Xena turned away from the fiery pit in disbelief. Beside
her, Joxer sat with a stricken look on his face, and she knew
she must look much the same. Callisto lay as she had fallen,
staring blindly up at the ceiling. Her expression of
satisfaction was almost too much for the warrior to bear.
Ares had disappeared, Seraphin sat sobbing next to the
altar, and Dahak's followers stood uncertainly, wondering
what they should do now.
*She can't be gone... she wouldn't leave me...*
Turning once more, she studied the steep walls of the
cleft in the earth, searching desperately for some way the
bard might have escaped. Finding none, she scanned the
room around her, gave an anguished cry, and threw herself
into the fire below.
Xena's screams echoed through the Amazon village,
bringing it to life under the full moon. It had been almost a
year now since Gabrielle had brought her here, not sure
where else they could go so Xena could be cared for. Here
she was loved and protected, restrained only to prevent
her injuring herself or those who tended her. They'd heard
her screams often enough to know her attendants might need
The screams were followed by the sounds of a struggle,
and the door of the hut burst open as the warrior princess
charged the guard and threw them both through the air and
onto the ground outside. The guards from inside ran out to
help, joined by sleepy Amazons who jumped into the fight,
knowing that sheer numbers and weight were their only
hope. The bedlam slowly calmed as the warrior was
overpowered and pinned to the ground. They held her there
until she stopped struggling, then let her sit up. The straps
that had held her trailed from her arms and legs, and each now
held an Amazon with a death grip. Xena had injured more than
one of them in these rages, had killed one young guard who'd
gotten too close at the wrong time.
Across the clearing, in the shadows between huts, Ephiny
held fast to Gabrielle's arm, trying to keep the bard safe
until the others had calmed the warrior.
"Ephiny, let me go! She needs me!"
The Amazon wrapped her arms around her friend, hugging
her close and speaking calmly into her ear, hoping she'd listen.
"I'll let you go as soon as they have her under control. She
almost took your head off yesterday, remember? You can't
help her if she kills you!"
Gabrielle relaxed in Ephiny's arms. The sting of her split lip
and ripped ear was silent testament to the Amazon's words.
She slumped against the regent and began to weep as she
watched her soulmate snarling and biting, fighting like a wild
animal against demons only she could see.
"By the Gods, Ephiny, what am I going to do? I thought I
could get through to her, but she's just going farther away.
Now she thinks I'm this... Hope... person. My daughter- my evil
Ephiny released the bard and brushed the hair back from her
face. She smiled encouragingly as she wiped the tears from
the wet cheeks.
"Gabrielle, if anyone can bring her back, it'll be you. I just
want you to be a little more careful, especially when she's like
Gabrielle nodded and looked back across the clearing. Xena
had calmed and was now sitting up, surrounded by Amazons.
She was staring into space, her mouth moving soundlessly, her
face registering the visions in her mind's eye. For all the fury
of a few moments before, she was now totally shut off from
those around her. She stood passively at the urging of those
who held her restraints. That was all the bard needed to
break her cover.
She knew now to move slowly around the warrior, and she
approached her cautiously, trying to meet the blue eyes so
as not to startle her. She saw Xena's body shift and flinched
involuntarily. They'd played this scene many times in the
past year, and it hadn't always ended pleasantly. This time,
however, the warrior stood quietly panting as the bard came
close and reached to stroke her face.
Tears streamed down Gabrielle's face as the blue eyes met
hers. For just a moment, they came into focus and the force
of the warrior's pain hit the bard harder than her fist ever
had. She wrapped her arms around the warrior, laid her head
against her chest, heard the heartbeat, and was unable to
stop the whispered plea.
"Xena... come back..."
Xena's eyes closed and she stood unmoving. As the bard
stepped away from her, she let her head roll back and her
knees buckled. To the surprise of everyone, Xena fell to the
ground sobbing, crying Gabrielle's name.
Gabrielle's heart broke at the sight of her warrior. Xena
was on her knees, head hanging, arms limp at her sides. The
Amazons looked at each other uncomfortably, but none
relaxed their hold on the restraints. Gabrielle sank to her
knees beside Xena, wrapping her in her arms and pulling her
against her chest. She crooned softly and tried to understand
what the warrior was saying between sobs. Other than her
name, she understood only that Xena felt she had suffered a
"Gabrielle... be careful..."
Ephiny's voice was soft, but the bard heard the warning. In
all the time since the Furies had cast their spell on Xena,
she'd cried only once. She'd been agitated for days afterward,
muttering Solon's name. A week later, as Gabrielle was
entering the hut with Xena's dinner, Xena had broken her
restraints and attacked the bard. The ferocity and speed of
the attack had taken all of them by surprise, and by the time
the Amazons had gotten her under control, Ephiny had suffered
a broken arm, two of the guards had broken ribs, and Gabrielle
was unconscious on the floor.
Over the weeks since, they'd learned from her rants that she
thought Solon was dead and that Gabrielle was responsible.
Yesterday, she'd freed one arm and had waited until the bard
had come to bathe her. As Gabrielle had bent over her, Xena's
fist had come from nowhere, catching her on the side of her
head. She'd reeled back from the blow, but not quickly enough
to escape the short jab that had split her lip.
These things and more went through the bard's mind as
she rocked. She'd known when she brought Xena here that
there was little hope. When Xena's attempt to convince
the Furies that Ares was her father had failed, Xena had
crossed the line into insanity. In her mind, the plan had
worked. In her mind, she'd continued to live normally in a
world gone insane, a world where her worst fears had come
to pass. In reality, she'd become a wild, unpredictable, and
very dangerous creature in a world unchanged.
Gabrielle smoothed the matted hair and laid her cheek
over against it. She closed her eyes and remembered
other times when she'd felt that hair against her face.
The woman in her arms bore little resemblance to the warrior
she'd fallen in love with, but Gabrielle knew in her heart that
*her* Xena was still in there. If she could just keep her alive
long enough to find a way to get through to her....
Ephiny entered the hut quietly. Gabrielle sat on the edge
of the bed, very carefully combing Xena's hair. She hummed
softly as she worked her fingers through the tangles, raising
her eyes often to search the face of the sleeping warrior. On
the floor beside the bed, three scrolls lay where they'd fallen
as the bard had filled them, one by one. She'd written down
every word she'd heard from Xena since they'd come to the
Amazon village. Somewhere in the cryptic words in these
and the other scrolls was the key.
"The draught worked..."
Ephiny spoke just above a whisper as she laid a gentle hand
on the bard's shoulder. Gabrielle tilted her head to look up
at her then looked back into Xena's face. A wistful smile lit
her face and her eyes brightened as they filled with tears.
She sighed softly.
"She was exhausted..." She reached out and brushed Xena's
cheek lightly with the back of her fingers. Her voice was
tired, with a dreamy note that worried Ephiny.
"You could use some rest, yourself, Gabrielle."
The bard ignored the words. "She looks so peaceful when
she sleeps like this... I watch her sometimes... you can see it,
in her face. It's there before she wakes up, it's there in her
Ephiny leaned down and gathered the scrolls, rolling them
and tucking them under her arm. She took Gabrielle's arm
and tugged gently. "Gabrielle, she'll sleep for a while. You've
been awake for three days, and you've hardly eaten. Come on,
let's get you something to eat. We'll go over these while you
eat, then you're going to rest."
Gabrielle nodded, smoothed out the hair she'd been combing,
and rose to her feet. She swayed as she stood, caught Ephiny's
arm to steady herself, and smiled.
"I know, I know. I'm ok, just tired. I just hate to be away from
Ephiny wrapped a steadying arm around the exhausted bard
and steered her out the door.
"The guards will call you if anything happens." She shifted the
scrolls beneath her arm as they walked to Gabrielle's hut.
"You wrote a lot... want to talk about it?"
Gabrielle leaned against the taller Amazon. Her legs were
wobbly and she was grateful for the support.
"She thinks I'm dead. I'm still not sure how, but she thinks
I'm dead. That I sacrificed myself to save her."
"She doesn't think you're Hope anymore?"
The bard shrugged. "I don't know. She's completely in her
own world right now. At least when she thought I was somebody
else, she was interacting. Now... She pays no attention to me
at all. I'm invisible."
Ephiny shook her head sadly as they entered the hut. Gabrielle
hugged her when she saw the food laid out on the table near the
bed. "I don't know what I would have done this past year without
Ephiny returned the hug and half-led, half-carried the bard to
the bed. She turned back the blanket and squatted to remove
Gabrielle's boots as the bard fell back onto the soft furs.
"I love her, too, Gabrielle. We all do."
She stood and lifted the bard's feet, swinging them onto the
bed, then pulled the blanket over her, not surprised to see she
was already asleep.
Ephiny knew that Gabrielle would sleep only a short time before
she'd wake up hungry. She'd eat, read the scrolls she'd written
while with Xena, make a lot of notes, then sleep some more.
Closing the door quietly behind her, she nodded at the guard and
went to her own hut.
Amazon affairs continued. They'd had increasing numbers
of intruders into their territory as rumors of Xena's insanity had
spread. Some thought that the Amazons would be easy prey
without Xena to come to their aid, others just wanted to see the
Warrior Princess staring into space or screaming at unseen
agonies. Many came believing they could help; a steady stream
of healers had come, knowing their fame would be great indeed if
they could cure her madness.
The Amazon sank down onto her own bed and stretched, then
lay staring at the ceiling for a moment. As Regent, she'd had to
deal with most of the intruders personally. She'd led two skirmishes
with troops testing their control of their borders; every healer
demanded an audience; one warlord had even sent a messenger
with an offer to buy the warrior, bard extra, of course.
She shook her head and muttered aloud.
"And they say *she's* crazy..."
Rolling to her feet, Ephiny stretched and walked tiredly out of her
hut. It was still early and she had much to do.
Xena laughed and swept the bard into her arms. Cradling
her, she grinned into the green eyes and reached to touch
the tip of the bard's nose with the tip of her tongue. Laughing,
Gabrielle threw her arms around the warrior's neck and rubbed
her nose on the side of Xena's face.
"Ewwww, Xena! Mmmm, you're gonna pay for that!"
Deep-throated laughter rumbled from the warrior and she
bent her head to meet Gabrielle's eyes. The bard felt her
heart stop at the flash in the blue eyes and smelled the
excitement in the warm breath that teased her lips. She
slid a hand behind the warrior's neck, trying to pull her closer.
Xena's strong arms held her in place as the warrior held her in
her gaze, her lips a hair's-breadth from touching the bard's.
Gabrielle gave herself to the warrior and the seeking blue
eyes. She could feel Xena's heartbeat lifting her body, each
pulse bringing their lips together. She was naked to her soul
to those eyes, her body charged with the power of the woman
who held her. She whimpered, arcing her body and capturing
the warrior's lips with her own. She was beyond need, lost in
Xena's fire, as she always was. Xena responded with a
soul-searing kiss that left the bard trembling. Laying her
carefully on the grass, she stretched beside the bard and
reached to cup her cheek. She studied the bard's face intently,
suddenly serious. Panic raced across her face, then tears
rose in her eyes and she jumped to her feet, backing away from
the astounded bard.
Xena pulled her hands to her chest, her body sagged forward
and she began to sob.
Gabrielle's body jerked upright and she stared wildly around the
room for an instant before she realized where she was. She
ran a hand through her hair, brushing it back from her face while she
let her heartbeat return to normal. She listened, but heard no sounds
of trouble. She lay back against the pillow and raised an arm to
cover her eyes. *Maybe if I just lay here, Xena will walk in and tell
me it's ALL been a dream... maybe I'm still in Potadeia and Xena is
just a dream of mine... maybe I really AM Hope and Xena is the
only one... who knows the truth...*
She drifted into restless sleep, Xena's face hovering over her. The
dream had disturbed her. In all the time they'd been here, she'd never
dreamed of this Xena. In her dreams, Gabrielle was as oblivious to
reality as Xena was when awake. Her mind moved in and out of
awareness, something keeping it from letting the dream go. She
rolled to her side, tried to close out the image of Xena's face as
she'd jumped to her feet and backed away from the bard in the dream.
*The dream, Gabrielle...* The bard rolled to face the other wall as
the voice whispered in her head. She squeezed her eyes shut. Her
body demanded more rest, but her mind wouldn't stop, and she finally
sat upright and reached for an apple from the table by the bed. She
nibbled on it absently, her eyes slightly glazed as she stared at the
floor and let her mind go where it wished.
In the hut across the small clearing, Xena opened her eyes and
stared at the ceiling. The Amazon guard was standing in the doorway,
talking quietly to the guard outside. Neither of them heard the whisper.
Ephiny tapped lightly on the door and pushed it open to look
inside. She'd expected the bard to be sleeping, but found her
sitting on the floor, surrounded by scrolls. Gabrielle was writing
furiously, stopping now and then to dig through the pile of
parchment around her. She was unaware of Ephiny's
presence until the Amazon squatted beside her.
"You didn't sleep long."
Gabrielle looked up absently.
"Couldn't sleep. Had a bad dream..."
Ephiny sighed and moved a scroll to make a place to sit beside
the bard. She glanced at the words, then looked at the scroll on
"Any new ideas?"
"Mmhmm..." She finished writing her thought, then sat upright
and looked at the Amazon.
"Gods, Ephiny. You look terrible!"
Ephiny laughed in spite of herself. The absurdity of that statement
from the haggard bard was too much to bear. She had to laugh or
burst into tears, and she knew Gabrielle had enough to worry about.
Gabrielle watched her, saw the quick glance, and grinned.
"Guess I shouldn't talk." She saw the tears glistening at the corners
of Ephiny's brown eyes and she was instantly remorseful. How could
she not have seen the dark circles, the drawn expression on the Regent's
face? She laid the quill on the corner of the parchment and reached to
hold a calloused hand.
"Ephiny, I'm sorry. I've been so focused on Xena I guess I just
didn't notice what all of this was doing to you. You've taken care of Xena
so I can sleep, taken all the responsibility of the acting queen..."
She reached her other hand to cup Ephiny's chin and force her to look
into her eyes. "...And you've taken care of me."
She smiled and pulled her close for a long hug, then looked once more
into the Amazon's eyes.
"Now it's *my* turn. Have you eaten?"
Ephiny shook her head. "No, I just got back from riding patrol on the
The bard set aside the scroll from her lap and stood, pulling the Amazon
up after her. "Come on, let's go see what's for dinner. Bring that scroll."
They walked first across the clearing to check on Xena. Ephiny
stopped outside to talk to the guard, while Gabrielle walked inside and
stood quietly beside the bed. After a moment, she leaned to brush her
lips on the sleeping warrior's forehead and whisper.
"Dream of me, my love... I'll be there."
Ephiny pushed her bowl away and leaned back on the bench, watching
the bard. Gabrielle ate steadily, but Ephiny could see that she was only
half aware of the food she was eating. She reached across the table and
pulled the scroll to her.
"Is this the latest?"
Gabrielle shook her head.
"No, this is the one about Britannia."
"Mmm, yeah, but I was more interested in the stuff about Dahak. Still
haven't figured out just what she thought happened, but she thinks it was her
"Gabrielle, I don't want you to take this wrong, but do you really think
any of this will help her?"
Gabrielle sighed, pushed the now-empty plate away and reached for the
scroll. "I don't know, Ephiny, but what else can I do? I can't just give up
her. She'd never give up on me."
Ephiny slid the scroll across the table. "Boadicea, Caesar, Krafstar...
Dahak, the One God?"
"All those and more...here, I think she was talking to Ares about
Caesar. 'Ares is right...Caesar...destroy the temple...' She's hated
Caesar for so long, I'm not surprised he showed up in her delusions. And
she obviously feels guilty about Boadicea... listen to this part: 'Boadicea
and I were allies...I ordered her killed...not the only one dealing with
I couldn't understand the rest of it, but my guess is Boadicea was going up
against Caesar, and Xena decided to help."
"Wasn't it in a temple where she thinks you killed that woman?"
"And got attacked by Dahak. 'Gabrielle...you couldn't...accidentally...
gods...' That was the day she went on the first of her rages, right after she
said that. After we, well, half the village, got her under control, she just
saying 'It's my fault, it's my fault... what has he done to her? it's gonna
okay, I promise...Gods...Gabrielle...it's my fault.'
Ephiny nodded. "I remember that day. That was when we had to start
tying her down."
Gabrielle sighed. "She didn't mean to kill her, Ephiny. She didn't know
what she was doing. She thought she was protecting me."
"She's living out her guilt and fears, Ephiny. I have to make her
that none of it happened. I just don't know how to do that."
The bard rolled up the scroll and stood. "I'm going to go check on her
again. I don't know what's happening in her mind now, and I don't want to
miss anything she might say. Why don't you get some rest?"
Ephiny stood and stretched. "I will if you will. Get some more sleep if
you can, Gabrielle, before she wakes up."
Gabrielle smiled. "I'll nap with her, if she's still sleeping."
Ephiny left Gabrielle at Xena's hut, and headed for the baths. She had
to get some of the trail dust and sweat off before she went to bed. It was
still early even though it had already grown dark, but she was looking forward
to sleeping one night without being disturbed.
Inside the hut, Gabrielle checked the bindings on Xena's arms and legs
and gave in to the temptation to crawl into the bed beside the sleeping
The guard scowled, but said nothing.
Xena didn't move, her breathing was slow and deep, and the bard curled
as close to her as she dared. She lay on her side and slid one arm over
Xena's waist, eased her head against the side of her chest. She listened to
the comforting sound of her lover's heartbeat, unaware that her breathing had
slowed to match the warrior's. As the night settled over the village outside,
she drifted into deep sleep holding the woman she loved for the first time in
Gabrielle could hear drums in the distance as she ran
through the brush. Thorns snagged her clothes and tore at
her flesh and still she could hear the sound of pursuit close
behind her. She called Xena's name again and again, certain
that the warrior would rescue her, as she always had. She
could feel the heat of the person behind her, knew that she
was almost within their grasp. Desperation gave her strength
and she dove forward, trying to keep her feet under her.
*Where's Xena? Xena, I need you! Xeeenna!!!*
No use ... it was no use, her legs were going and her body
felt ripped to shreds. Angry growls and mutterings at her back
told her she was running out of time ... *Oh, Xena, I can't keep
this up ... where are you? Where are you?*
Running ... out of the brush and into the trees and darkness
was all around her. Suddenly she was alone. No one behind
her, no one chasing her, no one beside her ... just her. Silence
and darkness; endless darkness with no sign of light or clue
toward escape. She held out her hands and took a cautious
step, then another. Her heart pounded in her chest, the sound
deafening her, growing louder and louder. She fell to her knees,
put her hands over her ears, and cried Xena's name into the
Far away she heard the drums again, their rhythm winding
in and out of the pounding of her heart, growing louder, beating
in sync with the pulse of her terror. She closed her eyes, but
the beating drums drove her to her feet and she began to run
again, blindly this time. The darkness was absolute and she
felt herself falling. Reaching out to catch herself, feeling
something warm at her fingertips. Grabbing, trying to hold on.
Silence again, sudden and complete.
Blue eyes in the darkness, sad eyes that watched her struggle
as she tried to grasp the thing below her. A quiet voice, louder
than anything she'd ever heard.
*Go away... *
Warm ... soft ... breathing ... the shape as familiar as her own
body. The eyes watched her, closed as her hands moved over
the unseen form.
Her own heart forming the answer.
"No ... no ... Xena ... don't go ... no, please ..."
Gabrielle woke reluctantly as the hands pulled at her and
Ephiny's voice close to her ear forced its way into her mind.
"Gabrielle, wake up. Come on, you're having a nightmare,
She opened her eyes and she was still in the bed beside
Xena. Ephiny spoke in a low, controlled tone that alarmed the
bard and she turned her head to look at Xena. The blue eyes
were open and held the same expression of sadness she'd
seen in her dream. She tried to pull her arm free, but Ephiny
wasn't going to let her take any chances.
"Xena? Ephiny, let me go! Xena, talk to me."
Xena's expression remained unchanged. She watched the
struggle between Gabrielle and Ephiny as though it were taking
place far from her, rather than almost on top of her. The taller
Amazon was determined to protect the bard, finally succeeding
in wrestling her off the bed, out of the reach of fists and feet.
As Ephiny pulled Gabrielle away from the bed and toward
the door, Xena put her head back and arched her back against
the restraints. A low, keening wail began from her throat as
she struggled, grew louder as Gabrielle fought against the well-
meaning hands that held her. The weakest of the leather straps
broke as the bard freed herself from the Amazon and flung herself
on top of the warrior.
Angry now; at Ephiny, at Ares, at Xena; Gabrielle straddled the
prone woman and grabbed her head in both hands, forcing her
to meet her eyes. Xena's struggles ceased as the weight of the
bard fell on her and their eyes met. Then the blue eyes closed,
staying closed despite the pleas of desperation from Gabrielle.
"Xena!! No, don't go back there!! PLEASE!!!"
Ephiny stood still, uncertain now what she should do. Her
heart told her to leave the bard, to let her do what she thought
she had to do, regardless of the danger. Her experience and
instinct told her to protect her Queen. She took a tentative step
toward the bed.
Gabrielle released her hold on Xena's head and turned to look
at Ephiny. Her voice was hard, harder than Ephiny deserved, she
"Don't ever do that again."
She turned back to look into the face she knew so well. She
knew she'd lost an important chance to get through to her, and
she sank down to lay her body over that of the warrior. She
threaded her arms between the restraints and wrapped them
around the passive body, covering her with her weight and
squeezing her tightly. She put her cheek against Xena's and
whispered in her ear.
"I'll never go away, Xena. Never..."
There was no reaction from the warrior. After what seemed
an eternity, Gabrielle realized that the moment was over. Xena was
back in the place she'd gone to in her mind, the place Gabrielle
couldn't reach. No amount of anger or pleading from the bard
was going to force her out. She lay still, savoring the feel of
Xena's body beneath her even as she fought to keep her own rage
under control. Finally, she felt her trembling lessen. She pulled
her arms free and climbed out of the bed, reaching back to
smooth the hair from Xena's face.
She turned to the guard.
"She needs a bath. Go have someone bring warm water."
"Yes, my Queen." Thankful to be out of the fray, the guard
turned and left the hut, looking back to see the Queen and her
Regent facing each other across the small room.
Gabrielle raised a hand, palm out, and turned away from Ephiny.
"Not now, Ephiny. Go back to bed. We'll talk in the morning."
Ephiny started to protest, but the bard was plainly angry and
unwilling to talk, turning to busy herself getting Xena ready for her
bath, loosening the restraints a bit and stripping the bedclothes.
Angry now with herself, the Amazon turned and left the hut as the
guard returned, followed by two women carrying buckets of water.
They placed the buckets where the bard indicated, then stood
Gabrielle nodded toward the door. "Get out. I'll call you if I need
The two women exchanged glances and walked outside. The
guard walked to stand with her back against the door, watching as
the bard untied the restraints, one by one. She said nothing, but
cleared her throat in obvious disapproval, and was rewarded with
a scathing look from the green eyes.
"I told you to leave."
The guard flushed bright red. "B-but, I can't-"
"Go! Leave us in peace for a while."
"As you wish, my Queen."
Gabrielle shook her head as she sat on the bed beside Xena.
She pulled the loose wrap off of the warrior and dipped a clean
cloth into one of the buckets.
Xena offered no resistance to her ministrations, watching her
through half-open eyes. No sign of emotion touched her face, no
recognition met the green eyes that searched hers as the gentle
hands moved over her body.
Gabrielle sighed, then began to speak. "Still not talking to me,
huh? That's fine, Xena, I can wait."
She watched Xena's face carefully as she spoke, praying that
the warrior would remain calm.
"I'll bet you'd love a long soak, wouldn't you? Maybe I can arrange
The blue eyes shifted just a bit as the bard moved to the foot of
the bed. Gabrielle walked a thin line, she knew. With the restraints
untied, she was at Xena's mercy if the warrior attacked her.
"Do you remember meeting Minya and Hower?" She smiled as
she remembered Minya's open idolization of the Warrior Princess.
"Remember how Minya just kept bringing hot water? I wondered
if she was trying to clean us or cook us ... I'm sorry I traded your
whip for a frying pan ..."
Her voice trailed off as a lump rose in her throat and tears blurred
her vision. How could she have been so angry over a frying pan? Or
a small piece of parchment? She'd gladly eat raw fish for the rest of
her life if Xena would just take her in her arms right now.
She finished her task in silence. Xena's eyes were fixed on the
ceiling now, her arms and legs twitching nervously. Gabrielle knew
she needed to get out of the bed, to move around and get some
exercise. The once muscular body had wasted somewhat, though
her strength in her rages seemed undiminished.
Gabrielle gathered the cloths and bedclothes, and placed them in
a pile by the door. Pulling a clean wrap from the trunk at the foot of
the bed, she covered Xena, then sat on the bed beside her. She
smoothed the dark hair as best she could, wondering if she'd ever
get it clean again, then leaned to kiss the warrior gently, her lips
burning with the contact.
"Guess you don't want to sleep now, since you just woke up.
Would you like me to tell you a story?" Again, no reaction. She
took the warrior's hand in her own and examined it, turning the palm
upward and noting the softness where callouses once had been.
Running a finger over the lines of the palm, she felt a tremor move
through the warrior at the contact.
"You like that?" She did it again, slower, then lowered her head
and gently kissed where her finger had touched. Xena groaned softly
and rolled to her side, away from the bard, pulling her hand free and
tucking it under her body. Gabrielle held her breath, waiting for the
explosion, but it never came. After a time, the deep, even breathing
of the warrior told her she was sleeping again. The bard moved
to sit in the chair beside the bed and reached for the scroll she'd
brought. Unrolling it, she reached for the small box beside the chair
that held her quill and ink. Xena's words leapt from the page as she
turned her attention once more to the warrior's reality.
*Gabrielle ... what happened can't destroy your core of goodness.
You can fight it, I know you can ...*
Gabrielle looked up at the sleeping warrior and spoke softly. "Xena,
you've always believed in me ... Why is it you could never believe in
Gabrielle woke to total darkness. Reaching out, she felt
for the candles on the table, but the table top was bare. She
could hear a soft, rhythmic, hissing sound in the darkness,
and only then did she remember that she'd left Xena untied.
Cold chills played through her as she tried to locate the sound
and she rose to her feet, hoping she could get to the door
before the warrior realized she was awake.
The hissing grew louder as she felt her way around the
end of the bed, and her heart sank as she realized that Xena
was blocking her only escape. She knew the guards were
just outside, but she also knew that without help they'd never
stop the warrior in time. She froze in her tracks and tried to think.
*The window ... * She turned her head and stared into the
blackness, finally finding a glimmer of light at the edge of the
heavy cloth that covered the opening. She gathered her courage
and jumped for the light, but was hit mid-stride before she got
"No, no, no ... you can't go now ..."
Xena's voice in her ear was the voice of a stranger. The
warrior lay on top of her, holding her to the ground on her
stomach with the weight of her body. The sound of their
falling alerted the guards, and a lit torch was brought inside
as they raised the alarm and the village again came to life in
the predawn light.
The guards stopped when they saw the warrior and the
bard on the floor of the hut. Xena was straddling the smaller
woman, naked, and when they tried to move toward her, she
wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's throat, pulling the bard's
upper body off the ground and cutting off the air to her lungs.
She looked up at the guards, her eyes glinting dangerously,
smiling at them.
"I can break her, you know!" She emphasized the words
with a jerk of her arm and Gabrielle gave a choked cry of pain.
The guards backed away as the bard wrapped her fingers
around Xena's arm, trying to loosen the viselike hold, gasping
for air. Xena laughed, a short harsh sound that brought tears
to Gabrielle's eyes. She laid her head against the golden hair,
her breath hot against the bard's ear.
"Is this how you killed my son?"
Gabrielle tried to shake her head. "No ... Xena. Not Hope ...
Solon ... alive ..."
Xena growled and tightened her hold. Gabrielle felt darkness
of a different kind closing over her. Somewhere far away she
heard Ephiny calling Xena's name, heard the sounds of a
struggle and felt herself being lifted to her feet, the arm still
tight around her neck.
Xena fought the Amazons with her feet and her left arm,
swinging the bard, using her body to keep them at bay. The
Amazons, heedless of their own safety, crowded into the hut,
swords ready. Ephiny cursed as she tried desperately to get
close enough to get a hand on Xena's arm, watching in disbelief
as Gabrielle's face grew dark and her eyes rolled back in her head.
So focused was she on Xena and the bard, she was unaware of
another battle taking place outside the hut among the rest of the
village residents until the woman came through the door.
Xena paid no attention to her, though she moved straight
toward the warrior and laid her hand on Xena's arm. Xena
froze at the touch, shock and horror on her face. Gently, the
woman freed the bard, swinging her weight into Ephiny's waiting
arms, then held a hand out to Xena and led her back to the bed.
"Stay here, Xena. We have much to talk about."
The Amazons stared in disbelief as Xena sat on the bed,
though she obviously struggled against following the woman's
orders. Her confusion was evident as she looked from the
woman to the bard.
The woman paid her no heed as she bent over the unconscious
bard. Her hands moved over the angry bruises on her neck, and
she smiled as Gabrielle's color began to return to normal and her
eyelids fluttered open.
"Stay here for a moment, little one. You'll be all right."
Gabrielle nodded and turned, sobbing, into Ephiny's arms. The
Amazon held her tight and looked up at the woman. She was like
no one any of them had ever seen. Her cloak had fallen open,
revealing an ornate silk dress beneath it, and her air of calm
was reflected in the smooth, exotic lines of her face.
She smiled again at the look of wonder on the Amazon's face,
then stood and returned to Xena. Leaning close to the warrior,
she spoke in a low voice, then put her hand on Xena's shoulder
and slowly pushed her down to lay on the bed. All eyes in the room
were on her as she secured the restraints around the warrior, then
turned to look around the room. Inclining her head in a slight bow
toward Gabrielle, she addressed the Amazon Queen.
"I have come to help. I am Lao Ma."
Gabrielle stared up at the woman in disbelief. Though Xena
had spoken of Lao Ma in her delirium, the bard had wondered
if she'd even existed. Xena had described her beauty, and
Gabrielle saw it still, beyond the small streaks of gray at her
temples and the fine lines around the exquisite dark eyes. Her
regal bearing and serene manner in the midst of the chaos of a
moment before gave the bard hope.
Raising a hand to her throat, Gabrielle swallowed hard. She
was surprised that she felt no pain, though her voice was hoarse.
"Can you help her?"
Lao Ma walked back to stand before the bard, and extended
a hand to help her rise. She nodded to Ephiny and smiled.
"Xena can wait." She glanced back at the warrior still laying
quietly in the bed, then turned toward the door, pulling the bard
along with her.
Amazons cleared the way before the two as they walked
slowly out the door and across the clearing, Ephiny following
close behind them. Lao Ma still held Gabrielle's hand in hers,
and as they reached the row of huts, she stopped, turning to
face the bard. She searched the green eyes and found what
she'd hoped to see.
"I've kept up with her over the years, Gabrielle. I know the
change you've made in her. If she is to recover, it will be
because of her love for you. I can help *you*. Xena must help
Gabrielle started to ask more questions, but Lao Ma raised
a hand. "You need to rest. Xena won't be a problem."
Ephiny took the cue, waving for one of the guards and
instructing her to show their guest to one of the visitor's huts.
Lao Ma leaned toward the bard and spoke softly into her ear,
then squeezed her hand lightly and turned to follow her escort.
"Are you all right?"
Gabrielle jumped at the sound of Ephiny's voice behind her.
She shook herself and couldn't help the grin that spread across
her face. For the first time in months, she felt that there was a
chance to bring Xena back.
"Sorry, Ephiny. I was ... thinking."
Ephiny followed the bard's line of sight to see Lao Ma and the
two men who had accompanied her entering one of the visitor's
huts. The woman stopped in the doorway and turned to gaze for
a moment at the hut where Xena was confined, then disappeared
"She's something, isn't she? What did she say to you?"
Gabrielle looked into Ephiny's eyes.
"She said 'Xena must learn to accept what is, before she can
understand what is not.' What do you think that means, Ephiny?"
Ephiny raised her eyebrows and shrugged her shoulders. "I
don't know, but I get the feeling she does."
"So do I."
Gabrielle entered her hut and stretched out on the bed. Xena's
attack had very nearly killed her, and she was exhausted despite
Lao Ma's healing touch. She rolled to her side and looked at the
scrolls still scattered around the room. She thought about trying
to find the scrolls about Xena's trip to Chin, but was taken by
Morpheus before she could finish the thought.
<<Something was wrong with her legs. She tried to run, but
her legs wouldn't support her. Dogs ... There were dogs chasing
her, their barking closer now through the trees as she pulled
herself off the ground and tried to run, trying to keep her feet under
her despite the pain in her twisted legs. Falling again, sprawling in
the dirt, crawling on hands and knees, then back to her feet and
fingertips, moving as fast as she could with the crashing of dogs
and horses through the trees behind her growing ever closer ...
rocks and tree roots digging into her knees and hands, feet and
fingers. Knowing she'll never get away ... She's going to die in
this place so far from home, ripped apart by the dogs while the
men watch and laugh.
She growls deep in her chest, the sound curling her lip back
in a snarl. She is as much an animal as the dogs chasing her
and she knows she'll taste blood before she dies. She falls once
more, pulling herself forward on bruised elbows.
Red fills her vision, but it is not her blood she sees before her.
Panting, she raises herself on her hands and looks up into the
face of the one she'd tried to kill.
"Come with me if you wish your freedom."
*No ... please ... leave me ...*>>
Calm and quiet filled the room when Gabrielle opened her eyes.
She knew she'd been dreaming again and she wondered how long
she'd been asleep. She raised her head and looked out the small
window, trying to gauge the sun's height, wondering if she could
allow herself the luxury of more sleep.
She let her head fall back to the pillow and closed her eyes. Her
mind drifted back to the dream and she let it go, letting herself feel
the feral emotions of a Xena she'd never known, wondering if this
were the *real* Xena. Hearing, soft amid the churning emotion, the
"Please ... leave me ... "
"You are uncomfortable that I'm here, though you want
Gabrielle reached out and pulled a leaf from one of the
bushes along the forest path. She and Lao Ma had been
walking for some time, talking quietly about Xena. Lao Ma
had asked many questions about Xena's madness, and
the bard was impressed with the amount of knowledge the
woman had about Xena's life since Chin. She peeled bits
of the leaf from the stem, searching for the right words to
describe her feelings.
"I know I shouldn't be. Xena talked about you quite a lot
when she thought she'd gone to Chin. I didn't know how
much to believe. Seeing you, talking to you..."
Her voice trailed off and her face reddened. Lao Ma
laughed softly and nodded.
"Now you wonder if she would truly leave you if I sent for
Gabrielle smiled nervously and glanced up at the taller
"I'd never really thought about Xena with another woman.
I mean, I know she must have ... I, I just never really thought
They walked in silence for a time, Gabrielle thinking
about Xena's voice as she'd spoken of meeting Lao Ma.
Even in madness, Xena had remembered Lao Ma's touch,
her kiss as she'd breathed life back into the damaged soul
of the warrior. Lao Ma had given Xena something far more
precious than gold or power; she'd given her the desire
and the need to be loved.
"She has not yet admitted her love for you, has she?"
The bard smiled and tears rose in her eyes. She looked
up and found herself captured in Lao Ma's gaze. Xena's
words as she'd described their first meeting came back to
her, and she began to understand the impact that meeting
Lao Ma must have had on the warrior.
"No. No, she hasn't. She's tried, but she's never seemed
to be able to say the words. I know she loves me, though.
She's said it many times, since ...."
"Her delusions are centered around her love for you,
Gabrielle. The scrolls you've shown me speak of this. She
fears for you. She fears hurting you."
Gabrielle sighed. "She thinks I'm dead. She thinks *I'm*
dead, she thinks Solon's dead, and she thinks you're dead."
"Yes. Everyone she has loved, everyone whom she
believes has loved her. Where is her son? Why is he not
"He came once. When we realized she thought he'd
been killed, I sent a messenger to the Centaur village. It
wasn't easy to persuade Kaleipus to let him come. Solon
didn't know Xena was his mother, and Kaleipus had
promised Xena that he'd never tell him. I'd hoped seeing
him would help her."
"But it didn't?"
"No. She cried and spent two days singing to him, but
she still believes he's dead."
Gabrielle smiled wistfully. "She'd only seen him once
since she'd left him with the Centaurs. While we were there,
he'd told her that his mother used to sing to him ... so she
held him and she cried and she sang to him. He's a special
child, but it was very hard on him, finding out this way that
Xena is his mother. He wanted to stay, but we all thought it
was best for him to go back home until she gets ... better."
"And she blames you for his 'death'?"
"At first, she did, then while he was here, she seemed to
shift the blame from me to this ... Hope ... person. Now she
thinks I'm dead, and the person she sees when she looks at
me is Hope."
Lao Ma stopped and closed her eyes for a moment.
"There are many layers to her madness. I'd like to read
Gabrielle nodded. "Anything you need, of course. I'd like
to go back now. I want to check on Xena."
Gabrielle left Lao Ma studying the scrolls she'd written
and walked across to Xena's hut. The door was open in
the afternoon warmth and the guards stood just outside,
talking quietly. They stepped aside to allow the bard to
enter, and she stopped in the doorway to give her eyes
time to adjust to the gloom.
Deep, even breathing told her that the warrior slept.
Crossing the room, she sat on the side of the bed and
reached to hold the hand that lay tied to the edge of the
bedframe. Tears rose in her eyes, as they always did at
the sight of the restraints, and she leaned to place a gentle
kiss on Xena's cheek. Searching the pale face, she
wondered at the strength of her warrior, and spoke her
uncertainty in a whisper.
"Xena ... Have they used me to keep you like this?
Would you have come to this if I'd stayed in Poteidaia.? Is
it your love for me that keeps you there, inside yourself?
"Lao Ma says you have to want to come back. She's
right, I know, but I can't help wondering why you'd want to
stay there. I heard you tell me to go away, Xena. Did you
think I'd listen? I'm not dead. I'm not Hope. I'm Gabrielle,
that same little girl who followed you to Amphipolis. I've
changed, Xena; I can't say I haven't. By the Gods, I'd have
changed a lot more if you hadn't been there that day Draco's
men came to Poteidaia.. I owe you so much ... I never
expected to love you."
Wiping the back of her hand across her face, Gabrielle
leaned down and kissed the fingers she held in her own.
"If I have to lose you, if that's what you need to be able to
face reality, I'll go back to Poteidaia.. You won't have to worry
about me. You could go to Chin. Lao Ma could help you, I
know she could. Maybe if you got away from here, away
"No. I won't let you think like that!"
The voice from the open doorway startled the bard. She
turned to see Ephiny framed in the light. Striding across the
room, the Amazon took the bard's chin in her hand and forced
the green eyes to meet her own.
"She loves you. She NEEDS you. I won't let you give
Gabrielle burst into tears at Ephiny's words. The Amazon
pulled her up off the bed and out into the bright sunshine.
"Gabrielle, I want you to *think*! We don't know this woman.
Why is she here? What's in it for her? By the Gods, Gabrielle,
don't start questioning yourself now! I'll put her on her horse
and send her right back where she came from before I'll let you
There was no answer from the bard, only more sobs,
and Ephiny wrapped her arms around the shaking shoulders.
"Gods, Gabrielle ... I'm sorry. I don't want to hurt you."
Holding the bard against her, she felt the tears wet on her
chest. She waited, but the heart-wrenching sobs deepened,
and she realized this was the release Gabrielle had needed for
months. She reached down and scooped the bard into her
arms, carrying her as she would a crying child across the
clearing and into her own hut. Gabrielle clung to her, the
frustration, anger, and pain of the past year all combining
to leave the young Amazon Queen unable to protest.
Inside, Ephiny laid the bard on the bed, then lay beside
her, holding her, rubbing her back, smoothing the golden
hair, and talking softly to her as she cried. Eventually, the
sobs subsided, but the Amazon held on, finally feeling a
timid arm slide around her waist. She felt the warm body
move closer, seeking comfort, and she whispered quiet
reassurances as she soothed the emotionally exhausted
woman into sleep.
"I don't know who you are, but I *won't* let you hurt her!
I've read the scrolls, I know about your *power*, but, by
the Gods, you'll have to take on the entire Amazon Nation
before we'll let you take her or Xena away from here!"
Lao Ma looked up from the scroll on her lap. No emotion
showed on her face as she met the blazing brown eyes of
the angry Amazon. She waited a moment to ensure that
Ephiny had finished speaking, then slowly rolled the scroll
and laid it aside. Meeting Ephiny's eyes once more, she
chose her words carefully.
"I am Lao Ma. I did not come here to hurt your friends. I
came here to help a friend of mine. These Gods of yours
have placed a powerful spell on Xena, one I fear even she
may not be able to break. As for my ... power ... you need
have no fear. It is a thing I use only to defend myself. Unless
you make it necessary, it will not be used."
Ephiny's fists remained clenched as the words hung in
the air between them. She'd left Gabrielle asleep, deciding
it was time, as the acting Queen, to take things in hand.
She'd been prepared for an argument, a fight, anything
but this calm acceptance of her anger. She felt her soul
exposed when the dark eyes locked on hers, and knew in
that instant the futility of her threat. She'd never be able to
raise a hand against this woman, and somehow she knew
she'd never have need.
<<Her lungs were crying for air, but she knew she had to
stay beneath the water. In the candlelight above her, she
could see Lao Ma, slowly brushing her hair and ignoring
the bubbles that forced their way from her mouth as her
head thrashed sideways and she fought the instinctive
need to rise up and breathe.
Pain shot through her and her vision had closed to a
pinpoint of light when she felt a touch on her lips and Lao
Ma's mouth was on hers, her tongue forcing its way into
her mouth, life-giving air moving into her lungs as the
touch seared its way through her body.
She reached to cup a soft cheek, realizing only after
she was again alone under the water that she had
forgotten to hold in the precious oxygen. A hand on her
shoulder brought her sputtering back into the air, and she
looked up into the smiling face of Lao Ma and knew she
She was frozen in fear and need as the woman above
her pushed the robe from her body and slid naked into the
water, reaching to pull away the rags that covered the
warrior, replacing them with smooth skin and knowing
touches; bathing her with gentle kisses and soothing words.
Taming the beast as she led Xena to a new awareness of
her own body and showed her a side of her soul she'd long
forgotten, leaving her spent and trembling in the warm,
Gabrielle woke amid the echoes of Xena's passion. She
lay still for a moment, embarrassed to realize that her own
response to the dream had left her flushed and wet. She
sat upright in alarm when she recognized the interior of
Ephiny's hut, but lay back once more when she saw she
was alone. Her breath was still heavy, and the warmth in
her loins sent her mind off on dreams of her own as the
darkness closed over her once more.
She could feel the intensity of those blue eyes even
before she opened her own eyes and saw the warrior
standing over her. Her body was heavy with release and
she felt the warmth of Xena's love still within her.
She smiled and reached to hold the hand that lay upon
her face, pulling it against her chest and curling her body
around it as she rolled on her side and sighed with pure
"Xena ... I'm so glad you came back to me....">>
"Gabrielle ... Gabrielle!"
Hands pulled at the sleeping bard. She moaned and
raised an arm, her mind refusing to leave the safe place
she'd found in her dreams.
"No... Xena. Just a little longer ... please. So tired..."
The hands refused to leave, and the voice grew more
insistent, finally breaking through the fog and bringing
the bard to full awareness. Ephiny stood over her, a
worried frown on her face. Behind her, Lao Ma moved
to stand in the doorway, looking out into the night. Gabrielle
knew something was terribly wrong, and she said a silent
prayer that Xena was all right.
"What is it, Ephiny? What's wrong?"
Ephiny turned and looked at Lao Ma, as though seeking
the other woman's approval to answer the question. She
put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and looked into her
eyes. A cold chill ran through the bard.
Ephiny ducked her head. She couldn't look at Gabrielle.
"Xena's gone. She-"
"NO!" Grabbing Ephiny's arms, Gabrielle looked from
one to the other of the two women and shook her head.
Tears filled her eyes.
"Gone where? When? How did she get away, Ephiny?"
"We're not sure. Gabrielle, she killed the guard. Looks
like she went to your hut and tore it up. Thank the gods
you were here tonight, instead of your own hut. I've sent
out a patrol..."
Shaking her head and fighting tears, Gabrielle got to her
feet. "No. They won't be able to stop her if they do find her.
You'll just get more of them killed."
She walked to the door and watched the gathering
Amazons as they prepared to join the search. Lao Ma
moved quietly aside as Ephiny took the bard's arm to keep
her from leaving the hut.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry. I can't let you go out there. Xena
could be anywhere."
Gabrielle turned, her green eyes meeting Ephiny's. The
Amazon felt the color drain from her face as she saw the
resignation and determination in the bard's eyes. Her hand
dropped from Gabrielle's arm and she shook her head
"No... Gabrielle, you can't. She'll kill you!"
Gabrielle's voice was quiet, but calm.
"She'll do that anyway, if she really wants to."
Reaching to hug Ephiny, the bard then turned and walked
slowly out the door. She stopped in the middle of the
clearing and ordered the gathered Amazons to return to
their huts. Surprise and protest met her orders, but she
quickly silenced the outcry by reminding them that she was,
indeed, their queen. That done, she walked to her hut, numb
to the mess inside. She gathered her traveling clothes and
her staff, then returned to stand before a very upset Regent.
"I have to do this, Ephiny." She glanced at Lao Ma, who
stood quietly watching, her face giving no indication of her
"Xena's been trying to talk to me, in her dreams, in *my*
dreams. Whatever is left of my Xena is in there, and she's
afraid to come back. I think I know where she's gone, and if
I'm right, there's a chance I can get through to her. If I'm
Ephiny shook her head violently. "No! Gabrielle, I can't-"
Gabrielle raised a hand to cup the Amazon's cheek.
Smiling wistfully, she searched the brown eyes, willing the
other woman to understand.
"You're a good friend, Ephiny; you've always been a good
friend to Xena and me. If we just capture her and bring her
back, what then? She can't live the way she's been living,
that's no life for anyone ... and I can't live without her. You
were right: she needs me, and I need her. She's running,
and I'm the only one who can stop her."
Hugging the now crying Amazon, Gabrielle whispered in
"Thank you ... for everything. The gods willing, we'll both be
back here soon."
Ephiny was unable to speak, reaching to lay a hand on
Gabrielle as the bard turned to speak to Lao Ma. "If she does
... lose herself completely, will you promise me you'll-" Her
breath caught in her throat, threatening her control. "Take
care of her? I know it's a lot to ask."
Lao Ma nodded once, understanding the meaning behind the
words, then moved to stand beside Ephiny as they watched
the lone figure walk slowly out of the village.
Gabrielle walked long into the morning before reaching
the outer boundaries of the Amazon territory. She knew
she was being followed, but the scouts that trailed her
respected her decision and remained hidden. She felt
she was leaving more than a place as she crossed the river
that formed the southern border. By leaving the relative
safety of the Amazons, she'd left behind the part of her that
cared for anyone or anything but Xena.
Xena ... Gabrielle had no sense of her near, and the
thought frightened her. She hefted her staff, wondering
why she hadn't kept up with her drills. Though she was
traveling well away from the main road through the area,
she had seen the signs and heard the sounds of many
soldiers and travelers in the area. Ephiny had mentioned
increased activity at the borders, but as the day wore on,
the bard began to realize that she'd had no true idea of the
meaning of the Amazon's words.
She'd brought no food with her, planning to buy supplies
at a small village not far from the Amazon territory. She
stayed in the trees as long as possible before joining a
group of women and children on the main road that led to
the village. A few of the women eyed her as she stepped
from the trees and fell into step behind them, but they made
no protest when they saw her staff. Their conversation
continued as they moved into the village and headed toward
the peddler's stalls.
"I heard she's escaped ... my man said she killed a dozen
warriors this morning not a half-day's walk from here."
"Aye, and crazy as Orestes, from what I hear."
Gabrielle clenched her jaw and stared at the ground
beneath her feet as she walked, not wanting to draw more
attention to herself. She knew the whereabouts of the
Warrior Princess was going to be a great source of gossip
for the local villagers, indeed, for most of Greece, but she
hadn't expected the news of her escape to travel so fast.
The woman just ahead of her glanced back, but directed
her words toward the front of the small group.
"Why didn't the Amazons kill her while they had a chance?
She's already killed more than enough people, why give her
the chance to kill more?"
This was too much for the bard. She stopped in her
tracks and let the group move away from her, not missing
the backward looks and smirks the women directed at her
as they walked away. Anger filled her as she realized that
they'd recognized her as an Amazon, and the conversation
had been for her benefit. She stopped at the first stall, not
bothering to haggle the price, and traded some of the dinars
she'd brought for a few day's worth of cheese and dried meat.
A loaf of hard bread and a skin of wine completed her list,
and she turned once more toward the trees outside the
village. She could feel the eyes of the villagers following her,
and she wondered how many of them remembered when
she and Xena had been here. She was past tears at this
point, the memory of their visit bringing only longing for the
innocence she'd had three years earlier.
The bard had no appetite, so she tried to put as much
distance between herself and the village as she could before
stopping for the night. She remembered a stream where she
and Xena had stayed on their first visit to the Amazons, and
decided to camp there. She'd wait and eat then.
She moved easily through the trees, still staying off the
paths. She wondered about Xena: had the warrior really killed
those men, or had it simply been vicious gossip repeated for
her torment? She hadn't thought about her Amazon leathers
when she'd left the village the night before, but she knew it
would be best to change into less conspicuous clothing soon.
The evening light was fading by the time she found the
stream, and the bard was exhausted. She'd walked farther
this day than she'd walked since taking Xena to the Amazons.
The sight of the familiar stream, and the memories of the
nights they'd spent there, caused an ache in her heart that far
outweighed the ache in her legs as she sank to the ground
in the soft grass and leaned back against a fallen tree.
Closing her eyes, she listened to the forest sounds as the
darkness closed around her, and for just a moment she let
herself believe that Xena was out there, hunting for their dinner.
She felt the forest slip away as Morpheus took her in his arms,
the whispering stream soothing her as it moved in its banks.
A snapping twig brought her back to the night, and she
looked up into eyes that reflected the newly risen moon. The
short blade of a broken sword lay at her throat, and she could
feel the trembling of the hand that held it. She tightened her
grip on the staff that lay across her lap, knowing that this time,
she'd have to defend herself.
In the Amazon village, Lao Ma tapped lightly on the door
of Ephiny's hut. The Regent had closed herself inside that
morning after sending two scouts to follow their Queen. She
was surprised to see Lao Ma standing at her door, but stepped
quickly aside to allow her visitor to enter. Lao Ma remained
outside, her eyes meeting Ephiny's as she spoke.
"We must go. She needs our help."
Ephiny didn't question Lao Ma's urgency. She ordered
horses and supplies for the two of them and they set out
almost immediately. Ephiny's scouts hadn't yet reported
back to her on the bard's whereabouts, but she knew the
route she'd taken on her way out of the Amazon territory.
The Regent took the lead at a full gallop, sending a prayer
to Artemis that they'd get to Gabrielle in time.
"Why can't you just leave me alone?"
Xena's voice was harsh in the quiet night, her tone
accusing and pleading at the same time. Gabrielle's eyes
closed for an instant, but flew open as the jagged edge of
the broken blade scratched at the skin of her neck. She
tried to shift her position, trying to get her legs under her
body so she could stand and fight. Words... that was what
she was good at ...
"I love you. I can't leave you, not like this."
The warrior's sharp laugh cut through the bard's fear as
she straightened, holding up the blade and moving it, watching
and laughing as the moonlight glinted off the broken blade.
"Fool ... Don't you see that I'm as broken as this sword? I
can only bring you pain." Her face crumpled and her voice
broke as she choked back a sob. "I've brought you so *much*
Gabrielle had risen to a crouch but froze when she
realized what the words implied.
"No. Xena, you haven't brought me pain. You've been ...
ill. You've had nightmares. I'm all right, nothing bad has
happened to me-"
Xena closed her eyes and grimaced, sucking in a deep
breath through clenched teeth. "I hurt you ... gods, I've
hurt so *many* people."
Her head rolled back and tears ran down her cheeks.
Gabrielle stood and reached tentatively toward her. "Xena?"
The touch of the bard's hand brought the warrior's head
snapping back up, her eyes narrowed dangerously as she
slashed out with the blade.
"Do you think I don't *know* who you really are?" She
smiled now as the bard backed away and raised her staff,
knocking the blade aside and taking a fighting stance.
"Xena, LOOK at me! LISTEN to me!" Too late, Gabrielle
saw that her words had fallen on deaf ears. Xena was
stalking her now, circling her and swinging the short blade
in a small but deadly arc. The bard turned with her, watching
her eyes, the set of her weight as she walked a closing circle.
"Xena ... think ... Ares wanted you to kill your mother,
Xena's head turned and she looked at the bard from the
corners of her eyes. She said nothing, but stopped moving
for an instant, then set her right foot and raised the sword.
Gabrielle saw the move, anticipated the attack and struck
out with the staff, pleading with the warrior even as she felt
the solid force of the landing blows and spun out of Xena's
"Xena, don't do this! You're under a godsspell! FIGHT!
I know you're there, I know you can do it!"
Xena backed away, shaking her head, the pain of the
bard's blows evident in the surprise on her face. Her body
was soft after her year of confinement, her timing off, and
she wore no armor, only a leather shift she'd taken from the
Amazon guard she'd killed.
Gabrielle stood firm, tears rolling down her face as she
watched the warrior reach to touch an angry welt on the
side of her head.
"Gods ... Xena, don't make me do this any more. Please
... I'm not Hope. Hope isn't real!"
Xena's lip curled up in a snarl and she crouched once
more and advanced on the bard. Gabrielle spun out of her
reach and rained a series of short blows on her back and
sword arm, trying to disarm her, to slow her down and buy
more time to talk. Each time the staff connected she felt
the impact in her soul, but the bard knew this was something
she had to do if she was to have any chance of saving the
woman she loved, She had a hard time focusing through
her tears, and she said a silent prayer of thanks to the gods
that the warrior hadn't yet gone into an uncontrollable rage.
She could see the struggle taking place within her, began to
understand the reasons why Xena had run.
Suddenly the sword was in her face. She stepped back
and swung the staff, heard the sickening crunch of bones
breaking, and heard the howl of rage as the sword went
flying. Xena jumped at her, delivering a backhanded left
that staggered the bard and sent her to the ground as the
warrior grabbed the staff from her hands. Gabrielle
rolled to her hands and knees, shook her head and looked
up over her shoulder just in time to see the staff coming
Her eyes met Xena's as the world exploded. The last
thing Gabrielle saw was the horror in Xena's eyes and the
tears on her face.
Ephiny passed a share of the traveler's bread to Lao
Ma and watched the horses as they drank from the edge
of the river. She dug into the bag and pulled out a pouch
filled with strips of dried meat and held it out, but the other
woman refused. Taking a few strips for herself, the Amazon
retied the pouch and leaned back against the tree. The sun
was just peeking over the horizon, the morning air cool and
"The patrol should be here soon. This crossing is well
known, even outside the Nation. They pass here regularly."
Lao Ma said nothing, but nodded to show she'd heard
the words. Her horse had pulled up lame just as they'd
reached the river, and they'd decided to wait for the patrol
and take one of their horses, rather than try to continue with
only one. She knew they were already too late, and a delay
meant little at this point.
Ephiny watched the other woman for a moment, waiting
for her to speak. When no answer was forthcoming, she
took a drink from the waterbag and cleared her throat.
"It would help if I knew what we're heading into."
Lao Ma sighed, leaning her head back against the tree
and closing her eyes.
"Xena has learned the truth."
Ephiny waved a hand expectantly. "And Gabrielle? What
Lao Ma shook her head slowly. "I do not know. I have no
sense of her life-force. If she still lives, she is far from us."
Ephiny jumped to her feet, pacing beneath the spreading
oak, and cursing herself and Xena.
"By the Gods' blood! I never should have let her go by
herself! If Xena has hurt her, I'll-"
"No. It is mine to do."
Ephiny turned at Lao Ma's soft protest. "What?"
"I promised Gabrielle. Xena has hurt herself far more
than she could ever hurt Gabrielle. Even in death, Gabrielle
will forgive her. Only in death will Xena forgive herself. I will
keep my word. I will end her pain."
The Amazon dropped to her knees and searched the
dark eyes. "You're going to kill her."
Sadness filled Lao Ma's eyes as she looked out across the
river. "Gabrielle knew that I am one of the few who can. She
also knew that I am the only one who will. That is why she
asked me to take care of her."
Hoofbeats sounded in the distance before Ephiny could
get her thoughts together enough to reply. She stood and
offered a hand to Lao Ma, then began stripping their supplies
from Lao Ma's horse. Her mind was a jumble of emotions.
What was it Xena had said about Lao Ma? Gabrielle had
read it to her once. She leaned her head against the horse's
neck, whispering the words. "Soft as water, hard as the
Tears stung her eyes as she realized the truth of Lao Ma's
words. She prayed that the warrior hadn't killed Gabrielle. In
her heart, despite her anger, Ephiny knew she'd never be able
to kill Xena. In her mind, the warrior and the bard were one.
Killing Xena would be killing a part of Gabrielle, and the
Amazon knew she could never bring herself to do the deed,
even if given the ability. In spite of the gentle presence of Lao
Ma, Ephiny knew that she possessed not only the strength and
ability to defeat the warrior and end her life, she also had the
wisdom to let go of her own desires and do what was ultimately
best for Xena.
*Gods ... After everything that's happened ... Has it come to
She took a deep breath, pulling in the reins on her emotions,
then turned to meet the approaching patrol.
The patrol leader had passed on a message from the scouts.
Gabrielle had taken to the forest, staying off the main road and
well-traveled paths. When they'd sent the message, she was
apparently heading for the closest village, and Ephiny decided to
stay on the road for the sake of speed. If they found no word of
her there, they'd backtrack through the forest to find her. Ephiny
felt safe with the plan, as the bard had taken no supplies, and
would need to stop somewhere to buy food.
They traveled more slowly than Ephiny had hoped. The road
was heavy with travelers, many scurrying out of the path of the
Amazon and her strange-looking companion. They felt the
stares as they passed, and exchanged looks more than once
at the obvious animosity being directed at them. Just outside
the village, an old woman spat at the horse Ephiny was riding
and shook her fist at the Amazon. When she bent and picked
up a large stone, Ephiny reined the horse to a halt and glared
down at her.
"What have I done to make you so angry? The Amazons have
no fight with this village."
The woman hefted the stone, and more of the road's travelers
gathered around the horses. The people were angry, and Ephiny
reached out to hold the bridle on Lao Ma's horse to keep them
from being separated. She looked back to the woman, waiting
for an answer.
"I didn't hear you."
An old man came up to stand beside the woman. He put an
arm around her shoulder and looked up into the Amazon's face.
"You Amazons let Xena escape. She killed this woman's
son last night. He was a good man, just trying to protect his
family. The two you sent after her are dead, also. We found
their bodies this morning in the wood not a stone's throw from
our village. Most of us are leaving until she's gone. Our village
isn't safe now."
Ephiny sighed, closing her eyes and saying a silent prayer
for the dead, then leaned down and laid her hand on the
woman's shoulder and looked into her eyes.
"I am sorry. Xena is under a spell, she doesn't know what
she's doing. We've come to find her. The Amazon Nation
mourns your loss, and we will help care for your son's family."
There were murmurs in the growing crowd as they waited
for the woman's reply. She wrapped her fingers around Ephiny's
wrist and pulled her hand away. Her face was set in hard lines
of pain, and there was no forgiveness in her voice.
"Ye should have killed her. She's still in the forest, ranting
wi' her madness. Kill the wench, or we'll have no more
Amazons cross the river and live!"
She stepped away from the horses and raised the stone,
letting it fly straight at Ephiny. The Amazon quickly jerked her
head aside, but caught a stinging blow just above her right ear.
The villagers who'd been watching began to throw stones as
well, and Ephiny kicked her horse into a gallop through the
crowd, letting go of Lao Ma's horse once she knew she was
following. More stones fell around them, and angry curses
followed them as they pulled away, the last sending a chill
through them both.
"She's killed that other one, too, ye know! Sittin' there by
the water and cryin' like a baby!"
Ephiny and Lao Ma found themselves the center of
attention once more when they rode into the village. Most
of its residents had fled, but the few who remained gathered
around the two women. Amazons seldom came to their
village, though Amazon territory was only a day's walk away.
They now had two dead ones, a third that rumor held was
also dead, and another in the company of a beautiful woman
whose dress was plainly foreign to them. Add an insane,
escaped warrior, and they knew this was a tale they'd be
telling each other for years.
Ephiny pulled a few dinars from the pouch at her waist.
She held one up and asked if anyone had seen a blond
Amazon traveling alone the day before.
A young boy stepped forward. He looked up shyly at the
Amazon, then held out his hand. Ephiny smiled down at him
and shook her head. "Can you tell me which way she went?"
He smiled and nodded his head, then turned and pointed
toward the trees. "Lady went that way. To the stream."
Turning back to look up at Ephiny, he made a face and
held up his hand once more. "Bad place now ... Bad lady's
crying. I could show you, it's not far."
Ephiny placed the dinars in his hand. "No, thank you.
Stay here. We'll take care of the lady."
They turned and rode out of the village and eased the
horses into the trees. Gabrielle had mentioned camping
by a stream close to the village when they'd helped the bard
bring the warrior to the Amazon village the past spring, and
she tried to remember what the bard had told her about the
area. They soon came to a path through the wood, a small
stream running alongside. They decided to leave the horses
and walk, not wanting to give Xena any more warning than
Whispering, Ephiny leaned toward Lao Ma.
"Can you tell where they are?"
Lao Ma shook her head. Ephiny led the way as they
moved through the trees. They hadn't gone far when a soft
noise stopped them in their tracks. An animal, Ephiny
thought, but the sound repeated itself, grew louder. They
moved from tree to tree, closer with each step to the sound,
until they stood at the edge of a clearing. The sound came
again, and Ephiny felt the color drain from her face.
At the far side of the small expanse of grass, Xena sat
on the ground with her back to them. She held Gabrielle
against her with her left arm and rocked slowly back and
forth. She was crying quietly, and as they watched, she
stopped and laid her head against the bard's. She raised
her right arm, and they could see that it had been broken.
Her hand dangled awkwardly at the wrist and she let it fall
back to the grass beside her. Gabrielle's staff was on the
ground just in front of where Ephiny stood, and midway
between them and the warrior, a broken sword lay against
Xena tried to raise her right arm again, and gave a small
whimper of pain as it fell once more to the grass. This was
the sound they'd heard, and the Amazon put a hand to her
mouth to keep from crying out loud. Xena began to rock
again, whispering against the blond hair at her shoulder.
"Gabrielle ... You can't do this, you can't leave me ...
I'm sorry ... please ... please don't go. I didn't know it was
you. I thought ... how did you come back? I saw you
fall ... oh, gods please come back ... "
Ephiny could stand no more. She started across the
clearing, but Lao Ma caught her arm and shook her head.
She moved silently across the clearing and sank to her knees
behind Xena, then leaned against her back and put her arms
around the warrior, sliding her arm beneath the bard and being
careful not to move Xena's broken wrist. She laid her head on
Xena's shoulder, looking into the pale face of the bard, and
"Xena, it's Lao Ma."
Xena raised her head and looked back at the face at her
shoulder. Recognition flared in her eyes and a new wave of
tears washed down her face.
"Lao Ma? No. Ming Tien killed you ... " Confused, the warrior
turned away, rocking faster now, pulling the bard tighter against
her body. "No ... no, you can't be here. You're dead. Everyone's
dead. Solon's dead Lao Ma's dead Gabrielle's dead." She laid her
head against the bard's once more, shaking it slowly, her breath
coming in little gasping sobs. "Everyone's dead except me!
"I killed her ... "
Lao Ma nodded to Ephiny, signaling her to come closer as
Xena began crying once more. The Amazon kneeled in front of
the warrior and reached out to stroke her hair.
"Xena, it's Ephiny. I'm not dead, remember? Xena, Lao Ma's
here. She's really here. Look at her. Can't you feel her arms
around you? Open your eyes, Xena. Look at me."
Xena continued to rock, but she opened her eyes and looked
at the Amazon. Her body shook with grief and exhaustion and
Ephiny could see the desperation in her eyes. Lao Ma had
been right. Xena would never forgive herself.
"Ephiny? I hurt her ... I- I thought she was- Hope ... but I, if
she was Hope, I couldn't ... oh, Ephiny, help her please!"
Ephiny nodded but couldn't speak. She leaned forward and
put her arm around Xena's shoulder, over the supporting arm
of Lao Ma. She looked into Lao Ma's eyes and asked the
question silently as she slid her other arm under the bard, then
gave in to the tears she couldn't hold back when she felt the
heartbeat faint beneath her fingers and saw the smiling nod
from the other woman. Together, they cradled the warrior
and the bard between them as Ephiny offered thanks to the
gods and Lao Ma channeled her healing energies into the
injured woman until finally, after what seemed to the Amazon
an eternity, the green eyes fluttered open. The voice came
faint but unmistakable.
"How is she?"
Lao Ma dipped the cloth into the bowl once more and
smiled down at the bard. She squeezed the excess water
from the cloth and wiped the remaining blood from the limp
hand of the sleeping warrior.
"She'll be all right now. It will take some time for her to
understand just how much was illusion and how much
was reality, but she is a remarkable woman. She has love
and she has you. She will find her way."
Gabrielle rolled to her side and slid her arm around Xena's
waist. Her head pounded, but she didn't care. She had won
the battle. Xena had won the war.
Tears filled her eyes as she raised her head and looked
around the small glade. Ephiny was busy at the fire, cutting
the roots Lao Ma had found in the woods, and stirring the stew
that simmered over the flames. Xena moved and mumbled in
her sleep, smiling at the vision in her mind.
"I, we, owe you so much. Both of you."
Ephiny looked up and met the eyes of the bard. Her grin
was one of pure joy for her friends. She exchanged quick
glances with Lao Ma, then looked quickly back into the steaming
pot as her face reddened. Lao Ma laughed softly and reached to
cup the bard's cheek with her hand.
"There is no debt between friends, Gabrielle."
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