The man built the fire up well, knowing it would need to last him several candlemarks once he started the ritual. He checked the tattered parchment in his hands carefully one last time, nodding in satisfaction as he identified each object lying in a circle around the fire.
Finally, convinced that he had everything he needed, the shaman pulled the buckskin from his body and stepped into the nearby creek for a ritual cleansing. He dipped a finger in the paints he had prepared and gently drew the symbols of the war god on his chest. Stripes on his face, arms and thighs completed the look and he put on a clean breechcloth and began his chanting.
Darkness fell as the ritual continued, bringing with it a rumble of thunder and fierce lightning. The shaman's chanting grew louder and each object around the small circle he danced in began to emit an eerie light. Then without warning, the glow disappeared, the shaman was thrown from the circle and somewhere not too far distant, a bolt of lightning struck, leaving behind a mark... and something that would change everything for some and something for everyone.
Gabrielle felt the rending of her soul as the sun set and Xena slipped away from her. Breathing became problematic as the pain overwhelmed her and she forced herself to focus on each breath she took. So intent was she on maintaining a semblance of control that she didn't detect his presence until the small black pot was snatched from her grasp and its contents were floating in the Fountain of Strength.
Gabrielle sat stunned for long seconds... long enough for Ares to mumble something incomprehensible to her. The war god looked up expectantly, frowning when he realized that this wasn't going strictly according to plan. And that was all he had time to understand because he suddenly found himself with an armful of heartbroken, furious bard.
"ARES!!" Gabrielle screamed as she started pummeling him with her fists. "What in Tartarus are you doing??? That was all I had left of her! Damn you, Ares! Damn you!!" He grabbed at her flailing arms.
"It should have worked," he muttered loud enough for her to hear. "It should have brought her back." Those words simply sparked her ire again and she pushed him away from her, swinging wildly. He was so taken aback by her aggressiveness that Gabrielle actually managed to land a shot or two before Ares grabbed her wrists in one large hand and held on tightly. Only then could he make out her forlorn whisper.
"She chose to leave me. She chose to give up our life together for a lie. And you've taken all I had left of her." He didn't see her draw back her arm, but the impact of her fist on his face was... magnificent. And quite painful, surprisingly. Frighteningly, it reminded of the time he had spent as a mortal and he was not at all anxious to relive that particular experience ever again.
"Look blondie, I only thought to do us both a favor, but I can see you'd never be able to appreciate it. It's a long trip back to Greece. Maybe you'll be able to show a little respect by the time you get home and we can talk about this rationally. Until then, see ya."
He disappeared in a glow of blue light and Gabrielle took a last swing at the air where he had been standing. "ARES!!" she screamed again, but he was gone. She dropped to the ground until her hand fell on the small pot. Then she scrambled to her feet and began to feverishly scoop the ashes from the pool of water.
"As angry as I am with you right now, Xena, you have to know I never meant for something like this to happen. I promised to take you home and I meant that. I've tried not to make promises to you I didn't intend to keep. Too bad you can't say the same." She was quiet then for a few minutes as she concentrated on gathering every single bit of ash she could collect from the fountain with only the light of the full moon to guide her efforts.
When she was satisfied she had done the very best she could, she straightened with a groan and lidded the pot. She looked around for her gear and, with a sigh, she wrapped the pot closed carefully so none of the ashes would spill and placed Xena's remains in the bottom of her bag. Then she began her descent off the mountain in the darkness.
Gabrielle didn't go very far. She mostly wanted to get away from the spot where she'd lost Xena. Even the thought of that hurt and she focused on controlling her breathing, absently thankful for the time they'd spent together meditating. She noted a small outcropping and made her way over to it, setting her bag down and shaking out her blanket before lying down and closing her eyes. Sheer physical exhaustion took over and she went to sleep with Ares voice haunting her dreams... It should have brought her back.
A lone tear escaped her closed lid, even as she slept on.
With daylight, Gabrielle arose and took up her burdens once more. She slowly and steadily made her way down Mt. Fuji, until she reached Higuchi. It was just lunchtime when she arrived and she was approached by a merchant who bowed to her before offering her a bowl of rice. She tried politely to decline, then realized her refusal would offend the man and accepted his gift with a nod when he rebuffed her payment.
She slowly became aware that everyone in the village was bowing as she passed, regarding her with a mixture of fear, awe and sympathy. It made her want to break down into tears. Instead, she bit her lip and searched out Hoketsu.
He did not speak, but took her to the bathing room, sensing she was not ready to talk about what had happened on the mountain. The fact that she was alone spoke volumes more than words ever could. He waited til she nodded her approval of the arrangements, then bowed his way out the door. Gabrielle stripped and slid into the warm pool, allowing the tears to flow at last.
Meanwhile, at the docks, word had passed about the incredible defeat the small blonde warrior had visited on Yodoshi and the inconceivable price she had paid for her victory. The Captain of one of the vessels in residence stepped onto the dock and began looking for Hoketsu. The younger man bowed as the short, gray-haired captain approached him. Hoketsu had the utmost respect for Katerina von Lihp, even though the woman had the strangest habit of dressing like a shepherd instead of the Germanic sea captain she was. Still, she had proven herself a friend to Hoketsu and the people of Higuchi, so they overlooked her idiosyncrasies.
"Captain Lihp, it is a pleasure. How may the people of Higuchi serve you?"
"Ah, Hoketsu, my friend. Is it true that Yodoshi has been defeated by a small woman warrior?"
"Yes, yes, but at great cost to herself... to her soul."
The older woman scratched her face. "Perhaps I will offer her a way home. I'm sure she will not want to stay here."
"She is bathing, but I will bring her to you if she is willing, when she is done."
"Excellent. I will see to preparing the boat. The tide goes out at sunset and we would do well to go with it."
With a nod, Hoketsu continued on to the small market area and Captain Lihp returned to her vessel.
When he reached the shop he was looking for, Hoketsu entered and bowed toward the proprietor. The older man bowed back then asked with a smile. "Hoketsu, what can I do for you?"
"Morimoto, do you have anything to fit the Little Dragon Warrior? Her clothing was destroyed in the battle with Yodoshi. I wish to replace it before she leaves us."
"She is leaving then?"
"I expect she will. There is no real reason for her to remain and Captain Lihp is going to offer her passage back toward Greece. I think she will accept it."
Morimoto nodded his head thoughtfully. "I believe I can find something for her. She is much the size of the women here. Let me look. She will have my very best."
Hoketsu nodded and Morimoto went into the back area of his shop. Within minutes he returned and held up a package. "Several moons ago, I was compelled to make this," he said quietly, "though I didn't understand why at the time. Now I do. My gift to her."
Hoketsu nodded and accepted the package without opening it. Morimoto was the finest tailor he knew, so he believed that Gabrielle would appreciate the beauty of whatever artistry he had created.
As he began to make his way back to the bath house, Hoketsu was stopped by nearly every citizen of Higuchi, all eager to share their thanks with the bard. He was forced to ask for help in carrying all the gifts offered to her and he and Yama had to stop at his home to drop things off first. Then he turned to the young woman.
"Yama, will you take this to Gabrielle? She needs new clothing, but I do not wish to intrude upon the peace of her bath."
"I would be honored, Hoketsu." She bowed and walked the short distance to the bath house. When she arrived at the door, she stopped and listened. When she didn't hear anything, she knocked timidly and waited for permission to enter.
Gabrielle raised her head and opened her eyes to glare at the door when the knock came. She sighed soundlessly and beckoned, "Come."
Yama stepped into the warm room at the whispered command. "For you, Little Dragon." Yama set the package on the small bench that held the ragged remains of her Samurai costume and her meager belongings. The long sword, katana and chakram stood out conspicuously. "Morimoto sent it for you."
Gabrielle wanted to refuse, but she was too tired and too heart sore to really care. Instead, she nodded and closed her eyes again. Yama smiled gently and bowed herself out, closing her eyes at the anguish she had seen in the bard's own.
Gabrielle sat in the tub a bit longer before finally taking the cloth and the cake of soap and scrubbing herself clean, wishing with all her heart she could do the same with the memories. When she was done, she rose from the water and covered herself with the towel, walking over to inspect the package wrapped in rice paper.
She untied the hemp knot and the paper fell away to reveal... it was another samurai outfit, but this one was done in an indigo that reminded her of.... Her breath caught and she closed her eyes against the pain. Gabrielle slipped into the trousers, belting them comfortably before picking up the tunic. She stared amazed at the dragon pattern on the back, an exact duplicate of the one she now bore. It was silver and gold, red and green and she absently marveled at the intricate detail involved in its creation before donning it and settling her weapons.
She folded the towel neatly and stepped into her sandals before she exited the bath house and headed for the docks.
Hoketsu saw Gabrielle leave and moved to walk with her. She glanced in his direction and gave him a quizzical look, but did not say anything.
"I have arranged a way for you back to the mainland, if you desire to return. I did not think you would want to remain here any longer than necessary." Gabrielle nodded her acceptance of his words and motioned for him to lead the way.
When they reached Captain Lihp's boat, Hoketsu crossed the gangway and beckoned Gabrielle to join him on the deck. She walked over with cat-like ease, landing on the teak planking with a little hop. The Captain moved away from her first mate and came over to greet them.
"Welcome aboard. Hoketsu indicated you would like passage out of Japa. I would be happy to take you anywhere you would like to go." Gabrielle looked around at the spic-and-span ship and at the not-so-motley crew and nodded. "Are you in a hurry to get back to Greece or would you like to go with us? I have several ports of call I can stop at if you're not in a rush."
Gabrielle nodded again and both the Captain and Hoketsu began to wonder if her voice had been stolen on the mountain top. However, Lihp was nothing if not a determined woman, so she continued. "Excellent. Shanghai will be our first stop then." She didn't see the speculative gleam that entered the dull green eyes. "Now come," she persisted. "Let me show you your cabin."
Gabrielle turned to Hoketsu and hugged him. He hugged back gently, knowing that beneath the solidness of her body lay a fragility that was close to shattering. "Thank you," he whispered before she released him and stepped back to follow the Captain below decks. He waited a moment longer, then turned and stepped back down the gangplank to the docks. When his feet touched solid ground again, Hoketsu turned and looked back at the ship a final time, offering a prayer to his gods for the safety of Gabrielle's soul.
Lihp went down a single set of stairs and stopped in front of one of the few doors in the passageway. Then she turned to Gabrielle with serious intent.
"We don't carry many passengers, so your berth is not large. We do carry them often enough that this space is set aside for that purpose and it is clean. That is about the most that can be said for it. You have the freedom of the ship and if you need anything, you have but to ask."
Gabrielle nodded her understanding and the Captain opened the door, stepping back so she could pass thru. She looked around. Katerina hadn't lied - the space was extremely small, but it was clean and would suit her needs. Gabrielle gave her a simple nod of approval.
"Excellent! The good people of Higuchi wanted to be sure you were provided for on your journey, so they left you some provisions. Most of the things are here in your cabin. The rest is below decks in the storage area until you are ready to leave us." She waited for a response, but when none was forthcoming, she sighed silently and continued. "Now if you will excuse me, we will get underway."
Gabrielle nodded again and turned her back in dismissal, stepping over to open the small porthole to allow the fresh air in. She heard the door closed and the Captain's footsteps grow fainter before her shoulders sagged and she slumped onto the small platform cot.
No one heard her silent tears.
The next three weeks passed without much change in routine for either the ship's crew or its passenger. Gabrielle had not spoken a word since she'd set foot on the ship and the crew had learned rather quickly to steer clear of her. She spent candlemarks every day working with both the katana and her sais, though the chakram never left her hip. Her body grew lean and hard even as her eyes became more lifeless and dull.
The remainder of her waking candlemarks, Gabrielle spent staring out to sea or meditating. The longer the voyage became, the more often she turned to meditation. She found it soothed what was threatening to become an overwhelming rage. Her urge to strike out at everyone and everything sometimes sent a red wash through her veins. She found that meditating kept it manageable.
Strangely, the meditating and practice did wonders for her seasickness as well. Though she was not particularly happy to be on a ship again and despite the fact that her appetite was minimal, she experienced only mild discomfort this trip compared to previous ones.
Finally, on the morning of the twenty-second day, the lookout called out, "Land ho!" and it wasn't long before the boat was in the shipping lanes pulling in to the Shanghai port. Gabrielle went below decks to pack her few belongings. Except for the samurai clothing and some fresh fruit that she'd shared among the crew, she had touched nothing from Higuchi. She felt the boat slip into a berth and gave an unconscious sigh of relief.
As she made her way topside, she was hailed by the Captain. "Little Dragon, wait. Please."
Gabrielle stopped, digging into her bag. She found what she was looking for and handed Katerina her small purse. Lihp recoiled as though it were a snake.
"NO!" she said vehemently. "Your money will not work with us, Little Dragon. The people of Higuchi owed you a debt and this is how they chose to make payment."
Green eyes studied hers and Katerina fought to contain her shudder at the deadness of them. Eventually Gabrielle nodded her agreement and placed the purse back in her bag. The Captain nodded back and exhaled in relief.
"Good! Good! Now what shall we do with your other things, hš?" Gabrielle's brow crinkled in confusion and Katerina hastened to explain. "The gifts we stowed in the hold."
Gabrielle shook her head and shrugged. Then she reached out and clasped Katerina's arm briefly before turning and heading down the gangplank.
Captain Lihp watched her out of sight before muttering to herself. "The gods watch over you, Gabrielle of Poteideia. We will see you in Greece." Then she turned back to her boat and the business at hand.
Shanghai was a busy port of call, full of merchants, sailors and purveyors of all types of things. Gabrielle took notice of little of it, not realizing that people moved out of her way. She didn't notice the whispers as her samurai dress was noted by the populace. Her senses were aware, but they were focused for danger, not for whispered comments and the space of respect.
She stepped off the main path, looking for a quiet inn with a bath. The first thing that actually got her attention was the sweet smell of opium and she hesitated in front of the door for a long moment. Gabrielle remembered well Xena's stories from her first experience in Chin, though she'd never shared much from that part of her life. Xena had shared the reason for her reluctance to use any sort of narcotic to dull her pain.
Now Gabrielle found herself seriously contemplating the need to lose herself as she had lost Xena. To fill the void Xena's death had caused with mellow joy, even if only for a little while. She put her hand on the door and pushed it open slightly, allowing the wafting sweet scent of the opium to escape. Then she let is close as her shoulders dropped and she turned to journey farther up the road.
"No. I will keep the memories and the pain. It's all I have left."
Gabrielle found what she was looking for on the outskirts of the town. The Labrys hanging near the door reminded her of the Amazons and she knew that she would be safe for the night. It occurred to her in passing that she would need to check on her sisters if she lived that long. She would make it back to Greece... she had promised Xena long ago to take her back to her brother. But Gabrielle had no definite plans beyond getting Xena's remains to Amphipolis. After that....
With a sigh, she pushed open the door, welcoming the relative quiet after the marketplace. She stepped to the bar and dug in her purse, withdrawing a gold coin. She slapped in on the bar in front of the proprietress and raised a brow. She gave silent thanks for Xena's training when the woman started speaking rapid-fire Chinese.
"For that... dinner, bath, bed, breakfast and supplies for the road." Gabrielle nodded agreement and took the mug of ale placed before her. "Everyone calls me Ling," the woman introduced herself. "Come and I will show you to your room."
Gabrielle hefted her bag and lifted the mug. Then she followed Ling down the small hallway. She opened a door and Gabrielle noted it was a clean, sparse room. She nodded her satisfaction and set down her things. Ling crossed the hall and opened another door. Inside was a huge pool, much like the one Gabrielle had used in Higuchi. Except this one had other women in it. They all turned to look and Gabrielle bore the stares stoically.
Ling turned to her and asked, "You want to bathe now? I will wash the outfit, samurai... no extra charge."
Gabrielle stepped into the room and stripped out of her clothing, this time acutely aware of the whispers behind her. A collective gasp fell from the lips of those gathered when her bare back was exposed. When she turned around, she noted that all the women had moved to the far end of the pool. Shrugging to herself, she moved towards the pool.
Ling handed her a cloth and a towel. "They moved to show respect, Little Dragon. Women warriors are very rare here and samurai not at all." She offered a cake of soap.
Gabrielle's eyes had widened at Ling's use of her nickname, but she took the soap and began bathing the days at sea away from her body. When she was done, she rose and wrapped the towel around herself and left the room. Not a word had been spoken while she'd been in there and the low murmur of voices now sounded like so many angry bees.
Dinner was rice and vegetables and a flagon of wine that Gabrielle found sitting on the low table when she stepped into her room. She ate, pleasantly surprised by the mixture of flavors. Then she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
It was late when she awakened and only then because Ling was knocking. Gabrielle pulled the sheet around her and wiped the sleep from her eyes as she rose. She scrubbed her hand through her hair and then opened the door.
Ling offered her a tray and a package. Gabrielle could tell from the feel it was her clothing and she bowed slightly in thanks. Then she shut the door and began to prepare herself for travel.
Ling had given her a small map and Gabrielle had decided to follow the Yangtze River while she searched for Eve. She knew it could take a while for her to find Eve, but figured when she started hearing Eli's message, the messenger would not be too far away.
It was shortly after midday when Gabrielle was stopped by a small group of men demanding payment for walking along the road. The Gabrielle of old, being a skilled bard and negotiator, would have tried talking her way out of the situation. The new Gabrielle didn't hesitate and in the blink of an eye held her katana in one hand and the chakram in the other.
The men laughed amazed at the boldness of the woman standing before them. Not knowing she understood them perfectly and not just the crude gestures they had demanded payment with, one man commented to the other just what he was going to do to teach the impudent woman a lesson.
His words weren't out of his mouth before his head hit the ground. His body remained upright a beat or two longer before it collapsed. In the silence that followed, the five remaining men gauged the situation and the lone woman warrior. Deciding she could not beat them as a whole, they attacked enthusiastically, trying to bury her under the onslaught.
Gabrielle shifted the katana forward and across, glorying in the sweet, coppery smell of blood as it sprayed over her mostly bare skin and licking it's tangy saltiness from her lips. She had resumed her red velvet number when she'd left the inn and now she was glad she had... for several different reasons.
With her left hand she swung the chakram in a wide arc, catching the third man across the throat. He gurgled his last breath.
The three remaining men looked at Gabrielle as though she were a demon possessed and tried to back away. Gabrielle felt the bloodlust sing through her veins and grinned. "Problem, boys? One woman a little too much for you?" said in a whisper that sent skitters across their collective spines.
They didn't understand her words, but her intent was clear. Before they could decide between fight or flight, Gabrielle descended upon them, unleashing the pain and fury she felt. It didn't take long and in the end, six Chinamen laid dead and the blood-covered warrior wiped her weapons before continuing her journey.
When evening came, Gabrielle found herself searching for a place to make camp. She'd encountered two other sets of highwaymen and each encounter ended the same. She wanted to feel sadness for the unnecessary deaths, but all she could manage was a sense of fulfillment. Strangely, she wasn't particularly hungry, though she'd missed lunch.
Shrugging her shoulders, she found a quiet spot off the beaten path near a still pool. She checked the water and when she was satisfied it wasn't stagnant, she stripped her clothes off and stepped in to wash.
It took her a few minutes to wash the blood away, but she did so rather nonchalantly, then took up her red velvet outfit and scrubbed it clean. She rose from the water and shivered a little in the light breeze. She took a shift from her bag and slid into it, then laid her clothing on the nearby brush to dry. Gabrielle started a small fire, appreciating the warmth more than the light. She heated water for tea and wrapped herself in her sleeping furs, never even realizing when she passed from wakefulness into sleep.
The next few days started a pattern that would continue for the next few moons. Gabrielle rose early and ate, then moved on down the river path. Some days, she would encounter brigands and she found herself oddly full after decimating each roving band. Other days she would spend in the small towns or villages she ran across, helping where she could... building a barn, taking care of the sick, cleaning up after a raid. Simple things that reminded her she was still alive and there were always people in need of help.
Slowly, the days passed into weeks and the weeks became one moon and then two. Finally, after nearly three moons of travel across the land of Chin, Gabrielle was certain Eve was not in the country. She had reached the mountains with no hint of the message or the messenger.
Studying the map, Gabrielle realized that India was on the other side of the mountain range and she decided she was tired of Chin. So she prepared herself and her gear for a trip over the mountains and into India.
It was an arduous journey, but Gabrielle welcomed the challenge. It took all her focus and that was especially good when her bloodlust returned in full measure. She hardly had time to wonder at the cause of it, much less its satisfaction. Soon, the cold and lust overwhelmed her and when she stepped into a world that seemed to be a figment of her madness, she surrendered to it.
When she first opened her eyes, Gabrielle was almost sure she'd crossed into the Elysian Fields. Instead of the cold, whipping wind and stinging bite of snow she expected, the temperature was mild and the climate moderate. Blinking, she realized that she was indoors on a soft bed. She sat up and noticed for the first time that she was clean and naked. It didn't really concern her, but it did make her curious, so Gabrielle gathered the sheet around her and padded to the window. She opened it and stared out into... green eyes blinked several times. The grass was lush and green and the flowers bursting with fragrance and color. Well-dressed people walked along a market area filled with all manner of interesting things.
Gabrielle's forehead crinkled in confusion. She didn't recall the Fields having a marketplace. A knock on her door interrupted her contemplation.
A curly head poked in after the second knock and for a moment Gabrielle thought it was Ephiny. She shook her head trying to clear the confusion while motioning for the woman to come in.
"Hello, young one," the cheerful voice greeted. "Welcome to Shangri La."
Gabrielle's brow furrowed again. The name seemed so familiar, but she couldn't place it. Was it a myth she had heard? A story on the road? She shrugged mentally. It would occur to her eventually. It usually did. Gabrielle turned her attention back to the woman.
"... Manassa, so you let me know if I can help you, all right dear?" Without waiting for an answer, Manassa continued. "Here is your clothing. It's been cleaned and repaired." Gabrielle reached for her purse. "Oh, no charge, dear. We can settle your bill later. Are you hungry?"
Gabrielle thought about that, then nodded.
"Good, I'll let you get dressed, then we'll see about feeding you." The woman was gone before Gabrielle had a chance to register her leaving.
The next few days passed in something of a blur for Gabrielle. The people had made her very welcome, expecting nothing more from her than what she offered. There was a lassitude, a peace that pervaded all life here and Gabrielle found a part of herself wishing she could stay and enjoy it. The larger part of her was growing antsier, trying to control an urge she still didn't understand.
On the morning of the ninth day after her arrival in the small village, Gabrielle packed up her kit. She knew she had to leave before the burning in her blood manifest itself physically. Manassa looked at her with great sadness.
"I hope you find your peace, young warrior," she said softly as she accepted a small amount of money from Gabrielle. They'd argued about this... Gabrielle with silent, harsh motions and Manassa with quiet, simple words. They had reached an accord they could both live with and now Gabrielle was anxious to leave the small village before she visited her rage upon the innocent people living there.
Gabrielle nodded an acknowledgement of her words and unexpectedly leaned forward to brush her lips on Manassa's cheek. Then she stepped out the door without a backward look and headed for the Southern mountain range and India that lay beyond.
Once again, the severe cold overcame every thought and focus she had and Gabrielle's last thought before she succumbed was that she would never get to tell Eve about Xena's death.
When she awakened this time, it was to the familiar scent of curry and a firm straw mattress beneath her body. She sat up and looked around, hoping to find a clue of where she was, wondering if her previous experience had been the imaginings of a madwoman.
Her stirrings alerted the young man who was tending to her and he nodded to the young woman who was in the room with him before handing her a cup and bidding her to drink. Then he spoke softly in Hindu words Gabrielle recognized from her travels twenty-six full cycles previously.
"Rest, Dragon Warrior. The messenger has been summoned."
Gabrielle relaxed, hoping that the hard part of her journey was almost done. She'd fallen into a light doze and didn't rouse when Eve stepped into the room. Tears filled Eve's eyes, noting the pallor and almost skeletal leanness, knowing that Gabrielle's solitary state could only mean one thing. Eve nodded her thanks to the young man and he took it for the dismissal it was. Then Eve settled into a chair by Gabrielle's bedside and waited for her to awaken again.
Slowly, slower than she expected, Gabrielle felt herself rising toward the light again and was at once eager and fearful to awaken. She was fairly certain that Eve was the person in the room with her and now that she actually had to tell her about her mother, Gabrielle felt the tears that had been dry for three moons begin to flow.
Eve sensed Gabrielle's distress and moved to kneel by the bed. She didn't speak, but merely held the hand of someone who could have been another mother to her if Fate had treated them all just a little differently. She wondered if Gabrielle would consider her a friend.
Things had always been slightly strained and awkward between them though they had tried to work through it due to their love for Xena. Now it was that love that would pull them together or push them apart forever.
Gabrielle felt Eve take her hand and the gentle kindness in the gesture made the tears flow even faster. She curled into herself and Eve's eyes welled with sympathetic tears. Without thought, she scooped the small woman into her arms and held her tightly until Gabrielle had stopped trembling.
Eve kissed the blonde hair lightly before setting Gabrielle next to her and taking the calloused hands in her own smoother ones. She recognized the weapons patterns and closed her eyes. Only one thing would have prompted her to choose a sword, after all this time, Eve thought seriously.
"Gabrielle," she said softly, not understanding the flinch that passed through the other woman's body at the sound of her name. Gabrielle's eyes closed as she tried to regain her equilibrium. "Gabrielle, I know you came here to tell me Mother is dead... didn't you? It's the only reason I can think of you would be here alone."
Gabrielle nodded her head, for a long moment unable to look into the blue eyes that reminded her of just how much she'd lost.
"Can you tell me what happened?" Eve paused, reading the agony so clearly in the dead green eyes that finally met her own. "I know... I know you loved her, Gabrielle, more than anything, just as she loved you." Gabrielle's shudder was visible, but Eve continued. "If things had been different, we would have been a family. I loved her, because she was my mother and I knew she loved me in return. And I'll miss her, but more for what could have been than what was."
Gabrielle understood what Eve was saying. It was almost what she'd expected, given the limited amount of time mother and daughter had had together before Eve had journeyed eastward. They had bonded and even become friends, but her grief was not the overwhelming loss of a soulmate that Gabrielle was living with.
Gabrielle was quiet for so long that Eve felt compelled to speak. "Gabrielle, I can't begin to understand how you feel, but I am here if you need to talk. For now, though, I'd like you to drink this and get some rest." She handed a cup to Gabrielle. "We can continue our discussion later."
Gabrielle complied without protest and it was then that it occurred to Eve what was so odd... beyond the obvious. Gabrielle had yet to say a word.
Eve waited patiently while Gabrielle finished the draught the healer had left for her, then sat beside her until she felt the small warrior slip into a deep sleep. Then she rose and went to her own room, closing the door before calling on Gabrielle's goddess friend.
"Aphrodite, goddess of love and friend to my mother and Gabrielle, I beseech you to grant me an audience."
"Yo, babe! Whassup?"
Eve turned from the window and looked at the goddess now standing in a ring of rose petals in her barely-there pink outfit. Dite grinned and shook her curly mane.
"Hey, Eve! Long time, no talk to. You still doing the one God gig?"
"Hi, Aphrodite! Yeah, I am, so thanks for coming."
"Too bad!" The goddess flopped on Eve's bed, frowning in supreme discomfort. "Ew! Grody!" She snapped her fingers and was instantly on her own comfortable divan. "Ah, much better," she sighed. "Now what's up that you call for me instead of Eli?" her tone serious.
"I asked you to come because of Gabrielle. She once told me that you were her friend."
Now Eve had Dite's full attention. "I'd like to think I still am."
Eve took a seat on the couch beside the goddess and looked directly into her eyes. "Good. Then you can tell me what happened to my mother and why Gabrielle no longer speaks."
Aphrodite's eyes grew wide. "Whaddya mean what happened to...." Her voice trailed off and her gaze went inward. "That would explain Ares...." she muttered to herself, then reached for Eve's hand. "C'mon, babe. We've got things to do."
"Uh... but... Aphr...." But that was all she got out as the pair disappeared in a shimmer of sparkles.
Her last visit to Olympus had been such an unmitigated disaster, Eve wasn't real comfortable when she figured out where they were. Aphrodite caught that clue pretty quick.
"Chill, babe." There was sadness in her gaze before she focused on Eve. "We aren't going to the audience hall. None of us have been there since...."
Eve laid a gentle hand on Dite's arm and looked at her compassionately. "Aphrodite, I am sorry. What happened...."
"What happened to them was totally their fault. Ares and I tried to warn them... tried to stop them, but they so wouldn't listen. They paid for their arrogance to the max. Maybe one day they'll get it." Eve looked at her in confusion, but Dite continued. "This is my scrying bowl," motioning towards the object. "We can see what rocked her world for ourselves." She looked at Eve. "Do you know when this happened?"
Eve shook her head. "No, but it has to have been a couple moons or so. She is nothing but muscle and bone. And her hands are rough as though she's been fighting for a while."
"Well, it for sure didn't happen around here or I would have seen it. Let me hook this gnarly thing to the worldwide god web. This will let us scan for her anywhere, anytime."
Dite did some adjusting and jiggling, looking back and forth between the back of the scrying bowl and the wall where the picture was being reflected. "Eve, keep an eye on the picture will you, babe? I don't have to do this often and I never remember...." The love goddess ducked her around the back, mumbling to herself.
"Hold it!" Eve shouted, causing Aphrodite to smack into the wall. She lifted up her head to glare at Eve. "Sorry, but that is perfect."
Dite eased away from the bowl, rubbing her head gingerly as she moved to take a seat on the large bed. She waved a hand and a tray appeared and she poured them each a goblet of wine. "Now, how far back do you think we should go?"
"Um, Aphrodite, shouldn't we start at the here and now first?"
"Oh, like duh!" She looked around, then snatched the small box of the bedside stand. She pointed it at the scrying bowl, but nothing happened. Dite peered at it closely, then aimed again. "This is so uncool! Never let a man play with the toys, babe, especially a god. They never work right after that." She rapped it against her hand, pleased when the picture shifted to Gabrielle, then appalled when she saw exactly what shape her friend was in. "Oh, my... Gabrielle?"
Tears flooded Aphrodite's eyes and she raised a hand to cover her mouth. "Oh Gabrielle," she said softly. "Let's see what we can do." She looked at Eve, "Two moons, you said?"
Eve nodded. "At least, I think. What happened to her takes time."
"All right, that would make it...." She pointed the box and Eve watched a blur of images fly by in reverse. The images stopped. "... about here." Dite clicked the box but nothing happened. She clicked it twice more, but still nothing. Frustrated she gave it a good smack and the images stared to play forward in slow motion.
"Um, Aphrodite, I don't wanna question your methods, but why not just wave or snap or something? Wouldn't it be easier?"
"Yes, but the instructions to using the wwgw say to use the box, so I do." She shook it and the picture resumed normal speed. Then she almost wished it hadn't. Gabrielle was surrounded by highwaymen and yet she cut them down as callously as though they had been so much brush wood. Dite cleared her throat. "Maybe we should look for her and Xena together."
The images once more moved backwards rapidly and Dite missed the final interlude on Mt. Fuji. Instead, she caught them at the teahouse, just as Xena was teaching Gabrielle the pinch.
"Stop," Eve said quietly. "This is important."
So they watched, experiencing Gabrielle's horror first hand. When they got to Xena's headless body, Eve whispered, "No more, please," and stunned, Dite complied. She shut off the scrying bowl and the worldwide god web marked her place, a factor which would become crucial as time went on.
Eve had tears streaming down her face when she looked at Aphrodite. "My God... how horrible. No wonder Gabrielle was nearly destroyed by this. I barely knew my mother and I feel like my guts are being ripped out. They were everything to each other."
"That was way uncool of Xena," Aphrodite commented flippantly, wiping the tears from her eyes. "There is gonna be some radical payment for this screw-up," she muttered. "Let's get back to Gabrielle. I have something that may help until I can find a solution to this totally fubared situation." They disappeared, leaving only a trail of rose petals in their wake.
Gabrielle woke to the soft feel of fingers gently combing through her hair and for a long moment lost herself in memories the feeling stirred in her. Then she realized that the touch was wrong and reality crashed on top of her once more. She opened her eyes and saw tears in the blue eyes regarding her.
"How ya doing, kiddo?" Aphrodite asked softly. She stopped stroking as Gabrielle sat up, but kept her hand on the muscular arm. It took all she had not to flinch at the obvious changes Xena's death had wrought in her friend. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I just found out, or I'd have been here sooner."
Gabrielle didn't answer and she didn't cry, but she did throw her arms around the goddess's neck and hug her for all she was worth. Dite spared a moment's thought to be thankful for her immortality... the strength of the hug would have been painful otherwise.
Gabrielle clung to her for quite some time and neither woman noticed when Eve slipped out the door to give them some privacy. Finally, they separated and Aphrodite put two fingers under Gabrielle's chin, raising the green eyes to meet her own. This time she did flinch and closed her eyes briefly when the depth of Gabrielle's pain met her gaze.
"I have a totally radical present for ya," the goddess said lightly, but Gabrielle could feel the effort Dite was putting in to maintain her facade. She reached up a trembling hand to Dite's face and smiled forlornly. Two tears spilled from Aphrodite's eyes and fell unnoticed to the bed. The goddess reached out her hand and a ring appeared in it. She presented it to Gabrielle.
"I've seen a little of what brought you here. I'd like you to wear this. It's my talisman... it will mark you as my chosen and offer you protection as you travel." She watched Gabrielle's face closely and Gabrielle slowly took the ring from her fingers. She looked a question at Dite and the goddess answered. "You never needed it before now."
Gabrielle shook her head and tried to hand it back. Aphrodite's hands folded Gabrielle's closed over the ring. "Please. You have to let me help. This is wrong and I need time to find the answers!"
The bard had never seen Dite so adamant or so distraught. She gazed into the goddess's eyes for a very long time before finding the answer she was seeking. Then she nodded her acquiescence.
Aphrodite smiled. "Thank you, girlfriend. Now, would you like a radical lift back to Greece or...?"
She broke off and it took Gabrielle a moment shift gears and realize the Dite had reverted to form to deal with things on a less serious level. She more than most understood Aphrodite hid the depth of her feelings and intelligence behind the airhead blonde mentality. Gabrielle shook her head and Aphrodite nodded in understanding.
"Cool! I've got some research to do, so you chill with Eve or whatever and I'll see you in Greece shortly, k?"
Gabrielle just nodded again, almost sure she'd understood what Dite had said. Time would tell.
"Keep the ring on babe! See ya!" And the goddess disappeared in a shower of petals.
Gabrielle picked one up and rubbed it between her fingers, shaking her head with a smile. She slid the ring onto her middle finger, then shifted, scowling when something hard pressed into the soft flesh of her leg. A knock on her door made her look up and then she returned her attention to the cot, searching around with her hands to find what was poking her.
Her hands hit the objects just as the door opened and she closed her fist around them and glanced up at Eve who's stuck her head in hesitantly. They stared at each other a long time before Eve broke the tableau and walked over to Gabrielle's side. She didn't take a seat on the bed, but rather knelt on the floor at Gabrielle's feet.
She studied the hands in her lap, then gazed into Gabrielle's eyes. "I know what happened," she said softly. "Some of it anyway. But I'd like to hear the whole story from you. Do you think you could...?"
Gabrielle studied her, clenching her fists in memory before looking down and opening them, realizing what had been aggravating her. Aphrodite's tears, she mused, staring at the two large diamonds now resting in her palm. She looked back at Eve, whose face bore a patient, understanding countenance. She deserves to know the whole truth, Gabrielle decided. She nodded her head.
Eve sat up on her knees and brushed her lips across Gabrielle's cheek. "Thank you. I'll leave you to get dressed and then perhaps you'll join me for dinner?" She waited for Gabrielle's nod. "The bathing room is next door if you'd rather have a warm bath first." She saw a tiny sparkle enter Gabrielle's eyes. "I'll come get you in half a candlemark or so then, all right?"
"Thank you, Eve." There was no sound, but they were the first words Gabrielle's lips had formed since just after Xena's death. It was a tiny, tiny step, but it was a step in the right direction.
Gabrielle spent almost a full moon with Eve. It was far longer than she'd planned to stay, but she found the retelling of Xena's story so draining that Eve would only allow her to whisper short bits of the tale before sending her off to rest and recuperate.
Gabrielle spent much of her off time with Eve meditating or drilling. She tried to keep to a schedule that wouldn't disturb the others in the compound, but many were the nights that Eve would wake in the middle of the night to find Gabrielle in the courtyard moving her katana with deadly accuracy.
After eleven straight nights of this, Eve decided to take action. Knowing Gabrielle was sleeping little and eating less, Eve decided to go with her own strength's and make sure that Gabrielle finally got the rest she so desperately needed.
That morning, Gabrielle had reached the part in her story where she'd found Xena's headless body and she'd left the room abruptly with hot, angry tears coursing down her face. Eve made no immediate move to find her, reliving the awful sight that had plagued her since seeing it with Aphrodite. She could only imagine how magnified Gabrielle's feelings were, having actually lived through the trauma.
Instead, Eve went to her chamber and sought answers through prayer and meditation. Eli manifested himself to her and for several candlemarks they talked, until Eve was prepared to take the necessary action to help Gabrielle. Eli blessed her and bade her to rest, which she did, until darkness fell. Then she took up the sword Eli had left for her and moved into the courtyard to await Gabrielle's arrival.
Gabrielle did not disappoint. Just as the moon reached its zenith, she stepped from the shadows of her doorway and into the middle of the soft grass. The katana made the merest whisper of sound as it left its sheath and Gabrielle immediately flew into a furious frenzy of moves.
Eve watched from the shadows and waited patiently, choosing carefully the precise moment to enter the fray. Gabrielle didn't even blink when her imaginary foe coalesced into a live human being before her eyes. She simply stepped up her intensity and a feral light entered her eyes.
Eve shuddered when she saw the familiar but forgotten expression enter Gabrielle's eyes and she knew then that this battle was all too real. Eve tapped into a side of herself that hadn't seen the light of day in a very long time and felt the part of her that was Livia responding to the challenge Gabrielle put forth.
The battle went on for several candlemarks and it was only because of Eve's better physical condition that she finally managed to knock Gabrielle to the ground unconscious. She rested herself for quite a bit before moving her sweat-soaked hair from her eyes and rising to stand on wobbly legs.
Unexpectedly, Eli appeared before her and knelt down to lift Gabrielle into his arms. Eve picked up the katana and followed him to Gabrielle's room.
Gabrielle slept for two days while Eve watched and waited. When she woke on the morning of the third day, it was like she'd turned a corner. She ate decently and though she still did not speak, except to relate more of Xena's story in whispers to Eve, she walked the gardens a bit before returning to sleep some more.
Eve did get a bit more sparring out of her, but quickly realized that she'd been very lucky Gabrielle had been exhausted that first night. Gabrielle's skill had surpassed her own and the only reason she didn't end up bleeding or dead was because Gabriele turned killing blows aside. She did end up with some nice bruises though.
At the end of her third quarter moon, her story was told and Gabrielle was ready to move on. She was still single-minded in her determination to get Xena's remains to Amphipolis, but she was now thankful for the time spent with Eve. The awkwardness was gone and they had forged a friendship that they would both cherish despite the distance between them.
Gabrielle packed her bag and slung it over her shoulder, then headed out to find Eve. Eve was waiting for her at the compound's kitchen.
"Thank you for being here, Gabrielle and for sharing that story with me. I know it wasn't easy, but I think we both needed to hear it." The bard didn't answer and Eve continued. "C'mon," she said, picking up a large bag. "I've got something for you."
Gabrielle followed Eve out the door and to the stables. There sat a horse that reminded her so much of Handsome it nearly made her cry. She turned shocked green eyes to Eve. The Messenger shrugged.
"He wandered in just before you did. He wouldn't leave and he wouldn't let anyone ride him either. After our fight the other day, he kept watch over you. I think he came here looking for you."
Gabrielle stepped over to the horse who greeted her almost familiarly. She crossed back over to Eve and held out her arms, stepping into Eve's embrace simultaneously. "Thank you," Gabrielle whispered into the taller woman's ear. "For everything."
"Be safe, Gabrielle. I love you."
Gabrielle's answer was another brief hug, then she moved back to the horse and mounted him. She clucked her tongue and tightened her legs and Handsome started out of the compound. Gabrielle paused at the entranced and turned and gave Eve a wave. Then she left down the road without another backwards glance.
Aphrodite meanwhile, returned to Olympus to find some answers. The first thing she did was watch the whole tragic story from beginning to end. Then she learned what had brought Xena and Gabrielle to Japa and she went back and did some research on Akemi. What she found infuriated her and she made a quick trip to visit her Asian counterparts.
Dite explained her dilemma and they discovered that Xena really wasn't in their underworld. They did decide that Akemi would need to be punished for her duplicity and Dite was satisfied that justice would be served to the extent it could be. She wasn't sure Gabrielle would agree though, especially since Xena seemed to have completely disappeared.
The love goddess popped back to Olympus and started on a god hunt. She went searching for Hades first.
"HADES!!" She waited a beat, then bellowed again. "Uncle Hades!!" She popped into Hades domain, but he was nowhere to be found. She scratched her hands through her hair and opened her mouth, but was stopped by a soft voice behind her.
"He's not here, Dite. He spends his time in Rome as Pluto now. You know that."
"Hey, Persephone. What are you doing here?"
Persephone shrugged. "I come back from time to time just to make sure things here are all right. We can't really go back to Olympus, at least not for a while, but this will always be more home to me than Rome. Hades judges Greek and Roman souls from Rome now and he's not real happy with the added workload."
"Do you think he could spare a moment for me? I have a problem."
"Dite, we'd be glad to have you come stay in Rome. We miss having you around."
Aphrodite smiled sadly. "I miss you guys too, but someone needs to stay here to keep an eye on things. Besides, I really hate Rome. I do manage to get there occasionally; I just can't stay very long. It's not home."
"Oh, girlfriend that is so very true."
Dite giggled when she heard the words flow from her rather proper cousin's mouth. "Careful there, 'Seph. They'll accuse you of totally radical blondish tendencies." They laughed together.
"C'mon, Dite. Let's go see Hades."
"You mean Pluto?"
The chamber echoed their laughter as the disappeared in a swirl of sparks and petals.
"Psst... Ha... um, I mean, Pluto. Could I see you privately for a moment?" Persephone questioned softly. The god of the underworld nodded and rose.
"Judgment will continue in one candlemark," he said and moved back into his private living area. He took his wife into his arms and kissed her before the cooing and chuckling of Aphrodite made them separate, blushing.
"Hello, Uncle. You two are just so cute together. A real walking ad for the love connection."
"Ahem, yes. Well, as glad as I am to see you here, I'm sure you didn't come to discuss our love life. What can I do for you?"
Aphrodite became serious instantly. "Uncle, have you seen Xena?"
"Have I seen Xena what?" Hades asked blankly. "She hasn't come through for judgment, if that's what you're asking."
Dite sighed and her shoulders slumped slightly. "'K, thanks. Guess I'll have to keep looking."
"Looking?" Hades stopped when Persephone put a hand on his arm.
"I'll explain it to you later." She turned to Dite. "Can you stay for a while?"
"I wish I could. Let me figure out what happened here and I'll come back for a longer visit. If you hear anything, let me know, will ya?" She disappeared before they could say a word.
She checked with Odin next, who though no friend of Xena, promised to let Dite know if the warrior passed through his realm. She even dropped down to Egypt and had a talk with Isis. Finally, covering all the bases she could think of, Dite returned to Olympus and went to talk to Ares.
Gabrielle continued her trek westward, moving slowly across the deserts and plains of Kashmir, Mesopotamia, Persia and Assyria, headed for the Mediterranean Sea.
She'd found the ring Aphrodite had given her was actually awkward to adjust to with her weapons, so she took it off and put it into her bag next to Xena's ashes.
Almost immediately, she felt a change in her demeanor, but she attributed her heightened senses and wariness to being alone on the road. Her first encounter with thugs left her heart racing and her blood pounding. And it left seven decimated men lying at her feet.
After several more experiences that left her bloodlust burning higher than the last, she found a quiet inn where she could rest and try to recoup her lost equilibrium. Gabrielle spent almost a whole day meditating before she remembered the ring and dug it out of her bag. She slid it onto her finger and literally felt her blood calm and settle. She sat down and resumed her meditation and was able to focus to the point that she was centered again.
Gabrielle ruefully acknowledged to herself that she was going to have to adjust her fighting technique to include wearing the ring. Whatever protection it provided, it was going to keep her from losing herself and her mind before she got home.
Days turned into moons before Gabrielle reached the Mediterranean Sea. She'd made the decision to cross to Greece on boat. She wasn't looking forward to it, but it was the quickest way to get there. And more than anything, Gabrielle was ready to go home.
"ARES! Ares!! Where are you?" Dite stood in the middle of one of his remaining Greek temples and stamped her foot in impatience. She figured her brother would have at least some of the answers she needed.
He popped in with less than his usual theatrical entrance. "What is it Dite? I was in the middle of a skirmish on the Roman border." He tried to act angry, but she could see the tiredness and profound sadness behind his question.
She took his hand. "C'mon, bro. We need to talk."
Aphrodite popped them into her boudoir on Olympus and set out a tray of goodies and a flagon of wine. "You wanna level with me Ares? I know you had something to do with Xena's disappearance. Do you know where she is?"
His shoulders sagged, but he didn't answer immediately. She curled up beside him and took his hands. Then she looked him in the eye and softened her voice.
"C'mon, bro. Level with me. I know that being both a Greek and Roman god is exhausting. I have to do it too, remember? In that way the rest of family got off easy. The Twilight came to Greece and Xena 'killed' them so the one God concept could take root. They went to Rome and we, well, too bad no one but us understands the real truth of that, huh?"
That got a small smile out of him. "Yeah."
"So level with me, huh? There aren't many of us left in Greece and we need to stick together. Especially you and me." She bumped shoulder with him. "We learned that the hard way, didn't we?"
Ares shuddered at the memories that question invoked. He cleared his throat. "Oh yeah. Not one of the more pleasant experiences in my long life."
Dite smiled. "You were a cute farmer."
He tried to glare at her, really he did, but the smile on her face and the twinkle in her eyes was irresistible. "Hmph!" was all he said, but he poured them each a glass of wine and Dite placed the tray on the nearby table.
"Get comfortable, sis. This is a little hard to explain."
"Does someone want to explain to me why *I* am considered the ditzy one?" Aphrodite muttered to herself when Ares was done speaking. She scrubbed her hands over her face and turned to look at him.
"So you don't know where she is? Or when she is? Or if she is alive or dead?"
"Um, no?" Ares hurried on with his explanation when Aphrodite sighed loudly. "Look, I just wanted to bring her back to life. It should have worked. No muss, no fuss."
"And you thought they woulda owed you something, right? A favor you could collect later?"
Ares didn't even get to start explaining when he felt the smack rock the back of his head. "C'mon, bro. That is way uncool and so not true and you know it. Xena would never have paid a debt like that." Dite looked at him as the truth dawned. "But Gabrielle might have, huh?" She raised her hand to strike him again, but stopped at his warning glare. "That is dirty, Ares."
He shrugged. "It would have been fine if it had worked. It should have brought her right to us. Instead... I don't know what I did wrong."
"I have spent these last moons going over and over everything that happened. It should have worked."
Ares snapped his jaws together so quickly he almost bit his tongue. "It doesn't matter right now. What matters is Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle. Gabrielle. What *is* it with her?"
Serious blue eyes seared into his deep brown ones. "Tread lightly, Ares. She's a good person and she is my friend."
He raised his hands in surrender. "All right. All right. I won't mess with the irritating blonde. Look, I got things to do. I'll catch up with you later, okay?" Ares disappeared before Aphrodite could answer.
"Grrrr... he makes me so totally nuts sometimes." She waved her hand and the food and wine disappeared. The she picked up the wire-rimmed glasses she'd developed an affinity for and slid them on her face while searching for her little remote box.
"All right, Gabrielle," she mumbled, clicking on the worldwide god web. "Let's see how long you'll have to suffer alone, my friend."
Gabrielle reached the sea and was able to arrange passage on a small merchant ship headed to Greece. She still didn't speak much, but the men on board quickly learned that she was not to be trifled with.
Every morning she spent time in meditation and drills and in the afternoon she would take a turn at the wheel, or in the crow's nest. By the fifth day, they were making good time and the captain was pleased with their progress. In the late afternoon, however, their luck took a turn for the worse.
Gabrielle had been sitting in the crow's nest, when a thin, dark line at the horizon captured her attention. She wouldn't have given it much thought, except the stirring in her gut made her uneasy and she shimmied down the mast to find the captain.
Archus took one look at the band of clouds and cursed. "All hands, man your stations. She's gonna be blowin' rough tonight. Raise the sails and angle us away from its path. I don't wanna be caught in the middle of this 'un."
Archus turned to Gabrielle. "Best if you get below decks, warrior. This be a sailor's battle."
A smile almost reached Gabrielle's eyes as she looked down at her hands. Then she walked to the mainsail and began helping the men hoist it in an effort to outrun the coming storm. The captain shook his head and turned to steer them away from the dark clouds.
Candlemarks passed and darkness fell and still the crew rushed feverishly to keep the ship afloat. The storm had moved in quicker than expected and they'd had to scramble to get things tied down. The waves were rolling the ship sickeningly from side to side, enough to make it necessary to work tied to ropes. It meant each person could only work a very small area of the ship, but there was far less likelihood of anyone falling overboard either.
All night they fought and struggled and with the daybreak came exhaustion and a calm that was almost unnerving. There was no sun, no rain, no wind and no waves and for a little while, everyone was grateful for the chance to rest. It wasn't long though, before it made the crew restless and the captain was the first to stir, with Gabrielle right behind him. The eeriness was making her jaw ache and her hair stand on end and all she wanted at that moment was a bit of a breeze and the sight of home.
The captain kept looking at the water beneath the ship and back up at the sky, searching for answers. Then the man who'd taken his turn in the crow's nest hollered down to them and they looked out to see what was causing him such concern. The captain's eyes widened and he shook his head in disbelief. Then he ran to get his maps and charts from his cabin.
He spread them out, his large hands tracing the paths and patterns on the parchment. "This isn't possible."
"What isn't?" Gabrielle whispered behind him. Archus turned and looked at her, seeing her strength of mind and will in the green eyes now boring into his. He made his decision and nodded to himself.
"Our position." Archus watched her brow furrow and hastened to explain. "Look... this was where we left Assyria headed for Greece," he said, pointing to the first map. "But the storm blew us off course. I expected that. It was a nasty storm."
Gabrielle nodded her understanding and waited for him to continue.
"What I didn't expect was to get blown to here," Archus added, indicating a spot on another chart. "If I am reading the land indicators right, we are close to Pompeii." Gabrielle's eyes widened and Archus bobbed his head. "Exactly. There is no way we should have come this far that quickly. And something peculiar is happening with the tide... we are being drawn towards land... almost dragged there."
Gabrielle turned her eyes toward the water, then chanced a look at the land that was coming closer. "Oh my gods," she whispered to herself, then tugged on the Captain's sleeve. "Look!"
Her whisper was more unnerving than a shout would have been and Archus glanced up to follow the direction her arm was pointing. His eyes grew large and he looked down at Gabrielle. "Is that??"
She nodded. "Vesuvius," she whispered again, her eyes never leaving the horizon. Even from this distance, they could see the fire spewing and spitting toward the sky, filling the air around with the darkness of ash and smoke.
"Raise the sails, lads and man the oars. We've got to make time away from here now." Even as he spoke, day became like night and the air was stifling with ash and the scent of sulfur. Without warning, the ship was pushed away from the landmass and Gabrielle began searching for the cause, knowing what she would find.
Her voice was rough from lack of use and she took Archus by surprise when she screamed. "Pull in the oars!!" He looked at her, then past her to see exactly what caused the almost silent warrior to issue such a forceful command.
"Merda dell'OH!! he muttered, staring for a long moment at the fifteen foot wall of water rapidly approaching the ship. Gabrielle's shove caused him to come out of his trance and moved him towards the stairwell to repeat the order. Archus motioned to his first mate, but before the man could move towards the mainsail, Gabrielle had unhooked the chakram from her waist and hurled it at the lines, slicing them all neatly and causing the sails to drop.
"Tie everythin' off and hang on down there, boys! This 'un's gonna be nasty."
The four people left topside tied themselves to the ship and the first mate began praying to Neptune. Gabrielle closed her eyes and whispered her own prayer to Aphrodite. It was enough to pull the goddess away from her frenzied research.
"Oh, this is so radically uncool... it's creepy. She died... they both did. So when did...? How...?" Aphrodite continued to mumble to herself. She'd been skimming Gabrielle's lifeline, looking for her death. It wasn't something the goddess normally did, especially about a friend. But she felt the need to know how long Gabrielle would have to suffer alone and she didn't like the way things looked.
In all honesty, she'd expected to see Gabrielle's lifeline end shortly after her return to Greece. For all the talk of the 'greater good', Aphrodite understood better than most that Xena and Gabrielle were each other's greater good. Without her soulmate, Gabrielle would be merely existing and Dite wouldn't wish that on anyone, especially someone as sensitive as Gabrielle. What she found however, was that Gabrielle's lifeline extended far past a normal lifetime.
Gabrielle was an immortal.
So now Aphrodite's mission, in addition to her usual love gigs, was to find out exactly what had caused the change and when it had happened. She started with their crucifixion and ascension into the heaven of Eli's god. It made the most logical sense. She was in the middle of her review of that time when a whispered plea from Gabrielle caught her attention.
Dite changed the view on her scrying bowl, bringing Gabrielle and the present sharply into focus. "Gnarly wave, man!" was her initial response. Then she saw the tiny boat being lifted in the wall's not-so-tender embrace and realized what Gabrielle's prayer was about. "Oh, that totally sucks!"
Closing her eyes, Aphrodite sent a wave of comfort to the bard that cascaded through Gabrielle's veins like warm wine. Dite felt the change in Gabrielle and smiled, then turned her attention back to her research, keeping one eye on the tiny ship.
She wondered if Gabrielle would one day turn this adventure into a story.
Gabrielle felt herself surrounded by love and she unconsciously relaxed, even as the wall of water grew ominously closer. Suddenly, it lifted them up and pushed the small ship forward with great velocity and strength.
Ash was inches thick on the deck and coated the four people still standing topside. Gabrielle found herself wishing for a way to rid herself of the itchy, smelly mess, then rescinding that wish as the wave began to cascade over the ship.
She heard men screaming in terror and closed her eyes, willing it to be over quickly. I'm sorry, Xena, she said in her mind, but I'm not gonna make it to Amphipolis. I did try though. I'm so tired, Xena. I just want a little bit of peace for us, but that's never really been our destiny, has it? I love you.
Those were her final thoughts, before the pressure of the water forced her into unconsciousness.
When Gabrielle opened her eyes, the first thing she saw wasn't the Elysian Fields or Tartarus or heaven or hell and it certainly wasn't Xena's face looking back at her. The pain of her reality both physical and emotional hit her so hard she almost crumpled to her knees. Her first sight was of a sludge covered ship and a captain who was seemingly unconscious. There was no sign of the first mate or the steersman.
The boat was gently rocking, aimlessly drifting in what she hoped was the right direction. Slowly Gabrielle loosened herself from the bonds that had secured her to the mizzenmast. Her body ached as though it had been beaten and the stench from the sulfuric ash was indescribable.
She trudged through the sludge, loosening the ropes tied around Archus and easing him to the deck. She patted his face, pleased when his eyelids began to flutter.
"Oh my gods... I feel like a chariot ran over me, repeatedly," the captain mumbled as he rolled over and sat up. He looked around and smiled at Gabrielle. Then his face fell when he realized they were alone on the deck. "C'mon, warrior, lemme go see what's left of the crew and get ourselves to Greece. I'm in the mood for dry land, a hot bath, an ale and a woman."
Gabrielle nodded and walked back to the mainsail and began sorting through the lines. It was going to take a bit of work to run the ropes again, but the chakram had seemed the most expedient way of dealing with the problem at the time. She sighed soundlessly. Given how far the storm had blown them off course and the fact that they were now in the middle of only-gods-knew-where, she figured they had plenty of time to clean, fix and repair and still be done well before they arrived in Greece. A lot would depend on how far the tsunami had pushed them, but she didn't expect to see land anytime soon.
Her shoulders slumped. She really was tired, right down to her very soul. Gabrielle had been selfishly hoping that the storm would be then end for her. Was it wrong to feel that way, she pondered. She decided it probably was and she really didn't care. Being unselfish was what had gotten her in this predicament in the first damn place.
The crew came bounding up the stairwell, glad to be alive and out of the hold and Gabrielle smiled in sympathy. She could well remember the times she'd been thrilled to set foot on deck, breathing in the fresh, salty air with relish.
Without much ado, the men fell to work with a will, each one anxious to reach Greece and dry land.
Nightfall enabled the captain to study the stars and his charts and he did so enthusiastically. He was glad to note that the wave had done little physical damage and had actually pushed them as good ways back towards Greece.
He noticed Gabrielle come up beside him and he motioned to her. "Ah warrior. The gods were kind to us. If the winds continue to be favorable, we should see the shores of Greece in less than a quarter moon."
Gabrielle nodded and turned her attention to the vast darkness of the sky and sea.
Aphrodite was biting her nails, frantically searching through Gabrielle's history on the worldwide god web. Her research had shown her that they had not actually died on the cross. They were already immortal by that point and their physical bodies were using that time to regenerate. Dite debated briefly on whether she would tell Gabrielle on just how Eli's god had manipulated them into doing his dirty work.
In fairness, he had offered them absolution for their sins. But it seemed a moot point, especially since Xena rejected that forgiveness in lieu of sacrificing herself yet again on Mt. Fuji.
Not that it mattered at this juncture. The questions now were when had Gabrielle become immortal and what about Xena? If she shared Gabrielle's immortality, then she was alive out there... somewhere. Aphrodite went back to her research. She was fairly sure that at least part of this news was going to be an unwelcome surprise.
She pulled off her glasses and rubbed her eyes, then scrubbed her hands through her hair. "This is soooo not cool." Then she clicked the remote box and watched the screen fly backwards through time, looking for the moment when Gabrielle crossed into immortality.
Katerina von Lihp guided her ship into the dock with easy skill and blew out a sigh of relief. They had been almost a year at sea coming around Africa to get to Greece and she was glad to see what had become home for her. She and the crew immediately began unloading the hold.
"Hey, Cap'n... what 'bout all this stuff?" The mate indicated the crates still neatly stacked and sealed boxes that had traveled with them from Higuchi.
Katerina scratched her head thoughtfully. "Leave them for now. I will see if I can find out where they need to go. Go enjoy some time ashore. I know where to find you when I need you."
The Captain left a small contingent of guards on the ship, then made her way to the nearest temple of love. She really didn't know who else to turn to and hoped the goddess might have some answers for her.
Aphrodite wasn't surprised to find worshippers in her temple. She was one of the few remaining active gods in Greece and love was the strongest force in the world, after all. What caught her attention was the mention of Gabrielle's name and her new moniker, Little Dragon Warrior.
She listened to the plea of this sea captain who had befriended Gabrielle and who showed such concern for her. Then she decided a break from her research was in order and popped down to have a chat with Captain Lihp.
"Yo, babe! Whassup?"
The Captain spun on her heels in surprise, not expecting such a personal greeting from the goddess. She swallowed hard a couple times before she could speak.
"I beg pardon, Aphrodite, but I have a dilemma you might be able to help me with."
"Oh yeah? Wha... I mean, what's that?"
"You know of the Little Dragon Warrior, the bard named Gabrielle, hš?" Katerina saw the truth in the blue eyes facing her. "I have a favor to ask."
"Lay it on me, babe," Aphrodite said.
Katerina told Aphrodite the bit of Gabrielle's story she knew from her own point of view, winding up with the things still locked in the hold of her ship. "I didn't know what else to do with her things. I thought perhaps you...."
Aphrodite looked at the Captain seriously for a long moment. "Why did you come to me? Why not some other god?"
Katerina shrugged. "I do not know. You seemed like the best choice."
Aphrodite chuckled. "Of course I am the best choice, babe. Love is totally a good choice. It just takes some people a lifetime to figure it out." She chuckled again. "Tell ya what... I'll make a place for it and pop it in, 'k? I'll hang onto it until Gabrielle is ready for it."
"Thank you, Aphrodite."
"Ya done good, Captain Lihp. Totally gnarly job."
Katerina wasn't exactly sure how to take that, so she nodded and smiled and headed out to have a bit of fun.
Aphrodite was as good as her word and with a wave of her hand the crates were moved into a storage area of the temple. She briefly considered moving them directly to Olympus, then decided Gabrielle might not appreciate the assumption. She tapped her nails on her teeth, then disappeared in a cascade of flower petals.
Gabrielle was happy to see land again, though surprisingly it wasn't seasickness that made her ready to walk on flat earth. She glanced again at the ring Aphrodite had given her and wondered if that was the reason behind her lack of seasickness.
Gabrielle shrugged. Whatever the reason, she was glad for it. It had made this part of her voyage at least bearable. She shuddered when she thought about how intolerable the trip would have been if she'd been physically ill on top of everything else.
Now they were pulling into port and Gabrielle sighed. She had finally reached the last leg of her journey and she was anxious to be done with it. The crew lowered the gangway into place and waited for permission to disembark. Archus turned to Gabrielle.
"Thank you," he said sincerely. "Without your help, I'm not sure we'd have survived."
She smiled at him and squeezed his arm, then stepped off the ship and headed north without a backwards glance.
Katerina spotted her as Gabrielle set foot on solid ground and raced to catch her before she disappeared in the crowd. "Little Dragon!" she called, hoping to be heard above the din of the marketplace.
Gabrielle looked around, knowing no one here knew of that particular title. When she spotted Captain Lihp, she stopped and waited for the other woman to approach.
Katerina was appalled at the harsh changes the year of travel had wrought in the younger woman. There was still no light in her eyes and her body was all hard muscle and bone. Her hair was still short, though carelessly cut, as though it was kept short because it was easier to manage and not for the way it looked. Gabrielle's skin was a deep bronze and she bore a few more scars than she'd worn in Higuchi.
"I am glad to see you, Little Dragon. I have something that belongs to you." Gabrielle held up a hand, but the Captain continued speaking. "Not the crates and boxes. I have stored those with a friend until you want them."
She extended the arm she'd held behind her and Gabrielle could not contain the sharp gasp that rose from her lips, nor the stab of pain that accompanied it. Hesitantly, she reached forward to take the object from Katerina. Xena's sword. It would make the final journey with her.
"Thank you," she whispered, but the words and the tone spoke volumes to the Captain. She nodded to Gabrielle.
"Gods speed you on your journey, warrior." Then she disappeared into the crowd, leaving Gabrielle alone with her private grief.
Gabrielle began making her way towards Amphipolis at a fast, steady place. So near her goal, she was ready to be done with it. So each day she was up before the sun and she walked with very few breaks until the sun had set. Nights were used for sparring and meditation and the rare bit of sleep she could get before waking in a cold sweat. Time was supposed to make it better... make it hurt less, but still all she felt was emptiness.
Occasionally she encountered the odd roving band of thugs, but after decimating the first few of them, they began to steer clear of her. She wondered if they had some sort of relay system to let others know of her and smirked. Then it occurred to her that they should have had one of those full cycles ago. It would have saved her and Xena a lot of trouble. Her smile faded at that thought.
Days passed and after nearly a moon of steady travel, she entered the outskirts of what had once been the thriving town of Amphipolis. Gabrielle shuddered a little, remembering the last time they had been there. Not much was left. The inn was in ruins and empty shacks that had once been living households now toppled in on themselves in decrepitude. Gabrielle followed the road past the inn, to where the family crypt stood silent sentinel.
She took a deep breath and opened her pouch, removing her flint and striker. She found several small torches at the entrance and lit one carefully. She moved around the room lighting the others, before coming to stand next to Lyceus.
"Hello, Lyceus," came her whispered voice. "You probably don't remember me, but this is Gabrielle. I've come to keep a promise to your sister." She waited a moment, until she felt like she had his blessing to continue, then moved to where Solan's ashes had been placed.
"Hi, Solan. It's your turn to look after your mom, since I can't do it anymore, okay? Make sure she eats her vegetables." She wiped the dust off his urn and moved to Cyrene. "I'm sorry, Mom. I did my best, but it wasn't enough. Take care of her, Cyrene. She'll need you to keep an eye on her."
Gabrielle wiped the tears from her face before moving to an empty slab. She laid the sword across the top then gently placed the chakram on its hilt. She set her bag down and removed the pot, tenderly unwrapping it from its cloth covering. Gabrielle set it in the middle of the slab and took a step back.
"Goodbye, Xena. I don't think we will meet as soulmates again. I haven't felt you since that day and I think that is our punishment. This wasn't your destiny and your choice to stay with Akemi has thrown our karmic cycles out of kilter. Perhaps one day, we will cross paths, but I don't think the gods will be that kind. Good rest, my love... you've earned it."
The rending of her soul as she surrendered to the inescapable made her keen in agony. She welcomed the darkness when it came.
Gabrielle was curled into a tiny ball beside Xena's remains when Aphrodite found her.
The goddess reached out a hand to touch her, then recoiled at the pain that emanated from the bard in waves. Dite steeled herself, then scooped Gabrielle into her arms.
"C'mon, girlfriend. We gotta talk."
Gabrielle came back to herself slowly, fully expecting the emptiness of an afterlife alone. It really didn't matter where she ended up. It couldn't be worse than the tortures she'd already lived through.
She blinked her eyes open, trying to focus enough to understand where she was. Her first impression was pink. She was surrounded by pink. Her brow furrowed, trying to recall this much pink in any afterlife she'd seen.
Gabrielle raised a hand to rub her forehead and noted that she was clean and encased in some familiar pink pajamas. "Aphrodite?" in a bare whisper.
Sparkles and rose petals fell on the bed as Dite popped into being beside her. "Hiya, sweet pea." She combed gentle hands through the short blonde hair. "How ya doin'?" Her blue eyes filled with tears at the aching emptiness she saw reflected in the dull green eyes facing her.
Gabrielle fell into Aphrodite's open arms and her slight frame shook with silent sobs. Aphrodite felt tears of sympathy slide down her own face while Gabrielle clung to her. How long they stayed in this embrace, Gabrielle couldn't have said. But finally her crying slowed and she eased back.
"Sorry," she said softly, wiping her eyes.
"Why, sweetie?" Aphrodite rubbed the muscular arm, doing her best to offer comfort. She wasn't sure how Gabrielle was going to take the news she had to give her and she had already been through so much.
"I should be out of tears by now," came the answer, accompanied by a watery smile.
"Oh babe... your heart is a lot like mine. You'll always have tears to shed. Some happy, some sad, some angry, some relieved. It's the way of love."
Gabrielle pulled away and her eyes became cold and distant. Even her whisper went flat. "Well, no offense, Aphrodite, but they way of love doesn't work for me anymore. The price is too high." She slipped from the bed and went to stand at the window. "I appreciate your bringing me here, but I need to go."
"Go where?" Dite asked softly, stepping up behind Gabrielle, but not touching her.
"It doesn't matter now. I've done what I set out to do."
"Then will you do me a favor? Please?"
Gabrielle turned, intrigued by the request. "If I can, sure."
"Stay and talk to me a little while. I get lonely here with just me and Ares and when I'm in Rome, I have so much work to do that I rarely get to visit with the other gods. I'd just like a little girl talk between friends."
Gabrielle nodded. "I'm not sure how much talking I will do, but I can sure listen while you tell on about things. And you can start with that 'other gods' comment. I thought they were killed in the twilight."
"No, that is what Eli's radical new god wanted everyone to think, so he could get a better foothold here in Greece. Most of the family has like, moved on under different names in Rome, though a few of us still work both gigs. Let me tell ya, sister, it ain't easy either. Why just the other day...."
Aphrodite talked until Gabrielle fell asleep again and she tucked the bard into bed. "Tomorrow, Little One, we have to have some serious conversation." And she twinkled out of the bedroom, leaving Gabrielle soundly sleeping without dreams for the first time in over a year.
"Rest well, my friend. Tomorrow is soon enough for this news."
When Gabrielle woke the second time, she wasn't surprised to see pink. She was surprised to note she was almost hungry and she noticed a trencher of food on a table near the bed. Propped next to the still warm loaf of bread was a note.
Come see me in the scrying room before you leave. We have something to talk about.
The note wasn't signed, but the little hearts and curlicues would have been a dead giveaway regardless. Gabrielle took a portion of the bread and spread some of the soft cheese on it, then took a bite. It was good and she took a second.
She finished the bread and changed her clothes, then wandered out the hall towards the only sound she heard. Strangely, it sounded as though Dite was talking to herself, but Gabrielle shrugged. She'd find out soon enough.
As soon as she crossed the threshold, Aphrodite jumped and tittered nervously. "Oh, hi Gab!" a little too brightly. She pulled the glasses of her face and chewed on an earpiece. "Um, why don't you have a seat? You're lookin' totally fab today. Love the tat. Did ya sleep well? How was your breakfast? Andbythewayyou'reanimmortal."
Gabrielle sank into the chair Aphrodite pushed at her, trying to dissimilate the conversation the goddess had just thrown at her. She shook her head. "Good morning, Aphrodite. Would you repeat everything you just said very slowly, please? I'm pretty sure I missed something important."
Aphrodite dropped the glasses on her desk and rubbed her face. Then she sat down and took Gabrielle's hands in her own.
"Okay, look. You're an immortal...." She didn't get to say any more. Gabrielle jerked her hands free and stormed out of the room.
Aphrodite scratched her head and blew out a breath. "Well, that went well," she commented to herself, before popping out to find the woman she called friend.
Aphrodite stood in the archway, just watching Gabrielle. The bard sat hunched over on a bench in the rose garden, hands loosely clasped between her knees. Finally, the goddess walked over to Gabrielle and sat down next to her. She didn't speak or touch Gabrielle, but waited for her to make the first move.
Dite lost track of the time they sat together silent and unmoving before Gabrielle took a deep breath. And it was only because she was listening that she heard the bare whisper when Gabrielle finally spoke.
"Aphrodite, we have been friends for a lot of full cycles and never have I seen you be deliberately cruel... until now." Gabrielle lifted her face to the sky and Dite tried not to take offense when she saw the depth of pain Gabrielle still carried. She knew the reaction came from the shock as much as grief, but the words still cut deeply.
"Gabrielle," Dite said softly. "Have I ever lied to you?"
Gabrielle dropped her head and closed her eyes. Aphrodite reached up and took her chin, gently turning the bard's face towards her own. "Gabrielle," she repeated. "Have I ever lied to you? Especially when it was this important?"
Gabrielle raised a hand and wiped the tears from her face, then shook her head and opened her eyes. "No," she whispered and cleared her throat. "No," she said again more firmly and just a little louder. "But Aphrodite, I'm not immortal. I can't be. I... I died." She closed her eyes and swallowed hard before meeting Dite's sympathetic blue eyes. "Xena had a better shot at immortality..." she swallowed, "And we know that didn't happen."
"But it did." A simple statement that fell into a wellspring of silence.
"What are you saying?" Gabrielle grasped Aphrodite arms so hard that the goddess winced, knowing it would have left bruises had she been human.
She eased one arm from Gabrielle's grip, allowing Gabrielle to retain a firm hold on her other wrist and hand. She noted that Gabrielle was shaking and stood up. Aphrodite gazed into the tear-filled green eyes, seeing a spark of hope for the first time in over a year and she smiled.
"C'mon, babe. I got a totally wicked story to share."
They settled into the scrying room, which was actually part of Aphrodite's chambers and Dite eased Gabrielle down onto the bed. She snapped her fingers and instantly Gabrielle found herself neatly encased in more pink silk and tucked into the big bed holding a cup of something that smelled rich and sweet.
The goddess could tell Gabrielle was still in shock and motioned to her with a little wave. "Try it. It'll make you feel radically better. I gotta hook this in to the big screen for ya."
Gabrielle took a sniff of the beverage, then took a tiny sip. A brief smile crossed her face and she took a larger swallow. Aphrodite caught the change in her expression and smiled in return. "Great stuff, huh? Nothing comforts like good hot chocolate. Ah, there we go. Now," she wiggled into place beside Gabrielle and lifted her own cup to her lips. "I'm gonna give ya the highlights. Ya know, show ya what happened and explain a few things. Then we can talk and I'll try to answer any questions you've still got, k?"
Gabrielle nodded, then watched a much younger version of herself dance into view. She felt the seductive rhythm of the music and her mind went back to that cool fall Festival. She remembered clearly now the moment she'd been bitten, though it was nothing but a blur at the time.
"You remember this, right?" Aphrodite looked at Gabrielle when she'd paused the god web. The blonde head nodded. "Okay, do you remember drinking the blood from the chalice?"
Gabrielle turned her gaze inward and she started shaking as her memory cleared. Aphrodite took the cup from her hands and started the scrying bowl again.
"Xena knocked the chalice from your hands, but only after you'd had your first drink. It was so intoxicating you were actually taking your second swallow when the chakram knocked the cup away from your lips."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and Dite stopped the picture once more. "Yes," she whispered.
Aphrodite took Gabrielle's hands in her own and gently chafed them. "And even though you and Xena weren't lovers yet, you wanted to share that feeling and when she commanded you...." Aphrodite trailed off then continued. "How many times once you were lovers did you draw blood?"
Abruptly Gabrielle jerked away and stalked from the bed. "Gabrielle," Dite said softly from her place on the bed. "I wasn't spying on you. It's taken me moons of research to put all this together."
Gabrielle hugged her arms around herself. "It wasn't often. And never deliberate. It wasn't something we talked about." She turned back to Aphrodite. "But that wouldn't have made Xena immortal. She didn't drink from the chalice."
"No, but she did eat ambrosia shortly thereafter and that pretty much sealed the deal for her. Your bite gave her the burning and the ambrosia did the rest."
It was quiet for a while after that, as Gabrielle pondered the truth of Aphrodite's words. Finally she turned and went back to the bed, sitting down gingerly. Her head ached from the thoughts running through it, her throat hurt from the now unaccustomed conversation and her eyes burned from both shed and unshed tears. Aphrodite looked at her sympathetically.
"I'm sorry, Gab. If there was an easier way to get you through this, you know I would."
"I know," Gabrielle whispered. "It's just a little overwhelming and so many things still don't make sense. Especially since I haven't felt Xena's presence...."
"I know, babe, believe me. Here," handing the hot chocolate back to the bard. "I added marshmallows. I think you're due all the comfort you can get at this point."
Gabrielle's eyebrow rose, wondering what a marshmallow was, then seeing the tiny white islands floating in her cup. She tasted one and gave Aphrodite a small smile. "Perks of being a goddess, huh?"
Dite chuckled. "One of them, yeah. You feeling any better? Ready to move on?"
Gabrielle rubbed her face with her hands. "I don't know if I'll ever be ready for this, but there are things I need to know. So let's do it."
Aphrodite nodded and slipped the glasses back on her face, consulting the notes she had written. "I guess your first question is about your lack of bacchae behavior, huh?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Well, that'd be one of them, yeah."
Dite looked at her notes again. "Well, babe... what can I tell ya? Love conquers all." She sighed at Gabrielle's blank look. "The strength of the love you and Xena shared eliminated a lot of the need for blood. Your passion was focused in other directions." Aphrodite smiled at the blush that suffused the bard's features.
"Be glad, babe. The bond you two have is totally, radically, one hundred percent the real deal and so rare that most spend their entire lives never having seen it... much less lived it."
"And now you're asking me to spend eternity without it??" Gabrielle clasped an arm to her chest trying to ease the pain to breathe. "Gods... it would have been better to have never had it."
"No sweet pea. Gimme a chance here, 'kay? Your story will have a happy ending, promise." Gabrielle had to smile just the tiniest bit at Aphrodite's vehemence. She'd never promised the bard anything without delivering. Gabrielle nodded her agreement and the goddess sighed in relief.
"Okay, where was I?" She ran a finger down the page. "Oh yeah... your focused passion. Anyway, there was still plenty of fighting to satisfy any lingering bloodlust." She looked at Gabrielle seriously. "Didn't you ever noticed that the fighting was always more violent and intense when you two were at odds? There was a while there... girlfriend, even I had to look to find the love."
She waved her hands. "Anyway, it doesn't matter now. We have the present to worry about. You with me so far?"
"I think so. Our soul bond took care of a lot of the lust and our fighting took care of the rest."
"Okay, I can accept that, I guess. But it doesn't explain why we died... why Xena is dead."
"Here, finish your hot chocolate and let me tuck you back into bed. This is gonna take a little while and we may as well be, like, comfortable."
Aphrodite settled Gabrielle into the big bed and fussed about pouring up more chocolate. Gabrielle absently wondered why she was making such a physical effort instead of merely snapping her fingers. For her part, Aphrodite puttered until she ran out of things to do. Then she took a deep breath. This was the hard part.
"The first time you died after you became immortal was when you took Hope into the pit. Do you remember what happened?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes. Her memories of that time were blurred and she focused on the tightly. "I remember running," she whispered, "looking into Xena's eyes... taking Hope over the edge of the pit and then... searing pain. I hit a ledge, I think. I.... Ares said he...."
"Ares would have said anything to convince Xena to return to him, you know that. Let me show you what really happened." Aphrodite turned back to the worldwide god web and started the picture just as the bard and Hope toppled into the steaming fissure.
Gabrielle forced her eyes to watch, though she cringed to hear herself scream. About halfway down, she did hit a ledge and her bones shattered with a nauseating crunch. Hope was swallowed up by the flame and they both disappeared and for several days, Gabrielle remained unmoving on the ledge.
Finally, healed enough to move, she forced herself to climb from the pit. She hadn't had enough time to recover her strength though and when she reached the edge, she fell out onto the floor near the altar.
A band of gypsies found her there and took her to the nearest hospice, where she spent almost another seven days unconscious. When she came around the second time, she immediately left to find her agonized soulmate.
"You okay?" Aphrodite asked kindly. Gabrielle held her fist to her mouth and the goddess wasn't sure it if it was to keep from screaming or throwing up. Gabrielle nodded once curtly.
"Yeah. I was just remembering...." she got out before bolting for the bathing room. Aphrodite sighed and popped in behind her. She ran a cool cloth on Gabrielle's neck and held her when she was done.
"You wanna hear the rest, or you wanna wait 'til later? It's not gonna get any easier 'til we're done. "
Bloodshot green eyes looked at Aphrodite. "Let's get it over with." Gabrielle rinsed her mouth and Dite gave her some mint to settle her stomach. Then they moved back to the bedroom and the goddess moved the timeframe on the screen.
"The next death I have for you both is your crucifixion on the Ides of March. This was a fubar all the way around."
"How so? Heaven wouldn't have been a bad place to spend eternity."
"Yeah, if you coulda stayed there, but that's not why Eli's god brought you there and he had no intention of letting you stay. He was using your souls to fight his battle while your bodies healed. Unfortunately, Eli pulled you souls back into your bodies before they were ready and you KNOW the fiasco that caused." She gave Gabrielle a meaningful look.
Gabrielle gave her a rueful chuckle. "Uh, yeah. I think that was the start of our 'make war, not love' stage. We fought everything and everyone, including and especially each other." She snickered softly. "When we finally made up though...." Her face flushed bright red at the memories.
"Mmm hmm... no kidding. I *felt* that reunion. Talk about rocking the world!" She grinned at Gabrielle. "You two were just so good together... and you will be again." Gabrielle sobered.
"How, Aphrodite? How can you say that? Xena is dead and even her spirit is gone. She promised me she would always be there for me... that even death wouldn't separate us, but I have not seen her or felt her presence since that day."
"Whoa! Hold on! Slow down just a little there, hot shot! I'll explain it to you if you'll give me a minute."
Gabrielle scrubbed her face with her hands. "I'm sorry. I...."
Aphrodite embraced the bard, kissing the top of her blonde head lightly. "No worries, babe. I really do understand."
Gabrielle gently returned the hug. "Thank you," she whispered.
"Now remember... in every instance so far, you and Xena have had a body to return to. It has simply been a matter of letting the body regenerate and once it was restored, your soul returned."
"Right...." Gabrielle trailed off, trying to follow Aphrodite's train of thought.
"When Xena had you burn her body, it was with the intention of restoring it on Mt. Fuji. But it just made it impossible for her spirit to rejoin her body when you missed the sunset. Because there is no body to renew, there is no place for the spirit to live in."
"Okay, so her spirit just disappeared?? I'm not seeing that happy ending you promised me Aphrodite!"
"Shh... shh... calm down, babe. I'm getting to that." She stroked her hands through Gabrielle's hair, willing her to peace. "Now, calm down and just listen, 'kay? This is where things get kinda screwy." She took a deep breath.
"What Ares did, or tried to do, was to call her back... restore her body and spirit. But it obviously didn't work... for a couple reasons, I think."
"Well, yeah," Aphrodite answered defensively. "Nothing like this has ever happened before and I'm not totally sure what incantation he spoke." She held up her hands. "Wait and let me finish, 'kay?" Gabrielle nodded and settled back down. Dite got up to pace.
The goddess pulled her glasses off and set them down, running her hands through her hair in frustration. "From what I can figure out, it didn't work for two main reasons... first, our power in Japa is negligible. He didn't have the strength to pull it off. The second reason would be that he wasn't totally prepared to perform the ritual correctly. Considering his frame of mind that day, I'm surprised he actually made it to you."
"Can you fix it?"
Aphrodite shook her head. "It's fixable, but I can't do it by myself. But we might be able to together... you and me."
Gabrielle flung back the cover and stood on wobbly legs. "Let's go."
Aphrodite shook her head again and Gabrielle wanted to stomp her feet in sheer frustration. "No. Not yet. You are not strong enough and I need to do a little more research. So you get back in that bed and go to sleep like a good girl and let Dite finish up the work I have to do, 'kay? Then we'll see about getting that totally radical warrior babe back in your arms where she belongs."
Gabrielle stared at the goddess for what seemed like candlemarks before acknowledging the wisdom of this course of action. Ares had been unprepared to do whatever it was he had done and Xena had ended up who-knew-where with their bond broken. Besides, she was exhausted in her very soul and was ready to collapse.
Gabriele emitted a small sigh and closed her eyes. "All right, Aphrodite," she said softly as she crawled back into bed. "Thank you."
Dite looked surprised. "For what, sweet pea?"
"Caring," came the mumbled answer before Gabrielle's breathing deepened into sleep.
"No worries, babe. I always have." She smoothed Gabrielle's hair away from her face and let her touch linger on the bard's soft skin before disappearing, leaving only a trace of rose petals behind.
It could have been candlemarks; it could have been days. Gabrielle couldn't tell how much time had passed when she awoke from her sleep. But for the first time since Xena's death, she felt hope. She was still trying to process the information Aphrodite had given her, but what stood out in her mind was the fact that Xena's spirit was still alive and looking for a way to come home.
She pushed the covers back and wandered out of the room, following the muttering to another room in Aphrodite's chamber. The goddess sat at a huge desk, hidden by scrolls. The floor was littered with discarded notes and even as she stood there, a wad of parchment came flying over the top of the pile.
"She shoots! She...."
"... misses!" Gabrielle answered, as the paper ball hit the tip of the overflowing basket and fell to the floor. Dite's blonde curls popped up from the top of her desk.
"Oh, hiya, cutie. How'd ya sleep?"
"Very well. Morpheus was kind."
"Yeah, I asked him to be. He's a good god." Gabrielle didn't reply, though she looked skeptical, remembering her first run-in with the god of dreams. "Anyway, ya look way better and I think I have everything like, figured out." She lifted up several scrolls, rummaging through them. "Soon's I find my notes. I know they're in here. I just had... ah hah!"
"C'mon, Gab. We can go over this stuff in the hot tub. I so need to soak after all this. I haven't worked this hard in like, ages."
Gabrielle didn't get a chance to respond before she found herself up to her neck in warm bubbles. She closed her eyes, relishing the comfort. It was only when Aphrodite popped in right next to her that her green orbs opened reluctantly.
"Ooooh," she groaned as she settled back into the water and closed her eyes. "This is just what the goddess ordered. I feel better already." Dite stayed that way for a few minutes before sitting up and reaching for her notes.
"Okay. I got good news and I got bad news."
Gabrielle ran her wet hands through her hair, then covered her eyes. "Of course you do. Give me the bad news first."
Aphrodite chewed her lip. "Well, the bad news is I don't know where Xena is."
"Then how can we return her? We still don't have a body and now you're telling me we don't have a spirit either!"
"Take a chill pill, babe. I think I've found the solution to your little problem."
"YOU THINK?!? Whaddya mean you THINK??"
"Hey, I'm doing my best here Gab! Cut me some slack, all right? I wasn't the one who got you into this mess!"
Gabrielle's head dropped. "I'm sorry, Aphrodite. I know you're doing me a huge favor and here I am being a bitch. Go ahead."
The goddess took Gabrielle's chin in her hand and lifted Gabrielle's face until their eyes met. "No worries, 'kay?" She smiled, hoping to get one in return. She wasn't disappointed.
"You're a good friend, Aphrodite."
"That's probably the nicest real compliment I've ever gotten."
"It is also the truth." Gabrielle paused. "So what's the plan?"
"Well, we have Xena's ashes. You have immortal blood. I found a ritual that will allow you to use your blood to re-form her body. The fact that you're soul bound to one another should call her soul to you and once her body has regenerated, you'll be a rockin' couple again."
"So when can we do this?"
"I think we need to go to Macedonia. We don't want Ares finding out about this and totally screwing it up."
"You really think he would?"
"Gab, I think he's a little... um...."
"Well, um... blind, maybe... where she is concerned."
Gabriele snorted. "Okay. Why Macedonia?"
"Couple reasons. Ares won't look for us there for one thing. And Hephie had a radical hideaway there for another."
Gabrielle chewed her nails. "Okay, when can we go?"
Aphrodite smile sympathetically. "Anxious, huh?" Gabrielle just nodded. "Lemme finish my bath and get a bite of something to eat and we'll go." She pointed a bubbly finger at the bard. "You have to eat too. This is gonna take a lot out of ya."
They had stopped briefly at Xena's family crypt and Aphrodite had offered to go in to fetch Xena's ashes and weapons alone. Gabrielle had shaken her head and smiled.
"Thank you, Aphrodite, but it's my responsibility. Wait here. I'll be right back." And she ducked inside before the goddess could answer. She sat down, pondering the fortitude of her immortal friend.
Gabrielle lit the torch, looking around with new eyes. Hope had replaced despair and she moved with a light step towards where Xena remains had been placed. Reverently she lifted the ashes, re-wrapping them before placing them in the bottom of her bag. She picked up the sword and chakram, looking around her once more.
"If this works... *when* this works, we will come back and clean up here. You're all family and you deserve better than to be forgotten. So wish us luck, okay?" The bard felt her optimism returning and it was with a light heart and a lighter step that she exited the crypt.
"All righty, Aphrodite. Let's do this."
Aphrodite chuckled, hearing herself reflected in Gabrielle's speech. Then she waved her hand and the two of them disappeared.
Hephaestus' hideaway was, well... a little creepy in Gabrielle's opinion. They'd had to walk from the hidden entrance and there had been a maze of hallways and corridors to traverse before they'd reached their destination. Aphrodite had been careful to mark each passageway and booby trap so they wouldn't have difficulties getting back out. She didn't figure Xena would be in the mood to play games then.
"I asked Hephie about making a shortcut, but it was a total no go," Dite said as they walked through the maze. "He said the whole point was some radical privacy," Aphrodite blushed, "which was a really good thing sometimes. Ahem, anyway... we do have to be careful though. There are some wicked triggers in here that could trap even a god."
Aphrodite chewed her nail for a minute before facing Gabrielle. "I don't think Hephie was being completely honest with me about this place though."
Gabrielle turned to face the goddess, careful to keep her eyes on the route they were taking. "How so?"
"Well, a lot of the surprises will lock you *in* here, not just keep ya out, ya know. The Eye makes it impossible to pop in and out, which is why were walking through this grody part. And Hephie didn't start building this place 'til AFTER that whole thing with Dahok. You know."
Gabrielle most certainly did know and she paled at the memories that name elicited.
"So anyway," the goddess continued. "I've always kinda wondered, in the back of my mind, what the real story was. Turn left. Ah... here we are."
Gabrielle looked around the austere room, finding the Eye with no trouble and taking in the rest slowly. There were sconces around the room and one wall that seemed to double as a door. A large, flat altar sat beneath the Eye and a few more traps were scattered randomly. There was no furniture to speak of and Aphrodite gestured to the altar. She got out her notes.
"Okay, you need to scatter Xena's ashes on the altar. Carefully, though it's not like there is any wind here to blow them away."
Gabrielle hesitated, then lifted the lid. The scent almost made her gag in reflex and she stood very still clenching her jaw until the urge passed. "Does it matter? I mean, do I need to form them into a pattern, spread them evenly, what?"
Aphrodite ran her finger down the scroll. "Doesn't say. I'd have to say spread them evenly though. Not like you can tell what ashes go where, ya know?" She turned her attention back to her notes, missing Gabrielle's shiver.
Gabrielle gingerly shook the pot, trying for even distribution of the ashes on the stone. It took a while and Aphrodite was sitting on the floor in meditation. When she was finished, Gabrielle walked back to the goddess and placed a tentative hand on her shoulder. Dite's eyes slowly opened and she smiled up at the bard.
"All done, sweetie?" Gabrielle nodded. "'Kay, then, let's see. Hmm, put the sword here," gesturing, "and the chakram here," pointing to another spot. "Oh wait... you're gonna need to use the chakram to spill the blood." She wrinkled her face in distaste.
Gabrielle complied, putting the sword into place and separating the chakram. She laid one piece on the altar and kept the other in her right hand. She looked back at Aphrodite, waiting for further instruction.
"Okay, um... this is the gross part. You've got to... ew... um, make a cut deep enough to bleed really well." She shuddered. "You're gonna have to share about half your body's blood to make this work."
Gabrielle's eyes got big, but she nodded her acceptance.
"Don't worry, babe. I'll be here to keep an eye on you." Dite took a deep breath. "You ready?"
Gabrielle raised the chakram and Aphrodite took the bard's left hand in her own. With her right hand, she stroked the inside of Gabrielle's left wrist. "Here," she said quietly. "This one leads from your heart."
Gabrielle bit her lip and closed her eyes, then lifted the chakram and sliced neatly without a flinch. Blood began running slowly and green eyes opened and focused on Aphrodite for a minute, then she turned her attention to the ashes that were very slowly becoming soaked red.
Ashes that were forming into the ghostly outline of a well-known shape. Gabrielle felt her heart clench at the sight of the familiar form that she had missed with aching intensity for more than twelve moons. She felt the tears flow and watched as they fell unhindered to the altar and mixed with the blood and ash.
At that moment, Ares burst in on them, disrupting the ritual causing everything to halt. The ashes were scattered and Gabrielle screamed in agony when the blood tried to reinsert itself into her being.
Aphrodite touched a spot on Gabrielle's neck, rendering her mercifully unconscious. Then the goddess got up and slapped Ares, furious at this final interference.
"Gods damn you to Tartarus, Ares! We nearly had her!"
"What? Nearly had who??"
"Xena, you idiot. We were bringing Xena home and you just totally screwed it up!"
"Well how was *I* supposed to know?? Not like you told me!"
"Exactly... I didn't tell you because I didn't want you here... for this very reason. You have no sense where Xena is concerned and everything you've done lately has simply made things worse!"
"Go away, Ares. I don't want you here when Gabrielle wakes up. She doesn't deserve the kind of pain you've inflicted and I don't think we can fix this. There aren't enough of Xena's ashes left to work with." She hesitated as a look of pain crossed his face. "Please Ares," she said quietly. "Just go."
He looked at Gabrielle, still lying mercifully unconscious near the altar. He sealed the wound on her wrist, then leaned forward to brush a kiss across her temple. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. You were a worthy opponent, but you didn't deserve this. Neither of you did."
He didn't even glance at Aphrodite whose jaw was hanging open. He simply turned on his heel and left the way he'd come.
Aphrodite knelt at Gabrielle's side and gently shook her awake. She wondered how the bard would feel about the fact that Ares had managed to find them and mess everything up but good. She wondered how he'd managed to locate them, then the green eyes opened and her attention refocused on the woman who lay at her knees.
Gabrielle gasped, the return to consciousness abrupt and unexpected. In that instant, she felt an intimate warmth flow through her soul and she rejoiced. She clenched Aphrodite's hand in her own, looking back at her with tear-filled eyes and a bright smile. "I feel her, Aphrodite. She's alive!"
She looked around. "Xena? Xena??" Her attention came back to the goddess. "Where is she, Aphrodite? I know she's alive... I can feel her." She put Dite's hand on her chest. "Here. Her heart is beating with mine."
Aphrodite smiled and clasped her hand, feeling the heartbeat in a steady rhythm before pulling away and pinching the bridge of her nose with her fingers. "Well, then... I have good news and I have bad news."
Gabrielle clutched the hand she still held, causing Dite to wince in reflex.
"Careful with the merchandise, hon. You're gonna leave a bruise." She gently extracted her hand and covered the bard's own. "Now, the good news is, she's alive, right? That's a good thing."
"Riiiiiight... so what's the bad news?"
"The bad news is she's not here and I don't know where she is."
"But we can fix that, right? We can do the ritual again?"
"Um, no. There aren't enough ashes left to try again."
"WHAT?!?" Gabrielle jumped to her feet. "Where is he? I'll kill him myself!"
"Whoa, whoa, Gab! Slow down. He's gone. You can't kill him anyway, remember? He's a god again." She put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, holding tight when the bard tried to shrug her off. Then holding tighter when the shoulders beneath her arm slumped in defeat. She cupped Gabrielle's chin and drew her eyes up to meet her own.
"You know she's alive, right?" She waited for the acknowledgement to come. "Right... so you can use the connection you feel from her to find her. Should be a piece of cake."
Gabrielle snorted in laughter through her tears. "Aphrodite, nothing has ever been a piece of cake for us. Somehow I don't see this being any different."
Aphrodite chuckled sympathetically and drew the bard's head to her lips. "Good point." She looked around and shuddered. "Let's get out of here. This place is giving me the creeps now."
They exited slowly, following the markers Aphrodite had left and now painstakingly removed. "Heph didn't mark it for a reason. I'm just trying to respect that," Dite explained in answer to Gabrielle's unasked question.
When they found their way out, Aphrodite replaced the shielding that had been in place. Then she waved them back to Olympus.
Dite popped them right to Gabrielle's room, knowing the effect of blood loss would hit her hard and suddenly. She surmised correctly and was just able to catch the bard as she slipped to the floor. The goddess got Gabrielle tucked into bed, then moved to her own room. This adventure had exhausted her more than she was willing to admit and she still had her regular love biz to take care of. She decided to take a nap.
Green eyes opened slowly, the pert nose twitching at the scent of cinnamon and sugar that wafted her direction. She stretched leisurely, smiling at the renewed warmth she felt coursing through her soul and marveling at the hunger gnawing at her belly.
"Guess immortality didn't completely take away my appetite." Gabrielle flung the covers from her and rose from the bed. She padded over the thick carpet to the table, smiling at the steaming cinnamon rolls that greeted her vision.
She brought the plate back to the bed and sat down, her gaze turning inward. The distinctive warmth that she knew was Xena was distant, but it was real. She smiled softly, feeling a renewed hope.
"I will find you, Xena. Somehow, some way, I will find you and we'll be together again."
It was still dark when the blue eyes finally opened and looked around, disoriented. This wasn't the afterlife she'd expected it to be. In fact, she felt a distinctive hunger in her belly and a burning in her blood. It didn't seem to be an afterlife at all. She poked at her torso and pinched her arm, concluding that her naked flesh was real.
Slowly, she rose to her feet, looking around in confusion. She wasn't in Japa and it didn't look like Greece, Chin, Britannia or Egypt. The land was flat and as her eyes adjusted, she realized she could see a very long way. There was a light in the distance and heedless of her nakedness, the warrior headed that way.
She tottered for a few steps, then stumbled and she realized she was weak from hunger and something else... indefinable.
She knelt in the grass, the stalks gently tickling her skin. She closed her eyes, putting the sensation out of her mind and focused on the sounds around her. There was the brush of the grass, the whistle of wind and... she smiled. Just to her left was the sound of an animal... wild hare from its scent.
Stealthily, she circled her prey, waiting patiently. It was over before the rabbit understood it had jumped into a trap. The warrior grabbed the soft neck and sank her teeth into it with relish. She began to feel warmth and strength seeping through her bones until she realized what she was doing.
She flung the hare from her in disgust and tried to retch, but there was nothing in her belly to regurgitate. She lurched to her feet, strong enough now to move towards the light at a steady pace.
It was just daylight when she stumbled into the small encampment. Everyone stared at first, until an old woman approached her with a blanket. "NetonÍ?evehe, ka'Í?kone? Tosa'e netao'setsÍhe'ohtse?"
The warrior's brow furrowed, not understanding the language. The old woman wrapped the fur around the naked body slowly, gently brushing the wild, dark hair from the planed face. Then she tapped her own chest. "Hotassa," she stated and pointed to the warrior and arched her eyebrow in mute question.
The blue eyes scanned the small village, noting the well-laid camp and the patiently waiting tribesmen. They didn't seem to be threatening... merely curious and she decided that she would stay with them as long as they would allow until she could figure out where she was and how to get home.
She looked back at the motherly woman and smiled, eliciting one in response. She jerked a thumb at herself. "Xena," she answered and let the old woman lead her to a spot by the fire.
Gabrielle packed up her bag and wandered over to find Dite. Surprisingly, she found the goddess curled around a pillow sound asleep. She shook Dite's shoulder gently.
"Not now, Gab... sleepin'."
Gabrielle's eyes widened. She hadn't known gods and goddesses slept, then realized that Dite had been working extra hard pulling two goddess gigs besides all the help and research she had been doing for Gabrielle herself. Gabrielle pulled the down comforter up around Dite's shoulders and smile when she burrowed deeper into the pillow. Gabrielle leaned over and kissed Aphrodite on the cheek.
"Goodbye, my friend. Pleasant dreams. Pop in and see me sometime, will ya? I have a feeling I'm gonna need you to keep in touch to keep me from losing my mind."
Dite didn't answer, but she sighed softly and smiled.
Gabrielle put a note on the table, then walked to the door and turned one final time. "Thank you, Aphrodite," she said, before slowly making her way down the hall and out of the Olympian Palace. She figured she had several days' journey ahead of her before she reached the sea. She was going to go back to the beginning... to the place where all of this had started almost two years before.
It took almost a week before Gabrielle reached the shores nearest the base of Mount Olympus. She heard a hail, calling a name she had not heard since Japa and one she would be glad to forget. She searched the ships anchored off the small port town and found what she was looking for.
"Little Dragon Warrior?"
Gabrielle held up a hand. "Captain, please. My name is Gabrielle."
Katerina von Lihp's eyes bulged. That was more words from the Little Dra... Gabrielle... than she had heard during their entire voyage from Japa to Shanghai. The Captain took a good long look at the woman who stood before her in a loose cotton tunic and leggings and saw a renewed sense of hope and purpose in her green eyes.
"Well then, Gabrielle, is there something I can help you with? I did not think to see you here after all this time."
Gabrielle's brow furrowed. "Oh? How long as it been?"
It was Katerina's turn to look confused. "It has been eighteen moons since I saw you in the Southern port. Surely you knew this."
Gabriele shook her head. "Um, no. No. I've been kinda busy. Guess I lost track of time." Before the Captain could comment, Gabrielle continued. "Are you busy, or can I hire you?"
"Well, we usually do not take passengers, but for you... what did you have in mind?"
"I need to get back to Japa... to Higuchi. I need to go back to where all of this started."
Katerina regarded her thoughtfully for a long moment before nodding. "That is good. We needed to go back again soon anyway, as I have more trade goods to pick up. When could you be ready to leave?"
"Now is good, hš? Come along. The crew should be about done with their loading. We are leaving with the tide, somewhere after the moon is high."
"And the fee?"
"Ah, we can discuss that on board the ship. It will be fair, I promise you."
Gabrielle nodded. Katerina had been nothing but kind and had never once tried to take advantage of her grief. She felt comfortable trusting this rather odd little sea Captain. She had learned the hard way when not to trust and her instincts were pretty reliable. So she followed the Captain to a longboat that rested on the shore.
Most of the crew remembered Gabrielle from their journey together before and gave her a pleasant nod as she boarded. Katerina got her settled in the same small cabin she'd used before and by dawn the next morning, the ship and her crew were sailing down the coastline of Greece.
Things fell quickly into a routine. Every morning, Gabrielle worked with her weapon of choice for the day and she rotated between sais, staff and katana to keep things fresh and interesting. Then she spent time helping do whatever odd little job she could find that didn't interfere with the regular running of the ship.
She was a little more outgoing, but the crew still strongly respected the boundaries they'd been given the first time and she found she was a little lonely. So at least once a week she went to the galley and cooked, to keep her skills from getting rusty, she said. But it was mostly because Cookie had taken her under her wing and reminded Gabrielle sorely of the grandmother she'd known as a child. The sailors didn't complain. On the contrary... they looked forward to the days that Gabrielle was in the galley. Extra treats seemed to appear that day.
So time passed slowly; one day pretty much like the next, only differing on the days that they would stop in a port for trading and supplies. Gabrielle learned that Katerina was considered something of an indulgent captain. She made her own rules and set her own schedule and she saw no reason for the crew to suffer sea rations for weeks on end if there were ports along the way that they could stop in to pick up fresh provisions. Only their rush to meet Gabrielle in Greece had gotten them there in only a year's time before.
So it was nearly six months into the voyage before they reached the bottom of the African continent and Gabrielle was more than grateful for the change in clothing she wore. Her leggings were thick wool and she'd traded in her tunic for a heavy sweater. The seas were getting rougher and the swells were bigger and even with Aphrodite's ring on, Gabrielle felt a distinct nausea beginning in her belly.
After her exercises, Gabrielle made her apologies to the Captain and went back below to rest. She knew she would do better with the seasickness topside, but at the moment all she wanted to do was close her eyes in the privacy of her own cabin.
Strangely, the motion did not seem to bother her once she lay down and closed her eyes and Gabrielle drifted in a twilight of sleep that was full of memories and images that made no sense to her whatsoever. She didn't know how long she laid there floating on the edges of sleep, but eventually she felt things around her calm. Gabrielle didn't open her eyes, not wanting to lose the meditative state she found herself in. It wasn't until she felt a soft touch in her hair that she slowly blinked her eyes open.
"Hiya, Sweet Pea! How ya doin'?" She continued her stroking and felt Gabrielle relax back into her touch.
"Better, now. I'm glad to see ya though. I've missed you."
"Aw, you're so sweet, Gab. I've totally missed you too. I'm sorry I missed your leaving," said with just the slightest hint of reproach.
Gabrielle opened her eyes just slightly and gazed into Dite's blue ones. "Sorry, Dite. You looked so peaceful and I didn't wanna disturb you. But...."
"But you really wanted to like, get started looking for Big X, huh?" The goddess smiled with understanding and continued stroking Gabrielle's scalp, grinning indulgently when the bard's eyes closed again and she relaxed even further into the touch.
"Uh huh," she agreed. "I wanna find her so we can put all this behind us and get on with our lives."
Gabrielle's eyes were closed, so she didn't see the look that crossed Aphrodite's face at her words. She felt the hesitation in the stroking though and opened her eyes to catch the grimace that crossed Dite's face before she schooled her features into a smile. Gabrielle sat up on an elbow, bringing her almost nose to nose with the goddess. Aphrodite stood up to pace the small cabin.
"Aphrodite?" Gabrielle's voice was almost growly in accusation.
"Ya know, Cutie, I've been totally busy since you left... lots of bitchin' love biz, ya know? Keepin' up with the Greeks and the Romans is enough to like, soooo wear out a love goddess doin' double duty. Anyway," Dite hurried on, seeing Gabrielle was getting a little impatient. "In what little free time I've had, I've been looking for that radical warrior of yours." Aphrodite paused and painted on a bright smile. "I have good news and bad news."
Gabrielle flopped back on the bed and covered her eyes with her linked hands and groaned. "I'm not gonna like this, am I?" She sighed. "Give me the bad news."
"Well, sweetie, the bad news is I'm still looking for exactly *where* Xena is. I'm just not totally sure where or when where is yet exactly. See, I've been all over the known world on the world wide god web looking for her and I personally went back to Japa, the Norselands and Egypt to speak to the gods there. I know she's not there because we searched through their webs too. I will be soooo totally glad when we get everything tied together between us, but I think that's gonna be a little while longer coming."
"Wait, wait, wait!" Gabrielle sat up waving her hands. "I'm sure the intricacies of your god web thing are fascinating and any other time I'd be glad to discuss it in detail. But right now, I wanna go back *just* a little bit."
"The good news isn't gonna get me outta this, huh?"
"Well, yeah! We know that Xena's nowhere in the known world, so you really don't have to go back to Japa. I know that place has some radically rotten memories for you."
Gabrielle scraped her nails through her hair in complete exasperation before scrubbing her face and sighing. "Aphrodite, if Xena is nowhere to be found in the known world, then where is she?"
Dite stamped her own feet in vexation. "I don't know!" She ran her hands through her own hair and made it stand up on end. "I've never seen anywhere like this and it was only a glimpse!"
"Then how do you know that it's nowhere in the known world?"
"Because it was between fifteen hundred and two thousand years into the future!!" Dite shouted, then slapped a hand over her mouth as what she said registered and Gabrielle collapsed onto the bed.
"What???" Gabrielle asked in a strangled whisper.
Dite sat down next to Gabrielle and took her hands, pulling her into a reluctant hug. For a few minutes nothing was said between them as Aphrodite concentrated on calming Gabrielle's racing pulse. Gently she rubbed the bard's back, willing her to relax. Finally and quite firmly, Gabrielle pulled back, though she held on to Dite's hands.
"You're telling me Xena is somewhere in the future and I'm gonna have to wait between fifteen hundred and two thousand years before I can even TRY to find her??"
"Uh huh. That was the best I could narrow it down. I...."
Gabrielle took her hands out of Aphrodite's grasp and stood up to pace. The goddess watched patiently as Gabrielle paced the three steps between the wall and the door, waving her hands and talking to herself. Eventually, she seemed to come to a conclusion and dropped back down next to Aphrodite.
She waved her hands, though Dite was sitting quietly with a bemused look on her face. "Okay, look. I don't wanna know how you figured this out right now. I'm honestly not sure my brain could handle the overload right now. But you're sure it was so far away??"
Dite shrugged. "Yeah. I don't know how she got there yet, or even where there *is*. But I'm fairly certain about the time frame."
"C'mon, Gab, cut me a little slack here, will ya? I'm working with a lot of unknowns. I know this is hard, but I'm doin' the best I can here!"
"I'm sorry Aphrodite. It's just...."
"I know, babe, I know!" Dite agreed, embracing the bard in a hug. "I'll keep looking, but there's nothing I can do to make time go by faster."
"I don't suppose you could send me forward fifteen hundred years?" Gabrielle asked half-jokingly.
"Babe, even if I knew exactly when and where she was I couldn't send you there. When Herc crushed the Cronos stone, he took our ability to cross timelines. We have to live through time like everybody else. I'm sorry."
Gabrielle squeezed Aphrodite before pulling back and looking up into her eyes. "It's all right, Dite. I didn't figure you could, or you probably already would have. It was worth a shot, though. I had to ask."
"I know you did, Cutie. You wouldn't be you if you didn't try everything you could to get to her."
They sat down on the bed, content for a while to absorb the comfort they offered one another. Finally Gabrielle lifted her head from Aphrodite's shoulder.
"So now I have to figure out what I'm gonna do for the next fifteen hundred years."
"Well, maybe I can help with that a little, at least to start," Dite answered, waiting for Gabrielle to look at her. When she was sure she had Gabrielle's undivided attention, she asked, "Do you think you could take the Amazons to a new home?"
Gabrielle quirked an eyebrow and waited.
"Diana... Artemis asked me to keep an eye on them and I have been as much as I could. But it's hard with everything else I have goin' on, ya know? And they are totally being screwed over. They are being pushed out of what little land they have left and I thought maybe you'd be willing to help them find a new home."
Gabrielle nodded. "Seems like the least I can do for them. Do you have a place in mind?"
Aphrodite popped a map in and put in on the bed. "Well, I was thinking an island, maybe here," pointing to an area that had several islands clustered together and was reasonably close to India. "They'd have a way better chance of keeping the Nation alive if there are men relatively close to them without necessarily being in the same space."
Gabrielle looked at the map closely. "That might work. In fact, it should do nicely. Tell ya what, next port we get to, I'll get off and start back to Greece."
"Aphrodite, it's gonna take a while to get all the remnants together and I can't just go popping in and out of places. People will start to notice and if I've gotta survive for two thousand years, I need to keep as low a profile as I can."
Aphrodite gave her the barest hint of a pout.
Gabrielle relented just slightly. "Tell ya what. I'll write up a notice and give you a list of all the places it needs to be posted. If you could make sure that gets done, it would be a tremendous help."
Dite clapped her hands and bounced on the balls of her feet. "I can do that!"
"Good. Thank you! Then hopefully most of them will be at the meeting place by the time I arrive and I can leave some cryptic instructions for any stragglers or women who may want to join the Nation later."
"Radical idea... just bitchin', babe! Lemme go and I'll be back to get that stuff from you when you're done, 'kay? Just call me!"
"I will, Aphrodite. Thanks for coming to see me."
"Oh, hon... you can look for me to pop in and out of your life regularly from now on. We gotta stick together, you and me. Thanks for helping me out, babe! You ROCK!"
The goddess disappeared with her usually fanfare, leaving behind a scattering of fresh rose petals. An immediate knock on the door precluded any legitimate thought and Gabrielle wasn't quite surprised to see Captain Lihp standing in front of her.
"Are you all right, Gabrielle? The first mate told me he thought he heard you talking to yourself and I know the weather was making things difficult for you."
"I'm fine, Captain, but I find that I must leave the ship at our next stop. I will pay you for the entire voyage," Gabrielle hastened to explain, "but I suddenly remembered something I left undone and I have to get back and take care of it as soon as possible."
"No, Captain, please. This is your business and I know you have contracts with merchants aside from our arrangement. I won't allow you to lose time or business on my account. Especially since if I had been thinking when I set this up, I would have remembered this to start with."
"It's a long way back to Greece, Little Dragon. Are you sure...."
"Yes, Captain, I am, but thank you for your concern. I appreciate it."
"Well, you have been a good passenger and a contributing member of this crew. We will all miss you greatly vhen you leave."
"Thank you, Captain, for all you and your crew have done. I will always be grateful." Gabrielle extended her hand and Katerina accepted it gracefully.
"We should be reaching our next port in two days. I will make sure you are well set for your journey home before we leave the port."
"I do, hš? I made a promise and Katerina von Lihp never breaks a promise if it is possible to keep it."
"I have to tell you, Captain... I have probably enjoyed my time on your ship better than any other I have ever spent time aboard."
"Not a sailor, then, hmm?" said with just a hint of a teasing grin. "Well, I thank you. I am proud of my ship and crew. She's a fine craft and they are good people."
"Yeah, they are. And so are you."
Katerina blushed slightly. "Will you be topside shortly, or should I have your dinner sent here?"
"I'll come up. I understand Schmidt is singing tonight."
"Yes, he is. We will expect you shortly then, hš?"
"Yep, just left me clean up a bit and I'll be there."
"Good! Good! Meet you on deck then."
Gabrielle closed the door behind the effusive captain and sat down on the bed. She ran her hands through her hair and looked at the ceiling, though her focus was on something internal only she could see.
"Two thousand years!! Oh Xena, how am I ever gonna survive this? What am I gonna do now?"
The first few hours in Xena's new life were spent in mostly silence. She spent her time observing and listening to everything that was going on around her and she had come to the definite conclusion that Greece was a very long way away. The last coherent memory she had before her arrival was lying on their shared furs looking at the stars with Gabrielle and after that.... She was at a loss to know where she was or how she'd come to be there.
Hotassa was the first wife of the tribal medicine man and she had taken it upon herself to adopt Xena. The shaman didn't mind; his first-born son had indicated an interest in the warrior and it was good for Xena that Hotassa taught her the ways of the tribe.
After the discussion and argument with the tribal elders were over, Hotassa took Xena to the spring to clean herself up and she brought along with her the dress of a native woman. Xena bathed, then looked at the dress with disdain. It was pretty enough and the beadwork on it was nice, but it was entirely impractical for a warrior. She shook her head no.
"Heehe'e!" Hotassa answered vehemently. "He'eo'o hoestŰtse."
Xena made no move to take the dress from Hotassa's hand and the older woman thrust it out to her again. "He'eo'o hoestŰtse."
"No!" Xena answered with equal defiance. "I want that!"
Xena spun the older woman toward the village and pointed at one of the young warriors who was strutting around in long pants and a breechcloth.
Hotassa shook her head. "Hova'‚hane!" she exclaimed. "Notaxe nÍhpÍso'hestŰtse... he'eo'o hoestŰtse."
"Look, Hotassa. I am a warrior and this," taking the garment and shaking it at the older woman, "won't work for me. I want that!"
The two women stood staring at one another for long moments before Hotassa took the dress and threw it to the ground prior to stomping off.
Xena wrapped the blanket more tightly around her and picked up the dress. Then she wandered back to the village.
"Ah, this'll do nicely," she muttered to herself, slipping the blade from its sheath without a sound. Then she wrapped the blanket more firmly around her and began patiently cutting seams. She started gathering a curious crowd, but patently ignored them as she continued to work. Hotassa pushed her way through the group of women and children, noting that the men were equally interested but trying to put on an indifferent front.
"I need a needle and some gut. You know," seeing the confusion in Hotassa's eyes. She made motions with her hands. "For sewing."
Hotassa was intrigued and understanding the request by the motions Xena made, retrieved her sewing basket from her tent. Then she watched patiently as Xena reformed the garment into something... different.
Xena sat there until late afternoon, noting idly that all activity in the camp seemed to have stopped waiting for her to unveil her work. Finally satisfied, she held the two piece garment for her inspection. Pleased with what she saw, Xena dropped the blanket and slipped into her new clothing.
The bottom was similar to a breechcloth, except there were short pants underneath. Her top was a sleeveless one-piece that barely reached the top of her breechcloth. Xena smiled to realize that her new outfit highly resembled some of the clothes Gabrielle had worn. Without warning, her breath caught and she concentrated on forcing air in and out of her lungs. The place in her heart that had always been Gabrielle was empty and barren.
Hearing her name falling awkwardly from unfamiliar lips made Xena smile sadly. It was a stark reminder of just what she was missing.
"Zee-nah? Nepevomoht‚hehe?" Hotassa put a hand on Xena's arm and even though Xena couldn't understand the language, the questioning the older woman's eyes was unmistakable. She smiled shakily and patted the hand on her arm.
"I'm all right, Hotassa. As right as I can be right now, anyway," she mumbled to herself.
Hotassa smiled and looked back to where the braves and warriors were lurking and waved at her son. The man stepped forward and made his way through the crowd.
"HetsÍheohe, Kya NenaasÍstse!"
The young shaman stepped forward and started touching Xena's face and she knocked his hands away. He smiled and muttered something she didn't understand, running his fingers down her arms. This time she shrugged him off and pushed him bodily from her.
"Who in Tartarus do you think you are???"
Kya growled and lunged at her and she side-stepped and kicked him in the ass before turning and smiling viciously at him. She waggled her fingers at him.
"C'mon, big boy. Ya wanna play?"
He reached for her and this time she simply jabbed and watched as he fell to his knees, gasping for breath.
"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. Maybe when I restart it, it'll flow well enough for you to figure things out."
His nose started bleeding and she jabbed again, pulling back to punch him senseless. She was startled when she found her hand caught by the elder shaman.
"Hova'‚hane," he said, shaking his head. "Eneoestse!"
The older man motioned to his son and sent him scurrying off to another tent. Then the man turned her over to Hotassa and walked back to the fire he had been seated at. Hotassa took Xena by the arm and led her to the small tent that had been prepared for her next to her own.
Xena looked around the small space noting the hole in the top and the fire pit that was on the ground beneath it. Hotassa was gesturing around and Xena saw except that for a few furs the place was empty. She turned and exited the dwelling, Hotassa hot on her heels.
The older woman grabbed her arm and it was by sheer will that Xena did not knock her into next week. Instead she whirled around with fire in her eyes and Hotassa involuntarily took a step back. Xena consciously took herself in hand, reminding herself that it was not this woman's fault she felt so completely off balance and that so far, Hotassa had been nothing but a friend.
She smiled and held up her hands in supplication. "Sorry," knowing the woman wouldn't understand the words, but hoping the gestures would convey her thoughts. Xena ran her hands through her hair in frustration. She could feel a burning start in her gut and it made her uneasy on top of everything else. She signed to Hotassa as best as she could, but the older woman shook her head in non-understanding.
Finally, Xena took her hand and led her back into the small dwelling, motioning to the empty fire pit and the furs. Hotassa nodded with comprehension and led Xena out and gesticulated towards the open prairie. Xena returned the look with a furrowed brow.
Hotassa snatched up a basket from beside her own fire and took Xena's hand in her own, leading her out behind the encampment into the open field. They went a short distance, until they were out some ways and Hotassa began looking at the ground carefully. Without warning, she bent and retrieved something triumphantly and placed it in the basket.
Xena took a closer look then drew her head back in surprised disgust. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me. You want me to use animal dung for fire?"
"Ho'esta, heehe'e!" Hotassa answered emphatically, as though she understood Xena's words. She thrust the basket into Xena's hands. Then she turned and went back to the camp.
Xena stood stock still for a long moment, closing her eyes and letting the breeze blow across her face. Oh, Gabrielle... what am I supposed to do now? Where am I and what happened to us? To you? I can't feel you and yet you were alive in my arms just... oh gods.... Her thoughts trailed off and she sank to her knees in agony. The feeling of her soul sundering was overwhelming and Xena let it wash over her in waves.
She wasn't aware of the passage of time as she sat in shocked silence grieving. But it was totally dark when she came to herself again and she was covered with the blanket Hotassa had offered her... was it only that morning? and a bowl of slightly warm stew sat beside her.
The food beside her reminded her of another hunger and without recognizing her intentions, she shed the blanket and stealthily crept through the grass. The groundhog was dead and drained when she realized what had happened. Xena took off running, hoping to outrun the hounds of hell that suddenly seemed to be on her tail. Life made no sense anymore and she'd lost her balance.
When daybreak came, her resolve was set. She would find out what god was playing with her life and figure out what life or afterlife they had deposited her into. Then whatever it took, she would find her way back to Gabrielle.
Xena came back into the encampment disheveled and silent. She immediately went into her small tent, surprised to see her blanket folded neatly on the furs, small pile of buffalo chips in her fire pit and another bowl of warm stew and a waterskin nearby. She smiled sadly, recognizing that she'd found a friend in this place.
She took up the bowl first and ate every morsel, her body understanding it needed both forms of food to survive and survival was paramount until she figured this puzzle out. She guzzled the water from the skin, flinching slightly at its odd taste, then proceeding to drink the skin dry.
Xena retrieved her bowl, blanket and skin and quickly made her way out of her dwelling and down to the water's edge. She rechecked the water carefully, then refilled the skin and laid it to one side. She rinsed her bowl and utensil, the stripped out of her clothes and rinsed the night's grime from her body, feeling herself settle as she did so. She washed as well as she could manage without soap, then rinsed her leathers and wrapped up in the blanket before making her way back to the camp.
Xena drew a few stares, but not as many as one would imagine, as a good portion of the tribe wasn't present. She laid her clothes out to dry and went next door to Hotassa's home, bowl in hand.
She wasn't sure if Hotassa was home so she cleared her throat and called softly, "Hotassa?" Xena waited patiently and heard stirrings from inside. Hotassa stuck her head out, shaking her head when Xena offered the bowl back to her.
"Zee-nah's," she said. Xena inclined her head in acceptance. Hotassa looked at her with a raised eyebrow, indicating her state of undress. Xena simply pointed to the grass where her clothing lay drying and Hotassa nodded in understanding.
Xena bit her lip, thinking about how to convey her next question. "Hotassa, I need a scroll, ink and quill," mimicking her words with her hands. Hotassa stared at her dumbly and Xena blew out a breath of frustration, her respect for Gabrielle's communication skills suddenly skyrocketing. She looked around, spotting a basket full of craft supplies and snatched up a feather and a pot of paint. Xena dipped the end of the quill into the container of black paint. Then she grabbed an odd piece of hide and made several small marks.
"Can I keep these?" she asked, holding the things to her breast in a sign of ownership. Hotassa, though not understanding the words, recognized the gesture and nodded her head in agreement, folding her hands over Xena's.
"Thank you," Xena said softly, then went back to sit in front of her small tent and began to write in earnest.
Things I need to know
1. Am I alive
a. If so, where am I
b. If not, what afterlife is this
2. Is Gabrielle alive
a. If so, why can't I sense her
b. If not, where is she and how did she die
3. How did I get here
a. Gods with the ability to get me to wherever here is
5. Michael's god
b. Gods with the desire to get me to wherever here is
1. Ares - just because
2. Aphrodite - because of something that happened to Gabrielle?
3. Odin - old grudge
4. Michael's god - because of Lucifer?
c. A third party? Someone like Alti with something to gain from my separation from Gabrielle?
4. Can I get home
Xena sat rereading her questions and points, pinching her bottom lip between her finger and thumb as she thought. She was heedless of the paint she was spreading on her face and didn't even realize that she resembled Gabrielle when she did the same thing.
After a few moments she took up her writing again.
Things I am fairly confident about
1. This is a new place - life or afterlife
2. I was manipulated to get here
3. At least part of the answer should be nearby
She reread her work one final time, then laid it aside, satisfied with her conclusions so far. There was still room to add questions, points or facts as the came to light. For now, she had other work to do.
Xena placed the hide in her tent, then reached out and snagged her dry clothes from the grasses where the lay. She dressed and picked up the paint, walking back to Hotassa's. Hotassa saw her coming and frowned at the pot of paint Xena held out to her.
"Hova'‚hane. Zee-nah's," she said, shaking her head and patting the warrior's chest lightly. "Zee-nah's."
Xena nodded her acceptance. Then she pointed to the basket Hotassa had used the day before and motioned to the vast prairie with an inquiring look on her face. Hotassa smiled and nodded her approval and Xena took the basket and made her way to the open fields.
Xena made several trips back and forth, filling the basket and emptying it into a small but ever-growing pile between her tent and Hotassa's. Finally, Hotassa's husband, the elder medicine man, stepped in front of her and held up his hand. Her first reaction was to grab it and twist, but she thought about it when he spoke.
"Eneoestse," said kindly with a smile, indicating the now large pile of chips. "Epeva'e. Nea'e?e."
Xena nodded and wiped an arm across her brow in an attempt to stop the sweat from rolling into her eyes. She placed the basket back at the side of the teepee where she'd found it and went to her own dwelling and retrieved her waterskin.
She sat down to rest a moment, drinking the water as quickly as she dared. She grimaced when a bowl of thick, unidentifiable yellow substance was thrust under her nose. Xena hesitantly took it from a smiling Hotassa with a murmured, "Thank you."
It was odd and the texture was disconcerting, but she found the mixture sweetly palatable and very filling. The heat and fullness of her belly, combined with the lack of rest and the emotional draining she'd been through in the very short time she'd been in the village combined to make Xena dreadfully tired. Try as she might, she couldn't seem to keep her eyes open and the last thing she remembered was Hotassa leading her into her tent and the scent of freshly cut grass before her mind shut down in exhausted slumber.
It was pre-dawn when Xena's eyes opened again and she blinked in confusion trying to remember where she was that everything was so unfamiliar. Reality washed over her and she closed her eyes until it passed knowing that she still had many unanswered questions and no Gabrielle.
Her first order of business was survival, however and despite Hotassa's kindnesses, Xena knew there were many things she needed to do before she could start on her quest for answers.
So for the next several days, Xena learned the ways of the tribe. She learned to weave baskets to collect food and chips in. She caught fish and amazed the women and children with her bare-handed method. Hotassa took pity on her after her first meal fiasco and always made sure to prepare enough to share with Xena at her own fire. Xena in turn made sure to provide whatever food and chips she was allowed.
It had been made clear to her very early that in this society, men and women had separate functions. And women did not function in the role of hunter or warrior. So Xena hunted alone, providing the food for her own meals and the blood she seemed to crave. She actually preferred it that way. It kept there from being too many questions.
Hotassa gave her the knife she'd used in her sewing, but otherwise, Xena crafted all the tools and weapons she needed. Soon, she had skins and furs of her own, a longbow and arrows, several other knives and a staff. Daily she took the staff out for exercise and training and though the people thought it odd that she walked with a stick, no one questioned her right to do so. She had made it clear through words and gestures that she preferred to be left alone and though it angered some, they all respected her wishes. Having seen what she'd done to Kya, no one challenged her.
She was still excluded from warrior activity, though and it was making her short-tempered and hostile. The blood she consumed could not completely satisfy the burning she felt. So she was a part pf the tribe and yet remained separate from it as well.
The tribe slowly moved around, following the buffalo as they grazed their way across the plains. A month passed before Xena realized it and she'd made no progress in finding answers to her questions. Day to day existence took up so much time and trying to get information while she was still learning to communicate with these people was a difficult prospect at best.
The men had formed a war party and the women were left to wait for the outcome of a battle their warriors had little hope to win. Xena took the time to hone her staff skills and several of the women watching her asked for instruction.
She agreed reluctantly, remembering the times that Gabrielle had asked her for tutoring in one martial skill or another. She remembered with particular wistfulness Gabrielle's introduction to her staff and the Amazons. It had been the beginning of their Amazon Princess/Warrior Princess/Amazon Queen discussions.
The women went into the scrub area looking for limbs long enough to suffice and were unable to find anything comparable to their needs. Frustrated, they came back to the encampment. Xena noted their disgruntled faces and placed her staff in her tent and instead motioned for them to join her.
The women did so hesitantly and Xena began taking them through the meditative Chi exercises she and Gabrielle had practiced together. If she closed her eyes, she could still see the picture of serenity on Gabrielle's face as the moves flowed through and around her. Xena bit her lip, as the pain had not lessened with the passage of time; it had only increased.
The women were awkward at first, moving in a way that was unfamiliar to them at first and then with more beauty as their natural gracefulness came to the fore.
After a bit, with sweat trailing down their faces but smiling happily at their new skill, they stopped by mutual consent. This was something they would enjoy doing and Xena had finally found a contribution to the community that made both parties happy.
That evening, Xena went hunting. She had been too long without blood and the burning was making her mad with rage. She went out resolved to drain the first living thing that crossed her path.
Xena had long since determined that she was somehow suffering from the Bacchae burning, but was at a loss to explain why or how it happened. She remembered clearly the festival when Gabrielle had become bacchae... when she had shared the burning for the first time and the feeling had been... orgasmic.
It had been very brief, but Xena remembered it as clearly now as when it had first happened. It had been the first time either of them had let themselves imagine other possibilities between them, but it hadn't been the last.
And once they'd become lovers...
Xena shook her head, trying to clear it. This train of thought made the hunger worse and the pain of the loss of Gabrielle in her life more acute. Instead, she turned her focus to the hunt, hoping to sate the burning for at least a little while.
The tribe's wanderings had brought them within walking distance of some scrubland... not enough to supply wood for their fires or provide the women with suitable staffs, but plenty to give shelter to some of the wildlife in the area.
The buffalo tended to avoid the area as it was home to several predators that hunted them, but Xena felt the need for a fight and headed out to find one.
She hadn't gone far when her nose picked up several scents and she stood still and allowed herself to separate them into the animals to which they belonged.
At that moment, a movement in the grass caused Xena to turn and jump, catching her prey easily. She lifted it up, feeling her incisors grow to meet her need when her attention was caught by the greenest eyes she had ever seen.
Xena stopped short, noting that in the moonlight the fox in her hand had red-gold hair that prompted her memories of a much younger Gabrielle. She cursed her mind for allowing her to continually be reminded of Gabrielle in everything around her.
She still was unable to feel Gabrielle and being reminded of her constantly was painful in the extreme, especially in light of the fact that she'd been unable to make any progress in her inquiries. It was difficult and Xena had long since had anything as frustratingly difficult as this particular challenge was proving to be.
Xena sat down, gently stroking the fur of the fox who for reasons unknown had curled up contentedly in her arms. She looked down at the small, furry bundle and unexpectedly, the fox returned the look with understanding.
"You remind me of someone, you know. Someone I love very much. There is no way I can look into those eyes, her eyes and inflict death on you, even for my own need."
The fox snuggled down into Xena's lap and a dark eyebrow rose into an equally dark hairline.
"Oh, please. Make yourself at home."
She lifted the fox up and looked it in the eye and swore for an instant she saw Gabrielle's soul looking back at her. Xena nearly dropped the animal and the fox instinctively dug its claws into Xena's hands. Her hiss of pain was covered by a much louder hiss and that sound sent a skitter up Xena's spine.
It had been a while, but Xena easily recognized the predator that now circled behind her. She tried to ease the fox out of her grasp as she stood, but the animal would have none of it. Instead, the fox gazed at Xena confidently, then scrambled down and took up a position of sentinel, sitting up proud and tall as the panther approached.
Xena watched, fascinated. She had never seen behavior like this between a hunter and its prey and yet it subtly reminded her of... something... familiar.
The panther continued to circle and Xena held herself in check, keeping a very close eye on the fox. The small animal showed no fear, but kept its green eyes focused on the cat that now paced back and forth in front of them.
The panther growled, yet the fox merely tilted its head in questioning. Nearer and nearer the cat paced, until the fox reached out a paw and laid it on the panther's muzzle.
Xena froze, her hunger forgotten as she watched the tableau unfold before her eyes. Breathing became optional as she watched the panther lower its head and gently nuzzle its face into the fox's neck. The fox laid its nose on the cat's momentarily and then they both looked back at Xena.
Xena sat down as two pairs of eyes, one blue and one green, gazed back at her. The familiarity of them was astonishing and she watched in continued disbelief as the fox settled between the panther's forepaws and the cat wrapped itself protectively around its... mate?
"Oh Xena," she said aloud to herself as she reclined back in the grass to look at the stars. "I think madness or bloodlust or some really bad mushrooms have finally caught up with you, 'cause you are losing it. Panthers and foxes don't mate. There are laws in nature and that goes against most of them." She rubbed her eyes and continued looking at the stars. "I think you are just tired and the pain of missing Gabrielle constantly has made you see things."
Xena sat up, keeping her eyes closed with her hands pressed against her lids. "Now, go find you something to eat before what little of the mind you seem to have left takes a hike."
She opened her eyes, fully expecting to be alone. The panther and the fox remained, though now they both seemed to be to be keeping sentinel over her. She rolled her eyes heavenward and murmured, "Gods, don't let me lose my mind before I figure a way out of this riddle and back to Gabrielle."
Then she collected her bow and headed out toward the prairie, her silent guards padding along beside her.