|Neither Xena nor Gabrielle (nor,
come to that, Argo) belong to me. They are the property of
The warrior was long limbed and blue eyed and arrogant. She wore no
armour and her hair was provocatively long, flaunting her contempt for
any possible opponent. She hadn't bothered to draw her sword, despite
the fact that she was facing four of Mitos' bodyguard. Instead she
leaned her elbows on the counter behind her and looked through them to
where Mitos himself stood, massive and threatening. After a moment, an
eyebrow lifted and her mouth sneered.
Sitting to one side, in shadows as usual, Mitos� lieutenant felt
his own mouth thin in a tight smile of recognition. He set down the cup
in his hands and leaned forwards, fixing his gaze on the scene before
him. Just looking at her made the hairs lift on his arms. He always knew
when a moment of destiny was upon him. This was one. Perhaps the
greatest of all. He was aware of his attention narrowing, of the edges
of the room darkening, of time slowing down. Anticipation prickled along
his fingers and at the back of his neck. Relief flickered deep within
him as well. There might a point to this after all. He had had to
suppress shame when he became a raider chief�s lieutenant; ageing
mercenaries took what work they could find. But perhaps the chance for
honour had not deserted him, after all. He drew a breath, and held it.
"I see the rumour was right." During the lengthy pause, the
men had grown more tense and the woman, if anything, even more relaxed.
Her voice was deep and rich and held a hint of lazy amusement.
Mitos cocked his head. He knew the power of silence as well.
"You could do with some quality help. With more than mere
muscle." She lifted an eyebrow, evidently having decided it was
time to move the game on to a more rewarding stage. In the shadows, the
lieutenant smiled a little, watching as a flicker of chagrin crossed
Mitos' face: the warlord always disliked being made to feel that he had
lost the initiative.
From his vantage point, the lieutenant saw one of the raiders, Etias,
never the quickest of wits, tauten, saw his hand tighten on his sword.
He shook his head. Fool, and about to pay the price for it, he guessed.
Even so, even though he had anticipated something very like this, he was
surprised by the savage swiftness of the woman's response. She still
hadn't drawn her sword, but the breast dagger which sliced open Etias'
neck and sprayed all those around with blood was obviously razor sharp.
Her movement had been so quick that it was over before anyone realized
quite what she was doing.
"She's so good," the lieutenant thought admiringly, in the
silence that followed. His concentration intensified, and for a second
he felt he was standing outside himself, and above. Below him, Etias'
huddled form, still leaking a little blood onto the sawdust of the
floor. A circle of faces, spotted with red. One man, younger than most,
lifting his hand to the warm touch of wetness on his face, his eyes
disbelieving. Mitos, massive and brooding, his face carefully blank. The
woman leaning against the counter of the bar once more, as relaxed as
In the hearth, a log caught and flared, spitting sparks into the room
and sending shadows flapping over the forms briefly frozen in their
shock. Outside, a gust of wind howled round the eaves of the stone-built
Keep. The lieutenant imagined he could smell the surrounding forest on
it, damp and dark and rotting, and then something more made itself known
to his senses. Something alert and aware and turning its attention
towards all of them now.
Then he shook himself, and flicked a glance to Mitos. Who was
watching for it, and inclined his head a fraction in his direction. The
lieutenant stood up, aware of his advantage in height, taking his time
so that the woman would have the opportunity to notice as well. He moved
slowly, letting her assume him to be as ungainly as his weight and
breadth suggested, shifting until he stood in the open, a clear space
between them. "He has more than mere muscle," he said, softly,
smiling. She lifted her gaze coolly, apparently unimpressed. "He
has me." He drew his sword, still taking his time, approving of her
nonchalance and refusal to take her eyes from his. Very blue eyes, he
thought, like a summer sky.
"Not for much longer." She was smiling now too, one hand
moving to grasp the sword hilt which jutted over her shoulder. His
peripheral vision caught the smooth slide of her muscles as she
Soon now, the lieutenant told himself, that extra sense which had
carried him safe through so many raids and battles aching and raw to the
occasion. As happened in such moments of destiny it flowered, took in
hints of sounds and scents and movement. It created in his mind an image
of the whole event, inside the Keep and out of it, freeing him of the
particular instant of time and making him aware of the currents which
flowed through it. The circle of watching men, the Keep, the clearing
around it, the forest around that: all became distinct to him, and more.
The darkness in the forest had weight and texture, he realised, had
purpose and was taking an interest as well. What is this? he
asked himself, fighting the distraction. Something which lurked in the
forest and was drawn to the blood which they shed.
Aloud he said, "What's your name? I like to know that when I
kill someone." But he thought he knew, and was not really listening
as he readied himself.
Just before she answered, before she moved, when he should have been
most focused in mind and body, something else claimed his attention once
more. The thing from the forest was very close now, was just outside the
Keep, avid and lusting. He was sure. And perhaps the certainty he felt
that this was the case slowed him down. Or perhaps it was his surprise
when she said, "Cottys." But perhaps she was really that fast.
The lieutenant had no time to feel much as her blade flashed towards
him, as inevitable as night. So beautiful, he thought, aware he was
seeing a wonder of the warrior's art, fleetingly awed at the sight. A
sight to die for. It was as though he was part of a predestined
pattern aching with loveliness: his neck seemed to bend to complete it.
He marvelled at the glittering arc of the sword's descent, and then he
passed through it and into the dark.
Gabrielle slitted her eyes and tried to see through the fog. She
rubbed both hands over her face, her fingers slipping a little on the
moisture gathered there. It was exhausting, having to peer ahead through
the dingy gloom to try to make out trees or other obstacles before they
thwacked into her, and at the same time attempt to watch her footing.
The earth was soaked and spongy, her boots skidding continually in the
mud, saturated clumps of moss betraying her or roots tripping her. She
drew a deep breath and clasped both numbed hands together. It was so
cold. The streams she met ran darkly and slowly under thin sheets of
cloudy ice and puddles crackled when she stumbled through them. And then
there was the doubt. Was this really the track, or just a deer run, or
the trail of some other animal? She couldn't be sure. This region was
nearly deserted; there would be no other traveller on this route.
"Steady," she told herself. "Steady." Keep a
clear head. Concentrate on moving. "One foot after the
other." She could hear Xena's voice, in her head, offering the
advice in her familiar cool tones. Her eyes teared and her breath
caught. "Not now. Keep moving." She had been walking for a day
and a half, and after a nearly sleepless night at a half ruined hut she
was all but exhausted. Making a camp and waiting to be found would
certainly have been better advice, but she didn't have that choice, any
more than she could have stayed at the Inn, although Xena had told her
to. She settled back into her steady, dogged trudge, and let her
thoughts drift back to that last conversation with her partner.
"You're not going without me!" Gabrielle tried to sit up,
but either her brain or the world seemed to have turned into jelly; the
inn's cramped room was swimming around her head.
"Lie back." Xena's hands were cool on her forehead.
"You were very ill." She went to the table and picked up the
beaker which stood there. Slightly scented steam swirled above it.
"Here. It's ready." She watched while the bard sniffed
suspiciously at the brew.
"Is this going to send me to sleep?" She frowned at her
partner, who looked unsettlingly distant in the rough jerkin and
breeches of her disguise. "I'll be okay. You'll be there - what can
Xena sighed. "The fever hasn't gone yet." She let the back
of her hand rest on Gabrielle's cheek a moment and looked at her
steadily. "Give yourself a chance." The bard set her mouth
stubbornly and stared back. Xena leaned closer. "You won't make it.
I'll have to bring you back and that will lose valuable time. More
people will die."
Gabrielle flinched, but kept her eyes on Xena's face as she lifted
the beaker and took first one sip, then another, buying herself time as
she tried to think of an alternative. When she realised there was none,
she had to blink back tears, but she did not look away. Finally, she
nodded. She couldn't bring herself to say the words.
Xena smiled at her. "Then we'll do what I said. When you're
better, move on to Kalpos. I'll meet you there." She had shown it
to Gabrielle on the map, the evening before; a fishing village two days'
walk to the south of the inn and the forest. "You'll like it. They
tell a weird story there - about people sometimes finding their wife or
husband in the sea."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, and Xena gave a half-abashed grin. Still,
"You know I'm right," she persisted.
Gabrielle lowered the beaker, which by now was half empty. She had to
clear her throat before she could get any words out. "How
long?" she managed.
Xena shrugged. "As long as it takes." Then her face
softened a little. "Not long, I promise."
"Six days, Xena," Gabrielle grumbled as she plodded on.
"Six days is long. Believe me." She paused. The track, such as
it was, had divided in front of her. "Oh, Hades," she
muttered, and recalled Xena's map with an effort. It wasn't much help;
the best thing she could do, she decided, was keep walking north and
east, towards the part of the forest Xena had been headed for. She
checked the position of the sun, visible only as patch of slightly
greater brightness in the sky. "So if the sun is there," she
recited to herself, "east is there. I think." And north by
east was there. One fork of the path, she was relieved to see, led off
in that direction. Into darker and deeper forest. She hadn't liked the
look of it on the map either, where it was just a darkly shaded mass. Forbidding,
was that the word which suggested itself? She needed something stronger,
more threatening. Malevolent? She shook herself briskly.
"Okay, that's enough frightening yourself to death. Let's get
moving, bard." She said this particularly loudly, aware she was
trying to cheer herself up. And after all, it was better than being
cooped up in that stuffy little room, worrying about the dreams.
Remembering these, Gabrielle frowned and unconsciously picked up her
pace. She felt there wasn't much time, that she would arrive too late to
do any good, a sense she had been unable to shake off. The dreams had
started just after Xena left, and kept coming back. They were merely
filled with vague dreads at the beginning, but got clearer each time
they returned. The vision which slowly crystallised kept predicting one
particular catastrophe: a room filled with shadows like snakes which
whipped around and hissed and tied themselves into an ever-tightening
knot around the warrior. A second Xena standing above the writhing ball
that contained her first self, wielding a knife which flashed as she
slashed it down to slice through the knot. Xena lying dead in streams of
blood that scrawled over the ground like black ribbons, the blade in her
"No," the bard whispered fiercely to herself. "It's
not going to be like that. Not if I can help it."
The cry which caught her attention shortly afterwards was faint and
reedy. If the forest had not been so quiet, she would not have heard it
at all. It seemed to be coming from in front and to the left of her.
"Hi there!" she called, after a moment's thought, deciding she
must take the risk. "Where are you?" The heavy, damp air
seemed to soak up the sound. There was no response for a time, though
she held her breath and listened as hard as she could. Then, as she was
about to try casting about in the hope she'd stumble on whatever it was
by chance, she heard it again. A wail really; no words, just crying. And
just a few paces away.
Gabrielle pulled back a branch. The dead leaves on it were speckled
with mould. They quivered damply and a few drifted off. Behind, a very
young child huddled, wrapped round itself so that all she could really
see was the top of a bony back emerging, blue and shivering, from a
rough woollen tunic. She threw aside her pack and kneeled, then gently
touched the little lump, setting her hands gingerly on its shoulders. Whatever
is it doing out here � in the middle of nowhere? But there was not
point in wondering about that, not when the child needed her.
"Hey." She kept her voice as soft as she could make it.
"Hey. Don't cry. I'll take you home." When that brought no
response, she worked her hands down the child's arms and finally found
her fingers. "You're so cold," she gasped, and pulled the
child close, loosing one hand to reach for the clasp of her cloak and
shrug it off so that she could drape it round the figure before her. She
rubbed at it vigorously, peering down, trying to get a glimpse of the
face, but the child stayed curled and resistant. Finally, Gabrielle
stood up, balancing precariously, juggling her pack and the child. For
the first time, she was glad she had left her staff and her scrolls
together with Xena's armour, back at the Inn. "Okay, let's look for
your Mummy and Daddy," she said, bracing the child against her
shoulder with one arm and increasingly alarmed at its stiffness and
silence. She made her way back to the track, and continued along it.
The homestead was a blackened ruin, though she guessed it must have
blazed brightly when it was first fired. More than a day ago, probably.
The last embers were cold. It had not been very far down the track; she
would have smelled it if there had been any movement of air at all.
"Gods," she breathed, glad for the first time that the child
still had not stirred, still lay with its head pressed into her
shoulder. It had been that way all the time she had carried it. Cupping
the child's head with one hand, Gabrielle looked around and spotted a
ramshackle structure which had kept most of its roof. It turned out to
be the byre. Once inside she made a fire and settled the child in front
of it on her sleeping skin before steeling herself to face what lay
outside. There was a lot to do before sunset.
Much later, a movement from the form huddled in her lap woke
Gabrielle from the doze into which she had lapsed. The child, a girl of
perhaps two or three, she now knew, was looking up at her, her brown
eyes red rimmed and cloudy. "Okay," she said, "Hello. Let
me get you something more to drink." She'd cleaned the girl
thoroughly when the mite had briefly woken, earlier, and had since kept
water warming over the fire. Now she made tea for the girl, who grabbed
at the cup, then clutched it between fingers which were still white with
cold. As she sipped, Gabrielle stirred water into meal and wished she
had something to sweeten the mess. But it was the best she could do, and
the girl swallowed several spoonfuls before falling asleep.
She was, Gabrielle admitted as she wiped cornmeal off pallid cheeks
and chin, not a prepossessing child. Her mother had been quite tall,
with hair the colour of wheat, but her daughter's looks came from the
other side of the family. Her hair was as rusty red and her skin as
freckled as her father's had been, and two of her brothers. Gabrielle
swallowed down tears. She'd seen the wounds on the bodies as she buried
them and had all too clear an idea of what had happened. About ten men,
she thought, judging by the tracks, well armed and mounted on shod
horses. They'd taken their time killing the homesteaders, amusing
themselves first. Then they had systematically plundered the place,
butchering the livestock and rooting out whatever stores they could
find. Not that there could have been much; the family was barely
producing enough to keep itself alive. What they hadn't taken, the
raiders had broken or burned. These must have been the ones, she
thought. The ones Xena is after.
The realisation frightened her. Was Xena all right? These raiders
hadn't behaved as outlaws normally did. Yes, they might kill, but out of
panic. And they took everything they could carry, then left as quickly
as they could. These had been in no hurry, killing for the fun of it,
picking out only what they wanted, and going out of their way to spoil
everything else. What she had seen as she dragged the girl's family to
their grave had not merely turned her stomach and distressed her, it had
badly frightened her too. There was something inhuman about it. Tears
started to her eyes again, and this time leaked out. She wiped them away
impatiently with her fingers, and flinched at the unexpected stinging
she felt. Examining the inside of her hands she counted blisters
ruefully. Not even life on the road with Xena had prepared her palms for
the effects of digging those graves.
By morning, it was clear the child was getting worse. Her breathing
sounded laboured and she was barely conscious. Gabrielle, who had
managed a few hours' restless sleep, coaxed more tea into her, and then
felt for her pulse. It was very fast, and her skin was hot. The bard bit
her lip, and stared into her own beaker of tea, watching the dark leaves
drift through the pale green fluid. A restorative: what she had been
drinking since her own illness. She smiled, just a little, thinking of
Xena, who could never say what she felt, but who somehow found other
ways to express it in any case.
Gabrielle looked out through the byre door. The mist was there,
again, turning the opening into a dull grey oblong, blank and
featureless. Rather like the forest, according to Xena's map. No road
ran through it, though major routes had to divert in order to avoid
doing so. Where they running from something? The kid�s family. Were
they hiding out here? Perhaps they were escaped slaves. Gabrielle
shook her head impatiently. Focus. You can speculate all you like
later. There were several villages in the outskirts of the forest,
but the nearest was the settlement she had left, and that was two days
away. Too far for the child. The outlaws, however, lived much closer, if
Xena's guess were right. A good deal less than a day away. And Xena
would be there, with her medical knowledge.
Xena will be so mad. Gabrielle's face puckered in a wry grin.
Then she said aloud, just to hear a friendly sound in this muffled, mute
world; "As soon as she thinks she has things all under control, I
turn up with a snotty nosed child." She sighed. This expedition was
ill advised anyway, she admitted. Hanging about in hiding outside the
outlaws' camp on the off-chance she would be in the right place at the
right time to save Xena's life had not been the most inspired of her
plans. And now she would have to abandon its only sensible element,
concealment, and walk right into the camp. Though perhaps it would be
all right. Perhaps Xena had indeed already got herself into a position
to challenge the leader and take over the gang.
Well, she couldn't wait. The child was visibly failing. Stiffly,
Gabrielle got up, then arranged the harness of old blankets she had
fashioned the previous night so that she could carry the girl on her
back. The blisters on her hands stung as she grasped the strapping, and
her muscles protested as she started out. There was no point in thinking
about that, though. Gritting her teeth, Gabrielle walked to the edge of
the cleared land and then followed the outlaws' trail deeper into the
The commotion roused Mitos' new lieutenant. At some point during the
morning she had started cleaning her sword, and she was still
obsessively drawing the whetstone along the blade. She stopped abruptly,
taking a deep breath, trying to reorient herself. She had not slept well
since she came to this part of the forest, nor been at her ease during
the day either. She was far too aware of the shadows outside, and the
sense that something was lurking within them, something which was
watching her, sizing her up, wanting her for its own. It seemed to
invade her dreams as well; shattered images from the most recent
lingered behind her eyes. An army spread out like a solid silver flood
under the sun. A standard, which she was sure was hers, carried by a man
in black armour who bowed low over a heavily muscled charger, galloping
to her left. A throne before which a dark figure stood with a crown in
its hands, offering to her. A gentle face with sea-green eyes, turning
towards her, smiling.
She took a deep breath, her head clearing, her own mouth quirking
just a little in response. Peripherally, her eyes registered the
different angle of the light through the window and her mind supplied,
"It's after noon." Her skin prickled as she realised how long
she had been up here in her room, barely conscious. Then her attention
focused on the sounds from below and she was up and seizing her sword in
that instant, then at the door and opening it silently, senses raw and
alert. She could not make out the words, but that voice was all too
familiar. Briefly the stillness of her face wavered, before its
expression smoothed into one of intense concentration as she stopped at
the head of the stairs and looked down into the hall of the Keep.
A small woman was standing at its centre, dwarfed by a guard who had
one huge hand wrapped round one of her upper arms. He must have brought
her in. She looked far too pale and gaunt, the warrior thought
worriedly. If that brute didn't let her go soon, he'd be minus a hand.
What was she doing there? Why could she never do what she was told? Did
she think she was immortal? Didn�t she realise she had nearly died?
And what was in her arms? Then the bundle moved a little and became
distinguishable, just, as a child wrapped in a worn, fern-green cloak.
The small woman's cloak. Wispy strands of red hair spilled over its
edge, but she could make out very little else of the child.
The woman was quiet now, ignoring the raiders crowding around her,
her eyes fixed on someone sitting directly beneath the warrior. Mitos,
of course, who would be in the massively carved chair he had claimed for
himself and placed on a dais to one side of the hall. She took a step
towards him and said, "Please, sir, my daughter is very sick."
The warrior above stiffened a little, despite herself. "We've been
walking all day," the small woman went on, "looking for a
healer. Do you have one?"
The warrior could detect the note of fear underlying the woman's
voice, but she doubted anyone else could. They would be hearing a
desperate mother who had no suspicions that she had wandered into a den
of thieves and worse. She wanted to catch her eye, to reassure the small
woman that she was near, but restrained herself. She couldn't be sure
what the woman might do.
"That depends." Mitos' voice boomed out from beneath her.
He must have leaned forward, because now she could just see the top of
his unkempt head, though nothing else. Plenty of hair, she thought
sourly. Pity he never saw fit to wash it. She tensed as her imagination
painted his face flushed and his eyes greedy for the young woman facing
him, and the warrior's hands clenched themselves into fists.
"On what, sir?" The small woman was doing a good job of
keeping her voice guileless and innocent. "I have a few dinars."
"They might not be enough." He was toying with her. The
warrior saw the woman's eyes snap with temper, then saw her suppress it.
"I can earn more, sir. I'm a bard," she said. Good,
the warrior thought. Good. Keep calm. Meet his eyes.
Mitos laughed. "I live my own stories. No, I have another kind
of entertainment in mind." His lieutenant snarled silently, then
heard wood creak as he got up and walked forwards until he towered above
the bard. After failing to stare her down, he circled behind her.
"Let's see her, then."
The small woman, obviously resisting the urge to look over her
shoulder, carefully loosed the folds of her cloak and let them fall.
Pressed against her shoulder, the child's face was chalk-white and damp
"She's dying," Mitos said, after the briefest of glances.
"Far too late to do anything. Now, what you should be doing is
thinking of yourself." He leaned down and brought his face close to
the small woman's head, then his hand snaked out and snagged a lock of
The warrior was already moving, was already half way down the stairs
and about to launch herself at him when he looked straight at her and
said, "Cottys, there you are."
The small woman's eyes tracked up towards her. The warrior kept her
face still, though she could feel her heart in her throat. Don't say
anything, she pleaded silently. Then, as their eyes met, as the
bard's expression did not change, she realised. She knew I was there
all the time.
Mitos smiled at her. "Suppose this waif and her brat were
assassins. Why weren't you ready to put yourself between me and their
knives?" He let his hand rest on the small woman's neck. The
warrior saw her lips tighten as she struggled not to flinch away.
"I figured you could take care of yourself against women and
children." The lieutenant let herself sound a little contemptuous,
silently promising him a terrible death if he so much as harmed a hair
of the bard�s head.
"It's bad luck. Ill fated," this was the self-proclaimed
mother, her voice hardly shaking at all, "to let a guest die in
your house without doing anything to stop it, I mean."
They were both looking at her now. "Like inviting death in.
You'll offend the hearth gods if you do that."
"You're not a guest." Mitos sounded amused for a moment,
but then his face paled a little and he looked behind him, towards the
Keep's huge oaken door. "Still, no point in tempting fate, I
suppose." He frowned, sucked in his lower lip, flicked a glance at
his new lieutenant. "You seem to have a smattering of herb
lore." He'd searched her baggage then; she'd known he would.
"See what you can do."
Gabrielle wrung out a cloth and wiped the child's face. She had just
gone on getting worse. Her skin was clammy and beaded with sweat and had
a greyish tint the bard recognised with dread. Her heart contracted and
she blinked back tears, angry with herself for weeping yet again
"Are you feeling sorry for the child, or yourself?" she hissed
with contempt. "At least do something to help first." But she
knew she had done all she could. In the end, she simply stretched out on
the bed, hoping the child would know she was not alone. When she could
trust her voice, she took the limp, little hand and started to tell the
girl a story. It involved the bard falling into a mineshaft and Argo
having to go to fetch Xena to rescue her, and it rambled a good deal,
but comforted its teller at least.
Xena still had not returned by the time she finished. The child was
lying still, silent except for the rasping of her breath. Gabrielle
stood, stretching to ease the ache in her muscles and joints, and walked
to the middle of the room, clenching her fists, ignoring the sharp pangs
of pain from her blisters. She wanted to rush out and see what was
happening. She wanted to go to Xena and tell her the child needed her
attention straight away. She did - but Xena knew that. If she could, she
would be here. Gabrielle forced her hands to open and rubbed them over
her face, wishing the skin she was touching was Xena's. Then she made
herself relax still more, and looked around her.
There was not much sign that this was Xena's room, just her saddle
bag, but that in itself made it distinctive of the warrior. It had been
chosen, obviously, for reasons other than cosiness. For its round shape,
for its stout stone walls, for its single doorway, for its window
opposite, tall and narrow, though wide enough for a supple warrior to
slip through. Gabrielle smiled, gently, almost able to hear Xena's
thoughts while her partner assessed the advantages of the place and
approved it. The stable, she was fairly certain, would be just below the
window. She went to the slit, unfastened the shutter and peered out,
feeling the damp chill of the late afternoon air on her face. It was, as
she had expected, difficult to see anything clearly through the murk.
Ah, the stable was there. She could just hear a muted, staccato
disturbance which suggested large bodies shifting now and then, and shod
hooves stamping occasionally on straw-covered dirt.
Then she stiffened, leaning forward further and trying to see past
the enclosure around the Keep and out into the forest beyond. There was
something there, she was sure of it. If only she could see. The pale
twilight seemed to swell and stretch before her eyes, but she could make
out nothing. The dank air stirred a little, however, and she caught her
breath, gagging on a stench that made her think of a place deep
underground where something had died and rotted.
She was recoiling in disgust when Xena finally came into the room.
Gabrielle turned towards her, but didn't need the hand her partner flung
up to know she should keep silent. Xena stood by the door for some time,
listening intently. Finally, with a creak of floorboards even Gabrielle
could hear, whoever had lingered on the other side of the door moved
away, and the warrior relaxed and came over to her, detouring only to
set a jug and a plate carrying some scraps on the table.
"How is she?" Xena said. The warrior�s voice was pitched
very low, but Gabrielle had no trouble hearing how very angry she was.
First things first, though. She got out of the way and, while Xena began
her examination, softly sketched in an outline of how she had found the
child. "I think she must have been hiding somewhere and seen it
all, then just run away," she finished. She watched Xena's face
closely, praying that the warrior would not be blaming herself, for
allowing the raid, or for not stopping it, but aware there was nothing
she could do to prevent that.
At length, Xena straightened and walked over to her pack. Gabrielle
followed and watched as her partner unrolled the length of soft,
pocketed fabric which contained her store of herbs. "I'm
sorry," Xena said quietly, keeping her eyes on her long, clever
fingers as they selected a mixture of dried leaves. "There's not
much I can do. She must have been half starved to begin with, and now
she's been terribly shocked as well." She looked straight at
Gabrielle, her face carefully blank. "She doesn't really want to go
on living, perhaps."
The bard nodded, unable to find words for the occasion, then went for
water and a cup and continued to observe silently as Xena mingled and
infused the leaves, then coaxed the child to sip the concoction. Tears
stung her eyes once more as her partner rested her knuckles on the pale,
sweaty brow. I've done it again, she berated herself. Made
things worse for her. She was always doing this, she thought in
despair, adding to Xena's burden. A sense of helplessness gathered
itself inside her. She should stay away, give Xena a chance of
happiness. She went on watching and bit her lip as she saw the warrior's
shoulders lift in a sigh.
"Shall I go?" she said suddenly, not having planned to say
anything, but overwhelmed by a sense of worthlessness. "I'm so
terribly sorry, Xena. I shouldn't have come." She didn't dare look
at her partner, but stared out past her instead, at the darkness which
contained the forest and the presence she had sensed within it.
"And the child?" Xena's voice was still very quiet, but had
a dryness about it. Gabrielle gathered her courage and met her gaze.
Xena's eyebrow was raised and she stared at the bard coolly for a moment
longer. Then her expression softened, just a little. "Suppose you
tell me the rest of it."
Gabrielle did. At some point in her narrative Xena settled on the
room's only bench, placed, Gabrielle had already noted, exactly where
someone seated on it could see both the door and the window of the room.
She wanted to join her friend, but felt she had not earned the right, so
she kept standing stiffly and awkwardly in the centre of the room, like
a soldier expecting a rebuke. Then Xena shifted, clearly making room for
her, and she sucked in a breath and went over gratefully.
"And you?" Xena said when she had finished. "The fever
hasn't come back?"
She reached her hand over to Gabrielle's forehead and the bard leaned
into its elegant coolness gratefully, closing her eyes.
"Yes. Yes, I'm fine." Suddenly the roiling sense of
self-contempt subsided within her and her thoughts cleared. It was the
tiredness, she thought, and the worry. And hunger. But trust Xena to
bring me my supper. She risked a small, teasing gibe at herself,
safe now and contented in Xena's regard for her. Though a brief,
snake-like flicker in the corner of her eye recalled her dream for a
moment, and a worried voice nagged, Or perhaps there's more to it;
perhaps there really is something out there in the forest. Something
which doesn't want you here.
"They why?" Xena's hands had slid down to her own, were
opening them up so she could assess the damage the digging the bard had
barely mentioned had done.
Gabrielle understood what Xena wanted to know. "It was just a,
well, a feeling." She moved closer to her partner, revelling in the
sheer solidity of her presence. "I knew I had to come and warn
you." When Xena said nothing, she hunched up a little and admitted,
"It was a scary dream." Gabrielle shuddered as the memory
returned to her. But when she tried to tell Xena about it her confidence
in her storyteller's gift deserted her, and each word sounded sillier
than the one before. "It kept coming back," she mumbled in
embarrassment. "I knew you were in terrible danger. That you should
"So you came to warn me I was in danger, and to take care."
Xena's voice was deadpan. "I'm pretending to be a murderer in a
nest of murderers, and you felt I needed warning to be careful."
Gabrielle felt herself blush, hotly. "It felt more than
that," she said defensively. "Something even more dangerous.
Something deadly. Something you can't expect. Something you can't plan
for. Because things aren't as they seem to be here." She could feel
her confidence slipping away again.
"I don't plan everything." Xena was smiling. "I know
you tend to think I do, but really, Gabrielle, sometimes I just do what
seems a good idea at the time."
Gabrielle looked into her eyes and was both startled and charmed to
see to see they were dancing with teasing little lights. So she said,
"I knew that!", and waggled her eyebrows. "It's all part
of the plan." Some of the strain faded from her partner's face.
"You need someone here," the bard persisted with growing
assurance. "Someone whose only job is to watch your back."
"And who'll watch yours?" Xena's lifted her partner�s
smarting hands and placed a thoughtful kiss in each palm.
Gabrielle hesitated, then shrugged off the implication. "We
always do better together." She put as much confidence as she could
into the statement, and let herself grin, cockily. "Trust me. I
know I'm right." In a corner of her mind, the thought came that it
was better Xena not know the details of the dream; that it might make
her question herself, and that could be equally fatal.
Xena kept her waiting for a long moment. "Yeah," she said,
finally, and smiled back, before moving off to find some balm for
Gabrielle to rub on her blisters.
When it happened, Xena was sitting opposite Mitos, lounging back and
watching him. The evening meal had petered out and most of the men were
settling into a serious bout of drinking. Mitos, however, had eaten very
little and drunk nothing at all. Instead he was absorbed in staring at
his carving dagger, holding it balanced between his two hands, turning
it round again and again like a spindle, watching gleams gather and
flash out as the shining metal of the blade caught the candle-light.
There was something weird going on with him she thought. Something
which made her deeply uneasy. He was - she sought for a word. Gabrielle
was so much better at this. What had she said just before Xena left her
to return to the Hall? "Too big for his skin." That was it.
Then the bard had blurted out, "Keep away from him, Xena. I'm
afraid he's going to burst." Afterwards the younger woman had
looked surprised at herself for saying this, and blushed. But she was
right, Xena decided. And it was time she started. She could take Mitos
now, could have done so easily at any time in the last three days, at
least. She wondered, as she had not thought to wonder until Gabrielle
arrived, why she had delayed this long.
Too long, as it turned out. Somehow, she must have missed the warning
signs, a realisation which jarred her onto a higher level of
attentiveness. The lapse seemed part and parcel of the disorientation
which had beset her here. The odd feeling that she was living in a
dream, and that she could stop it whenever she wanted, could step
outside of it and simply watch, that nothing in it could touch her. Now
only the chill silence which fell upon the Hall alerted her, and the
sense that everyone was looking her way, by which time she could only
react, not dictate the course of events.
She turned slowly; to show any sign of concern would also show
weakness. She let one eyebrow rise and stared back at the crowd staring
at her, letting her gaze touch each of them one after the other, not
lingering on the stranger in their midst, though he must be the source
of the trouble. She was aware of Mitos straightening, moving away from
her. He'd been slow to pick up on the threatening change in atmosphere
too, she noted. Which was odd too. She wondered if he shared her
delusion of being somehow not really part of all this.
A middle-aged raider with a thickening gut stepped forward. Peros,
she thought. She recalled he had been on guard duty. She had sent him
out herself, reinforcing her authority as lieutenant by posting sentries
on the approaches to the Keep. Another of Mitos� oversights. Peros was
pulling with him the stranger, an unremarkable man in nondescript
village clothes. A plant, of course; an informer. She should have
known. She should have expected there would be one in every village. Why
hadn't she considered this? What had she been thinking of?
"He says that he knows her," Peros said, jerking his thumb
at the stranger, pointedly talking only to Mitos. "He says that
she's Xena. That she's here to take us out."
Mitos said, "Well, that's a surprise." Xena's belatedly
stirring instincts prickled. He sounded very relaxed about it. Too
relaxed. She considered the possibility that she might had
underestimated the raiders� chief. Or that she had been lulled into
doing so. Xena shifted her weight, very slightly, slipping her hand down
into the pocket of her jerkin where the chakram lay concealed. She had
already plotted a course for it which would plunge the Hall into
darkness and disarm several of the raiders.
Why did I wait so long? Now it was too late. Gabrielle was in
danger, and the child. Getting them out safely must come first; Mitos'
murderous little army would have to wait. She snarled at herself in
frustration. He must have been expecting this. He'd have a man on the
stairs. More likely two. So. She took a deep breath. Mitos first. Now,
while he was still expecting her to try to bluff her way out. He'd have
to go with them, she realised resignedly.
And the other? The thing in the forest? She shook her head
slightly. There wasn't any time to worry about that. It wasn't Ares, in
any case. As to what it was, well, no doubt it would announce itself
later. Now she was flying into its hands, it had her just where it
wanted her. But at least she would have Mitos in hers.
Xena gathered herself and leapt up and over Mitos' head, landing
behind him, her dagger at his throat, her chakram in her hand and poised
ready to throw all in an instant. "Tell them to clear my way
to the door." She said it very loud and calm, making sure
they could all hear . "Do it now." She tightened her arm and
knew the blade would be parting the skin of his throat, just a little,
almost tenderly. There wouldn't be any blood, just a thin white line and
a quick, burning sting. She needed to keep him off balance.
While he still hesitated, swallowing, wavering a little on his feet,
she flung the chakram. It curved high away from her and made a circuit
of the Hall, snuffing out torches, severing tendons, rebounding off
heads as it returned to her hand. She was already on the move through
the newly darkened hall, bundling Mitos with her, shoving him in the
opposite direction to the one she hoped his men were now expecting her
to take. When they got to the foot of the stairs she stopped him, and
leaned forward till her lips were just above his ear. "Get them
This time he obeyed her. The creak of the stairs told her where they
were in the pitch darkness as they edged down towards them, and the
chakram took both out. She kicked aside the tumbling bodies and shoved
Mitos up before her, keeping them both as soundless as possible, gaining
the door of her chamber in seconds. How long before the raiders realised
she was not making for the main door, Xena wondered. Not long enough;
knowing my luck lately, someone will be looking this way when I open
this door, will see the light. We�ll have to be quick. By now they
were in, and Gabrielle was starting up from her perch on the end of the
bed, her eyes huge as she took in Mitos, the dagger at his throat, the
warrior's taut urgency.
"Get the kid ready," Xena hissed, but Gabrielle was already
on the move. Their packs leaned against the window and the child was
lying on the bed, dressed and wrapped in the bard's cloak once more.
Gabrielle paused by her and looked back expectantly, fixing her gaze on
her partner's face. Xena smiled, swiftly, and nodded, just once. Then
she pushed Mitos towards the window, and jerked her head at it.
Gabrielle unlatched the shutter and flung it back.
Xena whistled once, piercingly, and knew Argo would be on her way.
"Under the bed," she said next. Gabrielle got down on her
knees and probed the shadows, hauling out the rope she found there and
tying it to the bedstead before she threw the other end out of the
window. "You first." The bard hoisted herself up and over the
sill, her red-gold head disappearing in seconds. Xena could feel Mitos
gathering himself, guessed that quite soon he would try to get free.
"Now you!" She jabbed Mitos in the neck, heaving his suddenly
flailing body towards the window as she did so. "You've thirty
seconds if you want to live."
It took a tremendously strong man to function handicapped like that,
and she didn't much care whether he managed or not. But the alternative
to leaving him behind or sending him down ahead of her to perhaps
threaten Gabrielle was to kill him here and now, and she knew the bard
would expect more of her than that. Mitos rolled his eyes, lurched
through the window and, gasping, grabbed the rope and slid down, with no
more control than a sack of grain. His hands must be burning she
thought, without compassion, as she scooped up the packs and slung them
out after him. Then she picked up the child, secured her with the
roughly made harness Gabrielle had laid ready, and climbed down herself,
reaching the bottom just in time to release Mitos. It was almost pitch
dark, she noted with distaste, and very damp. If his breath hadn't been
hoarsely rasping in his throat, she might not have found him. The mist
must be all round. Though at least it would help confuse their pursuers.
She heard a soft jingle, and knew Gabrielle was checking Argo's
saddle and tying on their packs. Her eyes must have adapted to the dark
already. Xena wished hers would get a move on. "You ride," she
ordered, and heard the bard suck in a breath, followed by the creak of
leather as she mounted. She passed up the child, summoning a smile for
Gabrielle, whom she knew would be looking down at her with an uncertain
pucker between her brows. She could just make her out in the gloom now,
and saw her nod and her small, capable hands gathering the reins. Xena
heaved Mitos up onto his feet. "Get going," she snarled. When
he took a long look at her, she added, "You're our safe
conduct," and was surprised when she heard him choke and then -
really, the only word was giggle. But he lurched forwards, with her
right on his heels, into the forest. Into the arms of whatever was
awaiting them there.
Gabrielle settled down on a sleeping skin, the child in her arms.
Just behind her, Argo shifted and huffed heavily, then dipped her head
to tear at a few blades of grass. The bard drew back the folds of her
cloak to look at the girl's face. It was drained of colour and beaded
with little drops of sweat. She knew, despairingly, that it would not be
long now. She tightened her embrace, dipped her head to brush her lips
on the icy forehead. "It'll be okay. We've got you," she said,
tiredly aware it was to cheer herself up more than anything else.
She glanced over to the other side of the glade, where Xena was tying
Mitos to the rough, fraying trunk of an aged pine tree. "You won't
get away." His voice carried easily in the heavy stillness of the
night. He was staring up at her partner, his eyes slitted. "It
knows you're here. It wants you. It's looking for you now." He
jerked his head at the sky. Perversely, the bard thought, the mist had
cleared at last, and a three quarter moon was spilling light so
extravagantly it could almost kindle ghostly colours in whatever it
"And what does it do with its discards?" Xena finished with
her knots, straightened and stepped back.
"I've stayed loyal. You're the one who told it no. You tell
me." Gabrielle realised he was trying to provoke the warrior,
unbalance her, force a mistake.
"I shouldn't hold your breath." Xena was looking about her,
sniffing the air.
Mitos kept his gaze on her. "If you ever had a chance to run,
you lost it when you saddled yourself with them. And the child's as good
as dead. Why not dump it? You can't be doing it any good anyway. And
your little friend might have better luck on her own."
Xena slid her chin over her shoulder. Her eyes met Gabrielle's, held
the contact for a long moment. "You're the only one I'm dumping,
Mitos." Her voice was measured, calm, the bard observed. She nodded
back at her, once, decisively, and Xena smiled.
"You've lost already, you know." Mitos was warming to his
theme. "My men will find me. We'll catch you. We'll watch you die.
You and your slut and that brat. Then we'll go back, and we'll...."
"And what?" Xena had moved until she was leaning against
Argo's flank. "What are you doing now, Mitos? Raiding, marauding,
slaughtering some dirt-poor peasants and carrying off their scraps. Oh,
you've talked a lot, but where's the Kingdom you wanted to forge. With
barely half your men, in a quarter of the time you've had, I conquered
most of Greece." She dropped her hand, let it tangle idly in the
short strands of Gabrielle's hair, then drop to her shoulder. "All
you've done is feed that thing out there. Given it blood. That's all you
are - its butcher."
Gabrielle lifted her own hand, rested it over Xena's. Yeah, you
tell him, Warrior. Her heart filled with pride for her partner. And
he�s been feeding too. On power, directly.
Mitos jerked forward, straining against his bonds. "It'll be
there when I make my move. Behind me." Anger roughened his voice.
"When I sweep through Greece and make it mine, it'll get all the
blood it wants."
The hand under Gabrielle's turned and intertwined its fingers with
hers. "No." Xena squeezed gently. "No, Mitos. You're not
the man for that. You can't control your need for it, and it hasn't the
brains for conquest by itself. That's why it wanted me." Gabrielle
felt Xena shift behind her, then squat down. Her lips were close to the
bard's ear now, and her partner's voice was pitched so low it resonated
in her bones. "Don't count on it, Mitos. Don't count on anything.
Your time's up. I've seen to that. It knows it can do better than
you." And, with that mercurial shift of feeling Gabrielle had come
to expect and relish, sympathy, almost regret, tinged Xena's words.
But now fear filled the bard. Paradoxically, if Xena had intended to
reassure her partner, she had failed. That's it, she thought. The threat
to Xena, out there in the forest. It wants her. She gathered her
determination. You can't have her. She projected the message,
silently, defiantly. She's not for you. She felt her need to keep
the warrior safe grow inside her till it filled her chest and made her
throat ache with the desire to shout it out loud.
Xena settled beside her, slipping back the folds of the cloak and
looking at the girl closely. Her brow briefly puckered, then she rested
the back of her hand on the greyish hued cheek before tucking the cloth
back neatly again.
"We have to get going," she said quietly.
Gabrielle nodded, treasuring the "we". She met the
warrior's gaze squarely and summoned up a smile for her, waiting till
Xena's eyes warmed in response and she nodded back. "Right,"
she responded, and Xena set her hand on the bard's shoulder and levered
herself up, then vaulted onto Argo. She checked the girth, reached down
for the child and finally handed her back once the bard was mounted
Neither woman turned to look at Mitos as the mare began moving,
following a trail which led directly to the edge of the forest.
Gabrielle was not, however, surprised when they changed direction once
they were well out of Mitos' hearing, veering off onto a course which
paralleled the boundary instead. Xena would continue along this route
for some time, she thought, then strike out for open country once she
found a stream or some other feature which would cover their tracks.
Gabrielle wondered what was wrong with her. She should feel relieved.
They would be free and clear within hours, surely. Yet instead she felt
afraid, and more so with every passing minute. She concentrated on
cushioning the child from the worst of the jolting, trying to ignore the
cramping pains which started to shoot through her arms. The child was
pitifully light, but she had been carrying her for a long time. Focusing
on this, she kept herself from guessing what might lie to their left, in
the heart of the forest. If she did so she would be utterly terrified.
Or perhaps she already was, and that was why they seemed to be dizzily
floating over the ground on a silent tide of misty moonlight.
Xena drew to a halt, after some time. "Argo could do with a
break," she remarked, glancing over her shoulder. "We could
Yeah, Gabrielle thought wryly, right. But Xena's unspoken
attentiveness charmed her, as it always did, and she found standing on
firm ground settled her panic a little. She sucked in some deep breaths,
waiting while Xena spread their sleeping skins out into a little nest
for the child, then stooped to lay her down on them. The girl had not
moved, had not made a sound, for hours. For a horrible moment, Gabrielle
thought she was looking at a waxen effigy, and straightened up abruptly.
Her arms, relieved of the weight, began to tingle with returning
circulation, and she knew this was just the prelude for something worse
once the cramps started.
Biting her lip, Gabrielle looked about her. The moonlight was, if
anything, brighter now, bright enough to show up detail on the bark of
the trees where it touched, looking like silver traced all over with a
crazy filigree. Each needle and root on the ground cast its own shadow,
and in those places where the moon did not shine it was inkily black.
Like a cage, Gabrielle thought, looking frantically at the strident
striping around her, wanting just to be out. But the shadows had given
an extra dimension to the forest, made it seem immeasurably, inescapably
deep. Come on, come on, she chided herself. No time for that
now. Xena needs you.
"You okay?" She had not heard Xena come up behind her.
Turning too abruptly, she nearly lost her balance, and the warrior
reached out to steady her. "Easy now, easy."
"I'm fine." She glanced up at her partner and tried to
smile. When the dark eyebrow quirked, she felt her lips curve without
further effort. "Just tired, is all."
"Yeah." Xena looked at her consideringly. "Sit
Gabrielle did. Xena hunkered down facing her and began to feel over
her arms. "You're all knotted up in there," she commented
quietly, and began to knead and ease her muscles for a time.
"Better?" she asked eventually.
"Ah." Gabrielle surfaced reluctantly and tried to gather
her scattered thoughts. She flexed her arms, then held them out. Her
hands were perfectly steady. "Yeah - great. You could make a living
The instant she said the words, she wished she could call them back.
Xena did not move, something shut down in the warrior's face. Something
drew back. What? Gabrielle thought. What did I say? Why can't
I keep quiet once in a while? To cover her confusion, she went over
to Argo and collected one of their packs, rooting through its neatly
stowed contents for some trail bread. They had nothing for the child,
she realised, and had to suppress a sucking feeling of failure again. Perhaps
she'll eat some if we soak a little in water? She glanced round
towards the girl, and saw Xena was ahead of her. She had pulled the
child into her lap and was trying to get her to take some water. Very
little was getting in, however.
Breaking the trail bread in half, she handed Xena a portion, watching
as the warrior first studied it disinterestedly, then took a bite and
chewed doggedly. The clean line of her jaw moved smoothly under her
skin, her throat muscles rippled as she swallowed. She's too quiet,
Gabrielle thought worriedly. She gave up her own attempt on the stuff,
which seemed to have the texture of wood. What's going on in there?
She tucked a chunk of the trail bread in her cheek to soften, then
put the rest in a mug and poured on some of the water, mashing it into a
paste. Squatting down beside Xena, she leaned over to look at the child
and saw that, for the first time in hours, her brown eyes were open.
"Hi!" she said cheerfully. "Got something for you to
The child's head moved slightly, from side to side. No, she was
"You have to keep your strength up. If you want to grow to be
like Xena." Gabrielle glanced at the warrior, who gazed back
without expression. She suppressed an unexpected, sharp jab of
irritation and merely held out her arms, accepting the child into them.
After a moment's rapid thought, she started on a story which involved a
little girl called Selena, lost and wandering in a dark forest, who came
upon a house containing a table on which three bowls were set.
"She sat down and looked at the first bowl. It contained a
delicious soup. She knew she shouldn't eat any because it wasn't hers,
but she just couldn't say no, she was so hungry 'Just one spoon,' she
thought to herself. 'They won't notice that.' So Selena got some soup in
the spoon and drank it up." The child's clouded eyes were wide open
and fixed on Gabrielle, who took the opportunity to coax a little of the
paste into her mouth. "Of course," the bard went on, "she
couldn't stop at one. She took another and another, and soon the first
bowl was empty. But she was still hungry, and now she looked at the
second bowl it looked as though it would be even more delicious than the
first. In fact it was - as Selena found when she dipped her spoon in
By the time the paste was half gone, the little girl in Gabrielle's
story had embarked on the third bowl. "This was the best of
all," the bard continued. "It tasted of honey and cream and
summer all mixed together." The child in her lap refused the next
spoonful, turning her head away. Her eyes were closing, and Gabrielle
realised she was feeling sleepy too.
The story, however, continued to unfold in her head. It gathered pace
and took a turn she wasn't ready for. Something was coming out of the
dark forest and was creeping up to the house, something which didn't
take kindly to little girls who stole the food off other folk's tables.
The thing turned into a blot of shadow on the ground, then grew a peak
and rose until it became a long and heavy cloak draping a form which
came closer and closer. Except now its destination was the Keep and its
target was Xena, while its weapon was a writhing net of shadow.
Then Xena was caught in the net, was strangling in it, and the Keep
had dissolved somehow, had become the white, barkless trunks of dead
trees, or pillars of stone, she couldn't be sure. And now it was she who
held the knife, and was raising it ready to slash it down, but she was,
somehow, no long standing over Xena, but over the child. And then the
knife was in the girl's breast instead.
Her head was pounding and there was a sour taste in her mouth. At
first she couldn't work out where on earth she was, but eventually the
jumbled shapes began to make sense and she realised she must have dozed
off for a moment. She shuddered; what a dream! What did it mean? She
didn't want to think, and looked around instead for Xena. Who was
sitting motionless nearby, arms wrapped round her legs, chin resting on
her knees, watching her.
"You okay?" The warrior's voice was low and expressionless.
Gabrielle shrugged, afraid to tell her anything, aware that Xena was
all too likely to think herself responsible for her partner�s
troubles, whatever they were. "Is she getting better?" she
said instead, looking down at the child. "She ate something."
She was aware that hope had tinged her words; Oh, get real, bard.
What do you want? Xena to perform a miracle? Give the poor woman a
Xena paused, then shook her head. "It's just a matter of time.
At least she's not in pain, and not afraid."
Gabrielle tucked her cheek down into her shoulder, trying to mop up
the tears she didn't really want her partner to see.
But the warrior was suddenly close to her, and smoothing them away
with a finger. "Sorry," Xena said, awkwardly.
"It's not your fault." Urgency lent force to Gabrielle's
voice - Xena must not feel she was to blame. "No one could heal
"No." Xena looked down at her hands, which had folded
themselves tightly together. She swallowed, then said with difficulty,
"If I'd acted as soon as I arrived, I might have saved her family.
And her. But I didn't. I should have, and I didn't."
Gabrielle loosed her grip of the child and laid her own hands over
Xena's. "You didn't know. How could you? You must have felt you
were doing the right thing at the time."
The warrior shook her head. "I'd lost my focus. I'd let myself
lose my focus." Her voice was clipped and precise, and her hands
clasped each other even more tightly.
Gabrielle rubbed the rigid knuckles with her thumbs, trying to find
the right words to say. Suddenly, she knew. "It's that thing. It
gets inside your head somehow, twists your thinking. It wasn't you, Xena."
"Yes it was, in a way."
Gabrielle sighed. I should know better than expect Xena to go easy
on herself. Well, if she could not talk Xena out of this bout of
self condemnation, she could at least face it with her. "In what
way, Xena? How could you be responsible for what it did to you?"
Xena seemed to brace herself. "It was sucking me in because I
was letting it. It got to the thing inside me that loves being a
warrior. A killer. What I used to make my living at, if you remember.
Instead of massage."
Her partner�s lips twisted in scorching self contempt, and
Gabrielle had to forcibly restrain herself from embracing her, from
trying to make the pain go away. It needed to come out, all of it, and
After a moment, Xena went on. "I was enjoying the sense of what
I could do if I wanted. The sense that there was nothing to stop me from
doing just as I pleased. I haven�t felt that way for a long
time." She took a deep breath and met Gabrielle's eyes. "Thank
you. Thank you for coming. You reminded me of everything I'd lose. We're
still in danger, but at least I know it now."
Okay, she said it. Now you say something. Try to make her feel
better. Come on, since you think you�re so clever. Gabrielle took
a breath herself, and leaned forwards carefully over the sleeping child,
until their foreheads touched. Then she summoned all the confidence she
could, injected it into her voice. "You'll beat it," she said.
"I'm not afraid."
"Okay." Xena's eyes closed briefly, and she took a deep
breath. "Okay," she said again, and stood up, reaching down a
hand to haul the bard up after her. "Let's get going."
They had only been riding a few minutes when they heard the sound of
the pursuit. Too soon, Gabrielle realised. Xena must have hoped they
would be out of the forest before this happened. Now their only chance
was to outrun them. And Argo was carrying three, and already tired. She
felt the warrior stiffen, and then turn in the saddle. "I'll hang
on," she told her, summoning up a note of jaunty nonchalence from
somewhere. "You let Argo do her stuff."
Xena gave the mare her head at that, and within seconds Gabrielle was
grimly swallowing down nausea. The weaving of Argo's body, and the speed
at which the mare travelled, made the bard feel terribly seasick, so she
shut her eyes against the reckless flickering of tree trunks as they
threaded their way between them. But not knowing was even worse, and she
opened them again, fixing her gaze desperately on the familiar form in
front of her, and finding an anchor there. She had no hand free to grasp
Xena's waist, for both were wrapped round the child; instead she
tightened her legs round the mare till they screamed with the strain and
leaned gingerly forwards, trying desperately to shadow the warrior's
Gabrielle was not sure how she knew, despite her ignorance of the
forest, that they had missed their path and were heading deeper and
deeper into it. But she did know this. A cold hollow opened under her
breastbone. We must be mad, she thought. She was suddenly all too aware
of the root-riddled ground underfoot, the trees and their flailing
branches all around. But what else could they do? Stand and fight? That
would be still madder, even if they got out of this labyrinth of trees
and found open ground.
Suddenly she wasn't sure whether she was upright or prone, riding
Argo or tumbling endlessly through an immense darkness. Which breathed.
And then she could see them, tiny and scuttling, inching their way down
a an immense, winding tunnel. No, a maw. Being swallowed by an
enormous creature which had tree trunks for bones. She felt a scream
building up, filling the coldness inside her, and choked it down. Don't
distract her. Don't let her down. She clutched the child closer,
hunching tighter into Xena's back and feeling the warrior's hair flap
around her like black wings.
And then the forest was gone. They were galloping across what seemed
to be a vast river of frozen quicksilver with nothing between them and
the gibbous moon high above. Argo slid to a halt, and all Gabrielle
could hear apart from the mare's hoarse panting was her own heart beat
hammering in her ears. "Are we clear?" she wanted to ask, but
her throat was too dry. How could they be out of the forest, though?
They had been heading into its heart. She turned her head and looked
about, and her breath caught in shock.
She had felt they were in an emptiness, but in fact they still seemed
to be surrounded by dark trees through which a pale light shone. It was
just that...her mind balked, then flailed about as she tried to find any
bearings. Like a fish thrashing out of water, she thought in that
small, remote part of her mind that noted, recorded, stored details for
future use in her stories. And it was there that she steadied herself,
began to make sense of the nonsense surrounding her, found a way to
categorise it. Inside out. That was it; reversed somehow. Get
a grip, bard. Think it through. Bloated shapes floated in front of
her eyes, like the smudges of light left printed on the back of one's
eye lids if one shut them in a bright place. These aren't the lit
spaces between tree trunks at all; these are outgrowths of some kind,
and solid, but they aren't tree trunks.
And then the scene around her snapped into place. Behind them was the
forest, but in front of them was another kind of forest, of what seemed
to be rocky outcrops and spires. Narrow pathways ran between some of
them, twisting here and there and all soon coming to turns which blocked
any sight of what might lie beyond. Something had grown over the mounds,
some mould or lichen which seemed to be exhaling a phosphorescent gas.
It glimmered around their outlines, then sank to the ground and lagged
it with a sickly green glow.
Gabrielle swallowed hard. So you don't like this. So you know
there's something here you're not seeing? So what? We can't go back. Let
her know you can hold it together, so she doesn't start to worry.
She cleared her throat. "Xena?" she whispered hoarsely,
relieved that her voice was working again, and heartened, as always,
just by being able to say her partner's name.
Xena's shoulders lifted as she took a breath. Then she looked behind
her. "Are you okay?" Gabrielle took in the gleam of her eye,
the white curve of her cheek beneath it. She nodded, swallowing again,
and tightening her grip on the child. She was about to say something
more when they both heard it. Men cursing, armour jangling, horses
whinnying with fear, faint with distance, but audibly strengthening. The
hunt was almost upon them.
The sound sent a jolt through Xena, dispelling the fatigue she had
been fighting for hours. She could feel her muscles tighten, the little
hairs rise on her arms and her neck. They must be only a few minutes
away, she realised. There was no time to do anything more than move, get
out of sight before Mitos and his men cleared the forest. She pulled in
another deep breath and centred herself, banishing the panicky swimming
in her head and licking the sweat from her upper lip. Gabrielle needed
her. The child needed her. Even Argo did. She felt the mare's tension,
her nervous fidgeting, the jingle of her bit as she chewed it. Xena took
in the ground before them, the uneven footing, the treacherous light,
the way possible pitfalls were masked by the trailing fog. This was no
place to ride a horse.
She slid to the ground and reached up to help Gabrielle dismount, the
child still in her arms. The bard's skin had taken on an ashen cast. It
must be the light, but�. She spared a moment to look at her
closely in concern; her partner was swallowing all the time, and
blinking. Realising how close the smaller woman must be to breaking,
Xena settled both hands on her shoulders and gave her a gentle shake.
"Hang on. This isn't going to beat us," she said, and felt
Gabrielle gather herself, summon a smile from somewhere. One thing which
would never let them down, she thought. Gabrielle's courage.
Xena swung back, and chose an opening in the thicket of outcrops at
random. She wished she could take the child, but that would mean letting
go of Argo, and she wasn't sure the mare would enter this place for
Gabrielle, or if left to her own devices. They might need the mare later
on, too. If the terrain improved, Gabrielle could ride her. In the
meantime.... In the meantime, it seemed, Gabrielle would carry the child
on her back. She had burrowed into the pack and pulled out the rough
harness she had made earlier, and was shrugging into it once more. Xena
smiled her approval at her, gathered up Argo's reins close to the bit,
and led the way forwards.
It was worse than she'd feared. The ground underfoot was slippery
with what she guessed must be sodden moss, which was growing over
everything. It glowed as well, and what with this and the fog and the
uncertain light, she couldn't be sure from one step to the next where
she was putting her feet. There was no keeping to a steady pace, nor
even to a single course. Sometimes they met obstacles so high they could
not be got over, and had to back up until they found a clearer route.
Xena found the frustration was adding to her difficulties, her temper
fraying as each new direction led to a dead end and forced her to admit
defeat. At least Mitos won't be any better off, she thought wryly, not
as reassured as she had expected to be by the fact that there was
silence behind them again. It was not as though she could be certain
there was nothing there, after all.
When, after some time, they came to an unusually open space, Xena
halted with relief. She looked round at Gabrielle and saw that she had
bent over, hands on her hips, trying to catch her breath. I should
have stopped sooner, Xena thought guiltily. "Here," she
said aloud, "give me the kid. You get some water."
Gabrielle shrugged off the harness and silently handed her over, then
went up to Argo. The mare's coat was damp with sweat, Xena knew, and she
was trembling slightly. Badly spooked. Like the rest of us. Xena
glanced down at the girl. At least she's out of it. Best thing.
The warrior watched Gabrielle pat Argo, whispering something softly.
The mare calmed a little, and a little more when her partner poured some
water into the palm of her hand and rubbed it into her muzzle.
"Good girl. Brave Argo," Gabrielle said, a little louder now.
Her voice sounded husky and Xena winced, guessing her throat must be dry
and hurting. When Gabrielle held out the skin she nodded it back at her.
"You first," she insisted, and watched with satisfaction while
the bard took a long pull. Then she handed the child back, and helped to
coax a little fluid into the child before finally allowing herself to
suck in some thirsty gulps.
"We'll take a break," she said when she finished.
Gabrielle looked nervously back the way they had come and then up at
her. "I can keep going."
"We have to pace ourselves. We need a rest; and the way we've
been wandering about, we must have lost them for a while. It'll be dawn,
soon enough. We could do with the light." Xena flicked up an
eyebrow, challenging the bard to deny any of this. Gabrielle drew in a
breath, then met her eyes, and grinned reluctantly. "Okay. Set her
down." Xena spread out a sleeping skin and, once the bard sat down
on it, settled close beside her, taking back the girl once more.
"I wish we knew her name." Gabrielle's voice broke into a
silence which had extended for several minutes. Xena glanced down,
seeing the bard was troubled and not quite sure why. "It's just
that we're treating her like a parcel, I suppose," her partner
explained without needing to be asked. "Like a doll. We don't know
anything about her, and she can't tell us anything either."
Gabrielle bit down on her lower lip, then shook her head. "No. I'm
being an idiot." She laid her hand briefly on the child's swaddled
form, then drew it back to dash it across her eyes. "There's
nothing we can do. Ignore me."
"Never." Xena shook her head at her partner gravely, trying
to think of something more to say. But when a blush spread over the
bard's face and she ducked her head quickly, she realised that she had,
somehow or other, managed to say enough.
To give Gabrielle time to collect herself, Xena diverted her gaze
back to their surroundings. What was it with the light in here? She
looked at the pillars encircling them, which seemed to hang above the
mist-enshrouded ground like greasy, sluggish flames. They were actually
giving off light, she realised, and so had the broken masonry they had
threaded their way through earlier. Or rather whatever covered them was.
The pillars and the tumbled blocks and the long flat stone at the centre
of the arena were all radiating the stuff, more than enough to tinge the
Pillars? Masonry? Arena?
"It's a city," Gabrielle said at that moment. "A city
right in the middle of the forest."
Xena nodded. Yes. They had been walking between the ruins of
houses, mansions, palaces, colonnades, avoiding jumbled rubble and
cellars which had collapsed in on themselves. We were lucky to have
got so far.
"The forest came later." She was not sure how she knew.
"Grew around it." Like a besieging army that put down
"So old, no remembers it was ever here," Gabrielle said,
her voice hushed. Xena felt her partner start to shudder, then suppress
it. "Wow!" The bard's voice was artificially bright.
"Will we have a story to tell."
Xena smiled back, acknowledging her attempt to settle their nerves.
"Do you think the Keep was built by the same people?"
Gabrielle was looking about her, two small furrows between her brows.
Xena guessed she was trying to put the place back together in her head.
"That would make sense. Some sort of guard post?" Or
"Or perhaps not," Gabrielle mused. "Perhaps it came
later? To stop something getting out." She stopped abruptly, her
Xena shook her head. "Who knows?" They had talked about
this long enough. The last thing she wanted was to get Gabrielle's
imagination going. Though once the bard started working at a puzzle, she
never gave up. "Gabrielle, we need to get started." She got
ready to hand the child back to her partner. "Here," she
started to say, but broke off. From Gabrielle's gasp she knew the bard
had heard them too. Mitos and his men, close on their heels. Again. How
had they done it?
"That's just great!" Gabrielle said. "What have they
got? A street map?" She was staring at Xena, trying to keep a
valiant grin plastered to her face.
"Right." And that thing on their side. Xena looked
at her, at the child, at the place. It�s driving us, she
realised, herding us. Mitos and his men are just its hounds. She
and Gabrielle were nearly at the end of their strength. If they ran,
they'd be hunted down within the hour. Easily. And if they stayed? Well,
at least I'll get my chance to go down fighting. Then she realised
she had been staring at her partner the whole time. And Gabrielle?
She fought down a fierce pang of grief. Perhaps there was a place the
bard could hide. That stone. She loped over towards it, Gabrielle
Close up, it was larger and more complex than she had supposed. A
solid white oblong, about as long as a man and almost as wide, nearly as
high as her hips. It was not flat, however. Instead a pattern of grooves
was carved into the surface, spiralling in to form a deep well.
"Like the pathways," Gabrielle said suddenly, her fingers
tracing the outmost channel. "I bet they all lead here."
Yes, Xena thought with resignation. So much for our chances of
escape. We were always going to end up in this place. It was a trap,
she knew, and she had let them both be driven right inside it. Anger
rose up within her, and she tamped it down. There were better ways to
use such energy than by railing at fate. She felt the skin of her face
shift and tighten and knew she would be smiling, just a little, though
she doubted that this time their enemy was human enough to be
intimidated by her grimly cheerful defiance.
"Xena?" She shifted her gaze back to Gabrielle. "We
stand and fight? Yes?" the bard asked.
Xena cocked an eyebrow. Despite the hopelessness of their decision,
she could feel her pulse quicken and a charge of excitement course
through her. She let the smile broaden to a grin, watched a tinge of
colour return to the bard's cheeks in response. "Get the kid behind
this stone, and keep your head down." It might give them a little
shelter. And they weren't the target. She was.
"Xena?" Gabrielle said again, and this time her voice was
just a little reproachful.
"Look, I'll fight better if I know you're safe." Xena gave
into her impulse and cupped Gabrielle's cheek in her hand, rubbing the
curve of her jaw gently with her thumb. "And keeping the kid safe
The bard held her gaze, her own unfathomable. Xena wondered if she
knew. But of course she did; her silence on the subject was a give-away.
There was no escape from this place. When Gabrielle said nothing more,
Xena didn't push it. At a time like this, Gabrielle should make her own
decisions. But it won't get you, my bard. Nor me. She'd kill them
both herself, before she'd let that happen.
Trudging back to where the child lay in its stupor, Gabrielle felt
tiny, conspicuous as a fly on a shining shield, and just as pathetic and
vulnerable. She crushed the idea. That thing out there, she thought.
Trying to spook me again, trying to make me useless to Xena. Though she
couldn't be sure about that. Even if it were just Mitos, there wasn't
much she could do. But it wasn't. She doubted even Xena knew how to
defend herself against this attack. She'll find a way. She always
does. Gabrielle raised her chin and concentrated on her defiance,
determined not to grant their enemy this victory. It was not going to
know they were anything but confident. She bent down over the child. Has
she any idea what is going on? Did she understand what the
raiders did to her family? Does she know where she is now? Gabrielle
hoped not. She sighed, gathered the small bundle up, and carried her
back to the stone.
Stone? Who was she trying to kid? The thing had to be an altar of
some kind. A place for priests to officiate, to offer sacrifice, to
attempt to propitiate or petition gods. But perhaps not. Perhaps the
city magistrates presided here, or the King held formal audiences, or
something. She laid the girl on its top and was turning away, meaning to
collect her pack, when a glint caught her attention. There. At the
bottom of the spiral well. Moisture must have gathered in it, she
thought nervously. That was why it glittered like an eye.
She was on her way back across the arena when some trick of the
labyrinthine twining of pathways through the rubble brought the sound of
the hunt to her again. Much closer now; she looked across at Xena. The
warrior had stripped Argo of her harness, and was standing before her,
carefully untangling her forelock, then rubbing her hand slowly down the
front of the mare's face. While Gabrielle watched, her partner stepped
back and said, "Go on. Find your way out of here." Argo
hesitated, clearly torn, but then a man's voice rang out, sounding as
though he was almost upon them, and she half reared, her eyes rolling
wildly, pivoted round on her haunches and bolted.
She feels it too. Whatever it is. Nothing a horse could help
with, anyway. Argo at least should have a chance to survive. But Xena's
face was too carefully blank. She's relied on Argo much longer than
she has on me. Gabrielle stopped short, ashamed of her jealousy. She
should be thinking of Xena, she reproached herself. When Xena swung
round, clearly looking for something, she made herself smile and jerk
her thumb upwards when their eyes met. After a second, Xena smiled as
Not long now. Xena was taking up position midway between the
stone and the opening the sounds were coming from. Gabrielle slipped
quickly back to the child, twitching aside the folds of cloak. In the
bleaching light of the moon, she saw shrunken, waxen cheeks, blue lips
slightly opened, tugging in tiny sips of air. Not long now,
Gabrielle thought again. She bent to kiss the girl�s moist forehead,
then froze as, startled, she saw the eyes open. Two dark, lucid pools
stared back at her, in each of them a bright, steady reflection of the
"Hush now, hush," Gabrielle said in reflex. "Go back
to sleep." She had never felt so inadequate. The girl looked back
silently, her face very calm. What is she thinking? Gabrielle
looked closer, feeling herself drawn down, drawn deep. How can a
child know that? Feel that? The bard shuddered, straightened
abruptly, gasping. She felt so cold; the ragged shadow of what she had
seen fluttered at the back of her mind, refusing to reveal itself
clearly, refusing to leave altogether. She wanted to deny it, to turn
her back on the child and pretend she had seen nothing, but she could
not bring herself to do so. Is it even her at all? She shuddered
again, let her hand rest gingerly on the stone surface. It felt cold and
gritty and damp. That was all, surely; the anger, the hatred, the need
for revenge - those were her own feelings, they had to be. She shifted
her hand until it was close to the child, and turned to face the coming
When the men came into the open, they were still on horseback.
Gabrielle wondered how they had managed that, then took on the foam on
the horses� flanks and the slashes where spurs had gouged their sides.
With great difficulty. Her lips pressed together in distaste. The
mounts were thoroughly cowed now, slipping through the opening like
shadows, then fanning out smoothly till they formed a long line opposite
Gabrielle found it difficult to look at them. She hoped there was
nothing wrong with her eyes, that it was just the lurid phosphorescence
of the place which was making the shapes distort and multiply before
her. It was Mitos and his men, she told herself. You know that.
They're just a gang of murderers. But they looked different, she
thought. They looked somehow alike, were moving in unison, even the
horses. As she noticed this, the line began to move forwards, its tips
faster than the middle, and she realised the aim was to encircle her
After ten paces, and without a word of command, the line came to a
halt, at the same time drawing their swords with a single ringing rasp.
The rider in the centre, his face almost covered by his helmet's brow
and cheek plates, kept going, though, stopping a length ahead of the
rest. It had to be Mitos, Gabrielle told herself. But he seemed to be
bigger, and not to be wearing armour but a scaly skin which oozed slime
and radiated a ghoulish light. Some of that mould stuff must have
brushed off as he rode past it. That's why he's glowing like that.
She glanced down swiftly at the girl. Her eyes were closed again now,
their unsettling knowledge, their hungry anticipation just a memory in
the bard's own mind.
"One last chance." It wasn't really Mitos' voice. Barely
raised above a whisper, it was icily distinct. "Come to me
willingly and I'll let your bard and the brat go. If you don't, I'll
make killing them yourself my first order. And you'll laugh when you
Gabrielle watched Xena's back. Any minute now.
"You just a messenger boy now, Mitos?" The warrior's hand
would be on her chakram, Gabrielle knew. "Well, tell your master I
decline his invitation." And now the chakram was out and flying,
angling so that it could slice across the naked blades behind him. Yes!
Gabrielle waited for what should come next, the sound of iron snapping,
curses, horses rearing, riders thrown as they reared or stumbled, Xena's
body soaring through the air as she vaulted onto the back of Mitos'
It didn't happen. The chakram bounced off the blades harmlessly, the
line held steady as it whirred by, and then Mitos flung out his hand and
snatched it out of the air. As Gabrielle released a gasp she hadn't even
realised she was holding, Xena straightened from her crouch,
miraculously still balanced, still unmoved.
"An interesting weapon." Mitos held the chakram in front of
him, examined it minutely. "Not really my kind of thing
though." He tossed it back and Xena caught the shining hoop without
even bothering to take her eyes off the man. Who said, still without
raising his voice, "It's time."
At that instant, the line of horses moved forwards, settling into a
gallop so smooth it did not jar their riders at all. Gabrielle watched
them, fascinated. They were coming straight for the warrior. Yet while
she could see bloodied saliva spray from the horses' bits and stones and
clods of earth splatter from around their hooves, she could not make out
their faces at all.
And now Xena did move, somersaulting high into the air and coming
down behind them, casting the chakram at the same time. This time the
abrupt change of direction and the sting of the metal ring's edge had
some effect. Horses screamed, a few bolting, some snatching their bits
and ripping their reins out of their riders' hands. One reared up so
high it was nearly vertical, and then twisted as it came down, toppling
as it did so and knocking into the horse immediately beside it. A man
leapt clear, but the other was lost in the kicking tumult of limbs, and
Gabrielle winced despite herself.
Now she could not see Xena, though she strained forwards, trying to
pick her partner out through the melee. She would be trying for a horse,
the bard guessed, still aiming to get to Mitos and capture him. It was
the only realistic course of action available. But before the warrior
had time to take it, the riders were once again in control, and the line
had formed once more. Now their backs were to the bard, and she could
see Xena on the other side, sword in one hand, the chakram back on its
belt hook. Slowly, gracefully, Xena pulled back her sword arm till the
tip of the blade drew level with her ear, then held the pose still, as
effortlessly as a statue. And for a few moments, nothing moved in the
Their next charge would overwhelm the warrior, Gabrielle was sure of
it. "Gods, protect her," she said out loud. I have to do
something. "I'm so sorry," she muttered, and touched the
child tenderly for the last time. Someone should stop here with her,
she thought. No one should die alone like this, especially not a
child. But she could not stay. "There's no one to back her up,
you see," she whispered. "That's my job. Forgive me."
Gabrielle stepped away from the stone, moving towards the line of
horses, trying desperately to think of something she could do, some
weapon she could use. One of the men had dropped his sword, and she
paused by it, but she didn't rate her chances highly with that. Then she
noticed some stones lying close to it, and bent and gathered a couple.
They felt heavy and oddly shaped, and she glanced down at them
curiously. Bits of shattered paving stone, smashed then eroded. She
wondered what had broken them so violently.
Now! Gabrielle urged herself. Without stopping to think, she
flung both stones, and watched with satisfaction as one hit the rump of
a horse, throwing up a puff of dust, while the other clattered as it
rebounded from a rider's armour. She was already stooping, then throwing
two more stones, and two more again, running forwards, yelling,
screaming at spooked mounts, feeling a grin stretch over her face for no
better reason than because she was getting herself closer to Xena.
Xena was already on the move herself, using the diversion to take out
two more riders, one with a flying kick, the other with a casual slash
of her sword. Landing behind their horses she slapped the flat of her
blade across their rumps and screamed her war-cry, sending them bucking
into the rest of the hunt. It began to mill around, riders yelling,
their horses' terror mounting out of control, for the first time in
serious danger of losing cohesion.
That's the way, Xena exalted, looking for her next victim,
smiling as he selected himself, dashing out of the churning mass of
horses straight towards her. She waited till the horse, a frantic bay,
was almost upon her, then jumped straight up into the air, hearing her
boot connect with the rider's helmet with a satisfying crunch. She was
down and rolling before he hit the ground, then up and reaching for a
horse's reins, yanking them out of the rider's hands and heaving at his
leg, levering him out of the saddle. Whipping the beast round, she
slapped it across the muzzle, making it lash out its rear hooves. She
was aware of a horse behind falling sideways, its rider screaming and
unable to scramble clear, but was already running again, working her way
through the press, determined to reach her partner.
She knew Gabrielle was close before she saw the bard. Hurling herself
into the sweating flank of a raw-boned grey, she forced it to one side
and saw her. Her partner was turning round slowly, a stone in each hand,
yelling hoarsely, while three of Mitos' raiders circled her, silent,
deadly. Xena got her shoulder under the thigh of the man on the grey and
heaved him off, shoving the horse so that it trampled him to keep its
footing. Unlatching the chakram, she loosed it under-arm and grimaced
with satisfaction as it buried itself in the nearest rider's spine,
clearing her way. Then she was standing beside the smaller woman, the
familiar presence warming her as nothing else ever had, or could.
In the small pocket of quiet that formed around them, Xena became
aware of a strange mixture of emotions. Regret pierced her to the heart,
for what they would now never have, and gladness as well, for what they
had had, and for this last moment as well. It was not what she had
wanted for them, on those rare occasions when she had let herself want
anything, when she had dared to plan for the future, and it was far less
than she felt Gabrielle deserved, but she was profoundly grateful that
they were, nonetheless, together. One promise I will keep, my bard.
Xena risked a glance at the smaller woman and saw she was looking
back at her, sea green eyes in a parchment white face, sparkling with
defiance and with love. Some people, she reflected in what seemed to
have become a timeless moment, fought because they loved to do so, and
some fought simply because they loved. She felt her lips curve into a
smile as Gabrielle nodded at her, a fierce, businesslike bob of her
head, and nodded back.
Xena turned her attention back to the battle. The quiet had spread
out, had enveloped the arena. Mitos was yelling something, she could see
that, but she could hear nothing. All around her, his men were getting
their horses back under control, getting themselves back into formation.
There was something odd about the way they moved though, something Xena
couldn't at first put her finger on. Then, as she watched a horse shake
its head against the bit, she realised. It was moving so slowly; she had
time to see each hair of its mane, sweat spray from its hide, the
individual sinews and muscles flex and straighten in its sides and its
legs, the blood vessels stand out under its coat.
The riders were wheeling now, facing them, reining in their steeds
before they began their charge. It would not be Mitos who gave the
order, she sensed, but the thing which wanted her. She could feel it
whispering in her mind, offering to spare Gabrielle if she would give
herself up to it, taunting her with this death she had chosen, fighting
a nameless enemy in a lost battle which no one would ever hear of.
"Some hero," it mocked her, when she refused. "Frightened
to let down a bard. You've gone soft." She shook her head, took her
sword in a two-handed grip, felt Gabrielle beside her hefting her stones
in her hands, and prepared to sell their lives dearly.
But the charge never came. Instead, from somewhere behind her, Xena
felt a tremendous presence suddenly erupt, one which towered above her
head and arched over, plunging towards Mitos, his raiders and the
darkness which rode with them. She was feeling, she realised remotely, a
wave of terror. It burnt its way up her spine and exploded in her head
in a great flash of white, and she sank to her knees under the impact.
Dropping her sword, she grasped around her until her fingers encountered
a warm, supple form which wrapped tightly itself about her.
Hold on, she kept saying in her head, since she couldn't seem to
find any breath to draw into her lungs so that she could speak. Whether
she meant it for herself or for Gabrielle, or for them both, she wasn't
sure. Hold on. The wave was flowing through her, filling her head
with images from a life she had not lived. Hold on! The city
stood undamaged before her, in stark black and white as if lit by
lightning. Terrified citizens poured through its streets to the central
arena, screaming in a language she did not understand, and did not want
to. Hold on. But her own grasp on herself seemed to be weakening.
With a sense of remote horror, Xena felt her brain writhing, re-aligning
itself, and becoming one with the eerie image from the past. Hold
The enemy outside the gates was no respecter of their city's age or
eminence, was not impressed by its beauty or achievements in art and
philosophy. For months they had ignored the threat, assumed that their
greatness would somehow, in itself, be enough repel the invader without
their having to lift a finger. Now it was too late. Now the darkness was
about to overwhelm them. But the Priest, who for months had been
predicting this, had been telling them it was punishment for having
neglected their services to the gods for so long, he said that there was
a chance. That they must make their repentance clear when they asked for
help, though. Must prove it.
So they were here. All the citizens, save those who had tried to
stand in their way and been trampled. All afraid to look at what was
before them, and afraid to look away. The child was poor, sickly, its
parents a whore and a thief. And what citizen would not give his life to
save the city itself, if he were worthy? So why this sense of despair as
the flint knife fell and the blood gathered in the well of the navel
stone? Why this sense of taint, of violation, as the power beneath the
city raised herself, shamed and raging at the disgrace, at them for
having brought the disgrace, to tear the enemy apart?
...on. She groaned, aware only of a terrible taste of bile in her
mouth, of nausea roiling in her stomach. Memories still poured through
her head, leaving her flailing in the torrent. Who was she? Which of
these victims of panic and self disgust? All of them, or none? She felt
them turn on one another, tearing at the pain, trying to rip it out,
discovering they each carried it deep within themselves, that the only
way to exorcise it was to stab and slash and sever. They couldn�t
live with themselves, she realised in horror. We couldn�t live
with what we had done.
But while she had lost her own name, she still had something to hold
on to. Someone. Someone whose name she remembered. Gabrielle. Green eyes
and a loving smile. An understanding heart and boundless forgiveness.
She breathed the word to herself in relief. Gabrielle. She
tightened her embrace, burrowed closer into the bard's, anchoring
herself to her partner, being anchored by her.
Finally, Xena began to become aware of the world around her again.
Small sounds first, her leather creaking, the bard's breathing, then the
movement of air over skin wet with sweat, chilling it. She sucked in a
deep breath and drew back a little, slitting her eyes, willing herself
to see; that strange burst of brightness inside her head still dazzled
her Very faintly, just a slightly more solid cloud to begin with, then
gaining substance and texture, Gabrielle's face appeared in front of
her, and she let out the breath in a sob of relief, which was echoed by
the figure in her arms.
After a while, when the sensation of being alive and whole had become
less astonishing, she staggered to her feet, dragging the bard with her,
tucking an arm round her shoulders to keep her upright and close.
Dazedly she took in the scene around them, unable believe her eyes at
first. Whatever had swept through the place had dismembered Mitos'
raiders, to the last man and horse. Gabrielle moaned, "Gods!"
and doubled over, retching, and she rubbed the bard's back absently,
awe-struck, unable to look away from the carnage. Even long ago, at her
wildest, she had never dreamed of a slaughter as total, as ruthless as
Now Gabrielle was straightening, had reached out and clutched her
hand. "The girl!" she gasped, and broke away, weaving
slightly, heading for the stone.
"Gabrielle!" Xena easily outstripped her, turned in her
path and blocked her view of the stone. A foreboding had gathered itself
in her. What had saved them? Where had it come from? And why? She had
answers, but she did not want to think about them. "Wait. Let me
The bard looked up at her, then away, rubbing one hand tiredly over
her brow. "She's my responsibility," she said dully, "I'm
the one who dragged her here. I'm the one who left her lying on that
thing." She started forwards again and Xena, reluctantly, stepped
out of her way. The warrior kept pace with her, however, and so they
reached the stone together.
At first she thought the child had been spared after all. The bundle
of clothing was still there. But when Gabrielle leaned forwards and
flipped aside the fold of her cloak, there was nothing inside.
"Xena?" Gabrielle reached a hand back, blindly, and Xena
caught hold. "She can't have run away. Can she?"
The warrior shook her head. She unwrapped the cloak completely.
Inside were the child's own tunic and leggings, still fastened. Beside
her, Gabrielle shrank in on herself, and muttered, "No. It can't
be!" and Xena stepped in close, wrapping both arms about her.
"Steady," she said quietly, her eyes busy taking in the
surface of the stone. Something was different, but she wasn't sure what.
"What's that in the well?" Gabrielle's voice was a raspy
husk of itself.
She was right. There was something there. A dark, treacly fluid had
filled it and now trembled at its very brim. Cautiously, fighting
distaste, Xena loosed a hand and dipped one finger in, then pulled it
back quickly. The tip was dark in the moonlight. She watched as a drop
gathered itself, then sluggishly parted from her skin and plopped
heavily back again. It looked black now, but would be dark red in
daylight, she thought distantly.
"Oh gods." Gabrielle sagged in her arms and, alarmed, Xena
swung her up and carried her back to the edge of the arena. All the
time, she was aware of Gabrielle staring over her shoulder, her eyes
never leaving the stone. She did not look away when Xena set her down
and busied herself finding their water skin either, and shook her head
when the warrior offered it to her.
Xena sat back on her heels, staring at her bard. "It isn't your
fault," she insisted, aware she was echoing Gabrielle�s own words
from earlier that evening. That evening? It felt like a century
ago. Time must have kept a different pace since then. But perhaps
nothing happened. Perhaps we�re still in that moment, and
dreamed all this. She wrenched herself out of the sickening feeling
of disorientation with an effort of sheer will. "How can it be your
fault?" The heady relief had already dissipated, been replaced by a
sour gnawing of fear.
"It is." Gabrielle would not meet her eyes. "It
is," she repeated, and turned her back on the warrior. "Don't
look at me," she whispered, lying down on her side and curling into
a tight ball.
Xena knelt beside her, tried to coax her into uncoiling. When she
failed, she lay down next to her, folded herself round her, smoothing
the short strands of sweat-dampened, red gold hair, rocking her gently. You've
won, after all, she told the darkness. She hoped Mitos' shade,
wherever it was, was enjoying its victory.
Twilight came to the edge of the sea where it made landfall at Kalpos.
Thin threads of spume traced the crests of the waves, as if a net fine
as cobwebs had been cast out to catch them. The evening was quiet,
except for the sound of water sifting through shingle. And something
more. Someone weeping, someone hushing her quiet. Two women, one tall
and one short, both sitting on the big rock which marked the highest
point reached by the tide. The small one's knees were drawn up and her
chin rested on them, while the taller one squatted beside her. In the
last light of day, bronze glinted under her cloak, hinting at armour,
suggesting a warrior. A breeze toyed with the wisps of her friend's
cropped, red gold hair. She sat stiffly, hunched in on herself, braced
by the tall woman's arms.
Then the smaller woman started up, tore herself free from her friend
and ran to the brink of the sea. Her companion was by her side in an
instant, but though her arms reached out to restrain her, she halted the
gesture and merely stood close, though she was weeping. The small
woman's eyes were as green as the sea, and quite dry. For a time she
leaned into the breeze that blew over the water, then, at the last
moment, she flung out one arm. Her friend seized it, and each clung to
the other. Like drowning sailors, clutching at spars.
The wind rose, just a little. It scoured the sky clear till it
gleamed. Close to sinking, the sun was the colour of bronze, heated and
glowing, and smooth as a coin which has passed through hundreds of
hands. Foam crusted the waves now, and these curled over troughs which
were tinted the colour of blood. Leaning in on each other, the women
returned to the rock. For some time they stayed quiet, but then the
smaller one began to speak, flinging out words as though they were
stones. "I must have known all along." Her face was wracked
with self hatred. "I just wouldn't face it, so I lied to myself,
pretended I didn't understand and that there was nothing else I could
"But there wasn't." The taller woman played with her
friend's red gold hair, separating silky strands, combing them through
her long, gentle fingers, constantly, soothingly.
The silence returned for a while. "I didn't tell you about the
dream," the small woman said suddenly. "Do you want to know
"Tell me why." The tall woman kept up her stroking.
"Because the dream foretold the sacrifice. I saw myself holding
a knife and then the child lying dead. I must have known that if I said
it out loud I couldn't hide it from myself any longer." After a
moment, she added, "And the real proof, the clincher, is that I
must have wanted to hide it from you too. So that you didn�t have to
share the guilt." The cracked sound might have been a brief laugh.
"Or that�s probably the lie I meant to tell myself to ease my
conscience." Her face contorted again, but she did not cry.
The warrior's eyes did glisten with tears, but her voice was deep and
calm. "That's hindsight. All of it. Because of what we know now.
But we didn�t know that then, and anyway, we don't really know now
what happened there. Not for sure."
"I put the child down. I asked for help. We got the help. The
child was taken in payment." The small woman�s voice was dull and
heavy, like an axe chopping wood. She paused. Her throat worked as she
swallowed. "You saw it too, didn't you? What happened in the city?
What destroyed it? That's what I recreated. That�s what killed Mitos
and his men, and drove out the darkness." With each sentence the
small woman's hands clenched tighter and tighter as she turned her anger
in on herself.
Her friend reached round her shoulders and captured her hands,
coaxing them open. "Oh, Gabrielle," she sighed softly, when
she saw blood beading cuts from the small woman's nails. She lifted one
hand to her lips, then the other. After a moment, she said, "The
child was dying. If you had left her in the forest she would have died
there. If you'd left her in the Keep, she would have died there. She
died on that stone. You didn't kill her. You couldn't save her.
Everything else was just coincidence."
"Which conveniently saved our lives and killed everything
else." Gabrielle's voice was filled with self contempt.
"And which you didn't intend."
Gabrielle drew away a little. She shrank further into her herself,
clasped arms tightly around herself and began rocking backwards and
"You didn't, Gabrielle. Whatever was going on there, it had to
do with what happened a long time ago. When the thing which had taken
over Mitos first attacked the city." The warrior had loosened her
grip, but she kept close to her friend. "Listen to me. You aren't
sure about anything at the moment, and neither am I. We both know that
thing was in our heads some of the time. Messing with our
Gabrielle sucked in a sob and began to rock herself faster. The
warrior flinched, but gathered herself and carried. "I'm sure of
something, though. Just one thing. I'm sure about you. You hear me?
Gabrielle?" She reached out and shook her friend, very slightly.
"Listen." Now her voice took on a pleading note. "I'm not
going to lose you, Gabrielle. Don't you leave me."
Gabrielle freed a hand and rested it on one of the warrior's, but she
The woman drew in a breath. "I know a lot about guilt," she
said. "I'm the world's greatest expert. I know how it feels. I feel
guilty all the time. You want to know how I keep going?"
The smaller woman nodded, very slightly. The tempo of her rocking had
slowed. Now it stopped.
"Because of you. Because you tell me, again and again, that I
can. Because I trust you."
The hand which covered hers tightened a little. Knuckles whitened,
veins showed blue under taut skin.
The warrior paused for a moment, took another breath. "Well, now
it's time for you to trust me. I know you, Gabrielle, better than you
know yourself sometimes. I know you're feeling guilty. People like you
think and worry and care about others, and do everything you can to help
and spare them, but still you feel guilty, because you think you didn't
do enough. And if in fact you can't do anything, you feel most guilty of
all." She renewed her embrace, drew the small woman back against
her, resting her chin on her head. "But even though you can't
always help people the way you want, you'd never hurt them. You hear me,
Gabrielle? You're not guilty. Trust me on this."
Gabrielle turned a little, craned round till she could look up into
her friend's eyes. "Then why do I feel as though I am, Xena?"
"Oh, love. Because you survived. I learned a long time ago not
to punish myself for that. Now you've got to learn it too. You can't
help being alive."
Gabrielle held her gaze for a long moment. Then she relaxed suddenly,
settling back into her friend's arms with a sigh which was half a sob.
"Okay," she said. "Okay. I'll try." She sucked in a
breath, then another, her face crumpling. Soon she was weeping in
"That's my bard." Xena kissed the top of her head, and
rocked her gently as she cried.
The sun sank lower. Rocks already submerged in the bay sent long
shadows over the beach, pointing to land. The waves lapped closer and
closer. It was nearly high tide. "Come on," Xena said finally.
She slid off the rock and pulled her friend after her. "Let's get
back to the village."
Gabrielle nodded. She didn�t move though. "Thanks, Xena. For
"Nah," the warrior said, "self preservation. I need
you, my bard." She settled her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and
looked at her silently for a minute. Then she smiled.
The smaller woman put her hands over Xena's. Very slightly, her lips
curved in an answering smile. "That was some sensitive chat,"
she said softly, and the smile widened into a grin, though tears still
slid down her cheeks, as salt as the ocean.
"I�ve had a good teacher." Xena continued to study her
partner for a time. Then she freed one hand and wiped her cheeks dry
with her thumb, before, arm in arm, they walked back from the edge of
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