Disclaimers: Alas, Xena and all things Xena belong to Renaissance Pictures & Universal (although I think shed be much happier with me). This story is purely for entertainment (yours, I hope) and no copyright infringement is intended.
This story depicts love between two women. If youre uncomfortable with that, you probably shouldnt read this.
Thanks, as always, to my beautiful wife Bonnie, for putting up with my brainstorming at all hours, for playing Sounding Board, and for dealing with my Xena Obsession without batting an eye.
Spoiler Alert: This story takes place immediately following the episode "Sacrifice Part II", so if you havent seen it and dont want to be spoiled, you might want to avoid this one for now.
"Xena? Xena, wait..." The petite blonde reached out a small hand, grasping the arm of the warrior woman as she walked by. The warrior stopped and slowly turned her dark head to level her gaze at the tiny woman. Upon meeting the searing fire in the ice blue eyes, the blonde snatched her hand away as if she had been burned by the warriors skin. The stone temple walls began to tremble.
Joxer was suddenly at her side, gently placing himself between the two women, his creaking armor making him sound like a man made of rusted metal. "Um, Seraphin, thats not a good idea. Just..." he gazed up at the woman he considered a friend and swallowed hard, seeing his own grief flash across her face for just a split second. It was immediately replaced by the cold, hard face of a ruthless warrior. He turned back to Seraphin. "Just leave her alone, okay? Leave her alone."
"But, I... I dont know... I...," she stammered, her blue eyes filling with tears. She pressed a hand to her mouth to stifle a sob.
The warrior turned away, seemingly devoid of all emotion, picked up the staff that lay on the floor, and left the temple.
"*What have you done?*" The question was spoken in a low, barely controlled voice... a growled whisper.
Ares didnt turn around. Instead, he continued to assess his own reflection in the mirror, fixing a stray lock of black curls. He had expected such a confrontation. He knew he had been taking a chance, but technically, he broke no rules. He had been very careful in his planning.
"I asked you a question," Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt and the Moon, snarled through clenched teeth, placing herself between her brother and his reflection. She was nearly the same height as the God of War, and looked him directly in the eye.
He was momentarily startled by the fury in his sisters brown eyes. He had expected her to be angry with him, but she was downright livid. He covered his surprise quickly.
"What do you mean, dear sister?"
In another startling move, Artemis placed her palms on her brothers chest and shoved him. The arrows in the quiver slung on her back rattled chaotically. "You know what I mean! What have you done to my chosen?"
Ares straightened his leather vest with a growl. Sister or no sister, *nobody* pushed the God of War around. "*I* didnt do anything, Artemis," he spat. "You know that. Gabrielle acted of her own accord."
"Of her own accord?!?" Artemis laughed incredulously. "With absolutely no prodding from you, right? Come on, Ares. Im not stupid. Youre gonna pay for this. I know what you did and I *will not* let you get away with it!"
In a violent flurry of light, she was gone.
Ares regained his composure, wondering for just a second if maybe he *had* gone too far this time. After all, that irritating little blonde was the Queen of the Amazons, followers of Artemis.
Of course, the moment of remorse disappeared as quickly as it had come and he shrugged with indifference. "Oh, well."
He smiled his trademark evil-yet-charming smile at the handsome god staring back at him. His plan had worked out perfectly. Hed gotten rid of Dahok, Callisto, and Gabrielle in one fell swoop. The technicality that Artemis wouldnt be able to refute was, he hadnt killed the bard, nor did he have somebody else kill her. She had sacrificed herself, leaving him blame-free.
"Such a noble thing to do," he crooned with sarcastic pity. "Soooo Gabrielle." Then he laughed heartily, holding out his arms in victory. "I win!" he cried. "Now, to claim my prize."
Xena wasnt exactly sure how long shed ridden, nor did she care. She had pointed Argo in a direction - any direction - squeezed the mare with her strong thighs, and completely withdrew from the rest of the world.
Gabrielles staff was disassembled, the end sticking up out of the special loop Xena had had attached to Argos saddle, specifically for carrying the weapon. Xena rubbed continuously at the fur-covered end, not realizing she was doing so. She was trying hard to make her mind a total blank, when she felt the familiar tingle.
She pulled Argo to a halt, a disgusted sneer on her face. She slid out of the saddle, folded her arms, and waited.
Several minutes passed before Ares flashed into view. "You didnt say show yourself. Im disappointed." He tossed a look of feigned concern in the direction of the warrior. "How ya holdin up, honey?"
Xena glared at him.
*Oh, yes*, he thought with excitement. *Shes close. Keep pushing*. He strolled toward her.
"Its really better this way, Xena," he reasoned. "I mean, look at the bright side. She held you back, kept you from being what you were meant to be." He circled her slowly, his voice low and seductive. "Just think of it. Youve been relieved of all those annoying little things that get on your nerves. No more arguments about the right thing to do... no more boring festivals to stop at... no more shopping... no more whining... and no more of those *ridiculous* stories. Now you can concentrate on your strengths. No more little voice of reason in your ear. You can be invincible again." He stood directly in front of the warrior. "Face it, Xena. Gabrielle was your weakness."
The fury shot through her like a bolt of lightning before she even knew it was happening. In a heartbeat, she had slammed Ares against the nearest tree trunk, squeezing his muscular throat as hard as she possibly could.
The angry fire spread out from the inside of her, warming her through, threatening to consume her completely. The little voice she hadnt heard in years began to murmur in her head, coaxing her. *Gods, it would be so easy,* it crooned. *So easy to just give in. Think of the power. You could have anything - anyone - you want again. Love made you weak! You know its the truth. Be strong again!*
She smiled then, a most terrifying smile...feral and filled with evil. This was the Xena Ares wanted. He had waited so long! This was it... his finest hour. Victory was so close, he could taste it. He watched in fascination as her ice blue eyes began to glaze over, reflecting his own back at him. He almost had her.
"Look, Xena, I know you cared about Gabrielle - whatever your reasoning may have been - but its time to start a new." He spoke in a seductive whisper, barely effected by the grip the warrior had on his neck. "You and I together... well be unstoppable! Remember how it used to be? It can be that way again, Xena. Ares and Xena, God and Goddess of War. Has quite a ring, doesnt it? Come be with me."
*Do it!* The voice was so loud, Xena could hardly hear herself think. She squeezed harder. Had Ares been a mere mortal, his windpipe would have been crushed. *Just let go. What do you have to show for these past few years? Nothing. You can have it all now! Just give in and let go!*
She would have done it, had the second voice - louder, clearer, and absolute music to her bleeding soul - not come through just then.
*Promise me if something happens to me, you wont become a monster*.
Instantly, Xena felt a strange calm settle over her entire being. She took a deep breath and looked the God of War directly in the eyes, her face scant inches from his.
"You have no idea how I felt about Gabrielle."
At that moment, she knew where she had to go. She let go of Ares. Without looking at him again, she mounted Argo and said simply, "Leave me alone, Ares."
Britomartis was very worried. Her dark eyes followed Artemis back and forth as the goddess paced their bedroom. She could not remember ever having seen her beloved quite so distraught... at least not since the whole Minos incident.
"Missy, please," she pleaded with the goddess. "Come sit down. You need to relax."
Although relaxation was the last thing on Artemis mind, she felt all the tension drain away, immediately softening at the loving tones of the beautiful Phoenician woman patting the bed next to her... how was it that this beautiful mortal could have such a calming effect on her? She went to her and sat, leaning her brown head on the delicate white shoulder, losing herself in cascading black tresses as Britomartis wrapped her arms lovingly around the Goddess of the Hunt.
Artemis let her thoughts wander for a moment, to the day several years ago when she had pledged her love to Britomartis forever... something very unusual for an Olympian god to do. She had watched Brit for several months, completely taken with her dark, yet delicate beauty, approaching her on many occasions in various forms, just to be close to her. Once, the goddess had even taken the form of a puppy. She still smiled when she remembered being pressed to Brits soft bosom, as the Phoenician murmured softly to her. Artemis was content with the arrangement, with visiting her love in various shapes... until that bastard Minos had entered the picture.
Britomartis had rebuffed him kindly several times, but the skunk wouldnt take no for an answer. He drank too much one night at the tavern where Britomartis was a waitress. He cornered her, trying to force himself on her. She managed to escape him, but he chased her through the woods and out onto a cliff. Rather than suffer through his attack, Britomartis had jumped from the cliff to the icy water below, only to become caught in the nets of a nearby fishing boat.
"Remember the day we met?" Artemis asked still leaning on her shoulder.
Britomartis chuckled. "How could I forget? To this day, I still cant eat fish." Although she joked, her panic and the fear for her life had been very real. She became caught up in Artemis reverie, thinking back to her miraculous rescue.
She was on the verge of drowning. It was then that Artemis appeared in her true form. She freed the young woman from the nets and got her to shore, using her unearthly powers to clear Brits lungs enough to allow fresh air to enter. Britomartis would never forget the sight when she finally coughed out the last bit of seawater and opened her eyes. The woman leaning over her was absolutely the most beautiful creature she had ever seen. Dressed in a rugged, yet flattering outfit of brown and green, she had a quiver of arrows on her back and a bow slung over her shoulder. Her shoulder-length hair was a dusty brown, as were her worried eyes. She had an athletic build, but was intensely feminine at the same time. The concern on her face was touching and Britomartis smiled warmly at her.
"I fell in love with you the second I opened my eyes... and the way you convinced the Fates...," Britomartis shook her head, still amazed by the scope of it all. "You saved my life twice."
It was true. Artemis had had much explaining to do to the Fates. Britomartis had been fated to die in the fishermens nets and the goddess had interfered, something even the gods were forbidden to do. The Fates were all-powerful when it came to the lives of mortals and they were not at all happy that Artemis had taken it upon herself to meddle. She pleaded her case honestly, using true love as her grounds for breaking the rules. After much heated debate between the Fates and Zeus, she was allowed to hold onto her beloved Britomartis, but she was definitely not a favorite of the three entities. Out of respect to them for the leniency they had shown her, Artemis always tried to stay on their good side and play by their rules.
Artemis still took much ribbing from her Olympian family for her choice of monogamy, but she didnt mind. She knew what true love was - something most gods would never understand - and she was happy. That was all that mattered.
Thoughts of true love turned to thoughts of Xena and Gabrielle and Artemis sighed heavily. The anger slowly began to return.
"How could he, Brit?" Artemis asked. "I mean, I know hes the God of War and everything, but is nothing sacred? She was my *chosen*, for Zeus sake! I would never have gone near Xena."
"Yes, darling, but *his* chosen had fallen for *your* chosen. I imagine he found that somewhat irritating, dont you?"
In spite of herself, Artemis smiled. "They are... were... quite the couple, huh?"
"An understatement, to say the least. Aphrodite outdid herself with those two."
"Theres got to be something I can do." Renewed vigor flashed in the eyes of the huntress as she stood and resumed her pacing. "Im not going to stand by and let Ares get away with this. He sold us all out! All of us. I swear, if I could get my hands on that hinds blood dagger, Id stab him myself!"
"Oh, you dont mean that," Britomartis, ever the voice of reason to her lover, admonished. "Hes your brother."
Artemis growled in frustration at the truth in that statement. Making a decision, she turned to her partner. "Much as I hate to call in favors, I dont feel like I have a choice. I have to go see my uncle."
Ares was not a happy god. This was definitely not the way things were supposed to turn out. He snarled and realized hed have to revamp this part of the plan. Xena was not going to be as easy an acquisition as he had expected. He had underestimated her once again. He hoped that irritating little blonde was burning in Tartarus.
"What has she got that I dont?" he asked no one in particular, the frustration clear in his voice.
He ran his hands through his dark curls, straightened his leather, and disappeared in a blaze of blue light.
Xena slowed Argo to a leisurely walk as soon as she sensed the presence of others above them. She made sure to keep her hands on the saddlehorn, visible to anybody who might be observing. She knew she was on shaky ground here, but she also knew she had to come.
It wasnt long before four masked figures slid down from the trees on vines and landed in front of Argo, who knickered softly. Xena slowly dismounted and clasped her hands over her head, making the Amazon sign for peace.
None of the four removed their masks, and one cautiously approached the warrior. She circled Xena - who kept her hands up - studying her through the eyeholes of the wooden mask. Finally, she stood face to face with the warrior princess. They locked eyes for several long seconds before the Amazon struck the warrior in the stomach with all her might.
Xena knew instantly that the blow was coming, but did nothing to fend it off. She doubled over and dropped to one knee as the air left her lungs. The Amazon snatched both Xenas sword and chakram away from her. The warrior did not resist.
"Andro!" One of the other three Amazons stepped forward, tipping her mask to the top of her head. She was young and blond... and very angry. "Stop! It is not your place to render punishment."
"Oh, gimme a break, Iph." The first Amazon also tilted her mask up. Xena saw unruly locks of red hair and blazing green eyes. "Or werent you here a couple moons ago? You dont remember how many of us ended up in the infirmary? How bout Queen Ephinys arm? Do you remember the bone sticking out?"
Iphito swallowed hard at the unpleasant memory of Xenas last visit to their village. Although Queen Gabrielle had sent word through several letters that she was fine and she and Xena had worked through their difficulties, the vision of Xena dragging their queen behind a horse was hard to get out of her head.
Xena had trouble getting that memory out of her own head. She hoped to make amends here, for Gabrielles sake. However, if Ephiny chose to kill her on the spot, she would not fight her. She coughed and stood, only to be punched again by Andro.
"Andro! Enough!" Iphito demanded. "This is not justice. This is not the way we do things."
"You pack a Tartarus of a wallop," Xena wheezed, back on her knees.
"Just you wait," Andro sneered. "Ive got plenty more where that came from."
At that moment, Iphito stepped between the two women. "I will not stand for this," she hissed at the redhead. "We will take Xena to Queen Ephiny where matters will be handled properly. Do you understand?"
The two Amazons stared at each other for several long minutes. Andro finally gave in, muttering "Fine." She leveled a gaze at Xena, promising more to come. Xena returned the stare, getting shakily to her feet.
It took nearly an hour of walking before they approached the village. Xena felt a lump form in her throat. There was so much of Gabrielle, so many memories. The shape of the huts, the smells of the trees and the nutbread baking in the food hut, the sounds of practice drills taking place in the fields, all of it reminded her of her bard. The sorrow weighed heavy on her already slumping shoulders.
One by one, Amazons stopped what they were doing to stare at the woman being led into the village. Xena saw every emotion known to man on the various faces, from surprise to happiness to anger to hate. In a matter of minutes, the entire village was deathly quiet. The entourage stopped in the center of the village square.
Xena found herself unable to meet the eyes of even one of the women. Many of them had only accepted her because of Gabrielle and then she had stormed into their village like a hurricane, injuring many of them as they sought only to protect their queen. She knew how they must feel about her. She looked up at the sound of footsteps approaching.
Ephiny was obviously surprised to see her, but there was no hate in her eyes. On the contrary, it looked to Xena like the Amazon was actually happy to see her. There was a collective gasp among several of the Amazons as their blonde leader held out her hand. Xena blinked once, startled, before clasping it at the elbow in a warriors greeting. Ephiny held tight as she stood on tiptoe to peer in question over the warriors shoulder.
With those two simple words, Xena felt her support begin to crack and her world slid out from under her booted feet. It was as though the wall in her heart holding in all the emotion simply crumbled and the grief came rushing through like a raging river. The warrior had never felt such an emotional impact and it rocked her to her very core. For the third time in one day, Xena fell to her knees. Only this time, she wasnt wheezing for air, she was grieving for her beloved bard.
Ephiny collected herself quickly enough to catch the falling warrior. She sat in shock, unable to think of a single thing to do, other than wrap her arms around the grief-stricken woman, her own hazel eyes brimming with tears, for she knew her Amazon sister was gone.
The entire Amazon village stood dumbfounded, unable to believe they were actually seeing what they were seeing.
Xena: Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations was curled up in a fetal position in the arms of their queen, sobbing like a child.
"What do you mean shes not here?"
"I mean, shes not here. Dont you think I know who has entered my kingdom in the last day or two?"
Hades studied his niece closely, not sure what she had expected him to say. He was well acquainted with Xena and Gabrielle. After all, they had saved his sister, Celesta, as well as retrieving his helmet of invisibility. He liked to think he knew them quite personally. If either one of them had entered the underworld, he would most certainly know about it.
He furrowed his brows in confusion as he watched the huge grin form slowly on Artemis pretty face and she turned to meet the equally happy eyes of her lover.
"That can only mean one thing," she said excitedly.
Britomartis nodded, smiling back at her. "We have to get to the temple of the One God."
"Now, just wait a minute here, Artemis," Hades scolded sternly. "First of all, thats not a smart place for an Olympian god to show up right now. Secondly, you cant interfere with the Fates. Its forbidden, especially for you. You know that." He looked pointedly at Britomartis. "If Ares didnt actually kill Gabrielle or make somebody do it for him, hes broken no rules and you cant get involved. Your father will have your head."
Artemis groaned in frustration, too excited to listen to her uncles logic. "But, Uncle, what if shes not dead? If shes still alive, that means she wasnt fated to die, right? I mean, if she was fated to die, shed be here, but shes not. Which means the Fates didnt have anything to do with it, which means theres nothing for me to be interfering with. Right?"
She grabbed Britomartis by the hand and left the god of the underworld looking very puzzled as he tried to fathom exactly what his niece had just said. "Do you really want to risk this? You cant interfere, Artemis!" he shouted, but they were too far away to hear.
When Gabrielle opened her green eyes, the only thing she understood was that she had a splitting headache. She was flat on her back on a hard surface that felt like rock. She brought her hands to her head and squeezed her eyes shut again, grinding the heels of her palms into them.
After several minutes, she opened them again. It took some time for them to adjust to what little light there was and after several more minutes, she dared to try to actually turn her head and look around.
All she could make out was rock. Rock walls, rock floor. The light seemed to be coming from above, as if the rocks themselves were glowing, but she couldnt see a ceiling of any sort. It just seemed like space that went on forever, although it had an eerie orange glow. There was a steady heat coming from somewhere up there, but she couldnt make it out.
She slowly sat up, every bone and muscle screaming in protest. She gasped at a sharp, searing pain in her left ankle and reached to tenderly press on it.
The voice startled her in its familiarity. At the same time, she recognized the tattered crimson of the balled-up fabric beneath her swollen ankle. She squinted into the far reaches of a dark corner and could make out the strawberry-blonde hair and the green eyes, so like her own and yet so frighteningly powerful. Gabrielle felt the sweat of fear break out on her upper lip, adding to that from the heat, as the memory of all that had taken place came crashing down on her.
"Hope?" she whispered.
"Who else?" came the bored reply in her own voice.
"Where are we?"
Hope sighed softly. "Judging from the distance we fell, Id say somewhere near the center of the earth." She chuckled bitterly. "Sure felt like it."
Gabrielle took stock of her own body once again. She had some bumps and bruises, but other than her swollen ankle, there didnt seem to be any major injuries. She looked up at the corner in a silent question.
"I spun us around so Id take the brunt of the fall."
Gabrielle gaped in disbelief. "Why?"
Hope wasnt exactly clear on the answer herself. "Arent all children supposed to protect their mothers?" She sounded genuinely unsure of the answer.
Gabrielle swallowed hard. "All mothers are supposed to protect their children." Her eyes welled with tears.
"Oh, Mother, dont go getting all mushy on me. We both know what I was meant to be. Im just glad its almost over."
Gabrielles head snapped up. "What do you mean?"
Hope stood slowly and half-limped, half-dragged herself into the dim light. She no longer radiated power and strength. Her crimson robenow under Gabrielles foot, she was dressed in the same clothes as the bard, although hers were tattered and torn, as was her body. She was almost entirely covered in either black-and-blue bruises or angry streaks of blood and her left arm hung at an unnatural angle. Whatever skin was not black, blue or red, was severely burned. One eye was swollen completely shut and the left side of her head was matted with dried blood.
Gabrielle gaped in horror at her daughter. Her first instinct was to help her, but she found it difficult to move due to the pain in her ankle, not to mention the fear in her heart. Hope held up her good hand in a halting gesture.
"Please. Dont bother. It doesnt matter now anyway. Father has always been able to repair this body - after the poison, the funeral fire - but were too far away. Its just a matter of time before it quits. Besides, Ive failed him more than once. Im sure hes off regrouping or something. I dont feel him near." She sat down abruptly, a mixture of bitterness and shame on her battered face.
"How long have we been here?"
"A day or two... Im not sure. The fire up there seems to have faded, probably because Father is no longer here. I think the rocks held the heat. Thats why were sweltering."
"Are... are you in pain?" Gabrielle asked.
"Im a goddess, Mother. I dont feel pain." She sighed. "Or remorse, or pity... or love."
"Gods feel love, dont they?" Gabrielle said in confusion, more to herself than her child. She thought of Cupid and of Aphrodite. "Im sure they do." The fact that Hope had probably never had anyone to love her, to *show *her what love was, weighed heavily on Gabrielles mind. They sat in silence for a long time...Gabrielle feeling a mix of sorrow, guilt, and fear and Hope feeling nothing at all.
"Whats it like?" Hope finally asked.
"Love. Whats it like?"
The question took the bard off-guard. She thought for a moment, then smiled. "Love is warmth. Its like a big, soft, fuzzy blanket that you can wrap up in and even when youre not with the person you love, you can still feel it and it comforts you until you can be together again. When you love someone, you put their well-being before your own."
Hope tossed a shiny object to Gabrielle. It landed next to her with a clang. As Gabrielle picked it up, she knew immediately what it was.
"That landed not long after we did. Im guessing Xena sent it down so you could protect yourself from me." After a pause, she asked, "Does she love you?"
Gabrielle studied the hinds blood dagger. She remembered the look on the face of her warrior as the realization of the situation had dawned on her. *Oh, Xena. It was the only way. I couldnt let you die.* She answered without looking up. "Yes. She loves me very much."
"Is that why you did what you did up there? Because you love her?"
Gabrielle was surprised not to hear any sarcasm in her daughters voice, just simple curiosity. She swallowed hard. "Yes. I did it because I love her."
" More than anyone in the whole world. " Hope mumbled the words she had heard Joxer say. "Hmm." She nodded to herself, trying without success to understand this love and what it must feel like.
Artemis usually felt very strange, entering the temple of another god. This temple, however, set her nerves on edge and her teeth chattering. It was the closest to real, undeniable fear that she could ever remember... and her uncles words were starting to weigh on her. Maybe Gabrielle *was* fated to die, she just hadnt died yet. If that was the case, the goddess would definitely be crossing the line.
She felt Britomartis close behind her, clutching her belt at the small of her back. She had ordered the woman to stay home, but Brit was having no part of that. She was always one for adventure and she admitted that she, too, had a soft spot for the little bard. If Artemis was right, and Gabrielle was in fact alive, Brit wanted to be there to help if it was needed.
The temple was very unsteady and there were near-constant tremors. The two women slowly crossed the stone floor to the first pit. There was a huge, semi-circular stone slab resting over the opening. Artemis put her ear close, but could hear nothing coming from underneath. They proceeded further into the huge building.
Britomartis gasped and Artemis knew they must be in the right place when she saw the body of Callisto lying on the floor near an open pit. The goddess was definitely dead, but how? There was a gaping wound between and just below her breasts and Artemis felt herself grow cold with fear. Hinds blood was the only thing that could kill a god, but where was the dagger? She spun around in a circle, doing a quick scan of the temple. If Dahok had it, their troubles were just beginning on Mount Olympus.
Artemis dropped to her knees at the edge of the pit. She could smell what must have been a very hot fire, but all that remained was a soft, orange glow of leftover embers coming from somewhere below. There was no sign of the bard.
Artemis gripped the rock as the temple tremored again, dropping bits of gravel on the two women. Britomartis looked around worriedly.
"Missy, this place could completely cave in any time. We need to find her and get out of here. Quickly."
Artemis nodded, wishing she was brave enough to just zap herself into the pit and see if the bard was there. Unfortunately, she was afraid of both the Fates and the missing hinds blood dagger. She chided herself for her weakness. Leaning as far into the pit as she dared, she yelled the bards name. "Gabrielle!"
Both women snapped their heads around at the irritating sound of creaking metal that came from a nearby doorway. The man who appeared looked quite haggard. He had dark circles under puffy eyes and looked as though he hadnt slept in weeks.
"Joxer," Artemis whispered.
"Gabrielles dead," he said softly and turned to go back to wherever it was he came from.
Just then, Artemis cocked her head, as if listening for something.
"What is it, love?" Britomartis asked softly.
"Shhh." She held up a hand. There it was again. Like a whisper on the wind, so faint it could hardly be heard.
*Help! Im down here!*
"I knew it!" Artemis jumped to her feet, praying her godly ears had not betrayed her. She was so torn, it was driving her mad. Should she risk interfering with the Fates? They were not a trio to be messed with, that was for sure. If she angered them, she would anger Zeus and her father was one god whose bad side she just did not want to be on. True, Aphrodite was always his favorite, but Artemis prided herself on running a close second. Worse, if she crossed the Fates, they could decide to take Britomartis away from her as punishment. Artemis knew she would never be able to withstand that.
Still, she could not let Ares win this one... not when it came to Gabrielle. This Amazon Queen was special and Artemis had plans for her. With Gabrielle ruling her Amazons, they would become one of the strongest and most respected groups in history. She sat down to think as the temple rocked again. A stone pillar in the corner tumbled sideways, spilling several large rocks across the floor. Artemis knew she was in no danger, but Britomartis was another story. A mortal, any of these falling rocks could kill her in an instant. Artemis would never risk the life of her beloved, but she knew Brit would not leave... she was much too brave - or stubborn, often taking her own mortality for granted.
She had to come up with something... but how when she wasnt allowed to be involved? She picked up a small rock and hurled it, growling in frustration.
Suddenly, she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder and she looked up into the brilliantly smiling eyes of her mate.
"Ive got it."
It had taken much more of what little strength Hope had left than she had expected to send the message far enough for the goddess to hear it. She sat back against the stone wall, breathing heavily from the effort. Her time was almost up, but she felt an inexplicable need to get Gabrielle to safety before she moved on. It was an odd sensation, something shed never experienced.
What would happen after this body gave out? She wasnt altogether sure, but she thought she would mostly likely die along with it. Dahok was finished with her... she had failed him. She had felt her godhood slowly draining away not long after the fall and although she had told Gabrielle she felt no pain, she felt it more intensely as time passed. It wouldnt be long before she was one with the body that housed her being. When that happened, she would be mortal. Then, she would die like a mortal. That would be her final punishment from Dahok.
She could feel the vibrations from the tremors far above them and knew there wasnt much time before either the rocks tumbled into the pit and buried them both or Gabrielle died from dehydration or starvation. At least the heat was letting up somewhat. The rocks must have been cooling. With Dahok gone, the fire of his presence also dispersed.
*Lets step on it up there*, she admonished silently.
Across the stone floor, Gabrielle jerked in her fitful sleep, soaked in sweat, and softly called the name of her warrior.
Xena felt like she was going mad.
When she stayed in one of the Amazon guest huts, she felt lost and longed to sleep in the Queens Hut, where she and Gabrielle always bunked together. When she shifted her meager belongings to the Queens Hut, the memories of the bard were so strong, the warrior feared she would be crushed by their intensity.
She threw down her saddlebags in frustration, settling into a guest hut for the third time in as many days. She sat on the small pallet and took a deep breath, clenching her teeth, squeezing her eyes shut, and swallowing back the urge to cry.
For the very first time in her life, Xena was at a complete loss. She had no idea how to repair her shattered world.
"Oh, Gabrielle," she whispered. "Can you hear me where you are? What do I do now? I dont know what to do."
There was a hesitant tap on the door. Xena snapped to attention, wiping her eyes and running a hand through her hair.
She cleared her throat. "Yeah?"
Ephiny peeked her curly blonde head in and smiled apologetically. "Xena? Im sorry to bother you... I know this isnt a good time, but theres somebody here to see you."
Xenas face hardened. "I dont want any visitors."
Ephiny nodded with understanding. She had predicted such an answer. "I know, but I really think you should hear what he has to say."
"No." Xena was certain the bumbling warrior wannabe would be much too big a reminder of Gabrielle. The warrior knew how he felt about the bard and seeing his face would cause her nothing but more pain.
"But, Xena, if youll just ---"
"I said no!" she snapped.
The warrior heard the familiar, annoying creaking of metal and Joxer pushed his way past the Amazon regent and into the hut.
"Xena, please. Just hear me out. I think I may be able to help."
She turned blazing blue eyes on him, attempting to battle the fresh surge of grief at the sight of him with anger. "Gabrielle is dead, Joxer. Can you help that?"
He hung his head sadly. "No. No, I cant. But I think I know of something that may help us to cope with this. Then, maybe we can move on."
"What are you talking about?" Xenas irritation was mounting.
"I think we need to give Gabrielle a proper funeral."
Xena sighed, trying hard not to leap to her feet and lop off the head of this stupid man. With great effort at restraint, she said, "Joxer, werent you there? In the temple? Didnt you notice that she *jumped into a deep, dark pit*?"
"Yeah, I was there," he replied quietly.
"Hard to have a funeral fire without a body, isnt it?" she said sarcastically.
"Yes it is." He met her eyes.
Xena took a moment to really look at him. His normally cheerful face was drawn and tense. He had dark circles under red, swollen eyes and looked very much like a lost little boy... a little boy gazing poignantly at her.
Thats when it hit her. She looked back and forth between Ephiny and Joxer, realization on her face. "You cant have a funeral fire without a body," she repeated.
"Thats right," Joxer nodded.
"You want to retrieve Gabrielles body from the pit."
Ephiny jumped in. "Joxer says the fire in the pit is gone and the rock is cooling. We would take care of it, Xena. You wouldnt even have to be involved. Wed have to move quickly, as the temple is crumbling as we speak. Ill arrange for a party of Amazons to go --"
Xena held up her hand, halting the regent in mid-sentence. "No."
"Im going with you."
Ephiny held the eyes of the warrior for a long moment. "Are you sure? It wont be easy, you know. It will be emotionally, as well as physically trying. Are you sure youre ready for this?"
"Nobody touches her body but me." She stood and began to gather some things together.
"Xena?" Ephiny cautioned. "You understand that there is the possibility that we wont find her... that the pit is too deep, that the temple collapses before we get there..."
The warrior nodded as she adjusted her armor. "I know. Lets do it."
She headed for the door, feeling more focused than she had since the very second she had watched Gabrielle plunge to her death. Maybe this would help the ache in her soul. She didnt want to say good-bye to her beloved bard, but she knew it was the right thing to do. Worst case scenario, it would keep her occupied for a short time... anything to save her from her own company. She paused as she passed the heavy-hearted man she reluctantly considered a friend standing in the doorway, and affectionately patted his cheek. "Thanks, Joxer."
His face lit up and he almost smiled for the first time in three days. The beautiful, dark-haired woman at the temple had been right. What they needed was closure. Though it wouldnt be easy to say good-bye to Gabrielle, he knew it was what they needed to do. She deserved to have a big, Amazon funeral fire fit for a queen. After all, thats what she was. Somehow, he was feeling better already... at least a little.
Gods, it was hot.
When Gabrielle woke from a less-than-restful sleep, she was completely soaked in her own sweat. She realized with a start that there was no food or water to be found and knew it wouldnt be long before she died of either starvation or dehydration... probably the latter, judging from the amount of body fluids she was losing.
She cursed the Fates silently. Why spare her life during the fall only to have her die here anyway? Gabrielle had always been a good girl when it came to the gods... always stopping at their temples, making the proper offerings, never speaking ill of them. Over the past three years, she had come to despise the majority of them, realizing with a sickening sense of dread that most of them actually enjoyed toying with the mortals who worshipped them. Xena had been right. Humans were nothing more than tiny little insects for the gods to manipulate in whatever way they found most amusing at the time.
The bard developed a lump in her throat at the thought of her own death without the warrior nearby. She wished she had at least been able to say good-bye. What was Xena doing now? Was she all right? Had she escaped from the temple unharmed? Gods, she missed her already and it had only been... How long had it been, anyway? Two days? Three days? She had lost track in this never-changing environment. The only things she was sure about were: she was thirsty, she was hungry, her ankle was killing her, and her heart hurt.
She heard a rasping sound coming from the corner. Hopes breathing was getting weaker by the hour. Even though she had told Gabrielle she felt no pain, the bard worried at the look of obvious discomfort on the face of her child, so like her own. How could a goddess be in such bad shape? Her initial fear of Hope had dissipated when she realized the goddess had saved her from a brutally painful landing, not to mention giving her the dagger - she had slipped it into the waistband of her skirt. Unfortunately, instant death would have been a blessing compared to the slow agony she would surely suffer in this gods-forsaken pit of doom.
She scooted across the floor on her hands and rear end, avoiding putting any pressure on her frighteningly swollen ankle, and laid a hand on Hopes forehead, gently brushing aside the singed strawberry blonde bangs.
The goddess eyes snapped open, startling the bard, who jerked her hand away. "I... I was just... you looked..." She gave up on explanation. "Im sorry."
Hope looked at her for a long time before she finally spoke. "Mother?" Her voice was soft and Gabrielle was touched by the kind tone it took.
"My time is almost over."
"Dont say that, Hope," she scolded gently, although she knew it to be true. She guessed that somehow Dahok had relinquished Hopes godly powers. If she were still a goddess, couldnt she just wave her hand and escape this place? It was obvious Dahok had left her here to die.
"Would you tell me a story?"
Gabrielle swallowed hard as her eyes filled with unshed tears. She cleared her throat quietly. "A story? What kind of story?"
Hope blinked. "Something... something pleasant. Tell me a story about love."
"About love." Gabrielle thought for a moment, then smiled. "Okay."
Xena stood outside the temple of the One God, silently staring at its trembling stone form. She swallowed hard, willing away the pain that threatened to consume her once again.
She had lost Gabrielle here. Gabrielle had given her own life so that Xena could live. Nobody had ever given up so much for the beaten-up, broken down, ex-warlord and the selflessness of such an act touched her more deeply than she could comprehend. Did Gabrielle have any idea what she meant to the warrior? Did Xena tell the bard she loved her near enough? They had never broached the subject of Xenas dragging the bard behind a horse. The warrior had avoided it like a deadly plague and Gabrielle hadnt seemed overly anxious to bring it up. Now, the warrior wished they had discussed it... analyzed it. She wished she had apologized for it, so they could have officially put it behind them, instead of just pretending it never happened. Xena closed her eyes against the onslaught of questions and regret. If she only had it to do over again, she would get it right. If only...
The Amazons and Joxer waited patiently behind the warrior, allowing her to get her bearings. They exchanged glances silently, even Andro feeling sympathy for the distraught woman. True, she was not a fan of Xena... not after her last exit of the village... but seeing the pain so clearly written on her normally stoic face, the young Amazon was moved by the depth of the love Xena so obviously carried for their queen.
Ephiny stepped forward and laid a supportive hand on Xenas shoulder. The warrior took a deep breath. "Lets go."
Artemis watched silently and unseen from a high corner of the temple, using her godly powers to render her form invisible to mortals. She saw the look of determination on Xenas face as she entered, without looking around at all, and walked straight to the pit where she had watched her beloved disappear.
The goddess smirked as Xena waved a hand in the direction of Callistos dead body and ordered, "Get that out of my sight." She began strapping a leather harness around her hips and lower body, fashioning a sling that very much resembled a chair of sorts. The Amazons had what seemed like miles of rope. Hopefully, it would be enough.
She shook her head in amazement. She had no idea what Britomartis had said to Joxer - her lover had refused to let her in on the plan, knowing Artemis wasnt allowed to interfere - but it certainly seemed to do the trick. She watched as a redheaded Amazon handed the warrior a large piece of burlap... a large bag of some kind. The goddess smiled when she realized exactly what was going on. "This just might work," she whispered aloud. "It just might."
Much as she wanted to hang around, she didnt trust herself to sit on her hands if something went wrong. She knew she - and Britomartis - would be safer if she went back to Mount Olympus and waited.
Ephiny double-checked each and every knot and fastener attached to this warrior she still considered a close friend. True, many of her Amazon sisters thought her crazy for her easy forgiveness of Xena after the warriors brutal assault on her, but Ephiny was unfazed. She knew, had she been in a similar situation with Xenon, her own son, she could just as easily have snapped. Her letters from Gabrielle were assurance enough that Xena was herself again. If the bard could forgive her, so could Ephiny.
She met the blue eyes and smile reassuringly. "Ready?"
"As Ill ever be," the warrior answered calmly, balanced on the precipice of the pit. Ephiny grabbed her arm firmly as yet another tremor shook the temple.
"Okay, now remember: wrap her in this bag and fasten it securely to your harness. Two hard tugs and we pull you up. If we look like were running out of rope, we pull you up. If the situation in here gets perilous, we pull you up. Got it?"
Xena nodded. "You lower me all the way down, I get Gabrielles body, you pull me up. Got it."
The Amazon waggled a playfully scolding finger at the warrior, then turned serious. "Good luck, my friend. Be careful."
Xena nodded once and began her decent, six Amazons and Joxer slowly lowering her into the unknown below.
"So Artemis pleaded openly with the Fates, expressing her undying love for the beautiful Britomartis. Legend has it that Zeus was so moved by the depth of his daughters love, even he argued on her behalf. The Fates saw there was no way they could win this debate without angering much of the Olympian community, and finally they gave in. They allowed Britomartis to live. To this day, she and Artemis reside together on Olympus, Britomartis being one of the only mortals ever allowed there. Their love is something even Aphrodite admires."
There was deafening silence for several long seconds and Gabrielle began to wonder if Hope was still with her. Then, the ex-goddess took a deep breath, the bard exhaling along with her in relief.
"That was... beautiful," Hope rasped. "Thank you."
"Hope?" Gabrielle asked softly.
Gabrielle searched the air for the right words, finally saying, "Im so sorry for the way things turned out for you. Im sorry I didnt protect you better. I should have stood up to Xena, I..."
"Mother." Hope stopped her with that one simple word. She took another labored breath. "*I* am the one who is sorry. I am aware of how I was conceived." Gabrielle was astonished to see sympathy in the eyes of her unfeeling daughter. "You tried your hardest to protect me. You and I both know, had you stood up to Xena, at least one of us - probably both of us - would have been killed. You did the only thing you could. You gave me a chance."
Tears rolled down the bards cheeks. Hope spoke slowly and with great effort.
"My father is a very powerful being, but you forget... half of me came from you. Why do you think I saved you from that fall? I was hoping to use my powers to get you out of here, to return you to your world, to Xena where you belong." She closed her eyes and exhaled in frustration. "But once again, Father was a step ahead of me and stole the powers he bestowed upon me before I could follow through. Once again, I am a failure."
"Hope -" Gabrielle couldnt stand the pain in Hopes eyes.
"No, Mother, let me finish. I want you to know... I *need* you to know these things. It was definitely easier to be evil than good, but there were times when I fought my destiny. That day in the hut of the Centaur... I couldnt do it. I couldnt kill Xenas son."
"He was just a boy. I tried more than once, but I couldnt do it." She sighed. "So Father did."
The bard was crying openly now, from both relief and sorrow. She picked up her daughters hand, cradled it with both her own.
"He was so angry with me when I didnt predict the poison you put in the water." A strangled whimper excaped from Gabrielles throat. "Truth is, I did. I knew what you were doing and I *wanted *it to work. I was young. Even then, I didnt understand the scope of Fathers power. It never occurred to me that hed just bring me back. I was hoping to escape. I guess thats why I sympathized with Callisto. She wanted to escape, too."
Hope met Gabrielles eyes for the first time since she began talking and smiled faintly. "I think Im finally going to get my chance. To escape." She felt the bard squeeze her hand, tears falling onto it, and she finally knew what that fleeting emotion felt like, as unfamiliar tears filled her own eyes. "I love you, Mother," she said in awe.
With those words, Hopes last breath slowly left her mangled body, leaving the bard alone in the pit of rock, crying and holding the hand of her lost child.
The heat was intense. Although the fire was no longer and Xena could touch the rock without burning herself, she was still covered in sweat in a matter of minutes.
The Amazons had been lowering her for what seemed like hours. The bottom was nowhere in sight. The harness seemed to be holding up well, although it was chafing her inner thighs. She smiled when she thought how amusing Gabrielle would have found that tidbit. She prayed shed reach bottom before the rope ran out, trying to prepare herself for what she would find. If Gabrielle had dropped all this way, her body couldnt possibly be in very good shape. Thoughts of her beautiful, muscular form crumpled and broken brought tears to the eyes of the warrior and she tried to shake the images from her head.
At the same time, she was thankful - despite the condition the bards body was likely to be in - that she would have the opportunity to spend a few minutes alone, saying her good-byes in private.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the quaking of the rock walls. She clung to the rope above her head and used her feet to keep herself from slamming into the sides of the pit. Several rocks tumbled past her, and she managed to avoid them all. She looked up, realizing neither the top, nor the bottom of the pit were in sight. She seemed to be hanging in limbo, and immediately sensed the ironic parallel to her own life.
Gabrielle jumped as rocks tumbled down all around her. Since her injured ankle allowed for little movement, she couldnt do much more than huddle in a ball and hope nothing big hit her. She protected Hopes body as best she could... not that it would be noticeable if it sustained one more bruise.
The tears had stopped. Gabrielle believed she had simply run out. Dahok had taken every last one of them. Damn him, the evil bastard! She felt the bitterness seep into her system like water.
So, this was to be her fate? To leave her safe home to travel with an ex-warlord, to fall head over heels in love with said warlord, only to betray and be betrayed by her... then to work so hard to overcome the mistrust and anger with each other, to miraculously make it through their dark period to the light on the other side, only to be faced with one singular possible course of action -- to sacrifice herself for her love and die in this hard, lonely place, alongside the body of her lookalike daughter of evil? What in Tartarus was the damned point?
She began to laugh at the madness of it all. Again, she realized that Xena was right about the gods. They were just playing with her. They didnt care about mortals or their silly feelings. This was it. The meaning of life was... there was no meaning! It meant nothing! It was all one, big, sick joke. Ha ha! She threw her head back and laughed. It was all she could do keep sane.
Xena was sure her ears were playing tricks on her. She swore she heard laughter coming from somewhere below her. She strained to listen, but the walls began to rumble again.
She held on tightly and waited for the tremor to subside, wracking her brain as she did so. The only explanation she could come up with was that Hope had survived the fall. She unhooked her chakram from her side and held it at the ready, her sweaty palm causing it to slip slightly in her grip.
When the quaking stopped, she looked down and could make out a strange shape below her... the bottom must be near. She squinted as she got closer. Suddenly, she broke out in a cold sweat and her heart began to hammer. The light was getting dimmer by the minute, but she could make out two figures beneath her, both with long, blonde hair. One was laughing. *One was alive*!
More rocks dropped past the warrior as she held on through another quake. The tremors were getting closer together and she knew time was running out. It took her a couple of seconds, but she suddenly realized the figures were disappearing... she was going up. Ephiny was panicking.
"No!" she breathed. Without a second thought, she waved the chakram above her head, cleanly slicing through the rope. With her signature cry, she backflipped off the wall and plunged down to the floor.
All six Amazons and Joxer suddenly landed hard on their butts.
"Queen Ephiny," Iphito cried with worry. "I think we lost her!"
"What?!" Ephiny ran to the young blonde at the front of the line.
"The rope." Iphito tugged slightly on it. "Theres no weight. Either she hit bottom and untied herself, or we lost her."
"Oh, Sweet Artemis," Ephiny breathed, hoping there was a logical explanation. Rocks and debris were tumbling everywhere and she knew they didnt have much time before the entire temple fell in on them.
"What do we do?" Andro shouted over the sound of the rocking walls, shielding her head with her arm.
Ephiny peered into the rapidly darkening pit, asking herself the exact same question.
Neither Gabrielle nor Xena trusted their own eyes. Instead, they just stared at each other for long minutes, standing several feet apart.
Gabrielle was sure shed gone mad... that this was the final twist by the gods. Theyd drive her insane before finally putting her out of her misery. She looked up into the blackness above her and shouted, "Nice touch! This is priceless!"
Xena wasnt sure who she was looking at. There was a battered and bloody body dressed in Gabrielles clothes and Xena knew it could only be Gabrielle. After all, Hope was a goddess, which would explain why she could survive such a fall. The figure that sat before her was also dressed in Gabrielles clothing, minus the boots. Xena noticed with confusion that her left ankle was badly swollen and bruised. She also noticed the hilt of the hinds blood dagger protruding from her waistband.
Xena looked quickly above her head, barely able to make out the end of the rope still dangling there. Ephiny hadnt given up on her yet, but she had to move quickly. The warrior made her way to the body. "Get out of my way. Im taking Gabrielle with me."
Gabrielle gaped at her. "Xena?"
"Give it up, Hope," the warrior sneered. "We both know Gabrielle could never have survived that fall." She looked pointedly at her. "Only a god could." She unfurled the burlap sack and unfastened the ropes tied around it.
"Xena?" she repeated. "Is it really you?"
"Your father never gives up, does he? Move."
"I cant. My ankles broken." The bard looked up pleadingly at the warrior. "Xena, its me. I swear. Thats Hope."
Xena spread the sack out next to the body, annoyed that she was deprived of her opportunity to be alone with her bard one last time.
"I dont believe this," Gabrielle said with a sarcastic chuckle. "This is perfect. You said we were nothing but tiny little insects for the gods to play with and you were right."
Xenas head snapped up. "What did you say?"
"The gods. This is a big joke to them. Theyve gotten me into this Tartarus-hole, but theyre not satisfied to just let me die and end my misery. No, they have to turn the knife one last time by sending the love of my life down to *not* rescue me. I hope youre enjoying yourselves!" She shouted the last sentence at the sky.
Xenas mind was racing. Could Hope know what Xena had said to Gabrielle in her Furies-induced madness? She supposed it was possible. But, why hadnt Hope just used her godly powers to zap herself out of the pit? What was the point of staying here, unless, of course, Dahok had tired of her failures and decided to punish her by leaving her... in which case it would definitely behoove her to convince the warrior she was actually Gabrielle. She stood and looked down at the blonde -- Gods, she looked like Gabrielle -- deciding she needed to be sure.
"Tell me something only I would know."
Gabrielle blinked once. "What?"
"Come on," the warrior prodded. "We dont have much time. If you want me to believe youre Gabrielle, then prove it. Tell me something only I would know."
Gabrielle instantly flashed back to the time in her dreamscape when Xena had asked her a very similar question. She didnt hesitate for a second. "When I was born I had six toes on my right foot."
Xenas eyes went to her bare feet, exactly as they had the first time Gabrielle had told her this fact.
"Well, dont look," the bard admonished with a self-concious smile, mimicking her own reaction to Xenas curious gaze. "My mother took care of it, anyway."
"Uh huh." Xena wasnt totally convinced. "So?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath and prayed to any being that would listen to please make good on her suspicions. Then, she dragged herself to the feet of her daughter, and pulled off her right boot. A cry of relief escaped her throat.
Hope had six toes on her right foot.
Xena gaped in astonishment. "By the gods," she whispered. She met the eyes of the bard and asked softly, "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle didnt know whether to laugh or cry, so she did both, surprised to find that she did indeed still have tears left. She held out her arms and was swept into the warriors embrace.
Tears were streaming down Xenas face as well. She didnt know where to begin. "How...? Why...? What...?"
Gabrielle laughed at her inability to speak a full sentence, something that usually irritated the bard beyond belief. She brushed the dark bangs out of the warriors eyes and looked deeply into them. Just as she leaned up to claim the full lips, the walls began to shake. Xena stood.
"We dont have much time!" she shouted over the rumbling. "Come here."
She took the rope that had been around the burlap sack and held her hand down to the bard. "I know it hurts, but you have to stand for just a second." She pulled Gabrielle to her feet, the bard wincing in pain. "Remember the well on Antius property? Were going to do the same thing, only with you a little higher, okay?" Xena wrapped her arm around the bards waist and lifted her off her feet. "Wrap your legs around my waist."
Gabrielle did as she was told, and was able to keep herself up, allowing Xenas hands free. The warrior tied the bard to her, crisscrossing the rope through her harness and around her own body as many times as it would allow. Their faces were inches apart and Xena met the eyes of the bard, smiling reassuringly. "Ready?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Ready."
"Hang on to me and dont let go."
With that, the warrior leaped into the air and caught the rope dangling above their heads, yanking on it twice with all her might.
Ephiny sighed in despair, tears in her eyes, as she dodged a piece of falling debris. She couldnt risk the lives of her Amazons. She had given Xena as much time as she could. With a crack in her voice, she ordered, "Pull it up."
"Queen Ephiny!" a shout came from the front of the line. "I felt something!"
Ephiny ran to Iphito. Murmurs of excitement ran through the line.
"Two tugs!" she shouted happily. "I swear to Artemis, I felt two tugs!"
"Well what are we waiting for?" Ephiny yelled, trying to rein in her own excitement. "Pull her up! Quickly, we havent much time!"
Gabrielle watched Hopes body for as long as she could see it. The walls were hardly glowing at all now and Hope disappeared quickly. Gabrielle was surprised at the sense of loss she felt. It did help to know that there was some good -- some of Gabrielle -- in her child. Whether or not she could have ever fought off the evil of her father was another issue altogether.
She decided she would probably not tell Xena of her conversations with her daughter and the things Hope had revealed to her, at least not right away. Maybe some day, but not now. Solons death was still too fresh. Xena wouldnt want to hear about it. In her mind, Hope had killed her son and that was all there was to it. And although Hope had admitted her frequent difficulties in following her fathers plans, she *had* followed them more often than not. Still, Gabrielle was grateful she had been given even the smallest of glimpses into the heart of her child. She was grateful to know there actually *was *a heart in there.Her head began to pound and she closed her eyes, hardly able to tell she had done so in the growing darkness.
Xena did her best to aid the efforts of the Amazons above by using her feet to scale the wall, climbing the rope hand over hand. Her body was slick with sweat, and her muscles shook with each pull, but she hardly noticed, spurred on by the feeling of her bard -- her very much *alive* bard -- wrapped around her. The rumbling had stopped for the moment, but the warrior knew they hadnt much luck left. The temple was coming down and it was coming down soon.
Ephiny was trying hard to remain calm. After all, she was the Queen. She was supposed to embody restraint and control. She was sure running up to the line of Amazons and screaming "Hurry!" in their faces, really wouldnt help a whole lot. Instead, she forced herself to remain several yards from the opening of the pit and allowed her crew to do their work as quickly as they could.
She glanced around the mess of a temple, noticing fallen debris of rock and clay. There were broken sculptures and shattered offerings strewn everywhere. It frightened her to know that so evil a god had such a following. One god. Ha! What on earth were these people thinking?
Her attention was caught by a cry from the direction of the pit. Iphito and Andro were helping Xena over the lip of the opening. Ephiny swallowed back the lump that formed in her throat when she realized that Xena had strapped Gabrielles body to her like a baby, Gabrielles head resting on Xenas collarbone, Xenas arm wrapped protectively around the bards waist. Her eyes filled with tears as she met the warriors eyes and emotion threatened to overcome her. Suddenly, her breath caught in her throat.
Gabrielles head lifted, and she turned shining green eyes on the Amazon regent. "Hi, Ephiny," she whispered.
Before Ephiny could reply, the walls began to shake. She looked up at the enormous crack that was beginning to split the ceiling. "This is it!" she hollered. "Everybody out! Now!"
All seven Amazons and Joxer beelined for the exit. The warrior princess hesitated for a moment. Meeting the eyes of her beloved, she slipped her hand between their bodies, wrapping it around the object she sought. Gabrielle nodded once, almost imperceptibly.
With a great sense of relief, Xena tossed the hinds blood dagger back into the pit. Then she ran for the door, her precious cargo still strapped to her body.
Artemis tried unsuccessfully to hide a smirk when her brother appeared in her chambers. The fact that he showed up unannounced was a good sign. The fact that he was furious was a better one.
"What did you do?" he growled at her through clenched teeth.
"What do you mean, dear brother?" she asked, all innocence and sweetness.
"You know what I mean!" he thundered, confirming both her suspicions and hopes. "That irritating little bitch is still alive! You led Xena to her!"
"Xena acted of her own accord, Ares." It was pure ecstasy to throw his own words back in his face. "I had nothing to do with it." She tried hard to rein in her excitement over the rescue of her chosen.
He flushed red with anger. "If you expect me to believe you, youve got another think coming. When Father hears about how you broke the rules, hell ---"
"Excuse me," she interrupted, crossing the room to him. "First of all, I dont care what you believe. I am more aware than any of the gods of what the rules are. I play by them, unlike some of us in this room." She stopped directly in front of him. "As for Father, do you really think *any* of the gods will side with you on *anything*, Ares?" She poked him in the chest with one finger. "You sold us out, remember? Every last one of us. Lets face it, you wont be winning any popularity contests on Mount Olympus for quite some time." She feigned a sad little pout that caused Ares to growl with fury. Her face turned feral. "Dont you ever go near my chosen again," she hissed. "You hear me?"
"This isnt over, Artemis!" With that and a flurry of blue light, he was gone.
"Well see, dear brother. Well see." She hurried off to find Britomartis, to congratulate her on a job well done. Gabrielles rescue called for a celebration.
"Oh, gods... Xena... please...."
Tears streamed down the face of the warrior princess as she made love to Gabrielle for the fourth time that night. She watched the bards radiant face as every muscle in her body strained for release. She was covered in a thin veil of sweat, causing her to glisten in the moonlight that shone through the window of the Queens hut. Her eyes were squeezed shut, her head thrown back into the pillow, exposing her elegant throat. One hand grasped the headboard of the bed, and her hips rocked in time with the rhythm set by Xenas fingers.
She was the most beautiful thing Xena had ever seen. She felt her throat close up again at the joy of the second chance shed been given. She adjusted her pacing as if she were trying to outrun the emotion that threatened to wash over her.
The new rhythm was all it took to send Gabrielle over the edge. A deep, primal groan was torn from her throat as she arched her back, a fourth orgasm crashing down around her. She held tightly to the warrior, who pressed her lips to the bards ear and whispered, "I love you, Gabrielle," her voice cracking uncharacteristically. When Gabrielles hips gradually returned to the bed, Xena slowly withdrew her fingers, causing a shudder to run through the bards body.
"I love you, too," Gabrielle panted, "but please... no more... I c-... I cant... youre gonna kill me."
The warrior chuckled, in spite of herself. She knew she had been trying the only way she could think of to drive away the horrors of the last few days. She shifted their bodies, cradling the bard against her, careful not to jar her bad foot.
"Its a good thing my ankles broken," Gabrielle mumbled into Xenas neck.
"Oh? Whys that?"
"Tomorrow, people wont ask me why Im walking funny."
Xena chuckled again.
They lay in companionable silence for a long while. Xena was wondering if the bard had fallen asleep, when she spoke. "Xena?"
"Why did you throw the hinds blood dagger into the pit? I mean the first time?"
Xena took a deep breath and thought for a moment. It was something she hadnt dwelled on. "Two reasons, really. The first one was so you would have it. I didnt have any reason to believe you could survive such a fall, but if there was some slim chance, some glimmer of a possibility, I wanted you to have some way to defend yourself against Hope or even Dahok."
Gabrielle nodded. "And the second reason?"
Xenas voice lowered to a near-whisper. "When you were gone, Gabrielle, I could instantly feel that old darkness slipping over me. I was terrified of returning to my old ways, but I was so angry! I wanted to avenge you, to just give in to that fury. I knew it could happen in the blink of an eye. If it did, and I had that dagger in my possession, I knew I would have gone on some murderous rampage, killing every god I could."
She met the sparkling green eyes of her young lover. "I wanted so much to keep my promise to you... to not become a monster. I had to get rid of the damn thing as quickly as possible. So I just threw it."
Gabrielles smile lit up the dark room. She tenderly kissed her warrior. "Im very proud of you, Xena."
Xena flushed, surprised to find herself slightly embarrassed. "Thank you."
"No, thank you. If hadnt come to retrieve my body, I would have starved to death down there."
"And that would be the absolute worst kind of death for you, wouldnt it?" the warrior teased.
"Seriously, dont thank me. It wasnt my idea. It was Joxers."
"Can you believe it?"
"Wow." Gabrielle snuggled back into the shoulder of the warrior. "Ill have to give him a hug tomorrow and thank him."
"Yeah, well dont hug him for too long. Youll get him all excited."
"Eewww. Thanks for the visual," she sneered, Attus the Ape Man and his shocking attributes much too prominent in her memory.
They lay quietly for a long while, cradled in each others arms. Soon, Gabrielles breathing became deeper and Xena pulled a blanket around them, holding her bard as she slept. She softly kissed the top of the golden head, tears filling her blue eyes yet again, the depth of the love she felt overwhelming in its intensity. Theyd been through so much since that first day in Poteidaia... friendship, lust, love, betrayal, reconciliation, nearly every possible human emotion. Yet, here they were. Xena wanted to thank somebody, anybody, for allowing her the chance to be with Gabrielle once again.
The tears were flowing freely down the smoothly chiseled cheekbones. Although she had no idea who she was directing it to, she whispered, "Thank you."
From her bedroom on Mount Olympus, Artemis wrapped her arms more tightly around a spent and sleeping Britomartis and smiled into the darkness.
Copyright by Georgia
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