Disclaimers: We all know MCA/Renaissance/Universal own most the characters depicted in this story. Surely, we know which ones by now. Any original characters are mine. (Even though they only played minor supporting roles.) The only 'pay' I am getting for this is the sheer satisfaction of putting together a good tale.
This is my own 'instead of Bitter Suite' story. I loved the episode, cried in all the right places but it just didn't quite do it for me. Hey, they spent five episodes pulling them apart. One all singing, all dancing story is not going to bring them back together again. I'm sorry, but it just isn't. I write (and probably live <grin>) in the realms of plausible fantasy, so that is how this particular story was written. It's fantasy but completely plausible. This is how things might have happened if there had been no Illusia.
Violence Warning: Yep, there is a bit of that in this story. Not so much the blood and guts type of stuff but it does get pretty savage for a while. I haven't been too graphic but even the moderate level of violence I have portrayed (cause it was important to the story I was telling) might upset a few people, so be warned.
Sexual Violence Warning: I make mention of the Gabrielle's rape at Dahok's hands. Again, I haven't been graphic at all but it might make some people a bit uncomfortable because I have been quite realistic about the aftermath of that event. Seeing that a lot of the 'rift' centers around that one incident, there was no way to write this story and manage to leave it out altogether.
Subtext/Maintext Warning: There isn't a love scene to be found anywhere in this tale. (Awwww, not even a little one! <pout>) I have portrayed Xena and Gabrielle as lovers, it's just the way I see them. If this concept of same sex lovers is illegal in your part of the world, (aside from feeling really bad for you), you might like to find some nice, general fiction to read instead. Same goes if you are underage or you simply get the shudders over the thought of two people who love each other showing that love openly.
And Many Thanks: As always much heart-felt gratitude to my hard working team of beta readers and editors. (I actually had two go through this story!!) While I have your attention (still??) I'd like to say a special thanks to DAT (the editor from heaven). Work commitments and the insanity of dealing with an edgy writer (namely, me) has forced her to retire as my editor. Her hard work and constant efforts in teaching me more about my craft will long be remembered by this particular writer. She helped mould me into the writer I am today. So, I guess you can blame her! <laugh>
Last Word: Boring, aren't I! <laugh> I do love to get feedback from the folk who read my stories. Sometimes I can't answer everyone right away simply because I am in the middle of some new piece that is taking up all of my attention. I do my best to get back to people but some days well, there just isn't enough time in the day to do it all. Okay, having blown half a page on all this .read the story. It's much more interesting than the disclaimers.J. April 98.
The Long Way Home
The Dark Warriorlnmorris@cyberramp.net
Three days. For three days, Gabrielle had lain in the purification hut, not eating, hardly sleeping. Somewhere inside her heart and soul, there had to be a place that didn't hurt, didn't ache with the pain she had caused, the pain she felt herself. She had spent three days searching for that place, knowing she would never find it. Staring at the low ceiling overhead, she didn't see the criss-cross pattern of the thatching, half hidden by the smoke of burning incense. She saw instead, the flames of two funeral fires and the ice cold expression in Xena's eyes as she told the bard never to speak Solon's name again. Even after she had told the tall warrior she loved her, a desperate hope more than anything, the chill had never left Xena's eyes. Gabrielle knew at that moment, knew in a way that heaped guilt upon grief, grief upon pain, pain upon all her betrayals, everything the warrior may once have felt for the gentle bard was already destroyed.
Xena had left her then, walking back through the Centaurs' village and on into the night. The bard had chosen to walk in the other direction, numb to everything around her, until a scouting party of Amazons had come across her in the forest. She had not meant to be found, intending only to continue walking until there simply wasn't anywhere left to walk. In her heart, she knew she had taken not one young life, but two. If she had listened to Xena back in Britannia, Solon would still be alive and she wouldn't have the stain of Hope's blood on her own hands. She had been given a choice on that mountain top in Britannia and she had chosen to lie. A lie she, and Xena, were both now paying for. A lie that had led to more lies, more deceit, betrayal, anger, hate, and finally death. There was no way to take that lie back again and no way she could move forward from it.
Every so often a priestess would come into the hut, whipping Gabrielle's nude body with long birch twigs, muttering the ancient incantations to the goddess, Artemis. The bard barely felt the sting of the twigs, didn't hear the words being mumbled on her behalf, unaware of the water the priestess tried to dribble down her throat. Water she immediately threw up again because the knot in her stomach was simply too large to allow anything else to stay there. Gabrielle hardly noticed the passing of time, only that time was moving forward, even if she was not. All the while, deep inside, festered the pain of what she had done and the growing hatred she felt towards the tall warrior. It gnawed at her mind and ate at her soul until the only thing she could do was simply block out everything. She retreated behind a high, thick barrier of her own making, to a place, if not peaceful, at least less painful than staying in the real world. She felt utterly abandoned by everything she held dear, her gods, her belief in the sanctity of human life, the good that was in everyone but most especially, by the one person who meant more to her than life itself, Xena.
Ephiny and Eponin sat together at the fire outside the purification hut, a vigil they had both been keeping for the past three days. There was little else they could do until Gabrielle herself decided to come back out again. The shattered look in their Queen's eyes and the jerky tenseness of her body; like she was expecting the wrath of the gods to fall upon her at any moment, told them there was something seriously wrong with the young woman. Ephiny had gotten little from her beyond the fact Solon was dead, and that much she already knew after singing the death song at the Centaurs' village. How he died and who had actually killed him, were questions the bard refused to answer, questions the Amazon Regent dearly would love to have answers for. Ephiny had stumbled onto Xena as she clutched the dead body of her son to her chest, not understanding the connection between them until later. She understood even less why the two travellers had suddenly parted ways. Surely Gabrielle had nothing to do with Solon's death? The Amazon Regent was no longer sure of anything, only that the bard was in some torment over what had happened.
Suggesting the purification ritual had been Eponin's idea, after hearing the heart-breaking sobs and cries coming from the Queen's bedchamber the first night she had returned to the village. It was a fairly extreme response to the situation, Eponin was willing to grant, but if Gabrielle was unwilling to talk about what had happened, then maybe she would be able, with the help of the ritual, to meditate her way back into a peaceful state of mind. Both Amazons were expecting Xena to appear at any moment, but Gabrielle had been with them now for four days and still there was no sign of the warrior woman. The entire village was on edge, as the depression and despair from the bard seemed to flow from the purification hut like some evil miasma, enveloping everything around it. Everyone was finding reasons to wander into the main compound area and spend a little time there. They would watch the hut, seeing the priestess entering and leaving at intervals, hoping that whatever ailed the Queen's soul would not take the bright, young woman from them permanently. Gabrielle was more than just their Queen; she was their hope for the future.
"What do you think happened?" Eponin asked for probably the hundredth time in three days.
"I don't know, Eponin," the Regent replied wearily. "I just opened the door and there she was, holding Solon to her chest. I didn't even know she had a son. Makes me wonder what other secrets she has hidden away."
"I knew Xena and Gabrielle were close but this." Eponin flicked her fingers towards the hut where the bard still lay. "This is just beyond comprehension. It's like Gabrielle is torturing herself for the boy's death," she said.
"I don't understand that either. I almost fell off the chair when she told me about having a child of her own. I know it has been a while since we last saw them, but I didn't think they had been away long enough for Gabrielle to get with child. She told me her daughter was dead. I only realised later, when she carried the girl back into the Centaur village, there was something not right going on. I mean, how did the child grow so quickly, if she was only birthed a few moons before?" Ephiny asked, almost speaking to herself.
"Do you know how Gabrielle got pregnant to begin with?" Eponin asked. "I can't exactly see Xena letting her own lover trip off with some likely lad to do the deed, can you?"
Ephiny smiled a little at the mental image of Gabrielle gaily skipping off into the bushes to have sex with some man while Xena, sword drawn, stood guard over the copulating pair. That was if the warrior hadn't already frightened the suitor into being unable to perform at all. The Regent shook the images from her head before answering. "No, she mostly skimmed over that part, only told me it had happened in Britannia. Something tells me, it wasn't exactly Gabrielle's first choice of things to do over there."
Eponin gasped as the implications sunk in. "You don't mean someone raped her, do you?"
"Well, knowing how tight that pairing is, or was, it's the only conclusion I can come to. Like you said, I can't see Xena simply letting Gabrielle do something like that, unless they had been planning on having children together, which I don't think they were. No, I think she was raped. Xena probably killed whoever it was, though. I've never seen anyone so protective of a lover than that warrior can be sometimes," Ephiny replied, her eyes once again being drawn to the purification hut.
"Makes her lack of presence here all the more puzzling then," Eponin commented. "Did you see where she went after the funeral fire?"
"No. I went back to the hut of the new Centaur leader to see if our treaty would still hold," the Regent answered. Ephiny mentally kicked herself for not making some effort to, at least, see which direction the tall warrior had gone after she left the site of the fires. By the time she thought of it, and traced Xena's tracks as far as the village edge, the warrior was long gone.
"And is it?" Eponin asked. The peace treaty between the Amazon Nation and the Centaurs was almost as important to the warrior as the woman lying in the hut on the edge of the compound. Almost, but not quite.
"Uh huh. Splitting my time between here and Xenon has been rough on both of us, but it is paying off. The treaty holds," Ephiny replied, thinking of her own centaur son and how close Callisto came to killing him and all the children. It gave her some insight into what was happening to Xena and Gabrielle, but didn't explain the sudden estrangement between two women who so loved each other that both had, at one time or another, returned from death simply because one had called to the other's soul.
"She's been in that hut for three days now, Ephiny. How much longer do you think she will stay there?" the other Amazon suddenly asked, concern written in broad strokes across her face.
"For as long as she needs to, my friend. I just hope we haven't lost the purest and most gentle soul I have ever had the honor of knowing," the Regent said sadly. Nibbling at the edges of her heart was the thought they may have already lost the young Amazon Queen.
Eponin nodded in agreement before gazing back into the fire by their sides, her shoulders slumping with the knowledge of what would become of the Amazon Nation if Gabrielle didn't exit the purification ritual healed and whole again.
High in the mountains, two days fast walk from the Amazon village where Gabrielle had been staying, Xena stood on the edge of a precipice, the ice cold wind numbing her body, as grief and rage had numbed her mind. Thousands of paces below her, the sharp, jagged peaks of granite called to her soul, offering a final release from the pain and the hate. For several heartbeats, when she had first stood on the edge of the cliff, those rocks called to her, but she'd told Callisto the truth. Xena intended to live with her pain. Tears lay frozen on her cheeks as her body swayed tiredly in the blustery wind. She had neither slept nor eaten in the four days since she left the Centaur village, just walking, day and night, until she found herself standing on the edge of the mountain. Staring out onto the snow-shrouded horizon, she whispered Solon's name into the wind, remembering the sound of his voice, the touch of his hand, the curve of his face. She regretted every heartbeat she'd spent away from him, never seeing his first step or hearing his first word. If the warrior had known her time with her son was going to be so short, she would have told him who his mother really was. That thought made her ache most of all.
From somewhere deep in her soul came the music of her grief. She sang powerfully into the icy gusts but instead of easing her suffering, it seemed to intensify it further. Eventually, between the numbing cold and her own exhaustion, the voice grew ragged and finally stilled, until only the soft sound of her sobbing could be heard. A stronger gust than before blasted over the weary body, dropping Xena into the calf deep snow, too tired to fight it, or herself any longer. She lay, tears streaming down her frozen cheeks, no longer caring about herself, but the spark of life continued to burn strongly within her. Though her soul was immersed in grief, unaware of her surroundings or circumstances, her body somehow found the strength to back away from the precipice and move into the comparative warmth of a mountain cave, it's deep chambers heated from the very breath of the Earth Mother herself.
Stumbling deeper into the cave network, Xena soon lost herself in its confusing labyrinth of tunnels and chambers. She wanted nothing more than to escape the aching cry of her heart and wandered endlessly into its warm, comforting darkness until she finally reached a small, black hollow at the end of one long tunnel. Only there, at the very bottom of the cave network, did she finally allow herself to rest. Curling her body into a tight, foetal ball, that just fitted into the hollow she had stumbled across, she permitted her eyes to close for the first time in days. Dragging her cloak over her body and head, the warmth of the cave and her own breath soon lulled her. Falling into a deep, dreamless sleep, she remained unaware of the gentle mother's touch stroking her hair as she slept.
When she awoke sometime later, Xena had no idea how much time had passed while she slept. There was no sunrise to light the start of day, no birdsong to announce the dawn, no change in temperature to signify the beginning of Apollo's journey across the sky. In the silent, enshrouding darkness, the warrior's time sense was confused. She could have slept one candlemark, or a dozen, she would never know. Then the memories of the past several days crashed in on her again and she gave herself over to the blinding grief which seemed so never-ending.
Without thinking, she reached out, as she had reached out so many painful times in the past, searching in the darkness for the one person who had been her constant companion for the last three summers and the anchor to her emotions for so long. The moment she realised Gabrielle was not with her, she also felt the wave of icy rage flow through her. The string of lies and betrayals the bard had heaped on Xena marched across her mind's eye, pulling her lips back into a sneer. If her eyes could be seen, they would have been pale with her anger, with that special, terrifying glint in them so many of her enemies had witnessed in the heartbeat before their deaths.
A powerful fist slammed into the ground beside the warrior, barking the skin from her knuckles, the slight sting shocking her back into awareness for a moment. For the first time, she wondered at her surroundings, barely remembering her shambling, exhausted walk into the cave from the cliff edge. Xena's body screamed its needs at her and this time, she actually listened. Pushing the crush of her emotions to one side, Xena let her body's will guide her. It knew what she needed even if her only other thoughts were about revenge and grief. That strong spark to live still burned and demanded she pay attention, just as it had drawn her out of the bitter cold and into the warmth of the cave.
Her eyes had long grown accustomed to the darkness around her, but there was not a single beam of light to show her anything of the tunnels she had walked down or the hollow she now sat in. Ignoring what her eyes could not tell her, she felt around the small depression in the stone wall. Roughness, a dry roughness, rasped under her questing fingers, telling her the size of the hollow. Still feeling around her gently, Xena sharpened her ears until she could identify every sound she heard. The slow in and out of her breathing, echoing faintly off the surrounding rocks, the steady beat of her heart and the rush of blood through her veins. She could hear the soft creaks of her leathers as her arms moved, feeling the rock hollow, and the light tapping of her chakram on the stone beneath her.
Having identified all the nearby sounds, she shut them from her mind and listened for the other noises in the cave network. Very faintly, off in the distance, she could just make out the steady dripping of water on stone. Somewhere along the tunnel was another that would lead her to the water her body so desperately craved. Food she would worry about later. For now, her main interest was in finding some liquid to cool the dryness of her throat and replace some of the body fluid she had both wept and sweated out.
Scrambling to her feet a little awkwardly, not wanting to hit her head on the roof above, she began the slow walk back through the darkness heading for the water her ears had detected. Fingers lightly grazing the wall beside her, she felt her way up the tunnel.
Far away from Xena and the cave, Gabrielle lay stretched out on a narrow pallet, beyond the reach of stinging birch twigs and muttered prayers to a goddess she was sure had turned her face from the bard. Locked behind a wall of her own misery and guilt, Gabrielle tried to escape the pain she was feeling. She was unaware of the increasingly fearful looks the priestess gave her or of the distress she was causing the rest of the Amazons. Over the past day, her face had grown ever paler than before, as she retreated deeper and deeper into herself, her eyes staring, unblinking, at the ceiling overhead. The only sign of life at all was the slowing rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. Not even having her open eye briefly touched by the gentle finger of the priestess caused any reaction from her. The priestess had gone as far as bringing Ephiny into the purification hut, going against every restriction laid down for such a ceremony.
"What's happening?" Ephiny had asked, brushing her knuckles over the unnatural coolness of Gabrielle's cheek. "This doesn't look quite right, somehow."
"She's searching," the priestess said simply, already knowing the Regent would not be happy with such an answer.
"Searching for what?" Ephiny asked, turning towards the other woman.
"Her daughter? The other half of her soul? Forgiveness? Who knows? I've just never seen anyone take this kind of an inner journey before without some sort of help. Herbs and things to get you in the right frame of mind," the woman replied, shrugging her shoulders for a moment, not wanting to give too much away about the process of dream journeys.
"How long is it going to take? It's been four days already," the Regent asked carefully.
"Until she finds what she is looking for," the priestess said, evading the other part of the answer.
"Or what?" Ephiny asked, hearing that evasion scream back at her. "If she doesn't find what she is searching for, what happens to her?"
"She'll keep on searching until she dies." The priestess hung her head. There was nothing she could do now to help. In fact, she was still getting over the surprise Gabrielle had somehow managed to cross over to the dream plane without having drunk the herbal concoction needed to get there. Whatever had happened, whatever was driving her, something had helped her begin the journey. The priestess had missed all signs of it starting, thinking the unnatural stillness was merely Gabrielle trying to deal with the inner pain by not moving her outer body. All she could do now was watch and wait, hoping the Amazon Queen didn't die while in her care.
Ephiny exited the hut, a grim look on her face. Approaching her friend and the Amazon's best warrior, she said, "Eponin. You have to find Xena. Now. I don't care what she says or how she tries to get away. Whatever it takes, you have to bring her back to the village."
Eponin was scrambling to her feet as the Regent spoke, wondering what in Tartarus was going on. First the priestess appears and all but drags a protesting Ephiny into the purification hut, something that had never happened as far as Eponin's memory could remember. Then the Regent storms out again, demanding that Xena be found immediately. "What's going on?" the warrior asked, as she checked she had the weapons she wanted actually on her person. Something told her Ephiny would not be too happy to let her go back to her own hut to get anything she might need.
"I think Gabrielle's dying and I want Xena here as soon as you can find her," Ephiny replied. In her heart of hearts, she knew what was happening to the bard was somehow connected to Xena. If she could get the tall warrior into that hut, then maybe there would be a chance to save the blonde-haired woman. If not, the young woman was probably going to die for sure. To Ephiny's eyes, Gabrielle looked to be more than halfway there already.
"What if she won't come?" Eponin asked, as someone handed her a bag with a few provisions inside. "You know how stubborn that old warlord can be sometimes. If Xena has split up with Gabrielle, she may not want to come here, even if it is to save the bard's life."
"Break her legs if you have to, Eponin. Just get her here, that's all I ask," the Regent almost snarled, not angry at her friend but at the situation she found herself in. Why, oh why, did the pair have to separate now! she thought.
"I'll do what I can," Eponin said as she backed away. Breaking that warrior's legs! Fat chance of me getting close enough to break her fingernail, the warrior thought to herself. Taking the shortest route she knew, she headed for the last place she was sure Xena had been. The Centaur village.
Gabrielle lay for a moment, eyes closed, trying to remember what had happened. The last thing she could clearly recall was the sound of a woman's voice. A soft, gentle voice, calling to her from far away. The bard couldn't make out the individual words but it had sounded so peaceful, so forgiving, that like a trusting child she had followed the voice as she might once have followed her own mother. Even though she had been surrounded on all sides by darkness, she had not feared for her safety. Gabrielle had not concerned herself for a heartbeat with the thought of tripping over something she couldn't see or running into a wall she didn't know was there. The voice she followed kept her terrors at bay and she had walked for some time in the blackness around her. But she had tired eventually. Days without proper food or rest had taken quite a toll on her body and almost against her will she had sunk to the ground, falling into an exhausted sleep. She had dozed off listening to the sound of that peaceful, forgiving voice in the distance, calming her fears and easing her rest.
Now she was awake again, she had no idea where she was. With her eyes closed for the moment, she listened carefully to her surroundings. Only the echo of her own breathing came back to her. Opening her eyes, she was surprised, yet not surprised at the same time, to see nothing but darkness over her head. Reaching out one arm, her hand touched the stone walls of the tunnel she had walked along before falling asleep. Beneath her was a pile of soft, dry sand, probably the only comfortable place she could have found to rest. And again, there was the blackness, all around her, like a warm, comforting blanket. Sitting up a little, she spotted the faint glow of something just where the tunnel she lay in turned to the left.
"Well, I guess that is where I must go," she muttered aloud to herself, not the least bit troubled by how scratchy her voice sounded after not being used for some days. As she rose to her shaky feet, she noticed she was dressed in the familiar leather and cloth of her own clothes again. She couldn't remember changing before she started to follow the voice she heard earlier. A voice she now missed.
Gabrielle had read enough, and told enough stories to know this was some kind of internal journey. She was reasonably certain her body was still stretched out in the purification hut on the Amazon Hunting Grounds but she wasn't completely sure of that, so decided not to take any chances, just in case. Edging around the turn, she saw the faint glimmer of water, reflecting the glow of the fungus covered walls. "Xena has told me about this. Never thought I would see it for myself, though," she said to herself, finding the subtle light somehow pleasing, especially on eyes more used to the darkness of the tunnel she now exited.
Thinking of the tall warrior, her blue eyes crackling with the chill of her anger and rejection of the bard, brought back the sense of guilt and grief Gabrielle had been trying to escape, sending it rushing through her like an icy cold wave, and she dropped to her knees in the sand by the side of the shallow underground lake. Hot, bitter tears flowed freely down her face, dripping into the dejected, upturned hands in her lap. Time no longer had any meaning for her. With her awareness turned completely inward again, she didn't hear someone quietly enter the lake cavern from the other side, or see the look of savage revenge that crossed their face at the sight of her kneeling there. All she felt was her overwhelming pain and crushing guilt. Bubbling away beneath those two things was a growing sense of hatred for Xena. If the warrior's demanding ego and pride had not forced her into going to Britannia to defeat Caesar to begin with, then none of what followed would have happened.
Xena had lost track of time in the all-consuming blackness, but she didn't lose track of where she was headed. Running her fingers lightly over the walls to help keep her orientated as she walked, her keen hearing slowly led her to the water. Turning into another tunnel, this time to her right, she finally caught the metallic scent of water on the faint breeze blowing through the cavern network. At the end of the tunnel, her light-starved eyes drank in a soft glow as it reflected off the many tiny crystals in the rockface. Hopefully, wherever the water was, the light would be there too. Not that Xena minded the darkness one bit. Having a source of light simply made things a little easier.
Another right hand turn brought her out into a large, low ceilinged cavern, much like so many others she had already passed through that day. A narrow sandy beach, lapped by the dark water she had heard from her hollow, quickly drew her down until she was a hand-span from quenching her thirst. A quiet, unexpected noise alerted her to the presence of another person in the cavern. Squatted by the water-side, she squinted her eyes a little to see into the deeper shadows, soon spotting a kneeling form all too familiar to her. Gabrielle.
What she was doing in this place, leagues from the Centaur village where Xena last saw her, was beyond the warrior's comprehension. All she was aware of was the tidal wave of white, hot anger that flooded through her system and the clamouring need to revenge her son's death.
Deepening her crouch slightly, she reached for the sword on her back. Her questing fingers touched nothing more substantial than the damp air behind her. Xena quickly glanced over her shoulder, as though to take her eyes off Gabrielle would permit the woman to somehow disappear. There was no sign of the weapon on her back and a quick feel at the shoulder buckle told her the sheath was gone as well. Xena couldn't remember removing her sword or sheath at any point and silently cursed the unknown person who removed them while she slept. Even though she had been exhausted at the time, she couldn't stop the brief shudder through her powerful frame at the thought of anyone being able to sneak that close to her and steal her weapon.
She wiped the thought from her mind. She could deal with that small problem later. Xena allowed her hand to drop to the chakram hanging from its hook on her side. At least it's still there, she thought to herself. Easing the gleaming circle of deadly metal from the hook without a whisper of sound betraying her presence, she almost casually flicked her hand out, tossing the chakram towards the still kneeling figure on the other side of the lake. So used to hitting her target, she almost didn't watch its trajectory across the cavern. Instead, she kept her eyes firmly locked on the figure of Gabrielle, eager to see the look of horrified surprise on the bard's face as her life poured from the deep wound the chakram would make across her throat. Her screaming need for revenge blocked all other sights and sounds until her total consciousness was focused solely on the despairing body of the other woman.
Gabrielle was unaware of Xena's presence in the cavern with her, so weighted down by the sheer mass of her own guilt. Her head dropped forward loosely from her shoulders as she stared with tear-blurred eyes at the very hands that had taken so many lives over the past few moons. Gabrielle felt none of it would have happened if she had just listened to the tall warrior and permitted her to kill the demon child she had borne. Yet deep in her heart, she knew if she had to make the choice over again, she would do exactly the same thing. Now the price of that decision had been taken in the lives of Xena's son and her own daughter.
The weight of those two young lives, cut short by her own decisions, settled more heavily on her shoulders. Her meagre store of strength finally gave out completely, toppling the bard face first into the sand. A familiar gleam suddenly flashed across her body, right where her neck would have been if she had remained kneeling even a heartbeat longer. The sound of the chakram striking the rockface on the other side of her, brought Gabrielle's head snapping back off the ground. Sighting the sparks, she watched as the weapon bounced back off the stone wall, and landed in the deep center part of the lake with a splash. Swinging her head up further, she spotted a tall figure on the other side of the lake, an incredulous expression on Xena's face at having missed such an easy shot.
Before Xena had a chance to react, Gabrielle had somehow scrambled to her feet, ducking quickly into the entrance behind her. She got a bare hundred paces into the tunnel when she realised the tall warrior was not immediately on her trail. Gabrielle slowed her steps, trying not to run into any of the walls she was sure had to be ahead of her. She also wanted to marshal what little strength she did have in case she had to make a genuine run for it. Feeling along the walls, the bard soon lost her way in the many dark twists and turns that made up the cave's pathways. Her blindly feeling hand slipped into a patch of open blackness signalling another cavern of some sort. The bard took advantage of it, hiding herself away in its lightless depths until she could get her breath back again.
Xena caught one last glimpse of Gabrielle's retreating boot before she shook the bewilderment from her mind. "Little pissant always was lucky," Xena muttered quietly, dismissing from her mind the extraordinary amount of sheer 'bad luck' that seemed to have dogged Gabrielle's life of late, before she started searching for a way across the lake. The warrior was sure she could track the bard in the tunnels, regardless of the darkness. She merely had to rely on her other senses to show her the way, just as they had shown her how to find the lake in the first place.
She soon realised the only way across was to swim. The lake itself filled the chamber with the two shores being the only dry ground on either side. Wading into the water, she felt with her booted toe where the shallow edge dropped away sharply several paces from the shoreline. Stepping out of the water again, she rapidly stripped off her armour, greaves and gauntlets, leaving her standing in just her leathers and boots. Clenched between her teeth was the breast dagger she had been surprised to find still tucked into its usual place in her bodice. Striding back into the dark lake, she struck out with an easy overarm action towards the other shore once she was passed the shallow bottom's edge.
When Xena finally dragged herself from the water on the other side, shivering fitfully from the cold immersion, she was shocked at just how long it had taken her to make the swim. To her tired and heavy arms, the lake appeared to be much wider than it had looked to her eye. The warrior finally decided the soft light from the fungus growing on the walls had somehow made the distance deceptive, concluding that was probably the reason she had missed her throw earlier. It didn't make her comfortable to think the bard had somehow avoided the weapon, either by accident or by design.
She had stopped halfway across to see if she could dive for her chakram but no matter how deeply she went, there just didn't seem to be a bottom to the lake. Xena couldn't even see a glimmer of her weapon as it rested on the unseen lake bed. However much she hated losing her chakram, she made a mental note to come back to the lake later to try to retrieve it, after she had satisfied her need for revenge on the bard.
Still shivering in her wet leathers, Xena moved towards the tunnel entrance, noting there were just two sets of footprints. One leading into the chamber behind her and the other, more hurried, leading back out again. Both sets were made by the same small pair of boots, as familiar to the warrior as her own. Stepping into the darkness, Xena began to trace a path through the tunnel in search of the woman she now blamed for the death of her son. She would find her in the vastness of the caverns or she would die trying.
Eponin had spent most of the morning at the Centaur village, closely questioning anyone who had seen or spoken to this mysterious daughter of Gabrielle's. To a person, no one could remember seeing the child until two days before Xena and Gabrielle had arrived. None had thought to question her presence, seeing the village was filled with people from leagues around all coming to celebrate the peace treaty. Where Hope had gone at night, no one could say for sure but by day she was simply like all the other children, playing at games and generally enjoying a chance to socialise with other people. Very few of the adults had spoken with her directly. There had not been a need. She played easily with the other children and on those occasions there had been some kind of trouble, Hope always seem to be far from the center of it.
The story the village children told was somewhat different, however. The strange child had positively delighted in the pain of others, deliberately setting up situations that exploited their weaknesses. One boy had fallen from a tree, hurting his arm after Hope challenged him to climb to the top, even though he had been warned that particular tree was not safe to be in. One brother and sister had gotten into a vicious fist fight after the stranger had been seen whispering into each individuals ear, and neither would repeat what had been said to them. The youngest of the children told of brutal pinches and unexpected slaps coming out of nowhere, yet the blonde-haired child always seemed to be close by. Many of the youngsters had deep purple or black bruises to show the Amazon warrior as evidence. Child after child had some tale to tell and in every one of them, Gabrielle's daughter featured in it somewhere.
Eponin took the time to also question as many people as would speak to her about what had actually happened the day Solon died. Once again, there was very little information to go on. No one had seen very much of anything, most being too busy dealing with a wayward goddess to think about where one small child had gotten to. The warrior was starting to suspect Gabrielle's daughter might have had something to do with Solon's death, but she had nothing to really base such an accusation, unless either Xena or Gabrielle were willing to discuss it, something she grew more certain was not going to happen, at least not anytime soon.
The Amazon had taken her nooning with the Centaurs before moving off in a widening spiral around the village, hoping to find some trace of Xena's passing. She honestly wasn't expecting to find anything at all, Xena was simply too cautious a warrior to leave an open trail behind her. But Eponin was a good tracker and an experienced forest warrior, never leaving things to chance. She needed to check everything to be sure she had not overlooked an obvious clue. That's why she was left shaking her head in disbelief as she squatted over the clear boot prints Xena had left on the high trail heading into the mountains. The last thing she had expected was for Xena to be this careless, but there it was right in front of the Amazon, a clear and completely unhidden trail leading straight up the track towards the mountains. There was no way she could mistake the length of Xena's stride nor the deep prints her thumping pace had left. A single warrior with long legs and no horse, leaving deep, hurried tracks; Eponin was sure it had to be Xena. She could think of no one else who might be headed into the high mountain country during this part of the cycle.
Eponin set off in a ground-eating lope, keeping one eye on the boot prints and one eye on her surroundings. It was a pace she could keep up, awake or asleep, for as long as she needed to follow the tall warrior. The last thing she needed right then was to be delayed in her mission, not even to stop long enough for a candlemark's worth of rest. Her time at the Centaur village had not been wasted, but she honestly didn't know what to do with the information she had gathered. Perhaps something will come up later, she thought, as her feet pounded along the path. For the moment, her major concern was finding Xena and bringing her back to the Amazon village. Ephiny had said Gabrielle was dying and Eponin had no idea just how long the bard had before crossing over to the other side. Wiping an errant tear from her cheek, the Amazon warrior picked up her pace slightly, still following the tracks Xena had left so openly behind her. For one brief moment, Eponin wondered at Xena's possible state of mind, if Gabrielle was anything to go on.
Ephiny stroked the cool, damp cloth over Gabrielle's wan face, wiping away the beads of sweat gathered across her forehead. The priestess and the Amazon Regent had carefully closed the bard's eyes to stop them from drying painfully, and were now taking it in turns to sit with the young woman as she made her inner journey. They were both growing increasingly distressed as they saw the bard's breathing slow further, becoming more and more shallow as the candlemarks crawled by. Any hopes Ephiny might have had about getting the woman to drink had been quickly squashed as Gabrielle choked up the first small mouthful the Amazon had dribbled in. All anyone could do was watch over the body of the bard and hope she returned to them before her life force was exhausted.
Outside the hut in the main compound, the entire village had gathered as word of Gabrielle's unexpected journey had spread. Several were beating small drums in a heartbeat rhythm in the hope the bard would hear the sound, perhaps helping her to find her way back to them once more. Others sat together around small fires, quietly chanting the most ancient of prayers, offering what support they could from outside the purification hut. The priestess had taken herself off to the temple, praying and offering sacrifice to their goddess, beseeching her to allow their Queen to come home. She had more reason to worry than most because she'd seen what happened to those who did not complete their search in time to return to their fading bodies, trapped forever on the dream plane with no hope of ever getting to the Elysian Fields. Not a fate she wished upon anyone, she prayed all the harder it would not happen to Gabrielle.
Ephiny briefly knuckled her tired and tear-filled eyes, sighing deeply as she wrung out the cloth again. "Come on, Gabrielle. I know you're in there. Come home. Please, come home to us. We need you here," the Amazon Regent whispered into the bard's ear hoping, somehow, the woman could hear her. "I've sent for Xena. Eponin will find her and bring her back to the village. You just have to be here when Xena arrives." Ephiny prayed that the bard would still be alive by the time the Amazon warrior brought Xena to the Hunting Grounds. She never doubted Eponin would be able to find the dark-haired warrior, but would she be able to convince the stubborn ex-warlord to come? The Regent hoped whatever had forced its way between them was not so damaging to keep Xena away from Gabrielle when she most needed her.
Taking Gabrielle's limp and icy hands in her own, she offered up her prayers to Artemis, adding her voice to the rest of the Amazon village.
Gabrielle sat behind a jumble of fallen stones, listening for any sign of Xena discovering her inky refuge. In the utter blackness of the cavern, she could clearly hear every small sound around her. Her own breathing had long settled and she concentrated on keeping it as shallow as possible, knowing the warrior's almost unnatural hearing would be able to pick up the faint noises of her breath. The bard could also hear the frantic pounding of her own heartbeat as it thumped away in her chest. She prayed Xena's hearing wasn't so keen to hear that as well. She had tried to slow the noisy beat but every time she thought of just how close the warrior had come to slashing open the bard's throat with her chakram, its pace re-doubled again.
The initial shock of that murderous encounter was starting to fade, anger and hate replacing the fear Gabrielle had first experienced. I can't believe she actually tried to kill me, the bard thought, another surge of adrenaline pumping through her system. It's all her fault anyway. If she hadn't been so determined to destroy Caesar then none of the rest would have happened, including me getting raped by some demon. That's where all this started! Her ego-driven need to defeat some absurd Roman soldier. I was raped, for Gods sake, just because she wanted to settle an old score! the bard thought ferociously.
Gabrielle shuddered with the memory of that day. The feeling of being touched and then brutally entered by a force she could neither see nor stop. Flames curved grotesquely around her body, stroking her in places only her warrior lover had been before. She had been unable to scream out her pain and horror at the violation of her body, unable to beg the force to stop whatever it was doing. Wrapped in its fiery power, she had not even been capable of a struggle, something that shamed her even more deeply than the rape itself. She honestly felt as though she had simply floated there, allowing the demon to do whatever it wished with her body, in some twisted way, giving her permission for the act. Since that day, she found herself completely unwilling to allow Xena to touch her again, feeling so dirty she doubted the stain could ever be removed. Even though Xena had cradled her tenderly for candlemarks afterwards, Gabrielle had hurt so much inside, she was barely aware of the protective arms around her. There was just the burning sense of humiliation and the deep, painful throbbing of her battered center.
If only I had fought harder, she recriminated. Maybe I could have broken away from that demon god. Maybe I could have stopped it from impregnating me with its spawn. The disgrace rose in her throat like bile, causing her to choke for a moment. Terrified that Xena would hear the small sound she had just made, Gabrielle groped her way silently in the darkness until she was sitting behind another pile of stones on the ground. If we hadn't gone to Britannia to start with, then I wouldn't be feeling this degraded, the bard thought savagely, focusing her hatred onto Xena. It's all her fault!
First she lets me get raped while she is off satisfying her own stupid need to always win, and then she tries to kill the child I give birth to. Is Hope to blame for who her father was? Gabrielle thought. The guilt she felt for what the child had done later was pushed aside as the bard centered her thoughts on how angry she was at Xena for allowing it all the happen in the first place. To add insult to injury, she actually forced me to choose between her and my baby! I still can't believe she is so cocky to assume I would have chosen her over my own child. I don't care if Xena is supposed to be my partner, I would never have asked her to choose between me and Solon, she thought to herself.
Then there was everything she did in the land of Chin. Xena was actually planning to go off without saying anything to me at all. I had to damn near drag it out of her! the bard's soul spat. Just thinking about the woman from that far off land turned up the heat on the blonde's anger several more degrees. Gabrielle allowed herself to completely overlook the small fact she had gone to Chin to prevent Xena from meeting with Lao Ma again. Though she had told Xena she wanted to stop the needless death of one man, in her heart she knew why she was there. She was jealous the warrior had decided Lao Ma was worth more to her than all the things Gabrielle had done, all the love the bard had shown. It didn't matter to the bard that Xena felt she owed a debt to the woman.
When Ares had offered her a chance to get to Chin ahead of Xena, Gabrielle had grabbed it with both hands, consequences be damned. It was petty, and the bard knew it, but it didn't stop her from feeling the irrational, twisting pain of jealousy every time she thought about her warrior together with some strange out-land woman. It had almost been a relief to find the woman had been executed some time before Xena's return. She tried to justify her presence by saying she was there to stop Xena turning back to her dark ways, and there were times when Gabrielle almost believed it too.
"And now SHE is trying to kill ME!" the bard whispered, surprised at the sudden echoing of her voice through the lightless chamber. "Well, we'll just see about that," Gabrielle said aloud. The weird echo effect of the cavern bounced her words around and around until the bard would have been unsure where the sound had first come from if she hadn't uttered the words herself, but she was certain Xena had probably heard it too. "Damned unnatural hearing of hers," she muttered.
Reaching out into the darkness, Gabrielle searched for some kind of a weapon, something she could use against Xena when she came into the cavern. Groping, her hand fell onto a smallish rock, just the right size to fit her hand. Bouncing it on her palm for a moment, she waited for the warrior to make her appearance. Her entire mind and soul was consumed with hatred for the tall warrior, filling all the places there had once been love. Gabrielle would not be satisfied until the tall woman lay dead and bleeding at her feet.
With the blood of so many already on her hands, the bard didn't think one more was going to matter to whatever god kept track of such things. She intended to make Xena pay for all the pain, guilt, horror and grief the bard had experienced over the past several moons. Losing her blood innocence, the rape, forcing a choice between Hope and Xena, the events in Chin, making her kill her own daughter, everything.
Thick, sticky tendrils of malevolence worked their way into every pore of Gabrielle's being, filling her with its powerful, unthinking rage, her eyes hardening into solid blue-green sea-ice. The sneer on her face would have been all too familiar to a certain warrior still feeling her way towards the bard's cavern, if there had been any light at all to see by. Gabrielle's fingers tensed around the rock she held, clutching it so tightly the sharp points cut into her palm, but she never noticed the sting. Her mind and soul were focused solely on hearing the warrior enter the chamber, before Xena had a chance to hear the bard.
"Here little bardy, bardy. Come to the nice warrior, so I can KILL you," Xena snarled almost silently into the darkness ahead of her. The tall woman had lost track of how much time she had spent carefully checking each cavern, large or small, she came across, walking down the winding tunnels, searching for the object of her revenge. Time meant nothing to her anyway. The only thought hammering in her mind was making sure Gabrielle was dead. It would not bring her son back or make up for the bard's lies and betrayals but for now, it was enough. It gave her a mild sense of purpose. Something she had not felt since she walked out of the cave where Callisto was buried under tons of fallen rubble.
At several points, Xena thought she'd discovered the blonde-haired bard hidden in a cavern only to find, after a thorough search, it was nothing more than a falling rock or shifting stone. Part of her cursed all the darkness because it made finding the other woman just that much more difficult. It also meant she would not be able to actually see the terrified expression on Gabrielle's face at the moment of her death. The tall woman shrugged her shoulders, she would just have to make sure the little story-teller had a noisy death so Xena could have the satisfaction of hearing her die. The surrounding blackness would put the bard at even more of a disadvantage because she was not as used to using her other senses as the tall warrior was. That thought brought an evil smile to her lips. This was going to be as easy as catching fish in a stream.
Feeling the tunnel wall turning under her hand, Xena stopped for a moment to breathe deeply. She caught the faintest whiff of Gabrielle's body scent on the light breeze blowing passed her face. Xena couldn't help a brief chuckle bubbling out of her. The warrior knew that particular odor as intimately as she knew her own. The bard had scuttled, sweating with panic, down this tunnel and not too long ago from the smell of it. Moving off again, one hand still brushing over the stone walls, the hunter drew closer to her prey.
Every so often, Xena would stop to breathe in, tasting the strengthening scent on the back of her tongue. Her leathers and boots were still quite damp from her swim across the lake and she couldn't prevent the occasional shiver as it coursed through her body. She clenched her teeth tightly to stop the sound of their chattering giving away her position to the bard. So focused on the outcome of her search, she didn't really notice the stiffening of her muscles, simply pushing the knowledge to one side to concentrate on finding her way in the darkness. With no food, and precious little water in her system to fuel her demanding body, there was nothing to warm her internally, her reaction time slowing as a result. Not enough to be a problem, she had erroneously concluded earlier and proceeded to push that out of her mind as well. There was only one thought worth expending any energy on. Revenge. Every other consideration was locked away until such time as she reached the goal she had set for herself.
Suddenly Xena's ears pricked up. Bouncing off the tunnel walls was some kind of sound reverberating from a chamber ahead. She couldn't make out what the sound was, too distorted by echoes and counter-echoes, but she knew she had finally found the cavern Gabrielle had hoped to hide herself. Slowing her steps into complete silence, Xena carefully approached the opening of the cavern. With one hand on the wall to guide her, Xena lightly gripped her breast dagger in the other, feeling for the stone room she knew was somewhere along the wall. Her fingers slid over the lip of the fissure and she eased herself into the chamber. Standing for a moment in the pitch darkness, she tried to listen for the noise she was sure the bard was making. In all the cycles they had travelled together, not once had the smaller woman ever managed to sneak up behind her completely unheard, and Xena didn't intend letting her start now.
As the last echoes of her spoken words died away, taking much longer than the bard thought it should, Gabrielle just picked up the sound of something brushing lightly over stone. Listening closely, she thought it sounded like someone's fingers running over the rock, rasping faintly. Moving as quietly as possible, she crept along the wall until she was a little closer to the open mouth of the cavern, climbing on to the top of the piled stones in readiness to jump the warrior as soon as she could place her position.
She somehow sensed, rather than heard, the woman gently easing her way through the large crack at the entrance of the rock chamber. Tightening the grip on her lump of stone, she waited patiently for some sign of exactly where the tall warrior stood.
Xena also waited, just as patiently. She could make out the barely muffled panting of the bard as she tried to keep up with her thundering heart's need for oxygen, but the strange way the stone echoed the sound left her unsure of where the other woman was hiding. Gabrielle could be directly ahead of her, behind her, to either side or even right at Xena's feet, the sound seemed to come from all directions at once.
"You might as well come out, Gabrielle. I know you're in here somewhere," Xena said loudly, swinging her head to speak to all parts of the room, not knowing exactly how large or small it was. The overpowering reverberations from her short sentence hammered at her ears until she was forced to clamp her hands over them to stop the unexpected pain. Grimacing, the warrior continued at a much lower volume. "Well, I won't be doing that again," she said in a near whisper. The echo was still there, but so long as she didn't speak too loudly, the bouncing sound was bearable.
The bard had slapped her own hands over her ears as Xena's first words thundered through the chamber. As the ringing in her head faded, along with the agonising echo, Gabrielle heard the near-whisper Xena made as she quietly chastised herself. It was all the compact woman needed to place the warrior. The word 'again' was still bouncing about the cavern as the bard launched herself from the top of the piled rocks where she had hidden herself. Her shoulder slammed into the turning warrior's back. She struck out with the rock in her hand, hoping to hit something capable of at least slowing the quicksilver fast woman. It connected with the back of Xena's fist, causing her to drop the breast dagger which was headed in the direction of Gabrielle's unprotected body. The blade clattered away unseen in the darkness. The impact with Xena's moving hand caused the bard to lose her rock but for the moment Gabrielle was simply happy she had disarmed the other woman.
Caught off-balance, the warrior and the bard continued moving sideways from the force of Gabrielle's leap, ending up on the ground together. By sheer chance alone, the smaller woman was on top of Xena and made the most of what might be her only opportunity to take out the warrior. She punched one staff hardened fist into Xena's face, misjudging the distance in the darkness slightly, striking only a glancing blow. The next thing Gabrielle knew, she was flipped onto her own back, the warrior's knuckles smashing painfully into her nose. Blinded by tears, her head ringing even more painfully than when the loud vibrations had shaken her, she sensed the next blow coming and moved her head to one side at the last possible moment. Gabrielle didn't hesitate to grin at the sound of Xena's fist hitting the hard stone beside her head. She had the additional satisfaction of hearing at least two of those knuckles breaking as the unforgiving rock refused to yield.
Feeling the shift in Xena's weight on top of her as she cocked her arm back for another hit, Gabrielle's free hand scrabbled about desperately searching for a weapon. Earnest fingers wrapped themselves around another rock on the floor, a little larger that the one she had started with but it would do the job just as well. Gabrielle felt the uncoiling of Xena's body as her fist, like something released with all the force of a catapult, moved rapidly in the direction of the bard's vulnerable head once again. Swinging her arm with every ounce of hard-trained muscle, Gabrielle's rock pounded into the side of Xena's head, breaking into several pieces in her fingers as it blasted against the warrior's notoriously hard skull.
She was probably more surprised than Xena as the tall woman toppled, stunned, to the ground before rolling out of the bard's immediate reach in a move of unthinking self-preservation. In the darkness, neither woman could quite tell where the other was, their own panting and the echoes it created masking their presence from each other, so both remained where they lay for the moment, gasping to get their breath back.
Xena gingerly felt the lump already pushing its throbbing way up on the side of her head. It was going to be one Tartarus of a bump, she had to admit, not to mention the headache she could feel announcing its presence with a loud thumping. Her fingers came away slick with blood, but the gash across the lump didn't seem to be too bad. Head wounds just seemed to bleed all out of proportion to their size. If she wasn't so angry with the bard, she would have almost felt proud of her for managing to knock her over like that. Those same fingers gently assessed the damage to her lip Gabrielle's first glancing blow had made. It had been split and she could taste the coppery tang in her mouth. Probably won't need stitches, she finally decided. Waiting for the pain in her head to settle a bit, she strained to hear where the other woman was, so she could finish the job she had set out to do. She was really feeling the lack of food and proper rest over the past several days, amazed at just how tired she was after such a tiny amount of exertion. Xena hoped Gabrielle was equally as exhausted or the odds might be a little too balanced for her liking.
Gabrielle was lying several body lengths away from Xena, taking advantage of the warrior's inattention while stunned to put a little distance between them. Not too much though, because she still intended to kill the other woman, if at all possible. She too was investigating the damage inflicted by the tall warrior with those incredibly hard fists. Aside from some general scrapes, now stinging from the rock dust being ground into them, the worst injury seemed to be her nose. Feeling her way over it carefully, it appeared to have been mashed almost flat against her face by a certain set of knuckles connecting with the softer cartilage. Lying on her back as she was, she could feel the blood dripping down her throat, but she tried not to think about it. She guessed there was a lot on her face, too, judging from the slipperiness of everything she could feel with her fingers. Her flattened nose probably wasn't as bad as it felt, but it was making breathing through her nose impossible and breathing through her mouth was noisy. She listened closely to hear if Xena had gotten up yet. Gabrielle honestly couldn't believe how exhausted she felt after such a short fight. For all she knew, the other woman was already on her feet and creeping silently towards her. The mental image of the hate-filled warrior approaching her was enough to get her standing again.
Xena heard the other woman slowly climbing back onto her feet and used the power of her own dogged hatred to force herself upright also. She could feel everything swinging around her wildly, the blackness of the chamber making the dizzying sensation all the more disorienting. Somehow, Xena managed to push the pain away to begin a wobbly circling around the position where she thought Gabrielle was. The bard was a little better off, having not used her own head to disintegrate a rather hard stone.
With both women emotionally drained and physically exhausted, the fight looked like turning into a drawn-out slugfest. It was merely a matter of figuring out who despised the other more.
Eponin still jogged along the high path towards the mountain top, following the tracks Xena had made no effort to cover. Up ahead she could make out the first patches of snow the icy wind had blown into the crevices between the rocks. The temperature had been dropping for some time, but the pace she kept to was helping her stay warm, though the sweat streaming down her body was quickly changing that, as the freezing mistral blew over her. With the first signs of snow covering the ground, she realised movement alone was not going to keep her from feeling the cold. Stopping for a moment, she pulled a woollen, thigh-length cloak from the bag of provisions someone had packed for her. Quickly dragging it over her head, she took an extra moment to bite off a large section of ration bar before continuing her lope up the mountain side.
She hoped the wind had not totally obliterated Xena's trail, but the Amazon warrior was reasonably certain she already knew where the tall woman had headed. Right at the end of the trail was a high precipice Xena had told her about. It was a place the dark-haired warrior like to go when she needed to think. Eponin didn't know if Xena would still be there now, it had been close to five days since she was last seen leaving the Centaurs' village, but it was the only lead she had to go on, so she followed it. She prayed, if Xena was not to be found there, she could somehow pick up the trail again. Gabrielle's life may very well depend on Eponin finding the warrior and convincing her to return to the Amazon village.
Gabrielle allowed herself to roll with yet another staggering punch, hardly feeling the pain anymore as Xena's iron fist thumped into her flesh. Both her eyes had swollen shut after Xena's knuckles had left their imprints on the sockets. But in the pitch blackness of the cavern there was nothing to see, so it didnt matter anyway. Throwing a punch of her own, she connected with the warrior's mid-rift yet again. She had been concentrating her attack there for some time, slowly sapping the strength of the other woman, as each time she found her mark, it took a little more out of Xena. Cycles of training with her staff had strengthened her arms and shoulders more than she realised, but she had never dreamed for a heartbeat she would be using all that power to slam her fists into Xena's abdomen time and time again.
The warrior had given up trying to use her feet and powerful thighs to flatten the bard. Just standing up was becoming an increasingly difficult challenge as the lump on the side of her head caused the chamber to spin erratically. Trying to raise her knee to toss one of her roundhouse kicks at Gabrielle's head had sent her tumbling onto her back. The bard had not come after her however, taking advantage of her collapse. Instead she simply waited for Xena to climb back onto her feet before continuing the fight. Every time her fists connected with some part of Gabrielle's face or body, she could feel the broken bones in her knuckles grinding together painfully but nothing short of death, her own or the bard's, would induce her to stop.
Both women were starting to feel just the slightest bit silly, beating on each other like this. Neither was willing to call a halt either. Xena wanted her revenge and Gabrielle wanted her pound of Xena's flesh. Until one got what they wanted, there might be no end to the battle. Neither woman had spoken a word in some time, only grunting occasionally as a particularly tender spot was hit. Those places were getting more and more numerous as the fight progressed. Every so often, by some unspoken agreement, the two women would back off for a few moments, to regain their breath and dredge up a small shred of energy from some deep store they both had inside. That store was the animosity and fury they felt towards each other and even that was getting a little low. Both Xena and Gabrielle were certain it was only sheer pig-headed stubbornness that kept the other in the fight. If some kind of a solution was not found soon, they were sure they would most likely die of exhaustion at the exact same moment.
In another of their unspoken agreements, the two women backed away from each other. Xena could hear the way Gabrielle was painfully trying to breathe, sure the bard had at least one broken rib, if not more. The room spun around Xena in one of its erratic turns, forcing the warrior to drop to one knee or fall over completely. It made her very aware of the punishment her abdomen had taken from the bard's small, but astonishingly hard little fists. Flexing the muscles experimentally, she felt there was no permanent damage yet but if she took much more, her insides would rapidly become something resembling heated mush. It was time to bring this fight to an end and Xena was determined to get her revenge, if it was the last thing she ever did.
Climbing painfully to her feet one more time, locking the agony of her booming head and sorely abused abdomen behind grimly gritted teeth, she stepped up to Gabrielle again. The bard heard her coming and, expecting more of the same, she brought her fists up, preparing to pound into that rock-hard wall of muscle Xena called a body. She was most surprised to feel herself suddenly spun, then lifted into the air over Xena's head.
The warrior's grip on the back of Gabrielle's neck and thighs, arched her spine sharply, putting pressure on her broken ribs. An agonising scream was dragged from the depths of the bard's throat, echoing in thunderous waves off the walls of the cavern. Xena flexed her knees slightly, ready to slam the other woman head first into the ground, killing her. Sucking a massive lungful of air into her chest, Xena howled loudly enough for the gods on the Mount itself to hear, "VEEENGEAAANCE!", the vibrations of her cry adding to the powerful reverberations created by the bard's own screaming. Tears streamed openly down Xena's face as she whispered into the violent storm surge of shuddering, ear-shattering noise, "This is for you, Solon. This is for you."
Xena never had the chance to make her killing throw as the entire chamber began to shake around them. The floor shifted under her feet and she realised the cavern was about to collapse on them both. Some flicker in her heart, some barely understood emotion had her dropping Gabrielle, not on her head as she had planned, but lightly onto her feet in front of her own body. The ingrained, unconscious habit of protecting the other woman in all and any situations over the last three summers suddenly snapped back into play. Pushing at the bard's shoulders, she forced the smaller woman to duck under Xena's longer frame as she crouched protectively over Gabrielle. All around them rocks and earth cascaded down from the quaking ceiling, piling over them, quickly burying them from view until, in a last shower of gravel and small stones, the shaking stopped, the dust slowly settling in the darkness.
In the echoing cavern where two determined women once stood toe to toe, beating their stubborn hatred and unthinking rage on the other, there was nothing left but mounds of rock and damply smelling earth. Not even the blade of the thinnest dagger could have been forced between the stones. There was only silence.
Ephiny sat on the side of the hard, narrow pallet, still gently holding one of Gabrielle's cold hands in her own warmer palm. She wasn't even sure the bard still breathed anymore, the rise and fall of her chest so slight as to be almost unnoticeable. Deep, nearly black shadows circled the blonde's shrunken eyes, moistureless lips cracking as the fluids dried from Gabrielle's slowly fading body. She reached forward, feeling for the pulse at the other woman's throat. It was still there but fluttering with such incredible delicacy under her fingertips, she might have missed it if she wasn't looking for it so carefully. If she had not spent the last day and a half sitting right on this bedside, she would have been certain she was clutching the hand of a corpse. The skull-like shadows of Gabrielle's face served only to enhance that impression. Perhaps I am, she thought, trying to see the other woman's chest rise as she inhaled.
"Here. Try this," the priestess said, handing the Amazon Regent a small candle.
Holding the little flame close to Gabrielle's nose, she was relieved to see it waver fractionally as the bard breathed out. The tiny movement was enough to reassure the Amazon Gabrielle was still alive and breathing but for how much longer? She was certain the young Queen's lungs were barely moving sufficiently to force the stale air from her chest, let alone to draw good, clean air back in again. Handing the candle back to the priestess, Ephiny once again brushed the dampened cloth over Gabrielle's face, tenderly blotting her dry lips to try to prevent them from cracking any further.
"Ephiny, you really need to rest now," the priestess said quietly, torn between her distress over the young Queen and her concerns for the Amazon Regent.
"No. I'm staying right here until Xena arrives," she answered back wearily. Or until Gabrielle dies, she thought to herself, the unspoken words not wasted on the priestess standing at her shoulder. I'm not going to let her die alone, not like Solon died, Ephiny decided. If Xena doesn't get back in time, it might give her a little comfort to know there was someone who cared for Gabrielle with her when she passed over.
During the day and a half she had kept watch over the bard, she'd tried to puzzle out what could have possibly occurred between the two lovers to cause them to split, even for a short time. Both had been so grief-stricken at the funeral fires for their respective children, she had been surprised they managed to stay on their feet at all. The fact they made no effort to draw comfort and solace from each other had amazed her even more. Both had merely stood, separated by several paces, staring into the leaping flames as Ephiny had sung the song of death. Something had happened to shove the two apart, creating a yawning chasm neither woman was willing to cross. Something that must have started in Britannia, she eventually concluded. Perhaps the same something that had left Gabrielle with child. If Gabrielle had been raped, as Ephiny was starting to strongly suspect, maybe the bard blamed Xena for that incident.
In a way, it appeared a logical synopsis. Ephiny had seen her share of rape survivors, and many did look to blame someone else when the actual perpetrator of the attack had gotten away unpunished. That was if they were not already castigating themselves for 'letting' the rape take place. Often, they caste the blame on the closest people to them simply because they needed to lash out their anger and shame on someone, a lover always making an easy target. Even fits of jealous revenge were not unheard of, as the survivor made their partner pay for their supposed lack of protection. It was an unfair action to take but did anyone remain completely rational when they were in that state of mind? Ephiny had seen rape survivors do some pretty strange things as they tried to come to terms with what had happened to them. Did Gabrielle feel Xena had somehow left her alone to be raped? Ephiny wondered. The warrior occasionally left the bard to her own devices as she went off to take care of some mission, but surely Gabrielle was more than capable of looking out for herself. She didn't carry that staff as a symbol, after all.
But to be brutally violated in such a manner, and then left pregnant in the aftermath. Ephiny couldn't help shuddering at the thought. Was it enough to rip the two travellers apart? the Amazon questioned herself. Surely Xena would have been more supportive, more understanding; unless there was something going on with her as well?
Ephiny shook her head to clear it of thought. It wasn't getting her anywhere, really. All she knew for sure was two children were dead and two lovers, who should be together, had been somehow torn apart. Tightening her grip on the bard's hand, she whispered urgently, "Come on Gabrielle. You can deal with this. I'm sure Xena still loves you, she just needs to be reminded of that now and then." Draping the cool cloth over the other woman's forehead, Ephiny sat back to wait a little longer.
The most experienced warrior in the Amazon Nation stood looking over the edge of the precipice. She had been correct in her feeling this was the place Xena had come, but there was no obvious sign of her now. Peering into the far off depths of the chasm below, Eponin couldn't see anything that suggested the warrior may have jumped to her death. She didn't think it was in Xena's nature anyway, she was too damned obstinate to take the easy way out of any situation. Backing away from the lip, the dizzying height actually made her a little nervous, she scanned the calf-deep snow around her. Xena foot prints had been swept almost completely out of existence, but there was enough left still showing for the Amazon to trace the other woman's path over to the mountain edge.
Slightly to her right was a large tamped down area marring the nearly featureless surface of the snowfield. Though it was slowly filling with tiny snowflakes, the bitter wind eroding any sharp edges away, it was clear someone had been there. Eponin squatted down for a closer look. Xena fell here, she decided, probably too exhausted to stand up against the wind any longer. That same wind was gusting fitfully around the Amazon warrior, trying to work its icy fingers past the woollen edge of her cloak to chill her own body, much as it had stolen the warmth from Xena's. Eponin traced the deep marks in the snow where Xena had first crawled on hands and knees, and then finally stumbled onto her feet. The dragging foot prints as the warrior had staggered through the snow, showed Eponin the extent of Xena's exhaustion. Probably doesn't even know where she is going, she thought, looking ahead for any sign of shelter on the mountain top.
Less than a hundred paces from where she stood, Eponin could make out the beckoning opening of a cave. How deep it was and whether the warrior had found some warmth in there, the Amazon would only find out by entering it herself. From last season's woody weeds rattling at the cavern's doorway, she took a few moments to make several very rough torches to light her way before stepping cautiously into the cave, surprised at just how deep it appeared to be, even from the low front entrance. "Sweet Artemis, this thing has to run for leagues," she muttered to herself. "Oh well, better get going then." Striking her flint, she sent a strong, hot spark into the first torch she carried, the little pitch she had smeared on the stems making it catch all the quicker. With the bright flame lighting the walls around her, Eponin began the slow search through the caverns for the woman warrior she had been sent to find. She prayed Xena was in the cave network somewhere because if she wasn't, by the time the Amazon had searched through them all, it may well be too late to save the bard's fading life.
Xena coughed lightly, clearing the dust from the back of her throat, her much abused abdominal muscles protesting even the slight movement she made. It took her a moment longer to wipe the cobwebs from her mind and remember what had happened. She recalled the feeling of standing in the darkness, Gabrielle's arched body over her head, muscles quivering with the strain of holding the other woman's weight above her, about to exact her revenge for her son's death. Her final shout of vengeance, coupled with the bard's agonising screams of pain, had brought the entire cavern down on them as the sound had echoed and re-echoed powerfully throughout the chamber. What did she do in those last few heartbeats though, she wondered. Then it came rushing back to her. She had tucked Gabrielle into the somewhat dubious safety to be found under her as the cascade of rocks and earth had showered over them both.
Flexing her fingers, she was not the least bit surprised to find her arms wrapped protectively around the other woman's still unconscious body. Inching her hand out from under Gabrielle, she quickly investigated the small air pocket where they were now, luckily or unluckily, trapped. She found there would be just enough space to lie side by side together but the large, flat stone overhead made even sitting up impossible. Easing the bard from under her gently, Xena carefully laid her out on her back, taking a moment to check the blonde was still breathing. She could hear the painful catch at the end of each indrawn breath as the bard's shattered ribs stopped her from inhaling fully. "That's really gotta hurt," Xena muttered to herself as she slid down along Gabrielle's side, propping her head on one hand.
She gently rested the fingers of the other hand on the center of Gabrielle's chest, telling herself she just wanted to make sure the bard was breathing okay. Suddenly, her head snapped up at that thought. What is going on with me? she wondered. Just a little while ago I was ready to drive Gabrielle's head into the ground like a human spear, and now I am worrying she is able to breathe with those broken ribs. I hated her. I still do a little, I think. I wanted to kill her for the death of my own son. Why am I concerning myself with Gabrielle dying from a punctured lung? Dead is dead, whether it's me that does it or a collapsed lung, isn't it?
Xena's head sagged forward, feeling more bewildered now than she had in moons. Letting herself think back, she soon realised all the confusion started when she had first found out Caesar was in Britannia. She had wanted nothing more than to defeat him in open battle, proving she was the greater warrior and better tactician, proving it not only to the man who had hung her from a cross on the beach but also to herself. Caesar had been the only man to ever truly conquer her, both body and soul. She wanted to get that back from him, choosing not to listen to anything the bard might have had to say about the matter.
"You trusted me to keep you safe and I failed," Xena whispered to the unconscious woman by her side. "The only thing I cared about was defeating Caesar in battle. If only I had paid more attention to what was happening with you, instead of being tied up in my own concerns, maybe Dahok wouldn't have gotten a chance to rape you." She had pushed from her memory the sounds of Gabrielle's terrified screaming when she was dragged onto the altar by the flaming hands of the demon but they had come back to haunt her in her dreams on more than one night since that horrifying afternoon.
Xena hadn't really been aware of the rape itself until sometime later, the bard refusing to say anything about what had happened to her as she hung suspended over Dahok's altar. She knew the lovemaking, and most of the casual, tender touches they usually shared had stopped then. Only Gabrielle's odd behaviour signalled the start of that unnatural pregnancy. Even then, still confused, and convincing herself she was doing the right thing, she had never taken a moment to explain anything to the other woman. Xena had simply expected the bard to go along with whatever she said, up to and including the killing of her own child. In her own fashion, the warrior was proud of the way Gabrielle had stood up to her and spirited the demon child off into the night. "I just wish you hadn't lied about it," she muttered, remembering the look on the bard's face as she told Xena she had thrown the vessel for evil over the cliff edge. In the depths of her heart, she had known then of the lie Gabrielle had told, betraying the faith Xena held in the gentle woman.
"If you had just told me the truth, maybe Solon would still be alive now, and we wouldn't be trying to kill each other with hate," she said quietly. Her hand softly stroked a battered cheek, regretting for the first time her reluctance to explain herself fully to the bard. Leaning forward, Xena dropped a tender kiss onto Gabrielle's bruised forehead. "Please wake up soon, Gabrielle. I think it is time we tried talking instead of just beating each other up," she said into the other woman's ear. Xena settled back to wait for the bard to finally rise to the surface of her own consciousness again.
Gabrielle's awareness slowly regained its focus and sharpened until she was conscious of being flat on her back, in some warm, dark place that smelt strongly of drying leather, sweat and blood. A thousand images flashed through her still fuzzy mind as the combination of odors set off a series of memories. Every single one of those memories centered on Xena. That brought the rush of more recent sounds and smells to her mind. Her last clear thought was of her skull about to connect violently with the solid rock at Xena's feet and how she thought it might be a disguised blessing. Anything had to be better than the stabbing agony of her broken ribs, even oblivion. Finding herself alive, aching from head to foot but somehow alive, was quite of a shock. Then she remembered the thunderous rockfall of the cavern roof collapsing over the top of them and how Xena had tucked her smaller body under that long frame trying to protect her.
Where she lay now was anyone's guess, but she was getting heartily tired of all the darkness. Even though the swelling around her eyes had barely begun to subside, she forced her eyes open a crack only to be greeted with a blackness as complete as if she still had them closed. Reaching out carefully with one hand, she encountered the tightly packed stones which had fallen from the roof. The length of an arm above her was the flat shape of another large rock, probably balanced on the rubble she had already felt. Feeling down her other side, her curious fingers brushed against the slightly damp leathers of the warrior. Leaving her hand in light contact with the other woman, she realised from the slow, deep movement of her chest that Xena was sleeping soundly beside her. Probably feeling as exhausted as I do, she thought.
The bard tried to shift her position a little in a vain attempt to find some comfort on the hard ground. The pain shooting up and down her body from her shattered ribs told her it was not advisable to try moving about any time soon. Sucking air noisily through her clenched teeth, she waited stoically until the stabbing had gentled to a mere throbbing ache.
"Awake, I see," a slightly ironic voice said from beside the bard.
"Uh huh," Gabrielle answered. At least Xena didn't immediately try to rearrange my features, not that it hasn't already been done today, she thought to herself, one side of her battered face quirking up in a mirthless half grin.
The warrior had half expected a renewal of the bard's attack on her bruised body but when it didn't come, she felt it might be safe to inquire after Gabrielle's injuries. "How're you feeling?" Xena asked carefully, leaching all emotion from her voice.
Gabrielle paused for several heartbeats, wondering if Xena wanted the real truth or just some more soothing words. The bard felt she had gotten rather good at doing that with the warrior lately. "Okay, I guess. Nothing too bad," she finally answered.
The tall warrior didn't believe her for a moment. She had unknowingly dozed off while listening to the catch in the bard's breathing every time she tried to inhale deeply. Rolling carefully onto her side, Xena reached over to gently press her hand over the spot she assumed those broken ribs to be. The reaction she got from the other woman was not quite what she had expected.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle demanded loudly, her entire body jumping in surprise at the sudden touch of Xena's unseen fingers against her skin.
"I'm checking that none of those busted ribs have punctured a lung while you were asleep," Xena replied, feeling her way over the breaks, attempting to satisfy herself there was no danger to the bard, so long as she didn't move around too much.
A small, slightly swollen hand gripped Xena's fingers firmly, pulling them away from the bard's body before releasing them, the pressure on the warrior's broken knuckles causing her to clench her teeth. "There's no need to do that. It not like you can actually do anything to help me, you know," Gabrielle said, the words coming out far more sharply than she had intended. An apology was hovering right on the edge of her lips, but the bard stubbornly forced herself to say nothing.
Xena settled back against the stones on her own side of the small air pocket before allowing herself to speak. "Guess you're right," she said, offhandedly. She didn't want the other woman to know her quick words had hit their mark.
The all too casual tone in Xena's voice set off the blonde's hot temper again. "At least you could pretend you care," she snapped. "After all, it was you who actually broke them in the first place. Then again, you never were very good at knowing when you hurt people, were you?" The instant the last words left her mouth, Gabrielle wished there was some way to pull them back. She held her breath in the darkness, waiting for one of those impossibly hard fists to come flying out of the inky blackness and knock her consciousness into the next moon.
After what felt like an eternity, Xena spoke. "Breathe, Gabrielle. I'm not going to hit you anymore," she said tiredly. Xena had realised, as soon as she heard the sudden inhale of air from the other woman, the bard was afraid Xena would return to her fists again. She smiled into the darkness. You don't hit me and I won't hit you, she thought to herself. Sounds fair when you get right down to it.
The silence strained between the pair with all the things they should have been saying, but neither woman wanted to take the risk of being hurt again. The air in the little pocket rapidly grew oppressive, as they tried to doggedly out-wait each other. Gabrielle fidgeted with the ties on her top while Xena kept running her tongue over irritatingly dry lips. Xena was the one who finally decided to take the bit between her teeth. If she was going to die of thirst or hunger in that stone tomb, then she wanted to have said something to the other woman. Gabrielle deserved at least that much from her.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I never meant for any of this to ever happen."
Gabrielle started in surprise at Xena's sudden words. "Excuse me?" she blurted out. "What did you just say?"
"I said I was sorry. I didn't mean for you to be hurt by any of this," the warrior replied, genuine regret coloring her voice.
"I thought that's what you said," the bard commented. Gabrielle lay quietly for a few moments, still fiddling with the ties on her shirt. Her trust in the warrior had been completely shattered by the events of the past several moons but a tiny, nearly desperate part of her soul wanted, needed to believe there was some way of patching things up. If not the love they had shared in the past then maybe a semblance of the friendship which had once brought them together. "Xena?" she questioned into the darkness beside her.
"Ummmm," the other woman replied.
"I think I think I might need to have these ribs checked," she said in a rush, fully expecting the warrior to turn down her request.
Xena carefully rolled off the rocks behind her and shuffled her body sideways towards the bard. Just as her hand was about to touch the other woman, Gabrielle had reached up, stopping her again. Gods, the heartless bitch is playing with me, the warrior's mind snapped at her.
Before the tall woman could roll away, turning her enraged back on the bard, Gabrielle spoke up. "Please, Xena. Could you talk to me while you do this. I'm I'm scared of being touched when I can't see who it is," she admitted with quiet shame.
"You know it's just me. There's no one else in here with us," the warrior said, trying to be reasonable. She didn't quite understand the other woman's fear, but she had a fair idea where it came from.
"I know it sounds silly but would you do it, please. It would make me feel a lot better," the bard replied. The humiliation and degradation of the savage assault rose screaming up in the bard's mind as the warrior's unseen hands brushed over her skin, forcing her to clench her teeth together. She didn't want the warrior to know just how mortified she felt. Gabrielle focused her mind on the gentle hands slowly feeling their way over her broken ribs and the soft words Xena was saying to her. If she allowed herself to think of the pain and rage inside after the rape, she knew she would simply start blaming Xena for it all over again. With some faint glimmer of hope on the horizon, she didn't want to throw away what might be their only chance of settling things between them.
As Xena drew her hands away, confirming three ribs were rather nastily broken but there was no danger of one of them puncturing the bard's lung, she asked, "Can I check your nose too, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle breathed out in silent relief as the first tiny step had been taken between them. "Yea, I think it's broken too. I don't know how badly though," she said.
Xena's careful fingers felt the almost unconscious flinching of Gabrielle's face as she measured the swelling around what had once been the bard's nose. "Feels pretty well mashed, if you ask me," she finally said. "I'm surprised you can even breath through it at all."
"Actually," the other woman mumbled. "I can't."
"Oh," was all Xena could say. She was once again struck by the courage of the feisty bard. Anyone else would have fallen into a screaming heap after a punch like that, she thought. Not this one though. Nope, she just clobbers me with a lump of damned rock instead. As if thinking about it set off the connection in Gabrielle's mind, Xena heard the other woman drawn in a shallow breath to speak.
"Let me check that lump I am sure you have on your head, Xena. I did hit you pretty hard," Gabrielle asked carefully, trying not to upset the fragile accord they had managed to reach.
The warrior guided the bard's hand to the still aching bump above her ear. She couldn't stop the reflex jerk away as those same fingers brushed over the stinging gash the disintegrating stone had left in its wake. "Sorry about that, Gabrielle. Hurts a bit," she said by way of explanation, not wanting the blonde to think her touch had somehow repulsive.
"That's okay, I understand," the bard replied. "You hurt anywhere else?" she asked softly.
Xena mumbled a little to herself before answering. "I think I might have a couple of cracked knuckles and my stomach feels like I did ten rounds with Hercules. I don't have a headache anymore though. Must have slept that off," she finally admitted.
"And?" Gabrielle queried. She knew the warrior well enough to realise there was probably a few other places she hurt but wasn't willing to own up to.
The other woman smiled in the darkness, knowing Gabrielle couldn't see her face. Know me too well, don't you bard, she grinned to herself. "Guess my back feels pretty well pummelled but that was the rockfall, not " She didn't finish the sentence.
"Not me. You can say it, Xena," Gabrielle continued for her sadly. "What happened to us?" the bard suddenly asked, the ache in her voice so clear it brought tears to Xena's eyes. "I can't remember the last time we were, well, nice to each other. I mean really nice, not polite nice like we've been lately. When did we stop caring?"
Xena rolled onto her back, staring up into the blackness overhead before replying. She had accepted, from the moment she felt the enclosed space around them, that they might not be able to escape the rubble of rocks and earth holding them trapped. Gabrielle's ribs were certainly not up to an extended wriggle through the piled stones to reach the outside, if there was one. She suddenly found herself deciding that wherever Gabrielle was, then she wanted to be there too. Somehow, it no longer matter if the bard despised her, the warrior just wanted to stop hating in return. In an odd kind of way, it was the most comfortable decision she could remember making in a long time. If they were going to die in that little air pocket in the rocks, it probably was a good idea to get some things out of the way.
A tiny fragment of a story suddenly entered her mind, one the bard had most likely told her. Some story about souls with unfinished business not being allowed to go to either the Fields or Tartarus. They would just hang about until they could find someone to finish whatever it was holding them to an earthbound plane. The idea of her soul hovering around the caverns forever, until someone stumbled over her dried out bones didn't appeal to the tall woman.
"I don't know how it was for you, Gabrielle. We haven't been talking much lately," Xena started ruefully. "But I think I stopped caring about a lot of things when I first found out Caesar was in Britannia. I wasn't thinking about anything once I knew he was there. I just wanted to defeat him in battle," she said quietly.
"Like he'd conquered your heart," Gabrielle offered, not sure if she should be saying anything at all.
"Pretty much," Xena replied. She rolled onto her side, propping her head up with one hand. In the darkness, she couldn't see the bard lying beside her, but it didn't matter. She just wanted to face the woman who had been her travelling companion and lover for so long.
"I try not to think about that day," Gabrielle said, Xena knowing exactly which day the bard was talking about. "But it's in my dreams every night," she shuddered. "I can see the blood on my hands and feel Dahok as he, as he " The bard began to cry quietly.
"Shhh. I know," the other woman said. Part of her wanted to reach out and hold the weeping woman to her breast, offering what comfort she could, but so much fury and hatred had passed between them, Xena was no longer sure if her touch would even be tolerated. She didn't think she could bear another rejection.
"I hated you then, Xena," Gabrielle managed to say between the sobs. "Why didn't you fight harder? Why didn't you save me?" she almost wailed, directly into Xena's face.
The warrior lay back stunned. They were questions she had occasionally asked herself, until she had gotten too tied up in her own anger, but to hear them shouted at her by the bard. It hurt to hear the words, to understand the overwhelming rage behind them. She didn't know what to say, or what answer would be acceptable to the sobbing woman beside her.
"Oh gods. Why didn't I fight harder. Why did it have to happen to me?" Gabrielle rolled herself painfully onto her side, facing away from the tall warrior, her knees drawn up protectively into her chest.
Wriggling forward, Xena tried to reach out and scoop the crying woman into her arms. A wave of guilt washed over her realising she had been unable to protect the younger woman from the rape. The least she could do now was anchor Gabrielle during the emotional storm she was enduring at that moment. One hand brushed against the other woman's heaving shoulder, causing the bard to suddenly start screaming. It took several heartbeats for the meaning behind the words to sink in.
"DON'T TOUCH ME!!" she roared, unable to move any further away from Xena. "I'M SO DIRTY!!" The sheer volume alone froze the dark-haired woman in her tracks.
Xena blinked into the darkness, one motionless hand still hovering over the bard's shoulder.
Xena lay in the blackness, listening to the frenzied weeping of the other woman. Does she really think that of herself? Does she really think she is dirty in some way? she wondered. It's not like she had a choice in the matter, after all. "Gabrielle," she said gently, trying to get the bard's attention. "Gabrielle, it's not your fault."
Unable to turn onto her back due to her shattered ribs, Gabrielle twisted her head around towards the sound of Xena's voice. "It is my fault. I listened to that priest. I believed what he said to me. And then I didn't fight back hard enough when Dahok grabbed me. It happened because "
"It happened, yes," Xena cut in sharply. "But not because of anything you did or didn't do. You're not the one to blame here."
"Who is then? You?" the bard snapped back, angrily.
The warrior thought about it for a few moments before answering. "Maybe I am," she finally answered, as honestly as she could. "If I had paid more attention to what was going on with you, instead of being wrapped up in defeating Caesar, then maybe Dahok wouldn't have gotten his way at all. Maybe none of it would have happened."
Gabrielle realised the other woman was talking about more than just the assault. For the first time, the bard was aware the other woman was carrying her own share of guilt and she wasn't being fair blaming the warrior for what took place in Dahok's temple. "It did happen, Xena. I was raped and I let it happen. Now I feel so dirty inside, I am amazed you can stand being anywhere near me," she said softly, tears still creeping down her face.
"If we want to compare who has the most stains on their soul, I think I might have you beat there," Xena replied, the sound of a gentle smile echoing in her voice. The warrior edged forward, pulling the bard into her arms. Ignoring her resistance, Xena carefully maneuvered the other woman around until she was lying on top of her as comfortably as her broken ribs would allow. "Gabrielle, you have absolutely nothing to be ashamed about. You survived a savage attack by someone a lot stronger than you are. He was some kind of a god and I doubt anyone could have gotten away from him, once he had his hands on them. And Gabrielle, he did go to some lengths to get his hands on you."
The bard's head stayed pressed against the warrior's breast, tears flowing freely. Muffled by the leather and flesh, Xena had to listen closely to hear what the other woman was saying. "But I am ashamed, Xena. Not just about the rape but because of what I had to do later." Gabrielle wept. "You made me choose between my baby and you. I hurt so much when I had to let her go. I just wanted you to hurt too."
The warrior was a little confused by the reference, but she had some idea what was coming next. "What are you talking about, Gabrielle?" she asked, not certain she really wanted to discuss the events of Chin with the weeping bard.
"I was hurting so much inside. I used to take myself away from the camp at night just so I could talk to Hope. I prayed she could hear me. I really did. I thought, I trusted, because I was her mother, she could grow up and be good. You didn't seem to care. Just so long as she was dead, right? That's all that mattered to you. So long as my daughter was dead." Gabrielle spat the last sentence at the warrior holding her rigid body.
Xena simply listened, continuing to stroke one hand down the bard's back, the other gently supporting her broken ribs. She'd known about Gabrielle's little trips into the night, sometimes following her for a time, hearing as Gabrielle begged Hope to be good. In a way, she didn't care. Her faith in the bard had been shattered when she realised the lie Gabrielle had told. She hadn't known what to do and the more she tried to think about it, the angrier she had become, until she knew she had to get away from the other woman for a while. The message from Lao Ma had seemed such a godsend, Xena had grabbed it with both hands.
"When you told me about what had happened in Chin and that you were going back there without me, I just got so jealous. I don't understand why, I just did. I wanted to hurt you, make sure you never saw her at all. Why should you be happy seeing that woman again when I was so miserable after putting my own child in a stream? I thought I had lost everything anyway. My blood innocence, my daughter, my faith. I knew I had lost you," Gabrielle continued. Sniffling a little into the leather covering Xena's breasts, she said, "If I couldn't have you, I didn't want anyone else to be with you either."
"But Lao Ma healed my legs, gave my life back to me. I had to repay that debt," Xena started.
"And I haven't?" Gabrielle suddenly screamed at Xena. "Haven't I done enough for you? Haven't I proved I loved you more than life itself?" A swollen fist slammed into Xena's shoulder with each word. The bard tried to roll from on top of the other woman, but her painful ribs stopped her completely. All she could do was thump into that muscular shoulder in impotent rage. "I came back from the Elysian Fields for you. Would Lao Ma come back from the dead if you called to her soul? Well, would she??" she demanded at the top of her lungs.
Xena reached up and grabbed the fist before it could connect with her body again. "Stop it, Gabrielle. It's not solving anything," she said gently. "You have proved yourself to me. More times than I can count, but this was a voice out of my past and it was important to me to repay that debt." Not sure if the bard was even listening, she continued. "I was little more than an animal back then. All I cared about was killing and death. Lao Ma started me back on the right path. She tried to show me there was more to life than just pain and hate. A lesson I didn't really understand until I had known you a while," she said, feeling Gabrielle's growing stillness as she let Xena's words sink in.
"I won't lie to you, Gabrielle, not now." Xena took a deep breath before continuing. She knew the bard was not going to like what she had to say next, but it had to be told. "Lao Ma and I were lovers," she said, sensing the bard stiffening in her arms again. "But it was a different sort of love than the one I shared with you. I was grateful to her for saving my life when the dogs were ready to tear me to pieces. And I was grateful for getting the full use of my legs back. But I told you, the instant Boralis showed up again, I forgot all about any of the good things I had learned from her and just became that animal again. Lao Ma had planted the seeds of change in me, though. Seeds that really didn't start to grow until I met you," Xena explained.
"Xena, I betrayed you," Gabrielle said, so softly the warrior had to strain to catch the words.
"You did what you thought was right," Xena offered generously in reply.
"No, Xena, I wasn't doing what I thought was right. I was jealous and I wanted you to feel as much pain as I was feeling. I betrayed you to the Green Dragon. I wanted you to know what it was like to lose everything," the bard sobbed pitifully. "I don't think you can ever forgive me for that."
The warrior leaned up, gently kissing the top of the crying woman's head before answering. "I can forgive you, Gabrielle, but you have to forgive yourself first," she said.
"How can I forgive myself? My own daughter killed your son. If I hadn't lied to you about her, maybe he would still be alive now," the bard replied.
Xena felt the anger re-ignited within her and the need for revenge called its seductive cry to her still aching heart. It would be so easy, she thought. Just reach up and snap her neck. She'd never know what happened. Then the image of the last words Gabrielle had spoken to her returned, just before they separated at the funeral fires for their children. "I love you," the bard had said, a desperate longing in her voice, a longing Xena had cold-heartedly ignored completely. She had gotten her revenge when she rejected the bard and walked away from the Centaurs' village, walked away from Gabrielle.
Xena had already done the worst thing she could do to the other woman, rejecting the deep love and caring her gentle bard offered from her heart. The anger slowly cooled, then died in her heart. As the desire to take some kind of revenge ebbed away, she remembered who had finally killed that spawn of Dahok's. Gabrielle had clearly been listening when Xena told her about the poison, using that knowledge to kill the demon child. She had stood in the bushes nearby, a sweaty grip on her chakram, watching as Gabrielle had lifted the waterbag filled with poison to her own lips. Xena had been torn between the desire to see the bard dead to pay for the life of her son, and stopping the other woman because some tiny part of her just couldn't quite let go. There was a barely acknowledged sense of relief when Gabrielle had thrown the waterbag to one side. No, there was no need to take any revenge. Gabrielle had already paid that price by taking the life of her own child, the one who had really killed Solon.
"I guess at some point we both stopped talking to each other, but more importantly, we stopped listening," Xena said, unsure how to continue, how to let the bard see they had both made mistakes. "I think we need to let it go so we can move on."
"Hate nearly tore us apart. How can we stop hating?" Gabrielle asked, quietly.
"By letting love and forgiveness show us the way," Xena said, smiling slowly into the darkness.
"Oh, that's not fair," Gabrielle joked a little. "Tossing my own words back at me."
"Doesn't make them any less true, does it?" Xena queried, glad she had remembered those words from so long ago. "Look, I am sorry for everything. I was trying to protect you because I thought you were so innocent and so young. If I had taken even a little time to explain things, instead of just expecting you to go along with me because I thought I knew what was best, maybe none of it would have happened at all," she continued, offering an apology from her heart. "Please forgive my arrogance and my pride. I was wrong and I am sorry."
"I'm sorry too, Xena. Sorry for the lies and betrayals. I just wanted you to pay for the pain I was feeling. I should have tried to talk to you instead of being so stubborn and closing you out like that," Gabrielle offered in return. "I was wrong to do the things I did and I am sorry for them all."
The two lovers lay curled in each others arms for a long moment, both feeling, for the first time, there was some chance of not only healing all the pain between them, but a chance of regaining all they had lost, and more.
"Xena, can I ask you something?" Gabrielle suddenly asked.
"Anything you want," Xena replied. "But I don't guarantee an answer." The low chuckle that followed told the bard she would get an answer regardless.
"Did you kill Ming T'ien? Not that it matters to me, really, but I would like to know."
Xena drew in a deep breath before replying. The trust was so fragile between them still and she wasn't sure what the bard's reaction would be, knowing Xena had broken her word and killed the Green Dragon, after all. "Yes, I killed him. Used that old hair pin of mine," she finally said.
"Thought as much," the bard commented.
"It doesn't matter?" the warrior asked, incredulous. Gabrielle had been so adamant in Chin about letting the man live.
"Nope. In the past. It is all in the past for us. There is only one way for us to go now and that is forward," the bard replied, after thinking for a moment. "The past few moons nearly killed us with the hate and the pain and the rage we felt for each other. It didn't, I don't know why it didn't but we survived somehow, and now we can only grow stronger, together," she said, believing the words again. Both women knew there was still a long way to go before they completely healed the hurts between them, but with all the lies finally out in the open, they had made a good start. They just had to keep listening.
"Hmmmm," the warrior replied a little tiredly.
"I'm sorry about beating up on you so bad too," Gabrielle said.
"That's all right, Gabrielle. I seem to remember giving as good as I got," Xena replied with a chuckle. "How about we both try to get some sleep before we start looking for a way out of here?" she asked. "It's been a long couple of days for both of us and I could really do with the rest."
Gabrielle almost blurted out that she was on a dream journey of some kind but the idea of being able to sleep, curled up with her lover again, was just too tempting. The events of the past few moons had separated them for too long and she missed being able to snuggle up with the tall warrior as she slept. Gabrielle decided to tell Xena about it later, after they had both enjoyed a nap together. She eased down against Xena's chest as comfortably as she could, considering her ribs and allowed her eyes to close gratefully. "Sounds like just the thing," she yawned, moments before Morpheus swept her into the first good dreams she could remember having in a long, long time.
Still following Xena's trace through the caverns, Eponin was starting to wonder if she would ever find the bottom of all the tunnels and chambers. Every time she turned into a new tunnel, there seemed to be five more branching off it. She found herself back-tracking several times as she temporarily lost the signs, but a careful search would soon have her back on Xena's trail. "Sweet Artemis, Xena. How long can one woman stay on her feet before dropping dead?" she muttered, turning down yet another tunnel. Eponin had long given up trying to sort out how many days the warrior might have been on her feet, seeing she had lost track of time in the caverns herself.
She had come across the low ceilinged chamber with the lake full of inky water some ways back, grateful for an opportunity to quench her thirst, fill her empty waterbag and rest for a few moments before continuing her search. It had only taken a heartbeat to see the warrior had not been there, though. The narrow stretch of beach had been marked by little more than water dripping from the rocks overhead, the only footprints being her own. The Amazon had tried to see across the dark lake, hoping Xena was not on the other side, the thought of an icy swim not really appealing. Between the subtle light from the fungus growing on the walls and her own torch, she couldn't see any sign of tracks on the confined strip of beach, concluding Xena was not there either. Turning out of the lake cavern, she had continued the search deeper into the subterranean passages.
The tunnel she found herself in now sloped gently downwards, but there didn't appear to be any others branching off to the sides. The light from her torch caused the tiny crystals to glitter brightly far down the underground passage but revealed few other details. Coming to another long stretch of sandy floor, she spotted the shuffling footprints of the warrior again, sighing in relief she had not lost all trace of Xena completely. The occasional back-tracking was wasting precious time and right now, Eponin felt she had very little to waste.
Eventually, the floor of the tunnel began to level off and the Amazon hoped she had come to the end of it. The constant feeling of being enclosed was starting to give her the creeps, making her wish she could simply find the warrior woman and return to the openness of the forest once more. "Remind me never to take up the life of a hermit," she muttered quietly. "The last place I want to spend the rest of my life is in some dank cave."
Eponin finally reached the end of the long tunnel, disappointed to discover it was a dead end. In the leaping shadows of her torch she almost overlooked the hollow where Xena lay, still sleeping soundly. Only a unexpected flash of light alerted the Amazon to Xena's presence as the torchlight reflected off her chakram. Squatting down, she could see the other woman was deeply asleep, though there were still very dark circles under her eyes. Leaning her torch against the wall near Xena's head, she moved to the other side, gently poking the sole of one foot to wake the woman. Being a warrior herself, Eponin knew better than to simply shake Xena by the shoulder. That was just asking to have her bones broken, if not a great deal worse.
"Xena," she said quietly. "Come on, time to wake up, Xena."
From somewhere far away, the warrior heard a voice calling her name. "Gabrielle?" she muttered. Opening her eyes slowly, she was greeted with the sight of sparkling walls and bright light. Squinting her eyes against the unexpected glare, she called out for the bard again. "Hey Gabrielle, there's light in here," she said happily.
"Mother of Zeus, there should be. I carried every damned torch with me for long enough," a familiar voice groused from Xena's feet.
Xena sat up rapidly, her head spinning from the sudden change in position. Grabbing the wall beside her, she looked around the small hollow she found herself in. "Eponin? What are you doing here? Where's Gabrielle?" she asked in quick succession.
"Yes, it's me," the Amazon replied, a little wearily. "I was sent to find you, and let me tell you now, you did one fine job of hiding yourself. I was just about ready to give up. Gabrielle's back at the village, which is exactly where I am taking you so you can forget about arguing with me about it. I have been told in no uncertain terms, if you give me any trouble, I am to break your legs and carry you back to the village."
"No, Gabrielle's with me. We were trapped in a rockfa " Xena started to say, then took a good look around her. "Where am I?" the warrior suddenly asked, totally confused.
"Did you take a hit to the head or something?" Eponin asked, concerned. She hadn't seen any rockfall, and she knew for a fact the bard was in the purification hut back at the Hunting Grounds.
"Well, as a matter a fact," Xena said, her hand automatically reaching for the spot where Gabrielle had hit her with the rock.
Eponin quickly checked the place Xena was holding, finding nothing there at all. Thinking maybe the warrior was mistaken about where she had been hit, she carefully ran her hands over Xena's entire skull, finding no sign of any lumps or bumps that shouldn't be there. "Well, if you took a hit, there isn't any sign of it now," Eponin said as she rocked back on her heels again.
Xena was running her own hands over the place she KNEW the bard had struck her, not quite believing there was no lump. "But she did hit me. There was a huge bump over my ear with a gash across it," Xena said, emphatically. Then she noticed her hands. What happened to my broken knuckles? she thought, growing more bewildered with every passing heartbeat.
"I don't know who 'she' is, but there isnt anything there now," Eponin said. "Look, I think you just need something to eat and drink, then I can get you out of here and back to the village. I don't know how long I've been in here, well, not for sure but Gabrielle probably doesn't have a lot of time left."
"What do you mean, doesn't have a lot of time? She was fine a little while ago. Broken ribs and a pretty mashed nose," Xena admitted, shamefully. "But she was okay, other than that. What IS going on here?"
Handing over a ration bar and her waterskin to the warrior woman, Eponin said, "I don't know what you're talking about either. Broken ribs? Mashed nose? Got me with those. I think we both might have something to talk about while we try to find our way back out of here again."
Xena simply nodded, mouth full of the most delicious tasting food she could remember eating in a long time.
Between the little Xena could remember, and the lot Eponin could, the trip back to the entrance of the cavern network took far less time to make than the journey either of them had made in. They stood together for a moment at the mouth the cave as Eponin adjusted her cloak and settled what was left of her provisions in the bag at her hip. Aside from some lingering stiffness from sleeping on the cold stone floor of the cavern, and a general sense of tiredness, Xena was still having a little trouble believing she was not injured in any way. Between the rockfall and the pounding I took from Gabrielle, I should be covered in bruises, she thought to herself. She could accept she might have been on some kind of dream journey but why had Gabrielle been there too, when Eponin had made it clear the bard was in a hut back at the village. The Amazon didn't know if the blonde story-teller was journeying as well. She only knew what Ephiny had told her and that was the fact Gabrielle was dying for some reason.
Stretching out the still tight muscles in her back, Xena turned to the other woman and said, "If it's all right with you, I might head off."
"For the village?" Eponin asked archly. She meant to keep her promise and get the warrior back to the Amazon hunting grounds regardless of what Xena might have to say about the matter. If the tall warrior was intending to go anywhere else, other than straight to the bard's side, then she was going to break Xena's legs before she got a chance to take a single step.
Xena smiled at the shorter woman by her side. "Yes, for the village. Once I get going, there is no way you could keep up with me and I want to get there as quickly as possible. Like you said, Gabrielle might not have a lot of time left."
Eponin thought about it for a moment before continuing. "Promise me, Xena. Promise you'll go to the village and not head off in some other direction entirely," she said.
"Don't quite trust me, do you?" the warrior said, one eyebrow moving up her forehead in a very characteristic motion.
"When it comes to our Queen, I don't trust anyone completely, not even you," Eponin replied, ducking her head.
"You have my word, Eponin. I'm going right to Gabrielle. The entire Spartan army couldn't keep me away," Xena promised solemnly.
"Go then. I'll catch up when I can. Damned long legs of yours would have made it one Tartarus of a trip back for me anyway."
Xena briefly clasped the other woman's forearm before moving off in a slow jog. By the time Eponin had crossed the snowfield, she caught one last glimpse of the warrior woman as Xena sprinted flat out down the track towards the Amazon village. "One of these days, I am going to figure out how she does that," Eponin muttered darkly, gradually picking up her own pace to follow the other woman.
The more Xena thought about her time in the caverns, the more she came to believe she had simply dreamed the whole thing because she wanted to somehow work things out with Gabrielle. The only other dream journey she had been on had taken place almost three summers before, and she had gotten a lot of help travelling to that other-worldly plane. This time there had been no herbs to drink, no blind priest of Morpheus to watch over her slowly fading body. She had not encountered the gruesome victims of her own past, instead she had found the bard. Eventually, she decided she really had dreamed her experiences in the underground chamber and Gabrielle hadn't been there at all. It was her own feelings for the bard, buried under her need for revenge, which had brought about the mental images. She assumed the other woman was probably still torn up with grief and rage. "Which is going to make my arrival a less than welcome event," she muttered to herself. "Well, something's going on, or Ephiny would not have sent Eponin out to find me."
Cutting through the back of the Centaurs' territory, Xena managed to trim several candlemarks from Eponin's original journey up to the mountain top. Adjusting her pace slightly to take advantage of the flatter ground through the forest, the warrior estimated she would arrive at the Amazon's village a full candlemark before sunset. Some time back she had heard the first of the border scouts whistling ahead of her as they recognised her distinctive figure running through the open woodland. Hera's tits, does everyone know I am coming, she thought irritably to herself.
Xena didn't slow her pace until she finally reached the main compound of the Amazon village. She was surprised to see so many woman gathered in the small space, all sitting around the various fires dotted about the area. Spotting Ephiny, she jogged over to the woman who ruled the Nation in Gabrielle's place. The anguished look on the blonde Amazon's face, clearly visible from the other side of the square, caused a sudden, painful tightening in Xena's chest.
"Where is she?" Xena asked without preamble, when she was close enough to be heard.
The Amazon Regent pointed to a nondescript building on the edge of the compound. "In there, Xena but " she started to say.
"But what?" the warrior snapped back, already turning away from the other woman.
"I think you're too late. I'm sorry. I know she tried to hold on for as long as she could, but she simply ran out of time," Ephiny continued, grief etching its powerful lines into her face.
Xena had heard nothing beyond the words 'too late', everything else being drowned out by the thunderous beat of her shattering heart. Throwing off the hands trying to hold her, Xena stormed into the purification hut, slamming the door shut behind her. Jamming the crossbar into place so no one could possibly enter without tearing down the entire door, Xena turned around slowly.
The sight she saw was enough to stop the breath in her lungs. A pale, peaceful face with deeply shadowed eyes contrasted starkly against the deep green of the pallet where the bard lay. A flowing white gown was carefully draped around her still form. Shaking her head in total disbelief, Xena stepped towards Gabrielle, unable to accept even the idea she may be dead, not after all they had been through over the past few moons. Dropping to her knees beside the body, the warrior brushed one hesitant finger over the bard's still slightly warm cheek. Letting the finger drop to the other woman's throat, she tried to feel for any sign of a pulse. Finding nothing at all, Xena briefly held her palm near the bard's nose, praying for Gabrielle to breathe. Xena's face crumbled, recognising she really was too late.
"No, Gabrielle. No," she groaned to the other woman. "Please don't leave now. Remember the cavern? Oh Gabrielle. Please, remember the cavern, the rockfall. We talked, remember? It was over. All the pain and hate. It was over at last. We'd finally started listening again. You can't leave now. Not when we have a chance to make it right again," Xena begged shamelessly. Dropping her head to the side of the pallet, covering it with both hands, she allowed the tears to overflow and stream down her face. "NOOOOO!!! GABRIELLE!!!!! NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!"
Outside the purification hut, every woman gathered in the compound heard the final anguished cry of a woman who had lost too much. Ephiny was already moving towards the door, unsure if she should enter or not. A sudden movement from the corner of her eye stopped her in her tracks. Turning towards the motion, she saw Eponin come pelting into the compound, sweat pouring down her face and body as she finally arrived in the village. Even she had heard the scream of grief as it echoed up the main path.
"What happened? What's going on?" she asked hurriedly, still gasping for breath.
"Gabrielle's dead. Xena's just found out," Ephiny replied, her own pain blanking all expression from her face.
"Sweet Artemis, no," the sweating warrior said, in disbelief. "We have to get in there."
As one, the two women raced towards the door of the purification hut.
Inside, Xena didn't hear the sound of the Amazon Regent or the Nation's best warrior trying to shoulder the locked door open. She didn't hear her own grief-stricken cries or feel the increasing pain in her hand as she thumped the side of the pallet over and over again. There was nothing but the whirlpool of agony and loss she had fallen into.
Far, far away, another soul heard Xena's tormented cry. She walked confidently through the blackness surrounding her, much as she had walked through it before. A peaceful, forgiving voice carefully guided her through the passages, leading her back towards the light. A brief moment of disorientation and she found herself opening her eyes to see the criss-cross pattern of the thatching on the ceiling. Turning her head to one side, she saw Xena kneeling next to the pallet, one bloodied fist thudding against the bed. Somehow, Gabrielle found a little strength, lifting her arm slightly. Dropping her own hand over Xena's, she stopped the warrior from hurting herself any further.
The warrior's head snapped up from the edge of the pallet, not believing there was a hand over her own. Seeing Gabrielle's tired but happy eyes looking back at her, the strong light of love burning in them deeply, she was left almost speechless. "But you No pulse I thought " she spluttered.
"Sorry about that, Xena. Guess I took the long way home," the bard replied gently. Hearing someone trying to break down the door of the hut, she nodded to the incredulous woman still on her knees beside her. "I think you had better let them in or they're really going to hurt themselves trying to break down that door," she said. "Then you can damned well get into this bed with me because I want to go to sleep knowing exactly where you are for a change."
Xena simply climbed obediently to her feet. Leaning over the bard for a moment, she dropped a single, tender kiss on Gabrielle's lips before moving towards the door. They had both taken the long way home but they had finally arrived, together.
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