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They left town about an hour later, riding double on Argo, having
first bought a few supplies and eaten a quick breakfast of bread and
cheese. Xena had combined Gabrielle's money with her own in a single
coin purse which was now tucked safely into her leather bodice. There
was no telling what Gabrielle would spend her money on at this point,
the warrior reasoned, so it was better for her not to know she even had
"I think you should have given me a lesson with the staff before
we left town," the bard said.
"We didn't have time," Xena responded. "I'll give you
a lesson tonight."
"But how am I going to defend myself?"
"Don't worry. I can protect you. And we may not run into any
"You don't know that," Gabrielle said sulkily.
"No, I don't," Xena agreed. "But we can always hope
for the best. Do you want me to tell you some things? About yourself?
About your family? About our adventures?"
Gabrielle pondered briefly, then asked, "Have I ever met
"Yes, but you haven't really had extensive dealings with
"Does he like me, do you think?"
"Well, no, I wouldn't say he does. He calls you an irritating
Gabrielle was silent for a moment. "Maybe he just hasn't seen me
fight. Maybe he doesn't realize what a good warrior I could be, if I had
the proper training."
"Maybe not," Xena said. "But I don't want to talk
about Ares or about making you into a warrior. Why don't I tell you the
story about Morpheus and Elkton and the dreamscape passage?"
"Okay," Gabrielle said in a resigned tone of voice, and
Xena launched into the tale. At first, there was little reaction from
the younger woman, but when Xena began to talk about how the priests of
Morpheus tried to trick Gabrielle into using a sword to shed blood in
her own defense, she got very excited.
"You mean I had a sword in my hand and I didn't use it?"
she exclaimed. "That was really stupid! There's nothing wrong with
killing people in self-defense. I don't see what the problem was."
"The problem was that if you had lost your blood innocence
during that test, you would have been sacrificed as Morpheus'
"Why would he want a dead bride?"
"I don't know exactly. I just know that's what they were going
to do. Maybe Elkton can explain it to you."
"Well, if somebody was coming at me right now, trying to kill
me, and I had a sword in my hand, I sure as Hades would use it to kill
them first--that's all I can say!"
Xena sighed. "Don't you want to hear the end of the story?"
she said. "You were really very brave and clever to get through it
all without shedding any blood."
"No, I don't like that story. Tell me one about you. One where
you fought a big battle and
killed lots of people."
Xena didn't respond immediately. Ares had been right--she wasn't
liking this new version of Gabrielle very much, but surely, with
patience and love, she could somehow get through to the "real"
Gabrielle. She would have to be careful, though, to keep her warlike
companion from appealing to her own darker instincts.
"Don't you have any curiosity about yourself, Gabrielle?"
she asked finally. "About your family or where you come from?"
"Not much, I guess."
"Let me tell you the story of how we met," Xena said.
"That includes a battle or two of sorts, and then you'll at least
know the name of your hometown."
Gabrielle did not offer any opposition, so Xena began the tale of how
the warlord Draco and his men had rounded up the villagers of Poteidaia,
intending to take all the young women for slaves. She painted the
warlord in the darkest colors possible and stressed the fact that
Gabrielle would have ended up being sold into slavery by him if Xena
"I wouldn't have stayed a slave," Gabrielle said stoutly.
"I would have found a way to escape!"
"Maybe you would have," Xena allowed. "Or maybe you
would have been captured again and beaten so hard that it broke your
spirit. Anyway, the point is that Draco left many victims in his
wake--some dead, others homeless, most of them scarred for life in some
way. And that's how I used to be. I was a lot like Draco."
She went on then to tell how she went back home to Amphipolis and
tried to organize a defense against Draco. "But those people
refused to be my victims again. They had learned their lesson, and I
hadn't learned mine. They rejected me. Even my own mother rejected me.
They were going to stone me right in my mother's tavern."
"But you stopped them, didn't you?"
"No, I didn't. You did. You saved me."
"I did? How?" Gabrielle asked sarcastically. "Did I
take my little staff and bop them on the head?"
Xena smiled. "No, you didn't even have a staff in those
days," she said. "You used your very best weapon--words. You
simply talked them out of killing me."
"Talked them out of it! That's crazy! You didn't need me to save
you. You could have easily killed those villagers and escaped."
"Yes, I suppose I could have, but I really think I would have
let them kill me. I just couldn't see any good reason to go on living at
that moment. But then you gave me one."
"What reason was that?"
"You believed in me and were willing to be my friend. You helped
me see that there really was some good I could be doing . . . and that I
wasn't alone." She paused, her throat tightening with emotion, then
quickly went on. "But don't you want to hear about my fight with
Draco? It was pretty exciting, really."
"Yeah, tell me about it."
"We fought on a scaffold, with staffs," she began, and then
went on to describe the rest of the battle in some detail, ending with
her pinning Draco to the ground.
"Then you killed him, right?" Gabrielle asked eagerly.
"No, I didn't kill him. He promised to get his army out of the
valley and leave Amphipolis alone. That's all I really wanted."
"But I thought you said he was an evil warlord. If you let him
go, he must have gone out and hurt more people."
"Yes, I'm sure he did," Xena said slowly. "But what
you have to remember, Gabrielle, is that people sometimes change. I did
and I've seen it happen to others, too. It even happened to Draco. But
he couldn't have changed if I had killed him that day in Amphipolis."
"Draco changed? He goes around doing good stuff now, like
"Well, I haven't heard much about him lately, but the last time
I saw him, he had made up his mind to lead a different kind of
"What made him change?"
"He fell in love."
"Fell in love! With you?"
"No," Xena said with a smile. "With you."
"Are you kidding?" Gabrielle exclaimed. "Draco, the
mighty warlord, fell in love with me? That's really exciting!"
"I'm afraid you didn't think so at the time," Xena said.
"You were totally disgusted by him and his evil ways. That's why he
eventually decided to change--so he could impress you."
"And was I impressed?"
"I think you were a bit skeptical about the sincerity of his
efforts to reform. And besides, at a certain point, you realized you
were in love with me."
While Gabrielle was pondering this information, Xena glanced up at
the sun, and then guided Argo off the road and into a grove of oaks.
"It's about midday," she said, "so why don't we take a
break and have a little lunch?"
Without a word, Gabrielle dismounted, and Xena did the same. They sat
under the trees and ate some of the bread, cheese, and figs they had
bought in town, passing the waterskin back and forth, not talking much.
Xena was growing somewhat tired of her unaccustomed role as storyteller
and was glad to give it up for a while. Gabrielle seemed preoccupied
with her own thoughts, and the warrior was unwilling to find out what
those thoughts were, since she guessed they must involve the glories of
war and wholesale slaughter. Studying her companion, though, she
noted--as she had so many times before--how lovely the bard's hair
looked as the dappled sunlight played across it. The body was definitely
Gabrielle's, she mused, but everything else about this young woman was
so unfamiliar . . . so unexpected. Xena's mind was in almost constant
turmoil, trying to reconcile the physical form of her lover with the
total stranger who now seemed to inhabit it.
* * * * *
"This travelling stuff is pretty boring," Gabrielle said as
they mounted up a short time later.
"Yes, it can be that way," Xena agreed. She urged Argo into
a brisk walk, glancing again at the position of the sun.
"I wish something would happen." Gabrielle continued.
"I wish we could have a big battle and fight some evil people and
send them all to Tartarus!"
"Hmm. Well, you never know what will come up."
Gabrielle yawned and then sighed deeply. "Do we have to do this
all afternoon and all day tomorrow, too?"
"Yep. I'm afraid so. It's the only way I know of to get
"Is this all we ever do? Just go places?"
Xena didn't answer. She was staring down the road at four men coming
toward them on horseback. The fourth man was leading three extra horses,
she saw, and one of those horses was wearing an empty saddle.
Gabrielle leaned around her to peer at the approaching men. "Who
are they?" she asked. "Are they bad guys?"
"I'd say that's a good guess. They probably stole those three
horses. It looks like your wish for a little excitement just might come
"Really? Well, it's about time! Where's my staff?"
Xena pulled Argo to a halt and twisted around in the saddle.
"Gabrielle," she said, "I want you to get off and go wait
in that stand of brush there. You can watch, but stay out of
"What are you talking about? I'm going to help you fight!"
"No, you're not. You don't know how and you'll just end up
getting hurt. I haven't got time to argue with you. Just get down.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest, but Xena fixed her with a
no-nonsense look that apparently made her change her mind. Reluctantly,
she slid off the horse.
"Next time you can help fight," Xena said, "after
you've learned to use the staff." She leaned down and put a hand on
the younger woman's shoulder. "But for right now I want you to stay
out of the way. It won't take me long to deal with these guys. Now
go!" She gave Gabrielle a small shove, and the bard turned and
headed slowly for the bushes.
Straightening up, Xena touched her heels to Argo's flanks. The mare
moved forward, a bit warily, coming to a stop facing the lead rider of
the approaching group. The man grinned at Xena, and as he did, the dark
scar across his chin gave her the strange impression that he was
"Hello, Boys," she said. "Been out stealing some
horses this morning?"
"Yeah, we sure have!" said the leader, his double grin
widening. "And now we're going to take your horse, too, along with
any money or jewelry you might have. Just hand everything over nicely,
and there won't be any trouble," he added.
"Oh, there'll be trouble, all right," Xena said, flashing
her own grin. "You bastards are going to be sorry you ever thought
about taking my horse!" And with that, she kicked her feet out of
the stirrups and hopped up into a crouch position on the saddle. Then,
letting loose an exultant war cry, she flipped over Argo's head,
striking her opponent solidly in the shoulders with both feet. He
crashed to the ground, the wind knocked out of him, and she landed on
her feet, just beyond him.
Almost immediately, a second horseman charged her, swinging his
sword. Xena quickly ducked and then grabbed his wrist, flipping him head
over heels out of the saddle. She looked up just in time to see a third
man maneuvering his horse near Argo, reaching out for the mare's reins.
Putting two fingers in her mouth, Xena whistled, then laughed as her
well-trained horse nipped the would-be thief soundly on the arm.
Screeching in pain, he wheeled his own mount and galloped off, followed
closely by the fourth man and his string of stolen horses.
Xena turned then to regard her first two attackers, who had by now
regained their feet. With swords drawn, they charged her simultaneously.
A swift kick from the warrior sent one man's weapon flying out of his
hand, and a second kick doubled the other man over. Grabbing both of
them by the scruff of their necks, Xena slammed their heads together,
and they sprawled, stunned, in the road.
"Now get out of here," she ordered, "and don't mess
with my horse again!"
Staggering to their feet, the two ruffians slunk back to their
horses, mounted, and rode off in pursuit of their companions.
Xena dusted off her hands and whistled for Argo to come.
"Gabrielle!" she called, then saw that the bard was already
running towards her.
"You let them get away!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "Why
didn't you kill them?"
"I didn't see any need to do that," Xena said calmly, as
she swung up into the saddle.
"But they were going to take our horse and our money and there's
no telling what else they might have done to us!"
"Yeah, but I convinced them to change their minds," Xena
said, then added, "Come on, get up here," and reached a hand
down to Gabrielle.
"But they're bad," the bard continued from her seat behind
the warrior. "They go around stealing from people and hurting
"So why didn't you kill them?"
"I try not to kill people anymore unless I really think it's
"How do you know when it's necessary?"
"That's the hard part," Xena said. "What you
believe--or at least what you used to believe--is that it should never
be 'necessary' to kill anyone, that it's always better to bring
criminals to justice. I've tried to learn to live by that code, too,
although there have been a few times--" She stopped and glanced
back at her companion. "The thing is, Gabrielle, when you kill
someone, it's as if you are setting yourself up as judge and
executioner, all rolled into one. You're saying, in effect, that this
person is capable only of wicked deeds and can never be redeemed. That's
a big responsibility to take, and I'd rather not take it, if I don't
have to. Can you understand what I'm saying?"
"You're saying that you still kill people sometimes, because
sometimes it's necessary."
Xena sighed. "Yes, there's a dark part of me that will never get
it right, I guess. But you've taught me so much about peace and love,
Gabrielle," she added, reaching back to lay a hand on her lover's
thigh. "That's why it's so hard for me to hear you talking like
this, sounding so warlike and cruel. It's just not you, can't you see
"No, I can't," Gabrielle said flatly. "But what I can
see is why Ares would want you back. Xena, you're magnificent when
you're fighting! So strong and smart--and you looked like you were
really having a great time!"
"Yeah, well, I guess I'll always enjoy a good fight," Xena
said with a crooked grin.
"I wish I could see you lead an army! Wow! What a sight that
"You did see me lead an army--against the Horde. And you didn't
like it much at all."
"That was the other Gabrielle. Now things would be different.
Now I'd be on the front lines, fighting with the rest of your
Xena closed her eyes as a shudder ran through her. "No,
Gabrielle," she said softly. "I would never let you fight in
my army. Never."
"Why not? Don't you think I'd be good enough?"
"I don't want to talk about this anymore. It's giving me the
Gabrielle fell silent and for a time there was only the sound of
Argo's steady hoofbeats on the dirt road, punctuated by the occasional
cries of birds from nearby trees.
"Would you tell me another story?" the bard asked finally.
"It depends on what you want to hear."
"Would you tell me a story about Ares?"
"A story about Ares, huh? Well, let's see. I could tell you
about the time when he killed three men and framed me for the murders
and I almost got executed."
"Or how about the time he convinced the Furies to curse me with
madness and I almost ended up killing my own mother? That's a pretty
good story! You'd probably like that one!" she said, throwing a
quick look back at Gabrielle. "Oh, or here's the best one of all! I
could tell you about the time Ares disguised himself as a bard and
drugged my best friend--the woman I love with all my heart--and made her
into this stranger, this--this monster, who can only talk about the
goodness of war and murder and--" She stopped, her voice choking
and tears stinging her eyes. Pulling Argo to a halt, she sat for a
moment, staring straight ahead and drawing long, shaky breaths in an
effort to regain control over her emotions.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," she said at last, then turned to
look at her companion. The bard stared back at her in bewilderment.
"Are you angry at me?" Gabrielle asked in a small voice.
"Do you hate me?"
"No, I'm not angry at you," Xena said, "and I could
never hate you. You can't help what's happened. But I've sure got a big
bone to pick with Ares!"
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief. "Maybe I don't want to hear
a story right now," she said.
"Good, because I don't think I'm in much of a mood to tell
one." Xena smiled grimly and turned to face forward again. She
started to pick up the reins, but then stopped, her senses suddenly
"Shh! Do you hear something?"
"No," Gabrielle said after a moment.
"I do. It sounds like someone moaning." She kicked Argo
into a canter and felt Gabrielle's grip around her waist tighten
sharply. As they rounded the next bend, she caught sight of a farm cart
standing, horseless, beside the road. On the ground nearby, a man was
lying, his face covered with dirt and blood.
Xena leaped quickly from the saddle and pulled her pouch of medical
supplies out of the saddlebag. "Gabrielle," she said, as she
helped the bard dismount, "in the other saddlebag, there are some
rags I can use for bandages. Get those and bring them to me. And bring
the waterskin, too."
She hurried to the man's side and knelt to examine the gash in his
forehead. There were also some nasty bruises, she noted. "What
happened?" she asked gently.
"I was coming back from market," he said, gasping a little.
"I had some grain and the money I got from selling wool."
As he paused for breath, Gabrielle arrived. Xena glanced back, took
the waterskin from her, and held it to the man's lips. He drank
"Did you bring the rags?" Xena asked.
"Yeah. Here they are," Gabrielle said, dropping them in the
dirt beside the warrior.
Xena sighed, exasperated, and picked up one of the rags. Shaking the
dirt off, she poured some water on it and began cleaning the wound.
"You were coming back from market," she said, "and then
"I met some men--four of them--on horseback. They said they
wanted my horse and my money. I tried to fight them, but they were too
strong for me. They took all my money. I had forty-two dinars, and that
was all I had to buy supplies for my family this winter! And my horse.
They took my horse, too! I'll never be able to afford another one!"
"These men who attacked you," Xena said, holding the cloth
over his wound to stop the bleeding, "did their leader have a scar
across his chin?"
"Yes," the man exclaimed, "how did you know?"
"We ran into them a little ways back down the road," she
said grimly, "but I was able to fight them off."
"I told you you should have killed them!" exclaimed
Gabrielle. "Now you see that I was right!"
"Killing them wouldn't have helped this man," said Xena.
"He had already been attacked. But if I had known which horse was
yours," she added, smiling at him, "I could have gotten it
back for you." She lifted the compress and noted that the bleeding
had stopped. "This wound is going to need some stitches," she
said. "Are you hurt anyplace else?"
"My ribs. I think they're broken," he said, putting his
hands on his right side. "They kicked me here. It hurts to
"Have you coughed up any blood?" Xena asked, as she slid
her hands under his tunic and began gently probing his side.
"Good. That means the ribs haven't punctured your lungs."
Then, continuing her examination, she said, "I'd say two are
broken, maybe three. I'll bind them for you and give you something for
She was just straightening up when she felt her sword being pulled
from its scabbard. Turning quickly, she saw Gabrielle raise the weapon
and aim it down at the wounded man. "What are you doing?" she
cried, and leaped up to grab the bard's wrists, blocking the downward
thrust. "Give me that!" she said, snatching the sword from
"I thought you'd want to put him out of his misery," said
Xena clamped a hand on her friend's shoulder and backed her away from
the man. "What are you talking about?" she asked in a low
voice. "This man's not even that badly hurt."
"He's weak. He couldn't even fight those thieves off. What good
is he to anybody?"
"He's a farmer, Gabrielle. He's not a warrior. He doesn't know
how to fight. He raises food for his family and his sheep produce wool
for people who don't farm--people like us. That's what good he is!"
She paused to take a deep breath and released her grip on Gabrielle's
shoulder. "We're in a position to help him, and that's what we're
going to do. Am I making myself clear?"
Gabrielle nodded and dropped her gaze to the ground.
"Now," continued Xena more gently, "you can help most
right now by getting one of our blankets for me, so I can keep him warm.
Please," she added as an afterthought.
The bard turned and walked slowly over to where Argo was grazing
beside the road. With a heavy sigh, Xena sheathed her sword and went
back to her patient.
"I'm sorry about that," she said as she knelt again at his
side.Reaching for her leather pouch, she pulled out the needle and
"She's not very friendly," the man muttered and cast a
fearful glance in Gabrielle's direction.
"Actually, she's usually very kind," Xena said. "She's
just not herself today," she added, with a grim smile. "But
don't worry. I won't let her hurt you." How absurd this was, she
thought as she threaded the needle, to have to protect someone from
Gabrielle. "What's your name?" she asked the man as she bent
over him to begin stitching the wound.
"Loukanos," he said and then yelped as he felt the needle
pierce his skin.
"I'm sorry about the pain," Xena said, "but I need you
to hold as still as you can. This shouldn't take very long."
The man nodded. "I guess I'm lucky you came along," he
said, "but I don't know how I'm ever going to get home."
"Where is your village from here?" the warrior asked. Then,
hearing Gabrielle behind her, she glanced up and said, "Just spread
the blanket over him."
"It's not too far," said Loukanos, keeping a close eye on
Gabrielle. "Just a little farther down the road to the turnoff, and
another hour's travel after that."
Xena nodded and watched as Gabrielle moved awkwardly to cover
Loukanos. "We'll get you home," she said. "It's not very
far out of our way."
"Xena," exclaimed Gabrielle, "I thought we were in a
hurry! Now you want to take time to--"
"Not that much of a hurry," Xena said firmly. "Loukanos
needs our help."
"But what about my cart?" Loukanos said. "We can't
leave it here!"
Xena looked at the cart for a moment before tying off another stitch.
"Well, I think I just might be able to convince my horse to pull
that cart," Xena said. "She's not used to that kind of thing,
but if we ask her nicely--" She grinned and bit off the thread.
"There! That's all done! Now, let's see about those ribs. I'm going
to need some cloth to bind them with. I can either use one of your pants
legs or the bottom part of your tunic. Which would you prefer?"
Loukanos frowned and then said, "My tunic, I guess."
"Okay, the tunic it is." Xena pulled out her breast dagger
and prepared to cut the cloth. "Gabrielle," she said,
"why don't you take our other blankets and see if you can make a
bed for Loukanos in the cart."
The bard sighed and got reluctantly to her feet. Moving to the cart,
she peered in. "Where am I supposed to make a bed with all this
grain in here?" she asked.
"How much grain is there?" Xena said.
"Is that what you brought from market?" Xena asked Loukanos.
"Well, see, you didn't lose everything," she said
cheerfully. "You've still got your grain and your cart and--most
important of all--your life. Those men wouldn't have had any qualms
about killing you."
"But they took my money!" Loukanos wailed. "Forty-two
dinars! And my horse!"
"Yes," said Xena, "but I'm sure your family will be
glad to have you home again alive--even without your horse and your
money. Now I'm going to help you sit up, so I can wrap your ribs,"
she added when he didn't answer.
It took longer to hitch Argo to the cart than Xena expected. The
horse thieves had slashed the harness and the warrior had to cobble it
back together as best she could using scraps of rope and leather. She
helped Gabrielle rearrange the bags of grain to create a cramped space
for Loukanos to lie in, then gave him some willow bark to chew on to
ease the pain caused by the jolting cart. Even then, he moaned and
groaned most of the way, meanwhile keeping a wary eye on Gabrielle, who
rode perched on the grain bags in the back of the cart. Xena sat up
front on the narrow seat, driving slowly as she tried to find a few
smooth places in the hopelessly rutted track. The trip seemed to take
When they reached the village at last, Xena was more than happy to
turn Loukanos over to the care of his wife and children. Taking the wife
aside, Xena emptied out the contents of her coin purse into the woman's
hand. "It's not much," she said, "but maybe it will
"No, you've done so much for Loukanos already," the other
woman replied. "I couldn't possibly take it."
"Yes, please," Xena said. "Take it for the children.
It's going to be a long winter. Three sacks of grain won't be
"May the gods bless you," the woman whispered, and Xena
turned away quickly, pretending not to notice the other's tears of
* * * * *
"I can't believe you wasted so much time and effort on that
pathetic man," Gabrielle said as they rode away from the village a
little while later. "Did you hear him? He did nothing but groan and
complain. He didn't even say thank you."
"He was frightened and he was in pain," Xena said quietly.
"People aren't always at their most gracious under those
circumstances. And anyway, his wife thanked me. She was very glad we
brought him home."
"Well, if that's what doing good deeds is like, I guess I fail
to see the charm in it."
"Doing good has its rewards, but they're not always
"I just think that what the world needs is more brave and noble
warriors like you, Xena--not useless cowards like Loukanos."
"That's not you talking, Gabrielle," Xena said wearily,
"it's Ares." She glanced at the sun, now more than halfway
down the western sky. "We lost more time than I expected doing our
good deed, but I think if we start early tomorrow and really push
ourselves, we can still make it to Elkton's house by nightfall."
"Why are you in such a hurry to get there?"
"I'm in a hurry to break Ares' spell and get you back to being
the Gabrielle I know and love."
"All you have to do is go back to Ares," Gabrielle said
casually. "Wouldn't that be a lot easier than chasing all over the
countryside like this? What makes you think this Elkton guy can help,
anyway? I thought he was a priest for Morpheus. Why would he know
anything about how to break a spell cast by Ares?"
Xena was silent for a few moments. "I don't know why I think
that," she admitted, "but I do. I just have this really strong
feeling that Elkton can help, and that's why we're going to see
"These feelings you have, are they always right?"
"Not always, but a lot of times they are. I had a feeling for
two days that something bad was going to happen, and then I allowed you
to talk me into letting down my guard, and that's when Ares drugged
"So it's my fault, is that what you're saying?"
"No, that's not what I'm saying. It was my own fault for not
listening to my intuition."
Gabrielle was quiet for a minute, then said, "When are we going
"Soon. I want to get back to the main road first, if we
"You have to give me a lesson with the staff, remember?"
"Yes, I remember."
Gabrielle gave a contented sigh and leaned her head against Xena's
back. The gesture was so familiar, and yet the person doing it seemed
like such a stranger. That was part of the reason Xena felt so desperate
to find a way to break Ares' spell. Gabrielle was right, though. There
was no logical reason why Elkton could be expected to know how to do it.
Still, she had to go talk to him, at least. Even if he couldn't help, he
might know of someone who could.
But what if this really was a wild goose chase and there was no way
to save Gabrielle except by returning to Ares? Xena hadn't yet allowed
herself to consider this question, but maybe it was time she did. One
thing was clear: Gabrielle couldn't be allowed to go on like this, with
this Ares-given personality. She would only end up killing people and
thus assigning herself to Tartarus. The image of Gabrielle holding a
sword aimed at the helpless Loukanos was still fresh in Xena's mind, and
it sent cold chills down her spine every time she thought of it. She
must save Gabrielle's soul somehow, she knew, but how? Going back to
Ares would mean losing her own soul. Was she willing to make that
She drew in a long, slow breath, becoming aware again of Gabrielle's
warm weight against her back. Yes, if that was the only way, she would
do it--even if it meant eternal separation from the woman she loved. But
surely there was another answer. Surely there was some way to outsmart
Ares again. And then, suddenly, it came to her, as clear as a sunlit
reflection in a quiet pool. She could go back to ride at the head of
Ares' army . . . and then let herself be killed in battle. It would be
simple enough to do, but it would have to happen quickly, before she'd
had a chance to cancel out the good things she'd accomplished in the
last few years. At least this way she might still have a chance--however
slim--to make it into the Elysian Fields. Gabrielle, meanwhile, could
live out her life in peace and love, and someday the two of them might
be together again.
Xena closed her eyes for a moment and let out a long breath. It
wasn't a happy decision, but having made it, she felt a strange sense of
peace come over her. She still hoped with all her might that there was a
better solution, but if there wasn't, she now knew how she could save
Gabrielle, and that was all that mattered.
Behind her, the bard yawned and sat up. "It's getting late, Xena,"
she said. "If we don't stop soon, it'll be too dark for me to learn
to use the staff."
"You're right," Xena said. "We need to start looking
for a place to camp."
"How about over there in those trees?"
"No, we need to find a stream or a spring or something. Our
waterskin is almost empty." Then leaning forward slightly, she
The mare raised her head and swiveled her ears back in Xena's
"Find water, girl! We need you to find us some water!"
"She can do that?" Gabrielle asked in amazement.
"Yeah. It's a new trick we've been working on. Animals can smell
water from a long distance away, so I thought why not put that ability
Argo continued to walk calmly along the rutted track, but now her
nostrils flared as she sampled the breeze and her whole body seemed to
be on the alert. They hadn't gone very far before she turned off to the
right, pushing through the undergrowth to follow a narrow game trail.
Xena and Gabrielle were forced to duck as they passed under low
branches, but soon they entered a clearing and Argo stopped beside a
rocky outcropping. Dropping her head, she snorted softly and then began
to suck up water from a small pool.
"Good girl!" exclaimed Xena, petting Argo's neck
enthusiastically before she hopped down. Kneeling beside the pool of
water, she cleared some leaves and sticks away. "There's a little
spring here in the rocks," she told Gabrielle. "We never would
have found it without Argo!"
Gabrielle slid down and pulled out her staff. "Okay, time for my
lesson now!" she said.
"No, sorry. We have some other things to do first. Now, would
you rather unpack our gear and set up camp or gather wood?"
Gabrielle stared at her blankly. "I don't know how to do either
one," she said, then twirled the staff experimentally.
"Be careful with that!" Xena said, taking it away from her.
"You almost hit Argo." Then she studied the bard for a moment.
"Are you saying that you don't remember how to set up camp or
"Yeah, that's what I'm saying. I lost my memories,
Xena sighed. "I suppose this also means you don't remember how
"Yep, I guess that's what it means."
"Well, you're going to be sorry about that, anyway, because my
cooking is pretty awful."
"I don't care. Teach me to use the staff."
"Not yet. First I need you to gather wood. Just walk around and
pick up any dead sticks you find and bring them back here. Don't bring
any rotten wood, though. It doesn't burn well. I'll unpack our gear and
start thinking about what to make for supper."
Gabrielle turned and walked off among the trees. In a short time, she
was back with four sticks. "I found some!" she said brightly.
"Is this the right kind of wood?"
"Yeah, those are perfect," Xena said, laughing, "but
we need a lot more than that. We need at least thirty or forty sticks
that size, and some bigger ones, too, if you can find them."
"You're kidding! Where will I ever find that many sticks?"
"Ah, that's the challenge of wood gathering! Now hurry! We can't
have a lesson with the staff until there's a nice fire burning and I've
put supper on to cook."
Gabrielle made a face, then dropped her sticks and headed off again.
Xena meanwhile got out some dried fish, bread, and vegetables, filled
the cooking pot with water, and cleared a place for the fire. "I
wish Gabrielle were here to do the cooking," she muttered, then
stopped and shook her head when she realized what she had just said.
Gabrielle was indeed there, she reminded herself--in body, if not in
spirit. But it was her friend's loving spirit that she missed most.
As soon as the fire was blazing brightly, Xena threw the fish and
vegetables into the pot of water and set it in the coals, uttering a
small prayer that the mixture would turn into something edible.
"Okay," she said to Gabrielle, "let's start learning
to use that staff."
She demonstrated a few basic moves, then watched as the younger woman
practiced them. There was some awkwardness at first, but after that,
Gabrielle caught on quickly, and Xena suspected that it was a case of
the body remembering what the mind had forgotten. She was just showing
how the staff could be used to sweep the feet out from under an
opponent, when Gabrielle stopped suddenly and said, "What's that
"Oh, shit!" exclaimed Xena, as she turned and rushed back
to the fire. Snatching the pot out of the flames, she examined its
contents and found a charred, smelly mess.
"Well, I hope you weren't very hungry," she called to
Gabrielle, who had gone back to practicing with the staff. "I seem
to have ruined our dinner."
"That's okay," Gabrielle responded. "I'll have more
time to practice if I don't have to eat."
"But you do have to eat," Xena said. "I'll make sure
you eat something. Let me see what else we've got."
* * * * *
They had a simple supper of bread and cheese, along with some nuts
and dried apples. Afterwards, Gabrielle continued to work with the staff
while Xena sat by the fire, using a sharp stone to scrape out the
cooking pot. It had been foolish of her to waste that much food, she
knew--especially after giving away their last dinar earlier in the day.
And Gabrielle would not be at all happy when she found out what had
happened to her pot. The "real" Gabrielle--not this other,
warlike one. How long would it be before Xena got her back? And what if
she never did? What if she never held the bard in her arms or made love
to her again? Xena sighed and tried to put these dark thoughts out of
her head. They only made her heart ache.
When she had cleaned out the pot as best she could, she set it aside,
took off her weapons and armor, and then sat cross-legged on the
blankets, watching Gabrielle. "You're getting pretty good with that
thing," she called. "I had a feeling it would all come back to
"Show me some more moves."
"No. Not tonight. Come to bed now. We need to get an early start
in the morning." She patted a spot on the blanket beside her, and
Gabrielle came over and sat down, laying the staff reluctantly on the
"After I learn to use the staff, will you teach me to use a
sword?" she asked.
"No," Xena said firmly. "I don't want you using a
"Because I don't want you going around killing people. It goes
against everything you believe in."
"That was the other Gabrielle. I believe in different
"I know," Xena said, leaning her chin on her hand and
staring moodily into the fire. "That's the problem."
There was silence for several minutes, and Xena's mind began to
wander along dark paths once again. She was abruptly recalled from her
reverie, though, when she felt Gabrielle's hand on her breast. Starting
slightly, she took hold of the bard's wrist and then looked at her
companion. "What are you doing?" she asked.
"I thought you'd want to make love. That's what lovers do, isn't
it? I don't remember how, exactly, but you can show me."
Xena stared at her for a moment, then gently removed Gabrielle's hand
from her breast and held it between her own hands. "I just don't
feel like making love tonight," she said softly. "I'm too
"Don't you find me attractive?"
"Yes, of course I do, Gabrielle. I think you're very
"Then why don't you want to make love to me?"
"I told you. I'm tired."
"No, you're not," Gabrielle said, pulling her hand away and
hugging her knees to her chest. "You just don't love me
anymore--that's what it is."
"You're wrong, Gabrielle. I love you very much. I always
"No. You loved me the way I was before. You don't love me
"Gabrielle--" Xena said, and then stopped, trying to think
how to answer. Finally, she said, "I guess you're right, in a way.
There are some things I don't like much about you right now. I don't
like what Ares has done to you--how he's twisted your personality into
something so aggressive . . . something so different from what it was
before. I don't like some of the things I've heard you say today and
some of the things you've done. But that doesn't mean I don't love you,
because I do. You can love a person very deeply and still dislike some
of the things that person says and does." She paused and waited for
a response, but there was none. Gabrielle still hugged her knees and
stared at the ground in front of her. Xena put a hand under the bard's
chin and turned her face toward her. "Can you understand what I'm
saying?" she asked.
"Yeah, I guess so," Gabrielle said sullenly, then turned to
look at the ground again.
"The thing is," Xena said after another brief silence.
"Right now you seem like such a different person to me that if I
made love to you, it would be like making love to a stranger. And I
don't want to do that."
"Okay," Gabrielle mumbled.
Xena regarded her for a few moments longer, then said, "Let's
get to sleep, shall we? You lie here, on the side by the fire, and I'll
be right here next to you."
"Should I take my clothes off?"
"Only if you want to. I think I'm going to leave mine on
After a moment's hesitation, the younger woman climbed under the
covers without undressing, and Xena stretched out beside her.
"Goodnight, Gabrielle," she said softly.
The warrior lay for a short time, staring up at the stars that winked
between the tree branches, but soon her eyelids grew heavy and, closing
them, she gave herself up to sleep.
* * * * *
She began to dream almost at once. It was a dream so clear and vivid,
in fact, that she thought she must still be awake. Gabrielle was coming
towards her, arms wide open and a smile full of love on her face. Xena
ran to embrace her, holding her lover close with all the fierceness of
her passion. But suddenly, she stiffened and pulled back, looking
searchingly into the bard's green eyes. "How do I know this is
really you?" she asked. "It could just be some trick Ares is
playing on me."
Gabrielle smiled softly. "You'll know it's me because of what
I'm going to tell you," she said, then glanced around. "But
I'll have to be quick, because I may not have much time."
"What do you mean?"
"Ares doesn't know I'm here with you, and when he finds out--
Well, there's no telling what he'll do."
"Has he hurt you, Gabrielle?"
"No. He's been pretty well behaved, actually. He just keeps
talking about how things are going to be when you come back to him, and
it's really scaring me."
"Gabrielle--" Xena began, hesitated a moment, and then went
on. "I hope there's another way, but if there's not--"
"No! Xena, don't you even think about giving in to that monster!
It's totally out of the question, do you understand me?"
"I'm trying to find another way to break the spell. We're going
to see Elkton. I think maybe he can help. But if not, I'll have to do
something. I can't just let you--"
Gabrielle put her fingers over Xena's lips. "Listen to me.
You're not going back to Ares. If there's no other way, then I want you
to promise me something."
Gabrielle was silent for a moment, then took a deep breath and
plunged ahead. "I want you to promise that you'll kill me."
"Kill you?" Xena said in amazement. "I could never do
"Yes, you could, and I want you to do it. I don't want to murder
a bunch of people. I want to go to the Elysian Fields. I want us to be
"Wait a minute," Xena said."Let me get this straight.
You are asking me to commit murder--because that's what it would be,
premeditated murder--and not only that, you're asking me to murder the
person I love most in the whole world, to have her blood on my hands
when I appear before Hades, and you think I'll still end up in the
"Yes, I do, because I think Hades will understand that your
killing me is a selfless act--kind of like a sacrifice--not really
murder. It will be like when you stabbed Marcus. Do you think Hades
blamed you for that?"
"No, I guess not, but that was different. Marcus was going to
die again anyway."
"It's not different. It's the same thing!" Frowning in
frustration, Gabrielle cast an anxious glance behind her. "I don't
have time to argue about this, Xena," she went on. "I just
need you to promise me. Please! I have to know I can count on you! I
can't have any peace of mind until I know that!"
Xena stared at her and tried to speak, but no words would come. She
needed time to think. Was Gabrielle's plan better than the plan she
herself had come up with earlier that afternoon? It was true that if she
killed Gabrielle, she would assure the bard a place in the Elysian
But after she did it, she would have to live out her own life alone
and with the knowledge that she had killed her best friend.
"Promise me, Xena!" Gabrielle pleaded. "If you love
me, promise me you'll do this one last thing for me. Please!"
"All right, I promise," Xena softly. "But only if
there is no other way."
"Yes! Thank you!" Gabrielle whispered, and threw her arms
around the warrior in a tight hug. "I love you so much!" she
"I love you, too. And I miss you. This person Ares turned you
into-- It's like being with a total stranger! She looks like you, but
she's so different!"
"I know, but be patient, Xena," Gabrielle said, gently
touching the warrior's face. "She may seem like someone else, but
in some strange way, she's still me. She's the way I could have been if
my life had been different."
Xena nodded, and pulled her lover close again. "I'm going to
find a way to get you back," she said. "I swear it."
"If there's any way at all, I know you'll find it. Just try to
keep me from killing anybody in the meantime," Gabrielle said with
a weak grin.
"I'll try," Xena said, and then her mouth found
Gabrielle's. She closed her eyes and let herself savor the sweet warmth
of her lover's lips and tongue. If only this moment could last forever,
she thought. But suddenly, she felt Gabrielle being pulled roughly away.
"No!" Xena cried out. "Gabrielle!" She opened her
eyes to see Ares, his face dark with anger, holding the bard with both
arms twisted behind her.
"Well, well, well," he muttered. "I can see I'm going
to have to keep a closer watch on this one. She's a bit more clever than
I gave her credit for." Then, half turning, he snapped his fingers
behind him and a cage appeared, with bars of shining metal.
"No! Ares, don't!" cried Gabrielle. "I'll behave
But her captor only laughed as he pushed her into the enclosure.
Then, slamming the door shut with a resounding clash, he locked it and
pocketed the key.
"Xena, help me!" pleaded Gabrielle, clutching the bars and
looking desperately at the warrior.
But Xena could only stare back helplessly, knowing that she had
neither sword nor chakram with her--no way of fighting Ares in this
"You know what you have to do, Xena," Ares said, turning to
her with a cold smile.
"I'm not coming back," Xena said. "Not now. Not ever.
I'll find some other way to defeat you."
"Go ahead. Look all you want," the war god said, moving
close and fixing her in his smoldering gaze. "But I can assure you
that you won't find another way. I'll just keep your little friend all
locked up safe here until you decide you want her back." He
grinned, but it was the kind of grin that left an icy chill inside her.
She took a step back. "I love you, Gabrielle," she called,
looking past Ares. "I'll get you out of there somehow. Just give me
a little time."
"I love you, too! Don't forget your promise!"
"I won't forget!"
"Xena! Xena!" Gabrielle was calling her name and shaking
her, and when the warrior opened her eyes, she saw her lover bending
over her, silhouetted against the soft glow of the campfire.
"What's wrong with you?" Gabrielle asked. "You were
thrashing around and talking in your sleep, but I couldn't understand
"I was having a dream," Xena said softly. "It was a
dream about you."
"Was it a nightmare?"
"Well, it kind of ended up that way, but the first part was
nice. I dreamed that we were kissing, and then Ares came and locked you
up in a cage." She reached up and touched the bard's cheek. Then
she put an arm around her and tried to pull her closer.
Gabrielle stiffened. "What do you want?" she asked.
"I just want to hold you. Do you think you would like
"I don't know."
"Well, let's try it and see. Just lie down here with your head
on my chest."
The younger woman hesitantly followed instructions.
"Now relax," Xena said, as she wrapped an arm around her
companion and gently stroked her hair. "How does that feel?"
Xena smiled. "Do you think you can go back to sleep?" she
"Good. Because that's what I plan to do, too."
She didn't follow her plan immediately, however. Instead, she lay
staring into the dark, thinking about her dream. Had she really promised
to kill Gabrielle? Yes, she had given her word, but she had said she
would do it only if there was no other way to break Ares' spell.
Couldn't her own plan to get killed in battle count as that "other
way"? She needed more time to think through the options. But right
now there was still the hope that Elkton could provide some less drastic
solution to the problem. She had to believe that her intuition was
right. With any luck, by this time tomorrow night, she would know if it
Closing her eyes, Xena listened for several minutes to the sound of
her lover's soft sleep-breathing. Then, with a small sigh, she drifted
out on her own quiet sea of oblivion.
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