Darkening of the Light
Gabrielle woke up alone, a fact that did not surprise her, as the
Destroyer was not one for afterglow or cuddles. She sat on the edge
of the bed and wept silently, unwilling to deal with the amount of
guilt that was trying to crush her.
They had had sex countless times last night-Xena's appetite was
insatiable, and Gabrielle's body was new to the rigors of Xena's
particular brand of loving. After a while the pleasure had melded
into numbness and pain, and Gabrielle had simply tried to go through
the motions. Xena had gotten angry, and had hit her repeatedly; her
face was still swollen on one side. Gabrielle was only grateful that
Xena hadn't put her full strength behind the blows.
That didn't change the fact that she had enjoyed herself the first
couple of times, strangely excited by the stranger in Xena's familiar
body. Her Xena had been tender and considerate; the Destroyer was
domineering and brutal. She felt as if she had cheated on the woman
she loved with her twin sister.
Moving stiffly to the bathroom, she vomited twice into the
Everything hurt, especially her head, and she wondered if she had
dreamed the brief reunion with her love before the evil had reclaimed
She walked back into the bed chamber and examined the box that
contained the stone, wondering how she would get it out and to
Artemis. The box was securely locked, and Xena had the key on her
Gabrielle supposed she would have to bide her time, although how she
would be able to endure the abuse was questionable. Her things had
been moved to Xena's room; as she looked for a clean tunic, she noted
her chobos were conspicuously absent, as was the beautiful staff Xena
had given her. Trust. Ha.
She changed her clothes, staring at the bruises and bite marks that
decorated her body in the polished copper plate that served as a
mirror. Sighing as she tightened her green tunic's silken belt, she
walked over to the window and looked down into the castle courtyard.
Men were lined up, being put through their paces by a black-clad
Those that fell from exhaustion were promptly put to the sword by a
few soldiers Xena had chosen as her executioners.
Gabrielle felt her nausea rise again, and she leaned her forehead
against the cool stone of the wall. From her position, she saw Xena
look up with narrowed eyes; the Destroyer found her standing in the
shadows and spoke a few words to Aleric. Aleric gave a brief nod and
headed into the castles.
Heaving a bone-weary sigh, she ran a comb through her hair and waited
for Aleric to fetch her. There was a rudimentary knock, and then
Aleric pushed the door open. "Your presence is required."
Gabrielle gave a small nod, and followed him outside. Xena didn't
acknowledge Gabrielle's presence; in truth, that was the way the bard
preferred things at this point. She still had to figure out a plan to
get the gods-be-damned stone, and Xena had an uncanny ability to read
her mind by looking into her eyes.
After an hour in the hot morning sun, Xena grabbed Gabrielle's arm
dragged her into a small alcove off the courtyard. The Destroyer
gently touched the bruise that stood out in dark relief on
Was that regret? Xena shook herself mentally, and looked off into the distance.
"You wanted me, my lord?" Gabrielle questioned warily, thrown off balance by the tenderness of Xenas fingers on her sore cheek.
"Yes." Xena tried to remember why she had called Gabrielle down to the field. "I want you to help plan the menus and supervise the household. I dont have time to fool with them."
Gabrielle inclined her head in mute acceptance.
"Would you like to practice?" Xena wondered if she could trust the bard with her weapons, but reasoned that if she wanted to kill her, she could have the previous night.
Gabrielle smiled in pleasure, nearly taking the Destroyers breath away. "If you break my trust, Gabrielle," she murmured in a falsely dulcet tone, "I will kill you where you stand."
The smile fell from Gabrielles eyes as quickly as it appeared, and the Destroyer felt its loss acutely. With a last glance, Xena turned and walked away.
The week sped by quickly; Xena busily planning her return to power and Gabrielle trying to figure out how to stop her from leaving the island. The bard tried on four or five different occasions to get the box open and retrieve the necklace; each time, it was like an invisible force field held the lid shut. She began to formulate a planthe only one that seemed available. She would have to knock Xena out and then take the box out of the castle to destroy it. Anything to get the stone away from her beloved.
Gabrielle lay down and fell asleep waiting for Xena.
The pivotal battle between the two sets of warriors was to take place the next day, and Xena spent most of her time out reviewing the training of both sets of troops. Her mind, however, was on the petite blond in her room. Sometimes, she would feel eyes on her and turn, catching a glimpse of the bard before she slunk back into the shadows.
Xena hadn't touched Gabrielle since the first night of love making; although she had a hard time admitting it, she was ashamed of how violently she had used the young woman. She had spent her nights poring over the new maps of Greece one of the guards had procured from the mainland, occasionally glancing at Gabrielle curled into a ball on her big bed, a small hand clutching the feathered mattress like a child.
It was on one of those nights that Xena had an epiphany. She crumpled a map of the mainland in a ball and tossed it through the window. Caesar had much of the known world under his control; the thought infuriated her. His damned destiny. What about mine? If Gabrielle was being truthful, her memory of the last five years was gone. So much time missed? What was I doing then? What happened to me?
Gabrielle had been sleeping when Xena finally entered the room, curled up in her customary fetal ball with her hands knotted into the feathered mattress. The Destroyer stood, wincing as her knees and back popped loudly, and ambled over to the bed. She gazed at the peaceful face of the bard and sighed. She said we are in love--or at least she was in love with what I was. "Tell me, bard...do you love me now?" Xena whispered a little sadly, somewhere in her Conqueror's heart yearning for the peace that Gabrielle had spoken of. The peace they had found in one another, during a time that she could hardly believe had happened.
"Yes." The softly whispered answer came, startling Xena. She looked down into Gabrielle's clear emerald eyes as the bard regarded her solemnly. The Destroyer looked for the mocking light in the bard's expression, and found nothing but naked honesty.
Gabrielle watched the walls go up behind Xena's eyes with disappointment, but she hadn't missed that single second of yearning in the Destroyer's face.
Xena folded her arms across her chest. "Why?"
Gabrielle's brown knotted. "Why what?"
"I told you I don't love you, and I'm obviously completely different from the Xena you're used to...so why do you say you love me?" Xena's face was cruel, but Gabrielle could see the immense pain that lay behind her words. This is more like the Xena I met so long ago, the one that survived the gauntlet and was looking for her place in the world.
Gabrielle sat up, swinging her legs over the side of the bed and fighting the wave of nausea that surged within her. When she had control of her stomach, she stood and stared up into Xena's ice blue eyes. "I love you because you are the other half of my soul, Xena," she said simply.
Xena sucked in a breath as Gabrielle's words washed over her, striking a familiar chord deep inside of her. Confused, she walked to look out of the window, searching her fractured memory frantically for that one moment in time. She heard Gabrielle approaching, surprised once again that her body didn't lash out as Gabrielle laid her hands softly on her shoulders. A small gesture, but one fraught with so much emotion, she couldn't speak.
"You need to rest. Stop worrying about the world. It will go on without you for a few hours." Gentle hands turned her around and pulled the cloth down over the window, then began to remove her tunic with practiced grace. Xena studied Gabrielle's face as the young woman undressed her, not missing the sad look on her face as she worked.
When Xena was stripped down to her shift, Gabrielle took a brush and unbraided the warrior's hair. "I love brushing your hair. It's so beautiful," Gabrielle murmured, burying her hands in the mass and lifting it off of Xena's neck as she pushed her down into a chair.
Xena sat through the bards ministrations in silence, amazed at and terrified of the sense of calm she felt as Gabrielle brushed her hair with long, steady strokes. Years ago, she would have immediately panicked at the touch of a stranger. But then, shes no stranger, is she? The world has changed, and for a while, I guess I did, too. Why cant I remember?
Xena turned around and grabbed Gabrielles arm, voicing the question that had plagued her for several nights. "Why cant I remember?"
The bard lowered her arm slowly, debating about what to say. She sank down in a chair beside Xena, remembering Artemis words. Xena wouldnt want to let the stone go, so it was best not to mention it. "I think it was the beating you took," she lied.
Xena didnt believe her, and her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Gabrielle ."
Gabrielle recognized the tone, and knew that Xena could see through herXena was always able to tell when Gabrielle was lying.
"It was my fault," she whispered softly, her eyes downcast and her expression forlorn. "I wanted to come here and do some shopping, even though I knew you had enemies here. I never thought ." She broke into a sob and covered her face with her hands, hoping she was believable.
Xenas eyes widened at the outburst, and she awkwardly patted the crying woman on the arm in comfort, trying to think of something to say. "Uh are you ready for bed?"
Luminescent green eyes turned up to her. "Youre not mad?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Gabrielle I dont even remember. How in Hades could I be mad?" She lay down on the bed and motioned Gabrielle over.
Gabrielle climbed in beside her, and wrapped an arm around the Destroyers waist as she snuggled up close.
Xena blew out the candle, and rolled her eyes as the bard wrapped herself around Xenas long frame. She didnt have the heart to push the woman away. If she was honest with herself she really liked the feel of Gabrielles breath on her back as the smaller woman fell asleep.
Xena stared into the darkness, sorting through her plans for the next days festivities. Carefully, she rolled onto her back, taking care to move the bard slowly as to not awaken her. Her hand lingered for just a moment on Gabrielles belly, and she frowned at the soft swelling beneath her fingers. Women were known to die from swollen stomach disease, after all, and this was a noticeable change from just a few days ago. Gabrielles abdomen had been flat then, and Xena remembered reports of the small bard getting sick after meals for the last few days.
The thought of Gabrielle ill made Xenas stomach clench in fear. There were good healers within the castle, and Xena would make sure Gabrielle saw one of them. The bard stirred restlessly, seeking the warriors warmth, and Xena gathered her into her embrace, choosing to ignore the voices that were telling her not to feel anything for the smaller woman.
The darkness that reigned within her heart was losing ground to an eerily familiar sensation. She brushed back a long strand of reddish-gold hair from Gabrielles face and kissed her forehead. Her last thought before sleep finally claimed her was a confession of sorts.
What I said about not loving you? Maybe it wasnt exactly true.
Xena was awakened by the movement of someone outside her door; her keen hearing picked up small noises from the hallway. She reached over and wrapped her fingers around her chakram. Then she heard the familiar voice of her consort, and lowered the weapon.
A moment later, Gabrielle came through the door bearing a heavily laden tray. Xena grinned. "Small snack for you?" Rumor of the bards appetite had reached mythical proportions among her men.
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow in a look oddly reminiscent of a certain warrior. "Ha." She sat the tray on a table. "Actually, its your breakfast. Todays the day of your little battle."
Xena allowed a self-satisfied smile to surface. "Yes, it is." Time to separate the winners from the losers.
Gabrielle was shaken by the happy expression on Xenas face, and it showed.
"Im not who you remember, Gabrielle," Xena reminded sharply.
"I know its just hard seeing that look on your face." Gabrielle bustled around, blinking back tears as she straightened the bed.
"I want you to see the healer about your stomach, Gabrielle." She liked the bards name, how it rolled off the tongue, and used it often.
Gabrielle looked puzzled. "Whats wrong with my stomach?" She placed a self conscious hand over her belly.
"Its swollen, and youve been throwing up. You need to see whats going on."
Gabrielle had forgotten that Xena knew everything that went on around her; besides, she was getting a little concerned about her sickness as well. She nodded.
She watched to make sure Xena consumed her breakfast, then wandered down to the kitchen in search of the healer. The old woman gave her a wary look, but agreed to examine her.
After a few minutes, the old woman looked up with a worried expression. "Yer breeding, little one."
"Excuse me?" Gabrielle looked at her like she was insane. "I cant be Ive never been with a man!"
The old woman looked skeptical, but re-examined her. She scratched her head in puzzlement. "Your maidenhead is indeed intact, child. But you are going to have a wee one, regardless."
Gabrielle covered her belly with her hand, and felt the tiny bit of swelling. Terror surged through her as she thought of Hope. A warm hand fell on her shoulder.
The old woman gasped in awe and sank to her knees. "Sweet Artemis."
Gabrielle looked up into the kind face of the goddess, and burst into tears. Artemis gathered her close. "Tell no one, old mother," the goddess murmured softly, and touched the womans painfully arthritic fingers with a glowing hand. "The pure child she carries is under my protection. My gift for your silence."
The woman flexed her fingers in wonder, the first time she had been able to make a fist in over a score of years. Her knees no longer held the sharp ache she had lived with for as long as her immediate memory could recall. Tears fell from her eyes. "Thank you," she whispered, "I am your servant."
Artemis waved her off and transported Gabrielle back to the room she shared with the Destroyer. Gabrielle looked up at her with panic filled eyes. "Shell think I betrayed her, and shell kill me."
"Poor Gabrielle the child was meant to be the ultimate gift, given to you on the night you reunited bodies with your soulmate a child of both your souls. I did not lie she is under my protection. No harm will ever befall her."
"She?" Gabrielle laid a trembling hand over her belly. "Shes our baby?"
"Yes," Artemis smiled a little. "Unfortunately, all this has interfered with your happiness. I hate to say it, but I think Ares is trying to get to Xena indirectly. He swore he would not interfere with her life, but he never said he wouldnt manipulate everyone elses lives. Hes been very clever, using the other mortals like pieces on a game board." She rubbed the bards back. "I didnt think it was him hed been off Olympus, pouting somewhere. He showed back up a little while ago, looking way too complacent. I did some digging I saw how he manipulated the stone so that all the events would indirectly draw Xena here. That way, he hasnt exactly interfered personally in her life. Im trying to undo everything hes done."
Gabrielle was trying to process the information she was given, and she just shook her head in amazement. "Im going to have a baby and shes good."
Artemis beamed, cupping the bards face in her hands. "Yes, Gabrielle, shes good. Shes not like Hope. She is the best of you and Xena."
"She wont believe that I didnt sleep around on her, Artemis. Shell kill me."
"I wish I could disguise the belly, but as soon as she touches you, shell know." Artemis looked thoughtful. "Give me a day or so to figure out what to do."
Gabrielle nodded. "Please hurry."
Artemis disappeared in a shimmer of golden sparkles, leaving Gabrielle to contemplate her gift. She wished she could tell Xena, and have her be happy for her. This Xena would kill her, she knew with almost absolute certainty.
Suddenly, the door crashed open, bouncing against the wall, and Xena stormed in, dragging a filthy boy behind her. Gabrielle recognized him as the scullery boy, and her heart sank.
Xena was furious. She shoved the child to his knees. "Say it," she snarled.
The little boy was terrified. "I I heard the lady there talkin to th healer an she said the lady were goin ta have a wee one."
Xena unsheathed her sword and pressed it against the boys throat. Turning wintry eyes on Gabrielle, she said in a terrifyingly calm voice. "Now I want to hear the truth from your own sweet lips, my pretty whore."
Gabrielle looked up at Xena with tears in her eyes, then looked at the little boy kneeling with Xenas sword pressed against his throat. "Yes I am going to have a baby its not what you think, Xena."
Xena resheathed her sword and bodily shoved the boy out the room, slamming the door behind him. She whirled on Gabrielle, her voice shaking. "What else could it be, slut? The only way a baby can be had is if a man and a woman fuck, am I right? And youre barely a month along." She tangled cruel fingers in Gabrielles bright hair, forcing her head back. "Not only did you betray me, you betrayed that paragon of virtue you claim I was!"
"Xena, please listen."
Xena released her in a single violent motion. She hadnt wanted to believe the child, who was expecting a reward for his for tattling. Her heart hurt at Gabrielles betrayal. She said she loved me.
Gabrielle watched as Xena turned away and rushed to explain. "Im Artemis chosen, Xena she knew that we wanted to have a child, so she gifted me with a baby that had the best of both of us in her," she cried, grabbing Xenas arm in desperation.
Xena lashed out in frustration, striking Gabrielle hard across the face and knocking her to her knees. The bard covered her head, waiting for more blows that never came, sobbing brokenly. She heard Xena storm out and issue a curt command to the guard outside.
A roughly callused hand touched her hesitantly, and she looked up to see Aleric standing above her. His eyes were full of unspoken sympathy. "The Destroyer wishes for you to be moved."
"Of course." Gabrielle got to her feet shakily, and went to pack up her things. She was stopped by Alerics firm hand on her wrist.
"You are to bring nothing."
Gabrielle looked at her clothes, her piles of scrolls, and sighed. She felt a coppery taste in her mouth and realized that her nose was bleeding heavily, maybe even broken. I dont care. I cant get Xena back now.
She was led down a series of hallways, into a damp chamber with a single narrow high window providing the only light. She could hear the sea from outside her window, and the noise made her queasy.
There was a dingy straw mattress in one corner, a pot to make waste in, and a thin blanket. Aleric looked at her for a moment.
"I know youre telling the truth, Gabrielle," he murmured. "I saw the whole conversation between the healer and the goddess." He glanced warily behind him. "I met Xena when she was good. She saved my little sister from a filthy bandit right before he had a chance to rape her."
"Youre not one of them? Then what were you doing with Delios?"
"He was a fair man until he got a hold of that stone. A little ambitious, maybe, but not ruthless." Alerics eyes turned hard. "Its an evil thing."
Gabrielle looked up at him, hope shining in her eyes. "I know how to break the spell, Aleric. If you can sneak me out."
He gave a slight nod. "Ill try as soon as theres an opportunity."
He walked out, closing and locking the door behind him. Gabrielle laid on the thin cot and drew the foul smelling blanket around her. Hours later, she fell into an exhausted sleep as Xena watched men fight frantically for their lives on the battlefield outside.
Xenas mood was black and the men on the battlefield paid for it. She sat on a specially made dais, holding a crossbow. Whenever she saw a man falter, she would take aim and bring him down with a single bolt. It did little to make her feel better.
At last, there was twenty-three men remaining, and Xena called a halt to the fight. She stood and looked them over critically; none of them had been badly injured, and they kept their eyes focused on the dirt beneath their feet. Very good, her mind purred.
"You have fought well. You will be known as the elite guard of the Destroyer of Nations, and will be given all the benefits that you deserve. Aleric will assign each of you to private rooms within the castle, you will be given fresh clothes, and your wounds will be tended. In addition, you are required to bathe every other day. I do not want the enemy to smell you coming." Xenas remarks brought a couple of smiles. "Aleric will also dispense your pay and your bonus, and I have some ladies coming in to take care of your battle lust." Xenas eyes narrowed. "If you are loyal, you and your families will want for nothing. If you betray me, you will die."
There were nods of assent all around. They understood perfectly, although none of them understood precisely what had happened to the Warrior Princess, the savior of so many. As they gazed with respect upon the dark angel before them, many of them assumed that her mind had snapped under the weight of all her guilt. All of them had had their lives touched by Xena, whether good or bad, and all of them knew what she was capable of.
Xena let her eyes roam restlessly over the small group, pausing speculatively on one person in particular. She asked Aleric to call the person forward. He consulted his roster for a moment, and his eyes widened in surprise.
The name was Amazon in flavor, and Xena felt a twinge of familiarity. The woman stepped forward and removed her helmet in respect, her long, dark hair falling to the center of her well-muscled back. Although her armor was liberally streaked with gore, she was quite a beautiful woman.
Eponins gray eyes regarded the Destroyer frankly, surprised by the lack of recognition in Xenas eyes. Then its all true. My goddess, you were right. She saluted stiffly, and waited for Xena to speak.
"An Amazon," Xena purred softly. "Well, well. Come to assassinate me?"
Eponin looked at Xena in surprise, but then she remembered that Xena and the Amazons had a long history. "No, my lord. I am no longer a member of my tribe. I have come only to serve you."
The cool blue eyes narrowed. "Get a bath and a change of clothes, then come to my chamber. You can begin your service tonight."
Knowing looks were exchanged among the men, and Eponin colored deeply. Sweet Artemis, you are asking too much from me! How can I betray Gabrielle like this?
Artemis had come to the Amazons a few days earlier and told them that their queen was in danger. Ephiny had wanted to send out a whole squad of warriors, but Eponins quiet reason had prevailed, and the weapons master left for the island alone. They hadnt seen Gabrielle since Xenas death, then word had come back from the scouts watching Amphipolis that Xena was indeed alive and they were off on a mission of some importance. Now, according to Artemis, Xena was bewitched by evil and Gabrielle had to come out of that castle as soon as it was feasible. Her plan did not involve sleeping her way into the Destroyers confidence.
Eponin knew she had no choice, and unless she could find her Queen quickly, she would have to submit or be discovered. She gave Xena a not-entirely-fabricated look of desire. "As you wish, my lord."
Aleric assessed the situation with a fair amount of accuracy. He figured that this Amazon was here for Gabrielle, having heard that the bard was also an Amazon queen. He also guessed accurately that Xena did not know her disfavored consort was Amazonian royalty. He also figured that he needed to dispose of the rest of the bards scrolls before she found out. He excused himself on the pretense of ordering Xenas meal and bath.
Xena, still furious at Gabrielle, only wanted physical release and to forget those startling green eyes. She dismissed everyone and returned to her chamber, finding it cleared of Gabrielles possessions. She whirled on Aleric, who was bringing her a tray laden with food. "I told you she was to take nothing!"
"She took nothing but the clothes upon her back, my lord. I cleared her possessions into storage so that you would not be reminded of her betrayal," Aleric lied smoothly.
Xena mistrustful look faded slightly, and she nodded. "Bring the Amazon to me in about two candlemarks, Aleric. I am going to rest for a while."
Aleric gave a solemn bow and backed out of the room, then went in search of the woman named Eponin.
Gabrielle sat quietly, tears running down her cheeks, as she thought of the last few hours she and Xena had spent together. One memory brought a wistful smile to her lips.
She kissed the fingers that hovered near her mouth, then reached up and laid her hands over Xenas heart. "If anything happens to you ."
"Shhh. Dont think that, Gabrielle. Well be okay," Xena murmured, hoping that she sounded believable. She had her doubts. "Well go back to Amphipolis and build a cabin. You can make rugs for the floors. Ill plant a large garden."
Gabrielle gave a startled giggle. "Xena, Farmer Princess?"
Xena raised an amused eyebrow. "Sure. I bet I can have a garden growing before you finish your first rug."
"Youre on." Gabrielle ran a hand through Xenas inky hair. "We only found each other again a few days ago I dont want to lose you."
Xena laid firm hands on Gabrielles shoulders. "You wont." She planted another kiss on the bards head, then pulled away.
Startled, Gabrielle looked up when the door was unbolted, wiping the tears from her eyes before Aleric stepped into the small room. Her leg was aching for the first time in a few days; it was amazing how much a little rest had helped it heal. Unfortunately, when Xena hit her, the scab had reopened and was now seeping a little. She prayed fervently that it wouldnt become infected before she saw Artemis again. She had the baby to think about now.
Aleric gave her a reassuring smile as he handed her a plate of food. "Are you all right?"
My soulmate has turned into a psycho bitch, and I just discovered Im supernaturally knocked up. How would you feel? She bit back a retort and gave him a strained smile in return. "As well as possible, under the circumstances."
"I have good news," he muttered quietly. "One of your Amazons is here a woman named Eponin." Gabrielles eyes widened. "Weve come up with a plan to get you out of here."
Gabrielle stared at him. "I just need to get to the stone. Im not going to leave Xena."
"If we fail, shell kill us all."
"Then let me out and Ill do it alone."
Aleric looked at the small woman with new respect. "Eponin figured as much, so well use plan B." He gave Gabrielle an uncertain look. "Theres another factor."
Gabrielle nodded for him to continue. It wasnt good, whatever it was.
"Xena has requested Eponin as her body servant for the night. She will only accept on your order."
Gabrielle looked away, staring into a darkened corner as her heart broke. Of course, the woman in Xenas body was different from her soulmate, but by the gods, the thought hurt her. Her selfishness would undeniably result in the weapons masters death should Eponin refuse the whim of the already infuriated Xena. She gave Aleric a steady stare. "Tell to do what she has to do to keep herself alive. The woman up there isnt the woman I love."
There, Ive said it. The old Xena is gone, will be gone, until I can break the spell that stone holds over her. I have to forgive her for any transgression she commits right now, because shes not herself.
Aleric nodded. "Ill tell her. Be ready to put the plan in action tonight; word is Xena intends to travel into Greece to recruit men. A boatload showed up this evening after hearing she was hiring for good wages. We need to move fast."
"What do you need me to do?"
"While Eponin is distracting Xena tonight," Gabrielle noticed his extreme discomfort, and gave him a pat on the hand, "She intends to knock her unconscious and tie her up. Ill come down and get you, and then you can go retrieve the stone and do what needs to be done. Just wait for me to come get you."
Aleric left and Gabrielle settled down to wait. Unnerved by the silence, she paced back and forth, talking to herself, trying to relieve tension as the small cell darkened. She was given no light, so she finally sat in the dark, wrapping her arms around her knees to keep the chill night air at bay. She tried not to think about Xena touching Eponin, but it was hard to think about much else.
Eponin stood naked and shivering in front of the Destroyer, wondering how in Hades she was going to accomplish her goal. Xena was a force to be reckoned with when she was fighting for good; unforunately, Xena would have dropped the restraint that kept her from killing unnecessarily. Eponin knew that Xena wold destroy her in a fight like that and probably never break a sweat.
Gods, she is a beautiful woman. Eponin waited as Xena gave her a long once over, but couldnt help enjoying the lovely body that the warriors jade silk robe barely hid. Then her eyes located the chest, and she reminded herself that this was business.
Xena looked at the beautiful amazon, and found that she felt nothing. It just didnt feel right. All she could see is Gabrielles trusting face, her eyes fairly alight with love as she gazed at her. While Eponin was exquisite, she was not the small bard. She tossed her a robe.
Eponin looked startled, but put it on.
"I find that Im simply not in the mood tonight." Xena admitted to herself that she missed Gabrielles company, and motioned for the amazon to sit at the small table. "Eat something. I know you missed the celebration below."
Eponin took that as an order, and selected a peach from the fresh fruit on the table. There was silence for a few minutes, and Eponin studied Xenas face thoughtfully, noticing how much older she looked, and how tired. She had a feeling she was about to be dismissed, and racked her brain for an excuse to stay. She knew Aleric waited outside the door for her signal. "My lord," she said, "You seem tired. Would a massage please you?"
Xena looked at her for a long moment, then stood and removed her robe. Eponin salivated, her eyes appreciatively roaming the beautiful flesh Xena had revealed. Artemis, why have you done this to me?
Xena gave a small smile. "Do you like what you see?"
Eponin blushed, then answered honestly, "Yes, my lord. You are very beautiful."
Xena lay down on the bed, and instructed, "Straddle me, I like a hard massage."
Eponin could feel her face flaming as she sat straddling Xenas hips and attacked her shoulders with strong fingers. Sometimes, life isnt fair. With a stiffened forefinger, she found the pressure point above Xenas breast bone and jabbed it sharply, feeling Xena go limp beneath her. She waited for a moment or so, then whispered, "My lord? Are you all right?" Satisfied by the lack of response, gave a low whistle, which was promptly returned. Aleric was going to get Gabrielle.
Gabrielle heard Aleric before she saw him.
"Guys, go celebrate with the others. The Destroyers orders. Ive got the watch."
General merriment followed as the guards thanked Aleric, then silence. Aleric opened the door a moment later. "Now," he whispered urgently.
Eponin had restrained Xena with as much rope, cord, and belts as she could findeven a chain with a lock attached to it that she found in a trunk. She would never make the mistake of underestimating the warrior, because shed seen many killed that way. Then she gagged Xena with silk torn from her robe, put on some clothes, and sat down to wait.
Gabrielle and Aleric came in the room at a dead run, nearly scaring Eponin out of her skin. Gabrielle took one look at Xena and rounded on Eponin. "Do you think you have her bound enough, Eponin?" she asked sarcastically.
Eponin gave a slight bow. "Honestly, no, my Queen."
Gabrielle grinned reluctantly. "Youre probably right." She walked over and touched Xenas neck, finding her pulse to be strong and steady. "What did you do?"
"A could of summers ago, Xena taught me some pressure points. Not the deadly ones, but the ones that you could use to numb an arm, a leg, whatever. Drove the amazons crazy. Ephiny yelled at me to quit knocking them out all the time." She grew serious. "Thats the first time I ever had to really use it to subdue someone. I thought it would be a little less messy than boinking her over the head with something."
"Did you ?"
The question was unspoken, but the implication was obvious. "No, my Queen. Xena told be she wasnt in the mood."
Gabrielle sent a silent thank you to Artemis.
"Youre welcome, chosen." Artemis appeared with a golden flash, and Eponin immediately dropped to her knees in supplication. Aleric, at a loss for what to do, bowed. Gabrielle just grinned. "Are you ready to do your part?"
She took Alerics dagger and began picking at the lock, but was unable to get it to open. "I cant open it," she nearly screamed in frustration.
"I cant really interfere but I know someone who can a little bending of the rules are in order." Artemis snapped her fingers, and Autolycus materialized before them, a mug of ale in his hand.
"What the Gabrielle Xena?" His eyes hit the bound form on the floor. "Who ."
"Artemis popped you over here because I need someone who can pick locks. Xenas under the influence of the stone, and I need to get to it to destroy it. This is Aleric, and Artemis is behind you. Does that answer all of your questions so we can get this over with before Xena wakes up and kills us all???" Gabrielle took a deep breath and looked like she was going to cry.
"That just about covers it, yes." Autolycus shook his head and took the dagger from Gabrielle. He knelt at the chest and began talking to it, gently working the tip of the knife back and forth.
"All right, baby yeah thats it do it for me ah-HAH!" He opened the lid, and gestured gallantly. "All in a days work, that is, if I wasnt retired."
Gabrielle fell to her knees and stared at the gem, which was pulsating an evil black light. She retrieved the knife and carefully used the tip to lift it by its chain, pushing back the wave of darkness that tugged at her, focusing on her love for Xena and their unborn child. The darkness didnt stand a chance against that type of love.
She laid the necklace on the floor, and turned to Xena. The warrior was awake and struggling, her eyes murderous as she stared at Gabrielle. Eponin kept a nervous eye on the Destroyer as she fought her bonds.
Gabrielle touched the cheek of the woman she loved and whispered, "I love you."
Confusion warred with hate as Xena tried to understand what was going on. The evil was welling within her, choking her with its force, but the smallest of lights shone when Gabrielle spoke.
Eponin handed Gabrielle Xenas chakram. Gabrielle glanced at Artemis, who nodded encouragement. With a decisive blow, Gabrielle brought the weapon down, shattering the stone in a blast of heat and stench.
There were now five pieces. Gabrielle gathered them up and gave them to Artemis, casting a worried glance towards Xena, who was unconcious once more. Eponin knelt beside the warrior and felt for a pulse. "Gabrielle," Eponin called, dropping any pretense of formality, "I cant feel her heart beating!"
Artemis walked over and placed her hand on Xenas head. "Shell be okay, Gabrielle. It may take a while, but shell recover. When you destroyed the stone, it overloaded her mind. Give her some time." The tall goddess brushed a tear from the bards cheek. "My queen," she whispered, a little sadly. Then she turned to the ex-thief. "Ready to go home?"
"Yeah, uh, could you not I get kind of nauseous when ." Artemis gave an evil grin and Autolycus popped out of the room. "Take Xena home, where she can rest, Gabrielle. It will be all right."
"Eponin, thank you," the goddess added, before she twinkled out of the room.
Gabrielle gently loosened Xenas bonds and pulled the limp warrior into her arms. With Eponins help, she dressed Xena a pair of breeches and a shirt, and Aleric collected the rest of their things. With Xena in Alerics arms, Gabrielle slid the bed over to reveal the hidden passage that her Xena had told her about in her moment of lucidity.
They made it to the small cove without any problems; Gabrielle guessed that Artemis had something to do about that. The boat had remained undisturbed, and all of them piled into it and made for the open sea.
Gabrielle was too concerned about Xena to even feel sick. She held the warrior as close as possible, murmuring to her, Eponin providing silent comfort as Aleric rowed. An hour or two later, a ship was sighted, and Aleric waved to get their attention.
As they pulled along side the massive merchant ship, a familiar face peered down at them from the rail of the boat. "Hello, little one need a ride?"
"Oh, yes!" Gabrielle cried, relieved to see the friendly countance of the old sea captain that had brought them to the island in the first place. They were helped aboard and given a small space on deck to sit. Aleric pitched in with the sailors to pay their passage.
Gabrielle sat on a blanket with Xenas head in her lap, gently stroking Xenas face. Eponin sat beside her, realizing her queen needed support, but recognizing that for once, Gabrielle wasnt interested in talking.
Eponin eyed the huge bruise that covered one half of her Queens face, and wondered what Xena had put her through in the past week or so. Eponin noticed how glassy Gabrielles eyes were, and how flushed her skin looked. "Are you all right, my queen?"
Gabrielle looked at her. "Probably not." She lifted her skirt a little and showed Eponin her leg. It oozed greenish fluid. Eponin ran for the ships doctor.
The old man looked at the place for a long time. "Ill have to cut out the bad flesh, then cauterize it. Youve got a fever, and itll just get worse if you dont do something about it."
Gabrielle nodded mutely, but refused to leave Xenas side as the warrior slept on. The doctor managed to get her to take a little poppy juice, and when he began extracting the putrefying flesh, Gabrielle managed not to scream. She held on to Eponin as the hot sword was placed against the open wound, and mercifully passed out.
Eponin placed a light blanket over both the women and sat silently staring out to sea.
Xena opened her eyes to a canopy of stars, and she stared up at them groggily for several moments before her mind registered that she was on a ship. She sat up slowly, feeling like she had a bad hangover.
She turned her head to look at Eponin, who was sitting with her elbows propped up on her knees, regarding Xena with not a little suspicion.
Xena rubbed a hand over her eyes. "What in the name of Hades happened to me? I remember Delios beating the crap outta me, then ." Her eyes flew wide and she immediately sought out Gabrielle.
Gabrielles fever had abated somewhat, but she was still not well. The doctor had given her a horrible tasting tea, and that had kept her asleep.
Xena gently lifted Gabrielle into her arms, and turned pleading eyes to Eponin. "Tell me I didnt hurt her, Ep please," she croaked, looking at the horrible bruise on her beloveds face. Her hand found the bulky bandage on Gabrielles leg, and Xena almost lost it. "Oh, gods if Ive hurt Gabrielle, I would rather die ."
If Eponin had had any doubts as the which Xena this was, they were erased by those words. "I really dont know what happened, Xena. I came along at the end of it all." She nodded towards a lone figure ten feet away. "Hes your man."
Aleric had been standing at the rail, watching the whole scene. He walked over to Xena. "We need to talk. Eponin has done a good job of watching over Gabrielle. Come have a bit of ale with me."
Xena tenderly laid Gabrielle down and planted a soft kiss on her forehead. "Ill be right back."
Eponin gave a ghost of a smile and resumed her watch.
Xena sat staring into her mug, sickened by the things Aleric had told her.
Aleric let the silence stretch for a bit, knowing Xena had to digest what she was told. The only thing he omitted was Gabrielles pregnancy. He figured that would be up to Gabrielle to tell her mate.
I raped Gabrielle, abused her, hit her. I killed over a hundred men for no reason. I deserve to die. The grim thought made her take a deep drink of her ale.
Aleric murmured, "Gabrielle was pretty incredible. She did all she could to make sure you knew she loved you. I think even as the Destroyer, she reached you with that, somehow. You could have been much more cruel than you were."
"No excuse, Aleric."
Eponin walked up, holding a groggy Gabrielle in her arms. "She insisted that I take you to her as soon as she realized you were awake."
Gabrielle held out her arms, and Xena carefully took Eponins precious bundle. Gabrielle immediately wrapped her warrior into a tight embrace.
"Gabrielle, I maybe I could take you back to Potedia for a while if you dont ." Xena was fumbling to say the right thing, and was completely caught off guard by Gabrielles slap.
Gabrielle was looking at her with quiet fury. "I didnt fight so hard to get you back to have you leave me. Where you go, I go."
Wordlessly, Xena buried her face in Gabrielles hair, silent tears streaming down her cheeks as she fell to her knees with Gabrielle held close. Eponin motioned to Aleric, and they left the lovers alone.
Gabrielle cried a little, but hers were tears of relief. Her Xena was back, thank Artemis. She looked up at the night sky and could have sworn she felt the goddess blessing.
She cupped Xenas chin, making her meet her eyes. "Whatever happened that wasnt you."
"No," Xena said softly, her eyes dark. "It was me. I was like that, Gabrielle."
"Was is the operative word. Its who you are now that matters to me." She kissed Xenas trembling lips. "I love you."
"I dont deserve you, Gabrielle. I really dont." She touched Gabrielles cheek lightly. "Im so sorry."
"Shhh. So am I."
"For what?" Xenas brow creased in confusion as she situated herself up against a barrel on deck. "You didnt do anything."
"Im sorry that youre hurting for me, because that makes me hurt for you. I forgive you, Xena, but you have to accept my forgiveness in order for life to go on for us."
Xena nodded mutely. "I love you," she whispered reverantly against the bards lips, before capturing them in a soft kiss.
A soft voice said above them, "Thats what I like to see."
Gabrielle and Xena looked up into the smiling face of Artemis. Artemis pressed a hand against Gabrielles wound, giving her a reproachful look. "You should have said that it didnt heal, chosen. Apollo called it to my attention." A bright light covered the leg, drawing a gasp from Gabrielle. Xenas arms tightened around her bard.
Artemis removed the bandages and took a look at her handiwork, and upon viewing the unmarred flesh, gave a satisfied nod. She gazed deep into Gabrielles eyes. "Tell her." She was gone in a flash.
Xena gazed lovingly at her healed lover, who was stretching her leg out experimentally. "Tell me what?" she asked, caressing the supple limb appreciatively.
Gabrielle grinned mischieviously.
Uh-oh, Xena thought, seeing the bards expression.
"Do you remember the night at the inn, right before we left?"
Xena nodded, confused.
"Well, the gods gave us a gift that night, my heart." She placed Xenas hand on her slightly swelling belly.
Xena was smart, but it still took her a few minutes to comprehend what Gabrielle was saying. She looked from her hand to Gabrielles beaming face a couple of times, then felt her mouth go dry. "Gabrielle?"
"Yes, Xena?" Gabrielle said sweetly.
"You may want to move here in a second."
"Because Im going to be sick."
Gabrielle scrambled from Xenas lap just in time; Xena sprinted for the rail and emptied the contents of her stomach into the Aegean.
Gabrielle patted Xena on the back. "That was not what I expected, Xena."
"That makes two of us. Maybe it was the ale." Her focus shifted to the small bard at her side. "Are you sure?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Artemis said she is a part of both of us the best parts."
Xena grinned from ear to ear. "A girl?"
"Yes, a little girl. Are you all right with this?"
"A little late for that," Xena said drily, "but yes, Im thrilled. Well just have to find a quiet place to settle for a while." She smiled again, and Gabrielle swore that Xena was a little misty eyed. "I would have never dreamed we could have a baby together. Thank you."
Xena pulled Gabrielle into her arms. "For being you, sweetheart for being you."
As the night lengthened, the two lovers stood at the rail of the ship, never speaking and content just to hold one another. For now, all was quiet, and tomorrow would bring another set of challenges for them to face.
Maybe, just maybe, for a while they could find a place of peace.
TO BE CONTINUED .
** The next installation in the series will be "This Side of Brightness". Im wrapping up the novel Im working on, so it wont be too long. Check out my e-Group at www.egroups.com\FriendsOf Heather . Thanks for hanging in there till the end, and of course, you are welcome to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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