The Comfort of Strangers.
By Uberscribbler firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: I own nothing save the clothes on my back, a huge pile of books, and more debt than you can shake a stick at! In other words, Im just borrowing these characters and the backstory for purposes of amusing the mob (i.e. you lot reading this!), said characters and backstory the property of MCA/Universal, USA Studios, and Renaissance Pictures. Im writing this cause I want to, not cause Im looking to make money off it. Anyone want to donate to a starving artist?<big puppy dog eyes>
No sex, though I would classify this as alternative fiction. A bit of the ole ultraviolence. A lotta the cleansing angst. This is a post-episode piece, but I leave it to you to figure out which one.<evil grin> Minor spoilers for "Heart of Darkness", "Return of the Valkyrie", "Path of Vengeance", "Many Happy Returns", and "Friend In Need".
Onwards and forwards
The warrior had watched the small encampment for nearly four full days and nights, trying repeatedly to summon the courage to approach and repeatedly failing. Tears fell shamelessly, rolling down her cheeks at the sound of their quiet prayers. One voice among the group sang out to her, ringing out clearly above and beyond all others.
She had tracked this band of pilgrims for nearly a moon. Their trail was easy enough to find, as they had made no effort to conceal their movements from village to village. Since landing in this new land the warrior had been in almost constant movement, stopping barely long enough to sleep for perhaps a candlemark at a stretch; the dreams that would visit made abundantly sure she never rested for longer than that.
Her body had grown thin on travel rations and endless worry. Once she might have marveled at the new sights surrounding her, the strange new beasts and exotic foods she might have partaken of; once, when she was younger, perhaps only a season ago.
Now? Now, she knew only dreams that gave her no rest and her many fears. The latter were what paralyzed her so completely. They appeared insurmountable because they were so foolish. The warrior, despite her reputation, prided herself on her wits and reason, and so knew full well how irrational her every fear of these people she sought were.
No. It wasnt that she feared these people as a group. But of their leader...she was another matter entirely. The warrior had made it a point to avoid the merest sight of her; the prophetess with midnight black hair and eyes of dark brown (though she and all who knew her lineage expected them to be an overwhelming blue). No doubt they all knew she was watching them and were simply waiting for her to make the first move.
This stymied the warrior as surely as would the cleverest stratagem an enemy might present, and all the more difficult because there was no guile in it. It was simply the straightforward, honest reaction she knew the prophetess would have to any who approached her and her followers.
So the warrior remained where she was, watching until she caught the first sight of the prophetess, that is. At that point she would duck behind a convenient tree or bush and hope she didnt disturb some wild predator in the process.
This went on for days, the warrior becoming thinner still as she all but exhausted her rations. Yet she didnt dare move away to the nearby villages to replenish her supplies for fear the group would move away and somehow elude her. It was just too great a chance for her take, however ridiculous such a fear was.
She had, after all, tracked them halfway across the great subcontinent, through jungle and across desert and mountain. Unless the gods themselves suddenly descended and scooped them all away there was little chance of her missing them. Even then, it was good odds shed find them again, no matter how far she might have to trek or however many temples shed have to tear apart with her bare hands.
Resolved as she might have been, the smallest thought as to her purpose there was more than enough to drain all courage from her bones, leaving her weak and shaking at the very notion of stepping forward before the prophetess and and tell her
All thought ceased at this, head and heart overwhelmed by the raw pain she knew would never heal. Hence her hiding away from the sight of the prophetess; her very existence was a living reminder of that same pain, and the warrior knew her limits all too well.
The fragile balance that held her so snapped on the morning of the fourth day.
She had actually managed to doze a few candlemarks that night, undisturbed by nightmares for once where most nights she would flitter between half-sleep and half-awareness. It was during the night that she could stand to look upon the prophetess, managing to do so only because there was so little she could actually see through the indistinct moonlight and foliage.
The prophetess slept a little ways off from the rest, and always alone. Not for lack of offers, the warrior thought with more than a smidgen of pride. Some nights the dark haired one was restless, tossing and turning while quietly whimpering; all signs the warrior recognized intimately of as memories better left forgotten. She longed to go the sleeping girls side and shush the nightmares away only to have her muscles freeze, paralyzed by memories of her own; memories equally vivid and equally overwhelming.
Most nights however she slept like one of the dead, only the barely perceivable hiss of her breathing and very infrequent shifting reassuring the watching warrior that a trip to the Underworld was not necessary. She would continue her vigil until the mornings light began to clearly illuminate the camp, sending the warrior back into hiding lest she see more than her too fragile control might endure.
The fourth morning however found the warrior asleep, her spirit momentarily at peace. That peace ended abruptly with the sound of crashing vegetation, the shrill if distant cry of great beasts and the distinctive sound of armor and weapons. Within a single heartbeat she was not only on her feet but leaping in the opposite direction from the crashing din, familiar weapons coming to hand. The earth shook as the colossal beasts approached. The warrior quickly looked to the trees to see if any might offer a safe perch for her to watch from, then looked to the camp itself, relieved beyond words to see the pilgrims had all roused and were likewise moving away from the disturbance, doing so all in short order and before shed even realized her actions.
There was the clear sound of trees being felled. The ground shook with increasing frequency now, making the warrior think twice before taking to the trees as shed planned. Rather she stood her ground, body attuned to every movement, every vibration surrounding her ready to leap aside if she felt the slightest shift of air in her direction.
She was equally attentive of the pilgrims, who likewise stood their ground, and was equally ready to run to them as she was to leap further into the jungle. Fortunately for them all, the prophetess seemed to have remembered a few things from her earlier days. The group moved about with purpose and organization, no panic to them.
The warrior tried calming her own breathing and still wild racing thoughts, knowing panic would solve nothing. She took a moment to curse herself for even letting control slip for a moment. The moment passed and she centered herself once more.
The pilgrims were no longer alone she saw; dusky-skinned warriors in white linens and shinning armor, wicked swords and spears in their hands now faced them. A powerful looking animal was close behind them, its presence startling the pilgrims worse than the soldiers, though more from it unusual appearance than from any real fear of it.
Many of these pilgrims after all came from Greece and the great inland seas, and so were unprepared for an animal vaguely resembling a horse, yet easily ten times the size of a horse with a snake where its mouth should be. Never mind the godsawful cry it routinely issued, or how just one step from it might cause the ground under them to shudder as surely as if Posideon Earthershaker himself were about. That there was at least one additional warrior nestled easily behind its massive head must have been still more perplexing.
The warrior nearly laughed, remembering her own reaction to the same creatures the first time shed seen them. But she didnt laugh, fearing she might distract the prophetess, who was busy trying to engage the soldiers before her and her followers. The warrior strained and caught snatches of the fluid language that passed between the two, an almost musical exchange of vowels and syllables she couldnt begin to grasp.
Thankfully the prophetess had apparently learned at least the basics of the language, her hands moving and punctuating sentences, expressing herself fully where she didnt have the words. Unlike her mother The warrior couldnt stop the thought before realizing it, her heart literally burning within her breast from it; that it was the truth made it no less painful.
Focused as she was upon the dark haired one, the warrior hadnt neglected the rest of the scene. The rest of the soldiers were agitated, though the elephant behind them seemed almost mesmerized by the movement of the dark haired woman before it. The pilgrims hadnt moved either, evidently waiting to see what would come of the exchange between the two leaders.
It went on for quite awhile, or perhaps only moments. The warrior wasnt sure, having entered that state of mind of complete readiness, when interchange between sense, mind, and body became one in the same. Time fell away during such states, becoming only one factor in thousands more the mind catalogued in preparation for action.
Perhaps it was the way the lead soldier set his shoulders while the prophetess spoke, or how his companions subtly braced their left legs in unison. It could have been a dozen other things besides. The warrior would never know, or frankly care, what the unspoken signal was.
Her hand snatched the familiar weapon off her belt and let it fly, her aim as careful as it was instantaneous.
The prophetess and her followers all but fell to the ground as the weapon sliced through the air, its distinctive cry filling the air. She was quite pleased by this, largely for practical purposes, as it meant she could move without much hindrance.
The warrior leapt out of the jungle as the Chakram impacted with the leaders spear, severing its point and rebounding off to do the same to the rest. It so unnerved the elephant, the colossus reared back with a roar and nearly unseated its rider in the process. The man evidentially was practiced enough to remain where he was, though he lost both shield and spear in the process.
She was upon the soldiers before they fully realized it. A couple were armed with chakrams of their own. A plan formulated in her mind and was as quickly enacted: she had already pulled her sais, and so tossing one handle-first at the closest one, whose sword was drawn and ready. It impacted with an audible crack and propelled him back into his fellows. Grabbing the Chakram out of air on the rebound, she parried one of the few who managed to both draw his weapon and lurch forward with the other sai, twisting his arm and sending the sword flying.
Despite the thunder of her heart in her chest, the roar of blood and rage in her ears and soul, she did not surrender herself to any of it. The soldier was felled by a fist and not a blade, as was the next, while the third felt her boot in his groin. She didnt draw the Chakram again, grabbing up her second sai and instead relying upon her familiar weapons.
The fight wasnt the longest she could remember, nor the most intense. Indeed, her estimation of the soldiers was quickly revised downwards, their proficiencies with their weapons thin to the point of being nonexistent. The few who actually managed to right themselves and even pull their swords or chakrams couldnt seem to do more than swing them wildly. The warrior almost felt guilty at how easily the men fell.
Not to say it was entirely a walk along the proverbial beach. They were many and she was but one; two managed to grab her and a third, ironically the first one stunned by her thrown sai, tried to drive his knife into her breast. The knife wasnt in his hand for long however, her foot snapping up and sending the ornate blade flying from his hand. The same foot connected with his bruised and bleeding cheek, worsening the damage already done and giving her a bit of satisfaction as he screamed in obvious pain.
The pair holding her were somewhat less easy to deal with, being considerably brawnier and holding her with their feet well planted at least until she brought her heel down on ones kneecap, causing the man to release her and collapse with a grunt. The other was allowed no time to respond, the same foot swinging around and catching him low, just below his breastplate. A knee to the chin finished the job and she was free.
For a few seconds at least. The elephant rider chose that moment to leap down from his perch and throw both arms about her, pinning her arms and actually lifting her a few handlengths. This proved unwise, as she lashed out with both feet, and snapped her head straight back. All three caught the unfortunate fool and caused him to loosen his grip, allowing her to slip free.
Without thinking, she turned and lashed out, four straightened fingers catching the man at the base of his neck. Stunned and speechless, he fell to his knees, back and neck ridged and eyes staring. There was utter panic in those wide eyes, a terror that gave the warrior a sickening feeling of pride. The man was dead and knew it, perhaps sensing how the blood ceased to flow to his head and his lungs closed themselves. Perhaps he even instinctively understood what this meant, and hence his panic.
The warrior unconsciously drank this in, her lips curving to a hungry smile. The smile died as quickly as it came. Shaking herself, the warriors fingers again stabbed the mans neck, the latter taking great gulps of air and falling to all fours at the smaller womans feet. It was therefore only a short fall for him when the warrior brought the pommel of her sai down on the back of his head, rendering him unconscious.
The blonde warrior woman stood there, surrounded by her beaten opponents, heart pounding and head in turmoil at her actions. She mopped her brow with one arm, the flesh coming away slick with sweat. Unsure whether she felt faint or prepared to run a marathon, the compact woman instead turned to find the pilgrims, half-expecting them to have fled into the surrounding wilderness.
Far from having fled, they were moving among the injured as she watched, binding wounds and murmuring gentle words that sounded reassuring. The prophetess was the only exception, standing there watching her with an inscrutable expression that nearly destroyed the warrior where she stood, the look being a perfect mirror to the one that had haunted her dreams nearly every night for far too many moons.
The face before her might have been slightly different the eyes darker and the cheeks slightly leaner, the hair curly and a bit wilder but enough resemblance between mother and daughter remained to rob the warrior of all powers of speech and even thought. She even began to sway, her legs hardly able to support her any longer as the days and nights all caught up with her.
She was only distantly aware of slowly falling forward, a too-familiar voice calling out to her even as a darkness beyond the reach of all dreams swelled up and swallowed her whole.
The warrior felt herself float atop soft clouds and in pleasant shade. Voices drifted about her, too distant and indistinct to make out, so she didnt bother to try.
It was too calm and relaxing a place, this limbo she drifted in. She never wanted to leave.
In time however, her calm and quiet faded. Awareness began reasserting itself, however unwelcome it might have been. She felt heat upon her face, and was aware of how damp and sticky her skin felt. Her limbs were heavy, as if they were made of solid iron. Never before had she felt as weak, even after being awakened by her soulmates kiss within the ring of fire, and that was after a full seasons slumber.
Yet she made the effort to pry her eyes open and raise her head. Nearly being blinded for her efforts from the powerful daylight. Squinting, she could make out she was laid out on a bedroll, with a makeshift canopy overhead shielding her from the direct sunlight.
It was all she could do to shift her arms and push herself up on her elbows, but even this small movement was too much. Her head began pounding once more, a hundred thousand drumbeats sounding off in her head like the march of the samurai in distant Japa-Nippon, making her temples ache beyond endurance.
There was the familiar voice of the prophetess nearby, uncharacteristically frantic and demanding. "Water! Quickly!" Warm water was brought to her dry lips, which she sucked in greedily despite herself. A damp cloth was set to her forehead, cooling her, stilling the pounding drumbeats within her.
Against her will, her eyes closed and she lay back once more, tears of frustration squeezing out from between her eyelids.
The darkness reached out once again and took her away. She surrendered to it without struggle, secretly praying that it would consume her for the rest of eternity.
The warrior slept for another span, the sun rising and setting twice before she opened her eyes again. The prophetess kept a singular vigil at her side the entire while, eating and drinking only when hounded to by one or more of her followers. All the while she spoke to the warrior, at times babbling away until her throat nearly cracked, relating a thousand and one tales of her own journeys. All the joys and missteps and tribulations she had had experienced since her departure from Greece.
" and weve even started building shrines, most of them outside the larger cities. You wouldnt believe the planning that goes into some of them. I have to keep telling them these arent supposed to be grand, gigantic temples. They want to build temples!" The prophetess croaked out a laugh, gently wiping the warriors brow with a damp cloth.
"I I have to say, you really had me going there, putting the pinch on that soldier. Never mind how you threw the Chakram. I think that scared everyone more than anything, the poor elephant included. Not that I dont appreciate the assistance there. Those men would have well I dont know if they would have attacked. I like to think my grasp of their language isnt that bad, but with "
The prophetesss sharp eyes caught the warriors lips moving. No sound seemed to come from them, however, and her eyes remained closed. The dark haired woman leaned down, bringing her ear close to the warriors lips. "What what was that?" she asked, uncharacteristically afraid.
The warriors voice was weak, nearly inaudible, but coherent. "I sah tha wuz a language? Sounded like singin." A ghost of a grin barely curved her lips when she finished, but it was a smile nevertheless. The prophetess laughed aloud for the both of them.
"Yes, that was most certainly a language. Complete with rude names."
"Better haff behaved themsefs." The prophetess became worried once more. Clearly the warrior was beyond exhausted. Dangerously so, her own training and senses all warned her. She absolutely did not want her risking her fragile health.
Her fears proved unfounded as the warrior quickly fell back asleep, though visibly more relaxed than before. Still, she refused to leave the blonde womans side, even during their daily prayers. Indeed, they gathered about the unconscious warrior and prayed at their appointed times, each adding a special verse on behalf of the small woman who had leapt to their defense.
The prophetess bade her followers to continue on their way after another day passed and the warrior was clearly recovering. This group of pilgrims were every bit as hardy as the other groups shed formed and charged to carry the message onwards without her, and she felt every confidence in their dedication to their mission. Many were native sons and daughters to this land, respectful of the lands traditions and clever enough to find ways to integrate Elis message into them. But more than anything, she needed them away, far away, from herself and the warrior now.
There were actually many reasons for this. Chief among them was to receive the news she instinctively knew this one brought. She had had sensed it for some moons now, the moment she had prayed so feverently never to see.
At first she had felt only disbelief mixed with a healthy dose of outright denial. None of the group she had gathered then knew anything of her distress, though a few despaired at trying to keep up with the almost inhuman pace she put them to moving eastwards. Fortunately she hadnt lost anyone in the process; whatever their grumbling, whether about her sanity or the journey itself, they were committed as before. Their trek across the deserts and into the snow-capped mountains to the north of the subcontinent might have been stretching it, but they endured.
By the time they had come to the jungles, the disbelief had melted away to a sickening certainty, and their pace slackened significantly. The prophetess actually allowed the rest to lead in proselytizing to the natives, often going off by herself for candlemarks at a time, clearly too distracted to do more than wander and wrestle with her private burden.
Then the warrior had found them, and the prophetess felt a stab of hope that buoyed her. That the former had remained hidden, watching them only from afar caught those few others that had sensed her off-guard. For herself, this only confirmed the prophetess worst fears. The rest no doubt expected another "The Savior" as some referred to her and so were surprised when she didnt simply march out of the jungle before them.
To their credit, they didnt go seeking the warrior out, leaving her to her silent observation and going about their chores and prayers and whatnot. The prophetess herself didnt dare approach, even though she was perhaps the only one who might have done so without the slightest fear for her life. In a way it was further denial of her fears; until there was a body or someone to say differently until then
No, better to let the warrior decide her move than force it.
The prophetess, whose name in Hebrew meant "living", chose to do precisely that. Eve went on living as she had for more than two seasons. She filled her days with the usual rounds of prayers, cooking, and still more prayers, all the while fiercely debating whether to keep her latest band of converts nearby or send them on. That the local Caliphates so-called guard happened upon them like that was something of a godsend, forcing the issue and a decision. The only real surprise was how weak and ill the small warrior appeared.
And so Eve sent her disciples on their way and focused her energies on coaxing food and water into the fragile figure laid before her. Her followers spoke of small concerns for her safety and health, leaving with her enough supplies to sustain the two of them for at least a full moon. Eve appreciated the concern, thanked their generous souls many times over, but paid it all little real mind. It wasnt her health she had reason to fear for; at least not her own.
She recognized all the signs of a body driven past its limits: stocky, strong limbs and body having become thin and twitchy from hunger and strain; skin, normally bronzed and clear from travel and care, now pale and rough to the touch; even the warriors hair, normally a luxurious gold, had lost it shine and hung about in an unwashed tangle about her face.
Oh yes, she recognized all the signs of a body working beyond its limits. Many a time had she driven legionnaires under her command to march beyond any sane expectations. Eve nearly wept at the memory of how shed have any who fell from formation for thirst or fatigue flogged mercilessly, then leaving them to rot in the dust.
This body had gone to such limits of its own volition, however. At least that was the assumption Eve worked under, judging by the way the warrior had fought. She found this every bit as frightening as she found the intricate dragon tattoo that now adorned the warriors back utterly fascinating. The few times Eve dared to turn the warrior on her side, she found the tattoo unnaturally warm to the touch. Indeed, she might have sworn she felt it move under her fingers were she not so distracted by her patients condition.
Even thought back to the altercation with the Caliphates soldiers. The way the warrior had lashed out at them, battering several of them even after they were down, using the infamous Pinch on one who presented no real threat to anyone these all spoke of one deep in the depths of despair. Her stance had spoken only of anger and rage, her every move struck not at ceremonial troops, but some other already dead enemy. She was so desperately out of balance with herself that Eve nearly despaired at a way to return her to herself.
She would personally hand her soul over to Lucifer himself before she allowed this one, the only other she might ever call "mother", to leave her now. No doubt the Fallen One would remember her well as she had played a key role, however unknowingly, in his fall from grace. Hed likely be fool enough to accept the deal, as well, which was why she very carefully guarded her thoughts when they strayed in that direction.
The warriors name she had learned in during her travels was likewise of Hebrew origin. It meant "strength of God". Given that, deals with the Fallen One didnt seem necessary.
The warrior opened her eyes once again the day following the pilgrims departure. She was stronger now, her sight clear and her smile no longer ghostly. Eve nearly cried at the sight. "Good morning you," she whispered.
"Good morning." Again it was mouthed, her voice still too weak and raw to make itself heard.
Eve heard the next question before it could be formed. "Youve been down for nearly five days. As long as you were watching us, actually." What should have been a laugh shook Gabrielle, who relished it despite the pain. Without realizing it, she gave her hearts daughter a single raised eyebrow, her mouth quirking slightly in an almost-grin.
Eve felt her heart stop at the sight. So like
She stopped that thought where it was and instead fought to keep her voice from shaking. "Were all alright. I sent the others onwards. It was time for them to move on anyway. Caliphates soldiers thats the local royalty by the way went back to their Lord with the usual dire warnings. I think they were more scared at the way you threw those heavy two around. That was some display you showed us," Eve breathed, sitting back on her haunches.
"I had a good teacher," Gabrielle rejoined, realizing only a moment later exactly what shed just said. Eve had to chew her lip to keep from crying out when she didnt immediately correct herself.
"I we thought we expected " It took all her strength of will to reach over and pick up the Chakram. There was no way to keep her hand steady as she did so.
"Did she teach you how to throw this?"
Gabrielle shook her head, not really trusting her voice right then. Eve couldnt meet her eyes. "She she showed me the Pinch before "
"Then shes really gone," Eve all but declared, eyes still fixed on the Chakram, her voice unnaturally calm. Gabrielle forced herself to reach out and lay an equally shaky hand on Eves wrist, even as the other continued speaking. "I I felt it moons ago didnt want to believe it at the time I " The prophetess gestured helplessly around the clearing, eyes freely streaming now. "I knew when I saw it was you I "
"Eve," Gabrielle breathed, as desperate to offer some reassurance as she was to find some. She refocused on the slender figure beside her, searching for some familiar sign or feature there of her lost half.
But all she could see through her own tears was a young woman wrestling with a grief every bit as dark as her own. She had become so slender, where her mother would be solid and unflinching. Her dark eyes shone openly, completely unlike her mothers clear blue ones.
She was a messenger now, and no longer a warlord or creature of the sword.
"Ga Gabrielle?" Eve shuddered once she got hold of herself. It was as if she had to actually remind herself of the name, as the wild warrior woman lying before her bearing scant likeness to the gentle-natured poet she remembered. That one, the one of memory, was someone who would never draw her sais in anger, nor beat another to within an inch of their lives, whereas the one before her...
They were strangers to each other now.
"Tell me?" the prophetess asked the warrior, her voice tentative and unsure, but as frightened by more silence as by what she might hear. The warrior settled back, gratefully drinking from the waterskin offered, then began telling the tale of the ending of another warriors life.
"We were talking about moving south, to the desert nations," the warrior said, eyes faraway, the prophetess joining her there. "Xena said they needed a girl with a Chakram "
The tale carried them long into the night. Within the telling, though neither fully realized it, was the beginning of their lives. When the story was done, and there was only tears and silence between them, both knew the paths of their individual lives had ended, replaced by one stretching before them.
Where else did either have to go, then?
Morning would find two sets of tracks, marching side by side, leading away from the clearing and soon covered by the jungle.
In the End, a Beginning
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