Until We Meet Again
S he knew it was late, that her parents wouldnt like her staying out so long, but for once she didnt care. It had been a magical day the kind where the clouds were castles and dragons and heroes saving damsels in distress. She plopped down on a hill gazing up, pleased that the moon had come out in all its fullness to put the afternoons fiery sun to bed. She searched the limitless sky for the stars waiting to peep out, though her eyes kept returning to the yellow-red glow that refused to sleep yet. It was the color of her hair or so her sister said reminding her shed better tie on the scarf that was supposed to keep her long tresses tidy, but would now serve to hide the tangled, green-and-brown littered locks.
The girl smiled, imagining the time when she would be free to follow the sky wherever it led her. Ten winters was still pretty young, she thought, her smile fading a little. She glanced down at stubby legs that werent quite long enough to leave behind everyone who had their own ideas about who she should be. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and told herself what she usually did when she had doubts -- that if she kept hoping, kept dreaming, shed soon be ready for the day when what shed pictured would come true.
Sighing, she rose, dusted herself off and retrieved the lunch basket shed dropped beside her. She started down the hill toward the forest path that led home. It would take nearly a candlemark, tardiness enough for a scolding and being sent to bed early. She grinned. That was OK. She had plenty of ideas in her head to keep her company. She was already so caught up in them that at first she thought shed imagined hearing a strange sound. She started humming and walked faster. She heard it again. Moaning? She hesitated, torn between dutiful caution and curiosity. Curiosity won out.
Picking up a sturdy stick to be on the cautious side, she edged into the trees lining the path, toward where the sound seemed to be coming from. Maybe it was an animal, though she doubted that. She stopped and listened. There it was again! Crouching, she tiptoed closer, now seeing a rustling of leaves in the large clump of bushes a few paces ahead.
"Stop! Dont come any closer! Im armed!" a voice snarled, causing the girl to drop her stick and nearly faint from fright. She stood frozen, her head now filled with all those warnings about what happened when little girls didnt do as theyd been told.
"Im warning you," the voice said again, but this time it didnt sound so dangerous. It sounded young. Female. Scared.
The girl gathered her courage. "I mean you no harm," she said as calmly as she could. "I thought maybe you were an animal and were hurt." Silence. "Are you OK?" More rustling. "Please talk to me. Maybe I can help."
Some of the lower leaves in the bushes parted. She heard a snort.
"What can you do?" the mystery voice scoffed. "Youre just a little girl. You should be home eating your dinner." A small groan, and the bushes snapped back as they were.
"I am not a little girl," the girl retorted. "Well, I am, but I know lots of things. I think youre hurt and I know how to get help for you."
"No!" the voice commanded. "I dont need help. Go away."
But the girl was really curious now. This person didnt sound that much older than her, yet was out in the woods when she probably wasnt supposed to be either.
"What are you doing out here?" the girl asked in her best grown-up tone. "Are you lost? Did you fall? Wont your parents be worried?"
An indignant "pffft" from the bushes. "I dont get lost. And Im old enough to take care of myself. I just I just ."
"You just what?"
"I ran into a little trouble." The voice seemed to get smaller. "Nothing nothing I cant handle."
"Look, I dont know whats wrong with you, but I have some food and water left over from my lunch. I bet youre hungry." Silence. "Itll only take a moment to fetch. I left it on the path when I came to find you." Rustling. "Please? I wont tell anybody."
At last she was rewarded with a resigned, "Fine. But dont take too long. Ive got things to do."
The girl smirked, but told the bushes, "Ill be right back." As she ran to the path, she noted that the sun had almost set. If she hurried, she could still make it home before it became really dark. She picked up her basket, looked up the path, then turned and headed quickly toward to the bushes.
"You still there?" she asked grinning.
A harumph. "Funny. Of course Im still here."
"OK, well Im coming over there. Are you coming out, or do I have to hand it to you through the bushes?"
"Hand it through."
"Youre joking, right? Im a little girl, remember. Why would you be afraid of me?"
"Im not afraid. Im not afraid of anything, least of all you. Im Im comfortable where I am. Either bring the stuff over here or leave."
The girl shook her head in exasperation. She saw the bushes part again, only wider this time. Despite the dim light, she caught a glimpse of a pale face framed in dark wisps. An upturned palm came through, so she handed over the basket and watched as the leaves gobbled it up.
"Thanks," the voice mumbled. "Now get out of here before your people come looking for you."
The girl began pulling a large log over to the bushes.
"Hey! What are you doing? I told you to go home."
The girl positioned the log and sat down propped against it. "Im not leaving you. Not until I know youre all right. Besides, you still havent told me what youre doing out here." She could hear the mystery person chewing, then taking a drink. She also heard another small groan, followed shortly by more chewing.
"Youre crazy, you know that?" the voice finally said. "And stubborn."
The girl laughed. "My ma and da say that too."
"Ill tell you, and then maybe youll have enough sense to leave me alone."
The girl grinned triumphantly. "Well see."
"Im a fighter. I killed someone. Bad people could be after me. If you dont leave, they might find us both."
The girls heartbeat quickened. She looked around anxiously, suddenly imagining monstrous shapes behind every tree. She wondered if shed find out for real what happened to bad girls. But rather than jumping up and running like a good girl should, she inched closer to the bushes.
"You said you were a fighter, right?" she whispered. "Cant you protect us?"
Silence, then, "Im more like an apprentice fighter. And and Im Im not up to my best form."
"I knew it!" the girl said, concerned more now about the mystery person than about any men about to pounce on them. "You are hurt."
"Its not bad. A few scratches, a bump on the head." A chuckle. "Ive got a hard head, almost as hard as yours."
The girl giggled, though she covered her mouth and glanced around just in case. But she wasnt really afraid. She liked the mystery persons voice. It was low and soothing somehow, not nearly as unfriendly as the words it spoke. It made her feel safer being close to it than moving away.
"Did you really kill someone?"
A sigh. "Yeah. Maybe. A raider. Theyve been threatening my village. I couldnt take it anymore. Nobody would stand up to them. I saw one of `em hitting a friend of mine, so I went after him with a pitchfork. Stuck him good. One of his buddies chased me, threw a club and hit the back of my head. I fell down a ravine. Guess we both thought I was a goner." The voice paused. "Anyway, I managed to make it here."
"Oh, my," the girl breathed, "That was awfully brave of you."
"Nah. I just dont like bullies. And I dont like giving in to them."
"Is that why you became a fighter? Your parents let you do that?"
"Ive always been strong and quick. I can beat most of the boys stupid enough to get in my way. Anybody with eyes could see Im not exactly seamstress material."
The girl laughed. "I dont think Im seamstress material either. But I dont like fighting. I like to read. Im the best reader in my group. I like to make up my own stories too, about heroes and beautiful places I imagine and all the wonderful things Im going to do when I grow up."
A chuckle. "Bet that comes in real handy on a farm."
The girl felt suddenly like the wind had been knocked out of her. She pulled her legs up and hugged her knees. She already knew what people in the village said about her dreams. It hurt to think that someone from the outside would feel that way too.
"Hey," the voice called into the silence. "You still there? What happened to all those words you had a moment ago?"
The girl kept her head down. "Like you said, theyre not important. Just something to get me in trouble." She shivered and glanced up at the dusk blanketing the treetops above her, saddened that once again she would be in trouble for nothing. "Well, you seem to be OK on your own," she said tonelessly, rising to her knees and stretching her hand toward the bushes. "Would you hand me my basket?"
The bushes parted, but to the dimly pale face, not to the basket. "Youre going? Is it because of what I said? Hey, I didnt mean--"
"Its OK. Im used to it. I shouldve been home a long time ago anyway."
The face disappeared. The basket came out and the face appeared again. "Im, um thanks. Youre a good kid."
The girl shook her head glumly and took the basket.
"Hey, wait." A hand emerged from the bushes. "Youre more than a good kid. It took a lot for you to come help me. And and I think what you like doing is just as important as fighting."
The girl looked at the outstretched hand. "You do? Really?"
"Yeah, I do. Really. If theres nobody to imagine how things could be better to say whats right or wrong -- one fight doesnt matter much from the next. Its just fighting for the sake of fighting."
The girl beamed. "Oh. I never thought about that." She touched the strangers hand and found her own wrapped briefly in large, strong fingers. When the fingers relaxed, she grasped them a moment before shyly letting go.
"See? Weve had our first fight and already made up. Progress," the voice said good-naturedly. "Think maybe now would be a good time to tell me your name?"
The girl grinned and started to say something, then bit it back. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "In my mind, Im Aphrodite, the goddess of--"
"Love. Yeah. I know. Well, then, pleased to meet you Aphrodite. Im--"
"Wait! Dont tell me. To me youll be youll be Artemis! Yes! Artemis, goddess of the hunt."
"Yeah? Cool. I like that."
A chuckle. "Yeah?"
"Do you think well ever see each other again?"
"I dont know. Maybe. Kinda looks like were headed in different directions though."
"I suppose," the girl said, shuddering slightly at the picture of a body with a pitchfork sticking out of it. "Anyway, Ive got awhile yet before I can go off and do what I want to. I Im not sure Im as brave as you." The girl stared into space. "I sometimes wish a tall, dark stranger would ride in, sweep me off my feet and carry me to faraway lands. When Im older, of course."
"Oh, youre gonna wait around for a prince, huh? Well, if Im going to be a princess, itll be because I made it so. Im not letting anybody else control my fate. You dont need to either."
The girl looked doubtful. "I believe thats true for you. I hope I can be more like you when my time comes."
"Artemis" disappeared behind the leaves again. "That might not be so good for the goddess of love," she responded quietly. "Maybe before I when I mainly wanted to fight because I liked the physical part and being able to stop bullies. Now all I am is mad. I dont care if I really did kill that raider. It felt good. It was a little scary at first, but I know I could do it again."
The girl was still on her knees, though she knew she had to leave soon. "Artemis? I think itll be OK. Maybe youre going through a rough patch, but I believe you can handle it. Youre a brave and kind person. I can see you fighting to make things better, like the heroes in my stories. Im glad I met you too."
The bushes rustled and then "Aphrodite" heard a muffled, "Thanks. Keep picturing me like that and Ill at least be that way to somebody."
The girl stood and smiled. "You will. For ever and ever. Will you be all right now? Can I get anything else for you before I go?"
"No, youve been a big help. A little sleep and Ill be fine. Ill work my way back home, see if I can talk some others into fighting with me." A chuckle. "They think Im a little crazy too, but I know I cant do it by myself, being just an apprentice and all."
"Ok, then." The girl turned to leave, then hesitated. "Artemis? The gods be with you."
"Thanks Aphrodite but dont put the gods in your dreams with me, OK? Im not one to be asking them for anything. Besides, I kind of like the idea that it would be just the two of us, like we are now."
"I like that too, Artemis," the girl replied with a big smile. "Until we meet again." She blew a kiss to the bushes, then skipped away as though to welcoming arms rather than to big trouble.
"Until we meet again," the voice called out, adding softly, "Maybe Ill live that long."
"A dinar for your thoughts."
Xena was polishing her sword, her mind having wandered far away in the rhythmic strokes of cloth against metal. Shed come back to see her companion looking equally lost in the dancing flames of their fire.
"I was wondering where youd wandered off to."
"Wandered off? Oh," Gabrielle laughed. "Sorry. Those children we saw today, performing that play about the gods? For some reason they reminded me of something I hadnt thought about in awhile."
Xena chuckled. "You too? Kidsll do that sometimes."
Gabrielle got up and made a cup of tea for herself and placed another one next to Xena. She settled on the ground with her back propped against the log Xena was sitting on.
"When I was young, I had the strangest but nice experience. I met this girl. She was a little older than me. I could tell things hadnt been easy for her, yet she was so warm and kind. She must have had the patience of your mother to put up with me."
"Hey," Xena nudged Gabrielles shoulder with her elbow, "I wasnt that bad."
"Yeah, right," Gabrielle said, elbowing Xenas leg. "Anyway, she was very smart, very brave, had such big plans. I only met her once and for a short time, but I felt comfortable." Gabrielle chuckled at her childish self. "Sounds kind of silly now, but it was like shed been dropped out of nowhere just for me."
Xena paused in her polishing. "Funny. I was just thinking about a similar thing that happened to me when I was around the time Cortese showed up. Met this crazy kid half my size, who was determined to be her own woman. Gutsy, bull-headed. We couldve both been in big trouble, but she was bound to take care of me no matter what."
Gabrielle smirked and took a sip of her tea. "Always so educational to find out I wasnt the first, maybe even the tenth."
"Ha ha. Except for MLila and Lao Ma well, and possibly Ow! Hey, I was just trying to reassure you you werent the tenth," Xena said, raising a devilish eyebrow. "I dont suppose your sensitive little friend happened to be a blonde with green eyes?"
Garbrielle thought back. "Actually, no. Dark hair, dark eyes. Very sturdy, probably stocky for her age. Nice voice. But it was mainly her spirit that I remember. Quite inspirational. What about yours?"
"Pudgy. Short." Xena smirked. "You know, kind of like you."
"Pudgy?" Gabrielle nearly spit out her tea.
"Pudgy? Did I say pudgy? I meant when we first met," Xena laughed. "Anyway, I mostly remember feeling I dont know safe I guess, which was rare for me. I was pretty vulnerable at the time, but somehow she made me feel 10 feet taller."
"As if you needed that," Gabrielle mumbled into her tea.
"Ha! Like you needed more inspiration," Xena grinned. "Do you ever wonder what happened to her?"
Gabrielle frowned thoughtfully. "You know, despite where she seemed headed, she really cared about people, paid attention to what was happening to them and wanted to help improve their lives. Ive liked to imagine that she became a teacher or philosopher." She chuckled. "Maybe a famous bard."
"Huh. My kid? She said people didnt take her seriously, but the way she stood up to me, I wouldnt be surprised if she doesnt have a position of power somewhere." Xena grinned. "Or maybe she became a warrior."
Each took a sip of her tea, pleasantly absorbed in thoughts of her mystery friend.
"So," Xena said. "Whered you come across this girl? You sure shes not a figment of what I bet was even then an inspired imagination?"
Gabrielle nudged Xenas leg again. "For your information, it was right outside Potadeia. I know it was real because I got in big trouble for staying out so late."
"Really? Thats where I ran into the kid. You say your mystery girl was kind and sensitive? Heh. Maybe it was me."
"Right. And maybe Im your rough, tough, pudgy warrior tyke."
Gabrielle turned to Xena, who looked at Gabrielle. They regarded each other curiously through the prism of their youthful memories.
"Nah," they said in unison, laughing, each then turning away to take another sip of her tea.
"Who knows?" Xena said a few moments later, perusing a tea leaf that had floated to the surface of her drink. "Maybe youll run into her someday."
Gabrielle studied the cup in her hand, running a finger lightly around its edge. "Im not sure thats important."
"Yeah. I kind of like having her right where she is." Gabrielle captured Xenas eyes. "You know?"
Xena swallowed. "Yeah, um, I think I do," she answered with an uncharacteristically bashful smile. She cleared her throat. "Kids. Cant live with `em, cant live without `em." Her expression became serious as she gazed at Gabrielle with all the love she had in her. "Or the people they become."
"Yes." Gabrielle smiled back with all the love she had in her. "That too."
Gabrielle resumed staring into their fire, unconsciously moving closer to lean against Xenas leg. Xena resumed polishing steel with cloth, absentmindedly resting the arm holding her sword on Gabrielles shoulder. Both once again reflected on a special friend whod appeared like magic when they needed her. Whom they would always treasure and recall as perfectly as they remembered, even if they met again.
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