By Masque

Xena’s Thread

Argo’s hooves thudded hard against the dirt beneath them as Xena urged the mare onwards. The horse, sensing her mistresses need had kept a steady gallop all the way form Poteidaia, covering the distance in a fraction of the time.

Her body exhausted and her soul defeated Xena found a small reserve of energy as she entered her home town. Amphipolis sprawled out in front of her and she slowed Argo enough to manoeuvre through the streets. Finally her destination was in sight, the tavern grew closer and she reigned Argo to a complete stop and dismounted. As she slid from the saddle she barely found her footing and had to brace herself against the mares side. The dull throbbing in her head ached and she reached a tentative hand to her left temple and her fingers met with stickiness. Drawing her hand back she examined the red liquid on her fingertips, she had not even known that the injury that Lila had inflicted upon her had been so severe.

Pulling the satchel from Argo’s saddle and slinging it over her shoulder - she forgot to tether Argo, but the horse was not going anywhere - she climbed the steps to the tavern, her legs feeling like dead weights. She shoved against the door, it swung open and she stumbled inside.

She did not notice the five pairs of eyes that turned immediately in her direction, concern etched in their features; her eyes searched out the person that she had travelled all this way to see - her mother.

Cyrene darted out from behind the counter the moment that her daughter entered the tavern, it was so rare that Xena visited her; but as she looked more closely she saw the blood on Xena’s face and the despair shown in her eyes, her body, even her soul - something was most definitely wrong. She took Xena by the shoulders, “Xena?”

Xena raised her head and looked at her mother through heavy lidded eyes, “Gabrielle....” she stammered the word in barely more than a whisper, “....she’s dead.” It was the first time she had admitted it out loud and at that moment her world shattered into a thousand pieces.

Cyrene could only watch as her daughters body finally gave into the exhaustion and fatigue. Xena’s world began to fade as her body began to fall. Cyrene could do nothing to help her daughter, but one of her customers, the charismatic one with broad shoulders caught Xena’s prone body and lifted her easily.

Meeting the eyes of the young man Cyrene said, “I need to take her to my home.”

“I can carry her.” He replied, very sure of himself.

“It’s a long walk,” she warned him, “can you make it that far?”

“Are you kidding, this is Hercules.” Another of the travellers, a shorter, fair haired man stood and prodded Hercules in the biceps.

“I can carry her as far as you need me to.” Hercules assured the woman.

Cyrene nodded and headed towards the door, surprised when the two Amazons and the third man followed, accompanying her and her daughter to their home.

*           *            *

Joxer’s Thread

They made their way out of the tavern; Cyrene leaving one of her helpers in charge, and the assorted procession made its way through the town. Joxer grabbed the free hanging reins of Argo’s bridle, noticing that the staff was gone, and led the horse along with them.

Cyrene was right about there home being a long walk, the group had passed through a couple of meadows, a sparse wood and over a small stream before the cottage was in sight. Hercules however showed no signs of strain or fatigue and held Xena’s body close to his own and cradled her head against his shoulder. He did not think he had ever seen the warrior look so helpless; even after she had been forced through the Gauntlet by her own men her body had been strong and her spirit remained unbroken. That pivotal moment had changed her, and made her turn her life around; Hercules feared that losing Gabrielle would send her straight back to her tainted past.

The hero vaguely heard introductions between Cyrene and Ephiny and Solari, and the brief explanation of what had happened. Joxer kept quiet, only uttering soothing noises to Argo as they walked along. Iolaus hung back from them, he had not been himself ever since he had found out about Gabrielle; Hercules hoped that he was taking Solari’s advice and remembering rather than wallowing in sorrow.

Maybe I should take her advice. Hercules chuckled to himself, but he could not help his anger. Gabrielle meant everything to Xena, she was her light, her goodness and deep down Hercules knew that it was the bard who was the other half to Xena’s soul. Still it pained him that he had known what would happen, had known what it would do to Xena and he had stood back and let it happen anyway, unable to do anything. Damn Zeus, damn him.

*           *            *

Xena’s Thread

She had not meant to give into the exhaustion, she was just so relieved to see her mother, to be in the tavern to be welcomed home - it had overwhelmed her.

The blackness gave way to harsh light beating down upon her closed eyelids. She felt far removed from her numb body, but as the feeling slowly returned she was aware that she was being carried. She could feel the straining muscles of the arms that cradled her weakened body, the firm chest where her head rested and the strong scent of the man that had shared that physique with her in the heat of passion - Hercules.

She had never needed protection from anyone, mortal, god or otherwise, she prided herself on it, but with Hercules had begun her path to redemption, he had given her protection from herself. By the simple action of refusing to end her life he had given it a new beginning. He had placed trust and belief in her and opened his heart to love her; it was the same protection she had felt from Gabrielle.

That particular set of memories brought a new wave of grief. No, not yet. I won’t grieve yet. She pressed her head further into Hercules chest and winced in pain. Her eyes flickered open and she tentatively touched the wound at her left temple. She winced again and then turned her gaze to meet the strong, chiseled features above her.

Hercules looked down at her and cradled her tighter to him, “I’ve got you Xena. I’ve got you.”

This alerted Cyrene to her daughter’s state, “It’s just up here.”

Xena frowned for a moment trying to place the voice, “Mother,” she whispered in recognition.

“Yes,” Hercules looked up for a moment, the cottage was in front of him and as he climbed the steps to the door he said, “We’ve brought you home.”

As Cyrene fumbled frantically with the locks and bolts on the door, Hercules softly gave out orders, “Iolaus find some water and bring it in, Ephiny and Solari get some medical supplies, Joxer,” Hercules tried to think of something the man could do, “Take care of Argo.” They all hurried to their tasks as Hercules ducked inside the house with his charge and followed Cyrene to a room at the rear of the cottage.

Xena felt the cool sheets and the soft mattress beneath her as she was lowered to the bed. Cyrene sat and held the upper part of her daughters body to her. Hercules tried to slide the rucksack from her shoulder, a fatal mistake.

“No!” Xena screamed as she sat up and held onto the bag with all the strength he knew that Xena possessed. Hercules released his hold immediately and Xena clutched the bag to her chest, “It’s all I have.” She fell back into her mothers arms, turning her face away.

It had been too late, Hercules had seen the tears beginning to well up in her eyes and this time they threatened to spill from the beautiful sapphire eyes.

“I’ve got the water.” Iolaus announced as he approached the room with a bucket in his right hand. The others were in his wake. Hercules strode to the door, preventing their access, he left the room closing the door behind him, but it was not enough. Each one of them flinched as the first cry pierced the silence, and their expression remained haunted as they heard the screams of pain as the mighty Warrior Princess finally gave into the grief.

Cyrene held tightly to her daughter as the violent sobs racked her body and the howling cries filled the room, accompanied by the soothing noises of a mother, “Let it go Xena, let it go.”

Xena gulped desperately for air as tears blurred her vision and fell thick in her throat. “I tried....” Xena choked out the words as she heaved hard in her mothers embrace, “but I couldn’t.... I couldn’t stop her.... I couldn’t save her....”

Cyrene lifted her daughters face, her hands gripping both sides of Xena’s head and looked into her eyes, “It’s not your fault.”

Xena’s lower lip quivered uncontrollably and she shook her head, releasing it from her mothers grasp. “It is.... it is....I saw her face.... She did it for me.... She did it so I wouldn’t die.” She threw herself back into her mothers arms and continued to cry, letting out all of the pent up sorrow until her exhaustion claimed her again.

Her mother eased out from under her daughter and rested her injured head on a soft pillow; she then proceeded to strip her daughter of her boots, her armour and her leathers. She laid a blanket over her sleeping daughter, pressed a kiss to her clammy forehead, made sure the rucksack was in easy reach of her hand and then quietly left the room for her daughter to rest.

*           *            *

Joxer’s Thread

Four people who rarely showed their emotions, and one who wore his on his sleeves, sat isolated from one another in the sitting room. They no longer knew what pained them more greatly, losing Gabrielle, or losing Xena to her grief. Gabrielle they could do nothing about, but Xena.... they all silently vowed to help Xena through her pain, whether she knew she needed it or not.

Cyrene entered the room, silently closing the door behind her. Hercules took a step towards her, “Is she...?”

Cyrene held a finger to her lips, “She’s sleeping.” She looked up at Hercules and noticed something for the first time, “Are you going to give me that shirt so I can clean it?”

The big guy looked down and discovered the bright red stain on his right shoulder, where Xena’s head had rested. He started to pull the shirt tales from his trousers.

“Thank you all for your help, I really appreciate it. You obviously care a great deal for my daughter, to travel so far to see her.” She paused, shyly looking at the five strangers in her home, yet feeling strangely close to them already, she thought about what she wanted to say, “I would be most grateful if you would consider staying here for a few days to help me....”

“We would be glad to.” Hercules assured her as he slipped his yellow shirt from his shoulders.

“You just try getting rid of us.” Iolaus added, seeming to be in better spirits.

The other three nodded their acceptance of the invitation and Cyrene’s face brightened, “Thank you, now give me that shirt.” She took the shirt from Hercules.

They knew they were facing another agonising wait, but at the end of this one would be the grueling task of helping Xena deal with her loss.

*           *            *

Continued in Part 4