Hephaestus’ hideaway was, well... a little creepy in Gabrielle’s opinion. They’d had to walk from the hidden entrance and there had been a maze of hallways and corridors to traverse before they’d reached their destination. Aphrodite had been careful to mark each passageway and booby trap so they wouldn’t have difficulties getting back out. She didn’t figure Xena would be in the mood to play games then.
“I asked Hephie about making a shortcut, but it was a total no go,” Dite said as they walked through the maze. “He said the whole point was some radical privacy,” Aphrodite blushed, “which was a really good thing sometimes. Ahem, anyway... we do have to be careful though. There are some wicked triggers in here that could trap even a god.”
Aphrodite chewed her nail for a minute before facing Gabrielle. “I don’t think Hephie was being completely honest with me about this place though.”
Gabrielle turned to face the goddess, careful to keep her eyes on the route they were taking. “How so?”
“Well, a lot of the surprises will lock you *in* here, not just keep ya out, ya know. The Eye makes it impossible to pop in and out, which is why were walking through this grody part. And Hephie didn’t start building this place ‘til AFTER that whole thing with Dahok. You know.”
Gabrielle most certainly did know and she paled at the memories that name elicited.
“So anyway,” the goddess continued. “I’ve always kinda wondered, in the back of my mind, what the real story was. Turn left. Ah... here we are.”
Gabrielle looked around the austere room, finding the Eye with no trouble and taking in the rest slowly. There were sconces around the room and one wall that seemed to double as a door. A large, flat altar sat beneath the Eye and a few more traps were scattered randomly. There was no furniture to speak of and Aphrodite gestured to the altar. She got out her notes.
“Okay, you need to scatter Xena’s ashes on the altar. Carefully, though it’s not like there is any wind here to blow them away.”
Gabrielle hesitated, then lifted the lid. The scent almost made her gag in reflex and she stood very still clenching her jaw until the urge passed. “Does it matter? I mean, do I need to form them into a pattern, spread them evenly, what?”
Aphrodite ran her finger down the scroll. “Doesn’t say. I’d have to say spread them evenly though. Not like you can tell what ashes go where, ya know?” She turned her attention back to her notes, missing Gabrielle’s shiver.
Gabrielle gingerly shook the pot, trying for even distribution of the ashes on the stone. It took a while and Aphrodite was sitting on the floor in meditation. When she was finished, Gabrielle walked back to the goddess and placed a tentative hand on her shoulder. Dite’s eyes slowly opened and she smiled up at the bard.
“All done, sweetie?” Gabrielle nodded. “’Kay, then, let’s see. Hmm, put the sword here,” gesturing, “and the chakram here,” pointing to another spot. “Oh wait... you’re gonna need to use the chakram to spill the blood.” She wrinkled her face in distaste.
Gabrielle complied, putting the sword into place and separating the chakram. She laid one piece on the altar and kept the other in her right hand. She looked back at Aphrodite, waiting for further instruction.
“Okay, um... this is the gross part. You’ve got to... ew... um, make a cut deep enough to bleed really well.” She shuddered. “You’re gonna have to share about half your body’s blood to make this work.”
Gabrielle’s eyes got big, but she nodded her acceptance.
“Don’t worry, babe. I’ll be here to keep an eye on you.” Dite took a deep breath. “You ready?”
Gabrielle raised the chakram and Aphrodite took the bard’s left hand in her own. With her right hand, she stroked the inside of Gabrielle’s left wrist. “Here,” she said quietly. “This one leads from your heart.”
Gabrielle bit her lip and closed her eyes, then lifted the chakram and sliced neatly without a flinch. Blood began running slowly and green eyes opened and focused on Aphrodite for a minute, then she turned her attention to the ashes that were very slowly becoming soaked red.
Ashes that were forming into the ghostly outline of a well-known shape. Gabrielle felt her heart clench at the sight of the familiar form that she had missed with aching intensity for more than twelve moons. She felt the tears flow and watched as they fell unhindered to the altar and mixed with the blood and ash.
At that moment, Ares burst in on them, disrupting the ritual causing everything to halt. The ashes were scattered and Gabrielle screamed in agony when the blood tried to reinsert itself into her being.
Aphrodite touched a spot on Gabrielle’s neck, rendering her mercifully unconscious. Then the goddess got up and slapped Ares, furious at this final interference.
“Gods damn you to Tartarus, Ares! We nearly had her!”
“What? Nearly had who??”
“Xena, you idiot. We were bringing Xena home and you just totally screwed it up!”
“Well how was *I* supposed to know?? Not like you told me!”
“Exactly... I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you here... for this very reason. You have no sense where Xena is concerned and everything you’ve done lately has simply made things worse!”
“Go away, Ares. I don’t want you here when Gabrielle wakes up. She doesn’t deserve the kind of pain you’ve inflicted and I don’t think we can fix this. There aren’t enough of Xena’s ashes left to work with.” She hesitated as a look of pain crossed his face. “Please Ares,“ she said quietly. “Just go.”
He looked at Gabrielle, still lying mercifully unconscious near the altar. He sealed the wound on her wrist, then leaned forward to brush a kiss across her temple. “I’m sorry, Gabrielle. You were a worthy opponent, but you didn’t deserve this. Neither of you did.”
He didn’t even glance at Aphrodite whose jaw was hanging open. He simply turned on his heel and left the way he’d come.
Aphrodite knelt at Gabrielle’s side and gently shook her awake. She wondered how the bard would feel about the fact that Ares had managed to find them and mess everything up but good. She wondered how he’d managed to locate them, then the green eyes opened and her attention refocused on the woman who lay at her knees.
Gabrielle gasped, the return to consciousness abrupt and unexpected. In that instant, she felt an intimate warmth flow through her soul and she rejoiced. She clenched Aphrodite's hand in her own, looking back at her with tear-filled eyes and a bright smile. "I feel her, Aphrodite. She's alive!"
She looked around. “Xena? Xena??” Her attention came back to the goddess. “Where is she, Aphrodite? I know she’s alive... I can feel her.” She put Dite’s hand on her chest. “Here. Her heart is beating with mine.”
Aphrodite smiled and clasped her hand, feeling the heartbeat in a steady rhythm before pulling away and pinching the bridge of her nose with her fingers. “Well, then... I have good news and I have bad news.”
Gabrielle clutched the hand she still held, causing Dite to wince in reflex.
“Careful with the merchandise, hon. You’re gonna leave a bruise.” She gently extracted her hand and covered the bard’s own. “Now, the good news is, she’s alive, right? That’s a good thing.”
“Riiiiiight... so what’s the bad news?”
“The bad news is she’s not here and I don’t know where she is.”
“But we can fix that, right? We can do the ritual again?”
“Um, no. There aren’t enough ashes left to try again.”
“WHAT?!?” Gabrielle jumped to her feet. “Where is he? I’ll kill him myself!”
“Whoa, whoa, Gab! Slow down. He’s gone. You can’t kill him anyway, remember? He’s a god again.” She put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders, holding tight when the bard tried to shrug her off. Then holding tighter when the shoulders beneath her arm slumped in defeat. She cupped Gabrielle’s chin and drew her eyes up to meet her own.
“You know she’s alive, right?” She waited for the acknowledgement to come. “Right... so you can use the connection you feel from her to find her. Should be a piece of cake.”
Gabrielle snorted in laughter through her tears. “Aphrodite, nothing has ever been a piece of cake for us. Somehow I don’t see this being any different.”
Aphrodite chuckled sympathetically and drew the bard’s head to her lips. “Good point.” She looked around and shuddered. “Let’s get out of here. This place is giving me the creeps now.”
They exited slowly, following the markers Aphrodite had left and now painstakingly removed. “Heph didn’t mark it for a reason. I’m just trying to respect that,” Dite explained in answer to Gabrielle’s unasked question.
When they found their way out, Aphrodite replaced the shielding that had been in place. Then she waved them back to Olympus.
Dite popped them right to Gabrielle’s room, knowing the effect of blood loss would hit her hard and suddenly. She surmised correctly and was just able to catch the bard as she slipped to the floor. The goddess got Gabrielle tucked into bed, then moved to her own room. This adventure had exhausted her more than she was willing to admit and she still had her regular love biz to take care of. She decided to take a nap.
Green eyes opened slowly, the pert nose twitching at the scent of cinnamon and sugar that wafted her direction. She stretched leisurely, smiling at the renewed warmth she felt coursing through her soul and marveling at the hunger gnawing at her belly.
“Guess immortality didn’t completely take away my appetite.” Gabrielle flung the covers from her and rose from the bed. She padded over the thick carpet to the table, smiling at the steaming cinnamon rolls that greeted her vision.
She brought the plate back to the bed and sat down, her gaze turning inward. The distinctive warmth that she knew was Xena was distant, but it was real. She smiled softly, feeling a renewed hope.
“I will find you, Xena. Somehow, some way, I will find you and we’ll be together again.”
It was still dark when the blue eyes finally opened and looked around, disoriented. This wasn’t the afterlife she’d expected it to be. In fact, she felt a distinctive hunger in her belly and a burning in her blood. It didn’t seem to be an afterlife at all. She poked at her torso and pinched her arm, concluding that her naked flesh was real.
Slowly, she rose to her feet, looking around in confusion. She wasn’t in Japa and it didn’t look like Greece, Chin, Britannia or Egypt. The land was flat and as her eyes adjusted, she realized she could see a very long way. There was a light in the distance and heedless of her nakedness, the warrior headed that way.
She tottered for a few steps, then stumbled and she realized she was weak from hunger and something else... indefinable.
She knelt in the grass, the stalks gently tickling her skin. She closed her eyes, putting the sensation out of her mind and focused on the sounds around her. There was the brush of the grass, the whistle of wind and... she smiled. Just to her left was the sound of an animal... wild hare from its scent.
Stealthily, she circled her prey, waiting patiently. It was over before the rabbit understood it had jumped into a trap. The warrior grabbed the soft neck and sank her teeth into it with relish. She began to feel warmth and strength seeping through her bones until she realized what she was doing.
She flung the hare from her in disgust and tried to retch, but there was nothing in her belly to regurgitate. She lurched to her feet, strong enough now to move towards the light at a steady pace.
It was just daylight when she stumbled into the small encampment. Everyone stared at first, until an old woman approached her with a blanket. “Netonêševehe, ka'êškone? Tosa'e netao'setsêhe'ohtse?”
The warrior’s brow furrowed, not understanding the language. The old woman wrapped the fur around the naked body slowly, gently brushing the wild, dark hair from the planed face. Then she tapped her own chest. “Hotassa,” she stated and pointed to the warrior and arched her eyebrow in mute question.
The blue eyes scanned the small village, noting the well-laid camp and the patiently waiting tribesmen. They didn’t seem to be threatening... merely curious and she decided that she would stay with them as long as they would allow until she could figure out where she was and how to get home.
She looked back at the motherly woman and smiled, eliciting one in response. She jerked a thumb at herself. “Xena,” she answered and let the old woman lead her to a spot by the fire.
Gabrielle packed up her bag and wandered over to find Dite. Surprisingly, she found the goddess curled around a pillow sound asleep. She shook Dite’s shoulder gently.
“Not now, Gab... sleepin’.”
Gabrielle’s eyes widened. She hadn’t known gods and goddesses slept, then realized that Dite had been working extra hard pulling two goddess gigs besides all the help and research she had been doing for Gabrielle herself. Gabrielle pulled the down comforter up around Dite’s shoulders and smile when she burrowed deeper into the pillow. Gabrielle leaned over and kissed Aphrodite on the cheek.
“Goodbye, my friend. Pleasant dreams. Pop in and see me sometime, will ya? I have a feeling I’m gonna need you to keep in touch to keep me from losing my mind.”
Dite didn’t answer, but she sighed softly and smiled.
Gabrielle put a note on the table, then walked to the door and turned one final time. “Thank you, Aphrodite,” she said, before slowly making her way down the hall and out of the Olympian Palace. She figured she had several days’ journey ahead of her before she reached the sea. She was going to go back to the beginning... to the place where all of this had started almost two years before.
It took almost a week before Gabrielle reached the shores nearest the base of Mount Olympus. She heard a hail, calling a name she had not heard since Japa and one she would be glad to forget. She searched the ships anchored off the small port town and found what she was looking for.
“Little Dragon Warrior?”
Gabrielle held up a hand. “Captain, please. My name is Gabrielle.”
Katerina von Lihp’s eyes bulged. That was more words from the Little Dra... Gabrielle... than she had heard during their entire voyage from Japa to Shanghai. The Captain took a good long look at the woman who stood before her in a loose cotton tunic and leggings and saw a renewed sense of hope and purpose in her green eyes.
“Well then, Gabrielle, is there something I can help you with? I did not think to see you here after all this time.”
Gabrielle’s brow furrowed. “Oh? How long as it been?”
It was Katerina’s turn to look confused. “It has been eighteen moons since I saw you in the Southern port. Surely you knew this.”
Gabriele shook her head. “Um, no. No. I’ve been kinda busy. Guess I lost track of time.” Before the Captain could comment, Gabrielle continued. “Are you busy, or can I hire you?”
“Well, we usually do not take passengers, but for you... what did you have in mind?”
“I need to get back to Japa... to Higuchi. I need to go back to where all of this started.”
Katerina regarded her thoughtfully for a long moment before nodding. “That is good. We needed to go back again soon anyway, as I have more trade goods to pick up. When could you be ready to leave?”
“Now is good, hä? Come along. The crew should be about done with their loading. We are leaving with the tide, somewhere after the moon is high.”
“And the fee?”
“Ah, we can discuss that on board the ship. It will be fair, I promise you.”
Gabrielle nodded. Katerina had been nothing but kind and had never once tried to take advantage of her grief. She felt comfortable trusting this rather odd little sea Captain. She had learned the hard way when not to trust and her instincts were pretty reliable. So she followed the Captain to a longboat that rested on the shore.
Most of the crew remembered Gabrielle from their journey together before and gave her a pleasant nod as she boarded. Katerina got her settled in the same small cabin she’d used before and by dawn the next morning, the ship and her crew were sailing down the coastline of Greece.
Things fell quickly into a routine. Every morning, Gabrielle worked with her weapon of choice for the day and she rotated between sais, staff and katana to keep things fresh and interesting. Then she spent time helping do whatever odd little job she could find that didn’t interfere with the regular running of the ship.
She was a little more outgoing, but the crew still strongly respected the boundaries they’d been given the first time and she found she was a little lonely. So at least once a week she went to the galley and cooked, to keep her skills from getting rusty, she said. But it was mostly because Cookie had taken her under her wing and reminded Gabrielle sorely of the grandmother she’d known as a child. The sailors didn’t complain. On the contrary... they looked forward to the days that Gabrielle was in the galley. Extra treats seemed to appear that day.
So time passed slowly; one day pretty much like the next, only differing on the days that they would stop in a port for trading and supplies. Gabrielle learned that Katerina was considered something of an indulgent captain. She made her own rules and set her own schedule and she saw no reason for the crew to suffer sea rations for weeks on end if there were ports along the way that they could stop in to pick up fresh provisions. Only their rush to meet Gabrielle in Greece had gotten them there in only a year’s time before.
So it was nearly six months into the voyage before they reached the bottom of the African continent and Gabrielle was more than grateful for the change in clothing she wore. Her leggings were thick wool and she’d traded in her tunic for a heavy sweater. The seas were getting rougher and the swells were bigger and even with Aphrodite’s ring on, Gabrielle felt a distinct nausea beginning in her belly.
After her exercises, Gabrielle made her apologies to the Captain and went back below to rest. She knew she would do better with the seasickness topside, but at the moment all she wanted to do was close her eyes in the privacy of her own cabin.
Strangely, the motion did not seem to bother her once she lay down and closed her eyes and Gabrielle drifted in a twilight of sleep that was full of memories and images that made no sense to her whatsoever. She didn’t know how long she laid there floating on the edges of sleep, but eventually she felt things around her calm. Gabrielle didn’t open her eyes, not wanting to lose the meditative state she found herself in. It wasn’t until she felt a soft touch in her hair that she slowly blinked her eyes open.
“Hiya, Sweet Pea! How ya doin’?” She continued her stroking and felt Gabrielle relax back into her touch.
“Better, now. I’m glad to see ya though. I’ve missed you.”
“Aw, you’re so sweet, Gab. I’ve totally missed you too. I’m sorry I missed your leaving,” said with just the slightest hint of reproach.
Gabrielle opened her eyes just slightly and gazed into Dite’s blue ones. “Sorry, Dite. You looked so peaceful and I didn’t wanna disturb you. But....”
“But you really wanted to like, get started looking for Big X, huh?” The goddess smiled with understanding and continued stroking Gabrielle’s scalp, grinning indulgently when the bard’s eyes closed again and she relaxed even further into the touch.
“Uh huh,” she agreed. “I wanna find her so we can put all this behind us and get on with our lives.”
Gabrielle’s eyes were closed, so she didn’t see the look that crossed Aphrodite’s face at her words. She felt the hesitation in the stroking though and opened her eyes to catch the grimace that crossed Dite’s face before she schooled her features into a smile. Gabrielle sat up on an elbow, bringing her almost nose to nose with the goddess. Aphrodite stood up to pace the small cabin.
“Aphrodite?” Gabrielle’s voice was almost growly in accusation.
“Ya know, Cutie, I’ve been totally busy since you left... lots of bitchin’ love biz, ya know? Keepin’ up with the Greeks and the Romans is enough to like, soooo wear out a love goddess doin’ double duty. Anyway,” Dite hurried on, seeing Gabrielle was getting a little impatient. “In what little free time I’ve had, I’ve been looking for that radical warrior of yours.” Aphrodite paused and painted on a bright smile. “I have good news and bad news.”
Gabrielle flopped back on the bed and covered her eyes with her linked hands and groaned. “I’m not gonna like this, am I?” She sighed. “Give me the bad news.”
“Well, sweetie, the bad news is I’m still looking for exactly *where* Xena is. I’m just not totally sure where or when where is yet exactly. See, I’ve been all over the known world on the world wide god web looking for her and I personally went back to Japa, the Norselands and Egypt to speak to the gods there. I know she’s not there because we searched through their webs too. I will be soooo totally glad when we get everything tied together between us, but I think that’s gonna be a little while longer coming.”
“Wait, wait, wait!” Gabrielle sat up waving her hands. “I’m sure the intricacies of your god web thing are fascinating and any other time I’d be glad to discuss it in detail. But right now, I wanna go back *just* a little bit.”
“The good news isn’t gonna get me outta this, huh?”
“Well, yeah! We know that Xena’s nowhere in the known world, so you really don’t have to go back to Japa. I know that place has some radically rotten memories for you.”
Gabrielle scraped her nails through her hair in complete exasperation before scrubbing her face and sighing. “Aphrodite, if Xena is nowhere to be found in the known world, then where is she?”
Dite stamped her own feet in vexation. “I don’t know!” She ran her hands through her own hair and made it stand up on end. “I’ve never seen anywhere like this and it was only a glimpse!”
“Then how do you know that it’s nowhere in the known world?”
“Because it was between fifteen hundred and two thousand years into the future!!” Dite shouted, then slapped a hand over her mouth as what she said registered and Gabrielle collapsed onto the bed.
“What???” Gabrielle asked in a strangled whisper.
Dite sat down next to Gabrielle and took her hands, pulling her into a reluctant hug. For a few minutes nothing was said between them as Aphrodite concentrated on calming Gabrielle’s racing pulse. Gently she rubbed the bard’s back, willing her to relax. Finally and quite firmly, Gabrielle pulled back, though she held on to Dite’s hands.
“You’re telling me Xena is somewhere in the future and I’m gonna have to wait between fifteen hundred and two thousand years before I can even TRY to find her??”
“Uh huh. That was the best I could narrow it down. I....”
Gabrielle took her hands out of Aphrodite’s grasp and stood up to pace. The goddess watched patiently as Gabrielle paced the three steps between the wall and the door, waving her hands and talking to herself. Eventually, she seemed to come to a conclusion and dropped back down next to Aphrodite.
She waved her hands, though Dite was sitting quietly with a bemused look on her face. “Okay, look. I don’t wanna know how you figured this out right now. I’m honestly not sure my brain could handle the overload right now. But you’re sure it was so far away??”
Dite shrugged. “Yeah. I don’t know how she got there yet, or even where there *is*. But I’m fairly certain about the time frame.”
“C’mon, Gab, cut me a little slack here, will ya? I’m working with a lot of unknowns. I know this is hard, but I’m doin’ the best I can here!”
“I’m sorry Aphrodite. It’s just....”
“I know, babe, I know!” Dite agreed, embracing the bard in a hug. “I’ll keep looking, but there’s nothing I can do to make time go by faster.”
“I don’t suppose you could send me forward fifteen hundred years?” Gabrielle asked half-jokingly.
“Babe, even if I knew exactly when and where she was I couldn’t send you there. When Herc crushed the Cronos stone, he took our ability to cross timelines. We have to live through time like everybody else. I’m sorry.”
Gabrielle squeezed Aphrodite before pulling back and looking up into her eyes. “It’s all right, Dite. I didn’t figure you could, or you probably already would have. It was worth a shot, though. I had to ask.”
“I know you did, Cutie. You wouldn’t be you if you didn’t try everything you could to get to her.”
They sat down on the bed, content for a while to absorb the comfort they offered one another. Finally Gabrielle lifted her head from Aphrodite’s shoulder.
“So now I have to figure out what I’m gonna do for the next fifteen hundred years.”
“Well, maybe I can help with that a little, at least to start,” Dite answered, waiting for Gabrielle to look at her. When she was sure she had Gabrielle’s undivided attention, she asked, “Do you think you could take the Amazons to a new home?”
Gabrielle quirked an eyebrow and waited.
“Diana... Artemis asked me to keep an eye on them and I have been as much as I could. But it’s hard with everything else I have goin’ on, ya know? And they are totally being screwed over. They are being pushed out of what little land they have left and I thought maybe you’d be willing to help them find a new home.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Seems like the least I can do for them. Do you have a place in mind?”
Aphrodite popped a map in and put in on the bed. “Well, I was thinking an island, maybe here,” pointing to an area that had several islands clustered together and was reasonably close to India. “They’d have a way better chance of keeping the Nation alive if there are men relatively close to them without necessarily being in the same space.”
Gabrielle looked at the map closely. “That might work. In fact, it should do nicely. Tell ya what, next port we get to, I’ll get off and start back to Greece.”
“Aphrodite, it’s gonna take a while to get all the remnants together and I can’t just go popping in and out of places. People will start to notice and if I’ve gotta survive for two thousand years, I need to keep as low a profile as I can.”
Aphrodite gave her the barest hint of a pout.
Gabrielle relented just slightly. “Tell ya what. I’ll write up a notice and give you a list of all the places it needs to be posted. If you could make sure that gets done, it would be a tremendous help.”
Dite clapped her hands and bounced on the balls of her feet. “I can do that!”
“Good. Thank you! Then hopefully most of them will be at the meeting place by the time I arrive and I can leave some cryptic instructions for any stragglers or women who may want to join the Nation later.”
“Radical idea... just bitchin’, babe! Lemme go and I’ll be back to get that stuff from you when you’re done, ‘kay? Just call me!”
“I will, Aphrodite. Thanks for coming to see me.”
“Oh, hon... you can look for me to pop in and out of your life regularly from now on. We gotta stick together, you and me. Thanks for helping me out, babe! You ROCK!”
The goddess disappeared with her usually fanfare, leaving behind a scattering of fresh rose petals. An immediate knock on the door precluded any legitimate thought and Gabrielle wasn’t quite surprised to see Captain Lihp standing in front of her.
“Are you all right, Gabrielle? The first mate told me he thought he heard you talking to yourself and I know the weather was making things difficult for you.”
“I’m fine, Captain, but I find that I must leave the ship at our next stop. I will pay you for the entire voyage,” Gabrielle hastened to explain, “but I suddenly remembered something I left undone and I have to get back and take care of it as soon as possible.”
“No, Captain, please. This is your business and I know you have contracts with merchants aside from our arrangement. I won’t allow you to lose time or business on my account. Especially since if I had been thinking when I set this up, I would have remembered this to start with.”
“It’s a long way back to Greece, Little Dragon. Are you sure....”
“Yes, Captain, I am, but thank you for your concern. I appreciate it.”
“Well, you have been a good passenger and a contributing member of this crew. We will all miss you greatly vhen you leave.”
“Thank you, Captain, for all you and your crew have done. I will always be grateful.” Gabrielle extended her hand and Katerina accepted it gracefully.
“We should be reaching our next port in two days. I will make sure you are well set for your journey home before we leave the port.”
“I do, hä? I made a promise and Katerina von Lihp never breaks a promise if it is possible to keep it.”
“I have to tell you, Captain... I have probably enjoyed my time on your ship better than any other I have ever spent time aboard.”
“Not a sailor, then, hmm?” said with just a hint of a teasing grin. “Well, I thank you. I am proud of my ship and crew. She’s a fine craft and they are good people.”
“Yeah, they are. And so are you.”
Katerina blushed slightly. “Will you be topside shortly, or should I have your dinner sent here?”
“I’ll come up. I understand Schmidt is singing tonight.”
“Yes, he is. We will expect you shortly then, hä?”
“Yep, just left me clean up a bit and I’ll be there.”
“Good! Good! Meet you on deck then.”
Gabrielle closed the door behind the effusive captain and sat down on the bed. She ran her hands through her hair and looked at the ceiling, though her focus was on something internal only she could see.
“Two thousand years!! Oh Xena, how am I ever gonna survive this? What am I gonna do now?”
The first few hours in Xena’s new life were spent in mostly silence. She spent her time observing and listening to everything that was going on around her and she had come to the definite conclusion that Greece was a very long way away. The last coherent memory she had before her arrival was lying on their shared furs looking at the stars with Gabrielle and after that.... She was at a loss to know where she was or how she’d come to be there.
Hotassa was the first wife of the tribal medicine man and she had taken it upon herself to adopt Xena. The shaman didn’t mind; his first-born son had indicated an interest in the warrior and it was good for Xena that Hotassa taught her the ways of the tribe.
After the discussion and argument with the tribal elders were over, Hotassa took Xena to the spring to clean herself up and she brought along with her the dress of a native woman. Xena bathed, then looked at the dress with disdain. It was pretty enough and the beadwork on it was nice, but it was entirely impractical for a warrior. She shook her head no.
“Heehe’e!” Hotassa answered vehemently. “He’eo’o hoestôtse.”
Xena made no move to take the dress from Hotassa’s hand and the older woman thrust it out to her again. “He’eo’o hoestôtse.”
“No!” Xena answered with equal defiance. “I want that!”
Xena spun the older woman toward the village and pointed at one of the young warriors who was strutting around in long pants and a breechcloth.
Hotassa shook her head. “Hova'âhane!” she exclaimed. “Notaxe nêhpêso'hestôtse... he’eo’o hoestôtse.”
“Look, Hotassa. I am a warrior and this,” taking the garment and shaking it at the older woman, “won’t work for me. I want that!”
The two women stood staring at one another for long moments before Hotassa took the dress and threw it to the ground prior to stomping off.
Xena wrapped the blanket more tightly around her and picked up the dress. Then she wandered back to the village.
“Ah, this’ll do nicely,” she muttered to herself, slipping the blade from its sheath without a sound. Then she wrapped the blanket more firmly around her and began patiently cutting seams. She started gathering a curious crowd, but patently ignored them as she continued to work. Hotassa pushed her way through the group of women and children, noting that the men were equally interested but trying to put on an indifferent front.
“I need a needle and some gut. You know,” seeing the confusion in Hotassa’s eyes. She made motions with her hands. “For sewing.”
Hotassa was intrigued and understanding the request by the motions Xena made, retrieved her sewing basket from her tent. Then she watched patiently as Xena reformed the garment into something... different.
Xena sat there until late afternoon, noting idly that all activity in the camp seemed to have stopped waiting for her to unveil her work. Finally satisfied, she held the two piece garment for her inspection. Pleased with what she saw, Xena dropped the blanket and slipped into her new clothing.
The bottom was similar to a breechcloth, except there were short pants underneath. Her top was a sleeveless one-piece that barely reached the top of her breechcloth. Xena smiled to realize that her new outfit highly resembled some of the clothes Gabrielle had worn. Without warning, her breath caught and she concentrated on forcing air in and out of her lungs. The place in her heart that had always been Gabrielle was empty and barren.
Hearing her name falling awkwardly from unfamiliar lips made Xena smile sadly. It was a stark reminder of just what she was missing.
“Zee-nah? Nepevomohtâhehe?” Hotassa put a hand on Xena’s arm and even though Xena couldn’t understand the language, the questioning the older woman’s eyes was unmistakable. She smiled shakily and patted the hand on her arm.
“I’m all right, Hotassa. As right as I can be right now, anyway,” she mumbled to herself.
Hotassa smiled and looked back to where the braves and warriors were lurking and waved at her son. The man stepped forward and made his way through the crowd.
“Hetsêheohe, Kya Nenaasêstse!”
The young shaman stepped forward and started touching Xena’s face and she knocked his hands away. He smiled and muttered something she didn’t understand, running his fingers down her arms. This time she shrugged him off and pushed him bodily from her.
“Who in Tartarus do you think you are???”
Kya growled and lunged at her and she side-stepped and kicked him in the ass before turning and smiling viciously at him. She waggled her fingers at him.
“C’mon, big boy. Ya wanna play?”
He reached for her and this time she simply jabbed and watched as he fell to his knees, gasping for breath.
“I’ve just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. Maybe when I restart it, it’ll flow well enough for you to figure things out.”
His nose started bleeding and she jabbed again, pulling back to punch him senseless. She was startled when she found her hand caught by the elder shaman.
“Hova'âhane,” he said, shaking his head. “Eneoestse!”
The older man motioned to his son and sent him scurrying off to another tent. Then the man turned her over to Hotassa and walked back to the fire he had been seated at. Hotassa took Xena by the arm and led her to the small tent that had been prepared for her next to her own.
Xena looked around the small space noting the hole in the top and the fire pit that was on the ground beneath it. Hotassa was gesturing around and Xena saw except that for a few furs the place was empty. She turned and exited the dwelling, Hotassa hot on her heels.
The older woman grabbed her arm and it was by sheer will that Xena did not knock her into next week. Instead she whirled around with fire in her eyes and Hotassa involuntarily took a step back. Xena consciously took herself in hand, reminding herself that it was not this woman’s fault she felt so completely off balance and that so far, Hotassa had been nothing but a friend.
She smiled and held up her hands in supplication. “Sorry,” knowing the woman wouldn’t understand the words, but hoping the gestures would convey her thoughts. Xena ran her hands through her hair in frustration. She could feel a burning start in her gut and it made her uneasy on top of everything else. She signed to Hotassa as best as she could, but the older woman shook her head in non-understanding.
Finally, Xena took her hand and led her back into the small dwelling, motioning to the empty fire pit and the furs. Hotassa nodded with comprehension and led Xena out and gesticulated towards the open prairie. Xena returned the look with a furrowed brow.
Hotassa snatched up a basket from beside her own fire and took Xena’s hand in her own, leading her out behind the encampment into the open field. They went a short distance, until they were out some ways and Hotassa began looking at the ground carefully. Without warning, she bent and retrieved something triumphantly and placed it in the basket.
Xena took a closer look then drew her head back in surprised disgust. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me. You want me to use animal dung for fire?”
“Ho'esta, heehe'e!” Hotassa answered emphatically, as though she understood Xena’s words. She thrust the basket into Xena’s hands. Then she turned and went back to the camp.
Xena stood stock still for a long moment, closing her eyes and letting the breeze blow across her face. Oh, Gabrielle... what am I supposed to do now? Where am I and what happened to us? To you? I can’t feel you and yet you were alive in my arms just... oh gods.... Her thoughts trailed off and she sank to her knees in agony. The feeling of her soul sundering was overwhelming and Xena let it wash over her in waves.
She wasn’t aware of the passage of time as she sat in shocked silence grieving. But it was totally dark when she came to herself again and she was covered with the blanket Hotassa had offered her... was it only that morning? and a bowl of slightly warm stew sat beside her.
The food beside her reminded her of another hunger and without recognizing her intentions, she shed the blanket and stealthily crept through the grass. The groundhog was dead and drained when she realized what had happened. Xena took off running, hoping to outrun the hounds of hell that suddenly seemed to be on her tail. Life made no sense anymore and she’d lost her balance.
When daybreak came, her resolve was set. She would find out what god was playing with her life and figure out what life or afterlife they had deposited her into. Then whatever it took, she would find her way back to Gabrielle.
Xena came back into the encampment disheveled and silent. She immediately went into her small tent, surprised to see her blanket folded neatly on the furs, small pile of buffalo chips in her fire pit and another bowl of warm stew and a waterskin nearby. She smiled sadly, recognizing that she’d found a friend in this place.
She took up the bowl first and ate every morsel, her body understanding it needed both forms of food to survive and survival was paramount until she figured this puzzle out. She guzzled the water from the skin, flinching slightly at its odd taste, then proceeding to drink the skin dry.
Xena retrieved her bowl, blanket and skin and quickly made her way out of her dwelling and down to the water’s edge. She rechecked the water carefully, then refilled the skin and laid it to one side. She rinsed her bowl and utensil, the stripped out of her clothes and rinsed the night’s grime from her body, feeling herself settle as she did so. She washed as well as she could manage without soap, then rinsed her leathers and wrapped up in the blanket before making her way back to the camp.
Xena drew a few stares, but not as many as one would imagine, as a good portion of the tribe wasn’t present. She laid her clothes out to dry and went next door to Hotassa’s home, bowl in hand.
She wasn’t sure if Hotassa was home so she cleared her throat and called softly, “Hotassa?” Xena waited patiently and heard stirrings from inside. Hotassa stuck her head out, shaking her head when Xena offered the bowl back to her.
“Zee-nah’s,” she said. Xena inclined her head in acceptance. Hotassa looked at her with a raised eyebrow, indicating her state of undress. Xena simply pointed to the grass where her clothing lay drying and Hotassa nodded in understanding.
Xena bit her lip, thinking about how to convey her next question. “Hotassa, I need a scroll, ink and quill,” mimicking her words with her hands. Hotassa stared at her dumbly and Xena blew out a breath of frustration, her respect for Gabrielle’s communication skills suddenly skyrocketing. She looked around, spotting a basket full of craft supplies and snatched up a feather and a pot of paint. Xena dipped the end of the quill into the container of black paint. Then she grabbed an odd piece of hide and made several small marks.
“Can I keep these?” she asked, holding the things to her breast in a sign of ownership. Hotassa, though not understanding the words, recognized the gesture and nodded her head in agreement, folding her hands over Xena’s.
“Thank you,” Xena said softly, then went back to sit in front of her small tent and began to write in earnest.
Things I need to know
1. Am I alive
a. If so, where am I
b. If not, what afterlife is this
2. Is Gabrielle alive
a. If so, why can’t I sense her
b. If not, where is she and how did she die
3. How did I get here
a. Gods with the ability to get me to wherever here is
5. Michael’s god
b. Gods with the desire to get me to wherever here is
1. Ares – just because
2. Aphrodite – because of something that happened to Gabrielle?
3. Odin – old grudge
4. Michael’s god – because of Lucifer?
c. A third party? Someone like Alti with something to gain from my separation from Gabrielle?
4. Can I get home
Xena sat rereading her questions and points, pinching her bottom lip between her finger and thumb as she thought. She was heedless of the paint she was spreading on her face and didn’t even realize that she resembled Gabrielle when she did the same thing.
After a few moments she took up her writing again.
Things I am fairly confident about
1. This is a new place – life or afterlife
2. I was manipulated to get here
3. At least part of the answer should be nearby
She reread her work one final time, then laid it aside, satisfied with her conclusions so far. There was still room to add questions, points or facts as the came to light. For now, she had other work to do.
Xena placed the hide in her tent, then reached out and snagged her dry clothes from the grasses where the lay. She dressed and picked up the paint, walking back to Hotassa’s. Hotassa saw her coming and frowned at the pot of paint Xena held out to her.
“Hova'âhane. Zee-nah’s,” she said, shaking her head and patting the warrior’s chest lightly. “Zee-nah’s.”
Xena nodded her acceptance. Then she pointed to the basket Hotassa had used the day before and motioned to the vast prairie with an inquiring look on her face. Hotassa smiled and nodded her approval and Xena took the basket and made her way to the open fields.
Xena made several trips back and forth, filling the basket and emptying it into a small but ever-growing pile between her tent and Hotassa’s. Finally, Hotassa’s husband, the elder medicine man, stepped in front of her and held up his hand. Her first reaction was to grab it and twist, but she thought about it when he spoke.
“Eneoestse,” said kindly with a smile, indicating the now large pile of chips. “Epeva'e. Nea'eše.”
Xena nodded and wiped an arm across her brow in an attempt to stop the sweat from rolling into her eyes. She placed the basket back at the side of the teepee where she’d found it and went to her own dwelling and retrieved her waterskin.
She sat down to rest a moment, drinking the water as quickly as she dared. She grimaced when a bowl of thick, unidentifiable yellow substance was thrust under her nose. Xena hesitantly took it from a smiling Hotassa with a murmured, “Thank you.”
It was odd and the texture was disconcerting, but she found the mixture sweetly palatable and very filling. The heat and fullness of her belly, combined with the lack of rest and the emotional draining she’d been through in the very short time she’d been in the village combined to make Xena dreadfully tired. Try as she might, she couldn’t seem to keep her eyes open and the last thing she remembered was Hotassa leading her into her tent and the scent of freshly cut grass before her mind shut down in exhausted slumber.
It was pre-dawn when Xena’s eyes opened again and she blinked in confusion trying to remember where she was that everything was so unfamiliar. Reality washed over her and she closed her eyes until it passed knowing that she still had many unanswered questions and no Gabrielle.
Her first order of business was survival, however and despite Hotassa’s kindnesses, Xena knew there were many things she needed to do before she could start on her quest for answers.
So for the next several days, Xena learned the ways of the tribe. She learned to weave baskets to collect food and chips in. She caught fish and amazed the women and children with her bare-handed method. Hotassa took pity on her after her first meal fiasco and always made sure to prepare enough to share with Xena at her own fire. Xena in turn made sure to provide whatever food and chips she was allowed.
It had been made clear to her very early that in this society, men and women had separate functions. And women did not function in the role of hunter or warrior. So Xena hunted alone, providing the food for her own meals and the blood she seemed to crave. She actually preferred it that way. It kept there from being too many questions.
Hotassa gave her the knife she’d used in her sewing, but otherwise, Xena crafted all the tools and weapons she needed. Soon, she had skins and furs of her own, a longbow and arrows, several other knives and a staff. Daily she took the staff out for exercise and training and though the people thought it odd that she walked with a stick, no one questioned her right to do so. She had made it clear through words and gestures that she preferred to be left alone and though it angered some, they all respected her wishes. Having seen what she’d done to Kya, no one challenged her.
She was still excluded from warrior activity, though and it was making her short-tempered and hostile. The blood she consumed could not completely satisfy the burning she felt. So she was a part pf the tribe and yet remained separate from it as well.
The tribe slowly moved around, following the buffalo as they grazed their way across the plains. A month passed before Xena realized it and she’d made no progress in finding answers to her questions. Day to day existence took up so much time and trying to get information while she was still learning to communicate with these people was a difficult prospect at best.
The men had formed a war party and the women were left to wait for the outcome of a battle their warriors had little hope to win. Xena took the time to hone her staff skills and several of the women watching her asked for instruction.
She agreed reluctantly, remembering the times that Gabrielle had asked her for tutoring in one martial skill or another. She remembered with particular wistfulness Gabrielle’s introduction to her staff and the Amazons. It had been the beginning of their Amazon Princess/Warrior Princess/Amazon Queen discussions.
The women went into the scrub area looking for limbs long enough to suffice and were unable to find anything comparable to their needs. Frustrated, they came back to the encampment. Xena noted their disgruntled faces and placed her staff in her tent and instead motioned for them to join her.
The women did so hesitantly and Xena began taking them through the meditative Chi exercises she and Gabrielle had practiced together. If she closed her eyes, she could still see the picture of serenity on Gabrielle’s face as the moves flowed through and around her. Xena bit her lip, as the pain had not lessened with the passage of time; it had only increased.
The women were awkward at first, moving in a way that was unfamiliar to them at first and then with more beauty as their natural gracefulness came to the fore.
After a bit, with sweat trailing down their faces but smiling happily at their new skill, they stopped by mutual consent. This was something they would enjoy doing and Xena had finally found a contribution to the community that made both parties happy.
That evening, Xena went hunting. She had been too long without blood and the burning was making her mad with rage. She went out resolved to drain the first living thing that crossed her path.
Xena had long since determined that she was somehow suffering from the Bacchae burning, but was at a loss to explain why or how it happened. She remembered clearly the festival when Gabrielle had become bacchae... when she had shared the burning for the first time and the feeling had been... orgasmic.
It had been very brief, but Xena remembered it as clearly now as when it had first happened. It had been the first time either of them had let themselves imagine other possibilities between them, but it hadn’t been the last.
And once they’d become lovers...
Xena shook her head, trying to clear it. This train of thought made the hunger worse and the pain of the loss of Gabrielle in her life more acute. Instead, she turned her focus to the hunt, hoping to sate the burning for at least a little while.
The tribe’s wanderings had brought them within walking distance of some scrubland... not enough to supply wood for their fires or provide the women with suitable staffs, but plenty to give shelter to some of the wildlife in the area.
The buffalo tended to avoid the area as it was home to several predators that hunted them, but Xena felt the need for a fight and headed out to find one.
She hadn’t gone far when her nose picked up several scents and she stood still and allowed herself to separate them into the animals to which they belonged.
At that moment, a movement in the grass caused Xena to turn and jump, catching her prey easily. She lifted it up, feeling her incisors grow to meet her need when her attention was caught by the greenest eyes she had ever seen.
Xena stopped short, noting that in the moonlight the fox in her hand had red-gold hair that prompted her memories of a much younger Gabrielle. She cursed her mind for allowing her to continually be reminded of Gabrielle in everything around her.
She still was unable to feel Gabrielle and being reminded of her constantly was painful in the extreme, especially in light of the fact that she’d been unable to make any progress in her inquiries. It was difficult and Xena had long since had anything as frustratingly difficult as this particular challenge was proving to be.
Xena sat down, gently stroking the fur of the fox who for reasons unknown had curled up contentedly in her arms. She looked down at the small, furry bundle and unexpectedly, the fox returned the look with understanding.
“You remind me of someone, you know. Someone I love very much. There is no way I can look into those eyes, her eyes and inflict death on you, even for my own need.”
The fox snuggled down into Xena’s lap and a dark eyebrow rose into an equally dark hairline.
“Oh, please. Make yourself at home.”
She lifted the fox up and looked it in the eye and swore for an instant she saw Gabrielle’s soul looking back at her. Xena nearly dropped the animal and the fox instinctively dug its claws into Xena’s hands. Her hiss of pain was covered by a much louder hiss and that sound sent a skitter up Xena’s spine.
It had been a while, but Xena easily recognized the predator that now circled behind her. She tried to ease the fox out of her grasp as she stood, but the animal would have none of it. Instead, the fox gazed at Xena confidently, then scrambled down and took up a position of sentinel, sitting up proud and tall as the panther approached.
Xena watched, fascinated. She had never seen behavior like this between a hunter and its prey and yet it subtly reminded her of... something... familiar.
The panther continued to circle and Xena held herself in check, keeping a very close eye on the fox. The small animal showed no fear, but kept its green eyes focused on the cat that now paced back and forth in front of them.
The panther growled, yet the fox merely tilted its head in questioning. Nearer and nearer the cat paced, until the fox reached out a paw and laid it on the panther’s muzzle.
Xena froze, her hunger forgotten as she watched the tableau unfold before her eyes. Breathing became optional as she watched the panther lower its head and gently nuzzle its face into the fox’s neck. The fox laid its nose on the cat’s momentarily and then they both looked back at Xena.
Xena sat down as two pairs of eyes, one blue and one green, gazed back at her. The familiarity of them was astonishing and she watched in continued disbelief as the fox settled between the panther’s forepaws and the cat wrapped itself protectively around its... mate?
“Oh Xena,” she said aloud to herself as she reclined back in the grass to look at the stars. “I think madness or bloodlust or some really bad mushrooms have finally caught up with you, ‘cause you are losing it. Panthers and foxes don’t mate. There are laws in nature and that goes against most of them.” She rubbed her eyes and continued looking at the stars. “I think you are just tired and the pain of missing Gabrielle constantly has made you see things.”
Xena sat up, keeping her eyes closed with her hands pressed against her lids. “Now, go find you something to eat before what little of the mind you seem to have left takes a hike.”
She opened her eyes, fully expecting to be alone. The panther and the fox remained, though now they both seemed to be to be keeping sentinel over her. She rolled her eyes heavenward and murmured, “Gods, don’t let me lose my mind before I figure a way out of this riddle and back to Gabrielle.”
Then she collected her bow and headed out toward the prairie, her silent guards padding along beside her.
Gabrielle stood at the rail of the passenger ship, enjoying the wind as it teased her long hair loose from its pins. She appreciated the fresh sea air, though her heavy clothing tended to keep most of the breeze from her body. Gabrielle disdained modern clothing, but there were times, like now, when she had to bend to the fashion of the moment to blend in with the rest of polite society.
She had long since outgrown seasickness. It was a fact she was devoutly grateful for, especially since sea travel was the only way for her to cross from the old world to the new.
The year was 1835 and the wealth Gabrielle had accumulated over the centuries meant she was able to travel from Southampton to Halifax in relative comfort. She smiled in retrospect, remembering the many times she and Xena had traveled much rougher. A familiar pang squeezed her heart and she held her breath until it passed.
It’s been more than seventeen hundred years, Xena and in some ways I still hurt as much today as I did that day in Japan. Always there is an ache in my heart and an empty place in my soul that is waiting for you to fill it again. If not for the fact that I continue to feel your presence, I would surely have gone mad by now... not that I haven’t been close to that a time or two in my travels.
Gabrielle’s smile became bittersweet and she turned to her journal. It was comprised of several volumes of thick, leather-bound notebooks that she carried with her. They had become quite cumbersome over the centuries, but unlike the scrolls that she and Xena had deposited in various hiding places in the ancient world, she couldn’t bear to be separated from her journals. Sometimes, they seemed to be the only link she had between her realities and the best way she had of maintaining her sense of self.
The journal she held in her hand was of her earliest travels and she signaled for a chair to be brought out. Money had enabled her to hire the ship as a private charter and she took advantage of that fact only rarely. In the early mornings, she could be found practicing with weapons the crew had never imagined and they watched enviously her strength and sheer grace honed from centuries of practice.
Otherwise she followed the traditions of society and if the crew found her slightly eccentric, it made little difference to her.
The third mate ran back with her chair, while several of the other sailors scurried around to make her comfortable. Gabrielle couldn’t help the smile that crossed her face inwardly, though she was careful not to let it show outwardly. These boys are such babies, she thought, remembering easily she had been the same way when she’d first stepped into Xena’s life.
There had been ample opportunities for relationships, but nothing could compare with what she’d had with Xena and what Dite had promised she would share again. So she’d gone through life alone, but not lonely, because she attracted people to her. But she’d never allowed anyone to get too close and she’d watched as people got older and younger at the same time.
She shook her head to clear the maudlin thoughts and sat down with a sigh. Gabrielle opened her journal and began to read, letting her words to Xena wash over her and take her back to a place long gone and almost forgotten.
Dear Xena.... (it read)
I’m taking the Amazons away to a new home. Greece has become unbearable for them and Dite asked me to. So, I’m going to lead them to an island we’ve found and help them get settled. I was never the kind of Queen they needed, but the time has come for me to lead.
It had taken Gabrielle several moons of walking before the land started taking on the familiarity of home. And even then, it was so changed from what she remembered; what she had known when she and Xena had traveled together.
Romans were everywhere and the streets were crowded. Places that she had known as forest or wilderness now all had the earmarks of civilization. People were crowded into small spaces and their houses would be considered hovels at best. The smell was something beyond comprehension and Gabrielle was suddenly less than thrilled with the enhanced senses immortality had given her.
People tended to give her the odd second glance simply because she looked so different than everyone around her. Gabrielle carried herself with poise and authority and her musculature was strong and firm while those around her tended to be round and soft. And it didn’t take long for word to spread among the criminal element that she was one that needed to be avoided. Their kind tended to disappear when they messed with her.
Gradually, Gabrielle made her way to Amazon territory and was surprised by what she found there. The lack of territory was her first shock. She had gone into the woods quite a ways farther then she expected to before she was challenged. When the sentries realized who she was, they let her pass without comment, but also without escort. It was apparent by their demeanor that there was a lot of confusion and no one knew exactly what position Gabrielle held.
When she stepped foot into the village, though, Gabrielle stopped dead at the chaos that enveloped her. Amazons were everywhere, doing all manner of sundry things, but no one seemed to be in charge.
Gabrielle stood still watching the bedlam, waiting to be noticed. A fight broke out between two women and she calmly inserted herself between them, slowly drawing the attention of everyone in the encampment. Subtly, the atmosphere changed and with only a look and a few well-placed words, order began to come from chaos.
Amazons were represented from all over... from several tribes Gabrielle recognized and from quite a few she didn’t. Her first efforts involved integrating the many tribes into a single cohesive unit. The tribes had to be one nation before they could move.
Daily more women arrived in the village and Varia and Cyane stepped aside willingly to allow Gabrielle to assume command of the Nation. For herself, Gabrielle immersed herself in the details of preparing the Nation for movement.
Gradually, preparations were made, provisions were laid in and arrangements were completed for travel. All told, it took Gabrielle fourteen moons to have the Amazons travel ready, but when spring returned to Greece, the Nation headed out towards a new destiny.
It took a great deal of time, Gabrielle thought, though she knew in the back of her mind that that was completely relative for her. Still, with the amount of people and supplies they were moving, their progress was good.
She had split the Nation into smaller traveling parties, sending each of them in slightly different directions to make them less of a target. It took a little longer for everyone to arrive, but they did so safely and Gabrielle sighed with relief when they were finally boarding the ships she had secured for their voyage.
Gabrielle had them board in the night. They had managed to avoid trouble for the most part and she wanted to keep it that way until they left.
Finally, the ships were loading and as the sun rose, they slowly eased out of port. Gabrielle had found female crews, some of them already Amazon, who were willing to make the journey with them. With slight trepidation, she stood on the aft deck, watching the land retreat behind them. Things had fallen into place for the Nation remarkably well considering the magnitude of the task and Gabrielle stood reflecting on their progress and the things they still had to do.
Gabrielle almost jumped when Aphrodite appeared beside her in Amazon leathers, but she managed to hold herself in check. She glanced at the goddess with a look of fond exasperation.
“Dite, are you trying to scare me to death?”
“Huh? You’re an immortal, babe, remember? Not like you can die.”
The words, though spoken in a teasing tone, cut deeply and Gabrielle was again forcibly reminded of her solitary status. Dite shivered at the pain that crossed her friend’s face and opened her mouth to apologize, but was cut off by Gabrielle.
“That’s true. What can I do for you?”
Dite turned away from the receding shore and instead turned her attention to the bustling activity on the deck. It was all very orderly and she couldn’t help but admire the difference in the Nation since Gabrielle had taken charge of them.
“Nothing. I just came to see how things were going. You have been so massively busy and so have I that we’ve had like, no time for girl talk. I’ve missed ya, babe!”
Gabrielle slipped her arms around Dite’s waist in an unexpected embrace and the goddess returned the hug fervently. She understood all too well the loneliness that Gabrielle lived with and was happy to provide any measure of comfort she could.
“I’ve missed you too, Dite. There are days.... Can I do this for two thousand years without completely losing my mind?”
Dite held her, gently rubbing her back until she felt Gabrielle relax against her. She had a feeling this might be necessary from time to time and was determined to be there for Gabrielle to help her weather the rough bits that were in store for her.
“You’re a strong person, Gab. One of the strongest I’ve ever had the privilege to know... or call friend.” Dite paused, thinking of the millennia she’d been alive and knowing how hard that continued existence could be even for a god. “I think,” she bit her lip then continued. “I totally think you can do this. You know what the payoff is gonna be, babe and I think for that reason alone your mind will hang in there. Besides, imagine the bodacious stories you will have to tell Xena when you finally like, catch up to her.”
Dite felt Gabrielle chuckle and breathed a sigh of relief. Gabrielle was in a hard place and would be for the next quite a few centuries. But as long as she maintained her humor and her zest for life, she’d be all right.
Dite took Gabrielle’s face in her hands, wanting to be sure she had the bard’s complete attention for what she had to say next. “I want you to listen now and I want you to understand what I’m saying, ‘kay?” Aphrodite held Gabrielle’s gaze and Gabrielle read the serious intent behind the words that were being spoken. She nodded her understanding and Dite continued.
“Whenever... WHENEVER it feels like it’s getting to be too much for you... whenever you feel overwhelmed to the point of absolutely exploding or losing your mind, you call me. You call me and I’ll take you back to Olympus for a while.”
Gabrielle’s forehead creased and Dite hurried on. “You can call me anytime you need me, or just want to talk, Gab and I’ll be here as soon as I can. But I can’t risk taking you to Olympus too often for fear of Ares finding out. He doesn’t know you and Xena are immortals and I don’t see a reason to enlighten him right now.”
“How will you know the difference?” came the whispered question.
“I’ll know. You just trust me on that.”
“I can do that.”
“Good. And you can totally count on me to pop up from time to time on my own too, ‘kay? I so need a friend sometimes.”
Gabrielle smiled. “Good, cause I’d hate to have to climb Olympus to kick your butt or something.”
Dite’s hands went to her hips. “Girlfriend, you are a total troublemaker, ya know that?” She put her arm around Gabrielle’s neck and proceeded to give her a noogie. “Good thing I love ya.”
Gabrielle’s first instinct was to fight, but instead she decided to tickle. Dite squealed, not expecting that reaction.
“Yeah, it is,” Gabrielle agreed when Dite’s hold loosened. “I love ya back.”
“Cool! Now that we’ve got the serious stuff out of the way, why don’t you show me around this gnarly set-up? Looks like you’ve done good by these babes.”
Aphrodite took Gabrielle by the arm and began to slowly walk across the deck. No one paid them much mind; they had grown used to Gabrielle wandering through them talking to herself.
“I’ve tried to. They can be the most ornery, obstinate bunch, but they deserve the best I can do for them... both for your sake and theirs. C’mon, I’ll show you around.”
They moved below decks and Dite was even more impressed with the system Gabrielle had set up. Women moved everywhere with quiet efficiency and all the space was economically used.
“Is it like this on all the ships?” There were seven ships in the convoy that was slowly making its way out of the Ionian Sea. It had been a longer land trek for them, but worth it, as far as Gabrielle was concerned.
“Um hmm,” Gabrielle nodded as they made their way back to the main deck. “Pretty much. Each of the ships has a designated leader who serves as my regent and is responsible for handling her group. They will handle anything that comes up. Only if they can’t settle things will it come to me.”
“Radically cool, babe! You rock!”
Gabrielle chuckled. Dite’s enthusiasm was heartening. “Well, that remains to be seen. We’ve only just left port, ya know.”
“Trust me, sweetie. Ya done a good thing here. It’ll work.”
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”
Dite patted her back lightly. “At least you don’t have that nasty seasickness vibe any more. That was so uncool.”
Gabrielle’s chuckle turned to outright laughter. “Yeah, no kidding. Thank you for that, by the way. It’s made things a lot easier for me.”
“I’m glad,” Dite answered seriously, then lowered her voice, though no one could hear her anyway. “How are you doing with the other problem?”
Gabrielle shrugged, more than a little uncomfortable with the need that continued to plague her despite Aphrodite’s talisman. “I dunno. It’s still there, though the burning is not as fierce as it was before,” remembering her actions prior to her wearing the ring. “I take it one day at a time, but this is the first time I’ve been away from any source of um... protein since....”
“Yeah, I got what your saying, cutie. Well, if you need... anything, you call me. I don’t do blood really well, but in your case, I’ll make an exception. You’ve got enough going on here,” waving her hand around the ship and convoy, “without having to worry about that too.”
“Thanks, Dite. I’ve been a little concerned about it.”
“Anytime, babe. That’s what friends are for, right? To help each other out?”
Gabrielle smiled. “Right. I’ll be glad when I can return the favor though.”
“Nah, I’m still catching up. You and Xena totally saved my bacon a few times. Besides, I kinda like doing things for my friend instead of someone who’s made it an obligation. It’s way more fun this way.”
“Can’t argue with you.”
“True,” Aphrodite agreed loftily. “You’d lose!”
Gabrielle’s eyebrow went up and she smirked just the tiniest bit. “You think so? I am the Battling Bard, ya know,” said cheekily.
Dite laughed, glad to see more of the Gabrielle she dearly loved. “Yep, I know, babe. But you totally agree with me here so you’d be like, arguing in circles.”
Gabrielle scrunched up her face in thought. “Good point. I could give myself a real headache doing that.”
“No kidding and think you’re gonna have way more than enough of those for a while.”
“Thanks, Aphrodite! That makes me feel better,” Gabrielle replied wryly.
“Ah, c’mon, sweetie! You know it’s the truth. But I’ll always be nearby if you need me, ‘kay?”
“Yeah, I do. Thanks, though. And you know where to find me when you get ready for some girl talk.”
“Uh huh. Later, babe!”
The goddess popped out without a flourish, so no one noticed that she was gone at first. And by the time they did, everyone was immersed in their tasks, beginning a routine that would serve them well until they reached the shores of their new homeland.
Knowing it was going to take several moons of sea travel to reach the destination she and Aphrodite had decided on, Gabrielle was quick to make use of any land stops they could find along their way. It made for better relations between everyone to actually get off the ships for a while and it allowed her various regents to meet with her to discuss any problems they were having. Thankfully, those were relatively minor and only needed her guidance to steer them into the decision they knew was necessary to make.
Most importantly, these little excursions allowed her to feed and though no one was happy about her solitary hunting expeditions, no one begrudged her the need to some private time alone either. Besides, she proved more than capable of providing for herself and her sisters as she never came back to the fire empty-handed.
So the Amazon Nation leisurely made its way down the coast of Africa and headed towards the small islands known as the Sinhales.
The convoy circled the continent and finally began to make its way more northward. No one was gladder for that fact than Gabrielle and she had been thankful many times over for every single extra bit of covering they had stowed on board. The weather had become increasingly raucous and cold the further south they traveled. Many of the women became sick and there were days on end when sleep was not something she was allowed.
Just as illness started to loosen its grip on the Amazon, they ran headlong into a storm that would change... everything.
After more than two weeks of on board sickness, no one was happier to find civilization again more than Gabrielle. They’d been blown slightly off course rounding the Cape and had actually needed to backtrack to reach the island of Madagascar. But the illness that had circulated among the women had made it almost impossible not to drift and it took a bit of doing to get them back on track.
By the time the reached the island, everyone was looking forward to a bit of time on dry land and some fresh supplies. They knew to lay in as many supplies as the boat could manage, because this would be their last stop before reaching the small group of islands they had chosen for their new homeland.
The day started out fairly pleasantly for a change. The seas were calm and the sun was warming up... a nice change after believing they would freeze to death just a short week before.
The plan was to spend two or three days on shore airing out the boats and scrubbing everything and everyone down. Time would also be spent gathering fresh game and vegetation for the final leg of their voyage. They still had quite a reserve of dried food, but Gabrielle especially was beginning to suffer from the lack of fresh meat in her diet.
Several of the Amazons had noted a distinct edge to Gabrielle’s behavior, but put it down to the lack of sleep she suffered from during the sickness that had swept through their numbers. The leaders on her ship spoke to the rest of the convoy leaders and it was decided that Varia and Cyane would probably make the most headway in encouraging Gabrielle to take better care of herself. So much of their welfare depended on her well-being and they selfishly wanted her to remain well.
Gabrielle had handed out assignments to the various team leaders then headed inland quickly. By the time Varia and Cyane started on her trail, she had disappeared.
Gabrielle had been trained by the very best and even driven by her hunger and her need, she kept the hard-learned lessons of stealth in the forefront of her mind. Soon, there was no trail for even the best of Amazon scout to follow and Gabrielle began her hunt.
She whispered a prayer to Aphrodite, knowing the goddess would understand that the thanks was for the ring she wore that kept this particular ritual from becoming all-consuming. They she spotted her prey and before the deer realized her intention, she’d broken his neck and sunk her teeth into him, draining his life blood before it could cool.
She had learned early to end an animal’s life quickly to prevent needless suffering. She had developed almost an empathy for the creatures who gave their life for her continued existence as a bacchae. There were many times when she wished she could have accepted ambrosia or nectar, but understood painfully that that wasn’t her lot in the immortal scheme of things.
So Gabrielle drank til she was full; til she could feel the warmth and strength flooding back into her very veins. She found it odd to feel the renewing because when she and Xena had been together it had been nothing like this. Of course, she’d never felt as drained as she did now, except on the rare occasion when she came back from the dead.
Gabrielle smiled in wry humor and sat back to wipe her mouth. She had to be very careful. Though she was fairly certain the Amazons would accept her as an immortal eventually, she was less positive about their reaction to finding out that she was an immortal due to Bacchus. Especially since they would see her as a threat to their society, given the nature of the beast that being a bacchae was.
She cleaned and butchered her kill, saving the hide and wrapping the meat in it to carry back to the small encampment they had set up.
Varia and Cyane were waiting at the head of the footpath, having lost her trail there and hoping she would return the way she came. Their patience was eventually rewarded when they heard the faintest scuffling of footsteps bearing a heavy burden and they rose from the ground to investigate.
Gabrielle emerged from the woods and saw them waiting for her and schooled her features as much as possible. There was no way for her to control the bright burning of her eyes, though and it made her glad for the sunshine that caused her to squint.
Varia and Cyane looked Gabrielle over carefully. There did seem a marked difference in both her demeanor and her appearance, but neither could put a finger on the exact cause.
“Well, she looks better at any rate,” Varia comment sotto voce as Gabrielle reset the hide on her shoulder and began to cross the small space between them.
Cyane nodded and muttered under her breath. “Maybe she just needed some space. Gods know I’ve longed for it a time or two on this trip already.”
Gabrielle heard the discussion, but did not let it keep her from approaching them. She realized that their curiosity was motivated primarily by their concern for her and the other she could easily excuse. The Amazons had always held her and Xena to a different standard of rules and accountability and she didn’t expect it to change because she was leading them. That almost tended to make things worse in that regard. Everything she did was not suspect or challenged, but scrutinized, as though they were trying to understand the whys and wherefores of her mind’s inner workings. Flattering in a way, but very unnerving for the woman who still remembered being the young, innocent farm girl from Poteidaia.
Still, Gabrielle had long since outgrown that innocence and it was the strong, competent woman who now approached her friends.
“Ladies,” she greeted, patently ignoring the outraged eyebrows that rose in consternation to her salutation.
“Your Majesty... Gabrielle,” Cyane said as the bard set the hide down and held up her hand at the address.
“What’s up, guys?”
Varia looked up at her, squinting into the sun. “Honestly? We were just concerned about you. All of us, actually, but Cyane and I got chosen to, um....”
“We got voted to ask because we’ve known you the longest and the rest of the regents thought you’d be more likely to tell us if there was a problem.”
“Checking up on me, huh?” But the question was asked with a smile and they knew that Gabrielle wasn’t angry.
“Protecting our queen and looking after the interests of the Nation,” Cyane responded tactfully.
This made Gabrielle chuckle. “You are quite the diplomat, aren’t you? It makes you a good regent,” Gabrielle continued, noting Cyane’s deepening blush.
“It’s all right guys. I do understand and I appreciate the concern. This is just... rough for me, in ways I hadn’t imagined it would be. Sometimes I just need to go off by myself for a while and... regroup.”
That’s what we thought,” Varia said quietly. “We’ll make sure you get that as often as we can manage once we get to our new home. I don’t think it will be that easy on the ship.” She chuckled as she said it, recognizing the irony in the truth.
Gabrielle laughed as well, finally feeling the blood cooling to her normal temperature. “I’d have to agree and I appreciate the offer. I will probably take you up on it. In the meantime,” she continued, hefting the bag again, “we should get this to the camp. I’m sure a little fresh meat will be welcome around the fire.”
Two stomachs growled in tandem and the three of them burst into giggles.
“Well, all righty then. Guess that answers that question,” Gabrielle said. “C’mon. Quicker we get there, the quicker we eat.”
“Sounds like a plan,” said Varia and they headed back towards the beach encampment.
The Amazons spent three days on the shore preparing themselves for the final leg of their trip. Everything was washed and scoured and the supplies were restocked. They indulged in some games to keep things light and give them a chance to exercise and enjoy the freedom being back on land afforded them.
When it was time to board the ships again, they did so with very little grumbling. Most of them were anxious to finish the trip and get settled into their new home. This had been more traveling for the majority of the Nation than they had ever done. And now that the illness that had plagued them seemed to have passed, they were eager to get to the island, even if it meant more traveling to accomplish that goal.
Gabrielle was happy to see the peace and contentment that pervaded the ship, remembering clearly how horrid it had gotten during the sickness and their monthly cycles. It was bothersome that *that* particular curse seemed to hit everyone at once, but the Amazons were more adjusted to that fact than she was and sort of took it as a matter of course.
They quickly learned to avoid Gabrielle during those few days, though. They didn’t understand *why* she became a completely different person, but figured they could give her the space she needed if she preferred to suffer through it alone. Little did they know that she was doing her level best not to succumb to the burning that raged through her body.
So they set off in the morning with smooth seas and a light, warm wind at their back. Most of the women stayed on deck unless their duties required them to be below decks. It was simply too nice a day to spend stuck indoors if one had no call to be there.
So the first two days of the final leg of their voyage was peaceful and it wasn’t until nearly sunset of the second day that things started to go dreadfully wrong.
Gabrielle was deep into her meditative exercises when the unusual activity on the deck caught her attention. She turned her focus to the east and noted the low band of clouds on the horizon, correctly surmising the danger they posed to the Amazon fleet.
She watched the movement on deck, noticing the calm, controlled atmosphere. Every woman seemed to be aware of the pending storm, yet no one let it interfere with her duties.
Gabrielle moved to the bridge and the captain acknowledged her presence with a nod.
“Looks bad, my Queen,” patently ignoring the raised eyebrow the title earned her from Gabrielle. “We’ve been looking for a way around it for the last candlemark, but as you can see, it stretches from horizon to horizon.”
“So we go through it?”
“Yep. Hopefully it won’t be too strong or last too long, but our best bet is to meet it head on and push through it as hard and fast as we can.” The captain indicated the activity going on around her. “You can see that we’re preparing the ship as much as possible. We’ve been going back and forth with the other ships in the fleet and they are doing the same. We will try to stay together, but.... Everyone knows where we are headed, so hopefully, even if we do get separated, we will be able to find one another again once it’s over.”
“That bad, huh?”
The captain shrugged. “Natural precaution. Not like we can see what’s coming, ya know?”
Gabrielle nodded, letting her mind wander to the many times in her life she’d been blindsided by things she hadn’t been able to see coming and her breath caught at the pain those memories could still evoke.
“You all right, Gabrielle?” the captain asked solicitously, placing a gentle hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. The blood had faded from her face, her eyes were unfocused and her breathing had become shallow and fast. “Gabrielle?”
Green eyes blinked rapidly as Gabrielle brought herself back from a place she had no desire to be. She swallowed twice before turning her attention back to the captain. “Sorry.” She cleared her throat but didn’t offer any other explanation. “What can I do to help?”
“We’re about set, my Queen. Now it’s mostly a matter of riding it out.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Very well. I’ll be in my cabin if anyone needs me.”
Gabrielle went below decks and retrieved her diary, moving to the built-in desk and readying her ink and quill. She opened it to her starting place and began recording the events of the past few days. Gabrielle still felt the calling of being a bard, but there were times, especially now, when there was simply nothing of interest to write about. Not like it had been when she and Xena.... She closed her eyes again and let the thought trail off, then forced her attention back to updating her diary.
Gabrielle had quite a bit of writing to do and she lost herself in getting all the details down. Eventually, this portion of her diary would be re-written for the Amazons, to give them their own history to keep.
It wasn’t until she slid in her chair that Gabrielle realized how much time had passed. Musta reached the storm. She glanced around, seeing clearly the rather wild pitch of the boat, then noted that she was feeling very little residual effects from the rocking motion. She looked at the ring Dite had given her and whispered a prayer of thanks. Then she sanded the ink and let it dry before closing the diary and putting it away. Then she grabbed her oiled cloak and headed back up the stairs.
The wind was furious and the rain was harsh and they nearly drove her back down the stairs before she got the door fully opened. Gabrielle pushed hard against it, then was flung to one side as the wind suddenly aided her cause. It made her more than a little angry and she channeled it into a force she could use. With a mighty shove, she slammed the door shut, then made her way slipping and sliding towards the bridge.
The topside of the ship was mostly empty... only half a dozen essential posts were manned by women who had lashed themselves to the ship with long ropes. Gabrielle held on to everything she could reach to keep from being flung overboard. The short trip took her a good deal more time than normal and she was sweating underneath her cloak by the time she arrived at her destination.
“My Queen?!” the steerswoman exclaimed loudly when she recognized her visitor.
“My Queen!!” the captain repeated, seeing who had joined them on deck. “You should get below. It’s not safe up here.” She had to yell to be heard over the storm.
Gabrielle smirked inwardly at the sentiment, though she made a conscious effort not to let it show on her face. These women had shown her nothing but respect and courtesy and they had no clue what her true situation was. There was no reason to share it immediately; her circumstances were in the realm of the extraordinary.
“Yes, Hilda, I know. But what kind of ruler hides while her people face danger?” ignoring a time when she had done just that at their expense.
“The smart kind if she understands that the survival of the entire Nation rests on her shoulders,” Hilda answered shrewdly.
Gabrielle nodded her acceptance of the statement, though she’d argued til she was blue in the face that the survival of the Amazon Nation depended on all of them together. “Point taken,” she acknowledged. “I just wanted to know how things were going.”
Hilda grabbed Gabrielle by the elbow as the ship lurched heavily to one side and nearly took their feet out from under them. “C’mon,” she shouted, trying to overcome the sound of sheeting rain. “Let me take you back to your cabin. We can talk without screaming at one another.”
Gabrielle nodded, parts of her soaked to the skin regardless of the well-oiled cloak she wore. The wind and sting of the water simply forced the wetness in.
Together they slipped and slid back to the door leading below decks and fought to pull it open against the forces of nature that were conspiring to keep it shut. With a bellow, they managed to fling the door wide, then found themselves in a tangle of limbs at the bottom of the stairs when the pitch of the ship and the strength of the storm shoved them unceremoniously down the short steps.
“Ow... I’m all right, Hilda. You?”
“Ow is right. Damn, that hurt. But I’ll live,” the captain answered, then started chuckling.
“Share the joke?” Gabrielle asked and she slowly untangled herself from both Hilda and her wet cloak, which now clung to her like a second skin. The process was complicated by the ship’s continual movement that rolled them from side to side of the narrow passageway.
“Just thinking how peculiar we must look. Reminded me of my initiation as Captain and the only other time I’ve fallen down these steps.” Gabrielle arched her eyebrow in question, then realized that Hilda wouldn’t be able to see the gesture. But before she could give it voice, the captain continued speaking.
“The crew took me out and got me good and drunk... they were sober, which was a good thing considering what happened next. The initiation involved me trying to sail the boat, in open waters, mind you, while I was still trying to figure out which way was up.”
Hilda regained her feet and braced against the walls, then leaned down and offered Gabrielle a hand up. “I did all right until I decided to come downstairs for another bottle. I missed the steps completely and Mel, being the good first mate she is steered us directly into a storm. I rolled around down here for what felt like days praying to the gods not to toss my cookies. It took me half a day to get up off the floor and another two days to recover from the seasickness Mel managed to give me with her helmsmanship. I won’t tell you how long it took to get rid of the bruises. I decided then and there to never have cause to be rolling around in this passageway.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Well, I can’t say it’d be my chosen method for travel. Ya wanna know the bad part? We’ve gotta get back up and close that door.”
Hilda banged her head on the wall. They were standing only because she was braced against the walls holding Gabrielle by the elbow. Gabrielle reached for the railing, swaying as the ship rolled against her action. The Captain placed a steadying hand on Gabrielle’s back and eased behind her to provide support if something caused her to fall.
It took a few minutes as Gabrielle had no desire for a repeat experience of head over heels down the stairs again, but eventually she did manage to pull the door shut with a resounding thud. Several amazons lurched up the passageway, having finally decided to see what all the commotion was. Gabrielle waved them back.
“Everything is fine. Go back to your cabins.”
“Are you sure, my Queen? You both look a little, um....”
Hilda pointed, but didn’t touch Gabrielle. “She’s probably talking about the cut, although the bruise is pretty nice too.”
Suddenly Gabrielle was acutely aware of the scent of blood and she felt a burning begin in her blood. The Amazon was offering her a towel and she took it, hoping to remove the smell of copper that made the hunger grow.
She drew a deep breath to contain the need and turned partially away from the onlookers. “Captain, why don’t you go get into something dry and have those marks seen to? Then come back and join me and we will talk.”
Before Hilda could respond, Gabrielle slipped into her own cabin and closed the door firmly behind her.
The Amazons in the hall looked at the captain who shrugged back at them. “You heard the queen. Return to your cabins, especially those of you on the next shift. You need to be completely rested.”
The nodded their understanding, though not without a backwards glance before they entered their own living spaces. Hilda turned and entered the cabin across from Gabrielle’s wondering what had happened to change her mood so swiftly. Then she concentrated on drying off. She didn’t change though, knowing she had to return to the bridge shortly. She did pour herself a cup of wine. She’d gotten the message that Gabrielle needed a little space and damned if she wasn’t going to give it to her.
Gabrielle, for her part, sat on her bunk and focused all her energies on simply being and breathing. In... out... in... out... until the rhythm was all she knew and she felt her heartbeat calm and steady. Then she blew out a breath and proceeded to change into a dry tunic and pour herself a cup of wine.
A few more minutes passed before a light knock was heard at her door and Gabrielle realized that Hilda had given her extra time to change and she smiled in appreciation of the gesture. She rose and opened the door, her eyebrows shooting to her hairline when she realized that the captain was still in wet clothing.
“I have to get back on deck,” Hilda responded to the unasked question. “No point in soaking a second set of clothes.”
“Hmm,” was all Gabrielle said, though she managed to convey her agreement in the tone. “Come in and tell me how bad it is.”
Hilda crossed the threshold and took the chair at the desk. Gabrielle resumed her seat on the bed and waited expectantly.
“It’s bad, your Majesty. We are being drawn off course, but it is impossible to tell how badly or how far. I won’t be able to tell anything for certain until the storm stops and we have a chance to get our bearings.”
“What about the other ships?”
Hilda rested her elbows on her knees and dropped her hands between her legs. “I know there are at least three of us still together. At separate times I have seen the ships on either side of us pop up out of the storm.” She didn’t tell Gabrielle how closely they’d come to ramming the first one.
Gabrielle sat still, considering. “Well,” she said at last, “guess we will just hope for the best for now and work with whatever we end up with when this thing blows over.” Gabrielle sat up a little straighter and caught Hilda’s eyes. “I see no reason for this to get out right now. There’s no reason to send everyone into a panic over something we can do absolutely nothing about.”
Hilda nodded. “Agreed, my Queen. I’ll keep you posted as things develop.”
“Thank you, Hilda. You’re doing a great job!”
The captain blushed. “Thank you, your Majesty. Now if you’ll excuse me....”
Gabrielle nodded and waved Hilda out, then shook her head. She’d done her best to break the Amazons of the habit of referring to her by title, but it was so ingrained in them that she’d given it up as a lost cause.
With a sigh, she finished her wine and turned to her diary which she opened it up and began to read. The storm continued to lash out furiously around her, but Gabrielle never noticed as she allowed her own words to take her back into memories that through the coming years would make her laugh and cry and keep her company like the old friends they were.
For two more days the storm raged around them and by then everyone on board was wet, sick and miserable. When they finally saw the sun break through in the early afternoon of the third day, the crew cheered, heartened by both its presence and the presence of their sister ships. Somehow, they had all managed to come through relatively intact, it seemed. It would take a day or two to determine the damage the storm had wrought.
As it was, they were all happy to see sunshine and calm water and by mutual consent they dropped anchor and took the opportunity to air out their bodies and their ships. Gabrielle and the captains had ascertained the need for both a bit of R&R and the establishment of their location. That couldn’t happen until evening, so they moored the boats and swung into high gear, intent on enjoying the brief respite they’d been offered.
As sundown approached, the women sat around on the various decks, enjoying a meal of freshly prepared fish and calling back and forth to one another. Gabrielle sat a little apart in the bow, watching the Nation that had once been on the edge of extinction slowly coming back to life before her eyes.
Her reverie was disturbed when Hilda came and sat down silently next to her. The captain didn’t speak, but sat waiting to be acknowledged. Gabrielle didn’t turn to her, but instead gestured to the many happy women on the seven ships.
“It’s good to see the Amazons whole again. For a very long time, we were fractured, despondent.”
“You’ve given them hope again, my Queen... a future to look forward to instead of pining for a past that will never be again.”
Now Gabrielle turned and looked at Hilda intently. “The future is what they make of it Hilda... not me.”
“Perhaps, but you will always be remembered as the Queen who saved the Nation.”
Gabrielle didn’t reply, but instead looked back out over the water to the ships in their small fleet. Hilda got the distinct impression she’d crossed a line best left alone and cleared her throat. Gabrielle forestalled her apology.
“How far off course do you think we are?”
The captain blinked, her mind shifting gears to put her on a complete opposite track from the one she’d been running on. She’d come up her with something else entirely different on her mind, but she gamely put her own thoughts to one side for the moment and focused on the question she’d been asked.
“It’s hard to say, your Majesty, but I would definitely say I’m concerned. It’s just a hunch, since we’re sitting in the middle of the sea with no visible reference yet, but I don’t think we’re anywhere close to where we were, or where we should be.”
Gabrielle nodded, having come to much the same conclusion herself. “Very well, Captain. Please keep me advised once we’ve determined where we are.” She stood. “I’ll be in my cabin.”
Hilda decided to take the plunge. “My Que... Gabrielle....” gently.
But Gabrielle held up a hand. “Hilda, please don’t. You’re a lovely young woman and I imagine any woman here would be happy to be your partner.”
“Just not you,” Hilda responded with only a hint of bitterness. Life continued to flow around them... no one noticing the little drama that was unfolding on the bow of the ship.
“Just not me,” Gabrielle answered with honest sincerity. “My heart belongs to another, Hilda and it always has. I can’t change that and I wouldn’t if I could.”
“But Xena’s dead, Gabrielle!!” It was said with quiet harshness. “Do you intend be alone for the rest of your life??”
Gabrielle smiled sadly, understanding far too well just how long that would be and the seeming eternity that stood between her and her warrior. “Xena owns my heart Hilda and without that, I can’t care for anyone else. Not that way. And it’s not fair to ask... not you, not me, not anyone... to live with a sham of love.”
“And if I want to?”
Gabrielle clasped the captain’s arm and squeezed gently before she released it. “I won’t.” She moved away and reached the stairs before she turned back to Hilda. “I’d like for us to remain friends, but that’s your decision. I won’t force anything you’re not comfortable with. However, as your Queen, I’m asking that you notify me when we have our position fixed.”
Hilda blinked and squared her shoulders, then she nodded her head. “Yes, my Queen. It should be about a candlemark before the stars are out enough for us to get a good reading from them.”
“Thank you, Hilda,” Gabrielle replied, then turned without another word and made her way to her cabin. Hilda stayed at the bow for some time longer, looking out over the horizon and contemplating the truth of Gabrielle’s words. Then she straightened and made her way to the bridge. There was work to do.
It was less than a full candlemark when the knock came to her door. Gabrielle had been dozing lightly, letting her mind drift. Now she sat up and called out, “Come in.”
The door opened and Hilda crossed the threshold, just stepping into the room. “Gabrielle, you need to come on deck.”
Gabrielle rubbed her hand across her face. “That bad, huh?”
“It’s gotta be seen to be believed, my Queen.”
When they arrived back on deck, Gabrielle was surprised to see not only the other captains, but also her interim regents waiting for her on deck surrounding a small table that had been brought up. They all bowed their heads respectfully and Gabrielle strove not to roll her eyes.
That got more than one head to pop up immediately and glares from several who did before they could school their features into impassiveness. Gabrielle chuckled and the Amazons joined her, appreciating her humor and the effort at tension breaking.
“What have we got?” The group looked at one another, no one wanting to be the one to share the news. Gabrielle grew impatient and sighed loudly. “Somebody better start talking before I do something really outrageous,” hoping they wouldn’t call her on it. She really wasn’t sure how outrageous she could be on short notice to a bunch of Amazon women, though she’d certainly had her share of moments over the years.
“Your Majesty, we can’t find our position on any of the charts we have. According to them we are in a place that doesn’t exist.”
“Excuse me?” sure she’d misunderstood.
Hilda blew out a breath and pulled the charts and maps over to her. “You’ve studied the stars, learned to navigate by them, haven’t you?” Gabrielle nodded, remembering the time it had taken for her to master that skill and Xena’s gentle, patient teaching. “Do these patterns look at all familiar to you?” passing a particular chart over to Gabrielle and effectively pulling her from her reverie.
Gabrielle held her breath, easily recognizing the bear pattern and the hunter and the bull. She let her fingers trace the familiar shapes and she nodded. “We spent many nights studying these patterns,” she commented in a low tone, clearly recalling their standing arguments on the subject. But everyone heard the words and felt the remorse that slipped into her voice. Hilda ignored it and continued.
“Okay then... now look up.”
Gabrielle did so, then her forehead creased in confusion. What she saw was foreign to her, unrecognizable. In all her travels, she’d never seen the stars... well, honestly, it looked as though they were standing on their heads.
Gabrielle rubbed her temples, then turned her back on the group, walking away from them slightly. She pressed her hands to her lips as she thought, then spun back around to continue the conversation, realizing this news put a whole new spin on everything.
“Well, anybody have a preference on a direction? Do the currents indicate any land nearby?”
Now Varia spoke up. “Not really, though they seem to be flowing eastwardly.”
Gabrielle nodded at the information. “I guess we’ll head east then.” She looked around at the group that nodded their agreement. “Do we have a mapmaker among us?”
“Yes, my Queen,” one of the other captains answered. “We have several.”
“Good. Let’s see if we can get these new star patterns charted. Maybe once we find land and get settled, we’ll have a chance to study them and figure out where we ended up.”
There was a palpable relaxation of the tension surrounding the group at Gabrielle’s sure words. It had occurred to all of them just how tenuous their position was, being lost at sea in uncharted waters. Now they felt a renewal of optimism and each of them smiled.
“All right,” Gabrielle continued as though nothing had happened. “I know it’s late, but the sooner we get started the sooner we get home. So let’s tend to business and get ourselves home. I’m really not that fond of being on a ship.”
They laughed then, having heard some of her tales of previous sea excursions. And truth be told, they were all pretty anxious to reach dry land themselves. This journey had turned into far more of an adventure than most of them had expected or bargained for.
Several more weeks passed and tempers were running short. They hadn’t encountered any more serious storms, though a couple of rain showers did blow through. It was a welcome respite and it provided fresh water, which was naturally at a premium.
Still, their lack of direction and knowledge of their whereabouts was wearing and more and more often, Gabrielle’s diplomatic skills were called on to keep fights from breaking out.
Finally, near the end of her rope, Gabrielle called for a sparring match, taking on all comers. They had all seen her practice routines and knew about her defeat at Varia’s hands. So they figured that though Gabrielle was a capable warrior, she could be defeated.
What they didn’t know and couldn’t understand was that Gabrielle’s knowledge of her immortality had made her fearless. And the blood need had made her aggressive. So it was a very weary, very beaten group of Amazons that were scattered on the deck by day’s end.
“My Queen, when we reach land, will you be giving weapons instruction?”
Gabrielle swallowed the wine she had in her mouth before answering. “Probably not. There will be so much to do getting the Nation set up.” She was glad they were talking positively about their new home. It had been touch and go and they were understandably disturbed by the unknowns they now faced. It took her a moment to notice the universal slump of shoulders in all the women who had faced her in combat. “Why?”
The women looked around at one another. Finally the bravest of them spoke up.
“We were hoping to learn from you.”
Gabrielle blinked. It wasn’t something she’d been expecting to hear. EVER. Especially not from the Amazons. Always before, Xena had stood for her and the one time she’d fought on her own, she’d been defeated badly by a warrior who had since proven herself less than worthy to hold the title of Queen. Even after she’d led them at Helicon, it had never been something she’d imagined hearing from them. So now Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons, sat breathing and blinking, absorbing the recognition of her skill and ability which was in its own way a coming of age.
The amazons waited quietly, knowing by her expression that Gabrielle was not with them in this time and place. Eventually she turned back to them with a smile.
“I think I could arrange some time for that if you’d really like it. I never considered it before.” She smiled. “Thank you for asking me.”
A cheer went up from all the Amazons on the flagship that was heard across the small fleet. It would be a little while before the rest of the Nation understood and accepted the enthusiasm of their sisters.
Three days later, during what was quickly becoming the first of three daily sparring sessions, a cry went up from the lookout of the ship farthest to the north. Excitedly, every woman who was not working ran to the railing to get a good look.
“Land! Land ho!!”
The Amazon Nation had finally found what was going to become their new home.
It took the better part of the day to reach land. The flagship actually beached itself unintentionally when the water became a sandbar with very little warning. They debarked themselves and a few supplies. Gabrielle had decided they were sleeping on shore even though there was no possible way to unload their supplies and find shelter. The weather looked good and for tonight, she simply wanted to lay on the ground and look up at the upside down stars and remember.
The Amazons were glad to step foot on dry land again, even though they were stepping out into the unknown. It felt good to be walking on flat earth and working parties were quickly formed. Each regent had been specially chosen as a leader of a specific sect. Now they took charge of the women under their command and soon the Amazons were spread out... some hunting, some scouting for recognizable plant life, others gathering firewood or the large green leafed boughs they found spread out under the foliage that lined the beach area.
Some of the women that remained began to clear an area for a temporary camp and the rest went back to the ships to remove the things they would need immediately. Soon the area was alive with activity.
Several times, Gabrielle felt the tickle of eyes on her skin, but though she dismissed it as being one of the Amazons, she couldn’t rub away the tingling feeling at the back of her neck. And she never found any of the women glance her way unless they were addressing her directly. They were all too busy to notice her. Eventually, the feeling faded and the hunters and scouts returned to the beachhead. Gabrielle put the feeling away for later study and forced her attention to the Nation in front of her.
The evening passed pleasantly as the Amazons ate fresh game the hunters had provided and the tubers the scouts had found. There were no longer barriers between the different tribes and factions. The voyage over had made them a single nation, for which fact Gabrielle was extremely grateful. It would make her job easier and would hopefully help them transition into the new life they were beginning more smoothly.
It took several days for the boats to be unloaded completely. It was expected, given the fact that they were stripping the ships to skeletons, but Gabrielle also had some of the Amazons building a few shelters as well. She had discussed it with her council and they had determined this would make a good outpost for them for several reasons. There was already a group of women set to rotate back to the beach as soon as the Nation had found a permanent settlement.
Finally, the women were ready and slowly they moved inward. After four days travel, the Amazons came to a place that made them stop in awe. There was a wall of granite on two sides that rose high into the air. A bit of investigation revealed that it seemed to be at the end of a mountain chain and there were several caves and crevices that would provide storage and shelter.
At the base of the wall on the third side was a thick forest with a clear river and after four days of sand and scrub, it was a welcome, restful sight. The procession slowed, gradually coming to a halt while Gabrielle walked slightly ahead of them. The council followed her until she motioned them to stay put and she stepped forward several more paces before turning to face the remnants of the Amazon Nation.
“Ladies, I think we have found our new home.”
A cheer rose from the Amazons and it was almost loud enough to drown the sensation Gabrielle still had of being watched.
The next several months were busy as the Amazons slowly carved out a niche for themselves in this rough and tumble new world. They were mindful of the fact that they were establishing a nation they hoped would last for a long time to come and were very careful to preserve as many of their resources as possible. They had learned all too well that nothing was in unlimited supply and it was a lesson they took to heart seriously.
Besides, this new land was harsh and it seemed loathe to give up any of its dearly hoarded resources without a fight. But slowly, steadily, the Amazons were forging a place for themselves in their new world.
The beach outpost had been successfully established and already the women were rotating in and out of there regularly. A second outpost had been set in the forest and a third existed at the top of the wall close to the mountain range. The Amazons felt well-protected and were settling in nicely.
Gabrielle continued to get the random feeling of being watched, but the scouts never reported any other human life and she herself had been unable to find any definite traces of humanity in her nightly treks.
She more then any of them was glad to be back on land, despite the new challenges and dangers they faced. It was much easier to control the blood need that sporadically coursed through her veins and she greatly appreciated having her own space... not that she hadn’t had that on the ship. She had and the women were most respectful of it. But here, surrounded by mountains and trees and earth, Gabrielle felt the freedom she had known on the road with Xena.
Thoughts like those tended to turn maudlin very quickly and she allowed her attention to drift to her surroundings. Gabrielle was sitting on the wall cliff, affording her a view that just hinted at the large body of water beyond. Her mind focused on the ring she wore and she suddenly realized how long it had been since she’d spoken to Aphrodite and it dawned on her why that was.
“I miss you, my friend,” she said aloud. “When you get a few free minutes, look around and see if you can find me, huh? I’d still like to keep in touch, even though we are no where near where we’re supposed to be.” Gabrielle’s eyes widened in thought. “Guess we’re gonna have two colonies of Amazons, ‘cause I doubt fate will intervene every time a new group of women try to join us.”
The weather was cooling quickly as the seasons shifted towards winter and Gabrielle shivered as the sun slid below the horizon. “So awkward to have winter coming when I’m expecting summer to be here instead,” she commented, knowing Cyane was coming up behind her.
“I agree... everything is upside down and backwards here, but it’s a nice place to be.”
Gabrielle waited. She knew something was bothering Cyane because everyone respected her privacy at sunset on the rare occasion that she made the trek up to the top of the wall to watch them. Instead, they sat quietly together until darkness fell completely and the wind began to pick up across the plain. Finally, Cyane spoke into the silence.
“My Queen, I am a little concerned.” She waited for Gabrielle to turn her head before she continued speaking. “Two things, actually and they may or may not be related.”
“Okay, what’s up?”
“Well, you may think I’m losing my mind, especially since we haven’t seen any indication of human life, but I’d swear more than once that we’ve been being watched. Can’t really explain it as more than a feeling, but it’s there and it’s real.”
Gabrielle nodded her understanding and waited for Cyane to resume speaking.
“In a way I hope my feelings are right,” seeing the expected eyebrow shoot into the blonde hairline. “If they are others here, even if we haven’t found them, that’s good for us. They obviously don’t mind us being here, or they would surely have objected to our presence by now. And truthfully, we need them if we are to have any hope for the survival of our nation.”
Gabrielle sat quietly for a little while thinking over what Cyane had shared. Then she stood and dusted herself off and waited while Cyane did the same.
“I’ve noticed the same subtle signs of habitation, but like you I can’t find any other real proof aside from my feelings and I’m not sure how to describe it... an odd displacement of air, maybe?”
Cyane nodded. “Exactly. That’s exactly what it is. Holes in the air that weren’t there before.”
“Well, things are settling down now since we have the basics done in the village, maybe we should set up some hunting parties with specific instructions on what we want them to be hunting for. If we have neighbors, I think we should try to get to know them. It’d be nice to know where we stood before the cold weather settles in to stay.”
“I’ll see what we can put together. I think we can ge....” Cyane stopped speaking as one of the scouts who’d had duty in the outpost near the mountain approached them at a run. Gabrielle had put a halt to kneeling and bowing, but the scout still bobbed her head in acknowledgement.
“My... Queen. Cyane.”
Gabrielle reached out and put a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Take a minute and catch your breath, Chia.” For a moment nothing was heard but her harsh breathing and Gabrielle met Cyane’s gaze evenly, reading the same questions in the blue eyes facing her that she had in her own mind. Cyane shrugged and crossed her arms over her chest, waiting for the younger Amazon to continue speaking.
“Lana, Trei and I have the watch in the mountains this week. About a candlemark ago, I heard something, or thought I did and Trei volunteered to keep watch while I did some scouting. Just as the sun dropped to the horizon... well, I can’t say I caught her, but an older woman simply walked out of the shadows and right up to me. Scared the centaur poop right outta me... gods! Anyway,” she hastily continued, remembering who she was talking to. “This woman walked right up to me and for the longest time just looked at me.”
“What did she look like?” Cyane interrupted.
Chia stopped abruptly, focusing her gaze inward a moment as she bit her tongue in thought. “Older, like one of our elders with similar clothing. Dark-skinned, but from the sun and not by birth. She had dark eyes and hair which was shoulder length and braided with beads and feathers on the left side, similar to what our warriors do, but different in style. She had several piercings and her tattoos were interesting... swirls and things that covered most of her left arm.” Chia demonstrated.
“So what happened?” Gabrielle asked to get things back on track. Chia’s description of the woman gave Gabrielle a prickling in her thumbs for reasons she couldn’t explain and she wanted to know more.
“Oh, um well, she stood there and looked at me without saying a word, then she reached out a hand to touch me. I move back and grabbed my knife.” Here Chia blushed. “She laughed at me. That made me kinda mad and I swung. She took me to the ground like I was a pup. Then she spoke.”
“WELL??” Cyane roared when the silence grew lengthy.
“Oh, sorry,” Chia said. “She looked at me and said in perfect Greek, ‘You’re an Amazon?’ I told her I was. So then she said, ‘The blonde woman who leads you....’ I think she was waiting for me to fill in the blank for her, but I didn’t, I just stood there waiting. Finally she realized I wasn’t going to offer her any information and she nodded her head almost approvingly. ‘Is her name Gabrielle?’”
At these words, Gabrielle’s head flew up. Chia chuckled and Gabrielle arched a brow at her.
“I’m sorry, my Queen, but that was EXACTLY my reaction. I didn’t answer, but I think that may have given it away. However, the woman didn’t press me further. She simply gave me something and asked me to give it to you. Said you would recognize it and that she would be in touch once you’d seen it so you’d have a chance to decide for yourself what happened next.”
Gabrielle held out her hand and waited for the object. Chia took the small backpack she carried off and opened it, lifting a wrapped bundle from it and placing it in Gabrielle’s hand. Even the darkness couldn’t hide the slight trembling in her hand as the moon provided ample light to see by. Gabrielle slowly removed the outer covering, then gasped in astonishment as her eyes took in a truth she wouldn’t have believed without the physical proof she now held in her hands.
She forgot about the two other women standing with her and cast her mind back more than thirty years before, when she’d first been introduced to the Amazons.
How many times had she hit herself with the staff? Six? Eight? A dozen? Her head hurt and her muscles ached even worse. She’d never felt as clumsy and out of place as she did with all these warrior women who obviously disdained her presence among them.
Still, in the midst of everything and while Xena was off trying to solve the mystery of who exactly was trying to start a war between the Amazons and the Centaurs, Gabrielle continued to try to master this new weapon she’d been accorded by Amazon law and tradition.
Her teacher was very patient and very quiet and Gabrielle, in her own exuberant way, tried to draw the older woman out, but aside from giving her instruction and occasional one words answers to her questions, Gabrielle didn’t get much out of her instructor.
After Krykus was defeated, Gabrielle and Xena returned to the road and Xena resumed Gabrielle’s staff instruction until the bard was a force to be reckoned with by any standards. It was during this time that Xena’s death brought them back into contact with the Amazons and once that matter was resolved Gabrielle had the opportunity to show off the skills she’d developed.
Xena stood to one side and watched proudly as Gabrielle wiped the floor with every Amazon that approached her. Finally, her one-time instructor took her on and Gabrielle not only held her own, but managed to defeat her after several spirited minutes of sparring.
Xena grinned proudly, even as the weapons master stood there in open-mouthed disbelief. Eventually she shook her head and walked from the field without a word. Gabrielle looked at Xena askance... she hadn’t expected to win, but she’d expected less to see poor sportsmanship. Xena shrugged and wrapped an arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders smiling at the way the bard fit into her naturally. They turned to walk off the practice field when they saw the instructor coming back at a run. When she reached them, she knelt before Gabrielle and held up a ceremonial blade in a beautifully crafted sheath.
Gabrielle reached out a hand to touch it, then turned to Xena questioningly. Xena shrugged nonchalantly and looked at the Amazon eyebrow raised in question.
“This was the blade I earned in our last weapons competition. If you can defeat me so easily it should be yours.”
Gabrielle looked at Xena in consternation. She couldn’t keep this, even if she wanted to. They had no place to put it for one thing and there was no way she could carry it. She’d already made the conscious decision not to fight with a blade. Besides, this was obviously something that meant a great deal to the other woman and Gabrielle made a mental note to ask Ephiny about the history behind the sword itself.
“I have an idea,” Gabrielle said suddenly. “I will accept this if you will agree to be its keeper.” Gabrielle almost smiled at the confusion that crossed the weapons master’s face. “I can’t keep it, Eponin,” she said softly, “but I will not affront your honor by refusing it. So I’m asking you to remain as the blade’s guardian.”
The older woman thought about it for a moment, then nodded her acceptance. Gabrielle took the blade and nodded and Eponin rose to her feet.
“Thank you, my Queen.”
Gabrielle smiled now as she slid the blade from its sheath, feeling the quill etching she’d had added to it before she’d returned the sword to her teacher. Her smile faltered when her fingers fell on something unfamiliar and yet.... Well, she’d take a look at it in the daylight. In the meantime....
“Thank you, Chia. This is probably one of the nicest things to happen to me in a while.”
They wanted to question her; she knew they did. But her rank, as much as their respect for her leadership, kept them silent. Instead, Chia nodded again and murmured, “If you’ll excuse me, my Queen. I need to report back to my post.”
Gabrielle nodded, her thoughts far away again. She and Cyane stood together silently as Chai ran back towards the mountain outpost. When Gabrielle turned to make her way back to the village, Cyane accompanied her without a word.
Gabrielle appreciated the quiet; she was busy contemplating the possibilities of what she now held in her hand.
“I’m telling you, Varia. It was the ceremonial sword of Artemis.”
“Cyane, how can you be sure of that? It was dark. And it’s not like you ever actually saw it. It’s been missing for more than thirty years.”
Cyane stripped off her top and groaned in relief as she bathed off with the warm water Varia had been thoughtful enough to provide. “Gods, that’s nice. It got damned cold out there.” She put on a clean shirt. “All right, Varia. Don’t believe me. But I’m telling you that is the ceremonial sword and you’ll know it when you see it. It looks just like the stories described. Although....”
“I’d like to get a good look at the etching on the blade. There is more there than the stories told.”
Varia rolled her eyes. “There is no way you could have seen that in the dark, even if you were standing in Gabrielle’s personal space. The moon just doesn’t get that bright.”
Cyane swatted Varia on the shoulder. “Don’t be a smartass. It was more the look that crossed Gabrielle’s face. Now come on... I need a drink.”
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