Gabrielle made her way to her dwelling without incident. The village was a mixture of cave dwellings and log huts and Gabrielle had secured a cave for herself. It had a hot spring near the back which had been the deciding factor in her choice. She was still looking for a back way out, but for now she was satisfied with the arrangement she had. Not like I’m in danger of dying, though the feeling of confinement was sometimes a little overwhelming.
All in all, though, she liked her living arrangements and tonight she was especially glad for the privacy the cavern afforded her. She stoked the fire, bringing the blaze back up, grateful for both the light and the warmth. She put on water to heat for tea and laid the sheath next to her bedroll. Then she moved to the hot spring to clean up.
She didn’t dawdle, but instead bathed hurriedly and redressed, catching her tea water just as it boiled. Then she put it on to steep and turned her attention back to the sword and its keeper. She noted there were new markings on the blade.
“Eponin, how did you get here?” she asked aloud and suddenly she was anxious for the morrow and the answers it would reveal.
Morning saw Gabrielle walking towards the mountain outpost just as the sun began to creep over the rocky horizon. She didn’t expect to find Eponin waiting for her there, but she felt confident that Eponin’s extraordinary surveillance of them would insure her presence soon enough.
She nodded a greeting to the sentry who stood outside the post then headed into the small open area beyond. She felt the sentry’s hesitation, torn between remaining at her post and accompanying her Queen to a place that the Amazons considered to be outside their borders. A hand signal was all it took and with a frown the sentry resumed her lookout.
The meadow had been an unexpected find. It was a tiny bit of grassland that was surrounded by mountains and trees. Gabrielle had the uncanny feeling that when she came, Eponin would instinctively look for her there. Gabrielle sat on a log and removed the blade from the sheath. Her fingers gently traced the etchings old and new as she waited for her friend to arrive.
It wasn’t a sound as much as it was a feeling, but Gabrielle remained still for a long moment before she looked up. There before her knelt an older woman head bowed in an attitude of respect. Gabrielle reached forward hesitantly not wishing to offend, but needing to know for certain.
When her hand reached the woman’s shoulder, her head came up and Gabrielle looked upon a friend she had honestly never expected to see again. A million things ran through her mind, but all that came out of her mouth was “Oh, Eponin!”
The warrior took the proffered hands of her Queen but made no move to stand until Gabrielle said softly, “Rise, my friend.” She did so with alacrity and was engulfed in an embrace so profound it hurt. For long moments the hug went on, until with some embarrassment at the tears in her eyes, Eponin pulled away.
Gabrielle unashamedly wiped at her eyes, then tugged on the older woman’s hand until they were seated side by side. They took a bit of time to study one another and Gabrielle knew that unless things had changed dramatically, she would have to be the one to break the silence.
“You look wonderful, Eponin. It is so good to see you again, no matter how unexpected.”
Eponin chuckled. “You haven’t changed at all, Gabrielle and I’ll bet there is a Tartarus of a story behind the reason for that.”
“More than you know, my friend. More than you know.”
Eponin hesitated, having so many things she wanted to asked, but fairly certain she didn’t want to hear the answers. Gabrielle waited, not sure where to begin. Finally Eponin spoke.
“Where is Xena and what happened to the others – Ephiny, Solari and Chilapa? So many new faces in the people you brought with you and so many old faces missing.”
Gabrielle smiled sadly. “That is all part of my long story. I’ll share mine if you’ll share yours.”
Eponin nodded. “It is one reason I asked to meet with you after I was sure it was you and the Amazons that were here. That and I needed to return the sword,” motioning to the ceremonial blade that now lay on the ground between them. “It belongs with the Nation.”
“I’ll start, I guess,” Gabrielle said and launched into the tale of what had happened in the thirty years since she had seen the weapons master. Eponin’s eyes grew increasingly large as Gabrielle’s story unfolded and more than once she wiped tears from her eyes.
“That is... um, well....”
“Amazing? Unbelievable? Bizarre beyond description? All of the above?”
Eponin chuckled, as much of an emotional release as anything else, though there was certainly an ironic humor at work here.
“Yes,” she answered with another soft laugh. “Certainly makes my story tame by comparison.”
“What is your story, Ep?” The last time I saw you....”
“The last time you saw me, we were still kids, although gods know I didn’t think *I* was. I didn’t have any doubts about you.”
“Hey!” Gabrielle exclaimed in mock outrage, but had to acknowledge the words for the truth. She was surprised at Eponin’s gregariousness and wondered if it was due to her years’ experiences since leaving the Nation or if it was simply the astonishing encounter they were how having. Gabrielle gave a mental shrug. Either way, it was nice to actually be able to have a conversation, especially with an old friend who would understand and appreciate just the tiniest bit what Gabrielle had to look forward to.
“I like this,” Gabrielle said when the silence threatened to become awkward, motioning to the chakram that had been etched around her quill on the sword’s blade. “It fits, somehow.”
Eponin shrugged. “I remembered when it was all over and you were wrapped in Xena’s arms that night how perfectly you fit together. I didn’t add it for along time, but when it became apparent I would never make it home again, it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Gabrielle smiled. “You won’t be terribly surprised if I agree with you, will you?”
“Nah. I’d be more surprised if you didn’t, even with everything.”
Silence fell then for a time and Gabrielle was content to let it stay until Eponin felt comfortable with whatever it was she had to share. Eventually, the weapons master drew a deep breath and began to speak.
“You know how things were after Velaska,” Eponin started with no prelude. Gabrielle nodded and waited silently. “Eph and the council talked it over and it was decided to try and bring all the tribes together.”
Eponin smiled at the look on Gabrielle’s face and nodded. “Yeah, even then the Amazons were trying to consolidate the tribes. Anyway, we knew where some were and then there were others... ones we’d only heard about through legends and stories passed down through generations.”
“It was decided that someone would go and see if these lost tribes could be found. I volunteered.”
She shrugged again and looked at Gabrielle. “I figured, how hard could it be, right? I mean the stories had clues indicating where to find them if you knew how and where to look and I did.” Eponin shook her head. “What arrogance. I had no clue what I was getting into and I was so sure I could manage on my own. I did find the first two in Africa. Then I made the mistake of getting on a boat.”
Eponin cut her eyes at her Queen. “Do you know what it’s like to be on a ship when you’re prone to seasickness? Do you know what it’s like to be on a ship during a storm when you’re prone to seasickness??”
Gabrielle laughed out loud so hard that she slid from the log. “Have you ever eaten raw squid because the cure for your seasickness killed your taste buds?” she countered. Eponin made a face.
“Well, ew! I’m not sure which is worse.”
Gabrielle climbed back on the log, still chuckling. “Me either, actually, though I’d be tempted to go with the squid, cause you’re still gonna chuck it right back up.”
“Oh, thank you for that image, my Queen. Just what I needed to start my day out right.”
“Happy to help,” came the cheeky answer, then Gabrielle motioned for her to continue.
“I never knew I suffered from seasickness... I’d never been on a boat before. Imagine my unhappy surprise. About three days out from the coast, we hit a massive storm. I dunno what happened after that exactly. I was too busy being seriously ill. When they storm finally relented, we were just off the coast here. I was traded for fresh supplies.”
The last was said so low, Gabrielle had to strain to catch the words. And then she blinked as she tried to understand them.
Eponin hurried on to save them both the embarrassment of her having to repeat her words. “I was too sick to stop them and the crew traded me to the locals in return for fresh supplies to try and make their way back home. The headman took a liking to me.” She shrugged depreciatingly.
Gabrielle reached out a tentative hand, pleased when the weapons master didn’t flinch away from her touch. “Eponin, are you unhappy here? Are you being held against your will? You’re still an Amazon, you know and you are always welcome among your sisters.”
Eponin’s smile was genuine. “I’m not unhappy, Gabrielle. I found a place for myself here and as much as the Amazons are a part of me, this land and the people who live here are also my home and my family. In fact, I’ve come to talk to you about that.”
Gabrielle cocked her head. She had a fair idea of where this was going, but she didn’t want to presume. Eponin glanced at her, then looked out across the meadow.
“We, my tribe, have been watching the Nation since you all arrived here. Once the scouts realized what was going on with the settlement, I was brought in to help determine your fate. When I recognized you, I realized what must have happened with the Nation and I explained to the headman what I believed was going on.”
Gabrielle nodded. “The men of my tribe are willing to work an arrangement with the Amazons similar to what we had with the surrounding villages in Greece. They would welcome the boy children into their village while the girls would stay with their Amazon mothers.”
“How do the village women feel?”
Eponin shrugged. “Well, their society allows a man to have more than one wife. So it’s not something they are unused to.”
“Wait... are you saying the Amazons will have to marry these men to mate with them?? Eponin....”
“No, no, Gabrielle.” She ran a hand through her graying hair. “I’m not explaining this well. They understand what the Nation needs to survive and are willing to provide the service necessary.”
“In exchange for...? C’mon Ep... we all know nothing is free in this life... or any other for that matter.”
Eponin cut her eyes over at Gabrielle. “Anyone ever tell you you’ve gotten cynical in your old age, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle sighed wearily. “I’ve seen too much of the world Eponin and it’s not a pretty place. People do what they have to do to survive and that usually doesn’t bring out the best in them.”
Eponin sat quietly absorbing the truth in Gabrielle’s words. “The tribe is willing to provide men for child-making in exchange for all the male children that are born. It’s good for you and good for them.”
Gabrielle nodded. “All right. I’ll take it to the council, though I don’t think they will refuse. It’s been a concern. And in the meantime, perhaps I can meet with the headman? Maybe they will be willing to set up some sort of trade.”
Eponin smiled. “I think I can arrange that. The tribe has been anxious to meet the Amazons, but especially you, since you arrived.”
“C’mon then,” Gabrielle said as she stood, extending a hand down to help the older woman stand. She picked up the ceremonial blade and hefted it into place on her back. “I want to introduce you to the sisters here. Then we can go meet with your tribe and see what we can work out between us. I think this could be a good thing for everyone involved.”
Eponin took Gabrielle in a hug which startled her, but one that she returned in full measure. “Despite everything, Gabrielle, I am selfishly glad you’re here.”
“Me too, Eponin. Me too.”
The moonlight was bright enough to see by even without the enhanced senses Xena had developed since her separation from Gabrielle. She was glad they only tended to kick in when she was on the hunt or in some sort of perceived danger. She was fairly certain the scents and sounds that assaulted her would drive her mad if she was forced to endure them continuously.
Her guardians made no sound and since they were downwind of their prey the trio were able to walk almost right into the herd.
The buffalo were milling together, lowing softly as they settled in for the night. Xena noticed that a small commotion at the back of the herd and focused her attention on it. The panther crept forward while the fox remained at Xena’s side. Still some distance from the disturbance, the black cat stopped and turned its gaze back to the fox. Without a sound, the fox slunk forward and Xena moved without thought to follow.
The two animals stopped again as Xena slowed to take in the tableau before her. Directly in front of her, though still some distance away, was a white buffalo. Aside from the fact that it was a beautiful animal whose hide she admired, the animal was obviously an outcast and was continually being butted and chased by the larger buffalo around it. Xena raised her bow as the white buffalo was herded her way by both the herd and the panther that had crept up behind it.
Almost negligently, Xena let an arrow fly straight and true into the buffalo’s eye. It tottered for a moment then fell over, causing a shifting of movement in the herd until the panther let out a roar. Then they loped steadily away from the fallen animal to relative safety.
Xena walked to the dying buffalo, reaching out two fingers to its neck and ending its torment. The she set about neatly skinning and draining it, being sure to take her fill before bleeding the animal out. The panther and the fox sat on either side, patiently waiting for her to finish before procuring their own meal.
Xena couldn’t help but be amazed at the odd behavior of the pair and she deliberately cut a portion of the meat for them to share and set it aside from the rest of the creature. She continued to watch as the panther carefully checked the selection she’d laid out for them; then the cat gently nudged the sustenance towards its mate. The fox delicately raised a morsel to its mouth and began gnawing before the panther took a bite, keeping a watchful eye on the warrior.
Xena shook her head to clear it. Such behavior was completely unnatural for these animals and she couldn’t help but wonder if she’d gone too long without feeding to make her hallucinate such odd conduct in the two natural predators. She blinked again, but the image didn’t go away; the cat and fox continued to eat the piece of meat she’d given them, the panther making sure the fox got its fill before scooping up the remainder in its strong jaws.
Xena turned her attention back to the buffalo, discarding the entrails and realizing she had a dilemma. There was no way she could manage to carry the remainder of the animal back to the makeshift village and waste was unacceptable.
She rooted around in her mind for a solution, finally deciding she was completely out of her mind with what she ended up with. She turned to the panther, which looked back at her with singularly intelligent eyes.
“I don’t suppose you’d watch over the rest of this for me til I get back?” she queried rhetorically as she hefted a large quantity of meat in her hands. “Well, I needed a good workout tonight I suppose,” she muttered to herself as she took off back towards the village at a run.
It was very late and the camp had already settled in for its night rest when she arrived. Hotassa and a few of the other women hurried from their homes as the sound of running footsteps thundered through the compound. They looked at Xena in surprise when she approached blood covered and hands filled with buffalo meat.
Hotassa accepted the burden Xena carried, calling out instructions to the women who stood around staring. Soon, the camp was all a-bustle with activity and several of the women accompanied Xena back to the prairie to see if anything remained of what she had left behind.
It is difficult to say who was more shocked when the small troupe arrived back where the buffalo was. The panther and the fox circled the animal in opposite directions, intent on keeping any threat at bay. When Hotassa approached, the cat hissed and tensed to spring. Xena held the woman back by a touch on her arm and the older woman halted. Xena walked forward and the panther hesitated, studying the warrior for a long moment before resuming its place by the fox’s side.
The women were amazed and began chattering among themselves at the unusual behavior the two were exhibiting. Xena stepped forward and began to gather the remaining meat for the women to carry back to the camp, then she lifted the heavy hide herself. It was then that Hotassa got her first good look at the hide.
“Évó'kómo hotoa'e. Ma'heono hova! Zee-nah epeva'e notaxe,” she stated emphatically, falling back into her own language and lowering her head in respect. Xena’s brow creased in confusion and she cursed herself once again for not having a complete grasp on this language yet.
She noted that all the women had lowered their eyes before her and when she stopped and took Hotassa’s elbow, everyone stopped and waited. Xena took a deep breath and motioned them forward. One of the younger, braver souls glanced up in her direction and she made distinct shooing motions and commanded, “GO!” The women scurried off to take care of the buffalo meat she had supplied. Hotassa remained with her eyes still on the ground, trying to come up with words they would both understand, because she could feel the irritation emanating from the tall figure before her.
Xena rubbed her face and Hotassa felt compassion for the frustration she knew Xena was feeling. They had made great strides in communicating, but there were still times, like now, when they forgot and fell into their old ways. They had to put some thought into speaking the same language.
Hotassa took Xena’s hand and drew her back to the hide that once again rested on the ground. She stroked it gently. “White.”
Xena nodded. “Yeah, it is. It’s unusual, but it was being abused by the rest of the herd.” She stopped speaking at the confusion in Hotassa’s eyes. Xena was unused to having to justify a kill and it showed in her tone of voice.
“Zee-nah, great hunter. Sacred,” motioning to the hide. Xena didn’t see it that way at all. She had merely taken pity on a creature that had no real hope.
“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to kill a sacred animal. It just seemed like the right thing to do.” She didn’t add that both the herd and the panther had cut it out of the pack as though giving it to her.
Hotassa shook her head. She was fairly certain Xena was not understanding the honor she’d been given. Instead she motioned towards the two animals that had taken sentinel positions on either side. “Zee-nah strong seo'ôtse.”
Xena rubbed her face again. “I’m not sure I understand, Hotassa, but I’m not sure I want to either.”
Hotassa merely nodded. There wasn’t a way to convey what Xena needed to know without some help from her mate the shaman and that would have to wait until the men returned from war. In the meantime, it appeared as though Xena had acquired two rather formidable mascots and the animals padded along silently beside her as the women made their way back to camp.
Xena blinked in surprise at the abundance of late-night activity still obvious around the village. Women scurried to and fro setting up smoking fires to cure the meat; another small group was tending to the bones, preparing them to be converted into tools and weapons needed in the community. Still a third was building a large fire in the pit before Hotassa’s dwelling and readying a cauldron of water for heating.
Xena understood Hotassa without words when she slipped a cake of soap and a thin piece of cloth into the warrior’s hand and motioned her towards the spring. Xena was happy to comply with the unspoken command as the scent of blood on her person was keeping her on a razor edge she preferred to avoid when surrounded by so many people.
She took a few moments to scrub the dried blood from her hands and arms as well as her clothing. Then she let her mind drift as she relaxed and rinsed. Inevitably, it centered on Gabrielle and the many times they had shared a lake or stream and the now familiar ached of loneliness welled in her soul once more.
“Oh, Gabrielle,” whispered on a prayer to the wind.
Xena took a few minutes to compose herself before exiting the water and dressing. Then she moved back to the mostly silent camp.
In the short time she’d been gone, the women had completed their preliminary tasks for curing the different parts of the buffalo Xena had slain and had returned to their homes for a bit of rest before morning was upon them again.
Xena crossed to her home, noting with interest that the panther and fox now lay curled up together in front of the flap. She shook her head in bemused wonder and crossed the threshold. “Wonder what Gabrielle would have made of the two of you,” she muttered to herself before settling herself in with the now clean hide and beginning her work to cure it.
Several days passed before the men returned. A few were missing, but thankfully a majority came home though there were more wounded than not. Among the worst wounded was the shaman and without a word, Xena moved to help him. His son Kya stepped between them, intent on keeping a woman and especially *this* woman away from his father. After her public refusal of his advances, Kya had done his best to put her in her place.
Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t nearly as capable as he imagined himself to be and Xena constantly thwarted his attempts to contain her.
Now she raised a hand to physically move him out of her way, the intensity in her eyes making it clear to all present that he was not going to stop her.
The words were softly spoken, but the meaning was clear even to Xena’s untrained ears. She cocked an eyebrow at the young man, waiting for him to comply with his father’s request. He glared at her but moved out of her way. A passing thought of wondering why his ritual had brought Xena to them crossed his mind again and he shook his head as he stepped aside.
Xena waited until the shaman beckoned her closer, then she knelt and began to assess his injuries. He lay quietly and let her work, though she could see the questions in his eyes. She didn’t have time to worry about them immediately since she was concentrating on cleaning and binding his wounds. She patted his arm and stood to move on to the next warrior in need of healing. His hand on hers caused her to hesitate with a question in her eyes.
He motioned to the two animals that now sat beside the warrior. They had been patiently sitting together by one side of her doorway and had stepped between her and his son at the young man’s first movement towards Xena. “Nanose'hame, ma'êhoohe. Tosa'e? Tone?”
She understood what he was asking and motioned to the vast plain beyond the encampment. Then Hotassa knelt beside him and wiped his brow.
“A'e,” she assured him and he nodded and released Xena to continue her work. The shaman’s eyes closed as he let his body relax into a healing sleep.
One by one Xena applied her healing skills to the warriors and slowly they allowed her to care for them. Many of the wounds were relatively minor, for which everyone was thankful and just before midday she finished treating those who needed it. Then she retreated to her dwelling and out the back in an effort to get away and find some peace.
Meanwhile, the women had begun to tell their mates what had transpired on the plain three nights previous. The men sat in awed disbelief at the story that unfolded and many expressed skepticism at the possibility. Hotassa hushed them all by showing them the white hide that sat curing in front of Xena’s home. She promised to give them the whole story when her husband awakened and they accepted that edict with only minor grumbling.
Xena exited her home quietly and was down the path before the conversation got too embarrassing. She still didn’t understand all the words, but she understood enough and got the tonal inflection easily enough to know exactly who and what the conversation was about. It didn’t take much for her to decide she needed a long walk.
She found herself moving away from the village and into the small scrub hills they had settled near while the men had been gone. She sighed. This place was so foreign, so different from home and it made her ache for the comfort of trees and hills and the familiarity of a cool breeze on her face. Xena wanted to go home.
Without realizing it, her steps became faster and before she knew it, she was running full out. She wasn’t sure if she was running to something or running away from something, so she stopped thinking and stopped feeling and just ran.
A stitch in her side finally made her slow to a walk and she noted with some surprise that the sun was more than halfway to the horizon. She shook her head in disgust.
“Brilliant, Xena. It’s gonna be real late before you get back to the village. Gabrielle would be furious if she was here.”
That thought caused her knees to unbuckle as a flash of a previously hidden memory exploded across her mind. The look of anguished betrayal on Gabrielle’s face was heartbreaking and Xena allowed herself to drop to the ground as the last events of her life paraded forth in her mind’s eye.
“Oh, Gabrielle.... I am so, SO sorry....” And Xena sat lost in tormented thought reliving a decision she could no longer comprehend until the moon was high in the sky.
It was actually the feeling of warmth curled in her lap that brought Xena out of the haze she was in. She looked down, somewhat unsurprised to see the fox curled into a small ball on her legs. More surprising was the fact that the panther sat unmoving next to but not touching its mate. Xena smiled down at them sadly, tears still sitting on her lashes unspent.
She sat lightly stroking the fox’s fur while the panther kept sentinel over both of them, though Xena did note with some amusement that the panther was very aware of her actions as much as it was of the environment that surrounded them.
Xena lifted the fox from her lap and set it gently beside the cat who gazed at her with watchful eyes. “You two,” she said as she rose to her feet and dusted herself off, “oughta be fairly close to your home. It might be best if you head back there. But thanks for keeping me company.”
She looked like she wanted to say more, but for the life of her, Xena could no more articulate the feelings in her heart right then than she could fly to the moon. She was sure a lot of that had to do with her exhaustion, both physical and emotional. She felt very much like her world had spun completely off its axis and totally out of control and she was at a loss to know what to do to get things back on track. Having these two animals nearby sharing a bond that was as strong and familiar as what she had shared with Gabrielle as a constant reminder of what she had lost simply made it worse.
It was a sweet pain, but it was agonizing nonetheless and she had no desire to be a martyr to it... especially now that she knew the truth. Part of the truth anyway and Xena knew beyond a doubt that the vicious death she now recalled with stunning clarity lay totally at her feet. Now it was critical for her to discover what sort of afterlife she had fallen into, because it was time to see what god she could manipulate into sending her home... and back into Gabrielle’s arms.
Xena had started walking while processing these thoughts and she came to with a start, realizing that the fox and panther were casually strolling along beside her.
“Don’t you two have somewhere to be?”
They gazed at her compassionately and the intelligence she saw in both their eyes nearly unnerved her. Without words, she understood that they considered themselves her guardians and her shoulders sagged in defeat.
“All right, c’mon. We’ve got a long trip back to the village.” They started back together at a walk while Xena’s mind turned to serious contemplation of finding her way back to life.
It was sunrise when Xena and her two companions made it back to the encampment and she noted the odd sense of reverence in the glances now cast her way by the various individuals she passed on her way to her home. She snatched up her towel and went to the small creek to wash, then slipped back into her teepee unnoticed and settled down for a bit of rest. She had a lot of things to consider.
Xena’s very first thought upon waking was of Gabrielle, but it had been that way since that very first night outside of Amphipolis if she was honest enough to admit it to herself and here in this place, it was easy to be that honest with herself. She sat for long moments undisturbed as her mind began sorting through the puzzle it had been given. Something just didn’t make sense.
A light knocking at the doorway caused blue eyes to flitter open and she called out, “Come.”
Hotassa stuck her head in the flap, a look of relief crossing her face when she saw that Xena was awake and alert. She offered forth the steaming bowl in her hands.
“Mesêhestôtse?” she asked. She had a look though that reminded Xena of Cyrene. She was fairly certain if she refused, Hotassa would insist to the point of feeding the warrior herself to insure that Xena ate. Instead, Xena received the food with a graceful nod of her head and a slight smile.
“Nea'eše,” Xena said and dug into the meal with relish. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was until the first taste crossed her lips. Then she began to devour the stew rapidly.
“Enovahe,” Hotassa said with a chuckle. “Slow.”
Xena chewed a little more slowly and swallowed the mouthful she had before wiping her mouth with her hand. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “Hungry.”
It finally occurred to Xena what had been niggling at her about this afterlife... this place was far closer to what LIFE had been to her than any other afterlife she’d experienced. Tartarus had been torture on the cross; in Hell she’d been a demon bent on destruction. In Heaven she’d had been an archangel, though she didn’t remember having needs or desires like Michael and Lucifer seemed to suffer from. Probably wasn’t there long enough... she thought with a sneer, remembering clearly how THAT little escapade had been the beginning of a hellacious year for her and Gabrielle that had nearly ripped them to shreds.
Valhalla was a little different, but that had more to do with being a Valkyrie because she hadn’t actually been dead in that afterlife. Since she only helped bring Odin’s chosen warriors into their place of eternal reward very briefly, she really didn’t know much about that afterlife. Especially since her true focus had been on obtaining the Rheingold by any means necessary.
That left Elysia, but her experience of that afterlife had only been brief glimpses. Still, it was nothing like what she had in this place. This place reminded her so much of Greece and Gabrielle. It reminded her of home.
There was no peace and tranquility here. People fought and lived and.... Did they die? Xena couldn’t say for sure, not having actually witnessed a human death in this place. Certainly they were wounded. There was hunger and sickness. Xena shook her head. No, this wasn’t like any afterlife she’d ever experienced or even possibly imagined.
Her focus turned inward toward the burning she always felt now that grew stronger the longer she was without bloodshed of some kind. Her bloodlust had always been sated by fighting and killing or by the occasional assertive lovemaking with Gabrielle.
She smiled... she had been surprised and oddly pleased by Gabrielle’s aggressiveness the first time the bard had drawn blood. It had been completely unexpected and more satisfying than she’d ever imagined something like that could be. For all her prowess, it was actually a new experience for Xena and on the rare occasion it happened, it had added an incredible dimension of feeling between them.
Xena shook her head again. This line of thought was taking her body places she really didn’t want it to go right now and it was muddling her thinking. The truth was, if this was an afterlife, the burning should be gone, shouldn’t it? At least if she was being rewarded. And her ability to sate it should be gone if she was being punished. It made no sense.
The only logical conclusion she could come to was that this WASN’T an afterlife. But if that was the case... where was she? Her language difficulties with the native people troubled her no end. She’d never found it difficult before to learn a new tongue and now when it was the key to her figuring out the convoluted puzzle she seemed to be living, she was having difficulty with even the basics.
Maybe this *is* an afterlife and I am slowly supposed to lose my mind as punishment....
Xena raked her hands through her hair. She was going to have to learn this impossible language... that’s all there was to it. Though the people were somewhat reluctant to share their words with her, she couldn’t keep pointing at things or using the pinch to get her point across.
She’d been lucky, though. Her two mascots had provided a measure of respect she needed and a leeway she’d appreciated beyond words. Once she’d put the pinch on the young shaman Kya, interested suitors had approached her much more warily. A young woman and two warriors, one younger, one older had tried to make contact with her to no avail. None could advance past the two animals and when Xena made it clear that they were complying with her express wishes, she was left to her solitude.
The women as a group still welcomed her to whatever activity they were busy with, but for the most part, Xena did her own thing, content to hunt for herself and to exercise her warrior skills outside the bounds of the encampment. The warriors still weren’t sure what to make of the woman who had fallen among them that exhibited the skills of warrior, healer and shaman.
So now she decided to see if she could make headway into communicating with the people who for now, in this place were her family and friends. The sooner she could talk to them, the sooner she could get some answers to at least some of the questions that weighed heavily on her heart and mind. Somewhere out there was the solution she needed to find her way home.
When she stepped from her dwelling the following morning, her face bore a grim determination that would not easily be denied. So it took her a few minutes to realize that the camp’s perception of her had changed radically, literally overnight.
Eyes dropped now instead of meeting her own and only Hotassa spoke directly to her. The older woman brought Xena some food to break her fast, then started to move away to allow the warrior the privacy her sudden change in tribal standing demanded. Xena put a hand out to stop her, hoping Hotassa would answer some questions.
“Hotassa, what’s going on? What’s changed?” Xena motioned to the village around her. The women regarded her differently and the men now made eye contact, something they had been loathe to do previously.
“Zee-nah, notaxe... warrior. Ma'aataemeo'o evesetano notaxe ševe. Learn path.”
“Learn...?” Confusion washed over Xena’s face. “Why?”
Simple, direct and to the point. Even Hotassa would understand the meaning even if the words were still difficult for them both.
“Nanose'hame, ma'êhoohe ehvestâhem Zee-nah. Mets strong ma'heono.” She paused and tried to phrase it for Xena to easily understand. “Animals... strong guides. Powerful spirits.”
Hotassa looked as frustrated as Xena felt, but the warrior nodded her head. She was fairly confident she understood exactly what Hotassa was implying and she glanced to the fox and panther that reclined sedately on either side of her. Inexplicably, she felt Gabrielle’s love surrounding her and for the first time in more than a moon she felt.... It was as though the bard had reached beyond the grave and provided Xena with the tools she needed to survive.
The feeling was very brief, but it was a real as anything she’d ever felt in her life and Xena took comfort from the fact that even if she was dead, Gabrielle was looking out for her. And she determined again to do whatever it took to find her bard and make things right for them again.
Hotassa waited quietly, having watched Xena’s focus grow introspective. She wasn’t quite prepared for the intensity of the stare that turned her way when Xena’s gaze turned her way.
“Heehe'e... êstse. You have a lot to teach and I have a lot to learn. Then I have a bard to find.”
She stood and took Hotassa’s arm, gesturing that she was ready to meet with the tribal shaman and begin her training. Without a word, the two animals stretched and rose, padding silently along beside them. The entire camp watched as the injured shaman gestured to her and for the first time, a woman warrior was welcomed at his fire and in their tribe.
Days became weeks and weeks turned into months. The tribe settled for the winter and it made Xena antsy, though it gave her plenty of time to learn the language and customs of what had become her extended family.
She had passed their warrior tests with ease and had proven her prowess as both a hunter and a healer. She was a welcome addition to both war and hunting parties, though they had yet to let her lead either.
The animals never strayed far from her and in the beginning, negated any threat they felt impinged upon her space. It was only after Xena proved herself to both them and the tribe that they allowed her to fight her own battles, though there were several instances when they did watch her back... much as Gabrielle had. Xena was amazed at how well the bard had chosen her spirit guides. Separately, they reminded her of the two of them... so much of them reflected both their traits and personalities. Together they reminded Xena of Gabrielle and though she still could neither feel nor sense the bard’s presence, she drew a measure of peace in her memories.
The language continued to frustrate the warrior and she had to wonder if her difficulties with it lay in her desperate need to understand and communicate with the people who might hold the answers to her questions. Many were the times that the aggravation drove her to the hunt and after a successful feed, she would return sated and settled and able to focus her concentration on the task at hand again.
In many ways she was marking time, but time, no matter how slowly it appears to be moving, does move steadily forward and it was a bit of surprise for Xena to realize that spring had come.
Finally, as the days became steadily warmer, Xena made up her mind to leave the tribe and strike out on her own across the vast plains. Somewhere out there laid the answers she sought and she was determined to find them. She was comfortable enough with the language now to be able to get by and she figured she could pick up more in her travels. It was, after all, how she’d learned many of the tongues she now knew. And more and more her heart urged her to begin her hunt for Gabrielle.
Before she’d made up her mind to leave, a rider came into camp announcing that war had been declared by another tribe... the tribe that had nearly decimated them the previous summer. The shaman stared at Xena and by look alone made her the head of the war party that would seek retribution for the damage they had inflicted.
Xena sighed... she didn’t want this... not now. She had a bigger greater good to concern herself with. She needed to find Gabrielle and reunite with her. But even as she opened her mouth to refuse, her head nodded her acceptance. Even in this screwed-up, oddball afterlife she’d found herself in, she knew that either she took care of the problem sooner or later. And in this case, sooner was better because it meant she would have more time later for her own personal quest.
Several clans of her tribe showed up, though some balked at first of following a woman warrior. But Xena’s tribe contained the nation’s shaman and after he spoke, the male warriors fell reluctantly into line.
None could say how happy they were with his choice, because she led them to a total and complete victory over their enemies. And though some did die and more were injured, they had redeemed themselves in both their eyes and the eyes of the enemy.
Xena spent a couple days tending the wounded and the few who developed sickness before she prepared to leave. Hotassa noted her packed bag and nodded in understanding. She’d known Xena was searching for something the village could not give her.
The shaman came to Xena’s dwelling... an almost unheard of honor. Usually he summoned those to whom he wished to speak to his own fire. Xena stepped from her teepee at his knock and they sat down to talk.
The shaman blessed her and chided her. Told of dangers seen and unseen and cautioned her to be careful. He reminded her that they were her family and she was welcome back at any time she felt her journey was over, or even if it was just to visit. Finally he thanked her for the things she had taught them and her willingness to learn their ways as well. Then he touched her shoulders and kissed her forehead like the daughter he’d never had and sent her on her way.
Hotassa came by and offered food for her travel, as did many of the women of the tribe. One or two of the bolder ones assured her they would continue their staff practice and reminded her they would be waiting for lessons when she returned to them. As she gathered up her bags to leave, each and every warrior took a moment to say a parting word and it was with mixed emotions that Xena finally hit the trail.
With her companions by her side, though, Xena found she was less lonely than she expected to be and as the encampment faded from view, she took to her search for Gabrielle with boundless energy and determination. Nothing was going to stop her from finding her bard and finding a way for them to be together again. Whatever it took, whatever sacrifice needed to be made, it was time for *them* to be the greater good.
Gabrielle came back to her surroundings when the young man playing at being a purser brought a lemonade out and set it on the small table at her elbow. She thanked him with an absent smile and dismissed him, returning her attention back to her journals and the memories that lay therein.
So many years, she thought and so many friends come and gone. We’re not the only immortals in the world. Do you know that Xena? Have you even discovered your own immortality yet? You haven’t been in this time very long and I worry about you... I worry about us. Do you remember me, Xena? Do you remember us? Will you still love me when I find you again? Because I will find you and then we will find a way home together. I’m tired and I’m ready to go home... to you and to the Greece we shared together years ago.
Gabrielle sighed and put those thoughts out of her mind. She had a tendency to brood more often these days, but I suppose almost eighteen hundred years of separation from your other half will make a person unreasonable from time to time.
She had to chuckle. Unreasonable. There had been several times when the loneliness had been overwhelming and the sheer magnitude of what her soul bore nearly drove her to madness. It was in those moments, in the darkest times of her life that she felt the separation most harshly. It was then that the doubts assailed her and made rational thought nearly impossible and her feelings....
Gods, if it hadn’t been for Aphrodite and her constant friendship, I surely would have lost my mind... several times over. It was nice to know I wasn’t completely alone and being reminded later that I wasn’t the only one like me....
Gabrielle shook her head to clear her thoughts more forcefully. She reopened the journal, her eyes searching until they landed on the first time she’d gone to Olympus for a respite.
Dear Xena, (it read)
A plague has come to the Amazons and it is beyond my knowledge and experience. It is also beyond the best efforts of our healers and those of our tribal neighbors. It is like no plague we have seen in the almost three hundred seasons we have been in this land and Buitu, the headman for the tribes says it is nothing they have encountered in recorded history.
Bless his heart, he almost said it as though it were a question when we talked since we both know I would remember anything like this happening.
I have to say, both my Amazons and the People have been mostly accepting of my status as an immortal being. Perhaps because I leave them to live there lives here and do not interfere or participate with them unless invited to do so.
Now that this plague has come, I have not only been asked to help, but representatives from both sides are pleading with me for a solution. Unfortunately, I believe that solution lies outside my bounds here. I will have to find a way to travel back to the outside world and visit some of the great libraries, if they still exist. Who knows what has happened in the three hundred years we have been in this new land?
Even Aphrodite hasn’t been able to find us... or she has forgotten about me.
Gabrielle sighed as she blew on the ink to dry it before closing her diary and packing it away. On the morrow, she and a very small, select group of warriors would set out for the boats and would then sail away towards what she hoped was Greece. She had spent many nights since their arrival in this wild land studying the stars and she believed with a little luck she could get them home. Well, not home to them any more, but we should make it to Greece in a reasonable amount of time.
She wondered again briefly what had happened to Aphrodite that the goddess had not visited her once. Then her mind returned to the many friends she had cared for and buried in this place.
Gabrielle let her thoughts guide her footsteps and in the late afternoon sunlight, she made her way to the small graveyard just outside the village, remembering when it had first been set aside for their dead.
The People had been horrified at the thought of burning human flesh and the Amazons compromised. They had been taught the People’s ways of preservation and then had buried their dead standing up, so that their spirits could quickly and easily ascend to the Amazon Land of the Dead. A small memorial pyre was built atop the grave that burned brightly for three days, guiding the spirit on its journey and watched over by the tribe. At the end of three days, the ashes were gathered into a small container engraved with the sister’s name and placed just behind the burial site.
She walked slowly through the rows, remembering each and every person that was buried there and how they had died.
She frowned as she realized that a few people had suffered from similar symptoms to those that now seemed to be slowly killing the Nation. It wasn’t often and until the last few moons, no one had died, but the indicators were almost the same.
Gabrielle set the thought aside, promising herself more thought on it during the trip to Greece. She would have plenty of time to consider all the implications later. For now, she was approaching the oldest part of the cemetery and she paused as she remembered the old friends that had made the journey with her from Greece... Cyane, Varia, Hilda and the many other sisters who had passed on to their reward.
Though she missed and mourned all those who died, it was these first ones, the ones she’d actually allowed to be friends, that Gabrielle missed the most.
Finally she reached the grave that represented Eponin. The People had allowed her body to remain in preservation for three days while the Amazons burned a fire for her before they buried her in their own cemetery. As a wife of the headman, she was accorded special honor because she had never forgotten that she was still an Amazon and the People respected that.
Now she sat down at the marker that indicated Eponin’s resting place.
“Hello, old friend,” Gabrielle said softly. “It’s been a while since we spoke last and I’m afraid it’s gonna be even longer before we have the opportunity here again.” She drew a deep breath and continued. “Something is killing the Nation slowly and I am going to go back to Greece and see if I can find something in the libraries there to help.”
Gabrielle was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she did not see the spirits of her sisters gather round. It was something she never saw, because they never revealed themselves to her as Ephiny once had. But they always came out to listen whenever she sat to have a chat, usually with Eponin.
“Hopefully the libraries will still be there,” she muttered, remembering the destruction she had seen in her short mortal lifetime in Greece and knowing that conquerors were rarely careful to keep knowledge of other cultures, no matter how hard learned the lessons of that knowledge were.
“Maybe we will try Egypt first,” Gabrielle continued. “It’s closer and Queen Cleopatra was quite proud of her library... justly so,” remembering her awe at the grandiose building on their first visit. “Do you know... once we got past our differences, Cleopatra asked if I would archive a few scrolls there. I was surprised, really, since I was a foreigner, even though we were the Queen’s guests.” Gabrielle chuckled at the memory. “Then Cleopatra explained to me that they collected ideas and knowledge from the entire known world.”
Gabrielle sat quietly for a time before nodding her head in decision. “I think we will try Egypt first. It’s much close than Greece and the diversity in thinking that we will find at the Library in Alexandria should more than equal what I could find in Athens.” She looked at the small urn manifest with Eponin’s name. “Thanks, Eponin. Even now talking with you helps clear my mind. I miss you, my friend. Tell the sisters....” she broke off. “Well, they know I miss them too. Keep a watch out over the Amazons. They still need the guiding spirits of their ancestors.”
Gabrielle remained where she was until the sun hit the horizon, then stood and dusted herself off. She walked to the edge of the glade, then turned and whispered a prayer over the three hundred years of graves that remained behind. Then she left at a brisk pace to find the Captain of her ship. There were some changes in their route that needed to be addressed.
The spirits of the Amazons waited until Gabrielle was halfway back to the village before they re-emerged in the glade.
“Do you think it’s serious?” from Varia, referring to the plague that Gabrielle had referenced.
“Well, it is serious enough to warrant Gabrielle’s leaving what has been her home for the last three hundred cycles,” Eponin commented. “We’ll keep an eye on things, though I do think it is probably in *Gabrielle’s* best interests.”
“How so?” from Hilda as they each took seats on the ground in a circle.
“Because,” said Ephiny as she stepped from the mist, “Gabrielle is alone here. And she is reminded of her immortality daily because of the reverence the Nation bestows on her. Not that she doesn’t deserve it,” Ephiny added hastily as she held up a hand to stop the protests. “But she was never comfortable being Queen. How can she be content to be regarded from a distance with such awe but with not a friend to be counted among them?”
Ephiny looked at Eponin and smiled. “Remember that young, friendly kid we met so many years ago?”
Eponin nodded and Ephiny cast her gaze around the clearing once more. “Gabrielle has been without real friends here for many seasons – partly by her own choice and partly because no one is quite sure how to treat her.”
“I agree,” Cyane said. “It was hard at first when she first shared her secret, until we realized she was still the same person and still our Queen.”
“She has fulfilled the prophecy and led the Nation to greatness once more,” Yakut remarked. “I think she is entitled to a reprieve.”
Heads all around nodded in agreement.
“It is decided then,” said Melosa. “We will keep a watch over the Nation and Gabrielle and hope that she finds what she is searching for very soon.”
“Xena better hope Gabrielle finds what she’s looking for pretty soon,” Solari replied with a chuckle. “I’m not sure the Warrior Princess will be able to take on the Amazon Queen if it takes too long. Xena won’t know what hit her.”
With that, the rest of the group winced in sympathy for the warrior, knowing it for the truth. And they had to chuckle at the image that truth produced for each of them. Then the spirits began to return to their places of rest and readiness, crossing through the mists back into their eternal home.
Gabrielle was excited by the time she reached the village. She was confident the Library of Alexandria would have what she needed. It would simply be a matter of finding it. And the women who were accompanying her would be an asset in the search. They had been chosen from many volunteers for their knowledge as well as their sailing skills.
It was hoped that they would be able to make a short stop at the Sinhales Islands that had been their original goal to see if perhaps there were more members of their Nation who might want to join their sisters and return to the new home that had been established so very far away.
The small crew was preparing the last things that needed to be taken care of when Gabrielle strode into the village. Her presence was so unusual in the village anymore that everyone froze and then fell to a kneeling position.
Gabrielle stood for a moment with her hands on her hips just shaking her head. For whatever reason, the Amazons couldn’t get passed her title, to say nothing of that whole immortality thing. She suddenly realized that despite the circumstances warranting her departure from the Nation, she was looking forward to it. At least no one in ‘civilization’ knew her secret and she would be treated much like anyone else. And she looked forward to that more than anything.
“Rise, ladies. You have better things to do than kneel at my feet, I’m sure.” Without missing a beat, Gabrielle turned to the woman who would be the captain of the Amazon ship. “Demetria, do you have a minute? We need to alter our route.”
The younger woman frowned. “My Queen? Are you sure? We checked and rechecked everything you gave us. I’m certain all is as it should be.”
“It would be if we were still going to Greece. Plans have just changed. C’mon.”
“But....” Demetria sputtered before following her rapidly disappearing Queen into the council hut.
“That makes perfect sense, Queen Gabrielle. I’m sorry I questioned....”
Gabrielle held up a hand to forestall the apology. “Don’t be Demetria. Immortality doesn’t make me perfect. It just gives me longer to practice.” She smiled and the captain couldn’t stop the return smile that blossomed on her face. “Otherwise, I would have thought of this first.”
“Well, I’m glad you thought of it now. It will shave months off our trip out and back. I’m glad we are taking two ships though. Inya will be able to check the island and meet us in Egypt which will cut some time off as well.”
“Anxious to be back already, Captain?”
“Yes, my Queen. I’m a little nervous and I so want us to be successful.” Gabrielle remembered that Demetria had lost her baby sister to the plague fourteen moons prior.
“I understand, Demetria, more than you know. We’ll be as quick as we can, I promise. The Nation will get our best.”
“My Queen,” Demetria answered seriously, dropping to one knee in front of a startled Gabrielle. “Despite the fact that this Nation has not always done right by you, you have never failed to give us your best when asked for it.”
Gabrielle scrubbed her face, glad she was already sitting down. “Demetria, get up please. You don’t need to kneel in front of me.”
“The fact is the Nation hasn’t always been first with me and there have been many times that I decided what was best for us was for me not to be an active part of life as an Amazon.”
“Yes, but every time we’ve needed you, you’ve responded. You came and did what you could, just like now.”
Gabrielle smiled and shook her head. “Nothing is gonna change your mind on this, is it, Captain?”
“No, my Queen,” came the reply with a smile.
“Then I will capitulate to the argument in favor of an early night. We want to get an early start in the morning.”
“Indeed we do, Queen Gabrielle.”
They exited the council hut and the Captain walked with Gabrielle the short distance to the cliff side. “Good night, my Queen.”
“Good night, Demetria. I’ll see you at daybreak.”
The Captain waited until Gabrielle reached the opening of the cave she called home before turning and making her way back to her hut. Even though Gabrielle was an immortal and beyond the need of such protection, the Amazons continued to extend her the courtesy of an escort whenever they could manage to get away with it. Gabrielle acceded to their wishes on this point, much as she did to their referring to her by title mostly because it was a position of honor with them. It didn’t hurt her really, though it did cause her some private eye-rolling and it gave them a sense of keeping to a code that had been lain down by their sisters long before even Gabrielle’s time. It was easy when she reminded herself she was merely keeping traditions alive.
Gabrielle entered the cave with a mixture of relief and trepidation. In the years she had been here, this had become home as much as anything she had known in her brief life as a mortal, except Xena. And tomorrow, she was leaving home again for parts unknown, though she did have high hopes to reach Egypt and eventually Greece.
For though the women accompanying her didn’t yet know it, Gabrielle expected to find a cure and send them on their way back here. She herself planned to stay for a bit longer if it could be managed. She needed some time for herself, in a place where no one knew who she was or expected her to make the hard decisions all the time. Gabrielle’s very soul was tired and knowing that she had centuries more to pass before her solitary state would change did nothing but make things worse.
She looked around the cavern thoroughly once more, insuring there was no foodstuff left to rot. Things were neatly put away and she smiled. She would always have this place when she returned, but for too long now she had been settled in one place and her life had fallen into a rut. It was time to see what else the world had to offer and her first stop was to find a cure for what was ailing the Amazon Nation.
They made good time, not surprisingly given the amount of time and care spent pouring over the maps and charts they’d made in the years following their initial voyage. Though their new homeland was relatively uncharted as far as Western civilization was concerned, Gabrielle and the original captains had invested a lot of effort into remembering as many details as they possibly could.
Gabrielle spent many nights studying the stars, insuring that their memories had not been faulty and Demetria helped chart the distances they were traveling to allow for even more accurate maps to be made when they returned home.
When the stars took on their old familiarity, Gabrielle climbed into the crows nest and wept silent tears at the memories the well-known patterns evoked. For the first time in many years she held a conversation with Xena out loud, knowing the warrior couldn’t hear or respond, but feeling somewhat better to fall into their proverbial star chasing argument. When she was done, she climbed down and slipped below to her cabin, recording her thoughts and feelings.
It was something she’d always done as a matter of course, but with Xena’s disappearance, it had become the best way to communicate with the warrior. The Amazons respected her privacy and never invaded any of her writings. But they tended to wonder about her a little bit when she talked to Xena as though she was still standing beside her. So her diary became her refuge and the one safe place she could still talk to Xena and anything... and everything.
As the trip continued, Gabrielle found herself antsy to return to the known and loved. The logical part of her mind understood that after three hundred cycles, nothing would be as she remembered it... twenty-five years in the ice caves had taught her that lesson quite clearly. But her heart only knew that Greece had been home more than any place she’d been in her years of travel and she was anxious to see what differences time had wrought on the world she’d grown up in.
About a week out from their arrival at the inlet of the Red Sea, from what they had surmised at any rate, the second ship veered north, headed to the islands that had been their original destination. It was hoped that there might be more Amazons there who would want to return to their new homeland. They were to pick up anyone who wished to join the Nation, then meet Gabrielle and her crew in Alexandria.
Though everyone desired a quick resolution to the problem plaguing the Nation, the Amazons were realistic about the possibility of it taking weeks to find what they needed in the huge library. So it was with a bit of anxiety that they stepped off the ship onto the dock of Alexandria. Then they stood stock still, though for very different reasons.
Gabrielle tried not to breathe in too deeply the smells that always seemed to be prevalent on every dock she’d ever set foot on. Idly she noted the amazing changes that occurred during her absence.
The Amazons were divided in their reaction. Half were fascinated and the other half disdainful. But they all found it intriguing in the extreme and Gabrielle was fairly certain when they returned home, they would be implementing some of the things they bore witness to here.
Gabrielle had resumed the use of her staff as a tool for walking with. Though she still kept up her skill with all the weapons she had mastered, the staff gave comfort to her in a way that none of the others did. Besides, it was an accepted practice for travelers to walk with the aid of a stick. Any of her other weapons would have caused talk and speculation.
Today and for the remainder of this trip, she and the Amazons blended in fairly well. Their leathers had been traded in for a colorful woven material made from a native plant back home. It had taken a bit of persuasion on her part, but Gabrielle had made the women come to see that it was in the best interests of both themselves and the Nation that they be as inconspicuous as possible. They had left Greece to avoid being destroyed. There was no reason to advertise their existence to the world now, especially since they were so well hidden even the gods couldn’t seem to find them.
A pang went through Gabrielle at that thought, but she shuddered and put it out of her mind. She had priorities to take care of first. Then she would go to Greece and see if she still had a friend there in the goddess of love.
She was astonished at the amount of influence Rome seemed to have here. She had hoped, honestly, that Rome would be gone by now. They’d brought nothing but misery and suffering to her and Xena and she wished the world well rid of them. She shrugged. It really didn’t matter so long as they left her and the Amazons alone to get what they came for.
Gabrielle was thankful for the time she’d spent learning both Egyptian and Latin as it made it much easier for her to get around. With few words, she started out for the library and the Amazons gathered their things and followed her.
Gabrielle could feel how impressed the Amazons were with the grandeur of both the city and the library itself despite their efforts at nonchalance. For herself, she could see the years of wear and neglect in places and wondered if she felt her age as plainly as the graceful old buildings did.
With a sigh, she led them up the steps and over to the long marble counter where several well-dressed men and women stood busily working. They looked up at the group’s approach.
“Excuse me,” Gabrielle said in flawless Arabic, gleaned from her time in Egypt and years of subsequent study. “Can you direct us to the medical section?”
The librarians looked the group over as a whole and at the speaker in particular. It was apparent even to the most novice among them that these were neither Egyptian nor Roman nobles and yet the language tripped musically from her lips with the grace of a native. A very rotund man stepped forward and stared, surprised when Gabrielle returned his look measure for measure.
To his amazement, he found an intelligence there he rarely saw and never expected. With a humble nod he said softly, “If you’ll follow me, lady.”
The other librarians followed the small assembly’s progress with wide eyes. Nelium never spoke softly and he never personally led anyone anywhere. His sense of importance as the head of the great library was portrayed in his pompous demeanor and bellowing tones. When the party turned the corner to mount the stairs for the second floor, the librarians looked to one another with delighted grins.
“Never thought to see that happen.”
“Wonder who they are and who the blonde woman is. She has such presence.”
“Yes and nice to see Nelium put in his place without so much as a word.”
“Well,” said the most practical among them. “Best if we get back to work. Regardless of her effect upon him, I doubt seriously it will carry over to us.”
That was easy enough to understand and agree to and they fell back to work with a will.
The man had led them to a quiet alcove, filled with shelf upon shelf of scroll texts. There were several small chairs and tables scattered throughout
Gabrielle and the Amazons looked around slowly and Nelium stood hesitantly watching them before speaking.
“Lady, is there something specific I can help you find, or...?”
Gabrielle turned to him before any of the Amazons could speak. Though his tone was polite, it was not friendly like the men of the People’s tribe when they spoke to the Queen and Gabrielle did not want any misunderstandings to get them thrown from the library before their work was even started.
“My name is Gabrielle,” she offered kindly, extending her hand in greeting.
With evident surprise, the man accepted it and gave her a brief squeeze. “Nelium,” he replied a bit gruffly. He noted suddenly that the women that surrounded him were more than what they seemed. In fact, they could be warriors by their demeanor.... He shook his head. No warrior save those who considered themselves noblemen patronized the library and most tended to stay out of areas that didn’t speak of war.
Gabrielle waited patiently, knowing the man’s thoughts had wandered off. He blinked and returned his attention to her with a light blush. “Apologies, la... Gabrielle.”
“It’s all right, Nelium. Tell me, are the texts in a specific order?”
“They are alphabetized by illness. Do you know what you are looking for?”
The blonde head shook in the negative. “No. Only the symptoms.”
“Oh dear,” the heavy man responded. “It could take you some time then. Would you like some help or would you prefer to do your own research?”
“I think for now we will be fine, Nelium, but thank you.” He bowed and started to depart. “Unless....”
He stopped and turned to face Gabrielle. “Yes?”
“If there is a healer that we could talk to... someone you know of perhaps?”
“I will send out some inquiries, la... Gabrielle. It will probably take a day or two.”
Gabrielle extended her hand. “Thank you, Nelium. I would greatly appreciate it.”
He nodded and took his leave and Gabrielle looked around again to see that the Amazons had already separated to begin their search through what now looked to be an infinite number of scrolls.
It was slow going. Even with all their formal training, the Amazons were encountering all sorts of difficulties reading the various medical texts. For one thing, they were written in a variety of languages, depending on the nationality of the author. For another, most of them were not healers and were not trained to look past the obvious symptoms for the obscure ones that could point to a cure.
Gabrielle spent much of her time making notes for things she wanted to come back for... things that would be useful for the Amazons to have in their healing scrolls. First though, they had to find the cure for the ailment that was slowly killing the Amazon Nation.
The first few days were spent separating the texts into stacks of possibilities. The Amazons and Gabrielle were working from before dawn til after dusk and quickly became a familiar sight in the library.
They were so preoccupied with their search that they failed to notice an increased Roman presence in the city. And then it was too late.
“This is impossible!” Demetria exclaimed half a moon after their arrival in Alexandria. “My Queen, we are never gonna find what we need here! Look at this!” she practically screamed, snatching up a scroll. “This one shows chills and fever, but no paralysis.” She grabbed a second sheet. “This one has swollen, aching joints, but no fatigue or headaches. These,” gesturing to a whole other stack, “have nothing at all we can use!! And we’re not even through the first row of texts!!” Without warning the Captain slumped back down in her seat.
Gabrielle sat quietly letting the words wash over her with a calm facade that belied the turmoil running just below the surface. She wasn’t surprised by the outburst... only by the fact that it had take as long to come to fruition as it had.
The fact was she was feeling the frustration as well and it was aided by the reality that they had become virtual prisoners of the library in their haste to find a cure for their people. For fifteen days they had spent endless candlemarks in this little alcove searching and researching every single scroll shelf by shelf for the information they needed and they had yet to make a real dent in the magnitude of scrolls provided.
The healer that Nelium had sent for had proven less than useful. He had never heard of anything quite like what the Amazons were suffering from and even consulting with his fellows brought little enlightenment. So it made their task doubly daunting, knowing that even the elite of Alexandria were unfamiliar with their cause.
Gabrielle rubbed her forehead, looking for answers that felt like they were just beyond her reach. They pace they had set for themselves was going to kill them without some down time. The hard part was deciding to take it, because even though logic dictated the need, it didn’t lessen the guilt they would feel by ‘wasting time in frivolity’.
Finally she looked up at the anxious faces surrounding her and blew out a breath. “All right, everyone. Mark your places and leave things where they are.”
She waited until everyone had complied and was looking at her expectantly once more. Gabrielle stood from her place and picked up her journal, then began to make her way down the stairs. The Amazons followed as a matter of course with looks of confusion.
When they reached the ground floor, Nelium came out from behind the counter immediately.
“Gabrielle, is there a problem? Something unsatisfactory?”
“No, Nelium, thanks. We just need to get out for a while. We left our stuff up there, so we’ll be back shortly.”
Nelium nodded. “We’ll make sure it remains undisturbed.” Secretly he was glad they were getting out for a while. They had put in more hours in the last fortnight than some of his regular patrons did in a whole year and he had been growing concerned by their paling features and pinched faces. Judging just by the anticipation he could see lurking in their eyes, he was sure this was a good idea.
The Amazons stepped out into golden warmth for the first time in fifteen days and they all drew a sigh of relief as the late afternoon sunshine touched their skin. Being an outdoor people by nature made this assignment difficult from the outset and with what was riding on their shoulders, it became an almost impossible burden to bear.
Gabrielle watched as they each seemed to shed a little of the pall that had been hanging over them and nodded to herself. This had been the right thing to do. Despite the fact that their work was critical to the Nation as a whole, they could not run themselves into the ground doing it. It wouldn’t solve anything and was just as likely to make their task impossible.
She turned to them and said, “I want each of you to go into the market for a bit. Relax. Enjoy yourself. Try some new food. When the sun is completely set, meet me back here. We can work a little later tonight, but I think we all need a break away from this place.” She made a shooing motion. “G’wan. Have a little fun.” Then she stepped around them, headed for the heart of the market.
Gabrielle was gone before they realized it, completely disappeared into the crowd of people that was again roaming the streets in the late afternoon sun. The Amazons were at something of a loss. They’d never had a leader quite like Gabrielle and weren’t sure what to make of her now.
It took a full minute before they understood that their Queen, regardless of her immortal status was wandering around in a crowd of potential hostile people with no honor guard and another minute to grasp that that was precisely the way Gabrielle wanted it. With a collective sigh they split into small groups and made their way into the marketplace, more than a little curious to see what this old ‘new’ land had to offer them.
Gabrielle, meanwhile, was noticing the many changes that had come to this land since her last visit. Especially obvious was the appalling number of Romans out and about. Something was off-kilter here and it made Gabrielle’s warrior sense tingle unpleasantly.
Still there wasn’t much she could do about it right now besides watch and listen since they were merely walking around like she was, so with eyes peeled and ears open, she went in search of some food.
The afternoon passed pleasantly enough and Gabrielle could feel herself begin to relax as she strolled along the outer banks of the river that ran through the city. The solitude was pure bliss. We needed this... *I* needed this she thought to herself. We’ve been pushing so hard it’s a wonder no one has started a fight... or worse. She shook her head to clear it of memories. I’ll have to pace us a little better. Won’t do anyone any good if....
The thought broke off completely as the copper scent of blood and slaughter reached her nose and sent the nape hairs on her neck standing up in both excitement and fear. It had been a while since she’d fed or fought and the smell reminded her how desperately she needed the blood.
Gabrielle adjusted her grip on her staff, unconsciously setting her steps to those of a hunter that had no desire to be heard in her quest. The hunt caused her senses to change – her hearing and sense of smell became acute and it only took and instant for her body to register the trouble.
There were sounds of fighting... the grunts and groans of human beings hitting and being hit. The clash of metal on metal as weapons clanged together. The sucking wet sound of flesh being impaled. And far off was the acrid smell of smoke as a fire began to rage somewhere.
Without conscious thought, Gabrielle’s hold on her staff tightened and adrenaline lent wings to her feet. What she found when she reached the edge of the city astonished her.
Fire was everywhere, illuminating the city to the point of seeming daylight. Romans were thick as a swarm of locusts and just as destructive. Where ever Gabrielle turned her eyes, there were Romans – stealing, killing, destroying.
She felt the rage and this time made no effort to stop it. Instead, she welcomed the burning, feeling her teeth lengthen to meet her need and desire as the scent of blood wafted to her hyper-sensitive nose.
Without a sound she waded into battle, decimating anything and everything in her path. Her staff was swift and sure and killed everyone it touched with a single blow. Methodically she made her way forward towards the library, knowing her Amazons would be there and fearing what she would find.
She came around the corner and stopped dead at the sight before her. The library was engulfed in flames. Gabrielle choked back a cry and let the rage build. The fury of what they had lost held her rooted to the spot. It was only when she noticed her Amazons under attack that she moved forward.
With hard, precise movements she decimated every Roman that came within reach of her staff. Then the unthinkable happened.
Gabrielle knew she had let the rage go too far when a Roman soldier gutted Demetria before her eyes. Immediately she fell on him, sinking her fangs into his neck without thought or hesitation. He reached for her and she clawed him, shredding away his chest. She left a hole in his neck when she ripped her mouth from it, tearing the flesh away down to the bone. He was falling dead to the ground before she realized the consequences of her actions.
She moved to the fallen Captain, her eyes returning to their normal verdant green color even as she sank to the steps to check her wound. The Amazons which had shrank away from her animal fury now tried to stand between their Queen and their fallen comrade. Their shock prevented them from interfering with her ministrations to Demetria, but she could feel the myriad of emotions coursing through them as they inwardly debated their options.
“Don’t,” was all she said when one raised a sword at her back. The woman hesitated. “There are things here at work you have no possible understanding of.”
The woman snorted. “I know you’re a bacchae... that means you could have saved any number of us over the years. Just like you could save Demetria now, but I bet you won’t. The plague that has fallen on our Nation is probably due to you.”
The rest of the women stood open-mouthed, shocked at the woman’s audacity, but Gabrielle could see the beginnings of doubt spring up in their eyes even as she continued to work to save Demetria’s life.
“In fact,” the woman continued, emboldened by her success thus far, “how do we know you’re trying to heal her? How do we know she or any of us won’t be your next meal?”
Gabrielle turned, unwilling to move her hands from the Captain’s body as they persistently fought to keep Demetria alive. But they could all see the banked fire in her eyes spark to life and involuntarily stepped back a pace.
“Never, not once in almost three hundred cycles have I ever been anything but a friend to the Amazon Nation! I have fought with you, cried with you, helped birth your babies and buried your dead! This is the reason I never shared this secret... knowing that you would turn away from me in fear and disgust despite the fact that I never did anything to deserve it!”
She turned away and bit her lip, the pain and anger overwhelming for a moment and she struggled to bring it under control. She ripped a clean bit of her robe off and pressed it against the hole to staunch the blood flow. Then she looked back up at the women who until a few minutes ago she had considered sisters and friends.
“You’re right. I could have used this to save those who died over the years, but let me assure you that the cruelty involved in doing so would be more than I can bear. You have NO idea what it’s like knowing that I will NEVER find an eternal rest. Why in the name of the gods would I inflict that on people I consider my friends and my family?? Especially knowing the curse that is attached to the immortality!”
Gabrielle turned back to Demetria and noticed that her breathing was less erratic and that the bleeding from her wound had slowed considerably.
“Let me ask you something, Tyra. What makes you think that immortality is such a gift, huh? What makes you think that being a slave to a drive you have no control over is such a wonderful thing? There are days I would give anything to have remained just the simple bard who traveled around with the Warrior Princess and after a time found peace in the Elysian Fields.”
She looked at her hands, covered in Demetria’s blood, then held them up for the group to see. “Eternity with years upon countless years of bloodshed to look forward to.” She stuck her tongue in her cheek and shook her head. “Suddenly it’s a lot less appealing, isn’t it?”
Gabrielle’s shoulders slumped in discouragement and she stared to rise. Though she’d already decided to remain behind for a while, having the option of returning to the Amazons had been one she’d wanted to keep open. Now in all likelihood not only was it closed, but it was just as likely that they would come hunting for her. And she would kill them to stay alive. Despite everything, she was going to survive to find Xena.
Gabrielle turned away from them, stopping only when she felt the slightest pressure on her foot. She looked down to see Demetria’s dark eyes looking back at her.
“My Queen?” she whispered.
Gabrielle turned back to the Captain, conscious on a way she had never been before of the blood that covered her.
“What is it Demetria?” asked softly though the sounds of the city burning around them drowned out all other noise, including the screams of the dead and dying.
“For what?” asked through tears now. She knew that even with all her skill and years of practice, the odds were still extremely slim that Demetria would survive the wound she’d received.
“For letting me choose to die... if it comes to that. I think it takes more courage to live forever than to die a warrior.” The Captain coughed, then winced in reflex at the pain it caused. “I cannot imagine living with what you’ve seen... with what you know. Especially alone.” She drew a deep breath. “So thank you.”
Gabrielle nodded and let the tears roll silently down her cheek as she patted Demetria’s shoulder gently. “You’re welcome, my friend. Just live to appreciate it a while longer, hmm?”
Then Gabrielle rose and turned to face the rest of the Amazons.
“I think in light of what has happened here tonight and given your now obvious distrust of me, it would be best if I remain here for a while. I have no desire to inflict myself on you or the Nation and I certainly don’t want to cause harm. You can wait til the second ship arrives, which should be in a few days and go home then.”
Suddenly she rose up and as though donning a cloak, assumed the look and posture of Royalty.
“I would appreciate it if you could keep what happened tonight between us, though if you feel you can’t, heed my words well. I will not hesitate to kill anyone who comes after me in order to stay alive. I have some things to take care of in the future and I fully intend to be there to insure they get done.”
“Did you just threaten us?” asked the woman called Tyra.
“No,” Gabrielle said regally. “I just gave you a guarantee.”
The silence that surrounded them amidst the chaos in the city was profound and Gabrielle let it sink in before she spoke again.
“Now, let’s get Demetria back to the inn and see if anything is left of it. She needs more than I can do for her here if she’s to have any hope of surviving.”
“We can manage....” Tyra started, but was cut off by the Captain’s words.
“Thank you, my Queen. I would be honored if you would join us.”
The honest warmth of the words easily offset the chill that had run through her veins since her physical attack on the Roman. With only a few mutterings, the Amazons set out to build a travois and were just ready to move the wounded woman when a new set of problems came their way.
Gabrielle stood, once again letting the burning take her to a place she seldom sought and even more rarely used. The Amazons stood amazed for a very long moment, watching the conscious transformation of their usually gentle Queen into the sheer ferocity of a bacchae.
The Romans were now going through the city in small squads, eliminating the remaining pockets of resistance and generally terrorizing those few people still able to fight back. When they came upon the Amazons and saw what had happened to the man they had called centurion, they fell to with a will, expecting an easy conquest.
“Leave us now, children,” she spoke in a low, husky voice. “Mama has some business to attend to and it’s past your bedtime.”
Each of them recognized the wording as a way for Gabrielle to retain some semblance of control until they left. They also understood it was a direct order and made all haste to escape back towards the inn that they had called home during their short stay in Alexandria. They heard her roar and picked up their pace, knowing that Gabrielle had deliberately become something she despised in order to protect their departure.
Surprisingly, their inn, tucked in an inconspicuous little corner two streets off the main road was currently untouched and the Amazons quickly went to their rooms. They placed the ailing Captain on one of the pallets and two of them stayed with her while another pair moved out into the common room.
They waited and called for service and when no one replied, they finally went behind the bar and took what they needed. When the re-entered the room, they noted Demetria’s pallor and shallow breathing and went to work, hoping beyond hope they weren’t too late.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle had tapped into a part of herself so dark, Ares, or Mars as he was in this time and place, felt the trembling in the essence of force around him. He promised to investigate the cause of the tingling in his spine and the stirring of blood in his veins as soon as the city was secure. There was something almost hauntingly familiar about it, but he was breaking in a new warlord and wanted to watch his prodigy’s progress.
The war god sighed. It wasn’t like it had been in the old days. Again his thoughts turned to Xena. She had been his most favored chosen and he still missed her... missed her fire and her passion. He even missed her irritating little blonde friend, who in the end had been as much of a warrior in her own right as Xena had.
He mulled the thought over even while his eyes stared unseeingly at the battle around him. It would have been something quite spectacular had he been able to bring Gabrielle into his fold. She would have brought Xena with her and they would have been unstoppable. He sighed again and disappeared, suddenly more interested in searching for the reason behind his disturbing thoughts than remaining with a battle that had become boring and predictable.
Since he wasn’t sure what he was searching for, it took Ares a bit of time to find the cause of his excitement. And when he found it, it caused him no small amount of alarm.
“Bacchae?” he said to himself. “I thought we were rid of those when Xena destroyed Bacchus. I wonder if the Romans....” He let the though trail off, taking note of the total destruction that had been wreaked on the bodies strewn around the library. He doubted anyone short of a god would be able to identify what was left as human, much less put names to faces. He briefly wondered if they bodies had been desecrated as a warning. Then he shook his head and returned to what was left of the battle of Alexandria.
Gabrielle didn’t take any time or finesse with the soldiers who approached and now surrounded her. This was about life and death pure and simple... her life and their death. Unfortunately, none of them were bright enough to realize that the small woman who stood before them was more than she seemed and they spent a bit of time making lewd comments to and about her.
Finally, Gabrielle had enough and without warning she moved. The bodies of the soldiers were shredded, ruined beyond recognition as she tore through them, unleashing the fury of centuries against Rome without the thought of mercy.
It didn’t take long and when she was done, Gabrielle walked away with the thought of needing a bath to rid herself of the stench of Rome that now clung to her skin in a tangible reminder of what she’d done. Her mind refused to dwell on it and the part of her that needed blood to be sated gloried in it. It had been years since it had felt such satisfaction and never had it been so gratifying.
Gabrielle knew in her soul that she would be sickened when her mind had a chance to process what had happened – what she had become and what she had done with the becoming – but for now, she was content with how things stood.
She made her way to the inn and noted that it seemed to be deserted. She hesitated and looked down at herself, knowing that the spectre of her appearance was the thing nightmares were made of. Instead of going in immediately, she took a short detour to the bathing room, dropping her clothing outside the door and locking the door behind her as she crossed the threshold.
Alexandria had some of the most convenient plumbing arrangements she’d found and she took advantage of the fact that this particular inn offered warm showers. For long minutes Gabrielle stood under the running water, letting it rinse away the blood and gore that lingered on her person. Then she took the provided soap and scrubbed, scratching at her skin in a frenzy of cleaning until it was raw and nearly bleeding itself.
Only time spent breathing and meditating brought that impulse under control and she quickly finished up and stepped from the shower, wrapping a towel around her bare body before emerging from the room. She picked up the bag she’d keep with her by habit and wiped the leather surface clean of blood. Then she moved to face the Amazons once more.
Gabrielle stepped into her room, thankful she was alone. The rest of the Amazons insisted that her position as their Queen demanded she was entitled to the privacy of a single room and Gabrielle was happy to let them. She’d grown accustomed to her solitary existence and knew that adjusting to a roommate after all this time that wasn’t Xena would be more than a little awkward and uncomfortable for her.
She removed a new set of clothing, thankful she’d had most of hers tailored in the Samurai tradition of trousers beneath the skirt. Gabrielle had foregone them since their arrival in Alexandria, choosing instead to wear the toga fashion that was most common here.
Now however, knowing it would be a fight to get to this ship, assuming it was still in the harbor, she donned the warrior’s costume fashioned for her by a master, centuries before.
When she was finished, Gabrielle stood before the small looking glass seeing the reflection of someone she hadn’t been in a long time. Her hair was a little longer perhaps and more golden, but the person staring back at her was much the same as the one who’d stood on Mt. Fuji and watched the sun go down.
The day everything changed, she thought absently, knowing that one decision was responsible for the oldness now reflected in her eyes. Though her immortality was what gave her the opportunity to see and do what she had since, the fact that she was alone is what made her feel the age of every single year she had already lived through and all the years she had yet to experience.
Gabrielle sighed, knowing how fruitless such contemplation was, but unable to stop it. The melancholy was only going to get worse until she got past the darkness that had overtaken her and right now there was no time to work through it. Right now her responsibility was to the Amazons and getting them to the harbor and away as quickly and safely as she possibly could.
Gabrielle straightened her shoulders and opened the door, nearly running into a courier who stood just outside with hand poised to knock.
The woman flushed and bowed. “My Queen.”
Gabrielle quickly adjusted her mental plans, knowing it Nadine was here that the second ship had arrived. She was glad she’d had the foresight to explain to the second crew exactly where they planned to be and how best to find them if they were not there.
“When did you arrive? And where is the ship?” Gabrielle asked as they crossed the hall and she knocked on the door before opening it.
Two Amazons stopped her with raised swords before they realized who it was and nodded to allow her to approach. Gabrielle returned their nod, approving of their discipline and care of their fellow Amazons.
“How is she?” Gabrielle asked softly as she reached the bed that Demetria lay on.
“A little better, I think,” Tyra replied, then continued a little more uneasily. “Your quick action outside the library probably saved her life.”
Gabrielle accepted the words silently, knowing it was more of a concession than she had expected to get from this particular Amazon. Instead she turned to the woman who had accompanied her into the room.
“We need to get out of here and to the ship as quickly possible.”
Nadine nodded. “Captain Eulee found a cove up the coast a ways. It’s a bit of a walk, but it was the safest place we could hide in and still have any hope of finding you and getting everyone out of here safely. We can leave as soon as you’re ready.”
Tyra spoke up. “What about our other ship?”
Nadine shook her head. “It’s impossible to tell and even harder to get to the harbor right now. It is awash in Romans and fire.” She didn’t tell them of the debate that had raged on her own ship when they’d seen the chaos running rampant through the city long before they approached it. It was only when the Captain found a place they could land without being seen that they had agreed to hunting for Gabrielle and their sisters on shore.
“It is gonna be a little crowded,” indicating that their stop at the Sinhales Island had been very successful, “but I think under the circumstances everyone will kinda get over it. We need to go soon though. I know everyone was a bit wary of being caught here.”
Gabrielle nodded and assumed the reins of command once more.
“If everyone is packed and ready,” noting the bags that sat on the small table, “we can get moving. You two,” motioning to the two nearest the door, “gather everything together. Tyra, you and Nadine take the travois. That leaves Lisset and me to cover the front and rear. Now Nadine, where exactly is the ship?”
While the small scout gave Gabrielle the directions she needed to find the boat, the rest of the small contingent made ready to leave. And within moments, the group was headed out and away from what was left of the once great city of Alexandria.
They were making good progress, Gabrielle carefully making sure to avoid anyone or anything that would detain them. Demetria had been given a healing draught that put her out and was thus able to make the trip in unknowing comfort. Nadine gave Gabrielle directions occasionally, making sure they stayed on track. And slowly the small troupe made its way to the shore.
The breeze that carried the tang of salt to them was refreshing and helped them to pick up the pace, knowing their escape was near. Just as they saw the ship in the near distance, a shower of rose petals heralded the arrival of an unexpected visitor.
“Hiya, Sweet cheeks!” putting her arms around Gabrielle in a big hug. “How are ya? Man, but I have so totally missed you! Where’ve you like, been?” taking a look around and seeing the wounded Captain on the pallet. “Ew, like, what happened to the babe?”
The Amazons stopped at the sudden intrusion, never having actually seen a god in the flesh before. Gabrielle wasn’t sure whether to be gratified or annoyed. She eased out of Dite’s arms.
“Hi, Dite,” Gabrielle answered a little stiffly. “Can we talk in a bit? I’ve got to get these guys to that boat over there so they can get outta here.”
“Oh, no problem,” the goddess answered, snapping her fingers. In a blink, the small group went from the far side of the beach to the deck of the ship. “There ya go, cutie. All present and accounted for.”
“Um, thanks, Aphrodite,” Gabrielle said as the Amazons on deck slowly lowered their weapons as they recognized their comrades. “Uh, let me get these guys settled and then, um, maybe we can talk?”
The goddess nodded and moved to stand next to Demetria’s pallet. The Amazons stood back respectfully, but watched closely as Aphrodite smoothed the hair from the unconscious woman’s face. Her hands trailed down the Captain’s body until the reached the wound and they lingered there for a long moment. Without a word, Dite moved away from the woman and went to stand alone on the bow.
A murmur rose from the Amazons, most of them amazed to have seen a god in person. Gabrielle called out instructions and after a moment’s hesitation, the Amazons moved to get the ship ready for departure.
It only took a few minutes for Eulee to get everyone settled. It would be a very tight fit on the voyage home, but at least they were all returning and had a new group of sisters joining them. Just as they were ready to cast off, Gabrielle stood before them.
“I wish you all well on your journey. I hope it is speedy and safe.”
“You’ll not be coming home with us then?”
“No, Dite and I have some things to catch up on. We haven’t seen each other in a while. I hope to return at a later time.” Gabrielle looked right at Tyra when she spoke and the Amazon bowed her head in acknowledgement. She and the others would keep Gabrielle’s secret.
“Queen Gabrielle, is that really the goddess of love?”
Aphrodite turned to face the mass of amazons then and came to stand at Gabrielle’s side. “I sure am, babe!”
There were more mumblings among the women and Dite actually blushed at some of the comments she could make out. Gabrielle chuckled silently, though she blushed as well.
Dite cleared her throat. “Well, it been radically, um... well not fun, but definitely different. You gals rock! I’ll make sure ya’ll get outta here safe.” And with a shower of sparks and rose petals, she and Gabrielle disappeared.
Mount Olympus hadn’t changed much in the three hundred cycles since her last visit, Gabrielle pondered idly as she stood at the window. She wasn’t sure exactly where she was looking at... it was a beautiful outdoor scene of somewhere she had never been. Beautiful white sand beaches melted into green grass that led to a lake with a waterfall rushing off the side of a mountain.
“Radical, isn’t it?” Dite asked as she came into the room. “I put all my faves together in one pic so I could always look out and see what I wanted.”
Gabrielle nodded without turning around. “It’s nice,” she commented absently, letting the breeze stir her hair. Aphrodite walked up behind her and placed a hand on the longer locks.
“Is something wrong, Gabs? You’ve changed so much, though your hair reminds me a lot of that young kid from Poteidaia.” Aphrodite waited a moment, then drew a deep breath and plunged ahead. “I’ve really missed you. You’ve got no idea how surprised I was when you crossed my scrying bowl earlier. Where’ve you been, babe?”
Aphrodite noted the shaking shoulders and without another word she turned Gabrielle into her and enfolded the bard in an embrace. For the first time in an eternity, Gabrielle returned the hug of another being fully and wept silently as though her heart was breaking. Dite couldn’t stop the tears that welled up in her eyes and wiped them away as Gabrielle withdrew from her arms.
“You wanna talk?” was all she said.
Gabrielle nodded. “I’d like that. It’d be nice to be able to talk to someone who understands immortality and what an eternity really is.”
Dite nodded but didn’t comment. She been alive for an eternity when Gabrielle was born and yet how different it must be for her, the goddess thought. I was born an immortal with the powers of a god and an immortal purpose in life. Gabrielle was born with the expectancy of living and dying a natural human life.
Instead she popped them into her favorite relaxation spot... the hot tub, complete with jet sprays and pink bubbles. With a sigh she settled back and waited for Gabrielle to speak, not understanding until this moment how much she’d missed her interaction with the bard. A sudden thought cause Dite to sit upright and slosh bubbles all over the place. Gabrielle looked at her a little startled.
“Sorry, babe. Just thought of something.” She popped out and a moment later popped back in. Gabrielle blinked in confusion at her sudden burst of energy.
“Cool. Now we’re all set for some majorly serious catching up. I just had to make sure Ares couldn’t like, you know, waltz in here.”
“Yeah, you know... c’mon in uninvited. He almost caught you today, ya know. It’s how I found you.”
“How you found me?” Gabrielle was beginning to feel less than articulate. She wasn’t sure if it was her or Aphrodite or her exhaustion or that fact that her mind was beginning to replay the night’s episode in her head, but whatever the cause, her coherence was less than what it should have been and she found herself simply repeating the pertinent parts of Dite’s words to her.
“Yeah, you know, you like totally disappeared. You didn’t take the Amazons to that gnarly little island. I checked and I kept checking. I even looked at all those other little islands and I never like, found you. Where’d you go babe?”
Gabrielle swallowed hard. “You didn’t forget about me?” in a small voice.
“No way, cutie. Why would I do something grody like that?” The goddess reached a hand over and brushed the bangs back from Gabrielle’s face, placing a light kiss on her forehead. “You’re my friend.”
The events of the night and three hundred years of loneliness caught up to Gabrielle suddenly and violently. “I think I’m gonna be sick,” she said before rushing from the tub. Aphrodite followed her, covering her and wiping her face down and giving her some water when she was done. Then she clothed them both and popped them into the room in her suite that she’d set aside for Gabrielle’s use. Gently she tucked the bard in and moved to her own room, lost in thought over Gabrielle’s reaction. Twice she arose to sooth the nightmares that plagued Gabrielle’s sleep. It was a long time before she closed her own eyes in rest.
Gabrielle had no way of discerning how much time had passed when she finally opened her eyes. She had eventually fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep, though her nightmares returned to her vividly in the light of day. She closed her eyes and held on until the wave of nausea passed. She knew it would fade with time. She just wished it wasn’t there to begin with.
With a sigh, the bard rose from the bed and made her way to the shower Dite had set up for her use... after her comment on how she missed the waterfall showers she and Xena had always shared. It wasn’t the same, of course... Xena was absent and the water was pleasantly warm, but she enjoyed it anyway and she walked away from it feeling better than she had in a while.
Gabrielle did a little investigating around her room and found that Aphrodite had set up things for her comfort. The goddess’s thoughtfulness almost brought her to tears again, but she shook her head and got dressed, determined to find her friend. They’d been apart too long and had a lot of catching up to do.
Aphrodite looked up from her scrying bowl as Gabrielle knocked tentatively on the doorway, removing her glasses and studying the bard with frank appraisal. What she saw made her smile sadly. Immortality was taking a toll on Gabrielle, as told by the oldness of her eyes. But she looked better for her night’s sleep and she was as fit and lean as Aphrodite recalled her being in her youth. Dite smiled. She remembered well several of the gods watching the duo just to see Gabrielle lose a little more clothing each time she got a new outfit.
Gabrielle noted the odd smile and wondered at the cause. But she promptly forgot as Dite bade her enter the workroom. Without further hesitation and feeling sure of her welcome, Gabrielle walked right into Aphrodite’s arms and gave her a big hug.
“Good morning, Sweetpea,” the goddess commented around the lump in her throat. The affection was totally unexpected and she knew that from Gabrielle, true friendship lay behind the gesture. She kissed the bard’s head and smoothed her hair down as she stepped back slightly to catch the green eyes with her own.
“You look better this morning. How ya feelin’?”
“Better. It’s good to be here. I’ve missed you.”
“Oh babe!” taking her in another hard, fast embrace. “I’ve missed you too.” Dite stood back and took Gabrielle’s hand in her own, leading her away from the scrying bowl and toward a table laden with all of Gabrielle’s favorites... or at least the favorites Aphrodite was familiar with.
They ate in silence for a bit before Gabrielle leaned back and looked Aphrodite straight in the eye. “I owe you an apology.”
Confusion crossed Dite’s features. “You do? What for?”
Gabrielle looked down at her plate, putting her bread down and clasping her hands together in her lap. “Doubting you. I knew you would have to hunt for us when we blew so far off course, but when year after year passed and you never came, I just figured you’d....” Slim shoulders shrugged. “I dunno... gotten too busy or forgotten about me.”
Aphrodite bit her lips in a sad smile at the forlorn picture Gabrielle presented in this moment. She’d always known the bard as a strong-minded, independent, iron-willed person and the fact that she was still in her right mind after three hundred years of virtual aloneness attested to that fact. But even she... Hades, *especially* she understood just how lonely immortality could be. And she admired Gabrielle’s spunk in admitting to needing a friend who understood it. It had taken the Olympians the coming of Twilight to admit any sort of need and even then they skewered it until it had almost become their oblivion.
Dite rose from her seat and went round the table to kneel at Gabrielle’s side. She reached up one hand a lifted Gabrielle’s chin to meet her eyes and covered the bard’s clasped hands with the other.
“Oh babe, I NEVER forgot about you, just like you never forgot about me. I just couldn’t find you. You disappeared completely off of my screen. As soon as I found you, I popped in. And I gotta tell ya, girlfriend, you were a sight for sore eyes.”
Gabrielle gave Aphrodite a genuine, if watery smile. “Really?”
“Absolutely. I was way glad to see you again.” She paused and pushed the bangs out of Gabrielle’s eyes and popped a chair beneath her. “Getting a little old to be kneeling like that,” cheered when she heard Gabrielle’s soft chuckle. “So tell me where you’ve been... what happened.”
And for the first time in a very long time, Gabrielle fell into bard mode, and with flair and enthusiasm told the story of the Amazon’s journey to their new homeland. By turns, Aphrodite was thrilled, appalled, overwhelmed and joyful. Eventually the tale turned melancholy as Gabrielle spoke of friends who had passed into their afterlife.
Aphrodite could feel the loneliness of Gabrielle’s soul and again cursed her brother for the predicament they all, but particularly Gabrielle, found themselves in now. She saw how Gabrielle had withdrawn from the world around her as a way of coping with her isolation from the mortal realm as she knew it. Curiosity tickled in the back of her mind and when the bard paused, Aphrodite spoke up.
“So what brought you back out, Gab? I mean, it sounds like you’ve totally settled in your new pad.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “I think I would have come out eventually. I was beginning to feel um, hemmed in. But a crisis in the Nation brought us out and then Rome once again,” her voice hardening, “destroyed years of knowledge and weeks of hard work.”
Dite’s brows crinkled in concern. “What kind of crisis? Maybe I can help.”
Aphrodite was profoundly hurt by Gabrielle’s lack of faith in her and her abilities. “C’mon Gab... at least let me try.”
“Oh, no, Aphrodite,” Gabrielle waved a hand to stop the goddess’s speech, then she grasped both of Dite’s hands gently in her own. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to slight you or your abilities. You know I think you totally rock!”
Aphrodite couldn’t help but laugh and forget her mad when Gabrielle smiled up at her in all sincerity with those big green eyes and the cutest blush. She leaned over and kissed Gabrielle’s forehead and all was forgiven between them.
“I don’t know what kind of crisis. I mean, we were here to look for a cure to something that was killing the Nation slowly. I had a list of symptoms to go by, but we still hadn’t found out what it was, much less how to cure it,” said with more than a hint of bitterness. “I guess I failed the Nation, again.”
Dite rose and picked up her glasses, a little annoyed that she actually needed them more than she wanted to admit. She held out a hand to Gabrielle, who clutched it and stood up with a questioning look on her face.
“C’mon. I’ll bet we can figure this out. After all... I have the Olympic library at my disposal here and it that doesn’t work, well, we can always go to Rome.”
Gabrielle’s face screwed up in distaste.
“Then again, maybe not,” Dite replied lightly and tugged the smaller woman with her to her desk.
Gabrielle would have taken a seat on one side of desk, but Aphrodite continued pulling her around to the working side. With a wave of her hand a map of the known world appeared on the desk top. Gabrielle gazed at it, intrigued by the way it seemed to be lit from within and wondering just how it was managed. But her attention was drawn back to the map itself when Aphrodite started talking again.
“Okay, cutie. This is the world as we know it – Greece, Britannia and the Norselands, Rome, Gaul, Egypt, India and Chin,” pointing out each of the places on the map and deliberately omitting Japa. No need to bring up those memories now. Nothing but water and clouds cover the remaining squares of the map. “This is the Sinhales Islands,” gesturing to the original destination. “So where were you?”
Gabrielle looked at the map, then looked up at the ceiling and closed her eyes. “We made charts once we figured out we weren’t going where we thought we were. And we updated them on our way back to Egypt.” The bard furrowed her brow in thought. “It was so strange... the stars that I knew so well from my time with Xena all changed. Some of them stood on their heads; others were missing completely; and there were new ones I had never seen before.”
Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked at the map again. “From everything we could figure out, we landed somewhere right about....” She pointed to an area almost off the map covered by clouds. “Here.”
Aphrodite’s brows shot into her hairline. “Are you sure?”
“Can you...?” Gabrielle motioned towards the ceiling. “Can you put the stars above us?”
Dite looked at her strangely, then waved the constellations into being overhead. Gabrielle searched the heavens, spinning until she was sure.
“Okay,” she said, removing a bit of parchment from her bag. “This is how they look in the Amazon homeland.”
Aphrodite took the scroll and studied it, changing the sky above her until it resembled the sketch she held in her hands.
Gabrielle studied it carefully before she nodded. “Yep.”
Dite took off her glasses and chewed on the earpiece thoughtfully. “All righty then. We need to turn the worldwide god web southeast a bit to see if we can get a reading on this gnarly new place. C’mon.”
They walked over to the area that held the wwgw and Dite flipped on the screen. “’Kay... if we....” She turned a knob and pushed a couple buttons. “And then we....” Another button. “And then....” She aimed her little block box at the screen. “We should....” She waited a moment, then smacked the side of the monitor. “Oh yeah,” Dite said as the picture came through clearly. “That rocks. ‘Kay, let’s see if we can find us some Amazons.”
Gabrielle watched in fascination as the familiar shores of the Nation came into view.
“Cool,” Dite said. “Looks like you were totally on target there, cutie. Awesome. Now, let’s see if we can find out what is ailing these bodacious babes and figure out how to like, fix it.”
They skimmed through the Nation until they came to the healer’s hut. It was empty. They moved on to the Regent’s hut, the mess hall which only had the cooks in it at this time of day and then they came to the council chambers.
Here sat the leaders of the village, including the healer who was at the moment answering a question from another of the council members.
“Well, I’m sure whatever Queen Gabrielle and the rest come back with will be helpful should we encounter it again, but hopefully it was destroyed by the fire that went through the eastern plain right after they left.”
“So you think it was confined to that one area?”
“It appears so, Regent Cylla. It was the one common thing that all the victims shared. We still don’t know *what* caused it. Buitu tends to think and so do I for that matter, that the fire will have eliminated it. But we can’t be sure for a while yet.”
Cylla ran her hands through her dark hair. “Well, with any luck then, the fire has taken care of it. At least for now it’s gone then and the eastern plain is off limits until further notice. Perhaps the Queen will be able to pinpoint the problem so we know what to look for if this starts happening again.”
Dite felt rather than saw Gabrielle’s shoulder’s drop. “Well,” she commented brightly, “the good news is your plague seems to have fixed itself.”
Gabrielle nodded forlornly. “The bad news is I gave them nothing and after what happened....” She broke off and Dite didn’t wait long to jump in.
“What did happen? I know you like, did something radical to get Ares attention, but I missed a lot of stuff looking for you once I saw you, ya know, cross my screen.”
Gabrielle sighed and her shoulders slumped even further than before. “The Amazons found out the truth behind my immortality.”
“Oh,” was all Dite said, but a world of expression was housed in that single utterance.
“Yeah, oh,” Gabrielle repeated. “I had already decided to stay behind, see if you still remembered me or whatever,” said with a slight shrug, “but....”
“But that was like having the decision made for you.”
“Yeah and I know what we needed was there somewhere. We would have found it.” She smiled a little. “It was frustrating, though... that’s why we weren’t in the library when it went up in flames. We just needed a little break.”
Aphrodite sat lost in thought for a moment and Gabrielle’s attention went back to what had happened and what she could have done differently. Without warning, Dite rose from her place and took Gabrielle’s hand again.
“C’mon. I got an idea.”
They went into the vast library that Olympus held... both of them sneezing violently at the amount of dust contained in the large room.
“Guess this place doesn’t get used much,” Gabrielle commented wryly as she wiped her hands together to rid them of dirt.
“Um, no,” Dite replied with a sheepish shrug. “I actually can’t remember the last time I was in here. Hmm,” she said, looking around at the towers of shelves. Then she apparently came to a decision.
“Here,” Dite said, leading Gabrielle to a console. “Ew! Grody! Hang on a sec,” and with a wave of her hand, made centuries of dust and neglect simply disappear. She took another look, pleased by the difference. “Muuuuuch better. ‘Kay, now... I want you to sit here and.... Oh, you like, don’t know how to type yet, I guess.”
She pushed the keyboard out of the way and replaced it with a scroll, quill and ink. Gabrielle studied the odd instrument a moment longer before turning to Dite with a serious question.
“Why are the letters all mixed up?’
“Pul-eeze... like anyone would explain that to me. Rumor had it that it was a test Hera devised for Zeus, but really, who knows.” She shrugged then waved her hands. “Anyhoo, that so doesn’t like, matter right now. Right now, I need you to sit your cute self down and write out every radical detail you can remember about this... thing... illness, plague, whatever... that was messing with your Amazons. Then we’ll put it into the web and should have a fix, like pronto.”
Gabrielle shook her head, gleaning the important parts of Dite’s speech and letting the rest fall to the wayside. She sat down immediately and wet the tip if the quill, dipping it into the ink and beginning to write. She had the symptoms memorized. It wouldn’t take long.
Dite went back to her work room, not a little surprised to see Ares waiting outside the door.
“Hey bro! How’s it hangin’?”
Ares pushed off the wall and shrugged. “A little to the left,” smirking when Dite made a face at his answer. “Hey, you asked.”
“TMI, bro... waaaaay TMI.”
Ares gave a full out belly laugh. “You know better than to ask.”
Dite chuckled. Despite the fact that he was a sincere pain in her ass, she really loved Ares and missed him a lot now that he was in Rome so much. “Yeah, I do.” She paused. “So whassup?” hoping Gabrielle would take her time before coming back.
“Not much,” he answered, following her into her workroom. “I thought I’d stop in to say hello before I got back to work. The Romans are keeping me busy these days... or I’m keeping them....” He shrugged again and waved a dismissive hand. “Whatever. I, um....” He kicked the ground with the toe of his boot and looked for all the world like a kid caught with his hand stuck in the cookie jar. “I kinda miss you.” Not mentioning the odd feeling in Alexandria that reminded him of home and her.
Aphrodite broke into smiles and sparkles. “Oh Ares, you’re such a sweetie.” Her eyes became slightly teary. “I miss you too... I miss all you guys. I get a little lonely here by myself sometimes.”
“Well, you know, Dite... you could come to Rome.” But even as he spoke, he knew she wouldn’t.
“No, this is home for me,” she said softly. “I get over there a lot, but it’s just not the same.”
Ares nodded, knowing it for the truth. The Romans took up a lot more time than he’d imagined they would, but he still missed the old days... Greece and Olympus.
He took her in an awkward embrace then stepped away, almost embarrassed at his perceived weakness. “I gotta get back,” he said. “Maybe I can get some of the others together and we can come home for a short visit.”
“Oh, I’m liking that radical idea, bro! You rock!”
Ares couldn’t help the color that suffused his features or the tiny smile that crossed his lips. Despite their differences, Dite was and always would be his favorite. She just had a knack for making him crazy... in the many various incarnations that it was possible to do so.
“So do you. Later!” And he was gone in a field of blue fire before she could respond.
Aphrodite stood rooted to the spot, gazing with tears in her eyes at where he’d been for a timeless moment. Only when Gabrielle cleared her throat behind her did the goddess of love take a deep breath and wiped her eyes none-too-subtlety.
“I, uh... I’m sorry, Dite. If this is a bad time....”
“No, babe. You’re timing is fab. I was just, um....” Aphrodite bit her lip, unsure exactly what to say.
Gabrielle shrugged. “Well, I was done kinda quick, but...” when I heard Ares voice, she thought, though she didn’t say it out loud, “I decided to look around the library.” Her eyes shone in remembered excitement. “I could get lost for days in there.”
Dite gave her a genuine smile. “Well, you’ve got the time. But let’s see whatcha got here and take care of business first.”
The goddess walked back to her desk, removing the virtual map and replacing it with her god web input screen. It had been quite a surprise to find out that there was land beyond the known world and Dite wondered briefly what other realities they were missing out on. Then she turned her attention back to the matter at hand.
Aphrodite got so completely caught up in what she was doing that she never even heard Gabrielle approach her until the bard laid a hand on her shoulder. Dite looked up, startled.
“Thank you, Aphrodite.”
Gabrielle didn’t say any more than that, but she really didn’t have to. Dite understood what she said and even more what she did say and nodded her acceptance of the sentiment with a smile. Then she drew a deep breath.
“Well, I’ll be honest, babe. I haven’t found out a whole lot about this. This is something radically new apparently....” Dite smiled sadly at Gabrielle’s defeated posture. “I’m gonna do a little more research on this thing though. See if we can at least find out the why behind it... ya know... to keep it from happening again.”
“You really think we can, Aphrodite?”
“Well, I think if it’s in the scroll bank we will.” She paused, pinching her lip before continuing. “The bad news is we were REALLY bad about keeping it up, so....” She shrugged. “We’ll keep trying though,” patting Gabrielle’s arm.
“Now,” Dite said, turning towards her screen again before the loud rumble of Gabrielle’s empty stomach interrupted her train of though. “Hmm...
guess we better feed that beast ya got roaming around in there. You got a taste for anything in particular?”
“Xena,” Gabrielle stated without thought, then blushed to the roots of her hair. She scrubbed a hand over her face. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that.”
Aphrodite laughed out loud. “No, but you totally meant it now, didn’t you?” taking Gabrielle’s hand and leading her towards what in any other place would be called the kitchen. She looked back at the blushing bard. “Hey, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I think... no, I *KNOW* what you two have absolutely rocks.” She hesitated, then continued. “I uh... can I tell you something honestly, friend to friend?”
The seriousness in her tone brought Gabrielle’s head up in concern and she lost her embarrassment in light of Aphrodite’s flushed face.
“You can tell me anything. We girls gotta stick together you know.”
Aphrodite cupped Gabrielle’s cheek and kissed her forehead. Then she turned and started walking back towards the food. Gabrielle waited, a little puzzled, then followed patiently behind, knowing Dite would speak when she was ready. Dite began rummaging up a snack for Gabrielle.
“What I had with Hephie, have with Vulcan as he is now... he’s a great guy and I love him a lot. He’s always been kind and wonderful. Very loving and caring and even after centuries together, we are still passionate with each other.” She looked at Gabrielle to see if she was paying attention, then nodded in satisfaction when the bard motioned for her to continue. Aphrodite set a platter of food in front of her then moved round the bar area and took a seat beside Gabrielle. She purposely looked ahead instead of at Gabrielle, not wanting to influence her thoughts or feelings with her facial expressions.
“Still, you know being the goddess of love, I tend to get around and I never once, EVER found a love like yours and Xena’s. Not in the world and not for myself. It made me jealous.”
Gabrielle choked as a bite of food went down the wrong pipe as she inhaled too quickly. Aphrodite quickly rapped her on the back to clear the passage. Finally Gabrielle took a deep breath and picked up the water Dite set in front of her.
“Excuse me... sorry. Did you say you were jealous?”
“Yeah,” Dite answered, biting her lip. “I mean... it’s just... see, Gab, gods don’t have soulmates and watching you and Xena together sometimes made us all jealous. Probably why we meddled with ya’ll so much.”
“Trying to break us up?” Gabrielle asked in an anguished whisper, the loneliness of three hundred years and an eternity alone ahead of her nearly drowning her in the intensity of her pain.
Finally Dite turned and looked at Gabrielle, winding an arm around her shoulder in a gesture of comfort. “Uh uh. Watching you come together stronger and tighter than before. It was... amazing.”
“Yeah, right up to that last one.”
“Well it would have been pretty fabulous, if it had played out like it was supposed to,” Dite answered before waving those thoughts away. “I guess my point is that I understand *that* you miss her and *why* you miss her and even to some degree, I understand why you can’t be with anyone else.” Dite shook her head. “Don’t think I could give that up, though.”
Gabrielle smirked, wanting to get out of the funk she was in and needing to tweak Dite just a little bit. “That’s ‘cause you never had Xena. Kinda spoils the appetite for anything else.”
Gabrielle slid of the stool she’d been perched on and headed back to her room. Aphrodite sat completely still for a moment longer, her jaw swinging loose in shock. Then she spun around and nearly ran to catch up with Gabrielle just outside her door.
“Hey Gab, I don’t supposed you’d....”
“It totally rocks to see a love like that,” Dite said with another kiss to Gabrielle’s head. “I’m glad it happened to an awesome chick like you. Now,” before Gabrielle could say a word, “go get some rest. We have a lot to do tomorrow and you want to be fresh starting out.”
Gabrielle hadn’t realized she was exhausted til the words fell from Dite’s lips, but now she couldn’t contain the yawn that threatened to break her jaw. She leaned slightly forward and brushed her lips over Aphrodite’s cheek.
“Night, Dite,” she said before stepping into her room and closing the door softly behind her.
The goddess stood completely still for another minute before turning her footsteps towards her own quarters. “And it’s a total bummer that the goddess of love will never know love like that,” she whispered dejectedly before crossing into her own domain.
Gabrielle came back to her surroundings with a start. She smiled in memory at how long it had taken her to see exactly what Aphrodite wasn’t saying and vowed to go visit her friend just as soon as she found Xena and they were home together again.
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