THE OUTSIDERS: Book II
Disclaimer: All familiar characters are the property of MCA/Universal. There are some lines from actual episodes here. Please don't sue me, no money made, no harm done.
Little darling, I feel that ice is finally melting,
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear.
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun, and I say,
It's all right.
The Beatles, "Here Comes The Sun"
In the blinding expanse of snow, where winds howl among the jagged peaks of Mount Aetna, seasons do not change. Like snowdrifts, they eddy and twist, with little to distinguish between spring and autumn, summer and winter. The aloof splendour of the mountain is timeless, separate and removed from the oblivious humans scurrying about their lives below. They plough their fields, scream in childbirth or war, dance at harvest festivals then die, to be replaced by others just like them, to scurry and die in their turn. The slopes of Mount Aetna are not so different then to the timeless splendour of Olympus, with its marble-gold halls and endless feasts, and the two humans entombed within its frozen heart are no less eternal than the pantheon of gods.
It had not always been that way.
Ares, God of War, stood at the foot of a sheer cliff, looking over the scarred landscape that opened up around him. Impassive, his dark eyes swept the scene, from the soaring peaks a dazzling, eye-watering whiteness edged with blue to the pock-marks of caverns and the weathered remains of rockslides below. He was not mortal; the thin air did not make him dizzy, and the frost could not touch his skin around the customary black of his armour. A long exhaled breath clouded the air. How he hated this place! Hated it, fought it, and kept coming back.
Ares turned slowly, his boots crunching on fresh, untouched snow. There was nothing to see. The cliff-face towering over him was a vertical wall of ice. His own power had long ago sealed the entrance to the cave; there was no one, no mortal and no god, who could disturb it, or would be fool enough to try. At least in death, Xena could be as eternal as he, hidden away from time and from curious eyes. The ice casket he had carved for her would hold her forever. Ares felt absurdly jealous of it of the dark cold that could touch Xena's skin, her black hair, her slender long fingers. Once she had been warm and alive, full of fire, beautiful in her fury. He never could understand her when she wasted that fire in self-sacrifice, burning herself up when she could have taken cities and empires instead but then Xena had always done things her way.
They had made a child, once. A daughter. Mortal like her mother. She was gone, too, taken by fire rather than ice, burnt to ash on some deserted beach in Thrace. It did not matter how mortals died only that they did. Sometimes Ares wondered if Xena or their child had existed at all, or whether it mattered if they had.
He bent down and scooped up a handful of icy snow. It sparkled in the sunlight with a shifting rainbow of colours. Funny; he'd never noticed how different each of the flakes was, when seen so close. His breath melted the crystals, turning them into identical droplets of water. He threw the rest aside and brushed his hand on the side of his vest. He'd had enough of eternity, for now. He turned and walked back into the world of mortals.
A small whorl of snow formed in the dip where the God of War had touched it. The disturbance was tiny, hardly even noticed by the ancient mountain. A tiny fissure ran down from it, then stopped when it reached the rock. Below it, where the cave walls had been cut to form two caskets, the ice gave a soft clink. Another fissure had awakened. It threaded its way upwards invisibly, slowly zigzagging higher with every shift of the mountain, with each wind-dislodged stone that skittered down the cliff to the plateau below. At last, it reached the ceiling. Trapped there, it began to expand into the rock itself, blossoming with more hairline cracks, like a sombre colourless spring that was nevertheless as real and unstoppable as the spring that came to the world below. The filigree of fractures embraced the icy rock; it collapsed inwards in a glittering shower of stone, mirroring the glittering showers that watered the plains far below.
Like them, it heralded life.
The rocks tumbled onto the two caskets on the cave floor. No single stone was large enough to shatter the lids, but many were quite sharp enough to send fissured blooms across the sheets of ice, making them opalescent and fragile.
Spring had come to the mountains. Inside the caskets, just as in the tilled earth below, life quickened, stirred, and broke free.
* * *
Cold she was far too cold, every breath seemed laced with ice and her body felt stiff and unresponsive. Xena tried to open her eyes, but that single movement seemed to require an inordinate amount of energy. She persevered, an effort of will, rewarded not by the opening of her eyes, but by a shuddering spasm of numb muscles that twisted her body in a rapid convulsion. Her fist connected with the smooth surface of something above her. Xena cried out with surprise; her arm continued upwards, smashing whatever it was into useless shards, punching into the void above until her elbow locked with a jolt.
It was then that her eyes finally obeyed her command and opened, then closed immediately: for the briefest of moments, it seemed she had looked directly into the sun.
Where was she? And why was it so cold?
The next time Xena opened her eyes, it was with considerably more care, shielding them first with her hand and turning her head sideways as far as she could. She sat up too quickly, dizzy from fear and the sudden movement, more fragments falling around her ice. Ice everywhere blue-white, lit into blinding brilliance by the sunlight streaming in from above, forming what had once been a box of some sort around her. Xena kicked its remnants to the floor and tried to blink away the tears that blurred her vision. Her teeth were chattering uncontrollably, but the rest of her body protested every movement.
She was sitting on some sort of platform, in a cave. An icy cave, with smooth walls and a ceiling fringed with rainbow-glittering icicles. Which was patently ridiculous, because she should have been on a beach, waiting for Ming Tien to appear ... And he had. Xena followed that thought, prodding stubbornly at disjointed memories that refused to make sense. Ming Tien had appeared; she'd feigned death to lure him close enough to destroy him with Lao Ma's power. Using the power was supposed to exhaust her, and perhaps play tricks on her memory, too but it was certainly not supposed to deposit her in a cave full of ice!
A part of her wanted to believe it a dream. Her stiff cold body assured her otherwise. Xena set her jaw to stop her teeth chattering, making her entire body shiver instead, and slowly turned around. Then she stopped. What she saw made her forget all about the beach and Ming Tien: a scant few paces away, on a platform like the one on which she sat, stood a coffin. It was made entirely of ice, its lid littered with rocks and debris. A dark shape was visible inside its translucent walls. With a sickening lurch, Xena realised what the 'box' around her had been and what the second one implied.
Ignoring her screaming muscles, Xena stumbled towards the ice coffin and fell to her knees, sweeping the fragments of rock aside with hands made clumsy by cold. The lid crumbled as though it had been waiting for her touch; its frozen shards flowed through her fingers to the floor, cutting her hands. There she was!
Gabrielle lay inside the casket, her eyes closed, her face purplish with cold, her lips almost black. She wasn't breathing.
"Gabrielle!" Xena's hands, numb and awkward, reached inside to grip her friend's shoulders, shaking her. "Gabrielle, wake up!" She was not dead, she wouldn't believe it... She hit the casket, "Wake up, dammit!"
Gabrielle's eyelids fluttered, her lips parted slightly ... then she yawned. She was alive!
Xena tore at the ice around Gabrielle's limp body, lifting her up into a sitting position, trying to support her head. Gabrielle's short blonde hair felt damp, Xena brushed it back. "Breathe," she thumped her back lightly, "Breathe, damn it! Talk to me!"
Gabrielle drew in a ragged breath. Her eyes opened and closed, and then she squinted into the light. "Xena?"
Xena's shoulders sagged in relief. "Yeah."
Gabrielle raised a shaking hand to her head, missed, tried again, rubbing her forehead and the bridge of her nose. "I'm awake..."
"Why is it so cold?" Then she opened her eyes fully and looked around, puzzled. "We're in a cave."
Xena gave her a tense smile. "Looks like it."
"What are we doing in a cave?" Gabrielle looked down at herself, then over at Xena's hands, criss-crossed with a dozen small cuts. "What happened?"
Xena shook her head slowly. "I don't know." She closed her eyes briefly, remembering. "It worked ... Ming Tien's gone."
"Ming Tien?" Gabrielle fought to stay calm. Ming Tien was dead...
"And," Xena glanced aside uncertainly, then looked sadly at Gabrielle, "so is Lao Hsu. She's dead, Gabrielle. The power we used against Ming Tien destroyed her."
Dead. The word rang against the cavern walls. Gabrielle listened for the echoes to soften into silence. Lao Hsu, the young empress of Ch'in. She had not meant to bring back Ming Tien's ghost, but he'd been too strong for her. Gabrielle remembered feigning death on the beach to trick Ming Tien's ghost into getting close enough for Xena to destroy him. But ...
"Lao Hsu wasn't supposed to be there!"
Xena's voice softened. "She followed him. I think she wanted to protect us."
"Gods..." Gabrielle shook her head slowly.
Xena's eyes grew suddenly wide, as though she had been jolted awake. "Eve! My baby!"
Gabrielle broke off. "She's not here?"
Xena jumped to her feet, looking around wildly. "She's gone! She they took her!" She was shaking all over, her hands grasping wildly at her shoulders where the straps of Eve's baby carriage used to be. "Eve's gone!"
Gabrielle rose with difficulty and gripped Xena's arms, then her cold face, trying to still her shaking. "Xena. Xena, look at me!" When Xena's frantic eyes found hers, Gabrielle spoke as clearly as she could, trying to ignore the dull horror in her own heart. "Who took her?"
"Romans! Soldiers I heard them leave, back on the beach; one called Marcus, I didn't hear the other's name... They said something about a commander named Octavius." Xena's voice dropped to a hoarse whisper, shaking along with her body. "I tried to break the spell, but I couldn't do it, Gabrielle. I couldn't stop them. I couldn't save her!"
Gabrielle stroked Xena's arms, trying to soothe her "You will. It's okay, we'll find her, the Romans couldn't have gone far ... Xena, please ..."
Xena stilled abruptly, her whole body stiffening. Puzzled, Gabrielle followed her gaze to one side of the cave, and saw what Xena was looking at. Her weapons. Her sword had been driven vertically into the floor, the single emerald atop its hilt catching the light to shine a vivid green. On the sword-hilt was balanced the circular blade of the chakram. A tablet of blue ice carved with some sort of inscription was propped up against the sword.
"What is that?" Gabrielle asked, eyeing the arrangement nervously. It resembled an altar.
Wordlessly, Xena went over to her weapons and picked up the tablet. She glanced at the writing briefly, as though she already knew what it would say, then turned it towards Gabrielle. The engraved angular script shone a brilliant white in the cold light. Gabrielle felt her breath catch.
"Xena," she read out in a whisper. "Eve. Gabrielle."
A tombstone. Their tombstone; hers, and Xena's, and little Eve's. Gabrielle stared at the writing, but could not take it in. So many times she had come close to death, had seen its shadow in every fight, had once returned from the very brink of eternity... Never, in all that time, did she imagine seeing her own name on a grave. It made her feel intangible, ghostlike, as though she could simply cease to exist.
Xena's hollow voice dispelled the strangeness, but not the cold that kept pressing on Gabrielle's chest, making it hard to breathe. She found she could do nothing but watch as Xena kicked the altar apart with savage precision, replacing the chakram at her hip and the sword on her back. When she turned around again, her face was oddly empty, and the blue of her eyes was ice.
"Ares," Xena said. "That's how we got here."
Not knowing how to respond, Gabrielle tried to reach for her hand, but Xena ignored her.
"He thinks we're dead. You, me, Eve, all of us." Xena turned and began to pace the chamber, her footsteps crunching on the crushed ice and snow underfoot. "He buried us here, with full honours, the way the leaders of his armies are buried when their time comes." She looked at the hole in the ground where her sword had been, then ran her hand along the rim of the chakram. "We won't be seeing him again."
Gabrielle stood in utter silence, gripping the edge of the ice platform for support. It numbed her hands. "Can you ... try to call him?" she asked at last, but knew the answer even before she heard it.
"No point," Xena said dispassionately. "He thinks I'm dead. He won't be listening."
"But Eve's name, on the tombstone..."
"Eve is alive." Xena whirled around, continuing her circuit of the cavern. Finally, she stopped and looked up at the breach in the ceiling. "We'll get her back."
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around herself, trying in vain to stop shivering. "If you did reach Ares, somehow... Would he help...?"
Xena froze for a moment, still looking up. "No."
She removed the chakram from her hip and launched it upwards at the opening. It hit one side, then the other, ricocheting off a wall before she caught it again. The opening widened, sprinkling ice and rocks, then cracks ran down from it along one wall, and a whole section crumbled inwards, helped by the force of an angry whistling wind. Gabrielle sprang back as the rocks tumbled around her.
Outside, it was even brighter, and colder. Cliffs and snow-covered slopes were mercilessly bright against the blue sky. Gabrielle and Xena pushed their way forward along a sheer wall of ice, fighting the stinging wind. It was a clear, cloudless day; far below, fields were visible, toy-box buildings and people around them.
"We have to get down there," Xena raised her voice to carry above the wind.
"How?" Gabrielle screamed her response, barely able to make her numb lips move. The way down seemed to consist largely of gorges and sharp rocks slick with frost.
Xena pulled her behind an outcrop and the wind abated slightly. "Carefully."
She tore strips of linen from her underrobe, twisting the material, then snapped it taut to test the strength of the rope. "It'll have to do." She passed one end to Gabrielle and showed her how to tie it around her waist.
Gabrielle looked into her friend's blue-lipped face, trying wordlessly to offer some comfort. Xena turned away, looking down the mountainside. Then she shook herself.
* * *
The climb down proved difficult, but not as bad as Xena had expected. At least they managed to avoid slipping on treacherous rocks, and the more insidious dangers of frostbite. Nevertheless, both she and Gabrielle were on the verge of collapse by the time they had reached the small settlement at the foot of the mountain, long after nightfall.
The noisy drinking hall was warm and dark with smoke, and smelled strongly of ale and burnt meat. A spit was turning in the fireplace, an orange-gold fire roaring over the charred meat. Although the heat seared Xena's skin, it did not penetrate any deeper. Inside, in that place where she harboured her baby's laughter, her eyes, her sleepy murmurs there was only ice. It was easier that way, Xena thought with some measure of gratitude. Easier, too, not to wonder whether she should have let Ares in on their plan to play dead. A vague discomfort surprised her; she tried not to imagine the scene on the beach, the way he must have found her and Gabrielle in the wreckage of a carriage under the cliff, his face when thought he understood. A darker part of her wished she had seen it.
Xena shook her head; there was no point pondering the what-ifs. The dreams she'd had in Ch'in, of a dark figure hungry for Eve's life, had not exactly inspired confidence in Ares. By the time she'd realised the threat was not Ares but Ming Tien, it had been too late. Things might have been different if she could have trusted him in the first place.
It didn't matter anyway. What mattered was the present. The legionaries who had taken Eve had been on their way back to Rome; if she could find this Octavius, she'd find Eve. Xena wondered how much of a lead the Romans had on her.
Opposite her, Gabrielle gazed around the place curiously. She pointed to something on the wall, "What do you think that is?"
Xena looked in the direction she had indicated and shrugged. "A scroll."
"I know it's a scroll," Gabrielle frowned, "I mean - what is it?"
"That's your department," Xena said, fighting impatience. "A scroll's a scroll to me." Where was the food? She wanted to be on the road, moving, getting closer to Eve.
Gabrielle slipped out from behind the table, and went over to investigate the scroll. Xena could not help a flicker of envy. Even at a time like this, Gabrielle had such a zest for life. She somehow managed to find everything about it fascinating right down to filthy old pieces of parchment decorating a tavern wall, probably pinned up to mask a hole.
"By the gods!" Gabrielle exclaimed, startling an old man nearby into spilling his ale over the table. He gave Gabrielle a nasty look, which she ignored, squeezing past him back to Xena.
"You're not going to believe it!" she said, eyes bright with excitement.
"Try me," Xena smiled up at her sourly. She tried not to sound irritated. Unless that scroll was a map of the shortest route to Rome, she didn't want to hear about it but it didn't look as though she'd have much of a choice. Gabrielle took no notice of her indifference, smiling broadly.
"That is my scroll, Xena. Mine! And that one, too..."
Xena shrugged, stretching her legs under the table. "So they bought some of your scrolls. Good for you."
Gabrielle waved an impatient hand. "There's more, all along the walls, look! My scrolls on a wall, Xena! I wrote them. That one is all about Eli..."
A merry laugh tinkled behind her, and a buxom red-haired serving girl appeared with soup and ale in wooden kegs. She set the steaming tray on the table and put her hands on her hips.
"I'm sorry, but that's not possible," she said with an air of absolute authority. "Those aren't your scrolls."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle challenged, a little put out. "Of course they are! I think I know my own work."
"That," the girl waggled a plump finger at the scrolls, "was written by Gabrielle the Bard of Potadeia." She breathed the name reverently. Both Gabrielle and Xena stared at her. "Ma says it's very old," the girl added proudly. "At least as old as this place twenty-five summers."
"Doubt it," Xena said, pushing the a soup bowl closer and dipping in her spoon. "Gabrielle wrote about Eli last year. If she says it's her scroll, then it's her scroll."
"Thank you!" Gabrielle said triumphantly.
The serving girl looked from Xena to Gabrielle in consternation. "You're saying that you... you're Gabrielle of Potadeia?" She spoke slowly, as though confirming that Gabrielle had two heads and breathed fire. "The famous bard?"
Gabrielle's cheeks reddened. "Well, I don't know about 'famous', exactly but yes, I'm the bard of Potadeia. Gabrielle. Nice to meet you, "
"You're crazy," the girl said shrilly, taking a step back. "Or a liar. Everyone knows that Gabrielle of Potadeia disappeared twenty-five years ago." Warming to her topic, she continued more certainly. "Grandma used to be friendly with Cyrene of Amphipolis you know, the mother of the legendary Xena. Went over to comfort her when she heard Xena and Gabrielle had disappeared. I bet they died fighting some horrible monster," she added with relish. "It must have been a terrible battle."
Xena stopped eating, the spoon halfway to her lips. There was something macabre about hearing this girl spout such nonsense. And yet...
"Broke her heart, the poor woman," the girl continued, wiping a tear with the corner of her apron. "Grandma says she never recovered. Died ten years ago, bless her memory."
Xena's fingers locked around the girl's hand like a vice. "Repeat that!" she demanded.
"Uh... Cyrene died ten years ago?" said the girl, pulling at her wrist. "Let me go, lady!"
Instead, Xena only gripped tighter. "How long ago did you say Xena and Gabrielle disappeared?"
"Twenty-five years this summer. Hey, Bibulus " the girl called over her shoulder to a man behind the bar, "how many years since Ma bought them scrolls up on the wall?"
"Bout twenty, I imagine," he called back over the general din without looking up from the mugs he was filling, "four of five years after we opened here. Got a real nice bargain on that blue one with all the Indian mumbo-jumbo!"
Vindicated, the girl looked back to Xena and Gabrielle. "There, see? Now let go." Her wrist released, the girl covered it with her other hand protectively. "And that's five dinars for the food."
Gabrielle counted out the coins mechanically, handing them to the girl, who glared at her strange customers and left, muttering to herself about drunks and maniacs.
"Twenty-five years," Xena repeated quietly. "I don't believe it." Her eyes met Gabrielle's appalled stare. "But it all makes sense: the tombstone, the caskets, your scrolls... And my mother..." All colour drained from Xena's face, her fingers trembled so badly that she had to clasp her hands to still them. She licked her cracked lips and forced them to form the word "Eve."
Unable to comprehend it, Gabrielle just shook her head again and again, but it did not seem to make any difference. The silence was long and unbearable. From somewhere far away, her own voice asked, "What do we do?"
Xena did not answer for a very long time. When the reply came, her voice was calm and clear, but there was a foreign note in it that made Gabrielle feel cold droplets of sweat trickling down her back. "Nothing has changed, Gabrielle."
"We go to Rome."
She said no more, but picked up her spoon again to attack her food with a deliberate ferocity. Gabrielle looked at her for a moment, before starting on her own meal. Some autonomous part of her mind began to compose a ballad. It happened all the time in ballads. You could say that sort of thing twenty-five years later like it didn't matter what happened in those twenty-five years. The entire span of her life, almost doubled in what seemed like a night, and Eve... How could they ever find a twenty-five year old woman they did not know, among all the people of the Roman empire? Where would they start looking? Octavius and his legion would be long gone.
Everyone would be long gone. And everything.
The impossibility of it was lost in the impossibility of everything else Gabrielle pushed all thoughts aside and followed Xena's example. The food was simple, and real. She clung to that.
* * *
Later that night, when Gabrielle was asleep, Xena went into the small peristyle garden of the inn. It was a rectangle of flower beds and evenly spaced trees, still bare of leaves after the winter. Xena touched the smooth, sticky bark of a nearby linden; she could almost feel the sap rushing inside. It did not calm her in the way she had hoped. Every person she and Gabrielle had talked to had confirmed the serving-girl's story, adding new details Xena did not want to see, making this world real. Impossible as it was to believe, it was equally impossible to deny it. Twenty-five years had passed while they had slept and her baby, her daughter, was lost as irrevocably as the rest of the world.
But not Ares. What if he had searched for Eve, found her? What if the tombstone lied? The thought held too much fear to be a wish.
Xena glared at the dark sky. She had to talk to him! There were so many things to say, to demand. Whenever he'd pull one of his tricks, he'd at least stick around to watch her fight her way out of the mess. But he wasn't here now. She couldn't sense his presence, not even the potential for his presence. It was as though it had been sliced from her mind, amputated. Gone. If she had needed further proof of the passage of time, this was it. It was hardly surprising that her awareness of Ares would be gone after twenty-five years but the need to feel it was irrational, almost animal in its intensity, like wanting to breathe underwater. The harder Xena had tried to ignore it, the stronger it became, until she was convinced that Ares was standing just behind her and had started to turn at each noise, real or imaginary.
Xena bit her lip; this was crazy! What was the point of trying to call him? He thought she was dead, so much the better. She was just reaching out for something to cling to in this world gone mad, that was all. Hoping it was just another game of his. She could handle that.
She'd grown used to having to deal with his none-too-subtle manipulations, double-edged words and plans she would be obliged to foil and more recently, those other things, too. Like the way he would glance at her when she let him hold the baby: tentative and a little awkward under the nonchalance. Eve would nestle into his arms and an inexplicable warmth would rise in Xena, watching them. It made her wonder and it made her look squarely back at Ares when he caught her thoughtful stare. She couldn't let him see her doubts. Still, Eve had changed something in both of them; it was easier not to guess what. Perhaps that was partly why she had been so eager to travel to Ch'in to get away from Ares, from being forced to deal with him constantly. It hadn't worked. Each time she'd pick up her daughter from the dragon-carved cot, she'd remember that hidden wonder in Ares' eyes and then at night, she'd toss and turn, and wake up flushed with dreams that lingered in her body defiantly, still tasting the gasping light touches of his mouth...
"Damn." Xena expelled a breath, irritated at herself. Her skin was pounding hot in the chilly air of the garden. There was no time for this!
Before she could change her mind, she cleared her throat and said, "Ares."
She was pleased at how it came out level and strong in the blue night.
She only said it once, and it made things easier. Her mind had tried to argue with the marker on her grave and the gaping hole in her awareness, clinging to doubts; mercilessly, Xena tore herself free. Whatever her link with Ares had been, it was gone.
The only sounds in the garden belonged to the night; Xena pressed her back to the cool stickiness of the bark and listened to the near-silence. So. After all the years of trying to escape Ares, she had finally managed it. At long last, she was free.
It was a curiously empty feeling.
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