Xena: Warrior Princess is not owned by me. In writing this story, I have not intended to infringe on the rights of the owners, even though I know most courts of law would say that I have done so. Fortunately, Ren Pics and StudioUSA have been pretty nice about it; for that I am grateful.
This story spoils many episodes of Xena:Warrior Princess, including the finale. It's one of many post-FIN tales to be found across the lands.
This story depicts the main characters in a loving relationship though there is nothing in here illegal for the younger folks.
There are sword fights, blood and guts, and stuff found in many televised episodes of Xena. I don't think it goes beyond that.
Comments of any type are welcome.
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An old woman, bent at the knees, body covered -- or perhaps made to be overlooked -- by thick folds of simple green fabric, pressed her forehead to the ground, touching and in touch with the land beneath her, aware of the shimmer of life emanating from the depths of the earth.
The old woman on bent knees sagged. A young woman came to her side. "Matrika?"
"Eve, help me up." The aged voice remained dulcet to those who listened with an open heart.
Eve lifted fragile bones, light from the constant release of weight both felt and seen. In her ceremonial garb, the bulk of the old woman came from the weave of fabric. Eve had no difficulty carrying the shaman to her bed. She covered the woman with a silk sheet and tried to smooth the worry from the lines of wisdom creasing Matrika's forehead. "What happened? Can you tell me?"
Matrika closed her eyes. Seeing undertaken from inside yourself opened all doors. That was the first lesson. "I felt something. A great power."
Eve clasped her hands together. "Then it's true. You really can see that which is lightness." Her heart swelled with joy. Matrika had found the way.
"No." The old woman's chest rose with a deep breath. The silk sheet fluttered uneasily with the exhale. "This had no light."
It had been many moons since Eve had been in Athens. She had forgotten how the sounds of a crowded city assaulted you, how the din never cleared, never left you in aural peace. The same was true of the stench. She would have preferred to walk through the market in the hopes that the scent of spices and roasting lamb would cover the pall of urine and feces, but Matrika was tired and a direct route was better for her. The Greeks cared less for cleanliness than the people of Indus or Ch'in. Readjustment did not come easily.
Eve wrapped her hand more securely around the arm of Matrika. The journey had been hard on the shaman. Eve had tried to convince her that she needn't come. Convincing Matrika of anything had always been impossible for her. The darkness the old woman had felt in the trance had come from Greece. Matrika was certain. And she was certain she had to go.
The closer they had come to Greece, the more Eve understood. She couldn't comprehend what she heard, but she could perceive something in the trance voices. Matrika would continue to help her to hear the words, to understand what she saw and felt. If only she could calm herself, be at one with the air and the spirits. It was so very difficult. The more progress she made, the further away the final goal seemed.
They found a room in a tavern. They had tried three other places before finding one with chambers on the ground floor. Eve didn't want Matrika climbing any stairs, even if they were to be in Athens only a day or two. Eve just needed to book passage north, and they'd be off again. After seeing the shaman to bed, Eve returned to the main room in search of a meal. Though she was exhausted, she knew that she needed to eat. Matrika got by on so little food. Eve tried to imitate her mentor in all ways and failed most miserably in eating. Matrika had laughed at her one day when Eve had passed out from fasting too long. "Listen to your body, you fool. How can you expect to hear beyond that if you cannot listen to yourself?" She took a centering breath and tried to hear again, to listen to forces behind the living.
Eve was pulled from her thoughts by a man's voice. "Are you and the old women traveling alone?" the innkeeper asked.
He stood right by her. It unnerved her that he had been able to get so close without her noticing. Not long ago that would never have happened. So much had changed. She had changed. Listening came as a greater struggle in Athens, too many external voices got in her way. "Yes, it's just us two. We'll only need the one room."
"Are you Amazons?"
An old memory that still carried guilt and pain surfaced. "No. We're not Amazons." She would never be an Amazon, and perhaps never truly understand them. Even though Gabrielle was an Amazon, she was unlike the rest of them. And, as Eve had reminded herself on many an occasion, particularly since her recent pilgrimage to Ch'in and Indus, she might never really understand Gabrielle, either.
"You'll be wanting dinner?"
The innkeeper called to woman by the bar. "Bring a pint and a plate." He turned back to Eve and crossed his arms. "We don't get many here but we did get some Amazons recently."
He was a talker. All Eve wanted was dinner and to go to bed. There would be quiet in the room with Matrika. There was something she needed to listen to. She knew this. Still, he was just being nice. If she humored him, perhaps he would go away. "Really?"
"Yeah. They said a whole battalion was on the go, out looking for a couple of people." He gestured to a wall filled with scraps of parchment. "They left a note over there."
Suddenly everything felt wrong. Eve exploded from her chair. "Where is it? Which note?"
"I thought you said you weren't Amazon."
"I'm not. Well, it's complicated." The notes were layered on top of each other, some scrawled on the tiniest scrap, others in ornate script prepared carefully for distribution. Eve plowed through them.
The innkeeper came after her. "Hey, you. Be careful there. Lots of people need those messages to be read."
"Which one?" demanded Eve.
"Up there." He pointed to a perfectly square piece of parchment ornamented with patterned wax.
Eve snatched it down. Her hands trembled as she unfolded it.
The Amazon Nation seeks Queen Gabrielle and her consort.
"Look, lady. I don't know what it's about, only that a pair of imposing women came in here looking for someone."
"Okay, fine, their queen." He scooped up the parchment notes that Eve had torn off the wall and set about to pinning them back on the board, one at a time. "I didn't ask 'em why, or how, or when, or anything else." Gesturing with his head, he indicated her table. "Your supper is served. Why don't you go sit down and have something to eat."
Eve made her way back and forced herself to eat a few bites. 'This shouldn't seem so odd,' she told herself. 'Mother and Gabrielle travel; they aren't with the Amazons much. It could be something simple, maybe a dispute or something. And how else were the Amazons supposed to get in touch with them if they didn't send out messengers and leave notes around?' But it didn't sit that way in the pit of her stomach. Too much of the world was unsettled.
Matrika agreed. She didn't need to see the note. Eve's unease was palpable. She sent the young woman into the city. "You'll find information you need."
Eve wandered the streets. Had days passed? Had weeks? The only reality she related to was an absence. A sense of a rent in her life, a hole that grew deeper with each breath she took. Sometimes, she would muster the courage to ask a stranger. Most had heard of the warrior and bard. There were those frightened of them, those who thought them images from a fairytale. None had anything useful to say.
Though she varied her trek to cover all corners of the city, each day her path took her down to the docks. She wasn't sure if it was because so many travelers arrived by ship, increasing the chances of finding the pair, or if it was just that the deep blue of the waters made her feel more connected to them. Some days, she trod into the surf and let the gentle foam wash her feet. On other days, more focused days, she worked the docks, asking for information, clues, and rumors.
On this day, she rambled through the sweating men, the fish and the crates and the carts. She carried with her a sense of change. Perhaps she had been wrong to stay in Athens. Perhaps Xena and Gabrielle had already gotten the message and gone to the Amazons. The time would come soon for her and Matrika to head north. She thought she'd start inquiring about the sail, up the Aegean, closer to Amazon lands and also closer to the nexus of the disturbance among the spirits that had brought them from Indus in the first place.
Malcandrus handled travel on freighters, much less expensive than booking normal fares on passenger ships. And also much more mercurial. Spots opened and closed in an afternoon. Once loaded, the ship's captain judged what room he had left and sent word to Malcandrus. A potential traveler might have to be ready to leave in a moment's notice.
Malcandrus kept a small office on the wharf. Captains and mates who wore the spice of the seas jammed into the space inside. Too close for Eve. Too many unwashed bodies. Perhaps if she came back at another time it would be less crowded, have more air, more light.
And then she heard a voice. A woman asking for the next ship south across the great sea. To the deserts and the Pharaohs, she said. Eve pushed toward the voice. A small woman in deep blue argued with a man, probably Malcandrus, a man perhaps half again her height and more than twice her weight. And he was losing.
"It's a long voyage. You have to pay up front."
"Only half. And it will be less than you claim." The woman spoke in a curiously convincing voice. "I can crew."
Eve squeezed forward, between the men pushing toward Malcandrus, the men wanting his attention, his trade.
"You're just a bit of a thing. Hardly able to handle the rigging of a ship."
Eve spoke. "Gabrielle?"
The woman turned, and as she did, the light in the room shifted with her. Men quieted. They dropped their eyes. Demands fell silent.
Eve stepped toward her. "Where's...?" And then she saw the chakram at Gabrielle's side. That sense of wrongness became a visceral, horrible truth. Her ability to hear was drowned out by her own scream, even as she tried to mute it with both hands covering her mouth.
"Eve." Gabrielle folded her arms around the sobbing woman. With a glance, she told the seamen to back off. Silently, they slipped from the room and returned to the docks.
Gabrielle didn't speak. She held Eve in a peculiar stillness, letting the younger woman spill her grief. Perhaps Eve's sorrow would be finite. Perhaps there would be a time when Eve would be at peace with her mother's death. On that chance, Gabrielle helped her to let it go.
But for the bard, there would be no peace. For her, there was no sense in feeling more of the pain. The leaves had turned and coated the forest floor. Spring would not come again. Still, it would not keep her from trying to help others. She could bear the winter alone.
Now Eve breathed in deep, halting breaths. The initial shock was mutating into the next stage. Gabrielle wondered what it would be like for Eve. Anger? Denial? Acceptance? No--her own acceptance had come early, too early, inhumanly early, and it been squelched, never to coalesce again. For Eve, that would be the end of the road, not the beginning. "Come, let's go someplace else."
She heard the sigh of relief from Malcandrus. The woman who could hush a sailor with her eyes was gone.
"You should meet Matrika."
Gabrielle walked with an arm around Eve's shoulders. It was no time for her to be without the touch of someone who shared the loss. "Who's Matrika?"
"She's my friend." Eve turned toward her and smiled. "She's my teacher."
Gabrielle felt her chest squeeze. "I understand."
"I met her in Ch'in when I first arrived. She's been to Indus, with me, too. She's traveled a lot. All over the place."
Gabrielle nodded. She knew the type.
Eve pointed to the building on the corner. "We're staying there. Come, let's see if Matrika is awake."
Matrika met them at the door. "You're Gabrielle."
The transparency of the woman's soul startled Gabrielle. There were no walls, no boundaries. What flowed through her came and went without hindrance. There was no visible means of support, no defense, nothing to hide behind. It struck her as a frightening honesty.
"Not many can see that, Gabrielle."
"You can read my thoughts?"
Matrika took Gabrielle's hands into her own. The bard's smooth skin contrasted severely with the furrowed tissue of Matrika's. "No, I cannot read your thoughts. Your face expresses what you feel. And my spirit can touch yours." The old woman rubbed Gabrielle's fingers. "You've crossed over before."
"Yes. Several times."
"Come. You have a story to tell."
They led Gabrielle to a small room. Eve and the bard sat on the edge of the bed. Matrika took the straight-backed wooden chair. Matrika filled the uncomfortable chair with grace and tranquility. Near her, on a worn, round table, lay three polished stones.
"We went to Japa."
"Yes," said Matrika. "The land of the Kami."
Eve clasped her hands. "You've told me about them. I know of the Kami."
Matrika raised her fifth finger to Eve, the gesture so much smaller than hushing her with an entire palm, yet so much more powerful. "Let Gabrielle speak."
Gabrielle took a breath. "Many years ago there was a terrible accident. The town of Higuchi burned down. Xena felt responsible."
"Was she?" asked Matrika.
Gabrielle had asked herself this very question endlessly. "She thought so."
"And yet you believe it was an accident."
"Xena had no intention of hurting them. How could it have been her fault?" Her voice trailed off. "40,000 died in the fire." How many times would she have to tell the story? How much was hers to tell? Which parts mattered? "She went back to fight Yodoshi, a soul-eater."
Matrika threw her hands over her chest. "She did this alone?"
"No." Gabrielle smiled plaintively. "But ultimately, she did."
"And to defeat him, she met him in battle... where?"
"As a Kami."
Eve leaned forward, resting her head in her hands, hands that trembled. "Mother became a ghost so she could kill the soul-eater?"
Gabrielle answered simply, "It was the only way to free 40,000 souls."
Eve looked up. "When was this, Gabrielle? Six, seven weeks ago?"
"Yes, about then."
"Then this is what you must have felt, Matrika."
"No," said the shaman softly. "I felt something different from that. Something dark and destructive."
Gabrielle eyes questioned Eve and Matrika. Eve explained. "Matrika is a shaman. She felt a dark power in the spirits. It came from Greece. That's why we're here."
The room grew colder. "A dark power in Athens?" Gabrielle asked.
"No, up north. In fact," Eve straightened up and tucked her feet under her, "there is a note for you downstairs. It's from the Amazons, asking for you to come."
Gabrielle fingered the parchment. Eve had taken her out into the tavern to retrieve the message. Gabrielle read it several times without comment. Now they were once again within the walls of their room. She no longer wished to read it, to see her title engraved next to Xena's, so she just held it, let the texture of the parchment scrape across the tips of her fingers as a tactile reminder of a future.
"Can you sense her?"
"What?" Gabrielle looked up at Matrika. "Sense who?"
"Xena. Can you sense her?"
Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip. This woman asked questions she didn't want to answer. She asked her to reach for memories that Gabrielle wanted buried.
"Not anymore." Gabrielle folded the parchment deep into her palm. She ran her fingers past her eyes, trying to force back tears. "I could at first. But then, on the ship, she came to me once more as I left Japa. Not since then."
"The seas are made of water. Water slips through your fingers as easily as it erodes the tallest mountain." Matrika stood and stepped over to Gabrielle. She took the bard's face in her hands. Gnarled knuckles rasped against younger skin. "There is a purification ritual. We can perform this. You can sense Xena again during these rites."
It was almost too difficult to hear. What if it was a tease, something to give her hope? She didn't want hope, she wanted freedom from torment.
"Matrika knows the way to the spirit land, Gabrielle." Eve also reached to touch the bard. "She has been showing me."
But Gabrielle ignored Eve. All she knew was the vastness behind Matrika's gaze. The vision contained everything that ever was and yet it was empty. Polar opposite states existed simultaneously. She closed her eyes, wanting only to pull away. Astonishingly strong hands held her firmly. She looked again at Matrika. How could she ever question a chance to see Xena? "Do it now."
"You must prepare, Gabrielle. You must be in right mind." The woman's thumbs rubbed against her cheeks. "Soon, Gabrielle. Have patience. Seek right mind."
Eve joined Gabrielle in the bow of the ship. Crates and grain cluttered most of the deck. The bow was one of the few spots they could stand side-by-side. Among a plethora of other cargo, the ship carried six gorgeous steeds headed for a northern nobleman's stables. The aura and smell of horses, familiar as it was, did not complement the sea. Below deck, where the horses were stabled, became a place avoided by both Eve and Gabrielle.
"You get less seasick than you did before."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Well, it only just seems that way." The roiling of her stomach was no match for her attention compared with the ache in her soul. "I've been at sea a lot lately."
"I imagine so." Eve tried her best to engage the bard in idle conversation but everything spoken harkened back to the tragedy. "It's a long way from Japa."
Gabrielle's eyes drifted toward shore. Here, near a peninsula, they sailed close enough to imagine one's feet on dry ground, the solid plane of existence. Out on the water, one rose with the swells and fell again, at the mercy of wind and wave. It suited her better. "Sometimes I think I can hear her in the wind."
"She's there, Gabrielle. She's there." Eve pressed her hand over the bard's. "I came to tell you that supper was ready. Matrika is waiting."
"In a minute."
Eve's eyes were reminiscent of her mother's. Individuated, of course, but Xena was a part of her daughter. A grieving daughter. And she wasn't helping her at all. "Okay."
They snaked through the crates to the stern where the crew had erected a small shade for Matrika. The sailors gravitated toward the old woman, spending off hours at her feet, listening to her. Meals, however, were for the three passengers alone. Gabrielle sat cross-legged on the deck. She reached for a chunk of bread, idly dipping it in olive oil.
Matrika clucked her tongue. "Xena knows you brood."
Gabrielle shot her a glare. Eating was enough of a chore on its own without having to endure a lecture about her feelings.
Matrika sloughed it off. "You should let go your anger,"
Gabrielle slapped her hands against the deck. "I'm not..." She stopped. Oh yes, she was angry. Angrier than she'd ever been. "Why shouldn't I be angry? She left me."
Eve, horrified by Gabrielle's outburst, slid toward Matrika.
Gabrielle continued. "This dying business? It was her own idea. Staying dead? Her own idea. She didn't ask me. She didn't even pay attention to me when I told her I didn't care about the 40,000 souls. They're dead!"
Matrika knelt by the bard. "Of course you're mad. You haven't let it go."
Gabrielle put a hand out to stop the old woman from coming any closer. "I can't let it go. Don't you understand? If I let go, then..."
"You won't lose her, Gabrielle." Matrika grasped the bard's shoulders firmly. "You won't lose her if you let go."
Gabrielle struggled against the pain surfacing again. It was too much. She didn't want to, she couldn't experience it again. Numb was better.
"You won't lose her."
Unspeakable intensity welled up from inside her. "But it's all that I have."
"Anger pushes her away. Listen to your makoto. That's what the Kami call your attitude toward life. In it lays truthfulness."
But truthfulness was just precisely what Gabrielle hated. She felt the guilt of spewing her banal, altruistic doctrine so long that Xena believed it, and in taking it to heart, the warrior had left her. Her philosophy had been proven hurtful. "I don't want to believe that Xena did the right thing."
"Makoto bends with the day. It molds anew to each situation. Your makoto is there. You must allow it to flow freely." Matrika's hand disappeared into the folds of her robes. After a moment of searching, she withdrew her hand and opened her palm, holding out three polished stones to Gabrielle. "They will help you find your makoto. Then you can undergo purification."
Gabrielle took them. She rolled them around in her hand. Their message was not welcome. She didn't want to let go, so she cocked her arm and tossed them out into the sea. "Don't you tell me what I need to give up."
Matrika smiled and with fingers misshapen from great age, pried open Gabrielle's fingers, revealing three polished stones. Matrika kissed her on the forehead, stood, and went below deck.
Gabrielle stared at her hand. She had thrown the stones overboard. She had felt them leave, sensed them soaring through the air propelled by her anger. And yet there they were. Change without change.
Matrika spoke no further of Gabrielle's anger nor of the ritual of purification on their journey. After disembarking from the ship, the three traveled several days by horseback, deep into Amazon lands. Twice they ran across abandoned villages. Some had long since been deserted, others had signs of more recent habitation--clean clay pots, swatches of fabric not yet faded from the sun.
"Where are they?" was all Eve could ask.
"They went this way." Gabrielle walked in the lead, responsible for ferreting out the trail. They past the ashes of a funeral pyre, abandoned swords, spent arrows. Gabrielle paused, taking in the scene. Death manifested itself in everything around them. She continued on, angling toward distant mountains. "There are fewer of them, now. Keep your wits about you. They're near."
"Who's doing this?" asked Eve.
"I hope we find out before they finish the job."
Matrika remained silent. The shaman rode along, observed what Gabrielle and Eve observed, without complaint or comment. Her stoic behavior made little impression on Gabrielle. It was something she knew how to handle, something with which she felt naturally comfortable.
The situation they walked toward was foremost on her mind. The Amazons were already few in number. Their tribes had been forced to join together too much in the last twenty five years. With the slaughter they'd seen, Gabrielle wondered if any were left. The trail she followed gave her some hope. If the enemies still chased the Amazons, there were at least some Amazons left.
She found more recent evidence of passersby: sap swelling at broken tree limbs, footprints in the path untouched by the wind. She slowed. "We're close."
Gabrielle sensed eyes upon her. She concentrated on the scents the wind carried to her: humans--a half dozen--women, dressed in leather, feathers, fresh blood on their swords. Amazon warriors. She relaxed.
And before she could turn to tell her companions that they'd finally found their friends, six crazed women shot out from the trees, blaring throaty roars. "There's more of them! Kill them."
Gabrielle drew her sais. She eased herself between Matrika and Eve, and the attacking Amazons. The bard knew that Eve chose no longer to fight, and she hoped to allow her to remain true to that choice. Still, if by chance someone got past her, Eve knew how to defend herself and keep Matrika out of harm's way.
The first Amazon drew her sword over her head, intent on a wicked arc to Gabrielle's chest. The bard feinted left, then elbowed the warrior, taking the wind out of her. The next two came as a set. Gabrielle jumped above their blows and delivered swift kicks to their heads, knocking them out. Three down, three to go.
Gabrielle caught her breath, steadied her heartbeat, focused on everything around her. She took in the distance to each tree, where rocks were strewn, how many limbs lying around could be used as a weapon. She studied the women attacking her. None she recognized. They'd been on the road awhile and hadn't spent time on their personal routines. Leather seams were frayed, feathers were missing from their battle garb, nicks hadn't been smoothed from their blades, and dried blood still coated their weapons. They didn't follow the Amazon customs she knew about. "Why are you doing this? I'm a sister Amazon."
"You're about to die!" A fourth took her on. This one was taller and considerably stronger than the others. She had a much longer reach.
Fighting with the short sais put the bard at an even greater disadvantage. Her opponent knew this, too, so Gabrielle surprised her by taking the offensive. She ran toward the woman, weapons raised. At the last moment, she dove for the other's feet, and took her to the ground. They both skidded in the dust, however Gabrielle's follow-through brought her to her feet more quickly than her opponent. She turned and kicked the sword from her foe's hand. "Stop this."
Another warrior pounced on her back. Gabrielle buried her fingers in the Amazon's hair and flipped her on top of the one she'd just decked. The last one's heavy steps gave her away. Gabrielle didn't even need to face her, she just leaned away, forcing the woman to miss her target, then grabbed her sword arm and cracked the warrior's wrist over her knee. The woman squealed in pain and dropped her sword.
"Listen to me." Gabrielle grabbed her combatant. "I am not your enemy,"
"You're Amazon and not one of us. You are the enemy."
The other two pulled themselves up from the ground. They moved to take on the bard again.
Gabrielle couldn't figure out why the warriors continued to attack. "I'm your queen. I'm Gabrielle."
"An even better reason to kill you. You are not one of us."
The three took her on in unison. In the fray, Gabrielle lost hold of one sais. Something impacted her side hard. A fist found its way to her head. It infuriated her. She gathered air in her lungs and cried out, spinning around with her arms extended, fists contacting flesh, crushing bone. By the time she'd emptied her lungs, the three were down.
She walked over to one whose eyes were focused on her. Awake but not fully alert. "Would you mind telling me what you're doing?"
The warrior smiled. It chilled Gabrielle to see it, for it was the grin of the deranged. She spit in the bard's face.
Without thought, Gabrielle jabbed her fingers into the woman's neck. "I've cut off the flow of blood. You're going to die if you don't tell me why you tried to kill me."
The Amazon struggled to breathe. "We're killing the Amazons. We're killing you." She smiled again. "We'll find the rest. They're not far away."
Gabrielle released her from the pinch. The babblings of the warrior wouldn't become any more coherent if Gabrielle let her get closer to death. She had no intention of killing them. She had Eve help her to tie them. They would eventually get out of their bindings, but it would give Gabrielle enough time to make sure she and her friends got away. "Let's see if we can find the Amazons they were after."
Eve and Matrika followed her in silence. Toward nightfall, Gabrielle pointed out fresh prints from leather boots. Eve studied them. "Should we just wait for them to find us?"
"Not a bad idea." Gabrielle walked on. "But I'm in no mood to wait." Gabrielle moved with a purpose in her step. She did nothing to mask her course, nothing to mute the sounds of boots and hooves in the dusty trail. They weren't creeping up on anyone, and as such shouldn't be taken as an enemy. She only hoped that these Amazons had their wits about them.
Around a bend in the path, they came to a campsite, deserted, but only recently. A fire crackled. Stew bubbled. Gabrielle continued into to the middle of camp. She clasped her arms overhead. All that met them was stillness. The eerie quiet unnerved her. "I come in peace." Amazons hiding? They were out there, concealed in the crevices of twilight. They were afraid of her. They were afraid she was going to attack them.
"I know you're there. I've come to help." Her words scattered in the breeze. "I got your message."
"Gabrielle?" A voice called from the trees above.
"Yes." She lowered her arms and felt the prickling of blood running back into her forearms and hands. "It's me." She buoyed herself against the inevitable questions about Xena.
Seven Amazons descended from the trees. They bowed to her. "You've come at last."
"Where is everyone else?"
The Amazons tensed, their eyes cast anywhere but on their queen. Finally, one crept forward.
"You're Kanae, aren't you?"
"Yes, my queen."
Gabrielle gestured for her to sit by the fire and for the others to do the same. "Tell me what happened."
"We..." The woman struggled to speak. "We did this to ourselves."
No one ate much. Matrika and Eve kept to the edges of the light from the fire. Gabrielle huddled with the Amazons. Kanae and her compatriots related what they could. There were challenges, more than usual, and they became more vicious. The fights were not just to the death, but they desecrated the loser, committing unspeakable horrors to their lifeless bodies. All of the women Gabrielle asked about -- Varia, Cyane, Amarice -- all dead. Some had tried to leave the villages, saying that self-imposed exile was preferable, that parting company with their families was better than staying to see such despicable atrocities carried out, sister against sister. Those who tried to leave were hunted down, beaten, tortured, Held up as examples. Tribes waged challenges against other tribes. They traveled great distances to affirm superiority and claim land.
"What about you?" asked their queen. "How did you get away?"
Kanae answered. "One night after three of our sisters were caught escaping, they were burned alive. Many of us couldn't bear to witness it. The village was on the brink of a riot and the camp dissolved. They'd gone too far, pushed everyone over the edge. I ran. I met up with Helle. We found the others and just kept going. There were eleven of us not long ago."
Eve got up from the safety of Matrika's shadow. "Who's on scout duty?"
"They won't come for another four days. It cycles," said Helle. "They'll be back on the morning of the fourth day and not before."
"Maybe you feel safe in their consistency about that, but I don't."
Gabrielle acknowledged Eve's concern. "Who would like to check on the perimeter?" Ilia and Nerio volunteered, led into the night by Eve.
The bard tried to process everything. Amazons attacking Amazons? Murdering them? It was not possible. An external influence had to be at work. "Matrika, tell me all you felt."
The old woman spoke from the farthest reaches of the firelight. Her voice, as if disembodied, carried across the flames. "The spirits suffer great anguish. They are held captive. The boundary between our worlds is no longer secure."
Sap in the burning logs popped from the heat of the fire. Gabrielle felt only the coldness of uncertainty.
"I hear behind the voices. The danger is close to us."
Strangely, Matrika's statement centered Gabrielle. She had a goal, a purpose, a path to take. She had to save the Amazons from themselves. "Okay, everybody. The first thing to so is get a good night's sleep. We need to be rested and healthy to overcome such adversity. I'll come up with a plan. Fresh eyes can often see better into the gloom."
The Amazons accepted her words with grateful smiles. Timidly, they asked about Xena. Eve told the story, relieving Gabriele of that burden. The seven assembled their bedrolls, relieved of a crushing responsibility. Such weight lifted from their hearts brightened their countenance. Gabrielle was pleased. She had four days to develop a strategy and carry it out. Four days to unravel the mystery.
By morning, Gabrielle had decided how to proceed. They were two days from the caves at Mount Pangaeus. A hard march would get them there by noon the next day, but Matrika had no hard march in her, even on horseback. Gabrielle reminded herself that they'd be spending more time recovering from the exertion than they would save by pushing their speed, so a two-day walk it was.
Meals were obligatory. The morning and noonday fare became significantly more substantial. Gabrielle passed the wine skin at night. She watched hope blossom in the seven women while she, herself, felt the weight of possibilities, losing, witnessing the end of the Amazon Nation.
On their trek, Gabrielle learned more of what had occurred in the villages. An elderly Amarice had been one of the most vocal against the outlandish behavior and was the first one killed as an example. Varia lost her challenge. Cyane tried to challenge for the mask and was defeated.
When it came time to ponder what she knew, she fell back and walked alongside Matrika. There had to be a connection these seven shared, something different about them. By what means did this madness spread? Why were some afflicted and not others? Were these seven the strongest of mind or heart? Gabrielle wanted to find such strength among them--it would ease the burden of her task as queen--but she did not see it. They too easily followed. They stopped thinking for themselves. They wanted the ease of direction given to them. But they were not to blame for that. It made her feel more accountable to them. She couldn't let them down.
She spent time with each of the Amazons, asked about their lives, their loves, their dreams. Kanae wanted to be remembered as a great warrior. She joined an Amazon tribe after having grown up in a fishing village, not unlike Gabrielle. Ilia had skills in battle, but also loved to carve wooden figures. She'd learned this from her father. Another who had grown up outside the nation.
Gabrielle wondered at this coincidence and so asked the others. None had been raised as an Amazon. All of them had joined as young women, driven from their homes by misunderstandings or given the gift of freedom from parents who had the capacity to let go a child they loved. It had to be the key. They were first-generation Amazons. It had to be what made them different from the Amazons consumed by madness.
Mount Pangaeus was peppered with caves. Most were too small for their band of ten, horses, and gear. Others had difficult portals, perfect for defense, but useless for them because Matrika couldn't climb the rock face to get inside. They settled on the Sacred Cave of Mount Pangaeus itself. Normally, only solitary Amazons on vision quests were allowed to enter. The spirits were already in an uproar. What harm could it do?
That night, while the Amazons slept serenely in the protection of the cave, Gabrielle leaned against the wall its mouth, looking out at the stars, an urn tucked into the crook of her arm. There was a tranquility in the sky. In its unimaginable vastness lay the ability to navigate. The patterned consonance of light and dark made for many a relaxing evening with Xena. The memory troubled her less this night.
Matrika hobbled over.
Gabrielle heard her approach. "Are you feeling all right?"
The old woman nodded.
"It's quiet." Gabrielle pointed to the lands beyond.
Matrika placed her hand on the urn. "You are in right mind."
Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut. With so many counting on her, could she let herself be distracted by contacting Xena?
"There is no perfect time, Gabrielle, only right mind."
"Tell me what I need to do."
Deep in the cave, they found a trickling spring. Frayed baskets and shriveled flowers indicated they had entered a sacred place. Gabrielle freed her mind of some of its chatter. The sense of Amazon tradition weighed heavily in the air.
Matrika said the water flow would be enough. She took the urn with Xena's ashes and placed it on the floor. Next, the shaman pulled several objects from her robes: a tiny box which she placed on a rock shelf, a mirror the size of her thumbnail, a small bowl, pieces of straw rope, and paper pendants. She strung the rope above the box and hung the pendants from it.
"In Japa, the Kami are guardian spirits. We present offerings to them."
"I didn't bring anything."
Matrika placed a few grains of rice in Gabrielle's hand. "It is a simple ceremony. You will touch Xena's spirit with right mind. Come."
Gabrielle removed her boots at Matrika's command. She sat down by the spring. "How do you know so much about Japa?"
After leaning the mirror against the front of the box, the shaman opened the lid, revealing stylized ink drawings. "I was born there."
"But your name, Matrika..."
"Matrika is my teacher-given name. My birth-name is Ukeme." She smoothed the hair from Gabrielle's forehead. "Someday you will have a teacher-given name."
"I've got more than I bargained for already with Queen of the Amazons. I much prefer plain Gabrielle."
Matrika positioned the cup under the spring, waiting until the drops filled it. "Rinse your mouth."
Gabrielle did, letting the water flow over her tongue, between her cheeks and gums, tasting the potency of the mountain in the back of her throat. Matrika took her hands and held her fingers under the stream. "Purification removes pollution. It washes clean. You will become original again, right in nature."
Matrika pulled her up and led her to the makeshift shrine. "Do as I say, Gabrielle. Kneel before the kami-dana. You will bow once, just slightly, from the waist. You will bow deeply twice. You will say a prayer to your Xena-Kami."
Matrika smiled. "Something that brings you closer together, that calls to her, tells her who awaits. Say this prayer. Make two more deep bows. Clap your hands twice. Another deep bow and again a slight bow. Leave the rice."
Gabrielle understood. She closed her eyes and bent from the waist. She straightened and made two deep bows, concentrating on the movement of her body, the passage of air across her skin.
And she spoke to her Xena-Kami.
Comes my beating heart.
Comes my every breath.
Comes my reflection.
My life continues.
She waited. She listened. She tried to hear behind the sounds. Two deep bows. She strained to catch an echo. Two claps of her hands. A mute world. Another deep bow. Profound, regretful silence. A slight bow. The grains of rice fell from her hands.
And then Matrika was there, taking her into her arms. In the distance, she heard wailing. Curious that her mouth opened in time with each cry, that her stomach contracted in synchronization with the howls. Then pain became more real. It came closer. It suffocated her. She was the agony itself. Her body shook.
Time passed. She breathed heavily. An emptiness as deep as the oceans surrounded her. "She wasn't there." Gabrielle pushed up, extricating herself from Matrika's embrace. "Why wasn't she there?"
"Something has happened. It makes no sense that you weren't able to contact Xena. There is more than what you've told me, isn't there?" Matrika used a kind voice. There was no admonishment in her question.
Hugging herself, Gabrielle nodded. "We were at the Fountain of Strength on Mount Fuji. I had her ashes. I could have brought her back to life. But she stopped me. She said that though the souls had been freed from Yodoshi's grasp, they had to be avenged in order to be at peace."
Matrika straightened slowly. "Who told her this?"
"I don't know." The conversation had taken place so long ago. There was so much at stake. Remembering every word became more difficult as time passed. "She said that Akemi hadn't wanted to tell her."
"And was it Akemi who told her?"
"She didn't say." Gabrielle sighed. "It's hard for me to trust Akemi. Akemi tricked Xena into helping her kill her father."
"Akemi abused the teacher-student relationship. Her intention was not right-minded. She would need to be purified."
The bard felt an almost uncontrollable urge to lash out against Akemi. She had hurt Xena long ago. Now she had taken Xena from her permanently. "Xena was so young when they met."
Matrika held up her hands. "Wait. I know that you and Xena slept for twenty-five years. This much Eve has told me. How long before that did all this take place? How long ago was Xena in Higuchi ?"
Why should this matter? "Let's see. We've been traveling together for about six years. Add in that extra twenty-five. It happened before she had Solon and he would have been about nine or ten when we met."
"So it is longer than thirty-three years!" Matrika clasped her hands together and pressed her knuckles into her lips. "Gabrielle, you say that Xena felt responsible for the souls of the people who burned in the Higuchi fire. But in Japa, after thirty-three years, there is a final rite, the Toikiri. The soul completes its transition from an individual to merge with the greater whole. The moment the souls of Higuchi were released from the soul-eater, they would have undergone Toikiri. There would be no need for vengeance, no further obligation to them."
"You mean?" The whole world trembled beneath her. "It wasn't true? She didn't have to stay dead? It didn't matter?"
"Gabrielle, listen to me. There is more to this than you are seeing. Someone in the spirit world preyed on her guilt. You weren't able to contact her and that is of grave concern. What you just told me adds credence to my worry." The shaman paused for a moment. "I believe someone is holding her soul."
"Does Akemi have great power?"
"She is manipulator, but nothing more."
"Do you believe that Akemi holds Xena's soul?"
That dove directly to the kernel of the puzzle. Did Xena leave her for Akemi? No, that wasn't possible. When she opened her heart to what she knew to be true, it wasn't possible. "No." Once spoken, she felt it absolutely correct. But then, what could it be. "Another soul-eater?" This couldn't be happening. How could such a noble gesture on Xena's part, even one she herself hated, end up so wrong.
"Perhaps. Or something else. Conceivably someone Xena released from Yodoshi was able to capture her soul. Was there any indication that she didn't believe she could come back to life before she liberated the souls?"
"Not that I know of, no."
"Then it is possible that one of the souls caught in Yodoshi's grip was able to seduce Xena into staying dead." Matrika stood and began to collect the articles from the shelf. "And I believe that it is connected to what's happening here, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle jumped up and stopped Matrika from taking down the shrine. "Can we use this to connect with souls outside of Japa?"
"The spirit worlds are normally disjointed from one another, but there are some paths between them for the few who know how to find them. Since the demise of the Olympians, there is less clarity among the Greek spirits. That has complicated matters."
"What about the Amazons? The Greek Amazons?" But she already knew her answer. Xena had told of that journey. "I need to go there, to the Amazon Land of the Dead."
Instinctually, Matrika understood. "It does not require purification. It requires a sacrifice, the way of the warrior."
"I know. I've done it."
Eve helped her to prepare the blood. She took the bowl from her when Gabrielle had finished. The Amazon queen lay down in the Sacred Cave surrounded by seven ecstatically dancing Amazons, a worried Eve and her teacher, the shaman.
The colors warped into exotic hues. The grasses bent in a distorted wind. Nature here answered to different set of principles. She had crossed over.
And the first absolutely real sound she heard was the cackling laugh of an old enemy. She bounced to her feet and stared into the face of Alti.
"I was wondering when you'd get here."
"I should have known it was you." Gabrielle rested her fingers on the chakram. "What have you done with Xena?"
"Once she was redeemed, she had no direction to go in. The rug had been pulled out from under her feet. She was a lost soul so I drew her a new path. Now she's a part of me."
Gathering courage, Gabrielle asked, "And you, how did you get caught in Yodoshi?"
Narrowing her eyes, Alti exuded hatred. "I felt him even from a great distance. His powers intrigued me. I had never encountered a soul-eater. He had some tricks I didn't know about." Alti crossed her arms and smiled. "I know them now."
The new anger welling within Gabrielle was more welcome, more helpful than what she'd felt for weeks. Strength and focus radiated from it. "And what about the Amazons? You've managed to corrupt the link between mother and daughter Amazon."
"What about them, Queenie? I have just about got them all under my power. Any with a relation here is mine now, and the rest are about to be taken care of. The brats with you will be mine soon." Alti sneered. "I had to get rid of one of you to do it. Funny, I'd always thought it would be you who'd go first."
Gabrielle felt a tug. They were pulling her back. She didn't fight it. She knew from experience that she couldn't defeat Alti on her own. As much as she wanted to leave Alti with a final taunt, she held her tongue. She had to be careful not to give her any ammunition. It would take everything she had, and likely more, to overpower her.
She told them everything that had happened. The Amazons remained quiet through her story. Was it disbelief? Was it awe? Eve and Matrika, however, understood the danger they faced. They listened intently.
The shaman, for the first time since Gabrielle had met her, sat with hunched shoulders. The color had drained from her face. Her eyes were haunted by fear. "If Xena's powers are under Alti's control, there may be no hope."
Gabrielle grit her teeth. "Then I'll have to fix that."
Matrika shook her head. "It's too dangerous for Xena in the spirit world. Alti's powers are too strong there."
The obvious solution seemed too simple. "And if we're both there, united against Alti?"
"I'm afraid that won't be enough." Matrika explained, "She has so many souls under her power, all of those Amazons."
"I'll go, too," offered Eve.
"No." There was no question in her mind that risking Xena's daughter was unacceptable. "So what are our options if me going into the spirit world isn't enough?"
"Xena must leave the spirit world." The shaman began to rub her hands together. "It's risky. If Alti comes back from the dead along the same path, she will gain great knowledge. Our combined forces will be no match for her."
Gabrielle's heart skipped a beat, and then another. Xena returning to her? She hadn't heard that dream spoken aloud, only by her own voice, in internal dialogue, reaching for the unattainable. "Can you do that?"
Eve reminded her. "Wasn't it you who said that Xena taught you nothing is impossible?"
The mundanity of scratching her ear struck her as funny. It's the little things, the unimportant acts that carry on. She laughed. "Never mind that Kenji said I had only until the second sunset after death, or that we needed the Fountain of Strength, right?"
The shaman answered. "The waters of the Sacred Cave of Mount Pangaeus spring are as sacred to Amazons as the waters of the Fountain of Strength are to the Japa." She sharpened her gaze and her tone. "And you, Gabrielle, did you not drink of that Fountain?"
The bard recalled the inexplicable substance coursing into her mouth, Yodoshi's attack repelled by her mysterious tattoo, and then her lips softening into Xena's, the fluid cascading from one mouth into the other, lingering, stealing a moment -- a last moment -- for themselves. "I gave all I had to Xena."
"Did not some moisten your throat?" Matrika waggled a bony finger at her. "It is within your blood. You carry this essence with you."
There were too many unattainable goals. "But what about the time that's passed?"
"It makes the challenge greater, nothing more."
"Gabrielle," Eve said. She wrung her hands. She pleaded. "Please. You've got to try. And you've got to believe you can do it."
"Why not you, Matrika?" Perhaps it was unfair of the bard to ask, but the words blurted out before she had time to change her mind. "You seem to have an answer for everything. Why don't you restore Xena to her body?"
This seemed to please Matrika. She smiled broadly, genuinely. "My young friend, giving advice comes easily to many. Observation is best undertaken when sitting down: that I do well. You, however, are the one who achieves. You have the ability and the passion to bring her back. Only you can succeed. Only you can defeat Alti."
Gabrielle wanted to believe her. If Matrika had said those words about Xena, there would be no doubt in the bard's mind. But to hear them about yourself, to even fathom believing them, was ludicrous.
"Please." Eve implored her.
"You don't know how much I want to believe you." She felt small. The task overwhelmed her, as did its potential.
"I know, Gabrielle. I told you when we first met that I could read your face." The shaman closed her eyes, once again seeing from the inside. "A deluge of pollution is balanced by a flood of water. The spirits will unite. It can be done."
Preparations were made. There was but one more day until the fourth sunrise of the cycle of madness when Alti's crazed Amazons would attack once more. The women worked quickly and efficiently.
Ilia the carver constructed a bowl to hold the ceremonial blood. She with her sharp dagger and log sat near the mouth of the cave, shavings settling around her feet. Over the course of the morning, the indentation grew, first delineated by rough ridges, later becoming smoothed, constantly accompanied by the rough scraping of tool against wood.
Kanae followed her warrior dreams. She accompanied Gabrielle on the stag hunt, a participant in the pursuit, an observer in the process. It would be Gabrielle's journey. The bard made the kill. Standing over the beast, she took a centering breath. Kanae held the new wooden bowl by the animal's neck. With her sai, Gabrielle slit the stag's throat. Blood spilled from the tear in its neck, splattering on their hands, their clothes, and the floor of the cave. Kanae collected enough to fill the bowl halfway.
The others took on the remaining chores. Matrika instructed them in the building of the Torii, a gateway. One wide beam sat across the top of two poles, the beam's ends overlapping the poles. Another beam fitted inside the poles, fixed near the top. The Amazons placed feathers around the Torii and laid their swords around in it a circle. One tradition merged with the other. Together they grew stronger.
That night, the Amazons formed a processional. Eve, at the head, bore Xena's ashes in the urn. Each woman carried paper folded into special shapes: a crane, a dragon, a water lily. The women accompanied the urn from the inner springs to the main room of the sacred cave. Eve placed it in the center of the ring of swords.
Matrika walked through the Torii gate. "We welcome a Kami from Far-Away World." Her voice, in recitation, echoed around the cave. "Come down from Kami-World."
Matrika walked around the room, now chanting, "We call upon musuhi, the harmonization of the Kami. We come in right mind. We come with right practice."
Gabrielle held her own palm over the bowl containing the stag's blood. She drew her other sai, untainted from the stag's blood, down her palm, flinching as the blade split her skin. Her blood, imbued with the essence of the Fountain of Strength, mingled with the stag's blood. Japa spirits joined with Amazon. She drank deeply, gagging as it thickly coated her mouth, tongue, and throat.
They came to move her. She walked with them, away from the dead beast's body. Across the cave, Matrika washed the blood from her hands. She instructed Gabrielle to rinse her mouth with water collected from the inner spring.
As the drums beat, Gabrielle passed through the Torii gateway. She lay down. The length of her body connected with the earth, her heart with the other world. Blood and water coursed through her body. Matrika chanted. And she was gone.
"I see you're back."
Gabrielle opened her eyes. Alti gripped her by the throat. She reached for the chakram jerking it up to sever Alti's hold on her. It met nothing but air. Alti stood across the meadow from her. "You're getting better at that."
"Let her go." Gabrielle gripped the chakram tightly.
"I have a better idea. Why don't you join her?"
Gabrielle flung the chakram. It grazed just past Alti and caromed back, slinging around the other side.
Alti crossed her arms and chuckled. "You missed."
"I don't think so." She listened carefully to the faint voices of souls breaking free. She repeated her throw, this time angling the chakram to weave a web of strokes around Alti, never touching her. More voices joined the fray.
Alti caught on. She reached to intercept the chakram but too late, it had already started its course back to Gabrielle's hand. "You little bitch."
Her enemy appeared directly in front of her. Gabrielle propelled her body into Alti's then flipped over her.
For a moment, Alti seemed impressed. In an instant, her face took on a scowl. "I'm not going to give up my prize."
"She doesn't belong to you." The bard began to circle her opponent. She had surprised Alti, made a tiny nick in her omnipotent exterior with aggressiveness. There was good reason not to be the complacent Gabrielle that Alti expected. "Give her back. She belongs to me."
Evil eyes bore into the bard. "You can't reach her, Gabrielle. Those Amazons you just set free were window dressing for me. Xena is a part of me now. We cannot be separated."
Gabrielle had a weapon, a means of destroying Alti from the inside. "Xena?"
Alti smiled. "She can't hear you." She lunged forward. Gabrielle barely avoided her. They circled again.
"Xena, I need you. I know you can hear me." She needed to convey the truth to her. Xena had to help her. "Alti tricked you, Xena. There was no need for you to stay dead. You were forgiven. The 40,000 souls of Higuchi merged the greater whole when you freed them. You met your obligation."
Alti convulsed. It lasted only a brief moment, but Gabrielle knew she'd gotten through. "That's right, Xena. Fight her."
With a fire in her eyes, Alti spun toward Gabrielle. She wrapped her long, bony fingers around the bard's neck. Gabrielle pounded her fists against her attacker's chest then gathered her might and punched up through Alti's hold. "Xena!" Another convulsion, and Alti was on her again. She picked up the bard and flung her through the air. She sailed out of control across the grasses and careened into a tree.
Gabrielle fought to clear her head. Her fingers clutched the chakram. It would be her only chance. She flung it as hard as she could.
Alti ducked out of the path of the weapon. She turned and gauged its path then reached for Gabrielle and hauled her up. "This should be fitting." Alti yanked the bard in front of her and held her firmly. Gabrielle watched in horror as the chakram ricocheted and began its return, heading directly for her. She swallowed. She'd failed. She'd come so close. And she was certain, in an agonizing moment of clarity, that Xena was aware of her failure. Now Xena would have to watch her die.
Damned if she'd face death with her eyes closed. Gabrielle watched the chakram as it buzzed toward her. One more instant and she'd be another of Alti's victims, until the chakram stopped inches before her face. Her eyes stared in disbelief at the gleaming metal, hanging in mid-air, and the fingers that held it, and the hand and arm she knew so well. At last, their eyes met. Xena bellowed her war cry, flipped over Gabrielle and took off Alti's head.
Then the world went dark.
Gabrielle smelled dirt. She took another breath and changed her mind. It was leather. And brass. She opened her eyes and looked directly into a pair of blue eyes smiling at her. Around her, she was aware of the sacred cave's enveloping security and of hoots of joy from the Amazons, and none of it mattered. Xena was back. She snuggled closer and drifted off to sleep.
When she awakened again, she was alone. Xena was not far, though. She could hear her talking with Eve. Gabrielle rolled over and discovered that she had been moved from the main cave to a pallet in one of the alcoves. Xena and Eve sat together a few feet away.
"Hey there, sleepyhead."
Would there ever come a time when she would take hearing Xena's voice for granted? She doubted it. "How do you feel?"
"A little strange," Xena answered.
"How about you, Gabrielle?" Eve came over and knelt beside the pallet.
"I think I'm okay." She sat up groggily, rubbing her eyes.
"Gabrielle..." Eve took her hands, cradling them in trembling palms. Her lips quivered as tears fell.
The bard hugged her. "Everything's okay now. Everything's okay, Eve."
In a tiny whisper, Eve spoke. "How can I ever thank you?"
Gabrielle smiled at Xena. "I have all the thanks I need."
Xena moved to the pallet and sat by the bard. She wrapped one arm around Gabrielle and the other around Eve. They remained that way, reconnecting as a family, until Matrika entered the room. "Come, Eve. Let them have some time." Eve kissed them both and left, walking past Matrika with a spring in her step.
Gabrielle introduced the shaman to Xena. "She made it all possible. You were right, Matrika, I just had to believe you."
"Nonsense, Gabrielle. I was wrong. Don't you remember?" Matrika shook her head. "I told you that you would not be strong enough to defeat Alti in the spirit world. You did just that."
"Did we?" Gabrielle had known Alti to return so many times. "We never seem to be able to get rid of her." She felt Xena silently laughing.
"This time, I've made it more difficult for her. Her spirit is divided between many lands. Some of her is in the Japa realm, some in the Amazon Land of the Dead, some in the spirit soup left for the Greeks. I've tucked bits into a few other dimensions, too. It will take her a long time to recover all of her abilities."
"Thank you, Matrika," Xena said. The two shared a voiceless, intimate exchange. "Thank you."
And then they were alone. Gabrielle didn't know what to say. There was everything to tell Xena and no way to express how she felt. When the impossible lies apparent before you, the hierarchy of the universe changes. "I missed you."
"And I missed you." Xena sighed. "I am so sorry, Gabrielle."
"Don't be, please." This was a subject Gabrielle had thought of, particularly since Xena's return became a tangible goal. "You made the right decision based on what you were told."
"How could I have not known it was Alti?"
Gabrielle rubbed the tips of her fingers across Xena's cheek. Fingers that had been purified. Fingers that knew of cleansing and ritual. "Tell me what happened."
"When I killed Yodoshi, Akemi told me I was redeemed. After that, I thought she had dissipated along with the others who were flying away to freedom. But then she came back and told me she was very sorry, very sorry to say that if I didn't stay dead, all of those souls would be in torment. I had be the one to avenge their deaths by staying dead."
"And then you told that to me." Her fingers tangled in Xena's leathers. It would take time to purge the gut-wrenching ache that slammed into her every time she replayed that conversation.
"I stayed with you until you were safely on the ship home. Then Akemi called for me."
"I hated Akemi. I hated her for taking us to Japa and for who she was to you."
"Gabrielle." Xena wrapped her hands around the bard's cheeks. "You have no reason to feel jealous. I have no love for her. I felt guilty about my mistakes with her. I'm afraid that I taught her the manipulation she used so well against me."
Gabrielle disagreed. "From what you told me, she manipulated you from the moment you met."
"Well, maybe she learned it from my reputation. Either way, all that I felt about her when we left for Japa was the guilt I carried. That's all."
"Thank you, Xena. I guess I needed to hear you say that." Gabrielle kissed her. "The what happened?"
"After Akemi called me and I left you... " Xena paused. "That was the last time I heard you. That was the last time I heard anything. I was lost without your voice, Gabrielle."
That hurt the bard more deeply even than Xena's decision to remain dead. "But the dead are supposed to be able to hear our thoughts." The comfort she'd taken from believing that Xena listened to her internal babbling, especially at night when she'd tell her all that had happened that day, remind her how much she missed her, how much she loved her. None of that reached Xena's ears. She'd been cut off from everything.
"Alti had assumed Akemi's Kami. She took her form as soon as she'd escaped Yodoshi. That's when she told me I couldn't come back."
"She knew of your guilt. Xena, she used you."
"I thought I was reaching out to Akemi. Before I realized my mistake, Alti had me." Xena hugged the bard fiercely. "It was so empty in there. I had no voice. I couldn't hear. I couldn't see."
Gabrielle returned the pressure until they both relaxed their holds. "But you heard me calling to you when I was on the other side, didn't you?"
"I'm not sure. Somehow, I just knew you were there. It was the first glimmer of life that I'd had."
"I'm glad that it worked."
Xena pulled away so she could look into Gabrielle's eyes. "You had the magic."
"I had your Kami."
With the dawn of the fourth day, the Amazons prepared for defense of the cave. Matrika laughed at them. Gabrielle decided to err on the side of caution, so she and Xena took watch at the mouth of the cave. Gabrielle gazed out on the lands below searching for dust clouds, the sound of hooves on the wind. A halcyon stillness pervaded the lands around them.
"Do you think they'll come?"
Xena ran her polishing cloth up and down the blade of her sword. The gleaming metal didn't need any more attention; it was just that the tactile act soothed her. "No one is stirring up trouble for them now. They may have run off or gone home. Maybe they'll get over it and go back to being normal Amazons."
"I hope you're right." A rustling in the bushes nearby prompted her to stand. Instinctively, she placed her hand on the chakram. A crow flew from a bush, pausing to caw at her before soaring away. "I guess I'm a little jumpy." She turned to see Xena smiling at her. "Hey, this is yours." She slipped her thumb under the hook and held the chakram out to Xena.
"Nah. It's ours. You keep it for a while. It looks good on you."
She guided Xena to kneel before the shrine. Matrika had patiently explained to her how each item needed to be placed on the shelf. She'd followed the shaman's instructions as carefully as she could, always keeping the purpose of the ritual in the front of her thoughts, right practice. The bowl of water she lifted to Xena's lips. "This will clear pollution." She held Xena's hands as she rinsed her fingers. "The misogi restores you to original nature."
Xena bowed once slightly then twice deeply. "Akemi, I know the guilt you feel. I taught you that guilt. Let it go. Wash it away. Be purified. Be free. This is my prayer for you."
She clapped her hands twice then bowed deeply. After a last slight bow, she left grains of rice as an offering.
Gabrielle helped her up, stood by her as she regretted the past then regained her bearings. The bard led her outside, into the cave made by the forces of nature, the forces that drove them, and united them, and made their union strong.
And once again, they became travelers, wandering the lands together.
* * *
I read about "Toikiri," the transmission of souls into the greater whole after thirty three years, while researching Shinto for this story. I didn't make it up. <g>
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