Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
"Yeeahhh!" Xena plunged into the line of soldiers, taking two of them out instantly in one lightning arc of her sword. Their agonizing screams of death were drowned out by the deafening roar of the fierce battle that surrounded them.
Xena made out the shout behind her, sensed, rather than heard the footsteps pounding her way, but she was still occupied with the remaining group of men facing her. She dared not acknowledge the dull ache in her thighs and calves, for fear shed never be able to execute her flip. Marshaling her energies, she dipped into a slight crouch, and with a "Yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!!!" she sprang into the air, twisting, and landed behind her stunned opponents. They were confused at first, not realizing where shed disappeared to.
There! Now the warrior had a clear view of the men in front of her, as well as the new group who approached. Once more, she took advantage of their bewilderment, and waded back into the fray, wielding her sword with a deadly, artful skill. How many hours now had the battle waged on? Xena no longer knew or cared.
Her sword took on a mind of its own, metal clashing against metal, biting into flesh. She was enveloped by the smells of the conflict: the sweat and the fear, the dirt and the blood; they swirled into a seductive perfume that had become anathema to Xena, and yet was still so much a part of the woman she once was. The woman she swore she would never be again.
More shouts to her left, and she whirled towards the sound; there were a small contingent of her allies - the men of King Sounios - on the verge of being overwhelmed by Lord Kovouris lackeys. Xena sucked in a deep lung-full of air and began working her way towards the fight, leading the way with her sword.
How will I ever be able to explain all this to Gabrielle? The warrior wondered, as she methodically took on another of Kovouris men who leapt into her path. He was barely more than a boy. This was probably his first real battle, and tired though she was, Xena was willing to expend the extra time and energy it would take to bring him down with hilt of her sword rather than the blade. She pressed for an opening, and considered how shed gotten herself into this mess in the first place.
"Please, Xena, will you help us?" Even now, she could see the tired, worried face of King Sounios. The warrior and the bard had simply been passing through these lands, not realizing that a long-simmering feud on the part of Lord Kovouri, a vassal of King Sounios, had reached the boiling point. Kovouri and his army were heavily supplemented by a number of renegades and warlords looking for a good fight and the spoils that went with it. Sounios was an older man, without heirs, who had ruled his kingdom fairly for many years. He had a small but loyal army that had no hope of standing up to the raging Kovouri, who had designs on taking Sounios kingdom for his own.
People would die, innocent people, and yet still Xena had hesitated. This was not their fight.
Shed stepped out into the courtyard of Sounios castle. Kovouri had already mounted a number of smaller raids, leading up to the march of his army now on the way. In the ongoing conflict, many of the Kings royal guard had already been injured or killed. Now, Xena could see the faces of Sounios people as they streamed into the castle in support of their leader. Young men and old, and some women too, all untrained, yet willing to take up arms to defend their lands, no matter the consequence.
"Look at these people, Gabrielle," she said to the young woman who drew up to her side. "They dont stand a chance."
"They do if you help them, Xena." Green eyes gazed levely at her, offering no opinion, no judgment. The facts of the matter were plain, the decision was hers. Either way, she knew the bard would support her.
Xena squinted, and looked through the opened gates of the castle, towards the west. "Well, maybe..." her mind was working, "...if we surprise Kovouri, ride out to meet him, rather than wait here, we might gain the upper hand..."
And the bard had known immediately, with Xenas use of the collective "we," that King Sounios would not stand alone.
Thwack! Xena saw the opening shed been looking for and, using the heel of her hand against his chin, she dispatched her young opponent to the muddy ground. But just as quickly, two more men fell upon her, attempting to pull her down. Im really getting tired of this. She thrust her arms to either side with a fierce yell, tossing them off like so many sacks of potatoes. And boy, could I use something to eat... came the idle thought.
It was late afternoon in a day which started out dank and overcast; the soft rain that had fallen since dawn now took on a heavier, more insistent tempo. Hades! This will only make the footing more difficult. Still, through the gathering mists, Xena could see the flags of King Sounios take the hill to the north of where she stood. Thank the gods! Theyd determined that position to be critical, in the pre-battle planning. If the hill was secured, at this point in the day, then victory was assured. Indeed, a growing chorus of cheers rolled down the hill and across the plain to Xenas position.
The tide had turned. Pockets of Kovouris main force, separated from the rest, began to beat a retreat towards the western woods. Directly towards Xena. The warrior shook her head and gripped her sword tightly, releasing a tired laugh. There was still more clean-up work to be done before she would rejoin Gabrielle this night. The little bard had taken it upon herself to set up a field hospital in the small town of Parnos, mid-way between the battlefield and the castle. It was there, assisted by the kings healers and the women of the town, that she would await the casualties of the altercation. And if I know my bard, shell have a good stew simmering on the fire, too!
Kovouris men came streaming back across the field, like rats abandoning a sinking ship. Many hurtled blindly towards the safety of the woods, eager to leave this day of misery behind. But the more seasoned soldiers fought their way along, trying to bring some order to the chaotic retreat, and leave King Sounios a final calling card in the process.
"Let them go!" Xena saw a line of Sounios men take a stand between the forest and the field, blocking the withdrawal of a fast-moving swarm of Kovouris forces. Linaeus, a simple farmer shed met just this morning, stood at the front of the line, peasants all of them, from what Xena could see. With once more glance at the wave of professional soldiers retreating, Xena knew that Linaeus and his friends would be crushed by the routed troops.
"Stand down!" Xena bellowed above the din, but the farmers were flush with the sight of Sounios victory flags on the hill, and were oblivious to any danger from the retreating men. For them, the battle had already been won.
Amateurs! Xena steamed, Why must they make this so difficult?! The warrior put her head down and forged a path designed to cut in front of Linaeus and, she hoped, push Kovouris men back towards the field. At least, she figured, it would buy her time enough to get those farmers out of harms way.
The cold rain pelted down on her, but it did not cool the heat and fire that still burned within her, fueling her strength. The waters washed away the sweat and blood that had covered her in a thin cloak of gore, but it did nothing to cleanse her of the darkness that she knew still dwelled so close to her heart. It was times like these, on days like this, that she called upon that dark power to carry her through the day. It was for the greater good, she tried to tell herself. But now, as she looked at the bloody sword in her hands - how many lives had she ended this day? - she hated to think of what the alternative might be.
The closer she got to the wood, the muddier the earth became, and for a moment, Xena thought she might not make it in time. In the gloaming, in the faint hint of a whisper, she sensed an arrow approaching, heading straight for Linaeus. He still doesnt get it... Xena marveled.
The day had been long and hard, and Xena had not escaped without sustaining her share of cuts and scrapes, but to the warrior princess, these were only minor annoyances. Still, it took everything she had to extend her tired body outward, diving, straining for the arrow, using every inch of her long, lean frame, feeling her feet lift off the muddy field; she released a gasp of relief as her fingers desperately curled around the feathered shaft.
"Ooof!" She slammed into the ground and skidded, clutching the arrow in one hand and her sword in the other. The rain was coming down in sheets now, and Xena pushed herself to her knees, forcing her lungs to pull in a gulp of air. The edge of Kovouris men was just reaching the farmers.
"Linaeus!" She wheezed, wild-eyed, waving her sword arm at him. "I said, stand down!" The warrior shoved herself to her feet, and at last she could see a flicker of understanding in Linaeus eyes as he realized hed greatly underestimated the fighting power of Kovouris retreating men.
Where had they all come from? Xena wondered, fighting her way to Linaeus side. All of the wayward vassals forces mustve gotten the same idea at the same time - the woods, Xena thought, as she sliced through another of Kovouris soldiers. Either that, or this had been their planned escape route. No matter, it was all she could do now to defend herself and the farmers, while shepherding them out of the way.
"Follow me!" she cried, feinting and parrying a clear path up to a nearby hillock, out of the wave of retreating marauders. But there were too many men, it was too late in the day, and how heavy her sword seemed now! If shed been on her own, she would have made it, she knew. But she couldnt leave the farmers behind. "Cmon!" she shoved one after another past her to safety, while holding down a position guarding their backs.
There! Linaeus was the last one, hed made it!
She turned to start up the hill, and felt a white-hot pain sear across her side; she arched her back against it, and felt the breath burst from her body as if someone had slammed a wooden plank into her. She looked down, and was not so much concerned with the darkening, red fluid staining her already-wet leathers, as she was fascinated by the unique perspective she had, watching the bloodied, gleaming tip of a sword retreat back through her body.
But she was a warrior, and a warrior was nothing without focus, and so her mind forced her faltering body to obey its orders... keep moving... get up the hill... if you dont, youll die.... Time slowed and it seemed to take forever, that fight for each leadened step forward, yet she actually believed she was making progress. Then, suddenly, it seemed she was released. She felt light as a feather... crazily thought she was stepping into the hill, until she realized with horror that her knees had buckled.
She wobbled towards the ground, still attempting to bargain with her battered body as to what her next move might be, when in a blinding flash her head exploded. Or, at least, she thought that it had. As quickly as she grasped what was happening, blissfully, the pain of that reality left her.
She collapsed forward onto the hill, and landed with her head tilted slightly to the side, so that one half-lidded blue eye could see scores of booted feet tramping past her. She could not hear their footsteps, but she was cognizant of the spattering mud landing upon her. She was not conscious at first of whether she was breathing or not, and yet she must have been, for the tangy, bitter scent... the taste of the dark, muddied earth... seemed to fill her mouth and nostrils.
Well, this is a different perspective! Xena thought, as her brain foggily tried to make sense of what was happening. For a time, she was quite content to just lay there, floating. Better get out of this rain... she could feel something at last as the icy pellets cut into her, and she wondered when it had started to fall. This morning, silly. When you said good-bye to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle... time to get moving and stop lying around. She had to get out of here, or the bard would have her head. Xena willed her body to move, only to find that it no longer responded to her commands. Darkness must have fallen too, either that, or her eye had slipped shut. She had no way of telling. I am in deep trouble, here, she realized, in a bit of a shock. The sounds of the battle had long since sizzled away, the sum of her awareness had tunneled down to but a pinprick. And all she could hear was the far-away-close sound of her own raspy breathing... in and out... in... out... and soon, there was not even that.
He moved with the stiffened bearing of a proud man, of one who had served some time in the military, but Mathias was no soldier, at least not now. He was not tall, but what he lacked in height he made up for in the broadness of his shoulders, in the rope-like thickness of his arms, his barrel chest, and sturdy thighs. But his strong, purposeful strides could not disguise the slight pitch he made to the left with each step... the way his right foot tended to trail behind the rest of his body, never quite catching up.
Mathias was lame. A foolish injury, really, that had put him out of the Kings military service many years ago. Much to his chagrin, it hadnt even happened in battle. Hed been trying to calm down a balky horse hitched to a broken-down supply wagon, when the load had shifted. The axle broke, and the full force of the wagon and its burden had caught him below the knee, crushing his leg from the calf-down. It was then he learned the true meaning of pain.
How long had he stayed in the healers hut, arguing with him, bargaining for his leg through a fevered haze? Finally, the healer relented.
"I cant be responsible for this!" he cried, and he stormed off in a huff.
Mathias won. He kept both his leg and his dignity intact, though the healing process took many moons. Even so, his leg would never be the same, and Mathias knew it. Hed have to find a different line of work.
As Mathias lay there on his cot, staring up at the thatched ceiling and pondering his miserable future, he became aware of the patients who came and went around him. Some had only minor injuries, a few stitches here, a bandage there, and they were sent off on their way. But there were others... those who were as Mathias was when hed been brought in, whose wounds were too deep and too angry, whose hand-holds on the threads of life were tenuous at best. It was just a matter of time, as in all things.
He tried speaking to these men, and whether or not they answered him, he knew they heard. He fancied that perhaps they even took some small comfort in his conversation, in his concern. After a time, he imagined that he was even able to detect that quiet, solitary moment when they slipped away to the Elysian Fields, with nary a backward glance, with no whispered last farewell. More often than not, they would be taken away as they had died: alone. Mathias could not help but grieve for these brave men... feel that they deserved something better than this. Was there no-one who mourned their passing?
Mathias raised his head to the darkening sky, and let the soft, misty rain moisten his weathered face. His thinning, gray-black hair was protected by the hood of his cloak, the rain was coming down harder; he could feel the change in the air, just as he sensed that the tide of the battle had turned.
He was far enough away from the conflict so that hed only been able to pick up the sounds intermittently; the roar of a fresh offensive, retreating screams carried on the winds through the trees. He could feel it in his bones, right down to his misshapen foot; the kings men would prevail this day.It had been quiet for some time now, and soon, he knew, he would be receiving his first customers.
The faces were always different, and Mathias liked to think that he remembered every one, but the circumstances changed very little. There were feuds, conflicts; battles sparked by love or greed. King Sounios lands were very desirable: verdant and green, with plenty of fresh water and abundant game. This ground had been fought over long before Sounios and his ancestors had laid claim to it, and would be long after Sounios had gone. But Mathias liked it here, as did the majority of Sounios subjects; and if this occasional strife was the price to be paid for the privilege, then they would gladly pay it.
Mathias left his cottage behind him, and hitched across an open field to a natural, deep depression nestled between two sloping grades. He had a variety of services available for his customers, depending on the circumstance and sense of urgency. Very rarely did they quibble with his selection. He let his hazel eyes roam over the scene; mounds of earth standing silently by, waiting to be called into service. A supply of sharpened shovels, already cleaned, glimmering in the bath of cool rain washing over them. A section at the south end of the swale, with a fresh layer of dirt peeking through.
Yes... soon. Mathias turned his head back towards the distant battlefield. He squeezed his eyes shut. The rain splashing on his eyelids looked nearly like tears, as he pictured the scene in his minds eye. The fighting would be done, and then the wagons would ply field, working in informal rows, reaping their grim harvest. Those that could be helped would be spirited off to the healers. Those beyond all aid were brought to Mathias door; he, the keeper of the dead.
Occasionally, his customers would be claimed by loved ones or friends, and he would arrange a pyre to hasten their flight to Elysia. But more often than not, it would be the gentle embrace of mother earth that would claim his clients. It was here, in this bottomless hollow, that the dead finally found their rest. And thanks to Kovouris evil desires, hed received more than his share of business lately.
Mathias shook his head and gingerly began picking his way back across the muddied field. The rains fell in an incessant drumbeat, pounding into the earth an overture of what was to come. Soon.
"Look at that one." The wagon had arrived at the base of a hill, near the wood. Kovouris men had retreated along here, and the path was littered with those who were unsuccessful in that effort, and those unfortunate enough to get in the way.
The wagon rolled slowly through the muck, the earth sucking at its wheels. The old horse pulling it was used to this solemn duty; the driver barely had to touch the reins to direct the animal as he spotted for casualties. Two men, kerchiefs covering their faces, trailed behind, taking their instructions from the driver.
"Cripes, its a woman!" the driver added, clucking.
The taller of the two harvesters reached her first. "And a warrior woman, at that!" Sadly, he paused, taking in her blood-soaked leathers and her bruised armor. She had long, raven hair plastered to her face, obscuring her features; the strands were sticky-wet from both the rain and a gash to the back of her head.
"Dont matter," his smaller companion squatted down next to the corpse, and reached his hands to lift limbs deathly cold and still. "Im sure Hades has room for one more, tonight!"
Cold. So cold. A mind disconnected somehow from her body, floating, uncaring. A jarring pitch as she is lifted, the sensation of hands upon her, voices so close yet she cannot make out the words.
Wait! There is something shes forgotten, something tugging at her memory that she should care about, the veiled wisp of an important part of herself that shes lost. She just doesnt know what. And then there is nothing, once more.
With the heavy-low rain clouds the dusk arrived sooner and the winds picked up a bit, driving the raindrops down like icy needles into Mathias. As the silent train of three wagons pulled up, he briefly envied the numbness of his customers to the elements. The driver of the lead wagon reached down an arm, and with a minimum amount of difficulty, Mathias hoisted himself up onto the sideboard.
"Tomas," Mathias nodded a greeting.
"What a day... what a day..." the driver returned the welcome, and Mathias pretended not to notice how his eyes wandered to his mangled foot. The morbid curiosity of the driver didnt bother him, he and Tomas had even chatted about the injury from time to time. The one thing he didnt want, would not tolerate, was pity.
"Over there," Mathias loosened his cloak as they approached the area hed set aside for his latest customers.
The horses stood in quiet vigil to the proceedings, only occasionally snorting and snuffling at the wet ground. Tomas and his crew knew Mathias rituals by now, they knew he would not be hurried, and that each of bodies needed to be placed carefully into the ground, not coldly dumped as was the practice with other keepers. It took more time, but in the end it kept them on the good side of the former soldier. He may have been older than them all, but his work kept him fit, and they had no desire to tangle with him.
They were just about finished with the last wagon-load, when Mathias saw her. It wasnt often that the battle-dead included women, at least not those that werent innocent casualties. But this woman was a warrior, no doubt about it. Damaged though she was, it was not hard for Mathias to see that in life, she would have been strong and powerful. It was thanks to the likes of her, Mathias thought, that King Sounios had carried the day.
Carefully, he helped Tomas lay her down with her fellow companions, she joined them without complaint. Something about this one reached out and touched him, and he was startled by that response. Quickly, he pushed the feeling away, and brushed his hands off against his cloak. He had seen it all before. And he would again.
"How about a taste then, Mathias?" Tomas dark eyes flickered in the wind-whipped torch-light, and he could see the white of his smile.
The routine was the same. After his customers had been attended to, Mathias would welcome Tomas and his crew back to his cottage for a spot of ale. There was no wife to be disturbed by the drinking, for what woman would have him? He, a cripple among the living, who chose to bide his time with the dead.
After such dark, somber work, the men fortified themselves with Mathias hospitality; in a way, it was his means of thanking them for their assistance with his customers. Particularly, on a night like tonight, he never would have simply left them there, without putting them to rest. He wouldve toiled all night long in the wind and rain, if need be, to see that his people were taken care of. Thanks to Tomas, all that remained was for the final blanket of loam to be lowered atop of them, and this he would do himself.
The men laughed loudly as they warmed themselves by the fire, fueled by the ale, taking the chill off their souls. A common phenomenon, Mathias knew. As if laughter and jokes could fend off death itself. Not likely. But the keeper let them have this time for themselves.
Finally, a silent signal passed between Mathias and Tomas. The wagon-driver stood. "Well leave you to it then," he said, and he reached for his cloak. Slowly, with laughter dying into whispers, the other men did the same.
Cold. So cold. Her senses can no longer discern whether its agonizing pain she feels, or intense pleasure. Should she drive it away or embrace it? Here, wherever here is, the lines are blurred.
Wet - blood? Yes, there is that, but its rain too, she realizes. The same miserable weather thats dogged her since this day began. Cold. So cold. With a start, she realizes that she can feel her limbs tremble. Well, thats an improvement! she considers, until the pain knifes through her. There is a price that must be paid for living.
She lies in no bed, shes sure of that, and as she tries to steady her breathing, more bits and pieces begin to come together. Breathe... can I make a fist? Breathe... open those eyes.... It is the most challenging, painful thing shes ever done, but she forces herself to do it. Not for herself. But for that which she left behind? Gabrielle. With a painful gasp, she remembers what she has forgotten.
The battle. It must be over by now. She recalls seeing the kings flags flying over the stormy sky. Linaeus.... Then there was darkness. Death, or at least the smell of it. She is surrounded by it, even now. She reaches out, and feels something cold. Slick. Hardened, yet angled with features that in life, mightve held a smile. A promise.
Gods... NO! Xena pulls herself up, indifferent to the white-hot poker that seems to be running through her side. Her world spins and she swallows down the nausea, pushing matted strands of hair from her vision. She forces her dull eyes to focus. This is no battlefield, she realizes, as blurred shapes coalesce into the still, gaping faces of her silent companions. Her heart pounds painfully in her aching chest. If she doesnt move quickly, this will become her burial ground, too.
Wait until Gabrielle hears about this! She thinks and, instead of a laugh, something more resembling a cry escapes her throat. Concentrate! She focuses on the smallest of motions, the terrible effort of each crawling lurch must be carefully planned for and executed. She begins to move.
So cold... She is hurting now, down through every pore in her body. Impervious to her lifes blood oozing between the fingers she holds to her middle. Losing her grip on the slickened earth, sliding forward when she least expects it. Away... move away! Away from that Tartarus-hole. Towards Gabrielle.
The jumbled sounds of hooves and harnesses faded away into the night, leaving Mathias alone. This was the time the keeper liked best, this most satisfying part of his work, when he was alone with his customers. Truth be known, he preferred it this way.
He made his way back across the darkened field, carrying a single torch to light the way he knew by heart. Time to finish the job, to render this final office for those who had fallen, to offer a last gesture of respect and dignity to those whose names the world had already forgotten.
Mathias arrived at the swale. He paused for a moment, gazing down at his customers, and then affixed his torch to a nearby post. He reached for a shovel, and his mind skipped back to Tomas and his crew. The exhultation of a victorious day like today would be fleeting enough, he knew. And as surely as he toiled on behalf of the king, he was certain that somewhere, in other lands found where the horizon meets the sky, there was another Mathias. Who labored equally as hard for those who thought theyd fought in a just war. Who buried soldiers brave and true, no matter the side.
One thing Mathias had learned, was that in warfare there were never any winners. Not really. There were only those who escaped losing. For those who took up the sword, there were few enough who died sleeping in their beds. No, one way or another, they would become his customers. There was only one final victor, he thought, and he was not of this earth.
The rain had eased off once more to a fine mist, and in practiced, graceful motions, Mathias began shoveling the dark earth atop the sleeping soldiers. His breath steamed in great puff-clouds as he worked, yet he barely broke a sweat, so used was he to this solitary exercise.
He was isolated here, with his swirling private thoughts; quietly, with his customers, he worked to a steady rhythm in a world where he alone existed. Where he alone tended to what must be done.
And in that world, where all else was still, deathly still, he stopped. Cocked his head and listened. He was not alone.
Mathias feared no man, whether living or dead. Especially the dead. He had a particular fondness in his heart for his customers, and hed never lost one before. Oh, there had been times when in the chaos after a battle, soldiers had been mistakenly brought to him in a state near death. Perhaps they lived long enough to be bundled off to a healer, but they always returned, sooner rather than later. Infection, blood loss, dissolution... all took their inexorable toll. Until once more, the customer arrived at Mathias door.
The keeper placed his shovel down. He grabbed his torch and moved to the edge of the swale where the last wagon had been unloaded. He scolded himself for not having seen it before. A snails trail of blood snaked through the grassy muck, leading away from the pit, and he silently followed it to the warrior woman.
Even Mathias marveled that shed been able to get this far, shed made it halfway to the woods at the southern side of his property. He planted his torch in the ground at her side, and rolled her over. Two pale blue eyes gazed up at him, blinking, unseeing, through a face draped in crimson-tinged mud. She was more dead than alive, stubbornly clinging to a thin thread of life.
For all that Mathias had seen in his day, he never allowed himself to entirely get used to it. He had no desire to steel himself against all feeling, to become insensate to his customers. He saw himself as a professional, as a man practicing his avocation, rather than exploiting his mission. No matter how others saw him, all that mattered was how Mathias saw himself. His humanity. How closely he guarded it! And in doing so, hed never let a customer down yet.
He placed his hand behind her head and felt it sticky with blood; he tried to ease her to a sitting position, as she struggled to speak.
Briefly, her eyes focused on his, cold fingers lightly touched his arm. "Please..." was all she said, and she fell back, unconscious.
Mathias openly welcomed all his clients, and he prided himself on not taking sides. He dared not steal what rightfully belonged in Hades realm. Would he be doing this poor creature a favor by ending her misery now, and returning her to her companions? Yet something in her wanted to live, he thought, taking in the barely discernible rise and fall of her chest. No wonder Tomas and his men had been fooled.
This warrior woman had fought bravely today, the keeper could see that, as he examined the severity of her wounds. Death had not yet claimed her. And maybe something in Mathias wanted to see her live, too.
Quickly, he made his decision. He swept her up into his powerful arms, offering silent apologies to the rest of his clients from whom hed spirited her. Why am I doing this? After all, death was his friend, his companion, his confidant. Maybe with this one, he thought grimly, hes over-stayed his welcome.
Have to get away... keep moving... back to Gabrielle! With a final shudder, the warrior slumped down into the muck, and realized she could go no further. The cold seeped into every part of her body, creeping closer to her heart, and soon, she would move no more. Calmly, she accepted it. She had done the best she could. Im sorry...
And then she felt hands upon her - was she dreaming? No, they were real. A figure hovered above her, blinking in and out of her vision. Friend or foe? She was too numb to care. What would be would be, and she had no choice but to leave it in the hands of the fates. For whatever reason, they had allowed her to get this far.
She needed help now, she couldnt do it on her own. It was a man - she could tell that much - he gently raised her to a sitting position, and for a moment she was able to focus in on a kind pair of hazel eyes shining from a careworn face. She moved her lips and pushed out what tired air remained in her lungs, formed it into the hope of a single, heartfelt plea. She felt herself slipping away, hoping that the gods, and this stranger, had heard.
Mathias burst into his cottage, kicking the door shut behind him. They were both drenched, and trails of puddled water and splatters of blood followed him across the floor to where he gently laid her on a cot. He pulled it closer to the fire and lit several lamps, chasing the shadows away to the corners. Quickly, he changed his dirtied clothing, washed, and set to work.
Granted, he was more used to working with the dead rather than the living, but the time hed spent in the kings army served him well. He kept fresh water boiling as he removed her sodden leathers, cutting away the tattered shift underneath that had helped to clot the terrible wound in her side. This one will give her the most trouble, he thought, and he did what he could to clean and suture the entrance and exit areas, finishing with an herbal balm that seemed to work wonders on his team of horses whenever they got banged up.
He wrapped a fresh cloth fairly tightly around her middle, and hoped desperately that the stitches would hold. It was wounds such as this that brought many customers to his door.
The warrior had also taken a hit to the head, from the flat of a blade, no doubt. It had sliced into her scalp just above her neck, and a chill went through the keeper as he realized that certainly the strike had been intended to be a killing blow. Gingerly, he rolled her to her side so he could have better access to the injury. A low groan, sounding more like an animal in a trap, rumbled from deep within her chest, and Mathias thanked the gods that she was not awake for his painful ministrations.
The head wound looked ghastly, that was true enough, but Mathias knew from experience that a cut to the scalp tended to bleed heavily. This one wasnt as deep as it looked. If it were, shed have been dead already. He cleaned the area and had to cut away some of her hair to do a good job, but he was sure, if she lived, that she would not mind this small concession in order to save her. He finished his stitching - handiwork that would rival any of the kings healers, he thought - and used a fresh strip of linen to shield it.
Finally, he tended to her other cuts and scrapes - too numerous to count. My, this one was busy today! At last he stood and stretched, feeling the tense muscles and bones in his back crack and pop in protest. He moved to a basin of warm water by the fire, and washed off his hands, never taking his eyes from the warrior woman. How pale and small she looked now, wrapped under his blankets and bandages. Who was she? Would she live? Hed done all he could now, he was satisfied with that. The rest was up to her.
Heat... fire. How she burned! The cold of that field of death had left her, replaced now by the flames of Tartarus that raced through her body; fevering her mind, scorching her soul. Each breath was an effort, fueling the flames, leaving her weaker and weaker. She could hear the laughter of Ares, god of war. Of course he would delight in seeing her brought down like this in battle, as he had always known she would be.
No! Better to die serving a just cause than live in enslavement to him and his bloodthirsty ideals. Death. It seemed quite the attractive option now. She experimented with relaxing her lungs, with not breathing. The painful pressure in her chest eased, and she was surprised at the soothing level of comfort she felt. This is nice... She could go on like this forever, she thought, until a fleeting blonde image shot across the surface of her sub-conscious.
"Do something...!" Why was the girl crying? Tear-filled green eyes desperately searched her own for signs of life.
Gabrielle. She remembered. The things Ive already put you through! A promise. Never to do that again. Tears trickled from Xenas closed eyes as she forced herself to draw in a sharp, pained breath. She started the cycle again. In... out... in... out. How it tortured her so! On her own, she didnt think she could do it. But for Gabrielle, she had to try.
Mathias had moved a stool next to his thrashing customer, the better to maintain the flow of cool compresses to her brow. The fever had her. It was not uncommon with injuries such as hers, but he worried that she might undo all his tailoring work as she fought against her phantom enemies. For a moment, she grew rigid and stilled, and he thought that Hades had claimed her at last.
But no, there was another ragged gasp for breath, and once more she began to twist and turn, moaning, "Forgive me... Gabrielle... I promised..."
"Ssshh, warrior!" The keeper surprised himself with his soothing words, gently tamping away the sweat that poured off of her. "Im sure shell forgive you! Rest now...."
Mathais turned to the fireplace, the tea hed put on had begun to boil. It was a special mixture, containing herbs hed found to be useful in matters of healing and sleep, and he resolved to get a bit of it into her. To give her a fighting chance.
The strong hands were on her, cooling, comforting... telling her everything would be all right? Ha! So he knew better, eh, when she hadnt a clue? She laughed silently, deep within herself, at the thought of Gabrielles pique if she broke her promise. Better that she were dead, or else the bard would kill her!
She felt a familiar sensation tickle down her throat, a dribbling on her chin, more encouraging words. She was drinking. Or what passed for it. Callused fingers wiped away the spill, and she briefly caught a fevered glimpse of those kind eyes - not quite Gabrielles - gazing at her.
"Sleep now, warrior," a deep burr of a voice told her.
Mathais released the breath he hadnt known he held, when he saw the warrior take in a few precious sips of his healing tea. She seemed to calm, her breathing steadied, and she drifted off to a light sleep.
The keeper sighed and pushed back on his stool. He stretched his legs out in front of him, unlaced his boots, and began to massage his throbbing foot. Who was she? On whose side had she fought? Whichever, shed been unclaimed. Perhaps, on the morrow or the next, hed get her to the healers in Parnos, or the castle. If she lived.
In the meantime, he studied her in the flickering light. The fire in her, the will to live, were amazing. Even now, as he reached a hand to check on the wound in her side, it appeared to be on the mend. Perhaps his services were wasted on the dead, he thought with a soft chuckle.
As the dark of night fell over the cottage, as the demons of the underworld bayed at his door, now was the time for the keeper to stand guard. To be there for his customer. He maintained his station next to her. Watching. Waiting.
Could she out-run the beast? Would she be the one to leave him? Oh, Mathias knew hed done what he could, but so much more of it was up to her, this mysterious warrior who struggled to loose herself from the bonds of death. A power he neither understood nor could explain... a life force, spurred her on.
Even as the dark time wore on, her fever broke, and her breathing became less labored.
Once, she stirred. "Where am I?"
"Safe," hed said simply. And it was true.
"Thank you." Her crystal blue eyes told him she had so much more to say, but for now, it was enough.
For the first time, the keeper dared to hope. He smiled at the sleeping warrior, knowing that she just might have a chance at keeping whatever promise shed made to this... Gabrielle.
Something roused Mathias from the light doze into which hed fallen. Hed propped his stool against a wall next to the cot; there, with his arms crossed in front of his chest, hed allowed Morpheus to take him, for a time. He quickly moved next to the warrior, and was relieved to see that she slept on. Unbelievably, there was even a faint bloom of color to her cheeks.
The keeper pulled on his boots and shoved himself to his feet. Time to throw another log on the fire, he thought, noting how low it burned. For his next trick, he snorted, he figured he might actually try to get the woman to eat something.
Massaging the back of his stiff neck with one hand, with the other he reached for a log and tossed it on the fire, poking the flames to life. He ducked his head to look out the low window of his cottage; he could see a dim flare of light in the eastern sky. Songbirds were beginning to chirp, it appeared the rains had passed. Good riddance. Now... what to eat...
A sound. There it was again! Mathias recognized it for what it was this time, a soft rapping on his front door. Professional that he was, the keeper knew better than to question the appearance of visitors, day or night.
Mathias drew a curtain along-side the sleeping warrior, before he moved to the door. The last thing his customer needed now, after all shed been through, was to catch her death of cold. The former soldier grimaced as he made his way across the room; the first hours after dawn were always the hardest on his withered foot.
He opened his cottage door to a lone woman. She was smaller than he, her face pale and lips blue from the cold, wearing a soaking-wet cloak that had done little after all to shield her from the weather. She shifted back a step on her muddied feet, almost losing her balance, and he reached out a steadying hand to her.
"Careful, Miss!" he said, and she turned her face up to him.
The hood fell back from her head, allowing a mop of dampened, golden hair to tumble down. He could not help it, he took in a sharp breath at the look on her face, at the sorrow in those emerald green eyes. Hed seen it before, countless times in this life, and thousands more in his dreams. The look of those whove lost something very dear to them... who havent quite come to terms with the fact that theyll not ever find it again. Not in this life.
"I - Im sorry to bother you," the blue lips moved, "but are you Mathias?"
"Yes... yes, of course. Come in, please," he said, guiding her by the elbow, and she hesitantly stepped through his threshold.
"Th- thank you," her teeth chattered against the chill.
He knew why she was here, just as she knew that he did. This was the last place people came, searching. When they had nowhere else to go. It was rare that he disappointed them.
He pulled a chair to her, nervously running a hand through his hair. Hed played out this scene so many times... why was it getting to him now?
"Here, have a seat."
"No," she said, "t-thank you." She tilted her chin forward, bravely, stoically keeping her eyes on him as she fumbled for the right words.
"Ive been looking for a friend of mine. She was lost in the battle yesterday..." her lower lip began to tremble, and Mathias could see how she fought to maintain her composure. It was obvious to him that the young girl had been up all night, and was nearly at the end of her reserves of energy.
"I wanted to... to prove it to myself that she was really gone," the girl continued, blinking away her tears. But Mathias ears had pricked at her use of the word "she." Could it be...?
"Please, sir," the desperate young woman was barely hanging on, "I... I know this is where--" and her voice broke, her green eyes awash in tears.
Mathias instinctively moved to place a comforting arm around her, and she did not shrink away in revulsion at his touch, as had so many before her. "Your friend," he softly whispered, "what did she look like?"
"Shes... shes very tall," there was a catch in her voice, and Mathias could not help but notice that she was unwilling to use the past tense, "She has long, dark hair... shes so strong and brave..." she began to sob again. "I promised her Id to take her back to her home, in Amphipolis."
The gods themselves must be afoot this morning, Mathias thought, as he held the little blonde at arms length. "Ssssh... its all right! Dont cry Miss--"
"Im sorry," the bard caught herself. "My name is--"
"Gabrielle," the keeper finished for her, and delighted in how her eyes flew open wide.
"Yes," she breathed. "How did you..."
And at that, Mathias turned and swept back the curtain, revealing the sleeping woman lying on his fireside cot.
"Xena!" the young woman fairly shouted, and rushed to her friends side.
Xena... so that was the warriors name. So rarely did he ever learn the names of his customers. It suited her.
Tears of joy came then, as Gabrielle stroked the warriors face, holding her, softly calling her name, over and over. She could scarcely believe it, finding her love clinging to life in this place of the dead.
Mathias quietly drew up behind Gabrielle, just as the warrior answered the summons of her friend. One blue eye flitted open, followed by the other. And then, a small, tired grin inched across her face.
"Hey," she said, slowly raising a weak hand to brush away the younger womans tears, "didnt it rain enough around here?" And though her eyes closed for a moment, her smile broadened. The bard clasped the warriors hand in her own as though shed never let it go.
"I do believe shell be okay, Gabrielle," he said, giving the girls shoulder a gentle squeeze.
She turned to him, her eyes sparkling through her tears. "I know she will," her voice was fierce, full of that conviction, "thanks to you. Thank you..." she repeated, returning her attention to the warrior.
There is a mighty bond with those two, Mathias thought as he smiled, wagged his head, and moved away. He had no desire to hear the quiet murmurings, the hopeful promises, the undying assurances of the love between them.
The keeper had lost this customer, at least for today, and he was not at all sorry that it had happened. But she was a warrior, he knew that well enough. And one day, she would return to him, or to someone else like him. And that would be a sad day, indeed, he sighed, sad indeed. He pulled on his cloak and stepped out into the misty dawn. Privacy. That was what the two friends needed now.
He took in deep breaths of the cool morning air. Eggs, I think! Hed barely slogged more than a few steps towards his barn, when he heard it. The sound he knew so well. He tilted his head towards it; there was no mistaking the rattle of an approaching cart, winding its way to him through the muddied ruts along the road.
As the wagon drew closer - just the single one, this time - he could tell: it was a heavy load that it bore. There would be more customers, this day. He didnt mind, he was always ready. His stomach grumbled; hed had no breakfast yet, but it didnt matter. He had customers. He was a professional. And a professional would never let his customers wait.
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