The mist clung to the side of the mountain, filling the spaces between the trees and rocks with thick gray wool. Two shapes emerged from the mist, one a horse, one a figure in a hooded black robe. The horse chose its footing carefully down the slope of loose rock. Accustomed to the clash of battle and the fury of the charge, it was unused to this strange task. Bound across its back lay a shape wrapped in a plain linen shroud.
Just under the layer of fog, at the bottom of the slope, lay a dense, cool forest. When they reached the bottom, the figure paused, and let fall the hood of the cape revealing a woman with long black hair and cool blue eyes. She stared through the forest, as though her sight could penetrate the trees and brush and see through to the other side. The mare shifted uncomfortably, wondering at the pause, and gently nuzzled the woman on the cheek as if to give comfort. The woman absently stroked the mare's nose, then resumed her walk.
Slowly the fog surrendered to the growing heat of the sun. The cloak became a burden, causing streams of sweat to course down her back and sweat to sting her eyes, yet still she persisted in wearing it. The forest was silent except for the snap of twigs under the horse's hooves. The traveler seemed to be in no hurry despite her discomfort, her journey timeless, and her thoughts her own. Finally the woman and the horse emerged through the last of the forest and entered a clear green sward. Across the distance stood the ancient walls of a small village. She led the horse just a few feet from the trees and stood silently waiting. A messenger had been sent ahead, and shortly the people of the village would come to meet her. Her journey was over.
She didn't have long to wait. Across the distance she could see the gates of the village open, and in a few moments a group of people emerged from the village leading an ox and cart. At their head was a small woman, also in a black robe. When the group was a few feet from her they stopped.
The small woman spoke, "We are prepared."
Those were the only words spoken, but all that were needed. With great care, Xena undid the ropes that bound the body to Argo, and gently lifted it down. She carried the body to the cart, and laid it there with great tenderness, for even though Gabrielle was now beyond pain, she could not bear the thought of hurting her .
Xena turned to face Lilla and said in a flat voice, "These are hers.", and handed Lilla first a small satchel, and then Gabrielle's fighting staff. Lilla lost all pretense of calm and looked at Xena with undisguised hatred. "This is mine", she said, accepting the satchel, "this is yours" she said hurling the staff to the ground. "We want no more of you, you've done enough harm. Don't return".
Lilla stared into Xena's eyes defiantly, half expecting to be struck down, but instead Xena shifted her eyes to the village beyond and remained silently staring at the walls.
With much creaking of the wooden wheels, the cart was turned, and the funeral procession returned to the village. Xena stood silently until the procession returned to the city walls and the gates were closed and barred. Even across the distance she could hear the bar slam into place with crushing finality. As the sun crossed the sky, she remained still, staring at something that only she could see. Argo began to shift nervously, eager to be gone from this place of sadness. Xena spoke words too soft to be heard, then turned and stooped to pick up the fighting staff, and led Argo back into the woods. At first, she started back down the narrow forest path to return from where she had come, but a few paces into the forest she paused. Her legs trembled and weakened with shock she had never felt in battle, and her vision swam with tears. Leaning on Gabrielle's staff, she sank to the ground and wept bitterly.
If she doesn't stop humming that song , I'm going to kill her. The meadow was a few leagues wide, a bright spot of sun and flowers that broke up the dark of the forest trail for a few moments. Gabrielle walked just ahead of Xena through the wildflowers endlessly humming through the same bar of the song over and over again. It was the one the bard had played at the tavern last night. Xena had enjoyed it the first twenty times she heard it, but she was now being driven to the edge of sanity. A little too much of the local wine last night had left her in no mood to be serenaded, but Gabrielle sang on, blissfully unaware of Xena's growing irritation.
They had been spending the last few days in Thessaly while Gabrielle recovered from her wounds. Xena needed a rest too, a chance to let Argo rest and graze, repair the tack, and do all the little things that were inevitably put off while traveling. In time, Gabrielle had recovered enough to resume their journey to Athens, and today found them back on the road south to Athens. They were a few miles outside the walls of the city as they began their way across the meadow. For a few moments more, Gabrielle continued singing, then fell silent. To their left, across the east end of the meadow, two men on horseback had silently emerged from the trees. They wore no armor, just plain woven clothing in shades of brown, but something about their bearing and the quality of their horses screamed soldier. Xena reined in her horse, and Argo stomped the ground and snorted. For a moment the two groups stood staring at each other, then the men quickly raised crossbows and fired toward Xena and Gabrielle.
"Get down ", Xena shouted as she drew her sword and deflected the shots.
The men were drawing their second bolts and preparing to shoot. "Xena shouted, "It's an ambush Gabrielle! Go for the trees"
Gabrielle got to her feet and began sprinting across the meadow. Xena spurred Argo and thundered in pursuit of the attackers. They fired two more shots then spun their mounts around and fled into the line of trees behind them. Xena followed in close pursuit, gaining slowly on the pair. As she broke into the trees, she slowed, and began scanning the area for the men. The two men on horse back had vanished . Immediately sensing a trap, Xena drew her sword at the ready, and began to circle Argo around slowly, but she could sense no sound or motion . Suddenly she heard Gabrielle's scream from the meadow. Xena cursed " What a fool I am! They must have circled back around me ".
Argo's hooves sent leaves swirling like water as they thundered back the way they had come. From the dark of the forest she burst into the sun of the meadow. Momentarily blinded, she registered the following scene: Gabrielle stood at the far end of the meadow, never having made it to the trees. Two men held her arms as she struggled to break free. A third man on horseback held a cross bow leveled on target.
Gabrielle turned frantically to Xena "Help me, Xena!"
He turned slightly to nod at Xena. "Hi, I thought maybe I'd come out today and get a little target practice."
Xena drew her chakram and threw at the man with the crossbow. But he had the advantage, and had pulled the trigger even as he spoke. The chakram burst the weapon into a shower of splinters, but the bolt had already flown. He turned his horse and galloped, as the men released Gabrielle and ran to the trees. For a moment Gabrielle remained standing, then she slowly pitched backward into the flowers. The blood came welling up from deep inside Gabrielle's body, spilling into the grass of the meadow, dying the bright yellow flowers maroon and black. Uncaring of the danger, Xena raced Argo across the meadow, and dismounted next to Gabrielle. Xena knelt beside Gabrielle , lifted her and cradled Gabrielle in her arms. Xena's nose filled with the hot smell of blood, the familiar smell of death that made her gag. Not like this, no. Gabrielle's eyes focused on Xena's momentarily ,she tired to speak but instead of words, bright red foam escaped her lips. A single crossbow bolt was sunk in Gabrielle's chest, silver shaft and feathers shining in the summer sun. In a moment, the light left Gabrielle's eyes, and the blood exhausted its source and stopped. Too late. No hope, no plea, no miracle would bring her back this time.
It was another night long ago. The light of the fire flickered across Xena's face, casting it first into shadow, then to light. Gabrielle sat by her side, and behind them Mailus muttered his mad dreams of revenge.
Gabrielle's voice was thick with emotion,"No.., no look, you promise me, if something happens to me, you will not become a monster. There's only one way to end this cycle of hatred, and it's through love and forgiveness."
Xena looked at Gabrielle in appreciation, then drew Gabrielle's head briefly against her shoulder,"Don't go changing Gabrielle.I like you just the way you are. Go get some sleep."
But Gabrielle would not be put off, and her voice choked,"No, no you promise me.."
Xena turned to Gabrielle and said very softly, "I promise...."
Suddenly Gabrielle grabbed Xena's arm in a fierce grip, "Xena, help me.." Gabrielle clutched at Xena, crossbow quarrel sticking out of her chest. "Xena, why? Why didn't you aim for the bolt Xena?" Blood was flowing freely from Gabrielle's chest and running down her arm. Xena could feel the blood running hot down her own arm as she tried to pull away from Gabrielle's grip. That smell, that awful smell of blood filled the air, but this was no enemy slain, this was Gabrielle's blood, sticking to her skin, spilling down her armor.
"Please, I'm sorry, I made a mistake..I had no time..I'm sorry", Xena began to cry and tried again to pull away, but Gabrielle kept clinging and bleeding, bleeding, where was it all coming from?
It was another night long ago, the light of the fire flickered across Xena's face, casting it first into shadow, then into light... Xena sat up in bed suddenly, a gasp escaping her lips. Sweat soaked her nightclothes and the pallet she lay on. Thank the gods for another dawn. If only there was a way to escape sleep. During the day she had the energy to fight her demons, but during the night, they caught her in her weakness, toying with her soul like hungry predators after a kill. Over the years she had grown used to the endless cycle of the familiar and horrible dream, the one that always began the night they pursued Callisto, and always ended that morning in the meadow. The morning that everything ended.
Xena swung her legs over the edge of the pallet and glanced around the small hut she occupied. Everything was as calm and sane as it had been the night before. It was a small house built for one, sparsely furnished with a bed, a table and chair, and a large wooden trunk. From the ceiling hung bunches of herbs she dried for use in medicines, and a few more items of clothing hung from pegs driven into the walls. Outside its earthen walls she could hear the sounds of the villagers heading out to the fields beyond the hill, their jokes and laughter a refreshing dose of sanity after the terrors of the night.
She stood and began her morning ritual of exercise to stretch and warm her muscles. In this new place and this new life she had left her old name behind, but she could not surrender her habits. These people knew her only as Desma. Did anyone still pursue her? Did anyone still care? Little news made it this far from the thrones of the great cities. Occasionally she was amused to pass a group of children gathered around an elder who related the tales of Xena, a great warrior. She would sometimes pause and listen in until it struck her that she was hearing a rendition of the tales Gabrielle had written. Then her throat would constrict, and her heart would pound, and she would excuse herself from the company. When she first arrived rumors abounded in the village. Why would such a skilled healer choose their small village? Some said she was a witch, then no, maybe a goddess living among mortals, but in time, the excitement and the speculation died. As all things die.
This morning she considered a ride out to the outlying farms. There was a woman beyond the vale who was to give birth perhaps today or tomorrow. She could pack a few things and head out to check on her.
As she slowly drew on her shift, her thoughts were interrupted by an urgent pounding at the door, "Desma, please, we found a wounded soldier in the common!"
A soldier? Here? Xena paused for a moment, the old caution seeping in, but she quickly brushed aside any hesitation and responded,"Come in!"
The door opened, and two of the village men, Eustace and Erasmus came in bearing a middle-aged man between them. He wore the boiled-leather armor of the common soldier, and seemed to be unconscious as his head hung loosely to one side.
"Put him there.", Xena said pointing to the floor. "He may have wandered in last night from some battle."
The soldier came awake, hands clutching his belly, slowly rocking back and forth, moaning. Xena stooped to examine him. There seemed to be a gash across his stomach, but it had not penetrated the muscle beneath.
She turned to Eustace and Erasmus,"It would be wise to post sentinels for the next few days, there may be a battle approaching. I'll care for him, you may leave." The two bowed their way out, then set off at a run to warn the village elders.
Xena turned from the man on the floor and began gathering supplies from around the hut. "Don't worry it's not a deep wound, it should heal quickly". Xena turned her back to pour water into a basin on the table . "I'll give you something for the pain while I clean it out"
An amused voice behind her said, "That won't be necessary, I'm feeling much better now!"
The voice was so familiar that Xena whirled around instantly. She faced not a wounded soldier, but a tall handsome warrior dressed in black with a finely trimmed beard and mustache.
Xena hissed "Ares!"
Ares paced the room like a hungry tiger. "So how long have you cowered here grinding powders and setting bones? Ten years? You are pathetic!" "I must admit you were very good at hiding from me this time. I don't know how you did it. Usually I just follow the trail of bodies, and rain or shine, there you are."
Ares stood with his hands on his hips regarding her, "By the way, this humble peasant woman look doesn't become you." He approached her and touched the sleeve of her shift, running his hand up and down her arm. Xena stiffened at his touch.
"Cheap fabric" he said, removing his hand, and turning to survey the room.
"Just how long did you plan on moping over the blonde?" He waved a hand , "If I thought I would get this reaction, I never would have killed that silly little bitch." Xena's reaction was swift and ingrained, her hand reaching reflexively for the sword that no longer hung on her back.
Ares spun to face her laughing, "Well that's more like it. I knew this peace and love thing couldn't last. There may be hope for you yet."
Xena approached him slowly,"You're lying. What could you have to gain from killing Gabrielle?"
Ares leaned casually against the small table, "Now let's not have any violence, healer. What would that do for your image with the community? Have some wine." As he spoke a wine skin appeared in his hand. "Let's talk. I suppose you always have had a special place in my heart. Then our relationship went into a decline. Why? Well, you were still handy with a sword, still handy with a chakram, still piling up bodies... but business was falling off. Why? Because you weren't killing just anyone, you were killing my other employees. What's a good manager to do? I needed to isolate the problem and get you back on the right road. What was the cause of your affliction? Well, it seemed every time I was close to winning you back, a little bird would whisper in your ear. The problem must have been the little bird, so I decided to eliminate the problem. Or, I suppose more accurately, I shot the little bird while you were distracted. Does this look familiar?", Ares snapped his fingers and a crossbow bolt with a silver shaft and silver feathers appeared.
The blood came welling up from deep inside Gabrielle's body, spilling into the grass of the meadow, dying the bright yellow flowers maroon and black. Uncaring of the danger, Xena raced Argo across the meadow, and dismounted next to Gabrielle. Xena knelt beside Gabrielle , lifted her and cradled Gabrielle in her arms. Xena's nose filled with the hot smell of blood, the familiar smell of death that made her gag. Not like this, no. Gabrielle's eyes focused on Xena's momentarily ,she tired to speak but instead of words, bright red foam escaped her lips. A single crossbow bolt was sunk in Gabrielle's chest, silver shaft and feathers shining in the summer sun.
"You bastard!" Xena flung herself across the room, her hands aiming for his throat, but Ares dissolved and reappeared back on the trunk.
"You interrupted me, and that's very rude. Sit down!" Xena felt the air above her head thicken, and she was forced to the floor by its weight. "That's better, don't let that happen again, or I won't be so gentle."
"They're beautiful aren't they?" He said holding it up so the morning sun could glance off its feathers. "Hephaestos made me two. He's a worthless little cripple, but he does do nice work. They never miss. They fly true to the target every time. I have only to command them."
Ares crossed the room and knelt to look into Xena's eyes, his hand reaching to stroke her hair. "Now listen carefully, because I want you to understand this. They never miss. I could have stood on Mount Olympus and fired in any direction I pleased, and she would have died." Xena struggled to rise, but he continued gently stroking her hair, "But then I would not have had the extreme pleasure of watching you watch her die. The extreme pleasure of watching you fail. That was your punishment for refusing me."
Ares rose, and resumed his position leaning against the table," Though I must say I never thought you would react like this. I expected anger, or vengeance, maybe a nice rampage through the ranks of some local army. But no, you crawl off and pout for crying out loud!"
Ares unstopped the skin of wine. "Are you sure you won't join me? For wine I mean." "Xena, I am tired of courting you, I've come prepared with one final offer for you. I'm willing to trade Gabrielle for you. You come back to me, willingly, and without evasion, and I will let her live."
Xena glared at him, "You lying bastard. You know Hades won't release a soul once they gone over."
"Yes, that is the crux of the problem now isn't it?" Ares stroked his beard in an imitation of deep thought. "But just suppose it could be worked out somehow? Have we got a deal?"
Xena stared up at him from across the floor "Let me up".
Ares glanced at the trunk. "Let me guess where you keep your weapons these days? Surely you wouldn't just have thrown them away, old habits are so hard to break."
Ares crossed the room and grabbed Xena by the chin, drawing her to her feet. He cupped her chin with one hand, and began stroking her neck gently with the other. He closed his hand lightly on her throat. "Promise me your devotion."
Xena looked into his eyes of darkness, "I'll do it."
"Excellent!", Then he frowned in mock concern, "But what would our sweet little Gabrielle say? Oh my.."
For one brief moment, Xena's face lit up with her old predatory smile."Well, after all, she's dead, and if you're lying to me, I swear I'll kill you too."
Xena's heart pounded, "So it's done, now return Gabrielle"
Ares released Xena's neck and recrossed the room. "Unfortunately, it requires just a little more effort than that. But I'm sure you won't mind. Gather your weapons and prepare yourself..and change out of that ridiculous dress."
Xena paused for a moment then crossed to the trunk, opened it, and removed several bundles, each wrapped in cloth.
"Do you mind?" she said, glancing at Ares.
"Not at all", but he made no effort to look away, continuing to leer at her.
"Very well", Xena said as she slipped out of the shift and changed back into her body suit and armor. Next she unwrapped her sword and scabbard, its weight on her shoulder comforting and familiar. She quickly unwrapped her chakram and tied it to her armor. At the bottom of the trunk was a small leather pouch. Why she had kept it all these years she couldn't say, but after only a flicker of hesitation, she picked it up and tied it to her armor. It was small, but its weight dragged at her more than the steel of the sword. Finally, she drew a dark traveling cloak from a peg on the wall, and quickly placed it on her shoulders.
"I am ready. Let's go."
Ares drew near, and extended his hand. Xena touched it with a shudder of revulsion.
Instantly the familiar walls of her home dissolved, and she found herself standing in a strange and beautiful garden that seemed to stretch in all directions. Though it had been near to harvest when they left her village, here the flowers of spring were just beginning to break through the surface of the ground. The sun shone brightly. It was...peaceful, and Xena felt the tension of years of grief lifting from her shoulders. Ares stood next to her grinning. "Let's stroll and enjoy the evening air."
Xena glanced up at the sky and saw that Ares was right. How could she had thought it was a spring morning, when it was clearly a summer's evening?
Xena shook her head slightly and tried to focus her thoughts,"Enough! I knew you were lying."
"Don't be so impatient, you've waited this long, you can wait a moment longer." Ares turned, surveying the garden and shouted, "Come out! I know you are hiding!"
"I am here", Xena jumped at the sound of the voice so close to her ear. A tall handsome young man with blonde hair stood at her elbow. He wore clothes that were made of a transparent fabric that shifted with all the colors of the rainbow.
Xena felt apprehension creeping back in, the strange euphoria dissolving, "Who are you?"
"I am Kronos", the youth replied.
Xena quickly dropped to one knee, and bowed her head in respect to the first of the gods. As she knelt, she looked down, surprised to find herself kneeling in the snow.
Kronos, father of Zeus, the son of the Heaven and Earth, glanced down at Xena "So, this is the one, Ares, what would you have me do?"
"She has a small journey to take, you will send her where she needs to go." Ares shifted his glance to Xena. "Look at me, woman." Xena looked up at Ares. "I'm going to leave you to go on your way now, as I have other matters to attend to. This is what you must do to seal our bargain. Though it has been pleasant chatting with you again, you're still not exactly what I'm looking for. You are old now, and I think that the spark has gone out of you. You will find your younger self, and tell her that she must do this: that day in the meadow she will tell Gabrielle to wait, then she will precede to the center of the meadow, drop to her knees, and call my name. When she pledges herself back to me, I will let the girl go unharmed. After that, you may go your way too, with the pesky little blonde if you like." Her stared into her eyes "And Xena, dear, we've been together for too long for me to trust you completely. Let me remind you that I have two of Hephaestos' arrows. Any deception on your part, young or old, and I'll kill Gabrielle, then I'll pick another name to command the other arrow to strike. Who else you would like to lose?"
Ares laughed, then vanished.
Kronos placed his hand on Xena's head, "Get up mortal, you are wearying me."
Xena slowly stood, hope growing inside her "So Ares didn't lie, I can still save her." Kronos nodded his head in confirmation, "But you must understand what you are asking me to do. You must also understand that I do it for my reasons, not yours or Ares'. Ares is arrogant and believes he can force me to his will, and you are foolish if you believe this will be easy."
"I thought when Zeus defeated you..."
Kronos' laugh echoed around the garden, "Don't believe everything you hear. I am the guardian of Time and Nature. I answer to the universe. Even I have rules to follow." Kronos' face became serious, "There will be a price for you to pay for my favor, and when I ask it of you, you will not want to pay"
Xena answered without hesitation, "I'll do what I've promised to do"
Kronos sighed, "Very well, where do you wish to go? All time is your choice, you could return to the day you met Gabrielle, and never meet her, sparing her the notice of Ares. You could return to your own village the day you first chose this path and change your own life. I warn you again that every choice carries a price. Decide now."
The smoke of hundreds of candles clouded the air in the temple. Light streamed through the clerestory windows, sending beams of brightness into the human misery below. Unnoticed amongst the refugees, the traveler in the cloak stood within the shadows of the healing temple. Just a few feet away, beyond her reach, a young warrior fought to save the life of a friend.
"Stop it, she's dead now, she's in a much better place." The healer named Hippocrates tried to comfort the warrior, but she shoved him away. He staggered backward, stopping a few inches from the traveler.
Xena pounded on Gabrielle's chest pleading,"Wake up! Wake Up!" Like a swimmer breaking the surface, Gabrielle returned to life with a convulsive gasp of breath. The hood of the cloak hid the tears of joy that flowed freely down the traveler's cheeks.
No, this was not the time to be weak. The traveler hid behind the column and rested her hot face against the cool stone. This was nothing. She looked on her younger self, saw the relief and joy there, and felt her own joy change to anger. You arrogant fool, you let your guard down, you let her down. There could never be a moment, not a single moment when you could let your guard down. Never again. She wanted to leap out and shake the warrior senseless, tell her everything, explain how wrong she was. But, she must remain focused. The crisis was yet to come, and she must be ready. For a moment she discovered she was jealous to see the happiness and the hope . There was much left to do. She faded back into the shadows of the temple.
The merchant's eyes were wide with disbelief as he watched the woman in the cloak leave his shop. With forced calm he went to the front of the shop, and closed the shutters. Once back inside he barred the door and danced a little jig around the shop. Incredible! The woman certainly hadn't seemed a fool, and yet she had surrendered quickly to his bargaining. He drew the item out from its place of safety under the counter and turned it over carefully in his hands. Such workmanship, and perfectly balanced too. The round disk was beautifully made of steel inlaid with gold and gems, and yet she had traded it for a handful of coin, and a weapon worth one thousandth the value of this. Could it be stolen? Be damned! No one would take this from him. He was a wealthy man now, and in just one transaction. And what had she said, "It's worthless to me"? What a fool she was!
The stable master looked briefly at the woman in the cloak. Was it a trick of his aging eyes, or did she somehow look different? Never the less, her gold was good, and he saddled the mare for her as he had the past three evenings. She took the bridle and led her mare out into the courtyard. Xena leaned heavily against Argo's side. Another old friend left behind. The warm sweet smell of Argo's hair made her want to bury her face against the mare's side. Argo whinnied and nuzzled her, glad to have company.
"I need a favor from you Argo.", Xena said as she swung into the saddle, and rode out past the stable gates. Once beyond the confines of town, she whistled, and Argo sprang to life, galloping across the farmer's fields. Xena let the hood of the cape fall back, her hair flying in the wind, as they sped out beyond the cares of the past.
Xena fastened the chakram to her armor, then turned to look back at the sleeping form of Gabrielle. The wound was healing well. Xena gave her just a little of the sleeping powder to ease the pain of the wound across her shoulder. It would be good to move on tomorrow. A rest was one thing, but she would be glad to leave this place behind and forget the horror of the war. Outside the window of their cramped room she could hear the sounds of the revelers celebrating the end of the war. Immediately below them the tavern's common room hummed with voices raised in laughter and song. She hated leaving Gabrielle alone, but she had to check on Argo, and take the mare out for a run before full dark. As she walked down the steps to the tavern below, she felt the uncomfortable sensation of eyes on her. She slowly walked across the floor, and out the door. A few seconds later she heard the tavern door open and close behind her, confirming that someone was following her. She continued down the street toward the stables, looking for a good spot to confront whoever was following her, when suddenly whoever it was charged her from behind. She whirled and drew her blade in response, but was shocked to see only a paunchy merchant standing there. He must have been obscenely drunk because he stood there screaming, "It's mine, it was a rightful bargain! Give it back!" Xena took a few steps backward, not sure how to handle the drunk without wounding him, but he followed her, trying to grab the chakram hanging at her hip. Townspeople were beginning to gather around them , as Xena tried to avoid the lunges of the madman without harming him. He kept blathering that the chakram was his, and that he had bought it from her. Eventually, the townspeople calmed him down, and dragged him back to his shop. Yes, it would be good to get out of this town. A ride would be refreshing. "Drunks", she said disgustedly.
She approached the stable master, and pressed a silver piece into his hand, "Saddle my mare". He stared at her. Xena thought perhaps he was an barbarian, so she spoke more slowly, "Saddle my mare." He continued to stare at her, so she went to the rack, and found that her saddle was missing. She ran to Argo's stall. Empty. Xena ran to where the stable master stood, mouth agape.
"Where is my horse?" She demanded, grabbing him by the front of his tunic and shoving him back against the wall.
"But you took him..." Damn! Another drunk, celebrating the end of the war. But where was Argo? She wouldn't leave with any other. Xena walked to the outside of the stable yard and scanned the ground for Argo's prints. In the failing light she could see the the outline of Argo's prints, deeply embedded, as if she carried a rider. Xena whistled for Argo and waited. No response. Xena immediately took off at a trot, following the horse's prints through the village, and into the fields beyond.
"You are too easily distracted," she thought as she watched Xena run out of town in pursuit of Argo.
The traveler drew the hood of the cloak up to hide her features, then walked back into the tavern, and up the familiar stairs. In the corner, the bard was playing a lute, playing the same song that would be burned in her memory for the rest of her life. There were only two rooms above the common room below, and Xena opened the door to their room and entered. In the low light of the oil lamp, she could see Gabrielle sleeping on the pallet near the window. She froze for a moment and reconsidered if this was wise. But she had only a few moments before the other discovered where Argo was hidden. She crossed the small room and sat on the bed next to Gabrielle.
Xena placed her hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle, wake up."
"Xena, what is it?, are we leaving already? , is it morning?"
Xena's blood throbbed in her ears, and her breath grew short as Gabrielle rolled over and looked up at her. Alive, and whole again.
"I thought you were going to exercise Argo", her voice was slurred from sleep and the sedative, but it was the same voice Xena had held in her memory all these years. Gabrielle's eyes narrowed as they searched Xena's face. "Xena, what's wrong?"
Gabrielle started to sit up, but Xena gently pressed her back down. "Don't get up Gabrielle, I have to talk to you." How many years had she practiced what to say? But now the words wouldn't come. Time was running out, so she plunged ahead, " I'm sorry. I took stupid chances with your life, and it wasn't my right to do that. I wouldn't know what to do if something happened to you"
Gabrielle started to wake up in spite of the drug, "Xena, something's wrong. If it's about my wound, I already told you it's OK, you saved my life.. I knew you would."
"No!" Xena shouted, startled by the loudness of her voice in this small space. She found her fists clenched and forced them to relax. She looked at Gabrielle and continued, quieter,".. just understand that I never meant anything to happen to you. I saved your life, but you saved my soul, and I'll never be able to repay you for that."
Gabrielle was now fully awake, and sat up, looking at Xena's face, in the low light of the lamp she could see the face of her friend, but it was different..
"It's OK, Xena.."
"No it's not OK, you have to be careful! Don't believe I can always protect you, you have to be careful.. Promise me.."
Through the open window, they could hear a voice raised in anger "It's mine! give it back!"
"Goodbye, Gabrielle" Xena touched her face briefly then quickly backed out of the room.
The traveler reached the bottom of the stairs, and walked to a dark corner of the common room, just as Xena burst through the door, followed closely by the merchant. Having had quite enough, Xena whirled and punched him in nose.
They were a few miles outside the walls of the city as they began their way across the meadow. Gabrielle walked silently across the meadow, her thoughts lost in analyzing the strange conversation she had with Xena last night. How much was real, and how much was the drug? She considered mentioning it to Xena, but she had returned last night angry from something about Argo having run away, and some drunk following her around town. Across the east end of the meadow, two men on horseback silently emerged from the trees.
The traveler threw back the cloak, and removed the small leather pouch from her armor. Inside was a small shape wrapped in a silk cloth.
They wore no armor, just plain woven clothing in shades of brown, but something about their bearing and the quality of their horses screamed soldier. Xena reined in her horse, and Argo stomped the ground and snorted. For a moment the two groups stood staring at each other, then the men quickly raised crossbows and fired toward Xena and Gabrielle.
The traveler removed the crossbow from over her shoulder. It was an ugly but functional weapon, not the equal of the chakram, but under the circumstances, an excellent trade.
"Get down ", Xena shouted as she drew her sword and deflected the shots.
The men were drawing their second bolts and preparing to shoot. "Xena shouted, "It's an ambush Gabrielle! Go for the trees"
Her hands shook as she unwrapped the package. It still shone as bright as the day it was forged at Hephaestos' fire. Silver fletching sparkled in the sun. The bolt fit perfectly into the carved groove in the stock.
The two men on horse back had vanished . Immediately sensing a trap, Xena drew her sword at the ready, and began to circle Argo around slowly, but she could sense no sound or motion . Suddenly she heard Gabrielle's scream from the meadow. Xena cursed " What a fool I am! They must have circled back around me ".
Argo's hooves sent leaves swirling like water as they thundered back the way they had come. From the dark of the forest she burst into the sun of the meadow. Gabrielle stood at the far end of the meadow, never having made it to the trees. Two men held her arms as she struggled to break free. A third man on horseback held a cross bow leveled on target.
Gabrielle turned frantically to Xena "Help me, Xena!"
"I command you to strike Ares!" the traveler closed her eyes and squeezed the trigger of the crossbow.
Xena threw the chakram at the man on horseback, but before it struck a cry of agony loud enough to shake the earth sounded from all corners of the sky. The man on horseback seemed to shudder, clutching at something in his chest. He slowly lowered his crossbow, then began to topple off his horse, but before he fell to the ground, he simply vanished.
Gabrielle swung her elbow backward into the stomach of one of the men holding her, while bringing her heel swiftly back into his shin. Caught off balance, he momentarily released her, freeing her arm to whirl and punch the other man in the chin.
Argo thundered to a stop next to Gabrielle, Xena leapt from the saddle, and swiftly knocked the men unconscious. "Are you alright?"
The traveler opened her eyes, and let the empty crossbow fall loosely against her side. Her arms felt as heavy as lead, and she leaned against the trunk of a tree for support. From her place of hiding in the forest, she could see Gabrielle and the other circling, scanning the meadow, and slowly backing for the cover of the trees.
A voice spoke suddenly from beside her,"You have dared much today. You have wounded a god."
Xena turned to face Kronos. She searched his ancient eyes for approval, but they were unreadable. "I did what I had to do"
"That may be so, but you must know that this will not go unpunished. Ares has never felt pain before. He is a wounded animal, and that is the most dangerous sort."
"I can take care of myself"
"Can you? Perhaps. All these years as a warrior, you have walked with Ares' favor, even as you spurned him, he pursued you, and endowed you with the skills you would need to survive, because he hoped to win you back. Today that ends. You are no longer a prodigal to be won back, you are his mortal enemy." Kronos gestured to the two women who were standing back to back in the meadow, each willing to fight to preserve the other's life. "He will blame them for what you have done. He may even bestow his blessings on another."
Xena faced Kronos,"I will warn them, they don't know..."
Kronos spoke,"You have served me well, you have set events in motion this day, whose outcome will be felt for centuries to come. You have been an excellent tool."
Xena looked at him, "Tool?"
Kronos looked on Xena, and for a brief moment pity seemed to be in his eyes. "But now I must name my price for the favor I have granted you"
"Isn't this price enough?" Xena said, gesturing toward the meadow.
"I warned you that when the time came, you would not want to pay" "Now you must choose"
"I am Kronos, the son of the Heaven and the Earth, and guardian of nature. You are an abomination against nature. Two women with the same soul cannot exist . You have shown courage, so I will allow you to choose. You must choose now which of you will remain."
Xena watched the two friends in the distance,"Please let me speak to her again"
Kronos shook his head, "No, It must be done now."
"What happens to... Xena...if I choose me?"
"Then your younger self will vanish, and you may step out to join Gabrielle from where you stand"
"And if I choose her?"
"Then the universe will be righted, and you will be gone."
Xena turned back to Kronos,"I will die?"
"No, you will simply not exist. All your memories, your soul, everything from the moment your lives diverged will simply not be."
Xena slowly turned to regard the women standing in the meadow, they still stood back to back, each willing to offer her life for the other. "They don't know what awaits them..how can they resist him? What have I done?"
Xena regarded her younger self with wry amusement, "She's so full of pride, so... innocent."
Kronos spoke gently, "It must be done now"
Xena looked at the two in the meadow, "Then I choose."
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
- Robert Frost
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