Please read the Disclaimer in Part
Spoilers: Implied, not explicit
Sex/naughty language: Still none
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Three: No cartographers were harmed, or indeed even consulted, in the production of this fanfic.
Gabrielle brooded for the better part of an hour, contemplating her vision and Xena's accompanying experience, while she trailed the warrior around the village. Xena spoke to several people about the missing girl, including her parents and some friends with whom she had spent the previous evening. Xena was in full warrior-protector mode, giving off an air of quiet confidence that calmed the villagers instantly and put their entire faith on her shoulders.
Gabrielle could remember a time not long ago when she, too, had accepted so unquestioningly the utter invincibility of Xena; her rightness, her courage, her omniscience, her casual ability to handle any situation, defeat any foe, weather any injury. Even after watching the warrior die twice, somehow, the bard had maintained her belief. But by now she knew that, more than simply being human, Xena was also fallible. She could be fooled; she could be bested; she could be just plain wrong. It gave Gabrielle no pleasure to know that she herself had proven some of these things in the past year. Like a child who becomes an adult and suddenly understands, with new eyes, the parent's behavior that seemed so inscrutable once, Gabrielle felt unsettled, uneasy. Now, half hopefully, she found herself wondering if that were in fact the meaning of her vision. Was it merely a metaphor, meant to point out to her the way the once-mighty Xena had been made mortal in the bard's eyes?
Yet every time Gabrielle forced her mind's eye to glance at the actual memory of the vision -- like a tongue gingerly but insistently prodding a sore tooth -- the sheer emotional shock of it convinced her anew that it was meant to be taken literally. Xena would die, and she would die there, on that spot, in Gabrielle's arms, apparently in battle, spilling her life out crimson on the thirsty earth. Gabrielle was sure of it. But then, the panic would begin to swell anew, and she would force it back down, rational intellect wrestling for control, and the doubts returned. As a bard she was inclined to see metaphor in all things, and in this particular situation, the unpleasantness of the alternative made the impulse difficult to resist.
It was a long and disquieting hour.
At last Xena seemed to feel that she had enough information. Gabrielle was glad for her friend's excellent memory, because although she had listened to everything the villagers said, she hadn't actually heard much. She followed silently behind, like a miniature shadow, unobtrusive especially in light of Xena's formidable presence. She preferred it that way, this time.
But now they emerged from the last small house into the village square, and approached Rahsee as he stood watching some of the others decorate the fountain with garlands of flowers.
"Might as well prepare for the best, after all," he said with a genial twinkle behind his smooth demeanor. "I must say, Xena, you've brought optimism back to my people. It's been a rough day."
"That's not all I plan to bring back," Xena told him blandly. "We'll be leaving in a few more minutes, after I see to my horse."
"Oh, she's all ready for you," Rahsee answered just as coolly. "I looked her over myself. She's been fed and watered and brushed down."
Xena raised her eyebrows, and it fell to Gabrielle to say, "Thanks."
"It's no problem." He smiled briefly at her before adding, "Which way will you start off?"
"East," Xena said firmly, turning toward the barn. "Don't forget what I said about asking questions."
"No, of course," the village leader agreed, looking somewhat bemused. "If you're not back by nightfall...."
"Then you'll go to bed," Xena tossed over her shoulder. "And trust that we'll be back by noon."
Rahsee was lifting his chin, apparently preparing to say more, but just then a youth appeared from the barn, leading Argo. Xena thanked him gruffly, took the reins, and without another word headed out of town to the east. Gabrielle followed, laying a light hand briefly on Rahsee's shoulder as she passed him.
"Why east?" the bard asked as they left the outskirts of the village and entered the edges of the forest, cool and slightly damp. "Didn't the friends say the clearing where they were hanging out was to the northwest?"
Xena glanced over her shoulder at Gabrielle. "Didn't think you caught any of that," she observed, not unkindly. Gabrielle shrugged.
"Yeah, well." No need to explain that three years with Xena had taught her to make a mental map of their surroundings, flagging notable landmarks almost instinctively. The warrior knew this, the same way she knew which herbs Gabrielle preferred in her tea and which parts of her back became the most tense once a month.
"No, the clearing is irrelevant," Xena went on. "It's not the kid's favorite hideout, and anyway, the villagers have searched it a dozen times over. I just didn't want them to know which way we're really going." Glancing back again, she assessed the tree cover and gave a small nod, then turned Argo's head to the left.
"Oh," Gabrielle said in a small voice, gazing ahead. The new course would take them right to the foot of the mountain. "You think she's there."
"'Swhere I'd be," Xena replied too casually. Gabrielle's step slowed as she considered the thorny layers beneath that statement.
But then a dip in the trees brought the mountain and its strange light flashing into her eyes, and she hastened to catch up with her friend, panting out the question on her lips.
"You don't really think it's a goddess, do you? I know you, Xena. You don't buy this Lady of theirs." She moved alongside the warrior, trying to puzzle it out. "Then what? Someone's idea of a practical joke?"
"Why not both?" Xena asked rhetorically, narrowing her eyes at the mountain. "Rahsee said this ritual thing has been going on since before his great-grandparents were born. That's an awfully long time for any one mortal -- or group of mortals -- to perpetuate some kind of joke on a bunch of plain old villagers."
"A god playing a joke? But which one?" Gabrielle wondered aloud. "The light looks so like the sun, but from what Hercules has told me, it doesn't seem like Apollo's style."
Xena snorted. "Hardly. Nor any of the other Olympians, either. Foretelling the village's future. Giving them farming tips, for Hades' sake! What's in it for the goddess? I don't think so." She shot another mistrustful gaze up the peak.
"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed with some surprise, following Xena's gaze with considerably less venom. "That's true, isn't it ... if it is a goddess, she only seems to do good for these people. Not like..." She trailed off, biting her lip, but finally managed to choke out the rest of the sentence, "any gods we know."
"Whatever, or whoever, it is, I don't trust it," Xena said firmly, stating the obvious, fiercely ignoring the dark undertones that had crept into the conversation. "But god, mortal or freak of nature, I don't really care. It's like I said before. So long as it leaves me alone, I'm leaving it alone. We'll find the kid, bring her back, and then we're on our way."
"Xena ... what if this goddess was what caused my vision?" Gabrielle asked quietly. Xena's brow clouded and she grimaced.
"What about it?" she asked, not meeting the bard's eyes.
"Well ... don't you want to know? I mean, we have to know, don't we?" Gabrielle stared at Xena's immobile expression and prompted, "Whether it's true? That that's where you'll die?"
"You know," said Xena pensively, as if the bard hadn't spoken, "I once asked Caesar what he'd do if he could know exactly where, when, how he would die. Would you do everything in your power to avoid it? Raze the village, burn down the house, never go to that province?" Her gaze had turned inward, quietly brooding.
"What did he say?" Gabrielle almost whispered, mesmerized by the intensity in Xena's faraway look.
"He laughed." Xena blinked, and her eyes refocused on the path ahead. "He told me what I already knew -- that there's no avoiding it. Death comes to us all. As a warrior, you know it. You expect it. You fight it when you can, but you always know there'll come a moment when you can't fight it. When it'll win." She turned her heated gaze back to Gabrielle, who started slightly at the strange emotions she saw bubbling there -- was it fear? Anger? Desperation?
"I knew that already, when I asked him," Xena went on, speaking with fervor, trying to impress upon Gabrielle something that the bard could not yet grasp. "It was a test, although I didn't realize it at the time. I wanted to hear him say what I already knew. If I could hear another warrior say it, I would know it was true. Borias said the same too, a few years later. And so will I, when you ask me. So ask."
Gabrielle was trembling, shivering with reaction to the words she didn't want to hear, but the command in Xena's face and voice were too much for her to disobey. So she asked. "X-Xena, what would you do if you knew when you'd die?"
"Nothing," Xena said firmly, and turned back to the path. They had emerged from the woods again, and the ground was sloping upward now, strewn with rocks and pebbles and scraggly, scruffy grass. Argo lifted her feet daintily and set them down with care. "Anyway, you don't know when," Xena added as they moved on. "You can't say whether that vision took place today, or next week, or in twenty years."
They walked on in silence for several minutes, as Gabrielle contemplated this last statement. It was true, she realized; although the strength of the vision had convinced her that its timeline was imminent, she couldn't really be sure. She couldn't even remember Xena's hair; it could have been flowing silver through her hands, the hair of a much older woman, but try as she might -- even squeezing her eyes shut until she stumbled against Argo's warm bristly flank -- she couldn't be sure.
"How did y-" She stopped herself, shaking her head. She didn't need to ask. How did Xena know *anything*, after all? But Gabrielle still wasn't reassured. Xena seemed to feel the matter was closed, but the bard still felt the chill knot in her belly, the fear that wouldn't let her go quite yet. She swallowed it down and tried again. "Xena, *I* have to know. I need to be...."
Xena walked on another few paces before the quiet registered and she realized that Gabrielle wasn't just pausing to find the right word. The warrior looked back over her shoulder and found the bard staring, white-faced, at a medium-sized boulder they had just begun to pass.
"Gabrielle? What is it?" Xena asked with concern, backtracking, just as Gabrielle, hand to her mouth, broke out of her initial shock and moved toward the boulder.
Spilling around the corner of the rock, staining the dusty ground and reflecting the sunshine, a few dots of brilliant red had caught Gabrielle's eye.
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