Disclaimer: All the usual stuff, including using the XWP characters without intent of profit; they belong to Universal and all relevant personages and corporate entities, not me.

Warning: This story contains heavy violence -- read it at your own discretion. If at any point you become uncomfortable with the direction it’s moving in, please stop reading.

 

If Wishes Were Horses

By
Sonia C. Barrera
s_barrera@hotmail.com

Chapter 1

Gods, to be inside her...

It was a single wish, so clear and true that it rang out into the heavens and silenced the gods, interrupting the hot debate on temple rezoning going on in their second quarter meeting. There resounded barely-suppressed chuckles, even from the highest-echelon of Olympia.

"Well, we can hardly ignore that request." Zeus was smirking. "Aphrodite, I believe this is your area of expertise."

Not even the piercing look of annoyance could taint the goddess of love. "Bummer. This fight is so not over, ‘thena. Those temples are mine. Later." With contemptuous grace, she waved a hand and was gone.

The discussion abruptly tabled, Athena muttered a particularly nasty soldier’s curse and stalked back to her chair.

From deep in the balcony seats, one budding blond goddess excused herself and vanished quietly. The other gods had already redirected their attentions, but Ares saw her go. A low, distant rumble of thunder sounded his suspicion.

Chapter 2

"Xena, you’re not paying attention to me!" The young woman’s irritation showed up in a fiery red hue that lit up her skin and added a shine to her hazel-green eyes. She wiped a hand across her forehead, pushing askew the damp copper bangs catching the sweat that beaded there. She tapped the butt of her staff on the grassy field, solid thuds in time to her complaint, and continued. "You’re always telling me to learn this stuff, so here I am trying to and it’s hot and I’m sweating and you’re not even helping me!" Sweat indeed covered her, a fine glistening sheen across her upper chest and exposed stomach.

The woman at whom she spoke, statuesque and leather-clad, looked sufficiently chastised and uncomfortable, averting her sapphire gaze and shifting thickly-booted feet. Large, callused hands, battle-tried hands, rubbed at the back of her neck underneath the heavy, black hair. "I know, Gabrielle. I’m sorry. I just got a little distracted..."

The smaller woman threw a hand up in exasperation. "When are you not distracted these days! What was it this time? No, don’t tell me: you caught the scent of a rare herb crushed under the sole of your boot? Or was it old reliable: I just had that feeling that someone was watching us and I was checking things out?" In mockery of the warrior, the bard snapped her head back and forth, squinting her eyes into a hawk’s gaze.

Xena took a steadying breath and put her hands on the bard’s shoulders. They slipped down the slick skin, the sensation like a bolt through her. She pulled her hands back, folding her arms across her armored chest awkwardly. "Calm down," she murmured, and it was unclear to whom she spoke. "I’m sorry, you’re right: I should’ve been paying more attention. Why don’t you go through the movements again? I promise to pay better attention this time."

The bard threw her staff down on the blanket with the rest of their things. "Forget it. It’s way too hot to be doing anything, not to mention feigning the heat of battle. I’m going for a swim." She peeled off her drenched halter and hung it from a branch on the tree Xena had been leaning against; it swung by the warrior’s head, Gabrielle’s scent saturating the air by her nose. The warrior sat abruptly.

All her clothes off now, the bard was moving toward the blue of the stream that wound nearby, small tremors moving through her toned buttocks and thighs as she picked her way through the rocks along the path. She turned back, her hair making an arc around her. "Are you coming?"

The warrior quickly looked away. "Hmm? No. No, I’m going to stay here and, uhm, keep watch."

"Okay, whatever." Gabrielle shrugged and resumed her course.

The warrior threw herself back onto the blanket with a frustrated moan.

Chapter 3

Aphrodite was pacing, her pumps clicking across the exquisitely-tiled floor of her favorite temple’s inner chamber, her long, red fingernails clicking against her teeth. She stopped abruptly, and the length of the sheer gown that had been trailing behind her pooled around shapely calves. "Okay, like, whoever’s in here, just show yourself already," she demanded with a dainty stomp.

A respectfully-subdued flash presented Callisto.

"You." Aphrodite gave the fledgling goddess, still in the worn, black leather and metal two-piecer of her mortal days, a dismissive once-over. "You know, Callisto, this look might’ve worked with the mortals, but it really is, like, not happening in Olympia. If you want, I could give you some tips."

"Ummm..." Callisto purred, a saccharine smile pasted on her lips, "maybe one of these days." She approached the goddess of love demurely. "Actually, I’m here to see if I might be able to do you a favor." The smile grew even sweeter.

Aphrodite draped herself over her throne and looked amused. "As if. But I’m listening."

Callisto leaned in with an air of confidence. "Well, far be it from me to interfere with another god’s business, but I could hardly help overhearing that little request that interrupted your proposal to Zeus. Too bad...you would’ve had my vote for taking over Athena’s two temples -- she’s so severe. But it’s unfortunate you were called away... After you left, Athena didn’t waste any time making her appeal, and it sounded like she might try to force a vote. I hate to say it...but without you there to defend yourself, she might get her way."

"That fashionless bitch!" Aphrodite pouted. "She’s not going to get away with that..."

"Which is why I’m here," Callisto cut in smoothly. "I know you’re bound to address Xena’s wish, but there’s no rule that you can’t let another god substitute for you. I’m offering my help."

"Uh-uh, no can do, Callisto. Everyone knows you have it out for the Warrior Princess, and while there’s no love lost between us, it’s like, my duty to help her out in matters of love. Or lust. Anyway, I’ve been waiting for this chance for a really long time. Maybe once I get them together, they’ll stay out of my hair. It’s amazing how easily happiness distracts mortals, the saps."

Callisto shook her head. "Ooh, that’s too bad...while you’re here, called away by Xena, who, to my knowledge has never done you one favor, Athena’s making her case heard. I’m aware of my reputation, Aphrodite, but really, how much harm could I do? In these matters, a god is bound by the request, I know that." Callisto could see the goddess wavering. "You know, as a mortal I visited those temples...and you know what they say: location, location, location. The people there are so devoted... I can only dream of the day that I have that kind of worship to keep my power levels..."

Aphrodite hopped up, her ample breasts bobbing underneath her gown. "Okay, Callie, we’ve got a deal: you handle this for me, and I’ll do a little make-over on you when we’re done. Oh, don’t look at me like that -- it’ll get you in good with Zeus, I’m telling ya. But remember: you can only give her what she asked for, and she was pretty specific -- that’s the only reason I’m turning this over to you. You go beyond that request and you’ll not only have to answer to me, but to Zeus and the Council as well." The mythical eyes narrowed. "And I’m warning you, don’t fuck with me, Callisto. I’m not as fragile as I look, and I have lots of friends in high places -- they’ll do more than bury you under a bunch of rocks."

Callisto shook her head. "Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it, Aphrodite," she said, sweetly. Her god-hardened eyes had kept their mortal gleam.

Chapter 4

"Xena... Oh, Xena..."

The warrior tried to open her eyes to the distant calling of her name, but she was so groggy...a dream kept pulling her back. Slowly, physical sensation returned, but the feelings were removed, as if she experienced them through a filter. Her eyes focused, she could feel them, yet she still saw through a thin film: the day was clear, but all colors were dim to her. And though she could make out swaying trees, to her the air was stagnant, except for a heavy, acrid odor.

She became aware that she was moving, walking. She stopped, yet the movement continued. With more force she willed herself to stop, employed all the initiation and cessation of musculature that means stop, but on she went. With each failed effort to control her legs, her arms, her neck, even her smallest digit, panic welled, starting from a sourness at the base of the stomach she couldn’t tighten. She fought it back, the fear, pushed it down.

no...this is wrong...what’s wrong with me...

The cackle began then, from a distance and growing closer and sharper; she heard it through her own ears, not like the dulled footsteps and bird calls around her.

"Hello, Xena."

Had her body been under her command, it would’ve started, would’ve whirled, her hand reaching for the sword on her back at the unmistakable voice that signaled mortal danger. But there was no physical acknowledgment of the alarm she felt.

The laughter resumed. "You don’t understand yet, do you, Xena? That’s okay, you will soon enough. Scared? I can feel your heart racing -- even though you can’t. But you don’t have to be scared, Xena. After all, I’m here to do your biding. You called on the gods this morning, or don’t you remember? Maybe you don’t, as repressed as you are... Tsk, tsk: thou shalt not take the gods’ names in vain, Xena! But not to worry, not to worry: I’m just here to make your hidden dreams come true. Aphrodite was busy, you see. So just relax and enjoy the ride. Ta-ta." And with that, the presence of Callisto was gone, as surely as it had been with her, suspended in that limbo.

She turned outward once again, and through her hazy vision, saw she was approaching water. There was a figure in the stream, facing away. A woman, naked. And Xena made out Gabrielle, feeling relief at the sight. Surely she was sick, poison maybe, she thought, and felt a growing claustrophobia. But Gabrielle would help her, would rouse her from this nightmare. She called out, but didn’t hear her voice. She quickened her pace, but instead found herself crouching behind an outcropping of shrubbery on the bank. Along the borders of her vision, her hands were moving, pulling apart an opening in the branches.

what’s happened to my hands...

They were wrong. Larger. Rougher. Dirt beneath the broad, flat nails. Coarse black hair in patches along them. One held a mean, crusted dagger.

no...no, this can’t be...NO...

She was in motion again, being carried forward, heavily, clumsily, to intercept Gabrielle as she moved toward the bank. For a split second, Xena caught the reflection in the water at the stream’s edge: dark, hungry eyes over a crooked nose; etched, sun-baked lines; a coarse, black, unkept beard. It was the face of the body that bore her.

gabrielle...

She watched Gabrielle stiffen, then whirl, her wet, copper hair shimmering out behind her, their eyes meeting. And then Xena felt it, the body responding to the beautiful sight: adrenaline flooding sickeningly throughout the bloodstream, exhilarant and intoxicant. The body lunged forward, plunging through the shallow stream and after Gabrielle, out of the stream now, sprinting, naked and vulnerable.

no! no, you godsforsaken bastard!

Deep within, Xena was willing the body to stop. She was willing her nonexistent hands to throttle this man that entombed her, was imagining her hands ripping his pounding heart apart, but still he ran, and the ragged sound of his breath, his pulse excited by the exertion and thrill of the chase, was a roar. She stilled her mind, letting Lao Ma’s teaching take hold, letting all of her will drain away, letting the perfect energy and balance of the Tao take over. But still he ran, gaining, and his malignant intent seeped into the buried warrior. Her concentration shattered.

nooooooo!!!

Hunter and prey broke through bushes, moving toward the tree. Xena could hear the faint, hysterical cry of Gabrielle as she called the warrior’s name, could see herself, clearly sitting against the tree, under the shade, motionless. The body was nearly upon the bard now. Gabrielle was screaming her name, screaming it...

keep going, gabrielle, keep going...get to your staff, you’re almost there, just get to your staff...

Gabrielle stumbled, and the body propelled itself forward, catching her knees, the two rolling. Gabrielle’s wet body was streaked with mud now, the only thing she wore. The heel of her foot came up quick and caught his chin. Xena felt the sharp pain in his neck as his head snapped back and the sickening sensation in the pit of his stomach. He hesitated, then recovered; it wasn’t enough.

Gabrielle was clawing, trying to pull herself out from under him. The hand reached out, Xena saw and felt it, the dirty hand that raked down Gabrielle’s slick back, her buttocks, looking for a hold. She felt it all. It found its hold, catching her ankle and pulling her back, dragging her down. The young woman was grunting with the effort to free herself, her pleading for Xena less frequent now. Xena saw one small, curled hand coming, and it caught the eye, the pain shooting deep into his brain and stoking his fury. She felt the pain with him; she heard him bellow out his rage, as the sight in that eye was extinguished. The dagger clattered to the ground behind him.

Yes, gabrielle, yes!...again, just like that!...your fingers into claws now...again!...

She saw the second strike coming, the bard’s sweet face contorted now with the desperate savagery of survival. The warrior knew that look well, had seen it on so many she faces in battle, but never on Gabrielle, never directed at her. But he saw the blow coming, too, and slapped it away, pinning the arm, then backhanded the slender woman, stunning her long enough to lay the whole of his weight upon her even as she resumed her attempts to wriggle free. Xena felt the rush of his pulse as he reached down and undid the laces of his trousers and released himself, stiff and throbbing, his knees pushing her thighs apart impossibly, then ramming himself inside of her. Xena felt it all.

you’re going to pay you’re going to pay you’re going to pay you’re going to pay...

The single eye stared unmercifully, forcing the warrior’s sight upon her companion’s face; she felt him delight in the emotions that washed over it, the terror, the pain, the panic. Then that face went blank. An awful blankness, as Gabrielle let her body go and released her mind. And the warrior wept, deep within.

yes, gabrielle, you go far away, far away, and this will be over soon, and I promise I’m going to make everything better, I’m going to make everything right again...I’m going to make him pay...

The body was thrusting harder and faster, his frenzied blood dizzying for the warrior, even in her hatred for him. She could feel the contortions of his face as he neared, the clenching of his body, then he was coming, expelling himself into the pristine woman, and Gabrielle showed nothing. And for just one moment, their vision went dark; the rush of hormones that meant conquest and victory and all the things that the warrior normally sought in battle, the black ecstasy, washed away all consciousness, even for her.

In her mind, in her heart, without the ability to vocalize, Xena screamed out the sound of a torn soul, and for the second time that day, all activity in Olympia ceased and the gods looked down and saw.

He lay atop her, resting. Then he rose, standing over her and gaping down crudely while he tucked himself back into his pants. Gabrielle didn’t move, didn’t shift her gaze to him. Just lay there. He reached for his fallen dagger.

no! no, don’t do it, somebody help please gods help us don’t let him you’re going to pay you bastard gods please...ares athena aphrodite hera hephaestus gods someone do something...

There was a flash and it was Aphrodite, her presence dazzling but her face somber; he shielded his one functioning eye. "Enough already," she said, and everything went dead.

Chapter 5

The warrior was springing to her feet as she awoke, tearing down the hill on the frenetic pumping of straining thighs. But the bard was gone, and Xena continued to the stream. She arrived breathless.

There she was, the tarnished bard, standing listlessly in the pool, the clear water muddying around her as the dirt slipped from her body. There was an initial twitch, the barest of movements, and then the hands came alive, washing that once pristine body, first gingerly, then with a frenzy, maniacally, reaching below the surface for handfuls of gritty sand to scrape across her body as it shook with sobs.

A pained moan escaped the warrior and she was running again, the splashing water, as she entered the stream, dark stains on her leather bodice and pleated skirt. The bard turned with a scream, arms outraised, but the warrior wrapped strong arms around her and they tumbled into the shallow stream, Xena rocking, stroking the tangled, gritty hair and crooning unintelligible reassurances.

"Shhh, Gabrielle, it’s going to be okay, you’re going to be fine, shhh..."

"Xena," the young woman cried amid the sobs that racked her body as she clung to the warrior, "Xena, why?" But then she was struggling, pushing the warrior away in horror. "What’s that smell? Xena? Why do you smell that way? Xena, why? You don’t smell that way, why do you smell that way?" Her voice held a hysterical edge and she was backpedaling, scrambling, her eyes going wider and wider.

The warrior stood in the stream, rooted; her mouth hung open, dry, her lips trembled. She shook her head no, but it lacked conviction; she could not deny that guilty stench, could not speak. And Gabrielle was moving away from her in horror, faster and faster as she did in the warrior’s most gut-twisting nightmares, then turning and running into the woods.

 

Chapter 6

"Ares!!!!!" The warrior bellowed at the night sky as she sunk her sword into the trees that surrounded her, rushing at them and slashing with grunts and yells. It was not the insanity of alcohol that drove her but the madness of hatred, grief, rage. "Ares, come to me!" It was a desperate order, not the sultry, silken request of times past when they’d lain together under the full moon, consummating the darkness without and within. She spun, and he was there, the silvery shadows playing across his protruding brow and brooding eyes, his stance immovable. The god of war. The god of malice, the god of power-lust, the god of hatred. She was on her knees, exhausted in her rage, crazed, the supplicant now after all this time, heedless of the self-disgust the act would surely bring in the future.

"Xena...what can I do for you?" His baritone was thick with gloating and condescension.

She raised her eyes to meet his, and they shone with the fever of hatred. "Take me to him."

He considered her. "You know I can’t do that. The Olympian code: you don’t interfere with another god’s handling of a worshiper."

"Liar!" The warrior was on her feet again, all pretense of humility gone. "You gods interfere with each other whenever you have anything to gain, you do it all the time!"

Ares bit his lower lip in a pained expression of false regret. "I guess you’re right. But I don’t have anything to gain here now, do I?"

"Ares, you bastard," the warrior growled, the only human who would dare speak this way. When she turned back to him, there were tears threatening to spill from her eyes but she had regained the silent composure that made soldiers of her type lethal. "Then just answer some questions. Please." Silence reigned as she mustered her strength. "Callisto said I made a wish. You heard it?"

"Oh yeah: loud and clear." The god was amused, but his answer cast the warrior’s gaze downward with difficult breathing, and it was a moment before she spoke again.

"Did...did I wish that?" she uttered quietly.

Ares looked on her for several minutes, on the self-loathing that lay just beneath the surface of the high cheekbones and perfect skin and deceptive beauty. "Do you really want to know the answer to that question, Xena?" he spoke, eyebrow arched high over the black eye.

The breath she’d been holding escaped, audibly, leaving her mouth open in its wake, her eyes closed against the horror of the implied revelation. Her body sunk in upon itself, the strong shoulders folding. "Never mind." It was nearly a whisper, devoid of all energy. She turned and walked away, no care given to the god at her back.

He watched her go, finally beaten, but couldn’t resist. "Don’t you have one more question, Xena? Don’t you want to ask me where Gabrielle is?" But she didn’t turn back and he found this perfectly gleeful.

Chapter 7

"Callisto!" Zeus’ thunderous bellow shook the walls of Olympia.

The beckoned goddess, high in the upper balcony seats of lesser powers, threw a haughty smile at the condemning looks she received from the gods that surrounded her. She vanished, then reappeared on the forum floor before Zeus, curtsying lavishly, a child’s sweet smile smeared across her face. She pointedly ignored the goddess of love beside her, causing Aphrodite’s temper to flare predictably at the insult with an angry toss of her golden curls.

Zeus regarded the new goddess with parental disapproval. "Callisto, you’ve been summoned to answer a charge by Aphrodite of interfering with her duties to answer a mortal’s plea. As you all know," and he addressed not only the two gods before him but the whole audience of powers, "both parties will have a chance to speak, then you will advise me with your vote. If we decide that there has been an infraction, I will then decide on a suitable punishment." He turned to the perfectly-coifed goddess. "Aphrodite, you speak first."

"I just have one point: this is really going to ruin my rep."

Zeus looked tired. "Callisto. How do you defend your actions?"

The blond warrior-goddess smiled sweetly. "I maintain that I did nothing wrong. I held to the letter of the code." She turned to address the disapproving murmurs sweeping across the celestial audience. "We all heard Xena, didn’t we? ‘I wish I could be inside her,’ she prayed. That’s what I gave her, the chance to experience that mortal penetration. Aphrodite turned that chore over to me, and I fulfilled it. No one can deny that. So what am I being charged with here? Plainly, my delivery device is what’s disapproved of. And why? Tell me, who here has not listened to prayer after prayer that included the name Xena? Any one of you? Xena, Warrior Princess. Xena, Destroyer of Nations. Xena, Corrupter of Youth. Xena, Bringer of Death. Xena, Terror of Cirra!" With the last alias, her voice rose to a piercing hysterical pitch that penetrated every inch of Olympia. "None of you! I know because I prayed to all of you! All of you!" Her eyes flew to each pair that looked back at her, and they dropped under her accusation. "But none of you intervened. None of you could be bothered to keep Xena from violating Cirra, from murdering my family. We all know what lies in her heart. We know what her spirit wants: to ravage, to dominate. You watched her do it to me, to my family, to my whole village. And to countless others. How many of you still listen to pleas for revenge against her? But have you ever called her to justice for your worshipers? No. And yet now you would rush to condemn me for turning her black heart back upon itself? I did nothing wrong. Nothing. I only did what one of you should have done years ago."

A deep silence followed the last echoes of her speech. Then Zeus stood and cleared his throat. "Olympia, what say you? Let those who think Callisto’s actions deserve Olympia’s censure raise their hands." In front of him, Aphrodite’s exquisite wrist bore her hand up. Zeus turned his clear eyes to every shadowed corner of the great hall; gods and goddesses shifted uncomfortably in their stone chairs, but their hands remained anchored in their laps. As his eyes finished their round, they settled back on Aphrodite, who had seen it all as well. Her hand slipped down to her side, her lips pursing in a pout. "Aphrodite, Callisto...Olympia has spoken, and I see no compelling reason to override this overwhelming decision. Callisto, you’re free to go. Aphrodite, this matter is over." He turned back to the hall. "This matter is decided by the Olympic Body. Let no god take action on it henceforth. You are all free to go."

One by one, the bodies that filled the great hall blinked out.

 

Chapter 8

The sky was clear and intensely blue, falling away from the rocky hilltop; the afternoon sun bore down. The warrior lay on the hill’s crest. She had mounted the summit after walking blindly for two days and lain down. The few people she had encountered on her way cleared a wide path, alarmed by the dead look in her eyes, the sword hanging loosely in her hand; mother’s tucked their children behind them and watched the directionless warrior move by, warily. Now, the warrior’s eyes were wide and open and blue like the sky, but like her mind, they were blank. And still she lay.

"You’re never going to find him like this." The baritone filled the air.

Xena did not flinch as the mammoth warrior appeared at her feet; her eyes did not go to him.

"You’re getting soft, Xena," he said smugly. "I’ve been here for hours without you detecting me."

Still no response.

Ares frowned. "The longer you lie here, the further he gets, Xena. You remember him, don’t you? The man that satisfied himself with your little sidekick? He’s out bragging to his buddies about his latest conquest right now, and here you are, taking a rest."

A fly landed on Xena’s cheek, but her skin did not twitch. Ares watched as it rubbed its hairy legs together endlessly, standing nervously on the once-perfect skin that was reddening from overexposure to the sun. The god spun on his heel and began to pace, glaring down at the nonresponsive warrior.

"What’s wrong with you!" he exploded, finally. "What are you doing! You’re giving up? Like this? You’re pathetic!"

The warrior’s eyelids blinked slowly, but her eyes remained unfocused. The fly took to the air again.

Ares bent down and grabbed the warrior’s arm, pulling her to him, a rag doll in his grasp. Her gaze washed across him briefly, but dropped away. "We’ll see," Ares whispered threateningly, and they were gone from the hilltop.

Chapter 9

The warrior regarded the loud, smoky tavern without interest. Ares whispered harshly in her ear, "There he is," before shoving her toward the bar and the backs of three dark-clad men that perched on stools there, laughing and talking boisterously.

"Oh, they’re better when they fight back!" one was saying, as the warrior was pushed into earshot. "The honey’s all the sweeter if the bee’s got a good sting, eh!" he said as he touched his purple, swollen eye gingerly. The trio laughed, and one pounded the back of the speaker as they raised their mugs.

The sapphire eyes sharpened; the sensitive nose twitched at the familiar smell.

"You’re a regular bee charmer then!" his companion said, and again the men laughed. "You’ll have to tell us where you’ve got your honey pot stashed! I think we should go back and take another dip!" They roared their delight.

"Oh, you’d like this one, too, Badrius, she’s just your type: a nice little blondie with perky little tits and the body of an Amazon, I’ll tell you that. And she wiggled just like a cat, too, trying to get away, the dumb...agh!" he cried, swiveling away from them.

At his back, his companion’s watched in dumb bewilderment as he rose from his stool, slowly, whimpering; their eyes grew wide as their companion rose higher, off his feet and up into the air. The warrior became apparent then, the man paralyzed above her head, one muscled hand clenched at his groin, the other at this throat. She slammed him onto the nearest table by his twisted genitals, drinks and seated patrons alike flying away from the impact.

The warrior bent low to the stunned man, their noses touching, and whispered, "Do you remember how it felt when you were inside her? Because that’s how it feels for me to do this."

The sight of the dagger slicing through his pants beat the sensation to his brain. By the time the horrified scream could wrench itself from his throat, the warrior was ramming his severed genitalia into his mouth, stifling it. The man clawed at his mouth, choking on the flesh, blood and vomit that clogged the orifice. Onlookers watched in shock.

The warrior turned away and walked to the god of war; he smiled silently in a dark corner. "Now take me back to where you found me," she said.

With a sultry smile, he obliged her.

Chapter 10

At the top of the hill again, the god of war bellowed with rage as the warrior turned away from his welcoming embrace and lay back down, closing her eyes to him.

Chapter 11

"Uh-hem."

Gabrielle whirled at the clearing throat, her hope of the warrior’s reappearance failed. "Aphrodite?"

The goddess lowered herself onto the blanket besides Gabrielle, reclining against an elbow. "Yeah, it’s me, Gabrielle. How are you?"

The bard looked away to the treeline. "Well, you know..." Her words trailed off meaningfully. She’d returned to their campsite after her head had cleared, but Xena was gone. She’d waited, her eyes returning to the spot, the hateful memories surfacing, but then she’d beat them away. And wait. As the days passed, she wondered how she would know if Xena were never coming back.

Aphrodite nodded in the silence that followed. "Gabrielle...sensitive talk isn’t really my thing, but I thought since all this did kind of start with me, I should come down here and explain things."

The bard looked at her blankly.

Aphrodite sighed. "Well, it’s, like, a long story," she said, and began.

Chapter 12

"Xena?"

The warrior’s eyes fluttered open. The harsh light of the sun blinded her, searing her eyes as it sizzled along her skin. Then an eclipse, and the outline of the bard’s face appeared, her tear-stained skin and swollen eyes developing slowly through the darkness.

"Xena, it’s me. I know what happened, and it’s okay, it wasn’t your fault."

The warrior’s starved body spasmed with sobs, her tears leaching away precious fluids. "Gabrielle..."

The bard cupped the warrior’s face, tenderly. "I’m sorry I ran away, Xena, but I just kept thinking, Why didn’t Xena help me? Why didn’t Xena help me?" The large eyes hovered over the warrior, pitifully. "Why didn’t you help me, Xena?"

A faint moan escaped the warrior’s throat. "I’m so sorry, Gabrielle...I’m so sorry..."

"But then Callisto told me what happened, what she’d done. She explained that it was really you inside him." The bard’s eyelids dropped coyly. "I’m so sorry I was a tease all these years, Xena. But you could’ve had me anytime you wanted." She leaned in, moistening her lips and pressing them against the warrior’s, lightly, lingeringly. "Fuck me now," she breathed into the kiss.

The warrior pulled away sharply, her hand fluttering up to cover the bard’s mouth. "No," she said. "No..."

Plump teardrops flooded the hazel-green eyes, and the lips trembled. "Don’t you want me anymore, Xena? Wasn’t I good enough?"

"Gabrielle, no!" the warrior cried in abhorrence.

Beneath the warrior’s hand, the lips parted; laughter slipped out, the bard’s head tossed back with mirth. The neat copper hair and sweet, girlish face slid into something harder, and Callisto’s features set.

The goddess pressed one hand down upon the warrior’s chest firmly, quashing her forceless attempt to roll away. "Oh, don’t leave on my account, Xena."

The pinned warrior gasped, the hand on her weakened chest like lead. "You’re not Gabrielle," she sputtered.

The goddess leveled an amused look at her. "Keen observation, Xena. Disappointed? I thought for a second there you’d take me up on the offer. It’s what you’ve dreamed of all these years, isn’t it, that your sweet, little girl would offer herself up to you like a ripe plum, begging you to sink your teeth in? You can tell me, Xena, that’s really the dream that awakens you, isn’t it? And your cries are moans of pleasure, aren’t they? Calling it a nightmare...now that’s brilliant. What better way to trick the little prude into wrapping her arms around you, pressing her body to you, hmmm?" Callisto cocked her head, watching her words permeate the warrior. "Too bad you couldn’t limit your dreaming to nighttime..."

The warrior closed her eyes, turning her head from the goddess. She maintained a pained silence.

Callisto’s malicious enjoyment softened, a cloud casting a fleeting shadow over her face; her hand relaxed, resting lightly now on the warrior’s chest.

Moments passed.

The warrior’s voice rattled in her chest. "Enough. You won."

Sadness crept into Callisto’s eyes. "Poor Xena...wouldn’t it have been nice for you if the simple act of being good had appeased the gods the same way it drove away the monsters our parents used to threaten us with? But we’re not kids anymore, are we?"

"Please, Callisto..."

The goddess brushed away the matted black bangs that clung, raggedly, to the warrior’s forehead; she pressed a tender kiss there. The sapphire eyes opened and watched, and the warrior felt oddly soothed.

"You don’t have to go this way...I could make it quick." Callisto was standing over the warrior now, acknowledging the small shake of the head that was the answer; the warrior’s eyes were blinking shut as she drifted into unconsciousness.

"Goodbye, Xena," Callisto whispered. As she vanished, a single, glimmering tear fell to the earth.

Chapter 13

The horse galloped furiously, sleek with strained sweat. Atop her, Gabrielle clung to the elongated pommel, trying to force her legs, back and shoulders to relax into the horse’s rhythm. The hair on the back of her neck stiffened suddenly and rose, as the beating hooves doubled and the warhorse swerved briefly in alarm before returning and holding the course; at her left shoulder was Callisto, riding effortlessly.

"Hello, Gabrielle." Callisto smiled.

Gabrielle gripped the saddle horn even more tightly, bracing herself against a blow, but none came. "What do you want, Callisto?" she asked through clenched teeth.

The petite warrior-goddess gave a small laugh. "Well, I hardly know what to want these days. That’s the awful thing about an obsession...when it’s gone, so’s everything." She looked contemplative for a moment before the smile crept back onto her face. "But I’m sure I’ll find something to do. You, for instance, used to be just the means to Xena’s end, but lately I’ve found that torturing you is so much fun." Her smile glittered. "It could almost make life without my Warrior Princess worth living. In fact, I was thinking that once Xena’s gone, we should see a lot more of each other, Gabrielle. You could come be my companion. You’ve been working out, don’t think I haven’t noticed."

The breath caught in her throat, and Gabrielle pushed her knees in tighter, desperately urging the warrior’s horse to increase its speed.

The goddess gave another bubbling laugh. "You’re right, it’s best to hurry. She’s still alive...I can feel her...but I’m afraid my little visit only hastened her demise. It’s true what they say, after all: one shouldn’t upset someone in such a delicate condition. But I would never have forgiven myself for not saying goodbye."

Between her legs, Gabrielle felt the saddle-width expand as the horse miraculously increased its speed. She smiled, exhilarated, as they pulled away from the goddess and her mount; she leaned in to Argo’s neck as they flew down the road, a stream of dust marking their passage.

Callisto reigned her horse in, impervious to the dust swirling around them. "Ta-ta, Gabrielle," she called after the bard, effervescently. "I’ll be seeing you soon."

Chapter 14

Almost to the top of the steep, craggy hill, Gabrielle could make out the angry vulture heads bobbing. She broke into a run, shouting and waving her arms. The large birds, having been biding their time, were reluctant to give up their positions and were slow to respond to the frantic bard’s threats; they turned in unison and eyed her approach. As the bard crested the hill, she faltered; the deep breath she took in preparation for another yelling assault filled her lungs with stench-laden air. Hand to her mouth, she retched, but swallowed the bile back down. She continued her attack, tossing stones and verbal missiles at the obstinate birds until the last one grudgingly beat its wide expanse of wings and lifted off.

She shrugged off her bag and braced herself before looking. "Oh gods, Xena, what have you done..."

Skin was stretched tightly across the warrior’s frame and bubbled with blisters; the once-full lips were dry and cracked, crusty residue built up at their corners and around the flat and unfocused sapphire eyes; the raven hair lay dirty, dry and sparse against the scalp; the warrior’s breathing was shallow and rattled.

Fighting back panic, the young woman whistled, summoning the warrior’s horse. She quickly pulled down the water skin and poured some water over a rag she took from her bag, drenching it. She bent and gently cradled the warrior’s head in her lap, squeezing slow drops into the parted, broken lips, closing her own nasal passages against the noxious smells of urine and excrement; she waved the flies away.

The pupils constricted and fixed on the bard’s eyes, then drifted away again, the warrior turning her head from the water, weakly.

"Xena, please..." The bard nudged the emaciated warrior’s head back toward her and let more water fall, but again, the warrior turned away. "What do you want me to do, let you kill yourself?" the bard spoke with a forced lightheartedness.

The almost imperceptible nod choked explosive sobs from the bard. "Xena, don’t you leave me now!" She clutched the warrior tightly in her lap, shaking her with bare restraint. "Don’t you leave me after all this! I need you, do you hear me! I need you!"

The warrior’s eyes rolled in her head at the assault, but there was neither a response nor defense.

The bard framed the warrior’s ravaged face with her small hands and leaned in close. "Look at me. You look at me!" She shook the warrior firmly until the eyes stopped their random movements and fixed on her, the pupils focusing and unfocusing, the warrior’s body hanging limply. "You are not going to die here, I’m not going to let you. I need you right now, and you owe me that, so you just hold on. You just hold on, Xena, I mean it! If you leave me now, gods help me, I will chase you down to Tartarus if I have to because I have something to tell you and you’re going to listen to me! Do you understand! You’re going to listen!" She lay the warrior’s head back down, then stood, motioning the horse onto its forelimbs and taking the pack and blankets off her; she coaxed Argo down onto her side, pulling the wasted warrior, alarmingly light, next to the horse’s warm belly before covering the warrior with the blanket. "You stay now, Argo, and keep her warm for me. I’m going to be right back," she murmured to the horse before running back down the hill in search of firewood.

 

Chapter 15

The sun blazed. Stars burned them with the night’s chill.

Gabrielle kept the fire going, combing the barren hill for anything that would burn. She used her body as additional warmth for the cold, helpless warrior when she was not dripping water down her throat or heating broth to gently nourish her or toweling her clean or sanitizing rags or reinforcing the hastily constructed lean-to.

Stars blazed.

 

Chapter 16

The slender woman was at the fire, stirring the gruel. Dark bags hung under the hazel-green eyes; a hand futilely wiped back wisps of reddish-gold hair that strayed around her face.

"Gabrielle."

She froze at the sound of the cracked voice, the first word she’d heard in days other than her cooing reassurances or mutterings to the horse. She turned.

The warrior’s eyes were averted, as she spoke deliberately and with effort. "I’m sorry, Gabrielle, for everything..." she croaked. "You said you wanted me to listen...I’m listening. Please tell me....then leave."

The bard closed her eyes against the words and took a steadying breath. "Xena... I’m not leaving you. And I’m not letting you die. Just get that through that thick head of yours, okay?" There was no answering smile, only silence, and Gabrielle knew the warrior was waiting, had been waiting, allowing Gabrielle to pull her back from death’s brink to indulge her wish to be heard, to fulfill the favor called in. But after this, there would be nothing to hold her, no more obligations. A vast space opened in the bard’s chest, swallowing up everything, every breath, and she felt time stop, everything listening, Fate’s blade pulled back after slicing through the first filament of Xena’s thread.

"I know why it happened, Xena," her voice carried off the hill, washed away by the wind, sprinkled over the fields, "...and I still love you."

The warrior’s wasted, dehydrated body wrung one tear from itself. It made its halting way through the sun-beaten creases of the battered face to stain the dirt beneath it.

"There were so many times I prayed you would put your arms around me, kiss me, but you always pushed me away, instead. Always kept me at arm’s distance. We could’ve been together so long ago, Xena, if only you hadn’t been so scared. Did you think you’d lose me if you told me how you felt? How could you doubt my devotion to you, Xena?"

"You left me once." The voice was brittle, quiet.

The bard looked down. "Yes, I did...but we all make mistakes, don’t we?"

Their eyes met, and there was sadness in the gaze, and pain, disappointment, vulnerability, and deafening yearning.

"I can’t bear to be around you...anymore, Gabrielle...I can’t bear...knowing what happened. But I can’t bear to be without you... That doesn’t leave...many choices..." The warrior’s voice trembled with the strain of consciousness and conscience, with exhaustion, both physical and mental.

"And what are my choices, Xena? Did you ever think about what I might’ve wanted, the risks I was willing to take? But I took the same risks anyway, just to be your friend."

"No, it’s different..."

"No, it’s not. And you’ve cheated me, Xena, cheated us both. We could’ve been happy so long ago, if only you’d risked something. Because it’s you that you’ve been protecting, Xena, not me. You. And you’re doing the same thing now."

"No. One day...you’ll understand. I love you, Gabrielle. I’ve never loved anyone more. But now...please leave." The warrior closed her eyes, wearily.

"I will never understand, Xena. Never," the bard spoke with profound sadness. "But I’m going to make my choice. My choice, and you’re going to have to accept it. I’m not letting you leave me, Xena. And if this is the way it has to be," her voice broke with sobs, "then so be it."

Through the heavy, frightened sobs, the scrape of a dagger exiting its shield whispered, and then a pained, anguished moan. It pulled the warrior back from the oblivion into which she’d been sinking, and her eyes flew open, slowly focusing. The bard was standing at her side, staring at the blood that poured from her wrist. She sat heavily, the dagger falling from her hand, her fingers trailing in the blood.

"No..." The warrior struggled against the sight and the heavy blankets that pinned her weak frame down. "No..." She pulled one shrunken arm free and clamped her bony hand around the bard’s wrist, blood slowly oozing from the seams of her fingers. Her eyes rose to the bard’s, panicked, but Gabrielle seemed calm.

"I’m going with you, Xena," she said, and her smile was beatific.

The warrior regarded her in horror. "No you aren’t, Gabrielle." Determination sounded through the cracked husk of her voice. She freed her other arm and took the fallen dagger, drawing it up through the bedding that still contained her, loosing herself and tearing a long swatch. She wrapped the rag around the wound, pulling it tight and keeping the limb raised. Her own arms trembled with the effort. Blood began seeping up into the bandage, spreading crimson blossoms across it. The warrior clamped both her hands around it and squeezed. Below her, the bard’s eyes fluttered, then closed. The warrior’s body vertical for the first time is nearly a week, it threatened to return to its horizontal state; around her, the blue sky swam.

 

Chapter 17

Slowly, the eyelids opened, the pupils focused, the surroundings were taken in. "Am I dead?"

"No, you’re not." From the fire, the haggard warrior turned with a strained smile. She walked slowly to the young woman’s side, bringing a cup of broth with her. "Have some of this," she said, kneeling carefully and raising the bard’s head onto one emaciated thigh where she could tilt the cup to the bard’s lips. A few drops of the golden liquid rolled down the bard’s chin as she withdrew the cup, and the warrior dabbed at them carefully.

"I’m so thirsty," the bard said.

"I’m sure. You lost quite a bit of blood." Xena drew the cup to her own lips, her arms shaky.

The bard looked around them, and it was indeed the same hill, the same lean-to, the same fire. "So we’re not dead..."

"Nope." The warrior brought the cup to the bard’s lips again, patiently wiping away more of the dribbled fluid. The bard’s hand on her arm stilled the attendant warrior. Their eyes locked.

"Are either of us dying?" the bard asked firmly.

Xena lowered the cup and looked away from the bard for a moment. "No. I don’t think either of us is," she answered.

The bard smiled and accepted the cup at her lips again, her hands around the warrior’s. The broth slipped down her throat, warm and soothing.

 

1998 Sonia C. Barrera All rights reserved.

Comments welcome: s_barrera@hotmail.com


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