General Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle and others resembling those
from the TV show, belong to Studio USA and Renaissance Pictures. No infringement on their
rights is intended. All other characters are of my own creation and belong to me.
Subtext Disclaimer: This story contains references to a loving relationship between two consenting adults, who happen to be of the same sex. If this offends you, or you are under 18 years of age, or you reside in an area where this type of material is illegal, read no more.
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Enjoy, I hope.
CHANGE OF HEART
Written by FlyBigD
The Mediterranean coast of Northern Africa, three months after returning from Nippon:
Fortunately for Gabrielle, there were stables on the outskirts of the city, which made riding up on Argo less of a pain than the rump she was sitting on. Having traveled for two days behind the saddle instead of in it, she was ready to get off the mare and get to the large bizarre she had always wanted to visit, but had never been able to because she could never get Xena within a weeks ride of the place. Now, however, with Xena dead and Argo as a bargaining chip, she was going to shop till she dropped and make her dead friend go with her. "Ha." Happy as a clam and ignoring the strange looks she was getting, Gabrielle slid off the back of the mare. "I'm ready."
Regretting ever saying the words, Xena gave the city a sneer because she hated shopping more than having her toenails removed by a harpy and getting to ride up front on her own horse wasn't looking like the big deal it had a couple of days ago. But that was the promise she had made. If Gabrielle would put up with looking like an idiot for riding behind the saddle so she could ride up front, the warrior would suffer the indignation of shopping, with suffer being the operative word. "I'm not." She grumbled as she dismounted. "I can't believe you're going to make me do this."
"Believe it." Smiling smugly, the bard not so gently pushed her friend out of the way to pick up the reins. "And don't try your disappearing act on me, either." She said, making a point of taking Xena's hand in a firm hold.
"Never crossed my mind." She lied and looked at her arm to try to figure out how long it would take to gnaw it off.
Gabrielle caught the inspection out of the corner of her eye and smiled. "You know, I was thinking, Xena." She said as she started to lead her disheartened warrior toward the stables. "My sias are kind of bulky when I have to throw them at somebody."
A dark eyebrow went up. "Is that so?"
"Um hm." Adding a nod to the tale. "I've got to really wind up to get them off. Maybe I should look for a couple of throwing knives while I'm here."
The other eyebrow went up. "Something you could get off with the flick of your wrist?"
She released Xena's hand to flick her wrist a few times. "It would have to be something light, so I could carry it on my waist." Gabrielle smiled and demonstrated pulling an imaginary knife from her waist band to send it sailing in one movement. "Something like that."
The eyebrows came together as the gears began to turn. "That's doable," Xena cocked her head to the side, "but you don't have anyplace to put a knife in that outfit."
A little whimsical and a little wicked around the corners, the bard's smile grew by just a hair. "Then I guess you'll just have to help me shop for a new one."
"Sure, I . . . " Wait a minute. Xena stopped cold and put her hands on her hips. What's wrong with this picture? She asked herself as the bard continued on to take Argo to the stable owner. Staring after the blonde for a long moment, blue eyes narrowed when the warrior realized what had just happened, then she stuck her finger in her mouth to search for the hook, line and sinker she'd just swallowed with the bait.
The price of taking care of the mare for the day was haggled and set, and a pleased with herself bard handed over a few dinars before retracing her steps to pick up her annoyed at being hooked warrior. Taking the hand that wasn't covered in spit, she smiled a little smugly. "Ready?"
"No." The warrior spat.
"Good. Let's go." Gabrielle said with a yank and headed for the center of the city with Xena in tow.
As she was jerked forward, Xena rolled her eyes skyward to look for a rescue party from her fate worse than death, but as she searched the cloudless blue above, nobody showed. No angels came to take her to paradise. No demons came to take her to hell. The Powers That Be showed no signs of being interested in the fact that she was dead. Typical. She thought. There's never an afterlife around when you need one.
But that's the way it had been ever since she chose to stay dead rather than condemn forty thousand souls to being lost forever. No one, ugly or otherwise, had reared their head to lay claim to her soul and up until today, Xena was happy living in limbo. Although they were still working out some of the kinks, like who got to ride up front on Argo, life as Gabrielle's invisible friend wasn't so bad. They still argued. They still laughed. They still talked when no one was close enough to hear and even if Xena sometimes felt helpless because she couldn't protect the bard anymore and useless because she couldn't do the simplest tasks, like brushing down Argo at the end of the day, she still felt wanted, if not needed, like now. Being dragged against her will with dread in her heart, she knew Gabrielle's knives ploy was a bill of goods and the bard really didn't need her help in picking out weapons or a new wardrobe anymore than she needed help defending herself, but despite the lack of need, Gabrielle wanted her there and it was that desire, combined with her own unwillingness to leave the bard's side, which would soften the moaning and groaning Xena intended to do all day to make up for being utterly miserable. She promised to go shopping, but nobody ever said anything about having to go quietly.
Starting off with the basics, Xena mumbled under her breath the closer they moved inside the city proper where the small milling groups began to turn into a thicker mass of bodies. "Ugh. Ack. Err.." She griped each time she had to pass through someone to keep her arm from being pulled out of its socket. "Don't you people have someplace else to go? Gods. Ugh. Just move. Get a life, will ya? Make a hole. Ack. Gab . . . don't you, errrr . . . Gabri . . . When was the last time you took a bath? Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle heard every word and slowed the pace to a halt when Xena pulled on her arm. "What, Xena?" She asked as she turned around to face the warrior with an irritated expression.
Huffing out a sigh, the warrior opened her mouth, then closed it to wait for a small band of horse traders, by the smell of them, to brush past the bard and walk right through her. "Is there a shortcut around here? These people," another pause, another sigh, "this is giving me the creeps." She said in a hurry to get it out before another group of bodily trespassers came through.
"Considering you're the one that's dead, I would have thought it would have been the other way around." The bard commented dryly.
Unamused, insubstantial and her patience waning, Xena gave her best friend a quick, insincere smile. "Funny."
The sigh that escaped was a heavy one and Gabrielle shook her head. "Xena, I told you. Just try to avoid them, like you did when you were alive."
"I'm trying, Gabrielle, but they're everywhere." Sweeping her arm to the side in demonstration, it passed through two passers by.
"Xena, I don't know what to tell you. I can't make them disappear, so," relaxing her fingers, the bard let go the warrior's hand, "if you want to go? Just go. I'll go shopping by myself and meet you back at the stables later."
Xena swiveled her body to dodge the next person to come at her and shook her head. "Gabrielle, I don't want to go back to the stables. I just . . . and what are you looking at?" She asked of the man who had stopped to give Gabrielle a strange look.
Rolling her eyes before she shut them, Gabrielle hung her head. "He can't hear you." She whispered.
Making another sweep, this time to push the man away, which did no good, the warrior then wrapped her other arm around Gabrielle's shoulders to guide her into the privacy of a nearby alleyway. Once out of the main thoroughfare, she turned the bard around, so they were face to face and placed a hand on each sagging shoulder. "Gabrielle, I'm sorry. I know you think I'm just trying to be difficult, but I'm not. I want to go shopping with you. I just need . . . " Sighing the statement to completion, the next one was made through a clenched jaw. "I hate this."
The bard opened her eyes to stare at her boots for a moment. Then, lifting her head, she stared into frustrated blue eyes. "Xena, you don't have to do this. This is all new for me too and if you need more time? Take it. I understand."
"No, you don't!" Hands thrown in the air with the outburst, Xena backed up a pace. "Don't understand, Gabrielle. Don't." Irritated, frustrated and annoyed with herself, she covered her face with her hands, rubbed it hard, then dropped her hands to her sides. "I don't want you to understand. Can't you see that? I don't want there to be anything for you to understand. I can do this. I'm going to do this."
"Xena." Gabrielle spoke softly as she erased the distance between them. Lifting her hand she moved to cup the warrior's cheek. "You don't . . . "
Jerking her head back, the warrior grabbed Gabrielle's hand and kept it away from her face. "No, Gabrielle . . . no." Lowering her voice, she shook her head slowly. "I know there are a lot of things I can't do for you anymore." Xena smiled sadly and eased her hold on the bard's hand, raising the other of her own to brush away blonde hair from green eyes which mirrored her own emotion. "I can't protect you. I can't make a fire to keep you warm. I can't catch your favorite fish. I can't even fill the water skins . . .," bringing the warm hand to her lips, she kissed it tenderly, "but I can do this." She said with gentle conviction. "Where you go . . . I go."
As the bard pulled Xena's hand to hold it against her cheek, she closed her eyes. It was true. There were many things Xena couldn't do anymore. Things they had both taken for granted and things Gabrielle now had to do for herself, but as much as she might wish circumstances had worked out differently, the one consolation she had was that whatever she did, she didn't have to do it alone. Xena was still the one constant in her life, her companion, her partner in all things, her soul mate and her best friend. Not even death had been able to take that away, or separate them for more than the time it took for the sun to rise after Xena faded out at the Fountain of Strength. That one night, spent traveling down the side of Mt. Fuji in the dark alone, carrying Xena's ashes, had been the loneliest night of her life and many times she'd had to stop when tears overtook her, but that was the last night she had cried for Xena, and the last night she had spent without her. With the dawn, Xena returned and they set sail on a new journey of discovery which brought with it new rules and a depth of understanding between them Gabrielle hadn't believed could be expounded upon, but it had.
With the new challenges, she was learning more about a woman she knew better than she knew herself and as ironic, and incomprehensible as it seemed, it seemed death was bringing out the best in Xena. Since dying, the warrior was becoming more attentive, patient, sensitive, and open, yet still very much maintaining the qualities which had secured her place in history. Her defiantly stubborn, strong-willed, opinionated, sly-witted in your face attitude was definitely not going anywhere and though she could no longer use it to intimidate the living, that fact hadn't seemed to sink in yet and Gabrielle hoped it never would. Because without those traits, Xena wouldn't be the incorrigible, courageous, imperfect hero she had followed from her sleepy home town and come to love with all her heart. The Warrior Princess had as many flaws as she had skills and for the Battling Bard of Potidea, the woman who leaned upon Xena's tower of strength, Gabrielle wouldn't have her determined, willing to face the milling hoard of shoppers just to make her happy, warrior any other way.
When Gabrielle leaned into her, Xena smiled as she wrapped her arm around the bard's shoulders. "I thought you'd see things my way." She said and began to guide the bard back to the street. "Now, let's get this over with, because," making a point of sniffing the air, "I think I smell a sale with your name written all over it."
All the treasures of the world couldn't have bought the smile on Gabrielle's face when she looked up. "Right behind you, Xena."
Waiting until the coast was moderately clear, the warrior stepped out into the crowd with Gabrielle in tow. "Out of the way . . . coming through . . . women on a mission."
Xena stood with her back to the tent flap, watching Gabrielle change into a prospective new outfit. Head cocked to the side, she scratched her cheek. "Are you sure you're going to be able to move in that?"
"I don't know." Gabrielle said as she turned around to face the warrior. "Maybe you should let me get it on first." She suggested with a smirk and continued to work the straps behind her back.
"How long can that take?" The warrior made a face. "There isn't that much to get on."
This time the bard made a face and turned around again. "Just tie this, please and don't say anything."
A terse pucker, an arched eyebrow and Xena silently took two paces forward to tie the thin leather strips into a bow. Sighing when her hands passed through the straps, she stepped back again. "I can't."
Thinking the warrior was being testy, Gabrielle frowned over her shoulder at her and saw Xena hold up her hands in a show of helplessness. Not the first time she had seen the display, her eyes closed slowly to the sad smile and the shrug which followed. "Xena, I'm sorry. I keep forgetting."
"You're not the only one." Looking down at her hands, the warrior turned them over and wiggled her fingers. "I suppose it's a good thing I was never a touchy/feely person to begin with."
You were to me. Lowering her head, the bard tied the straps herself, then turned around and held out her arms. "Well?"
The change of subject came quickly and Xena knew why, but she didn't dwell on the negative. Rather, she moved along to Gabrielle, the outfit and something she could do, which was voice her opinion on functionality over esthetics. "It's cute, but can you move in it?" She asked, putting her hands on her hips for a closer look.
As Xena walked around her, Gabrielle did some stretching moves to test the outfit's comfort and flexibility. Bending this way and that, she tried a couple of high kicks, putting her foot in Xena's face for fun, then jumped into a spinning round house kick. "Ha! Take that."
Back to where she started, Xena folded her arms across her chest. "Well? What's the verdict?"
The bard gave the look of the outfit a good once over as she smoothed out some wrinkles in the material. "I don't like this color."
An expression as deadpan as a deadpan could be crossed the warrior's face as she rolled her eyes. "And we can't have that now can we. Next!"
Three more outfits were tested in the same manner and fell short of Gabrielle's expectations for various reasons. During this time, after several more close calls, Xena thought it was safer for her nose to wait outside the small tent while number four was removed and number five put on. Relaxed and slightly bored, she stood guard in front of the flap watching the crowd go by.
Ambling on their way like a slow moving river of human flesh in search of the necessities or hunting for the best bargains, the amount of people crammed into the huge market place was staggering. They came from every walk of life, dressed in the garb of countries from around the Mediterranean, and beyond. The air was thick with differing tongues all speaking the universal language of goods exchange. Hands gestured as prices were haggled over and quality questioned, while each vendor lining the thoroughfare and around the outer rim shouted to each passerby the deal they couldn't afford to pass up.
Standing a few paces out from the front of the tent, Xena looked up and down the line of booths on either side and shook her head at the clamoring crowd. "It must be me." She told herself. She just didn't get how being pushed and shoved around like a herd of cattle was supposed to be enjoyable. "Although." Catching some commotion out of the corner of her eye, which was hard to believe in itself, the warrior moved out a little further to watch a very animated, agitated and full bodied man apparently try to exchange a garment he was unsatisfied with. "No can do, buddy." Xena said for the vendor, who was shoving the garment back over the counter. "No refunds. No exchanges." "I want my money back. This is too small." For the customer. "Look at you. A tent would be to small for you. You should have tried it on first." "How dare you insult me. I am a very important man!" "I don't care if you're the Potentate of Umptysquat. All sales are final." "I want my money back!" "Next customer." "I'm not finished yet." "Yes, you are. Next!" The warrior moved out a little further when it looked like they were going to get into a fight. "This should be interesting. My money is on the little guy! Ooo, that's gonna hurt in the morning." Drifting into the flow of the human river, Xena's hands and arms passed through bodies that didn't seem to notice the scuffle going on. Bobbing and weaving, jabbing and throwing upper cuts, she fought by proxy for the little wiry vendor. "Go for a head lock!" She shouted, then winced when the overweight customer hurled her little vendor into his booth. "Oops. Bad idea! Sorry!" With the fight now over, she watched the customer snatch up a different garment and huff off into the crowd. "You're so lucky I'm dead!" She told his huge disappearing back. "I woulda kicked your ass, buddy!" Then she let out a long sigh and wandered up to see if the vendor was alright. "Sorry about that head lock business. I guess I'm getting a little rusty." Smiling an apologetic smile.
The vendor crawled to his feet, dusted himself off and began picking up the garments that had gotten knocked off the counter in the scuffle. Unaware of her presence, he folded a shirt to place it in front of Xena, then turned to pick up another one.
Xena looked down at the shirt. In another time and place it would have been laying on top of her hand, but now her hand was among the material and she tried to feel the fabric with her fingers . . . to no avail. Slumping a little bit inside and out, she lifted her hand from inside the shirt and pretended to smooth it out as a sad smile formed on her lips. "I'm glad you're okay." She said to the vendor without looking at him, then walked away to return to the tent and someone who could hear her. "Pardon me. Excuse me. Just passing through . . . me." Her body was turned sideways out of habit as she made her way back. She wasn't trying to stick to the outside of the flow anymore, because the sensation of having bodies pass through her didn't seem to bother her as much and as she continued to speak out of habit as well, Xena was two paces beyond where she'd run into a solid body before she realized it hadn't passed through her. "Oops. Sorry." She said over her shoulder, then walked two steps and stopped. A curious frown as an expression, she slowly turned around, her sharp blue eyes searching for what she'd run into. Going up on her toes, the warrior scanned the tops of heads looking for someone or something out of place amid the mass of bodies, but all she saw were the tops of heads going away from her and the faces of the people coming at her with no one looking any different than anyone else. "Huh." Down on flat feet again, her hand came up to scratch her cheek, then she shook her head. "Must have been wishful thinking." Another step toward the tent to stop again for another quick look.
"There you are." Gabrielle grumbled to herself. Pushing her way through the crowd, she walked up to the warrior. "What are you doing out here? I thought you were going to wait outside the tent?"
"Hmmm? Oh. A fight broke out." Xena said absently, her mind still on her searching. "I went to get a closer look."
The bard strained to see past the warrior and over the people in the direction Xena was looking. "What fight? I don't see anything."
"It's over now. The little guy lost." Her words were hushed as she temporarily broke off the search to glance at the blonde beside her, then the search was circumvented by the double take Xena did at outfit number five. Eyebrows somewhere amongst her bangs, the warrior took a step back to get a good look at the two piece dark green leather outfit, trimmed in a thin gold braid that was barely covering Gabrielle's body. "I think we have a winner."
Gabrielle shifted her eyes to the left and smiled at the stare she was getting. "Well, was it worth the wait?" She asked and did a slow pirouette.
Frowning and shrugging, Xena bobbed her head from one side to the other in an attempt to appear unimpressed. "It'll do."
Green eyes turned to slits and the bard balled her hand into a fist to sock her lying friend in the arm, which just so happened to also hit the man walking through Xena at the time. "Ew. Sorry." She smiled and gave him an embarrassed wave.
"Good timing, Gabrielle." The warrior chuckled. The mysterious encounter forgotten for the moment, Xena didn't complain when she was whisked through the crowd by her partner. "You know . . . I think I'm starting to like shopping. What's next on the list?"
"A leash with a muzzle."
Able to see both the warrior and the bard, the source of the mysterious encounter had not forgotten so easily and watched the pair from a narrow space between two booths with great interest. Then the shadowy figure slipped from the hiding place, into the crowd, to follow when they moved away.
The next stop on the shopping frenzy was an entire corner of the marketplace designated for the sale of what Gabrielle called accessories. Xena called them a waste of time, but she didn't tell Gabrielle that and unbeknownst to the warrior, these were integral parts of one's personal ensemble which apparently had to be completely replaced when you bought a new outfit. This little bit of knowledge explained a lot in an otherwise I'm sorry I asked' experience, because, not only had Xena never considered getting a new outfit, her version of accessorizing was picking out a new boot dagger. But, that was all before she acquired her new shopping enjoyment, which was put to the test when she found herself in the middle of accessory nirvana and bored out of her mind. Oohing and aahing over earrings as a cover for the temptation to yawn with every other breath, the warrior was almost grateful when her instincts prickled the hair on the back of her neck.
Yes, she thought as she placed her hand on the bard's arm, somebody's following us. Thank you. "Gabrielle, keep the chakram handy. I'm going to go look at another table." She whispered.
Feeling the same watched' sensation, Gabrielle nodded without saying anything and continued to pick through the assortment of jewelry, playing the unsuspecting victim.
In death, as in life, there was one thing Xena never took a chance with and that was Gabrielle, so with a knowing nod from her partner, the warrior moved around the bard to play the part as well. Literally wandering through the crowd to the next table, she covertly searched for the eyes watching them while she pretended to searching for the perfect accessory to Gabrielle's new outfit, until she found a place to disappear. Then, with a deft sidestep, she was out of the crowd, out of sight and one silent back flip later, Xena was crouching on the rooftop. Weaponless, except for her eyes and a lifetime of finely honed skills, she stayed low as she kept a close eye on Gabrielle and surveyed the crowd below for the threat. "Okay, what's it going to be today? Assassin, thief or the average run of the mill thug?" She asked herself and, as the bard did her part by not staying in one place too long, the warrior watched for anyone following her, or took too much interest in Gabrielle in general. "Alright. I'm dead, but I'm not crazy, so where are ya?"
There was more than one person interested in Gabrielle and more than one person following her, but none with obvious ill intentions as far as Xena could see. The large dragon tattooed on her friend's back was catching peoples' eyes and they would invariably stop to stare at it, which made picking out the bad guys much harder. "People, it's just a tattoo. Haven't you ever seen a tattoo before?" The warrior lamented from on high. "Oh, for . . . it's not like it's for sale." She sighed, placing her hand on her forehead, she ran it down her face. "This is insane. Just insane." Drumming impatient fingers on the edge of the roof, she shook her head and went back to trying to tell an evil doer from a spectator. "When this is over with, that new outfit is getting a matching coat."
At the same time Xena was mentioning a coat, Gabrielle was wanting one to keep away the chill running down her spine. The sensation of being watched had turned into a gut feeling the threat was getting close. Too close and as she picked up a bracelet to admire with her left hand, her right hand casually unhooked the chakram on her hip.
Wishing the familiar weapon was still her's to wield, Xena noticed the action and redoubled her effort to find the threat before it got to Gabrielle. "Where are ya, ya bastard?" Hissing her words, the warrior could feel the bard's apprehension growing inside herself. "Come on. Come on. I know you're down there. Show yourself."
Below the chill intensified. Her fingers wrapped tightly around the chakram, the bard held her breath as the bracelet went back down on the table. Her eyes were focused on some point beyond the table as her ears listened to every movement around her. Thousands of footsteps, thousands of voices, wooden poles creaking and the breeze flapping the edges of colored tents, and somewhere a voice so faint, for a moment she thought it was the wind too, but then it came again. Not yet. It said three more times until Gabrielle was nearly mesmerized by the cadence. Then the signal was given. Now.
"Gabrielle! Behind you!" Xena shouted, launching herself off the roof, doing a mid air double somersault to land beside two men as they dropped the knives they held to clutch at their slit throats. "Are you alright?" She asked the bard.
Gabrielle nodded, but said nothing as she watched the men crumble to the ground. Then, as the crowd began to form around her and she became the center of their attention, her eyes fell on the bloodied chakram in her hand. "Who were they?" She whispered.
The warrior knelt down beside the bodies. "Off hand, I'd say a pair of local thugs out to make an easy dinar."
The bard went down on one knee, joining the warrior beside the men. "They're the ones who were following us."
Rising slowly to her feet, Xena put her hands on her hips. "Maybe." Whispering, her eyes searched the faces of the crowd.
Gabrielle didn't like the answer and rose as well. "What is it?" She asked quietly.
"A set up, maybe. I'm not sure." Shaking her head in frustration, which was becoming a perpetual state as of late. "Listen," returning her attention to Gabrielle, "stay here and wait for the authorities to show up. I wanna have a look around."
Having very little choice in the matter, the bard nodded. "I'll wait for you here."
"I won't be long." Xena reassured her friend with a squeeze of the arm and a smile. The thought remained in the back of her mind that somebody was watching both of them and taking no chances again, she did her disappearing act, as Gabrielle called it and made herself completely invisible before making short work of getting to the outside fringe of the crowd. Staying on the ground this time, she began to canvass the perimeter of the area, checking all possible hiding places for whomever was watching them. Doorways, windows, alleys and places too small for an adult to squeeze into were all cleared, one by one, until the circuit was made.
Xena stood in the middle of the street where she'd started with hands on hips, nodding in tempered defeat. Okay, you're good. I'll give you that, but you can't hide forever and I'll find ya. You can bet your life on that. She thought and let her eyes drift to the ground as she began to formulate her next course of action, and there it was. The slip she'd been looking for was a shadow just to her left and she chastised herself for not checking the one obvious place she, herself, had used to watch the crowd, sight unseen. From the angle of the sun and the size of the shadow, Xena could tell it was being cast from the roof of the building directly across from where Gabrielle had been attacked. Now, I've got ya. Alley oop. Old habits were truly hard to break as the warrior back flipped to the roof intent on doing bodily harm on the culprit. When she got there, though, she had two problems. One, she was still dead and couldn't do anybody any harm and two, the shadow was being cast by a teenage boy eating dates out of a pouch. "Should've known. Everybody's gotta be a spectator around here." Gesturing wildly with her arms, she tried to knock the boys hat off four times before she gave up. "You people need to get a life."
The local magistrate had completed his investigation and commandeered some able bodied witnesses to carry the bodies away by the time Xena reappeared. Relieved to see her partner again, the bard waved her over to the doorway to relay what she'd found out. "You were right. They were local thugs. The magistrate recognized them."
"Open and shut case?" Xena inquired.
"Ummmm." The bard sighed. Leaning back against the door, she noticed the unhappy expression Xena had. "What about you? Did you find anything?"
The warrior rolled her eyes. "Yea, a whole lot of nothing and a kid eating dates."
Gabrielle put her index finger to her upper lip as she studied Xena a little closer. "But you think there's still somebody out there?"
Her frustration returning, Xena closed her eyes and shook her head. "Gabrielle, I looked everywhere, three times and I couldn't find a thing, but yes. Somebody is out there watching us and I don't know who they are or where they are."
The hint of a smile appeared behind the finger. "Yet."
Opening her eyes, the warrior looked down at the bard and saw the smile. She could have taken it either way. The smile could have been a vote of confidence or a down right challenge, but it didn't make a difference to Xena. It was all she needed to refocus her energy on finding the elusive watcher and as a lone eyebrow went up, her voice was laden with determination. "Yet."
Gabrielle flicked her eyebrows. "I knew you'd see things my way."
As though whoever had seen all they needed to see with the attack, the feeling had vanished before Xena could mount another search, leading to an intense hushed discussion about what it all meant. But with only speculation on their side, the two women decided it was useless to waste time looking for something that wasn't there and the rest of the day was spent shopping for supplies with the occasional wary glance over their shoulders. Then the day was done, the city became a speck on the horizon, the sensation of being watched faded into memory, Gabrielle made camp in a grove of date palms, Xena watched her eat and they both settled down on their bedrolls to lay side by side, staring at the clear night sky between gently swaying fronds.
"You're fixated." Xena accused.
"I am not fixated." Gabrielle protested and pointed to the cluster of stars. "Xena, look at that and tell me you don't see a bear."
The warrior looked at the cluster of stars. "I don't see a bear."
Her hand fell limply to the ground. "Fine. What does it look like to you?"
Raising her arms, Xena tilted her hands to fit the constellation inside the walls she'd created. "One of those dipping things, just smaller."
"Dipping things?" A blonde head snapped to the side for an indignant glare. "Now whose fixated?"
"Hey," she turned her head to smile at her friend, "I call em like I see em."
"Erryou. Good night, Xena." Gabrielle growled and rolled onto her side, facing away from the annoyance.
"Night." Xena chuckled silently. Listening to Gabrielle beat her bedroll into submission, she then rolled onto her side to tap a testy shoulder once the bard was comfortable. "Gabrielle."
"What?" The bard sighed her reply.
Scooting a little closer, the warrior peeked over the tense shoulder. "You didn't buy a staff while I wasn't looking, did you?" She asked, popping her head up to look for such an object on the other side of her friend.
"A staff . . . I?" She stammered in confusion, then it took a moment or two for Gabrielle to make the connection and a smile appeared at the reference to the last time they had a bear/dipper disagreement where she ended up whacking Xena in the nose with her staff. "No staff, Xena. Your nose is safe for the night . . . mmmaybe."
Xena was all ready to agree with the safe part with a good,' then she closed her mouth to frown at the maybe.' "What do you mean maybe?" She asked with a poke to the shoulder this time.
"I don't know, Xena." The bard sounded worried and held up her arm. "I've got these warrior reflexes now and I haven't quite got the hang of them, yet." Waving her fist in Xena's face as a demonstration, she got very close to the tip of a tan nose.
Steadfastly refusing to move out of the way, the warrior rolled her tongue around the inside of her cheek, paying no attention to the fist in her face. "Warrior reflexes, huh?"
"Yep, there's no telling what might happen." Bringing her hand back down, Gabrielle counted to two, then jerked it back in the air to stop a nose hair short of Xena's nose. "See, there it goes again."
"Uh huh." Xena turned her head to look at the trees and sucked her teeth. "So, I suppooose, since I'm a warrior . . . I can't be held responsible for my actions, either? I mean," bringing her gaze back around to stare at the fist, "fair is fair, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's eyes grew rounder. "You're going to hurt me, aren't you?" Lowering her fist with a wince.
Xena smiled down at her partner. "There's no telling what might happen." Scrunching up her nose. "Warrior reflexes and all." The warrior moved back to her bedroll, laid on her back, put her hands behind her head and closed her eyes.
Me and my big mouth. The bard groaned as she slapped her hands over her face.
There was a self-satisfied grin on Xena's lips when she sweetly whispered. "Good night, Gabrieeelle."
The hands came down and Gabrielle snapped to a sitting position to point a finger at her partner. "Xena, you can't do this to me!"
Xena brought a hand around to cover a yawn. "Pardon?" She asked, opening her eyes to find the end of a finger not far from them. "Do what?"
"You know what." The finger wiggled in insinuation. "You don't sleep anymore, so you're trying to make me paranoid to keep me up all night."
"Gabrielle, I'm crushed. I really am." The hand that had covered the yawn, slapped her chest as the warrior put on an overly hurt, surprised expression. "I can't believe you'd think I'd do something like that . . . out of spite."
"Youyouyou." The finger wiggle some more. "I know how to fix you."
Now Xena looked mildly interested. "Oh, really? Is that so?"
"Yes, that's so." The bard smiled smugly.
"Hmmmmm." The warrior rolled onto her side again, resting her head in her hand an putting a finger to her temple. "And what do you have in mind? Are you going to tie me up?" She asked, then shook her head. "No, ropes won't work. I've got the whole dead thing working there." Back to thinking, she tapped her chin. "Let's seeee? No, that won't work, either. It'd be fun, but no."
While Xena was thinking aloud, Gabrielle silently, calmly got to her feet and walked around to the other side of the bedrolls, behind the warrior. "Git." She ordered with a kick to the princess' posterior. "Git over there." Adding another nudge with her barefoot to the behind.
"What? Ow. Hey!" Rubbing her bumped rump, she scooted away from the treacherous toes from hell. "Get those gnarly toes away from me."
"Move it. I want you where I can see you." Kick.
"See me? Ow. I'm right here! Ow. Gabrielle . . . you better . . . ow." On the move and slapping at the bard's foot, the warrior inched her way onto Gabrielle's bedroll.
One more kick put Xena exactly where Gabrielle wanted her. On the far edge of her own bedroll, where she could keep an eye on her. "Stay." Doing the deadly finger point again.
Xena stuck a defiant tongue out at the digital threat, but did as she was told and grumbled under her breath as she tried to get comfortable. "Kicking dead people. There otta be a law. We don't get any respect anymore. Kicking me out of my own bed. Just because you've got the chakram doesn't make you all that, you know?" She griped over her shoulder. "It was mine first." Thumping her chest.
"Yes, Xena." The bard gave her friend a patronizing pat as she laid down behind her. Reaching way back, she pulled Xena's fur to her, spreading it out to cover both their legs up to the hip and sighed when the skin settled through the warrior's body. Just another reminder she didn't need, Gabrielle drew close into Xena, forming her shorter body to fit the warrior's long one and when she was comfortably settled, she draped her arm across a leather clad waist. "Good night, Xena." She said quietly, closing her eyes.
Her butt hurt and her bottom lip was poking out, but the former didn't last long and the lip was reeled in when Xena looked down at the arm around her waist. One of the two things in this world she could touch, the feel of having Gabrielle next to her made the means less important than the end result and as she stared at the hand that now owned the chakram, she laid her hand upon it to lace their fingers together. "Good night, Gabrielle." She whispered and smiled when the bard's fingers tightened around her own.
A low mist covered the ground like a cool blanket. Uncomfortable in the wet and chill, Xena pulled the fur up to her shoulder and tried to snuggled beneath it, but the chill persisted. Opening her eyes, she felt around for another log to put on the remains of the fire and watched sparks swirl upward when the embers became flames, giving the mist an eerie glow about it. She held her hand to the fire, feeling it's warmth spread down her arm, then she pulled her hand beneath the covers again as the light grew brighter, dissipating the chilly mist to the shadow of the trees. As it crept slowly back, the warrior listened for the reassuring sounds of the night and heard none. A silence as thick as the recoiling mist permeated the forest. Alert, Xena lay still and listened for what had hushed the night's creatures. A twig broke close behind her and she threw back the cover as she leapt to her feet, then froze. The smile was as evil as she had ever seen, that showed itself beside Gabrielle's frightened face. A dagger pressed to her friend's throat, the warrior's eyes narrowed as she glared at the assailant.
"Xena." Gabrielle called softly, her expression pained as the blade drew a trickle of blood.
Xena raised her hand ever so slowly to calm the bard. "It's alright, Gabrielle."
The hooded figure threw it's head back with laughter. "Hahahahaha, the mighty Warrior Princess. What are you going to do, Xena? Kill me?"
"You hurt her and that's the least I'll do to you." The warrior growled.
The figure was unmoved. "With what? Your steely stare?"
As the blade was drawn across Gabrielle's throat, Xena reached for her chakram. "No! No!" She shouted as the dagger dug deeper and her hand grappled at her hip. Roaring with frustration, the warrior looked down at her hand, trying to make it pick up the weapon, but it passed through the metal hoop. "No! No!"
"Xena." Holding out her hand to the warrior as her life poured out of her body.
"Gabrielle! Gabrielle! I can't."
"Hahahahahaha. Some Warrior Princess."
Xena's watery eyes popped open to a star lit world without mist. Panting heavily, though she no longer breathed, she stared into the darkness as images of the nightmare lingered in the shadows. The hideous laughter echoed in her ears and Gabrielle's call tore her soul asunder as the reality of the dream hit home. "Some Warrior Princess." She whispered his words and sent a tear across the bridge of her nose as she slowly closed her eyes.
Within the realm of sleep, something she hadn't done since she chose death over life, her darkest fear had been exposed and her helplessness had been devastatingly real. Her warrior skills, instincts and reflexes where still intact, but now they were useless to protect her most precious possession. Gabrielle. She'd become a spectator in her own existence, a ghost, a shadow of who she had been, a helpless sidekick in the life she no longer lived and as the weighted reality of her future bore down on her, she opened her tear filled eyes to look upon the only thing which made her useless existence bearable. The light in her darkness lay sleeping behind her and stirred to snuggle a little closer to a lifeless body that could no longer keep her from harm or even offer warmth against the night's chill.
Returning her sorrowful gaze to the empty night, Xena felt Gabrielle fidget in her sleep. She's dreaming. She thought and hoped the bard's subconscious was kinder than her own had been.
"Xena." Gabrielle called from her dream as her hand clutched at the fur.
"I'm right here." The warrior whispered as she gently turned in the bard's grasp to lay on her back.
A deep set frown upon her face, the bard called the warrior once more. "Xena." She snorted with an almost childlike pout.
"Shhhhhh, it's alright. I've gotcha, Gabrielle." Slipping her arm under Gabrielle's body, Xena cradled the blonde's head in her hand to ease it down on her shoulder. "There ya go. I've gotcha." She soothed as the rest of the bard followed suit to curl up against her.
"You're not leaving me." She vowed with a vengeance.
A fresh set of tears welled up to find their way down the sides of Xena's face. "I'm not leaving you. I'm right here." Wrapping her arms tightly around the best thing that had ever happened to her, she kissed a furrowed brow. "I'll never leave you, Gabrielle."
"Promise me." Still unsatisfied.
Xena stared up at the stars to make her pledge to the heavens and to the end of time itself. "I promise I will never leave you, Gabrielle." A hot breath brushed across her chest and the snort brought a warm smile to a tear streaked face. "Go to sleep, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle got in the last word with a harumph, then she relaxed as a kiss upon her head sent her into peaceful slumber once more.
What a day. What a night. The warrior sighed inwardly. If this is what tomorrow is going to be like? I'm staying in bed. Closing her eyes to the stars above, she forced the nightmare out of her mind and began her nightly ritual.
Each night, while Gabrielle slept, Xena sharpened her sole remaining weapon. Her mind. Using the techniques Lao Ma had taught her, she expanded her consciousness outward to the world around her. Touching with her mind what she could not with her body, she pushed her awareness to its limits and beyond to take in the sounds, the smells and the feel of the night. Then, when she could go no further and she had put a name to every buzz, every rustle, every slither, every wisp of the wind, the warrior would begin to collapse her consciousness. Slowly bringing it back in, all her energy was put to shrinking her focus, her concentration, to as small a point as possible until her entire awareness became like a single speck of dust floating through the air. When that was accomplished, it was outward again and so on until Gabrielle's stirring brought her out of the exercise.
Despite her best efforts at keeping her mind active, somewhere in the early morning hours, Xena drifted off again, but this time there was no nightmare to wake her. She slept soundly past dawn and awoke to the smell of smoke in the air, and arms empty. Sitting bolt upright, she called to her missing partner. "Gabrielle!"
"I'm over here." Gabrielle waved from behind Argo. Tending to the mare's worn bridle, she carried it with her as she came back to the bedrolls. "What have you been doing this morning? You looked like you were asleep. Was it some kind of new dead Xena trance?"
"I wish." Xena mumbled and rubbed her eyes with the heel of her palms.
The bard knelt down beside her friend, her concern showing on her face and in her voice. "Xena, are you alright?"
Blinking away the cobwebs, the warrior turned and shook her head. "As far as I can tell, I'm fine. I mean, I'm still dead, but other than that I'm okay. I just don't know what happen to me last night." Closing her eyes, she rubbed her forehead. "I've never fallen asleep before."
"What?" Gabrielle asked in confusion. "You were really asleep?"
"Yes." Xena held up her hands and shrugged. "I fell asleep twice last night."
Placing the bridle beside her, the bard felt of Xena's cheeks in turn with the back of her hand. "I don't like this, Xena. This isn't like you."
"Gabrielle, stop that. I'm fine." The warrior batted away the bard's hand to clear the way to get to her feet. Standing tall, she stretched her arms skyward and yawned, then lowered her arms to scratch at various itchy spots.
The bard wasn't completely convinced, but arguing with Xena in the morning was comparable to arguing with a wall. It always had been and it was another one of her little quirks which hadn't died when she did, however, sometimes Gabrielle wished it had. And she's got the nerve to accuse me of not being a morning person. She thought and glanced down at the bridle beside her. She'd dropped it the night before and Argo, in all her infinite wisdom had chosen to put her big fat hoof on it, bending the buckle on the chin strap, rendering the bridle useless unless she could straighten it out again. So, since fighting with Xena wasn't an option at the moment, Gabrielle chose to try her luck with the buckle. Shifting off her knees, she sat down on the bedroll, crossing her legs in front of her and picked up the bridle. It wasn't a big buckle and she had to work it around in her fingers to get a good grip on it before she displayed an assortment of expressions to go along with her exertion. "Uh, come on." Rearranging the metal in her grasp, she tried again. "That's it." She said when the metal started to give. "I'll getcha. Xena, would you stop?" Jerking her head sideways, she moved it out of range of the warrior fingers, which were tapping the top of her head. "Uh, almost had it. Xena." The fingers found her head and this time she slapped at them.
"Gabrielle, get up." Xena whispered. Staring at a cloaked figure not five paces from where she stood, the warrior tapped harder. "Gabrielle."
"Xena, I'm warning you." Striking the warrior's thigh this time, the bard was ready for a brawl when five long fingers pulled her to her feet by the hair of her head. "OW! Xena!" Getting up as fast as she could, she let loose a sideways wailing blow to Xena's shoulder when her hair was released. "What is the matter with you this morning?"
Wrapping her fingers across the top of Gabrielle's skull, the warrior turned it in the direction of the figure. "We have company." She growled in pain and frustration.
Forced to stare at a palm tree, the bard sighed. "Where?"
Taking her eyes off the intruder for only an instant, Xena checked to make sure she had Gabrielle's head pointed in the right direction, which it was. "Right there."
Sigh number two was longer. "Right where? There's nobody there."
Xena let go of the blonde head to point. "Right there. Right in front of you."
Gabrielle's shoulders slumped. "Xena, if this is some new game you've made up . . ."
"Game? Gabrielle, it's right in front of you." Moving her gaze between the two, the warrior held out her hand in the direction of the person she could see as clear as day. "You don't see it?"
The desperation in Xena's voice made the bard look harder, then she shook her head. "I'm sorry. I don't." She sighed again and made to take a step forward, but the warrior held her back. "Xena, what is it I'm not seeing?"
As the cloaked figure lowered it's head, Xena moved in front of Gabrielle. Her eyes pinned to the dark set she could make out under the hood, she saw them begin to shimmer. "Don't move."
I'm not moving. Gabrielle thought with some sarcasm and laid her head back, closing her eyes. I can tell this is going to be a fun day. She groaned mentally, then opened her eyes to see if the palm tree had moved yet. Nope. Rolling her eyes, she let them fall on her tense partner. "Xena, can I move now?" She asked with another tired glance at the tree. Then she did a rapid double take. "Geez!" Jumping back, she came down in a defensive stance on the balls of her feet, sais in her hands.
"What?" Her head moving quickly back and forth between the two, her hand automatically when to her hip, then left it when there was no chakram to grasp. "Gabrielle?"
"Tall, dark green cloak with glowing eyes?" She rattled off a quick description of the figure who'd appeared out of nowhere.
"That's the one." Xena nodded with a vindicated smile.
Gabrielle flipped one sai around to throw it, when a gloved hand appeared from between the folds of the cloak.
"Please." Came a soft voice. "I mean you no harm."
"Call me crazy, but sneaking up on people doesn't sound too friendly to me." The warrior remarked with a swipe to her nose.
"Who are you and what do you want?" The bard got to the point.
The gloved hand rose slowly to slide the hood back. "My name is Omrond. I have come to ask for your aid." Omrond said with a bow of the head.
The cloak had done its job in hiding the body beneath and until the hood was removed neither Xena nor Gabrielle knew if they were dealing with a man or a woman, but once it was drawn back and a delicate, yet strong face appeared with high cheek bones surrounded wavy dark hair, there was no guessing required. Omrond was female, tall and tan, like Xena and had unusual shaped eyes which were no longer glowing. A deep dark brown, they were definitely slanted as the people of Chin, but more upward, they were also definitely round in shape, giving the stranger unique look again, neither woman had ever seen.
Xena looked at Gabrielle and saw a puzzled expression on her face. "What is it?"
"I know that voice." She said without taking her eyes of the stranger's face. "I heard it . . . yesterday . . . in the market." Speaking with more confidence, Gabrielle pointed her weapon at the woman. "I thought it was you, Xena. I thought you were behind me. It was you talking to me when those thugs came up behind me, wasn't it? You kept saying not yet, not yet, not yet, then . . ."
"Now." Omrond finished and nodded. "I was close by and saw the men coming toward you. I hope my assistance was useful to you."
The bard bobbed her head. "Good timing."
Things began to click in Xena's head. Like pieces of a puzzle falling from the sky, when they all fell together, she snapped her fingers. "It was you. You're the one I bumped into yesterday and you're the one who was following us."
Gabrielle started to lower her arms. "You bumped into something? You never told me that."
"I got distracted, then I forgot about it." The warrior told her. "It was while you were changing clothes the last time." Looking at Omrond, she narrowed her eyes. "It was you, wasn't it?"
"Yes." She bowed her head. "I was walking through the market when we came in contact."
"Wait a minute." The bard interrupted. "How could she run into you? That's not possible."
Giving the bard her attention as she spoke, Xena turned to gaze at Omrond. "I'll bet it is if she's dead, too."
Gabrielle looked at Omrond. "You're a ghost?"
"I have been without a mortal form for many years." Omrond replied in answer.
The bard sighed and looked at her weapons. "I suppose I won't be needing these." She said as she sheathed them.
"I have a question." Taking a few steps closer to her partner, the warrior watched Omrond nod. "If you're a ghost, like I am, then why couldn't I see you yesterday? You weren't there when I turned around and I know I didn't see you in the crowd when I was looking for who was following us."
"As you have discovered, Xena, you can manipulate your level of visibility and solidity by changing your energy level." She explained. "I have achieved greater control than you are yet capable of. When I was in the market, I was at my lowest level of visibility. That is why you could not see me."
"Okay, now I have a question." Gabrielle took her turn. "If you were at that lower level, how come I could hear you?"
Omrond sighed. "I believe your association with Xena has made you more sensitive to listening to the dead when they speak because you do it everyday, Gabrielle. It has been my experience that most living mortals do not hear because they simply do not wish to. They gladly send their thoughts to the dead and we listen, but when we speak, no one wants to hear us."
"Tell me about it." Xena rolled her eyes.
The bard put her hand on Xena's arm. "I hear you. I don't always want to. You're starting to ramble a lot, but I hear you."
Smiling just a little, she nodded. "You just had to go on, didn't you?"
"That's for pulling my hair." Gabrielle winked.
"Hmmm." Putting her hands on her hips, the warrior looked over at Omrond. "You said you needed help. What's the problem?"
"For you to fully understand, I must tell you my story and it is not one which can be told in brief, but if you will grant me your patience?" Bowing her head. "I will make it as short as possible."
Xena bowed her head, then shook it. "Now, she's got me doing it."
"Have a seat, Omrond." Chuckling at the warrior, the bard put her hand on Xena's shoulder and pushed down hard. "We'll be happy to listen to your story."
"I'm going. I'm going." The warrior whispered a growl as she was forced downward. Hitting the ground with a soft thump, she stretched out her legs.
Gabrielle sat beside her friend and before Omrond began, she gave Xena a no nonsense stare meant to convey there would be no fidgeting, no nose picking, no teeth picking, no sighing and the warrior's silence, and compliance would keep her ear from being tweaked off her head.
Xena stared back, ever defiant and stuck out the tip of her tongue when the message was received.
Omrond opened her cloak, pushing it back to sit where she stood and revealed a heavy leather hunting outfit in varying shades of the same dark green.
One look at the outfit told Xena this was going to be a long story. It was heavy to keep away the cold and protect one from rain and the colors were meant to conceal someone in a dense forest, not in the middle of arid, sun baked northern Africa. But instead of sighing at the thought of having to sit through Omrond's long story, the warrior continued to assess her garb, looking for the weapons a hunter would use, which could be easily hidden beneath the heavy clothing. No bow or quiver of arrows. No dagger in the boot or short sword sheathed on the belt. No long sword. She had no weapons at all and when Xena thought about it, it made sense. She couldn't carry weapons and neither could Omrond because they were both dead. Then she sighed and felt a hand come to rest on her thigh. Xena shrugged and smiled at Gabrielle.
The bard let her hand stay were it was and returned the smile, then turned to look at Omrond when her soft voice broke the silence, and the tale began.
"This land is not my home. I come from across the sea to the north where the trees grow strong and tall to the sky and the forest is abundant with the life of my people."
I knew that. Xena smiled.
"We are called Denantu, the people of the forest of Dena, the Giver of Life to my people, the land and all the creatures that dwell in it. We have lived and protected our forest since we were given breath, but we were not always a peaceful people. In the beginning of our history we warred amongst ourselves over the riches Dena bestowed until, in the end, we became two tribes vying for the land that was given to all. Then we became the Denantu and the Denartra, the takers of the Dena's gifts, and the warring continued until my people drove the Denartra from the forest. From that point our two tribes became mortal enemies, but as the Denartra moved further south to seek another land to call their own, peace came to my people and we lived as such until my lifetime." Pausing in the tale, Omrond looked down at her hands, resting in her lap.
Gabrielle stole a glance at Xena and the warrior shrugged.
"I was born under an omen, at the time when the moon crossed in front of the sun to wear its fire as a halo." Lifting her eyes and her head, she sighed.
"An eclipse." The bard whispered.
"Dena bestowed upon my soul a purpose and a gift. I was to be the halo when the darkness came, to hold my people together until the darkness passed. I was born the soul of compassion, but I betrayed my purpose, my people, my gift, when the darkness came." Though her voice was still soft, there was a conviction in it that gave it strength.
The two women exchanged another look and Gabrielle spoke as softly as Omrond. "What happened?"
Omrond took a moment to collect her thoughts. "Our forest has many riches, most only precious to my people, but it also has ores coveted the world over and although the Denartra found another land, they never forgot what they left behind."
"They came back for the gold." Xena nodded.
"Among other things." Omrond nodded. "It had been many centuries since they were driven out and they had changed over time, as had we. They no longer bore the look of the forest and we had lived in peace for so long, we were no longer prepared to properly defend the forest, or ourselves from invasion, but with the skill of the hunt and our one with the forest in our favor, we did." Her voice trailed off to another sigh.
"You lost many of your people." Gabrielle sighed as well.
"Yes." She bowed her head. "Many of my people lost their lives. My father, the king of the Denantu, my mother, my two sisters and one of my brothers gave their blood to the soil. Of my family, only myself and my youngest brother survived the battle."
"I'm sorry." The bard said quietly.
"They are in a better place." Raising her head once more, Omrond shook it slowly. "I should have remembered that."
Gabrielle tilted her head to the side with a confused look. "I don't understand."
Xena did. "Instead of being the light in the darkness, she went after the people who killed her family."
Omrond looked at the warrior for a long moment, then nodded. "That was my betrayal. I went against my purpose and my gift to become the soul of vengeance, and worse, I did not go alone. In my sorrow and anger, I took up my father's sword in his name and hid my vengeance behind the veil of justice to take with me those able of my people to follow the Denartra as they fled."
"Did your brother go." The warrior asked, feeling the pang of guilt from her own sin revisit her soul.
"No. Orlearno was only seven. I left him in the care of my people when I departed." She shook her head.
Xena sighed in relief.
Gabrielle heard the sigh and could feel Xena's pain. "How did you get so far from home?" She asked to get the story moving off that subject.
"My vengeance was complete, Gabrielle." Omrond explained. "When we no longer had the forest for protection, I continued the pursuit and followed the Denartra to this land. The land they had made their own." Looking around at a land so foreign from her own, she sighed. "I have been here ever since."
"Why didn't you go home?" The bard wondered aloud.
"She can't." Xena answered for Omrond. "She's trapped here because this is where she died."
"Xena is correct." She nodded. "When we caught up with the Denartra there was a great battle, but as they were outdone in a place they no longer fit in, so were we and all that came with me perished as well. But unlike my people, who's hearts were pure with the justice I professed, mine was filled with vengeance and when they ceased to be, their souls passed to the other side. I alone remained to walk this land as a shadow with the burden of their deaths and my betrayal on my soul and I became the soul of despair, punished for my sin by not being able leave the land I ceased to be."
Gabrielle leaned into Xena's shoulder. "How long have you been here?"
"Eleven centuries." Omrond replied quietly.
The idea of being a ghost for eleven hundred years hit Xena hard. It would mean she would one day lose Gabrielle and end up like Omrond. A lost soul alone forever. Turning slowly, she gazed at the woman beside her, as if embedding Gabrielle into her memory. "What do you want us to do?"
Omrond moved her eyes to the warrior. "In my despair for what I had done, I discovered a new purpose. When I left the forest, I took with me the sword of my father, the sword of the king of the Denantu and my people have been without it since then. As a shadow of my existence, I cannot return it to its proper home."
"You want us to find the sword and take it to your people." Gabrielle nodded. "And what about you? Will you be able to pass over, then?"
The Denantu's head bowed once more. "As my betrayal was complete, so to is my punishment. My soul is bound to the dust my body has become."
"You can never go home." Xena whispered.
The bard rolled her head back and to the side to look up at Xena. "Where's the sword?"
The warrior returned the gaze and smiled with a nod.
"In a village called Bou Saada." She pointed southwest.
"Bou Saada?" Her smile gone with location named, Xena's had snapped in Omrond's direction.
"Yes, it is . . . "
"I know where it is." Getting to her feet quickly, the warrior shook her head. "And we're not going."
Gabrielle scrambled to her feet. "What is it? What's Bou Saada?"
Xena put her hands on her hips, her eyes never leaving Omrond. "It's a valley southwest of here, just before you really get into the desert."
"And?" The bard prompted.
The warrior looked at her partner. "It's a place I wouldn't even go when I had an army to take with me."
Omrond sighed and got to her feet. "Xena is correct again. Bou Saada is a very dangerous place, as it was when I first came there. The Denartra have not become a kind people since they left the forest and they are still takers of many things."
"What's she's trying to say is the place is crawling with thieves and murders." Xena translated. "It's a refuge for the scum of the earth. They congregate out there like flies and pounce on anything that moves. They survive by taking what they can find off the people they slaughter."
Clasping her hands behind her back, Omrond bowed her head. "You are not the first to decline for this reason. Thank you for granting me your patience. I will continue my search elsewhere."
"Wait." Holding up her hand when Omrond began to fade out, Gabrielle put her other hand on Xena's arm and looked up. "Xena."
"Gabrielle, no." The warrior shook her head. "If you go out there, you'd be dead before you ever got close to the place and if you made it in, you'd never make it out. It's too dangerous. We're not going. End of discussion."
"Xena . . . "
"No, Gabrielle." Placing her hands on the bard's shoulders, the warrior looked deep into green eyes. "Listen to me. I know you want to help her and so do I, but I can't let you do this. It's a suicide mission, Gabrielle. If I could still kick butt, I might be stupid enough to try it, but I can't protect you anymore and nothing is worth losing you. Nothing."
"Xena." Omrond called softly.
Xena looked at the sky, then turned to look at Omrond. "What?"
"It is true. Nothing is worth losing the ones you love, but if Gabrielle goes to Bou Saada, she does not have to go unprotected by you." Taking two tentative steps forward.
"What are you talking about?" The warrior frowned. "I can't protect her. What am I gonna do? Bore a hole in their heads with my steely gaze they can't even see?"
"Wait a second, Xena." Gabrielle turned to Omrond. "What are you saying, Omrond? How can Xena protect me?"
The Denantu took another step forward and held out her hand. "Although I have no reward to offer for your assistance, I can be of assistance to you for your services." She said to the bard, then looked at the warrior to close the distance by another pace. "Xena, if you will take my hand?"
Xena gave the gloved hand a wary stare. "What are you going to do?"
"Combine our energies." Speaking quietly, Omrond smiled for the first time. "I promise it won't hurt."
The bard had to turn away to hide her chuckle.
Sneering at the back of her partner's blonde head, the warrior put her hand in Omrond's. "What have I got to lose? I'm already dead."
Her smile remained as Omrond tightened her hold on Xena's hand and walking around to stand behind the warrior, she took a step forward to merge their bodies together.
"Whoa. That's weird." Feeling the merge take place, Xena looked down at her body to see if it had changed. Nothing had. "Now what?"
Across the campsite, Argo nickered loudly and pulled at her halter which was tied to the base of a palm tree.
Both Xena and Gabrielle turned to look at the mare. "What's with her?" The warrior asked.
The bard took a step in Argo's direction, then turned around slowly, to face her friend. "If I didn't know better, Xena, I'd say she can see you."
"See me?" Xena shook her head in confusion, then she slowly started toward the mare. "Argo?"
Argo nickered again, tossing her head up and down.
"You can see me." She whispered and as she approached her horse, the warrior tentatively reached for Argo's golden coat. "Easy, girl. Easy. Easy." Soothing the mare with her words, Xena held her breath as her fingers got closer, then her eyes closed when her fingers touched a muscled jaw without passing through it. "Argo." She hung her head as both hands felt every hair and twitch as she began to rub the mare's large head, and neck. "Oh, I've missed you."
Gabrielle covered her smile with her hand. "By the gods." Shaking her head in amazement.
"Gabrielle, look." Turning a smile Gabrielle's way, Xena scratched Argo's neck.
"I see." Now shaking her head at the childlike joy showing on Xena's face, the bard made her way over to her warrior. "How do you feel?" She asked as she raised her hand to stroke Xena's cheek.
"Great, I . . . hey. Omrond, what are you doing?" Staring at her right hand, which was no longer under her control, the warrior tried to pull it up as it went down toward Gabrielle's hip. Then, when the destination became clear, she stopped fighting and her breath caught in her throat as her fingers wrapped around the chakram.
The bard, as surprised as her partner, lifted her arm out of the way. "What?"
Nearly afraid to believe it could happen, Xena felt Omrond relinquish control and she, herself, lifted the chakram from its hook to suddenly hurl it at a tree. Watching the weapon bounce from tree to tree, her arm made a wide swinging arch when it returned to her grasp and came to a halt in front of her face. "Oh, yea. I could get used to this." And almost before the words were out of her mouth, the chakram evaporated in her hold to fall and be caught by Gabrielle. "Whoa. Hey."
Omrond stepped forward, out of Xena's body and turned around. A small smile upon her lips, she bowed her head. "This is all I have to offer."
Xena felt green eyes burning a hole in the side of her head and she turned around to see an inquisitive look on Gabrielle's face. "Don't pack your bags, yet. Something doesn't make sense here. Omrond?"
The Denantu looked up. "Yes, Xena?"
"You said you'd been turned down before, because of the dangers of Bou Saada, but if you can do what you just did . . . why didn't you get someone who was dead to get the sword home?" She asked, taking a studied approach.
"Therein lies the reason why I have been searching so long." Omrond replied. "You see, I can only merge with someone who has ceased to be, but I cannot leave this land and as you were just shown, once the sword would reach the shore, the energies are separated and so goes the ability to posses. I need both the aid of the dead to retrieve the sword and the aid of the living to convey it home, and as I explained to Gabrielle earlier, the living do no want to hear the requests of the dead, especially when it puts their own life at risk."
"Hmmm." Scratching her cheek in thought, Xena walked back to the fire.
Gabrielle left Omrond by Argo to join Xena. "What are you thinking?"
The warrior ignored the bard and turned back to the Denantu. "When you and I are combined, are we still dead?"
"Yes." She nodded. "The merging of energies does not restore life. It only enables the host to become solid enough to posses."
"So, you and I could go to Bou Saada and get the sword, then bring it back to Gabrielle, here." Making an assumption, she was trying to work out the details.
"There are difficulties with that." Omrond shook her head. "I cannot stay merged with you indefinitely and it is going to take effort to unearth my father's sword."
"What do you mean?" Was Xena's next question.
"When I ceased to be, I was in the midst of a battle with one of the Denartra and as we struggled we fell into a crevasse in the hillside. That is where my father's sword remains, but time has eroded the walls of the crevasse and the sword is now covered with earth. To retrieve it, we will have to unearth it, then climb out of the crevasse." Letting out a sigh, she smiled sadly. "The amount of time I can stay merged is weighed upon by the amount of energy I must exert as a part of you. We do not need to be merged to enter Bou Saada, but once we have the sword in our possession, we must remain merged until it can be given to Gabrielle and I do not believe the Denartra will let us go willingly."
"We'd have to fight our way out." Nodding in agreement, she rubbed her ear. "And then we'd have to lose them before we got back to Gabrielle." The summation brought a sigh with it as she continued. "So, for the best chance of getting the sword out before we have to take a breather, Gabrielle needs to be pretty close to Bou Saada. Too close."
"What's that part of the country like?" Gabrielle asked, glancing from on woman to the other. "You said it's a valley? Are there any caves I can hide in?"
Xena looked to Omrond for the answer. "I don't know that part of the country well enough and it would have to be safe."
"I understand." Omrond nodded. "The landscape is mostly flat, giving way to the hills which surround Bou Saada. There are no caves to speak of, but there is a place Gabrielle could hide and be safe, if she is willing to suffer with some discomfort?"
"How much discomfort?" The warrior asked because she didn't like the sound of it.
Gabrielle didn't look too pleased either. "Just tell me I don't have to get wet."
Omrond smiled and shook her head. "You will not be required to get wet, Gabrielle. The place I speak of is an ancient temple buried close to Bou Saada. When I came to this land it was a place where believers made sacrifices to their gods and carried out holy rites, but the sands of time have erased it from the face of the earth, and the memories of the living. You would be safe there."
"What's the discomfort?" Xena frowned.
"It is inhabited by creatures that do not like daylight and," she wrinkled her nose, "it smells."
"Okay, skip the smelly part and lets back up for a second." The bard said, jabbing the air with her finger and looking very suspicious. "What kind of creatures are we talking about here?"
The warrior started chuckling before Omrond could get the word out. "Lemme guess. Bats?"
Gabrielle's face went completely blank. "Bats?"
"Yea, you know." Xena didn't pass up the opportunity to torture her friend and put her hand on top of Gabrielle's head, scratching with her fingers. "Squeak, squeak, squeak. They're like rats with wings."
There wasn't an amused bone in the bard's body when she knocked Xena's hand from her head. "I know what bats are." She declared and took a step away from the irritation. Absently running her hand through her hair, she looked at Omrond to tell her it wasn't bats. "What's in the temple?"
Omrond bowed her head in shame. "Bats."
"Squeeeeeek, squeak, squeak."
"I hate you."
Change of Heart - Part Two
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