Pieces of Darkness
Disclaimer: Characters are not mine. Ideas are. No infringement intended. No gratuities expected. No sex. No subtext. See what you will for we translate what we see and hear to fit what places we need to fill.
Spoiler alert: Probably best to have seen "The Bitter Suite" teaser before reading this bit.
To: FC & PC, because I will always love you and to RC, that last line is for you schmoe!
Unsteady hands reached out in the misty rain to turn a broken form from the sodden earth. The form of a young girl lay deathly still, her battered and bruised body twisted beyond the contours of human capability. Dark crimson fluid streamed from her ears, nose, and mouth. A deep gash at the edge of her right eye left most of her face discolored and nearly unrecognizable. Strong hands shook with emotion as they searched for some sign, even the slightest sign, of life. The girl seemed to be wrapped, not dressed, in some sort of ceremonial cloth. Could this have been some horrid sacrifice? She threw her head back to scream to the sky but instead found herself running running through dense brush, branches and brambles clawing at her flesh as she ran. Ahead of her, the quarry, the perpetrator of the heinous act she had witnessed. Her heart beat wildly against her chest in combined pulsation of the anger she felt toward her prey and the excitement she felt toward catching it. She could hear the thicket crunching under its feet, its breath laboring as it attempted to escape her pursuit. It was all in vain. With one last burst of strength the woman vaulted across a short expanse of shrubbery, tackling the fleeing target with ease. They landed in a tangle of arms and legs that turned quickly to ceaseless pummeling. The only thought driving the woman was the sight of that poor child's beaten lifeless form. She wrapped her long fingers around her victim's throat stoically enjoying the thought of squeezing the life from this heartless bitch. She flipped the creature over quickly, wanting to watch as its life drained slowly and painfully out of its hateful eyes. Its eyes she looked into its eyes blue eyes crystal blue eyes
Xena sprang to a sitting position, gasping for air as though she had been held too long under water. She gulped in deep breaths in a frantic attempt to calm her racing heart. For a moment the world was unfamiliar, her army missing, her tent her horse time space spinning wobbling falling back into its normal rhythm. She dug her fingers into the soft earth on either side of her bedroll as if she were holding on to the very ground for stability. Reality snapped into focus with a sharp crack that forced the warrior's eyes shut and threw her head back with a jerk. She slowly let her chin fall to her chest refusing to open her eyes just yet. Had her world had come back together?
Her other senses attempted reassurance. Smoke, from the campfire built hours before and now smoldered with red and black blinking embers, assaulted her nostrils. A cool breeze sent a sudden shiver over the warrior's body, a shiver that came more from the emotional turmoil she desperately tried to contain than the slight drop in temperature. Again Xena took a few deep, cleansing breaths and rubbed her upper arms briskly. She wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of one hand, then brought that hand in front of her. Slowly she opened her eyes only to witness both of her normally unwavering hands shaking violently. Quickly she crossed her arms and held each hand under the opposite arm. She turned to the slumbering bundle at her side. A bundle that she had been careful not to alert to her sudden panic.
For a moment she stared at the dark blanket that covered the young girl, watching so intently, she wasn't sure if it rose and fell in a slow sleepy rhythm. Carefully, very carefully she reached across that bundle and lifted the blanket from the face beneath. Gabrielle rested with her hands folded under her cheek. Her long lashes rested like tiny feathers across her cherubic cheeks. Xena reached out to touch the tiny white scar at the corner of the girl's right eye. Gabrielle swished at her gentle touch as if brushing away a bothersome insect, then quickly snuggled deeper into her cocoon of blankets without ever rising from her blissful sleep. Xena smiled at the girl's ability to find such peace in such a chaotic life. Even after everything they had survived in the past few months, Gabrielle still slept like a child once her head hit her pillow that consisted of that pack she carried everywhere and one small folded blanket. Xena could not help stare at the look of pure innocence before her, but her eyes were drawn back to the crescent shaped scar on the bard's temple. Something about it drew her interest and chilled her heart.
Xena had noticed the scar a little more than a fortnight ago. After a few days in the Mediterranean summer sun, the girl's fair skin had turned a golden brown. The pallor left by that Persian arrow was replaced with a healthy glow. It was then that she had first seen the small pale mark on the girl's face. Xena had wracked her brain since that moment. In the three years they had been together she had treated every injury the girl ever had the misfortunate to incur, everything from bee stings and splinters to stitches and poultices. Xena was the rescuer, the healer, the one that sat up all night nursing broken bones and feverish bards who never seemed to follow orders and always seemed to find the worst of whatever mischief she fell into. She had dressed wounds, held clammy hands and forced foul tasting remedies on a girl whose usually smiling face could immediately contort into such a sour, pinched visage that Xena rarely kept from chuckling.
The warrior knew every source of every flaw on her sweet bard's person. It was not a difficult task. Gabrielle had followed her from Poteidia as an unblemished soul; it was her own dark influence that truly scarred the girl. The small mark on the girl's collar bone, the blade thin stripe that followed her hair line behind her right ear and the neat row of pale pin-points across her right hip were constant reminders of that moment of terror in a Mitoan temple. The wound that left ugly, matching purple marks on her chest and back, from an arrow laced with poison that slowly healed and hopefully faded were much too fresh in her memory. That moment in Dahak's temple when she had been 'too late' to save Gabrielle from the hellish touch of the dark demon flashed across the warrior's memory. She shuddered at that thought and for a moment the vision of that other girl the dream girl the dead girl passed behind her eyes. She squeezed them shut, causing stray tears to ooze out of the tight lines that formed there. When she opened them again, the dream form lay before her. To her horror, now it was Gabrielle that lay beaten and broken. She gasped silently before she realized it was her imagination and not reality that held her mind in its tight grip. But she could not shake away the vision of that girl and the thought of someone doing such a thing to her. The warrior's stomach churned. She rose quickly, making her way across the camp to the edge of the clearing before losing the contents of her stomach.
The pinkish-yellow light of dawn peeked over the horizon. Argo whickered softly in the small alcove she had found suitable for her makeshift woodland stable. Xena swished the water she had drawn from her waterskin around in her mouth then spat it out on the ground trying to wash the taste of bitter bile away. She poured water from the same skin into her cupped palm and splashed it onto her face hoping to wash away the feverish feeling that now burned her into a fiery chill. A quick glance over her shoulder told her the girl was still asleep, unaffected by the predawn anxiety of the warrior. 'The scar,' Xena thought again, 'that's when it started, that's when these nightmares started.'
She had not rested through the night since she had noticed that tiny blemish on the girl's face. Why? It would be so easy to just ask Gabrielle, but something stopped her. Some unseen force stopped her cold at each attempt she had made to do just that. The girl would catch her staring then toss her head just enough to allow her golden hair to fall across that eye. She'd peek through the light-colored strands and smile that impish smile she used on special occasions to sway the warrior to her way of thinking. Oh, Xena was well aware of the bard's tricks but gave her a wide berth. She knew when to pull rank and set the girl back on the right track. Something about that mark seemed to play on her mind in the daylight hours as well, but it was never a topic of discussion.
Xena reached for her weapons. Perhaps a robust drilling session would clear the cobwebs from her mind and wipe the last remnants of that nightmare away before she tried to roust her grumbly young protégé. The palm of her hand brushed across the wound leather handle of her whip. The feeling sent a chill across her form as gooseflesh crawled from that spot to the roots of her dark hair. The strange burn of iniquities, that could not be cleansed, flared directly behind that feeling. It was nearly paralyzing. The warrior squeezed her eyes shut to try to block out a nightmare that should have ended when she escaped the prison of her tormented sleep.
Hands weathered, tainted hands worked at the knotted leather braid pulling it roughly from the small, bloodied feet it bound. Deep purple bruises encircled the ankles where the leather had bitten into the tender skin. The hands tore the whip away with little regard for the injuries it had caused. Blood that had been held back by the weapon's tension flowed quickly from the wounds. Gashes and dark reddened blotches that could only have been caused by hot coals spread across the girl's calves. Through the cheesecloth like cloth that covered the young girl's body she could make out similar and more severe wounds. Slowly the hands moved to the girl's side and reached to gather the body, drained of its light, into its corrupted embrace.
Xena shook her head rapidly to erase the visions. The walls between reality and imagination had grown thin and she feared she had slipped through the veil separating them. The sound of her own heart pounded against her eardrums and her ragged breath tore across her lungs as if it had been set afire. The strange burn of something that should not be real, but horrifically has become fact, brought a fever-like sensation to her cheeks and head. Her eyes watered with the rise in temperature as she slowly raised her head to survey the campsite. Argo still stood in the alcove. The band of light on the eastern horizon had grown wider and the sounds of nature began singing their morning melody. Gabrielle sighed as she stretched out and rolled onto her back, then quickly reconsidered and pulled herself back into a warm ball under the blankets. The cold metal of her sword hilt rested against the palm of her right hand. She pressed the thumb and fingers of her left against her temples as the mental anguish turned quickly into physical pain. Again her stomach lurched and for the second time that morning the warrior lost her battle to control that impulse. She walked slowly to her steed. Having dropped her broadsword back into its sheath, she wrapped one arm around the horse's neck and rested her forehead against its shoulder. The animal whickered a soft greeting.
"Must be some kind of fever, Argo," the warrior whispered into the animal's soft fur. "Gabrielle'll have a fit if I get sick," she chuckled softly, knowing how much the girl fretted over the warrior's vulnerability on the few occasions she had been feeling less than one hundred percent. "Maybe I just ate some venison that spent too much time in the sun," she reasoned to herself. "Must have some chamomile in the medicine pouch. I'll make some tea to settle my stomach." The soft beating of the large animal's heart and warmth of its body calmed the warrior. She rested there; allowing her eyes to flutter closed. Xena had slept standing up in this fashion on many occasions; it was not difficult for her. The dream returned with a
"VENGEANCE!!!" the voice screamed, death and destruction dripping from its tone. The hands, the same hands, reached out and grabbed her throat cutting off all source of oxygen. She gasped deeply and grasped the wrists to pull them away.
"I HATE YOU YOU YOU YOU " the high-pitched wail echoed over and over as the world slipped away. A pain greater than any she had ever felt pierced her heart like a white-hot poker.
A loud snort from the war-horse brought the warrior wide-awake. Argo was trained in battle sense. If her mistress was fatigued and needed rest, she would stand guard only to alert the warrior at the first sign of danger. The animal sensed Xena's distress before the warrior's consciousness fought its way from the nightmare. The warrior gasped as the truth fell around her and hit her like a battering ram in the gut. Her knuckles grew white as she squeezed the mare's mane in her fist.
"It was me," she expelled in a hoarse groan, "by the gods, I did that to her." The tears that followed were muffled by the large horse's fur as the warrior allowed her guilt to pour on to her trusted friend. A friend that would forever protect any secret whispered in her ear at any time.
The memory flooded back in rapid succession. It was all clear now, how she had ridden into the Amazon village and snapped that whip around Gabrielle's ankles. Then how she had dragged her behind some dark haired stallion across the rocky ground, through fire and thorns, water and brush, until she came to a halt at the edge of that foggy cliff. "Dear mother, how could I " Her voice away trailed in a choked whisper as she remembered also the loss of her sweet child, her only son. But how could she have blamed Gabrielle for that. Gabrielle would not harm a child, not any child, not even the child she knew was born only to bring evil and destruction into the world. She had been so distraught over her loss that she had listened to Ares. She had taken his coaxing to heart and gone after the second child in her life. For just as Solon had been the child of her flesh, Gabrielle had become the child of her heart. In her anguish and hatred she had become the very monster she fought so hard to control and doing so had almost brought about the girl's death as well. There was no excuse. There was no one to blame. No justification would ever be found for this heinous act of torturous revenge. She was consumed by her guilt.
Yet there, just a few yards away, the girl lay sleeping. She was breathing. She was whole. She was certainly alive. Why was she alive? Had it all been some horrid dream? It seemed so real, not only in Xena's mind but in actual physical memory as well.
"Because she forgives you," a voice beside the memory spoke for the first time. It was a voice Xena seldom paid any attention to, but it was there. Perhaps, as her mother had always told her, it was the voice of her better judgement. If only she would learn to listen to it. "Just as you forgive her," it continued.
"She shouldn't!" she gasped as tears threatened to choke off her words. Argo pawed nervously at the ground.
"But she does and she always will and furthermore that isn't up to you," the voice of reason continued in a calming voice.
"I don't deserve that kind of forgiveness," the warrior whispered through the tears that now fell freely.
"Everyone deserves to be forgiven. Hasn't she shown you that repeatedly and haven't you forgiven her as well?"
"There was nothing to forgive," she mouthed without sound and around her the world grew silent.
Argo nodded her head, slowly bobbing it up and down. Xena's arm slid from her steed's neck and she turned slowly to face the young girl that still slept next to the dying fire. "How can you keep forgiving me over and over, Gabrielle, when all I cause you is pain?"
"You shouldn't ask questions that will never have answers," the inner voice scolded her. "And don't even think about leaving her because you know she will only follow and get herself into more trouble than she can handle."
The warrior shook her head. Perhaps the dreams, the guilt, and the memory were punishment enough for her. She crossed the clearing and tossed a log onto the dying embers, fanning them back into a healthy flame. They licked the edges of the log and soon crackled with the promise of heat and light. In the east the sun itself began its slow ascent into the morning sky, pushing back the darkness that was the night. The minions of the dark crept back into the caliginous shadows and crannies that hid them during the daylight hours as the creatures of the day blinked into the morning light.
The girl under the blankets suddenly seemed unusually restless as one thin arm snaked out from under its covering to search the bedroll next to it. Even in sleep, Gabrielle sensed the warrior's absence. If she did not find her friend she would rise, full of concern and questions that would never be answered. Xena dropped carefully onto her own nest of warm blankets, suddenly exhausted as well as chilled by the early morning dew. She lay back against the saddle she had used as a pillow. The mound of blankets next to her rumbled as a blond head poked out and found a more comfortable spot on the warrior's shoulder. The girl snuggled close, making those soft sleepy noises only the young are capable of making. The warrior smiled as she wrapped one strong arm around her young friend's shoulders and brushed the hair from her face with the other. She gently pushed the stray locks behind the girl's ear and softly brushed her fingers over the half-moon shaped scar at the edge of the girl's eye.
Xena realized that the mark was in such a place that when Gabrielle smiled it would disappear into the crinkly lines that formed that precious grin. It was so small that unless the girl was staring into a looking glass (which was not something Gabrielle did very often) and unless she was looking to find something, the girl would most likely never see it.
'No,' Xena reasoned to herself as she continued to stroke the girl's temple comfortingly, 'it is a reminder for me, not for her.'
'She will never remember. You will never forget,' her other voice thought back.
As if in answer, a thin arm reached across Xena's middle and hugged her gently. "love you, Xena," the girl murmured sleepily as she snuggled deeper into the comforting embrace.
A tear rolled across the warrior's cheek as she softly kissed the top of the girl's head. "love you more," she whispered as she closed her eyes in contented sleep.
I really hated that drag scene and, even more, hated the fact that it was never ever addressed.
On a personal note: Many years ago in the midst of play I accidentally hurt my younger brother. To this day he carries a scar for which he cannot recall an injury to match. He has no recollection of the day that I will never forget.
Love is a strange and wonderful thing.
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