Copyright: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, etc. are owned by MCA/Universal. I only borrowed them for a little while. No infringement was intended. The rest of the story is mine and I hold the copyright to it. Do not use any part of this story without my written permission. I may be contacted at IQ139@aol.com.
Sex: This story contains scenes of two women making love. <smile> If this offends you, please dont read my story. There are plenty of other wonderful stories out there.
Violence: There are graphic scenes of violence within this story.
For M.P. and V.F. - You two are the best.
by B L Miller
Sysiphus smiled as he watched Charon's boat ferry across the river Styx as it had done so many times before, bringing people into the underworld for Hades to judge and send to either the Elyssian Fields or Tartarus. The king had long ago found a secret tunnel that led to the edge of the river. He of course had been sentenced to the fiery realm because of his attempt to kill Hades' sister Celesta, not to mention his attempt overthrow the God of War. Soon his wife Queen Karis would be arriving, no doubt judged by Hades to go to the Elyssian Fields. Karis, who betrayed him to Xena, who helped to release Celesta from his trap and cause his own death. She would go where he could not. "We'll see about that." he grumbled angrily. The key to entering the underworld was getting across the river Styx and the only way to do that was by paying the one dinar fee to Charon and riding across on his boat. The solution was so simple that Sysiphus couldn't believe he hadn't thought of it before. Charon only allowed passengers to enter the Underworld, not leave it, but if someone else controlled his ferry . The former King of Corinth and master magician studied the gnarled up ferryman carefully. He was the key to everything.
"All aboard, have your dinars ready." Charon said in a bored tone. He took the dinars and put them in his pouch. He never could spend them, there was no place in the Underworld in which dinars were of any use. Still, he couldn't allow people to just cross the River Styx without paying something. He had long ago secured a pouch that seemingly held only four dinars, yet whenever those dinars were removed, four more appeared. One day in boredom Charon had sat on the riverbank and tried to see how many dinars actually were in his pouch. When the pile grew higher than he was tall, the grotesque looking ferryman gave up. Suffice it to say that he had more dinars than he could ever hope to spend. He sighed and took another dinar from the newly departed. Day in, day out, shuttling souls across for Hades, at least it was steady work. Charon was exactly what one would expect in one of Hades' henchmen. His face was a pale white in stark contrast to the black of his lips and around his colorless eyes. Long dark nappy hair hung down from his head. Gnarled fingers gripped the pole that helped him push the boat from one side to the other. His back was hunched slightly, giving him a bent over appearance. The sight of him alone was enough to scare most good people into waiting several days before stepping on the boat and making the journey to meet Hades. Charon had a bit of a mean streak in him and often would deliberately scare small children just to see their reaction, much to his master's dismay. The God of the Underworld had lost track of how many times he had spoken to Charon about his attitude toward his customers. One woman stepped on the boat and tried to nonchalantly slip in with the crowd. "Wait a moment there, where's your dinar?"
"I I'm afraid we're very poor, my family couldn't afford to send a dinar with me." she said apologetically, hoping to appeal to his non-existent good side.
"No dinar, no ride. Go on now, haunt your family until they give you a dinar. I have paying customers to attend to." he said brusquely.
"B-but what if they can never spare a dinar for me?" she said, almost sobbing.
"Then I guess you never get to cross the river, now do you?" he sneered. "Now get off my boat." he chuckled evilly as the now sobbing woman disembarked and a paying customer stepped on. "Ah, that's a good man. Take a seat." he pushed against his pole and sent the boat into motion across the murky depths of the river Styx.
Charon watched the last customer step off his boat and reached for his pole to make a return trip when he saw Sysiphus step onto his vessel. "No passengers." he barked.
"Ah, Charon, my good man. How are you today?" the tall king said as he approached the much smaller ferryman.
"Well, if you really care to know, my corns are aching and my hemorrhoids are acting up again. Do you think Hades would give me a vacation, even one lousy sick day? No, of course not. 'Just keep the boat moving' he says. Bah, let him do this day in and day out and see how much he likes it."
"If you'd like a break I'm sure one can be arranged." the grey haired king said solicitously. "I'd be happy to take over for you for a day or so until you're feeling better."
"No thanks, Hades would have my head if I left this boat. Besides, what are you doing this far out of Tartarus? Planning on stealing Ares sword again?"
"Oh no, I'd never dare do that again. I have a much better goal now." he opened his hand and flung a powder into Charon's face, blinding the ferryman. "Like this."
Sysiphus pushed the boat upstream, away from the crowds of people waiting to cross over. He settled on a small inlet and dragged the blinded ferryman behind him. He came upon a wall that appeared to be smoother than the rest and felt along it until he found the long hidden switch. As expected, the wall opened to reveal a portal to the Overworld of the mortals. "Out you go." he said, shoving the screaming ferryman through the portal. In a flash Sysiphus closed the wall and sealed it with magic to keep it closed, thus preventing Charon from re-entering. "Now Hades, let's see just how powerful you really are." the king said menacingly as he climbed back into the boat and returned to the edge of Tartarus. He had a lot of work to do before the God of the Underworld discovered what had happened.
Xena felt the hoofbeats long before she heard them and was up with weapons drawn, nudging the bard awake from her space on the opposite side of the fire. "What?" Gabrielle said, annoyed that her peaceful dream had been interrupted by her friend.
"We've got company coming. I thought you might want to be awake." the warrior replied, her eyes searching for the first sign of the approaching rider. The bard was on her feet immediately, staff in hand.
"Sounds like a lot of them."
"Two horses, one chariot." Xena said casually.
"Figures you'd know that. Can you tell what color they are too, oh woman of great hearing?" the bard teased.
"How did oh." Gabrielle got her answer when she saw the horses break through the brush and come to a stop. Argo whinnied and frantically pulled on her reins, trying to break free from the branch where Xena had tethered her.
"You can put your staff down, Gabrielle. It won't do you any good." the warrior said, sheathing her sword. "Hello Hades, what brings you up here to bother us today?"
The god removed his helmet and smiled at the mortals. "Ah Xena, how I've missed you." he stepped off the chariot and walked over to their campfire, settling himself on a log. Xena motioned for Gabrielle to sit next to her on the ground on the opposite side.
"What do you need?" the warrior asked, not at all happy that her sleep was interrupted by the handsome God of the Underworld. "Don't tell me Celesta has been kidnapped again."
"No, it's not something that simple." he sighed, running his hand through his dirty blond hair. The two mortals exchanged worried glances, if he was calling the abduction of his sister trivial than this was really a large problem. "It seems that Sysiphus has kicked Charon out of the Underworld. Don't ask me how he did it, but I've looked everywhere and can't find him."
"Who's running the ferry?" Gabrielle asked.
"That's the problem. Sysiphus has not only taken control of the boat, but he's figured out a way to get people out of Tartarus. He's transporting them back across the river Styx."
"Oh no. You mean he's letting them back out here?" she gave Xena a worried glance.
"Worse than that, little storyteller. He's only letting certain ones out. He won't transport the dead over for me to judge and he's letting out those that have met their death at Xena's hands."
"But once they step back here, don't they become mortal again? Can't your sister touch them and send them back?" Xena asked.
"No. Celesta can only touch them once unless there's a new reason. In other words, they'd have to be killed again for her to take them. Do you have any idea how many men we're talking about, not to mention the occasional woman?" he shook his head in disbelief. "Even if they all were killed again, without Charon to ferry them across the river, they'd just find their way back out here."
"You're a god, you can't find him?" the bard asked, trying hard not to think about all the men that would love to get revenge on her best friend for sending them to Tartarus.
"I have no power up here. I can't find him and the other gods aren't much help either. He's a twisted little version of a man with the most sarcastic mouth I've ever heard. I don't understand why he'd be so hard to find."
"He sure would stand out in a crowd. What makes you think we can help?" Xena asked, although she already knew the answer.
"I'm sure the first thing those people will do once they're free is seek you out for revenge. I need you to kill them again and send them back down but you also have to find Charon."
"So hundreds of angry men are going to be after me and you want me to look for some stupid little ferryman?"
"Don't forget the women too, Xena." Gabrielle reminded her, drawing an annoyed glare from the warrior.
"You're the only one I can turn to." Hades explained. "I know that you'll come into contact with the released residents of Tartarus, but you're also the only one who could possibly find Charon for me. I'm afraid that once he has a taste of the Overworld again that he won't want to come back and that he may even go into hiding. You need to find him and fast. The dead souls are piling up on the side of the river and it won't be much longer before I have to ask Celesta to stop touching them until there's more room. As it is she's only visiting those who are certain to be sentenced to Tartarus. I figure there's no harm in letting the good citizens live a while longer, but that can only go on for so long as well. Xena, I really need your help in this." he pleaded. "Don't forget that I judged Marcus twice and your judgment is still to come."
"Don't hold my afterlife over me, Hades." the warrior warned. "I'll help you, you don't need to threaten me."
"I'm sorry, Xena. I don't mean to be like this, but you have to understand just how important it is that we find Charon and soon. I know you're putting yourself in danger but there really is no other choice." he stood. "I appreciate what you're going to do, Xena, and I haven't forgotten how you helped Celesta. I will remember all of this when it comes time for your own judgment." he climbed aboard his chariot and the black horses took off at a breakneck pace through the brush, leaving behind only dust in their wake.
"This isn't good, is it?" Gabrielle said as she gripped her staff a little tighter.
"Only if you consider having a few hundred of your worst enemies being let loose upon you good." Xena quipped. At that moment a horrid thought came to her. She turned and put her hand on the bard's shoulder. "Gabrielle, I think you should go visit the Amazons or your family for a while, at least until this is over." she held up her hand to quiet the protest she knew was coming. "Some of these people don't know who you are but some do. They know you're with me and that makes you a target for them. I can't take the chance that one of them will try to exact revenge on me through you."
"You can't take the chance? Xena, we've been through this before. I chose to follow you and I still choose to do so. I know the risks." she said firmly.
"Do you? Gabrielle, there's no telling how many of them have been let out or how many will find me at once. I'm good but if there are too many of them, you being there isn't going to make a difference except that it'll guarantee your own death. I don't need that on my conscience."
"Oh and leaving you to face them all alone is supposed to make me feel good?" her green eyes flashed with barely controlled anger. "Xena, we're friends. We stick by each other. That's what friends do."
"Gabrielle, it's just too dangerous, don't you understand that?" faces flashed through Xena's mind of those she had killed and she held genuine fear for her friend's safety. Any number of them wouldn't hesitate to cut the bard down if they knew how important she was to the warrior. Xena knew deep inside that she'd never survive if anything happened to Gabrielle, especially if it was because of her.
"I can't just walk away, Xena. Don't you understand that?" she countered. "If you don't let me come with you then I'll just follow you like I did before. You can't stop me. Please Xena, it's just too important." she pleaded, putting all her emotions into her words.
Xena walked away and sat down on the log, her gaze centered on the ground. Gabrielle remained where she was, understanding the warrior's need to have a moment to work things out for herself. Xena picked up a stick and mindlessly drew random patterns in the soft dirt. This was bad, very bad indeed. It wasn't just a case of the dregs of society being released from Tartarus, it was the dregs that had personal vendettas against her. How could she protect innocent lives, and herself for that matter, while worrying about Gabrielle's safety? She had no doubt that the bard meant what she said about following her. The young woman was nothing if not tenacious about being with her. She continued to absently dig into the dirt with the stick as every worst possible scenario played out in her mind. And to top it off, she had to find that weasel of a ferryman or they would just come back after her again and again, not to mention dealing with Sysiphus. Xena tossed the stick in the fire, frustrated with the hopelessness of the situation. She needed time to think, time to plan, time which wasn't available. The crack of a twig nearby brought her head up and she realized that time had just run out.
Xena jumped to her feet and drew her sword, silently pleased that the bard had apparently heard the same sound and was in a defensive stance, staff at the ready. "Well well, Xena, it seems we meet yet again." Toxeus sneered. "Perhaps this time it will be you who gets sent to Tartarus."
"Don't count on it, dead man." the warrior growled, her eyes narrowing.
"A little overconfident, aren't we, Xena?" her head jerked to the left to see Dagnine break through the brush. "You don't have a village of Centaurs at your back to protect you this time."
"Big words for a little man." she retorted, her right hand reaching for her chakram as she mentally calculated the angles needed to take both men out at once. Just as she wrapped her fingers around the edge of the metal disc, eight more well armed men appeared behind Toxeus and a dozen behind Dagnine.
Gabrielle moved closer to the warrior. "This isn't good, is it?" she whispered.
"Nope. Not good at all."
"Run." leaving their belongings scattered about the campsite, the two women took off, Gabrielle running past Argo to reach the road while Xena jerked the horse's reins free of the branch and leapt into the saddle. As she approached the bard, she held her arm out, scooping the smaller woman up behind her. "Hiyah!" Argo took off as if the four horsemen of doom were at her back, leaving behind only a trail of dust for the men to try and follow.
"You can run, but you can't hide, Xena!" Toxeus yelled to the rapidly retreating form. "We're nothing but a small fraction of the souls looking for your blood! Soon all of Greece will be filled with us and we'll only have one thing on our minds...your death!" he broke into a sinister laugh that was echoed by his comrades.
It was almost two candlemarks before Xena felt safe enough to stop and let Argo take a short rest. She dismounted and helped the bard down before leading the horse to the small stream to take a small drink. The warrior turned to see Gabrielle standing there, gingerly rubbing her sore rear. "Problem?" she quirked.
"Oh no, Xena. I love bouncing up and down on the edge of Argo's saddle for a couple of candlemarks without a break." she said sarcastically.
"You know there are women who do like to bounce up and down on a saddle." she let the corner of her lip turn up in a grin. Gabrielle looked at her and raised one eyebrow in her best imitation of the warrior's trademark look.
"Well, it's true."
"I'm sure it is but I'm also sure that they weren't being chased by a bunch of undead killers bent on revenge." she said as she pulled the waterskin off the saddlehorn and took a long swallow.
"No, their motivations are quite different." the warrior quipped, drawing a chuckle from the bard.
"You know, sometimes you are just plain wicked." Gabrielle said with a smile as she handed the waterskin to her friend.
"I know, it's part of my charm." she looked around carefully, not wanting to be surprised again. "I think we can take a break here for a little while. Those men are on foot and Argo does need a rest."
"She's not the only one." the bard said, reaching back to rub her rear again. Xena chuckled and wrapped her arm around the smaller woman's shoulders in a friendly hug.
"I think I saw some berries over there. You go collect them while I walk Argo to cool her down after that hard ride. We'll rest here for a little bit but then we have to get going. The sooner we find Charon the sooner we'll be able to put everything back to order in the Underworld."
"I guess that means I get to come along, huh?" she asked, her green eyes twinkling as she looked up at her tall friend.
"Like there was ever a choice for me, my little shadow." outwardly the warrior smiled but inwardly she was filled with a gnawing fear that she was making the wrong decision.
Charon stumbled aimlessly through the winding hills and valleys until he came upon a small village near the shore. As he drew closer he saw a group of men huddled near the side of a building, placing bets on the roll of the dice. The smell of stale, unwashed bodies and overabundance of ale permeated his senses. "Ah, my kind of place." he said happily, fingering the dinars in his pouch. He wormed his way into the group and played for a while before deciding that dice games were too slow for his taste and he went off in search of more interesting action. It wasn't long before he found the tavern. "The largest mug of port you have." he said to the barkeep, pulling two dinars out of his pouch and laying them on the counter. "And keep it coming. I have a feeling I'll be here for a while." he said as he spied a group of card players huddled around a corner table. "Definitely my kind of place."
Charon ambled over to the table and sat down at the empty chair. "Deal me in, boys."
"You have money?" the dealer asked, his tone indicating that he didn't believe the pasty white man had a dinar to his name.
"No, I figured I'd use carrots to bet with." the ferryman said sarcastically. "Of course I have money." he turned to look at the man on his right. "Next thing you know he'll be asking me if I know how to play cards. I wasn't born yesterday. In fact, I just celebrated my six hundred fifty-first birthday recently." the men exchanged glances, certain that they were dealing with a nutcase. "What? You don't believe me?"
"Doesn't matter what we believe." the man across the table said. "Put your dinars on the table and you can stay, otherwise go away."
"Well, aren't we the sociable bunch?" Charon tossed a coin on the wooden surface. "Deal em, boys, I feel lucky today."
The cool dark night made Xena even more uneasy than before. With untold numbers of people after her blood, the warrior knew that sleep was out of the question. It took a great deal of effort just to convince Gabrielle to try and rest. There was no fire to keep them warm, the danger of it being spotted was too great. Instead Xena pulled her blanket alongside the bard's and curled up against her until the younger woman was completely asleep. Only then did she move away and position herself against the trunk of a large tree, Gabrielle in her sights. Xena let her right hand rest against her chakram, taking comfort in the feel of the cool metal against her fingertips. Her ears were attuned to the sounds of the night life in the surrounding forest. She knew without question just how many squirrels, rabbits, and other assorted creatures were roaming about. She left nothing to chance. If it was just her own safety she was worried about, Xena would have curled up and gone to sleep a long time ago, trusting her inner senses to warn her of any danger. This time was different. She couldn't take the chance of someone keeping her too busy to protect Gabrielle. The bard slept far too soundly to notice if the camp was overrun with the undead until it was too late. No, she would lie awake and maintain her vigil over her sleeping friend.
Friend what an inadequate word to describe what Gabrielle meant to her. Xena wished she possessed the bard's flair for finding just the right words to express how she felt. At one time the young woman was little more than an annoyance, a stranger. Now Xena couldn't imagine life without her. It pained her deeply to see Gabrielle marry Perdicus, to be filled with grief after his death, to suffer endless nightmares where she relived his murder over and over. Those nights all Xena could do was hold the trembling bard and stroke her hair while the tears fell. How she wished at those times that she knew the right words to say to ease her friend's pain, but those words never came. No, she was a fighter, not a comforter. That was Gabrielle's job. She was the one who knew just the right things to say to make everything seem better. So many times Xena felt herself slipping back into the darkness only to have the strength of the bard's words and feelings pull her back. Many times the warrior wondered why Gabrielle chose to stay with her. At first Xena thought it was for the excitement, for a way out of the boring life of Poteidaia. But why now? Now the bard was older, more self-assured, a woman and not a child. Xena looked at the sleeping form again. Yes, definitely a woman. A woman who willingly put herself in danger to be with a former warlord. "What do you see in me?" she asked the softly snoring bard. "What do you see that I don't? I look and see a murderer who can never atone for all the pain and suffering I've caused. How can you see something different?"
Gabrielle rolled over and flopped her arm over the empty blanket next to her, sighing in sleepy disappointment. A moment later Xena heard the almost inaudible whimper followed by the bard curling up into a ball. The warrior recognized it for what it was, another one of Gabrielle's nightmares. She immediately was at the bard's side, wrapping her arms around the smaller woman and whispering nonsense words into her ear. Xena waited for the sounds she usually heard from Gabrielle when she was reliving Perdicus' death, words like 'No Callisto' and 'Perdicus, look out!', but those words never came. It wasn't long before the warrior realized that this wasn't the bard's usual night terror. This nightmare was new and with a few short words she realized just what was scaring Gabrielle so much. 'Xena, look out! Nooooo!'
"Gabrielle Gabrielle, I'm here. Shh, it's okay shh." she began a rocking motion that coupled with her comforting tones seemed to calm the bard down. Xena felt the younger woman's body relax against her and released a deep breath, thinking the worst was over. Usually once she got Gabrielle calmed down that was it for the night. It wouldn't be the case this time. Within a few moments the bard was moaning and thrashing about again, repeating Xena's name over and over in such a pained tone that it tore at the warrior's heart. Unable to figure out any other way to help ease her friend's torment, Xena forcibly rolled Gabrielle over and pulled her tight against her body. "I'm right here, Gabrielle I'm right here I'm not hurt shh it's okay " she kissed the bard's forehead while running her hand up and down the younger woman's back. With the most heart-wrenching cry that Xena had ever heard, Gabrielle scared herself awake. She forcibly pushed herself away from the strong arms and forced herself into a sitting position. "Gabrielle it's all right. It was just a bad dream. Everything's fine." disoriented and frightened, Gabrielle needed to verify that her nightmare wasn't real, that Xena wasn't dead. She reached out and put her hand on the warrior's neck, trying to reconcile the smooth, unbroken skin with the horrid vision in her mind. Unsure of what to do or say, Xena laid perfectly still and let the frightened woman verify for herself that the sword wounds in her mind's eye weren't real. Gabrielle's hand traveled lower, slipping just beneath the edge of the leathers until it rested just above Xena's heart. Her fingers laid flat, feeling the steady heartbeat beneath them. It took several such heartbeats before reality finally overrode the vivid nightmare.
"Oh Xena " she sobbed, throwing her arms around the warrior and burying her head against the crook of the older woman's neck. "It was so real it was just so real " her words became muffled and she gave up all thought of speech, letting her tears roll down to soak Xena's skin.
"Okay now I've got you." she wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and held her tight, letting her fingers stroke the golden hair. "I'm all right I'm not hurt .it's okay." she resumed the earlier rocking motion while continuing to provide the much needed comfort. Gabrielle continued to cry until the sobs gave way to hiccups and sniffles. Still she refused to let go, afraid that what she felt wasn't real and unwilling to take the chance. Xena continued to softly coo and reassure the bard until she felt the breathing slow and deepen. Only when she was certain that Gabrielle was once again asleep did she roll their bodies until the bard was laying on her back. Propped up on one elbow, the warrior used her thumb to wipe away the tears that remained on Gabrielle's cheeks. Xena thought about moving back to her position against the tree but found herself unable to leave the bard's side. She shifted slightly to get more comfortable and soon fell asleep. Sometime during the night, Gabrielle rolled over and draped her arm and leg over the warrior, unconsciously needing the physical comfort. In response, the sleeping warrior's arms found their way around the younger woman's body, intertwining them in a way they both needed but never dared ask for.
"Wimps, you're all a bunch a wimps." Charon said as he scooped his dinars up and tossed them in his pouch. "Why, the sun isn't even up yet and look at you all, yawning away. Who'd have thought my first day out of the Underworld and I can't even find an all night card game." he banged on the table. "Barkeep! More port."
"I'm closed." the man behind the counter said. "Take your business up to the Blue Bull if you want. They're open all the time."
"Fine. I'm sure it's much more exciting than this place. Why, even the old ladies would be bored here." the ferryman grumbled as he made his way out. "Ooh, maybe they'll have dancing girls. I haven't seen dancing girls since..." the door closed, saving the bartender from listening to him any longer.
Charon was halfway up the street when strong hands grabbed him and pulled him roughly into an alley. "Your money or your life, old man." the owner of the meaty hands said menacingly.
"Your money or your life, your money or your life. What's the matter, can't come up with a more original line?" he reached in his pouch and pulled out four dinars. "Here, that's all I have." the thief took the money and shoved the ferryman against the wall. "Hey, easy with the threads, this robe is pure silk, you know."
"Pure silk, huh?"
"Don't even think about it. You have no idea who I am, do you? I'm Charon, ferryman of the River Styx." he said proudly.
"Yeah and I'm Hercules." the thief sneered.
"Everyone's a comedian. Look, unless you want to get on Hades' bad side I suggest you let me go. He doesn't take too kindly to people roughing up his help."
"Maybe I should send you to meet him right now." the large man threatened.
"Oh yeah, sure, cut my vacation short why don't you? I tell you, some people just don't want to let others have a good time. Let me go and I'll give you free passage once your time comes."
"I think I'll settle for the robe." before Charon knew what was happening, the robe was torn off his body, revealing his pure white skin. The mortal looked on in horror at the six hundred summer old stab wound that first sent the ferryman to Hades. "Uh...uh...you really are dead." the thief stammered. "No one could live with that kind of wound."
"Really? Are you sure?" Charon slipped his fingers into the gaping hole and chuckled at both the ticklish sensation and the green pallor that came over the thief. As the large man fainted and fell to the ground, the ferryman picked up his robe and meandered out of the alley, laughing to himself. "Uh...you really are dead." he mocked. "What is it with mortals? Try to tell them something simple like 'I'm dead' and they just don't believe it. Soon they'll be saying that the world isn't flat either."
Xena and Gabrielle had been on the road less than a candlemark when they ran into trouble. Standing in the road before them was a behemoth of a man. "Xena, that's..."
"Virgilius...the walking wall. I killed him while I was in Callisto's body." she pulled Argo to a stop and waited for Gabrielle to dismount before stepping down herself.
"Well Xena, I see you got your body back. Shame it won't look so good much longer." he said, swinging his mace menacingly. He leered at the bard. "What'cha say, little girl, maybe once Xena's out of the way you and me can have a little fun, huh?" he stroked his brown beard thoughtfully as he sized up the small woman. "Yeah, I bet you'd be real fun." he brought his attention back to the leather-clad warrior at the sound of her sword being drawn.
"You gonna talk or fight, Virgilius?" she snarled, stepping forward and twirling her sword in her left hand. With his attention focused on her sword, he never noticed her right hand reaching for her chakram until it was too late. With deadly accuracy, Xena released her round weapon, sending it across the distance in less than a blink of an eye. Virgilius could only look down at the brass and steel disc imbedded in his neck. He looked at the warrior in surprise before falling helplessly to the ground.
"One down." Xena said unemotionally as she pulled her chakram out of his neck and wiped it on his shirt. She mounted up and held her arm out to pull Gabrielle up behind her. "We'd better keep moving."
"They're just going to keep coming, aren't they? The men you've killed, I mean." the bard said as she settled in behind the taller woman.
"I'm afraid so, Gabrielle, at least until we can find Charon and defeat Sysiphus." she urged Argo ahead.
"Xena...can I ask you something?" the concerned tone made the warrior turn in her seat and look at the bard. "How...how many men have you killed? Roughly?"
It was one of the things that Xena tried hard not to think about. Now forced to face her past, she found it even harder. "I don't know, Gabrielle. There were so many battles, so many towns that I razed to the ground. I didn't know their names, most I can't even remember their faces. There are those that I don't know if I killed or just wounded." she turned back in the saddle to face forward, unable to meet her friend's innocent gaze. "Gabrielle, if this is too hard on you then perhaps we should head for the Amazons. You'll be safe there until this is all over."
"The...the innocents won't be after you, right? Only the ones sentenced to Tartarus?" she asked hopefully, unsure if she could deal with seeing the helpless people that had fallen to the former Destroyer of Nations.
"Only the ones sentenced to Tartarus." she reassured the bard.
"Then I can handle it." she said firmly, tightening her hold around the leather covered waist.
"The first thing is to find Charon." Xena said, hoping to change the unpleasant subject. "At the moment I haven't a clue where to begin..." she held her hand up in silent warning. Directly in front of them were a good dozen men, none of whom looked familiar to the warrior but there was no mistaking the look of hatred in their eyes. "I have a feeling it's going to be a long day." she said as she removed the chakram from her belt. Gabrielle shifted so she could see what was going on ahead and silently agreed.
By the time the battle was over, Xena was covered in blood and grime. The coppery smell filled her nostrils and flared feelings she had long thought dormant. As she wiped the remnants of the skirmish from her sword, she felt the old anger surface. This particular group had been members of Cortese's army when Amphipolis was sacked, there was no mistaking his crest on their shirts. She had taken joy in killing them the first time and found her feelings not much different now. She used her boot to roll over several of the dead men but didn't find the one she had been looking for. She double-checked the group. No, the man that killed Lyceus wasn't among them. Now he would have been someone she wouldn't have minded running through with her sword again. She pressed the tip of her sword against the chest of one of the dead men and pressed as she thought about the man that murdered her brother. Without realizing it, a feral grin formed on her face and the sword impaled the corpse. Yes, it would feel so good to kill him again, to exact revenge for her brother once more. She pressed harder, sending the sword through the corpse's back and into the blood soaked earth beneath him. Her mind reeled with images of so long ago, of Lyceus and her standing up to protect their homeland, of her first kill, his first kill, of the smile on his face just before the sword was run through his body. Anger filled Xena, filled her as much as it had on that fateful day and all she could see was death. Her sword twisted within the dead man's chest.
"Xena." a gentle touch on her shoulder brought the warrior out of her musings and back to reality. "It's over. They're all dead."
"It's not over, Gabrielle, this is just the beginning." she said solemnly, her features betraying nothing of her emotions. She pulled her sword free and returned it to her scabbard, not bothering to remove the blood from the blade. The bard noted the odd action but said nothing.
As the day wore on, Gabrielle became more disconcerted about Xena. Hardly any words passed between them and the two additional fights they had gotten in only served to make the bard more concerned. Xena's movements were calculated, vicious, her goal only to kill and kill quickly. While she understood the purpose behind the warrior's actions, she was still worried about the change in her friend. While riding Xena sat up straight, the hand that usually rested over the bard's was now planted firmly on her chakram. There was an emptiness to the warrior's blue eyes, a coldness that Gabrielle had only seen once before...when they were fighting the Horde. It was only when the bard made the connection between that and Xena's current actions did she understand what was going on. "Xena, stop."
"We have to keep moving, Gabrielle. We'll stop later."
"No. Stop now." she said urgently, reaching forward with her hands to grab the reins. Xena scowled at the bard's attempt to take control and felt her anger rise. She pulled Argo to a stop and dismounted, practically jerking the younger woman down with her.
"What is the problem?" Xena asked, her tone clearly conveying her annoyance.
"This is." the bard replied, holding out her hands to indicate the two of them. "Xena, listen to how you're talking to me. Have I done something to make you so upset?"
"I'm not upset, Gabrielle. Don't you understand that we have untold numbers of people chasing us? We don't have time for heart to heart chats right now."
"I'm not asking for a heart to heart talk, Xena. I'm asking you to see what's going on. You're acting like the Xena you used to be, not the Xena I know and love. What were you thinking about when you were standing over that dead man?"
"I was thinking about how to keep us alive, Gabrielle. That's what I do. You tell stories and I keep us from getting killed. That's how it works. If you can't understand that-"
"I understand that you weren't here. Xena, you're facing people you've killed before. When you faced those men, you weren't standing in the middle of the road protecting us, you were back in Amphipolis. I saw it in your eyes." she took a step closer and put her hand on the warrior's forearm. "Xena " she spoke softly, trying to diffuse the tension she felt in the muscles under her fingers. "I know these men were part of your past but you need to remember that you're here, in the present. You're not the person you once were. You've battled the demons and found the goodness in your soul. If you don't keep yourself focused on that you'll slip back to what you once were."
"No." she put her finger to Xena's lips to silence her. "You've worked too hard to let this take you back. You need to fight the darkness. I'm here to help and I will do everything I can to remind you of how much you've changed. I'm not the enemy and I'm not one of your lieutenants, don't shut me out."
Xena looked down at her, dumbfounded. "Is that what I'm doing?" she asked guiltily.
"That's exactly what you're doing." Gabrielle said. "I think that all this looking around for people bent on attacking you is starting to get to us." the warrior nodded in agreement. "So let's make a deal here. Weve lost our bedrolls and the rest of our gear so I suggest that a night's stay in a nice warm inn is in order."
"Oh you do, huh?" Xena let the corner of her lip turn up in amusement.
"Yes I do." the bard replied. "Just think how nice a hot bath and clean sheets would feel."
"Do we have enough for port with dinner?"
"For you?" Gabrielle grinned. "I'm sure we can spare enough for a few mugs of port." Xena allowed herself to be tugged by the now happy bard. "Come on, Gradius is just a few leagues down the road. I'm sure we'll find a nice place to stay there."
"Ah, this is the life." Charon said as he drained his mug of port. The dancing girls had caused his long dead heart to pound wildly in his chest and he had taken great delight in sampling every type of ale and port in the tavern's vast inventory. Now feeling quite giddy and warm, the ferryman couldn't think of one reason to return to the Underworld. "Hades can find someone else to shuttle the souls across the Styx. I quit." he said proudly, turning his empty mug upside down to try and pull one last drop out. "Barkeep! Where's my refill? This isn't the Ritz, you know there aren't that many people to wait on." a young woman brought a tray over with a fresh mug of port for the odd looking and quite mouthy man. "Thanks for bringing it before I aged again." he said, taking a long swallow. As the woman turned to leave, Charon reached out and grabbed a handful of soft butt, causing the serving girl to yelp and almost drop her tray. "Nice package, toots." he cackled. "You know, I've got a few dinars and you do smell better than the last girl I knew, of course she had been dead for a few days." he puckered his black lips. "Gimme a taste and maybe I'll buy the dessert." this time the serving girl threw her tray up in the air and ran away screaming. "Ah, too young anyway, the excitement of being with me would've been too much." he took another swallow of his port. "Bring on the dancing girls!" he yelled, pounding on the table.
"Psst, hey old man." the sleazy looking man at the next table whispered as he leaned closer to the ferryman. "Looking for some action?"
"Well, you're not exactly my type, but after all this time, who am I to complain?" Charon replied, puckering up his dark lips again.
"No, not that you pervert." the sleazy man said. "I mean are you interested in some real action? You know, dice, cards, cock fights, that kind of thing. I know a place nearby where you could gamble the night away so long as your dinars hold out."
"Are there scantily clad women there?" the ferryman asked, rubbing his hands together joyfully.
"More than you can count."
"Well now " Charon upended his mug and drained the contents. "What are we waiting for?"
Gabrielle let out a contented sigh as she sank into the steaming tub of water. "Oh I just can't believe how good this feels."
"Yeah, well don't think that you're gonna sit in there all night and hog the hot water. I stink from head to foot." Xena said as she handed the soaking woman a mug of port.
"Oh, I don't plan on spending all night in here, just a couple of candlemarks." she teased. Without warning the warrior's hands were on her shoulders and Gabrielle found herself pushed underwater.
"Your hair needed washing." Xena said casually as the bard came up sputtering for air. She took the soap and knelt down at the head of the tub. "Lean back, I'll get it."
"Are you gonna dunk me again?" Gabrielle asked, giving her friend a glare.
"Maybe." the warrior grinned. "It depends."
"On whether I feel like dunking you again or not. You have to admit it was pretty funny." she began lathering the bard's hair. "You know " she was glad Gabrielle's back was to her, it made it easier to find the words. " this was a good idea. I'm sorry about earlier. I guess I just got too wrapped up in what was going on."
"Xena, I know it's hard to face them all the men you've killed, I mean, but you can't just shut down and pretend that it doesn't bother you." she turned to face the warrior. "I'm here if you need to talk about it." she dunked her head underwater and rinsed her hair. Xena stood and helped the bard out of the tub before handing her a towel. She picked up another one and began drying Gabrielle's hair.
"I know you are, Gabrielle." she stopped her brisk rubbing and rested her hands on the bard's shoulders. "You know I'm here for you too."
"I know." she replied, running the towel down her arm. Xena's hands remained on her shoulders and the bard knew there was more to it than just a casual statement of being there for each other. "What is it, Xena?" she asked cautiously.
"Do you want to talk about last night?" she used her hands to guide Gabrielle around to face her. "You were more terrified than I've ever seen you before."
Gabrielle backed up out of reach and picked her shift off the bed. "I can't talk about it, Xena. Take your bath before the water gets cold." she turned her back to the warrior and donned the thin material, hoping Xena would leave it at that. After a moment of silence she heard the sound of the warrior climbing into the tub. Gabrielle waited a few moments before returning to the side of the tub and reaching for the soap. "You washed my hair, I'll wash yours."
Between the roaring blaze in the fireplace and the candles littered around the room, there was plenty of light for them to see by. As Gabrielle lathered up Xena's dark tresses, the normally white foam turned pink from the blood that had been splattered during the battles of the day. Although the bard's mind knew where the blood had come from, she couldn't shake the image from her nightmare and found her hands trembling uncontrollably. "Oh gods " she whispered, her voice shaky. In a flash Xena was turned around, taking the younger woman's hands in hers.
"Gabrielle Gabrielle, what's wrong?"
"I you oh Xena " the tears came forth, scalding her face. The warrior pulled her close, wrapping her arms around the younger woman and holding her close. The soap started to move down Xena's forehead and she reached up to wipe it back. When she pulled her hand down again, she saw the pinkish tinge and realized what had scared the bard.
"It's okay just hang on a moment." maintaining a grip on one of Gabrielle's wrists, Xena leaned back and rinsed her hair. She rose to her full height and stepped out of the tub, never releasing her contact with the bard. "Come here." it was all the invitation Gabrielle needed. Xena did her best to dry herself with one hand while keeping the other wrapped around the trembling form pressed so tightly against her. She ended up settling for just getting her hair slightly dry and tossed the towel on a nearby chair. She led Gabrielle to the bed and sat her down. Xena thought about grabbing her shift but decided that tending to the still trembling and now freely crying woman was more important. She crawled onto the bed and leaned up against the headboard before pulling Gabrielle onto her lap. "Tell me." she urged softly.
"Oh Xena it's just so awful." she said between sobs. "I keep I just keep seeing you and there's nothing I can do ." she squeezed tighter, threatening to choke the warrior with the strength of her grasp. "I'm so scared."
"You're scared that I'm going to be killed, aren't you?" Xena asked, receiving her answer with a shaky nod and renewed tears streaming down the bard's face and onto her bare chest. "Why is this time so much different from any other scrape we've been in?"
"I don't know." Gabrielle sniffed. "I just can't shake the scene from my mind you lying on the ground all the blood " her fingers absently traced the line of Xena's collarbone where her nightmare told her there would be a sword wound. Without realizing it, the bard pressed her lips against the pulse point at the base of Xena's neck, feeling the strong steady beat beneath them.
"We'll get through this, Gabrielle. I swear." she shifted down to rest her head on a pillow, keeping the bard close but moving her head until it rested on one broad shoulder. She kissed the top of Gabrielle's golden hair. "It's going to be all right. I've defeated them before all of them. I'll do it again." Xena reassured her.
"Can you promise me something?" Gabrielle asked, taking comfort in the gentle stroking of her hair by the warrior's strong hand.
"Promise me that you'll be careful? That you won't take on more than you can handle or take any unnecessary chances? Please?"
Xena hugged her tightly. "I promise, Gabrielle." she said, although as the words left her mouth she wasn't sure she could keep it, but feeling the bard relax against her, the warrior vowed that she would try.