The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo from the TV show 'Xena Warrior Princess' belong to Studio USA/Renaissance Pictures/Universal or whoever actually owns them now. No infringement on their rights is intended. Charon, Hades, and Ares are mythological characters, and therefore don't really belong to anyone. All other characters are created by myself, and belong to me.
This story depicts a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story scares you, click on the X in the top-right corner and find something else to read.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Ianic (Yorksbard), Rainbow Warrior & FionaRae - Thank you very much for your help, I really appreciate it. *wave*
Written: March 2010
Timeline: early Season 1, before Death In Chains, and before X&G met the Amazons - yes, this is a retro-Classic :D
Dear Reader: In this story, I've tried to recreate the Xena and Gabrielle we met in early season 1. If you prefer Gabrielle to be more assertive and warrior-like, take a look at my two PostFIN stories Reunion and Revenge - you'll find plenty of Battling Bard kick-butt action there. :D
Teaser: Gabrielle is dead! -- When the young bard suddenly finds herself thrust into the Underworld, she doesn't know that it's merely the starting point for her greatest adventure yet. While Xena is travelling to Potaideia with Gabrielle's remains, she hears of a myth that could help her get Gabrielle back. Will Xena succeed, or will they be separated for all eternity?
... Struggling against two unknown assailants. An unequal struggle.
Gabrielle took a few hesitant steps forward, thinking that this had to be the weirdest dream she had ever had - she made a mental note to put less spice on her food in the future. She rubbed her chest, where a strange, throbbing pain was bothering her.
... Grabbing onto an arm, a hairy, filthy arm. Reaching out for something. Anything.
She found herself in a long, dark, misty and smelly tunnel without any recollection of how she had arrived there. A creaking noise behind her made her spin around, and she watched a large portal close. A wall of light behind the portal was slowly shut out, and when the portal was fully closed, she was shrouded by darkness.
... A dagger being thrust down towards her, the blade reflecting the light from the campfire.
The cold was beginning to creep into her bones, so she closed her blue cardigan, and wrapped her arms around herself.
"Hello? ... Xena? ... Is anyone there?" she said loudly into the tunnel, but no reply was forthcoming.
She sighed, and began to shiver from the cold. A sense of dread flooded over her, and she took a few deep breaths to fight the rising panic.
Suddenly, she noticed a faint light in the far distance which appeared to come closer. At the same time, she thought she could hear water somewhere, and after debating with herself for a few seconds, she started walking towards the light.
After walking for less than a minute, she found herself standing at the bank of a river - at least, that's what it looked like to her.
The faint light in the distance was still creeping closer to her, and now she could hear the rhythmical splash - splash - splash of an oar.
"Xena? Is that you? Hey! I'm over here!" Gabrielle said, and waved her arms to catch the attention of whomever it was that was sailing towards her.
A thick patch of fog suddenly engulfed her legs, and made her unable to move. She tried to struggle, but the fog was too strong for her.
A large, ungainly boat appeared out of the fog, and ran up on the bank of the river.
Gabrielle's eyes grew wider and wider as she realised just who the hideous creature was that was standing at the stern of the boat, holding an oar.
"No... it can't be..." she whispered, and covered her face in her hands.
"Oh, but it is, young missy. When it comes to safe passage across the Styx, you should Accept No Substitute. Heh, heh. You like my new slogan? I've been working on it for a while," the hideous creature said, and made a mock salute.
"The one and only."
"The F... Ferryman?"
"Then I'm d..."
"Dead. Yep. Dead as a doorknob. No wait, you're not just dead. You're deader than dead. You're deader than deader. Oh, you're just plain ol' dead."
"By the Gods..." Gabrielle said, and clutched her body. Her fingers were covered in a sticky substance, and she looked down at herself. She had a gaping wound in the centre of her chest that she hadn't noticed before. She reeled from the sight of her own blood, and couldn't stop a strangled cry from escaping her lips.
"I'm dead..." she whispered hoarsely.
"Uh-huh. As I've been saying. You're dead. And I know what I'm talking about, 'cos I've been shippin' dead people across the Styx since the dawn of time. Anyway, we better get a move on. There's a battle going on down South, and we've got a steady stream of warriors coming in. They're kinda impatient, so I wouldn't wanna stay here if I were you... if you know what I mean, heh, heh."
"Are you coming?"
"No... No! I can't go! My friend will miss me, and... and I don't have a coin for you! That's right, I don't have a coin. So I better go back and get one, and then I'll return in maybe... oh, fifty years or so, you know, when it's my time. When I'm a grandmother, and not a young girl who's hardly even kissed anybody, and..."
Charon put his hands in the air, and Gabrielle's voice trailed off.
"Coin or no coin, Gabrielle... it *is* your time," Charon said solemnly.
Gabrielle sighed deeply, and climbed aboard the boat. She sat down on a wooden bench, and made herself comfortable. She missed Xena terribly, and felt tears stinging her eyes, but she knew she had to go through with it.
Charon stuck the oar in the water, and pushed the boat off the riverbank with a mighty heave.
Soon, they were travelling across the Styx at a leisurely pace, and the only sound heard was the rhythmic splashing of the oar as it hit the surface of the water.
"Charon... do you think I'll go to the Elysian Fields or Tartarus?"
"Well, that depends. How many people have you killed?"
"I've haven't killed anybody!"
"In that case, I'd say you're headed for the Fields. Although... you never know. There could be an event in your past that you've forgotten about, heh, heh, heh," Charon said, and grinned wickedly at Gabrielle.
"Oh, that isn't very reassuring..." Gabrielle said, and leaned back in her seat.
"Not my job, missy. I'm just the Ferryman, not your cheerleader. Hey, that word has a nice ring to it... I think I'll write it down some time."
Feeling the cold washing through her, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around herself again, and started rubbing her hands on her cardigan to generate some friction - unfortunately, it didn't seem to work.
She sighed, and tried to peer into the darkness and the fog surrounding the boat. She couldn't see anything, so she closed her eyes and thought of Xena instead. A single tear ran down her cheek, and she brushed it away with her fingers.
"Oh, Gods, Xena's going to be devastated..." she said to herself, and took a deep, trembling breath.
"You don't have a reason to cry, missy. Your troubles are all over," Charon said.
"You don't understand, Charon. Y-... you just don't understand," Gabrielle said, her voice a mere faint whisper.
At much the same time, Xena rode into their campsite just after nightfall. Her hunt had been a success, and she was carrying two dead rabbits tied together with a piece of string.
She immediately noticed that the fire had almost died down, and she soon spotted Gabrielle, sound asleep next to the fire.
She grunted, and dismounted Argo. She tied the golden mare to a tree, and retrieved the two rabbits.
"Hey, it didn't take me *that* long," she said, and chuckled quietly.
Placing the dead animals next to the fire, she took off her scabbard, and placed it on a log. She sat down, took the sword out of the scabbard, and reached for her sharpening stone.
While she was doing that, a small voice in her head told her that something was wrong, so she scanned the surrounding area thoroughly - however, nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary.
After she had placed the sharpening stone next to the sword, she picked up a small twig, and began to stoke the fire.
"Come on, sleepyhead, it's almost time to eat. We just have to skin these two rabbits, and then they'll be ready to cook," Xena said, and found her best carving knife in the saddlebag.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?"
Suddenly worried, Xena got up, and went over to check on Gabrielle. It didn't take her a second to see that something was very wrong - Gabrielle wasn't breathing.
Xena threw herself down on her knees, and rolled Gabrielle over onto her back. With a hoarse cry, she spotted the knife sticking out of the young woman's chest. There was no doubt Gabrielle was dead, but Xena still tried to feel for a pulse on her neck. Even before she had done so, Xena knew she wouldn't find one.
Tugging gently, she removed the knife from Gabrielle's chest, and looked at it. It was just a common, home-made dagger, and neither the hilt nor the blade held any hints as to whom the maker might be, or where it came from. She threw it down next to the fire.
A spark of anger ignited within her, and she was powerless to stop it. She pounded her fists on Gabrielle's unresponsive body, and grabbed hold of the blood-soaked blue cardigan.
She reached down and pulled Gabrielle's body close to her. Holding it tight, Xena let out a wailing moan that gradually turned into a feral growl. She closed her eyes, and bared her teeth in a mask of evil, promising herself that whoever had killed Gabrielle would die a slow, painful death.
Behind her, a crackling sound of ozone was the telltale sign that she wasn't alone anymore.
"Oh dear... what's happened to your little friend?" Ares said, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Go away, Ares."
"But I guess it was inevitable. It happens a lot to the people closest to you, doesn't it? I bet it hurts. You must be feeling guilty... after all, you weren't here when she needed you the most. Oh, well."
"I said, go away!"
Xena gently released Gabrielle's body, and stood up. She wiped her eyes, and turned to face the God.
"I felt your anger clear up to Mount Olympus, and I just had to come and see what had caused it. I guess it's you and me now, Xena. Lovely," Ares said, and reached out for the warrior.
Xena brushed off his hand, and stepped away from him. Dazed, she tried to look for their saddlebags, and found them thrown off to the side, the contents scattered all over the ground. She picked up everything and began to search for something she could wrap Gabrielle's body in.
After a minute, she stopped, and sighed.
"Name your price, Ares."
"My price? What *do* you mean, Xena?"
"What'll it take for you to go down to the Underworld and bring Gabrielle back?"
"So you wouldn't mind owing a debt to the God of War? Interesting... but sorry, no deal."
"Do you really think I'd help you get the irritating blonde back? Hardly, Xena. Look at you..."
Ares stepped closer, and a nasty smile spread out over his dark features.
"... You're exactly how I want you. Angry, yet focused. You're planning a gruesome revenge on the men who killed Gabrielle, and... well, sensing those emotions in you really gives me a thrill," Ares said, and winked.
"'The 'men'? If you know something, you'd better tell me!"
"Oh, it's just a figure of speech."
"Ares... if you won't help, then leave. I have things to do."
"As have I. Later, Xena," Ares said, and disappeared in his customary blue cloud.
"Bastard..." Xena whispered, and shook her head.
'I heard that!'
Ares' disembodied evil chuckle echoed through the small clearing for several moments until it faded away - leaving Xena in a solemn silence.
She returned to the grim task of finding something to cover Gabrielle in, and soon found a blanket that looked like it was big enough.
With a deep sigh, Xena went back to Gabrielle's body, and knelt down beside it. She placed the blanket on the ground, but saw at once that it wasn't large enough to cover Gabrielle's entire body.
Xena's shoulders slumped, and she rubbed her forehead with both her hands. After wiping away a few new tears, she began preparing Gabrielle's body. Even though it was unnecessary, Xena straightened Gabrielle's skirt and the cardigan so she would look good, and then she took Gabrielle's arms, and placed them down the young woman's sides.
A shining object in Gabrielle's left hand caught Xena's eye, and she reached down to take it.
Xena held it up against the light from the campfire so she could see what it was - it was a token of some kind. It was still attached to a leather strap that appeared to have been torn off in the struggle.
Xena furrowed her brows. She didn't recognise the pattern on the token, but it was a clue that could lead her to the killers. She clenched her fist, closed her eyes, and nodded to herself.
She got up, and put the token on the log next to her sword. That was for later.
Once she returned to Gabrielle, she picked up the body, and put it down on the blanket. She began to fold up the blanket, fighting a losing battle to hold back a flood of tears.
When Gabrielle was safely wrapped up, save for her face, Xena leaned down and placed a small kiss on Gabrielle's cold forehead. She brushed a lock of the strawberry blonde hair away from Gabrielle's eyes, and took a deep breath.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle... this is the best I could do. I'm just glad you're not here to see your legs sticking out like that. You'd have given me that wonderful, cute glare, and... and said 'what if we run into a King?' or..."
Xena's throat contracted so badly she couldn't speak another word, and she had to look away from the rolled-up blanket. After composing herself, she covered Gabrielle's face, and walked away from the body.
As she walked past the campfire, she spotted a broken quill and a torn scroll lying on the ground where Gabrielle had been, and she froze mid-step.
As if in a trance, she bent down and picked up the two items. She recognised the quill as being one of Gabrielle's favourites, but now it was nothing more than a broken feather.
She looked at the scroll. It read,
I've begun rewriting one of my earliest scrolls. When I read it recently, I realised that it needed a lot of work, especially the'
A long, jerky line across the scroll showed exactly where Gabrielle had been surprised by her killers.
Seeing Gabrielle's personal items desecrated like that finally broke down the fragile wall of dissociation Xena had tried to build up, and she slid to the ground, crying inconsolably.
"Gabrielle... I love you," she whispered into the darkness of the night.
Charon retracted the oar, and let the boat run up onto the riverbank.
"We're here, missy. Normally, this is where I'd be askin' for a coin, but since you've already told me you don't have one, I won't," he said, as he turned towards Gabrielle.
With a deep sigh, she got up from the wooden bench, and looked around.
"So this is the Underworld?"
The dark grey riverbank where the boat had run ashore was part of a smallish, sandy area. Here and there, dark red, jagged boulders protruded from the ground, giving it a very hostile appearance. The area was shaped like a crescent, perhaps 80 yards deep in the centre and 150 yards wide, and beyond it, a mountain rose from the ground, stretching up further than Gabrielle could see.
A large group of people, soldiers and peasants, children and adults alike, were wandering around aimlessly in front of a large throne and two glass-like portals, one of which was pale blue, and the other dark red. Two gaping holes in the rock face on either side of the portals appeared to be entrances to tunnels, and inhuman, grotesque noises were echoing through the openings.
"Everything's so dark and depressing..."
"Yeah-yeah-yeah, ain't it great? Home sweet home."
"... And what's that horrific noise?"
"Oh, probably Cerberus enjoyin' someone for lunch. Come on, missy, I ain't got all day. It's been nice knowin' ya," Charon said, and waved his hand impatiently.
With a sigh, Gabrielle stepped off the boat, and trundled up the riverbank.
'... love you.'
Xena's voice went through Gabrielle's mind as clearly as if the warrior had been standing right next to her, and she looked around feverishly, searching for the source of the voice.
"Xena?" Gabrielle shouted - but when no answer was forthcoming, she realised that she was still alone.
In front of her, Hades materialised, and sat down on his throne.
"Gabrielle of Potaideia!" he barked, making everyone there look at him.
"Y-yes... that's me," Gabrielle said in a very small voice. As she took a step towards the throne, a persistent tickling on her chest made her look down - she couldn't believe her eyes when she saw that the horrible wound had vanished.
"W-was that you? Thank you," she said, and bowed to Hades.
"No, it wasn't me. That happens automatically once you step over the Threshold. We can't have people running around with their wounds showing. It wouldn't look good," the God said, and rose from his throne.
"Oh... of course not."
Hades walked down a short flight of steps, and moved closer to Gabrielle. Wordlessly, he assessed her, and then stepped back.
"Gabrielle of Potaideia, you're here to be Judged. I shall seek and find five mortals who mourn your death, and five mortals who celebrate your passing. Once I've collected enough evidence as to how you've conducted your life, the decision will be made on where you'll spend Eternity, and you will be sent there. That decision will be final."
"I see... Well, there's my parents, and... my sister, and... and Xena of course..."
"Xena will not be heard," Hades said dismissively, and walked back to his throne.
"And why not?" Gabrielle said, slightly more confrontationally than she had intended. She cocked her head, and put her hands on her hips.
"To give you a taste of how it might be, look at the portals. First Tartarus," Hades said, and waved his hand, pretending not to have heard Gabrielle's question.
The dark red portal shimmered to life, revealing an image of a very haggard looking Gabrielle, sitting on a rock in a non-descript cave, and writing on an endless scroll. She was being heckled by dozens of people who were constantly interrupting her by tugging on her clothes, nudging her, or shouting in her face.
The real Gabrielle's eyes grew rather wide, and she shivered, and laughed nervously. One of the things she hated the most was being interrupted when she was writing, and by the looks of it, that was the exact scenario Hades had planned for her.
"And now Elysia," Hades said, and the pale blue portal came to life.
The second image appeared to be much more pleasant - it showed Gabrielle and a handful of other young women and men sitting around an amphitheatre, apparently listening to a performance of some kind.
"I'd like to take that one, please," Gabrielle said, wringing her hands.
"Now you know what's at stake. Until I've collected all the evidence, you must remain here, near Mount Erebus."
"Oh, Hades, why won't you listen to Xena? She's my best friend, I'm sure she'd..."
"You've been told what will happen, Gabrielle. Now, give me space to do my job," Hades said, and disappeared in a red cloud.
Gabrielle's face fell, and she threw her hands in the air.
With a sigh, she turned around, and started to look for something to do until her Judgement would take place.
She walked around for a while, but soon grew tired of only seeing the same things and meeting the same people over and over. Leaning against the wall at the entrance to one of the tunnels, she started observing the people she shared Erebus with.
Charon had told her a war was going on down South, and that fact was reflected by the sheer number of soldiers present. A few looked like they hadn't understood what had happened to them, and they were still arguing about the best strategy, or something similar.
An elderly General was holding court in the far corner, and a large group of young men were listening eagerly. On occasion, Hades arrived to take away one of the soldiers, but the General didn't seem to notice.
Gabrielle chuckled, and shook her head. She started kicking at the sand on the ground, and drew intricate patterns with her boot. Suddenly, Cerberus growled not far from where she was standing. The sound came from the tunnel she was standing next to, and she peeked around the corner to see if she could spot the legendary three-headed beast.
She couldn't see much from where she was standing, so she decided to go on a little journey of exploration. She scanned the people close to her to see if anyone was watching. When nobody seemed to be paying her any attention, she snuck around the corner, and into the mouth of the tunnel.
She tiptoed her way through a dark maze of tunnels, constantly getting closer and closer to the source of the growls.
She turned another corner, and found herself face to face with... one of Hades' minions.
"Hey! You're not supposed to be in here! Get out where you belong!" the minion said, and pointed at where Gabrielle had come from.
"But I thought I heard a..."
"Oh, all right, all right. Killjoy," Gabrielle said, and shuffled back out of the tunnel.
Gabrielle grumbled, and sat down on the ground with a bump. Working up a major sulk, she crossed her arms over her chest, and went back to her previous job of studying the other people there.
After a short while, she was bored out of her skull, and turned her attention to a loose thread on the hem of her skirt. She was so busy with the thread that she didn't notice another young woman sitting down next to her.
"Hello...?" the young woman said, and Gabrielle jumped a foot in the air.
"By the Gods, don't do that! You almost scared me to death... uhh, I mean..." Gabrielle said, and narrowed her eyes when she realised what she had just said.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you. I'm Thaleia, formerly of Mount Ida. And you are...?"
"I'm Gabrielle. Gabrielle of Potaideia. Nice to meet you," Gabrielle said, and clasped arms with the other young woman.
The new arrival looked to be a few summers younger than Gabrielle. She had faintly reddish hair, which was cut to shoulder-length, and she had pale green eyes that lit up when she smiled. She had a very fair complexion, and as a result, her cheeks and nose were nearly covered by freckles.
"I've just arrived. Have you been here long?" Thaleia said.
"Not really. Has Hades given you his speech yet?"
"Oh, yes. He's off to find someone to judge me."
"Hmmm. Me, too."
"I hope you don't mind me asking... but how did you die?"
"I'm not really sure... I think I was stabbed in the chest by a couple of marauders. It was surprisingly painless, actually," Gabrielle said, and prodded her chest where the wound had been.
"It sounds like the paths around Potaideia aren't safe..."
"Oh, I wasn't anywhere near my home town. This happened much further South."
"Really? You must be brave to travel by yourself."
"Brave? Oh, no. I didn't need to be. I was travelling with Xena."
"The Warrior Princess?!" Thaleia said loudly.
"Yes... you sound shocked?"
"I've heard so many gruesome stories about her..."
"So have I. And none of them are true," Gabrielle said defensively.
"Oh. Well, anyway, I was run over by a fully loaded wagon carrying boulders from a quarry."
"I'll say. One of the wheels crushed my..."
"Look, I don't want to appear rude, but I really don't need to know what the wheel crushed... OK?" Gabrielle said, and held up both her hands in a 'stop' gesture.
"Well... sure. Potaideia, that's on the West Coast, right? In Macedonia?"
"No, it's in Thrace, actually."
"Oh. Did you leave someone special behind... you know, when you died?"
Gabrielle turned to look at Thaleia, and she opened her mouth to speak. After a few seconds, she closed it again, and shrugged - she couldn't see any point in telling the truth to Thaleia, considering the young woman's earlier reaction to Xena's name.
"I did, too. Do you think our boyfriends have even noticed we're gone?" Thaleia said, and patted Gabrielle's knee, misinterpreting Gabrielle's silence.
Gabrielle shrugged again.
"I understand. You don't want to talk about it. I'm sorry," Thaleia said, and moved her hand up to touch Gabrielle's arm.
"Oh, it's not that, it's just..."
Hades suddenly appeared right in front of them, startling both women.
"Thaleia of Mount Ida, you have been Judged, and I have decided you shall go to the Elysian Fields," Hades said, and put out his hand.
The young redhead took it, and got on her feet. She dusted off her skirt, and cleared her throat.
"Goodbye, Gabrielle. I hope you won't have to wait much longer."
"Goodbye, Thaleia. Perhaps we'll meet again."
"That would be nice," Thaleia said, and smiled. She turned to look at Hades, and at the same time, the portal to the Elysian Fields began to shimmer.
"Here, drink this. It'll ease your journey," Hades said, and presented a bowl of water to Thaleia. With a smile, she gulped down the water, draining the bowl of its contents. She wiped her mouth on her sleeve, and curtsied.
She ran up to stand in front of the glass-like portal, and turned around to wave at Gabrielle - then she stepped through the portal, disappearing in a flash of pale blue light as she did so.
"Hades, what about my Judgement?" Gabrielle said, and rose to her feet.
"Patience, young one. Sometimes it takes a while. One can never tell," the God said as he adjusted his black leather gloves.
"Thaleia had lived a very sheltered life. There wasn't anything to uncover... except that she had stolen a few apples from a peddler some years ago."
"Oh..." Gabrielle said, and thought of a few similar situations in her own life. Her cheeks were coloured in a rare shade of pink, and she began to shuffle around on the spot.
"I know what you're thinking, and you needn't worry. I'll be fair," Hades said, and put his hands behind his back.
"So there *is* some kind of problem?"
"As I said, have patience. All in due time."
"All right... but I hope it's soon... there isn't much to do here," Gabrielle said, and wrinkled her nose.
"Hmm!" Hades said, and raised an eyebrow.
"L-Lord Hades, I have a question..." Gabrielle said, and smiled nervously.
"Not long after I arrived here, I heard Xena's voice... it was like she was here, but..."
"The dead can hear the thoughts of the living, Gabrielle. I thought you knew that?"
"Oh, I... no, I didn't. We can?" Gabrielle said, and began to chew on a fingernail.
"Yes. Only the thoughts that concern you, though."
"Oh... thank you."
"You're welcome," Hades said, and disappeared in a red cloud.
A good while later, Gabrielle was sitting on the ground near Hades' throne, thinking about what had happened to her. She touched her chest where the wound had been, and realised that the dagger had hit her directly in her heart. She tried searching for her heartbeat, but found she had none. She wasn't tired, or thirsty, or hungry - and that surprised her the most.
She shivered when she thought of Xena, and how the usually stoic and unflappable woman would have reacted when she discovered Gabrielle's body.
'That's probably when she sent me those thoughts. She said she loved me. Oh, how I wish she had said those words to me when I was still alive,' Gabrielle thought, and slowly shook her head in a very despondent fashion.
Gabrielle so dearly wanted to reach out to Xena to tell her that everything was all right, and that Xena had her blessing to get on with her life, but no matter how hard she tried to concentrate, she couldn't get a message through to the warrior.
She opened her eyes, and sighed. She leaned back against the throne, and started doodling in the sand with her fingers.
Dawn finally broke, and the birds began to chirp and sing. Soon, the forest came alive with the typical morning activities for all the little critters.
Xena looked up at the sky, and registered that it was going to be a dull, overcast day. She hadn't been able to sleep for a second - instead, she had spent the entire night staring at Gabrielle's boots sticking out of the rolled-up blanket, and blaming herself for not being there when Gabrielle needed her.
She had replayed their last conversation over and over, and each time she remembered Gabrielle's voice and her smiling face, the rock hard knot of guilt in her stomach grew larger and larger.
"It's getting dark. We better set up camp here," Xena said.
"Good. My feet are sore."
"I offered you to ride with me."
"Oh, you know, Xena... me and Argo, we have a very special relationship... meaning that we're best off being apart."
"All right, but sooner or later, you'll have to get on her. You might need to get away from something in a hurry," Xena said, and dismounted.
"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it. And I still have two legs, you know. I can outrun anything."
"If you say so."
Xena clapped Argo's hindquarters, and let her run free. The mare immediately sought out a patch of grass, and started eating.
"What's for supper?" Gabrielle said, and started collecting rocks for the fire pit.
"Let's see. Jerky. Salt. Apples," Xena said, rummaging through the saddlebags. She found her sharpening stone, and threw it down on the ground so it was ready for later.
"Oh, yum... Xena, I can't get anything out of that. We should've bought some food in that inn we passed a few candlemarks ago."
"Well, we didn't. I'll go hunting."
"All right. I'll get the fire going while you're away."
"Deal," Xena said, and put the saddlebags down on the ground next to the fire pit. She dusted off her hands, and started to walk towards Argo.
"Rabbit would be good," Gabrielle said, and grinned cheekily.
Xena glanced at the two dead rabbits from last night. They were still where she had placed them when she returned to the camp, and they had already begun to go bad.
She had seen enough bodies on the battlefield to know that a similar process was happening to Gabrielle's remains, but with an angry shake of her head, she forced those negative thoughts out of her mind.
With a deep sigh, she wiped her weary eyes, and slowly got up from the cold, hard ground. She hadn't moved an inch from the spot where she had slid to the ground last night, and her joints were protesting loudly by popping and creaking - but right now, she couldn't care less.
She picked up the two rabbits, and flung them deep into the woods, knowing that there were likely to be a few scavengers around who could use the carcasses.
She looked at the blanket holding Gabrielle's earthly remains, and felt an ice cold shiver run up and down her entire body. Through the course of the night, she had made the decision that she would bring Gabrielle back to her family in Potaideia. She knew that Gabrielle's parents and her sister Lila would be devastated, and that they would blame her for the tragic events - and that they were right.
The sooner she left the Gods-forsaken clearing, the sooner she'd get there, so she shook her head again to try to escape the terrible guilt, and went to work on clearing the camp site. The fire had long since died down, so she just put a few handfuls of dirt on it to bury the last remaining glowing embers. Packing hurriedly, she threw everything into the saddlebags, and hung them across Argo.
Once the daylight was sufficiently strong to see details on the ground, Xena began hunting for the tracks of the people responsible for Gabrielle's death.
Before long, she had found two sets of footprints leading towards where the campfire had been. She crouched down, and studied the footprints closely. Judging by the way the grass had been trampled, it was two men, and neither was light on his feet. They both wore regular peasant's boots, which wouldn't make the hunt any easier.
Xena extended the search, but didn't find any hoof prints, so she deduced the killers had been roaming marauders. She tried to remember if her sixth sense had picked up anything out of the ordinary the previous day, but she was certain it hadn't. Whoever these men were, it appeared they had simply stumbled across the camp by accident.
She took out the token that Gabrielle had managed to rip off one of her attackers, and turned it around in her hand, but even the daylight didn't reveal anything - she simply didn't recognise it.
With a growl, she put it back in a small pouch.
The last item she packed was Gabrielle's body. Xena put the rolled-up blanket holding the remains across Argo's back, and tied it down to the saddle, so it wouldn't fall off.
Argo whinnied, and threw her head around.
"I know, girl. It's... surreal," Xena said in a very hoarse voice. She patted the neck of the golden mare, and ran her hand across the warm flesh.
"I can't even begin to tell you how much I miss her. When people saw the two of us together, they always said how little we appeared to have in common... but the truth is that we complemented each other perfectly. I showed her how to live off the land, and she showed me that it was all right to... love again."
Xena closed her eyes, and leaned her forehead against the side of the saddle. With a deep sigh, she put her foot in the stirrup, and hoisted herself up on Argo.
Once she was comfortable, she reached behind her to feel if the blanket was secure - which it was. She nudged the heels of her boots into Argo's sides, and they began the trek North that would eventually lead them to Potaideia.
"Look, there must be something for me to do! I'm willing to do absolutely anything, like sweep the floors, or... or... or polish the throne! I'll even take Cerberus for a walk!" Gabrielle said, standing at the entrance to the tunnel on the left side of Hades' throne. She was gesticulating wildly, and emphasised the last sentence by clasping her hands together.
"Take Cerberus for a walk? Are you crazy?" the minion said.
"I'm bored! Bored stiff, as a matter of fact. I've been walking back and forth on this small patch of land you call the Underworld, and... I'm bored! Hades never told me it would take this long. It's like waiting in a line at the baker's on a Sunday morning..."
"If I say yes, will you stop bothering me?" the minion said with a sigh.
"Oh, absolutely. You have my word. Cross my heart, hope to... uhhh. Never mind. Anyway, you have my word."
"I'll ask Lord Hades. It might be a while, though. He's not here at the moment," the minion said, and walked away from Gabrielle.
"Sure, but don't take too long!" Gabrielle shouted after him.
Gabrielle went back to her regular place, and sat down on the ground. She rested her head on her hands, and observed the other people. She had seen at least half a dozen new arrivals, and more than half of those had already been sent on to wherever they were going.
Suddenly she noticed that there was something odd about some of the people walking back and forth. She furrowed her brow, and paid close attention to them so she could work out what it was.
Then it struck her - the new arrivals all had modern clothes, like her own, but a great deal of the people who were already there when she'd arrived were wearing peculiar, outdated clothes, ranging from a few generations back to something she couldn't even recognise.
She got up, and approached a man, who appeared to be in his late forties.
"I'm sorry, Sir, but could I have a word with you?" she said.
The man turned to face her, but started speaking in a foreign tongue.
"Hold on, wait a minute... I don't understand a word you're saying, Sir..." she said, and held up her hands.
"Forget him, he isn't Greek," another man said. He was wearing a colourful, old-fashioned outfit, and he too appeared to be in his late forties.
"I don't know where he's from, but Greece it ain't."
The first man shrugged, and moved on, shuffling towards the other end of the small patch of land.
"Could I ask you a question instead, then?"
"Sure. What do you want to know?"
"How long have you been here?" Gabrielle said, and started chewing her fingernails. Deep down, she already knew the answer.
"Oh... an eternity. Centuries, probably. I've lost count."
Gabrielle's shoulders slumped, and she couldn't stop a grimace from spreading out across her face.
"I've been watching you, young lady. You've been here longer than most of the new people...?"
"That's right," Gabrielle said, and sighed.
"I think I know why."
"Please tell me!"
"Well... where did you die?"
"In a clearing in a forest somewhere."
"I guess. Why?"
"Then your body probably hasn't been found yet... and nobody knows you're dead."
"But... I don't understand...?"
"It's for the Judgement, you see. Hades needs five people who loved you, and five who despised you. But if nobody knows you're dead... then, well," the man said, and shrugged.
"Hmmm... That makes sense, I suppose. I can't say for sure, but I think it has been discovered. I... I heard someone think about me."
"Hey, that's a good sign! Then I'm sure it won't be too long," the man said, and started to move on.
"But, wait a minute... how do you know this?"
"Oh, let's say I've had plenty of time to think about it."
"How did you die?" Gabrielle said, and put her hand on the man's arm.
"Well, I was a travelling salesman, and one day when I left a small village, I made a wrong choice by going through marshland. I was sucked in... cart, donkey, everything."
"By the Gods... that must've been horrible..."
"I can't really remember much of it. But the problem is that the last village didn't know where I was going, and the next village I was heading for didn't know I was coming... and there you have it. My body won't be discovered until the marshland is drained. And that could be a millennium."
"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that," Gabrielle said sincerely.
"Thank you. Maybe Hades will grant me a waiver one day."
"Let's hope so."
A little while later, Gabrielle had gone back to her favourite place near the throne. A sound off to her right made her turn her head, and she watched the minion from before leave the tunnel, and walk straight towards her - his mouldy smell preceding him.
"You!" the minion said loudly.
"My name is Gabrielle. What do you want?"
"I have spoken to Lord Hades, and he's accepted your request."
"He has? He's agreed to talk to Xena?" Gabrielle said excitedly, and jumped up.
"No, not that request. You're free to walk Cerberus if you wish," the minion said, and walked away.
"Oh... that wasn't exactly what I had in mind..." Gabrielle said, and snorted.
Gabrielle peeked around a corner of the tunnel, and let her eyes glide over the metal cage holding the three-headed beast. Cerberus was snoozing in a corner of the cage, with all three heads safely tied to the wall with sturdy metal chains.
She walked closer to the metal bars, but with each step, she lost a bit of courage, and her knees began to knock slightly.
The floor of the cage was quite filthy, and Gabrielle's eyes popped wide open when she realised that some of the filth appeared to be bone fragments and human skulls.
"OK, this wasn't one of my best ideas..." she said, and started tip-toeing backwards to get away before the beast heard her.
One of the three heads whimpered, and Gabrielle spun around and started running without looking where she was going - within two steps, she thumped directly into the broad chest of the minion, who had been standing behind her.
"Oof!" she said, and stepped back to get away from his mouldy smell.
"Yes, I... yes. This won't work, I'm sorry," Gabrielle said, trying to find a way past the minion.
"But Cerberus just loves to play with young people..."
"I'm sure he does, but I like my limbs exactly where they are, thank you very much," Gabrielle said, and ducked under the minion's arm. Once she was clear, she ran quickly towards the mouth of the tunnel, where the relative safety of the waiting area beckoned.
A spectacular lightning bolt reached across the sky, and the thunderclap soon followed, echoing back and forth between the trees.
It had been raining heavily for nearly half the day, and Xena was soaked to the core. She felt cold and thoroughly miserable, and her mood wasn't improved by the treacherous conditions of the roads.
The mud was so deep in places that Argo had a great deal of trouble keeping her balance, so to help the golden mare, Xena had dismounted, and led her by the reins. Now, a few candlemarks later, her boots were covered by a thick cake of sticky, pale brown mud that she knew would be almost impossible to get off.
'If Gabrielle had been here, we'd have spent the entire day in a nice, cosy, warm cave somewhere... she would've told me some of her stories. And when she would be startled by the thunderclaps, I'd pull her close, and comfort her... and...'
Xena shook her head angrily, and wiped away the rain from her eyes.
Suddenly a lightning bolt hit a tree not far from the road, and it exploded in a shower of sparks. The tree caught fire, and the heavy smoke billowed across the road, mixing in with the rain, and making it even harder to see the road ahead.
Argo whinnied, and pulled very hard on the reins. The mare threw her head around, and bucked so hard the rolled-up blanket with Gabrielle's remains was thrown back and forth, and nearly fell off.
"No, Argo! Calm down! Shhh! Calm down, girl," Xena shouted, trying desperately to control the frightened horse. Wrestling with the reins, she was almost knocked off her feet twice before she finally managed to make Argo calm again.
"Shhh, girl, it's all right," she said into Argo's ear.
She looked at the burning tree, and then up at the heavens.
"I deserve every last ounce of misfortune you can throw at me, but Argo doesn't!" Xena shouted angrily to no-one in particular.
A candlemark later, the thunderstorm had mercifully moved away, and the rain had relented slightly.
Through the heavy mist and the rapidly fading daylight, Xena could see the lights from a roadside inn in the distance, and almost imperceptibly, she picked up the pace, and walked towards it with determined steps.
She knew the place well; she and Gabrielle had spent the night there when they were travelling the other way. The innkeeper had been friendly to them, and Xena was hoping that he would know something about the local bandits.
She glanced at the rolled-up blanket on Argo's back, and dreaded the explanations she'd undoubtedly have to give.
Once she had reached the roadside inn, she tied Argo to a post, and looked around the small courtyard. There were four buildings there: the two-story inn itself, a small barn, and two outhouses at the rear of the courtyard.
Xena sighed, and went back to check up on the rolled-up blanket. It was comprehensively soaked, and one of the ropes tying it to the saddle had been snapped when Argo had bucked, but other than that, it had held up well.
There was a tell-tale whiff of death and decay coming from the blanket, and Xena felt her heart skip a beat. She suddenly realised that she'd never make it to Potaideia before Gabrielle's dignity was lost.
Xena leaned her forehead against the saddle, and sighed.
"Oh, Argo... I've made a terrible mistake. I should have made a funeral pyre for Gabrielle when I had the chance. Now, everything's so wet it won't burn... I'm sorry, Gabrielle... I've let you down again," she whispered.
"Hello?" a man suddenly said, and Xena stepped back, and put her hand on the Chakram.
"Whoa! Easy there! I'm Nearchos, the innkeeper. I'm just out to get some eggs, and... your name is Xena, right? You were here a few days ago?"
"That's right," Xena said hoarsely, and kept her hand near the Chakram.
Nearchos noticed the feet sticking out of the blanket, and his jaw fell down to his chest.
"Oh, no... is that your friend? The young redhead?"
"I'm so sorry. What happened?"
"But all your weapons...?"
"I wasn't there," Xena said, and looked away.
"Oh. Do you need a room for the night?"
"No. I was planning on sleeping in the barn. I don't want to leave my... friend."
"I understand. Won't cost you a thing."
"If you need a little relief from the... the wake, we've got a travelling bard coming by later tonight."
"A travelling bard?" Xena repeated wearily. Her mind was filled with images of Gabrielle performing one of her stories, gesticulating wildly as she acted out all the different scenes.
"Yes, some hotshot from Athens. I've never seen him perform, but he comes highly praised."
"I'll consider it," Xena said, and began taking off Argo's reins.
"I'll help..." the innkeeper said, and stepped closed.
"No! I can handle it."
"All right... I'll just get the eggs, and then I'll..."
Xena sighed again, and shook her head.
"I'm sorry. It's been a bad day."
"There's something I want you to look at. Do you recognise this?" Xena said, and found the shiny token that had been in Gabrielle's hand. She held it up so the innkeeper could see it.
"Yes, I do. I have one just like it," Nearchos said, and reached into his shirt. After fumbling with it for a few seconds, he pulled out a token on a leather strap, identical to the one Xena was holding.
Xena's eyebrows twitched, and her lips became a thin line in her face.
"What is it?" she hissed.
"Most of the men over a certain age wear them. They used to be our dog tags in the local farmer's militia. It was disbanded years ago, but most men still wear their token as a sign of their bravery."
"Bravery..." Xena said, and bared her teeth in a chilling sneer. She looked at Gabrielle's remains, and then clenched her fists, trapping the token between her strong fingers.
Several candlemarks later, Xena was resting in the barn. She was dead tired, but the guilt burning in her gut wouldn't allow her to relax enough to fall asleep.
The heavy rain had returned, and was drumming incessantly on the roof of the building. Here and there, gaps between the roof beams allowed the water to seep through, and drip down onto the dirt floor.
The two other horses in the barn had shied away from the unpleasant smell that came from the cargo on the back of the golden mare, and Xena couldn't blame them - Argo was still calm, and Xena reckoned it was only the mare's extensive battlefield training that kept her from bolting.
Heavy footsteps splashing across the muddy courtyard alerted Xena to the fact that someone was coming, and she got up from the ground, and drew her Chakram.
The barndoor creaked open, and a shadow fell onto the dirt floor.
"Xena?" the innkeeper said, and tried to peek into the darkness of the barn.
"I'm here. What's up, Nearchos?"
"I've brought a woollen cloak for you... it's scratchy, but it'll keep you warm and dry," the innkeeper said, and entered the barn.
"Oh... thank you. Much obliged," Xena said, and took the cloak. She wrapped it around her shoulders, and immediately felt a little warmer. It was coarse, but of high quality, and a brief thought of 'I don't deserve this' flashed through her mind.
"And... I don't know if it's a coincidence, but two men have just arrived. I know them well, they're former militia. One of them is missing his token, and I know he had it earlier. I... I just wanted you to know."
Before Nearchos had even finished the sentence, Xena stormed past him, and flung open the barn door. She strode across the courtyard, and grabbed hold of the door to the inn. Her anger was raging like a tempest inside of her, and she had to hold her breath and count to ten before she went inside.
After Xena had entered the inn, she scanned the room thoroughly. Despite the fact that the inn was more than half full, she quickly spotted two men who were playing some sort of game at one of the tables. They were middle-aged, and didn't look thuggish at all, but she picked up a vibe from them that she knew all too well.
Xena stopped to assess the situation, and surprised herself by coming to the conclusion that she needed more evidence.
'Gabrielle must've rubbed off on me,' she thought, and chuckled quietly.
Nearchos came up behind Xena, and put his hand on her shoulder.
"Please don't destroy my inn... I wouldn't be able to rebuild it..." he whispered in a trembling voice.
"I won't," Xena said, and wrapped the cloak tighter around herself. She pulled the innkeeper closer, and leaned in towards his ear.
"Here's what we're going to do..."
"Hey, boys, it's on the house," Nearchos said, and put down two mugs of ale on the table.
"Hello, Nearchos. What's the occasion?" the first man, Adrastus, said.
"The lousy weather. You two look like you could do with a pick-me-up."
"Yeah, it's really horrible. Thanks," Adrastus said.
The second man, Pellennius, just picked up the mug, and drained it without speaking a word.
"So, what's that I hear about a camp being attacked further South?" Nearchos said as innocently as he could.
"Where'd ya hear that?" Pellennius said, and put down the empty mug.
"Oh, a woman passing by told me."
"A woman? Was she alone?"
Pellennius grimaced, and thumped his elbow into Adrastus' side.
"I told ya we shoulda waited. That woman might've had more than the twelve dinars the kid had."
In the far corner of the room, Xena rose from her chair, and put the cloak down on the table.
"So you do know something about it?"
"You bet we do, Nearchos. Ya shoulda been there... it was just like old times."
"You k-k-killed a woman?" Nearchos said in a shaky voice.
"Yeah. Eh, she was just a traveller. A scrawny little thing. Who's gonna miss those people, anyway? I lost my token, though. That kinda pisses me off."
Suddenly, the aforementioned item sailed through the air, and landed on the table with a clang.
"I've found it for you," Xena said in a deceptively calm voice.
Pellennius covered the token with his hand, and took a long look at the imposing woman standing before him.
"My friend had it. I pried it from her dead hand," Xena said, and smiled coldly.
Pellennius looked at Nearchos, and his eyes shot fire.
"You're gonna die for this, innkeeper!" he shouted, and pushed his chair back from the table.
Xena quickly moved forward, and kicked the table towards the two men. Adrastus managed to jump out of harms way, but Pellennius was hit straight in the gut. Once he'd regained his breath, he pushed away the table, and pulled a dagger similar to the one he had used on Gabrielle.
Pellennius jumped forward, and swung the dagger wildly at Xena. She evaded his clumsy move effortlessly, and backhanded him hard across his chin.
The impact jerked his head around, and he lost his balance, and fell on his behind in the middle of the inn. He shook his head, and seemed to have lost some of his fighting spirit.
Xena stepped away from the fallen man, and waited for him to come back up. Outwardly, she appeared calm, but a rapidly pulsating vein on the side of her neck betrayed the anger she felt inside.
Adrastus started to move forward, but Nearchos stopped him by putting a hand on his chest.
"Don't, Adrastus. Were you involved in killing the young woman?" the innkeeper said quietly.
"No. That was Pellennius' work. I took her money, but I didn't kill her."
"Then I don't have a problem with you," Xena interjected calmly.
Adrastus nodded, and withdrew from the fight. He quickly went over to the bar, and reached behind the counter to pour himself a new mug of ale.
"This man murdered my best friend. She was a pure, innocent woman, barely nineteen summers old. She couldn't hurt a fly, but this worthless piece of scum killed her for a handful of dinars," Xena said, pointing at Pellennius, who was still sitting on the floor.
An angry murmur rippled through the crowd, and someone hurled an insult at Pellennius.
"Normally, I'd just kill him on the spot, but I know my friend would have wanted me to at least try a civilised approach first, so... is there a magistrate in the nearest town?"
"There is, but he's away on business," Nearchos said.
"Kill him now!" someone shouted, and several others cheered.
Pellennius still held the dagger in his hand, and he seemed to weigh the different tactics he could use to attack the warrior woman - he finally decided on a full, frontal attack, so he jumped up from the floor, and threw the dagger at Xena.
Despite Xena's many skills, the lack of sleep caused her to move just a fraction too slowly to escape the knife, and it nicked her on her left biceps. Pellennius roared, and charged at her with his arms stretched out in front of him.
The crowd gasped, and some covered their eyes, but Xena didn't move an inch - instead she waited for Pellennius to reach her, and when he did, she grabbed his arm, and yanked him even closer.
His eyes popped wide open, and a creepy, gurgling sound escaped his lips. Xena let him go, and he took a few hesitant steps backwards, clutching his chest. He looked down, and stared at the strange, circular weapon buried deep into his ribcage. He tried to take another step backwards, but his knees buckled, and he slumped to the floor.
"That was a justifiable kill," Nearchos said loudly, and the crowd started cheering.
Xena sighed, and walked up to Pellennius' body. She crouched down, and pulled the Chakram free from his chest.
"The ale is on the house!" Nearchos said, but Xena didn't want anything to do with that. She went over to the table she had sat at, and took the cloak Nearchos had given her.
With a last look at the dead body on the floor, she left the inn, and walked back to the barn.
Gabrielle sat with her back to the waiting area so she wouldn't have to look at the people walking back and forth. Patience had never been one of her strongest virtues, and she was slowly getting severely annoyed over the fact that she hadn't been allowed to move on.
'Hades has been here more than a dozen times already... Xena, what's keeping you?' Gabrielle thought, but immediately regretted it.
She sighed, and scratched her hair. She could hear Charon's boat approaching, so she turned around just in case the new arrival was someone she could talk to.
So far, she hadn't been very lucky - the war down South had apparently become even more intense, and Charon had been shipping in soldiers non-stop.
The boat came into sight, and ran up onto the riverbank. Gabrielle could see a man step off, and she rolled her eyes, and made to turn back around.
A little voice in Gabrielle's head suddenly told her to take a closer look at the man, so she cocked her head, and studied him intently. Her eyebrows climbed up her forehead when she recognised him as the one who had stabbed her.
Her temper flared, and she quickly got up, and ran over to the man.
"You killed me, you... you... you brute!" she said, and jabbed her index finger repeatedly into the man's chest.
"Get out of my sight, woman," Pellennius growled, and brushed her away.
"Oh, that's rich! First you kill me, now you won't even talk to me. Oh, I'm sorry, perhaps you can't talk? Perhaps you brutes are so used to growling you've forgotten how to engage in an intellectual conversation?"
"Shaddup. Let me suffer in peace."
"In case you haven't noticed, whatever your wounds were, they're gone."
Pellennius looked down at his chest, and grunted.
"What killed you, huh? I hope it hurt real bad. Maybe your horse threw you," Gabrielle said, standing with her hands on her hips.
"Actually, Xena killed him as revenge for your death," Hades said, materialising between the two arguing people.
"Oh... well, she's very good at that," Gabrielle added offhandedly.
"Yeah, she got me with that weird round weapon. But at least I managed to get a few good licks in. She didn't look so hot when I... uhh, left," Pellennius said, and puffed out his chest.
Gabrielle frowned, and looked at Hades with a concerned expression on her face, but the God shook his head in a very reassuring fashion, and put a calming hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Pellennius, you really should know better than to lie to a God," Hades said, and took a step closer to the thug.
"Uhhh... I'm... I'm sorry...?" Pellennius said, trying to escape the leather-clad God - with very little success.
"Lord Hades, do you have any news regarding my situation?" Gabrielle said.
"Not yet, I'm afraid. Now, excuse me, I have some work to do. Pellennius of Taumasium, you're here to be Judged. I shall seek..."
Gabrielle had already heard Hades' speech, so she shuffled away, going back to her favourite position next to the throne. She sat down on the sand, and pulled up her legs. Resting her head on her knees, she sighed, and sent out a silent prayer to Xena, wishing that the warrior would hurry up.
A few minutes later, a commotion made Gabrielle sit up and look around. It wasn't hard for her to spot where all the loud noises came from - Pellennius was being carried over to the portal to Tartarus by four beefy minions. The thug was kicking and screaming, and struggling to break free, but the minions were far stronger than he was.
Hades materialised next to Gabrielle, and adjusted his leather gloves.
"That didn't take long," Gabrielle said, as she watched the thug being held up against the portal.
Pellennius put his arms and legs on the frame, and tried to push back, but it was a futile exercise, and he was soon forced through the portal and into Tartarus.
Job done, the minions dusted off their hands, and walked back to the entrance to the tunnel.
"His was an easy Judgement. When I went to the land of the living, I found an inn where every single one of the mortals was cheering his passing. No, that's not entirely true. One of the mortals wasn't. Your friend, Xena."
"Xena? You saw Xena? How was she? ... And where was she?"
"She's only made it a very short distance from where you died. The weather has been terrible," Hades said.
"Oh... I see," Gabrielle said, unable to hide the disappointment in her voice. She sighed deeply, and shrugged.
"She looked very haggard."
Gabrielle nodded solemnly.
"She probably hasn't taken very good care of herself after I died. She's prone to brooding, and... she often has nightmares. Even on a regular night, I often need to..."
Gabrielle suddenly perked up, and her face lit up like a little sun.
"Lord Hades, would it be possible for me to go back to her? Just for one night? Just so I could comfort her one more time? Please?"
"Not permanently. Just one night? Pleeease?"
"Gabrielle, no. I'm sorry," Hades said, and put a gloved hand on Gabrielle's arm.
"But why not..."
"It's not the job of a mortal to question the decisions of a God, Gabrielle. Remember that," Hades said, and began to move away before Gabrielle could reply.
"However, if you're desperate for something to do, how about acting as our liaison with the new arrivals? I can easily arrange it with Charon."
"Oh... but they're mostly soldiers... I wouldn't know what to do with them."
"All right. Suit yourself."
"No, wait... I'd very much like to work for you, Lord Hades. Thank you."
Hades nodded, and then disappeared.
When Gabrielle realised what she had agreed to, she rubbed her forehead, and groaned.
"Oh, what have I gotten myself into? A guide for the newly dead! Great! 'Hello, I'm Gabrielle, and I'll be your hostess for the next ten thousand years!" she said out loud, and threw her hands in the air in despair.
She turned around, and began to shuffle back to her favourite spot, grumbling to herself the entire way.
Xena moved over onto her back, and tried to strain her hearing as much as she possibly could. A sound that wasn't supposed to be there had woken her, but now she couldn't hear anything. She was about to go back to sleep, when...
A faint cough was heard from the rolled-up blanket. Xena bolted upright, and held her breath.
"Gabrielle! I knew you'd return to me!"
"Return? I haven't been anywhere. Get me off of here, for Gaia's sake!" Gabrielle said, and groaned.
Xena quickly got up from the filthy, muddy floor of the barn, and ran over to Argo. She used the Chakram to cut the ropes holding the blanket in place, and dragged Gabrielle down so she could stand on her own, two feet.
"Ouch, Xena... didn't you stop to think at all? How is it that the mighty Warrior Princess didn't stop to think that it'd be mighty uncomfortable spending an entire day like that? I had Argo's ass right in my face, for Zeus' sake," Gabrielle said, struggling to work herself out of the blanket.
When she finally did so, she threw it on the floor, and rubbed her sore stomach.
"I'm sorry. Won't happen again."
"You're damn right it won't."
"Oh, Gabrielle, I've missed you so much. I'm so happy you're back," Xena said, and reached out for the blonde woman.
"Well, that's understandable, considering it was your actions that got me killed in the first place," Gabrielle said, and took a step back so she was out of Xena's reach.
"You heard me. You left me alone to fight off two hairy bastards. Really, Xena. I like to think of myself as a capable woman, but I didn't have a chance against those two."
"No, but I... I was out hunting..."
With a snort, Gabrielle sat down on one of the hay bales.
"Oh, that's a perfect excuse, Xena. That's the line you've been telling yourself, right? That you were out 'hunting'..." Gabrielle waved her index fingers in the air to form the quotation marks.
"...Well, Xena, it just won't cut it. No matter what excuse you use, YOU GOT ME KILLED! You might as well have done it yourself," Gabrielle continued.
"Look at me, Xena. Look!" Gabrielle said, and pulled up her blue shirt. The dagger was suddenly back in her chest, and thick, bright red blood was oozing out of the wound and down onto her skirt.
Xena felt all colour drain from her face, and she jumped forward to help Gabrielle remove the dagger.
She stopped Xena by putting out her hand - a hand that had suddenly turned sickly grey instead of the healthy pink it had been only moments before.
"Oh, no. It stays right where it is. It's my little souvenir. My memento of you. You didn't give me a ring, you gave me a dagger in the heart!" Gabrielle said, and laughed.
"But I love you, Gabrielle...!"
"Oh, so now she tells me. First you kill me, then you say you love me. Hey, I got news for you, Xena. It's too late. Oh, well. I'm surprised that someone like you even knows the concept of love. In fact, I'm sure you don't. For you, 'love' is a word you use when you want something. Right? For you, 'love' is the same as 'gimme.' "
"No, please stop... you don't know what you're saying..."
The sickly grey skin slowly spread up Gabrielle's arm, across her face and neck, and down the other arm. Gabrielle's features turned grotesque, and her voice became an octave deeper.
"What's the matter, Xena? A brave woman such as yourself shouldn't be afraid of death. It's just another little adventure. Embrace it!"
"Gods, no, Gabrielle..."
"I've been given my marching orders, Xena. I'm going to Tartarus... not because I've killed, but because I've been spending so much time with you. I always knew you weren't good for me, Xena. Now look what you have done!"
"I'm taking you with me to Tartarus!" Gabrielle roared, and reached out to grab Xena.
Xena snapped out of the horrendous nightmare with a violent jerk, and she sat up, panting heavily. She looked around in wide-eyed terror, but the barn was calm, and it looked exactly the same as before she had fallen asleep.
She could hear a faint roar of laughter from the inn across the courtyard, and the rain tapping rhythmically on the roof. She sighed, and rubbed her face. She wrapped the cloak tighter around herself, and got up from the hay.
Xena walked over to check up on Argo and the blanket with Gabrielle's remains. Even in the relatively short time since she had checked it last, the smell had become far worse, and she knew that it was now a matter of hours, not days, before Gabrielle's corpse would be so ripe she wouldn't be able to get anywhere near it, much less move it.
On the battlefield, she had seen bodies stay mostly intact for several days, but the very humid weather the day before had apparently sped up the decomposing process.
With a deep sigh, she decided that as soon as the dawn broke, she'd find a suitable spot to bury Gabrielle.
There was a knock on the barn door, and Nearchos stuck his head in.
"Xena, are you all right? I heard someone cry out, and I thought..."
"I'm all right."
'I cried out?' Xena thought, and mentally chastised herself for not being able to keep her emotions in check.
"Good. By the way, the bard has arrived, and I was thinking you might need to get your mind off... you know," the innkeeper said, and nodded at the blanket.
"Thank you, Nearchos." Xena said in a very tired voice.
"I better get back to the..." the innkeeper said, and started to close the barn door.
"Wait... can you suggest a place near here where I can bury Gabrielle? It must be undisturbed."
"Well... I thought you wanted to take her home...?"
"We both know that's out of the question now."
"Yeah. Well, about a mile and a half further North, a river crosses the road. We had a bridge, but a flood tore it away, so there's only a ford now. You came from that direction the first time you were here, so you probably know what I'm talking about?"
"If you go West on the Northern riverbank for half a mile or so, you'll reach a small lake with a waterfall. It's a very beautiful spot, but it isn't well known. That's... that's where I buried my wife three years ago."
"Oh, I'm sorry, Nearchos. I didn't know that," Xena said, and offered the innkeeper a sympathetic, if tired, smile.
Nearchos shrugged, and looked down at his boots.
"Does it ever get any easier?"
"No," he said, and quietly closed the barn door behind him.
As soon as the innkeeper had left, the smile faded from Xena's face, and she returned to working on securing the blanket.
Fifteen minutes later, Xena opened the door to the inn, and quietly stepped inside.
Nearchos had lit the large fireplace, and the flickering flames created a surreal, orange light show on the walls of the inn.
A stage had been erected in the centre of the room, and several rows of chairs were lined up in front of it. Quite a number of the chairs were already filled, and everyone there seemed to be in high spirits.
A man in his early twenties stood on the stage wearing sandals and a white and blue toga. He was holding a lengthy scroll in his hand, and waved it around when he wanted to bring emphasis to certain points of the story.
His dark brown hair was bobbed to perfection, and he had a very prominent jawline and nose. He had begun to grow a full beard, but apart from a thin, dark moustache, his youthful skin couldn't yet sustain a real growth, so it had a downy appearance.
"And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, was the story of how Jason and his Argonauts re-captured the Golden Fleece!" the bard said, and bowed.
"I heard recently that Jason is dead. He got drunk, and slept in the boat. And then the mast collapsed and crushed him like a bug!" someone shouted from the back row.
"Oh, no, Sir. I can assure you that Jason is alive and well, and living in Thebes. And the latest gossip heard in Athens suggests that he's courting none other than Alcmene, the mother of Hercules... that's Herakles to you old-timers."
The audience oohed and aahed, and the bard basked in the attention.
"By the way, since we're speaking of Alcmene. Do you know why Zeus is always wearing a disguise when he's visiting a beautiful, young virgin?"
A few people shouted 'no', and 'we wanna hear.'
"Oh, but that's so obvious. He disguises himself so he can't be identified by the mothers-in-law," the bard said, and smiled broadly.
The audience roared with laughter, and a few whistled loudly.
"Ah! I see I have a new spectator. And such a perfect example of the Amazons she is, too!" the bard said when he spotted Xena.
"The Amazons. I could tell you many horrific stories about those warrior women. And as sure as my name is Seculus of Iolkos, I will! But first! First I shall seek a drink from our most esteemed host, Nearchos!" Seculus said, and stepped off the stage.
Xena walked over to the bar counter, and leaned against it. Nearchos poured a healthy amount of ale into a mug, and let it glide across the counter. Xena deftly caught it, and took a few swigs.
"It's on the house," the innkeeper said with a smile.
"Can I get the same treatment, oh most esteemed host?" Seculus said. He slid up next to Xena, and compared their height. When he discovered that he was losing out by several inches, he stepped back and grinned cheekily.
"You've already had your free drink, Seculus," Nearchos said, and began to wipe down the counter.
"That's true. I was hoping you'd forgotten. A cup of wine, then," Seculus said, and put down a dinar.
"Can't be too careful these days," Nearchos said, and checked the coin thoroughly. Satisfied that it was genuine, he put it into the till, and reached for an amphora of wine.
"Truer words were rarely spoken," Seculus said, and leered at Xena.
Nearchos poured the wine into a cup, and then put it down on the counter in front of the bard.
"Thank you, my good man. So, Amazon, what brings you here?"
"I'm no Amazon," Xena said dryly.
"Oh, but look at you. Surely you're an Amazon. The perfect example of the Tribe of Sisters...?"
"Well, in that case... what are you doing later on?" Seculus said, and winked at Xena.
Xena took a deep breath, and then exhaled slowly. She opened her mouth to speak, but Nearchos cut her off.
"Seculus, you fool! That's Xena," he said harshly.
"The Warrior Princess? How intriguing. I've heard stories about you and... well, a lot of people, actually."
"Hercules among them. You worked with Hercules, didn't you?"
"Yes. A few times. Look, I don't appreciate being gossiped about," Xena said, and took another long swig off the mug.
"Oh, I can assure you that none of it is negative. Well, not much of it, anyway," the bard said, and made to touch Xena's arm.
"Seculus, I believe you said you had another story to tell?" Nearchos interjected.
"I do. A real tearjerker of love lost and love regained," Seculus said, holding his hand a few inches from Xena's arm.
"Now's a good time to tell it."
"Oh, well. Meet you later?" Seculus said to Xena, and winked again. He stepped back, and walked up to the stage.
"Conceited fool," Xena growled.
"Yes, but he certainly knows how to tell a good story. Ummm... if he had touched you, would you have ripped off his arm, or just broken his fingers?" Nearchos said.
"Both, probably," Xena said, and emptied the mug of ale.
"Ladies, Gentlemen... and Amazon! I sing a song of Orpheus, the most legendary of musicians, the son of Calliope, don't forget! And of his tragic quest to swim to the bottom of the Alcyonian Lake so he could enter the Underworld in order to reunite with his dead lover, Eurydice... and bring her back to the land of the living!"
An elderly man sitting on the front row thumped the butt of his cane down onto the floor, and jeered.
"Blah, blah, blah! First of all, down here it's called the Alconian Lake, we don't use your fancy Athenian dialect. Secondly, the lake is a bottomless pit fer cryin' out loud! We know, 'cos it's just over the ridge."
Xena's ears picked up, and she looked up at the stage. A tiny voice at the back of her mind told her that she should pay close attention to the bard's story.
"Sir, you're disrupting my performance..." Seculus said.
"The lake is connected to the Underworld all right... 'cos you'll drown long before you reach the bottom!" the man said, and began to laugh. Soon, most of the audience laughed along with the elderly man, and Seculus began to look increasingly flustered.
Xena moved her way through the rows of chairs, and found a free space right in front of the bard.
"I want to hear the story," she said loud enough for everyone to hear. One by one, the people in the audience stopped laughing, and more than a few sported blushes - the elderly man took a quick glance at Xena's weapons, and gulped nervously.
"I'm s... sorry. Go on," he said, and ducked his head.
Seculus cleared his throat, and winked at Xena.
"As I said, I sing a song of Orpheus and Eurydice. It all began one sunny morning many, many years ago..."
Gabrielle was waiting by the water's edge as agreed, when Charon's boat glided up the riverbank. She dreaded meeting the new arrivals, but she didn't dare break her word to Hades - who knew where that might take her?
She held a pained smile on her face when she saw that the first people she'd meet were three children. Two very young boys and a slightly older girl, all with filthy, blackened faces, and wearing clothes covered in soot.
Hades appeared next to Gabrielle, and put his hand on her shoulder.
"They died in a fire," he said, and gave Gabrielle's shoulder a little squeeze.
"But they'll be all right once they cross the threshold, right?"
"Oh, yes. That applies to everybody."
"What about their parents?"
"They made it out of there alive."
"Oh, Gods, how horrible... uhhh, I mean... you know what I mean," Gabrielle said, and blushed.
"I do," Hades said with a chuckle that lingered even after he had disappeared.
Charon pulled in his oar, and let his boat run up onto the riverbank.
"Come on, kids, time to get outta here. I've got plenty to do today," he said, and helped the three children off the boat.
Gabrielle stepped forward, and helped the two young boys climb down from the side of the boat. The girl jumped off the boat on her own accord, and waded to the shore.
"Young lassie, zat you? What in Tartarus are you still doing here?" Charon said, and rubbed his eyes.
"I'm working for Hades, helping the new arrivals," Gabrielle said, carrying the two boys to dry land.
"Oh, wow. Welcome to the family. The benefits are great once you've been here a few thousand years."
"Thanks... I think..."
"Well, I gotta go. No rest for the wicked, eh?" Charon said, and pushed the boat off the riverbank.
"The wicked?" Gabrielle said, and put down the two boys.
"Oh, Gods, I'm one of the wicked!" she cried out, and threw her hands in the air. She covered her eyes, and groaned pitifully.
Gabrielle took the two young boys by their hands, and led them to her favourite position next to the throne.
"This is where I spend my time when I'm not working," she said, and crouched down. The two boys squealed, and immediately began to play with the sand.
"That must be boring," the girl said, and sat down.
"You have no idea. I'm Gabrielle, hello."
"Hello. I'm Mara."
"That's a very pretty name. How old are you?"
"Eleven," Mara said, and started playing with her skirt.
"Oh, eleven. I can vividly remember something that happened when I was eleven. Oh, yes. That was quite a story. Do you want to hear it?" Gabrielle said, and smiled broadly.
"Yes, please!" all three children chimed in unison.
"All right... it was late summer, and Lila... that's my sister, by the way. Lila and I were playing in the forest near our village, Potaideia, when we suddenly saw a hind. We pretended it was the Golden Hind, and we ran after it..."
Soon, Gabrielle had the children completely enthralled by the story, and they were listening to her with eyes as big as saucers.
A little while later, Hades appeared, and waved Gabrielle over to him. She waved back, and got up from the ground.
"Now, promise me you won't go anywhere," she said to the children, and they all nodded in return.
"Lord Hades?" Gabrielle said when she reached him.
"The children are ready to move on to the Elysian Fields. You've done well, Gabrielle."
"Thank you. Will that help my situation?"
"It might. We'll see."
"Yes, Lord Hades," Gabrielle said, and sighed.
"I want to warn you about the person Charon is bringing in right now."
"Who is it? It's not Xe... I mean, it's not anyone I know, is it?"
"It's a King. The war down South has ended, and the victorious side butchered the King's entire family. It's going to take us quite a while to sort out all those people."
"How barbaric! I'll bet Ares loved that..." Gabrielle said, and put her hands on her hips.
Hades looked at her, and raised an eyebrow.
"Uhhh... never mind."
"In any case, the King will be here shortly, and it'll be your job to convince him that down here, everyone's equal."
"Oh, that sounds... hmmm."
"Consider it a test, Gabrielle. If you do well, I'll bump you up the queue," Hades said, and disappeared.
Gabrielle scrunched up her face, and began chewing on her fingernails again. With a sigh, she shuffled back to the children to keep them entertained until they were sent to the Fields.
"This is a disgrace! I'm a King, and I demand to be treated accordingly!" a man said in a booming voice. Gabrielle had just waved goodbye to Mara and her brothers, and she was still standing with her back turned to the riverbank. She groaned when she heard the voice, and found herself wishing for a quick end to the misery that would no doubt come her way soon.
"It's the Underworld. Get used to it," Charon said, and pushed the boat off the bank.
"Well, I've never!" the man said, and adjusted his royal robes.
"Now you have! Ha!" Charon said, and gave the man a mock salute.
Gabrielle sighed, and stepped forward to face the former King. He was a regal-looking man in his late sixties, with white hair, and a well-groomed beard. He was wearing deerskin boots, a white tunic with an intricately shaped tan pattern, and a crimson cape draped over his shoulders. The man had an air of arrogance about him that made Gabrielle's nape hairs stand on end - and not in a good way.
She opened her mouth to speak, but before she had the chance, the King cut her off.
"Servant girl, prepare a bath for me. I can't believe how badly this place smells."
"I'm sorry, are you talking to me?" Gabrielle said, and pointed at herself.
"Don't get cheeky with me, child!"
"You may have been an important King before, but now you're just one of the dead. There won't be any special favours," Gabrielle said, and put her hands on her hips.
"How rude! I demand to speak with your Master at once!" the former King said, and matched Gabrielle's stance.
"Oh, you will. Don't you worry about that. And when you have, you'll wish you hadn't."
"This is... this is preposterous! If you'd been one of my servant girls, I promise you, you would've tasted my whip by now," the former King said, and stormed up the beach.
"No wonder you lost the war. Have you ever considered speaking to your subjects in a civilised manner? All this condescending language will only make them less loyal and more likely to rebel against you. Maybe that's what happened?" Gabrielle said with a cheeky grin.
The former King was so stunned that he couldn't find a suitable comeback. He grimaced, and leaned against Hades' throne.
"I'll return once you've calmed down. Welcome to the Underworld," Gabrielle said, and walked away from the shocked King.
Seculus stood up straight, and modulated his voice to speak in a very God-like fashion.
" 'Orpheus, your music has softened my black heart. You have convinced me to give Eurydice a second chance. She's free to return to the upper world,' Hades said."
Seculus moved his hand in a sweeping gesture across the audience - suddenly, he clenched his fist, and lowered his voice.
" 'On one condition,' Hades continued, 'You *must* be ahead of her, and you're not to look at her until both of you have reached the upper world! This you *must* remember, Orpheus! I have granted her life, but it will only work once.' "
Seculus quickly moved to the other end of the stage, and looked at the people in the front row.
" 'I'll remember, Hades', Orpheus said, took his beloved wife by the hand, and began the perilous journey back to the upper world. But Orpheus didn't remember the command Hades had given him! As soon as he set foot on the sandy shore, he was ecstatic! He finally had his beloved wife back... and he looked at her! But Eurydice hadn't yet reached the shore, and she was immediately sucked down into the water. She struggled bravely, but the pull of Hades was too strong. Alas, Eurydice drowned and sank to the bottom of the lake, her eternal spirit once again held captive by Hades."
The audience oohed, and some dabbed their suddenly misty eyes. Even Xena was impressed. Seculus' performance was perhaps a bit over the top, but, like Nearchos had said, the bard certainly knew how to tell a story.
Seculus cleared his throat, and moved back to stand in front of Xena.
"So, my dear audience, the morale of this story is to listen to what the Gods tell us. While we may not swim to the bottom of the Alcy... Alconian Lake to retrieve a loved one, we do many things during the day where we're dependant on the gifts the Gods have given us, and we're best advised not to squander those gifts."
Xena snorted, and Seculus quickly looked down at her. She raised an eyebrow, and Seculus couldn't help but chuckle.
"Ahem. Thank you, you've been a wonderful audience, but now it's time for me to leave. If you feel you've been entertained by my stories, it would be most appreciated if you spread the word about... Seculus of Iolkos!" the bard said, and bowed.
The audience broke out in applause - even the old man who had jeered the bard earlier, and Seculus had a broad smile plastered on his face.
He stepped off the stage, and approached Xena.
"So, I guess this would make it 'later'. Shall we proceed to my rented quarters?" he said, and stretched out his hand.
"Keep dreaming," Xena said, and got up from the chair without even looking at the bard.
"Oh... all right. I will," Seculus said, and winked. He turned around, and headed for the stairs that would take him to the upper floor of the inn.
"See you tomorrow morning, Nearchos!" Seculus shouted, and the innkeeper waved back.
Xena walked up to the counter, eager to talk to Nearchos. Seculus' story had given her an idea: she'd travel to the lake and take the plunge - literally. It had become very clear to her during Seculus' performance that it was the best solution.
The 'Gabrielle' she had seen in her nightmare may only have been a creature borne out of her twisted subconscious, but she had actually been right - all Xena had done until now was to hide behind her excuses and her guilt. The simple fact remained that she, Xena, was the reason for Gabrielle's death, and that she, Xena, had to take an active role in bringing her back.
Even though the innkeeper was busy saying good night to the audience, he noticed the agitated look on the warrior's face, and furrowed his brow.
When the last guest had filed through the door, Nearchos locked it, and turned to Xena.
"How far is the Alconian Lake?"
"Not far. Xena, you're not planning to do anything stupid, are you?"
"I'm planning to take control, so I can get this damn mess sorted out."
"Listen to me, you're going on a suicide mission! It's all just a myth. The old man wasn't joking, the lake really is a bottomless pit. You'll drown long before you'll ever reach the lakebed..."
"Nearchos, I have experienced things that you would never, ever believe. I have done things you can't even begin to imagine... I can get there."
"One way or the other," Nearchos deadpanned.
"If that's my destiny... so be it."
"And there's nothing I can say to make you change your mind?"
"When are you leaving?"
"All right," Nearchos said, and started collecting some leftover bread and cheese.
"Don't bother. You have more use for that than I do," Xena said, and put her hand on top of the innkeeper's. Nearchos stopped what he was doing, and sighed.
"She must be some friend," he said quietly.
Xena briefly looked down, but then locked eyes with the innkeeper.
"Trust me. She is," Xena said, her ice blue eyes burning into Nearchos' soul.
A candlemark later, Xena dismounted from Argo, and walked down a sandy beach to stand at the edge of the Alconian Lake. At this time of night, the water was pitch black, and nary a sound was heard. She sighed, and put her hands on her hips.
Grunting quietly, she went back to Argo, and ignited a torch Nearchos had given her. She thrust the lit torch deep into the sand, and began the gruesome task of removing the rolled-up blanket with Gabrielle's remains from Argo's back.
She used the Chakram to cut through the ropes, and then took the blanket over her shoulder. The horrid smell was overwhelming, but she clenched her teeth, and forced herself to ignore it. She carefully put the blanket down in a small patch of shrubbery, and began searching for rocks large enough to build a temporary shelter.
It didn't take her long, and she soon put the final rocks on top of the blanket. She sighed, and kneeled down next to the grave.
"Gabrielle... I'm not sure what will happen now. But I promise you that we'll meet again. I may not be able to persuade Hades to give you another chance, but I'll try. Whatever happens, I'll be there for you."
Several tears had found their way onto Xena's cheeks, but she didn't bother wiping them off. She got up from the ground, and went over to Argo.
Taking the saddle and the harness off Argo, she whispered a few nonsensical words of comfort into the mare's ear, and clapped the golden fur.
Stepping back to the torch, Xena unbuckled her scabbard and her breastplate. The shoulder pads, the gauntlets, the boots, and the leathers followed, and soon, Xena was left standing in her black shift, feeling slightly ridiculous, and completely exposed.
She put all her clothes in a neat pile, and briefly wondered if she'd ever see any of it again. She looked down at the Chakram, and considered taking it along, but she decided against it, as it would only slow her down.
Suddenly, Ares materialised right next to her. He had his arms crossed over his chest, and he had a look of supreme annoyance on his face.
"Xena, Xena, Xena, what are you doing risking your life for that scrawny little kid?"
"Mind your own business."
"Oh, well, Xena, you are my business. And I'm here to tell you that attempting to swim to the bottom of the Alconian Lake is nuts!"
"Some things are worth fighting for," Xena said, and turned away from him.
Ares reached out, and put his hand on Xena's shoulder. They stood like that for several seconds, until Ares turned her around to face him.
"Oh, I agree. But this isn't one of them. Let's say you're actually capable of bringing her back. What is it you want from her? I've been watching you and her for a little while, and I have a hard time understanding your relationship."
"What I want? I want her to love me like I love her."
"Newsflash, Xena... you're incapable of loving. That's what I like so much about you. You have successfully separated your heart from your mind."
"Well, I've changed," Xena said quietly. Ares' words had stung her because she knew they were true - or at least, they had been true for the person she used to be... before she had met Gabrielle.
"You haven't changed a bit. Do you know what I see when I look at you?"
"No, but I'm sure you'll tell me."
"I see fire, dedication, courage. And a stubborn streak a mile wide... none of which is spelled l-o-v-e."
"Look again, Ares," Xena said, and turned around to face the black lake.
"Snap out of it! You're acting like a... a... like a stupid, lovesick mortal!" Ares said, and pounded one fist into the other.
Xena looked back at him, and sighed.
"Tell Hades I'm on my way."
"I will!" Ares growled, and disappeared in his customary flash of blue.
Xena took a deep breath, and began walking out into the lake. The cold water sent chills coursing through her when she'd first entered the lake, but she was soon into her stride. Once the water was up to her hips, she threw herself into it, and began to swim towards the centre of the lake.
As Xena swam further and further away from the shores of the lake, Hades materialised not far from where Xena had placed Gabrielle's grave. Ares arrived not long after, and they both looked out over the water, staring at Xena's powerful strokes.
Hades folded his arms across his chest with a sigh.
"I appreciate you alerting me, Ares. It's apparently quite hard to knock some sense into her head."
"Yes, she can be stubborn. Which reminds me... Hades, there's something I don't understand. I know why I don't want Xena to reunite with the kid, but why are you so dead set against it?"
"It's the principle, Ares. We cannot allow the mortals to have such powers. If one begins to question or challenge our decisions, more will start to doubt us, and eventually, our reign will end. We created them; we're their masters, and the mortals must quite simply accept that we Gods always know best and always have the final word. And if they still challenge us... we'll strike them down."
"So we're basically ruling them by fear?"
Ares chuckled, and looked rather pointedly at Hades.
"Won't work in the long run. In fact, I'm not sure it works now. They're already too independent. And, with all due respect, you don't know Xena as I do. She's... relentless."
"Frankly, Ares, I think you're overestimating her. Xena's a formidable fighter, yes, but she's merely a mortal."
"Ignore her at your peril, Hades," Ares said, and disappeared.
Hades grunted, and furrowed his brow. He tapped his index finger on his lips, and seemed to be lost in thought.
'... I want her to love me like I love her ...'
Xena's words echoed through Gabrielle's mind, and she jumped up from the spot next to the throne, and put her hands on her heart.
"Oh, Xena..." she whispered.
Restless and frustrated, Gabrielle began to pace back and forth like a caged tiger. She debated loudly with herself, complaining bitterly about the fact that Xena had never had the nerve to tell her those words in person, and at the same time, feeling guilty that she had never taken the first steps herself.
"By the Gods, how hard can it be? It's so easy to say, 'Gabrielle, you know what? I think I love you.' There. That wasn't so hard, was it, Xena?"
Gabrielle reached the entrance to one of the tunnels, turned around, and began pacing in the other direction.
"On the other hand, it's not like I've ever given her any reason to think I felt the same... well, except for all those times I've just sat there, staring at her with large, round doe-eyes. Or the times where... Uggh!"
Gabrielle threw her hands in the air, and turned around again.
A little while later, Hades materialised on the riverbank, and waved Gabrielle over to him.
"Gabrielle, you did well with the former King. As a reward, I have decided to release you from this waiting area, and to send you on the journey you so desperately yearn for."
"You're... you're sending me back to Xena?"
"No, I'm giving you a free pass to the Elysian Fields."
Gabrielle's shoulders slumped, and she let out a long, slow sigh. Hades didn't seem to notice.
"... I know it's highly unusual, but I feel you've earned your place there. Congratulations, Gabrielle. You should feel honoured. I've only bestowed this special prize to a very select group of people over the course of the last few millennia."
"Oh, I... I am very grateful, Lord Hades," Gabrielle said, dejected.
"Good. Here, drink this. It'll ease your journey to the Fields," Hades said, and conjured up a bowl of water. He presented it to Gabrielle, but she shook her head.
"No, thank you, Lord Hades. I'm not thirsty at all."
"Oh, no, really..."
"Drink," Hades said in a tone of voice that left no room for misinterpretation.
"I guess it would be rude of me to refuse," Gabrielle said, and took the bowl.
She noticed the steely gaze the God had on her, and a little warning bell set off in the back of her mind. Xena had told her more than once that so-called 'free' gifts usually weren't, so she smiled at the God and pretended to take a swig.
She could see out of the corner of her eye that Hades wasn't fooled, so she took a real sip, just to appease the God. As soon as she did so, the strangest feeling of bliss swept over her, and her eyes grew wide.
"Wha... what's in this?"
"As I said, it's a simple refreshment to ease your journey."
Gabrielle took another small sip, and began to feel disoriented, and almost like she was losing her sense of self. She knew that she'd be in real trouble if she took a big swig, so she didn't.
Hades pushed the bowl into her face, making the water splash over her mouth, and down her shirt.
"Empty it. It'll do you good," he said, and smiled coldly.
Gabrielle knew she had to do it, so she took a long swig, but kept it all in her mouth.
Hades nodded to himself, and stepped back. The portal to the Elysian Fields began to shimmer, and Gabrielle walked towards it.
Hades disappeared, leaving Gabrielle alone in front of the portal. As soon as the God was gone, she spat out the mouthful of water, and wiped her lips on her shirt.
She looked inside the portal - all she could see were green fields and blue skies with fluffy, white clouds.
'I guess this is it... Xena... I'll love you forever,' she thought, and took a deep breath. She closed her eyes, and stepped through the shimmering, glass-like portal.
Gabrielle's senses were immediately bombarded by a million different impressions, and she shook her head slowly, struggling to take them all in. An incredible sense of bliss swept through her as she looked at the gently rolling landscape, at the crystal clear blue sky, at the tall, imposing pine trees lining the right side of the dirt road she had found herself on, and at a group of white buildings in the distance.
She looked back to see if the portal was still there, but it was gone - and in fact, it looked like it had never been there at all.
She looked down at herself, and was surprised to see that instead of her regular blue blouse and brown skirt, she was wearing a long, off-white dress with a plunging neckline - she blushed, and tried to cover up her bosom a bit better.
The dress was held together by two large, golden rings that rested on top of Gabrielle's shoulders, and by a plethora of smaller rings that formed a gusset down both her sides. It was a beautiful dress, and it was of a far better quality than anything she had ever worn.
Suddenly feeling almost giddy, Gabrielle spun around in a circle, and whooped loudly, marvelling at how comfortable the high-quality fabric felt on her body.
After a few moments, Gabrielle's legs began moving on their own accord, guiding her towards the white buildings she could see in the distance.
Xena descended deeper and deeper into the lake. Her heart was thumping so hard in her chest it hurt, her lungs were burning, and her eyes were stinging so fiercely she could hardly see where she was going, but she forced herself further downwards.
Just moments before her lungs burst, the portal to the Underworld opened, and Xena lunged for it.
She landed heavily on the sand, coughing and wheezing, and spewing out the water she had ingested. She got up on her hands and knees, and tried to get her heart rate to settle down.
Once it was down to its regular level, she got up, and moved through the misty, smelly tunnel she had landed in. She soon found herself on a sandy shore, much like the one she had just left behind.
A thick patch of fog was obscuring Xena's view of the Styx, and she couldn't see Charon's boat anywhere. Instead of waiting, she put two fingers in her mouth, and whistled loudly.
A bump, a scrape, and another bump was heard from the other side of the fog, and Charon's croaky voice soon drifted across the river.
"Who' you whistlin' at, mortal? You think I'm some sort o' pet? Just for that, I'll make ya pay double!"
The boat slowly came into view, and Charon let it run up onto the riverbank.
"Oh... it's you, Xena. Well, well, well. Guess you weren't invincible after all, huh? Heh, heh, heh... wait a minute... sniff. Sniff. Sniff! Wait a minute! You reek of mortality!"
"That's right, Charon, I'm alive. Take me across. I've got no time to waste," Xena said, and climbed aboard.
"I beg yer pardon?!"
"Come on. Do you want me to man the oar?"
"Nobody mans my baby but me!" the hideous creature said, and clutched his oar affectionately.
"Well, let's get to it, then. I'm in a hurry," Xena said, and went up to stand near the bow of the boat.
"That's it! I'm officially insulted. Even Hercules had the decency to speak nice to me. Of course, I do love watching a woman on a mission, so... what the heck. Here we go," Charon said, and pushed the boat off the riverbank.
As soon as the boat reached the waiting area, Xena jumped off, and waded through the water, anxious to find Gabrielle.
"Oh, just perfect! Now she does a runner on me. Xena, I'm putting it on your tab!" Charon shouted after her, but Xena didn't care.
Xena studied the many people closely, but she couldn't see Gabrielle's characteristic shock of strawberry blonde hair anywhere. She furrowed her brow, and began a more thorough search.
With a crackle of ozone, Hades materialised next to her.
"Xena. I don't have to ask what brings you here."
"Where is she?"
"She's moved on."
Xena bared her teeth in a sneer, and narrowed her eyes until they were no more than blue slits.
"She's moved on. Just recently, actually. I felt sorry for the young girl, so I granted her free passage to the Elysian Fields. Xena, aren't you pleased for your friend? After all, the Fields are so much nicer than Tartarus... where you'll be going," Hades said with a smirk.
Xena's left eyebrow twitched, but she kept her mouth shut.
Hades put his hands behind his back, and slowly circled Xena.
"I'm impressed, I didn't think you'd be able to get down here. On your own, I mean."
"Take me to her."
"Oh, come on, Xena. You know I can't do that. Besides, your friend is in a much nicer place now. I sent her to live in an artists' commune. She'll meet likeminded people there, not butchers like you. And besides, she won't know you. I've made sure of that."
Xena dearly wanted to take a swing at the God, so she clenched her fists hard. Realising the futility of such an action, she closed her eyes, and counted to ten instead.
"What have you done to her?" Xena said, her voice transformed into a steely whisper.
"Gabrielle didn't get any special treatment. Just like everyone else, I had her drink from a bowl filled with the waters of the river Lethe - however, she got a dose strong enough to knock over the Cretan Bull. All her memories of her previous life were wiped out in an instant. That includes all her memories of you, Xena," Hades said.
Ares suddenly appeared in a blue flash, and crossed his arms over his chest.
"She's gone for good. Accept that," he said, and reached out for Xena.
Angrily, she swatted away his hand, and took a step back from the two Gods.
"Were you in on this?" she asked Ares.
"No. I only just heard now. I have to hand it to my uncle, though. He certainly knows how to get the most out of even the smallest thing. And let's face it, Gabrielle wasn't particularly big," Ares said, and laughed at his own joke.
Xena mumbled something that sounded very much like 'sick bastard', but then she cocked her head, and her left eyebrow made a perfect arc above her eye.
"Hades, drinking the waters of the Lethe... isn't that what you call the Wall of Oblivion?"
"Yes. So..?" Hades said.
"And it can't be broken?"
"Of course not."
Ares groaned, and rubbed his forehead - he knew exactly what was coming.
"Then you wouldn't object to a challenge, would you?"
"Allow me to enter the Fields to try to break through to Gabrielle," Xena said, smiling coldly.
Ares rolled his eyes, but kept quiet.
"If I succeed in breaking down the Wall of Oblivion, I think it's only fair that I get to choose my prize."
"Xena, no matter what you do, you'll never escape Tartarus," Hades said.
"I want you to restore Gabrielle's life," Xena said, choosing to ignore the God's remark.
"All right. I agree," Hades said, after considering Xena's challenge.
"Hades, I know that look on her face - she's trying to trick you. And I should know, 'cos she's done that to me more than once!" Ares said.
"A word's a word, Ares."
Hades waved his hand, and the portal to the Elysian Fields started to shimmer.
"Go ahead. We won't stop you," Hades said, and pointed at the portal.
"Thank you. I'll be back. With Gabrielle," Xena said, and jumped through the portal without even looking back at the two Gods.
"Wrong decision, Hades. Didn't you just tell me that mortals shouldn't have such powers?"
"I think you're forgetting that I gave Gabrielle an extra strong dose. The only reason I accepted Xena's challenge is because I know she'll fail miserably. And when the mortals see that even their strongest champion couldn't accomplish anything, they'll return to the fold..."
Ares rolled his eyes repeatedly, and shook his head.
"Yeah, right. And I'm the God of Love," he said, and disappeared.
When Gabrielle finally reached the white buildings, she felt dizzy and disoriented, and she had to put her hand on the wall of the house to stop herself from falling over. A strange, throbbing headache was slowly blossoming outwards from its starting point somewhere deep inside her head. For each passing moment, she could remember less and less of whom she'd once been, and she instinctively knew it had something to do with the bowl of water Hades had given her.
She shivered when she realised what was happening to her, and she tried to struggle against it - with very little success. She was counting her lucky stars that she had only taken a few sips of the water. She couldn't even begin to imagine what the headaches would've felt like if she had emptied the bowl.
She looked up, and noticed she was standing at the end of a hallway. Even though she couldn't see where it led, she somehow knew that she was supposed to go in.
Halfway through the long hallway, she found a niche carved into the rock that was just big enough for her to sit down in. She clutched her head in her hands, and groaned.
"You're experiencing the Cleansing. It'll get better in a short while," a male voice said from somewhere close to her.
Gabrielle opened her eyes, and looked at the man standing next to her in the hallway. He was in his early twenties, and dressed similarly to herself. His hair was wild and curly, and he had chestnut brown eyes.
"Oh, I really hope so. My head feels like the time me and my sister tried to drink from a keg of insanely strong beer in an inn," Gabrielle croaked.
"I'm Cleias. Welcome to the Elysian Fields," he said.
"I'm Gabrielle, and... this isn't exactly what I expected..."
"I can imagine."
Gabrielle's headache slowly abated, and she drew a sigh of relief. She rubbed her temples, and tried to remember things from her past just to check how much she had lost. The only things she couldn't connect to anything were fleeting images of a tall, dark woman wearing black leathers. Gabrielle tried to focus, but the tall woman was always just out of reach. She shrugged, and got up from the niche.
Cleias took Gabrielle by the hand, and led her further down the hallway. Soon, they were standing on a ledge, overlooking the largest amphitheatre Gabrielle had ever seen.
It had been built into a hillside, and it was of gigantic proportions. Endless rows of stone benches were laid out in a semi-circle around a stage in the centre, where a handful of people were busy performing some kind of play.
"Wow!" Gabrielle exclaimed, and rubbed her eyes.
"We've been waiting for you."
"We've all been looking forward to listening to one of your legendary performances," Cleias said, and smiled broadly.
"My legen... oh, yes, of course. My legendary performances," Gabrielle said, and matched Cleias' smile.
"Come! You must meet the others," Cleias said, and took Gabrielle's hand.
"I could get used to this!" she said out loud, and started walking down a long flight of stairs.
Xena jumped out of the portal, and landed at the exact same spot where Gabrielle had been not long before. She crouched down, and started searching the dirt road for tracks or clues that might lead her to Gabrielle - unfortunately, she couldn't find any.
She grunted, and slowly spun around, checking her surroundings. After doing a complete circle, Xena drew the conclusion that Gabrielle would've headed for the cluster of white buildings some distance away, and she set off running in that direction.
Gabrielle reached the bottom of the long staircase, and stepped out onto the corner of the stage. She immediately felt at ease, and more importantly, at home.
Four other bards were already on the stage, two men and two women, and they were seemingly in the middle of a play. They were all wearing outfits identical to Gabrielle's, and they were all roughly her own age.
Cleias put his hand in the small of Gabrielle's back, and gently pushed her forward.
"My friends, I bring you Gabrielle, the bard," he said loudly, and the others stopped acting, and came over to greet them.
"Oh, this is so nice," Gabrielle said after being hugged by all four actors.
"We're glad you're satisfied, Gabrielle. I'm SelÚne," one of the young women said.
"Hello, SelÚne. I couldn't recognise the play you were doing before. Is it a new one?"
"Yes, it is. Do you want to join us?"
"I'd love to, but I don't know the words, or..."
"Oh, this one is a silent play. We're just acting out our inner energies, and trying to match them to those of the others. When we do, we rejoice in the beautiful spiritual colours we produce," SelÚne said, and smiled broadly.
"Uhhh, I don't know... that sounds a little too... uhhh, esoteric for my tastes. I'm more of a traditional bard," Gabrielle said, and furrowed her brow.
"We can do that, too. Whatever makes you happy," Cleias said.
"What do you do when you're not out here?" Gabrielle said, and stepped away from Cleias. For some inexplicable reason, she suddenly felt uncomfortable being near the young man.
'Duh, Gabrielle. It's the Elysian Fields... what could possibly be wrong here?' she thought - but even so, she couldn't shake the feeling that something was off.
"When Sister Night graces us with her presence, we go into the Great Hall where we celebrate to our hearts' delight until the morning comes," SelÚne said.
"Yes. Wine, song, make love all night long," SelÚne said, and giggled when she realised her sentence had rhymed.
"Uhhh, that sounds... uhhhh... I'm more of a one-person kind of girl, myself, actually," Gabrielle said, and scratched her hair. She walked over to the edge of the stage. She looked down, and noticed that it was a thirty-foot drop.
"We can accommodate everything, Gabrielle. You needn't shy away from us. We can be everything you want us to be," Cleias said.
Suddenly, Hades materialised right next to Gabrielle, making her jump a foot in the air.
"What's wrong, Gabrielle? Isn't this what you wanted? Being respected as an artist, and be able to perform in front of an appreciative audience?"
Hades snapped his fingers, and the amphitheatre was at once filled to capacity with tens of thousands of people, all cheering and calling out Gabrielle's name.
"This is all yours, Gabrielle. For all eternity. What's wrong?"
"Oh... it's nothing. I just see the strangest images in my head, and... Hey, they're all chanting my name!"
"Yes they are. Here, you're the star."
"I've always wanted to perform in front of a large audience..." Gabrielle said, and waved to the massive crowd. As a reply, they roared loudly, and some threw flowers onto the stage.
"Now's your chance to do that, Gabrielle. Come, join SelÚne and myself in a performance," Cleias said, and put his hand on Gabrielle's arm.
Gabrielle looked at Cleias' and SelÚne's smiling faces, and then at Hades. She debated with herself whether to accept or not, but finally came to the conclusion that it couldn't hurt to give it a shot.
"Oh, all right. I'd love to," she said, and broke out in a beaming smile.
SelÚne reached out for Gabrielle, and pulled her into a tight hug.
"We're so glad you're satisfied, Gabrielle."
"You've said that already, SelÚne..."
"Have I? It's because I mean it. I promise you, you won't regret it, not even for a second. We'll give you everything you've ever wanted."
SelÚne pulled Gabrielle even closer, and ran her fingers seductively up Gabrielle's exposed arms.
"And I do mean... everything," SelÚne purred into Gabrielle's ear.
"Oh? Well... I'm... Ohhhh!" Gabrielle said, suddenly unable to form a coherent sentence. When she'd deciphered the hidden meaning of SelÚne's words, she blushed furiously, and couldn't stop giggling - but at the same time, the fleeting images of the dark warrior returned to her mind's eye.
At much the same time, Xena arrived at the entrance to the hallway, breathing heavily from the long run. She stopped to listen for any unusual sounds, but everything was quiet - too quiet. Taking a few deep breaths to calm down from the run, she clenched her fists, and stepped into the hallway.
She had only taken a handful of steps when a male figure came into view at the other end of the narrow passage.
"Xena, we can't allow you to take Gabrielle from us," Cleias said.
"She doesn't belong here!"
"She doesn't belong with you, either."
"Let Gabrielle be the judge of that," Xena hissed, preparing for the inevitable fight.
"I agree. Come. I'll show you where she is," Cleias said, and reached out for Xena.
The warrior narrowed her eyes, and tried to read the stranger. Unable to extract any information whatsoever from the man's creepy blank stare, she decided to play their game.
"All right," Cleias said, and turned around. He walked out of the far end of the hallway, and then turned around again to wait for Xena to catch up.
"Come on. She's not far."
Xena followed him very slowly, with all her senses working overtime. She knew that she was more than likely walking into a trap, but right now, that didn't matter to her at all.
They stepped out onto a ledge overlooking the amphitheatre. The place was completely filled up by thousands of people, who were all visibly cheering - but none of them made a single sound.
Xena looked at the massive crowd, and felt her skin crawl.
"Only Gabrielle can hear them. They're here for her benefit. She's a wonderful young lady, don't you think?"
"Where is she?"
"Look at the stage," Cleias said, and pointed towards the centre of the amphitheatre.
Xena's eyes followed Cleias' arm, and focused on the distant stage. She could clearly see a small group of people performing some very artistic movements, and she quickly spotted Gabrielle's strawberry blonde hair among the performers.
Xena felt a thousand different emotions rushing through her all at once, and it took all her skills to keep her exterior calm. Her heart soared from seeing Gabrielle again, and an overwhelming sense of happiness and love swept through her entire body, making even her fingertips tingle.
Xena knew she'd never accomplish what she'd set out to do if she didn't keep her emotions in check, so she only allowed herself a brief moment to savour finding Gabrielle. She sighed deeply, and slipped back into the role of the hardened warrior.
"She's as happy as she's ever been, Xena. Do you really want to take all that away from her?"
"She was happy when she was alive," Xena said hoarsely.
"Perhaps she was. But it's nothing compared to how she's feeling here," Cleias said, and started walking down the almost endless flight of stairs.
Xena sighed again, and followed him down.
"Gabrielle, there's a visitor for you," Cleias said, as he and Xena finally reached the stage after walking down what seemed like three hundred steps.
Gabrielle turned around, and gawked at the unusual figure standing before her. A curious sense of deja vu flashed through her mind, but it left as quickly as it had arrived.
"Hello. Are you a bard, too?" Gabrielle said, and smiled.
Even though Xena already knew about Gabrielle drinking from the waters of the Lethe, the confirmation of the fact hit her hard - she felt the blood drain from her face, and she had a very unpleasant sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She opened her mouth to speak, but not a single sound came out.
"Oh, I'm sorry... where are my manners? It's just that you look so... well, different to the rest of us with your black dress and your blue eyes. Has anyone ever told you that you have very beautiful eyes?" Gabrielle said, and cocked her head.
"...Yes. You have," Xena said quietly.
"Really? I can't remember. So we do know each other?" Gabrielle said, and furrowed her brow. Instinctively, she reached out to touch Xena, but Cleias intercepted her hand.
"Yes, we do. I'm Xena," the warrior said, but was cut off when Cleias moved between the two women.
"The day's almost over, Gabrielle. Since this is your first night with us, we've prepared a special feast for you."
"Oh, that sounds great. But I was just going to..." Gabrielle said, and tried to wiggle her arm free from Cleias' grip.
"Sadly, Xena won't be able to join us for the celebration, so you better say goodbye, Gabrielle," he said with a forced smile.
Xena narrowed her eyes, but chose to keep quiet.
"I want her to be there," Gabrielle said.
"But, Gabrielle..." Cleias said sceptically.
"I want her to be there. End of discussion."
Cleias looked from Gabrielle to Xena - and then back at Gabrielle.
"All right. But SelÚne has something special planned for you. I'm sure you understand what I'm talking about."
"Oh... yes," Gabrielle said, and blushed in the cutest shade of pink.
"And I know for a fact that it's something that SelÚne wants to do just for you."
Xena's left eyebrow started creeping up her forehead, and she put her hands on her hips.
"I understand. But what...?"
"So you'll hurt her feelings if you choose someone else's company over hers. You do understand that, right?"
"I do. I don't want SelÚne to get the wrong impression of me. I'll be there," Gabrielle said, and sighed.
"Good. I'll tell her."
Cleias turned around to face Xena. He wore a broad smirk that immediately made Xena dislike him even more than she'd done before.
"Gabrielle has invited you to our party, Xena. But you'll have to stay in the Great Hall. I'll arrange it so you can meet Gabrielle. Afterwards," Cleias said, and the smirk grew even wider.
What Xena really wanted was to wipe the smirk off Cleias' face, but she knew that she had to get Gabrielle back to normal before she could start kicking everyone's butt, so she settled for nodding - and growling.
In no time, everyone had moved into the Great Hall, which was in fact a building behind the stage. A group of musicians had appeared out of nowhere, and they were busy playing a happy tune.
The Hall had been abundantly decorated with long, multi-coloured tapestries hanging from the ceiling, and hundreds, if not thousands, of yellow, pink, and white flower petals on the floor.
A rectangular table had been set up in the centre of the room, with seven settings on it, one at the head of the table, and three on either side. A thick carpet had been laid down on the floor under the table, so the bards wouldn't suffer from cold feet.
Four muscle-bound male waiters, wearing loincloths and nothing else, came into the Great Hall from an unseen room off to the left, and placed a cornucopia on the far end of the table. After making sure it wasn't in danger of toppling over, they went over to one of the walls to wait for the guests.
They didn't have to wait long, as all six bards rushed into the Great Hall to get the best seats. Cleias assumed his customary place at the head of the table, and SelÚne sat down on his right.
"Come, Gabrielle. You can sit here," Cleias said, and pointed at the first chair on his left.
Xena wasn't in any hurry to follow the bards to the table - instead, she leaned against the stone doorjamb, and made a face at the pompousness of it all. She knew that it was all an illusion, but one look at the beaming smile on Gabrielle's face convinced her to keep quiet.
"Bring the food and the wine!" Cleias shouted, and the bards responded with a rapturous cheer.
Right on cue, seven further waiters walked into the Great Hall, all carrying trays with many different kinds of food. A huge fried chicken was placed in front of Gabrielle, and she started digging into it almost before the waiter had removed his arm.
"Patience, Gabrielle. There's something we need to do first," Cleias said, and waved one of the waiters over to him.
"Oh, sorry," Gabrielle said, and put down the cutlery.
Xena came to the table, and sat down. Her tray held half a wild boar, but even though she was famished, she snorted, and pushed it away.
Cleias held up a cup, and one of the waiters immediately poured some wine into it from a large wineskin. Once Cleias' cup was full, the waiter continued around the table until all the cups were filled to the brim.
"My friends! Today we celebrate the arrival of Gabrielle. Her innocence and the purity of her soul have brought her to us, and we must honour and respect her. A toast to Gabrielle!" Cleias said, and the other bards responded by shouting Gabrielle's name, and emptying their wine cups. In an instant, the waiter had refilled all the cups.
Gabrielle laughed out loud, and took a small sip of her wine so she wouldn't appear discourteous.
"And finally a toast to our Lord Hades, who had the wisdom to send Gabrielle to us," Cleias said, and emptied the cup again. The bards shouted Hades' name, and again the waiter refilled the cups.
"Gabrielle... it's all yours," Cleias said with a laugh.
Gabrielle whooped, and immediately tore the drumstick off the fried chicken.
Instead of sampling any of the offered food or wine, Xena kept looking at Gabrielle, trying hard to work out the best way to bring the bard back to life.
With a sigh, Xena leaned back in her chair. She folded her arms across her chest, and began to study the other people at the table. They were all clean-cut, beautiful young men and women with perfect tans, perfect teeth, and perfectly blank expressions on their faces. None of them had as much as a single hair out of place, even after several candlemarks of doing nothing other than gorging themselves on all kinds of food.
It was clear to Xena that the other bards weren't spirits of former mortals like Gabrielle was - they had all been created for the singular purpose of entertaining Gabrielle for all eternity. Xena looked back at Gabrielle, and sighed again.
To Xena's eyes, it was evident that Gabrielle was very much enjoying herself. She had eaten two huge fried chickens, several trout, and most of the wild boar Xena had rejected earlier, and she had emptied her cup of wine at least a dozen times. She had told tall tales, laughed, sung... and still, Xena had caught Gabrielle's emerald green eyes stealing a glance at her from time to time.
'Oh, Gabrielle... how can I reach you,' Xena thought. Suddenly feeling fed up with the whole absurd situation, Xena forcefully pushed her chair back, and strode away from the table. Once she reached the doorway to the amphitheatre, she paused, and turned around to look at Gabrielle - when the bard didn't even return the look, Xena harrumphed, and went outside.
Cleias noticed, and immediately waved one of the waiters over to him. The waiter leaned down, and Cleias whispered something into his ear.
The waiter nodded, and followed Xena out of the Great Hall.
When Xena returned only a few minutes later, she stopped with a jerk in the doorway to the Great Hall. Gabrielle and the other bards were gone, and the table had been cleared of all the food.
Cleias sat with his feet up on the table, and he was looking at Xena with an impossibly wide smirk on his face.
"What have you done with Gabrielle?" Xena hissed.
"She's safe, and in good hands. Did the waiter I sent for you find you?"
"He found me," Xena said, and ran her thumb across her scraped knuckles.
"Why are you playing such a childish game?" she said, and approached Cleias.
"Oh, you know. It gives me such a thrill."
Cleias took his feet off the table, and turned around to face Xena.
"How typical of a God."
"Actually, I'm no God, merely a servant of Lord Hades."
"So you're a stooge. Even worse."
"Tell me, Xena... how do you feel when I tell you that at this exact moment, your precious, sweet, innocent girlfriend Gabrielle is making love with my sister?"
"Gabrielle would never..."
"Oh, believe me, she would. You see, my sister SelÚne is no ordinary woman. No, she was created from a lock of Aphrodite's hair. No mortal, or former mortal for that matter, can withstand her touch. SelÚne can literally drive anyone... mad with lust," Cleias said, whispering the last words with a twinkle in his eyes.
Xena narrowed her eyes, and rapidly closed the distance to Cleias. She put her hand on the back of his chair, and almost tore it apart. She bared her teeth, and growled in his face.
"You mortals are so predictable. Now you want to wipe me out, and probably hurt my sister, too... right? Think again, Xena."
"Where are they?"
"Right next door," Cleias said, and pointed at a dark curtain in the corner of the Great Hall.
Xena quickly ran over there, but when she tried to move the curtain, she found that it wouldn't budge an inch. A hard punch was equally ineffective, so she took a step back, and fired off a vicious kick that would've brought down the gates of Troy - but it didn't even crease the fabric of the curtain.
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle! Gabri-*elle* !"
The room next to the Great Hall wasn't large, but it was big enough to hold a four-post brass bed with a pale blue canopy. Gabrielle was sitting on the edge of the bed, clutching a pillow made of bright red satin to her bosom. She was blushing, and looking down, unable to hold SelÚne's hooded glare.
SelÚne was leaning against the opposite wall, looking quite luscious. She was toying with one of the gold rings of her outfit, letting her fingers caress and stroke the delicate metal.
Even without looking, Gabrielle could tell that SelÚne's body language didn't leave much to the imagination, and it didn't help that the woman's dress was quite sheer... She gulped nervously, and shuffled around on the bed to find a comfortable spot.
'I wonder if this is a good time to tell her I'm actually still a virg...'
"Gabrielle?" SelÚne purred.
"Look at me."
Reluctantly, Gabrielle raised her head, and looked at the seductress. As she was doing so, SelÚne pushed the dress from her shoulders, and let it fall to the floor.
Gabrielle's eyes flew wide open as the nude body was revealed to her. Every single thing about SelÚne was perfect - perfect proportions, perfect curves, perfect planes. She had long, tanned thighs, a slight bump on her stomach, and breasts that were full, but not heavy. Gabrielle gulped again, and clutched the pillow even harder to her chest.
"... And hoping you'll join me," SelÚne said, and started walking towards the bed with smooth, catlike movements. She didn't stop until she was standing very close to the nervous young bard.
"Gabrielle... tonight, I'll make you a woman," SelÚne purred - then she leaned down, and let her hand caress Gabrielle's cheek.
To Gabrielle, it felt like she had stuck her head into a furnace. A curious, but not unpleasant, warmth rushed through her entire body, finally coming to a rest between her legs. She whimpered, and leaned into SelÚne's touch.
With strong hands, SelÚne pushed Gabrielle down on the bed, so she was flat on her back. When Gabrielle didn't object, SelÚne climbed up on the bed, and straddled the young bard's hips. Reaching down, SelÚne began to run her hands across Gabrielle's body, occasionally stopping to caress her young breasts through the dress.
Gabrielle closed her eyes, and moaned sensuously. As SelÚne's hands became bolder, Gabrielle felt herself slip into a trance-like state, where her entire being was reacting to SelÚne's expert touch.
Images of a tall, dark warrior began to flash through Gabrielle's mind. The visions were more powerful than they had ever been, and this time, she was able to recognise some of the warrior's features - the prominent cheekbones, the sky blue eyes...
Suddenly, the exquisite pleasure turned into excruciating pain. Gabrielle's eyes flew open, and after a few paralysed seconds, she started struggling to get away from the woman on top of her.
"What's wrong, Gabrielle? I know I'm not hurting you... I can feel your lust."
"Get off... get off of me!" Gabrielle said, and finally managed to move around enough to get out of SelÚne's grasp.
Gabrielle rolled off the other side of the bed, and ran to a window, overlooking the amphitheatre. She covered her face in her hands, and shook her head.
"Gabrielle, if you think you'll feel more comfortable with a man, I'll call for Cleias," SelÚne said, and got off the bed.
"Gods, no!" Gabrielle said, and shook her head again.
"Then what is it?"
"I'm not... I'm just not ready. That's all it is."
"Oh, that's too bad," SelÚne said, suddenly standing right behind Gabrielle. She wrapped her long arms around the smaller woman, and held her in a crushing hug. She leaned down, and began to feast on Gabrielle's exposed neck.
"No, what are you doing? Stop!"
"Soon, you'll beg me not to, mortal!" SelÚne growled, and forcefully turned Gabrielle around.
"Xena! Help me! Help me, please!" Gabrielle cried out. She tried to push the naked woman away from her, but found that she wasn't strong enough.
The words tore through Xena's heart and mind, and she simply reached up, and ripped the curtain blocking her way off its rod. She stormed into the small room, and was at Gabrielle's side in an instant.
With a roar, she grabbed hold of SelÚne, and sent her flying through the air. The naked woman landed with an audible crunch on the far side of the bed, and growled loudly in a very inhuman voice.
"I don't care what kind of creature you are, I'll still give you a good ass-kickin' if I have to!" Xena roared, and turned around to check up on Gabrielle.
"Watch out, Xena!" the young bard cried out, and pointed past the warrior.
Xena spun around, and caught the attacking SelÚne at the last moment. The creature's fingers had turned into sharp talons, and she was waving them very aggressively right in Xena's face, trying to pick out the blue orbs.
"No mortal can best me!" SelÚne growled, and pushed Xena hard against the stone wall. One of the talons sliced across Xena's forehead, leaving a trail of blood that soon dripped into the warrior's eyes.
SelÚne laughed, and began to hiss like a snake.
Gabrielle ran past the fighting women, trying desperately to find something she could use as a weapon. Her eyes fell on a chair in the corner of the room, and she ran over there, and picked it up. She hurried back to the fighters, and slammed it across SelÚne's back, shattering the wooden chair into a dozen pieces.
The creature roared, and let go of Xena, who immediately kicked out, thrusting her foot deep into the creature's bare stomach.
Not waiting for SelÚne to recover, Xena jumped up, and kicked the creature in the face, first once, then a second time, and finally a third time that sent the naked creature skittering across the coarse stone floor.
"That's gotta hurt!" Xena mocked, and ran after SelÚne to finish her off.
Just before Xena reached her, SelÚne jumped to her feet, and swung her arms in Xena's direction, trying to impale the warrior on her talons - but Xena had already seen the danger, and performed a salto above SelÚne's head to get out of harm's way.
Even while she was still suspended in mid-air, Xena had worked out what she was going to do. As she evaded another swing from SelÚne, she shouted,
"Gabrielle! Get away from the window!"
As soon as she landed, Xena grabbed hold of SelÚne's arm, and began to spin the creature around.
Using all her strength, Xena sent SelÚne hurtling towards the wall beneath the window. Once the creature realised what was going to happen, it started shrieking so loudly that Xena and Gabrielle had to cover their ears.
The impact against the wall sent the creature exploding in a shower of crimson sparks, and red and black lightning bolts reached out of the remains, scorching the nearby walls, and creating a shockwave that blew both Xena and Gabrielle off their feet.
"By the Gods, what was that thing?" Gabrielle said, as she got up from the cold floor.
"Whatever it was, it's no longer. Gabrielle, are you all right?"
"Yeah... I'm fine."
Gabrielle walked over to the bed, and sat down. She dusted off her hands and knees, and adjusted the dress so it was less revealing.
Xena sat down next to her, and ran a hand through Gabrielle's strawberry blonde locks.
"So... are you back?" Xena asked apprehensively, and took Gabrielle's hand in her own.
"Back? From where?"
Xena could almost feel her heart skip a beat from the stinging disappointment, and she could only shrug.
"I just thought that... never mind. Anyway, I'm glad you called for me."
"So am I. You're the one I've been dreaming about, aren't you?"
"You've been dreaming about me?" Xena said, and turned so she was face to face with the bard.
"Well, I guess it's wrong to call them dreams... they're more like visions."
"It is you, isn't it?"
"I... Well, it probably is, yes."
"Why do you appear in my visions, Xena?"
"I don't know. I guess we were pretty close back home," Xena said, and looked away.
"Please kiss me," Gabrielle whispered. She took Xena's hand, and gave it an intimate squeeze.
"Please kiss me," Gabrielle said again, and leaned in towards Xena's enticing mouth. At first, their lips only brushed lightly against each other, but the kiss soon deepened, and before long, it turned fiery and rather passionate.
The kiss finally negated the effects of the waters of the Lethe, and Gabrielle could now see everything in a crystal clear light. When she broke off the kiss to allow Xena to get some air, she put her hand on her heart to confirm what she had feared the most.
"By the Gods, Xena... I'm dead..." Gabrielle whispered, and began to cry.
"Please don't cry, Gabrielle. It's all right. I've come to take you home. Everything's going to be all right," Xena said, and put her hand on the back of Gabrielle's head. She mussed the strawberry blonde hair, and then pulled the bard impossibly close.
Xena leaned in, and softly kissed Gabrielle's forehead and her eyelids.
"Shhhh, come on. We're leaving," Xena said, and pulled Gabrielle off the bed.
"I've made a deal with Hades."
"But not with me!" Cleias said, suddenly standing in the doorway to the small room. He snapped his fingers, and everything around them dissolved into nothing. With one stroke, the entire amphitheatre and all the surrounding buildings had disappeared into thin air, and Xena and Gabrielle found themselves standing out in the open.
"I don't know how you managed to defeat my sister, but now you'll have to deal with me, mortal," Cleias said, and stepped closer.
"I'll send you both to Tartarus!" he shouted, and rushed towards Xena and Gabrielle.
Xena pushed Gabrielle to safety, and started bobbing up and down on her feet, as taut as a bowstring.
At the last possible moment, Cleias changed direction, and went straight for Gabrielle, but Xena was prepared for it, and tripped him up.
He landed heavily on the grass, but soon jumped up, and dusted off his knees.
"I'm not impressed, Cleias," Xena said, and crossed her hands over her chest.
"Xena, I don't think it's a good idea to..." Gabrielle said, but was cut off by a fearsome growl by Cleias, who charged the two women in a blind rage.
Xena evaded him easily, and flipped him across her hip - once again, he landed hard on the ground, groaning loudly from the impact.
"You know how to talk, but you sure can't fight worth a damn," Xena said, and chuckled.
Cleias got up on his knees, and put a hand on his back. He moaned, and shook his head in defeat.
"I think we should leave while he's down, Xena," Gabrielle said, and put her hand on Xena's arm.
"Not yet. He's only fak..."
Suddenly, Cleias jumped up, and ran towards Xena with his arms stretched out ahead of him.
Gabrielle cried out, but Xena merely rolled her eyes. She waited until Cleias was only a few feet away from her, and then she spun around, and executed a perfect roundhouse kick that hit Cleias squarely across the jaw. His eyes glassed over immediately, and he collapsed in a heap at Xena's feet.
"Oh, well. So much for taking us to Tartarus," she said, and shrugged.
"Are you all right?" Gabrielle asked, and gave Xena's limbs a check-up that was slightly too thorough considering how little the warrior had actually fought.
"I am now," Xena said, and reached out for Gabrielle. She pulled the bard close, and gave her a loving kiss on the lips.
"Awwww. Look at that," Hades mocked, as he materialised right next to Xena and Gabrielle.
"Hello, Hades. You missed all the fun," Gabrielle said.
"I have to congratulate you, Xena. You managed to break down the Wall of Oblivion. I don't know how, but you did."
"It wasn't me, Hades. It was love," Xena said, and gave Gabrielle another squeeze.
"Hmmm. Whatever. Turn around, the portal to the waiting area is right behind you."
Xena looked over her shoulder to check, and sure enough, the glass-like portal had appeared out of nowhere.
"Thank you," she said.
"I always keep my word. Of course... you're not home yet," Hades said, and disappeared.
"Me first!" Gabrielle said, and ran towards the portal.
Gabrielle closed her eyes, and whooped loudly just before she jumped through the portal. As she passed through the glass-like surface, she thought she could feel every single atom in her body being separated from its colleagues - and then get slammed back together again.
She landed on the soft sand, and laughed out loud over the unexpected tickling sensations. Several of the people in the waiting area stopped and looked at her with curious expressions on their faces, but she simply waved at them.
Xena soon followed, and as soon as they were both standing on the sand, Gabrielle threw herself into Xena's arms, and gave the warrior another warm, loving hug.
"Come on, let's get out of here," Xena said, and took Gabrielle's hand.
They started walking down to the riverbank to wait for Charon, but before they made it, Hades appeared with a smug grin on his face.
"Xena, there's something in the small print I forgot to tell you about. This type of rescue mission will only work once. The next time either of you dies, it'll be for good."
"All right, Hades. We understand," Xena said, and pushed past the God.
"Do you? Have you thought about how you're going to get back to the real world?"
Xena spun around, and held Gabrielle's hand tight.
"I should've known you'd play tricks with us," she growled.
"Oh, no. No tricks. Just facts. You swam down here, so you know you can get home without problems. But... can she?" Hades said, and nodded in Gabrielle's direction.
"What are you saying?" Gabrielle said, suddenly feeling worried.
"Nothing, really. So, the deal was to return Gabrielle to the way she was before she arrived here, right?" Hades said, and raised his arm.
"Yes. No, wait!" Xena said, and reached out to stop the God.
"So you don't want me to bring her back?"
"Of course I do... but she must be in perfect condition. And that means no knife in her chest!" Xena said, and raised an eyebrow.
Gabrielle gasped, and shot the God an angry look.
"Oh, Xena, Xena, Xena, I'm insulted that you'd even think I'd do such an evil thing," Hades said, and waved his hand.
Immediately, Gabrielle's heart restarted, and she moaned pitifully and clutched her chest. Feeling an intense pain throughout her entire body, she dropped to her knees, and started rocking back and forth.
Xena quickly dove down next to Gabrielle, and tried to comfort her. She growled, and bared her teeth in a sneer.
"What did you do?!"
"She's all right. It's part of the reanimation process. It'll only hurt for a few moments," Hades said, and made to leave.
"Hades, you bastard!" Xena roared.
"Hmm. I'll remember that. Can't wait to meet you again, Xena," Hades said, and disappeared.
Gabrielle's breath still came in rapid gasps, but the pain was already fading, and soon, she was able to turn around, and sit down on the sand. Xena sat down next to her, and took her hand again.
"Xena... feel..." Gabrielle said hoarsely, and led Xena's hand to her chest, so the warrior could feel her heart beating strongly.
"Welcome back," Xena said, and leaned in to kiss Gabrielle on the cheek.
"I've missed you so much. Even though I had forgotten all about you, I still missed you... in my heart," Gabrielle said with a quiet laugh.
"I've missed you, too. Finding your body the other night was the worst moment of my life."
"You do? How?"
"We... uhhh, I mean, the dead, can hear the thoughts of the living when they're thinking about us.... uhhh, them."
"Hey, is there finally something I know that the great Warrior Princess doesn't?" Gabrielle said, and poked Xena's side with her thumb.
"Yowch! Oh no, I knew. I had just... ahem... forgotten," Xena said, and pulled Gabrielle close.
"Hey, the dynamic duo is back together, huh?" Charon said after he had dropped off a few new dead people.
"Looks like you'll have company for the return trip for once," Xena said, and started to climb aboard.
"Oh, no, wait a minute...! That's against the regulations. I'm sure of it."
"Go ahead and complain to your union delegate, but in any case, we're coming aboard," Xena said, and jumped up into the boat. She leaned over the railing, and helped Gabrielle climb aboard as well.
Gabrielle sat down on the wooden bench, and looked in horror at the filthy, disgusting boat. She picked up something she couldn't quite identify, and chucked it overboard - where it disappeared into the Styx with a brief scream.
"But...!" Charon whined.
"Do you want me to man the oar? Let's go!" Xena said, and put her hands on her hips.
"No! Oh, whatever happened to the good old damsels in distress? Sheesh, you modern women. I'll just bet it's those Amazons with all their weird ideas and stuff..." Charon grumbled, but picked up his oar. With a heave, he pushed the boat off the riverbank, and out onto the foggy Styx.
"Thanks, Charon!" Gabrielle said with a smile, and waved at the ferryman as he left the riverbank with a new load of dead people.
"You're welcome. See you real soon!" he replied, making the smile freeze on Gabrielle's face.
"Don't mind him. It's just a figure of speech," Xena said, and pushed Gabrielle towards the end of the misty, smelly tunnel that had been the entry point into the Underworld for both of them.
The tunnel was quite chilly, and Gabrielle could feel the cold creeping through the thin fabric of her off-white dress.
"I'm definitely not dressed for the occasion," she said, wrapping her arms around herself.
"We won't be here long."
"Xena, I just don't understand how we can get back to the real world...?"
"Oh, that's the easy part. We're simply going to wait for the portal to open, and then we'll swim to the surface of the Alconian Lake."
"The Alconian... oh, you mean like in the Orpheus and Eurydice myth?"
"Yeah. Except it's no myth. Orpheus told me about it when we met a few years later."
"Figures," Gabrielle said, and chuckled. She started rubbing her arms to get some warmth into them, but it didn't help much.
"Gabrielle, this is not going to be a walk in the park. As soon as you see the portal begin to open, you must take a very deep breath, and then follow me through. Do you understand?"
Gabrielle nodded, and blew hot air on her ice cold hands to stay warm.
A strange, creaking sound suddenly filled the narrow tunnel, and Xena grabbed Gabrielle's hand.
"This is it... get ready!"
The portal opened with an ear-splitting screech, and Xena and Gabrielle took an impossibly deep breath. Xena nodded, and then jumped through the portal, pulling Gabrielle along with her.
Gabrielle's eyes popped wide open as she suddenly found herself completely submerged. The shock of the cold water nearly made her gasp, but she was able to hold it back.
Xena pointed upwards, and gave Gabrielle a push to get her going - soon, they were on their way back to the surface, with Xena using her customary powerful strokes, and Gabrielle close behind, giving it all she had.
They swam upwards for what seemed like an eternity, until they were finally able to see light far above them. By then, Gabrielle's strokes had become so weak that she almost wasn't able to move ahead.
She could feel her heart thundering away in her chest, and she had a terrible taste of blood in her mouth and throat, no doubt a result of the high level of stress her abused lungs were under.
As she continued to thrust her way upwards, Hades' words rang in her ears...
'This will only work once. The next time either of you dies, it'll be for good.'
... and she suddenly realised with stark clarity why the God had been so accommodating - he had known all along that she'd never make it back to the surface.
Unable to hold her breath any longer, she reached out and touched Xena's thigh one last time. When she'd done so, she exhaled...
Closing her eyes, she stopped swimming, and let herself sink down towards certain death.
All of a sudden, she felt Xena's lips pressing against hers, and she could feel her lungs being filled with air. She opened her eyes again, and looked directly into Xena's ice blue orbs that literally shone with love - and not a little panic.
The air transfer had given Gabrielle a much needed boost of energy, and she was able to resume her swimming. In no time, she and Xena were on the move again, rapidly closing the distance to the surface of the lake.
With a loud splash, Gabrielle broke through the surface, and she greedily gulped down several lungful of air. She began to tread water while she was waiting for Xena to arrive, but it only took her a few seconds to realise that something was wrong.
Gabrielle quickly turned around, and thoroughly checked the entire lake. When she couldn't see Xena anywhere, a wave of panic rose inside her. She added two and two together, and understood that when Xena had helped her, she had given her the last of her own air.
Despite being in a near-panic, Gabrielle took a deep breath, and went back under the water. She started searching everywhere for Xena, but only succeeded in wearing herself out all over again.
Gabrielle was on the verge of losing it completely when she finally bumped into something in the water - a floating body, wearing a black shift.
Without giving a thought to her own safety, Gabrielle pushed Xena's unresponsive body upwards until they were both above water. She started slapping Xena's cheeks, but to her great horror, she wasn't able to get any kind of reaction out of the warrior.
"No, no, no! Not now! Xena, come on! Don't do this!"
Gabrielle looked around, and noticed Argo standing at the shore of the lake, not far from where they had surfaced. Taking a deep breath, she wrapped her arm around Xena's chest, and started pulling the warrior towards the shore.
Suddenly, Xena coughed massively, and started spewing out a ton of water. She opened her eyes, and looked around in a daze. Gabrielle rubbed her face, and breathed a sigh of relief.
"Urgh..." Xena croaked, and coughed again.
"Come on, Xena, let's get to dry land before one of us drowns again," Gabrielle said.
A little while later, Xena sat on the sand, trying to get the water out of her ears. Gabrielle was next to her, shaking like a leaf in the early morning cold.
"Oh, g-g-great... on t-t-top of everything else, n-n-now I'm g-g-gonna g-g-get the c-c-coughing ill-n-n-ness..." Gabrielle said, and rubbed her arms feverishly.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I used the blanket for... something else. Stay here while I build a fire pit," Xena said, as she wrung the water out of her hair.
"I-I-I'm n-n-not g-g-going anywh-wh-where. J-j-just h-h-hurry!"
"I will," Xena said, and patted Gabrielle's shoulder.
The fire was soon burning strongly, and Gabrielle was sitting as close to it as she dared, warming her hands on the heat that radiated off the flickering flames.
Xena returned after checking up on Argo, and the warrior sat down right behind Gabrielle, and scooted up close. She put her long legs on either side of Gabrielle's slightly shorter ones, and pulled the bard back so she could lean against Xena's front.
"This'll warm you up," Xena whispered, and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's body.
"Mmmmmmm... that's nice. This was quite an ordeal, wasn't it?"
"Yes, and I never want to experience anything like it again," Xena said vehemently.
"I felt like I was down there for an eternity. So many things have happened..."
"You were only dead for a day and a half, actually."
"Really? Gods, it feels like ten times that. At least!"
Gabrielle chuckled, and Xena cocked her head.
"What's so funny?"
"I don't think I'll bother spending a scroll on this story. No one will ever believe a word of it," Gabrielle said, and chuckled again.
The sun finally reached above the horizon, and the first rays of the day shone down on them, bathing the beach and the two women in a strange, pinkish hue.
"You know, I thought I'd never get to see any of this again... look at all the colours. Aren't they pretty?" Gabrielle said, and pointed at the sky, which was turning brighter by the second.
Xena leaned down, and kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. She rested her chin on the soft strawberry blonde hair, and sighed deeply.
"Yeah. But not half as pretty as you, though."
"Oh...! Thank you. And there I was, thinking that I was the only poet in our little family," Gabrielle said, and chuckled. She took Xena's hands in her own, and gave them a little squeeze.
"Family," Gabrielle repeated, and turned around so she was face to face with Xena.
She looked intently at the striking features of the blue-eyed warrior... and then leaned in to claim her lips in a searing kiss.