Disclaimer: I would never dispute that MCA/Universal owns the rights to the characters of Xena and Gabrielle. My use of these two characters is not meant to infringe on those rights, neither has it resulted in any monetary return, much less a profit.
Author's Note: There is no sex, and the violence is only implied, but the following story is quite dark. If you're feeling emotionally fragile, you might want to set this one aside for another day.
AN OLD PROMISE
by Ella Quince
She awoke to pain and darkness.
But for a warrior, these sensations were old friends, so she pushed them aside to clear her mind...
...and uncovered fear. This particular fear was a newer emotion -- sharper, urgent -- and it lifted her into full consciousness. Her thoughts turned into a hoarse cry of, "Gabrielle...." Because before this darkness, there had been danger... fighting... and the feeling of dread that was still coursing through her blood. A hazy image took form in her mind, and her voice gathered new strength from the memory.
"I'm here," answered a familiar voice as gentle hands took hold of her shoulders and pushed her back down onto the bed. "Xena, I'm right here."
"I was... worried," said Xena haltingly, trying to talk past the throbbing pain behind her eyes. She worried more often these days, still raw from Gabrielle's fleeting death in Thessaly just a few months ago. "Saw you go down... but I..." She tried to fill in the blank spaces, to remember what she had done after seeing Gabrielle swept away in the tavern brawl. "I couldn't reach you... in time."
There was a long silence, or perhaps her mind grew fogged again. "You can stop worrying now," came the soothing reply, easing her anxiety. "I'm fine. You're the one who was hurt."
"Serves me right," sighed the warrior. "Should have avoided Thrace during the harvest festivals... too many drunks." And if she'd tossed down fewer cups herself, she would have sensed trouble brewing before the room erupted into driving fists and flying furniture. "Never even saw who hit me."
"Those drunks... do you remember how many there were?"
"Is this a test?"
"There's a very nasty bump on your head," said her friend sternly.
"Good point." She began a mental inventory, but the effort increased the rhythmic pounding of her temples. Thank the goddess for the soft pillow under her head. "Do I have to count everyone in the tavern or just the ones who tried to punch me?"
Gabrielle didn't answer.
"Okay, okay," Xena groaned, and after some thought she said, "Eighteen."
"Are you sure?"
"Hey, I didn't count myself because I wasn't drunk. Just... relaxed."
"By the way," Xena said with studied indifference, "I can't see." She turned her face toward the sound of Gabrielle's soft laughter. "What?"
"It's the middle of the night," said her friend. "And I didn't have time to light a candle."
"Oh," said Xena, and she let relief carry her back under, into sleep.
And as she slept, her body continued healing, lessening the grip of pain. Yet she sensed that something was not quite right. A subtle unease wheedled its way into her dreams, shaping them into nightmares filled with blood and the exhilaration of battle. She laughed as her sword cut through flesh and bone....
...and awoke with a sharp gasp, her eyes flying open.
And she wondered if she was still dreaming because she had thought she was lying on a bed in seedy rented room. To her surprise, soft morning light revealed that she was on a cot in the middle of a field tent, listening to all the familiar sounds of a war camp -- the steady clash of sword drills, the neighing of tethered horses, the boisterous shouts of warriors.
Survival instinct overrode her confusion. Her gaze raked through the shadowed interior, searching for her weapons. She groped through the folds of her bedroll fur, then on the ground nearby, and sighed with relief when her hands brushed against cold metal. Both her chakram and her sword were tucked neatly beneath her cot, in easy reach but hidden from view. She smiled; Gabrielle knew her all too well.
The smile faded at the sound of approaching bootsteps... two sets, each coming from a different direction. Xena recognized Gabrielle's light tread, but the other pattern belonged to a stranger, heavyset, with a long stride. She watched shadows play across the fabric of the tent as two figures came to an abrupt halt near the entrance.
"Let me guess..." sneered a coarse voice that belonged to the larger shadow that loomed over Gabrielle. "I just missed her... again."
"No, actually," came the answer. "She's inside."
"Well, it's about time."
"But -- no visitors. She's resting."
"This is business, bard," spat out the man with obvious contempt. "I'm tired of rotting here, so get out of my way."
"Of course, Tegris," said Gabrielle evenly. "I wouldn't dream of stopping you... but, uh, if you don't mind, I'll wait outside. Xena's very... cranky this morning." With nervous laughter, she added, "So the fewer targets she has, the better. But you go right on in."
There was a moment of silence, then a sullen grumble of, "Never mind. I'll come back later... when she's in a better mood. But if she rages about missing the latest news from Khelos, I'll make sure it comes out of your hide, not mine."
"Thanks for nothing," snapped Gabrielle. But when she ducked through the entrance, Xena could see a wry grin tugging at the corners of her mouth. Her hands were wrapped around the handle of a bucket, and she lugged its weight over to the cot.
"What in Hades was that all about?" hissed Xena as the bard knelt down by her side. "Where are we?"
Gabrielle dipped a tattered cloth into the bucket of water. Wringing it out, she pressed the cool compress against Xena's forehead and smiled at the warrior's sigh of gratitude. "We're camped outside the city of Khelos. And we've... well, fallen in with some rough company. It's been tricky, but I've kept anyone from learning just how badly you were hurt."
Khelos? thought Xena with a prickle of apprehension. But Khelos was nowhere near Thrace.... "How did we get here? I don't remember this camp at all."
"Yeah, well, that blow to your head seems to have rattled your brains a bit. Only... you weren't injured in Thrace. You were injured here, stopping a stupid brawl between some bored, drunken soldiers. Typical Xena, you managed to stroll back to our tent before collapsing."
"Wait a minute! Just how long have we been here? And why are we--"
"Easy, easy," soothed her friend with a chuckle. "Such a lot of questions." Despite her show of amusement, she didn't offer any answers. Instead she busied herself with wetting the moist compress again.
"You're keeping something from me," said Xena, and she caught a confirming glint of guilt in Gabrielle's expression.
"Look, you're still recovering," said the bard uneasily. "Maybe later, when you're stronger--"
"Now," countered Xena. "Ignorance is weakness. And I'm too vulnerable right now," she tapped the side of her aching head, "to afford any weakness."
"Yes... you're right." With a sigh, Gabrielle set aside the cloth. "Khelos has been under siege from this army for several weeks. The standoff is almost over -- the city can't last much longer. Reports are that the common people are starving, and even their warriors will soon be too weak to defend themselves."
"A prime target for jackals," said Xena bitterly. "Now's the time to attack."
"Yes," said Gabrielle, "and the assault is waiting on... you."
"Waiting for me? Why me?"
Gabrielle's eyes fluttered shut for a brief moment. Then, taking a deep breath, she opened them and looked straight at Xena. "Because this is your army."
"MY army!" The warrior's lunge off of the cot brought on a wave of nausea and dizziness. She swayed on her feet for a moment, ignoring Gabrielle's cry of concern, and waited for the renewed strength that inevitably followed sudden alarm. A surge of energy steadied her balance. "Since when... do I have... an army?"
She staggered her way to front of the tent, hastily parting the canvas... and saw the wind-whipped standard of the Warrior Princess mounted on top of every tent in the camp. The image was searing -- like stepping back into the heart of her worst nightmare. "No, this is all wrong." She turned to Gabrielle and recovered her breath at the reassuring sight of the bard. Here was tangible proof that she was rooted in the present, not the past. "Just how much of my memory have I lost?"
"A lot," came Gabrielle's reluctant answer. She rose and approached with slow steps. "Years."
Xena froze, her body reacting to the shock. Years. That was much longer than she had expected. So much could change... but an army? "I'm through being a warlord. Nothing could make me return to that life."
"I thought so, too. We were both wrong." And as the woman stepped forward into a patch of daylight, Xena could see for the first time that Gabrielle was indeed older, her slender body a shade thinner, her face more worn... and she was scarred. "Come on," said Gabrielle gently. "Before someone sees you."
The warrior let herself be pulled away from the tent's opening to sit back down on the cot. Gabrielle tried to bridge the gap of years with words, but Xena could barely take in her account of the time that had passed. She was too distracted by the fine white lines on her companion's face. She brushed a finger over a fading scar and felt Gabrielle flinch at her light touch. "That's healed," she said. "It can't still hurt. It's the memory that hurts."
Gabrielle stepped back, her gaze sliding away. "You must be hungry. You haven't eaten in days. I'll go get--"
"Who did this to you?" demanded Xena. Reaching out, she closed her hand around the bard's wrist. Her grip was gentle -- a silent plea for Gabrielle to stay -- yet she felt her friend's body stiffen at the touch. "Tell me."
"Old history." She shrugged. "It's not important right now."
Xena wanted to believe her, but Gabrielle's pale face and the rapid beat of her pulse told a different story. And the wounds -- though healed -- weren't that old. She stamped down on a rising anger. Her first impulse was to kill whoever was responsible for these injuries... but not that long ago the bard had pleaded, 'Promise me you'll never become a monster.' Reluctantly, she had given her word. Now, perhaps, that oath would be put to the test.
Pulling Gabrielle down beside her, the warrior urged, "Please, don't hide anything more from me. Who hurt you?"
In her arrogance, she had expected any answer but the one Gabrielle gave her.
"No! No, I couldn't..." Xena stammered. "Not even I..." Or could she? To her shame, she knew exactly how much force it would take to leave that track of scars. She tried to imagine hitting Gabrielle in that way, and her stomach churned at the image of her own fists slamming against her friend's face. "I must have been insane."
"Oh, you had your reasons," said Gabrielle quietly. "I... disagreed with you, about the need to lay siege against Khelos... all those people starving..." She paused, but finally added, "and I tried to stop you."
"You've opposed me before, when I was lost in rage and tried to storm an innocent village. It was the right thing to do, Gabrielle. I thanked you for it -- when I came to my senses."
The bard answered with a slight shrug, her gaze unfocused, as if looking at that same event from a far distance. "Maybe... but this time... and others... I just made you angry. You thought I didn't trust you, trust your judgment. You blamed me for making mistakes, stupid mistakes..."
"And I haven't?" exclaimed the warrior. "Even if you were dead wrong, that's no excuse for me beating you. You must know that!"
The bard's head twitched, as if to stifle a nod of agreement. It was a muted gesture that Xena had never seen before, not from the vibrant young woman she remembered.
"You tried so hard..." Gabrielle's voice choked to a whisper, "to change, to see things in new ways... but it was as if the past kept reaching out for you. I could see it happen, could see you lose your grip... but you were always sorry, afterwards. I could tell, even if you didn't say so."
"And you forgave me each time I failed, didn't you?"
Xena shook her head in dismay. "Oh, Gabrielle...."
The haunted look in those green eyes gave way to a touch of wistfulness. "I've missed you. The woman you are right now--"
"Will always give way to who I was before," cut in Xena grimly. That certain knowledge sparked a wave of self-contempt... and fired her resolve. She pulled Gabrielle into a tight embrace, losing herself for just a moment in the comfort of her friend's love, and whispered, "But don't worry, I'll never hurt you again."
Another promise -- but she intended to keep this one.
She let her lips brush against reddish-gold hair before she let go. Then she reached for her sword.
"Xena? What are you doing?"
"Stopping a warlord... stopping a monster."
Her fingers had just curled around the familiar grip when Gabrielle's hand closed over hers. For a moment she feared the young woman would try to argue with her. Instead, Gabrielle said softly but firmly, "I'm going with you."
There was only one bard in all of Greece who could have done full justice to the Battle of Khelos, but her eloquent voice was silenced before the story itself had ended. Thus no one knew why the warrior princess turned against her own forces rather than leading them in an attack. And since no warrior claimed to have fought Xena that day and lived, and the people inside the walled fortifications had caught only glimpses of the battle, the accounts of her heroic defense of the city were fragmentary and confused. Perhaps Homer could have spun the loose threads into a shimmering whole cloth, but the memory of Gabrielle choked him with such grief that he never spoke of her life, much less her death, no matter how much his audience pleaded.
And so the two -- warrior and bard -- lived on in memory, in the spirited tales Gabrielle had spread throughout their travels, until it was easy to believe that they were still around, in a village somewhere over the next hill.
It was only in Khelos that they died.
No one saw the young bard fall, but the baker's wife said it was an arrow that found its mark near her heart. Pollia had wrapped the small body for the funeral pyre, so who would know better than she? But there were so many wounds on Xena's body that opinion differed on which was the fatal blow that killed her; some argued that she simply bled to death.
Timon the potter insisted -- although few believed him -- that Xena had actually won the battle that day, cutting down all the warriors who had opposed her. And that when the last man had turned and fled from her rage, she knelt down to kiss the bard lying dead at her feet. Then, alone on the field, Xena drove the hilt of her sword into the blood-drenched earth and fell on her own blade....
Comments can be directed to: Ella Quince <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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