The Warrior, The Witch, and the Nightmare
Chapter IX : Conflict
Absently, Gabrielle deactivated the mirror. Her eyes were locked onto her companion as she tucked the device into her pouch.
By the gods!" Gabrielle exclaimed. She had been aware, of course, of inhabiting the warrior's body, but seeing herself before her for the first time, and knowing that the warrior was experiencing the same thing, was a bit more of a shock than she had expected.
"You're me," Xena remarked tonelessly.
"And you're... me."
"Well, now that we've got that settled," the warrior said, all matter-of-fact again, "let's see about getting back into business. Where did you leave Argo?"
Gabrielle grinned a little. I wonder if this will work... She put her fingers to her mouth and whistled.
A whinny in the distance answered, and a moment later, the mare came trotting up to her, ears pricked, and her face stating clearly that it was about time she got called.
Xena's jaw dropped.
The mare blew softly into Gabrielle's outstretched hand in greeting, shook her head, and sniffed again. Then she turned her head and looked at Xena - wearing the bard's body - in such utter confusion that both women burst out laughing.
Argo snorted and tossed her head, giving them both a flat stare.
Still chuckling, they went and retrieved Argo's gear from where the bard had hidden it in a small copse of trees.
Xena was strapping the saddle onto the mare, when Gabrielle suddenly stiffened. Her warrior's body's acute hearing had picked up a sound it identified as a threat.
Xena had seen her tense, and gave the barest hint of a nod. "Yes, Gabrielle", she whispered, "longbow. Behind us, to our right. Whoever it is is still taking aim. If it misses you, it'll hit me."
"Uh huh. So what do I do?" came the whispered reply. "You don't expect me to catch that, do you? ... But I think you do. Gods!"
"I can't, in this body. You know that."
"Focus. And just try to let my body's instincts take over. It knows what to do. C'mon, you can do this!"
"He's drawing the string, Gabrielle."
The bard swallowed, and closed her eyes. Focus. Come on, Gabrielle! Yes, they were there, those innate reflexes. Focus. She tried to extend her senses backward, and just sort of... let go. There it was, a tiny creak and a telltale twang as the arrow was released. She felt herself drop to one knee, her hand snapped up at the moment the shaft hurtled by, and then, just like that, she had it in her hand. Firmly embedded in her hand, right through the palm.
"Damn," she cursed softly.
Xena watched the bard waver as the arrow impaled itself into her hand. At the same time, she caught a flicker of movement in the direction that the arrow had come from.
Thinking quickly, she took off towards the bushes to tackle the archer.
Rounding the tall rock where she had seen him disappear, she ran smack into a tall, black-clad figure.
"You! I was wondering where you fit in in all this, Ares."
The God of War gave her one of his insufferable grins. "You give me too much credit, my dear. Your nightmare friend is actually pulling this off all by herself. I'm just enjoying the show." He looked her up and down. "So, it's true what I suspected. You've changed, Xena."
"Very funny. And you had to try and kill one of us to find out?"
"Aw, now, are you going to be upset with me for that? Don't be silly. You know you love danger; you're courting it like a lover. More, actually." He smirked, and waggled his eyebrows in Gabrielle's direction.
Damn! Is it this obvious?, Xena thought angrily. If even the God of War notices...
"You know, there is no accounting for taste. Myself, I find her to be rather... irritating."
Xena growled. "Get out of here, Ares."
He glanced over at the tall figure that was the bard, still down on one knee and staring dumbly at her hand.
"Nice catch," he said dryly. "Wouldn't she have made a swell warrior?" And, his laughter echoing around him, he vanished.
The world receded from the bard's awareness. She was still down on one knee, and stared dumbfounded at the arrow impaling her hand. Her friend's hand. After what seemed half an eternity, a she felt a gentle touch on her shoulder.
"Hey, you okay?"
"That wasn't how I planned it at all," Gabrielle said dully.
Xena patted her shoulder. "I know. Come along, we need to take care of that. Hey?"
"One of us could be dead, you know. You'd better be glad it turned out this way."
She sat the still stunned bard down by the base of a tree and went to Argo to fetch her medical kit, a wad of cloth, and a strip of thick leather.
"What happened to... the archer?" Gabrielle asked weakly.
Xena shrugged. "Don't worry about him. But you need help now." She crouched by the bard, and examined the injured hand with gentle, knowing fingers.
"Here," the warrior said crisply, and put the piece of leather into Gabrielle's mouth, "bite down on this."
"Uatsh shat fo'?" the bard asked around the strip.
"Just a precaution. 'Fraid it's gonna hurt."
"Hursh aweagy. Ghenga, I..."
"Hush," Xena commanded curtly, but with a tiny, fond smile. "Now, bite!" She pulled out her dagger and very carefully cut a deep nick into the arrow's shaft. Then, with a quick flick of her wrist, she broke off one end of the thus weakened shaft and quickly pulled the other out of the wound, before Gabrielle even had a chance to moan. Pressing her thumb and forefinger firmly on both sides of the other woman's hand to staunch the flow of blood, she used the cloth as a bandage that she tied firmly around the hole.
"I ghink I'ng gonga kagh ough," Gabrielle said. Then the leather dropped from her mouth, and she slid bonelessly into Xena's anticipating arms.
Another one who had not died completely. Mrtva slid silently out of the little room, leaving the empty husk of the woman staring sightlessly away into the distance. She did not know which satiated her more, watching them shrivel with fear and die from heart failure when her feeding became too much, or knowing them to live on inside a cursed, senseless body, with a mind destined to continue an existence in nightmares too gleefully terrible for mortal words.
Of course, there was the added pleasure of watching the loved ones her victims left behind, puzzled, scared, struggling to learn what had happened. Just the right dose of terror to sustain her until the next time.
But they were nothing compared to what she had almost had. Nothing.
She stopped her furious hissing before it got loud enough to attract attention. It was time to go. The sorry wench's family was returning.
Mrtva would have loved to watch, but she had other things to worry about.
She could sense them, both of them, as they fumbled their way through her realm. The little pest had a surprising amount of intuition. She had felt the portal opening, felt them slip out from practically under her nose. So close.
She ripped forth the mirror, slammed the portal into place and stalked through. They would have left a residue. All mortals did. It would be easy to find the place where they had stepped into the Waking World. She had to confront them before the little one figured out what kind of power she held!
Pale, empty eyes lifted skyward, she extended her otherworldly senses. There it was. A few mind-jumps would take her there.
This time, she did not bother to suppress the grating growl that erupted from deep within her undead chest, where a lifeless heart was mechanically pumping that gruesome, viscous fluid through decaying veins, that had once been blood.
No pain now. Nothing but the cold. She yearned to remember. She would have them both. The warrior's darkness to sustain her, the bard's body, to bring back the memory of life.
Gabrielle woke from a fitful dozing to look into a set of concerned green eyes.
Is this how I look at her when she has been hurt? And does it feel this... good... to her, too? She managed a weak smile.
"Feeling better?" Xena asked her.
Gabrielle chuckled. "Some warrior, aren't I? Passing out like this."
Xena grinned and patted her shoulder. "You did okay, all things considered. You hungry?"
An insistent rumbling in the bard's stomach answered for her. Xena shook her head and smiled. "You are messing with my body," she accused good-naturedly, "my stomach never makes these noises."
"Oh yeah?" Gabrielle countered. "Then I suppose it's you purring I hear whenever you smell roast boar?"
Xena spread her arms in surrender before she handed her friend a chunk of rabbit, which the bard accepted gratefully.
"So, what's our plan now?" Gabrielle asked around a mouthful of the juicy meat. "Do we have one?"
The warrior turned bard considered for a moment. "Well, first, I am going to change the dressing on that wound. Then I suppose we should try and see if there is a way to reverse this." Her gesture took in both of them.
Gabrielle froze in mid-chew. "Hold on, Xena. Are you trying to tell me we're not being switched back? Didn't Nyx tell you how to reverse this?"
Xena looked slightly uncomfortable. "Well, Nyx wasn't too specific about that, and pushing her for it seemed like a bad idea at the time."
"Oh great. You mean we're stuck like this?"
"I don't know. It's not like it was such a bad change for you."
"But it was for you?" asked Gabrielle, hurt creeping into her voice.
Xena took a breath. "Listen, I didn't-"
The by now familiar sound of a magic portal opening close by cut her short.
Xena froze in terror.
"Here comes trouble," muttered Gabrielle as she instinctively reached for the sword on her back.
Jolts of pain shot through her injured hand when it closed around the hilt, but she clenched her jaw and went through with the motion, gliding to her feet automatically as she did.
She caught Xena's fear-stricken form out of the corner of her eye, and knew that she was on her own for the time being.
Before long, the haggard shape of the witch stepped through the portal. Her gaze was riveted on Gabrielle as she closed the portal and absently made the mirror disappear in her bag. These strange eyes! Lifeless yet at the same time filled with an unearthly, savage glow, those pale orbs never failed to send a shiver creeping up Gabrielle's spine. How she could ever have taken them to be of the same color as her own, a vibrant green, was completely beyond her now.
"Sso, we meet again, wretch."
"Charmed," Gabrielle agreed wryly. She shifted her grip on the sword, hoping to take some pressure off the wound, as she watched Mrtva glide to the side, starting to circle her.
The warrior's body took over, taking a battle stance, sword held at the ready and keeping herself between the evil being and Xena, who watched them both out of large eyes, her jaw muscles twitching with inner struggle.
"Do you really think your puny, mortal weapon will stop me?" Mrtva taunted. "I can't be killed. I have lived through more deaths than I care to count. A sad parody of a warrior like you will hardly be able to dent my skin."
"We will see about that, witch."
Gabrielle whirled. Xena had gotten to her feet and seized Gabrielle's staff. Mrtva's eyes widened briefly, but then she cackled.
Before Gabrielle could make her body react, Xena was flinging herself at the evil being, staff poised for a powerful blow. Mrtva did not move.
Everything happened quickly. Gabrielle yelled, "Xena, Noooo!," as Xena lurched forward. A flurry of motion, a startled yell, the staff clattering harmlessly to the ground, Xena down on her knees with a look of incredulous bewilderment on her face. Mrtva had not moved a hair. She stood like a statue, arms spread wide.
"And the beauty of it is, people tend to hurt themselves whenever they try to attack me."
"I... tripped." Xena glared at Mrtva, anger overriding her fear of the woman for the moment. "What did you do to me?"
"I told you." Mrtva managed to look both smug and - disappointed? - at the same time. "Try again," she offered.
Xena shot her another suspicious glance, but she complied, this time taking into consideration her now smaller body and strength. She did not remember that staff being this heavy! She lifted it high above her head, preparing to put all of her weight into a downward stroke. Took careful aim. She would split open Mrtva's skull. A bunching of muscle. Now. A gust of wind, carrying dust and leaves. With a curse, Xena dropped the staff, knuckling her eyes. Some piece of foliage was stuck there.
Mrtva cackled evilly. "Now do you know where those idiots back in the village went wrong? You would not believe how easily a fire can get out of control..."
"You killed them all," Gabrielle said flatly. "I should have realized that long ago." She had watched Xena fumble when trying to launch an attack at Mrtva. Her mind was racing for a way to nullify the effect the being seemed to have on Chance's machinations.
Carefully, she advanced on the witch, aware of the painful throbbing in her hand, but trying to ignore it, picking each step with the greatest care.
"They were idiots," sneered Mrtva, her attention now once again on Gabrielle. "They didn't deserve to live."
Meanwhile, Xena blinked a few times after removing the obstruction in her eye, and once more grasped the staff. Slowly, cautiously, she approached Mrtva, a determined glint in that emerald gaze.
Gabrielle circled around the other way, drawing the twisted being's gaze with her, and fervently wishing that her attempt to distract from Xena would not be recognized as such.
Her hopes were shattered when she saw the witch's gaze flick towards her friend with a wicked little smile. Throwing all caution into the wind, Gabrielle charged the creature with a furious, high-pitched howl that very nearly sounded like the fabled battle cry of the Warrior Princess.
Although the weight of the sword felt unfamiliar in her hands, she was getting better at letting this body take over. Hacking and slashing, she pressed Mrtva hard. Mishaps kept her from scoring a direct hit - she stumbled, floundered, once she even sank to one knee as a branch tangled itself impossibly in her legs. But she persevered, advancing doggedly until she was practically nose to nose with her target. Now she did score, cutting a long, nasty gash down Mrtva's front.
Gabrielle faltered and paused, sickened by her own deed. Mrtva, however, threw back her head in an almost ecstatic gesture, a soft moan escaping her lips.
The bard stared. Already the wound was starting to congeal. There was no blood, just a slow trickle of yellowish ooze.
Then, several things happened almost at once.
With a sickening crack, Xena, creeping up from the side, slammed the staff home. Mrtva's head snapped to the side, she lurched grotesquely, staggering a few steps from the force of the blow, then the head came back up. An oblong dent, about as wide as an Amazon's staff, adorned the right temple. The creature did not seem to notice. Her eyes glowed with an unearthly, light, as if daring them to try again. She made no move to protect herself.
Gabrielle, getting ready to start another attack, suddenly found her world changing. The surroundings blurred, there was a wrenching feeling and a sense of disorientation, followed by a feeling of intense nausea.
And then she found herself several paces off to the side, the familiar texture of her wooden staff warm and comforting against her hands. She retched a few times, but nothing came. Her head seemed about to burst.
It took her a few moments and the sight of a similarly confused warrior standing where she had been the blink of an eye ago, to realize that she was back in her own body.
The warrior shook herself. Not questioning what had happened, she launched a series of vicious slashes at the witch, once almost succeeding in severing an arm, but doing no serious damage. It seemed there truly was no way to harm this being; in fact, Mrtva seemed to revel in each hit Xena scored.
The creature raised her head, dead eyes unfocused, sniffing. There was a popping sound as the dented bones in her temple sprang back into place.
"That wass a sstupid thing to do, Warrior Slut," she said, looking at Xena. "With your mind and body one again, you know you are no match for me." She hissed wordlessly.
Xena stood stock-still as her battle rage gave way to that inexplicable, deep fear that this creature inspired in her - she paled, her eyes went wide. Slowly, she retreated. The sword dropped from nerveless hands.
Above the screaming headache and roiling stomach, Gabrielle realized that something else was back in force - the link that Mrtva had forged between them. She could sense her. She could get inside her. Every wound Xena had inflicted on the witch smarted as if it was her own, but she tried to tell herself it was not real, biting her lip against crying out in agony.
The familiar horrid excitement at being thus connected was back in force. A searing heat spread from the pit of her stomach, threatening to suffocate her. Memories not her own flooded her mind, too jumbled to make much sense of them. Fond memories, painful memories.
And then it became startlingly clear to her that she knew how Mrtva could be harmed.
There it was again, that sensation of fear.
As desperate as Mrtva was to experience any type of emotion, that icy, paralyzing claw taking a firm hold on her being was not what she had expected. Pain, pain was good, intense, it was real. But this, she could not fathom or control, and she did not like that.
The instant the little wench was back in her own body, Mrtva knew that she was in trouble. The ritual, incomplete as it was, had left her vulnerable, had left her and the bard with an intense spiritual connection. Physical attacks could hurt her, cause her pain, but in this form she had been cursed with, she welcomed pain, and only regretted it could not end her misery. No weapon forged in this world could kill Mrtva.
It had never occurred to Mrtva that Gabrielle might discover the one way that she could be destroyed.
The ritual, the ritual could have given her her life back, in the body of this young, obnoxious and naive little bard. Instead, it might well prove her downfall.
Frantically, Mrtva focused her attention on the warrior. If she could break Xena's mind, she might yet save herself from the horror that was Gabrielle.
Seeing Mrtva pause slightly, Xena took advantage of the temporary reprieve to advance again. She expected the panic attacks to return any time, she had to make every stroke of her blade count.
How she was going to defeat a creature that could not be harmed by a sword was not entirely clear to her, but all the warrior could think of was Mrtva's head, neatly severed from the rest of her. If even that didn't kill her, at least she would be considerably restricted in her actions.
With a guttural roar, she brought her sword around in a whining arc, but somehow she tripped in mid stroke and ended up delivering a wicked cut to the witch's abdomen. Again, it opened up bloodlessly. Some green, viscous substance seeped from it. Xena gaped. She had expected entrails.
Hearing Gabrielle groan softly, the warrior turned in time to see her double over, both hands pressed to her stomach.
The bard's eyes stared ahead unseeing, shocked surprise evident in their glazed look. She sank to her knees.
"What have you done with her?" the warrior grated, whirling to face Mrtva again.
"Nothing, nothing at all." Mrtva laughed hysterically. "You are doing it. Beautiful, isn't it? My wounds are her wounds, you see. Difference being, I can recover from them. She can't."
Unable to speak through the agony, Gabrielle could only look at her friend, silently telling her that she would be okay, that it was just pain, and it would go away. It was just pain. Whatever happened to Mrtva, it could not truly hurt her. It was just pain. She had to believe that.
Xena, however, did not seem to understand what the bard was trying to say. The warrior stood rooted to the spot, apparently wanting to tear Mrtva limb from limb with her bare hands, but unable to for fear of hurting the bard. Traces of that by now familiar panic were starting to show again.
It is just pain, the bard reminded herself again. Although at the moment, she was sure she would see the blade sticking in her gut if she dared to look down. The metallic smell of fresh blood filled her nostrils. Wet warmth was spreading from the wound. Too real! It can't be... She steeled herself, and looked at her abdomen.
Nothing but tanned, healthy skin stretched over taut abdominal muscles. No wound, no blood. But even seeing with her own eyes, Gabrielle found it hard to believe. It felt so real... she must get over it, or they would be in trouble. I can feel her pain, I should be able to get inside her mind. That must be where those weird memories are coming from. They are scenes from her past, from when she was human! Gods, that was ages ago. She was a young girl.... Most of the images fleshing through Gabrielle's head where happy ones, but there was also a vague darkness, vile and filthy, so evil that her consciousness shied away from it. There was a handsome young man, strangely dressed as if he was from a different age, and the girl whose memories she now owned had loved him with all her being. Then he had been gone. He had not died, but turned out to be something other than he had seemed, and she discovered that he had deceived her, never loved her at all, just used her. There was a vast emotional void, and it hurt more than anything. Then came the anger. And after that, a darkness blacker than just the lack of light.
The bard shuddered.
"Mara," she whispered. That was her name then. And she remembers. I never thought there could be anything still human inside that... thing.
On hearing Gabrielle speak, Mrtva screeched like a cat whose tail had just been stepped on. "What did you say?"
Ignoring the pain still raging through her midsection, Gabrielle forced herself to her feet. Jaw setting in grim determination, she said the other name that had found its way into her mind. "Antikrates."
For the first time since she had known the witch, true emotion showed on her face. But only for a split second, then her features hardened again.
However, she could not hide from Gabrielle. The bard knew that somehow, these memories were more than Mrtva could bear. They were part of what made her what she was, whatever that might be. They were something that she had spent centuries trying to erase. And in taking over Gabrielle's body, she had hoped to accomplish that. Gabrielle did not understand it, but she knew she was right.
So did Mrtva.
The creature's head whipped back and forth between warrior and bard. Her hold over Xena's fear wavered as the realization that the bard could destroy her grew stronger.
It was a battle of the mind. Witch and bard were immobile, Gabrielle trying to overcome her pain to focus on the witch, Mrtva trying to block those attempts and continue to control Xena's fear. Xena, on the other hand, was still in shock after the bard's collapse, and hardly noticed that the panic was receding erratically. No outward activity betrayed the struggle that was taking place.
Thus they remained for what seemed like an eternity, until suddenly the witch's demeanor changed dramatically. She knew she was beaten, but she was not about to stick around and await her destruction. Her eyes took on a pale glow, and she whipped around, her hand lashing out, moving too fast for the eye to follow.
"I'll take this, you won't be needing it," Mrtva cackled as she snatched the pouch containing the Mirror of Phantasos from Xena's belt. And then she threw herself towards the still open portal before either of the women could react, and dove through.
The explosion took them by surprise.
From the portal shot a white hot, searing mass of light, burning their faces, forcing them to squeeze their eyes shut. The portal shook, the earth trembled as a low, roiling sound built up like an avalanche to climax in a deafening bang.
Warrior and bard were thrown back like rag dolls by a blast of intensely hot air.
When they opened their eyes again, the portal and Mrtva were gone. Only a charred patch of ground remained where they had been, thin tendrils of smoke snaking up from it with tiny, dry hisses.
A host of objects, reminiscent of rather large, shimmering petals and at least as colorful, fluttered to the ground in a gentle shower. The tarot cards, miraculously untouched by the explosion. Every last one of them came to rest face up, largely unnoticed by a warrior and a bard who were struggling to recover their equilibrium.
"What happened?" Xena said, her ears ringing from the unexpected blast. Both women were rubbing their eyes to clear their vision of the brilliant white glare, as they staggered to dazedly to their feet. Xena gently caught hold of her friend's arm to steady her.
Gabrielle considered for a few moments, and then she caught on. "It was the mirror. I guess these mirrors don't like each other much, and when she tried to take one through a portal generated by the other..."
"Boom," Xena finished for her, emphasizing the word by splaying her fingers to mimick an explosion. "So much for making sure we don't follow her."
Gabrielle grinned crookedly, and got an answering grin in return.
"I wonder what made her decide to run all of a sudden," the warrior mused.
Gabrielle told her.
"That doesn't make much sense," said Xena.
"I know. But hey, no less sense than all the rest we've been through these last few days."
"Yeah, okay, I guess I can't argue with that." She paused. "But can we be sure she is really gone?"
"I don't know," said Gabrielle. "But I don't sense her any more. She is gone from my mind. It feels... weird. Empty, almost. But I'm glad," she added quickly.
They stood looking at the charred patch in silence, each lost in her own thoughts.
Presently the bard tilted her head and gave the warrior an impish look.
"Xena? Do we have some of that rabbit left? I'm starving."
The warrior shook her head and started back towards their camp, muttering under her breath about bards and appetites. She did not see Gabrielle stoop to pick up one of the cards that had landed close by, and look at it thoughtfully for a while before slipping it silently into her belt.
The Queen Of Swords. Xena's symbol.
Meanwhile, on Mount Olympus
"Nice touch there, Nyx", Apollo said with a touch of sarcasm. "I almost thought they'd lose it when you switched them back.
Nyx sniffed. "I couldn't wait any longer, or they would have had to remain in each other's bodies," she said defensively.
"The timing was as it should be," Fate said enigmatically from under her hood. Again, no-one could say which aspect of her was with them today, although the somewhat stooped posture suggested Atropos.
A few gods looked at her with raised eyebrows, but the Mistress of the Tapestry offered no further explanation.
Once more they were watching Athena's moving image, that had showed them the latest events in brilliantly colored clarity.
Cupid, looking slightly distressed at all the hatred he had seen, was way at the back of the hall, idly twanging the string of his bow, to a few nervous flinches, causing Aphrodite to grin impishly. The Goddess of Love returned her attention to the image of warrior and bard making their way to their camp.
"Oh," Aphrodite breathed, "isn't she a hunk, though! Just get a load of that b..." Gazes swiveled to her all across the arena. "... beautiful outfit," the Goddess of Love finished with a smirk.
Zeus harrumphed loudly. "But what I would like to know, Fate," he thundered - Zeus always thundered when he spoke, it seemed. "What I would like to know is what happened down there?"
"A twist of Fate," said Fate wryly.
"Funny, Fate," Athena said. "But what creature was this Mrtva anyway? I've never seen anything like it."
"I can answer that," said Nyx. "She was of Morpheus' realm." She seemed reluctant. "She somehow got a hold of that Mirror, and escaped."
"Gee, Morpheus must've been sleeping at the time," Aphrodite quipped, chuckling at her own joke. No-one else did.
"She is a creature of hate," Fate said. "She was once a living being, and fell from grace. Now, that life of love has become but a bad dream to her, pushed deep down and long forgotten as her dark powers over dreamers in the living world grew. She should never have escaped."
She paused for effect.
"But, those very memories were her downfall. And it was the link she created to Gabrielle, this vile thing that would have enabled her to remain forever in the world of the living without losing her powers had she succeeded. It was this that helped the bard to make her conjure up those memories. And, rather than face complete unraveling of her being, she made a run for it. Shouldn't have tried to take the second mirror, though."
"Was that what the explosion was?" asked Gaea.
"And what about Xena?" said Ares. "What was up with her?"
Fate's head turned towards one, then the other, before she went on. "The Mirrors canceled each other out. They cannot be brought near each other without risking dangerous twists in reality. Taking one through the other - well, you saw. As for Xena, Mrtva was able to tap into her dark side to generate the fear that she fed off."
"Turning her into a quivering wimp while the bard had to save the day. Some warrior," Artemis mumbled. She looked smug. Ares looked like he was about to stick out his tongue.
"Well, it has been nice talking to you," Fate said wryly, "but I have to go. Considering this Mrtva doesn't even have a true Life Thread, she managed to tangle up my Tapestry something awful." She chuckled ruefully, before gliding slowly out the door.
"What on earth did you do that for?"
Xena had just come back from a short trip to refill their waterskins when Gabrielle presented her with the tarot deck she had carefully gathered back together.
The bard bristled. "I didn't want them to rot," she said sullenly. There was that patronizing tone again that Xena had been using on her before this latest adventure! She stifled a sigh. Some things, apparently, took a little more to change than simply a switch of identities, a creature from beyond their worst nightmares, and a threat to their very existence.
"It's only a few scraps of scroll, Gabrielle. What do you care?"
"Just because you have no use for then doesn't mean they're useless!" Gabrielle retorted.
"Whatever," said Xena, and proceeded to unsaddle and groom Argo with brisk, aggressive movements. Having finished that, she wordlessly went to the fire, where she sat down staring into the flames, brooding, her face expressionless. From time to time, she'd make a fist and bang it against her thigh, and her jaw muscle would twitch.
No question - Gabrielle had one distraught warrior on her hands, but she wasn't sure why. Had she not been so hurt by Xena's gruff rebuke about the cards earlier, she might have approached her and talked to her. Maybe she'd have massaged her friend's shoulders. That always seemed to relax her so nicely. But as it was, the bard, wearing a sullen frown, silently cleared away the dishes and put on water to make tea. The kettle rattled rather noisily in her hands as she crammed in a handful of herbs. Xena looked up briefly at the unaccustomed noise, but did not speak.
With the tea left to steep, Gabrielle rummaged in their bags for the mugs. When she did not find them immediately, she simply upturned the bag and dumped its contents on the ground in a clattering jumble of pewter bowls, silverware, tools, and the two objects of her search.
"What are you doing?" Xena grated.
"What does it look like?"
"Gabrielle..." The warrior's voice held menace and irritation.
Don't 'Gabrielle' me!"
The warrior's temper snapped. She gripped Gabrielle's arm roughly and swung her around to face her. "Gabrielle," she growled, consciously letting the frustration she felt tinge her voice, "Knock that off right now. Either you tell me what in Hades' name is bothering you, or you just snap out of it and stop sulking. I'm sick of this!"
"YOU're sick of this? What about me? What is wrong with you? I'm not the one who's been grouchy and insufferable for no good reason I can see."
"Grouchy and insufferable? I don't think you're being reasonable, Gabrielle.
Gabrielle's eyes flashed daggers at Xena. She opened and closed her mouth a few times, but could find no reply. How dare she...?"Let go of me," she whispered harshly. With that, she twisted out of the warrior's weakening grasp and ran off into the woods.
Xena stood motionless for a long time, staring at the spot where the bard had disappeared. Then she crossed the short distance to where her gear was stacked, and unpacked her whetstone. Pulling her sword from its sheath, she sat down against the base of a tree, and started whisking the stone across the blade in slow, mechanical moves, looking sightlessly into the fire.
"How dare she?" Gabrielle mumbled over and over again, as she staggered blindly through the forest, uncaring that brambles snagged her and tore at her skin.
She'd hoped for just a little show of emotion from the warrior. After all, they had been to Tartarus and back, all but literally, and had come through mostly unharmed. She'd wanted nothing more than to be held in the warrior's arms and just relax and let the tension go, after Mrtva had been consumed in that blast. But immediately, she had felt all of Xena's walls go up. Stubborn woman, stupid, cagey, stubborn woman!
Eventually, she came to a small gully that blocked her path, extending out of sight into thicker undergrowth on both sides. She clambered down the rocky ledge and sank down under a rocky outcrop, where she sat hugging her knees and staring listlessly at the opposite wall of the cleft.
She must have stayed there for a long time, hardly noticing how the shadows deepened; until the little gully was shrouded in gloom. Thus she almost missed the darker shadow when something above her moved. When an instant later, Xena dropped down soundlessly beside her, Gabrielle showed no reaction whatsoever.
At a loss, Xena squatted down at her side and stared at the ground.
"You about ready to come back?" she asked at last, when the silence was beginning to tear at even her nerves.
As if nothing had happened!
"What is it with you?" Gabrielle flared. "Every time I start thinking there is a person hiding underneath all that bronze and leather, you go and prove me wrong again. What in Tartarus is going on now? We've just been through a nightmare, we've won, and you're grouchier than a wet cat. I don't know why I still bother trying to understand you. You're better off killing people instead of relating to them. I think I might be better off where I'm not constantly reminded I'm just not worth talking to."
Xena had gone very still during the outburst. Now she grabbed Gabrielle roughly by the shoulders, eyes blazing. "Don't you ever, ever, think that, Gabrielle." The warrior took an unsteady breath, and another, and then after a visible struggle she let her hands travel up to gently cup the other woman's face. Gabrielle could feel the trembling in the other woman's hands. When Xena spoke, it was in deliberate, slow words. "You are the best thing that's happened to me...in a very long time. You've showed me a side of myself that I didn't know still existed. You gave me back...a reason for living. I don't know where I'd be without you." The last sentence was no more than a whisper.
Gabrielle swallowed, shaken. Wow! Talk about opening a floodgate! Did she just try to tell me what I thought she did? I've never seen her this intense. She thought her heart would jump out of her throat with giddy excitement.
Xena wasn't finished. "Look, I know I'm not very good at this, but I... I'm sorry if I made you feel... like I didn't care. Because I do. Very much. Now, I don't blame you if you want to leave. You deserve better than... this. I never understood why you put up with me as long as you did, but, the gods help me, I'm glad. And I will not keep you from starting a better life, if that's what you want." She blinked and turned away briskly, letting her hands drop. Gabrielle caught them quickly, and pulled the warrior back to face her.
"Look at me, Xena." Which the warrior did, unshed tears in her eyes. For once, Gabrielle found nothing to say. She released her hold on one of Xena's hands to stroke the warrior's cheek with the back of her fingers. "Sorry," she whispered. She found the other woman leaning into her touch, closing her eyes. I must be dreaming. No. I never dreamed... anything this intense. It must really be happening, then. Gabrielle tried to still her suddenly shaking hands and just let the emotion of the moment wash over her. "My choice," the bard said finally, "It was my choice to go with you. And it still is." She paused. "If you want. I just thought..."
Xena let out a shaky breath and wordlessly pulled Gabrielle into a tight hug. I really rattled her there, Gabrielle suddenly realized , and by the gods, I meant what I said, much as that bothers me now. I never expected...this. She is giving me the most precious thing she has to offer. Friendship. And trust. Love? Xena's breathing was strained as she was vainly trying to get a grip on herself. And there was a definite catch in her voice. "Don't leave me, my bard!" She buried her face in the smaller woman's red-gold hair.
Oh, Xena! Do we always have to start out fighting before we will allow ourselves to open up to each other? "I won't," the bard whispered against the warrior's collarbone, "Not in this life. Or the one after." Gods, I love her. I do. Maybe I'll even bring myself to tell her some time.
She could feel the warriors shoulders softly shaking, knew her to be crying, unable to hold back her own tears, and not caring. She felt Xena's lips brush the top of her head. "It was terrible, standing there and being too afraid to even move. We were in danger, and I could not do a thing. I'm a warrior. It's all I know. Why couldn't I fight? Why couldn't I protect you?"
"So that's it, is it," Gabrielle said softly. "Xena, there are some enemies that can't be fought with battle skills. And it's not like I'm a helpless child anymore, you know."
"I know. But... I can't bear the thought of you having to... of something happening to you that I can't stop."
"There is always that possibility, Xena. We both knew that when I teamed up with you."
Xena was silent for a while. "I know, I know, it's just... Hades, I don't know." Another pause. "Sorry I'm always being such a grouch. I'm just not used to... being close to people. Having people get under my skin. I prefer to keep them at arm's length" She shrugged. "It's always been easier that way."
"Now there's a piece of news". Gabrielle looked up at her, sniffling and red-eyed but smiling, and gave her a playful cuff in the ribs.
Xena smiled back, a glimmer in those startling blue eyes that Gabrielle had not seen there before. "Already noticed that, huh? I must be an easy read," she added thoughtfully. Her voice was steadier already.
Gabrielle burst out laughing. "You?? Yeah. Sure. About as easy as a blank wall. Though, come to think of it, I'd have less trouble with the wall." She gazed fondly at Xena. "But it's worth the effort."
"It is, is it?" Xena was definitely back in control now. Her blue-eyed gaze was bright as a starling's, and twice as mischievous. It seemed some wall had finally broken down, and allowed some of the woman underneath to emerge. Gabrielle was determined to bask in that while it lasted. A slight tensing of the warrior's body was all the warning the smaller woman had, before she was scooped up by a pair of strong arms.
"Whoa! What are you doing?"
Xena was grinning openly now. "I was thinking why don't we just mosey on over to the fire and have some tea? Should be about done by now." She winked.
"Gods! I bet it's a pretty darn strong tea by now." And then the bard gave a startled yell as Xena launched herself into the air, cleared the rocky overhang, and took off back towards the camp in a steady, ground-eating lope.
Later that evening, Gabrielle was lying on her belly busily writing up the latest events. Xena lounged against the base of a tree mending a piece of armor, Gabrielle very conscious of the warrior watching her out of the corner of her eye. The bard suddenly smiled to herself. This was asking for trouble, but...
"Hey, know what?" she said, propping herself up on one elbow, "I just figured something out. About you."
"Umhmmm," Xena turned her head a little, regarding the bard. "What's that?"
Gabrielle gave her an impish grin. "You're really just a big softie, aren't you?" Her grin grew as she saw Xena's eyebrows shoot up, as expected.
"Am I, now," the dark warrior purred dangerously.
"Yeah, I mean it. Under all that no-nonsense, intimidating, hard-as-a-hammer warlord act of yours is just a basically nice, softhearted woman vainly struggling to get out." She suddenly had to giggle, picturing a tiny little naked warlord frantically jumping and waving her arms inside the larger, hollow one, clawing without success at those walls of emotional steel.
Xena barked a laugh in spite of herself. "You are incorrigible, bard." Knowing the tease for what it was, she drew her eyebrows together and wiped her face clean of any mirth, giving Gabrielle another attempt at the 'Look'. And failing. "Don't let me catch you saying that where anyone can hear. I might have to do something... drastic to you, my storytelling friend."
"Like what?" the bard asked, still giggling.
She never saw Xena move. In a flash, the warrior was upon her, pinning her to the ground with a knee on her ribcage. "Like... this!"
Gabrielle gasped, and giggled harder. "Oh, no fair! No tickling... Hey! Cut that out!" She tried bravely to get her hands up to respond in kind, but Xena simply grabbed her two slender wrists in one hand, and continued her work with the other, a feral light in her eyes. "Yield?"
"Are you kidding?" Gabrielle managed between fits of laughter, "I've almost got you!"
"Is that so?" Xena asked mildly, her free hand wriggling and wandering.
The warrior's lips quirked. "Gotta remember that spot. Now," she continued menacingly, "what were you planning on doing to me once you 'almost' have me? Well? I'm listening." She continued her tickling mercilessly.
Gabrielle was laughing helplessly, unable to answer, and suddenly very conscious of Xena's face so close to her. When she found a second to catch her breath, she said softly, "I've one more thing up my sleeve, warrior." And raising her head up, planted a sound kiss right on the warrior's mouth.
Xena just barely avoided banging her head on a protruding branch when she jumped up, caught completely off guard.
Gabrielle felt her face grow hot. "Gods, Xena, I'm sorry. I... I don't know what made me do that. It's..."
Xena, though more rattled than she let on, was quick to recover. "Gabrielle, that's okay."
"Gods! It's just happened. I don't know what I was thinking. Nothing, probably. I never think. And I'm babbling again. I...."
"...know. But you were... I mean, I was... And..."
Xena sighed. Gabrielle wasn't even looking at her as she spoke, or she would have seen the slow smile spread on her friend's face. Then the warrior found a way to silence her, by tenderly capturing Gabrielle's mouth with her own. All Gabrielle could think about for a very long moment was how wonderful and soft those lips where, and how gentle those hands that she had seen breaking bones with negligent ease. She could feel Xena's heart pounding through the shift she had donned for the night, keeping beat with her own.
"Hey," Xena said, smiling, as they finally separated, "I believe I have your attention now, so listen! You surprised me, that's all. Don't be sorry."
"I'm not, really," Gabrielle admitted a little breathlessly, "I've been wanting to do this. For a long time."
"Yeah. Me too."
Gabrielle just gazed at her friend, well aware that she must have a very silly grin on her face, drinking in the sight of her, enjoying the giddy feeling of butterflies fluttering in her stomach. She poked Xena's arm with a finger.
"Surprised you, huh? Never thought I'd see the day, warrior."
"Gabrielle, believe me, you surprise me at every turn," was the warrior's wry reply. Then she took a long breath, and grew serious. "You still haven't told me what was bothering you." She traced the bard's jawline with her index finger.
"Well, you weren't asking very politely, before." At that, Xena looked a little sheepish. "I know. Sorry about that. I was trying... oh, never mind. I'm sorry."
Gabrielle gave her a tiny smile. "That didn't work out quite the way you planned, did it?"
The warrior shrugged. "Nope. Guess it didn't." She flashed the bard a wolfish grin. "But somehow, I don't really mind that much. Now." She pulled the bard closer, and Gabrielle relaxed against her. Xena smelled faintly of the herbs she put into her healing ointment, and of leather. And of Xena. An intoxicating mixture.
"So, you think I'm a softie, do you?" the Warrior Princess murmured huskily. Gabrielle giggled. Xena pulled the bard in for another light kiss, and started stroking her neck with gentle, competent fingers. "Well," she purred, "how's that for a softie?" Gabrielle felt a pleasant tingle run down her spine. She ran her hand along the warrior's arm, and marveled at the velvety softness of Xena's skin over those powerful biceps.
"I don't know," Gabrielle said lightly, "You might want to loosen up a bit more. I didn't quite get that last part, so could you...? AAAWWWK!!" She was cut off by the warrior's quick tickle. Xena had indeed remembered the spot.
Xena allowed herself a contented sigh as she put her bowl aside, and set about greasing Argo's saddle. She watched in some amusement as Gabrielle ladled yet another generous portion of the thoroughly cooked but still tasty stew into her own bowl.
"Goodness, Gabrielle! Where do you put all that stuff?"
"Hey, looking after you is hard work," the bard replied around a mouthful. "Besides, don't think I didn't notice that your three portions were much larger than mine."
Xena arched an eyebrow. "So you get to have another two to make it even, huh?"
Xena watched the bard finish the last of the stew in an amazingly short time, and chuckled to herself as Gabrielle took a crust of bread to clean her bowl.
"There. All gone," Gabrielle said finally, "Now perhaps I could get you to stop your incessant chatter for a bit so I can get some work on my scrolls done." She squatted down by her blanket and rummaged in her bag to get out her ink and quill.
The warrior's mouth quirked. "I'll see what I can do." Then she noticed something lying by the bard's scrolls, and crossed over to Gabrielle to pick it up.
"Shouldn't we get rid of these?" She held up the deck of tarot cards, and gestured towards the fire.
Gabrielle sat up quickly and laid a gentle hand on the warrior's arm. "No, don't. Please?"
Xena snorted. "They're evil, Gabrielle. I won't trust anything that woman touched."
"It's not the cards that are evil. You should know that, of all people."
Gabrielle caught her eyes, and touched the dagger Xena still had tucked away between her breasts. "Would you say that's good, or evil?"
"You know that's not the way it works, Gabrielle. It's not the weapon that's either good or evil. It's what the wielder uses it for that... Oh. All right. I get your point. But still, I don't know...."
"Besides, these are beautiful," Gabrielle persisted, "It would be a shame. And they told the truth, too. About us, I mean. So far, that is." She blushed.
Xena looked at the deck again, then at the fire, then at Gabrielle, for a long moment. And shrugged. She handed the deck to Gabrielle. "You're right. These are beautiful. I wonder what she did to the person that made them."
"Ahem." The voice behind them made them both start. From seemingly out of nowhere, another dagger had appeared in the warrior's hand.
There stood a middle-aged woman of rather plain appearance, regarding them benignly. She wore a dark, hooded cloak with the hood drawn back. "I believe you two have something that belongs to me."
Xena quickly appraised the situation. She looked at the woman quizzically, taking in her appearance, and the fact that she must have just popped up out of nowhere for her to not have heard her approach, and said, "Let me guess. You're a goddess. Fate, I suppose. The middle one. Lachesis. Am I right?" An eyebrow was raised in question.
"Quite right, child. Now, can I have my cards back? They don't belong in this time. I don't know what Chronos was thinking when he... oh, never mind. Well?" She extended her hand.
Gabrielle, speechless for once, handed the deck to her, casting a last longing look at it. There was Fate's symbol, lying topmost. The Ghost, the Great Unknown. It figured.
"Hold on a minute," Xena said, "Did you have a hand in all this?"
Lachesis arched an eyebrow, imitating the warrior. "Considering who I am, what do you think?" Then she smiled a very human, sheepish smile. "To tell the truth, that was quite a tangle you got into there. Had one heck of a time sorting it all out."
"Um. Lachesis," Gabrielle cleared her throat. "I would like to ask you something. This Mrtva. Who...what exactly is she?"
Lachesis gazed at her intently, then sighed. "Mrtva just... happened. She is not even truly alive. I was busy rearranging the Tapestry elsewhere, and she just popped up as an unwanted side effect. Even the material of her thread seems different." It seemed that for a moment Lachesis had forgotten the two women. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear it wasn't a fresh thread, but a used one...need to talk to Hades about that..."
"Then why didn't you just remove her again? I mean, you're Fate. You could do that, couldn't you?" Xena shot her a warning look, which the bard missed.
"Actually, I couldn't. Cutting and removing threads is Atropos' specialty. But even we must abide by our own rules, and play out her thread. We can't just take her back. She has already had her effect on the weaving. If I just remove her thread from the Tapestry of Life, the Pattern may lose a all cohesion and... just collapse. We definitely don't want that to happen."
"Oh," Gabrielle said.
Lachesis suddenly drew herself up and loomed over the bard menacingly, causing her to take a backward step. "But if you breathe a word of this, bard, I will tie some knots in your thread that will have you hung up good. I mean it. So no silly stories about a misstep of the Fates, do I make myself clear?"
Gabrielle swallowed and nodded. She noticed Xena had taken a step to position herself closer to Gabrielle, her body radiating menace. That got Lachesis' attention, and she fixed her glare on the dark-haired woman.
"Oh, and one more thing, Warrior Princess: Try not to draw any god's attention just now. They get a little touchy about owing favors to mortals. Got that?"
"I bet they do," Gabrielle blurted. Then she flushed bright red. "Um, no offense, Fate."
"None taken, for now, little bard. Be well, both of you." And with that, she was gone.
"I can't believe that just happened," Gabrielle breathed, recovering after a stunned silence.
"You'd better," Xena told her dryly. "And I rather think Fate has taken a liking to you, or she would have tied you in knots then and there, and not just threatened you with it."
"How'd you know it was her, anyway?" the bard asked.
Xena shrugged. "Lucky guess."
"Well, woman appearing out of nowhere, had to be a goddess. It wasn't Aphrodite, or Artemis, or Athena. And we both know it wasn't Nyx, or Eris either. And the rest really was a lucky guess." Xena said defensively.
Gabrielle gave her a reproachful look. "I hate it when you're always right." Then her eyes caught something white on the ground. "Look, Xena, she forgot this." Gabrielle indicated the deck of cards still lying where Lachesis had stood.
The warrior pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Somehow, I don't think she did. Take them, Gabrielle." And when the bard hesitated, "Go on! She must have meant them to be for you."
"Wow," Gabrielle breathed, as she picked up the cards gingerly. "But why? I thought she said they belong in another time."
Xena pulled up an eyebrow. "Perhaps she's just making sure a certain storyteller remembers her warning." This with a meaningful look at the bard.
"Not likely to forget that," Gabrielle replied. "Phew! And I thought you were intimidating." She flashed the warrior a quick grin.
Xena shrugged again, and returned the grin. "I try."
Night had long fallen over their camp, and Gabrielle, after having moved her bedroll next to Xena's, was snuggled up comfortably close to where the silent warrior now sat, staring silently at the flames.
"Did I really deserve it?" Xena asked suddenly, idly poking the fire with a stick.
"Deserve what?" Gabrielle muttered, already half-asleep.
"Oh, that," Gabrielle replied. And then, with a sleepy smile, "'Course you did."
Xena's eyes found the bard's green, open and trusting, and something broke down inside her. With sudden clarity it came to her that she was ready to give herself completely to this woman, with everything that entailed. All she had to do was take a leap down that sheer cliff of emotion, and open her heart. Swallowing, she did.
And felt something settle down inside her heart, and snuggle up comfortably in a spot that Xena knew had been reserved for it since the beginning of time. It felt... right.
There was a small pause. "And, Xena?" Blue eyes turned to the bard, questioning. "Promise me one thing?"
"The next time it looks like I'm going to make a fool out of myself by blindly trusting some stranger, promise me you'll give me a swift kick in the butt? Before I get a chance to actually go and do it?"
The warrior laughed, a low throaty chuckle. "One condition."
"And that being...?"
Xena turned serious. "If I ever look like I'm gonna shut up tight on you again, you give me a whack with that staff. Right here." She knocked her forehead with her fist, hard enough to make a little hollow sound. "And don't hold back."
It was Gabrielle's turn to laugh. She pulled herself up on one elbow, and cuffed her friend lightly in the arm. "You drive a hard bargain, Warrior Princess. But it's a deal."
Author's Note: Okay, this has been a long, dark, and hard
Od(d)yssee <G>, and there are a few people to whom I owe thanks for being
so patient with it, and for taking the time to go through it, pointing out the
gazillion problems. So, PD, Ezzie, Kam and Katia, here's to you. And thanks also
go to Mayn for repeated prods to get the h*** on with it, although he might as
well have kicked a bale of hay for all the good it did ;-)
Comments? I'm at Verrath@gmx.de