The Warrior, The Witch, and the Nightmare
Prologue: Mount Olympus
Zeus slammed his fist angrily on the table before him, causing a sharp crack of thunder and a light rumble of the earth in the mortal realm. There was a crack in the stone table, too, he noticed. Nice. He still had what it takes...
"I am asking this one more time: Which one of you put that... woman into the mortal realm?" He glowered into the crowd of gods and demigods that were gathered in the Great Arena, staring hard at each in turn.
There was Aphrodite, all blonde, blue-eyed naivet�... well, that was the picture she liked to paint of herself, but the ill-disguised leer on her face as she looked at the more physically appealing deities somehow did not quite match his image of the young innocent. She looked back at him with big, liquid, eyes and her best Who? Me? expression. Quite silly. But then, here was one whose power was not to be denied.
Hades, his helm tucked casually under one arm, garbed in ceremonial red and black armor. He returned Zeus' stare with a raised eyebrow, and a shrug. He exchanged furtive glances with Persephone, who was across the room with her mother. It was to be a while yet before he would be reunited with her.
Ares, all in black, lounging against a pillar cleaning his fingernails with a long dagger. Zeus was going to have to have another private talk with him soon. The God of War wore a decidedly smug expression.
Athena, the Owl - he called her that privately, never to her face - smirked at him. She might know the answer he demanded, and she might not. He rather suspected she just loved to see him this clueless.
The Hunting Goddess had arrived fashionably late, garbed in woodland colors, a hunting bow slung across her back, and a quiver bristling with arrows at her hip. Artemis graced him with a half-smile before she returned to her scrutiny of her favorite rival, Athena.
That hooded figure in the back of the hall would be one of the Fates, he supposed. The sisters never showed up together at these occasions, and hardly ever let on which one you were dealing with. They were a secretive bunch. He didn't like them. The power they held that even he had to bend to occasionally gave him the heebie-jeebies. Ugh.
Eris, now.... Goddess of Discord. She wore a gown of crimson velvet that clung tightly to her body in the most unsettling places, and flowed teasingly around others. A dangerous one, that. As dangerous as Nyx was mysterious. The Lady of the Night hovered close by, shrouded in barely opaque black gossamer.
Tyche, whom some called Fortuna. Not one to leave anything to chance.
Death was there, gaunt and silent. The pale moonlight from above played wicked tricks on her face, and made it appear almost like a grinning skull. Zeus had to admit it was a nice effect.
There was Gaea, and Chronos, the Master of Time, Hermes, of course, Morpheus and Hera, who had knifed him with stares ever since the gathering had begun. He could almost feel them burn on his skin. She could be creepy, when she tried.
But the one who drew most of the uneasy glances was Cupid, who had draped himself nonchalantly on the rim of the marble fountain. He carried his usual bow and quiver of dread arrows, but lately he had taken to using a silver hammer where he thought arrows weren't in order. Very subtle. The thing dangled innocently from a loop on his belt.
He wouldn't put this abomination past any of them - well, perhaps Aphrodite lacked the wit, and Hermes the guts, but other than that, he had a room full of suspects and no idea how to proceed. A disturbing condition, for a god.
"I don't approve of this type of meddling, you all know that. And this has gotten way out of hand. So, any suggestions?"
Ares flashed him a grin, and opened his mouth to speak, but Zeus forestalled
"And what would that be?" the Owl asked him. "Considering you don't want us meddling. She would have to be stopped by mortal means. You really want to send some poor puny human after her? Don't be ridiculous."
Hades nodded his agreement. "What that woman does is definitely inhuman. I doubt if there is any mortal who can handle her. Hercules might be able to, but I guess he's out, too."
"I know just the one," Ares offered.
"I SAID NO!!!!" Little bolts of lightning shot from Zeus' ears, and for a moment it seemed a black cloud formed over his head. The mortal realm was whipped and pelted by a furious thunderstorm.
"I say let Cupid whack her with that hammer of his and then face her with Death here." Hermes offered. He drew back a little when the Grim Lady glided silently towards him and extended a skeletal hand. "Um, no need, really," he squeaked, retreating further. "You know I was joking, old friend, right? Right???"
"Of course, my dear," Death said softly in her eerie, velvety voice, "and I hope you liked my little return joke, too." She chuckled a little at the blush creeping up Hermes' cheeks.
"Do we even know where she is at the moment?" Aphrodite asked, her brow creasing prettily, "Do we have a way to find her?"
"One would like to think so," Athena the Owl muttered under her breath.
"She's a little hard to keep track of, it seems," Artemis explained, glaring at Athena, "Her route is erratic, and descriptions of her vary too much to trust any one of them. It's always easy to tell where she has been, though. Still, there's no pattern to her movement that I can see."
Athena matched her stare for stare. "That's quite a sad admission for the huntress, isn't it?" she said mildly.
Artemis drew herself up and opened her mouth for a retort.
"Stop that bickering," Zeus snapped, "and let's get back to business already. We don't have all century."
A bird winged silently up to Athena and perched on her shoulder. A small woodland owl. It figured. Athena cocked her head for a few moments, a slow smile spreading on her face. Then the bird took off, and was gone.
"Relax, Zeus," Athena told him, "she won't be down there forever. As a matter of fact, I don't think you will have much choice anymore. It seems things have been set into motion already."
Zeus narrowed his eyes, trying to fathom what she was up to. "And how's that?"
Another smirk from Athena. The Owl waved her arms, and an image formed over the marble fountain, startling Cupid, who tumbled backward for an impromptu bath. Nobody laughed, though, and glances went to the hammer at his waist.
"Watch," was all Athena said.
Chapter I : Friction
Summer was fast advancing into fall. Though the leaves were still green, a definite chill was in the early morning air, and after the previous night's violent thunderstorm, the air was filled with the rich smell of moist earth. A light mist stood knee-deep on the moss-covered forest floor, while the sun yet low on the horizon was just extending his first rays through the foliage. At this early hour, when the creatures of the night were retiring, and the daylight creatures just awakening, the forest was quiet and peaceful.
"Do you always have to be so darn stubborn?" Gabrielle cried in exasperation, "I thought you vowed to give help where it's needed."
"Don't 'Gabrielle' me! Those villagers are so narrow-minded. We can't allow this -"
"- to happen. Where is your sense of justice?"
"Gabrielle, ENOUGH! I said no, dammit!" Xena growled, and flinched inwardly at Gabrielle's hurt expression. But at least she had finally gotten a word in edgewise. Only by brute force, she hated to admit. This arguing thing just wasn't in her bag of tricks.
The two friends were camping by a huge overgrown fallen tree a good way off the sparsely traveled forest road, not quite half a day out from the nameless little hamlet they had come through the day before. Xena had picked the spot in a hurry in an attempt to escape from the rapidly approaching thunderstorm the night before. It wasn't ideal, but there had been nothing better for miles around. The makeshift bivouac they had set up against the tree trunk and the little trench the warrior had dug around it had kept the worst of the storm out, at the cost of being huddled together in way too small a space, by a very meager excuse for a campfire. And some of the cold rain had found its way in, which had made them both wake up early, damp and shivering, to the angry hiss of water dripping on still smoldering embers.
The last few weeks had seen them traveling as they were now, with no particular goal - stopping a skirmish here, saving a village from raiders there. The usual.
The argument had been going on for some time. It had started just after they
had left that last village, and Gabrielle had picked it up again as soon as she
had opened her eyes that morning. Xena knew she was slowly, inexorably losing
ground. She might be invincible as a fighter, but she was like a squalling babe
when the weapon was her tongue, and Gabrielle her opponent.
But this time Gabrielle was surely being dangerously stupid. She had to convince her this was a bad idea. She just had to. And she would. She would!
Gabrielle was silent for a while, sullenly poking at the dying fire with a
stick, and just when Xena was beginning to wonder if her outburst had cut deeper
than intended, the bard renewed her attack.
"I've told you before" Xena let some of her impatience show in her
tone. "No way. I - we - attract enough trouble as it is. This is
inviting more than we need right now."
"Oh come on, Xena! You know I like to give things a chance."
Xena grumbled something under her breath involving the bard and a bucket of ice cold water, and chances.
"Hey, I gave YOU a chance, didn't I? Not that I'll say you didn't deserve it...."
Did I?Xena wanted to ask, did I really? In your eyes, yeah, I probably did, my friend.
But surely saying that aloud would move her even further towards defeat. So she just grunted.
Now, if you bat your lashes at me again and say "Puh-leeeeze, Xena," with that lost-puppy-look in your eyes, I'm going to...
Gabrielle batted her lashes at Xena and said, "Puh-leeeeze, Xena!"
Xena threw her arms up in frustration and sighed.
"Oh thank, you, Xena, thank you," Gabrielle cried, and flung her arms around the warrior in an impulsive hug. And drew back quickly, remembering the other woman's reluctance to be touched. "I'm sorry, Xena," she stammered, "I know you don't... I mean... I just..."
"Forget it," Xena muttered gruffly. "If we're going to do this, we'd better get moving." And silently, Gods, I nearly lost it, there. I just hate it when that happens. She's just so - nice.
Green eyes boring intently into hers made her forget cleanly what she had been about to say. Would you look at that? What am I, a lovesick teenager? And now, what'll I say to her? I AM losing it.
"Um, nothing. Forget it."
Gabrielle let her gaze linger on her for a few seconds, before she rose to douse the fire. Then she poured the rest of their morning tea into their cups, handing one to the warrior, who accepted it with a curt nod. I wonder if she realizes how she's playing with me. She can't really be this naive, not after all that time of travelling with an old grouch like me. And after all we've been through... Hades, she's seen things far beyond her years, and it's made her grow up faster and more cruelly than she should have. And I'm to blame. I should have sent her away, while I still could. Now even the thought hurts so much I want to claw at my face, screaming.
"Xena? Are you okay? You have the oddest look on your face."
The warrior somehow managed not to jump at the sound of Gabrielle's concerned voice. "I'm okay. Just... planning the day." Like Hades I am. Sure. "We don't even know if we're going to be on time. The execution would be at noon, and we're about four hours out."
"Then I suppose we'd better get a move on, hadn't we?" Gabrielle looked at her for a long moment, considering. She seemed about to say more, but then she just shrugged and continued rolling up her blanket.
Xena pulled herself together and started dismantling the bivouac, watching
Gabrielle out of the corner of her eye, as the bard did her part of the morning
routine with practiced efficiency, though suddenly uncharacteristically pensive.
The warrior found herself actually missing the bard's incessant chatter. She
wasn't sure what was wrong. Gabrielle had gotten her wish. Again. But why did
the girl have a look about her like a beaten dog?
Gabrielle was still silent when they were on the road back towards the hamlet, hating herself for once again putting that dour look on her comrade's face. She had become a fair shot at anticipating her companion's moods, but there were still times when everything she said or did seemed to aggravate the warrior. Xena had seemed casual enough about finally giving in to her that morning, but there was an undercurrent there that Gabrielle could not identify. And neither could she understand her friend's trepidation about preventing that execution. To her, this was a clear case of a bunch of narrow-minded villagers condemning somebody just because that person was different. Xena, of all people, should have felt some compassion for the poor woman. So why had she taken one look at the woman, and told Gabrielle curtly that it wasn't their business to meddle in others' affairs, and that they had to get going? It was just not like her. And it had Gabrielle worried. Not about the wisdom of her own decision, but about the state of mind of her friend.
The need for haste had made her agree to mount behind Xena on Argo. The trusty mare carried them both at a brisk trot along the path they had taken the day before. The war-horse's jolting gait did not make for prolonged conversation, which was not a bad thing, Gabrielle supposed. Her companion was not in one of her more chatty moods anyway, and perhaps this way she would not notice that the bard didn't feel much like talking, either. Who are you kidding, Gabrielle, she chided herself, She's been a grouch ever since we set out this morning, and so have I. She's bound to have noticed. She's probably mad at me because I got through her defenses again. Scratch that. She's probably mad at herself because she let me. Oh, Hades, I don't know. Probably both. And I'm grumpy because she is. Or is she because I am? Gods, this gets complicated!
The forest soon gave way to an expanse of grassy plain, the land rising and dipping in soft, rolling hills, with an occasional copse of trees or a patch of brush dotting the landscape. Traces of the previous night's storm were everywhere. Trees stood crooked or lay toppled, and in one place a huge oak had been split down the middle by a bolt of lightning, leaving two blackened husks reaching crookedly towards the sky. The ground was drenched, with little rivulets of muddy water flowing between tufts of grass. After Argo had skidded and almost lost her footing for the third time on the slippery ground, the warrior slowed her down a bit to keep her from hurting herself. Gratefully, the golden mare shook her head and gave a heartfelt snort. Xena bent to pat her neck, and murmured something to her about bards in general and what she thought of their foolish ideas. Gabrielle tried not to listen.
It had bothered her less and less lately to be riding, since it gave her the rarely indulged pleasure of being physically close to her warrior friend. Xena stamped down firmly on most forms of contact between them, which gave no end of frustration to Gabrielle, to whom little touches and occasional hugs came naturally. It was all right when there were wounds to be dressed, or a stubborn buckle on a piece of armor to be opened, and sometimes she even got to massage the tension from the warrior's shoulders after a particularly wearying day, but anything more casual was out of the question.
But today, she would have been glad to be walking, just to be away from the cutting remarks a taciturn Xena had been sending Gabrielle's way whenever she did speak.
The warrior pulled Argo to a stop by the river. "Ares' feet," she cursed under her breath. Actually, Xena had mentioned a different body part, but Gabrielle wasn't sure she had understood correctly. She probably had, though, she decided, heat creeping up to her ears.
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked, "Why are we stopping? Is... by the gods!" What had been a placid little stream the day before had turned into a raging flood after the night's deluge. Of the rickety wooden bridge that had spanned it, there was no trace. The water gurgled angrily around where the bridge's foundations had been, and made little vortices wherever a bigger rock was submerged. As they watched, the water ate away at a piece of the earthen overhang, dislodging it with a dull splash. Other debris was carried past by the muddy current, branches, cloth, planks, once even a dead sheep, bloated and already half-eaten by scavengers. A smell of mud and a faint aroma of feces and carrion accompanied the incessant roar and gurgle of the rushing water.
"Oh, great, that's all we need now," Xena growled as she swung gracefully out of the saddle.
"So, how are we going to cross?" Gabrielle said, starting to slide down from Argo's back as well. Shouldn't that be "What are we going to do?" Gods, I'm so sure even now that she'll go through with this, though here is the perfect reason for her to have us turn back. But she won't. She's never turned back once she set out on a path. Well, only once, she has. But that was the best and bravest thing she ever did, and I'm glad for it.
Two blue chips of burning ice looked at her with an unreadable expression, as a pair of strong hands grabbed the bard's slender waist and set her gently down just beside the muddy puddle she would have landed in. Even when she's mad at me, there are these little gestures, the bard mused. I should be miffed because she is treating me like a child again. But... well, I do like it when she lets herself touch me. And she just saved me from getting my feet all wet and muddy. She flashed Xena a tentative smile, and got a quirked eyebrow and a little shrug in return.
Gabrielle looked dispiritedly at the river they had to get across. Not that it will make much difference, after crossing that...
Xena went to work immediately, removing their bags and bedrolls, and relieving Argo of her gear. She put aside a length of rope, then began methodically picking up the bags, and tossing them in a neat arc way over the river onto the far bank.
"Nice throw," Gabrielle commented once, and earned herself a grunted "Thanks". Then Xena must have seen something in the bard's expression, because she flashed her one of her crooked grins to take some of the sting out of her tone.
The warrior made one last bundle out of Argo's blanket and their bedrolls, to send it on its journey across the river. Gabrielle never tired of watching Xena work that body of hers, no matter what it was the warrior happened to be doing. There was about her a sense of coiled power, and a catlike grace of movement. She made a dull thing like rolling up a blanket look aesthetic and exciting.
Totally absorbed, she let her gaze caress her friend's lithe, athletic form, take in the ripple of muscle, long straight limbs, raven hair framing those delicately chiseled features... Gods, she was so beautiful! Though the bard did not really want to think about it, her mind dragged her mercilessly onward to the memory of the last time they had taken a swim... Xena, standing naked on top of a rock by the lake. Her tanned body was glistening with drops of moisture, the blue of her eyes magnified by the lake's azure reflection in them, the bunching of muscle as she launched herself into the water, every inch of her the perfect picture of...
The realization that Xena had been looking at her for a while broke her train of thought.
"Let's get out of our clothes and have a little swim, why don't we?" the warrior said. A curious expression flitted across her features, and was gone.
"What...? Our clothes...? Uh..." Gabrielle, flustered, found herself blushing furiously. Was the woman reading minds, now?
Xena gave her a patient look. "Yes. Our clothes. Or do you want them to get wet when we cross?"
"Wet...? Oh, no, of course not! Yes. Sure. Um." The heat on her face deepened.
Her companion arched an eyebrow at her, but did not speak. Instead, Xena started unbuckling her armor.
Oh, gods, I must have had the silliest look on my face just now! I hope she doesn't think I was thinking... what I was thinking. I can't believe I went off like that! I must really have it bad.She studied the warrior covertly, but the woman's body language betrayed nothing of her thoughts. Not that Gabrielle had expected it to.
"Well, onward," the warrior said crisply after their clothes had joined the other gear on the far bank, "Here's what we're going to do..."
The plan was basically for Xena to swim across, to haul first Argo and then
Gabrielle along on the rope. Faithful Argo made the crossing, head raised high
and eyes rolling, without further incident.
As she lay panting on the far bank, her companion handed her her clothes and a piece of linen to dry herself off, before she examined the raw scratches on the bard's back.
"You were pretty darn lucky," Xena murmured a little later, while she carefully massaged some soothing ointment into the bard's wounds , "I sure hope this woman is worth going through all that trouble."
Gabrielle hoped so, too.
The two friends continued on their path, silent once more, each lost in her own thoughts.
They were close now. The place where the village must be, beyond the next rise, could already be made out by a few tendrils of black smoke that snaked lazily into the sky. Gabrielle had decided that she would be better off walking after all, and had not mounted Argo again after the crossing of the river. Xena felt grateful for the respite that offered her battered self-control. Having the young woman this close did terrible things to her emotional shield. But she had to admit that it did feel good. Entirely too much so. It brought things back to the surface she had thought dead, buried, and good riddance. With a slight shake, she pushed her turmoil firmly into the dark recesses of her mind, and cleared her head for the business at hand.
"Gabrielle, I still don't think this is a good idea...."
The bard stopped dead in her tracks, looking up at the warrior from under lowered eyebrows. "Xena, you promised!"
"I know." Xena, seized by sudden inspiration, decided to try one
last all-out attack.
"Of course I do. You know that."
"Then why won't you trust my judgement on this?" The Gods know you have more faith in me than I do half of the time. Why not now? The tall warrior mentally patted herself on the back. Good one, Warrior Princess! Let's see how she's going to counter that!
"Why is this so important to you?" Gabrielle demanded quietly. "What has that woman done to you that you would put her through this? Tell me, Xena!"
Done? She's done nothing. But how can I tell you that just looking into that woman's eyes scares the Nine Hells out of me? That just thinking about her makes me shake like jelly in a hurricane? That I have no idea why? Sorry, little bard. I wish I could bring myself to admit that to you."Nothing. Just... a hunch." If she buys that, my name is Salmoneus.
"You would let her die on a hunch? Really, Xena, I know you better than that." Gabrielle looked up at her, green eyes questioning
Xena swung down from Argo's back, landing lightly on her feet by Gabrielle's side, and gave the mare a pat. She took a deep breath as she fell into step beside the bard. She hated being thought irrational or cruel, and she did want her friend to understand... whatever there was to be understood. She wasn't so sure about that herself anymore.
"Listen, Gabrielle, I can see that these people are being unreasonable, and I can't stand that any more than you can. It's just... I have a very bad feeling about this woman and I don't know why. That's all I can say. Let's just be on our guard, okay?"
Gabrielle arched an eyebrow at her, and smiled. "You mean, you usually aren't? Come on, how much trouble can one woman be? I'm sure you can handle it."
She's right, of course, she is just one woman. But what makes me wonder is, why are these otherwise good and sensible people so afraid that they are ready to kill her without even the semblance of a trial?
Xena looked at the smoke rising from beyond the hill, and stopped dead, drawing a surprised grunt from Argo, who found her reins suddenly yanked. The warrior spat another oath that brought new color to Gabrielle's cheeks.
"That smoke... How could I have missed that? That's no chimneys burning! C'mon!" She was on the golden mare's back before she had finished speaking, and without waiting for the usual protests, pulled a startled bard up behind her and kicked a very indignant war-horse into a dead gallop.
A devastating sight greeted them as they slid from Argo's back.
"Easy. Shhh. It's not pretty, I know." Xena's gentle tone was enough to dissolve the bard into helpless, hiccuping sobs. The warrior surprised herself faintly by pulling the other woman into a hug. She battled resolutely against her unruly emotions when she felt Gabrielle relax against her, and bury her face into her bosom, still sobbing. Xena just held her, gently stroking the strawberry blonde hair, whispering soothing words, and asked herself bitterly what kind of comfort her dark presence could offer. After a while, the sobbing stopped, and Xena felt the hug returned.
"Thanks," Gabrielle mumbled into her breastplate, "that really helped."
"Yeah, well, all in a day's work, isn't it?" She shrugged, and gave Gabrielle a half-grin.
That drew a tiny smile from the still distraught young woman. A smile that warmed Xena all over, somehow.
They both perked up at a sound from what had been the village green. A stake had been erected there, and from it hung another limp bundle, held in place by thick ropes. And moving. Ever so faintly.
"Well," Xena drawled, "time to find out what happened here.
As they approached the huddled form at the stake, the figure moaned softly and stirred again. There could no doubt about the identity of this person. It was the same woman whose death at the stake they had come here to prevent. Xena drew her breast dagger, but hesitated, until she became aware of Gabrielle's intense scrutiny. Okay, then, here goes. We'll just have to see whose hunches were right. I still think we're inviting trouble. No, I know we are. Just don't let her open her eyes before I've finished tending to her injuries! With a quick flick of her wrist, she cut the already brittle ropes and caught the woman in her arms as she dropped like a sack, unconscious.
Closer examination of the stranger revealed miraculously little injury. In fact, while her clothes and the ropes that had bound her were thoroughly charred, there were no more than superficial burn marks on her body. Apart from a fair number of welts and bruises, the only wound that could be considered serious was a long gash across her abdomen, which was half-healed and showing signs of ebbing infection. That was definitely not brought about by the attempted execution. This was an older wound, ill cared for. Xena felt anger rise in spite of herself. Hadn't they had healers here? The woman might well have died from that infection, saving the villagers the trouble of executing her.
As a matter of fact, it was quite a puzzle to the warrior that the strange woman had not died. The wound was deep, and should have caused massive internal bleeding. The sickly green and smelly pus seeping out of the hardly healed wound spoke of painful, creeping death. And the fire. The flames had raged all around her, and yet here she was, mostly untouched by them, while every single building in this village - and most of its people, it seemed - had been utterly destroyed. She must surely be Tyche's chosen, to have survived all that. Once again the warrior wondered what had transpired here. There were no traces of a raid, and lightning could not have been the cause either. Somehow, this woman must have had something to do with it. Perhaps she really was a witch, as they had said.
The two companions had moved the unconscious woman to the outskirts of the village, where the destruction was not quite so evident. They had set up their camp under the roof a rickety three-sided shelter that had probably been built for the shepherds. When she was satisfied that she had done all she could for her patient, who was now resting comfortably on an improvised litter, Xena barely kept from heaving a relieved sigh. The woman had not regained consciousness, and she had not had to look into those terrible eyes.
Upon first meeting the woman's steely blue gaze, the day before, Xena had felt shock waves of totally irrational terror run up and down her spine. There was darkness and evil in those eyes. Xena remembered thinking that if her own eyes were anywhere near that intense, piercing shade of blue, it was no wonder she was so good at intimidating people. And the jet black hair framing that pale face added a contrast that was both striking and eerily familiar.
As the woman lay there now, eyes closed and face relaxed in unconsciousness, she looked perfectly harmless. The tall warrior suddenly felt very sheepish. She had let herself be carried away by some silly fancy, it seemed. It was a good thing Gabrielle, at least, had kept her wits about her. Gods, I wish I knew what was wrong with me. I've never been one to overreact in this way. Gabrielle...it must be her. She makes me feel so... weak. It's messing me up completely. I can't concentrate, I jump at shadows... and I've done things lately because of her that I never dreamed I could be capable of, to get her out of a fix, or just to please her. It's wonderful. It's scary. I want so much to open up for her, but I can't!
A light touch on her arm made her look up into a pair of liquid green eyes and that lovely, lovely face. She thought her heart would burst with the beauty of it. "Xena, are you all right?" Gabrielle's voice was tinged with concern. She carefully extended a hand towards the warrior's face, but dropped it immediately as Xena drew back a little and angrily wiped away the single tear that had somehow found its way onto her cheek.
"Yeah, I'm fine," she said flatly, and added with studied casualness, "why don't you keep an eye on our patient while I go check over the village again? I'll see if I can find any survivors, and ... do what I can for the rest."
Gabrielle swallowed. "Do... do you need any help?"
Xena gave her a little half-smile. Knew she was going to ask, didn't I? Even though she hates the mere thought of facing that sight again. I wish I had half her courage, sometimes. "No. I'll be okay. You just stay here and keep your friend there out of trouble." Gods, why did I have to put so much sting in that? I'm sorry, friend. Without waiting to see the expected hurt in the bard's expression, the warrior turned and strode briskly back towards the village.
Chapter II : Tarot
Gabrielle watched Xena's retreating back until a still partly intact dwelling hid her from view. I wonder what made her say that? I probably shouldn't have let on that I saw that tear. Made her yank up her defenses all over again. But she looked so...lonely all of a sudden. I wish I knew what brought that about. Gods, but she can be so nice when she tries! That hug, there in the village... It felt so...good...right. I want to be doing that all the time. She grinned ruefully to herself. But just now, if I had my arms around her, I wouldn't know whether I wanted to hug her, or strangle her.
At a sound from the litter, the bard turned her head, and looked straight into a pair of heavily ringed, but clear green eyes. She had no idea how long the woman had been watching her, but she seemed very much awake. The intensity of the stranger's gaze sent a small shiver down Gabrielle's back, but the bard forced a smile to her face. "Hi. How are you feeling?"
The woman's voice was high but not unpleasantly so, though a little hoarse from dehydration and disuse. She spoke with a slight lisp. "Considering I've almost had my guts ripped out, and been burned at the stake, I suppose you could say I'm swell," was the dry reply, followed by a groan as she tried to sit up. Gabrielle waggled a finger at her, and pushed her back into the blankets.
"You are not to move until my friend gets back. She gets annoyed when her orders aren't followed to the letter. And believe me, you wouldn't want her annoyed."
"I remember you," the stranger said, still not taking her eyes off the bard. "You were in the village yesterday and talked to the mayor. About me, I suppose. And your friend would be that tall dark brute of a woman who looked as if she wanted to eat everybody alive."
Gabrielle felt her hackles rise at that, but she held her peace. "I'm Gabrielle. And she is Xena."
"The Warrior Princess and her bard. I've heard of you." She attempted a shrug. "But then, who hasn't? Well, thank you for helping me, Gabrielle. My name is Mrtva."
The bard creased her brow. "That's an unusual name. I've never heard it before. Is it Greek?"
Mrtva shook her head. "It's from a very ancient language no longer spoken anywhere I know of. My ... mother... had a liking for such things. I have no idea what it means."
Gabrielle caught the slight hesitation around the word "mother", and she found she couldn't quite believe that bit about the woman not knowing the meaning of her name. But she shrugged it off as a silly fancy.
"So, um, Mrtva. Why don't you tell me what happened to those poor people? And for that matter, how you managed to survive that inferno. As far as I can tell, that's not the work of a raiding party, or any warlord I can think of."
Mrtva did not answer right away. She gave the bard a hunted look, then closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. Without those emerald eyes drawing her gaze like some magnet, Gabrielle noticed how very pale and drawn the poor woman looked. Her reddish-blond hair clung in damp strands to her face, singed and curled up in some places. Why, it's almost the same color as my own, the bard mused, and the eyes, too. Strange coincidence.
"Well?" Gabrielle finally prompted.
"It' all so fuzzy," the injured woman replied, "I hardly remember anything." Her voice took on a far-off quality. "They tied me to that pole, and then basically did what I guess people do on such occasions. There were a few speeches, a priest sprinkled me with some weird-smelling powder and did a little chant, that sort of thing. Then the henchman held his torch to the kindling and - BOOOM - there was this huge explosion... fire... heat... pain. I was half out of it from the beginning, because my gut wound was troubling me something awful, so it's really all a bit vague. Sorry, I'd really like to tell you more, but..."
"Well, it'll have to do for now. I'm sure Xena will find some clues over there. We'll just wait until she finishes her ... task and gets back here. I've got some herb tea for you to drink. It's to help against the infection, and there is something in there to help you sleep. Tastes like yesterday's boots, but it will do wonders for you."
Mrtva regarded her suspiciously. "I don't know. How can I be sure I can trust you? What if this is some drug?"
Gabrielle gave her an arched-eyebrow-look. "If we had wanted you to die, we would not have backtracked half a day's worth of travel and almost drowned in a flooding river to get here," she said evenly. "And we most certainly would not have faced that horrible sight back there to cut you down from that stake. Do you get the idea?"
The woman sighed. "I suppose you're right." Then, after a short pause, she said. "But there is one great favor you could do me."
"And what's that?"
"I have this little leather pouch that travels everywhere with me. It must still be where they kept me prisoner the last few days. It's pretty tough, and might just have survived the fire." She gave the bard a pleading look, that sent small shivers of unreasonable fear down Gabrielle's back. "There are a few things in there that mean very much to me, so I would really appreciate it if you could try and recover that for me."
Gabrielle considered. The request seemed ludicrous. Was it really worth the
pain and trouble for her to face those burned bodies all over again, for a bag?
Or worse, to ask Xena to retrieve it for her? She could see the warrior now,
eyes widening while her brows drew together a little, her incredulous snort
telling more clearly than words ever could what she thought the woman could do
with her pouch. She had to smile at the image. No, asking Xena to do it was not
an option. And she herself truly did not feel up to it either. But her tender
heart finally won out, and she said,
Mrtva gave her a strained smile. "It's a deal," she agreed.
When Xena heard the sound of approaching footsteps, she immediately let her predatory instincts take over. She dropped to a crouch where she stood by a half-dislodged door leaning crookedly on its charred hinges, and listened intently. Light footsteps. A small person, moving hesitantly but fairly stealthily. The warrior released the breath she'd been holding, and rose to her full height just as Gabrielle approached the hut she'd been examining. The young woman gave a startled yell and just barely caught herself before she whacked her staff at her friend.
"Oh gods, Xena, you just scared the dickens out of me."
Xena gave her a flat look. "Well, you know better than to creep up on me."
"I wasn't trying to do that," the bard said defensively, "and besides, how was I supposed to know you're hiding in the rubble? I sort of expected you to be a little more...visible."
"Well, I wasn't. Anyway, what are you doing here? I thought we agreed that you were to stay with that woman until I was finished here." The warrior vainly searched for a way to ease the tension that had once again crept between them, but it seemed her words came out gruff and patronizing, and not the way she meant to say them at all.
Gabrielle bit her lip. "She came round just after you left. We talked a little, and I gave her some of that tea, and she asked me to go look for something of hers over here."
The warrior raised an eyebrow in question.
"A pouch. With some stuff in it."
"A pouch." The warrior shook her head. "Look, I know what happened here is a nightmare for you. And still you come back to this place, ready to face that all over again, for a pouch?? And you don't even know the woman. Gabrielle, you're incorrigible."
"Well, it seemed awfully important to her to get it back. So I figured I'd just go see if there's anything left of it." She studied her hands. After a moment of indecision, she added, in a small voice "And I figured, while I was here, I'd just sort of check on you, too." She looked up at the dark-haired woman, eyes pleading silently.
Hades, does she know she melts me down to the core with that look?Xena drew a deep breath, and tried but failed to keep the gruffness out of her voice. "Listen, I didn't mean to snap at you back there. You just always seem to catch me in the wrong mood."
Gabrielle flashed an unsteady smile. "That's okay. Forget about it."
The warrior gave her a quick clap on the shoulder. "C'mon, then, let's go look for that bag of yours. I can finish up here later." She quirked a wry eyebrow. "It's not as if anyone here will be going anywhere anytime soon."
That earned her a backhand slap in the rump. "You're terrible, you know that?" But for some reason, the bard seemed more relaxed now. Ah, well, even I can get something done right every once in a while, Xena mused. But Hades kiss her if she knew what that something was.
"And we're glad you approve," the tall warrior said with a grin.
While they made their way towards what had been the village green, Gabrielle filled her in on what little she had been able to learn from that woman, whose name, it seemed, was Mrtva. The word struck a familiar chord, but Xena could not quite place it. The warrior herself had not found out much beyond the fact that there must have been a huge explosion, and that the fire had just roared through this little town like a wave of death. It brought painful memories of another little village that had met a similar fate, at her own hands, long ago.
The warrior thanked the gods for Gabrielle's sake that she had started her grisly work here, where most of the dead bodies had lain. The green was now just a blackened patch of ground, with a bit of rubble strewn about for good measure, and the smell of charred wood mercifully more evident than the residual stink of burnt flesh. An errant little breeze whipped up some ashes and twirled them playfully across the ground before their feet.
To their faint surprise, the two friends had no trouble at all in locating the little leather pouch. They found it close to the hut Mrtva had described. It sat, charred and cracked in places but still reasonably intact on top of a heap of what must once have been sacking, or some type of clothing. In fact, Xena had the uncomfortable feeling that this had been way too easy. It had all her senses on alert.
"I don't trust this at all," she muttered darkly. She held the pouch a little gingerly, and tried to feel its contents. There was the unmistakable faint rustle of dried herbs, a flat, roundish object she guessed to be a hand mirror, a heavy set of objects that would be mortar and pestle, and a squat, rectangular packet that had her crease her brow in puzzlement. It flexed easily when she tried to bend it, but seemed solid enough otherwise. She shrugged a little and handed the pouch to the bard. As she did, she felt something shift faintly inside, accompanied by the crisp clanking sound of stone on metal.
"Be careful with that. I have no idea what she's got in there." She waited for Gabrielle to nod as the bard took the bag from her by its long strap and slung it over her shoulder. "And, Gabrielle?"
"Whatever you do, don't open it!" The younger woman suddenly looked like a child who had been caught with one hand in the cookie jar. Well, what do you know? Looks like I scored a direct hit there. As somehow, I knew I would.
Xena smirked and waggled a finger at the bard. "Aha! Score one for the Warrior Princess," she said with a wink. And continued, "But seriously, Gabrielle. Promise me you're not taking any chances with that, okay? Okay??"
The bard sighed. "Yeah, okay. I promise. I'll see you in a bit, then?"
Xena nodded curtly. "Yeah. But you might wanna save me some dinner. This might take a while."
"Dinner? Sure I will. As soon as I figure out what we're having. Our stores are a little low just now."
"We're having roast mutton," Xena said casually, "I left it at the sheep pen, just outside the village. You can pick it up on your way back."
"Mutton? Gods, Xena, did a ram just jump in front of you and say, 'hey you look like you'd like to have me for dinner', or something?"
The warrior quirked a lazy eyebrow. "Something like that, yeah."
Gabrielle threw up her arms and rolled her eyes in mock exasperation. Then she turned and headed back towards their camp, muttering softly to herself, "Warriors! Gotta love 'em!"
Xena watched her go until she was out of sight, with a surge of emotion that startled and shocked her. She wanted so much more of this woman than she could ever dare to ask for. Too often lately she found herself dreaming of lying in the bard's embrace, having Gabrielle stroke her hair, her neck, murmuring soft words to her, and gently kiss away all the darkness and pain. Never before had she fallen so completely for someone, or so hard. She had long ago decided that there could be no room for love on the path she had chosen. But looking for the first time into those green eyes, trusting and innocent, had changed the world for her. She had lost that particular battle before she had even realized she was fighting it.
And she could not dare to make her feelings known, for more than one reason. The first, most obvious, being the fear of forcing something upon Gabrielle the other woman did not want and thereby alienating her. The pain and humiliation of that rejection was more than she cared to even think about. The second, while not as evident, was by no means less substantial. It had never been in her fundamental nature to open herself up to anybody. She had been a loner since her early childhood, and had grown up learning that you kept your weaknesses firmly locked inside, or others would come and ruthlessly take advantage of them. Because that was where you could truly be hurt, if you let yourself. She had not made the mistake of completely trusting somebody very often in her life, but she had paid dearly every single time. Old habits died hard. She was just not ready to take that risk again. She wasn't. She wouldn't. No way!
The warrior shook her head angrily to clear it, and, squaring her shoulders, went about continuing her dreary task.
Mrtva was still asleep when Gabrielle arrived back at their camp. The young bard had to admit that she had been sorely tempted to open the pouch and have a peek, but finally her sense of propriety and the memory of Xena's stern admonition had won out.
She took the opportunity to study their patient more closely. Mrtva was not tall, in fact, it seemed she must be almost half a foot shorter than herself, a tiny little slip of a woman. Her face, while lined, somehow did not seem old. Gabrielle found that she was unable to put any age to her at all. She might be twenty, or sixty, no way of telling. And she had the palest skin the bard had ever seen on a living person. It was almost creepy, that pallor with a tinge of green, and the deep rings under her eyes. But that really wasn't much of a surprise, considering what the poor woman had had to go through.
Days were definitely getting shorter, the bard noticed as she watched the sun alighting on the western horizon, and a definite chill had entered the air in the last few days. With an inward sigh, Gabrielle resigned herself to another more than uncomfortable period of travel in the months to come. For now, though, things were still bearable, even after the thunderstorm had thoroughly drenched the earth, and their clothes, though not truly wet after their night in a makeshift shelter, were nevertheless clammy. It was a wonder a fire could have taken hold at all with the wood of the buildings still damp from the rains. Must have been some explosion!
Sitting down by the fire and pushing her unruly hair out of her face, the bard quietly set about preparing the already gutted and skinned carcass. That was just like Xena, she mused. Wading in dead bodies, digging graves, searching the rubble for survivors, this amazing woman had still found the leisure not only to kill, but to neatly butcher and skin that ram, a task she knew darn well that Gabrielle wasn't partial to. The hide had been laid out next to it, and would make a nice addition to their blankets, once it had been properly cured.
She deftly cut a few choice pieces, rolled them in a collection of herbs and spices, and hung the rest over the fire to smoke. The spiced steaks she wrapped in large leaves and set them into the glowing coals. Very soon a delicious odor permeated the air.
"That smells really good," Mrtva remarked from where she lay on the litter.
"Oh you're awake," Gabrielle said smiling. "Feeling a little better?"
Mrtva smiled wryly. "Just splendid. No, seriously, whatever was in that tea really helped. Let me guess: powdered catfern, sheepstongue, and perhaps a little arrowleaf?"
The bard laughed. "I'm afraid you're speaking gibberish to me. It's Xena who's the herbalist." She rummaged in one of their bags, and removed their last supply of roots, which she began to cut into small pieces to make a vegetable broth.
Mrtva cackled a little. "Ah, that would explain that foul taste. Stinkweed, I'd say. Doesn't like me much, that one. Knew it the first time she looked at me, the cunning... Anyway, did you have any luck finding my things?"
Once again, Gabrielle forced herself not to flare at the slight sent Xena's way, though she knew her smile must look a little strained now.
"As a matter of fact, yes," handing the other woman the pouch. "I hope nothing's been broken in there."
Mrtva almost snatched the bag out of the bard's hand, and flung back its flap to look inside. She heaved a little sigh, and said with relief, "No, everything's still there, and in one piece, thank the gods!"
She drew forth, one after the other, all the items Xena had identified earlier - a collection of dried herbs, a mirror, mortar and pestle. The mirror was a garish thing, about the size of the palm of a small hand, framed with an ornate pattern of interlaced thorny vines, set with eyeballs, bird's claws and bats wings, all intricately carved from some dark wood. The handle was wrapped in black leather and inset with a dark shimmering stone in the shape of an eye. It looked positively horrid. Well, there was no accounting for tastes.
The injured woman gave the items a thorough examination, and put them back, satisfied. Last, she reverently unpacked the mysterious packet that had so baffled the warrior.
"What's that?" the bard asked, her curiosity piqued. "Not that I mean to pry or anything," she added quickly.
The other woman regarded her intently. "It's a Tarot." After seeing Gabrielle's nonplussed expression, she added, "a fortune telling device. A set of one hundred cards that tell your future, if you know how to read them."
"You're a fortune teller? Oh, goody!"
"Among other things," the other woman said secretively. The bard smiled privately. That sounded almost like Xena's "many skills" line!
"Can...can I see those? And will you read them for me?" Gabrielle felt like a child on Solstice Night. She had always been intrigued by the traveling fortune tellers and their craft. She had found out over the years that their readings were designed to please, and hardly ever held even the slightest spark of truth, but the darkly mysterious aura these people liked to create around themselves never failed to thrill her. But she had never seen it done with this Tarot thing.
The fortune teller hesitated.
Gabrielle caught herself. "Oh, but I shouldn't tax you. You really need some rest, after all that's happened to you."
"No, it's not that...I feel much better," Mrtva assured her. "And it's not as if this is very strenuous work. I might give it a shot. After dinner?" This with a longing glance at the fire.
"Gods, how long has it been since you last ate?" Gabrielle exclaimed, "You must be starving. Just let me prepare that broth, and I'll se if I can get some of that meat down you. I'll just run and get some water. Be right back."
After they had both eaten - Gabrielle had cut small bits of meat for Mrtva and cooked them with the vegetable broth - Mrtva once more unpacked the Tarot cards.
"Now," Mrtva explained. "I call this the Psyche, or Butterfly, Spread. It requires that we first determine your personal card, the one that will represent you later on during the reading."
"And how do we do that?" Gabrielle asked, the familiar giddy excitement at the mysterious slowly building.
"We pick it. Technically, it could be any card whose symbolism means something to you, but since you are not familiar with the deck, let's say we just use one of the Queens."
She sifted through the deck, and finally laid out five cards in front of her.
"Okay," she said, "one section of the deck is organized in five colored suits numbering fourteen cards each, every one of which has its own symbolism. These are called the Minor Arcana. The remaining thirty are the Major Arcana, where each symbol is special and all by itself indicates a significant occurrence, but still must be viewed in the context of its mates. " She looked at the bard. "Am I confusing you?"
"Yes," Gabrielle agreed happily. "Go on. I'm loving this!"
The fortune teller's lips formed a smile as she indicated the cards lying face up before her. "Here we have the Queens of Staffs, Swords, Cups, Disks, and Aura. They stand for women of different personalities."
The bard contemplated the cards. They were beautifully drawn, picturing women bearing the symbols of their suit, before colorful backgrounds. She looked questioningly at the pale woman facing her.
Mrtva half-closed her eyes, and intoned softly in her sibilant voice,
"Sounds just like Xena," Gabrielle whispered softly, "only the staff doesn't fit." The image in question showed a black-clad woman wielding a staff, framed by a fiery background of yellows and reds.
Mrtva proceeded to briefly outline the characteristics of the remaining Queens. It turned out that the five suits represented the five elements: Fire, Air, Water, Earth, and Spirit. The five Queens could be roughly categorized as the fighter, the alchemist, the mother, the ruler, and, the Queen of Aura, the bard.
"Funny," Gabrielle mused, "I thought for sure it would be Staffs, somehow. And it seems that fits Xena better than the Swords." She shrugged. "Okay, then. Aura it is." She brushed one finger over the card of her choice, a woman clad in colorful garb playing the pipes and whirling in dance.
Mrtva nodded to herself. "Thought so." She put the five Queens back into the deck, and spread out all cards, face down this time, before her.
"Now I need you to shuffle the cards, and organize them into five piles of twenty, and place them here before me."
Gabrielle did, marveling at the smooth texture of the cards. They felt very much like one of her scrolls, only a little sturdier. When she was done, Mrtva said, "Now we need to find the pile that contains your personal card. Those will be the cards we are going to work with."
That done, she picked up the pile of cards and deftly spread them face up into a pattern that did indeed vaguely resemble a butterfly.
The fortune teller pondered the cards for a moment. "This is very unusual," she muttered after a while.
"What is?" Gabrielle was completely spellbound. This was giving her the shivers. What fun!
Mrtva did not look up. "There is an uncommon concentration of Major Arcana in that spread," she answered absently.
"And, is that good, or bad?" Gabrielle persisted, mystified. Aside from her own card, she had spotted Xena's as well, and Death, pictured as a skeleton in a cloak carrying a scythe. Death probably would not appreciate that. The Grim Lady was a beautiful woman, if somewhat gaunt. There was also a completely blank card.
"We'll see," Mrtva replied elusively.
"What's this blank card?" the bard said, pointing. "Did they run out of pictures to paint?"
"Hush. That is the Ghost. Never mock that. And let me do my reading now, will you?"
"Uh, sure," Gabrielle said, and subsided with a little pout. While Mrtva was immersed in her contemplation of the spread, the enthralled bard did some studying of her own. Mostly she admired the beautiful pictures. One was labeled "Chariot", and showed a Roman chariot with two running horses hitched to it, one black, one white. The Nine of Cups was a very curious translucent flask, surrounded by pewter mugs. The neck of the flask somehow bent way back into the belly and through it, coming out at the bottom. Very weird. The Eight of Aura, a circle divided by a sinuous line, one half colored white, the other black. Sacrifice, a man hanged upside down. Desire. She glanced over that, the picture hardly registering, then whipped her gaze back, incredulous, taking a closer look. And blushed furiously. Gosh! I didn't know they made such... detailed pictures. I never dreamed you could do... that... in this way... gods!
A little while longer, and Mrtva began to speak. "As I said, this is a little unusual. But I'll see what I can make of it. Here, this side of the spread is the recent past. There seems to have been a man there, one you loved, or at least liked very much, but finally lost, and I'd say in some very abrupt way." She pointed to the King of Cups, and her hand took in the surrounding Minor Arcana.
"Perdicus," the bard whispered, stricken.
"Here's the Fool. It's the first card in your timeline." She pointed to a card depicting a youth walking with his gaze in the clouds, and a little dog tagging him who looked about to take a bite out of his pants. "It symbolizes a new beginning. You have either shed your previous life to begin anew, or something happened that made you feel alive for the first time."
"Right, on both counts," Gabrielle murmured. Mrtva lifted her gaze to look at her, green eyes looking straight into her soul, it seemed. The bard shuddered.
The next card the fortune teller indicated was the Queen of Staffs, Xena's card, lying above the Fool. "And this woman, whoever she might be," she continued, casting a wry glance at the bard, "had a lot to do with that."
Mrtva took a breath, and studied the young woman's face. "Well, it seems so far the cards spoke true." She straightened a little, and squirmed into a more comfortable position in her blankets.
"I suppose," the bard said doubtfully, "but most of these things were common knowledge anyway. You could have bent the meanings of the cards to fit that." Said more to convince herself than to show any honest skepticism.
The other woman chuckled. "Ah, but you see, that's part of the art. But, let's see what else we've got, shall we?" She waited for Gabrielle to nod before she continued, pointing, with a smirk, to the card labeled "Desire". The bard felt the blush creeping up her neck again. Mrtva's eyes widened suddenly, comprehension dawning on her face. "How long have you been in love with the Warrior Princess?"
"Me... Um... In love with her? Don't be ridiculous!" Hades' boots! This is getting too close. Either she's a very good reader of people, or... Gods, I don't think I want to know!
"As you wish," the fortune teller said with a cackle, "Well, onward. The present. Desire we've already covered. At this time, it's the predominant force in your life." Another smirk. "The Chariot signifies conflicting impulses, friction, disagreement, but also going forth bravely to do battle. Your big bad friend is not aware of your feelings, is she? And you two fight way too often, because she is so darn stubborn she just doesn't want to see?"
The bard knew she must have an extremely stupid slack-jawed look on her face, and the heat from the blush was receding way too quickly as all the color drained from her face.
Mrtva looked smug. "And I would say that the same goes for you, as well. That is just a conjecture, of course."
With a little flourish she took in the area around Gabrielle's own card. "Death, now. A very significant card."
"I bet," the bard blurted.
The fortune teller gave her a reproachful look, and paused to consider. "This is your near future. 'Death' may indicate that the Grim Lady is involved somehow. But more commonly it just marks the end of an era, or an important part of your life. It's the card of change, though it doesn't in itself say if that's good, or bad."
The small woman closed her eyes for effect. "Associated with Temperance. Very interesting. That symbolizes the transfer of your essence from one body to another. Those two together usually do mean a death of sorts. But with the Ghost and the Wheel here, the Nine of Cups so close, and the Moon... Something ominous is about to happen to the two of you, something you've never before experienced. It will not be pleasant, but you will both get to see things from a whole new perspective. But beware! Grief and pain are lurking just around the corner."
"And, what about the... Ghost?"
"The Ghost." Mrtva's eyes fluttered open, and trailed down the bard's face to come to rest at her throat. "A very dangerous card. Meaning infinity. The great unknown, the whims of the Fates. Nothing will turn out the way you expected. There is one more thing I can see here."
"And that is...?"
"You will not have much power over the forthcoming events. Two things may tide you through, if you are steadfast: faith, and darkness. More, I cannot say."
Gabrielle caught a flicker of movement, and suddenly found herself held tightly from behind, a dagger at her throat. "What do you think you're doing?" came Xena's low hiss, inches from the bard's ear. The warrior's hot breath brushed against Gabrielle's skin, making her cold all over.
"I could have slit both your throats, any time I wanted," the warrior said flatly, releasing a very shaken Gabrielle. "What are you trying to do, Gabrielle, get yourself killed? You should know better than to let yourself get caught up in silly games when I'm not there to keep watch."
Gabrielle, completely stunned by the rage seething so close to the surface, took back a step, stuttering, "Xena... I... I'm sorry. But you weren't... Oh Hades, don't do that!"
"You're lucky it was me," Xena growled fiercely, "and that I'm in such a mellow mood." They both ignored the barked laugh from Mrtva.
"Xena! You cut that out right now," Gabrielle flared, "I said I was sorry, and yes, we were lucky, so would you please drop it?" She softened her tone, and caught the warrior's eyes. "Please? I am sorry. Really." The warrior melted marginally at that, and some of the angry fire went out of her eyes, enough to bring a smile unbidden to Gabrielle's lips. "I promise it won't happen again."
"Ahem," Mrtva said from where she was lying, "I don't think we've met."
When the warrior glared at the fortune teller, Gabrielle saw an expression flit across Xena's face that she had never seen there before. She could not tag any emotion to it, but it was as incongruous in that noble face as a crow among cranes.
The bard made brief introductions, and when Xena had settled by the fire, Gabrielle handed her the remaining portion of the baked meat, which the warrior wolfed down without really noticing, as she always did. Xena ate because she needed to keep her body's energy level up. She never seemed to take any particular pleasure in it. It was just one of the little frustrating things about her, and Gabrielle had long ago stopped showing her disappointment at the lack of appreciation of her cooking skills.
Mrtva had some more tea - presumably with some more stinkweed mixed in - and after that, the evening grew decidedly awkward. A taciturn Xena sat mending armor that really didn't need it, and Gabrielle scribbled listlessly in one of her scrolls. Thoughts evaded her like wriggling eels, and she just could not form even one coherent sentence. The bard could almost feel that pair of green restless eyes tracking both of them, from behind piled blankets. It set her teeth on edge. Gods, Gabrielle found herself thinking, that woman is so creepy. I am beginning to think that Xena's hunch may have been right. Again. When will I ever learn to trust her instincts and not my own thick, stubborn head? I keep getting us both into trouble. She heaved a little sigh.
Her inspiration thoroughly fizzled, Gabrielle carefully stowed away her writing utensils, and curled up in her bedding, letting Xena's even and practiced movements and the fire's dance mesmerize her. Mercifully, Mrtva had finally fallen asleep, judging from the sound of regular and rather loud breathing coming from her blankets.
Their campfire crackled nicely, and golden shadows flickered along the walls of their little shelter. The air outside grew colder, and night settled like a heavy blanket over the land. The clouds being still thick and low in the sky, there were neither stars nor moon, only the promise of more rain on the morrow, and a faint eerie glow of moonlight seeping hazily through the cloudy expanse.
The warrior was completely immersed in her work, which gave Gabrielle the rare opportunity to study her closely. She knew every curve and furrow in that loved face, but she drank it all in nevertheless. Blue eyes tinged purple by the light of the flickering flames, warm dancing shadows softening the angular features, and fiery highlights chasing themselves across her dark mane. Gabrielle wanted to reach out to her, to gather her in her arms and hug and caress her until all her pain turned into tears, and then just gently kiss them away from her friend's beleaguered soul. For today, it seemed, the warrior's torment was closer than usual to the surface, and it stood - to the bard at least - plainly written in those troubled eyes.
After warring with herself for a long moment, the bard finally whispered, "Are you okay? You look... ill."
The warrior did not look up. "Yeah," she whispered back, "I'm fine."
"No, you're not."
Xena did look at her at that, for a very long time, without speaking. "It's nothing, really. Get some sleep. Been a long day."
Yeah, right, Gabrielle answered her silently, As if there was any chance of me going to sleep with you so obviously out of it.
She did drift off soon after, exhausted, and when all that could be heard was the soft crackle and pop of the fire, and the impossibly loud sounds of Mrtva's breathing, a tall dark shape rose silently to her feet, and crept like a feline shadow from the camp.
Gabrielle woke up to a fire that had burned low, and Mrtva's loud but regular breathing, with Xena gone. Without hesitation, she set out in search of her friend, although well aware that right now, the warrior might be very touchy about her privacy.
The bard made her way slowly and stealthily through the drenched meadow, heading for a little stand of trees she had noticed earlier. It was just a hunch, but she had a feeling she would find her friend there. Every time the silent warrior had some trouble or other to cope with, she would slip out after dark to find a strong tree trunk to lean back against, and just sit and mechanically sharpen her sword. After that, she would start doing sword drills to wear herself out, never pausing until dawn broke, when she would quietly slip back into camp. Times like these would have the bard up all night as well, sick with worry, heart aching for every trouble that plagued her friend. And with a tormented soul like Xena's, such times were fairly frequent.
The young woman stepped very quietly and hardly made any noise at all, though the soaked ground threatened to squish and slurp with every step. The bard marveled fleetingly that this mode of walking had become almost second nature to her. She smiled silently to herself remembering Xena's rolled eyes and exasperated sighs whenever Gabrielle had tried and failed to move with any less noise than a stampeding bull.
She could see well enough by the diffuse moonlight shining faintly through the cloudy darkness. The tangy smell of wet grass filled her nostrils, and a chilly breeze tugged at her clothes. She shivered and pulled the blanket she had grabbed for a cloak closer about her body.
And then Gabrielle saw the warrior, almost as she had expected, sitting against the base of a broad oak, shoulders shaking silently. Weeping??? Oh gods! Why doesn't she ever let on when she hurts so bad? Gabrielle paused, considering. It will never do for me to find her like this, or she'll have my hide. I've got to at least give her a chance to collect herself.
Which she did, retreating carefully, and approaching again, this time letting herself make a little more noise, stepping on a twig here, or failing to dodge a squishy puddle there. She was rewarded by a slight tensing of her friend's shape as she came close, the familiar cocking of the dark-haired head to listen, and the slow relaxation of the warrior's broad shoulders when she realized who was coming. A surreptitious wiping of her eyes, a minute shaking of her head, and Xena was composed.
Gabrielle approached her slowly, suddenly feeling very nervous. She crouched down close to the warrior, who sat silent as a rock, staring straight ahead. The bard took a moment to sort through her thoughts, and said softly, "You wanna talk about it?"
No answer, apart from a slight twitch of the other woman's jaw muscle.
"Come on, Xena, I know you're not the rock you'd like me to think you are. There's something bothering you big time, and I want to help you, if I can." Wrong thing to say, probably. That is, if she's listening at all.
Xena gave no sign of having heard.
"Seems you've made friends with her," the dark-haired woman said after a while in a flat voice. "That was an interesting bit of fortune telling she gave you."
Gods! I never thought... Of course she'd been watching us before she jumped me. I wonder how much she overheard... Hades kiss me! And if I didn't know any better, I'd say Xena's jealous...nah, probably not. But what in the Nine Hells is bugging her?"Oh, I'll grant you she's a little creepy, but that was really... informative." Gabrielle answered blithely. The bard tried frantically to remember the exact words Mrtva had said about her being in love with Xena, and what she had replied. Oh, Zeus, she might have taken that all wrong, what I said to Mrtva. But I couldn't very well tell that stranger my feelings, could I? Maybe I should ask her. But if she hasn't heard anything, things could get... difficult. "Look, I know you don't like her, and to be honest, she's not really a likeable person to me, either. But she's hurt, and the least we should do is offer her protection until she is well."
"Which we aren't exactly providing her at the moment," was the warrior's toneless reply.
"I know," the bard whispered. "I suppose that takes care of the question of where my priorities are, doesn't it?"
Gabrielle could almost see the knots of tension in the warrior's neck and shoulders, and her own stomach cramped up in sympathy. On impulse, she got to her knees, slipped her hands behind the silent warrior, and started gently kneading the tortured muscles. Felt Xena's sharp intake of breath, the stiffening and obvious internal struggle, then the warrior's head slumped wearily as she reluctantly succumbed to the treatment. Gabrielle's strong fingers deftly found all the knots and cramps and she soon had her friend groaning pleasurably as her hands relieved the last residues of tension. But even when the warrior felt completely relaxed under her hands, the bard could not bring herself to stop right away. She continued to trace the outline of those powerful slabs of muscle, marveled at their latent power and firm resilience. Her face close to the warrior's neck, she felt sorely tempted to ease her massages into caresses, to gently kiss that neck... She almost had to physically slap herself to snap out of it. Rather hastily, she removed her hands, and resumed her place crouching beside her friend.
"Thanks," Xena said huskily, "that... felt good."
"Yeah, well, all in a day's work, isn't it?" Gabrielle replied with a fair imitation of the Warrior Princess' crooked half-grin. To her great satisfaction, that drew a throaty chuckle from her companion. "But one of us really should get back to the camp," the bard added ruefully, and got to her feet. Xena did not move, but her eyes followed the smaller woman's movement.
"See you back there," she just said.
The bard nodded, understanding. "Xena?"
"Get some sleep. Please?" A long look passed between them that gradually gathered warmth. At last, the warrior smiled.
"I will. Promise."
As soon as the pathetic little bard was out of earshot, the ridiculously loud breathing stopped dead, and a pair of luminous eyes flickered open. The one who called herself Mrtva rose easily, slunk to the dying fire, reached with her bare hand and grabbed a fistful of burning coals, which she deliberately pressed against the already receding burn marks on her skin. She continued the procedure until all of her wounds showed the ugly red blisters that those silly women would expect to see there. The pain was exquisite, and sent ripples of pleasure through her. That done, she carefully removed the dressing on her belly wound, forced her fingers into the rapidly closing gash and pried, an ecstatic moan escaping her, until the cut showed deeply again and green pus oozed out once more. After a quick appraisal of her work, she reapplied the dressing, careful to place it exactly the way it had been before.
Head cocked, she listened intently into the night. The warrior's sobbing, half a mile away, had stopped a while ago, and Gabrielle was now speaking to her in a hushed voice. Even the being's phenomenal hearing did not yield the bard's words, though.
They were an interesting pair, those two. She had practically no power over the little redhead, but the dark wolfish brute was another matter. That one was like jelly in her hands. And the bitch knew it, too, or at least suspected it, by the look of sheer terror, albeit well-disguised, that crossed the warrior's face whenever their eyes met. The one who called herself Mrtva had considered disposing of the bard, but the idea of using the young woman to strengthen her hold on the Warrior Princess held a sadistic appeal. She looked forward to playing with them for a little while.
The Tarot reading had been a shock, though. Never before had the cards yielded such truth about her own evil existence. The being had had to disguise her own role in the spread with very careful phrasing. For the power of the Tarot was such that it did not allow you to deliberately tell untruly. If the little slut had had more knowledge of the deck, Mrtva might have been in trouble. But that was impossible, of course. Because that Tarot was the only one in existence at this time. And it was hers, now. She cackled gleefully.
Pale eyes in a paler face lifted to look at the overcast sky. To her vision, the moon's luminous disk stood brightly in the black velvet of the night, unobscured by the misty expanse of clouds. A full moon. The night she had been waiting for. She sniffed the air, sifting through the myriad different smells of the night, until the one she sought found her nostrils.
The one who called herself Mrtva stole silently away into the night. She must hurry, and be back before the women returned. Not a whisper betrayed her passage.