Please read the Disclaimer in Part
Spoilers: "Dirty Half Dozen," "Sacrifice," and "The Debt," but all spoilers are very minor.
Sex/naughty language: Still none
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Six: Gabrielle's legendary reputation for politeness was not harmed in the production of this fanfic.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations. Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source. This source is called darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding. --Tao Te Ching (trans. Stephen Mitchell)Sunlight stabbing through the window woke Gabrielle from an unsettling dream in which Xena hung from the ceiling upside down, clasping her sword to her chest. Gabrielle reached out to touch her friend, but Xena's skin was cold as ice. Their eyes were on a level as Xena breathed frost and told Gabrielle that she would grant her three wishes, but before the bard could decide what she wanted, there was a bright flash of light, which was the sun creeping over the windowsill, and Gabrielle was awake.
She lay in bed grimacing at the ceiling for a few moments, letting the memory of everything that had happened recently wash over her like a flood of dirty, stagnant water. Then she got up and got dressed. Xena was nowhere to be found.
Gabrielle went downstairs and into the inn's main room, which was sparsely populated with villagers eating breakfast. They all stopped talking and looked her way as she emerged from the stairwell. After a moment the conversation resumed, but the only one willing to approach Gabrielle was the innkeeper, who offered her tea and porridge. Gabrielle accepted the former and politely declined the latter. She sighed wearily as she saw the innkeeper's eyebrows creep skyward.
"What?" Gabrielle asked finally, after a brief interval in which she considered letting it ride. The older woman didn't dissemble.
"It's nothing," she said in a tone that said otherwise. "Just ... she told me you'd say that." A jerk of her head toward the bowl of congealing porridge. Gabrielle hid her startlement.
"Really?" She buried her face in the tea mug. "Well, she has many skills," she tossed off flippantly. The innkeeper seemed to find this edifying; at least, she went away.
Gabrielle sipped her tea slowly, trying to put off the moment when she would have to emerge into the bright sunlight of the unforgiving day and face reality. She was morbidly considering what three things she would have asked from dream-Xena, if she had gotten the chance, when the real Xena walked into the inn, side by side with Rahsee, two other people following behind.
"Morning," Xena said blandly, with only the barest twinkle in her eye. Gabrielle didn't know whether to twinkle back or frown, so she contented herself with staring earnestly at the village leader as he addressed her.
"Gabrielle, we owe both you and Xena our gratitude," Rahsee said. "These are Kyla's parents."
"Thank you for bringing our daughter back safely," the woman said with deep feeling. Her husband nodded emphatically.
"I didn't do much," Gabrielle demurred, but she clasped the mother's hand and added, "You're welcome. I'm glad she's all right."
"Xena tells us you climbed the mountain," Rahsee said intensely, sliding into the chair across from Gabrielle. The bard could feel eyes on her from every corner of the inn. "We're aching to know what you saw."
"What I saw," Gabrielle echoed. Dimly, she was aware of Xena standing behind her like a sentinel, or a shade-tree. She felt as if she were wearing a suit of Hephaestus' armor, or bathed in light; her face felt hot. She closed her eyes and thought back, trying to call up the image of the cavern she had seen for the barest breath of time before the flashing light stole her vision. But all she could see against her closed eyelids was light, and swords hanging from the ceiling reflecting light back in eye-twisting stabs, and Xena hanging among them as cold and silvery as a blade.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said to Rahsee, who was watching her the way Xena watched the surface of the water when she fished by hand. "It all happened so fast, and the light from that close up -- it was blinding. I didn't really see anything. I can't remember. I'm sorry." The words came out in a rush, and she felt Xena tense behind her.
Rahsee, on the other hand, seemed to relax. He sat back in his chair and gave her a gentle smile. "It's all right," he said, and at that the entire room seemed to let out a breath it had been collectively holding. People began to get up and leave. "It's all right," Rahsee repeated to Gabrielle, and she began to believe him. "We've been living with the mystery for generations. Honestly, I think knowing the truth now would hurt us more than anything else."
Gabrielle wasn't sure what she thought of that claim, but it was clear that the man was sincere. "Thank you," she said, feeling a little absurd. "I'm still sorry, though."
"No need. I was just showing Xena the preparations for the ceremony," he said, deliberately changing the subject, glancing up at the warrior. Gabrielle was grateful.
"I can't wait to see it. It sounds fascinating. So," she added, striving to keep her tone casual, "you said something about the goddess answering questions." She saw Rahsee's gaze dart back up to Xena again, and cursed mentally. Obviously, the villager had already addressed this topic once today.
"Yes," he said coolly, "as I said yesterday, She chooses three questions from the minds of those in attendance. She speaks to them directly, answering the questions aloud. We can all hear the answer, but the question itself is often a mystery."
"Except to the person who asked it," Gabrielle put in. Rahsee looked troubled.
"Not necessarily, Gabrielle. A person can have so many questions in mind. Sometimes the trick is knowing which one is being answered." He looked up as someone called his name from the doorway. "I have to go. I'll see you two at the ceremony at noon." He rose smoothly, gave the tiniest of bows, and went off.
"We know the answer, but not the question," Gabrielle mused quietly. She looked up as Xena moved into her line of sight. "It sounds like something your Lao Ma would say, doesn't it?"
"It sounds like a fitting epitaph for my life," Xena said equally softly. Then she grimaced. "Bad choice of words."
"It's okay," Gabrielle said with a sigh. "Do you think-" She cut herself off abruptly, and got to her feet, startling Xena, who blinked at her. "Let's go outside," Gabrielle said firmly. "I need sunshine." She turned and made for the door, not waiting to see if Xena was following.
Xena was. She folded her arms across her chest and put on her best implacable face to watch as Gabrielle emerged into the sunlight, blinking as she took in the preparations for the day's ritual.
The little village was adorned with flowers everywhere, the simple pedestal in the middle of the square taking on an austere air as it stood surrounded by ribbons and flora. Even the people, most of whom were going about normal everyday business at the moment, seemed to glow with a palpable excitement, and there were smiles everywhere one turned. Gabrielle felt slightly sick.
"She seems like such a benevolent goddess," she said quietly over her shoulder to Xena. The warrior stiffened, sensing with unease the turn her friend's thoughts were taking.
"It's true, though," Gabrielle said heatedly. "We'd have no way of knowing, would we? It could be Ho-" She broke off briefly and then finished with, "It could be anything, for all we know."
"These people have been worshipping this goddess for generations," Xena pointed out gently, but firmly. Gabrielle nodded slowly.
"Yes, of course." She took a deep breath, letting the tension flow out her mouth as she exhaled. "Sorry."
"Mm," Xena grunted, uncomfortable, as she always seemed to be when Gabrielle apologized for something.
"Xena, you don't need me for anything, do you?" Gabrielle asked, more stiffly than she intended, as Rahsee passed by them again. "I have ... something to do."
"No, go ahead," Xena replied, frowning slightly. She didn't insult Gabrielle by adding, Be back by noon. "See you here," she said instead. Gabrielle nodded and walked purposefully off toward the edge of the village.
"Is she all right?" Rahsee asked, coming up behind Xena as she stared broodingly after the bard.
"Hmm? Oh ... fine," Xena replied, quickly smoothing her features back down. "Don't worry about her." She straightened her shoulders authoritatively. "She'll be fine."
Gabrielle retraced her steps, gauging landmarks with her eye. These were the two houses between which they had entered the village yesterday. Here was the sloping hill they had come down. She slowed her pace, taking it easy on the hill, clearing her mind and just enjoying the pull in the muscles of her thighs, letting the time pass in an unmeasured eternity of climbing.
Now here was the top of the hill ... here was where she and Xena had reached the crest and gotten their first glimpse of the village below. Here was where they had exited the forest, and here was the faint but recognizable path along which they had followed the weary villagers, Gabrielle shaky and spent from the emotional impact of her vision, Xena stoic and somber beside her.
Gabrielle walked between the trees, feeling detached from herself, almost as if she could float up out of her skin and watch herself continue to walk. The soft rustlings of forest life soothed her; the fitful breeze alternately soothed and irritated her, lifting her hair off her neck.
At last she reached a clearing that seemed familiar. She stood in the middle of it, rotating slowly, trying to get her bearings. There, through the trees, she could see the mysterious mountain, its light flashing ever more steadily, ever more regularly. Here by her feet was the bush where Xena had knelt to pick berries. And here ... Gabrielle fell to her knees ... was the spot where she had had the vision.
She knelt there for a long moment, staring at the innocent dirt and leaves, trying to call up the image of her bloody dying love there before her. It was imprinted on her inner eye, but it wouldn't come now, and at last she stopped trying to force it. She sat back on her heels, laid her suddenly sweaty hands on her lap, and closed her eyes. Breathing deeply, she tried again to clear her mind.
The new vision came, as before, so quickly there was no warning. Just as Gabrielle was about to open her eyes, defeated, the image of Xena flashed across her eyelids. She gasped, reaching out blindly with her mind to hold the vision still, like trying to contain smoke with her fingers. But it paused, glistening, and she was able to examine it for the barest moment.
In this vision, Xena lay in a pond of soft clean water, which somehow Gabrielle knew was warm but not too warm to be refreshing, surrounded by trees. The warrior floated on her back, her dark hair forming a cloud around her. Her hands were clasped loosely across her stomach, her eyes open, staring blankly up at the sky. Holding her breath, Gabrielle instinctively leaned forward, and the image drifted closer, allowing the bard to notice more detail -- the streaks of grey tinging the warrior's dark hair; the fine lines feathering the corners of her eyes and mouth.
As Gabrielle watched, achingly tense, trying to decipher the gentle movement of the vision-woman's chest, another sudden movement caught her off-guard. As quickly as a snake striking its prey, the brilliant blue of Xena's eyes snapped away from their blank contemplation of the sky and focussed like twin claws on Gabrielle. The bard gasped, jerking back in startlement, and as the vision dissipated she noticed, almost as an afterthought, the little smile of contentment curving the beloved mouth.
Gabrielle fell heavily to one side, leaning on her hand in the dirt, staring somewhat wild-eyed at the surrounding forest as she struggled free of the vision's deceptive serenity. How, she wondered, could two visions of the same event evoke such polar opposite emotions?
Slowly she became aware that there were gentle hands on her shoulders, and she turned, lifting her head to meet again those twin beams of blue. Xena's forehead was creased with concern.
"Did you see an answer?" she asked hoarsely. Gabrielle mirrored her frown.
"I - I don't know," she said in a small voice. The gentle reassurance of the vision buffeted her, and after a moment of resistance she allowed it in. "I think so." She put her hands on Xena's upper arms, and they rose to their feet as one.
"Are you sure?" Xena asked, back to carefully controlling her expression. Gabrielle pressed her lips together and narrowed her eyes at the warrior.
"Because..." Xena glanced down at the spot where Gabrielle had just knelt, and then over her shoulder at the other end of the clearing. "This isn't where you had the vision yesterday."
"What?" Gabrielle asked in confusion, looking from one spot to the other as Xena had just done. "I ... are you sure?"
"I'm sure," Xena replied firmly, pacing it off. "I was *here* ... Argo was *here* ..." She spread her arms to indicate the horse's girth. "And you were *here* when you saw the first vision and you yelled." She looked up again, meeting the bard's eyes, and lowered her voice momentarily. "When you saw me die. So ... what was it this time?" Now her tone was light, but a hardening in her eyes spoke of unexpressed tension.
"Nothing," Gabrielle bit out in sudden annoyance. "Does it matter? I was in the wrong place, by Tartarus."
"No ... I don't think you were," Xena said, but then her eyes darted back over Gabrielle's shoulder. Turning, Gabrielle saw what had caught the warrior's eye: the mountain, flashing its enigmatic signal again.
"It's almost time," Xena said, her voice strained. "We better get back to the village."
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