|Xena and Gabrielle are hostages
held by others. Only they can make a profit on them, not me.
My thanks to Mary Morgan who would have written this in ways I could only dream, Ann Braxton and Stephanie, who requested this bit of Halloween writing.
Mail is always answered at email@example.com
Sunset approaches. The last hours of the day, the final days of a season. The barren fields indicate that the harvest has been taken. Two women, one riding, one walking alongside, with the reins of her mount held casually in one hand.
"I dont suppose I ever apologised for getting mad at you?"
Xena pursed her lips as though seriously considering the question. Argo snorted underneath her. "Nope, dont think you ever did."
Gabrielle gave the horse an exasperated glare before turning to look up to her partner. "Okay. Im sorry. I was wrong. To my shock " and at this point both grinned at each other, " it was a lot of fun. And I know thats not something you usually go out of your way to find."
Xena slowed Argo down to keep pace with the younger woman. "Are you saying Im not a fun date?"
"No, there are those rare occasions Very rare ones, of course," she teased back.
It had been far too long a time since Gabrielle had been in such an upbeat mood. She had no idea why; it simply seemed as though her mind was clear and uncluttered for the first time in longer than she wanted to think about. Exhilarated by the crispness of the day, several times shed drawn her sais on autumn leaves as theyd fallen around her, spinning about, slashing them before they touched the ground.
Xena gave a dramatic sigh. "I used to be known as quite the party girl. Have I become so stodgy in my old age?"
"Well, I think your idea of partying and mine are still a little different. But you still can surprise me sometimes."
"And did I this time?"
"Yes. In a good way for once." She couldnt repress a laugh at Xenas obviously faked hurt expression. "Seriously, Im sorry I yelled and called you insensitive, but I never thought Samhain could be fun!" Gabrielle slowed her steps as she reminisced. "When I was little I remember being scared by an old Celt who lived near our village. She said that this was when the dead walked and the barrier between the living and the dead was at its thinnest. Id figured wed had enough of death or religion for a while."
The warrior raised her eyes to appraise the empty fields and nearly bare trees around them. "Well, the Druids believe that theres a veil between worlds and you can journey to the Land of the Dead at this time of year."
"Been there, done that," Gabrielle shivered.
"We could have stayed if you wanted to," Xena said
"I know." Then in an attempt to lighten the topic, she added, "but I know weve seen enough men dressing as women and vice versa."
Xena chuckled "I think youre more worried Id get into the pranks."
Gabrielle laughed. "That too."
Conversation faltered and Gabrielle remounted her own horse. They had no specific direction as usual and perhaps it was the subject, but the mood changed again at some point. They continued on for some time without speech as the sky darkened, and the unusually uncomfortable quiet began to wear on Gabrielle. Why, she was not sure. It couldnt have been Xenas silence, for she was used to that. Perhaps she blamed the warrior for somehow smothering her high spirits. As if matching her mood, the temperature began to drop and an overcast sky suffocated the burgeoning sunset. What had been a fine end to a good day slowly seemed dreary. Gloomy. Almost ominously so.
There was a strange sensation in her teeth, a vibrating sort of numbness that first caught Gabrielles attention. There was a tension that seemed to come from the chilly air about her, a growing feeling of wrongness that she could not place. She had lived her life and often barely survived these past few years by relying on her instincts, and she began to listen now.
Xena. Something about Xena.
She drew alongside her partner and was about to ask something when their eyes caught, and held. For a flicker of a moment she saw that Xenas eyes were not their usual ice blue, but something else. Something she had last seen in a nightmare of demons and bacchae. Orange. White irises circled by orange.
Swallowing, she tried to freeze her statement, but it had been too late. Knowing that even after all this time her countenance was too open to hide what she had seen, she averted her face as quickly as she could.
Immediately came the fear. Irrational and terrifying fear that shocked her into paralysis for a moment. That it affected her so thoroughly seemed even more frightening. Even when she had been fooled by Callisto occupying that very familiar form, she had never felt such an aura of menace. Somehow she knew to her bones that the tall, dark and beautiful body astride Argo was a threat to her life, and that as each second passed the danger was increasing.
What was she supposed to do? There was no point in pretending she didnt know that this was an impostor, and every part of her was screaming that she had to get away, to run faster than she had ever before it was too late. She needed time to think, to figure out what had happened to the real Xena. She had to get away from the force that was nearly petrifying her.
Without looking, she knew that her every movement was being carefully watched and measured, so she waited until the woods they were travelling beside were touching the path. Then without warning, she leapt from her mount and slipped into the forest, hoping, even praying, that whatever had possessed Xena would be taken off guard long enough for her to get enough distance and time to hide her trail.
Xena stared after the retreating form of her partner, stunned. She remained still for a moment, trying to decide what had just happened. But there were no other scents on the wind, no sounds. She decided that this was a Samhain prank of some type, so she simply called after her, "Gabrielle?"
Within moments the bard had vanished into the gloom that only an older forest at night exudes. Xena guided both horses to the edge of the trees. calling out again. "Gabrielle? What are you doing?" There was no answer. No sound or reply.
Xena still wanted to believe it was only some game, but the memory of the brief glance they had shared before Gabrielle had run off singed her mind. A pounding headache had been building for several candlemarks, and it seemed to have reached a peak at that very moment, so it had taken a few heartbeats to register that Gabrielle had reacted queerly. Maybe she just needed to relieve herself? No. She knew what she had seen in her bards movements. Fear. Gabrielle had been terrified. Of what?
No matter how she tried to reject the feeling, she was certain that it was of her.
Gabrielle continued to run until there was no sense of the objects she was passing. She only knew that whatever it was that she had left behind was still pursuing her, and that she had to get as much distance from it as was possible. Strangely she did not feel tired; her legs and lungs performed their task with such efficiency that was almost inhuman. She briefly succeeded in fighting back the mind-numbing fear to begin to scan the depths of the forest that she was now surrounded by, searching for a place to hide. But where? Xena would be able to track her, much less whatever demon was in possession of her. She needed to think, to out think. To either throw them off her path, or take them down in an ambush.
Xena dismounted and tied the horses off to a large tree. Even at their border, the woods were thick and impenetrable on horse. She weighed the saddlebags in one hand, her headache still pounding, trying to imagine what she would need when she heard a cry from the road, a cry of panic. Torn between following Gabrielle for what might be only a misunderstanding and the immediate need of a stranger, she hesitated. But the call was repeated and she left both horses, the woods and Gabrielle, vowing to return as soon as possible.
She hadnt gone far when a smallish young man came running through the darkness towards her, panting and crying. He collapsed at her feet.
"Please, " he gasped out. "You must help me. My wife "
Xena raised her hand to slow him down. "What about her? Where is she?"
"Shes ." He pointed up toward the road.
Xena reached down and pulled the small man up to his feet and began to half carry him up the hill to where she could see the form of a wagon, abandoned in the middle of the road. Still terrified, the young man refused to approach it further, and so with some apprehension of what she might find, she left him and climbed aboard. On the floor of the cart she could make out a young woman, rigid, in some kind of pain. Words of an unknown language tumbled from her lips. Xena turned back to the man, now on his knees, trembling.
"What is she saying, what language is that?"
"She speaks only Greek. Whatever she is chanting is the language of a demon." The man raised his eyes to her, pleading. "Please, leave her. I only brought you to pray with me. She is possessed! The demons of Samhain have taken her mind."
Gabrielle had no idea where she was, or how far she had travelled. The forest night was a dark tunnel so long she could see no end to it. Its endless power surrounded her, overwhelming her with a physical force that battered and humbled her. The darkness was so complete that her eyeballs ached with the strain of perceiving it.
Time had no meaning, moments were only broken by what seemed like sharp voices speaking directly to her, though she could not remember what it was they had said. Xena. She needed Xena; the real Xena, and she had no idea where she was.
"Dont touch her! The demon will take you!" the little man cried.
Carefully, trying to make the least contact with the woman for fear of plague or some other contagious disease, Xena examined the young womans eyes. They were unblinking, the pupils shrunken and almost impossible to see in the poor light.
"Whats your name?" she called over her shoulder.
"Martus," said the man, still keeping what he hoped was a safe distance.
"Martus, shes not possessed or diseased, shes been drugged."
"Drugged? By whom? How? Will she live?" But despite the fear in his voice, he began to approach.
"What did she eat or drink today? It has to be something you didnt."
He shook his head. "Nothing. We spent all our coins at the Festival."
"Its nightfall, Martus. You must have had something," she prodded.
"I saved her a little of the bread we bought in the village. But thats all. Only bread."
Somewhere a memory stirred. The Eleusinian Mysteries? She remembered friends who had taken part. And there were the villages she had seen, villages gone mad because of .? Xena looked again at the woman. Yes. The bread. Now she had better explain to this young husband. "Martus? You know how some mushrooms can poison, and others can cause hallucinations?"
He shook his head, his face a blank.
"Bad waking dreams. They can be caused by eating a type of mushroom that is so small, it cant be seen, and it grows on some types of bread."
"And my wife?"
"Shell be fine in a day, at most three." Martus heaved a heartfelt sigh of relief. "Dont look so happy, its not over yet. You need to hold her, and make sure she doesnt try to hurt herself. Tie her up if necessary, and never leave her alone. It causes different effects in different people, and I have no idea how it works, but if you bought it in the village, all Tartarus may be breaking out there. Its happened before. People go mad, attack each other, froth at the mouth. Like you, the ones unaffected think its demons or Wiccans, and innocents are blamed and put to death. Youve got to go back, and tell them its not Samhain or demons, but poisoning. Before the fear gets out of hand."
At this Martius grew agitated. "But what about you? Youre the one who must come and explain this to them."
Xena was already dismounting from the wagon. "Martus, you just need to tell them what I told you. I have another problem." She took a slow breath to try to calm the anxiety that was growing within her. "My partner and I ate the same bread. Shes young, imaginative and shes somewhere lost in the night, in that forest, dreaming what, the Gods only know."
"If you ate it as well "
"It wont affect me. Ive seen worse things than my mind could ever conjure. Now go!"
Gabrielles sense that she was being followed only grew stronger. She was walking automatically now, striding through the blackness as though her upper body was a crate her legs were taking somewhere. She was almost startled out of her skin when some overhead birds shrieked, and their calls echoed bizarrely inside her mind. The ancient trees seemed like the pillars holding up the sky and she felt as though she were violating some great temple. As if she were in some vast and holy place, that her punishment for her sacrilege could occur at any moment. Patterns appeared almost everywhere, in the air, in the fallen leaves at her feet, and she felt they were drawing her somewhere. Someplace where someone could explain what was happening. Samhain? Were the dead trying to possess her as they already had Xena? Where would she find help for herself and her partner?
There was suddenly a stillness, and she felt the presence of another person behind her. She waited, frozen, listening to the breathing so very close by. Then she heard one word, coming from directly behind her ear. A word that chilled her and halted all thought, and her heart. The word was, "Mother?"
Leaving the boy behind her, Xena returned to the place Gabrielle had disappeared. Even in the darkness, she could see several broken branches and assumed that the trail would be easy to follow.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were now on Xenas mind. There wasnt very much information, for these were one set of mysteries that were intended to remain as such. Nevertheless, she knew that acolytes were given some rye seeds, before they began their rites celebrating Demeter. They would re-enact the Goddess stay on earth, and there were tales that they visited Hades and other dark realms. Xena had always assumed that they remained in the temple and travelled by the seeds. Shed been told that many of the priestesses became completely docile under their influence; perfect students they called them, their minds open to any command or teaching, like the blankest of parchment. The thought of Gabrielle, meeting someone in that condition, and being told, what? Anything they wished ? Despite the pounding in her skull, this thought spurred her on with even greater urgency.
If there was anything left of Gabrielles mind, instinct and training would send her for the high ground. So that was where the warrior would go as well. Before entering the forest she went to check on the horses, and was unnerved when Argo shied away briefly from her touch.
"You know somethings wrong with me, dont you girl?" she soothed. "Dont you worry. Ill be fine. A few crazy thoughts arent going to hurt me," she grinned confidently. I just have to find Gabrielle. I just have to focus on that goal, and it will be alright. Find Gabrielle.
There had been no one there, of course. Gabrielle was all alone except for her thoughts. But they were now a cacophony of dancing, whirling ideas and suggestions. Becoming stranger and more entangled with others of their sort with each moments passage. It terrified her; it exhilarated her. It seemed as though she was doing exactly what she had avoided doing for so long. Digging deeper and deeper into a well of her own horrors, her memories, and being forced to confront them all at once. The deaths she had caused, the changes she had seen in herself, the losses of all she loved. Her guilt and her pain. She wanted to argue with each thought and dread, but they were too disjointed to debate. And yet even as she was experiencing all of this, still her legs marched her forward and upward through a mist that seemed to be becoming thicker and colder with each step.
Xena could feel the drug working on her mind. That was good, she thought. As long as Im aware of it, I will beat it. She felt flushed, and her skin itched slightly, which she knew was not normal in the cold air. The headache had changed into a ringing in her ears that swelled and grew as she walked on, as if it was building to a crescendo. There was an increasing dryness in her mouth, she noted, and a desire to run. It was a battle, she decided. A battle within her own mind, and she would win. She would find Gabrielle and take her away from this place. Find Gabrielle. She walked on.
Gabrielle passed an old stream bed with massive tree roots that the water had stripped of earth and left exposed and bare. It seemed as though they were directing her, pointing her way, and she realised that the rocks in the stream would hide her tracks from her pursuers. She felt like thanking them as they pointed her a path through the dark and shrouded woods.
It was then that she saw sparkles of light dancing above the mist, and she expected that they would disappear when she reached them, but they did not. She reached out her hand to touch them, and felt the punishment of tiny pinpricks of pain, before dropping her arms. The light rose above her and she happily followed it upstream. The scattered leaves on the ground were pointing in that direction as well. She knew that she would find her answer ahead.
Xena spotted another track left by Gabrielle and stooped to examine it. The pressure by the boots was uneven, and the footsteps travelled over obvious obstacles and did not go in a straight line. Clearly the trail of the insane or the inebriated.
The brush seemed to becoming denser, when the ringing in her head suddenly vanished. She became aware of someone walking beside her but ignored them, conscious that they were imaginary.
"Now what?" asked Ares.
She ignored this apparition and continued walking.
"Now what?" he repeated.
"Youre not even here," she said to the wind.
"I want to teach you something, thats all."
Xena snorted. "Like the acolytes? Im suddenly going to listen to you now? No, you dont find me that weak. Im the teacher looking for my student."
"Then teacher, lets discuss as equals. The basic philosophies. Beauty, and Truth."
"You know nothing about either."
"I know that theyre both lies."
"Youre the lie. You arent even here. And you wont fool me with lies from my own mind."
"Truths," said Ares. " Did you know that all beauty is corruption?"
"You arent real. Go back to whatever rock in my head I dragged you out from."
"What is real, Xena? Is this real?" And suddenly she was astride Argo. It was definitely Argo, she could smell her, hear the panting whiffling noise she made, feel the muscles slide under the warm skin.
"Truths," repeated Ares. "What are you really sure of?"
Even as the words were spoken she could not be sure shed heard them. A wave of disorientation passed over and through her. What was real? Was her memory of the poison real? The man, or the village? Was Gabrielle real? Xena grasped Argo for support. This was real. Gabrielle was real. Gabrielle was . What? She had to concentrate. I must find her.
Alone, on an imaginary steed, Xena stumbled on.
As she left the stream to continue up the hill, the trees thinned out, as if welcoming her. She was completely lost, and yet somehow she knew a great truth would soon be revealed. Eyes shining she climbed towards it. Earlier, the stress of battling her own mind and regrets had grown so great that she suddenly found herself vomiting, as if heaving the evil out of her system. Now purified, her legs would still not let her stop, and she continued upwards. As she reached the top of the hill she saw what she expected. The moon as full and as large as any dream. Blinding her with its radiance. This was what had called to her. Who had called her.
She stood straight and closed her eyes before calling out; "Artemis! Here I am. Do what you will to me."
There was no sound, and she began to wonder if she had actually spoken out loud. Then she heard the voice splinter the clarity of her mind, stern and remorseless.
YOU KILLED ME
She refused to be cowed. "No. I knew that wasnt true. We only killed one of your forms. If you are truly a God then you have found others. I knew that. I ask only that you tell me why I have been called here, and for your help."
WHY WOULD I HELP YOU?
"Because I am one of your children, and you must forgive me."
WHY SHOULD THERE BE FORGIVENESS?
A thousand answers flashed through her mind but suddenly the moon was gone, and in its place there was an owl on a branch examining her as would a judge. Gabrielle smiled at the bird. "Of course you would have survived too. Are you to decide?"
The owl looked down to the ground and Gabrielle followed its lead. There, lying at the base of a tree, was a large piece of birch bark, rolled at each end like a scroll. It was covered in dirt, but as she watched, the wind caught it, and it whirled in the air and spun, landing face up again. In the clouded moonlight its surface seemed pristine, and untouched. The wind shook debris from the trees, and once more the bark was covered in detritus. Again, as she and the owl watched it, the wind turned it, and it was clean again. The owl stared directly at Gabrielle, and she nodded in understanding.
Xena galloped on. The false Ares words burning and repeating in her ears. Beauty is corruption? Beauty is a façade for evil, Xena, you know that, a voice told her. What does that mean? Gabrielle. Gabrielle? Yes she was beautiful. But now shes mad. Yes, that she knew. Gabrielle was mad. That was true. And what did she do when she was insane last time? She tried to kill Eve. But that was the Furies And was it the Furies when she killed Solon ? That was Hope. Her child. Born from her womb. Beautiful like Gabrielle. Who Gabrielle killed twice.
Her senses were so acute, like an animals, that Xena could see the air moving. Her body, her hands seemed to be moving in slow motion, while noticing every detail. Gabrielle. She must find Gabrielle. Find her and stop her .
The moon reappeared and Gabrielle bathed herself in its light. "I understand," she told it.
"What of Xena?"
SHE MUST FIND HER OWN WAY
"That way is with me."
"That is our choice."
PERHAPS. BUT YOU HAVE ALWAYS BEEN MY CHILD, THROUGH ALL OUR FORMS AND CHANGES YOU WILL SURVIVE
"I know. Thank you." And she bowed to the moon.
Xena continued to focus on her goal. Gabrielle had always been too perfect to be real. She had seen the corruption in the bard and wept at it. It had to be stopped. Gabrielle was too far gone. Why had she not stopped it before? The answer came immediately. Because Xena had been bewitched like everyone else. Gabrielle had charmed all, even as she had destroyed.
As you have destroyed others. The warrior was also sensual and beautiful. Had she not used her looks to destroy others, hiding all that corruption under her strength and perfect flesh? How much of what Gabrielle had become was her fault?
The itching under skin was stronger, more painful, and suddenly Argo was gone. She was abandoned, stumbling on foot in the dark, in a stream bed, and Gabrielles tracks had stopped at the rocks. She felt trapped, surrounded by exposed tree roots, reaching for her as though to draw nourishment from her skin. Her mind awash in panic, she turned and one touched her. She felt an acid burning as it drank from her. She stumbled in terror as the red mark on her arm bubbled and shifted. There was something under her skin. She watched incredulously as the bubble burst, and the white head of a maggot emerged. She stared in horror as the flesh on her arms began to wriggle, and she felt bile and crawling things in her mouth. She began to cough and vomit, and the vomit writhed and squirmed on the ground, alive and putrid.
Gabrielle was entranced. Such beauty surrounded her. As if all of her senses were raised to that of a newborn child. She walked along mist frosted meadows that seemed to be growing out of reflective glass. It must be water, she thought. But she could see her likeness and touch the glassine surface, and yet there was no moisture. Each leaf and plant and all of nature glowed with its own luminescence and she could see a path in the distance because it alone was not filled with the light of life. But she also sensed pain and anguish not far away. Fear that she could hear with her body, if not her ears. She made her way towards it.
Xena watched, terrorised as her flesh sprouted more slugs and became a mass of wriggling worms and maggots, each awash and feeding in fluids from her own corruption. She began to scratch and claw at them, feeling no pain at all as she excised the filth that was her own baseness. There was only one possible solution while there were still muscles that had not been devoured. She made several attempts to reach backwards, and finally succeeded in grasping her pommel and drawing her sword
It was by the stream that Gabrielle found her. Lying in a foetal position, bloody, sobbing, clawing and scratching at her own arms. Gabrielle approached silently, the whole forest her strength, when Xena drew her sword.
"NO!" she said.
Xena looked up and saw Gabrielle, radiant with health and beauty. This was no façade or trick. This was goodness and mercy in human form and she dropped her sword feeling of no consequence to this Goddess. Her mouth, her tongue paralysed, she attempted to beg for what? "Hel . she managed. Help me her eyes begged. To her astonishment this lustrous figure showed no fear or disgust, and flowed down to her, taking her hand. Xena watched in amazement as the larvae shrivelled and disappeared where she was touched. The skin was again unmarked but for a few bloody scratches. Her saddlebags were lying beside her and Gabrielle took some cloths from them. She proceeded to the stream and soaked them in the cool clear water. Xena was certain she had never seen such splendour as Gabrielle crouched there in the stream bathed in the moonlight.
She returned and cleansed the injured arms, and at each touch the pain and the foul stench disappeared.
"Youre so beautiful," Xena managed to breathe.
"No," Gabrielle replied. "But I can be."
"Artemis and Athena showed me. At least, I thought it was them. I dont know I saw, I know that I have each new day to begin again. Xena? The things Ive thought, the poems ."
Words were so clumsy, so inadequate to express her thoughts, that she simply drew the trembling warrior to her, cuddling her until the quivering subsided.
They rested in each others arms for some time not measurable, both minds racing until Xena was capable of thinking clearly again. Even so, it seemed to her that there was still the faintest of light still about Gabrielles face.
"Its a poison, Gabrielle," she finally was able to explain. "The bread we ate. The village, we need to go help them. I told them to restrain the people affected. I think that could be the worst thing. What they need is "
Gabrielle interrupted." someone to talk with? A friend, family ?"
Xena clasped her hand tightly. "A good friend."
"Theyll need you, because youve been through the worst."
Xena nodded. "But I think we might find a few people scribbling poems or dancing with faeries."
"Like always." And for a briefest moment, Gabrielle saw the respect and gratitude that was for her alone. "Like always," she agreed. "So are you able to go?"
"Better be." Xena swallowed once and, somewhat embarrassed, allowed Gabrielle to help her to her feet. It was as much of an admission as the warrior was likely to make of weakness, Gabrielle knew. Was she the reed that blew with the wind, while Xena was the tree that splintered?
No, they were two sides of the same coin, and her security in that fact and Xenas inability to express it was just another part of their balance.
Along the way back to the horses, Xena told Gabrielle about the Eleusinian Mysteries, and Gabrielle perhaps a little too eagerly inquired, "so this means that theres a place we could get more of this stuff?"
"No!" Xenas answer was horror filled and conclusive.
Nevertheless Gabrielle tried again. "But ?"
"NO. Just no."
Gabrielle frowned in slight frustration. "I see that youre the teacher again."
"Yup. Whenever were both sane, Im the teacher." The cockiness was back in full force Gabrielle was almost relieved to see. Almost.
"I cant believe after all weve been through you can say that. You carry your own guilt like it was an honour. Youd go to your own death just to prove you were right when you were wrong," she grumbled. "You know, sanity is relative, especially where youre concerned."
Xena considered for a moment, then thrust the words from her mind. There were still some places she didnt want to go; that was the main thing she had learned that night "Its all relative, Gabrielle. Especially on a Samhain evening."