"In the name of Ares, you shall die!" a shaggy man with an unkempt appearance yelled. A grin split his lips and revealed rotting teeth as he raised his sword in the direction of the tall dark warrior.
I didn't think, I acted, attacked. Before the echo of his voice had died down, so had one of the men charging alongside him. The blood and gore that covered my hands made my grip slippery, but it didn't matter as a raw energy filled me and drove me to my second kill. My twin blades bit into his body and his warm blood bathed my hands. It was one moment of perfect joy derived from victory through death, and it froze my heart.
I looked up to find my friends looking back at me. The five men that had attacked us were now disposed off. Three of them were writhing in pain on the dusty road, two were silent. Their tongues would never form another word in this life, but their blood seemed to scream as it streamed down my arms.
I saw my own pitiful reflection in the blue eyes of my love as we looked at each other, and I wanted to cry. Not for the lives I had wasted, but for far more selfish reasons.
Three figures made their way into the small temple dedicated to the God of War. Tapestries covered the marble walls, depicting scenes of battle, glorifications of bloodlust and death at the end of a sword. This was a temple filled with the dark energy bloodshed, anger and hatred possessed.
The tallest of the three lead the way with decisive steps, even the echo of her boots seemed to contain the determination her face showed. A few steps behind her a man in a rag-tag armour hurried along. Questions and comments poured out of his mouth, but neither the woman ahead or the straggler seemed to take notice. The final figure of the small party seemed the most distanced, her eyes on the floor and her head bent as if defeated.
"Ares, show yourself!" the dark warrior commanded with a voice even the gods were reluctant to disobey.
I realised that I didn't feel the pressure this time, I couldn't help wonder why as he materialised in front of Xena.
"Xena," he said, his hand came to leisurely rest on the hilt of his sword, as it always did. A gesture that brought a brief smile to my lips, which quickly died as I realised my life was so chaotic that I took comfort in the familiarity of the God of War. This instead brought on a deep frown that I know furrowed my brow.
I looked up and briefly met his eyes, his eyes quickly diverted back to Xena again. Joxer had taken up residence next to Xena with a face that showed a mixture of fear and bravery. Ares showed no sign of even knowing he was there.
I stayed a few steps behind them. Something held me back. I didn't know if it was of fear to face Xena, or Ares, but it didn't matter, my feet were nevertheless frozen to the ground.
"Five?" Xena asked.
"What?" he innocently wondered with a smile, his eyes once again found mine.
Their voices washed over me, but I couldn't seem to focus on the words. It was all a jumbled mixture of nonsense to my absent mind, the blood still on my hands and arms, now dried, had begun to itch. They continued to verbally dance without making sense to my ears, my mind was preoccupied with the fact that his eyes kept finding mine. I tried to remember if they had in the past, or was I merely being paranoid. The itch grew stronger. My eyes found his again, I quickly looked back down at the polished marble floor. I heard his voice, he warned her. Of what? Why did my mind stray? The itching would not stop, I gave in.
"It is a friendly warning Xena," I said looking into the pale eyes of my most glorious warrior. "I'm only trying to make you realise who you truly are."
My eyes briefly drifted to the smaller figure behind her. The blonde's eyes were on the floor. She seemed distant while she scratched her blood covered forearms. My eyebrow twitched. As if she felt my look upon her, she met my eyes. The glimmer of defiance was still there. But why was she being quiet? Since when did the Babbling Bard keep silent?
I baited Xena, "I am only trying to show you the way."
I watched the interplay between them and I realised something was wrong, Xena was. She wasn't wrong, but her behaviour was unfamiliar. Usually when Ares showed up she would toy and play with him. Her eyes would become hooded and she would use her own darkness as her most effective tool against him. Now her jaw was set, her face determined, but there were no signs of the underlying link between a magnificent warrior and the god of her art. She seemed…almost indifferent to him.
"Ares, you wouldn't know my way if it was tattooed across your chest," Xena said and her jaw clenched in determination. In that moment I realised she wasn't affected by him. I surreptitiously scanned Ares face and my eyes widened as I realised neither was he, by her.
"Get out of here!" Xena demanded with a scowl.
The endlessly deep blue eyes looked into mine. My face showed no expression. Inside I wept for the broken bond. Inside I raged in hatred of an interfering god. I glanced over at the sea-green eyes behind Xena's shoulder. Inside…I was curious.
"If that is the way you want it Xena." I shrugged my shoulders. Xena why can't you see? The world would have been yours if only you had claimed it in my name.
Inside I was torn.
I was aimlessly wandering around the lake where we had made camp, in search of firewood. The familiar activity left my brain to mull over and digest the events of the day. When had fighting become my first instinct? When I looked into Xena's eyes I knew she blamed herself, I never did. I wanted to blame him. I tried to tell myself it was all because of Ares. The sad truth was that it didn't matter, because it was my actions. It was my heart, body and soul that killed, not just those men today, but many before them.
All of a sudden the truth was so painfully clear I stumbled to my knees, the dried wood falling from my hands. I did not weep, at first, but as I sucked in breath after breath I thought the pain would explode my heart. I knew what I had to do.
Helplessly I crumbled to a pile on the soft green grass, and the tears streamed unhindered down my face.
Joxer and I were strolling behind Argo and Xena. For once we did not seem to have a destination, or a promise to keep, which meant our pace was slow. The sun was gentle despite the midday, and the nature around us seemed more fragrant than usual. It was a bitter sweet moment in which I wished I could stay indefinitely.
"Joxer will you do me a favour?" I asked knowing we were too far behind Xena for even her keen ears to pick up our words.
"Sure Gabrielle," he immediately replied.
Others would have at least considered, asked the obvious follow-up question. Not Joxer, his heart was as pure as Xena's unborn child. There is a bravery to his loyalty that will always make him the mightiest of men in my eyes. I am glad Xena's child will have him close, it is people like Joxer she will need around her.
"Will you promise me something?" I asked as I turned towards him. I stopped my slow walking, and so did he.
"Yeah. I might even keep it," he joked good naturedly. A soft smile entered my face and I felt it reached my eyes, which for the past few days had experienced nothing but pain and tears.
"Take care of Xena and the child," I said seriously, the smile having fled.
"I'll always take care of all three of you," he replied and I knew he meant it with his entire being.
"I know, and I will always love you for it," I whispered just loud enough for him to hear it.
His cheeks reddened and I knew I had embarrassed him with my comment. Tears were once again threatening to spill from my eyes as I wrapped my arms around his lean figure. I held him close and tight for moments I knew would have to last a lifetime. "Take care of them," I whispered in his ear before giving him one final squeeze.
I pulled away from my good friend, moisture gathering in my eyes, but I refused to cry.
"Now we better catch up," I said with my back to him as I purposefully set off after Xena.
I watched her sleeping figure. There was a time when my scrutiny would automatically have woken her from her slumber, not anymore. I did not begrudge her her newfound peace, but it did make me wonder what she had to pay for it, what she will have to pay. What the rest of us while have to pay.
I watched her chest expand, her rounded belly draped in the sleeping furs. The child was not yet born, but I already knew I would have loved her as my own. Images from what seemed a lifetime ago flashed through my mind, my own child with the blue eyes that promised peace, but delivered chaos. I felt my own eyes cloud and tears of love, frustration and sadness wanted to fall. I love you little one, just like I will always love your mother.
I knew I couldn't stay. My heart might not yet have harboured evil, but to stay would have been such an selfish act that I was afraid I could never again be rid of the darkness it would shroud me in. I wanted nothing more than to share what was to come with Xena and her child, but if I did I would become what I despised. If I stayed, if I let them be tainted by me, my weaknesses. Then I would have been no better than Ares and his constant, if futile, attempts to lure Xena back to his side. I knew I would have become him, I knew I wouldn't have been able to resist.
I loved Xena, every fibre, every atom of her. But this was not my Xena, she was no longer only my champion. She had the chance of making a difference, she was the champion of humanity, for humanity. I couldn't stand in the way of that, and I did not trust myself to stay without trying to influence my love. I wanted her too much to be the woman I knew and loved, a woman filled with both darkness and light.
If you taught me one thing my love, it was that nothing should matter as much as the greater good. You are everyone's greater good, and my leaving is for your greater good.
"Know that I will never stop loving you," I said as I stroked her cheek. "But I can't stay at your side," I whispered as I leaned over.
My lips touched the midnight black hair one final time, and I prayed to every deity I knew of that I would never forget the sensation as I gently kissed her dark head. Reluctantly I pulled away and as I stood up, a single tear of grief fell from my eye.