The circle around us is closing slowly. The soldiers are cautiously, but confidently, advancing toward us. Woozily - like in a dream - I hold my hands up, palms towards them to show there will be no more trouble from us. How can they believe me, I ask myself, when just a few moments ago I slaughtered half of the compound's guards? 'What happened with me...?' flashed through my mind, but there's no time to search for the answer.
The soldiers are here now. Close behind me I hear a groan. My poor Xena. My hero. She's still fighting, or she would have been if her broken body had allowed her to. Now she's just trying in vain to persuade her limbs to bring her up. We both know that it's a lost fight, but even now Xena is not giving up. She never gives up. The feature which I admire and love most about her - even if there was a time when I hated it.
Someone's hand jerks me out of my paralysis. Actually there are many hands all over my body. My own hands are tied up behind my back, and I'm finally aware of the reality I'm in. Gods, if this was simply a nightmare we would wake up from...
"Take those filthy hands off her!" I hear Xena scream. I turn around and see one of the soldiers get punched in the face. I wasn't aware of it, but me being chained up has spurred Xena into yet another fit of fighting. Despite that everyone considers her defenseless, she manages to break a soldier's leg and another one's nose.
But then one of the men loses his patience and I see him pull a knife. My heart almost stops right then as I watch him get closer to my friend. "Xena!" I cry out.
The warrior stops in the middle of the punch and slowly looks up at me. Then she too notices the soldier with the knife. Our eyes meet for a brief moment and then we both understand. Xena's body relaxes, her head drops almost to the ground. She holds herself up on her elbows - for the first time, I think she becomes fully aware of her pain.
The soldier with the knife prepares for the strike.
"Please, don't!" I cry out desperately. My legs can't hold me up and I sink to my knees. "Please. We aren't going to make trouble anymore," I say and bow my head. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I hear a quiet voice that tells me to stop, to let him do it. That I'm just saving Xena for the most horrendous execution, but I don't care. I'm so tired. I don't have the strength to fight anymore, nor do I have the strength to care what's best or even reasonable.
Silence falls for the moment. All I can hear is Xena's shaky breath; she's trying with all her strength to fight back the pain. Our heads are almost touching.
"All right. Get them!" a strong male voice orders and I'm hauled to my feet. Two soldiers grab Xena under her arms and she's dragged with me into the compound. Xena's only reaction is a weak groan which escapes her mouth despite her effort to stop it.
"Please, be careful," I whisper more to myself than to the soldiers. There's no energy left in me to rebel anymore. Nevertheless I'm in shock that we're still alive - that the soldiers don't take vengeance for the deaths of their comrades and simply finish it then and there. Maybe they consider my weakness as the ultimate defeat, or maybe they know that what's going to come is a thousand times worse than anything they could do to us now. One way or another we're both still alive. At least for now.
We enter the prison. It's so dark in here compared to the outside. "Get undressed!" a hoarse voice orders and I look up in confusion. The manacles on my hands are unlocked. "Didn't you hear me? TAKE THOSE CLOTHES OFF!" I can feel a crimson tide creeping up my neck.
"But... I..." I stammer. And where is Xena? Puzzled, I look around the room. At that moment I hear a groan followed by loud laughter from another cell. "The sooner you get those clothes off, the sooner you'll be with her," the lead guard in my cell says impatiently. Again I nervously look up at the half a dozen soldiers who are aiming their swords at me.
Another muffled cry comes from the next cell. My first impulse is to instantly run to Xena, but the soldiers who stand between me and her just clench their swords a little tighter. Their expressions are daring me to try anything. I take a deep breath and compose myself, then I turn back to the wall and start to undress.
Suddenly the image of Xena bravely stepping out of the bath to answer the knocking in that strange world of Aiden comes to mind - or that nice warm day when she stepped out of the lake without the slightest hesitation to help that young boy Icus. My friend never really cared if someone would see her naked or not.
The last part of my garments is on the ground and I push myself against the wall, trying to cover myself up the best I can. One of the soldiers tosses some rags towards me. "Here! Take that," he calls. At first I look bewildered at the two scraps of filthy cloth. "You can stay naked if you like," another of the soldiers says with a smirk. I quickly cover up with the rags - one around my hips, the other around my breasts. It's not that bad.
I hear muffled cries coming from another cell yet again. This time I run straight to them, but the soldiers restrain me at the cell door. "Let me go!" I scream. My fighting spirit has finally returned to me, all apathy is gone. "Didn't you see that she's badly hurt? Let me go to her!" I'm trying to break free of the grasp of my capturers.
I manage at last to get to the door of the cell in which we had been with Eli and where Xena now is. There, the soldiers' hands grab me once more and prevent me from entering. I look inside in an effort to finally see Xena. What I see before my eyes shakes me to the core.
Two guards are trying to hold the semi-unconscious Xena upright while two others tear her clothes off her. Her boots, kneepads, gauntlets and armbands are already on the ground. Her breastplate lies broken in two - they evidently had problems taking it off. I can't see her face because it's obscured by her hair. Just at that moment, the guards tear the laces in the back of the leather dress and start taking it off with an effort. This provokes another half cry, half moan from the semi-unconscious Xena. I make a half-hearted attempt to get to her, but I already know I will not successfully reach her until the guards will let me. I was right - their grip is strengthened.
Xena is fully naked now and she hangs between two guards without any sign of life. The soldiers brutally let her go and she falls roughly to the ground. This time there aren't any sounds coming from her. I have tears in my eyes. They toss a little bundle of clothing similar to mine near her head and leave. One of the soldiers kicks her once more in the small of her back with all his strength before he leaves. This action provokes a burst of laughter from the other men in the cell. The guards who restrain me leave too, and lock the door behind them.
We are finally alone, and in relative safety. I don't hesitate for a second but run to my friend. "Xena," I whisper. Tears run freely down my cheeks as I slowly kneel beside her body. "Oh, Xena," I breathe tearfully.
I gently push a few strands of hair away from her face. I shudder when I see tears - Xena never complains about pain, but when the pain becomes too unbearable, she starts getting tears in her eyes. I saw that just once and I had hoped I would never see it again.
I examine her body further and then I almost stop breathing. Right at the small of her back is a big, black bruise in a shape of a soldier's boot. "Those bastards!" I whisper. I lightly run my fingers across the wound, in fact a few millimeters above it. The bruise is huge and it emanates heat. Involuntarily, I shudder again. I remember one young soldier whom Xena took care of once - he had the same type of bruise. A few days after we had met him, he died. Xena explained to me that internal bleeding had cost him his life. Even if the patient's wound doesn't bleed outside, the organs are damaged so much that he bleed out within his body. There wasn't anything she could do about it.
I bring myself to stop thinking about it and continue to check for other wounds. I find a few more bruises and contusions, but none are as serious as the one on the small of her back. I carefully take Xena's arm and turn her over onto her back as gently as I can. She moans softly. She has a few bruises on her front, too. It's clear to me now what those bastards were doing to her for so long. I lean down and kiss her. Then I feel her shivering and I know I can't hold off dressing her any longer. I wipe the tears from my face. When I think about how much pain I'm going to cost her now, I feel sick. "Here, let me cover you up," I say quietly. I gently take her up into my arms and start to cover her with the rags.
When I finish, more tears have appeared in Xena's eyes. She's still unconscious. Maybe it's better this way, I muse. I sit exhausted beside her, take her into my arms and lean against the column at the center of the cell. My only desire is to offer my love some comfort - to ease her pain at least a little bit. My eyes get heavier. I don't know how, but I drift off.
When I wake up, it's quiet everywhere. There's no hammering coming from building crosses, nor do I hear the clamor of soldiers. Life has returned to normal in the prison compound. I sigh. Xena hasn't come around yet. I begin to study her face. Despite the bruises she's got there and the apparent pain she's in, she still looks beautiful.
Suddenly the image of the moment when the Chakram hit her comes before my eyes. Where did the Chakram actually come from? Why doesn't Xena have it with her? And how it is possible that I saw Callisto there? Or wasn't any of it real? So many questions whirl through my mind. I rub my face with my right hand. Are any of those things important at all now? I guess not. We're going to die with Xena here and we can do nothing about it. Alti's vision will come true. I shudder.
Xena mumbles something unintelligible. My gaze returns to her face. Gods! I never thought in my life I would see such an image before my eyes. My beloved Xena who always stood tall and proud falling helplessly to the ground. Her whole posture cried out with silent astonishment mixed with horror and pain. I had to do something. I would never be able to just stand there and watch while Xena was in danger. It felt so natural, so right for me to take the lance into my hand and save her from that soldier that I didn't hesitate for a moment.
I have chosen MY way of love. What would Eli say about it? Doesn't matter now. Now I see it was very naïve of me to think that I could travel with Xena without taking up the weapon. It was naïve and childish to let Xena fight alone. I kept getting us into great dangers with my actions.
All of a sudden I realize - Xena had to know this already. And despite of it, she didn't allow us to be separated. She was willing to bear that risk silently. I smile at her. She supported me so many times. She stood by me as a protective shield. She was doing it even when Ephiny died. She stood behind me silent and tall, offering me comfort and a shoulder I could cry on - and all that without a single word of complaint. At that time, even in the most horrific nightmares, I would never have imagined I would see her this helpless one day.
"Gabrielle?" I suddenly hear a faint voice calling.