of tea."
"I think I'll go for a walk," said Xena. Gabrielle nodded at her partner, over her sister's shoulder.
* * *
Poteidaia hadn't changed overly much since Xena's last visit. At least this time she could walk down the main street and not be met by angry stares and open hostility. 'Every cloud has a silver lining,' she thought, smiling to herself.
She amused herself by trying very hard to move things, such as mugs of ale on the counter of the main tavern, or making an empty rocking chair creak on the front decking of one of the houses, always making sure there was someone there to see them.
Getting bored with such minor pleasures, she decided to return to Gabrielle's family farm. It took a while for her to notice a young girl dressed in Amazon clothes had fallen into step with her. She looked to be no more than ten summers in age. Xena stopped and so did the girl. She started off again, as did the girl, matching her step for step.
"Hello," she tried experimentally, not expecting the girl to hear her.
"Hello," came the timid response.
Xena stopped dead in her tracks. "You can see me?"
"Sure, why wouldn't I be able to see you, you're right in front of me."
"Well, it's a little unexpected is all. I've been kind of hard to see lately. What's your name, little one?"
"Yeah, I was named after one of our greatest queens."
"You're a little far from home aren't you? You get separated from your mom?"
"Yeah, we were in a trading delegation and I got sort of lost. Can you help me find my way home?"
"I'll see what I can do. First I'd like you to meet a very good friend of mine. She's an Amazon, too."
"I knew you'd be able to help as soon as I saw you coming into town. Everyone just ignores me here."
"Yeah, well Amazons aren't exactly welcome in this town. Pay them no heed, it's just their way."
She put her hand out for the little girl, and together they made their way towards Lila's farm.
"How long have you been on your own, Gabrielle?" asked Xena.
"Not long, I don't think," said the little girl.
Xena frowned. She'd seen no sign of any other Amazons in the area all the while she'd been travelling from Amphipolis with her bard.
"Can you remember exactly how long?" she asked the youngster gently.
"Not really. Is it important?"
"It might be." She paused. "Say, you want to tell me about your mom?"
They chatted happily for the rest of the half-hour it took to walk to Lila's farm on the outskirts of the town. Gabrielle and her sister were out in the herb garden at the side of the barn when Xena and her small companion arrived.
"See that woman kneeling down with the round thing on her hip?" Xena said, squatting down to young Gabrielle's height and pointing out Gabrielle senior. The little girl nodded, her face a mask of serious concentration. "She's an Amazon queen, or least she's an honorary one these days. I think Cyane of the northern tribe is now the overall queen, with Varia as her war general. Leastwise, they were last time we met. Do you know any of those names?"
The little girl shook her head. "Do you recognise her," Xena asked, nodding towards Gabrielle senior. Again the little girl shook her head. "Well, I'll call her over and you can introduce yourself." The girl nodded solemnly.
"Gabrielle! Over here," Xena called out. The bard's head shot up as she spun in the direction of the shout.
"What's the matter?" asked Lila in alarm, standing up beside Gabrielle. She'd come to recognise that when her sister reacted to something it was usually a sign of imminent danger.
"Er, nothing, Lila, I thought I heard something. Just go back to gathering your vegetables. I won't be long, I just want to go check it out."
"Do I need to tell you to be careful?" asked Lila.
Gabrielle smiled. "I can take care of whatever it is, I'm sure, don't you worry."
Xena was waving from a ways down the road, accompanied by what looked like a young Amazon girl. Walking cautiously towards them she continued to look around for any signs of trouble, but there was none to be seen. As she got closer she spread her hands and raised her eyebrows.
"What's the problem, Xena, you don't normally shout your presence to the world?"
Xena grinned. "Yeah well, I figured it doesn't really matter anymore, seeing as only you can hear me, besides little Gabrielle here, of course," she said with a grin, placing her hand on the child's shoulder in a triumphant gesture.
"She can see you?" asked the bard in surprise.
"Evidently," smiled Xena. "Queen Gabrielle, meet your namesake, Gabrielle junior of the Greek Amazons, currently separated from her mom and the rest of the tribe. I found her, or I should say, she found me, wandering the mean streets of Poteidaia."
The young girl stepped forward and gave the bard a formal Amazon salute, which Gabrielle smiled at, and returned, just as formally. She squatted down in front of the girl so that she matched her eyeline. "So, you're called Gabrielle too, huh?" The little girl nodded. "How come you're not with your mom?" Gabrielle junior looked up at Xena, who nodded back, encouraging her to tell her story all over again.
"I got lost from the trading delegation my mom was on."
"How long ago was that?"
The little girl shrugged. Gabrielle looked up at Xena, but the warrior shrugged too. She'd not been able to gain any more useful information from their chat as they'd walked home.
Gabrielle turned back to her namesake. "Bet you're hungry, huh?"
"Not really," shrugged the little girl. "Well, how about some nice cool milk, bet you'd like some of that?" The girl thought a moment, then nodded. "Okay," she said, putting her hand out for Gabrielle to hold.
"You're cold, little one," muttered the queen. "Let's get you inside and maybe make that some warm milk."
They walked up the road to the house, Xena tagging along behind. When they reached the front door Gabrielle held it open for both of them, not wanting to startle the child with Xena's walking through walls stunt.
"Lila!" Gabrielle called out, as they entered the main room. Her sister arrived from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. "Yes, Gabrielle, what is it?"
"Meet my new little friend, Gabrielle, fellow Amazon and little girl lost," said the bard, gently pushing the small girl towards her sister.
Lila's smile turned to a frown. "Is this some sort of a joke," she asked, confusion playing on her face.
"No, why should it be?" asked an equally puzzled bard.
"But... but there's no one there," said her sister.
"Aw hell," said Xena, as it finally dawned on her what was happening.
* * *
"Sit down, sister, I've got some explaining to do."
Lila wasn't quite sure what to do. Gabrielle's weapons weren't just for show; she knew her sister could be deadly when the occasion arose. Insanity mixed with lethal ability was not a healthy combination for anyone.
"All right... if that's what you think best, Gabrielle." She hesitantly pulled up a chair and sat down at the main table.
Gabrielle sighed and shook her head. Where to begin? "Look, Lila, despite appearances I'm quite sane and in full charge of my faculties."
"I'm glad to hear it."
"It'd be the first time," smirked Xena, chipping into the conversation between the two sisters. Gabrielle junior sat on Xena's lap, looking lost and alone.
"Am I really... dead?" she asked Xena.
"I... I'm afraid so, Little One." She looked across to the bard helplessly, feeling badly out of her depth.
"Are you dead, too?"
"Yeah, I guess I am."
"Why are we still here and not in Eternity?"
"I really don't know, Honey, but I promise you we're going to find out. I'll get you back to your family, no matter what."
"You can believe her, Gabrielle. When Xena makes a promise, she doesn't break it."
"Xena's here, too!" asked an alarmed Lila, standing up and backing away from Gabrielle.
"Sit down, Lila, and let me explain." Lila stood her ground, slowly shaking her head.
"Why can't the lady see me?" asked the child.
"We're not sure about that either," said Gabrielle. "I think it's because I'm an Amazon. It happened once before with another great friend of mine called Ephiny."
"I read of Queen Ephiny in school, she was killed defending our village against the Romans."
"Yes, she was a very good friend of mine... and Xena's."
"Are you... talking to... them?" asked Lila.
"Yes of course I am. Gabrielle wants to know why you can't see her."
"Because she's in your head!" snapped Lila.
"Xena, can you do something to show Lila I'm not mad please."
"What do you suggest?"
"I don't know, something... conclusive." said Gabrielle, herself getting a little short tempered with her sister.
"Excuse me, darling," said Xena, lifting Gabrielle junior off her lap and setting her down on the floor. "I've got a little job to do. Wanna help me?"
"Sure, what do I have to do?"
"Can you pick things up?"
"You mean like this?" the little girl said, picking up an apple from the table and throwing it up in the air and catching it again.
"Yeah, that'll do it," grinned Xena.
"Now do you believe me?" asked Gabrielle, turning back to her sister. "Lila?"
Her sister was passed out on the floor.
"I think she got the picture," said Xena.
* * *
"Here, take this," said Gabrielle offering her sister a cup of tea.
"I... I..." mumbled Lila.
"Don't worry about it, Lila, they're not here to hurt you, either of them."
"She could do with a good shake, though," grinned Xena wickedly.
"What's she saying?"
"She says you should rest."
"I'll bet, she never did like me!"
"Lila, that's not fair. And don't forget Xena's here, she can hear everything you say."
"I don't care... scaring me half to death like that."
"Actually, that wasn't Xena, that was little Gabrielle."
"The young Amazon girl who followed Xena home."
"What does she want with me?"
"Nothing, I don't think. She just latched onto Xena in town. Isn't that right, Gabrielle?"
The girl nodded.
"How are you able to pick up that apple?" asked the bard.
"Don't know, I just can."
"Have you always been able to pick up things... since you got lost from your mom, I mean?"
The girl shrugged and looked away, seeming disinterested in the conversation.
"Gabrielle, is there anyone in town that you feel drawn to, someone you really want to be with," Xena asked the girl.
She shook her head, tensing slightly.
"Are you sure?"
She nodded, refusing to look Xena in the eye.
"Tell you what, why don't we go back for a walk around town, and leave poor Lila to recover?" said Xena.
"That's a good idea," said Gabrielle senior.
"What's a good idea?" asked Lila.
"We're going for a walk, the three of us."
"To see why little Gabrielle is trapped here and hasn't moved on."
"Are... are there lots of... ghosts wandering about?" she asked.
"Not that I've ever seen. I think in our travels we've come across maybe a half-dozen over the years. Wouldn't you say?" she asked Xena.
"See," said Gabrielle, smiling to her sister.
"I don't see anything," she snapped.
"No, of course you don't, sorry. Er, Xena agreed with me."
"She always did."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Never mind, doesn't matter."
"It seems to concern you. What's the matter, Lila?"
"Is she still here?"
"I think this is our cue to go wait outside, Little One," Xena said, taking Gabrielle's hand and heading for the door. The girl pushed the door open enough for them both to exit without the need for passing through the wood.
"They're gone, Lila, so what is it you wanted to say?"
Lila gulped her tea, firmly gripping the cup and staring at the table top. "It's just that I thought finally... you might have some time for your family at last, instead of traipsing around the world at her behest, following like a little puppy dog, no matter where she went or what danger she put you in."
"That's not true, I know you two never really got on all that well, but Xena was always there for you when it was necessary, and deep down you know that."
"Why is she back? Doesn't she even have decency to stay dead!"
Gabrielle shook her head at her sister's outburst. "We're going out now. I hope you'll be feeling better by the time we get back."
* * *
Gabrielle junior skipped along ahead of them, as if she didn't have a care in the world.
"She seems to be taking the news that she's dead quite well, don't you think?" said the bard.
"Kids have a way of bouncing back."
"Do you think she really doesn't remember what happened to her, or is she deliberately forgetting it?"
"I don't know. I do know she gets evasive when you ask her direct questions, but whether that's deliberate or simple fear, who knows?"
"How come she can pick things up so easily?"
"I think she might have been around for a lot longer than we think. It must be a learned trait, something that gets easier the longer you're here."
"That's awful Xena. Is it possible she's been trapped here for a long time, on her own with no one to talk to?"
"We must help her Xena, even if it means we take a detour from our main mission to bring you back."
"Why do you think she's still trapped?"
"I'm no expert on this, Gabrielle, she appears to have been dead a deal longer than I have. Something or someone could be holding her back."
"Who would do something like that?"
"Alti liked to do that sort of thing."
"Oh gods, please say she's not involved. I've had enough of her to last several lifetimes already."
"No, I don't think it's her. For a start little Gabrielle looks pretty contended, almost happy even. That doesn't sound like anything the witch would be concerned with. She liked inflicting suffering and pain."
"So if it's not Alti, then who?"
"Let's just see what happens in town before we jump to any wild speculations."
"Wild speculations, huh? Did they make you take Greek lessons when you were in the fields?"
"Very funny, bard. Remind me to start laughing."
"Didn't do much for your sense of humour either."
"My sense of humour is perfect, I'll have you know."
"Uh-huh, keep telling yourself that, Princess. You never know, one day it might be true."
Xena casually reached behind Gabrielle and pinched her bottom, making the bard jump.
"Oh, it's like that is it?" she said, grimacing and rubbing her backside.
"Now, now, Gabrielle, there are children present," said Xena, grinning and backing away from the advancing bard.
"Hiding behind children now, Princess?"
"Absolutely not," Xena replied disappearing and reappearing behind Gabrielle and flicking her on the same spot.
"Yow!" yelped Gabrielle spinning round to face Xena. "That's cheating!" she cried indignantly.
"No it's not... it's just taking advantage of the situation," Xena grinned.
"I'll remember this, when you're back in the land of the living again, and then your ass is mine!"
"Xena!" Gabrielle said, nodding towards the child.
"Oh yeah, sorry," the warrior said sheepishly.
"You said a naughty word," piped in Gabrielle junior.
"Yeah, that's right, she did didn't she?" grinned Xena. "I think the queen needs to be taught a good tickling lesson. What say you, Gabrielle?"
"I think we'd both be put in the stocks," replied the youngster, smiling at the new game.
"Nah, she's a nice queen, she wouldn't do that to us."
"Wanna bet," growled Gabrielle as the two playful spirits advanced on her.
"Charge!" cried Xena, to which the little girl let out a peal of laughter and lunged forward. The bard made a lightning tactical decision. She turned and ran into the woods.
Xena cursed inwardly that they would never catch Gabrielle, being held back by the child's speed, so she swept the child up and tore off in pursuit of the fast disappearing bard, whooping and hollering, with Gabrielle junior giggling fit to bust on her shoulders.
They ran and ran, careering round trees and fallen logs in hot pursuit of the lithe Amazon queen as she effortlessly kept ahead of them.
"Stop!" screamed Gabrielle junior.
Xena skidded to a halt. "What's the matter, Little One?" The girl struggled to get down from Xena's shoulders, her whole body trembling. "What's wrong, Gabrielle, tell me?"
As soon as the girl's feet touched the ground she was off, running back the way they'd come. Xena gave chase and quickly scooped her up into her arms.
"What's the matter?"
"No, let me go!" struggled the little girl.
"It's all right, no one's going to hurt you, I promise."
After a moment of futile struggling the girl relaxed in Xena's arms, but she refused to speak.
"Come on, nothing's going to harm you. Let me and Gabrielle find out what's going on." Still no response from the girl, who'd shrunk into a sullen daze, refusing to acknowledge Xena's presence. "Gabrielle!" Xena called out after the fleeing bard. "Great, Queen Twinkle Toes has run off into the woods, now what do I do?" She grumbled, gently prodding the girl on the nose. At Xena's touch the little girl just pursed her lips more tightly, pointedly looking away.
Not knowing what else to do Xena started to trudge after Gabrielle, deeper into the woods. The girl remained tight-lipped and tense, as if readying herself to run at the first opportunity.
Fifteen minutes later Xena spotted her bard, crouching behind some bushes, carefully peering through a small gap she was making with one of her sais. She looked back at Xena and held a finger to her lips for them to be quiet, forgetting that she was probably the only one in the whole forest who could actually hear the two spirits.
"What's the problem," whispered the warrior, also forgetting only the two Gabrielles could hear her.
"Take a look at this," the bard whispered back, holding apart the bush and showing them the small, nondescript woodsman's cottage fifty yards away in a small clearing.
"What's wrong with it?" asked the warrior. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary to her.
"I've got a funny feeling, something's not right in there."
The little girl tried to pull out of Xena's arms again. "You'll have to take Gabrielle junior here, something spooked her rotten while we were chasing you. I can't get her to tell me what it is."
"Hey, there, Darling, what's troubling my favourite little Amazon?" asked the bard gently, taking the child from Xena's firm grip. The girl just shook her head. Her agitation tripled when she got a glimpse of what they were all looking at through the bush. It took all of Gabrielle's strength to hold onto the little girl who seemed to want to get away from them at all costs.
"Xena, I think it would be better if you held onto her, neither of you can be seen, but I can be," Gabrielle whispered huskily, as she struggled with the child.
"Yes -" Xena coughed, then resumed speaking in her normal voice "Yes, but I can go down there and investigate, while you can't," she replied.
"Oh all right, but make it fast. I don't think I can hold her for long."
Xena grinned at the bard. "I'll be back before you know it." She stood up to leave, but was startled by the shriek from the previously silent child.
"Don't go in there," she wailed.
"Why not?" asked Xena.
"Bad man, hurt you... hurt everyone."
"He can't hurt me," smiled the warrior, crouching back down and stroking the girl's face with the back of her fingers.
"He... he hurts everyone. Please don't go."
"It's all right, Queen Gabrielle will stay and protect you. Nothing can hurt me, I can go in there and be back out without anyone ever seeing me, I promise."
"Please don't go," the girl whimpered, abandoning her struggles and tucking herself up into a small ball in Gabrielle's arms.
"Make it fast, Xena. In and out, no stunts, okay?" said the bard, softly rubbing the girl's back.
Xena started to go into a crouch-and-stalk mode, then shrugged and stood up, walking brazenly towards the cabin. She stopped outside for a minute listening for any movement inside, but it was silent as the grave.
"Here goes nothing," she muttered quietly to herself and walked through the wall, shivering as she did so. No matter how often she did it, it wasn't something she ever thought she'd get used to.
It was dark inside and she could barely see a thing. Walking to a window she concentrated hard, willing her hand to solidify enough for her to pull open the old blanket covering the opening. Her hand tingled as it passed through the rough material.
"Damn it!" exclaimed the warrior in frustration, lashing out with her fist at the wall. The blanket tore from its pegs, spilling light into the dingy room.
"Well, not quite how I intended, but good enough," she chuckled to herself. The self-satisfied grin was wiped from her face as she turned around to see what the darkness had been hiding.
The room was filled with body parts, both human and animal. "Oh gods," groaned Xena. It was a nightmare vision of a charnel house that even Xena's rock-solid constitution wanted to rebel against.
"This is ridiculous, I can't be sick, I don't eat anything!" she told herself. Unfortunately her stomach wasn't listening. She staggered back out through the wall, sinking down onto her knees, taking deep calming breaths. "Damn, I'm getting soft in my old age," she muttered, gulping and swallowing, determined to not retch.
She slowly got to her feet, wiping the back of her hand across her mouth. "Phew, that was close there for a second." She contemplated the cottage, wondering if she could face going back inside to look for any clues. 'Maybe a quick trip around the perimeter,' she thought. 'After all, I did promise them I'd be in and out fast.'
Satisfied with the plan she made her way around the building, circling all the way back to where she'd started. She waved to where Gabrielle was watching. Making her way back she squatted down next to the bard and the child.
"You were right, something's definitely very wrong in there."
"I had a bad feeling it was."
"Well, strike one up to your warrior sense, because it wasn't lying to you."
"So, what's in there?" said Gabrielle, almost afraid to ask.
"A nightmare, and something I don't really want to talk about at the moment," Xena replied, her eyes flicking to the subdued child in Gabrielle's arms.
"Right, good idea. Let's get out of here and go find some help."
"Time was when we wouldn't have needed any help," Xena said in frustration.
"I know, Xena, but we have other responsibilities at the moment, and me joining you two is not going to help any."
"No, I guess you're right. But, by the gods, whoever is responsible for that abomination has to be stopped and made to pay for what they've done."
"They will surely pay, Xena, either in this life or the next."
"Yeah, well, I'd like to see it done in this lifetime, thank you all the same," replied the angry warrior.
"Well now, what have we here?" a gruff voice spoke behind them.
Still with the child in her arms, Gabrielle spun round. Ten paces away a grinning man stood, holding a loaded crossbow levelled at her head.
Continued - Part 2
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