The grain stores are burning. Xena saw the firebomb land with a flash and roar halfway across the city, and now she can smell the thick, sweet odor of oats roasting, turning brown before they blacken and crumble to ash. Beneath the acrid reek of destruction, it conjures up distant memories of porridge cooking over the hearth on cold, bright mornings at her mother’s inn, of village festivals with Gabrielle. Sweet, peaceful, humble things, jarringly out of place in the midst of a desperate war against an unseen enemy.
If Xena can smell the burning grain up in her command post on the eastern battlements, the rest of the city will be able to smell it, too, and everyone will know which warehouses are giving off those great terrifying gouts of smoke. It’s good strategy, she thinks, hitting the grain. Most of the city probably doesn’t know that it was poisoned, and when they see their imagined food supplies so cruelly decimated, they’ll panic.
Panic is any warrior’s worst enemy, but for the defenders trapped like rats inside their own walls, already undermanned and dying in droves, panic is the knife that will flay them open and bleed them to death before they die. Panic kills hope, and hope is more important than grain; hope can save starving men, while no amount of grain will save a force that’s already admitted defeat. Xena wonders if Satrina’s realized that yet.
It has to be Satrina. Xena’s racked her brain for anyone else who could have implemented her tactics so well, not just mechanically but with a thorough understanding of how to make an enemy defeat himself. Borias was the only one who ever truly understood Xena in her warlord years, and he’d choked on his own blood as his son was being born. Dagnine had died at Xena’s own hand, and he’d never been the brightest torch in the bunch to begin with. There are a few lieutenants she can think of who had been hovering eagerly around the edges of those hazy, agonizing last days, looking to lick her boots or scalp her enemies, but they’ve all either died or vanished into obscurity long since, and anyway none of them knew about the poisoned grain.
No, it has to be Satrina. Which means —
“Xena! Behind you!” Someone calls, but she’s already turning, alerted by the creak of the ladder and some other, deeper instinct. Another firebomb lands in the market district, the glare of it glinting off of Gabrielle’s hair as she scrambles up over the side of the wall and staggers past the startled guards.
Gabrielle’s face is streaked with soot, her clothes stained with ash and blood from her run across the city, and Xena thinks with a pang of how many times she must have had to throw herself to the ground to avoid another blast, how close she undoubtedly came to becoming another charred corpse. How bravely she always throws herself into hell on nothing but Xena’s word, and claws her way back, scorched by fire but not consumed. Xena marvels, not for the first time, at this young woman from a backwater village with more courage in her heart than an entire armored Roman legion.
Gabrielle stumbles, reaching out briefly to steady herself on the battlement. For a moment Xena is absolutely still, her heart cold, watching the way Gabrielle moves, looking for the break, the blood; but no, she’s not wounded, just winded. “Here,” she says, panting, and shoves a half-full sack into Xena’s hands. “That’s all of it I could find. Every piece in the city.”
Xena opens the sack and pulls out one of the gnarled roots, brown and tough like strips of dried leather. “Good,” she says. “This is kala root. It’s an antidote to Satrina’s favorite poison.” She bites into the piece she’s holding. The taste of it is musty and faintly sweet, like the air in a wine cellar, and with it comes a flood of bitter memories — but there’s no time for that now.
She eats another piece, and presses one into Gabrielle’s hand. “Eat this yourself, and then get some to as many of the men as you can. I have no idea what traps she’s rigged up down there or what she might try. She may be using the poison to coat arrows, or even swords. Understand?”
“Yes,” Gabrielle says, but she doesn’t take the sack of roots, doesn’t vanish over the wall again back to the barracks where the men are waiting. Instead she steps forward, inside Xena’s guard, close enough to rest one hand on Xena’s vambrace and slide it up, fingertips trailing over bare skin and coming to rest just beneath Xena’s armband.
She’s breathing hard, and though there’s still space between them Xena imagines she can feel Gabrielle’s heart hammering. There’s something fierce about Gabrielle now, something in the way her shoulders are thrown back, the stubborn set of her jaw. The anger that’s been driving her into harm’s way all day is still there, humming under her skin like a tangible thing. If Xena bent her head down just a little, she could taste it; instead she waits. This moment, before the battle, used to be dedicated to Ares. Now she gives it wholeheartedly to Gabrielle.
“Xena,” Gabrielle says, her voice low and roughened by smoke. “Tell me you’ll be in that tunnel when I get there.”
“I told you,” Xena says. “I’ll go down first and draw her attention. She’ll have the tunnel nearly completed by now. You bring the men in from this side —“
“I know the plan.” Gabrielle squeezes Xena’s arm, and there’s something desperate in it, the strength of a drowning sailor’s grip on a floating spar. “And I know you. I know how you think. You’ve been trying to get rid of me ever since you had that vision, and this would be the perfect opportunity. Don’t think I haven’t seen that.”
Xena’s throat is suddenly dry, her own heart speeding up, as though she and not Gabrielle had just come from running through the burning streets. She’s spent the last decade cultivating an air of mystery, a control and steadiness that lets her hide her intentions from the cleverest of men. It’s as much a part of her defenses as her armor. Even after three years, it’s not always comforting to know that she is, to Gabrielle, as transparent as glass.
(Of course, Gabrielle isn’t the only one who can see through her, has never been. Satrina saw past the snarling to the strategy underneath, and learned so much more from Xena than Xena ever meant to teach her.)
“Gabrielle,” Xena says, trying not to sound helpless, but Gabrielle’s not listening.
“A couple of hours ago you were going to sacrifice the lives of a dozen men just to get me out of this city, but I insisted on staying, so what do you do? Come up with a plan that puts me in the middle of a dozen men — men who are definitely loyal enough to you that they’d tie me up and carry me out of here if you asked them to. Hell, they’d probably do it just for the chance to make a run for it. Then I’d be out of your way and out of your damned vision, and you could go off to fight Satrina alone.” Another firebomb crashes, much closer this time; the blast of it makes the torches on the wall gutter and stirs Gabrielle’s hair. In its brief glare Xena sees that there are tear-tracks through the soot and dust on her face. “If you were really clever,” she says, “you’d find a way to collapse the tunnel so I’d think you were dead. Then you wouldn’t have to worry that I’d come looking for you and spoil everything.”
The bitterness in her voice twists in Xena’s gut like a spearhead of barbed iron. But the worst thing is that Gabrielle does know how Xena thinks. She’s learned deceit and manipulation at Xena’s right hand, just as Satrina did. This bitterness is only proof that, no matter how strong her light, the poison in the depths of Xena’s soul might already be working on her. Xena doesn’t know how to tell her that the icy cross isn’t the only terrible fate that might await her at the end of this path they’re walking together; that the people Xena lets close to her heart invariably become martyrs, slavers, or warlords, and she almost doesn’t know which fate she fears most for Gabrielle.
She can’t say any of that, so instead she cups Gabrielle’s cheek in her hand and says her name again, softly.
“Don’t deny it,” Gabrielle growls. “You’d do anything if you thought it would save my life. Even betray me.”
“Yes,” Xena says, because there’s nothing else she can say, because she’s misled Gabrielle occasionally for the sake of some plan but she’d cut out her own tongue before she’d lie to her about something like this, something that matters. “Yes, I would. So would you.”
“Well, it won’t save my life this time! Even if your vision is true, if it’s not some illusion, what makes you think I’d just go? You don’t have the right to choose a path for me, Xena! At Tripolis, you said —“ she takes an unsteady breath, and for the first time her anger starts to buckle and splinter, showing the cracks underneath. “At Tripolis you said something to me. You said ‘Even in death, I’ll never leave you’. Didn’t you ever think I could feel the same way?”
“Yes,” Xena breathes, and she closes the last few inches between them, pulls Gabrielle into her arms and rests a hand on her back as Gabrielle clings to her, possessive and furious, as though she’s trying to become a part of Xena, trying to press herself into every inch of Xena’s skin so she can’t be left behind. As though she doesn’t realize that she did that years ago. “Yes, I did think of it. There’s nothing that scares me more.”
“Tell me you’ll be in that tunnel,” Gabrielle demands. She doesn’t say swear on your brother’s soul, and she doesn’t say you’d better be there or you’ll be sorry. Even wounded and enraged by Xena’s lack of faith, her own faith in Xena is absolute. What Xena tells her, she’ll believe, with a certainty that could shake Olympus to its roots.
“No one’s going to tie you up and carry you out of here,” Xena says, her own voice unsteady. “I’ve thought — I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought of ways to get you out, to keep you safe. But your path is your own.”
“Even if it’s with you?”
“Even then.” Xena closes her eyes. She’s sure that every line of Gabrielle’s body, every place where toned muscle sinks into yielding softness, is seared into her memory. But still she runs her hands down Gabrielle’s back, over her hips, trying to feel as much as she can, knowing that this moment, like so many, might be the last.
Gabrielle pulls back just far enough to cup Xena’s face in both hands and kiss her. There’s salt on her lips, and ash, and blood; her kiss is greedy, grasping, in a way that would surprise anyone who doesn’t know her like Xena does, anyone who could be fooled into mistaking her gentleness for timidity. Xena gives as much as Gabrielle demands, knowing that this is Gabrielle’s greatest act of courage, this pouring all of her light and love into Xena’s soul when she’s most in need of it. This giving of her heart into Xena’s hands is the bravest thing possible, and the only way Xena can possibly repay her is to strive to be worthy of it.
Xena’s spirit is still heavy with guilt and shame, over all the lives she’s taken and will take, over the twisted thing she’s made of Satrina. But here, now, just for a moment, she dares to let herself believe that Gabrielle is one thing that even the Destoyer of Nations cannot twist or shatter. That there’s an antidote to the poison Xena bled out into the world for so many years and that just seems to keep spreading no matter how she tries to fight it. Xena holds Gabrielle’s heart in her hands, tastes anger and faith and fierce love on her lips, and lets herself hope that here is one thing that may be incorruptible.
The crash of a spear on shield breaks them apart. It’s the sentry’s signal that the enemy’s moving, approaching the tunnel under cover of night. There’s no more time.
“Take that antidote,” Xena murmurs against Gabrielle’s lips, and kisses her again, a gentler, aching farewell. “I’ll be waiting for you in the tunnel. Wait for my signal, and be careful. I don’t want to lose you.”
Gabrielle searches Xena’s eyes for a heartbeat and then relaxes, satisfied at what she finds. “You won’t,” she says, and touches Xena’s cheek, softly grazing it with her fingertips; then the second sentry whistles like a nightjar, and Xena tears herself away and leaps up onto the the battlement, dropping silently down into the brush on the rope she’d tied there hours before.
She lands soft as a shadow and stalks Satrina’s men to the tunnel entrance she’d known would be there, feeling all the while a golden flame in the pit of her stomach, racing under her skin. The kala root by itself wouldn’t have been enough, she knows now. Satrina might still have gotten her claws into some undefended part of Xena’s heart.
But there is no part of Xena that is undefended, and there is no poison that can touch her now, no hate that can corrupt her, not even her own. She has all the antidote she needs.