The characters in this story are the property of MCA/Universal. The story is mine. No infringement on their rights are intended.
"Xena, are you sure you don't want me to come with you?"
Xena smiled down at Gabrielle as she reined Argo back in the direction they had come. "I'd rather you stay here. There have been raids on the villages to the south, and I want you to help these women protect themselves. I'll go meet up with their men and help them stop the raids."
Gabrielle looked around her at the small village. In several of the doors, she could see the face of a child, peeking from behind their mothers' skirts. Her eyes met those of a young girl of about twelve summers. The girl's eyes were wide with a mix of fear and awe as she looked at Gabrielle and then at Xena. Gabrielle sighed, knowing she couldn't leave these people unprotected.
"Ok, I'll stay. But don't leave me here too long. This place doesn't even have a market..."
Xena smiled and spurred Argo to a trot. Gabrielle watched her ride away, saying the now familiar prayer to the Gods that they protect Xena. She waved when Xena turned in the saddle to look back, then turned toward the village as she and Argo disappeared around a large outcropping of rock.
Seeing the girl she had made eye contact with, Gabrielle motioned for her to come out of her small house. She put her hand on the girl's shoulder and looked into her eyes.
"You don't have to be afraid. Xena will stop those men. I need you to help me get everyone together. We need to gather supplies." Encouraging the rest of the town's residents, she organized small groups for different tasks. "We need to gather food and water in the largest house, and bring anything that will reinforce the walls."
She turned to the girl standing beside her. "What's your name?".
"I am called Reyna" the girl answered shyly.
"Reyna, where do you get your water? I don't see a well."
Reyna pointed out a small path that led into the trees at the
back of the clearing. "There's a stream. It's not far."
Gabrielle looked around her. Seeing a young woman about her own age, she waved to her to come over. "Will you come with us to get water? I think the three of us can carry enough."
Nodding, the woman took Gabrielle's hand. "You can count on me. I am Taleen. Thank you for staying to help us."
Gabrielle smiled at Taleen and squeezed her hand briefly. "Thank me when this is over. Let's get those buckets and get back here. We're safer with the group."
Gabrielle was uneasy as the trio made their way back to the village. The thick forest offered many hiding places, and she could feel eyes watching her.
She adjusted her grip on her staff. She hadn't wanted to use it to carry water buckets, but she didn't want to make another trip.
The clearing was in sight when they were suddenly surrounded by armed men. Gabrielle swept her staff around, hitting one man in the chest with a well-aimed bucket, then spun and hit another on the side of his head with the other bucket. Shaking the buckets free from the staff, she quickly dispatched two more. Turning, she felt someone behind her. As she came around, she saw a flash and everything went dark and she felt herself falling. She heard Reyna scream and tried to rise, to see through the darkness. She felt another blow, and the darkness closed in over her.
She was falling. She reached out blindly to catch herself and hit something soft. She struggled to raise her head and moaned at the pain. The voices stopped at the movement and she felt herself being lifted.
"She'll fetch a good price if you don't kill her, you fool."
"Ah, I didn't hit her that hard." Neptus pushed the other man aside, grabbing Gabrielle roughly away from him. She moaned again at the renewed pain and thought she'd feel so much better if she could just be sick. She finally got her eyes focused and looked into Neptus's face. He grinned at her and ran his hand down her body as a chill ran through her. She pushed away from him, pulling her arms free, and stumbled as she moved toward the other women. Neptus laughed, watching her crawl as Taleen reached out to help her. She crawled between the two and gave in once more to the darkness.
"Micasus wants them alive. He didn't say we couldn't enjoy ourselves a bit."
The other man shook his head and set about building a fire. Other fires sprang up through the woods as the rest of the men, almost a hundred strong, settled in for the night.
Gabrielle woke with a start, then lay still, trying to hear past the roar of pain. She carefully lifted her head to look around her and heard a muffled scream across the fire. The sadistic laugh that followed told her what was happening. The empty space between her and Reyna told her to whom. She struggled to her hands and knees through a wave of nausea, then fell into the dirt and felt tears of frustration as she realized she could do nothing to help Taleen.
She waited a moment for her head to clear again; then, moving slowly so she wouldn't get dizzy again or attract attention, Gabrielle moved closer to Reyna. She had thought that the young girl was asleep, but as she reached out to touch her, she could see that the girl was trembling violently.
Her own pain now forgotten, Gabrielle pulled the girl to her, holding her like the frightened child she was. Rocking her slowly as she cried, she felt tears on her own face as she heard the grunts of pleasure and cries of pain from the other side of the fire. She could only hope that Xena knew they were missing, and would find them soon.
Finally, the camp was quiet. Reyna had slipped into an exhausted sleep. Gabrielle lay close to her trying to keep the girl warm. She drifted in and out of sleep. The pain in her head gradually settled to a dull ache behind her eyes. She awakened at one point to find Taleen sitting beside her. She sat cross-legged before the fire, her hands resting on her knees. Her back was arched and her head was thrown back, her eyes open and looking at the stars. Her mouth moved slightly, and Gabrielle felt the impact of her pain as though it were a solid force. She reached out, but the other woman jerked her arm away at her touch.
There was no further acknowledgement of Gabrielle's presence.
She reluctantly rolled away. *I don't know what to do for her. What do I say? Was there some way I didn't think of; something I could have done, to stop him? Oh, Taleen, I'm so sorry I failed you. Xena left me to protect you and what did I do? Ordered you into the woods and let us get ambushed. Some protector I am!*
She slept, finally, exhausted.
Dawn found Xena riding toward the village. She had found the men from the village, and together they had swept the area. Although there was evidence the raiders had been there, all the signs and reports of them were well south of the village where she had left Gabrielle. She was thankful for this, but she knew Gabrielle would be disappointed that she had not only been left behind, she wouldn't even get a story.
Still, Xena had been unable to sleep, finally deciding to go on ahead of the men. She was used to nightmares, but this was different. She couldn't shake the feeling that Gabrielle was somehow in danger. She shook her head as she saw an image of Gabrielle as she had seen her last; standing in the road, waving. Smiling.
As she urged Argo to move faster, Xena had no way to know that a full day's ride ahead of her, Gabrielle and her fellow captives were being prodded to move faster as their captors hurried to market with their prizes. Between Xena and Gabrielle was the main force of the slaver's army: with them the rest of the women and children of the village where Reyna and Taleen lived, along with a dozen more from the raids to the south.
Rounding the rocks, Xena drew her sword as she looked at the village before her. The once tidy huts were empty, their doors hanging open and their contents strewn in the dust outside.
Nothing moved as Xena dismounted carefully and approached one of the huts. Her heart was in her throat as she fought the urge to scream Gabrielle's name. She leaned forward into the doorway, trying to see in the dark interior. Nothing. She went from hut to hut and found them all empty.
Following boottracks, she walked across the clearing toward the path to the stream. Without breaking her stride, she sheathed her sword and whistled for Argo. They had gone only a short distance into the woods when she saw the signs of a fight. The dense blanket of leaves that carpeted the floor of the forest had been hard packed by the villagers who used the path every day, and gave little sign of footprints. To Xena's eye, there were other signs, just as clear. The crushed vines beneath a tree and scuffed bark on that tree told Xena that someone had been thrown or knocked into the tree. A small piece of black leather wedged in the bark told her that Gabrielle had gotten in at least one good blow. She began a careful search. Across the path, hidden by the bushes, she found the one thing she'd hoped she wouldn't;
Fighting panic, Xena mounted Argo and took the path as fast as she dared. Reaching the stream, she looked carefully at the footprints on the bank. Her heart sank as she realized that several dozen men had come through here. Gabrielle had never had a chance. Why had she left her at the village?
Astride Argo once more, Xena whistled and the mare took off at breakneck speed. Xena urged Argo to go faster. She had a day to make up. Closing her eyes briefly, Xena once again saw Gabrielle standing by the road, waving. *They must have been taken almost immediately. That's the only way they could be so far ahead.*
Xena clenched her teeth in frustration as Argo raced through the forest. She knew only too well what would likely happen during the night at the camps. The only women who might be safe were the virgins. Virgins brought a better price at the market. But even they weren't safe. Xena winced at the thought of Gabrielle suffering such treatment. She had to get there in time.
Gabrielle was awakened by a kick to her ribs. She gasped for air and rolled to her knees in anger. Rising, she looked for her tormentor, then sank back down at the sight of the woman sitting beside her. She sat as she had sat when Gabrielle saw her the night before. Her mouth no longer moved and her sightless eyes stared into space. Her skin was pale blue, and the bloodstains in the dirt below her hands told how she had died. Gabrielle backed away on her hands and knees, nausea clenching her jaw and causing her mouth to fill with bitter saliva.
As she retched into the weeds, Gabrielle felt a lead weight settle onto her chest. *I could have stopped this. Was she bleeding to death while I watched?*
She was suddenly jerked to her feet. Neptus held her arm and shoved her toward the path. She fell again, but scrambled to her feet when Reyna ran to her and helped her up. Neptus walked toward them.
"You two, get going. Micasus is in a hurry for company so we're going ahead of the rest. Get going, and " he reached out and put his hand around Reyna's throat, looking into Gabrielle's eyes "If you try any funny stuff......"
Gabrielle nodded. She knew that Xena would be looking for them by now, and she clung to this hope as she put her arm around Reyna's shoulder and began to walk slowly away from the small body sitting by the remains of the fire.
They had left the forest behind and walked now through a lush valley. The sun was high when Neptus finally allowed them to stop to rest. Gabrielle's whole body ached, but through the haze of pain and emotion she worried about Reyna. The young girl had walked stoicly, eyes on the road at her feet, giving no sign that she heard Gabrielle's whispered words as she tried to comfort her. She followed Neptus' orders woodenly, and Gabrielle had to take her hand and pull her down to sit in the shade of a large oak.
"Reyna. Reyna, look at me." The girl raised her head slowly, and their eyes met. Gabrielle felt a wrenching in her chest as she saw the pain and fear in the younger girls eyes. She had no chance to react, however, for Neptus had grabbed her hair and yanked her to her feet. She spun and kicked his feet out from under him, and looked quickly about for something, anything, she could use as a weapon. By the Gods, this guy was really getting on her nerves! She turned back to see his sword at Reyna's throat. Neptus grinned wickedly, as he forced the girl to lie on the ground and stood to face Gabrielle.
"Don't forget about your little friend here. Shall I end this now, or will you behave?"
Gabrielle looked down at the girl lying in the dust of the road. Her eyes had closed and she looked oddly peaceful. Rage began to build in Gabrielle as she realized that the girl had given up. She no longer had faith that Gabrielle could help her. The tip of the sword lay at the base of her throat, and as Gabrielle watched, it moved ever so slightly and a small drop of red appeared. The girl did not move. The drop grew larger and finally broke free and ran down the side of Reyna's neck. Gabrielle put out her hand in a pleading gesture.
"No, please. She's just a child!"
Neptus pulled the sword away, and looked down at the girl at his feet. Licking his lips, he grinned at Gabrielle once again.
"Be a shame to waste something so young and tender." He sheathed his sword and waved toward his pack. "Get moving and bring me some food."
Walking to the tree, he sat and leaned back, watching Gabrielle as she moved to the pack. She could feel his eyes on her, undressing her. She wasn't looking forward to nightfall. Neptus had left her alone the night before, probably because she was semiconscious. Tonight, there were only two choices. The thought came to her mind that if she could keep his mind away from Reyna, Xena might find them before anything happened to the girl.
The hairs on her neck raised and a chill ran through her at the thought, but the memory of the screams of the night before, and the frozen blue face of Taleen that morning, fired a fierce determination in her that the girl remain a virgin. She wouldn't let her down, too.
Xena cursed under her breath as she looked at the line of women and children being herded down the road. There must be a hundred men and forty prisoners. She did not see Gabrielle among the women. Her eyes scanned the group again, but the familiar figure was not among the women on the trail. She felt again the panic in her throat, and fought to control it. Her mind raced back over the trail. Had Gabrielle escaped? Had she been taken a by a different road?
Xena returned to where she had left Argo and decided to backtrack a short distance to see if she had missed the signs that anyone had left the main party. Mounting, she headed back the way she had come, looking from side to side, finally finding what she was looking for.
As she approached the area where the group had camped for the night she saw an opening in the trees she hadn't noticed before. She headed Argo down the trail, and stopped as a small figure came into view. She recognized Taleen from the village, and knew instantly that the woman had taken her own life, and why. Her pulse quickened and the acrid taste of fear filled her mouth. She gave in to the panic now as she leaned forward on Argo and urged the tired steed to give her just a little more....
Neptus dozed in the shade of the tree. He'd tied their hands, and though she'd made a brief attempt to get free, Gabrielle was still dizzy, and the forced march had left her weak and exhausted. She tried to talk to Reyna, but the girl was still unresponsive. Gabrielle lay back on the cool ground, staring at the sky and seeing Xena in her mind. She could imagine Xena coming back to the village to find her gone. She knew Xena would do everything in her power to save Gabrielle, and she knew the longer she could hold off Neptus, the better their chance of being saved. She wasn't aware that she had drifted off to sleep until she heard a whimper from somewhere to her right.
Reyna knelt on the ground, her torn dress clutched to her. Neptus stood before her, one hand on her head, fingers tightly wound through her hair. He was trying to get his sword belt off with his other hand. He had his back to Gabrielle, and she jumped at him without thinking. The three of them tumbled to the ground, and Gabrielle tried to push Reyna toward the path as she fell. Wads of Reyna's hair flew as the man reached now for Gabrielle as they rolled to their feet.
Furious, Neptus raced toward Gabrielle. She braced herself and grabbed his arm with both hands as he came toward her. Using his forward motion and weight, she pulled him toward her and raised her knee. She felt the contact and hoped he would be down long enough. She jumped out of his reach as he curled into a fetal position around his screaming genitals. Rushing to Reyna, she pushed her again toward the path. "GO!" She stumbled and almost fell as she strained against the rope that tied her hands together.
"Run! Keep running!" She knew that Neptus would now be after her. If she could just get her hands free, the girl might be able to get away. She could hear the curses of the man behind her, but she didn't look back. She didn't see him struggle to his knees.
He sat for a moment with his head bowed, then looked after the retreating women. Reaching down, he pulled his dagger from its sheath and threw it at the one who had caused this pain. He watched her sprawl in the dust, then groaned, doubling over again. Damn, now he had to find the other one. After a few seconds, he staggered to his feet. He warily approached the woman lying so still; lying as she had fallen, his dagger buried to the hilt between her shoulder blades.
Neptus leaned down and pulled his knife free. With a flick of the blade, he freed one of the small braids on the side of her head and ran it through his fingers, then tucked it into his belt. Wiping the blade on the brown skirt, he was surprised when she moaned softly and moved her head. He stood back and looked down at her, then raised his booted foot and gave her a vicious kick. He laughed at her scream of pain and watched as her breathing slowed. Satisfied that she was dead, he set off in search of Reyna.
Gabrielle felt an explosion of pain and fire through her body that sent her flying to the ground. She could see her arms in front of her face, but the searing pain in her chest made it impossible to move. She felt a sense of peace wash over her as she realized that she was going to die.
The pain of the blade was replaced by the pain of knowing what this would do to Xena. She could see those clear blue eyes looking into hers intently, wanting her approval.
She felt a pressure in her chest, then something wet washed down her side as she felt the rasp of the blade being withdrawn. The pain followed within a heartbeat, and she heard a moan, not realizing it came from her own lips. She gave a small scream as something hit her hard in the chest, and she felt her ribs collapse under the assault.
Each breath was fire, and as she gave in to the darkness, she saw again those eyes, those clear blue eyes.
Xena jumped from Argo's back and stood frozen, eyes wide with terror. With a strangled cry, she ran to the crumpled form in the path. Throwing herself down next to the still figure, she reached tentatively to touch the soft cheek. Tears began as she touched the wound on Gabrielle's back, and she choked back sobs as she gently rolled her over. With an angry curse she drew her dagger and cut the rope around the limp wrists and rubbed the cold hands.
She ran her fingers over Gabrielle's face as she pulled her into her lap. She made small comforting sounds as her hands found the broken ribs and she gently rocked back and forth, calling Gabrielle's name in a trembling voice; knowing that this time there would be no miracle..
Xena stroked Gabrielle's face and looked into her eyes. She felt a glimmer of hope when Gabrielle's eyelids parted slightly, though she knew that the light would soon be gone.
The name was a whispered prayer. Xena's tears fell onto
Gabrielle's face, and she leaned closer when she saw her lips move. Gabrielle tried to speak. The pain was gone, replaced by a cold numbness. She hadn't thought Xena would make it in time, and now she didn't have the strength left to say what she had to say. She fought the darkness that enveloped her. She wasn't sure she had gotten her eyes open. Xena seemed so far away. Would she hear her?
"Xena....." Gabrielle's body curled in a spasm of pain as she coughed. Xena held her close against her own body, trying to force her own strength into Gabrielle. She saw the light fade and then return to Gabrielle's eyes. "I'm here, Gabrielle. I've got you."
Gabrielle knew she was out of time.. By the Gods, she didn't want to leave Xena, but she could feel the cold moving up her body. She took a rasping breath and looked into Xena's eyes. Xena's soft plea broke Gabrielle's heart.
"Gabrielle, please don't leave me.."
Gabrielle felt her life ebbing. * Oh Xena, I don't want to leave you.* Putting all the love she had in her voice she spoke softly.
With a last look into the heartbroken eyes of her soulmate,
Gabrielle slipped from her body and was gone. Xena held her breath, looking for a long moment as the life force drained from the only person who had ever truly loved her.
Xena trembled as she gently lowered Gabrielle's broken body to the ground. She had not noticed the growing dark around her as she wept for her loss.
Her steps leaden, she moved to Argo and removed her saddle and blanket. She took out her waterbag and found clean rags. She searched the dark ground and found enough wood for a small fire. Returning, she lit the fire and set water on to warm. Pulling her sword from its sheath, she walked behind the oak and dug a shallow grave. She gathered a pile of large stones from the sides of the path, and returned to the fire. Taking a blanket from her bedroll, she went back to the grave and spread the blanket over it.
She did these things with a minimum of movement, and only after they were done, did she allow herself to look again at the small form lying so peacefully by the fire.
Tears began anew as Xena sat beside Gabrielle and dipped a rag into the warm water. She gently washed the blood and dirt from the young bard's face and neck.
Her pulse jumped when she saw the sprig of hair on Gabrielle's temple. So he wanted a trophy?
A cold rage began building as Xena carefully removed Gabrielle's clothes and began to clean her body, rage that grew with each new bruise she found. She held a small hand in her own and washed the blood from the fingers. The rage became an icy fire when Xena remembered that those hands had never shed blood. Warrior or bard, no one deserved to die with a knife in the back!
Wrapping her in her cloak, Xena lifted Gabrielle one last time and carried her behind the oak. She fell to her knees, holding her close and wrapping her body tightly around the lifeless form. As she gently pressed her lips against the soft hair, she spoke softly. "I know you're in the Elysian Fields, little one....... Know that I will miss you."
She closed her eyes as memories washed over her.
Finally, Xena lowered Gabrielle into the grave. As she pulled the
blanket over her, she took a long, last look at the young woman who'd been so much a part of her for these three years; a part now left unbearably empty. As her eyes fell on the sprig of hair, she felt the tears end.
The fire began to take control as she piled the soil over the blanket. Each handful of earth was a blow to her soul and by the time she had finished building the cairn of rocks, the fire had become an inferno.
Gabrielle planted her feet and crossed her arms. "I'm telling you, there's been a mistake!"
The man behind her shoved her roughly aside and clambered into the boat. He turned back to her, a gaping wound on his neck. "Look, lady, you're dead! Now get in the boat!"
Gabrielle stood fast. Charon, not known for his patience, pushed the boat away from the shore.
"She'll meet Hades sooner or later." He snorted as he looked back at the bard. "Hah! She's been here before, you know. Soon's she got off the boat and entered the Elysian Fields she came running back out saying she's got to get back across! I tell ya, I just don't know."
Gabrielle sat on the bank and waited for Charon to return. "I wonder if a body could get something to eat around here? Hah, that's a good one! How come I feel hungry?"
She busied herself trying to remember everything Xena had told her about the Other Side. She didn't remember much from before except the Elysian Fields and the people she'd talked to. There must be some way...
"I know you're in the Elysian Fields, little one."
Gabrielle jumped at the sound of Xenas voice. "Xena?"
"Know that I will miss you."
This time Gabrielle heard the anguish in Xena's voice.
"Xena? Can you hear me?"
Gabrielle saw an image of Xena in her mind. She was holding someone, *What the...Wait, that's me! That's the Temple of Asclepius in Thessaly! This must be a memory of Xena's...* She watched, spellbound, as Xena called her name. She had never seen Xena like this. She watched as Xena frantically tried to blow air into her lungs, finally standing over her; crying, begging her not to leave, striking out. She saw the tears of joy when she returned.
"Oh, Xena. I never knew. It happened so fast, and then I heard you call my name, and I knew it wasn't the time....But you never told me about this.."
The scene changed to her lying in the road. Gabrielle was shocked when she saw the blood and the wound in her back. "That coward knifed me in the back!"
She saw Xena pick her up and cradle her on her lap. "I can't watch this." She closed her eyes, but the image was still there.
Tears ran down her face and she reached out, wanting to touch Xena, wanting to comfort her. Then the image disappeared in a red haze that vanished and left Gabrielle worried. Xena had shut down her emotions and that could mean only one thing.
*If only I'd been stronger. I could have helped her deal with this. If I could have just talked to her for a few minutes.* "Xena, you promised me."
Standing now, she peered into the fog before her, looking for Charon. She had to get to Hades. If she was right, he was going to be very busy, very soon.
Xena was off as soon as she had enough light to see the trail. She had gone only a short distance when she saw a slight depression in the grass at the side of the path. Rising in the saddle, she scanned the valley with eyes of ice.
She'd spent most of the night pacing, knowing she had to give Argo a rest. She'd made a half-hearted attempt to sleep, but each time she'd closed her eyes, she'd seen Gabrielle lying in the road. The scene played over and over, and the only way to stop it was to walk over and look at the small mound of stones. Somehow, that image held its own, allowing nothing else to enter.
Now her mind was focused on the task at hand. Seeing nothing across the valley, she cautiously urged Argo into the waist-high grass, eyes searching for any sign of passage. Topping a small rise, Xena finally saw what she was looking for as a small figure appeared in the distance, rising from the grass and running for the shelter of a grove of trees.
With a scream of rage, Xena drew her sword and kicked Argo into a full gallop across the valley. At the spot where she had seen the figure disappear, she dismounted and moved cautiously into the trees, every sense on full alert. It took her a long moment to steady her own breathing and pulse. Although both were still fast, she could now hear something other than the beating of her own heart.
Moving silently, she held her sword in front of her and looked from side to side through the trees. Nothing moved. Xena noted a broken branch and moved in a circle around a large mound of brush. Sword at the ready, she took a long breath.
"I know you're there. Come on out and die like a man or I'll drag you out and kill you like the coward you are."
Long seconds passed. Xena stepped forward and raised her sword over her head, but stopped as two small hands emerged from the leaves. She lowered the sword as the hands were followed by the body of a young girl. Her hands were tied and her dress ripped. She was shaking and terrified.
"Who are you?"
The girl looked furtively at the trees that surrounded them but
gave no sign of having heard Xena. Xena cut the rope from her wrists, then sheathed her sword and leaned down to lock the girl in a steely gaze. Grabbing her shoulders, Xena shook her roughly.
"Talk to me! Were you with Gabrielle?"
At the sound of Gabrielle's name, the girl began to wail. Xena stood impatiently, waiting for the outburst to end. Closing her eyes against the sound of the girl's cries, she saw an image begin to form in her mind. She quickly opened her eyes. *I've got a lifetime to think about that. A lifetime.....*
Reaching out awkwardly, she put her hand gently on the girl's shoulder. "It's going to be all right. I'll take care of you. I need you to tell me what happened."
Reyna looked into the blue eyes and saw the rage and pain. She made a last whimper and threw her body against that of the tall warrior. Xena reacted as though the girl had come at her with a sword. Spinning out of her grasp, she began walking back to Argo. She spoke gruffly over her shoulder as she walked.
"You're not injured that I can see. Come on. I'll take you back to your village."
She stopped and looked back at the girl. Touched by the sight of the forlorn figure, she spoke now in softer tones.
"You've got to pull yourself together. I have to find that man, and you're the only one who can help me."
She held out her hand.
Xena reined Argo to a halt and swung Reyna to the ground.
Drawing her sword, she walked Argo cautiously forward, her senses tingling. A twig snapped in the trees to her right and she turned toward it and slid out of the saddle. Argo gave a snort and trotted back to Reyna, turning to watch as Xena was surrounded.
She recognized the armor of the raiders who had hit the village. These men must be on their way to join up with the rest of the unit. The image of Gabrielle flashed before her eyes and she swung her sword in a wide arc. She spun to face the man behind her and smiled.
"Ok, boys. Who's first?"
All of the men moved at once, and Xena's war cry rang out above the clanging of swords and grunts of pain and exertion as they closed in. She fought with the ferocity of a woman posessed as her blade performed its deadly dance, and the men before her fell away.
Reyna watched from behind a tree some distance away. She had run when the men appeared from the trees, but as she watched Xena, she began to feel some hope. As the number of men standing grew ever smaller, she made her way back to where Argo stood waiting, and watched as the last of the men scrambled into the trees.
Xena took note of his direction, then looked into the eyes of the man before her. Her sword was buried to the hilt in his chest and he sank to his knees, clutching at her arms as he fell. She placed her left hand around his throat and her face inches from his as she let him slowly fall. Giving the sword a hard jerk , she watched his eyes close and hissed into his face:
"Tell Hades to get ready...............Xena's back!!!"
Hades looked at the woman standing in front of him. He'd never had anyone argue with him about going into the Elysian Fields. Most were relieved. Some were surprised; but no one had ever refused.
"Xena needs me. I've got to go back, just for a little while."
"Gabrielle, I've explained this already. You're dead. There are only
two choices at this point."
"But last time...."
He cut her off with an impatient wave of his hand.
"It wasn't your time."
She drew back, looking up at him. "And this time...?"
He said nothing. She looked into his eyes for a long moment, her
"Oookay. All right. Well, then. If it's really time.... Okay, I'll go, but I have to talk to Xena one more time. You're going to have an awful lot of customers if I can't get through to her. You are a God, aren't you? After all, Xena did help you get the Helmet back. And what about Celesta and Sisyphis?"
Hades thought for a moment. He had to admit a grudging admiration for the Warrior Princess. She had done much to redeem herself, and it would be a shame for her to lose control now....But, he wasn't in charge of what mortals did with their lives. There was that free will thing, after all............
Gabrielle waited impatiently. No one here ever got in a hurry.
She had no idea how long she'd been here, but it seemed like forever. First Charon hadn't wanted to let her in the boat when he'd finally returned. He'd insisted that since it was her second trip, she had to pay. In a reversal of their earlier confrontation, she'd climbed into the boat over his objections; sitting defiantly while Charon grumbled and refused to budge.
They'd spent long minutes ignoring each other, then exchanged insults until a woman of middle age walked toward the boat, and Charon had no choice but to cast off.
And Hades! She'd talked until she thought she'd go blue in the face before she'd gotten it through his head that she wasn't going to the Elysian Fields. Well, at least not right now. She had to get through to Xena. If she couldn't, she knew that Xena would probably kill Neptus when she found him. Gabrielle knew that Xena would never find peace if that happened.
She heard a loud noise in the corridor leading to Charon's dock. Hades turned away from her as a group of soldiers filed noisily into the room.
Gabrielle groaned and closed her eyes.
"Xena, remember your promise."
With a last look at Hades, now surrounded, she turned away.
Damn. Doesn't anyone understand?
She saw a soft glow coming from one of the corridors. Deciding to investigate, she walked toward the light. A figure waved, urging her forward. She felt a calm wave ease through her as she was drawn closer, then stood at the source of the light. Before her lay the Elysian Fields, and all of her loved ones who'd gone before her, smiling and waiting to welcome her.
Xena pulled her sword free from the man now lying dead at her feet. Her eyes were glazed and her breath came in deep gulps as she stepped back. Nothing moved and she knew it was over for now.
Stretching her body from its fighter's stance, her eyes came into focus as the battle lust faded. She turned slowly, her eyes narrowing and her face growing hard as she saw the carnage around her. She stood for a moment, not daring to close her eyes for fear of seeing Gabrielle's face. As the adrenaline left her body, the emotional and physical toll of the past day made itself known, and she began to tremble.
Xena stood frozen, her face reflecting the fight she was waging to keep herself under control. Her trembling became a vibration that grew until she threw her head back and gave an anguished cry and swung her sword hard against a tree. She spun and went down on her hands and knees next to the man closest to her.
Muttering angrily under her breath, she rolled him over and searched his clothes. Not finding what she was looking for, she went to the next man, and the next.
After searching them all, Xena picked up her sword and turned toward Argo. Once more, exhaustion swept over her and her body began to sag. She raised her fingers to whistle just as Reyna stepped into view from behind the mare.
Xena stopped in her tracks. With the sun now low between the trees, Reyna stood in a shaft of light, outlined by its glow. Xena's heart leapt as the figure appeared. Then the sunlight dimmed, and she went limp as the truth and the memory hit her and sent her to her knees. Her body and her spirit had been pushed to their limits, and she no longer had the strength to fight the memories or the tears or the blessed sleep that followed.
Gabrielle felt an irresistable force pulling her through the opening. She looked down at her feet and was surprised to see them move. She had taken the first step and her foot began to lift for the second when she was suddenly confronted with the image of her death.
She stopped, startled, and the image faded. She put her hand on the doorway to steady herself, and the image came again. The scene faded and was replaced by an image of her and Xena at a campfire, talking. This faded before she could decide when it had taken place.
Gabrielle heard her name and turned to see Perdicas walking toward her. She backed away as he approached.
"Gabrielle. I heard you were coming. I'm so glad you're here." He smiled and raised his arms as though to welcome her, but she turned and bolted from the door, leaving him standing with a stunned look on his face. Behind him, her family and friends began to whisper to each other.
Gabrielle ran a few steps, then stopped and leaned against the wall. She was in no hurry to go back and see how many more men Xena had sent to visit Hades. She looked back at the doorway to the Elysian Fields and was glad the angle prevented her from seeing inside. Now what was she going to do?
She cocked her head. Xena sounded, well, happy. She had
barely registered this when she was swept away in a wave of Xena's memories. She saw herself as she had been when she left Potadiea.... The first time she slept at Xena's campfire. Riding Argo at a gallop, Xena urging her to jump into a chariot. As an Amazon princess and as an Amazon Queen. The temple at Thessaly, the smell of something burning, Gabrielle walking away, laughing, hand in hand with Perdicas. Fishing. Fighting side by side. A shared hot bath. Xena, hanging on a cross?
Gabrielle heard her own voice, and she realized she was hearing her words to Xena on Mount Nestes. Then she saw a campfire, and she and Xena were talking. She saw a man lying off to one side and realized this was when Xena had promised her not to go back to her old ways if anything happened to her. She heard Xena's voice again.
"Gabrielle, I know I promised you I wouldn't avenge your death, but I can't let this man live. I can't! I just can't..." She sounded as though she spoke from a great chasm and her words faded as she spoke, finally ending.
Gabrielle sank down against the wall. Her body went limp as weariness settled over her and she knew that Xena was finally sleeping.
Gabrielle sat for a long time, eyes closed. She tried to send comforting thoughts to Xena, hoping at least to keep her free from nightmares. She formed an image in her mind of holding Xena and comforting her. She spoke aloud as she tried to get through to Xena's subconscious mind, trying to ease the anger and grief that held her friend in such a fierce grip.
"Xena, I want you to listen to me. You know I love you. That love will be with you always. I know that you've always done what you thought was best for me, but this is not right. You promised me you wouldn't do this, and I'm going to hold you to that promise."
"You have to go on with your life. Remember your destiny, Xena. Your place in this world is not the life of a murderer. If you hunt this man down and kill him, it will be murder! If what we've shared these past years is to mean anything, you must not take this man's life. Please, I want you here with me when the time comes. Xena, please don't make us spend eternity apart."
"You have to let me go. We'll be together again, I promise."
Xena woke just before dawn. For an instant, she'd thought she felt a hand on her cheek, but when she reached up, it was gone. She sat up and looked around her. Her eyes became moist and then grew hard as she reached for her chakram and sword. Reyna had covered her and removed Argo's saddle. She lay now curled into a ball, still fast asleep. Xena stood for a moment looking down at her, then walked to her pack and picked up the waterbag.
She rinsed her mouth and spat, then took a long drink. She poured water into her hand and splashed it over her face; turning as a shaft of sunlight pierced the forest and touched her, then moved on to illuminate the bodies sprawled under the trees.
Xena reacted little as she surveyed the damage she'd done. Now rested, her defenses were firmly in place. She took another drink from the waterbag and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Eyes narrowed and mouth in a hard line, she threw the waterbag to the ground and whistled for Argo. Her whistle awakened Reyna, and she scrambled to her feet and ran to the warrior, afraid of being abandoned.
Xena saddled Argo silently, then turned to Reyna.
"Don't ever touch my horse."
She vaulted into the saddle and looked down at the now
frightened girl. Her face softened slightly and she leaned down and held out her arm.
"Let's get you home."
Gabrielle roused herself and looked around. She hadn't been asleep, but she couldn't call it awake, either. Her eyes fell on the doorway to the Elysian Fields, and she stood and backed away.
No, no. Not ready for that one just yet.
Her stomach rumbled and she looked down, surprised.
"Hey, I am hungry!"
She put her hand on her stomach and went off down the hallway,
calling Hades' name.
Hades raised his head when he heard her coming. He sighed in exasperation, and turned as she rounded the corner.
"I thought you were gone."
Gabrielle walked up to him and stood toe-to-toe, looking up
into his face.
"Not even close! I told you, I'm not going until I talk to Xena.
And how come I'm hungry?"
He met her eyes and saw the determination. Chuckling in spite of himself, he took her arm and led her to another hallway.
"Well, Gabrielle, we're not accustomed to long term visitors here. Let's find you some food. You must have been hungry when you died. If you'd gone into the Elysian Fields as you should have, you would no longer be hungry. And you wouldn't have that hole in your back."
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder. She could see nothing but bloodstains.
"Oh yeah. I had forgotten about that. At least it doesn't hurt!"
She rolled her shoulders, and turned back to Hades.
"Did you say food?"
Xena spoke over her shoulder to the girl behind her.
"We're almost back at your village. Before we get there, I want
you to tell me everything you remember about what happened."
Lulled by the swaying of the mare, and the security of the strong back she lay against, Reyna closed her eyes and began to speak softly. She told Xena of Gabrielle's preparations at the village, of going to get water, and how they had been surrounded. She described how Gabrielle had fought until Neptus had hit her from behind with the flat of his sword. How he hit her again when she tried to rise, then threw her over his shoulder and carried her through the woods to the spot where they made camp. She sobbed softly when she spoke of Taleen, and her sobs increased when she told Xena how Gabrielle had later defended her at the ultimate cost of her own life.
Xena rode stiffly erect. Reyna's words against her back cut her like a whip as she described how she had hidden in the tall grass and watched as Neptus cut the braid from Gabrielle's temple and tucked it into his belt, then delivered his final blow.
When she had finished, Xena made her go back over key points of her story, asking questions about Neptus, the others who had been there that first night, and what she might have heard the next morning before the three of them had left the main group behind. Finally satisfied, Xena smiled a deadly smile, and urged Argo to a gallop through the trees. She had what she wanted, and the village where Reyna lived was now only a short ride away.
Gabrielle popped another grape into her mouth and sighed with satisfaction. Hades watched, amused. Mortals were so easily pleased. His thoughts were proven wrong when Gabrielle wiped her hands on her skirt and turned to him.
"Much better, thank you. Now, where were we? Oh yeah, I-have-to-talk-to-Xena!"
Hades sighed and hung his head, shaking it slowly from side to side.
"Gabrielle, I told you before, there's nothing I can do. I have to allow Xena her free will. If she chooses the right path, there's a good chance you will see her one day in the Elysian Fields. If not...." He shrugged.
Gabrielle was unable to speak for a moment. She closed her eyes, then opened them again and looked at Hades. Speaking to herself as much as to him, her voice was soft and incredulous.
"Does it come down to this? Everything she's been through, everything she's done to atone? All for nothing? Because of me?"
Hades spoke gently, touched by the emotion in the young bard's voice.
"Xena did terrible things because terrible things were done to her. Her actions will be judged against her reasons. If she had found you and your murderer together and killed him in an attempt to save you, I'd have no problem with that. If she spends days tracking him down and kills him rather than let him stand trial, Xena will go to Tartarus. Zeus himself can't change that."
Xena now knew who she was looking for. She rode steadily, following once more in the trail of the main group of Micasus' men. She knew Neptus would rejoin the group to replace the captives he'd lost. He wouldn't dare report to Micasus alone, and he didn't have time to try to capture more women for Micasus' sport. He'd have to catch the others before they got to the market and before the rest of the women had been abused too much for Micasus to enjoy them. She'd lost valuable time delivering Reyna back to her village and convincing the men to stay put and let her deal with the raiders alone. She now regretted letting that man escape the day before. Still, she'd had no choice. In truth, she now had only one purpose, and the rest of her life to pursue it.
She was thankful for the solitude as she rode. Her heart cried out for Gabrielle, but her mind had firmly shut that door and refused to hear. Only the hard set of her face and a slight slump of her shoulders gave any clue to her loss.
Gabrielle sat at Charon's dock, watching and listening as men and women and children arrived. They came alone and in small groups, and sometimes there was a long wait between arrivals.
She didn't know what else to do at this point. Hades had left her sitting at the table while she tried to absorb the devastating thought that she may well be the ultimate cause of Xena's downfall. She didn't remember coming here, but it seemed the right place to be. The silence in her mind had a hard edge to it that frightened her. She knew Xena had her emotions shut down to avoid the pain of the grief she was feeling, and she knew that without that part of her that Gabrielle had touched, Xena had no defense against the rage in her heart.
Xena slowed Argo to a walk as she rounded a curve and saw the hooded figure standing in the road. She approached slowly and drew her sword. Her pulse quickened at the thought of action, any action, to give her a chance to focus.
She stopped Argo just out of arms reach of the man as he drew himself up to full height and threw back the hood to reveal his face.
Argo sidestepped as Xena sheathed her sword and Ares walked
to her side and looked up at Xena.
"Hello, Xena. I came to offer my condolences for your loss."
Xena felt a stab of pain, but quickly clamped down on it. Her voice was sarcastic, but it was taut with emotion.
"Thank you. I'm in a hurry, Ares. What do you want?"
Ares put his hand on Xena's arm and held it when she tried to pull away. Locking her eyes with his, he spoke softly.
"Xena, you wound me. Gabrielle was a brave, charming woman, as mortals go.
He smiled. "I've enjoyed our little contest for your loyalties."
Xena pulled her arm free and kicked Argo to a gallop. She felt the sting of tears, and before she could get them under control, Ares was behind her in the saddle, his arms around her arms. His voice in her ear.
"I know where you're going, Xena. You're going after the coward who knifed Gabrielle in the back. You want his blood, Xena, and you want the part of her he took."
Xena closed her eyes, trying to shut out the sound of Ares' voice.
His words sliced through her soul and fueled the still-smoldering fire and her heart cried YES!
"He didn't give her a chance, did he? Weren't her hands tied?"
At this, Xena reined Argo to a stop. She slumped in the saddle as the mare snorted and pranced, now thoroughly lathered.
Ares held her before him until he felt her trembling stop and her body begin to stiffen in his grasp. He placed his mouth once more near her ear.
"Micasus is a powerful man, Xena. Neptus is one of his favored lieutenants. He won't give him up without a fight. He has an army of over five hundred men. Even Xena, Warrior Princess, can't hope to win against those odds. "
Xena struggled against his arms. There was anger in her voice now.
"Then I'll see him in Tartarus! Now let me go!"
Ares chuckled and instantly the scene around her changed. She stumbled and Ares caught her as Argo disappeared from under them. She found herself standing with Ares beside Argo. They were now in the middle of a war camp.
Ares waved his hand at the men surrounding them.
"They're your men, Xena. No strings. Not as many men as
Micasus has, but each is twice the fighter of his best. They know who you're looking for, and they know where to find him. All they need is a leader."
Ares stepped back and looked at Xena. He could see the battle taking place inside her and he smiled to himself. He couldn't have planned this better. He'd never heard of Neptus, but the fool had done him a magnificent favor. He'd never seen Xena like this. He knew that her efforts to suppress her grief were interfering with her ability to think logically. This should be the final straw that would send her to him once and for all.
Xena looked around her. Ares was right; even she couldn't take on five hundred men. These men looked little different from any of the other men she'd ever fought with or against. In spite of her efforts to control it, the image of Gabrielle lying in the road came once more to her mind. She closed her eyes and again heard Gabrielle say her name. Her body tensed with a visceral memory of Gabrielle's body clenched against her in pain.
When she opened her eyes again, they were hard and cold and empty. She'd said a mental last goodbye to Gabrielle and closed the door on that part of her life. She drew her sword, and as the men around her cheered, she vaulted onto Argo's back.
Ares laughed and disappeared as Xena's voice rang out over the cheers of the men.
"Let's go, men.... TO YOUR HORSES!!!"
Gabrielle paced up and down the dock. This waiting was maddening. She had no way to judge the passage of time. The torches on the walls burned steadily and Charon kept to no pattern, coming whenever anyone needed to cross. She hadn't gotten hungry again, at least.
The silence in her mind was deafening in its implications. She had listened carefully to the people who got off Charon's boat, but had yet to hear Xena's name mentioned. She was
thankful for this, but she couldn't help wondering what Xena was doing. She hoped that she was taking her body back to Potadiea. Not that she wanted to be buried in Potadiea. She
sat again as she remembered the trip from Mount Nestes and knew that such a journey would help Xena to work through her grief, as it had for Gabrielle when she'd thought Xena dead and
gone from her life. *Hmmm..I wonder if I could do that body-take-over thing that Xena did with Autolycus?*
She shivered at the memory of how strong her grief had been. She knew only too well what Xena was feeling. Every step down Mount Nestes had been a painful reminder of the desperate trip up, trying to get Xena there in time. She'd spent the first two days of the trip blaming herself for getting there too late. She'd focused finally on getting Xena back to Amphipolis. In a form of self-hypnosis, this became her mantra for that trip. Then gradually as she'd walked, she'd found herself talking to Xena. She'd railed at the Gods and she'd screamed at Xena for leaving her She'd cried until she thought she couldn't possibly have any tears left. She'd wondered what reason there was for her to go on. She'd sat beside the fire at night and told Xena stories. And finally, after talking to Iolaus and Ephiny, she'd realized that Xena hadn't gone because she'd wanted to, and she'd forgiven her, and she had let her go.
The cry was so loud in her head that she jumped and hit her head on the wall behind her. She rubbed her head and looked around to see if she really was alone.
She heard her name, softly this time. Xena sounded like she was crying and Gabrielle's first thought was that this was a good sign. She sat still, eyes closed, hoping to hear more from Xena, but the silence was back. Charon's boat pulled up to the dock, and a young woman with her baby in her arms climbed onto the dock and looked around fearfully. Hades appeared beside her and led her away as Gabrielle watched them go and wondered what had happened to end their lives.
Their image was suddenly replaced by the now-familiar figure lying in the path, then changed to her trying to talk to Xena, choking. She bent over as she felt Xena's physical memory of that moment and she gasped when she saw a very clear image of Xena walking through a door. Xena stopped and looked back and her eyes met Gabrielle's. As she looked into Xena's eyes, Gabrielle saw the hope and humanity go out of them. Xena spoke softly and with a note of finality in her voice.
She jumped up and ran forward as the door closed between them.
Xena questioned her lieutenants as they rode. She wanted more information about Micasus and Neptus. After finding out where Ares had transported her and Argo, she'd learned that they were only a half-day's march from the main group of raiders and their captives. Xena immediately ordered the men to intercept them. She had just over two hundred men; more than enough to handle the men she'd scouted the day before. Xena's plan was to cut them off and prevent them from rejoining the main body of Micasus' army. They were going to be out-numbered when they did meet Micasus, and the more men she could send to Tartarus before they got there, the better.
Gabrielle was frantic. Her mind kept seeing those ice blue eyes, totally devoid of feeling. Inhuman, they'd been the eyes of a predator. She heard again the final, flat tone of Xena's voice as she'd said goodbye. Then she heard Hades voice, soft yet firm: *Xena will go to Tartarus. Not even Zeus can change that.*
Xena led her men in a pre-dawn charge that swept over the raiders, cutting off the captive women and children from most of the men. Micasus' men fought and died almost to the last man. They'd been outnumbered two-to-one, and these were Ares' hand-picked warriors led by Xena's exceptional strategy and inspired by her ringing battle cry and absolute ferocity on the battlefield.
Xena was fully in the grip of her blood-lust. Her eyes shone with the fire that had started in her when she'd cut the rope from Gabrielle's wrists only three short days before. She'd slept little since that next night in the forest, and she was once again running on adrenaline. Her body was charged with energy and her brain was aware of everything going on around her, yet totally focused on the man in front of her. She was mesmerized by the movement of her sword, and when the man at the end of it fell away, she pointed it at another and watched it dance.
Gabrielle had decided to find Hades and try again to convince him to let her talk to Xena, when she heard loud voices coming across the water. She said a silent prayer that it was some shipwreck or mass chariot pileup, but before Charon's boat had come into sight, she heard Xena's name.
Charon was highly agitated, muttering under his breath about "that Xena woman". He stopped his boat and began to rush the men to get out.
"All right, all right, you're here, now get out of my boat! Can't believe one woman could be so much trouble. No respect for the way things oughta' be! Get off the boat! I've got a line halfway ta' the other Other Side!"
Still grumbling, Charon pushed off and disappeared downstream. Gabrielle looked at the men now crowded in a noisy circle around Hades. Her heart sank as she recognized the armor they wore. She looked back to Hades and was surprised to see that he was looking at her. Suddenly, her ears picked out a new name above the din: Ares!
The battle was over quickly. Xena raised her bloody sword to the cheers of her troops. She drank in their approval and commended them for a job well done. She called Darelus and when he approached, ordered him to send a guard of trusted men to escort the villagers home. She watched as he approached them and many of the captives burst into tears. They'd feared they were being spared as another spoil of war; not being rescued and taken home.
Xena turned away from the gratitude on their faces and began to walk slowly through the fallen warriors, rolling each onto his back. She waved away the men who came to offer assistance, and she didn't stop until she had looked at them all, finally satisfied that the man she searched for was not there.
She looked once more at the men sprawled around her, then turned away and called for her prisoners. She needed information.
Gabrielle fell to her knees and sat back onto the ground. She felt as though she had been slapped hard in the face. She held her head in her hands while her mind raced. Xena leading Ares' army? It began to add up in her mind. She'd been killed in a not very pleasant manner, and Ares just happened to have an army handy to help Xena go after her murderer. She just couldn't believe that Xena had given in to Ares after resisting him for so long.
The rising noise around her signaled Charon's return. She could no longer see Hades among the new arrivals. She decided to remain where she was until he was free and try to talk to him again. Maybe now, he'd be more agreeable.
Xena walked restlessly through the campfires. Her scouts had come across another group of Micasus' men, and she'd once more planned a pre-dawn attack.
She'd been unable to sleep, as was normal before a battle. The anticipation of battle and the smell of certain victory had her on edge, and she was looking for something, anything, to do to fill the hours before dawn. She walked slowly from fire to fire, talking to the men about the coming battle.
Xena stopped at one of the fires and sat among the men. She wanted to make sure they understood their part of the plan and she went over details again and again as the fire burned low and the men began to lay back and doze. The snap of a log drew her eyes to the fire and as she stared into the embers, her tired body began to relax. Her eyes grew heavy and her conscious mind reluctantly released its tight grip on her psyche as she slowly sank into oblivion.
She opened her eyes and she was crying. Gabrielle sat beside her, her hand on Xena's shoulder. They both laughed through their tears. Gabrielle smiled into Xena's face as she hugged her and laid her head on Xena's shoulder. Xena spoke aloud as she reached to hold Gabrielle's head against her own.
"Don't you go changing-"
. Xena jerked herself erect when her fingers touched cold armor instead of the soft hair she'd expected to feel. She looked quickly around at the sleeping men. Had she spoken aloud?
Xena stood and shook herself. She angrily brushed away a single tear that had escaped, then turned and stumbled blindly into the darkness.
Gabrielle looked up as Hades finally led away the last of the men from Micasus' army. She hadn't counted them, but she'd looked at each man carefully as they'd arrived, relieved that Neptus was not among them.
She got to her feet and followed after Hades, determined somehow to enlist his help. She watched as Hades led the now-uncertain warrior to a large, dark doorway. Speaking to the man in a low, firm voice, he put his hand on the man's shoulder and gently pushed him through the door. Gabrielle watched as he was swallowed by the darkness, and a chill ran up her spine at the thought of Xena spending eternity there alone.
Hades rubbed his forehead and turned to glare at Gabrielle.
"I thought I told you to go to the Elysian Fields!"
Gabrielle walked to him with her shoulders back and a smile
on her face. A bell had gone off in her head.
"Why don't you just send me there?"
She put her face inches from his and looked into his eyes. His eyes met hers, but he didn't speak. She turned away with a small exclamation. "That's it! You can't make me go to the Elysian Fields, can you?"
Hades moved past her impatiently and headed back to Charon's dock. He knew he'd have more men coming soon. Gabrielle had been right. Xena was on a roll with Ares' help.
Gabrielle shouted at his back. Her desperation echoed through the hallways and arches of the Underworld.
"YOU OWE HER!"
Hades stopped and closed his eyes. She was right. He couldn't make her go to the Elysian Fields if she didn't want to go. She'd found a loophole and he made a mental note to talk to Zeus about changing the rules. He also had to admit she was right when she said he owed Xena. He had called on her when Sisyphis took his sister, Celesta. Xena had not only saved Celesta; she did it with words, not her sword.
Gabrielle saw him stop and ran to him, sensing victory. Hades said nothing as she once again stood before him, speaking up into his face in a voice that told him she meant every word. "I'm not going to spend eternity in the Elysian Fields knowing Xena is in Tartarus. And I promise you, I'll sit right here at this dock until Xena comes across. So if you don't want to have to listen to me until that happens, then listen to me now!"
Hades rubbed the back of his neck and stared upward as he thought for a moment. He groaned at the thought of having to put up with this for what may be years. He sighed. He may as well hear her out; again.
"Do you have anything new to say?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Yes. Those men that were here said Xena
was leading an army that belongs to Ares. You said that you were bound to some kind of free-will rule, didn't you? Even if Ares didn't have me killed, and I think he did; he's not giving Xena a chance to work this out for herself. He's taking advantage of her grief, Hades. She's locked away every part of herself that's capable of feeling anything. You can't let her do this. This isn't Xena's free will. She's wounded and she's striking out. Ares put a powerful army in her hands to make sure she stays busy and doesn't have time to think about what she's about to do."
She looked into Hades' eyes and her voice was now soft. "I think you're a fair judge, Hades. When Xena's time comes, will you be able to send her to Tartarus for something she did while under Ares' influence? Think of the times she's rejected Ares. You know her, Hades. You know every evil deed and every kindness she's ever done. You alone know what's truly in her heart. Do you think she'd be leading Ares' army if she was in control of herself? Give me a chance to reach her. Please!"
Hades was moved by her words and the passion behind them. He knew Gabrielle was right about Xena's state of mind. She was vulnerable now to outside influences because she couldn't face what she held inside. Anything that let her focus outside her own thoughts was welome. Ares was a master at twisting people to whatever path he wanted them to take, and Xena was halfway there already. By convincing her that she couldn't get to Neptus without his army, Ares had made Neptus' murder at Xena's hands a certainty. When that happened, she'd be lost to Ares and doomed to Tartarus.
Grudgingly, he conceded the point Gabrielle had made about condemning Xena for an act she may not have commited without Ares's influence. He couldn't stop Ares, but he could give Xena one chance to stop and think about her path..
Hades looked down into Gabrielle's eyes and shook his head.
"You are good."
Xena sat tall in the saddle as Argo pranced from side to side. Her own body was tense. Her sword arm twitched from time to time as she watched the unsuspecting camp and waited for her men to get into position. Her breathing was rapid and shallow; her eyes narrow and deadly. She was in full warrior mode when she raised her sword and spurred Argo toward the camp, her ringing battle cry echoing from the hills.
Gabrielle grabbed Hades in a bear hug. "Oh, thank you! I knew you wouldn't let us down!"
Hades pulled himself free and held her at arms' reach.
"I'll give you one chance to talk to her. Choose it wisely."
Gabrielle grabbed at his hand. "Thank you! OH! There's, um, one other thing."
Hades was silent.
"Ok, I know it's a lot to ask, but I have to know. I want to talk to Ares. Can you, you know, arrrange that?"
Hades waved his hand and Gabrielle disappeared. Hades shook his head.
"Let Ares listen to her for a while!"
Ares was not happy. He was just about to watch a splendid battle when Gabrielle popped in. He smiled ruefully: he had to admit, she was good! He wondered how she'd talked Hades into this.
Gabrielle looked at Ares and tried to control her trembling. Ares stood glaring down at her, and his voice left little doubt as to his displeasure. She wondered what he could do to her since she was already dead, then decided she didn't want to know.
"I asked you a question!"
Gabrielle jumped and looked into Ares's eyes. She bent slightly under his gaze, then thought of Xena and drew herself up.
"Why are you doing this to Xena? And how could you have me killed?"
Ares laughed; a cold harsh sound.
"Why, my dear Gabrielle, how could you think such a thing?
I had nothing to do with your death. I'm afraid it was just your time to go. As for Xena..." he waved his hands. "I went to her as soon as I heard of your unfortunate and untimely demise to offer my condolences and a shoulder should she need one. She needed an army. I happened to have one. All she needed was a reminder of the knife in your back and the rope on your hands. That battle yesterday was only a skirmish. The fire burns in her eyes. Brighter now than ever!"
He walked around Gabrielle and leaned close behind her.
"Xena's back where she belongs. She knows it, and I know it.
Your little attempt to change her life is over."
Gabrielle spun around and struck out with her fists.
"I won't let you take her!!"
Ares laughed again, this time a full-throated laugh of genuine
amusement as he held Gabrielle's hands.
"Why don't you join us, Gabrielle? If you're so determined to stay out of the Elysian Fields you may as well join me. I could give you your life back. I could even make you and Xena immortal. You'd be together forever at the head of the most powerful army in the world!"
Gabrielle struggled to pull her arms free from his iron grip. "I get a choice, huh? What about Xena's choice? You're afraid to give her time to think, because you know she'd tell you to go straight to Tartarus!"
Ares was silent. He was walking the line on this one, but he'd been careful not to interfere with Xena's command of the army. He wanted her of her own free will, and he believed that her satisfaction at the death of Gabrielle's killer would tip the scales in his favor. Besides, she had nowhere else to go.
Gabrielle spoke now in a challenging tone.
"You're wrong about Xena, you know. I'll bet she doesn't kill
Neptus after all. I know she's changed. She won't kill him, and sooner or later I'll get through to her. She may be a little lost right now, but I don't think you're as good as you say you are."
Ares smiled down at her as he released his hold. "Don't count on it. As we stand here, Xena's army is charging Neptus' unit. In just a few minutes, she'll be face to face with him."
Gabrielle tried to hide her fear.
"Ares, are you a betting man, er, God?"
Ares looked into her eyes. "What are you up to?"
Gabrielle smiled, trying to keep the tremors out of her voice.
She walked in a slow circle around him as she spoke.
"Well, I was just thinking that no matter what Xena does, I'm going to be wandering the Underworld, making a general pest of myself, until I figure out how to get through to her. Now you know and I know that sooner or later I will get through to her, and we're going to have to go through this all over again. So. I was thinking: a wager."
Standing on her toes, she spoke over his shoulder, as he had to her. "I'm willing to back my belief in Xena. Are you?"
He turned his head and looked down at her through hooded eyes.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and said a silent prayer. "If Xena kills Neptus, I'll go to the Elysian Fields. Quietly. And I'll stay there....quietly."
"And if she doesn't?"
Another prayer. She spoke softly.
"You give me a new body and restore my life."
Ares looked down at Gabrielle and laughed incredulously.
"How noble of you! Either you go to the Elysian Fields or
you live again. A true sacrifice for your friend!"
Gabrielle's heart sank and her eyes filled with tears. She stood before him and looked into his eyes. Her voice was calm and touched him with its simple and heartfelt dignity.
"I'd rather go to Tartarus than spend eternity in the Elysian Fields without Xena."
He waved his hand and smiled grimly at Gabrielle.
"Then let's find out if you'll have to."
Gabrielle ducked as a horse charged at her, then watched as it continued past her. Ares was beside her with his hand on her arm. He leaned toward her and shouted above the noise.
"They can't see us."
Gabrielle nodded and looked around her. The air was filled
with the sound and smell and dust and smoke of a battlefield. Gabrielle thought she'd never smelled anything so sweet. The sun was just peeking over the horizon, and she couldn't resist taking just a moment to look at it. Then she felt a chill. Over the screams of the injured and the grunts and curses and clanging of swords of the men fighting around her she could hear across the camp: "Ayiyiyiyiyi!Yy!Yyiii!"
Gabrielle and Ares made their way through the running, fighting, dying men. Gabrielle looked around her and shook her head. Such a waste. The men in front of her fell back, and as they parted Gabrielle found herself face to face with Xena.
She was shocked. This was a Xena she'd never seen. Her hair was tangled and wild, flying as she spun and kicked and swung her sword. She was covered with dust and blood. Her eyes were the eyes of an animal, blood-lust glittering blue in a red and brown and black background. Her mouth was twisted in a feral grin as she delivered one deadly blow after another. Gabrielle put her hand over her mouth when she saw a sword catch Xena's shoulder and a long red gash appeared. Xena looked down at the wound, then smiled at the man who had delivered it as she began to circle him slowly. She toyed with him for a moment as her sword tested his ability, finding his weak point, then going in for the kill.
Xena jerked her sword free and spun before he hit the ground, looking for more prey. There were only a few of Micasus' men left standing. Gabrielle fell into step beside Xena as she walked toward a group of her men who had several captives on their knees.
Ares followed, a pleased smile on his face as he surveyed the devastation around them. Gabrielle watched Xena, looking into her face, trying to find something of the Xena she knew. Hades had given her one chance, and Gabrielle wanted to be sure that when she did speak, Xena would hear her. She wasn't sure, but she thought she'd just talked herself into a trip to Tartarus if Xena did kill Neptus. Of course, she had neglected to mention to Ares that Hades had given her that chance. *I wonder if he really can send me to Tartarus?*
She realized that she was walking alone and turned. Xena stood frozen in the act of taking a step. Her face was white beneath the blood and dirt. Gabrielle saw her eyes soften, then a flash of desolaton across her face became anger and anger became rage. Gabrielle looked back to see what Xena was looking at, though she had a pretty good idea. On his knees in the dirt was Neptus.
He spat at Xena as she approached. She sheathed her sword and walked to face him. An animal growl came from her throat as she backhanded him savagely across the face. She grabbed him by his hair and pulled him to his feet before he could protest. In the same motion, she reached down and pulled free the braid of red-gold hair that hung from his belt.
Still holding him by his hair, she looked at the braid lying across her palm. She held it briefly to her lips and allowed her eyes to close for an instant before tucking it safely into her bodice. She then turned her terrible gaze to the man before her. She released her grip on his hair and picked up a discarded sword, throwing it at his feet. She drew her sword and stood ready.
Her voice was low and menacing, the words hissed through clenched teeth.
"Pick it up, you bastard, or by the Gods, I'll beat you to death with my fists!"
Neptus stood immobile, looking back and forth between Xena and the sword. He knew that the instant he reached for it he was a dead man. His hesitation was too much for Xena's frayed nerves. She lowered her head and charged at him with a cry of rage. She hit him with her shoulder, throwing them both to the ground. She rolled to her feet, leaving her sword in the dirt. She stood in front of Neptus, and when he got to his knees, she delivered a kick that sent him once again to the ground. She bent and pulled him up by his armor so that her face was only inches from his.
She looked into his eyes and spat her words into his face.
"I want you to look at my face!" She shook him. "Look at me!
This is the last face you're ever going to see, you murdering coward!
Look for me in Tartarus."
She let him fall, and brought her knee up into his face. He sprawled back into the dirt and rolled onto his stomach, trying to crawl away. Xena picked up her sword and stood over him, the sword point placed carefully at the exact spot where he had hit Gabrielle with the dagger.
Xena raised her sword to deliver the final blow. She closed her eyes and her voice came harsh with emotion.
"This is for Gabrielle."
Her hands began their downward motion and Gabrielle stepped toward Xena, opening her mouth to yell at her to stop. She never voiced the words, however, for Xena had stopped the motion herself.
She stood over Neptus, her eyes still closed, sword at shoulder level. Her jaw worked as she tried to force the picture of Gabrielle from her mind. She opened her eyes but the image was still there. She stared blindly in front of her as she remembered, for the first time, Gabrielle's dying words.
The words echoed through her soul and found their way into her heart. She began to tremble, and the sword in front of her began to waver as the tremors became more violent. Her eyes filled with tears as they slowly focused on the bloody sword. Her mouth quivered and twisted into a wry smile as the anger left her, and she shook her head slowly as she softly spoke aloud and the tears spilled down her cheeks.
"Oh Gabrielle, you're not going to let me do this, are you?"
With this, she lowered the sword and swung away from Neptus,
giving him a last kick as he scurried to the relative safety of the waiting soldiers.
Gabrielle heard a sound of disgust from Ares. She looked back to the spot where he had been, but he was gone. She cried as she watched Xena walk away.
Xena walked away from the battlefield. Her head was high, but her eyes were filled with tears, and she could hardly see. She felt a great weariness and the cut on her shoulder and the weight of her sword pulled her down into the soft grass.
She sat against a boulder, letting the sun's warmth soak into her screaming muscles. She laid her head back against the stone and gave herself over to the memories as the tears flowed unchecked.
In her hand she held a red-gold braid, slowly stroking it as a thousand
memories flashed through her mind. The dam had burst and she was
helpless in the current until her mind lost its hold on reality and she
slid into restless sleep
Gabrielle walked into the grass, following Xena's path. She called Ares, but nothing happened. She sighed. Just like a God....Well, at least she still had her one chance to talk to Xena. She was so proud of her! Gabrielle knew now that Xena would be okay. She'd talk to her, then go to the Elysian Fields.
She stopped when she saw her. She smiled a warm smile and her eyes lit up at the sight of the warrior. She lay against a boulder, head back, eyes closed. She looked almost peaceful. Well, if you looked past the blood, she looked almost peaceful. This was the face of the Xena she knew and loved.
Gabrielle knelt beside her. She spent a long moment looking into her face, seeing the dark circles and swollen eyes. She noted the slow, deep breathing and knew that she would sleep for a while. She reached out and put her fingers gently on Xena's shoulder. The wound was still bleeding. Gabrielle pulled her fingers away and saw blood. She stood and looked over her shoulder, pulling at the cloth on her back. She saw no bloodstains on the cloth. Ares had kept his word.
She spun around and hugged herself. She fell to her knees beside Xena and reached shaking fingers toward her face. Not wanting to wake her, she gently stroked the dark hair. She closed her eyes and thought about the past days. How many had it been? She opened her eyes to see Ares standing across the clearing, watching her. She closed her eyes again and sent him a silent 'Thank you!' and when she opened her eyes, he was gone.
Gabrielle sat beside Xena, careful not to wake her. She tore a strip of cloth from her skirt and pressed it carefully over the wound on Xena's shoulder. She lay back against the stone and looked at the clouds. Beside her, Xena moaned and moved in the grip of a dream. Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's shoulder and spoke to her in a soft, reassuring tone as she gently pulled her over into her lap. Xena opened her eyes, but they were unfocused; she was dreaming. Gabrielle rocked slowly and as she often did when Xena had nightmares, began to tell a story.
Xena settled into peaceful sleep as Gabrielle gently stroked her hair and began to tell her the story of the Bard who made a bet with Ares, and the Warrior whose act of mercy let her win.
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