Book I - "Eternity Broken"
I don't own any of the characters,
except Lao Hsu - MCA/Universal do. There are also a couple of lines
from actual episodes in there. Please don't sue me, no money made,
no harm done.
Rating: PG13 - some sexual references, a couple of not-very-nice words. But don't despair - Book II promises to be considerably more juicy. :)
Special thanks to Cressid for the much-needed beta and LadyKate - for all your help, support, and above all, for not letting me give up on this!
Notes: This is the first book of what is going to be a two-book series, but it is a complete story in its own right. It's my take on Season 5, which aims to preserve all of the important developments in that season, but reshuffles them into a new story.
Feedback: Please let me know what you think of this story! Send comments to: email@example.com
And Then There Were Three...
The sun will rise and I'll see the road
If only I did not see that it leads into nowhere,
Oh, but to love a lonely god,
Oh, but to sing like the Waters of Life.
Galina Homchik, "Foreign Winds" (Russian Ballad)
The bathhouse in Caleb's house was quiet - a pleasant absence of noise, sleepy stillness interrupted occasionally by sounds of water splashing and dripping. The air was thick with the smell of melting wax from all the candles - there were no lamps in the house - mingled with the peculiar odour of old books, musty and comforting.
Xena lowered herself into the tub and leaned slowly against the wooden side. The water was soothing, warm - it felt oddly out of place in the chill of the house, as though the bath was merely a decoration, never intended to be filled. Perhaps a pure monk like Caleb had no need for the dubious purification offered by water. The steam would just damage the books.
Even here, in the bathhouse, the walls were lined with bookshelves, all of them full - Xena had grown used to the sight by now. Every available space was filled with books and scrolls, rolls upon rolls of parchment, paper - tablets, too - all covered in neatly formed symbols which meant nothing to Xena. But then, that was hardly surprising. Most things meant nothing now.
She splashed some water over her face. The confrontation with Kal had tired her, and not just physically. There was something uncomfortable about the memory of her escape, a nagging splinter of emotion. Xena probed it, in vain. It was frustrating. She could feel something inside her - she should have done something else then, in the god's temple... Fight?
Fight. A word so familiar, and so meaningless. She had run away instead, and now the memory itched horribly and she had no idea at all how to solve the puzzle. It was as though a part of her - a part that she had always been able to access - was now locked away, and no matter how hard she tried to reach it, she found herself pounding uselessly at a blank wall.
Gabrielle, Joxer, Amarice - they were good friends. They cared about her and she was grateful for that - but their concerned expressions and probing questions told her that they, too, sensed something amiss in her.
The sound of jangling metal alerted Xena to Joxer's presence a second before he noticed her. She had to grin at his flustered expression.
"Xena! Sorry - I'll come back later..." He blushed profusely and hastened back towards the doorway. His homemade armour creaked and clanged in protest at the movement.
She smiled. "No, no - it's okay, Joxer. What's up?"
Joxer stopped uncertainly, looking everywhere but at Xena.
"Uhh... It's about Gabrielle..." He almost looked up, remembered Xena was naked and dropped his eyes again. "You know - how I feel about her -"
Xena decided to put him out of his misery. "Sure - you love her."
He gave a nervous laugh. "It's that obvious?"
Even as she said that, Xena wondered that she had never before realised the depth of the young man's feelings for her friend. Or had she simply forgotten? No... There was something new about the knowledge, it had a clarity that memories lacked. Joxer loved Gabrielle - loved sincerely, with all his heart. It was that simple.
Perhaps this newfound clarity, this ability to see into people, was a compensation for the infuriating emptiness inside her. Or perhaps, its result. Why could she understand everyone else - everyone but herself?
"Right. Um, and I was thinking - since you guys are such good friends and all - maybe you could give me some tips..."
"You know, um - recommendations. How to tell her. I could try the 'down on one knee' approach, or - flowers, or - gifts, or just club her over the head - do you see my problem?"
"Yeah. Your expectations."
So simple. Why couldn't her own mind be like that?
"Right now, it's all about getting a response from her. If you love her - just tell her, don't attach any strings to it. Make it unconditional."
"Yeah, but what if I tell her and she just says - 'Joxer, what are you thinking'?"
"Joxer - no strings. All right?"
"No strings," he nodded. "Got it."
Xena watched as he disappeared outside. "Of course," she chuckled, "you could just _kiss_ the girl!"
A pleasant shiver ran down her spine and some instinct made her look back to the doorway. The curtain that covered it parted, seemingly of its own accord.
Xena closed her eyes. She knew the voice - really knew it. It belonged to the God of War.
War. Another one of those curiously empty words. The voice, however, was far from empty. Its sound filled Xena with memories - fragments and moments from her youth, a whirlwind of emotion stronger and stranger than she had felt since Eli had restored her life.
She opened her eyes again to find Ares standing on the doorstep, splendid in the black and silver of his armour. He walked towards the bath as she watched, his gait solid and confident, his dark hair shorter than she remembered. Xena wondered why that detail should have lodged in her memory, when it seemed that so much else had been lost, hidden. What did it matter? What did _he_ matter?
Just then, Ares looked directly at her, into her - and Xena understood. How simple it all seemed!
"I know you," she said, unable to keep the wonder from her voice. "You're the one who freed me from Kal."
That, and more.
"Yes, I am."
Ares' voice was smooth and low - Xena thought she could drown in it, lose herself. Perhaps that's what he wanted. Or thought he wanted. Did she want it, too? Somehow the lines between them seemed blurred, like two candles melting into each other. She wondered that she felt no fear. But there was something else, beyond that - buried in a place so deep that only the dimmest shadows of it flickered in his eyes, thinly veiled by the steam in the room. How could she not have seen it before now?
Ares came to stand behind her. Xena smiled and reached back for his hands.
"I'm afraid I didn't get a chance to thank you properly."
Ares' hands stiffened in surprise as she guided them to her shoulders, then relaxed again. His fingers brushed her hair and the nape of her neck. The hesitation had been only momentary - but it had been enough.
"It's amazing, the difference when you don't resist me." There was the faintest hint of regret in his voice, but his hands did not betray it. Xena shivered as he swept her hair to one side.
Ares' hands cupped her shoulders.
"Free from old wounds, old grudges..."
Xena took one of his hands and brought it to her lips.
Whatever this bond was, this depth - Xena knew only one thing at that moment - that she wanted the spell to continue, to last as long as it could. It felt ephemeral, as though the slightest breath could shake her awake - and she wanted, needed, a way back. She had to try.
Ares had been expecting any of a number of things from this meeting - but what happened next took him by complete surprise.
Xena stood up and turned to him, water sheeting off her body, splendid and golden in the candlelight.
Perhaps Eli's god's puritan ideas were rubbing off, he thought wryly, unable to tear his eyes from the sight. And to think that this was just her innocent side...
He didn't have time for further reflection. Xena stepped out onto the floor beside him and gave him a slow, knowing smile - so far removed from his idea of what an innocent's smile should be, that Ares' skin tightened in pure desire. She was magnificent.
"My condition is not without its advantages."
"I can see that..."
Ares tried to remember why he was there, with limited success.
"Oh, yeah. It's all about you and me, Xena - not Kal, not even Zeus. Just the two of us - bringing peace and order to the world through force." He paused to draw a breath. "Something you and I were destined to do - together. Imagine it, Xena - a world free from violence, from evil..."
"Force... Violence. Evil. You know, it's strange - I know those words, but they have no connection," - Xena tapped her chest - "here."
"That's gotta be ... tough. But trust me, it's for a reason."
"Yes... I think you're right, Ares - it is all about us."
Ares blinked. He must have repeated this speech at least a dozen times, in various guises - was it possible that she was finally agreeing? Now, of all times?
But it was the next thought that startled Ares most. All those years ago, when she had been his warrior - she had been no innocent. He had never corrupted her. Not then. But now?
He immediately regretted the thought, but it was too late. The tiny shadow of uncertainly had brushed his features and Xena had caught it - he saw it register in her eyes. Trapped, Ares tried to look away, but failed.
Xena's eyes searched his face. "Humans," she said, taking a step closer, "are capable of so much good... I don't think I ever really saw it before."
"Mortals?" he said, confused. She sounded so different. She was talking _to_ him, he realised. Not at him.
Xena nodded. "Yes. And gods," - she raised her face to him and her eyes were dark and unreadable - "are capable of being human."
He didn't even try to decipher that one - Xena's face was a handspan from his own, her breath gentle on his skin and her eyes burned into him.
To Tartarus with her riddles! Ares slipped his arms around her waist and pulled her close. She responded easily, with an unselfconscious voluptuousness that he had never encountered from her - not even in her warlord days.
His only coherent thought was that if he woke up now, he'd find a way to have Morpheus tortured for eternity.
"Ares?" Xena's whisper was hot on his lips.
She could have asked for ambrosia at that point, he would not have thought twice.
"Give me a child," she said instead. "Our child." She moved to kiss him again, opening his mouth gently with her lips.
'Way to go, Ares,' he thought - 'it's been a while since you've had _that_ dream.'
Only this was no dream.
If Xena did get hold of the Chakram of Light after this, with its god-slaying power, he knew there was every chance he'd end up in convenient bite-sized pieces. But by Olympus, it would be worth it!
The uncomfortable thought returned - he had never corrupted her - but he silenced it with a scowl. Xena was here - in his arms! Asking for a child. Ares shrugged out of his vest.
"That, my dear," he caressed the back of her neck and allowed his fingers to drift lightly down her spine, "can be arranged."
* * *
"You might as well come out, Ares!"
Xena propped herself against a tree and crossed her arms. The forest was cold and asleep, but the darkness did not dull her perception of his presence.
A sizzle of blue light illuminated the clearing - and Xena found herself leaning against the newly-materialised chest of the God of War.
She elbowed him in the gut and whirled about.
"Is this your idea of a sick joke?"
Ares' expression was perfectly innocent.
"Hey, you asked me to come out -"
"You know what I'm talking about!"
He was silent and Xena felt some of her anger melt away. Damn him. She focused on the darkness over his shoulder, pretending to see the trees.
"Did you do it?"
The anger returned, white-hot.
"Am I pregnant, you bastard!"
Xena nodded once, sharply.
"You wouldn't miss your chance - not even when I'm defenceless. Especially not then."
"That's not what happened."
Xena drew in an indignant breath, but the words died on her lips. He was right. Her face twisted in a bitter laugh.
"No, that's the sick part, Ares. Joxer must've been right - I _had_ lost my marbles."
Ares reached a careful hand to her abdomen. "Our child..."
Xena moved back. "If you're thinking of using this child for one of your twisted little games to get me back, Ares..."
She broke off abruptly and turned away. It was easier to look into the black nothingness of the forest. It would also have been far easier to pretend that this was yet another of Ares' stunts if her memory of the event wasn't quite so clear. She had wanted this child, then. Did she still?
Ares' hands encircled her waist from behind, but he made no other move.
Xena tensed, but did not shake him off.
It took a second for his meaning to sink in. A little girl? The sudden surge of emotion caught Xena off-guard. Well. That answered one question. She wanted this child - more than anything else. Nothing and no-one was going to take it from her.
"No powers?" she couldn't keep the question from being voiced.
"Nope. I thought you'd know - all that Eli-talk about gods being human..."
Xena shook her head. "Did you do that ... on purpose?"
Ares gave a short laugh behind her.
"'Fraid you can't blame _that_ on me. All I know is that I can't feel a connection with her like with others with Olympian blood. She's all mortal."
"So how do you know it's a daughter?"
"I'm a god, Xena - don't you really think I ought to know that much?"
She smiled into the darkness despite herself, suddenly relieved. The implications were interesting. She turned and looked into his face.
"You do realise that this changes nothing? I'm still not coming back to you."
"Why am I not surprised? But you know, if you do change your mind -" his hands tightened around her waist. Xena ignored the little shock of pleasure and removed them.
Ares gave her a lopsided grin. "Never say never, Xena."
"Oh, I'm not. When I get tired of changing diapers and midnight feeds -"
"Hey," he held up his palms, "that is not gonna happen - the God of War does not do diapers!"
On an impulse, Xena reached up and kissed him on the lips, then drew back, surprised at herself. For a moment, they simply looked at each other - and in that instant, Xena could almost remember more than the facts. She thought that, for the briefest of moments, she knew the _why_. Ares raised an eyebrow. Xena smiled slightly.
"I said - forget it."
"Hey - can't blame a guy for trying." He paused, seeming to wait for something more.
"So," he said finally into the silence, "I guess this is it?"
Xena swallowed. "I guess so." Then, so quietly that no mortal could have heard, she added - "Thank you."
Ares nodded mutely.
Another moment, and he was gone.
For the first time since his appearance, Xena noticed the stirring in the trees - the birds were waking up. The forest was still dark, but somewhere on the invisible horizon, they could sense the sunrise.
Xena's hand crept to her flat abdomen. "Thank you," she repeated to nobody in particular and didn't know whether it was her own restored life she welcomed, or that of the baby. Perhaps it was a little of both.
Sleep By No Means
The guilty get no sleep
In the last slow hours of morning
Experience is cheap
I should've listened to the warning
But the cradle is soft and warm
Crowded House, "Into Temptation"
The small inn room felt close and suffocating. Although it was nearly summer, the nights were still cool and the innkeeper had kept all windows closed in unoccupied rooms to preserve the day's heat. Xena cursed herself for deciding to stay here at all. When she and Gabrielle had entered the inn earlier that day, asking to rent a room, there had been just one available - this one. All others had been rented a few hours beforehand - there was a big celebration in town. Probably a wedding, though Xena wasn't sure. The innkeeper had cooed at the baby, laughing at little Eve's gurgles and squeals of delight, then shaken his head sadly. "I'm afraid the room is a bit stuffy. I haven't been able to get the window open - the darn thing's rusted to the hinges!"
By now, the evening air and the breathing of two adults and one child had made the atmosphere unbearable. How Gabrielle could sleep so soundly, Xena had no idea, but she devoutly wished that Eve would take a leaf out of her friend's book and allow her, too, a few hours of shut-eye before they resumed their journey in the morning. They were on the road to Amphipolis, to see her mother. Cyrene had not seen her granddaughter for months - they had left for Amazon lands just after Eve's birth. Gabrielle had insisted that she give Eve a birthday gift - her right of caste. Now, Eve was a fully fledged Amazon princess - but the royal title had done nothing to improve her sleep patterns.
Xena rocked the baby gently, humming a lullaby under her breath. Eve began to cry again.
"Shhh, Eve..." she whispered, trying in vain to quieten the little girl. "I know it's stuffy. But you have to sleep, baby. And so does mama." She sighed. Sleep had long ago ceased to exist as a fact of life and became a sort of unreachable destination at the end of every day's travel, a wish that held no hope of ever becoming reality. Xena stifled a yawn and returned to rocking the warm little body in her arms.
"Hush, my baby, please don't you cry...
Put your head on my shoulder and sigh,
Sun's gone away, mama will pray,
The silence will keep all the while you're asleep."
Eve stopped crying and closed her eyes sleepily. At last.
A minute later, she opened them again and looked at her mother. With a sigh, Xena started the song from the beginning.
Her voice was growing hoarse. She needed to rest. Xena looked over at the sleeping Gabrielle. Her friend looked so peaceful, lost in the world of her dreams. She did not have the heart to wake her.
A blue flash illuminated the dank room for an instant. Gabrielle muttered something in her sleep and Eve started to cry again.
"Did you have to do that?" Xena whispered angrily to Ares almost before he became visible. "You woke her up!" Her whisper was drowned out by Eve's wailing. Gabrielle, in her bed on the other side of the room, pulled her pillow over her head.
"Haven't worked out how to stop the light show." Ares settled himself on the bed next to Xena unceremoniously. "Besides, she wasn't asleep anyway."
Xena moved away, annoyed. "Well, she certainly isn't now!"
Gods, but she was tired...
"Xena, you need to sleep." Ares got up off the bed and stood in front of her. "You're a zombie. Let me."
He reached down and picked up Eve from Xena's unresisting arms, bouncing the baby slightly to find a comfortable position. The wails ceased immediately. Ares stroked the girl's small forearm with the tip of his finger. Eve closed one tiny fist over his ring with a delighted giggle. Ares grinned at Xena: "Daddy's little girl."
Xena had intended to argue, irritated by his swift success at what she had been trying to achieve for hours, had intended to retrieve her daughter - but looking up at the sight of the leather-clad God of War holding her baby - their baby - she decided against it. All she wanted to do was close her eyes for a few blessed moments. Just a couple of minutes, and then she'd take her back.
"She does not leave this room, Ares. If you take her anywhere..."
Ares motioned silence at her. "Go to sleep, Xena. Eve is just fine. Aren't you?" The last was pitched a good octave higher and addressed to the little girl, who yawned sweetly.
Xena gave in. "Wake me up in ten minutes."
"Sleep." Ares' whisper barely registered in her mind. She was asleep before she was lying down.
Ares paced the room evenly, cradling his daughter, humming a tune without words. In fact, this particular song did have words. They were just unfit for a baby's ears. Eve's eyelids drooped and within a few minutes she was asleep.
Ares sat down on a chair in a corner of the little room, careful not to disturb Eve, and leaned back against the wall to await dawn.
* * *
Despite all evidence to the contrary, Gabrielle was not asleep. 'Ares' arrival could wake the dead - as long as they were not blind, of course,' she thought sourly, lifting the useless pillow off her head. She was annoyed - more at herself than anyone else. Why hadn't she woken up earlier? She'd known that Xena was exhausted. Gabrielle twisted in the uncomfortable bed, wondering how she had managed to fall asleep there at all.
She had tried to get used to the thought of Ares being around. Truly. She had been extremely supportive of Xena's decision to have a child with the God of War. After she had come out of shock, of course. Supportive, Gabrielle could be. Understanding was something else altogether. She mashed the pillow under her cheek, with no noticeable effect. She had asked Xena, point blank - why? The warrior had just sighed and rubbed her temples in that irritating way that told Gabrielle that she was never going to get a satisfactory answer, then said: "I think I saw something in him that day that I had never seen before. Except perhaps when he had been mortal."
What could she have possibly seen? Gabrielle had been dumbfounded. Xena had just shaken her head, as if to dispel half-formed thoughts and changed the subject. And that was that. The only explanation she was ever going to get.
Gabrielle stared at a splinter on the wall, half expecting it to burst into flames at any moment from the sheer frustration in the stare. Ares had tried to convince Xena to take ambrosia and make herself and the child she carried immortal. _That_ hadn't been a success. Gabrielle smirked into her pillow.
Then, he had hovered about them, invisible for the most part, practically breathing down their necks, trying to make sure that Xena did not have to fight in her condition. Finally, a while after the birth, he had appeared bearing a gift for baby Eve. An exquisitely crafted dagger. Not to attack, he had said. To defend. And tiny though she had been, Eve had grabbed onto the leathered handle for dear life and would not be persuaded to let go. That had finally put an end of the awkward situation. Xena had told him to stay away. Not in those words, exactly - but the effect had been the same. And, somewhat surprisingly, he had done so - until recently.
He and Xena had started meeting again, if not amicably, then at least without the anger that followed the disaster with the dagger. Gabrielle supposed Xena felt guilty at not letting Ares close to his child. 'Which brings us back to the beginning,' she thought resentfully, 'why give him that power in the first place?'
She turned onto her other side, observing Ares' silhouette, stretched out on the chair, the furniture tiny in comparison to his well-muscled frame. How strange. To sleep in the same dingy, stifling room as the God of War - cradling a tiny baby in his arms. Gabrielle was certain that Ares thought he was the only one awake in the room, and so she watched him warily - but also, despite herself, with a curious wonder.
That War should hold a child in its arms and do so lovingly - that was strange enough. But what was that sound? At last, she placed it. He was singing. Very, very softly, she could just make out the melody - but surely. Gabrielle knew the ballad and blushed in the darkness. It was a favourite among soldiers and sailors - 'lyrics' was not a word crafted to describe the filth with which it filled ale-soaked drinking halls.
With a resigned sigh, Gabrielle slipped out from under the covers and padded barefoot towards Ares' chair. He watched her approach, breaking off the song, but did not move.
"What's the matter, blondie?" he whispered, gruff impatience in his voice.
Eve's hands were balled into fists, Gabrielle noticed, each smaller than Ares' finger. Ares shifted in his seat, drawing himself up. He was embarrassed and trying not to show it - and somehow, that little display of humanity was very comforting. Gabrielle managed a small smile.
"I'll take her now." She had to admit, though, they did make a pretty picture.
Ares made no move to hand over Eve. "I don't think so. She's asleep. Shouldn't you be, too?"
The momentary understanding vanished. "No. Let me take her, Ares - please."
Ares gave her a look of pure disgust. "You are going to wake up my daughter."
Gabrielle was just going to reply in kind, when a change in the focus of Ares' eyes made her look up. Xena was standing above them, her face totally unamused.
"I'll take her now."
Gabrielle wondered how Xena could make those same words sound so utterly different.
Ares passed the baby into Xena's arms without a word and rose, scoffing in Gabrielle's direction. She pursed her lips, watching the door open and shut behind him. A blue light outlined the door briefly. That was probably his attempt at being considerate. She turned to Xena, who had settled Eve in her arms and preparing to feed her.
"Why didn't you just wake me up?" She had not meant to sound so accusing.
Xena did not take her eyes off the baby. "Gabrielle, she _is_ his daughter."
"I know that, Xena! What I don't understand is - why?" There. She said it.
Her friend's face was suddenly very tired. "Sometimes, Gabrielle," she whispered, stroking Eve's downy hair with a finger, "I don't know why. And then I see her." Xena's cradled Eve's head in the crook of her elbow. "And I know I was not mistaken."
Gabrielle watched Eve for a while, then went back to her uncomfortable, lumpy bed. She knew a lost cause when she saw one - for nine and five months now. She tucked the frayed blanket under her chin and returned to contemplating the splintered wood of the wall.
Zhauang Zhou in dream became a
And the butterfly became Zhuang Zhou at waking.
Which was the real - the butterfly or the man?
Who can tell the end of the endless changes of things?
"Zhang Zhou & The Butterfly" by Li Bo (a 4th century follower of Lao Tzu)
It was not a bad day to be on the road, as far as days and roads generally went. The air was cool and crisp, the forest was humming contentedly and the packed dust that passed for the road to Amphipolis stretched on and on into the green distance, quite oblivious to the three travellers. The horses plodded along happily, relieved to be away from the hard cobblestones of the town, and little Eve squealed with delight when her carriage was placed ahead of her mother in Argo's undulating saddle, enjoying the ride.
"She's a natural." Gabrielle smiled at Xena from the saddle of her own horse.
The warrior smiled back distractedly, her attention focused elsewhere.
Gabrielle reached over and waved an enthusiastic hand in front of her friend's face. "Hello? Earth to Xena! Come down off Olympus, oh mighty warrior princess, and have a look at your daughter riding like a pro, at all of five months of age!"
Xena grabbed the reins of Gabrielle's horse, simultaneously digging her heels into Argo's flanks - another second, and both horses were cantering away, Eve's carriage now slung across Xena's back.
"Xe.. What's the..." Gabrielle tried to catch her breath and keep her balance, succeeding in neither.
Abruptly, Xena pulled the reins and slid off the horse, Eve still on her back. Gabrielle reined in her mount with some difficulty, trying not to lose sight of her friend.
"Who sent you?"
This was apparently addressed to the perfectly innocuous-looking bushes at the side of the road. Gabrielle followed the line of Xena's sight, bemused. She urged her horse a step forward and craned her neck. At last, she saw what had attracted the warrior's attention. There was a fork in the road, the junction partly overgrown with thistle. An lavishly decorated, Oriental-looking carriage stood on the other side of the bushes. Two men were busily trying to cut a path onto the main road, using strange swords with curved blades that seemed woefully out of place as woodcutting implements.
At the sound of Xena's voice, the men paused and raised their eyes. They took one look at Xena's unsmiling face and fell into the dust face-first, swords sliding deftly into jewelled scabbards. Both were wearing identical scarlet embroidered tunics, both had identical black braids that coiled into the dust. Gabrielle jumped off her horse's obliging back, completely baffled.
Xena approached the men, hand resting on her chakram. "I said, who sent you?"
One of the men lifted his face a fraction. "We bear a message for the great Xena, the Warrior Princess. We were told she is headed for Amphipolis. Please, it must be delivered without delay."
Xena hauled the speaker upwards by his braid. "Who sent you?"
The man squirmed in the iron hold. "Her Imperial Majesty, the Empress of Ch'in. Please, my hair!"
A coil of tension gripped Gabrielle. Ch'in. A place she would rather forget. The lovely day did not seem quite so sunny any more.
His braid released, the man rubbed his scalp petulantly, dropping back to his prostrate position. "This message is of the utmost importance. I beg you, do not delay us. We must find Xena!"
After a brief pause, Xena took her hand off her chakram and offered it to the speaker. "I am Xena."
The men climbed to their feet and looked uncertainly at each other, then back at the woman with the baby on her back. "You are she?"
"Yes. I thought you said this message was urgent?"
Both men began to nod emphatically. "Yes-yes, very urgent. But we must be certain, you see - we do not know the great Xena by sight."
Gabrielle moved her leg to feel the comforting steel of her sais within easy reach. Ghosts from the past surfaced in her mind, unbidden - Ming Tien's jeering face foremost of them all. The Green Dragon, the tyrant of Ch'in. A tyrant she had betrayed for - a tyrant Xena had killed. So ... why were these men seeking Xena now?
The smaller of the men fumbled in a carry bag, finally bringing out a piece of reed-paper. "If you are Xena, as you say - then you will know the significance of this?"
He passed the paper to the warrior. Xena took it, examining it briefly. "The Hawk and the Dove must become one with the Wisdom," she read aloud. "Lao Ma's book." She passed the paper back thoughtfully.
The men beamed at her, their joy seeming to encompass the entire group, even the horses. Gabrielle felt herself begin to smile in return and relaxed a little. It was Xena the student of Lao Ma, they sought, not Xena the slayer of the Green Dragon. The past was behind her, after all.
The men looked immensely relieved.
"You are Xena! You must come with us to Ch'in at once! It is a matter of great moment. The Empress has desperate need of you."
The taller of the two packed the paper carefully into his case, then addressed both women. "We do crave your forgiveness for our rudeness - allow me to introduce myself and my companion." He folded his hands and inclined his head. "I am Zhing Li, chief advisor to Her Imperial Majesty, Lao Hsu."
Gabrielle exchanged curious looks with Xena. The Empress was from the house of Lao? Lao Ma's daughter?
Zhing Li continued. "This is councillor Khao Sun, the council secretary."
Khao Sun brought his palms together and bowed in the same formal manner. "It is a great honour to meet you, Warrior Princess." He gave a second bow in Gabrielle's direction. "And likewise your friend."
Gabrielle found her own head bowing - "Gabrielle." Then, feeling that something more formal was required, she added, "The Bard of Potedaia."
"Then we are doubly honoured, Bard," Khao Sun smiled, "Yours is a noble calling." His expression became earnest. "I do hope we are not too late. The Empress is in grave danger - please, we must hurry."
Xena tipped her chin in the direction of the carriage. "You're not planning to travel in that, are you?" The carriage had narrow spoked wheels which had evidently been stuck in more than one mire. Two horses were harnessed to it, placidly ignoring the people around them in favour of nipping at the grass on the roadside.
"Indeed, it has proven most cumbersome on these Greek roads," Zhing Li replied smoothly, "but I'm afraid it is the only means of transport available to us at present."
Xena laughed. "Gabrielle, let's show them what fast travel really means!"
Gabrielle tried to force all thoughts of Lao Ma and debts from her mind, mounting her horse.
Her tense look did not escape Xena. Her friend's blue eyes were serious. "All debts have been discharged."
Gabrielle nodded, trying to relax. "I know. This is different." She was surprised by the trace of resentment in her voice. Thankfully, Xena ignored it.
The emissaries looked at the horses in horror. "We do not ride!"
Xena shrugged, lifting herself into the saddle, adjusting Eve's carriage on her back. "Suit yourselves. But if I were you, I'd unharness those horses and lead the way, because that carriage isn't going anywhere soon."
Gabrielle watched as the men shifted uncomfortably, obviously unwilling to forgo the comfort and dignity of the carriage and leave it behind. At length, they stepped back and began unharnessing the horses. Belatedly, Gabrielle realised that Xena had intended this as a test - devoted advisors would be willing to risk everything for a truly vital mission. Judging by the satisfied expression on Xena's face, the men had passed with flying colours. Gabrielle pulled her mount closer to Argo. "Xena, will you tell me what this is all about? I thought you wanted to visit Cyrene."
Xena patted Argo's flank, looking at the men. "I'm not sure, Gabrielle - but I have a theory."
"And that is...?"
"They're after Lao Ma's book. And they need a Key."
Gabrielle gave her friend a confused look. "You've lost me."
Xena unfastened Eve's carriage and seated her daughter in the saddle in front of her as the emissaries rode up to the two women, then moved Argo aside gently to allow them to pass.
"Lead the way".
The men rode up ahead. As Khao Sun's mount trotted past, the man gave Xena another small bow. "Thank you," he said simply. "From the daughter of Lao Ma."
"You can fill us in on the details along the way."
Noting the 'us', Gabrielle gave her friend a grateful look, which Xena returned.
"We're going together, Gabrielle. You and I - and Eve."
Gabrielle grinned, then urged her horse forward, revelling in the feel of the air. All at once, the day had regained its beauty. Xena had meant what she'd said about all debts being discharged. They would do this together - and quite unexpectedly, a new Ch'in beckoned. Not a land of betrayal, guilt and darkness - but a land she had never really seen, one that held a mysterious magnetism, a land she would love to explore. The adventurer in Gabrielle stirred and welcomed this newfound freedom. She had not thought to see this day - but here she was, riding beside her friend, turning off the familiar road to Amphipolis and heading for Ch'in, happier than she had felt in many long months. Indeed, Fortune could be a capricious lady.
When you see her sweet smile, baby
Don't think of me
When she laughs in your warm arms,
Don't think of me
Dido, "Don't think of me"
The carriage was cramped and far from comfortable, but it was at least a change from the green-grey monotony of the sea passage. Gabrielle pushed a curtain aside, careful not to admit enough light to wake the baby or disturb one of Xena's rare moments of sleep, and looked outside.
Impossibly green scenery trundled past, the chequerboard of rice paddies and the occasional village flowing across valleys and rolling hills. Farmers in wide-brimmed hats laboured in the fields, but they were too far from the road for Gabrielle to note more than the obvious - despite the lushness of the landscape, the land had the taint of lingering poverty.
Xena had told her, briefly, what she suspected. Lao Ma's book was a sought-after prize, one the new Empress clearly had set her sights on. However, opening the tome would have been no mean feat. Fearful lest the book fall into the wrong hands, Lao Ma had sealed it with its own power. Only the first page had remained visible, and it was a copy of this page that had been dispatched with the emissaries.
"The Hawk and the Dove must become one with the Wisdom" - Lao Ma had left nothing to chance. Two people, working together, could form the Key to release the seal on the book. One of them had to be skilled in Lao Ma's power, had to have tasted both its light and its darkness and embraced both - the Hawk. The other - the Dove - had to be pure, uncorrupted by power of any kind. It was a clever scheme, Gabrielle thought - the wisdom accessible only to those who understood the full implications of wielding power.
Would the Empress possess such insight?
The carriage emerged from a valley into the last pastel-soft rays of the sun. Up ahead, unsettlingly close, was the Imperial palace, its curled roofs winking gold in the fading light. Gabrielle steeled herself against the flood of painful memories - they belonged firmly in the past, buried with the last ashes of Ming Tien's dictatorship.
By the time the carriage passed under the archway of the palace gates, it was completely dark.
* * *
Xena's room in the spacious guest apartments, like the rest of Lao Hsu's palace, was decorated with painted screens and fragrant carved wood, tasselled lanterns bathing it in a warm glow. The air was rich with a heady mixture of perfumes that drifted in through the open window from the garden below. A partially screened doorway in the far wall led out to the corridor. Another door, opposite it, led to the adjacent room which was Gabrielle's.
Xena and Gabrielle sat on the edge of the small raised bed, surrounded by cushion-rolls. Eve's crib was next to them; the little girl's whispering breaths the only sounds in the room. Xena watched Eve sleep, lost in thought. For her part, Gabrielle watched Xena.
Their journey had been surprisingly uneventful, even pleasant, despite the haste. They were to meet the Empress in the morning - a slight, necessary, delay that allowed both women a few hours to catch up on sleep and attend to their own needs, as well as that of the baby.
Khao Sun and Zhing Li had proven quiet companions, keeping to themselves for the most part, only speaking to point out this feature or that, a mountain or a road. They knew a great deal about the country, Gabrielle had discovered, and about its people, too. The latter had come as a surprise to her, she had expected the advisors to an Empress to be insulated within their own world of power and privilege, hardly aware of the plight of the common folk. Yet as the party had made their way past rice fields and small farms, fishing villages and the occasional monastery, the emissaries had not seemed reticent in their answers to Gabrielle's curious enquiries, even going so far as to remark on the economic problems faced by the fishermen in that year, or the boon harvest of rice expected after the timely rains, that would nevertheless be insufficient to make up for the poor harvest of the preceding year. That neither of the men had sought to conceal problems had been evident - but puzzling.
Gabrielle had remarked on this to Xena one day, as they travelled through a stunningly beautiful valley, framed with oddly carved hills. The scenery was breathtaking in a peculiar splendour, so unlike the simple landscapes of Greece. .
"The Empress selected these men for a reason, Gabrielle," Xena had shrugged in response. "Part of their job is making sure that we're on their side."
"So - you think she chose them because she knows that we'd be more likely to aid her if we thought she cared about her people?"
Xena's face had remained impassive. "Make up your own mind, Gabrielle - and tell me once we get to the palace." And on this subject, she would say no more.
Gabrielle now reached for the rail of Eve's crib - a wooden cot suspended between the head and tail of a stylised dragon. "Here, let me. Take a break for a while." She settled into the pile of cushions on the bed, as Xena moved aside. "Remember how you wanted me to tell you what I thought about the Empress' choice of emissaries?"
Xena leaned against the headboard, folding her arms behind her head. "Well?"
Gabrielle gave the cradle a small nudge to keep it swinging.
"Well, I don't know what to think. Maybe she really does care about her people. Or maybe she just wants Lao Ma's book for herself and was using Khao Sun and Zhing Li to sweeten us up a bit." She glanced in Xena's direction, biting her lip nervously. "And everything depends on this answer, doesn't it? Because if Lao Ma's power should fall into the wrong hands..."
"Hm - not a bad assessment." Xena's eyes sparkled in amusement. "What d'ya know, you're not as blonde as you look!"
Gabrielle swung a fist at Xena in mock outrage. "Hey!"
Xena caught her hand and gave it a conciliatory pat. "But don't worry, it'll be at least another week before your roots start showing."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Come on, I'm serious! Tell me what you think! Can we trust her?"
"No." Xena sat up again to join Gabrielle by Eve's side, rocking the cradle. "It's not that I distrust her. But we can't afford to risk trust - the stakes are too high. Whether she wants the power for herself or her people is only one part of it. The question is, what does she want with this power, once she has it? Remember what I told you about the Key?"
Gabrielle tried to recall Xena's exact words. "Yes... I think so. Lao Ma's book needs two people to open it. Two souls, entwined, make the Key." Gabrielle paused, conjuring the missive before her eyes. "The Hawk and the Dove must become one with the Wisdom."
Xena pulled a long strand of her hair out of Eve's grasping hands and flicked it back. "Yes. Two souls - one with Lao Ma's power..."
"...And one that is pure." Gabrielle finished. "The Dove."
"Right. But there's a catch. The two have to be entwined somehow. Connected, so that they can complete the pattern that seals Lao Ma's book and open it."
Gabrielle thought this over. "And this is why they sought you out - because you were her student. You understand Lao Ma's power."
Xena nodded. "The Hawk."
"So - who's the Dove?" Gabrielle looked at her friend in consternation. There was an unpleasant sensation in the pit of her stomach - a sort of dread that threatened to resolve into realisation.
She was not sure that she wanted this distinction, but if Xena needed her help...
"No." There was a hint of apology in her friend's voice.
Gabrielle's hand froze to Eve's cradle. "I'm not the Dove?"
Understanding dawned without warning. She was not the 'Dove' - she was nothing. Nothing in this equation of Lao Ma's - nothing but a tagalong on the whole mission. Her soul was not pure, it had long since been tarnished by darkness.
A flood of memories filled her senses.
Xena, in stocks in the palace dungeons - Gabrielle's own hand reaching, as if in slow motion, to slap her friend's face. The slap ringing against wet stone.
She had betrayed her friend - and though they had both buried the past long ago, the scars were still there, deep within her - she could not deny it. Even more than losing her blood innocence, her betrayal had darkened her soul. What a fool she had been, to think herself so light and pure! Idiot. Gabrielle of Potedaia had long ago ceased being a dove in any equation.
Xena tried to reach her friend's hand, but Gabrielle snatched it away, angry that Xena should see it trembling.
"Who... who is it, then?" She knew her voice was ugly now, sarcastic. "Ares?"
She did not truly care. She just wanted to run outside now, away from this cursed place, saddle her horse and ride for home.
Gabrielle closed her eyes momentarily. Of course! She had stupidly thought that the connection between her soul and Xena's was somehow enough to fit this riddle - enough to redeem her? She'd forgotten all about Eve! Gabrielle quashed a sudden pang of jealousy, totally unreasonable, but all the more intense for its lack of logic. Little Eve was everything that Gabrielle was not. She held a place in Xena's soul - she was her light.
Gabrielle's hands gripped the side of the crib feverishly. She could not recall feeling so - alone? useless? - since meeting Xena. If she could not be her light, her anchor - what was she? What _was_ she? What? Hot tears welled, spilling over.
She had to leave, go - get out of this place. She turned and ran for the door, but felt herself caught from behind before she had reached the other side of the room. "Let me go, Xena!" she struggled. Her voice woke up Eve, who began to whimper, infuriating Gabrielle further. "Please! Just let me go!"
A gentle hand rubbed at her cheek, leaving it wet - then she felt herself enveloped in a hug, half-friendship, half-restraint.
"Gabrielle, you're the most beautiful thing in my life. Don't you dare leave me!"
She swivelled to face her friend. Xena's eyes were dark and, Gabrielle could not help thinking, a little scared. She felt her anger dissolving, shame settling in.
"Xena... I'm - I'm sorry."
Gabrielle wasn't sure if that had been meant to calm her or Eve, but it seemed to have worked for both. She wiped at her face, noticing Eve do the same in her bed. The sight brought a small smile to her face. She hugged Xena fiercely, then stepped back.
"All right, Warrior Princess," she managed to steady her voice. "I'm not going anywhere ... and you have only yourself to blame. You can't get rid of me that easily!"
Xena clasped her hand. "Good! Now, let's get some sleep, huh? Tomorrow's going to be a long day."
"Yeah." Gabrielle rubbed at her face. "You're right. I'll wake you up at dawn then."
Xena laughed. "Sure, sleepyhead - whatever you say." Then, her voice growing serious, "Gabrielle?"
"I wanted you to know - I'm really glad we're in this together."
Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand, then turned back towards her own adjoining room. She stopped by Eve's cradle on her way, rocking it a little. "Good night, little one." Then she was gone.
Xena watched her friend leave, then blew out the lanterns and lay on the bed, watching the darkness. She had a lot of thinking to do before dawn.
War, Wisdom and the Webs We Weave
Oh, what tangled webs we weave
When we first bring into the world
Little Adam, little Eve
20th century poem, author unknown.
(If you recognise it, please email me)
Ares sat, concealed from mortal eyes, on the very edge of a cliff high above a beach. He looked down on the battle from his vantage point on a knarled branch of an oak and cursed irritably. Xena had left Greece days ago, without so much as a word. One moment she's on the road to Amphipolis - next day - gone, taking Eve with her. Now he could not see or feel either of them. Why hadn't he thought to check up on her after that time in the inn?
The fighting had raged since dawn on the now-reddish sand and, judging from the tide marks, it was now well past noon. In all that time, he had not seen a single decent engagement. He had tried a few different battlefields, all with the same result. Eventually he had returned here, for no other reason than the old oak at least provided a comfortable viewing position.
Even the cause of the present bloodshed was stupefyingly mundane, insufficient to distract him from his thoughts. Two towns going to war over an abducted princess, or some equally silly notion. The two armies were mediocre in every way, but in that they were well matched and the battle looked set to continue well into the evening.
Perhaps the only mildly amusing thing about the whole day had been the princess herself, pushed out in front of her father's army as proof that she still lived, and was therefore worth fighting for. The young woman had been nothing special to look at - a mousy little thing with reddish hair - but she had stood there, looking at the assembled armies in defiant hatred, and did not attempt to beg for help, even when the men holding her had twisted her arms behind her back cruelly, intent on agitating her father. It was clearly not a case of elopement - just an ordinary kidnap and extortion, nothing exciting. The old king had torn at his clothes and wailed, but his daughter had shown far more stoicism. That is, until they had brought out her child. The little blonde boy had toddled about a little, before they caught him and held him away from the mother - just enough that she couldn't reach him. That's when she had finally cried out. They tied her up, of course, and her son - both were now held securely at the foot of the Ares' cliff, out of range of arrows, but sufficiently close to ensure that the goods did not disappear mysteriously during the battle.
At the rate the battle was progressing, they'd all starve to death before either side could claim victory. Ares cursed again and shot a small bolt of fire at some wooden shielding at the back of one of the army positions - the kidnapper's army - and watched with half-hearted interest as men scurried from the spontaneously combusting structure, trying in vain to salvage some of the arrows held behind it. Finally, the whole thing exploded, destroying part of the kidnapper's weapons cache, but injuring no-one. The battle continued.
An intense heat next to him coalesced suddenly into the exact reverse of the fireball below and dissolved into a slender redhead in gold armour. Ares groaned. Just what he needed...
"Hello, brother." Somehow, Athena could make a simple greeting sound smug.
"Athena. What a lovely surprise," Ares said, pretending a sudden intense interest in the blood-soaked sand below. "To what do I owe the honour?"
"Actually," Athena replied, following the direction of his gaze, "I should be the surprised one here. It's not every day the God of War decides to skew the balance of a battle against the villain."
"Screw the what?" he needled deliberately, just to see her wince at the word.
Athena indicated the charred remains of the shielding in the distance. "That fireball must have taken out a quarter of their arrows, you know they were relying on their archers to secure the flanks. King Tobias may get his daughter back after all." She regarded Ares levelly. "I never thought I'd say this, brother, but I'm proud of what you just did."
He shrugged and tossed another fireball in the direction of an identical shield at the back of King Tobias' army. Athena gave a stifled gasp as it exploded, showering debris and arrowheads on the men around it.
Ares smirked. "Unlike you, dear sister, I don't play favourites."
"Oh really? Excuse me if I'm missing something here, but weren't you the one swaggering around Olympus, trying to arrange for some mortal spawn of yours to be given a mouthful of ambrosia practically before the child was out of your pet's womb? Hm?"
Ares rose to stand on the branch, towering over his sister. "Oh please, if it isn't daddy's little girl! Why don't you go preach you morality fables to him instead? I'm sure he'd be delighted to see you."
"Do you imagine," Athena's pale eyes shot cold indignation at him, "that every mongrel you sire should be welcomed in the pantheon with arms wide open? Even our father doesn't allow himself that!"
Ares rolled his eyes. "Well, we all know that Dad's a walking advertisement for self-restraint." He glanced down shrewdly. "And swallowing your mother whole so that you would not be born was, of course, the pinnacle of gentlemanly conduct."
That found its mark, Athena flinched. Ares moved in for the kill, smiling daggers at her. "So, who's the mongrel here, dear sister?"
Athena's discomposure was only momentary. She smiled at him beatifically. "You can insult our father and myself all you like, brother, but you can't hide from the truth. You sired a mortal brat, and now she's a liability." She turned to look at the battle, deliberately ignoring his reaction. "Too bad the ambrosia thing didn't work out, isn't it? Xena always was a sensible woman, she saw right through your little scheme."
"I was _trying_ to prevent exactly this situation!" Ares roared, furious that she had been able to get under his skin, again.
Athena appeared to ignore his outburst. "... So now Xena's running around with that kid of yours, and you can't even keep tabs on the brat, because every last drop of her blood is pure mortal. Isn't that right, brother?"
Ares thought about pushing his sister right off the branch and imagined her screaming the long way to the ground, limbs flailing, before landing on top of the chained princess below. He decided against it.
"Not that it's any of your business, but I can see my daughter whenever I choose."
"More like when Xena chooses, Ares - and then, she up and takes off to some foreign place," Athena flicked her arms, "Just like that." She gave Ares a pitying look. "And poor daddy is left to wonder what Xena and baby are doing, all the way in Ch'in. You're as blind as a mortal, Ares - the kid could be dead for all you know, and you'd have no clue."
Ares balled his fists until his knuckles turned white. How did Athena always manage to hit where it hurt most? He turned away from her self-satisfied smirk, but she simply reappeared on the other side of him on the branch.
"Take my advice, brother," she said, "and forget Xena and the kid. Getting involved in the whole ugly mess was stupid enough - but getting attached is worse still. Take control of the situation, Ares - or someone else will."
Was she actually threatening him?
"Lay a finger on either of them, Athena, and I can personally guarantee you'll discover just what an 'ugly mess' really is."
Athena sighed in exasperation. "I have no interest in playing your idiotic games, Ares, but trust me when I say that your little slumming expedition isn't going to end well - because someone, somewhere is bound to figure out that the big bad God of War cares about a teeny weeny mortal baby which he can't even sense. It doesn't take a Goddess of Wisdom to see that it's going to end badly."
Before Ares could reply, the twang of a bowstring sounded just below - both gods looked down to see an arrow whiz towards the chained princess. It missed, hitting the stone above her shoulder, but it was followed by another, aimed at the boy. Ares pointed his finger and the arrow exploded in mid-flight, the too-large fireball sending the terrified archers back from the prisoners. He fired another bolt at the woman and her son and the two mortals scurried for cover, freed, as a nearby chariot burst apart into wooden chips. He'd had enough of this battle.
Athena glared at him. "If you're going to release your frustrations, Ares, at least try not to blow up any expensive equipment." She stood back from him and a gold glow enveloped her. "If you don't understand that you're jeopardising your godhood, brother, you're a bigger fool than I thought."
The glow expanded and flared as Athena vanished.
Ares looked at the place where she had stood, then shot a bolt of pure anger at it, somersaulting backwards out of the resulting fireball. He watches as the ancient oak rustled in the blaze, then toppled slowly over the edge of the precipice. Screams of soldiers below echoed its landing.
"Bitch," Ares said after it, with all the conviction he could muster. He hoped Xena did not plan on staying away from Greece for too long.
"Is is myself that I see in the deep waters?" asked
"Is it myself that I see reflected in the clear mirror?" asked
the daughter. And they approached one another and embraced.
The heart of the mother beat quicker, and she understood it.
"My child! Thou flower of my own heart! My lotus flower of
the deep waters!" And she embraced her child anew, and wept;
and the tears were as a new baptism of life and love to [her daughter].
Andersen, "The Marsh King's Daughter"
Gabrielle and Xena, dressed in the silk tunics of Ch'in's court, were led into the throne room by two guards. The deep tremble of a bronze gong announced their entrance and the guards melted away, allowing the two women an unobstructed view of the hall.
Gabrielle could not help gaping. It was, quite simply, the largest enclosed space she had ever seen. She could not even make out the far wall. All around them, decorations of ivory and gold coiled along walls and spindly columns, a multitude of lanterns glowed red-gold and vaguely draconian forms raised their sculpted heads towards the impossibly high crossbeams of the ceiling. Tendrils of perfumed smoke made her eyes water slightly.
The gong sounded again, reverberating through the enormous space. A heavy curtain was drawn aside, revealing a high dais and the throne itself. Seated upon it was a slight woman, her face concealed by a layer of white make-up, her body hidden by swathes of embroidered silk. It was impossible to determine either her age or her facial expression - she seemed frozen in colour. On either side of her, stood six men, two of which Gabrielle recognised immediately - Zhing Li and Khao Sun, the emissaries. The others, presumably, made up the rest of the council.
Guards, councillors and servants alike fell to the floor in obeisance on sight of the Empress. Following Xena's lead, Gabrielle bowed her head, but did not fall prostrate.
The command was delivered in a smooth voice, powerfully clear. It carried easily through the hall. With a start, Gabrielle realised it was the Empress herself who had spoken. Everyone rose.
"Approach the throne," the doll-woman continued, indicating Xena and Gabrielle.
Gabrielle walked beside Xena to the dais, trying not to stare at the Empress. She found it difficult to believe that a woman so swaddled and coloured could be a real, living human being.
Up close, the whiteness of the facepaint seemed even more grotesque; the skin tone of the woman's small hands, folded in her lap, almost swarthy by comparison.
"My kingdom is once again honoured by your presence, Warrior Princess," the Empress continued in her curiously melodic voice, "although I believe your last sojourn in our land was somewhat less than pleasant."
Xena's face was unreadable. "You could say that."
The Empress did not appear in the least perturbed by the interruption - although it was impossible to tell what lay hidden under the facepaint. "We do hope that you will find your present stay comfortable enough to more than make up for past inadequacies."
Gabrielle could almost hear Xena's thoughts. 'Dungeons are not known for their creature comforts'. She touched her friend's arm surreptitiously to prevent these thoughts being voiced.
"You," the Empress indicated both women in a sweeping gesture, "as well as your child, Warrior Princess, are my personal guests in the palace. I would be honoured if you were to accept my hospitality as a gesture of goodwill and friendship, both on my own behalf, and on behalf of my people, in token of their appreciation of my mother's love for them."
Gabrielle inclined her head, pre-empting Xena's response. "We thank you."
"If it pleases my guests," the woman smiled slightly, "I should like to extend an invitation to join me in a private banquet to honour my mother's memory. Lao Ma spoke highly of the Warrior Princess. I should like to learn more of my mother from a woman who had known her so well. Perhaps my people, likewise, may benefit from her wisdom. I should be grateful for your attendance at noon."
Xena bowed slightly and, Gabrielle noticed, a little wryly. "The honour is ours, Lao Hsu."
Gabrielle cringed at the informality - 'your Imperial Majesty' would have suited the scene more - but she knew better than to question Xena's methods. She was trying to sound out the woman, and Gabrielle did not interfere.
The Empress inclined her head and, as if by some magic, the curtain fell again around the dais, concealing both the throne and the immobile councillors from view.
The gong sounded again. Before Gabrielle could begin to wonder what they were supposed to do now, two guards appeared in front of them and turned to escort them from the hall. She followed Xena out, walking deliberately close to the carved columns, trying to catch a few final glimpses of the incredible decorations. She wondered about this banquet of Lao Hsu's. Whatever the Empress had planned, she was certain of one thing - it would have little to do with food.
* * *
The banquet room was decorated in a similar style to the other rooms they had seen in this wing of the palace, with the exception of the subject of the carvings on the walls and furniture. There wasn't a single dragon in sight. Instead, the room was filled with various depictions of the phoenix. Painted reed-screens created the illusion of a smaller and cosier chamber than this really was, and faint smells of spices lingered in the air.
Gabrielle heard Xena whisper out of the corner of her mouth, "This was Lao Ma's private dining room. It hasn't changed at all."
A small table was placed in the centre of the room. A wax candle floated in a bowl in its centre. There were three seats around the table.
To one side of the table, a screen folded open. A servant girl in a red tunic stepped out from behind it, her hair pulled up neatly into a knot. She bowed over folded hands - first to Xena, then to Gabrielle.
"It is my pleasure to truly welcome you both." Her voice was rich and steady - and familiar.
Lao Hsu! Gabrielle stared. _This_ had been the doll-like woman on the throne? The girl raised her face and smiled gently at her guests.
"Please, be seated," she said, taking one of the seats herself.
Xena and Gabrielle sat down. There was no trace of the white-faced formality that had greeted them. Instead, the Lao Hsu's porcelain skin glowed in the warm candlelight, a spark of something like good humour in her liquid almond-shaped eyes. She could not have been much older than twenty years of age.
"Please forgive the coolness of the formal reception - I am afraid my councillors and I disagree on some interpretations of court protocol and I find it necessary to concede them a few small battles in order to win the war."
Gabrielle glanced at Xena, trying to see what her friend had made of that statement, but Xena's face gave nothing away.
"A wise choice," Xena said evenly.
The servants brought out steaming bowls and a platter of meat that appeared to be simmering, as though still on the stove. The smells tickled Gabrielle's nose, reminding her that she had not eaten since early morning.
Dismissing the attendants, Lao Hsu served the meal herself, her hands surprisingly quick and nimble, perfectly at ease. Xena, Gabrielle saw, looked as bemused as she herself felt, though the warrior hid it well. An Empress? Serving her guests? Xena's eyes were half-lidded, intent on observing the woman.
Lao Hsu's movements were sure - not the fumblings of one used to the constant attendance of others. Gabrielle moved back slightly as Lao Hsu ladled steaming soup into her bowl. Even this simple gesture seemed elegant and fluid in her execution, almost a dance.
At last, Lao Hsu sat back down. "Please, eat. We can talk when you have satisfied your hunger."
On cue, a young servant boy approached the table. He bowed, then filled his bowl with a little from each of the bowls on the table and ate quickly. After a brief pause, he bowed again and retreated.
Gabrielle wondered what would happen if the food was indeed found to be poisoned? Would Lao Hsu simply call for another food-tester and new food? How many boys like this one were no more?
She dismissed the useless speculations. There was nothing about the Empress' demeanor to suggest that this food-tasting was anything more than tact - a show of respect for her guests.
Xena spoke. "Lao Hsu, let's skip the formalities. We both know why you called us here. What is it you want with your mother's book?"
Lao Hsu bowed her head again with a smile. "Please, eat first. There will be plenty of time to talk."
And so they ate in relative silence, chopsticks clicking against bowls. Gabrielle tried to concentrate on manipulating the strange utensils, grateful that neither Xena nor the Empress appeared to notice her clumsiness. When the last course was cleared away, Lao Hsu spoke.
"Xena, you have studied my mother's wisdom from her own words, not her book. I have not had that opportunity. My mother feared for my safety and did not raise me at court. I was raised in a monastery, until the time came to accept my inheritance and claim the throne. I have been Empress since my brother's demise."
Xena replaced her chopsticks on the table. "So you did not know that you were Lao Ma's daughter until recently?"
"I did - my origins had never been concealed from me, but I did not think to have the opportunity to govern this land when my brother had usurped the throne. His rule cast a dark shadow over my people - even now, we are still in mourning.
"Xena - Gabrielle - you know I have called you here because I am in desperate need of your help. My emissaries would have made you aware that there is deep division among the councillors?"
Xena and Gabrielle nodded assent.
"This schism is centred around the legitimacy of my claim to the throne, both as representative of the house of Lao - and as a woman. Neither sits well with some of my advisors. I'm afraid that at present, my country is witnessing some very difficult times. You will have seen fields lying fallow because there are not enough men to tend the crops, cattle wandering because there are not enough men to gather them, beggars in the streets of each village."
"I want to help my people, but my reforms require the cooperation of the council. There is simply no time for the petty power struggles that are destroying both my court and my country."
If the anguish in her voice was an act, it was an impeccable one.
Gabrielle spoke up. "What do your councillors intend to do?"
"They seek to undermine my rule, Gabrielle, in the most direct way possible - by undermining my reforms and causing yet more suffering. It will not be too hard for my people to believe that their ruler had failed them once again, embittered as they are by the memories of the Green Dragon, my brother."
Lao Hsu took a sip of tea from a tiny cup, then continued, her voice growing still more anxious.
"The campaign against me is well underway, but I feel that I have come to the end of my resources. I fear that I will not be able to combat it, should the councillors decide to move against me at the next meeting, as I believe they will." She looked between Xena and Gabrielle. "This is why I need your help. I believe that my mother's power will give me the strength I need to return my country to what she had made it. To give my people back their dignity."
Gabrielle smiled at the earnestness in the young Empress' voice. If she truly did care for her country, that alone would make the whole journey worthwhile.
Xena's voice sliced through Gabrielle's thoughts, more than a little acid.
"How do you plan to find the book?"
"I was made aware of its whereabouts by the monks that had been my guardians as a child, Xena. I owe much of my ability to resist the will of my councillors to them. Indeed, I owe them my life, for they have saved it on more than one occasion. They have placed the precious volume in my care in the hope that it will help me where they cannot."
"Where is it?"
"Safe." Lao Hsu extended her hands on the table, palms up, a gesture of supplication that transcended all cultural boundaries.
"Will you help me?" She held Xena's and Gabrielle's hands. "Please, do not answer me now - I shall await your decision tomorrow morning. Today, you are but guests in my palace. I'm sure you'll find plenty here to keep your interest - and bring back old memories, perhaps." She looked into Xena's eyes. "Warrior Princess?"
"Would you tell me about my mother?"
An uncomfortable silence stretched. Xena talked about Lao Ma very rarely - there were too many painful memories, too many regrets. But finally, the depth in Lao Hsu's eyes called forward whatever part of Xena held the treasured moments of Lao Ma's teaching, not the hurt - and the warrior smiled.
"Your mother... She was a lot like you, in some ways."
* * *
"Well?" Xena was standing in front of a large copper mirror, wincing as Gabrielle combed out her hair.
Gabrielle put down the comb and looked into the reflection of her friend's face. "Well, what?"
"What do you think of Lao Hsu now?"
There was an amused note in her friend's tone - Gabrielle had no doubt that Xena had made her own observations and reached her conclusions a long time ago.
"She seems genuinely concerned about her people's welfare." Gabrielle began thoughtfully, watching Xena pick up Eve and bounce her on her knees. The little girl's laugh tinkled through the apartments.
"She seems a bit - tired? I suppose she'd had enough of the problems with her advisors. It must be difficult to feel so fenced in. Frustrating."
Xena appeared to ignore her, playing with Eve.
The warrior turned to her friend. "I hope you're right Gabrielle. Because I agree with you - and that's got me worried!"
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips theatrically. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Xena's lips smiled, but her eyes remained serious. "Just because I can't see a trap, doesn't mean there isn't one."
"You've got to be kidding. Xena, if _you_ can't see a trap - there really isn't one." Gabrielle sat on the edge of the bed. "We've spent the entire day talking to councillors - you've seen what they're like. All sweet on the outside, cold like fish on the inside. Except Zhing Li and Khao Sun, that is. Come on, Xena, even I can see it!"
Xena sighed, lying Eve on the bed to change her. "Gabrielle, there's nothing I want more than to believe you. But in Ch'in, things are never what they seem."
Gabrielle shook her head slowly. "Lao Hsu may well be the best thing to happen to Ch'in since Lao Ma's rule. Will you deny these people their chance at happiness - Lao Ma's wisdom - because of my wrong against you? My ... betrayal?" Even now, it was still difficult to say it.
Xena winced at the pain in her friend's voice. "No, Gabrielle - it's not that..."
Gabrielle tried to keep her voice steady. "Please, Xena - do this for me. Don't make me carry this on my conscience, too. Please? Just think about it?"
Xena stroked Eve's cheek, then looked at Gabrielle. "All right."
Gabrielle beamed. "Thank you."
Xena's face remained troubled. "Gabrielle -"
She was interrupted by the entrance of a servant, followed immediately by Lao Hsu. The Empress still wore the plain red tunic, but it was now augmented by a heavy gold necklace in the shape of a phoenix. She carried a parasol in her hands.
"I would be delighted if you agreed to accompany me on a stroll around the gardens."
Xena shook her head. "I'm sorry, Lao Hsu - I'm afraid my daughter needs my attention right now." She emphasised her words with a deliberate wave of a diaper in her hand. Gabrielle cringed - what was the point of offending their host?
The Empress smiled with no hint of distaste. "Of course. Gabrielle?"
At the Empress' indication, a servant offered Gabrielle a parasol, similar to the one Lao Hsu carried. "I would be glad of your company."
Gabrielle looked at Xena questioningly. The warrior gave an almost imperceptible shrug, continuing to dress her daughter. Gabrielle took the parasol with a smile.
"I'd love to."
* * *
The garden was a manicured study in Noble Beauty - infinitely refined to reflect a perfection of form, rather than the chaotic symphony of the wilderness. Paved paths snaked up a gentle slope, surrounded by citrus trees with glossy leaves and luminous orange fruit.
Gabrielle and Lao Hsu walked slowly up the path, towards a round pergola with a curved roof and intricately carved parapets. Small birds chirruped invisibly in the jasmin-perfumed air. They reached the pergola and Lao Hsu sat on a bench inside, folding her parasol.
She smiled in invitation at Gabrielle. "Please, do join me."
Gabrielle sat, smoothing down the silk of her tunic over her lap. "It's lovely here," she said, looking over the parapet opposite, where a weeping willow rustled its leaves in a shallow stream.
"It's peaceful," said Lao Hsu, "a nice change from the court."
"I imagine it would be."
The Empress continued with a small frown, "But there is something terribly artificial about it all. I would have loved to have been born free to explore the world, Gabrielle. Like you. Like Xena."
"Your Majesty," Gabrielle began, but Lao Hsu made a motion of displeasure.
"Lao Hsu," she amended, "our lives are not as free as they seem - what Xena does is difficult and dangerous. In her own way, she is just as bound by her responsibilities as you."
Gabrielle thought about it. She could have spun a morality tale about privileges and obligations for the young woman's benefit, but something in Lao Hsu's demeanour - a kind of honesty - prohibited her from exaggerating.
"I'm more free than Xena is, Lao Hsu - but my responsibilities, my needs, are just as great as hers, and confine me to my own path just as surely." She averted her gaze, not wanting to go on to the painful part - then decided to plow on, regardless.
"I betrayed Xena once. Here, in Ch'in. I'd be lying if I said that I'm not seeking my redemption, still - as much, perhaps, as Xena is seeking her own."
Lao Hsu's eyes grew warm. "I hope you find it one day, Gabrielle."
She said nothing else, but Gabrielle felt a mutual understanding pass between them and drew comfort from it.
They sat in companionable silence for a little while, just watching the eddies of water swirl over pebbles in the stream.
"Xena must be a remarkable woman," Lao Hsu said at last.
Gabrielle grinned. "She has her moments." Then, growing serious again, she added, "Xena is the best friend I have ever had."
Lao Hsu smiled sadly. "I do not recall having ever had a real friend."
Gabrielle turned to look at the white oval of the girl's face - and felt a wave of something like protectiveness.
"Until now," she said.
Lao Hsu's expression was distant. "You'll leave with Xena when the book is open - and so you should, I would not think of holding you back."
Gabrielle did not reply. What could she say? It was true.
"Then I shall be alone again - but at least I shall have my mother's wisdom to help me. It will be a joy to get to know her at last." Lao Hsu shook herself, as if to shake unwelcome thoughts, then rose from the bench and picked up her parasol.
"It's getting late, Gabrielle - will you walk back to the palace with me, or would you rather stay here?"
Gabrielle followed her up, surprised at just how disappointed she felt. She had been sincere in her offer of friendship and the refusal, however politely phrased and reasonable, stung.
When they reached the lily pond at the gates to the garden, Lao Hsu paused.
"Do you think Xena will agree to help me, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle nodded slowly. "I think there's a good chance that she will."
The young woman breathed in relief. "Good." Then, "Perhaps you and Xena would consent to remain my guests until I have mastered the use of my mother's power?"
Gabrielle smiled. "I'd like that."
The Empress returned the smile with such genuine warmth, that Gabrielle was ashamed of her earlier resentment. "Then I am most grateful... my friend."
"So am I," Gabrielle replied.
Together, they walked back to the palace.
To think I was scared to open the box
New love on the doorstep - isn't it funny, there's
nothing on how it works
Go on, have a look inside
You won't know what you did without it
The Whitlams, "Up Against The Wall"
The large, richly furnished study was dimly lit, the light centred on the writing table in the middle and the heavy book that lay closed on its polished surface. The corners of the room disappeared in shadows - it would have been almost cosy, were it not for the tension that charged the air, heavy and palpable.
Xena and Lao Hsu stood on either side of the table, Gabrielle holding Eve a little way back. It was here, in this room, that Lao Ma had instructed a much younger, more restless, Xena. More selfish and greedy, Xena thought, and thankfully too foolish to realise the immensity of what Lao Ma had offered - else she would had never have refused it then.
She glanced over at the Empress, the girl's fragile-boned face taut with intense concentration, her body rigid. Even so, she looked so much like her mother, that Xena had to remind herself that it would be a mistake to translate Lao Ma's character to this girl. The wisdom and power contained in the book were her birthright, but Xena had every intention of making sure that it was used exactly as Lao Ma had planned - for the good of her people, or not at all. There was no doubt the book was meant for her. She just hoped Lao Hsu would live up to its expectations.
"Ready?" Gabrielle cast a questioning look from the baby in her arms to Xena.
"As I'll ever be."
Xena reached out to take her daughter, gorgeous in an emerald green tunic, embroidered with gold phoenixes. The silk felt cool and damp under her hands. Xena realised her palms were sweating.
"Lao Hsu," she returned her gaze to the Empress, "you know your mother's book contains both wisdom and power - but without the wisdom, the power is worse than worthless. If you try to use it before you've learned to comprehend it," Xena spoke with careful deliberation, each word razor-sharp - "it will destroy you. Do you understand me?"
A little shyly, Lao Hsu inclined her head. "I do. I will not dishonour my mother's memory, Xena - and I will do right by my people. You have my solemn pledge."
Xena continued to look at her a moment longer, meeting only earnest determination in the girl's dark eyes.
So be it.
She balanced Eve's weight on one arm and lifted the cover of the book, the leather every bit as supple and soft as she remembered. Lao Ma's message filled the first page, 'Dove' and 'Hawk' seemingly reaching out towards each other. The rest of the book was shut, as though the fine pages were glued together. Xena had the distinct impression that the book was, for want of a better word, asleep.
The silence in the room grew heavier, even Eve seemed to feel the tension. She squirmed a little as Xena bent forward to lower her closer to the table and placed the girl's tiny hand over the character for 'Dove', then added her own just above it to cover the 'Hawk'. She heard Gabrielle and Lao Hsu draw in sharp breaths - and waited.
There was no flash of light, no otherworldly music. Xena withdrew her hand and straightened, holding Eve close, then reached down and turned the page. Lao Ma's book was open.
The room came alive again with relieved sighs from Gabrielle and Lao Hsu, and Eve's giggles as Xena bounced her up and stood back from the table.
"Thank you." Lao Hsu's eyes shone with happiness. She stretched her hand to the book, but stopped just short of touching the page.
"It's beautiful," she said. Her fingers hovered above the script, tracing the lines of neatly formed characters. "Not just the book... the words themselves. Will you read with me?"
Xena shook her head, a wave of softness around her senses, as though memories of Lao Ma reached out from the awakened book to embrace her. She struggled to regain equilibrium.
"I'd rather not." Seeing the girl's face fall, she added more gently, "Your mother will speak to you from these pages, Lao Hsu. You should listen carefully. And we'll listen with you."
Smiling, Lao Hsu called for servants to bring them stools and reading lamps. Xena looked at the girl's glowing face and felt a curious sense of peace. Lao Ma would have been proud of her daughter.
* * *
The scream came from somewhere so deep inside her, that the distance warped it, disfigured it, made it impossible to tell whether it was born of terror or need.
Xena sat up with a hard jolt, the dark room tilting alarmingly. Her voice, hollow and terrified, still echoed in her skull. "Ares...res.." She did not know whether she had screamed it aloud, or dreamt it. She clutched the sweat-damp sheets, waiting for the world to return to normality.
The bedroom was silent, redolent with the smells of flowers from the garden, sharpened by the cool night air.
Just a nightmare.
Still, she could not shake the pure horror of the vision - nor, agonisingly, could she recall it completely. She snatched at fragments, trying to reconstruct it, but just as she thought she had, they would slip away and dissolve into nothingness. There was only one thing she recalled perfectly - Eve.
Something had happened to Eve! She had been right there, beside her - but just out of reach. Someone - or something - was there, a figure cloaked in the opaque confusion of dreams, impossible to identify. Looking, watching, waiting to strike. Eve had been crying and she could not reach her, could do nothing at all to save her baby while the sky burned white-hot around her...
Suddenly panicking, Xena jumped off the narrow bed, ripping the covers away, ran barefoot over to where Eve's crib was placed at her feet. Had something happened to her?
Inside the nest of blankets, her daughter slept peacefully, sucking her thumb.
Xena's knees buckled in relief. She sank back onto the bed and bent over the cot to take Eve in her arms. The baby breathed a soft little moan, then settled into her mother's shaky embrace without waking. Xena pressed her clammy cheek against the warm silk of Eve's forehead and stroked her hair.
"No-one is going to harm you, baby," she whispered, the sound of her voice harsh in the darkness, foreign. She walked around the bed to lie down once again, steadying herself one-handed on the side of the mattress. "No-one."
Xena laid her sleeping daughter down in the protective circle of her arms and drew the covers around both of them, curling in on herself. She thought about her nightmare. Why had she screamed for Ares? Or - at Ares? Was it his presence she sensed? Would he try to do something to hurt Eve? Take her away?
She took a deep breath and forced it out slowly, trying to extricate herself from the dread that gripped her. It had been just a dream, after all - reading too much into dreams was always a dangerous idea.
One thing, however, was certain. They had to go home.
* * *
Hours after Xena had gone to put Eve to bed, Gabrielle and the young Empress were still in the study, both absorbed in the volume in front of them. In the flicker of dancing lights, the carved ivory of the room seemed to glow from within, its warmth suffusing Gabrielle's heart. Lao Hsu read from the book, softly, her melodic voice adding a richness of texture to the richness of wisdom contained in the pages.
Gabrielle found herself wishing she had known the woman whose words floated around her, immortal. She thought about her scrolls. Would her words, clumsy though they often seemed to their writer, gain such immortality? Probably not. But it was a lovely dream, a good dream to have in the warm comfort of Lao Ma's old study.
Lao Hsu paused in her reading. Gabrielle raised her head, noticing for the first time that the lamps had begun to splutter, growing feeble. With surprise, she saw that Lao Hsu's cheeks glistened wet in the flickering light.
"You're crying?" she whispered.
Lao Hsu ran her fingers along the edge of the book, then closed it carefully, folding her slender hands over the cover.
"Not any more," she said. Then her reddened eyes softened into wistfulness. "Do you think it's possible to miss someone you never knew, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle reached over and squeezed the girl's hand. "She's with you now - always will be."
The pained look on Lao Hsu's face was too deep, too raw. She needed time. Gabrielle rose from her seat and bowed her head, her hands folded in deference to this court's custom.
"Good night, Lao Hsu."
She waited a moment longer, but the Empress showed no sign of having heard her, focused on something outside the room - outside herself. 'There is something in her,' thought Gabrielle, watching shadows play on the shimmering wetness of the girl's cheeks, 'something deep within her soul. She has suffered, too. And suffering breeds darkness in all of us.'
At that moment, perhaps more so than ever before, Gabrielle wanted to wrap her arms around the girl and protect her from whatever dangers threatened the lonely road she would have to walk to save her land. But there was also a strength in Lao Hsu's bearing, and something like Lao Ma's serenity, that told Gabrielle that the young woman had it within herself to walk that path. Gabrielle retreated from the room, shutting the door behind her quietly.
She entered her sleeping quarters as noiselessly as possible, feeling her way in the dark, trying not to wake Eve or Xena, sleeping next door. She was almost in bed when the doorway between the rooms flickered into view, backlit by a lantern. Surprised, Gabrielle walked up and pulled the screen aside to peer into Xena's room.
Xena sat on the bed, her back towards the door, cradling Eve. Gabrielle came to sit beside her - somewhat bemused that Xena was not feeding Eve, just sitting with the baby, rocking slightly.
"Can't sleep?" she asked quietly.
Xena gave her a rueful smile. "Can. Just don't feel like it."
Gabrielle looked carefully into her friend's face. What she found there shamed her. There were dark circles under Xena's eyes, her cheeks feverish, her dark hair stuck to her forehead. Gabrielle felt her own face flush with guilt. In her concern for Lao Hsu, she had neglected both Xena and Eve.
"Are you ill? Xena, you should have said something!"
The warrior shook her head. "I'm fine - just tired. Can't seem to shake these dreams, that's all." She frowned. "We have to go home, Gabrielle."
"Now?" Gabrielle's eyes widened in incredulity.
"As soon as possible. In the morning. Our job here's done - Lao Hsu is doing well."
Gabrielle breathed out through her nose. "But... you said... Xena, we can't just leave now, Lao Hsu's barely started her learning. She needs you!" The thought of leaving the Empress before the threat of a coup was truly over had not even occurred to her.
"No," Xena said gently, "she doesn't. She just doesn't know it yet."
Gabrielle's eyes stung. "I was hoping we'd see this through..."
Xena stood up and carried Eve to her crib.
"You can stay longer, if you like," she said over her shoulder, tucking the blanket around her daughter's sleepy warmth.
"But... You said we'd do this together!"
"And we have." Xena retrieved the bundle of her armour from a trunk by the wall and returned to stand over Gabrielle, still sitting on the bed. "If you want to stay with Lao Hsu to make sure she copes with her council - and her power - I understand."
"Stay here, alone?"
"Why not?" Xena dumped the pile of leather and metal onto the bed, and began to dress. "She trusts you - you'll keep her in line, make sure she can handle it all. Besides, it wouldn't be that long - the council meeting is after the next new moon." She slipped a gauntlet over her forearm. "I'll catch up with Mum, give her a chance to spoil Eve rotten." She sighed. "Maybe these damn dreams will go away, too."
"What dreams?" Gabrielle passed her the second gauntlet, too stunned to take it all in.
"Just dreams. Something to do with Ares, I think. I've got to check it out." The tone did not encourage further questions.
Gabrielle watched as Xena reached back to buckle her armour. 'Here we go again', she thought. At length, she nodded. Further argument would be a waste of breath - where Ares was concerned, it generally was.
"Okay. I'll stay - but just until the council meeting." She gave her friend a cautious smile. "Why the armour?"
Xena finished dressing and took her sword. "There's no point trying to get to sleep now. I might as well practice some drills before we go." She adjusted the scabbard on her back. "Sleep is overrated, anyway."
Gabrielle looked at her in dismay. "You're a freak, you know that?"
Xena chuckled, a little too brightly. "You're not so bad yourself. Do me a favour, would you? Pack Eve's things for me. We leave at first light."
"Sure. You don't think you ought to tell Lao Hsu?" Gabrielle wondered if breaking court protocol was a punishable offence.
"I was hoping you'd do that, too."
The bard heaved a long-suffering sigh. "All right. I'll do it - just this once. But you owe me!"
"Big time," Xena agreed, walking out.
Gabrielle looked between the empty doorway and Eve's cradle and shook her head. Just when she thought she had Xena all figured out, something like this would happen to turn it all upside down.
She just hoped it wasn't another baby.
Giving up on sleep, Gabrielle took out the saddlebags from the trunk and began packing Eve's things.
Fire and Ice
Pale were the lips I saw,
Pale were the lips I kissed
And fair the form I floated with
About that melancholy storm.
Keats, "A dream, after reading Dante's episode of Paolo and Francesca"
Xena swept down the stairs and walked towards the gate to the garden, keeping up a brisk pace to ward off the night chill and lingering memories of the nightmare. Her body ached for the release of movement, the solid reassurance of a weapon in her hand, obeying her whims, proof that she would never be helpless.
She walked through the lion-guarded gates, running her hand over the cool marble mane of one of the sculpted beasts as she passed it. No human guards required here - the garden was in a massive courtyard, surrounded by the Imperial residence. The trees rustled gently around the lily pond. Xena walked across an arched bridge to the other side, away from the sleeping palace. She stepped forward, then swivelled as if disturbed by an imaginary opponent, drawing her sword in the same movement.
For a long time, the only sounds she was aware of were her own ragged breaths and the swish of the heavy blade, slicing the air around her. Occasionally, the tip would catch a leaf and it would fall to float on the water in calm oblivion to the fury of movement above it.
Dimly at first, then with increasing discomfort, Xena became aware of something disturbing the sounds of her drill - other noises insinuated themselves into her hearing, until she could no longer ignore them. She stopped and lowered her sword, breathing heavily. There it was again! A conversation, two disembodied voices in the night. One was deep and mocking, the other higher, clearly female, but they did not sound at all like lovers. The voices were coming from behind the citrus trees lining the path.
Sword still at the ready, Xena parted the branches of the nearest tree, looking in. There was a clearing there, a rather large one. On the far side were two figures in long embroidered tunics, deep in conversation.
Just then, one of them turned slightly and Xena had to stop herself from crying out. It was Lao Hsu.
Xena crept closer, keeping to the shade of the trees, until she could just make out the words. Something was wrong - she could hear Lao Hsu clearly, disagreeing with something politely, but the other voice seemed slurred, so that she had to strain to distinguish words. It was also familiar. She moved sideways, enough to bring the other figure into full view.
Another shock brought her to a standstill. The sword hilt was suddenly slippery, the blade too heavy.
Lao Hsu was talking to Ming Tien.
Xena's heart caught so violently in her throat that she thought she could taste blood. Everything swung out of focus, she had to will herself back into reality again. It couldn't be! Ming Tien was dead! She had killed him herself, his skull pierced bloodlessly by a tapered bone, a simple hairpin. It had been her debt to Lao Ma - to do what the woman had not been able to do herself - kill her own son. The worst tyrant Ch'in had ever known. How could she have failed? How could it have been not enough?
Then the wind rustled the branches - and Xena knew that she had not failed, but the knowledge brought no comfort. Sickened, she saw the leaves blown right through his tunic and back again. Ming Tien was a ghost.
How? And what did Lao Hsu have to do with it? Xena's stomach lurched - she had miscalculated. The girl was a traitor! She forced herself to listen to what the Empress was saying, cold fury whipping her nerves raw.
"With all due respect, my brother - I cannot! Not yet." Lao Hsu's hands went out in supplication to the apparition in front of her. "Let me deal with this rebellion, let me learn from my mother's wisdom" -
Xena heard Ming Tien snort in disdain.
"Enough!" his voice sounded distant, but no less threatening for it. "You have dallied long enough - I promised you would have the cursed book and do you? Do you?! Answer me!"
The girl was visibly trembling, but her voice remained steady. "I do," she said quietly.
Behind the tree, Xena drew in a breath. So that's how the Empress had known to send for her! Idiot, to have never considered it before now!
Ming Tien's voice was growing louder, hissing like an approaching fire arrow.
"So what's stopping you from using its power? You have it all! You swore to give me life, sister! Do not think to betray me now!"
"No! No... Please, just a few days. I am not strong enough yet - using the power now will kill me!"
Ming Tien hesitated just long enough for Xena to realise that this would probably not impair his plans in the least. Then, evidently having decided that the risk of losing his vehicle of return would outweigh the inconvenience of a wait, he scowled.
"One day. That's all you have, sister - one day. When the moon rises tomorrow night, you will repay your debts!"
Debts - the word sent a chill through Xena, suddenly, dizzyingly, nudging her nightmare into vivid clarity. The hooded, cloaked figure - the watcher - not Ares, Ming Tien! The conclusion shot panic into her - Eve!! He was going to do something to Eve!
It was enough to shake her out of stunned inaction. Without waiting to hear the rest, she moved back to the path, as silently as she could, then half-ran, half-crept back to the gates. When she knew she was well away from them, she broke into a full run, pushing herself to the limit, her lungs pumping the same word over and over again - Eve, Eve, Eve.
That bastard wasn't going to touch her child!
Xena flew through the corridors, vaguely aware of having awakened a sleeping soldier meant to be on watch, of torch flames stretching after her as she passed them - but that did not matter - she had to get her daughter, now!
She burst into her room, tearing the screen aside and grabbed the door frame, momentarily disoriented by the darkness.
Gabrielle's sleepy voice brought the room back into focus. Xena stumbled inside, desperate to hold Eve. She snatched her child from the cot, holding her so tightly that Eve began to wail immediately.
"Xena, what's going on?" Gabrielle grabbed Xena's arm. "Where are you taking Eve?"
"Get your stuff, Gabrielle - we're leaving! Now!"
Gabrielle pulled at Xena's arm, forcing her back.
"Xena, will you tell me _what_ is going on?!"
Xena made an effort to speak. "Gabrielle, there's no time - I'll explain everything on the way. Hurry, please - it's Ming Tien!"
Gabrielle was already half-dressed when she heard the name. She froze. "What?!"
Xena threw her a coat, trying to silence Eve. "No time - later. Let's go!"
Gabrielle pulled on her coat and grabbed the bags she had packed earlier, all in a daze - "Not again, Xena! Please, not again!"
Suddenly, the doorway darkened. Both women looked up simultaneously - it was Lao Hsu, her tunic torn, her hair falling around her face in a dishevelled heap. She was panting, clutching her chest.
"Please... Gabrielle? Xena? Please - you must leave, now!"
Xena had the girl in a headlock within seconds - Gabrielle only realised it when she found herself clutching Eve, who had stopped crying from sheer bewilderment.
"What did you do, you stupid child?" Xena squeezed her arm until Lao Hsu, held fast, cried out in pain. "What deal did you make with that monster?"
Lao Hsu struggled for breath. "I'll te... tell you everything - just le... let me go, please!"
Xena's arm folded open, her fingers jabbing the girl's throat to block off an artery. Lao Hsu gasped.
"All right then - you have thirty seconds!"
Lao Hsu's eyes were wild in the red torch light streaming in from the corridor. She spoke frantically, her gaze darting between Xena and Gabrielle.
"The monks who raised me used to summon spirits - they didn't know I watched - the day my brother died, I tried it - he came - he said I needed him, but I didn't believe him - later, when the councillors started rebelling, I called him again and he told me about the book - he said he knew how I could open it - in exchange I promised to give him life!"
Xena took off the pinch. Lao Hsu clutched at her neck, taking big breaths.
Xena dragged her up by her hair until she was standing, then shoved her backwards. Gabrielle flinched, tightening her arms around Eve.
"Give him life how?"
Lao Hsu's teeth were chattering. "I... I don't know..."
Xena pushed her again. "Liar!"
"I don't know! He said the power will guide me - that all I need is the Key!"
"What about the Key?"
Lao Hsu's eyes pleaded with Xena. "I don't know, I didn't know until this night - but I suspect -"
"I suspect he will try to enter your body - or Eve's." A note of panic made her voice shrill. "That's why you must leave, all of you, before it's too late. I can't delay him after tomorrow night -"
Xena cut her off. "I know." She stepped back and turned to where Gabrielle was standing, her lips white, shaking her head from side to side. "No, Xena - Lao Hsu... No!"
Tears spilled over the Empress' cheeks. "Yes - Gabrielle, it's the truth! It's all my fault - I betrayed your trust... Please, leave, save yourselves, I'll hold him off as long as I can!"
Xena's voice was suddenly very calm. Both Gabrielle and Lao Hsu looked at her.
"It doesn't matter now whose fault it was. We have one day, we can make it. Lao Hsu will stay -"
She made an impatient gesture at Lao Hsu's protests.
"No, listen to me! You were stupid, but that's neither here nor there now. We have Lao Ma's power - we can use it, but we're going to need your help, do you understand?"
The girl nodded through her tears, suddenly hopeful. "Anything - just tell me what to do, Xena!"
"If we work together, we can create a ... path, a shortcut - get us to Greece. It will leave a trail of power in our wake..."
Gabrielle shook her head, terrified. "But then he'll be able to follow us!"
The blue of Xena's eyes was very cold. "Precisely."
She took Eve from Gabrielle and held the baby's head up to her shoulder, stroking her back. Eve murmured contentedly, oblivious to the tension in the dark room.
"And this is how we set a trap, baby," Xena whispered into the little girl's hair.
"After we're gone, Lao Hsu," Xena went on, "try to hold him off as long as you can - but don't put your life in danger! When he demands that you keep your word, say that you've lost the Key - that we're gone home, that you kept us under watch, but we used the power to slip away."
"I'll go with you."
"No. Your land needs you. You have a responsibility to your people, do you hear me, Lao Hsu? You're still Empress. And you can still deal with this coup, you will still have your power."
Lao Hsu made a small sound that may have been a sob - but in the next moment, she straightened and looked directly at Xena, then Gabrielle. "I will not let you down."
Gabrielle, having never seen Lao Ma, thought the woman must have looked just the way Lao Hsu did then.
"Good. Then help me do this," Xena said, setting Eve on the floor. The three women surrounded the child and stretched out their hands. Xena looked over at the Empress. "What you did just now... Your mother would have been proud of you, Lao Hsu. It takes a lot of courage to atone for your mistakes."
The girl did not reply, only held on more tightly to Xena's and Gabrielle's hands.
Gabrielle gripped her hand in return and felt a rush of power streaming through her, coursing between Xena and Lao Hsu. They were channelling it somehow, she realised - connecting to each other and then to something else, something greater. Small, threadlike, lights appeared between their hands, then reached down like a net to encompass Eve.
Gabrielle cried out abruptly - the dark room flared into a myriad flames, brilliant hues hurting her eyes. She squeezed them shut and tried to clasp her hands to her face, but they were held tight on either side of her. In the next instant, the light died, painting the inside of her eyelids with green and purple afterimages. When these swirls, too, disappeared, Gabrielle opened her eyes tentatively - and gasped.
The room was gone. They were outside, on a road winding through a forest. It was still dark, but the air had a pre-dawn translucency that clung to the trees and grass like fog. A few paces to her left, Xena bent down to pick up Eve.
"We're home..." Gabrielle whispered, looking around in wonder.
There was a fork in the roadside. An abandoned carriage stood nearby. This was, indeed, the road to Amphipolis.
"Yes," Xena smiled grimly, "we're home. Now let's make sure we can keep it that way."
* * *
"My lord, we plan to attack before noon - right there." The warlord's stubby finger poked into the rough map on the table in the command tent, leaving smudges. Ares grimaced, and flipped the dagger in his hand again. He hated incompetents. "And then, with the sun in their eyes -"
... all at once, she was calling him, her voice growing more and more desperate - where? Where was she? He searched frantically, yelling her name over and over again - and then found her - but it was too late, he knew and screamed, howled - their voices merging into a single stream of horror...
Without warning, Ares dropped the dagger, blade first, onto the table. It lodged in the wood with a low hum, shuddering. The warlord jumped back. "My lord!" he rasped.
Ares' face burned with such rage that the man dropped to his knees with a whimper. "Please, my lord -"
... then he was the only one screaming, her voice had disappeared somewhere - when? Xena!!...
As suddenly as it had begun, the vision cleared, leaving him breathless. The tent still glowed with candlelight, the warlord - oh.
The man was a snivelling heap at Ares' feet. What had he done?
The man stumbled to his feet, darting frightened looks at his patron. "I- I-..."
"Continue!" Ares barked and pointed to the map.
"Ye.. yes, my lord. As you can see, we have this region..."
Ares pretended to listen. Damn all this to Tartarus! What was wrong with him? This was not the first vision he'd had in recent days, each more insistent than the previous. Was Athena right? Was he really losing it?
Abruptly, a fragment of the vision returned, not an image, but a feeling. Ares pressed his hands into fists, it took all his resolve not to let it break him. The intensity subsided, but the feeling remained. In a flash, Ares understood it for what it was - his bond with Xena. She was back!
"Once we have cut off the supply lines," the warlord continued, "we can..."
Ares struggled not to leave there and then - but with an angry thought, he forced himself to remain the tent, his face impassive. Athena may be a self-righteous bitch, but the woman had a point, much as he hated to admit it.
He could not let a mortal - or two - interfere with everything he was. He was no lapdog, to yap at her heels; by all that was sacred, she had not bothered to tell _him_ when she had decided to journey to Ch'in out of the blue! No, he'd take care of this first - and then see her, when he was ready. He would not imperil his godhood.
"Show me the route you've planned out for your scouts," he said evenly, returning his gaze to the map.
* * *
Xena and Gabrielle pushed the abandoned carriage onto the main road with difficulty. It was no longer the splendid conveyance of the Ch'in embassage - the paint peeling, the wood cracked - but it was still in relatively good condition.
"Come on, Gabrielle - just a bit further. We haven't got much time."
Gabrielle paused to wipe the sweat from her eyes. "This has got to be the weirdest plan you've ever had, Xena." She kicked the narrow wheel in frustration. "Are you sure you can't just use Lao Ma's power to move it?"
In her sling on Xena's back, Eve giggled.
Xena pushed the carriage again. "No," she threw over her shoulder. "I can't. Are you going to just stand there, or are you going to help?"
"Ugh." Gabrielle heaved at one of the wheels, manoeuvring it over a rock with considerable effort. She paused again. "Why not?"
"Because," Xena spoke through gritted teeth, "it doesn't work that way! Besides, it's going to take everything I have just to set the trap for that bastard!"
Gabrielle shuddered and redoubled her efforts.
Nearly an hour later, they pushed the carriage onto a small side road, which, thankfully, led downhill. Nevertheless, it was nearly noon by the time they rounded the last bend and finally saw their destination. The road ended here. A meadow stretched ahead, coming to an abrupt end about two hundred paces away. Beyond the cliff top, blue water shimmered under the midday sun.
"Well." Xena held up a hand to her forehead to block the sunlight. "Looks like this is it."
Gabrielle swallowed, suddenly afraid. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
Xena gave her a curious look. "If you have any better ones, I'd love to hear them!"
Gabrielle sighed. "I see your point."
They propped up the wheels with rocks and walked towards the precipice, leaning back against the slope to maintain balance. Gabrielle dug her toes behind the roots of a tree stump on the edge, and looked down. There was a beach below, the sand smooth, but strewn with the occasional piece of mangled steel or wood, perhaps from a recent battle. If there had been any bodies, they must have been buried. A wave crashed into the sand, then melted away. Gabrielle made a grab for the tree stump, feeling light-headed. She heard Eve whimper in her sling.
Xena's arm yanked her backwards. "Whoa, not so fast. We have a carriage to crash first!"
Gabrielle retreated hastily, still a little dizzy. "Uh... Thanks."
"No problem. Let's go."
They made their way back and removed the stops from the wheels. A single gentle push was all that was required - the carriage moved towards the cliff, first ponderously, then picking up speed until it was hurtling downhill with such frightful creaks and moans that Gabrielle thought it would fall apart before it managed to reach the cliff.
It tottered on the edge, the wheels spinning in midair, before plunging down. A second later, they heard the crash of splintering wood.
Xena pulled Gabrielle to the side, towards a winding path. "I think we should take the slow way down."
They ran down to the beach, then walked carefully along the cliff wall, so as not to leave footprints in the sand. What remained of the carriage was scattered around an area twenty paces wide, boards jutting out at odd angles like broken bones, shreds of fabric whipping in the wind.
Xena paused a few steps away from what had been the seat. She looked up, her brows coming together in thought, then back down. "About here, I think."
"So - how do we do this?" Gabrielle asked, following Xena to the spot the warrior had indicated. She decided that it was too late to be scared, but her heart was beating audibly and too quickly for her comfort. Well, there was no help for it. Either this - or Ming Tien.
Xena settled onto the sand, taking Eve out of the sling, which she flung aside. "He's going to come for us, Gabrielle - I doubt he'll wait until nightfall, if can sense the blazing trail we left for him. And I'm sure he can. He needs us - me, or Eve, or maybe you -"
"Me?" Gabrielle squeaked.
"Maybe, if he was planning to use the Key for the power needed to gain a body. Could be anyone, but he needs the Key. Us. So," Xena dug around the damp sand, covering herself in grey granules, "he's going to try to take what he needs."
Gabrielle copied Xena's actions, coating herself and her clothes in sand, then helped her to do the same to Eve. The baby giggled and crawled around, delighted by the sudden freedom of movement.
"You think he'll fall for it?" Gabrielle tried not to sound as uncertain as she felt.
"I'll bet on it." Xena gave her a serious look. "We need to end this once and for all, you do realise that -"
"Yes, Xena, I do!" Gabrielle nearly sobbed, feeling terrible and unable to control herself. "It happened again, didn't it? Just when I thought it was all behind us! If I hadn't encouraged you to open that damn book -"
Xena did not let her finish. "If you hadn't, Ming Tien would have still found a way to return. This way, we can take him out. Permanently." Her eyes softened and she enveloped Gabrielle in a hug, stroking her sand-filled hair. "Don't you dare blame yourself, Gabrielle. We can handle it. Everything's going to be fine, you got that?"
Gabrielle returned the hug fiercely. "I'll do my best."
Xena spared a look at Eve, sitting in the sand beside them, then returned her eyes to Gabrielle. "Let's play dead, huh?" With that, she stretched out on the sand, limbs askew and grinned at Gabrielle's horrified look. "Come on, your best performance."
Gabrielle nodded, then took a deep breath and threw herself onto the cold roughness of the sand, arranging her body in the best approximation of a fall that she could manage. "Ready," she called out into the sand, spluttering as grains squeaked on her teeth.
Before she could work out what was happening, she felt her eyelids getting heavy, then her entire body grow numb. She tried to twist a little, but found herself unable to move. For some reason, that did not frighten her. Just before her eyes drooped closed, she caught sight of Eve sprawled on the ground in the same way, and Xena next to her. Then everything went dark.
* * *
The meeting with the warlord had stretched into the late morning, but it was over at last and Ares could enjoy a bout of swordplay before tomorrow's battle, parrying blows from five, then six opponents - just rank soldiers for now, but at least a couple of them showed some ambition and perhaps even ability. Ares twisted around and hooked the sword of the nearest man away, slicing at his abdomen. The man blocked him neatly.
"Good," Ares nodded, simultaneously turning to block two more blows. This one may be worth watching.
A sharp pain shot through him suddenly, so that he stumbled and three blades sliced through him, emerging harmlessly on the other side. The men who had wielded them lost their footing and collapsed like dominoes.
This time, Ares could not ignore it. Xena. Something was wrong!
Without a word, he vanished. Stunned warriors blinked into the blue-white light.
"Where'd he go?"
* * *
A swirl of green light blasted out above the meadow, resolving into the spiked coils of a dragon momentarily, before shrinking in on itself and turning into the skinny figure of a young man. He appeared to float above the grass, his long embroidered robe disappearing into mist where his feet should have been.
"Xena!" he screamed, and the rage in his voice sent shockwaves along the grass, from the edge of the forest, to the cliff on the other side. "Xena!!!"
His eyes, wild and glowing green like the dragon's form, searched the meadow before coming to rest on two black tracks, leading towards the precipice. A short laugh contorted his features.
"How selfless of you, Xena! But it's not enough. You're just as useful to me dead - isn't that lucky?"
He made a running jump off the cliff, spreading his arms out to float easily onto the sand below.
"What a lovely child," he said, his voice saccharine, "such a pity you had to throw her off the cliff, Xena! Look, she's all broken. But never fear, I will fix her for you. I promise!"
He laughed again and careened towards the figures sprawled on the ground, coming to rest just above Eve's face. "Here, little one, don't be scared," he cooed, bending to kiss her tiny, cold face.
... Xena coiled inwardly, darkness pressing in on her from all sides - but she could hear him, near, so close - just a little more, a step, a touch ...
Ming Tien's lips, pale and ghostly, brushed the baby's skin.
... Xena screamed in soundless triumph - he was hers! ...
The explosion seemed to come from all three bodies on the ground at once, but it was Xena, propelling all the power she could summon through her link to Eve, praying mentally that Gabrielle was strong enough to take it, to lend support without breaking the link.
She heard, clearly, Ming Tien screech in surprised agony, then all sounds combined into a wall of white noise.
A moment later, she knew he was gone.
Now it was just a matter of waiting for herself and Gabrielle to regain enough strength to break out of the spell. It was over. She allowed her mind to drift.
Xena forced her consciousness back to the present. Someone was there!
"It's a baby, sir - and two women. They're all dead."
"Keep moving, Marcus - we're going to lose them if we don't hurry. We don't have time for this, the centurion's gonna kill us. A forced march isn't a walk in the..."
... Xena felt cold, she would have shivered if she could. Roman soldiers? Here? Shit!! She screamed at them mentally to go away. A moment later, the footsteps indeed retreated ....
"By the gods!" the voice sounded again. "Look! The baby. It's still breathing!"
"Well, put it out of its misery and come along!"
... Ming Tien's touch must have wakened her! They were going to kill Eve! Xena strained against the spell, the immobility suddenly no longer her ally but her worst enemy, but it was useless, she was too weak ...
"No, she's fine!"
"How'd she survive a fall like that? It's an omen, Marcus! I'm going to take her to the centurion. Octavius will want to see this one!"
... No. No, they couldn't take her baby! Not while she was bound by her own spell, couldn't fight back! Xena summoned all the strength she still had, trying to reach for Gabrielle's side of the link to break it, but could not...
The footsteps retreated into the distance, Eve's tired whimpers marking their progress.
... Ares!! The scream came from somewhere so deep inside her, that the distance warped it, disfigured it, made it impossible to tell whether it was born of terror or need, and yet she knew it was both - Ares! Save her, damn you! Help her! ...
* * *
Ares materialised mid-stride in his hall in Olympus, opening the portal on Xena as soon as he was close enough to see. Where was she? He waited impatiently for the image to gain shape.
There! He thought he recognised the beach - then his body went cold. Xena's body lay limp and broken on the sand.
* * *
... Xena felt a shock of warmth as something connected to her - Ares? By all the gods, she would kill him for almost letting those men take her - their - child...
Lao Hsu fell onto the sand. Behind her, the remains of Ming Tien's draconian light-trail dissipated. She got up and ran to the figures on the ground. "Gabrielle! Xena - oh no... Gabrielle..."
... Ares!!! Not him! Not him, not him - why not? Was he deaf?! Xena thought she could almost break the spell, but almost would not be good enough - Ares! Dammit, where are you? ...
Lao Hsu sobbed brokenly. "I couldn't stop him in time, he was too strong - I didn't stop him..." Her small hands went out to touch the faces of the two women.
... Xena thrashed within the confines of her body - Lao Hsu! Don't!...
The girl's shrill cry lasted a fraction of a second, then her body contorted wildly, and began to shrink, as though growing backwards. Her hair became a soft down, her face filled out into childish roundness, her limbs shortened...
... The knowledge - hindsight - threatened to tip Xena into insanity - the girl was taking into herself the power that Gabrielle and she were infused with - having destroyed Ming Tien's darkness, it would now destroy Lao Hsu, year by year, until there was nothing left but her innocence - and then, not even that. Why hadn't the girl listened to her, why had she followed?! Damn it all - Ares!!!...
... Still in the aether, Ares heard her calling him, her voice growing more and more desperate - where? Where was she? He searched frantically, yelling her name over and over again - and then found her - but it was too late, he knew and screamed, howled ...
Ares appeared on the beach, a moment before Lao Hsu's body, now tiny and pudgy, burst into flames.
... it was too late, he knew and screamed, howled - their voices merging into a single stream of horror...
He ran towards the wreckage, unwilling to believe it...
... Ares... Xena felt the last shreds of strength evaporate and the chill of despair closed in on her, pulling her down into oblivion.
... then he was the only one screaming, her voice had disappeared somewhere...
The baby's shape in the fire disappeared in smoke as the flames writhed. Ares put them out with a thought, his hands to the elbows in red-glowing embers, searching for his daughter, calling out again and again - "Xena! Eve!!" - like a mantra, like some weird magic that could breathe life back into Xena's still form on the sand and into this ash that a second ago was his child - but it was too late. The ash mingled with wet sand and clung to his skin.
They were gone.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Ares stood up, ignoring the blackness on his arms, the wreckage around him. He knelt between Gabrielle and Xena, his arms clutching at Xena's body, her arms, legs, shaking her as if the movement could restore her - but she was a limp rag-doll in his arms, her head lolled in a parody of life. There was nothing else.
He was too late.
Truth may seem, but cannot be;
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she;
Truth and Beauty buried be.
Shakespeare, "The Phoenix and Turtle"
He must have sat there for a long time, kneeling before her on the sand as if she were the god and he - a mortal come to worship, because eventually the light became grey, then bluish as the sun set.
'An ordinary day', he thought, lifting his head to look around. The sky was still tinged pink from the sunset, the waves crashed and hissed behind him. Somewhere, a bird shrieked.
It didn't make sense that she should go like this, taking their child with her, and the world should just keep going as though nothing had happened. He looked up at the cliff, then across at the broken carriage and the burnt tree trunk to one side of it. A memory of himself talking to Athena surfaced - here, above this beach - he had brought down that tree off the cliff, angry at her taunts. Could it have stopped the carriage from falling? Could he have stopped it?
His own thoughts returned to haunt him, like wisps of smoke - "take care of this first - and then see her, when he was ready" - and he could have wept, if he knew how.
"I killed her," he whispered to the uncaring wind. His only reply was another cry of a distant bird.
From then on, he didn't stop to think - it was too much, he didn't want it.
He made as if to pick her up her, then thought better of it, took Gabrielle's feather-light body instead and disappeared with it. A moment later, he reappeared, now more confident, slipped his arms under Xena's form - her head dropped back, exposing her neck, he had to lift her higher so that her hair would not touch the ground, then disappeared again.
Inside the mountain cave, Ares carved two coffins from the ice in the walls, never pausing, then set them in the centre of the chamber. He placed both bodies inside carefully, the sand now gone from them, and closed the lids.
The cave was silent, lifeless. Time seemed to stand still here, and the world outside seemed a strange dream - too fast, too warm.
Ares picked up Xena's sword and chakram from the ground and drove them into the ice between the two caskets, a makeshift tribute. He looked down at her face through the sheet of ice - and fought the impulse to free her, stifled the thoughts of doing something - anything - to bring her back. Momentary resentment flared. Ambrosia could have prevented this - he would never have had to stand by her grave then!
But she had never wanted ambrosia. All he could do now was honour her wish. Strange - he had never realised that mortality cast a shadow, or that it would be so cold.
"I handled you all wrong, I know that," he said into the frozen silence, and fractured light sang back wordlessly. He pressed his hands to the ice covering Xena's form and wished he could feel the chill of it through his bones, like a mortal. He glanced back at Gabrielle's body, encased identically in her casket. Figures that the irritating blonde would have been there, with her. But he wasn't.
"She knew what you needed - unconditional - and unselfish - love, and I couldn't give that to you. But I..." - gave you a child, he almost said, and knew that would sound wrong, be wrong.
"... I appreciated you in ways she never could - your rage, your violence," the words were sharp, like shards of ice, he forced his voice to steady - "your beauty."
His fingers dug into the lid of her coffin, he had to stop himself from forcing them clear through.
"When you sacrificed yourself for others, you were hers." He wanted to hate her for it, for the choices she had made - but couldn't summon the energy to feel. "But when you kicked ass - you were mine."
He paused, drawing his fingers along the crystal surface, memorising its feel, the sight of her face - so tranquil - beneath it.
"You're with her now," he said, not to the ice, but to the crystal-strung air around him. "Take good care of your mother for me, Eve."
... I couldn't.
Athena's words rang in his memory - 'she could be dead for all you know, and you wouldn't have a clue'.
Oh, but he did. And it made no difference at all. No fucking difference. They were all dead. And the world just went on.
"I love you, Xena."
* * *
Later, when the sky was light again with the sharp whiteness of morning, Ares stepped out of the cave. He turned back, his face blank, and sealed the entrance with his power. No-one, god or mortal, would ever enter this place.
Eternal life was a gift in many guises. He could protect her now - forever.
END OF BOOK ONE
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