The Warrior, The Witch, and the Nightmare
Chapter III : "Witch"
She was running along in blind terror through an endless narrow gorge. Walls extended upward to her left and right with not a glimpse of sky overhead. Brambles, thorns, and other things, slimy, and seemingly possessed with a life of their own, snared her legs and arms, and she had fallen repeatedly, only to scramble back up and resume her frenzied flight. Her foot caught again, and she fell headlong into the undergrowth, thorns reaching out to tear her skin and trap her clothing. Too exhausted to get to her feet, she scooted forward on all fours, with her unseen pursuer gaining ground fast.
Fatigue laid constricting chains around her chest and made her breath come in ragged, wheezing sobs and her heart thump painfully in her throat. The rushing blood in her ears could not drown the sounds of the thing following her, the rustle and snap of vegetation, the heavy aggressive footfalls and the rasp of hot labored breathing blasting her neck.
With a strangled scream, she drew on her last reserves, and by sheer, fear-inspired willpower pushed herself back to her feet, and once again broke into a stumbling run.
"You know you can't run forever," the terribly familiar voice behind her hissed, "you are going to have to face me sooner or later."
Gabrielle fell down, too tired to move any further and past caring. She rolled onto her back to face her tormentor... and found herself looking straight into a pair of piercing blue eyes and a loved face distorted almost beyond recognition by hatred.
The bard jerked awake, the memory of the nightmare still clinging firmly to her consciousness. Gabrielle closed her eyes and willed her labored breathing to slow, her heartbeat to calm. She was in her blankets, it was morning, and she was safe. Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.
Outside their three-sided, roofed shelter, the weather had turned beastly. A thin, steady drizzle had started up shortly before dawn, and gusts of wind rattled the rickety walls of the little structure, blowing sprays of moist, chill air through the ample gaps between the rotting planks. A kettle of boiling water was dancing merrily over a freshly built fire. Xena must have been up and about for a while, silent as a shadow, putting the water to boil, then probably going to fuss over Argo for a while.
The little wooden building was way too small to accommodate all three humans plus the horse's bulk, and so the golden mare was tethered on the leeward side of the shelter, where she was reasonably snug, if not exactly dry.
There was no trace of the warrior now. Most likely she had gone off on her habitual morning prowl.
The residual terror from the dream was slowly receding, when three skinned and gutted rabbits flew past her to land neatly by the fire. Xena crouched down by the bard's side, caught and held her gaze.
"I heard you whimper," she said in a low, quiet voice. "Bad dream?"
Gabrielle nodded mutely, shuddering with the memory.
"Sorry I wasn't there."
"You are now," the bard whispered back. "And I'm glad."
The warrior smiled and gave her hand a quick squeeze, before she reluctantly went to check on their patient.
Mrtva. Gabrielle's eyes followed her friend to the litter where the injured woman was bedded. That fortune teller was a strange woman. Was she truly a witch? She seemed companionable enough normally, but something about her was... weird. Creepy. From there, it was not a far stretch to condemn her for the use of black magic. But other than carrying a herbalist's equipment, and that Tarot thing she used for fortune telling, there really was nothing about her that would merit such an accusation. And in her present condition, she couldn't be much of a threat anyway.
In the bard's eyes it was not excusable to judge people unfairly just because they were different, and she realized with some chagrin that she was about to do just that to Mrtva. But she would not allow herself to go against her beliefs!
Xena had no such reservations. She held a deep aversion for the fortune teller, without even having talked to the woman, aside from the barest minimum when the warrior was dressing Mrtva's wounds. Sometimes it seemed it was all the dark-haired woman could do not to flinch whenever she had to make skin contact. And by that sparkle in the injured woman's eyes, she was aware of it, and secretly amused.
From the moment they rose, the one who called herself Mrtva eagerly awaited the brief times during the day when the two women left her to herself. It gave her the time to renew her wounds that were, of course, healing far too rapidly to be considered natural. She welcomed the pain at reopening them. After all, that was one of the few sensations she was able to experience at all.
During the night, she had to do this soundlessly - that big brute's sense of hearing would have done a wolf credit - which meant she had to rein in her ecstatic cries at the exquisite torture, and that was... frustrating, to say the least. It was a welcome change to be able to let herself go a bit, when they were both out of earshot.
In the three days they had been staying here, the warrior would leave very early on her morning round, then return for a quick breakfast, and after that she was off to that village, to continue her work of burying the dead. She never let the silly bard come along to help, for some reason or other.
But the little piece of dung always found some pretext to go haring off after her big beloved warrior. It was so pathetic! There might be some return feeling from the Warrior Princess, and there might not. Mrtva's twisted unearthly perceptions were quite insensitive to that kind of emotion. But that other part of the tall brute's soul she understood well enough. It was so gleefully dark and tormented it gave her pleasant little shivers just to think about it.
But the blue-eyed hussy was strong. Most others would be dead or hopelessly insane after being under Mrtva's influence for half as long as she had been. But this one was... quite nourishing. It would be interesting to see how long the warrior would hold out. Oh, she would blow the lid eventually. They all did. Until that happened, the one who called herself Mrtva could wait. And while it lasted, she would gladly play the part of the more or less harmless fortune teller recovering from her serious injuries. She would even humor the nosy little brat and teach her some of her treasured Tarot.
Once, the night before last, she had forgotten to keep up that breathing thing, and got them both in quite a stir thinking she was dying. She chuckled bitterly at the irony, drawing a suspicious glance from the warrior who was inspecting her burns. To die... To live... Oh, how she envied them for that!
The bard finally rose, stretched laboriously and went to the fire. She hugged herself against the moist chill of the morning, and blew out little cloud of moisture with every breath. Extending her hands towards the fire, a look of relieved comfort crossed her face. The one who called herself Mrtva wondered what it would be like to feel warm, or cold - she did not remember.
Having pulled on a thick woolen tunic, the bard set about preparing breakfast - rabbit stew, or some such, Mrtva surmised. Not that it made any difference to her. She ate because they would expect her to. The fortune teller's attention went back to the warrior carefully removing the dressing on that belly wound. She let herself look the big woman fully in the eye, and could quite literally feel the fear eating away at that brave warrior's heart. She almost chuckled again. It was delicious.
As the warrior placed a fresh bandage on the gash in Mrtva's abdomen, the fortune teller covered the other woman's long-fingered, strong hand with her own. She felt her go stiff all over, but by sheer willpower refrain from pulling away. Glacier blue eyes locked with her own. Stubborn. But scared silly. Scrumptious. Mrtva put a sweet smile on her face, and said softly, "I really appreciate what you're doing for me. Both of you. Thanks."
The big woman shrugged. "Yeah. Just wish you'd lay off the prowling 'round at night. Doesn't help your condition any."
It was Mrtva's turn to stiffen, but she hid it with a little cough. Was the warrior watching for a reaction? She couldn't be sure. It seemed she had underestimated the brute after all. "You... heard me?"
"No." The warrior shook her head, a puzzled frown on her face. Found your tracks, though." She gave Mrtva a hard look. "I'm trying to heal you, not bury you with that lot over there." With that, she turned away from her and stalked to where the redhead was crouching by the fire. It took a conscious effort not to hiss and spit at the back of the dark-haired head.
At last, Xena threw the final shovel full of dirt over the last of the graves she'd dug. The warrior straightened, knuckling the small of her back. This was not a work she was accustomed to, and two days of digging into wet, heavy earth in that bent over position had left the muscles in her back and shoulders cramped and stiff.
She chided herself for perhaps going a little too easy on her daily drills, and wondered briefly whether Gabrielle would be ready to give her another of those divine massages. Although the true question was, could she, the hard-as-nails gruff warrior, bring herself to request one? She smiled bitterly at herself. Of course I won't ask. As usual, I'm going to expect her to know, and be annoyed when she doesn't. Hades kiss my boots, but it's true!
She pushed her unruly black mane out of her face, and wiped her brow with the back of her hand, finding a dampness there that was more from the humid chill of the early autumn air than from perspiration. A gusty breeze whipped back her matted hair, and she fleetingly regretted not having thought of bringing along a cloak.
The work had done her good. Strenuous physical exercise always put her in a sort of meditative trance that helped her sort out any tangled emotions, or better, shove them way down into some dark cobwebbed corner of her mind.
But even more important, her grim task of burying those charred and twisted bodies had given her an honorable excuse for not having to be close to... that woman. And being away from her helped lift the constricting blanket of fear she felt descending on her heart whenever she had to meet those terrible glacier blue eyes.
Mrtva hated her, she was sure of it. But that alone could not account for Xena's violent reaction to the fortune teller. The Warrior Princess still had to cope with so much hate and prejudice that one instance more or less hardly made a difference. But there was more in that woman's cold gaze, some expression she could only define as hunger, though there was a quality to it that just made her shudder and want to close her eyes.
Watching goose bumps form on her bare arms as another breeze licked at her damp skin, she once again thought wistfully about a cloak. Would you look at me? I'm getting to be such a softie. Well, better do some sword drills. Keep me warm and get me back in shape. Besides, I won't have to go back to the camp just yet.
She was just about to draw her sword, when the breeze carried a faint sound to her ears. She cocked her head and held her breath, listening into the wind. Then a slow, proud smile spread on her face. Not many people could get this close to her without being noticed. The noisy, sometimes clumsy bard from not so long ago was becoming quite proficient at moving silently. And she even did it without giving it much thought, now. Xena relaxed her stance, and waited.
Moments later, the bard's shape came into view, wrapped in a light woolen cloak. Red blonde hair stood out in striking contrast from the gray color of the fabric, and the dreary overcast sky. It had stopped raining for now, but the heavy clouds clearly spoke of more to come. The warrior awaited her with a lazy smile, leaning casually on the shovel she had been using.
The young woman carried a bundle tucked under one arm, and her other hand held her cloak together at the neck against the chill. When she caught sight of the warrior, she released her hold on the garment, and waved a slender, creamy arm in greeting.
"Hey," the bard said when they were face to face, her cheeks flushed rosy from the crisp air. With a familiar gesture, she brushed a strand of damp hair out of her face, and looked up at the taller woman.
"Hey," came Xena's drawled reply, "got bored again over there?"
For an answer, Gabrielle just smiled at her, a smile that brightened her mist green eyes with a gentle light. "I thought you might want this." The bard tossed her the cloak she had brought, which Xena caught and with a graceful movement slung around her shoulders.
"Thanks," the warrior said, with a quirky smile.
"And I brought some food, too." She handed Xena a packet. "Just what's left of those rabbits, I'm afraid. We need to stock up our supplies soon, 'cause I certainly don't want to have to live on nothing but smoked mutton for the next week." Her green eyes twinkled as she flashed the warrior a teasing grin. "Yeah, I know, it's all the same to you. If you had to live on old boots, it wouldn't matter, would it?"
"But I only eat my boots with lots of salt on them," the warrior said solemnly as she unwrapped the package and removed several pieces of roasted meat. She looked at the food, then at Gabrielle, one dark eyebrow curving up. "Where's yours?"
The bard shrugged lightly. "I had some back at the camp."
"Let's see, that must have been... at least ten minutes ago." A sudden spark of mischief lit the warrior's blue eyes. "By the gods, Gabrielle, you must be starving! Here have some of mine."
Gabrielle shot her a dark glare, but she accepted the choice piece Xena offered her without comment. They both sat down side by side on a large overturned crate, and munched on their food in companionable silence. When the warrior glanced at the blonde woman, Gabrielle's green eyes had misted over in distant concentration.
"Dinar for your thoughts," Xena said after a while, nudging the bard lightly with an elbow.
Gabrielle chuckled softly as she gave their long-standing response. "Better spend it on something useful." After a little hesitation she turned and faced her friend. "I was thinking about... our guest. She's such a queer one."
The warrior snorted. "You two seem to get along well enough. She been teaching you those cards again?"
"Yup," the bard said, giving the warrior a considering look, "and I don't care how weird she is, that Tarot thing she's got is really fascinating. She let me do my first reading today". She blushed a little.
"Oh?" An eyebrow arched in mild interest.
"Yeah. Well, there were only six cards to read, sort of arranged in a cross-shape. But the result was... interesting." Gabrielle looked at her out of the corner of her eye, and blushed some more, a bashful grin etching her lips. Xena found herself wondering in spite of herself what might have been on those cards. But she didn't ask.
Instead, she regarded the bard seriously. "Please, be careful around her. I don't trust her." And I feel like a damned coward for leaving you alone with her all that time. But...
"I know," the bard agreed, "She can be real creepy, sometimes. And there are some things that just don't add up in this whole business."
"You noticed." Xena's lips quirked wryly.
"From time to time, I do have my eyes open," the bard bristled. Meeting Xena's flat stare, she softened with a visible effort. "I mean, Xena she should have died in that fire. Now, I know this sounds really silly, but I think she did. I can't see how she could have lived." She gave Xena a meaningful look. "It can happen, we both know that." She waited for the implications of that to sink in. "You mentioned yesterday that her wounds heal funny."
"Yeah," the warrior agreed thoughtfully, "they seemed worse yesterday than they were the night before, and the belly wound looked different, too..."
Gabrielle nodded. "You say she shouldn't be able to even stand up straight in her condition, yet the tracks you found say she's been up and about during the last two nights. So how's she doing that, and why? And you didn't even hear her, did you?"
The taller woman looked mystified as she shook her head in confirmation, and a little chagrined.
"Have you noticed how intense she gets when you look into her eyes?" the bard continued, "I know, that's probably just a silly fancy of mine. You always say I have a way too vivid imagination. But those green eyes look like they could bore right into your soul."
The warrior frowned. "Gabrielle, I've always thought you a fair judge of color. But that woman has blue eyes."
"What are you talking about? They're green, like mine. As a matter of fact, I remember thinking what a coincidence it is that her hair and eyes are colored like mine."
"Colored like...? Gimme a break, Gabrielle! Her hair is almost as black as mine. And her eyes are blue."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest, and closed it again when she saw Xena staring at her. It was obvious they were both coming to a similar conclusion.
"We're really both reasonably sensible people, right?" the bard asked slowly.
"I should hope so, yes."
"And she has black hair and blue eyes when you look at her, but fair hair and green eyes when I do."
The warrior just nodded, and furrowed her brow.
"What is she, Xena?" Gabrielle’s voice was a frightful whisper.
Xena lapsed into a pensive silence. With Mrtva far enough away and her mind reasonably clear from the physical exertion, the events of the past few day took on a new clarity. She suddenly had a feeling they had gotten themselves into much deeper water than they had anticipated. She did not like it at all. "Well, either we're both losing it, or there's some sort of magic involved, or worse, a god. Either way, I want no part of it!"
Gabrielle let her head drop into her hands. "Too late for that now." She paused. "I'm sorry."
"It was my stupid, stubborn head that got us into whatever it is we've gotten ourselves into this time. I should have listened to you."
"Gabrielle," the warrior said seriously, "if what happened here is any indication, and I will eat my boots if she doesn't have anything to do with it, then we'd better assume she could be a very dangerous woman - especially with what we've just discovered about her. Until we know more, it may be just as well that we have her in our... care. That way, she can't cause any serious trouble... And you're not stupid, Gabrielle. Stubborn, yes. But I'm not going to blame you for trying to follow your heart, you hear me?" It's what brought us together, after all, Xena finished silently.
"Thanks," came Gabrielle's quiet reply. Green eyes locked with blue for a timeless moment. The bard started to raise her hand, but let it drop again.
"I can't pretend I understand what's going on inside you right now," the young woman said slowly, pulling her gaze away to the half-forgotten bone she was twiddling in her fingers, "but all this is doing terrible things to you, and I'm beginning to hate myself for it."
Xena gently hooked a finger under the bard's chin and tilted the blonde head up until Gabrielle had to look at her.
"Don't," the warrior rasped, "It's not your fault, okay?" When she received no answer, she repeated more insistently, "okay?"
Gabrielle drew a deep, long breath, and released it. "Okay. But..."
A raised hand silenced her. "I know. I'm having a little… difficult time right now. But I'm sure I'll be fine."
The bard made no reply, just gave her a long, sad look from large, liquid eyes.
Oh, crumbs, there goes that puppy-look again, Xena thought helplessly. Well, I know I'm going to regret this, but...
"Okay, okay, I'm having a terrible time," the warrior said in a rough tone. "In fact, I'd rather spend a week in Tartarus than have to look at her for one moment." The next was a strangled whisper. "She scares me something awful, Gabrielle. I don't know why, and I don't know how to fight it. Gods, I can't believe I'm leaving you alone with her every day. I should be... Oh, Hades!" An eyebrow arched. "She doesn't seem to have that effect on you, though."
The bard said slowly, "the nightmare I had this morning... it was different. I mean, it wasn't about... you know." She shuddered a little. "I think whatever you're talking about is affecting me, too, though I can't say she actually terrifies me." She leveled a questioning glance at the warrior, who sat gazing into the distance.
"I don't understand it." A touch of frustration tinged Xena's voice. "I'm not usually prone to irrational behavior." Her face twitched wryly.
Gabrielle snorted a mirthless laugh. "Not really, no," she agreed. "So, what are we going to do with her?"
"I have no idea," the warrior admitted, "I would like to get to the bottom of this, but I don't know how." Uh oh, wrong thing to say, Xena, she told herself. Wrong thing to say to somebody who always looks to you for miraculous solutions. She watched consternation battle with fierce concentration on the younger woman's face as she pondered their situation. Oh, bard, do you have any idea how much that costs me, trying to live up to what you see in me? "Any suggestions?"
Gabrielle absently rubbed her nose with her index finger. "Maybe we could take her to a temple. There might be some priest who will know what to do. Or we could, like, as long as we're there, I mean, sort of ask... well, someone higher up. I know how you feel about that, but..." She broke off, not looking at her companion.
"You're right," Xena said, "I don't trust them. I would have to be pretty darn desperate to try asking a god." She grinned suddenly. "But, given that, it would be an option. It really wouldn't hurt to find out who - or what - we're dealing with here. So!" with a deep breath, the tall woman resolutely squared her shoulders. "Are we about ready to go back to our camp? Because, I'm glad to say, my work here is done."
"Goody," the young bard said gratefully, "that means we finally get to move on out of this terrible place!"
As the two women started to make their way back towards her, the one who called herself Mrtva stealthily slipped back into her covers, this time careful not to leave any tracks. She was still angry with herself for that stupid oversight. Well, it certainly would not happen again.
"You're too ssharp, Warrior Princssess." Pale eyes suddenly took on a red glow from deep within that pulsed once, twice, and was gone. "Sso, you think I could be dangerouss, do you," she cackled softly. Her voice was higher now, and the lisp more pronounced. "Oh yess, we'll ssee."
Mrtva lay on the litter with her eyes closed as the two women reached the little shelter. Her chest was heaving in those exaggerated, forced movements they had gotten used to, accompanied by the loud rush of air through her nose and half-open mouth. Gabrielle wondered if the woman might have suffered from lung fever or some such in the past, to account for her obvious breathing problem.
In any case, Gabrielle had grown utterly tired of that sound while listening to it for the last two nights, when she had lain in her blankets and sleep just wouldn't come. It had even followed her into troubled dreams, driving her nearly insane with frustration.
She humbly thanked whichever god was responsible that her tall traveling companion never did that, or snored, or anything like that.
The bard's gaze followed her friend, who went to check on Argo. Since it was by now late afternoon and the light rain had started up again, they had decided to spend one more night here. The companions planned to set out in the morning for the nearest temple, which happened to be dedicated to Nyx, Lady of the Night, and was situated halfway up the sheer face of a mountain by a lakeshore, two days east. Not a major Goddess, but formidable enough. Xena had told her there were a handful of fairly powerful priests among the Lady's followers. It would do.
Gabrielle flopped down by the fire and watched Xena as the warrior fussed a little with the golden horse's mane before filling the feedbag and tying it around the mare's head.
The bard was worried. In all the time they had traveled together, the stoic warrior had always been rock solid in her courage and integrity. Those vivid blue eyes hid an intelligent and resourceful mind that had saved both their hides on more occasions than Gabrielle cared to remember. Now, she seemed... unstable. Never before had Xena admitted to fear, or being clueless, not to mention the fact that the dark woman's moods were jumping from one extreme to the other almost before the bard had any chance to adjust.
A sudden whoosh of hot air made her turn around. There behind her stood a glimmering frame opening into a haze of colorful swirls, through which the campfire and the hut's wall beyond could be seen in a faintly unreal and fuzzy way. Around its outline was a writhing mass of vines, and grotesque disembodied eyeballs stared coldly at her. The whole thing seemed to be alive in a horrible, nightmarish fashion.
Before she could utter a sound, a damp piece of linen was pressed to her mouth and nose while a strong, wiry arm wrapped around her from behind. Biting fumes shot up the bard's nose and slammed into the inside of her head with sharp intensity. Immediately spots began dancing in front of her eyes, and she felt herself being shoved towards the strange manifestation. As Gabrielle sank into unconsciousness, she thought she heard Xena yell her name, and there was the familiar shrill whine of the chakram, which broke off suddenly as another hot blast of air cut her off from the waking world.
Chapter IV: Journeys
Hearing a muffled sound as of air rushing through a narrow opening, Xena turned from her task of feeding Argo, in time to see some sort of magic portal ripple in the midst of the wooden structure. The shimmering entryway was framed by a mass of wriggling vines, various animal parts that twitched and trembled, and large round things that she recognized as staring eyeballs. Bathed in the back light of the swirling, translucent colored mists that moved lazily inside the gruesome framework stood Mrtva, with a rapturous, evil grin on her face. She showed no trace of weakness or injury as she firmly held on to a weakly struggling Gabrielle while pressing something to the bard's face.
"Gabrielle!" Hardly giving it conscious thought, the warrior grabbed her chakram and flung it in a powerful motion straight at the fortune teller's head. At that instant, however, the woman ducked into the portal with a shrill cackle, taking with her a bard rapidly fading from consciousness. The portal snapped closed with a fuzzy swishing sound, and the chakram whistled through empty air, burying itself into the far wall with a thud.
The crackle and snap of the campfire sounded impossibly loud in the warrior's ears as she mechanically made her way into the shelter to retrieve the circular weapon. Gone! Just like that. Gabrielle... Zeus strike me down, but this is my fault. I should have... Without hope of success, she knelt by the fire where the portal had opened to look for any clues. But apart from the shuffled dust at her feet, there was nothing.
She let herself drop into a sitting position and buried her face in her hands, breathing slowly, deliberately. Focus. You can't help her if you go and feel sorry for yourself. Pull yourself together, you big lump!
The warrior knew she had grown more than attached to the little bard. What she wasn't prepared for was the feeling of utter despair, like a mountain dropping down on her, at the realization that she might lose her, truly and irrevocably. She had been convinced that she had been able to retain a shred of self-control, and keep her at arm's length.
The ex-warlord was used to being in control of things. This... unsettled her.
Xena rose crisply and went to extinguish the fire. There were a few hours of daylight left. Better to spend them on the road - anywhere but here.
Frustration and despair were slowly replaced by a seething anger at her inability to act as she methodically stowed their belongings in Argo's numerous saddlebags. Clatter! The cooking gear landed in a heap by the blankets. She wasn't a thinker - she was a doer. Slam! The furs from Mrtva's litter joined them. Oh, she was creative enough when it came to laying out battle strategies, the choosing of ground, the placing of troops, or simply her choice of weapons when it came to hand-to-hand combat. Such things were second nature to her. But what could she do when there was no ground to choose, and her enemy had just disappeared to Hades only knew where? Her movements were curt and violent as she tied their bedrolls.
When she had cleared all traces of their camp, she went to Argo and removed the feedbag from the horse's nose. The mare flicked an ear at her and nickered.
Xena stroked the velvety muzzle. "Sorry, girl, but we've got work to do." For a moment, she allowed herself to let go, and buried her face in Argo's mane. Both hands grabbed fistfuls of the coarse hair as she relished the soft warmth of the silky coat against her cheek. Xena closed her eyes and drank in the comforting smell of horsehair and grain.
"Oh, Argo, whatever am I going to do?"
For an answer, the golden horse rolled her neck and brought her nose down to nip the warrior playfully in the thigh.
"Cut that out, you big oaf!" Laughing weakly, she cuffed the mare's cheek, and gave her an amusedly reproachful look, which Argo blissfully ignored.
As she spread the horse blanket across the war-horse's back before easing the saddle on top, her thoughts wandered again to Gabrielle. She was sure the imaginative bard would have thought of something to do by now. Fancy thinking and non-violent tactics were Gabrielle's specialty, not Xena's. Right now, the warrior longed to fight something, something tangible, something she could hurt. That was a thing she understood, and trusted. Magical portals and people vanishing into thin air were not. It took a real effort not to start tearing down the shed with her bare hands, just because it stood there.
It was only when Argo grunted in protest that she realized how tightly she was pulling the girth around the horse's belly.
As dusk set in, they were well on the road, the warrior traveling beside Argo on the muddy path. A gray cloak - Gabrielle's - wrapped about her kept the rain and chill out. From time to time, she would bury her face in the coarse fabric and just breathe in the bard's scent. She was wearing that cloak because it protected better against the wet and cold than her own. That was the reason. Of course.
She still did not know exactly what it was she was going to do. But being on the move - doing something - helped to work off some of her anger, and clear her head a little. She was jogging along at a brisk trot and was actually making very good time on the still soggy ground. Argo was plodding along beside her, ears drooping as the flaps on the saddle beat a steady, dull counterpoint to the rhythm of the horse's gait.
Nightfall found the warrior several leagues gone, overlooking the walled village of Ambracia on the bank of the same river they had crossed a few days ago. Briefly, she considered traveling the night through and chuckled softly at Gabrielle's imagined response. She pictured the shorter woman drawing herself up to her full height, green eyes giving her that flat, hard-eyed stare she was becoming quite good at. And Gabrielle would tell her in a no-nonsense voice to cut out the tough warlord act, and that, despite her protestations to the contrary, Xena was still human, and needed sleep.
And you're right, of course, my mother-hen friend. I will rest. And I promise you I'll find you. If I have to move a mountain with my bare hands to do it, it won't be too much trouble.
Reluctant to enter the town, she scanned the area for a suitable campsite before finally deciding on a dell sheltered by a few trees and a sparse growth of brush. Not bothering to light a fire, the warrior relieved Argo of saddle and bridle before turning her loose to graze, then unrolled her blankets and lay down, lacing her hands behind her head and gazing and the dreary sky.
Everything was fuzzy. Whatever had been on that piece of cloth stung like Hades behind her eyes, making it difficult for the bard to focus either her thoughts or her senses. The only distinct thought she was able to form was that Mrtva was so much stronger than she looked. The small woman had a stringy arm wrapped about the bard's waist like a vice, carrying her effortlessly at a dizzying pace. There were times when their surroundings fairly seemed to whiz by.
Gabrielle had no idea for how long she had been drifting on the edge of consciousness with the fortune teller dragging her along tirelessly, but it felt like forever. She remembered dimly dreaming of Xena the Warlord and of feeling very cold and stiff though the air around her was warm and humid. She shuddered a little, the involuntary motion sending another painful jab to her brain. A soft groan escaped her.
"Sstop whining, ssilly sstrumpet," came Mrtva's harsh hiss. Iron-like fingers on the arm that was holding her dug into her skin until Gabrielle felt they must be gouging out chunks of her flesh. She caught a vague impression of colorful sandstone formations all around her, sparkling in most incredible hues of cream, red and yellow. Tall slender spires, some in the shape of graceful people standing together and talking; others bridged by delicate natural arches. It was beautiful, and also quite unreal.
All of a sudden, there was in front of them that same shimmering doorway that she had seen back at their camp. The bard had not seen it form, nor did she have any idea if perhaps it had already been standing there. This time, she was lucid enough to feel the wrench as Mrtva shoved her through, like a shift in reality. Nauseous and suddenly dizzy again, Gabrielle sank back into oblivion.
The angry throbbing in her head finally woke her. Gabrielle was on her side, her hands bound tightly behind her back, shoulder muscles aching with the strain of the unaccustomed position. She could feel cold stone beneath her with sharp loose pebbles digging into her side. As she tried to shift, she found that her feet were tied as well, and fastened with a rope on the ties that bound her hands.
Looking around her, she saw the sandstone walls of a cavern, with a tunnel entrance to her left, from where some faint rays of light careened of the walls and made for a dim illumination. Another tunnel ran on down further into the mountain, visible as a dark patch on the back wall.
It seemed she was alone for the moment. The ceiling was high and bristled with stalactites, their counterparts standing proudly on the ground all around her, glistening with moisture. In some places, slender pillars had formed from them, and there was also the trickle of a small underground stream.
It was really quite beautiful, as the weak light from the cave entrance magnified caused droplets of water to sparkle like diamonds on the impressive formations. She could barely make out the colorful hues of the walls around the mouth of the tunnel - ranging from bright white over yellow to a very dark red.
But it was also decidedly uncomfortable, being in her position. She was wedged between two looming stalagmites, their twins above poised ominously over her head. Water was seeping from the face of the rock into her clothes and her head was still hurting like the Nine Hells. Mercifully, though, the strange fuzzy feeling had receded. Little fissures in her dry and cracked lips made licking them painful. And she was parched. She managed a croaked chuckle at the irony of being surrounded by water but unable to drink. The sound ricocheted off the spacious walls and made an eerie hollow echo all around her.
Great. Just great. Gabrielle, what have you gone and gotten yourself into this time? Always griping about Xena treating you like a child, and the minute her back is turned, you let a frail little woman just... whisk you away. Oh, Gods, whatever am I going to do? And where has that... monster got to? I'm sure she didn't haul me all this way to wherever this is just to dump me here and forget all about me. She quirked her lips wryly. I'd really rather she had.
The bard wriggled a little to bring her bound hands against a sharp protrusion in the rock, and started scraping the rope across it. She succeeded in dislodging a fair portion of the brittle and rather soft rock, but the rope that bound her was barely even scratched. Downhearted, she let her head sink onto the hard cold surface.
She was sure Xena would have thought of something by now. The warrior was always so inventive! Surely, she would have had no trouble getting out of this fix. Oh what I wouldn't give to have her here right now, and have those blue eyes look at me in that reassuring way she has.... I wonder what she's doing... Probably glad to be finally rid of the little pest... She scowled at herself. Cut it out, you silly goose, you know that's not true! You do, don't you? She needs you just as much as you need her. Gabrielle shook her head angrily. Of course she had faith that the warrior would do all that was humanly possible, and more if that was what it took, to find her. The thought made her feel a little better.
But she still had no idea where she was.
At a sound from the cavern's entrance, she tensed. Mrtva was coming, it seemed. Perhaps now, the bard would get some answers.
Xena knew it was a dream right away, but it had a strange touch of reality to it. She sat her horse on a hillock overlooking the battlefield, the wind caressing her face and whipping her dark tresses. Her mount was restive, upset by the battle noises and the sharp, coppery smell of fresh blood. The roan stallion stood pawing the ground and tossing his head irritably.
Without giving it thought, the Warrior Princess laid a calming hand on the animal's arched neck, her body unconsciously compensating the horse's nervous prancing. Her steel blue eyes never left the scene below.
"Those men are yours completely," her second on his dappled mare said quietly, "They would willingly give their lives for you, lord."
"I know, Roderic," the warlord said absently, "it's what I expect of them." She turned her head briefly to look at the man. "And it's the reason why I'm winning my battles."
The curly-haired man ducked his head in acknowledgement.
"Draco will have to pull his troops back soon," Xena mused. "We're beating the shit out of him, and he knows it." She chuckled mirthlessly. "That'll teach him to try and come at me on my own ground."
The battle had started at dawn, with her leading the initial charge, preceded by the chakram arcing mightily with its baleful whine and taking down several of the enemy's crossbow-men before returning to Xena's outstretched hand. Her battle cry had sounded over the field as she flung herself at the enemy lines like a whirlwind of death, sword singing and her edgy stallion rearing and kicking for all he was worth, caught completely in his rider's frenzied battle lust.
To look upon the field now, seeing those men who worshipped her like a goddess fight, kill and die for her - it felt wonderful. The power. The glory. The fame. She threw her head back in a gesture of almost sensual pleasure.
When a boy came up to her leading her other war-horse, she jumped out of the saddle to change steeds, tossing him the stallion's reins. Her foot caught on something, and she looked down to see Gabrielle lying at her feet, torn and bleeding, her red-gold hair cluttered with drying blood. Her eyes were closed, her face frozen in a mask of death.
Dumbstruck, the warlord knelt by her friend's side, and brushed suddenly trembling fingertips across a blood-covered cheek. She watched her hand trace a smeared path through the sticky substance, her own fingers turning a dull crimson with the bard's spilled life.
Mist green eyes fluttered open and looked at her accusingly. "Xena, you promised. You lied!"
Gabrielle's voice struck a chord in a deep, forgotten place. The last word echoed all around her, and seemed to grow louder in Xena's ears. Shaking her head in angry denial, the warlord jerked back, and turned away. Perhaps the specter would go away if she refused to acknowledge it.
And looked into the intense blue eyes that she recognized as her own, challenging, beckoning.
"Come on, you know you want this," her own voice spoke from the figure opposite her, "Don't deny yourself. You were born to destroy, and to conquer. Here lies your destiny. Go and face the glory!"
Frantic, Xena's head whipped around to the ghastly shape of the bard, eyes now glazed and staring, and then back at her other self, vibrant and passionate in her powerful entreaty.
I killed her... My best friend, and the other half of my soul. I might as well have killed myself. This is a dream. Why can't I wake up? She dropped to her knees, raked her face with her fingers. The ebbing battle was frozen by the Warrior Princess' plaintive wail.
The battlefield was suddenly gone, to be replaced by the foggy interior of an Amazon sweat hut, where she knelt still, naked, her cry not yet faded, hand balled into fists. Feeling eyes still upon her, she turned. Where her alter ego had been, there stood now the slight, stringy shape of Mrtva. Gabrielle's motionless body sprawled at the fortune teller's feet.
Xena felt a warning tingle run through her, the kind that meant her body was warning her of an approaching threat in the waking world. The kind that usually made her snap right awake, every ounce of her alert and ready for action.
She heard Mrtva chuckle. "Sso you ssee, I have killed your little friend." She watched the dark woman's reaction from starling-bright eyes, and was rewarded by a narrowing of eyes and a tightening of lips. "Oh Yess, that makess you angry, doessn't it? You want to get your handss around my neck, don't you?" Her voice had an almost reptilian quality; high and sibilant like the slice of a sword through silk.
A hurt expression crossed the small woman's face. "But I've done you a favor, Warrior Princess. You are free now."
Xena got to her feet and stepped towards her, death on her mind. She paused in mid-step. Somebody was approaching her sleeping form. She must wake. She shook her head, clearing a brief spell of dizziness.
"Come on, kill me! I know you want to. I have freed you from her so you can go back to your glorious past. Let the darkness rule! And this can be your first step." Mrtva stood facing her with her arms spread wide.
"And I'll be glad to oblige," Xena snarled as her fist shot forward and caught the other woman squarely in the face, slamming her head back and sending her crashing into the hut's wall. Without turning a hair, the fortune teller got to her feet, her face pulling into a twisted parody of a smile.
"Yess, that'ss it. Ssurrender. It runss sstrong in you. The pathetic little sslut can't sstop you now. You will have the world at your feet." She gave Gabrielle's body a rough kick.
This was where Mrtva made her mistake. Xena never paused in her stride as she approached the fortune teller once more. She grabbed Mrtva by the throat and lifted her easily off her feet, bringing her face very close, and forcing herself to meet the chilling gaze. Why am I still sleeping? There is danger. I must wake!
"You're damn right, she can't stop me. But I made a promise once, and you'll have to do better than this to make me break it." I hope I sound surer than I feel. Gods, that was so, so close. She could have turned me. In fact, Xena was quite sure that only Mrtva's insult to Gabrielle had jerked her back from a path she had already started to slide down.
I have to wake up!!!
She was startled by a very evil giggle from the fortune teller. "How can you be so sure you're dreaming, Warrior Princess?"
The warrior did a double take. Had she spoken that aloud?
"I can see your thoughts, you silly cow! This is my dream you're sharing. And I will have you yet!"
"Not today," Xena whispered fiercely, dropping the woman. Heart heavy, she went to Gabrielle's body, and crouched down by it. All the blood was somehow gone from the bard's face, to be replaced by a green pallor, but the warrior's own fingers were still bloodied from touching the young woman's cheek earlier.
"You have saved me again, my love. I'm so sorry."
She received no answer from the rigid corpse. Brushing a gentle hand over misted and unseeing green eyes, the warlord tried to close them, but they snapped back open, still staring accusingly.
With a strangled cry, Xena jerked forcefully awake. Her heart was beating at a mad gallop. This had never happened to her before. Always, at the slightest sensation her body's reflexes would have woken her from even the worst nightmare.
Breathing deeply and deliberately, she forced her pulse to return to normal before she closed her eyes and listened into the night. Everything was quiet now. But then, her little display might well have startled an attacker into stillness. Wryly she thought that any advantage of surprise she might have had was now thoroughly ruined.
Allowing herself to relax ever so slightly, she raised her hand to run it through her hair. And froze, her pulse going right back to where it had been upon waking. Her fingers were covered in dark, sticky blood that she knew with horrified certainty was not her own.
Relax, Xena, there is a rational explanation for this. There must be! And now you'd better focus. Get worked up on this later, when you have the time. Can't be all hyper when there's somebody stealing around the place. And there was. She could hear him now, not particularly stealthy, and coming her way.
The hate, the madness, so sweet, come and drink, let go your conscience, and drink the darkness, so sweet...
The woman was mouthing the words soundlessly as she stole furtively around the dell where the strange warrior was sleeping. Dreaming. Warrior was dreaming. And they were evil dreams. They were what had called to her and made her sit up in her bed suddenly, and single-mindedly make her way out of the security of the town walls into this forlorn heath. Not hearing her daughter's pained imploring voice telling her to get back in bed. Not seeing the guards who uneasily opened the gate for her before she hurt herself trying to tear it down with her bare hands. Not seeing them shake their heads at each other in sorrow at her condition. Not caring.
So sweet, the blood, eat the darkness, drink the soul...
She froze in her tracks as the sleeper gasped and came suddenly awake, watched her battle for control with her own tormented heart aching in sympathy. My poor child has had a bad dream, must go and comfort... A sudden clarity flickered briefly in pale gray eyes that were misted over by insanity, as the aging woman laboriously made her way towards the stranger, her child. She longed to cradle her in her arms, and make it good.
Knowing that pretending to be asleep really wasn't an option anymore, Xena forced herself to calm, quietly drew her sword, and waited.
Shuffling footfalls came steadily closer, accompanied by the rustle and snap of vegetation. Her nocturnal visitor certainly wasn't trying for secrecy!
And then the warrior saw her. Middle-aged and of medium height, she must come from the town. The strange woman looked like she had just gotten out of bed - which might be the case, considering the time of night - graying brunette hair hanging in unkempt strands to her shoulders, face pale and drawn. She just stood there, looking at the warrior with curiously unfocused eyes, skinny fingers clenching and unclenching, lips moving in soundless speech.
Taking in the woman's forlorn appearance, Xena decided that her visitor posed no immediate threat. So she sheathed her sword and went closer. She did not relax her guard, though. It never hurt to be prepared. And she had this thing about strange women acting strangely.
"Well now, good woman," the warrior said gently, I don't think you should be out here at this hour all by yourself."
Watery eyes fastened on Xena as the woman continued moving her lips without uttering a sound. As she extended a hand and started to softly rub the warrior's arm, a benign smile creased her face.
Unsure what to do, Xena gently brushed the hand away and, trying but failing to fix the woman's gaze with her own, she spoke.
"What is your name, woman?"
A brief focusing of the woman’s eyes, a nod and a grin, rewarded her efforts.
"Mother! Mother were are you?" The voice was a good way off, breathless, calling urgently, a woman's voice.
The tall warrior shook her head, mildly bemused. This place was becoming crowded! Well, it was a safe bet who the caller's mother might be.
"Over here," Xena called. She listened to sounds of breathless running until a young, stoutly built woman came huffing and puffing up to her. Though she was taller and more massive than the older woman was, the family resemblance was evident as she rounded immediately on her mother and spoke sternly.
"Mother, what are you doing? You shouldn't be out here at night. There are brigands about." She got a vague grin for an answer.
The warrior quirked her lips. "I should say the same goes for you, too. I might be a brigand myself."
The younger woman looked her up and down before she spoke, with an uncertain smile.
"You don't look like one. Look, I'm sorry if mother's been bothering you" A sad look came into her dark eyes. "She hasn't been herself... I'm sorry. She practically tore down the city gates to get out here, and was gone before I could stop her. Frankly, I'm not in too good a shape, and I'm afraid she just outran me. She's tough as old boots," she said with a chagrined look.
Xena shrugged. "No trouble. But you really should get back inside those walls. You are not safe here."
The younger woman nodded. "You're right. I don't know what got into me. I have a young child, and if anything happened to me... Well, seems I was lucky. Thanks for humoring my mother. Oh, by the way, I'm Tessa." She smiled and extended her hand.
The tall warrior hesitated briefly, but then she shook the proffered hand. "My name's Xena," she said, dreading the woman's reaction. But to the warrior's surprise, the other brightened.
"The Warrior Princess! So it's really true that you've reformed, is it? I was hoping it would be. I've admired you so much ever since I heard the first story about you. Can you really snatch arrows out of the air? And have you really met Hercules?"
Xena's lips quirked in mild amusement at the barrage. "Yes, the same, yes, it's true, yes I can, and yes, I have."
"Oh, I'm sorry, but I'm chattering like a silly little girl, aren't I?" She chuckled at herself. "But the stories say also that you travel with a very talented young bard. Is she here, too?"
This caused Xena to wince inwardly. Oh, Gabrielle! Hang in there, my bard, wherever you are. I swear I'll find a way. "No, she's... not with me at the moment."
"Oh," Tessa replied, not catching the change of mood. "Well, we've been keeping you up long enough. We'd better get back to the town. Look, the sun's coming up already."
"Yeah, you'd better," the warrior agreed, "I'll walk you there." Might as well. No more sleep for me, tonight.
While they walked, Tessa told her all she could possibly cram into the few minutes about her mother, her daughter, and the rest of the village. Xena walked beside her silently, more or less lost in her own thoughts. Then she realized Tessa had asked her a question. Scanning her memory for the other woman's last few words, she replied.
"If this man is bothering you so much, why isn't your husband doing anything? You are married, I presume?"
Tessa swallowed. "My husband passed away. A couple of weeks ago."
"I'm sorry," the warrior said sincerely.
Tessa looked at her, apparently having decided long ago it was all right to be open with this strange, imposing woman.
"Phisthos - my husband - he wasn't a good man. He beat me often, and he did... things... to our little daughter." She shook her head, anguished, before she continued in a whisper. "The gods forgive me, but it's better for little Lyssa and me that he's gone."
Reaching out, Xena gave the woman's shoulder a quick squeeze. "I understand." And a good thing he's dead, too, or he'd wish he were, after I was through with him, the warrior thought fiercely. Tessa seemed like a nice woman, and she certainly didn't deserve that kind of brutality. Neither did an innocent child.
"In fact, we think he was taken by the same... sickness that struck my mother."
"Are you saying that your mother has only been like this for a couple of weeks?"
Tessa nodded. "Actually, it struck them both on the same day. It must be some kind of disease. A few others in the town were also affected, and there were a few more deaths. " Her face was in shadow, but Xena could see that the excited gleam had left her dark eyes. She saw Tessa shudder, and hug herself in reflex.
"It was probably that weird woman who infected them."
That finally got Xena's full attention.
"A woman?" she asked, barely masking her excitement. Keep cool, probably just a coincidence...
"She passed through our town that day. Personally, I thought she didn't look like much, but looking back, I think she must have been seriously ill. She was so very pale. Her skin was almost green with pallor. My mother and Phisthos were standing rather close to her for a little bit. Some of the people seemed to be afraid of her, though I can't for the life of me think why. I mean, she looked a little ghastly, but..."
"What happened? To your husband?" the warrior asked intently. A racing pulse was becoming a condition Xena was getting quite used to.
"I don't know... it was really scary. One moment he was right as rain, then in mid-sentence, he gave this wild, high scream. I never thought any human being could make that kind of a noise. Then his eyes kind of glazed over, like... like mother's here. Only, he did not move anymore afterwards. He was dead as a rock, sitting at my kitchen table, and he didn't even fall down. Just sat there like a statue." She shuddered again, and stifled a sob. "And when I went to get mother, she was... like she is now." Tessa was weeping openly now, with Xena awkwardly patting her shoulder.
"Tessa, this is really important. Can you tell me what that woman looked like?"
The other woman pulled herself together, and spoke haltingly. "She had dark eyes, almost black, like mine. And her hair was dark with a tinge of chestnut. Actually, I've been thinking what a coincidence it was that her eyes and hair were the same colors as mine. Most people around here have lighter hair."
Xena had heard enough. Well, I'll be! Sounds like our creepy friend has been up for some more mischief. Maybe I can get a lead here. I wonder if she knows what happened to her neighbors upstream...
"Do you know where she came from? Or which way she went?"
"I... I think she must have come from the coast somewhere. And she probably continued inland along the river. But I really don't know. Why are you asking all these questions? Do you know that woman?"
"We've met," the warrior said coldly. "If it's who I think it is, let's just say I've got a bone to pick with her."
Tessa sniffed, and wiped the back of her hand across her nose. "And do you think there is a cure for..." she nodded her head towards her mother, who was strolling along beside them, deep in heated silent conversation with the gods only knew whom. Walking steadily, the three women had now almost reached Ambracia's gates.
"I don't know," Xena said honestly. She gave the other woman a long look. "You are a good woman, Tessa. I promise you if I find a way to cure her, I'll come back."
"Thanks," Tessa said, "that means a lot to me." She took a breath. "Well, here we are. Thanks for taking us. You... I mean, would you like to come in for a bit? You could get some more sleep, and a breakfast. I owe you that much at least."
The warrior smiled. "I need to get moving. I have some things to attend to. But thanks for the offer. And be well!"
Waving a quick good-bye, which was heartily returned, the raven-haired woman turned and started back towards her campsite at an easy run.
After a few minutes in the company of the fortune teller, it was becoming painfully clear to Gabrielle that things were not looking good.
Mrtva sauntered in and tossed down a collection of scrolls she was carrying, before crossing to where the bard lay and looking her huddled form up and down. "Feeling comfortable, my precious? I hope you enjoyed our little journey." Her grating words were followed by an ugly cackle.
Mustering what dignity she could in her awkward position, Gabrielle glared at the woman.
"You won't get away with this!"
The bard’s words made Mrtva laugh even louder, the shrill sound echoing eerily in the spacious cavern.
"And who's going to stop me? That big brute of a warrior? When the silly cow is scared shitless just from looking at me?" Her laughter turned hysterical. Even while the bard bristled at the fortune teller's insolence, she felt goose bumps creeping up her back at the sound.
Fighting to control her mad giggles, Mrtva gasped out the words. "Oh, I do hope she finds us. I would so dearly love to have some more fun with her. She's so - susceptible." A look of theatrical sadness came to the fortune teller's face. "But alas, she doesn't have a chance in the world to discover this little place. Of course this means I shall have to go find her night after night after night. Until, at last, all that's left of her will be a dead empty shell, devoid of reason, and utterly insane. Wouldn't you like to see that, you little piece of dung? She won't be hiding her feelings for you then," she cackled again, "because she won't care."
Gabrielle was having a very hard time maintaining a look of outward indifference. Her mind was churning something awful. Okay, Gabrielle, think. What are the four rules of behavior in dangerous situations? One. Run. Nope. Two. Fight, then run. Not when I'm tied like a sack. Three. Let them fight each other while you run. No again. Four. That's where you talk your way out of it. Okay, then, four. Oh Xena, whatever you're planning, do it quickly!
"What makes you think you scare her? Xena's never been afraid of anything in her life. I can't wait for the moment she gets her hands on you."
That seemed to amuse Mrtva beyond bearing, for she practically rolled on the ground laughing.
"Never been scared... oh, that's good. Hee hee hee. Really. I wish you could have seen her the other... Oh but you couldn't, could you. You were dead. Oh, you are so, so pathetic!"
The bard took a steadying breath before speaking. "If I'm so pathetic, how come you're so afraid of me you have to keep me tied down like some dangerous killer?"
"Me?? Afraid of you?? Don't be ridiculous." She paused. "I know what you're trying to do, strumpet. You won't fool me with your fancy talking. But suit yourself!"
With a lightning quick movement, the fortune teller hooked a finger under the ropes holding the young bard, and Gabrielle could feel the give as they came loose. Gods, what are her nails made of??
Rubbing her wrists where the rope had chafed and cut, Gabrielle sat up and untied her feet. What do you know, I think this has just become a 'two'! Mrtva had turned her back and was busying herself over the collection of scrolls she had brought.
Mystified but not questioning her good fortune, Gabrielle, after getting some sensation back into her numbed limbs, jumped to her feet and launched herself at the other woman with a wild yell. After some grappling, she managed to wrestle Mrtva to the ground and was holding her down by twisting the other woman's arm behind her back.
"Now," she said, panting a little, "you are going to tell me where in Hades' name we are, and then you are going to let me go home!"
Her face pressed against the pebble-strewn cavern floor, the woman still managed to sound condescending as she barked a laugh.
"You really are cute. Do you really think your puny efforts can hurt me?" Her movements a blur, she easily twisted her arm out of the bard's grasp, sprang to her feet and backhanded Gabrielle powerfully in the face, sending her crashing into one of the stone pillars. Her head connected with a sharp crack, sending a new jolt of pain through her and making Mrtva's voice sound suddenly blurred, and far off.
"Listen, you silly sow. Don't you ever..." she brought her face very close to the bard's who could see a red glow suddenly spring into the fortune teller's eyes, pulsing, "... ever try to attack me again! I might have plans for you that require me to keep you alive, but that doesn't mean I have to make it pleasant for you. Do we understand each other?"
Plans? What plans? I don't think I want to know... Swallowing, Gabrielle nodded.
"Of course this means I have to tie you up again," Mrtva told her in a soft whine. "But just so you know how futile your little stunt was, I will show you something."
She grabbed the bard roughly by her hair with one hand and caught Gabrielle's fingers with the other, expertly applying a pressure that soon had the blonde woman crying out in agony and sinking to her knees in an attempt to shrink away from the pain.
"I can break those fingers singly without much trouble," the fortune teller hissed into her ear, "and you know I will, so you'd better show me how nice and submissive you can be." A slight twist of the fortune teller's hand, and Gabrielle was forced back to her feet by another stab of sharp pain, and she did indeed follow meekly as Mrtva thus guided her through the narrow opening towards the little tunnel that must lead to the outside.
Gods, if I didn't know any better, I'd say this was all some very weird dream. Trouble is, though, that you can wake from a dream. I have a feeling that no force in the world will make me wake up from this. When they reached the cavern's exit, Gabrielle's breath caught.
The mouth of the cave was situated about thirty paces up a sheer sandstone cliff, with no visible handholds anywhere near, overlooking bizarre formations of the richly colored sandstone framing a canyon that extended in both directions as far as the eye could see.
A high ridge wound crazily through and across the canyon in the distance, its crest just broad enough, it seemed, for two people to walk abreast. At one point, it dipped a little and passed through a natural arch, before rising again and becoming one itself, spanning the bed of a small stream. The sun was shining with dazzling brightness, bathing the scene in an unreal, searing light that made the impossible colors stand out even more strikingly. It was actually quite warm here outside of the cool wet cavern.
This place was as breathtakingly beautiful as it was somehow otherworldly, and Gabrielle thought that she wouldn't be much surprised if any people living around here had red skin, or something similarly unthinkable. The bard found herself wishing that the circumstances of her being here were different. She would have loved to explore these rocky reaches, and find out every little secret hidden in that canyon and all its little caves and offshoots. But the other woman's hand still tangled firmly in her hair and that vice grip on her fingers reminded her painfully that this was no pleasure trip.
Well, Xena, I have a feeling I'm not in Greece anymore... In fact, she began to suspect that she was very, very far away from Greece.
She cast a despairing look down into the depths of the canyon, before a wildly cackling Mrtva hauled her unceremoniously back inside.
Gabrielle felt an uncharacteristic urge to hurt this woman, who was so obviously responsible for Xena's emotional imbalance, and who did not seem to have even one shred of decency in her. There was something definitely not human about the fortune teller, and the bard was beginning to develop more than just a mild dislike for her. But she also knew that she could not hope to overcome Mrtva physically, so for now she would just have to do what she did best - talk.
"So, my precious, do you like the view up here?" Mrtva inquired conversationally as she again bound the bard's hands and feet with a length of coarse rope.
"Cut out the niceties, Mrtva," Gabrielle said acidly. "We both know I didn't come here for the fun. Just tell me where in Hades' name we are and what you want with me, will you?"
Mrtva chuckled. "Bit uppity now, are we? I hardly think you're in any position to make demands, strumpet." Once again, her eyes briefly took on that red, pulsing, glow, which caused the bard to cringe involuntarily. "But you are lucky, for I am in a chatty mood today. Here, I've something to show you." She pulled the bound woman towards the cards she had spread out beside the scrolls.
"You see, slut," Mrtva told her in her high-pitched voice, "I've done another spread for you and your big bad friend. You are in for an interesting time, I dare say."
Gabrielle, trying to ignore the vile feeling in her gut and swallowing several times to bring the moisture back into her mouth, answered flatly, "I'm not interested, thank you."
"Oh, but you are going to listen to every word I say. I will make very sure that you do."
Torn between fright and indignation, Gabrielle said between clenched teeth, "Mrtva, listen, whatever it is you have brought me here for, just do it, okay?"
"Why the impatience? We have plenty of time to socialize before I get started. And I'm sure you will be more cooperative once my plan is set into motion." She made an ecstatic noise that was somewhere between a screech and a moan, and sounded like stone scraping over metal. The bard shivered.
"And what plan is that?" the blonde woman asked. Oh gods, Xena, you'd better hurry!
Mrtva looked sharply at her. "I shall finally be alive. And you will be the one to make it so." She was silent for some time to allow the words to sink in, and was rewarded by a horrified expression coming to the bard's face as Gabrielle stared aghast at the pale woman.
"And as you can see," Mrtva continued, green eyes ablaze, "the cards predict my stunning success."
At a glance, the bard could tell that most of the cards had a distinctly sinister meaning - Death, for example, and Violence, in the form of a horned devil leading two humans in chains. Her own card was there as well, and Xena's, not surprisingly, the Queens of Staffs and Aura. They lay separated by Universe, depicting what must be a map of the world, but in the shape of a sphere, circling around a curious conglomeration of other balls. Imagine the world being shaped like a sphere! Maybe even traveling around the sun! Quite ridiculous! Every child knew it was the other way round. There was Temperance again, a monk carrying two pewter mugs. It was placed above the one marked "Universe". Gabrielle shuddered again when the fortune teller began to speak. The woman's voice was the rustle of a snake slithering on dry grass.
"It seems your big friend is quite anxious to find you, isn't she? Only, she doesn't realize there is a whole world separating you from her." Mrtva cackled evilly. "And myself, of course. She has her hands full enough without worrying about you, I dare say."
"What do you want with her?" the bard asked with studied calm, "and why?"
"Oh, she is just entertainment, no more. I've never met a mortal who was able to resist me as long as this. I want to see how long it will take her to crack." For a moment, she seemed quite unaware of the young woman watching her with growing horror. "Can't be long now, the dreams are taking their toll. She is a constant source of sustenance... a pity she'll be going the way of all the others before her... But I am straying." Her eyes flicked to Gabrielle, then back to the cards.
"The Tower. Revelation will strike you like lightning. Oh how true! Because I have a little secret to tell you. You see, there is Temperance, the symbol of the transfer of essence from one vessel to another. And your card, here. I might add that the Moon represents me in this spread, and as you can see, it is lying directly above yours."
Being fascinated by the concept of the tarot, the bard had easily retained most of the cards' symbolism. The Moon, signifying deception. How fitting!
"I can see you are still with me. Not so hard after all to capture your attention, is it?"
To her chagrin, Gabrielle realized she had indeed been captivated once again by the tarot's magic. Only, this time what she felt was more morbid fascination than the former happy excitement.
"Do I have a choice?" the bard spat.
Mrtva leered at her. "Oh I like your spirit! It will serve me in good stead. Of course you realize whose essence will be transferred, don't you?"
"Oh, but yes! And do you know how I will do it?"
"On the first day", the witch continued relentlessly, "you and I will drink of the same cup. Then, on the second, I will drink your blood..."
"No," Gabrielle managed again, trying not to listen.
"I will. And do you know the best thing? You are going to offer it to me yourself, after cutting open your own vein."
Mrtva's eyes were not even remotely human anymore, glowing like smoldering coals and occasionally flickering brighter as her obvious excitement grew. Her face had become like a pale wooden mask, frozen in a stretched and forced grin. The bard was not sure which frightened her more - this terrible transformation, or the words spoken excitedly in the thing's sibilant, whining voice.
"Never!" Gabrielle's mind was frantically trying to keep pace with the terror mounting inside her.
The other appeared not to have heard. "The third day, you will be begging me to allow you to drink my blood, to show me your complete devotion."
The young woman closed her eyes. I can't lose my head now! I've got to get a grip, or she really will do all these terrible things. I need to have a clear mind for when Xena comes to rescue me. She tried not to think about how impossible that sounded. The warrior would find a way. She must! In the meantime, with Mrtva obviously slipping more and more into her true nature, perhaps she could find out some more about this... creature.
Only partly listening to Mrtva's continued ramblings, the bard was still able to pick up that there was to be some sort of branding next. She shivered. And then something the witch said made her blood curdle. A gasp escaped her.
"Yes, sweetie, you heard me. On the fifth day of the ceremony, you are going to offer me your heart, which I shall remove from you with my bare hands. I will hold it, still beating, and offer it in exchange for your essence." Mrtva raised up her hands with a hysterical screech.
"And then it will be done! I will be ALIVE!"
After the remainder of that night and the following day spent travelling without a particular goal, Xena stopped at dusk by a small offshoot of the river to allow the exhausted Argo some rest. She was tired herself, but far too restless to think about going to sleep. A sense of urgency was fast mounting inside her. Gabrielle was in the clutches of that monster, and surely in grave danger. And the warrior felt adrift like a piece of flotsam in the ocean, with no hope of ever touching on land. More so because she knew her grasp on sanity to be precarious at best, and weakening. The strain of having the bard taken from her so violently and unexpectedly, the feeling of guilt at being unable to act, the lack of sleep and last night's dream, were all taking their toll on her self-control.
Early that morning, she had passed through the village that lay a few miles down river from Ambracia. Nobody there had seen anything out of the ordinary in the last few weeks. No sudden mental illnesses or inexplicable deaths, and no strangers passing through. In her frustration, the tall warrior must have looked rather intimidating, for the man she had spoken to had gone quite pale, and had suddenly remembered he had pressing business on the other end of town.
She went to the stream to refill her waterskin and have a long drink. Tilting her head back, Xena let herself savor the trickle of the ice cold liquid down her throat, before she sat back against a rock and closed her eyes, trying to ease the tension out of her system with slow, steady breaths.
The warrior reopened her eyes when her head momentarily nodded, and shook her head a little. She must be more exhausted than she had realized. Funny, though. While she did feel tired, she shouldn't be weary enough to just doze off like that. Again, her head snapped up after dropping briefly forward onto her chest, causing the tall woman to frown in puzzlement. Perhaps she should get up and walk some more, before she passed out completely. She was used to sleeping when she wanted.
A noise from behind made her turn. Gabrielle stood there, dressed in a snow-white tunic, silently gazing at her out of large green eyes. For a second, the warrior was frozen in shocked surprise. Then she leapt to her feet to close the distance between them. It took an effort to wrestle her voice past the lump that had suddenly formed in her throat.
"Gabrielle... You're okay. Gods, I... But how...? ...Are you real?" Something about this felt somehow not right. She fully expected the bard to puff into a little cloud of smoke and vanish.
However, the blonde woman slowly extended a hand to touch Xena's cheek, the back of her fingers like velvet on the warrior's skin.
"Xena, I love you. I always have. I was so afraid I would never be able to tell you. But I'm here now."
The taller woman closed her own big hand over the bard's smaller one, and said softly, "how can you be here? Did she really let you go?" Xena could feel the warmth of the blood pulsing powerfully through those slender fingers, and thought that never before had Gabrielle's touch felt so vibrant to her.
For an answer, the young bard stepped into her and rested those warm hands on the warrior's hips. Xena's arms went around the smaller woman reflexively. She had only intended to hug her friend, but seeing that fair head tilted up towards her, full of love and trust, she suddenly found herself very much wanting to know how it would feel to kiss those gentle lips. And when Gabrielle's hand traveled slowly up her back, leaving behind a trail of warm tingles that sent pleasant jolts to the pit of Xena's stomach, she knew the bard wanted the same thing. She dipped her head a little, and let it happen.
Closing her eyes, the warrior let herself be swept away by thunderous emotion as she felt those incredibly soft lips on her own. Her hands went up without conscious effort to tangle themselves in silky soft hair and pull Gabrielle further into her as she opened her mouth to allow the bard's tongue a gentle exploration. Never in her life had she experienced anything this intense. It was enough to just stand and let the sensations flood her. In fact, all she could think about was that she never, ever wanted this to stop.
Something shifting ever so slightly under her hands made her open her eyes. She found herself looking into steel blue eyes given a violet tinge by a red, pulsing, glow from deep within. Where the bard's silky golden hair had run through Xena's fingers, there were now jet-black tresses.
Mortified, she shoved Mrtva roughly away, sudden fear battling with anger and embarrassment.
"You again," the warrior managed between clenched teeth, "I should have known. It's that dream again, right?" And she's somehow pulled me into it although I wasn't even trying to sleep. I'm sure she is behind this somehow. This has never happened before. But how is she doing it? Xena swallowed a few times to relieve the taste of rotten meat where the woman's tongue had touched her. But the fuzzy, sickly-sweet aroma would not go away. She felt suddenly nauseous.
Mrtva threw her head back and laughed a shrill screeching giggle that echoed all around the warrior.
"Oh, that is so sweet, Warrior Princess! I knew the little piece of dung had fallen for you, but I never thought the big tough warlord could return the feeling."
What is she saying? She's probably just trying to goad me. I would have known if Gabrielle felt the way I did, wouldn't I? ...Wouldn't I?
"What have you done with her?" Xena growled.
"She makes you hot, doesn't she? It makes your blood boil just to look at her. You want her, don't you?"
That was true, of course, but the way Mrtva said it made it sound all wrong. Xena reined in a sudden surge of black rage with an effort. The fortune teller seemed to notice, because a brighter glow sprung into her eyes as she continued, and her voice took on that reptilian quality again.
"You are sstronger than her. You could have taken her long ago, no matter what sshe wanted. It'ss only your ridiculous new moralss that hold you back."
"That's not the way it works, Mrtva," Xena said coldly. She balled her hands to fists and dug her nails into her palms to keep from lashing out at the woman.
"Go on, kisss your conssciencse good-bye. You can sstill have her. I can give her to you."
"Where is she?"
"Silly, silly, you've seen her for yourself, haven't you? Your little friend is dead."
No! No, she isn't! It is only a dream. Oh Zeus, please let her be all right!
"Cut the crap, witch! I'm tired of your little tricks."
Mrtva fixed her with a cold stare.
"You think I'm playing games, do you?" She seemed to grow all of a sudden, starting to loom menacingly over the warrior, who felt ice-cold fear once more take hold of her heart. The witch's voice boomed ominously through Xena's head, though her lips were not moving.
"I haven't even begun to play yet, twerp! When I'm through with you, not even that silly wench will be able to help you."
Even with terror holding her in its iron grasp, Xena felt relief flood her at the implication that Gabrielle was indeed alive. The creature before her gave her little time to dwell on it, though.
Within the blink of an eye, Mrtva had gone back to her normal size. A white dove had appeared in her hands, which she was holding very gently. She put on an endearing look that was somehow more terrible than her most evil grimace. Her hand started softly stroking the bird's neck with the sweetest smile playing around her lips.
"You see," she said mildly, looking down at the pigeon in her hand, "I have you completely in my power, like this little chap here. I choose to play with you for a while, because I'm enjoying myself so very much. I just love to watch your pathetic struggle to hold on to sanity. Don't you know that you lost that struggle the moment you first looked at me?" She raised her head to stare at Xena. "I can feel your anger, and your fear, too." She spread her arms wide. "You want nothing more than to let it all out, don't you?"
Keep cool, it's only a dream. But why won't it stop? The woman's words were getting to her, touching something beyond reason, that she had wrestled down into the depths of her soul long ago, and had been struggling to keep there ever since. Looking at Mrtva made it all come dangerously close to the surface. And the dream was still holding her tightly in its clutches.
"Yessss," the witch hissed tauntingly, "look at me! It's your own darkness you ssee, sso look! Does it fill you with horror? Does it ssscare you?" She cackled, and turned her attention back to the white bird she was still stroking.
"As for your little friend - I have her just as securely." She lifted the dove to her face and stared closely at it, seemingly ignoring the terror-struck warrior. The bird ruffled its feathers and started to struggle, suddenly agitated.
"For now," Mrtva continued conversationally, "she continues to have her uses for me. But once I grow tired of her...." And with a quick movement of her hand, she wrung the dove's neck.
Clutching her hands to her throat and stifling a scream. Xena snapped out of the dream, heart hammering and Mrtva's shrill giggle still echoing in her ears. A rotten taste clung to her mouth, making her feel shaky with nausea. Stomach heaving, she staggered forward onto her knees, bent over, and retched violently.
Oh gods, if there's one thing worse than feeling out of control, it's feeling out of control and being sick. Ares' butt, what in the Nine Hells is happening to me?
She straightened and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth, grimacing at the sting of bile in her throat. When she went to the stream to wash it down with a drink, a white object in the grass caught her eye, and she bent down for a closer look. It was a dead bird, a white dove. Its neck was broken. Xena closed her eyes and took a shaky breath.
"Okay, that's it," the warrior said aloud, "I'm not sleeping again until that... Mrtva is taken care of." She chuckled nervously. "I must really, really be beside myself if I'm talking to myself. Right, Argo?"
The golden mare tossed her head and rolled an expressive eye at her.
"Right," Xena took a breath, "okay. Take it easy, Warrior Princess!"
Squaring her shoulders, she closed the distance to the stream and got her drink. Then she cupped her hands to scoop up some more water, and splashed it into her face, the shock of the cold bringing back some semblance of calm. She knew now what she would have to do.
She didn't have to like it, though.
"Pretty darn desperate, I said - yeah, I guess this qualifies... Okay, Argo," she said finally, "let's get going. We've got a witch butt to kick."