Blood Bond by D (part 2)

Chapter XVI
When the rebels achieved their first real victory against the Roman Empire, word spread rapidly to the other rebel clans. Norix was sought out for his secret and he shared the knowledge and skills Gabrielle had taught them. But he did not reveal the bard’s participation or whereabouts. He’d promised and though the tribe didn’t understand his reasons, they respected his directive and didn’t speak of Gabrielle to anyone.

For her part, Gabrielle helped where she could and she watched as the rebels brought the Roman Empire to the point that part of it crumbled completely and the rest reorganized itself into what would become the Byzantine Empire.

She felt her presence before she saw her, but Gabrielle continued to sit and watch as the rebels collected the injured and dead. She would help tend to the wounded shortly, but for now….

Aphrodite watched her for a very long moment before she moved directly behind her and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“Some things never change, huh?” Dite said, indicating the battlefield while turning her head to observe Gabrielle’s profile. The shrug was slight, but felt nonetheless. “And others,” Dite continued as though Gabrielle had answered, “have changed totally. I remember a time when you’d have been in the thick of the fight. When the greater good….”

Gabrielle interrupted. “I gave up the greater good for Lent,” said with a sad chuckle.

Aphrodite turned and looked her full in the face. “Do I even wanna like, know?”

Gabrielle shook her head. “Probably not.” She turned her attention back to the battlefield, her mind’s eye focusing on a battlefield in a different time and place.

Aphrodite noted her absorption and realized where the scene below had taken her friend. Without thought and without consulting Gabrielle, Dite snapped her fingers and the two of them immediately rematerialized in what they referred to as Gabrielle’s room.

Gabrielle blinked twice before her gaze focused on the room around them. Then she looked directly at the love goddess and fastened her with a piercing stare.

“Aphrodite?” motioning to the room, then crossed her arms over her chest and waited for an explanation.

“Whoa, babe! Anybody ever tell you you’ve got majorly killer eyes? Wow!”

Gabrielle simply raised a brow in impatient question and waited.

“Oh! Um… well, ya seemed, you know… totally bummed out there. I figured you were, like, reliving some bogus memories… so I thought, well, you know… especially after that greater good comment and all…. What was that all about anyway? I’ve never known you to stand aside and watch a fight without, you know, getting radically involved in it.”

“I meant what I said… I gave it up for Lent.” Gabrielle rushed on before Aphrodite could speak, though her mouth was open and poised to do so. “I still help. I teach people to fight for themselves. I tell stories and help heal the wounded. But I have to survive the next fourteen hundred years without drawing attention to myself.”

She moved to the bed flopped down gracelessly. “Heroes are born and die on the battlefield, Aphrodite. And heroes become the things of legend. I won’t become a hero. I won’t risk calling attention to myself because of the greater good. I have suffered enough for that cause.” Here her eyes sparkled with a fire that burned so hot, Dite wanted to check her skin for damage. Instead she held Gabrielle’s gaze compassionately, understanding all too well what the greater good had done to her friend.

Gabrielle laid back and closed her eyes, covering them with her arm. “Besides, I don’t want to raise Ares’ suspicions and I know he’s been around.”

“I’m sorry,” Aphrodite said quietly.

Gabrielle rolled to her side and leaned up on an elbow. “About what?”

“About Ares. About the greater good. About the fact that you have to live through another fourteen hundred years or so before you can be whole again. About….”

Aphrodite would have gone on, but Gabrielle held up a hand to forestall her speech. “Dite, none of this is your fault and to be honest, it’s not even mostly Ares’ fault. There are some days that knowing you’re here is all that keeps me from going insane. That and knowing that Xena *is* alive somewhere in my future and I’m gonna survive to find her and bring her home.”

“Do you really believe you can?”

Fierce green eyes turned in Aphrodite’s direction and she was once more impressed by the sheer, raw passion contained in the small package that stood before her. “You doubt me?”

“Nope, no ma’am. Not me. Not at all. Uh uh. No, I’m pretty sure Xena’s in for a world of hurt when you do catch up with her. Love bites, ya know,” chuckling when a knowing blush crept up Gabrielle’s face.

“Yeah, I do,” Gabrielle answered shyly with a smile. “Up close and personal like.”

Aphrodite laughed aloud, glad that Gabrielle was over her funk, at least for the moment. She suspected there would be many more of them before her reunion with Xena. Before she could change the subject, Gabrielle spoke again.

“I really haven’t given up the greater good. I’ve just changed my focus. I teach people what Xena and the Amazons taught me. I think it’s better that way. They can take what I teach them and pass it on to others.”

Dite nodded. She more than most knew Gabrielle could not completely give up helping others. It was too ingrained in her psyche… too much part and parcel of who she truly was. And she was glad that Gabrielle had found a way to share without going into battle after battle. She knew what Gabrielle had become in Alexandria and the depression she fell into when her Bacchae urges raged out of control. Battle brought the lust out full force and even the talisman Gabrielle wore could not restrain it fully when the hunger burned that hot.

“You want something to eat before I send you back?”

“No, I’m good, thanks, though I wouldn’t mind some of those sweet bread rolls for later.”

Aphrodite chuckled. “Another convert to the cult of luscious sticky buns. Um, umm,” though she blushed a nice shade of pink, leading Gabrielle right down the path that the goddess’ thoughts were following.

“Thanks, Aphrodite,” Gabrielle muttered. “I’ll never be able to eat these without going there again.”

“There are worse places to go, ya know.”

“Yeah, but I’m not real fond of going there alone. C’mon,” she added, raking her hands through her hair. “Send me back. I’ve got work to do.” Gabrielle smiled to take the sting out of her words.

“Well, if you’d rather do that than go there with me, fine,” said teasingly with a bright smile.

“Frankly… well, there are some days that staying here for the next fourteen centuries seems like a real good idea.”

“But….”

“But I can’t hide out here, Aphrodite. I’ve never been able to do things the easy way. You know that.”

Aphrodite rolled her eyes comically. “Ain’t that the truth, sistah! Ya know, you and that hard headed warrior babe partner of yours kept me up more than your share of nights with some of that radical WAY business ya’ll kept experimenting with. And I’m not talking about the love stuff either,” Dite continued, eyes twinkling.

“Dite!!”

“What?!” the goddess answered with a shrug of her slim shoulders. “It’s not like I watched the love stuff .” She muttered the last sotto voce. “That wouldn’t have given me sleepless nights… well, not the pace-the-floor-in-worry kind, anyway,” Dite added impishly.

“DITE!!!” Gabrielle scrubbed at her face, hoping to make the painfully red blush go away faster. She froze when Aphrodite’s arms draped around her shoulders.

“Sweetie, do you remember that gnarly little talk we had the last time you were here? ‘Bout the love you and Xena share?” Gabrielle nodded. “Hon, that’s never gonna like, change, ‘kay? But what I meant was well, you know… practically every radical thing ya’ll did was done the hard way, *including* the falling in love biz. So I totally figured after a few hundred years doing things the hard way’s gotta be like ingrained, ya know.”

Gabrielle’s shoulders shook.

“I’m making this worse, aren’t I?” Dite sighed. “I’m sorry, Gab….” But she broke off when Gabrielle pulled back slightly and she could see that the shaking came from laughter and not tears. At least not tears of sorrow, because Gabrielle was wiping away tears of mirth as she pulled back from Dite’s arms.

When she recovered her breath, she reached in and gave the love goddess a big hug. “Thank you, Aphrodite. I needed that.”

She returned the embrace as fully as she dared. “Needed what, babe?” not sure what the bard referred to, but wanting to make a note for future reference in case it came up again.

“The pep talk, the reminder and the laugh. I really needed that.”

“Well, cutie, glad I could oblige ya.”

“Thank you, Aphrodite. I love you, ya know.”

“Anytime, babe. I love you too.” And with a snap of her fingers, Gabrielle was returned to the battlefield that was now empty and devoid of any sign of human occupation. With a sigh, Gabrielle picked up her backpack and headed in the direction she knew the rebel camp to be. It was time again to help pick up the pieces.

“Ya know, Xena,” Gabrielle spoke aloud. “It was amazing what the introduction of trousers did for those who opposed Rome. I was actually amazed the Romans didn’t pick up on it sooner.”

Gabrielle turned back to her diary. “I spent a lot of time on the road then teaching. Healing and fighting skills mostly, but once in awhile I got to do the bard thing. That was always so nice. It reminded me of where I came from and it kept you close, though by then you were nothing more than a fanciful tale… a legend at best.”

Gabrielle pushed her diary to one side, picking up the finished tray and placing it on the floor just outside the door. She knew John would walk the corridor periodically to check on her progress and if the tray was outside he would not disturb her, but simply remove it from sight.

She locked the door behind her with a resounding click before returning to the bed and curling up into it. She studied her journal carefully, noting that many of the entries for the next few hundred years were bits and pieces of things that had happened in her everyday life.

Dear Xena,

I have settled for a bit here in a tiny town whose name is still unknown to me. It doesn’t really matter. I can’t stay too long in one place for fear of being discovered.

There is an illness running rampant through much of the continent which I think is due to the incessant fighting that continues to be waged on all those who oppose Rome. So, I travel a lot, bringing what comfort I can to those who are suffering.

I have helped establish several hospices and Hippocrates would be proud. They have adopted many of the techniques he advocated. Of course, he learned them from you, but people don’t remember that and I don’t feel the need to correct them.

Had an interesting thing happen today. I was busy working around the small cabin I have here. It was empty when I came to town and I managed to acquire it rather cheaply. It needed a little fixing up, but it’s really very nice; something that would have been just perfect for the two of us, but….

Anyway, I was working outside, planting a few of the wildflowers I found in the nearby meadow around the porch. You know, to give the place a little character. And you can stop rolling your eyes at me now.

So here I am outside, all hot and sweaty because it is quite warm and muggy here right now, when the folks who live in this small town started converging on my home from every conceivable direction.

They didn’t seem to be in a panic and were actually chatting and greeting one another jovially. I was at something of a loss, not knowing if this was gonna be trouble for me. Many of the men carried scythes and axes and the women, well… at the time I wasn’t sure what they had in their hands.

Suddenly I found myself surrounded by neighbors. People who wanted to pitch in and lend a hand to help get me settled because it was the right thing to do. I have to admit that it was nice to be on the receiving end of that experience for a change.

I think I will make some good friends here, though I can already see that I am going to have to be careful. There has already been some indication of interest from a couple of the eligible men. (Don’t ask) I have tried to make it clear that the return interest is not there, but we’ll see how that goes.

It was a nice day though. Very different than what I have been used to. It is nice to be settled, even if only for a little while and it is even nicer to be welcomed as part of the community. I think you would have been happy here. I know we would have been, even if it was only temporary.

I love you Xena. Good night.

Dear Xena,

There seems to be a new religion popping up. I’m not sure I understand all the nuances, but to be very honest, I have given up religion as a concept. I know that there is a higher power… I have met several of them. But I don’t like what religion tends to do to normal, thinking people.

This new prophet though, Muhammad, I think his name is? He’s a very nice man. We have shared several enlightening conversations on a variety of subjects. He’s very firm in his beliefs and yet he is open to discussion about them. He reminds me a lot of Eli in that respect.

I wonder if he will have the same sort of ending that Eli had. Seems like religion is full of martyrs and there are a lot of people out there who want Muhammad dead for his teachings.

Wonder how many holy wars this will start?

I love and miss you still.

Dear Xena,

I want a world wide god web of my own. Aphrodite has forbidden me access to hers for a while. This has got to be the most interesting thing I have ever seen.

I can’t use it without her, of course. It’s hers and set up under her accounts and passwords. Just as well, I suppose. It would totally bite if Ares figured out I was alive because of this gnarly thing.

I just went back and re-read that last sentence. I think I may have overstayed my welcome this time. I am so beginning to sound like Dite.

I needed a break so badly though. I never thought how hard it would be going from day to day, month to month, year to year with no roots, no real friends, no family to speak of. I can’t visit our descendants. There is simply no logical way to explain who I am or how and why I feel the need to visit. And it is difficult to make friends when my immortality forever forces me to move on before people start asking questions.

Anyway, back to the god web. They finally got at least part of the linking problem solved and we were able to talk to all the gods who monitor the web. This has been really nice for Dite as it allows her to keep in touch with her family in Rome much easier.

Given what she’s said though, they may all be returning to Olympus sooner than later. Seems their support base in Rome is waning as well and they would all be more comfortable at home, which they all consider Greece to be.

I keep getting side-tracked. Sometimes I wonder if my age has caught up with my mind, if not my body. I suppose it was a good thing that I became an immortal so young. I would have hated to have it happen when I was old and unable to do for myself any more.

Still, it is hard to keep my mind on track some days. There are just so many memories, so much information running around in my brain that I have to decompress here for a while and with the god web, it’s a lot of fun.

There are these chat rooms where all the gods go to talk together. That is actually interesting. Seems they all have the same problems, but this gives them a place to discuss solutions. Some of the conversations are so funny… they sound almost human.

It’s made me realize that whether we want to admit it or not, the gods are a LOT like us. Too much, probably. The biggest difference between us and them is their immortality and powers. They still have questions, get confused, angry, hurt… they make mistakes and don’t always do the right thing.

Their worst problem seems to be boredom. Until the god web finally let them connect a little more readily with each other, mankind was the biggest play toy they had. (Stop growling. I know how you feel about that and truthfully, so do I. But at least I have a better understanding about it now. Immortality is a lot harder to endure than you might imagine.)

So the god web has let them find other avenues of interest to pursue. Besides the chat rooms, they have all kinds of research avenues, games to play and lives to watch. They even have a monthly ‘casino’ night where they get together and gamble. I’m not sure that’s a good idea, but it hasn’t sparked any major wars… yet.

I have to go. Dite is knocking on the door. We are doing something she called a makeover today.

Love you always.

Dear Xena,

Never let a bored goddess near your hair. I haven’t been this many hair colors in four hundred years.

You remember how my hair color seemed to change every few months during the first years we traveled together? It was blonde, then auburn, then gold, then platinum and finally back to blonde, right? A lot of change, considering, but nothing too far out of the ordinary.

Well, Dite got adventuresome today. It was maroon, yellow, purple, green, blue, black, silver, chartreuse, flaming red and at one point, a complete rainbow.

She made it spiky, curly, long, shoulder length, barely there and some of the styles… I could have gone all my life without seeing what Dite termed a ‘Mohawk’. That was so not me. It was good for a laugh or two though I’m not sure my hair will ever be the same. It’s tired.

In point of fact though, so am I. I think it is time to get back on the road again to see what I can see. Wonder what has changed since I was out the last time.

Holding you close in my heart.

Dear Xena,

I was walking up the road today when I heard a cry for help. A young boy was stuck in a tree and couldn’t get his foot loose from the place he’d wedged it into. He was trying to collect some nuts and had wedged it into place to keep from slipping.

Great idea until he was ready to get down and found himself stuck.

So I climbed up and helped him down. Then he took me home to his folks who fed me and put me up for the night as their way of saying thanks.

It’s nice to be out on the road again. I’ve missed it more than I ever imagined I would. But not nearly as much as I continue to miss you.

Dear Xena,

This has just been one of those days. Not one thing has gone right. From being awakened this morning by bandits, to stepping in a hornets nest hidden in the ground, my day has gone steadily downhill.

It really did start with bandits trying to creep into my campsite before daybreak. You’d think they could figure out that bathing would help, but no… I could smell them almost as soon as I heard them. Great way to start my morning and it got the blood flowing a little too much. It made me twitchy.

Unfortunately, the need to get them turned in to the nearest constabulary made it impossible to take care of that need immediately and my distraction because of it is what probably caused the rest of my day to go bad.

There was actually a reward for those smelly men and I took it, knowing I could do some good with it… or at least thinking I could. Have you ever heard the saying about the best laid plans of mice and men?

Suffice it to say that after being chased across a field by an angry bull, stepping in the hornet’s nest, nearly being flattened by a boulder and trying not to kill a blind man who tried to accost me when he thought I was stealing from him, I have taken a tiny bit of that reward money and used it on myself. Tomorrow, I will see about distributing the remainder to those in need here.

But tonight, I am sitting in a warm tub watching the hornet welts disappear, feeling the soreness in my muscles slowly dissolve. You would think at my age they wouldn’t get sore anymore, but they do and I miss having you massage the kinks out after a day like today.

Anyway, my blood need has been satisfied, I have a hot meal and a comfortable bed to look forward to and we will hope that tomorrow is a much better day.

See you in my dreams.

Dear Xena,

I am going back to Chin… China as it is now referred to. There is still so much of that country I haven’t seen. Who knows… maybe I’ll walk that Great Wall they’ve got.

I have a ways to go before I get there and there are so many people to talk to and help along the way. Good thing I have plenty of time to do so.

Lao Ma’s line has passed out of power from what I have heard and a family known as the T’ang dynasty is now the ruling house. They have brought prosperity to the nation, but I am not sure about their politics. I may have to be more careful. We’ll see.

I miss you Xena. At least I’m almost halfway to you now.

Gabrielle’s smile was melancholy as she returned back to the present. She remembered that trip very well. It was the first time a book was printed in mass quantities to be distributed for the reading enjoyment of all those who could. Gabrielle was thankful for the time Xena had spent patiently teaching her both the spoken and written languages of Lao Ma’s people.

When she entered the land of China, Gabrielle was forced to don her samurai gear once more. It got her a few more fights, but it also settled any question of skill anyone had about her because she did have the skill and knowledge to back up her claim of samurai.

She felt herself fall back into the role of warrior with ease and found herself grudgingly accepted by the male dominated society. It was difficulty to argue with a woman who could separate your head from your body with a look, a word or the touch of her blade to your throat.

Slowly word spread of a female warrior, though description of her varied from place to place. Sometimes she was as tall as the trees that grew in the deep forests. Others she was said to be a broad as the mountains that were in the North. Still others claimed she had eyes that flamed and hair of fire.

Gabrielle smirked when she heard that one. Given what Dite had done to her hair, anything was possible, though it had been enough years that it would have grown back to its natural color long before, even if Dite hadn’t restored it before Gabrielle had taken her leave once again.

So Gabrielle walked through the streets unrecognized but unmolested because of the blade she wore at he back. She figured folks saw the blade first, last and always and the one who wielded it became secondary to it.

It was while she was in the marketplace that she made an amazing discovery.

A young man stood on a corner, offering pieces of what appeared to be several thin parchments or reeds of some sort to anyone who would take them. Not many did, the ability to read was not prevalent in this society, but Gabrielle’s curiosity got the better of her.

She crossed the street and put out her hand for a packet. The young man squinted at her, looking her carefully up and down.

“Lady can read? Can read Chinese?”

Gabrielle bowed and nodded her head. “Hai. Several different dialects, in fact,” she responded in his native tongue.

The man studied her skeptically the held up a scroll for her perusal. He pointed to the text. “Read,” he commanded.

Gabrielle would have smirked but for her amazement at what she was seeing. Instead of being written out by hand, this paper, as Gabrielle could now see that it was, had actually been printed out by carved wooden blocks. She had of course heard of both the invention of this new paper as well as the use of blocks for printing instead of writing by hand, but this was her first opportunity to experience it first hand. Even more clever was the fact that it was some sort of flat book, instead of the more common scroll.

“Lady, you read now!” the youth impatiently instructed her.

Gabrielle had the overwhelming urge to smack him into next week. Instead, she held his eyes until he looked away, then reverently took the papers into her hands. “The Convocation of the Assembly,” she began. “Thus I have heard. Upon a time when Buddha sojourned….”

She would have continued but the young man snatched the book from her. She looked at him quizzically.

“How is it you know such things?” he asked with slight accusation in his tone.

“I was taught many years ago, from the Book of Lao.”

“You know of the book of Lao?”

“Hai. I learned great wisdom from its pages.”

The man looked like he wanted to dispute her words, but she had already proven her reading skill. Instead, he stretched forth his hand and offered her the booklet. Gabrielle thanked him with a gracious nod and a bow of her head. Then she moved back into the crowd of the marketplace and disappeared.

Gabrielle was a little disappointed that it seemed to be mostly a religious text, though she appreciated several of its concepts. And she was completely enthralled with this new method of sharing stories and ideas. Books could be the wave of the future.
Chapter XVII
“What are you thinking, Little Dragon Warrior?”

Gabrielle started at the unexpected voice and swiveled her head in the direction the sound came from. Then she openly stared at the beautiful woman who sat tranquilly beside her.

The woman returned her stare without blinking and Gabrielle saw many things in the brown, almond shaped eyes that gazed into her very soul. Finally, she turned away, embarrassed.

“I’m sorry,” she said, looking out over the river at the great statue of Buddha. “It’s just that I have not heard that name in a very long time.”

“Almost an entire millennia, I believe. A very long time to have been alone.”

Gabrielle’s eyes hardened. “Do I know you?”

“No, Gabrielle. But we share a mutual friend.” Gabrielle’s brow rose in question and Ch’uang-Mu smiled at the recognized gesture. Aphrodite had spent considerable time sharing this particular tale with the goddess and Ch’uang-Mu had been fascinated by the story as it had unfolded. Nowhere else in the vast archives of the world wide god web had anything been as interesting to watch… or as painful to endure.

Now sitting face-to-face with one half of the personalities involved in that story, she could easily see why Aphrodite was so fascinated by them both. There was an underlying strength that lent character to Gabrielle’s features and yet her beauty was wrapped in sensitivity as well. It was a rare combination and Ch’uang-Mu wished she could meet this soul’s other half.

When she noticed the second brow rise to meet the first, Ch’uang-Mu realized she had been staring while Gabrielle waited for an answer. She bowed her head in muted apology.

“A thousand pardons, Gabrielle. Your story is simply amazing and I got lost thinking about it when I finally saw you face-to-face, as it were.”

“Oookaaaaay,” Gabrielle replied, drawing the word out. “That still doesn’t explain anything to me nor does it tell me who you are.”

“Hiya, Sweetcheeks! What’s shakin’?”

Gabrielle looked at Aphrodite, then at Ch’uang-Mu and noted their close proximity to one another. “Let me guess… our mutual friend?”

Ch’uang-Mu flushed slightly and nodded, but did not move away from the love goddess from Greece. Gabrielle reached out to draw Aphrodite into a hug. Now the Chinese goddess stepped aside, knowing these two old friends needed to reconnect again. The embrace was long as it had been a little while since Gabrielle’s last visit to Olympus. The Greek gods had begun spending more time there again and less in Rome and that made it harder for her to stay.

“I’ve missed you, Cutie,” Aphrodite whispered with a kiss to the top of Gabrielle’s head. “And one of these days you’ve gotta like, share your secret with me.”

Gabrielle pulled back just enough to be able to look Dite in the eye. “What secret?” genuinely confused, but thoroughly glad to see Dite nonetheless.

Dite took a big sniff and grinned. “*That* secret. The ‘you always smell great’ secret,” remembering all too well her own smelly experience with being all too human.

Gabrielle laughed and blushed, mindful that they still had an audience. “Dite, I don’t always smell great. Especially after a long day of working, or fighting, or even just walking. You just happened to catch me right after a bath.”

The goddess narrowed her eyes. “Uh huh. Sure. Tell it to somebody that hasn’t smelled you for nearly a millennia, less a century or so. I think you’ve just got great pheromones.”

“Dite!! I think you’re just trying to embarrass me!” Bur Gabrielle couldn’t stop the laugh that bubbled up.

“Nope, I’m just trying to steal your secret.” She wiggled her eyebrows rakishly. “Wanna share pheromones?”

Gabrielle didn’t respond at first, except to simply cover her eyes and laugh. When she finally got herself under control, she looked at Dite seriously and said, “You need to get out more.”

Ch’uang-Mu spoke up. “That is what *I* told her,” with just the slimmest edge of jealousy. Gabrielle tilted her head slightly, as though trying to figure out the inflection and why it seemed to be directed at her. It was then that Ch’uang-Mu realized the truth and smiled gracefully. “Maybe now she’ll believe me,” said with a more genuine smile.

Dite planted her hands on her hips and pouted. “Ya’ll are like, pickin’ on me.”

“Nah,” Gabrielle replied saucily. “But I bet we could if we tried.”

“Hmph. Maybe I shouldn’t introduce the two of you. Might be radically dangerous for me.”

“You might enjoy it,” Ch’uang-Mu teased.

Dite looked between the two of them and leered. “Hmm… two beautiful babes. Oh yeah, the things I suffer through in the name of love.”

Twin expressions, complete with a single raised brow faced her and Aphrodite chuckled. “You guys are so totally priceless. Ch’uang-Mu, Chinese goddess of things in the bedroom, meet Gabrielle, bitchin’ immortal bard, warrior and teacher.”

“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Gabrielle. Aphrodite really has told me all about you.”

“Oh?”

“Yep,” Dite took up the conversation. “With it being so radically hard for you to get to Olympus these days, I figured it might be nice to have someone on this side of the world who you could talk to when I can’t like, you know, get away. Ch’uang-Mu and I have been friends for a long time and since we both do the love thing, we talk a lot.”

“Aphrodite shared your story with me, Gabrielle and I’d like to be your friend, if you’ll let me. But I certainly won’t impose if it makes you uncomfortable.”

Gabrielle studied the two of them for a long moment. She saw nothing but an earnest desire for friendship coming from Ch’uang -Mu and a caring, hopeful expression on Dite’s face.

“I’d like another friend,” she said finally. “Immortality ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Ah, truer words were never spoken,” Ch’uang-Mu said, then chuckled. “Humans think we have it so easy and yet….” She looked at Gabrielle. “And somehow, I think it is worse for you than for us. We still have duties and responsibilities and of course, the god web.” The last was added a bit impishly.

“Totally rockin’, babes. Although,” Dite added in an aside to Ch’uang that she made certain Gabrielle would hear. “Ya prob’ly shouldn’t let that one on the god web alone,” gesturing towards the bard. “You remember the great crash we had a while back….” Dite let her words trail off thought her eyes conveyed precisely what she was talking about.

Ch’uang’s almond eyes grew almost comically round as she realized exactly what incident Aphrodite was referring to. “Oh my,” she said as she focused on Gabrielle. “That was you?”

Gabrielle turned a shade of scarlet so deep, Ch’uang expected to see blood on the outside of her skin. And she remained that color longer than a human being should have been able to maintain it.

“I have to say, Gabrielle, it really was quite a work of art you managed. Not something I’d necessarily like to see again, but it was a masterpiece unto itself. I do not believe I have ever seen that many snarls on the network since its inception.”

Gabrielle scrubbed her face. “It was an accident,” she muttered.

Ch’uang placed a hand on the bard’s shoulder. “Of that much, we were ALL sure. I don’t think it could have been done intentionally. Do you know what you did?”

“Not exactly,” she continued to mumbled, her eyes still on the ground. “I pushed the wrong button.”

“Well, if you don’t mind sharing, we can surf the god web together from time to time. I have to keep an eye on this one,” jerking her thumb in Aphrodite’s direction.

“HEY!!! I’m a good goddess, ya know!!”

“I know,” Ch’uang smirked, feeling a bit playful now that her jealousy had been put aside. “That is why I have to keep an eye on you.”

“Hmph,” Dite pouted, but couldn’t stop the smile or the twinkle that crossed her face. “C’mon. I’m hungry and I think the Little Dragon Warrior is prob’ly in need of sustenance by now as well.”

“Please don’t call me that,” Gabrielle said unexpectedly. “I know you don’t either one mean anything by it, but none of the memories I have of that name are good ones.”

Both goddesses looked a little stunned at her pronouncement. They had only recently met face to face as it were and had been developing a real friendship and respect, though it was clear there would probably be more between them sooner rather than later. They had forgotten though that Gabrielle wasn’t part of the little trysts that were common in their existence and that name especially reminded her of just how alone she was in the world.

“Sorry, babe,” Aphrodite said in a subdued voice. “I just….” Dite broke off, not sure what else to say.

“I, too, apologize, Gabrielle. The name just seemed so suited to you. I did not stop to think how many unhappy memories you associated with it.”

“It’s all right, really,” Gabrielle replied, feeling a little conspicuous about having reacted so strongly. “I just prefer Gabrielle, although ‘Cutie’ is kinda nice too.”

Dite brightened considerably. “Gnarly, dudette. Now,” as three stomachs growled in tandem. “Let’s go eat. There is this majorly fab Sichuan place that has the most radical Gongbao chicken you have ever tasted.”

Ch’uang-Mu nodded. “I know the place of which you speak… and they deliver.” With a wave of her hand, the trio disappeared.

Aphrodite stayed around for a little while once they adjourned to Ch’uang’s palace to insure that Gabrielle was secure in Ch’uang’s company. Then made haste to get back to Greece, not wanting anyone to become suspicious of her absence and hoping like Tartarus she’d made the right decision in trusting the Chinese goddess.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle and Ch’uang were beginning to know one another and both discovered much to like and admire about the other. Gabrielle found Ch’uang reminded her greatly of Lao Ma and realized it was much easier to like her when Xena’s past wasn’t between them.

Ch’uang was much more reserved than Aphrodite, but Gabrielle discovered she had a very sly sense of humor. So a bit of time passed for Gabrielle as she and Ch’uang became acquainted and Gabrielle learned many things about the Chinese culture.

Finally, Ch’uang mentioned that the Chinese New Year was approaching and with the coming of a new millennium, the people were going all out to celebrate.

“Good grief!! I have been here over a century??” Gabrielle wasn’t sure whether to be appalled, annoyed or amazed. It really hadn’t seemed that long and she had learned so much about not only China, but many of the different lands surrounding the country.

She had taken many short field trips, going in and out of places like a spectre or wraith, but a goodly portion of her time had been spent in Ch’uang’s palace reading and learning.

“I need to get out… go back on the road. The little side trips I’ve made aren’t enough.”

“Enough for what, Gabrielle? You’re not seeking redemption… yours or Xena’s. There is no reason you should have to suffer through any more of humanity’s growing pains than necessary. Why do you feel the need to continually put yourself out there? You have a home here.”

Gabrielle sighed almost silently. “Ch’uang, I am thankful for your hospitality and you giving me a place to be safe for a while. But this is not my home.”

Ch’uang looked down at the floor, a crestfallen expression crossing her face. “I am sorry, Gabrielle. I am being selfish. Having you here has been so much fun for me… a breath of fresh air. You see and appreciate things that most of us take for granted or have forgotten about. It has been wonderful to experience things through your eyes.”

“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, because I have really enjoyed my time here with you. This culture has been a joy to learn about and be a part of, but I really can’t *live* here indefinitely.” She paused to blow out a breath and ran her hands through her hair.

“It’s hard to explain, especially to someone like you who actually needs to stay. There is a part of me that needs to be on the road helping people. Even in all the quick little side trips I took, I tried to take the time to help others.” Gabrielle shrugged. “It’s just part of who I am.”

Ch’uang nodded. “I know… I watched you.” She smiled tremulously at the bard and held out a hand. “I will miss having you here though. Now come,” she said almost imperiously. “In all the time you have been with us, you have not gotten your zodiac reading. You must do that before the new millennium.”

“How come?”

Ch’uang raised an eyebrow. “Because I said so.” Then she chuckled. “Besides, it is a lot of fun. I think you will find it interesting. And afterward, we will go sit on the roof and watch the fireworks display.” She hesitated then went on more softly. “Aphrodite promised to be here.”

Gabrielle’s eyes lit up. Nice as Ch’uang had been and though their circumstances had definitely grown a strong friendship between she and Gabrielle, the bard still missed Aphrodite’s somewhat constant presence in her life.

The Greek/Roman gods had mostly fallen out of favor with people and though they were still alive, their powers were greatly diminished. Most of them had chosen to come home to Greece to live in comfort and relative boredom.

Aphrodite was still quite active and since she drew her strength for the power of love itself, she was also much stronger than all but Ares. Love and war seemed to be the two most constant, consistent forces in the world and it enabled the two of them to continue to function more normally than the rest, though they could both feel a distinct difference in the potency of their powers.

So they still traveled and did what they could, though it wasn’t at nearly the intensity that it had been in their heyday.

Aphrodite had gone to China twice in the time that Gabrielle had been there. Once she’d been gone mountain climbing in Tibet, though when Dite got a good look at the mountain, she had to wonder about the prudence of her actions, even if Gabrielle was an immortal. Seemed like an awful lot of work just to go to the top. But she was happy that Gabrielle was staying busy, since that more than anything besides Xena tended to make her happy.

The second time had been almost awkward for Dite, though she realized that feeling was all on her side and probably due to her own jealousy. Seeing Ch’uang and Gabrielle happy together, even though she knew there was nothing more than friendship between them, made the little green monster want to come out and play. But Dite remembered all too clearly what that particular emotion had done to Cupid and she deliberately set it aside. Then found that her feelings were completely ungrounded as she was welcomed heartily by both women. It had been the most fun she’d had in ages and Aphrodite was looking forward to returning for the millennium.

Gabrielle was happy and Ch’uang could clearly see the difference in the bard’s demeanor at her pronouncement.

“I guess you have missed her?”

Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah. We’ve been friends for a long time and I do miss getting to talk to her. The god web thing just isn’t the same.”

Ch’uang chuckled. “Agreed. I too am looking forward to her visit. She has a way of bringing her own fun.”

Gabrielle laughed. “Oh yeah.” Then the two of them meandered down towards the temple library.

“I cannot believe we haven’t done this already. Did you read about the Chinese zodiac in all of your studying, Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle scratched her forehead. “I think so, but I’m not remembering any of it clearly right now.”

“Given the vastness of the library you’ve been reading the last hundred years or so, I do not doubt it. Our zodiac was established mostly to name the years to help delineate the passing of time. The people decided to get a bit of enjoyment out of it and took attributes from each of the animals that were chosen to be the year’s mascots. Those traits are said to represent the personality of the person born to that year.”

They entered the library together and Ch’uang led Gabrielle over to a small alcove that housed several beautifully woven tapestries. Each of them contained a different animal and the largest of them contained all twelve. Gabrielle stood in front of this one for a long moment, simply studying the delicate embroidery involved in creating such a work of art. She reached out a hand to touch it and hesitated, looking to Ch’uang for permission. The goddess nodded her head and gave Gabrielle a slight smile.

Gabrielle ran her hands gently along the silk fabric, marveling at the intricacy of the work and the richness of detail involved in each aspect of the animals represented.

“This is amazing,” Gabrielle finally commented. “I can’t believe I missed this.”

“Well, it’s not like this is part of the open area of the temple,” Ch’uang pointed out. “You really have to know it is here to look for it.”

“So tell me about them.”

“What year were you born, Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle told her and Ch’uang laughed softly. “You really have aged very gracefully.” Gabrielle blushed, even as she chuckled at the teasing. Before she could respond, Ch’uang went on… “Especially for a pig.”

Gabrielle’s brows flew into her hairline and she choked out, “Excuse me?”

Ch’uang motioned to the tapestry. “You were born in the year of the pig,” she replied seriously, but her eyes held a teasing twinkle that made Gabrielle realize she was being tweaked just a little.

“Wonderful,” she muttered. “Xena will have a field day with this.”

“Well, the characteristics surrounding the pig are quite pleasant,” Ch’uang replied. “And I’d be willing to wager, fairly accurate. According to my people, you are a splendid companion and an intellectual… someone who thinks deeply about things and sets difficult goals, prepared to carry them out. You are sincere, tolerant and honest. At one point, you were incredibly naive because you expected the same from others, but life and time have wrenched that ideal from your grasp. Now you simply maintain your own code of morality and adjust to deal with others who hold to a different code.”

Gabrielle thought about that for a few moments, taking in all the nuances of what Ch’uang had said. “I can live with that I think,” she said with a smile. Then added impishly, “So what does that make Xena?” giving Ch’uang the warrior’s birth date and remembering just how hard it had been to pry that information out of Xena once upon a time.

“Hmm… your partner is a monkey.”

“Heh… I could work with that,” Gabrielle murmured to herself. “Wonder how she’d look with a tail.” It took a moment of total silence before Gabrielle realized that in her contemplation of said picture, Ch’uang was regarding her with studied amusement.

“Ahem,” she laughed softly. “Sorry about that. What are the monkey’s attributes?”

Ch’uang’s dark eyes sparkled with unveiled amusement. “Well, she is very intelligent with a deep desire for knowledge and a hidden, clever wit combined with an excellent memory. She is skillful and flexible, remarkably inventive and original. She can solve the most difficult problems with ease and has a magnetic personality, which is a good quality for a leader, but she is quite distrustful of other people.”

“Amazing.” Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed. “Are you sure you didn’t study us first and just make that up?”

Ch’uang laughed, a clear, ringing sound. She walked over to the shelves and pulled out a particularly thick tome. “See for yourself.”

She opened the volume to the spot that talked about the zodiac and Gabrielle rapidly began scanning the page.

“This is amazing,” she said as she continued to read. “I know people who fit all these descriptions.”

“As do I. It seems….” Whatever thought Ch’uang was going to add was dissipated by the unexpected arrival of the Greek goddess of love who showered the room with rose petals as she made her entrance.

“Yo babes! Whassup?”

She dropped an arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders and kissed her head gently. “Hey, Cutie! I’ve missed ya.”

Gabrielle returned the embrace fully. “Hi, Aphrodite. I’ve missed you too.”

Dite smiled at her affectionately then turned to Ch’uang without releasing Gabrielle. She held out a hand which the Chinese goddess accepted. “And how are you, hon?”

Ch’uang-Mu squeezed Dite’s hand. “I am well. Yourself?”

Dite hugged Gabrielle once more then let go of her. “Can’t complain, I s’pose. Love is love everywhere and it keeps my juices flowing, ya know. I do kinda miss the old days, but at least I’ve still got the power, if you know what I mean. A lot of the gods are pretty much powerless, so I guess I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Ch’uang took both of Aphrodite’s hands in her own. “Well, I for one am glad you are lucky.”

Gabrielle observed silently as the two of them spoke. The dynamic connecting them had changed and changed again. The lust that had burned so obviously between in their early relationship had deepened into true affection and friendship, but surprisingly, not love. Gabrielle was curious enough to wonder if they had ever consummated the lust, but her private belief was that they had not. Or if they had, it had been a very, very brief affair.

While she was thinking, Aphrodite and Ch’uang finished up their conversation and they turned to her. She looked up at them with a puzzled expression. “What?”

Dite shook her head. “Nothing. You just looked so totally involved in thinking that we decided to let you know, like finish first.” She took a deep breath. “So tell me about this gnarly room. I’ve never seen this cool stuff before.”

“Ah,” Ch’uang answered smoothly. “We were doing a reading on Gabrielle… explaining her zodiacal symbol to her.”

“Awesome! So what are ya, babe?”

“She is a pig,” Ch’uang answered when Gabrielle covered her hand to hide the blush that suffused her face and groaned pathetically. Aphrodite howled in laughter.

“Oh my gods! Priceless!! I have blackmail material for years now.”

“Be nice to me,” Gabrielle growled from behind her hand.

“Why? This is bitchin’. And while I’m totally sure that what the Chinese define as piggish behavior is different from ours, the tweak factor on this is just so totally there.”

“Yes, but you love me and don’t want to make fun of me like that.”

Dite was momentarily stunned by Gabrielle’s words until she realized the context in which they were meant. Then she giggled.

“You’re right, I do love ya, but I am gonna absolutely razz you about this. It is just way too precious.”

Gabrielle sank into the chair and dropped her head on the desk. “I’m doomed,” she moaned, eliciting laughter from both non- sympathetic deities.

A stirring in the vestibule made Ch’uang realize how close it was to the New Year. “Come. It is very nearly the New Year and we do not want to miss any of the fireworks. I understand that the planners have gone all out in their efforts to make this truly spectacular.”

She whisked them to the roof of the palace moments before the festivities were scheduled to start. The two goddesses sat in comfortable chaises in the middle of the roof, while Gabrielle wandered to the edge to view the massive crowd gathered in the streets below.

They had a flagon of wine between them and several courtesans who made sure their glasses remained full and their plates were never empty. Gabrielle stood apart, feeling the differences between both herself and the throng which was congregated below and the goddesses who were mere feet behind her. Again she felt her solidarity in the world and her resolve firmed to go out again and try to find some meaning to her existence.

Behind her, Dite and Ch’uang kept a casual eye on her while watching the festivities taking place around them.

“You know she is leaving,” Ch’uang commented to Dite.

Dite nodded. “I figured as much. She lasted way longer than I expected her to.”

“I will miss her. She has become a good friend.”

Dite nodded. “She always has been.” She paused. “Do you know where she is going?”

“No, not definitely, thought I suspect she will walk the wall. It is the one thing we have talked about that she has yet to do. Do not fret, Aphrodite. I will keep an eye on her as I have always done for you.” Ch’uang hesitated, then plunged forward. “She does not know, does she?”

Dite looked at her, seeing her truth mirrored in the brown eyes which regarded her. “No,” she shook her head, “and she never will.”

Ch’uang accepted that statement with a silent nod and turned her attention back towards the magnificent display of fireworks going on just above them.

Two days later, Gabrielle departed the palace.

Gabrielle couldn’t believe how great it felt to be out and about roaming the streets again and mingling with people. Thus far, she had rescued a chicken, stopped two fights, pulled a child from the river and traded a story for her room and board. Now it was late on her first night back on the road and she found herself kept awake by the sheer excitement of traveling once more.

“I must be nuts,” she said to herself. “I had everything at my fingertips and yet I prefer to be out here making my own way.” She fell asleep to that thought with a smile on her face.

The next few days passed with minimal excitement, but Gabrielle found herself appreciating her life once more in a way she hadn’t in a while. *This* was living, not reading about it in a palace library, though she was imminently grateful for the time she’d had to do that. She needed down time, but she had missed this.

The down side was that her blood need had to be satisfied a little more regularly here and she actually had to hunt for it. It was while she was on her first hunt that something totally unexpected happened. And for Gabrielle, it would change her world forever.

Gabrielle came back from her memories with a start. She set the diary to one side and rose from the bed, walking to the window and gazing out across the moonlit water. The stars were bright around the orb and Gabrielle stared at them for a long time, smiling in memory when she found the North Star.

“It’s a bear, warrior.”
Chapter XVIII
Xena looked up at the night sky, easily finding the North Star. “I still say it’s a dipper, Gabrielle,” she said with a soft sigh. It was times like this especially that her sense of loneliness became almost overwhelming. She missed Gabrielle with a constant ache, but at night, under the stars, the ache became an acute pain.

She was still at least another full day’s walk from where she expected her adopted family to be. Xena was looking forward to being back with the Cheyenne tribe. Not only had she missed them, but she was fairly certain now that the answer to how she had come to this place and time lay with them.

Without warning, an unearthly howl screamed across the landscape and sent chills skittering up Xena’s spine. She rose from her bedroll and let her eyes wander the darkness. A second screech put her feet into action and she was running towards the noise before her mind had processed her intentions.

Her two animal companions had gone hunting in this direction and she wondered briefly if this was the sound of their prey. But her heart knew differently and she continued running full throttle to reach them.

When she arrived at the small glen where they were, Xena fell to her knees. On the ground before her lay the fox, bleeding profusely and gasping for air. Sad green eyes turned to her, conveying a truth she was not willing to admit. She glanced to the panther and saw an agony so profound it cut through her with razor-like precision.

Gently, she picked up the fox and cradled it in her arms. She staunched the flow of blood and took off back towards her campsite at a frantic run. She and the panther arrived together and she placed the fox down on her pallet gently. The panther curled protectively around its mate as much as possibly and looked up at her with pleading eyes.

One handed, she reached for her medical kit, eternally gratefully for habits that were ingrained in her psyche. By feel alone she managed to extract gut and needle, then as quickly as she could manage she sewed the gashes that had been torn through the beautiful red coat and into the flesh and veins of the fox’s body.

Xena’s mind went back to the healing temple in Thessaly and bit her lips to keep the tears from spilling onto her face. The harsh rasp of breathing was so much like what Gabrielle had sounded like just before she had… died… that first time and the memories this stirred still burned as sharply as they had then.

“Too much blood loss…” she muttered, knowing there was little to be done for that and almost no hope of survival. A black paw came to rest on her knee and she turned her attention to the cat that looked back at her mournfully. And without a word, Xena understood exactly what the panther was asking of her.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “Do you know what it will mean… for you both?” But even as she spoke, she felt her incisors grow to meet the need she felt emerging at the coppery scent surrounding her that she was now fully cognizant of.

In answer, the panther opened its mouth, exposing its own fangs and moving purposefully towards Xena’s wrist.

“All right, Etor. I get the point.” Xena sat sill for just an instant, then reached for the sharpest blade she had. She steeled herself and cut through her skin, immediately lifting her wrist to the fox’s mouth and hoping there was enough strength left in the animal that it could drink from her.

She felt the fox’s lips nuzzle her wrist and she monitored its swallowing until she was sure the fox was getting the sustenance it needed. When she began to feel lightheaded, Xena pulled away, binding the cut she could already feel closing.

“That’s enough for now, Melo. Let’s see about getting you cleaned up.” She moved to stand but her legs refused to support her. Instead she sank back down to the ground and blindly searched through her kit. When she found the trail bar she’d been searching for, Xena snatched it up and began eating it. It wasn’t what she needed, but it would suffice until she was strong enough to go on a hunt.

Unexpectedly, a plump jackrabbit fell into Xena’s lap and she would have jumped had she not been quite so drained. She had heard the panther’s approach, of course, but she was not anticipating this particular gift to be dumped in her lap.

Without thought, Xena sank her fangs into the bunny and drank until the animal was bled dry. It was not enough to replace what she had lost, but it did slake her hunger enough that she could function somewhat normally.

Xena set the animal aside momentarily, knowing both she and the panther would need its solid sustenance. Then she put some water on to warm, to clean up both herself and the fox and she started preparing the rabbit for cooking.

She skinned the rabbit, then a large portion she cut off and set in front of the cat. She cut up the remainder and dumped it into a second pot, adding a small amount of spice and covering it with water before putting it on the fire and removing the first pot.

She reached for her medical kit again and removed some clean linen scraps, wetting them and gently cleaning away the blood that the fox was still covered in. Melo didn’t move, but simply remained still to allow Xena to do the most careful and thorough job she could.

Once she was done, Xena looked into the fox’s tired green eyes. “Rest now, Melo. Etor and I will keep you safe.”

The panther resumed its protective position surrounding its mate and gently nuzzled the fox until the red furred chest moved in the deep, regular breath of sleep. Then blue eyes met again in anguished understanding and the cat began a careful grooming of the fox.

Xena stirred the stew that had started bubbling and leaned back, closing her eyes tiredly. She’d never allowed another creature to feed from her before and was more drained than she could possibly have imagined herself ever being. Xena concentrated on not falling asleep, knowing she needed to eat and replenish what she had lost before surrendering to the slumber that was pulling at her so desperately.

The prickle of a sharp claw on her leg brought Xena sharply out of the light doze she had fallen into and she realized that her stew was mostly ready. She looked down, fully expecting to see a black paw resting on her calf. Instead, Xena noted that the two animals were twined together in sleep and that the fox’s breathing seemed to have gathered a little more strength. She smiled, believing for the first time that the small creature might actually survive.

She portioned herself a large quantity into her bowl and moved the rest off the heat. Then Xena ate quickly and methodically, idly noting that at least it was better than tolerable for a change. When she was finished, she rinsed the bowl with just a bit of water and turned the bowl over the remainder of the stew to keep it for the morning meal. Then she stretched back out on her furs and settled into sleep. Trusting to her instincts and the panther’s that nothing would happen to them in the meantime.

Morning came far earlier than Xena would have liked, but much later than she expected. The sun was fully risen, though it was still early comparatively speaking. Blue eyes blinked into the sunlight as she tried to fathom why exactly she was still so exhausted.

Xena sat up and looked around, rubbing her hand across her face in an effort to jump start her brain. When she saw her companions still sleeping and completely entangled together, a sad smile crossed her face as she remembered the many mornings she and Gabrielle had done the same. The only real difference was that the panther was shielding the fox – Gabrielle tended to use Xena as her own personal body pillow.

“One day, Gabrielle,” Xena whispered to herself. “One day we will have that again. I will find a way to get back to you.”

The cat’s eyes opened and with infinite care began grooming the fox again, gently encouraging the smaller animal’s wakefulness. Reluctantly, the green eyes opened briefly, then the fox relaxed into the panther’s ministrations and let sleep overtake it once again.

Xena moved the pot of stew closer to the fire to reheat a bit without cooking it too much; then she picked up her bit of towel and soap and moved to the tiny creek to bathe.

By the time she returned, her stew was slightly bubbling and the two animals were once again sleeping soundly together. She ate, then separated out two smaller portions, one which was mostly broth, correctly figuring that the fox would need to start rebuilding its reserves and knowing that it would need to ease back into eating. Even with the bacchae blood Xena had shared and the immortality it had been given, the fox had suffered some gruesome wounds and it was going to take a little time for it to heal.

Xena ran a hand along the soft fur, thankful that it was the natural red of the fox’s coat and not the blood it had been covered with the night before. She idly wondered what had happened to cause the fox’s injuries, then the green eyes opened again and Xena’s attention focused on the animal beneath her fingertips.

She heard the growling and had to chuckle silently at just how much the panther reminded her of herself. Xena remembered the many times she had growled in just such a manner when she felt someone or something threaten Gabrielle, even long after she knew Gabrielle was more than capable of defending herself and making her own decisions.

Xena looked up into the blue eyes that were watching her carefully. “Etor, I’m not gonna hurt Melo. Go eat your breakfast,” pointing over her shoulder towards the bowl of stew that she’d set aside for the panther. “I just need to make sure things are healing properly.”

The cat held Xena’s eyes for another very long moment, before its attention was drawn away by the fox. They communicated wordlessly, then the cat stretched and gave Xena a last look before moving towards the fire and its breakfast.

Xena smirked at the familiarity of the exchange, then turned back to Melo with serious eyes. “You know what’s changed, don’t you?” she said softly as she inspected the still damaged, though rapidly healing tissues. “You know you’re like me now.” Xena swallowed hard in an effort to keep the tears at bay. “I’m sorry, Melo. I wouldn’t have had this happen to you… either of you… for all the world. But Etor asked and I couldn’t say no.”

Xena turned away, remembering all too clearly the pain she’d felt every time Gabrielle had been lost to her for whatever reason, but especially when she thought death had beaten her. She shook her shoulders, trying to rid herself of the feeling of guilt that wanted to settle so squarely there, knowing it was something that she would never fully escape.

A softness on her knee returned her attention to the fox and she noted again the intelligence and compassion that lurked in those eyes. So much like Gabrielle, was her one thought as she saw understanding and forgiveness come into them.

“I’m glad you came into my life, Melo. You and Etor have been good friends. I just hope you don’t hate me for this later.”

The look never changed and Xena found comfort in that fact. The fox closed its eyes and relaxed into Xena’s touch. The warrior kept up a soothing motion as she carefully explored the areas which only the night before had been ripped and raw. Already they were closed and the swelling had gone down remarkably.

“I think we’ll stay here another day,” Xena commented aloud when her examination was finished. “At the rate you are healing, you should be secure in moving before then, but I would definitely feel better with another day of rest.”

It wasn’t typical, but Xena knew both animals would understand her need to stay put. The fact that she admitted as much to them aloud showed precisely how badly she needed some recuperation time for herself.

The cat licked its bowl clean and moved back to its mate. The fox watched the panther’s progress, resting securely against the black fur that snuggled up against its spine. Xena set the bowl of broth at an angle against the panther’s paw, getting a look that could curdle milk in return.

“Yeah, yeah. Tell it to someone who doesn’t know better, buddy.” The look turned to one of resignation and Xena had to chuckle just slightly.

She watched patiently as the fox slowly ate the broth and then offered the animal some water. When Xena was satisfied that she’d done all she could for the moment, she picked up both bowls and waterskin and moved to the river. In a few short moments, her chores were done and she was back in camp.

Everything was tidy and her bladed weapons were as well honed as she could manage to make bone. She did not have enough ammunition for the gun to do much with it and truth be told, she was still exhausted from her experience the night before.

Xena heard another soft growl come from the panther and looked up to find herself pinned in place by rather baleful blue eyes. She felt her eyebrow rise in response.

“What?” feeling just like she did when Gabrielle looked at her that way and trying to figure out what exactly she had done to warrant that glare.

The panther stared at her rather pointedly then turned its attention to her empty pallet. Xena had made the fur and blankets up neatly when she’d decided to stay put another day. She followed the cat’s gaze to her made up bed, then met the eyes squarely when they returned to focus on her. The panther let its lip curl just enough to show a hint of fang and Xena through her hands up in exasperation when a low growl emanated from the black chest.

“Fine!” she said, not realizing just how much like Gabrielle she sounded. “Nothing like being bullied into something!” She lay down and stretched out, unwilling to admit even to herself how badly she needed the rest. Her eyes closed and she almost moaned at how good it felt to simply rest. Then she sat up and pointed a finger at the cat.

“You keep watch!” Then she fluffed up the end she was using for a pillow and pulled the covers up to her shoulders, muttering and mumbling to herself the entire time. She was asleep before her head hit the fur.

The two animals exchanged a glance and a rumbling that could have easily been mistaken for laughter ran through them, the two sounds running counterpoint to one another to create its own music. Then the panther gently nudged the fox into closing its eyes again and with an exasperated sigh, the fox returned to its healing sleep. And steady blue eyes remained vigilant in the silent campsite.

It was morning again when Xena’s eyes opened, although the only way she could tell was a very slight lightening of the eastern sky and the completely rested and refreshed way her body felt. She looked over to her companions, whose eyes were still closed in sleep. When she blinked, she found blue eyes staring back at her and marveled once more at just how much the two animal companions were like her and Gabrielle. Not just in their eyes and coloring, but in their mannerisms and very attitudes.

“I wish there was a way for her to meet you two. I think she would probably love the idea of mascots and adopt you both on the spot.”

Xena stretched and groaned as her spine popped and shifted back into alignment. “I’m getting too old for this,” she muttered as she rose from her pallet and moved to the other side of the fire. Bright green eyes blinked at her and Xena smiled in unconscious reflex before kneeling at the fox’s side and running a gentle hand over the soft fur.

“Let me look, Melo,” Xena said, easing the fox onto its back so she could check its chest. She ran her hands over the new, soft fur, unable to find even the slightest amount of damage. She unwrapped her wrist, finding no trace of the cut she had put there two nights before.

“Well,” she commented, “I suppose there has to be some nice benefit to being a bacchae. Guess that answers the immortality question, huh?” She looked at Melo with sad blue eyes. “Sorry,” she whispered.

“All right,” she continued, scratching her hands through her hair as she stood. “I think we are ready to travel today. Lemme go clean up and we’ll see if we can get to the winter camp.”

It didn’t take long and soon Xena was headed out into the prairie. The animals walked sedately beside her for a while, then the fox felt the need to explore. Without thought, it took off running and the panther growled as it ran to catch up. Never before had the fox been the one to take the lead and the cat wasn’t sure what to make of it. With a patented glare in Xena’s direction, the panther followed its mate across the open space. Xena just laughed.

“Oh Etor. You have no idea the trouble you’re in for now,” Xena commented absently with a grin. She remembered fondly her own experiences with Gabrielle as the bard had started coming into her own. Just the memories of what they’d shared and what Xena wanted desperately to recover lent wings to her own feet and soon she found that she was running simply because it made her feel like it brought her closer to her goal.

Her companions soon got into the spirit and it became something of a race. The panther had naturally resumed the lead, when without warning the fox leaped out in front and ran like the wind, becoming a blur. The cat stopped so quickly, it actually somersaulted on the ground before landing on its feet, eyes following its mate in disbelief.

The fox sensed the panther’s regard and turned, racing back to the cat’s side with great haste. The smaller animal had every intention of nuzzling its mate when a throaty growl from the panther made the fox stop short. The fox sat down and cocked its red head, gazing inquisitively at the panther, a look of curiosity crossing its features. Xena just stood back and watched the proceedings with interest.

The panther circled the fox, sniffing reflexively. Another throaty growl emanated from its throat before the cat turned and moved away from the fox, wandering farther out into the prairie alone.

The fox turned its attention to Xena, gazing at the warrior with mournful eyes. Xena knelt down to be closer to eye level.

“I’m sorry, Melo. I don’t know how to make this better. It’s a warrior pride thing, I’m afraid and Etor will have to come to terms with it eventually. I just don’t know how long eventually might take.” She looked around, noting that the panther was moving slowly enough to keep them within both hearing and sight distance.

“C’mon,” she said, standing up and beginning to walk in the panther’s direction. “We’ve still got a ways to go yet.”

The day progressed slowly with the panther always walking just far enough ahead of Xena and the fox to be separate. As the afternoon wore on, Xena detected a small cloud on the horizon and knew she was close to the winter camp.

It was nearly dark when Xena reached the outskirts of the camp with Melo beside her and she was warmly welcomed by many members of the tribe. Hotassa was the first to greet her.

“Va’ôhtama ma’pa’o, Zee-nah.” She clasped the warrior’s hands and Xena smiled broadly, glad to be back among people she considered friends and family. Hotassa motioned to Xena’s new clothes with a grin.

“Hello, Hotassa,” she responded automatically, then realized she was still thinking and speaking in the odd language Ari had so patiently taught her. The Indian woman’s eyes widened and she spoke before Xena could apologize.

“Speak white now?” she asked brokenly though clearly enough that Xena understood.

Xena nodded.

“Good,” Hotassa said firmly, somewhat surprising to Xena with her vehemence. “Make things easier for you.” The older woman looked around, noting that the fox remained at Xena’s side while the panther had already settled itself by the fire and appeared to be sulking. Hotassa looked back at Xena questioningly. Xena waved her off, but Hotassa understood the answer all to well and laughed. “Is way of love. Come,” she said with a wave and led Xena over to her fire.

The shaman was already seated and indicated for her to take a seat. Xena set her travel bags on the ground behind her and sat, a little surprised when the fox sat beside her and laid its head in her lap. Almost unconsciously, Xena began stroking the soft, red fur beneath her fingertips, feeling Melo relax under her touch and feeling the same peace steal over her.

They sat silently for a bit, then the shaman gestured first to the fox and then to the panther. “Fight?”

Xena shook her head. “No, Keto. More like pride.”

The elder shaman looked back and forth between the two animals and grunted. “Figures,” he muttered so low that even Xena was unsure of just exactly what he’d said. Quiet fell between them again as Hotassa served up their evening meals. Xena made a move to protest when a solid squeeze on her shoulder stopped her words before they could be formed, much less spoken. So she accepted the bowl and welcomed the warmth and flavors the food provided her with.

“Good hunt?” Keto asked when he was finished and had set his empty bowl aside. He withdrew a pipe from his pouch and pulled the tobacco out as well, packing it tightly and lighting it from a small twig he’d caught for just that purpose. He puffed a few moments and that gave Xena time to carefully formulate her answer.

She was fairly certain that if she was mentioned by name, Ari would be recognized. In fact she suspected that Hotassa already knew that Xena had met Ari. She couldn’t explain it as more than a feeling, but she’d learned to trust her gut and decided to speak to Hotassa about it privately. Meanwhile, she turned her attention back to Keto.

“Yes,” she finally responded. “I think I will stay here through the winter though. Start fresh again in the spring.”

“Good,” he replied, taking a deep drag off his pipe and handing it to her. Xena accepted it and took a lighter pull, allowing her thoughts to wander. Eventually, she felt herself slip into a restful haze and spoke the words that had been teasing her for several days, but had only just been given the opportunity to slip out.

“Keto, will you take me on a vision quest? I think my answers may be closer than I thought. I think they may be here.”

The shaman continued to puff on his pipe as he considered her words… both spoken and otherwise. He had wondered if she would ask; he had seen things in his own recent vision quest that she would need to know. This would probably be the best way for her to find out.

It was unusual, though not completely unheard of for a woman to take a vision quest. The male ceremony was different from the female however and due to her status as a warrior within the community, Xena would need to take the male ceremony to find the answers she sought.

Finally the pipe was empty and Keto knocked the few ashes left in it on the ground. Then he turned to face Xena, who returned his stare measure for measure. He smiled, liking what he saw in her soul and nodded.

“I will,” was all he said at last.

Now Xena allowed her own brief smile, the relief flowing through her in palpable waves. “Thank you, Keto,” was all she said aloud, though the shaman could feel just how much it meant to her. She moved to stand and he placed a hand on her knee, halting her movement. She looked at him again, questioning.

Keto gestured first to the fox and then to its mate some distance away beside Xena’s tent. “Fix.”

A dark brow rose in mute question.

He motioned between them again. “Fix. Fix first. Need them on quest.”

It was the most words Xena had heard him put together at one time and she nodded gravely. “I will, Keto,” she said as she stood, moving away from him with a nod back to her own tent. Only then did she mutter to herself, “As soon as I figure out how to.” Then she ducked in her doorway, grateful that the clan had been prepared for her return. She made a mental note to ask Keto about it when they spoke again.

Xena crossed to the furs already laid out for her use and stretched out with a contented sigh. She laid there for a while, slipping in and out of sleep when a rustle attracted her attention. Xena opened her eyes to mere slits and kept her eyes half closed as she watched the proceedings at the door.

The fox had followed her inside the small dwelling, content to stretch itself out near the doorway. The panther remained unmoving outside the door and the fox gazed at the entryway longingly before a sigh escaped and the green eyes closed.

Time passed and when everything was still and quiet, the panther crept in and stood beside the fox, gazing sorrowfully its mate. It didn’t move or touch the smaller animal until the green eyes opened. With a mere look, the fox gave the panther the assurance it was seeking and the cat immediately settled into its place near the fox, curling its larger body protectively around its diminutive mate and beginning a gentle grooming. The fox closed its eyes in contentment and Xena smiled.

“And sometimes,” she whispered to herself, “you just get damned lucky.”

Then she closed her eyes and let her dreams take her to a place where she and Gabrielle were still together in life.

The early morning darkness was broken by the raucous noise of raiders. It wasn’t clear who the marauders were, but it didn’t really matter. The fact that they were causing mayhem and chaos was clear enough.

Xena scrambled from her tent and was instantly in the thick of the battle. Immediately, she missed her sword and chakram, but adjusted her fighting easily to use whatever weapons came to hand.

She was in the thick of the battle, demolishing enemies left and right when a commotion caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. She held up her hand abruptly and the man she was fighting was so stunned by the action that he froze and turned his attention to the tableau that Xena was now moving towards intently.

Xena strode forward purposefully, knocking men out of her way with blows that killed or maimed, depending on where they landed. She had seen it all happen and was hoping beyond hope she had misunderstood.

In the few seconds it took her to cross from one side of the compound to the other, the fighting became a distant focus and the silence that fell in her ears was loud in its very stillness. Harsh breathing could be heard and Xena closed her eyes as she reached the spot where her animal companions had fallen.

The panther was crouched over the fox, a low keening vibrating from its chest as agonized eyes tracked to Xena’s own. Gently, she moved the cat to one side, realizing immediately that the fox had stepped between the panther and the knife that was now embedded in its own red-furred chest. A swift glance around showed Xena the knife-wielder had died painfully under the cat’s sharp fangs. It also showed her clan beginning to clean up the bodies of their fallen and those the few raiders that had escaped left behind.

Xena tenderly lifted the fox into her arms and headed for her tent, the panther literally stuck to her knee. She ducked through the doorway and placed the small animal on the furs, quickly rummaging for the supplies she needed to close what would be a gaping wound when she removed the blade.

Skilled fingertips ran along the fur, glad to note there was no other damage. Xena looked seriously into green eyes dulled with pain. “I know why you did it, Melo and I can’t fault your reasoning. But you’ve gotta learn to get outta the way a little faster. You may be immortal now, but you’re not invincible and this is gonna hurt like Hades own fire.”

The fox closed its eyes in concession to a truth it already understood too well and Xena opened the wineskin. She pulled the knife out and poured the alcohol in, hoping to kill any infection before the wound closed over. The fox barely flinched, though its breathing sped up exponentially in proportion to the sheer misery it felt. Xena moved to the water skin she kept warming near the fire and poured a goodly amount of that over the blood-soaked fur. In bare minutes, it was impossible to tell just how injured the fox had been, save for the open but now unbleeding cut on its chest.

“Melo, I’m gonna have to sew this up.”

A sigh was the only indication that the softly spoken words were heard and Xena rapidly pulled the gut and needle out of her kit and through the torn flesh. In moments, the only hint of the damage that had been wrought was a thin red line that cut through the fox’s fur at an odd angle.

“Now, I want you to rest and take it easy the remainder of the day. We’ll say it was just a scratch, but you’ve gotta be more careful. What we are makes us different and even here in a community of acceptance, it can make us hunted because we’re seen as a threat.” The sadness in her eyes was reflected back to her from the fox’s.

“Etor….” But her directive was unneeded. Already the panther had curled around its mate and begun the gentle grooming that allowed the fox to relax into sleep. Xena smile slightly at the picture the two of them made together, then stepped from her dwelling to provide whatever assistance she could to the tribe.

Surprisingly, there was very little real damage. Most of the dead were raiders who’d been killed by her hands as she’d moved to Melo’s side. Otherwise, there were a few injuries and some collateral damage, but nothing that couldn’t be repaired fairly easily. It occurred to Xena just how peculiar that was, then she was being called to assist in setting a broken bone and the thought went to the wayside.

By mid-afternoon, the compound was clean and orderly once more. All the wounded had been taken care of and the dead raiders had been cleared out. Xena was checking on Melo, when a soft knock at her doorway drew her attention.

“Yes?” she asked and waited for the flap to be pushed aside.

Hotassa crossed the threshold with a large bowl of something hot and fragrant. Xena’s stomach rumbled in reaction to the scents it was exuding and Hotassa chuckled in sympathy. She nodded towards the two animals still wrapped tightly around one another.

“Better now?”

Xena took the bowl that was being extended and began eating. She’d long since given up trying to share. That wasn’t the way things were done in this society and she always, ALWAYS remembered her status as a guest here, no matter how accepted she was.

“Yes,” she said around her food as she continued to eat.

“Good,” came the answer as Hotassa watched them wake up together and start to nuzzle one another gently. “Keto says begin quest tonight. So Zee-nah rest now.”

The warrior nodded and put her half-full bowl in front of the fox and panther. Then she moved to her pallet and stretched out, allowing her mind to float free and take her into a dozing state. Hotassa watched the proceedings with interest, noting that Xena’s spirit guides finished their meal simultaneously and settled back down into slumber almost immediately. The older woman brushed the hair back from Xena’s face and pulled the fur up to cover her before retrieving the bowl and stepping back out into the cold October wind.

Night fell and Xena awakened and started preparing herself for the ritual. She bathed in the lukewarm water provided for her, then dressing in the breechcloth that she had been given. The moon was nearly at its zenith when she wrapped herself in her buffalo robe and stepped from her dwelling with her two companions matching her step for step.

People stepped away from her respectfully, realizing her intent. When she reached Keto’s fire, she waited for his invitation to join him. Instead, he rose to meet her and began chanting in a low tone, cleansing her with smoke from both the fire and the pipe he held lit in his hands.

Xena kept her eyes straight ahead, figuring this was part of the ritual. Finally, when Keto was done, he lowered his voice even farther, until it was a mere whisper of sound. He explained to her very simply what she needed to do and handed her a small skin of tobacco and a pipe, then led her to the sweat hut. Here she would be left alone to seek her vision until she came out seeking guidance.

Hotassa handed her a full water skin. This would be replenished regularly until Xena stepped out of the hut when her quest was complete. Other than that, there was no nourishment provided for her use.

Just as Xena was ready to cross the threshold to begin her journey, she looked up into the night sky. A streaming light caught her eye and at first glance she thought it was a shooting star. But as she stood and watched it slowly move across the sky, she realized it was something more. Then she stepped into the sweat hut, hoping to find the answers she needed to make it back home to Gabrielle.
Chapter XIX
Gabrielle watched as the comet began another night of its trailing journey across the heavens, wondering idly just how many times she’d seen it in her lifetime and curious as to what Xena thought of the whole phenomenon. If she’d figured right, it would just be becoming visible in the United States. Her travels west would allow her to see it for an extended period of time.

As she watched, her mind turned back to her travels in China and her first encounter with a most welcome and unexpected face from her past.

Her steps were stealthy and sure; her tracking skills had been honed to an art form after hundreds of years of practice. Even not having used them for almost a hundred years did nothing to dispel her hard-earned knowledge and she fell back into familiar patterns easily.

Now she closed in on her prey with sure skill and was just ready to go for the kill when she felt more than anything else another presence in the woods with her. She waited, still, to discover the intent of the being that suddenly seemed to share her hunt. Badly as she needed the nutriment the animal would provide her with, she could less afford to expose herself to the mortals around her. Though they couldn’t really kill her, dryads having gone to dust centuries before, they could make things unbearable for her to remain. And Gabrielle really wanted the chance to walk the wall before she left China.

She waited for what seemed an eternity to her blood-starved senses before the impression of another human nearby faded from her awareness. Her prey remained oblivious to her presence and Gabrielle took what she needed swiftly and mercifully. The animal felt no pain and Gabrielle gave thanks even as she drained its life force.

When she was done, she bowed her head in sadness. Of all the different facets of immortality she suffered with, this was probably the one she disdained the most. It made her feel guilty and ashamed, even though her mind knew that it was beyond her choice and her control. She couldn’t stop the way it made her heart ache.

The hair on the nape of her neck stood up suddenly and she realized immediately she was no longer alone again. She looked around, her newly heightened senses enabling her to pinpoint the intruder’s whereabouts directly. She stared into the spot where nothing had been mere moments before and focused her fierce gaze intently. Gabrielle knew that if the human being could see the burning in her eyes, they would run screaming in terror and willed herself to a still calmness.

She felt her blood cool and her eyes began to take on their natural green before the shadow became a shape and form she recognized. With a glad little cry, Gabrielle ran headlong into arms that opened wide to receive her.

“Cecrops!!”

The big man laughed heartily and hugged her to him as tightly as he dared without fear of harming her.

“Ah, Little One,” he said as he set her back on her feet and reached out a hand to wipe a smudge of blood from her lips. “It seems we have much to discuss. But,” he added as her eyes dropped from his and he cupped her chin and raised her face, tapping her cheek gently until her eyes met his once more. “I have missed you,” he added honestly. “I have missed many things. Will you share camp with me? I cook a pretty mean rabbit stew,” gesturing to the animal that now lay abandoned by the wayside.

Gabrielle couldn’t stop the impish smile that crossed her face. “No seafood then?”

Cecrops laughed again. “Not if I can help it.”

She chuckled with him and led him to her well-laid out campsite. He snagged the rabbit in his grasp as he walked by and made short work of preparing it once they reached Gabrielle’s camp. In what seemed mere moments, the appetizing scent of rabbit stew was wafting through the air and both immortals sniffed appreciatively.

“You know,” Cecrops commented casually, “eating is one of the mortal attributes I appreciate most as an immortal. I don’t really need to, but I do so enjoy it.”

“Mmm,” Gabrielle agreed. “So do I. It is one of the few things that remind me I was a normal human being once upon a time.”

Cecrops heard the many layers of her words and could see the weight of years and experience in her eyes. He *knew* what being an immortal could do to the soul and he wondered what it had taken to tarnish the soul she had been in her youth. Of course, he mused, it could have a lot to do with a certain warrior who was so obviously missing from her life.

Cecrops cleared his throat. “I can’t tell you how surprised I was to see you. I had heard stories of a fierce warrior, teacher and healer and came to find this paragon for myself. Some of the descriptions sounded like someone I had known, but the odds of it being who it reminded me of were impossible.” He chuckled. “At least I thought they were.”

“But you didn’t expect to find me, did you?” she asked quietly.

“Not alone, no,” he replied soberly. “You want to tell me about it, Little One?”

Gabrielle sighed. Even after more than a thousand years of being a bacchae, this wasn’t something she was entirely comfortable living with and certainly not with sharing it. It was like exposing herself to the world and she fidgeted slightly.

Cecrops brought his large hands up to cover her own. “Gabrielle,” he burred and the blonde head rose at the odd salutation. He had rarely ever called her by name. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I thought that sharing with someone who almost understands… who *does* understand at least part of what you are going through might help. You can share as much or as little as you like. Or nothing at all… it’s up to you. If nothing else, we can swap stories of things we have seen and heard since we parted company. That by itself should take us a few months.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “Oh, at least. You know how I can get going if I have a good story to tell.”

Cecrops laughed heartily, glad to see Gabrielle’s mood lightening. “I tell you what, Little One… I’ll go first then. Have you been through Europe lately?”

Gabrielle shook her head. “Not in several hundred years, I don’t think. Time tends to blur a bit after a while. I would have missed the millennium if not for Ch’uang Mu’s prompting.”

“Ch’uang Mu… Chinese love goddess?”

Gabrielle nodded. “Among other things, yes.”

“My, my, my, Little One. You do travel in some interesting circles.” He raised a brow at her. “Part of your long story?”

“Uh huh.”

“Well then, let me tell you about my experience introducing the barbarians of Europe to the art of crop rotation.”

Gabrielle said nothing, but leaned back and motioned for him to continue.

“…. so you can just imagine me up to my hips in muck trying to explain to this farmer that you can’t rotate pigs.” Cecrops laughed aloud at the memory and Gabrielle laughed at his story, which had been his intent. He reached to refill both their bowls with the last of the rabbit stew. “I can’t tell you how long it took me to round up those damned pigs.”

Gabrielle covered her mouth with her hand to keep from absolutely howling and wiped the tears from her eyes with her other hand before accepting the bowl Cecrops offered her.

“Gods, that has got to be the funniest thing I have heard in a while,” Gabrielle said when she finally trusted herself enough to speak. “Although I could tell you stories….”

“Please do,” Cecrops urged. “After all, it is your turn.”

Gabrielle nodded her head silently. “I guess it is. She paused and stared at the stars for a long moment, hoping to find an answer there, then sighing reluctantly and placed her uneaten bowl of stew to one side. She clasped her hands together and spoke softly. “It would probably be best if I started at the beginning.” She sighed again and looked down at her intertwined hands.

“Gabrielle,” Cecrops said softly as he clasped her hands in reassurance once more.

She withdrew one hand and patted his then covered them gently. “I’m sorry. This is just so hard… still… and so personal for me. I’ve… I’ve never had to… share… this with anyone before and certainly no one has ever been in a position to… understand my story at all. Especially from an immortal point of view… or a bacchae one,” she muttered the last under her breath, but Cecrops heard it clearly.

“I take it was an unwelcome, unpleasant surprise,” he stated calmly, hoping to put Gabrielle at ease. He’d never seen her so flustered, even when she knew she was stuck on a cursed ship forever, sea-sickness, raw squid and all.

“Well, it certainly wasn’t something I was expecting to hear, especially given the circumstances.” She frowned at his crinkled brow. “Just let me tell you the story from the beginning. It’ll be much easier to understand.”

He nodded and filled their cups with steaming tea before leaning back and gesturing for her to proceed.

“Now, you have to understand that we probably would have faced the truth eventually, but at the time, it was easy to put it down to battle bloodlust. It wasn’t until our fateful, disastrous trip to Japa that everything came to a head and was pushed into the forefront of our lives….”

“So you never suspected you were immortal?” She could see he wanted to ask about the rest, but he was too much of a gentleman with hundreds of years of self control under his belt to bring it up. For that she was thankful, because what she and Xena had shared between them had always been intensely private. When the bloodlust had taken over, that intensity had taken on a fierceness that even now, sitting here sedately by the fire with her lover still hundreds of years from her, made a familiar burning flare in Gabrielle’s blood.

“No. As many times as we died, why would I?”

He nodded sagely, understanding her point very well. He’d always known he was immortal, from the time Athena had gifted him. It wasn’t something he discovered by trial and error.

He sat quietly while she finished of her now cold stew and drank her tea. He studied her carefully, noting the maturity that distinguished her features and body language and spared a passing thought for the young woman he had known.

“You have been through much, Little One. And to be alone…. Tell me, what do you do for companionship?” A very bold question, but only the chance not taken was one to mourn.

Gabrielle looked at him, startled. “Excuse me?”

“Come, Gabrielle… you’re a woman of the world. You can’t tell me you don’t have needs, desires….”

Gabrielle jumped from her spot by the fire to pace. “Yes, I do, but until I find Xena, those needs and desires are mine alone to deal with.” She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, unaware of the picture she made highlighted by the firelight and not seeing the flaring of Cecrops’ nostrils as he warred with his own hidden desires.

She turned her back to the fire and faced the forest, focusing on the darkness beyond her vision. “What we shared together was… indescribable and I won’t settle for less than that. I can’t give less than everything and I can’t give that to anyone but Xena. It’s not fair to me and it’s not fair to anyone else for me to try.”

Gabrielle’s shoulders slumped, then stiffened as Cecrops placed his hands lightly on them. “I’m sorry, Little One. I knew that what you shared together was strong, but I had no idea it was so all-encompassing. My apologies for making you so unhappy.”

She turned in his arms for a hug and he embraced her firmly, but tenderly. “You didn’t,” she replied softly. “I am so glad you’re here with me, even if it is only for a little while.”

“So am I, Little One. And if you’ll forgive an old man for upsetting you, I’d like to hang around awhile. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a friendly face.”

Gabrielle wondered at his comment, being fairly sure that the friendly faces her referred to were immortal ones and rare in the extreme. She didn’t mention it though, too relieved at the conversation being over at this point. She felt raw from having exposed so much of herself and completely exhausted in a way she hadn’t been in years. All she really wanted right now was to sleep.

Cecrops noted her fatigue easily and lifted her into his arms above her protest. “Shh, Little One. It doesn’t happen to us often, but when it does, we have to let it run its course. This time it is my fault, so let me do what I can to fix it, all right?”

He was already at her side of the fire and gently placed her on her readily prepared furs. He covered her, then stepped back to his own side, to give her what privacy he could afford her. For a very long time that night, he gazed into the fire and set aside dreams he now knew would never be more. When he finally closed his eyes, it was with a bit of sadness and melancholy, but also with a peace he’d not know in a very long time. Friendship was something he treasured highly and he was glad to have found this one again, however unexpectedly and painful the circumstances.

The sun was high in the sky when Gabrielle finally blinked her eyes open. The camp was quiet and when she looked around, Gabrielle realized she was alone. She scrubbed her eyes and wondered if her encounter with Cecrops had been nothing more than a very vivid dream, until she heard a strong male voice singing a ribald sailor’s song she had first learned aboard Cecrops’ cursed ship.

She chuckled and spared a thought for her innocent self who had turned beet red when she realized exactly what the men had been referring to when they’d been singing about oysters, pearls and clams. It was the fastest sex education course she’d ever had and it had guaranteed a laugh from Xena every time it came up for discussion… a feat the warrior managed on a regular, though not too often, teasing basis.

Gabrielle blinked her eyes again and now she noticed that tea was steeping next to the crackling fire, steaming hot water sat on a heating rock and some sort of bird was roasting. Gabrielle inhaled deeply and smiled. She was glad Cecrops had retained this facet of his mortality much as she had and it smelled like he was an old hand at cooking as well.

She pushed the covering from her body and rose with a stretch. Then she folded her bedding neatly and headed to the river to wash up.

Cecrops was in the water swimming lazily as Gabrielle approached. She turned away from him as he rose from the water, though she did get enough of a glance to realize he was still an extremely attractive man who was in excellent shape, especially when one took into account the fact that he was over a thousand years old, Gabrielle conceded to herself with a smirk.

A hand fell on her shoulder to let her know he was dressed and she turned around to see deep brown eyes sparkling with life looking back at her.

“Don’t be too long,” he said with a smile as he headed back towards the camp. “That pheasant should be almost ready to eat.”

Gabrielle nodded and he passed out of sight and she quickly got down to the business of bathing. The bird smelled really good and she was looking forward to sharing breakfast, or lunch, she thought, given the time, with a friend.

Gabrielle returned to the camp still drying her hair. Cecrops chuckled silently at the way the blonde hair managed to stick straight up… something of a sight given the length. Gabrielle glared at him then fetched her comb to bring some order to the unruly locks. When she was satisfied it was completely untangled, she braided it and tied it off.

“Better?” she asked with a smirk.

“Well,” the gravelly voice answered. “More mature looking. You reminded me of a child before.”

“Cecrops,” Gabrielle responded with a hint of exasperation. “I have *always* reminded you of a kid.”

Cecrops didn’t answer as he plated the pheasant and passed Gabrielle a goodly portion. She took the plate and tasted a bit, a smile and light moan accompanying her actions.

“I’m so glad I can still enjoy this part of mortality.”

Cecrops grinned, nodding his head. “It’s good to know I can go without if I have to, but I have to admit to truly enjoying a fine meal. And there is something about camping out that just makes me ravenous… the fresh air maybe, or the constant exercise.” He shrugged his broad shoulders. “Whatever it is, it is wonderful to feel hunger and be able to satiate it.”

Gabrielle looked at him sharply, wondering if there was a hidden meaning in his words. But the man continued to eat and she let the comment pass with one of her own.

“I agree. It’s one of the things the gods just don’t understand. They eat from habit, but not because they need to or they enjoy it. I just enjoy it,” she added with a small laugh.

Quiet settled over the camp as they savored their meal, but when they began to cleanup, conversation turned to other things.

“So what brought you to China, Cecrops?” They had decided to remain camped a day longer since it was already early afternoon. It wasn’t like they had a schedule to keep and there was just something about starting out fresh is thing in the morning that appealed to both their natures. So they tidied up the area and sat back to talk.

Cecrops shrugged. “A few things, I suppose. I like the expanse of this country and it was time to move out of Europe again. You know how it gets.” He looked at Gabrielle and she nodded solemnly. The only reason she’d remained in China as long as she had this time was because of Ch’uang’s hospitality to her.

“So anyway,” he continued, knowing very well what caused the shadows to chase across her face. “I was in the farthest western province when stories of a great, fierce warrior started filtering around. The descriptions were so varied that the people asked me to come check it out… to see what sort of threat they were facing.”

“So you didn’t expect to see me.” A flat statement.

Cecrops laughed. “No… I hadn’t heard you were an immortal and given the descriptions that were going around, I wasn’t sure I expected a human being.”

Gabrielle chuckled in response. “Hmm… I have heard some of them, so I can understand your confusion.” She placed a hand on his arm and studied him seriously. “You can’t let anyone know I am immortal, though.”

“Gabrielle, that’s not something I would want shared around about myself because of how people would react, so I do understand.”

She shook her head at him. “No, it’s more than that for me.” She removed her hand and crossed her arms over her chest. “See, if people took the time to study their history and that of other cultures, they would find your name and your story. They probably wouldn’t believe it, thinking you were simply a descendant of the famous arbiter, but the fact is, your immortality is out there for all who want to see it. Kinda like Hercules,” she continued. “His story is well-known.”

“Right, but… Little One, I’m not seeing your point here. We’re all still immortal. Not something we really want shared around.”

Gabrielle took a deep breath. “Aside from myself, you are one of one three people who know I am an immortal and the other two are goddesses.” Cecrops nodded his understanding, but the confused look never left his eyes.

“No one else knows and there are no stories implying I *might* be immortal or I *could* be immortal and it has to stay that way. If Ares knew I was immortal and why, he could easily figure out that Xena is as well and he would start looking for ways to tempt her again.”

“Surely you don’t think she would succumb? And could he honestly get to her more quickly than you? The Chronos stone is gone. He has to live through the passage of time as well.”

“After her actions in Japan, I’m not sure what I think. But I’m not gonna give Ares any advantage. To him it’s a game, but it’s my life, dammit and I am OVER being a pawn!” The temper flared so quickly, Cecrops was caught by surprise and he sat quietly as her eyes closed and she willed her mind back to a state of calmness.

“I’m sorry, Little One. I didn’t know the stakes were quite so high for you,” Cecrops apologized softly.

Gabrielle shook her head. “No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t take out a thousand years’ worth of frustration out on you.”

Cecrops laughed heartily. “Ah, Gabrielle… if *anyone* in the world can understand a thousand years worth of frustration, it’d be me.”

She smiled sympathetically. “I guess so. So there’s no one special in your life either?”

Cecrops shrugged. “There have been a few here and there, but it’s hard to… invest… everything into a relationship you know going into it is short term for you.”

Gabrielle nodded and silence fell for a bit. Cecrops voice startled her when he spoke again.

“I envy you, you know.”

She cut her eyes in his direction. “Excuse me?” Knowing the circumstances that surrounded her position in life and the price she continued to pay for her immortality, she failed to see what exactly there was in her situation for him to covet.

“What you and Xena had… have… together is so strong you are able to survive to get back to her. And you have a firm hope of reuniting with her again. I don’t have that.” He looked away as tears filled his eyes. “Not that bond or that hope.”

Gabrielle moved to sit beside him and wrapped a hand around his bicep before laying her head on his shoulder in a gesture of comfort.

“Well, I can’t offer you that kind of bond, but I can offer friendship and a traveling companion for as long as you like.”

He looked at her and smiled, patting her hands. “I would like. I really… well, let’s just say you remind me of better days and happier times. It would be nice to remember those with someone who can remember with me.”

“So it’s settled… tomorrow, we will begin our journey together. Today, however, I think I’m gonna go fishing.”

Cecrops laughed and the sound of it reminded Gabrielle how much she missed having laughter in her life. She looked at him questioningly.

He slowed his chuckles enough to speak. “I would have thought your squid experience would have made you give up seafood.”

Now Gabrielle chortled. “Um, no. It made me realize just how many ways there are to cook it, but as Xena reminded me, the fish that comes from lakes and rivers is not technically seafood.”

“Heh. Good point.”

They rose together and headed back down the path to the river. “So,” Cecrops continued. “Do you have a favorite recipe you might like to share?” He looked in vain for evidence of a pole or a spear.

Gabrielle sat and removed her boots and socks, then rolled her trousers above her knees. “One thing I never had to do when traveling with Xena,” she commented as she stepped lightly into the water.

“What? Roll up your pants legs?” he joked.

“Well, that too,” she replied. “No, I never had to catch the fish. Xena always did that. It was something she really enjoyed.”

“Um, Little One… not to seem stupid, but humor an old man and tell me how you intend to catch fish. I don’t see anything but your bare hands. Don’t you need a pole, spear, net… *something*?”

She wiggled her fingers at him. “Nope. Xena taught me how to catch them barehanded.”

“No way.”

“Yep. I can’t tell you how long it took me to learn either.”

Cecrops flung himself on the ground and leaned back on his elbows. “This I gotta see.”

He watched appreciatively as the blonde head turned slightly and the lithe body stood stock still. He leaned further up and instantly regretted the decision as in a flurry of motion he was suddenly and deliberately attacked by a rather large fish that was hurled in his direction.

“Hey!!” was all the challenge he was allowed before a second and then a third hit him squarely in the chest as he stood.

Gabrielle managed to contain her mirth, though her eyes twinkled mischievously. That glimpse of the young woman he had known kept him from retaliating, though he did glare hard at her with his hands planted on his hips.

“You know, I did just take a bath this morning. Now I smell like fish.”

Gabrielle smirked as she stepped from the water. “Not like a little morewater is gonna make you melt. Enjoy it,” she said as she picked up the three fish. “I’ll clean these and see what I can find to go with them.” Then she was gone. Cecrops looked up at the sky.

“Some days, you’ve just GOT to wonder WHY ME?” Then he stripped off his clothing and jumped into the water, taking his shirt with him.

He sloshed water over himself, acknowledging there was only so much clean-up he could do without soap. When he got out, he noticed a towel and a small cake of soap by his clothing and wondered when Gabrielle had stopped by and how it was he hadn’t noticed her. Shrugging, he walked back into the water and scrubbed both himself and the shirt, then he stepped out and wrapped the towel around himself. He located a convenient rock and stretched out on it, hanging his shirt on a nearby bush to dry.

“I can see traveling with you is going to be an interesting experience, Little One,” he mused aloud before he let the warmth of the afternoon pull him into a light doze.

He couldn’t be sure if it was the chill of the setting sun or the scent of cooking fishing wafting to his nose from the campfire that woke him, but Cecrops quickly awakened and dressed and headed back towards their camp.

Gabrielle had a pot of something bubbling on one side of the fire and was carefully turning the fish in the skillet. He could see a pot of tea brewing and it looked suspiciously like she’d found some sort of berry or other as well.

“I can see you do this a lot.”

Gabrielle turned towards him as he spoke. “Is that a good thing?”

“Yes. I enjoy competence and you are exceptionally proficient.”

She smiled. “LOTS of practice.”

He picked up the large bag she had leaned against the small stack of firewood. “This is intriguing,” he noted, eyeing all the different pockets and carry spaces. “A result of your practice?” He set the bag back down.

“Yep. Dite and I worked hard to make something that would carry what I needed without making me bend under the weight.”

“Well, it’s very clever and dinner smells wonderful.”

“Thank you. It’s ready… just need to dish it up. Did you have a good swim?”

“Yes, I did, thank you. And sometime, you’ll have to share with me just how you managed to sneak in and out like that without my noticing you. Do you know how long it’s been since anyone could do that to me?” He accepted the plate from her hands and took a bite of the fish.

He chewed slowly, savoring the taste. “Oh my… you may never get rid of me now,” he said with a twinkling smile.

“Glad you like it,” she said as she took her own plate to the other side of the fire and sat on her bedding. “It’s always more fun to cook for someone else. Makes it worth the effort, ya know.”

“Yes, I do. And this is worth that second bath.”

Gabrielle chuckled, but just kept eating.

The fire had died down and everything was cleaned and put away in anticipation of an early start the following morning. Gabrielle was gazing at the stars, lost in thoughts of times spent with Xena just like this when a streak of light making its way across the speckled black background caught her attention. She retrieved her diary and writing materials from her pack, then noted the appearance and the date. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen the odd characteristic appear in the night sky and she knew if it held true to form, it would be around for several weeks.

“You keeping an eye on that?” Cecrops rumbled lowly into the darkness.

“Yeah. It got my attention years ago and I’m just keeping a record of when and where I see it. Another way to mark the passing time, I guess,” she added with a shrug.

“Well, sometime we’ll have to compare notes, but for now, I’m gonna call it a night. Goodnight, Little One.”

“Goodnight, Cecrops.” Gabrielle looked back at the sky and returned her eyes to the comet’s slow path. “Goodnight, Xena.”
Chapter XX
“So where… ex… ugh… exactly… oomph… are we… headed?”

Cecrops was panting hard as he moved the boulder into place. In all his many, MANY years on earth, he couldn’t recall a time he had worked so hard. Certainly it had been an eternity since a pair of beautiful eyes and a cute smile had been able to coax so much effort from him with a simple please.

“Ya know, old man,” he muttered to himself. “You could be in *real* trouble here.”

“Problem?” Gabrielle queried as she passed by him carrying a large sack of sand. They were helping some villagers shore up a dam. The rains they’d had in this province had threatened their very existence and Gabrielle and Cecrops had volunteered to help them.

Or more accurately, Gabrielle had volunteered and then cajoled Cecrops into assisting the villagers as well.

“Nope,” he groaned as he lifted another huge rock into place. “No problem here.”

Gabrielle dropped her bag into place and wiped her brow. “Well, at least we’re almost done and Daoning has invited us to stay for a bit.”

“Why?” Cecrops asked as he dropped the boulder in place. “They need us to raise a barn or something?”

Gabrielle looked at him a long moment before answering. “No. We’re the guests of honor at a celebration feast.”

Cecrops had the decency to look abashed at her tone and he looked away from her stare. “I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I think I’m just tired. I haven’t worked this hard in a very long time.”

The blonde head nodded solemnly. “Cecrops, if you really don’t want to do this….”

She stopped speaking when his hands covered hers. “No. I just sometimes have to be reminded about what’s important in life. I get complacent sometimes and forget how the rest of mankind suffers to survive. Thank you for reminding me of my humanity and the responsibility I have to it.”

Gabrielle squeezed his fingers. “That’s one of the reasons I still do this. It reminds me of who I was and who I am.”

Cecrops released her hands and placed his on the small of his back, stretching and moaning as his spine popped back into alignment. “At least this will be something we will be able to look back on in another thousand years and remember that we helped make it possible. When will the stone masons begin their work?”

“Um, tomorrow, I think,” Gabrielle answered as she ran her dirty hands through her equally dirty hair. “Ugh. In the meantime, I think I need a bath.”

Cecrops pushed a blob of mud from his forearm. “You and me both, Little One. I feel like I could soak for days and not get rid of all the mud.”

Gabrielle laughed. “I think the only time I’ve felt worse was after days crossing the desert and walking through a sandstorm, but it doesn’t beat the mud by much.”

Cecrops scrunched up his face. “Oh, that sounds almost painful,” but a glimpse at her face made him realize she was no longer listening and he wondered what memories their conversation had conjured up for her. He watched her for a few moments before turning at a soft touch on his arm and being escorted towards the baths.

Gabrielle remained lost in her thoughts as she slowly made her way to the small sleeping room Daoning had offered her for the duration of her stay. It wasn’t large, though it was more than adequate for her needs. A knock on the bamboo frame brought her out of her musings.

“Yes?”

“Bath, Lady Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle laughed aloud at the title. “Just plain Gabrielle, Dao.” She looked at her mud coated skin and winced. “And yeah, a bath would be great.”

“Come. Private bath all prepared for you.”

A dirty blonde brow rose to an equally dirty blonde hairline. She was well aware of the custom of communal bathing and though not particularly fond of it, had developed a tolerance for its necessity. Dao giggled at the comical sight the bard made with her muddy face, standing hair and stern, questioning demeanor.

“Apologies, Little Dragon Warrior, but you….” her voice trailed off uncertainly.

Gabrielle’s expression changed so rapidly and her head snapped so hard to one side that it was amazing it simply didn’t pop off and glare at Daoning of its own accord. Dao caught the furious look and her eyes widened in shock as she took a step back.

Gabrielle noted the unconscious reaction and rubbed her hand across her forehead, smearing the mud a little more.

“Now I’m sorry, Dao. Where, um… where did you hear that name?”

Daoning picked up the large towels and cake of soap she’d brought with her and gestured Gabrielle to follow. Then she began speaking.

“Many years ago, there was woman called by such name who traveled through land. She was fierce warrior who defended weak, who took time to help those in need. She became hero and myth to my people. History describes her much like you, though she never spoke. We have heard of way you and your friend have helped many villages here. You have been so kind to us that we wanted to honor you. This was most fitting way we could do so.”

Dao slid back the partition to the small bathing room she’d prepared for Gabrielle and motioned her towards the steaming water. “Besides, you bear mark. I will return shortly with clean clothing.” Then she stepped back out of the room and closed the door shut behind her before Gabrielle could say a word.

Gabrielle ran her hand through her hair again, flinching at the dirt that scattered at her feet with the motion. “Take whatever small blessing you can find, Gabrielle,” she coached herself, before stripping out of her ruined filthy clothing and stepping into the bliss of clean, hot water.

It wouldn’t have taken much coaxing for Gabrielle to have simply fallen asleep in the tub, but she was all too aware of the tattoo which could so easily betray her secret to the people who know her story, even if they were ignorant of the fact that it was indeed hers.

So she bathed quickly and wrapped herself in one towel, draping the second over her head to cover her shoulders. She dropped her dirty clothes into the still warm water to soak and sat back on the bench to watch the small flames in the fire pit.

Dao was surprised to find Gabrielle already finished with her bath and waiting on her clean clothing. She handed the small pile to the bard and deliberately turned her back to afford Gabrielle as much privacy as she could. Dao reached for the clothing and began scrubbing it.

“I can do that, Dao,” Gabrielle said as she slipped cool silk over her shoulders and reached for the matching trousers. The woman had thoughtfully included a comb and Gabrielle returned to the bench to work out the snarls.

“Yes, you can,” the Chinese woman replied, “but I do best.”

Gabrielle’s eyebrows rose. “Are you implying I am laundry incompetent?”

Dao thought about the words a moment before answering. When she did so, it was with a smile. “No. But this I know well – three sons, one husband, big muddy river.”

Gabrielle laughed. “I see your point.” She paused in her combing and took a deep breath. “Dao, why did I rate a private bath? And don’t tell me it is because I remind you of some mythical savior from old legends. Everyone out there today worked hard and yet I’ll bet no one else got privacy like this,” motioning around the nearly empty hut.

“You wear mark of goddess. Is respect.”

Gabrielle studied herself, trying to figure out what sign of which goddess Dao was referring to. The Chinese woman saw the look confusion that crossed Gabrielle’s face and rose from her spot by the tub. She dried her hands on one of the discarded towels before reaching for Gabrielle’s hand.

Gabrielle gazed at her own hand curiously before Dao brought her attention to her bracelet. For the first time, she realized that a mark had been added and wondered when it had come to be there and how she had missed it up to that point. Then again, it wasn’t like she took the metal gauntlets off and studied them at every opportunity either.

Gabrielle looked a little more closely at the symbol, then turned her attention to Dao. “What does it mean?” realizing that it was one she’d never seen before.

Daoning shrugged. “Mark of goddess. Ch’uang-Mu’s blessing of chosen.” Dao peered into the green eyes. “Do you know goddess? Do you serve her?”

Gabrielle hesitated, unwilling to share the whole truth. “I visited the temple for a while and I studied many of the texts there.”

Dao looked at her a little disbelievingly, but let the comment pass. No matter what, Gabrielle bore the image that marked her as a Chosen and it was not for Dao to challenge that; especially as Gabrielle had proven herself knowledgeable in both their customs and their folklore and deities, to say nothing of her general knowledge of the workings of the world.

“Come,” Dao beckoned as she stood again. “Time for feast.”

Gabrielle smiled. She appreciated the gesture and she would appreciate the food and the good company that would go with it.

“You’re being very quiet tonight,” Cecrops said softly as they focused on the entertainment. There were several children performing some interesting acrobatics and it was quite fascinating to watch. At the moment, they were spinning plates on poles and Gabrielle secretly wondered how many plates they dropped before becoming so proficient.

“Am I? Sorry… just thinking.” Gabrielle absently chewed her thumbnail.

Cecrops turned his attention to her fully. “Does your thinking have anything to do with your avoiding my question this afternoon, or is it something else entirely?”

“Huh?” It wasn’t the most articulate reply, but it was all she could manage at the moment. The look of pure confusion that crossed her face assured Cecrops that Gabrielle was totally clueless about what he was referring to.

“This afternoon… I asked you where we were headed. You never answered.”

“I never heard the question. All I got was you mumbling to yourself about being old,” Gabrielle teased.

“Little One, I *am* old. After today, I just feel it… ALL of it.” Cecrops smiled though and Gabrielle accepted his repartee easily. “So what’s the answer?” he finally prompted when it became clear she wasn’t going to reply.

“Oh, sorry. I’d like to walk the wall, actually.”

Cecrops put a hand to his forehead to make sure his eyebrows didn’t actually pop off in surprised reaction. “The wall? The Great Wall? All four thousand miles?”

“Yep. It is about the only thing I have left to do here and I’d really like to see the country from its perspective.”

“You know, it is still pretty active militarily. The Chinese may have a problem with a couple Greeks just waltzing up expecting to use it as some sort of common road.”

“Maybe, but apparently, I’ve been marked for protection as one of Ch’uang-Mu’s chosen. Surely they will leave us alone. And if not, it’s not like we can’t kick butt and take names. We’ve done it before.”

The plate bearers finished their performance and a small group of tumblers came out. Dao offered both Gabrielle and Cecrops a bit of wine and both accepted, then sat back to enjoy the small cakes that were served as dessert as they watched the acrobats.

Cecrops contemplated the best way to say what was troubling him and finally just decided on the direct approach.

“That probably isn’t a wise idea, Little One. Already I have heard the rumors and legends of your existence a thousand years ago and it was the stories of this trip that brought me to your side now.” He sighed. “If you don’t want people to discover your secret, you have to be a little more discreet.”

Gabrielle’s shoulders slumped. “How do I help people if I am busy worrying about what stories are being told about me?”

He clasped her hand gently. “We’ll work on it together. At least with there being two of us, the stories will be different.” He paused, hesitating. “Do you, um… do you still have the tattoo?”

Her head swung around swiftly and she realized with a sense of ironic black humor that it was fortunate indeed that she was an immortal. Her head would have easily popped off otherwise at this point.

“How did you…?” She was fairly certain he had respected her privacy as she had his, but this was the first time since Xena’s death that she’d traveled with anyone and she was a bit disconcerted at his question.

“The stories and legends mention it. It is one reason you were originally given the nickname Little Dragon Warrior.” Cecrops didn’t mention the opportunity he had taken to see it for himself. It was a harmless indulgence, but he was ashamed enough of his weakness and scared enough of her wrath that he kept that little detail to himself.

Gabrielle blanched. She was beginning to feel haunted by her past.

“Excuse me,” she mumbled before standing and walking out of the light and into the darkness that surrounded the village.

She found a lone tree a short distance from the village set on a hill high enough that she could still observe the festivities. Right now, though, unseeing eyes gazed sightlessly at the panorama spread below her and focused instead on the ache she felt in her very soul.

“Oh, Xena,” she whispered. “I am so tired.” Gabrielle turned her attention to the stars she could see so clearly above her. “I miss you so much. I don’t know how much longer I can do this alone.”

“You’re not alone, Gabrielle.”

The bard didn’t even flinch at the sound of the voice right next to her. She kept her eyes glued to the heavens, not willing to let anyone, not even a friendly goddess, see the depths of her despair.

“Yes I am, Ch’uang. In many ways I am and will always be until Xena and I are reunited. There are places in me so deep that only she can fill….” Gabrielle drew a shuddering breath. “I know I have friends and I do appreciate all of you, but it isn’t the same thing.”

Ch’uang lightly grasped Gabrielle’s arm. “I know… and I am sorry. Never have I met a human who has endured like you have, Gabrielle. Your fortitude and strength of spirit are astounding. It is natural that the fight to maintain wears on you.” The goddess paused. “I know there is little I can do to ease the ache of separation, but I can assure you if you want to walk the wall, your way will be free and clear as far as the guardians are concerned.”

Gabrielle looked at Ch’uang questioningly and the Chinese goddess continued. “Helping others is a large part of who you are. I gave you my mark so you could continue to do so without censure or question.”

Gabrielle nodded, her pain and fatigue making her still unsure of what she was being offered.

“Gabrielle, as long as you desire to help my people, I will grant you whatever protection I can afford you to keep your identity a secret. And if you ever feel like it is becoming too much to bear again, all you have to do is call me and I will come. Whether it is to listen or just to sit together as friends or to offer you a place to rejuvenate… it is yours for the asking.” Ch’uang took another deep breath. She had missed Gabrielle greatly since the bard had left the palace and she was again unused to speaking so much. “You have come so far.”

“And still have so far to go.”

“And still have so much good to share,” Ch’uang corrected gently. “You will find your soul’s other half, I promise you.”

“Do you really believe that, Ch’uang?”

The goddess nodded her dark head firmly. “Oh yes. I really do.”

Gabrielle smiled, heartened by someone else’s belief in them. She reached over and embraced the goddess in a firm, brief hug.

“Thank you, Ch’uang. I needed to hear that.”

Ch’uang-Mu smiled. “I am glad I could be of service. Would that all my requests were so easy to grant.”

“Sometimes, it’s nice to know I’m not crazy trying to get back to her.” Gabrielle scratched her head. “Or catch up to her… or whatever.” She chuckled self-consciously.

“Can I tell you a secret, just between us girls?” the goddess asked conspiratorially.

Gabrielle’s brows jumped. “Uh, sure,” wondering where this was going.

“I envy you.”

Gabrielle scrubbed her face, sure she’d misunderstood. “I beg your pardon?”

Brown eyes twinkled as they returned the green regard. “I envy you. I know you do not believe me, but it is true nonetheless.” She held up a hand to forestall any questions. “Wait. You have something so powerful, so strong that it will see you through to the end of your search. It is not just your bond with Xena, but something inside yourself. Something that compels you to succeed. Something that makes its own legacy. Something that the gods have never been privy to.”

Gabrielle blinked, stunned by the revelation.

“May I ask you a question?” Ch’uang said, trying to get some sort of response. Slowly, Gabrielle’s head turned to face her and the goddess wanted to chuckle over the completely bewildered expression Gabrielle wore. Instead, she waited patiently for the bard to nod.

“Why did you come this way? You were not that far from the wall when you left the palace years ago and yet you have not begun your walk yet. Why is that?”

Gabrielle swallowed. This was something she could answer without thought or hesitation. “Well, in truth I wanted to start at the beginning and walk to the end. And along the way there has always been someone to help, someone in need. I guess that took more time than I expected.”

Ch’uang smile, thoroughly pleased with the response. “Relish your humanity, Gabrielle. It is one of the most beautiful things about you.”

Gabrielle blushed and rose. “I need to get back, but thank you for… well, everything, Ch’uang. I’m glad you stopped by to chat.”

Ch’uang nodded and stood as well, though she did not reveal to Gabrielle that the pleading ache in her voice as she spoke to her long missing lover nearly undid her resolve for secrecy. She simply said, “I, too am glad, Gabrielle. I miss talking to you.” She gave the bard a strong embrace. “Remember that you need merely call me if you are in need of anything, even if it is just a little girl talk.” She tapped the bracelet. “You are among my chosen, you know.”

“Thank you Ch’uang. That was quite a surprise for me.”

“And keep an eye on your traveling companion,” the goddess added with a waving finger. “He is a good man, but he cares too deeply. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on you.”

Gabrielle sighed. “Why me?”

Ch’uang laughed, a full out belly laugh that caused Gabrielle to join her. “Think back Gabrielle. It is in the nature of things… for both you and Xena. It doesn’t stop because you are temporarily separated. It just makes the focus sharper.”

Gabrielle held her head in her hands and shook it back and forth. “Maybe I should try Xena’s remedy.”

Ch’uang cocked a brow in inquiry and Gabrielle chuckled in memory.

“No personal hygiene or grooming… then we decided that would probably attract worse.”

“Oh my, yes. At least you attract a nice decent sort now. And you have never had a problem explaining the error of their ways to them. Why tempt Fate?”

Gabrielle nodded, knowing the Fates would do her little kindness after she’d destroyed the loom, even if her actions did right the wrong that had been done to them.

“Now,” Ch’uang continued, “go back to the festivities before you are missed by everyone and they start hunting for you. I will be around. Enjoy your walk.” And she was gone a silently as she’d come.

Gabrielle turned her steps back to the village, glad to see that the party had continued in spite of her absence. Cecrops crooked his head in her direction, glad to see a slight smile on her lips.

“Are you all right, Little One? I didn’t mean….”

“I’m fine. I just REALLY don’t like that nickname.”

“Well, you won’t hear it from me again. I didn’t know….”

Gabrielle held up her hands, not really wanting to have this conversation yet again. “It’s all right, Cecrops, really. Not like I gave you a list or anything. So what’d I miss?” directing his attention back to the entertainers.

“Oh, um…” he stuttered, trying to get his mind back on the performance going on on the stage. “The, um… the rest of the acrobats and the dancing bear.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. The storytellers are up next.”

Gabrielle continued to look at him for a long moment after the first bard was introduced. Then she moved her attention back to the stage, only to stifle a groan at the raconteur’s choice of tales. Cecrops leaned over to whisper in her ear, though he remained out of touch.

“I did tell you there were myths and legends of you out here, hero.”

Gabrielle drummed her fingers on her knees in agitation as the teller continued with his tales. It was the only sign of the struggle she was having to stay quiet. The man finished to great applause and several more followed, all with tales of the woman known as Little Dragon Warrior. When the last man was done, Gabrielle rose.

Dao’s husband Kuang was the village headman and he motioned for her to speak. She bowed her thanks.

“If it pleases you, I have been known to share a tale or two in my day. If I could….”

Kuang nodded enthusiastically and Gabrielle took the small stage to a round of appreciative applause for her willingness and a sea of expectant faces.

“It’s been a while since I’ve done this, so please bear with me. You’ve all told some wonderful stories about a mythical warrior woman who roamed your land helping others. I would like to tell you about a real warrior woman who sought her redemption the same way. A woman whose story is near and dear to my heart. A woman I would be proud to call friend.”

Gabrielle paused and cleared her throat.

“I sing to you of Xena, a Warrior Princess born to greatness. A warrior whose strength and compassion were just as potent as the sword she wielded so fearlessly.”

The audience became swept up in the telling, never once noticing the tears that slipped silently down Gabrielle’s cheeks.

“When it was over, the ambrosia had worked and the warrior was restored to live and fight another day.”

Silence at first, as though the villagers could not believe the tale was told. Then as one body, they rose and clapped and stomped and cheered. Gabrielle wiped her eyes and laughed joyously. It had been forever since she’d been a bard and for the first time in centuries, she felt *alive* again.

It was late when she finally shed the last of her admirers and made it back to her small room alone. She was exhausted in a good kind of way and looking forward to beginning her wall walk the following day.

The wall was actually interesting. It was built in several different styles, depending on the location and the materials available during its construction. It was hard work climbing the countless steps and walking the many miles. But as Ch’uang had promised, no one stopped their progress and they diverted numerous times to help people along their route.

It was with their arrival in Mongolia at the end of their four thousand mile walk that things began to change.
Chapter XXI
“Please Cecrops. Don’t make this any worse than it has to be.”

“But….”

“No.” Her voice was hard and firm. “I don’t need this and I’m not gonna put up with it anymore.” She blew out a breath. “I respect the fact that you’re lonely. Hell, I understand it in a way no one else on earth possibly could.”

“Exactly, so….” She went on as though he had not spoken.

“But you don’t seem to respect the fact that I cannot, will not be more than your friend. EVER. Now, I am telling you to leave before we can’t even be friends.”

The sadness in her tone undercut the anger he felt radiating from her and he was filled with remorse. He had pushed and pushed until he pushed her away and suddenly he realized he was on the verge of losing something he had come to value greatly.

“I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I had hoped…. Anyway, I want you to know that if you ever need me, need a friend, all you need to do is send word to me. I will come without question or hesitation. And I will never… well, I hope one day to be worthy of your respect again. Forgive an old man his foolishness.”

She nodded, but said nothing, trying to contain the rage she felt. Then she watched as he walked out of her life and her shoulders sagged as her soul mourned the loss of a friend.

“Are you sure this is a good idea Little One? He’s known to be somewhat of a ruthless warlord tyrant.”

Gabrielle smirked at Cecrops’ sedate description of the man whose encampment they were rapidly approaching. He sometimes had a serious misplaced gift for understating the obvious.

“I’m aware of his reputation, Cecrops. That’s why we are here now.”

“Why do I get the feeling there is more to this story than I am conscious of?”

Gabrielle sighed. “Probably because there is. Do you remember when we parted company?” She waited for him to search his memories and nod before continuing. He had returned to her side at her behest now and he had better control of his feelings and a far more profound respect for hers.

“Well, I stumbled into a camp like this and met a man who called himself Genghis Khan. We had the opportunity to talk at length.”

Cecrops tilted his head. “All right. So why are we here now?”

“Because he made promises to me and I intend to see that he keeps them.”

Nearly black eyes opened wide in shock. “He made promises to you??”

Gabrielle cuffed him on the back of the head and he looked at her in startlement. “Not those kinds of promises, Cecrops. You should know better than that.”

“I do, Little One and I apologize for how that sounded. But I know how the culture here works.”

“True. I did have to prove myself a warrior before he would talk to the bard.”

“And what did he promise the bard?”

“Consideration.”

“Huh?” Cecrops had the distinct feeling he was missing valuable pieces to the puzzle he’d been handed. He knew that Khan was known as a vicious marauder, killing all who opposed him and eradicating whole towns of people that sided against him. “Gabrielle, you can’t take someone like that and make them a kinder, gentler ruler with only your words.”

Gabrielle merely returned his look, knowing the truth from her own personal experience. Cecrops had the grace to blush, amazing considering the depth of his skin tone, but apparent to Gabrielle nonetheless.

“I didn’t ask him to stop being a warlord, Cecrops. That’s not something one human being can determine for another. I just ask him to think about how he could improve his rule and offered him some suggestions.”

“Did he listen?”

“I dunno. That’s why we’re here.”

“That’s why *you’re* here. Why did you invite me along?”

“I thought that if he didn’t listen to me, perhaps he might listen to you.”

“Because I am a man?”

“Yep.”

Cecrops shrugged. “All right. I don’t mind being a back-up plan, especially since it allowed me the chance to finally apologize to you for being a pig.”

Gabrielle blushed and Cecrops wondered what was behind it. She nodded. “Please don’t use that phrase.”

“All right,” he responded, the confusion plain in his voice, but Gabrielle did nothing to enlighten him. “Anyway, I’m glad to be back.”

Gabrielle patted his arm. “I’m glad you are too. I missed having a friend to talk to.” She didn’t mention that the goddesses had both come around for a short while once he left. She didn’t figure he needed to know how close he’d come to an extended painful existence. Gabrielle hoped he’d learned his lesson by being sent away, because they had promised all sorts of untold misfortune if he behaved that way towards the bard again.

Gabrielle found it charming to the point of flattering and not a little embarrassing. This one thing she was glad Xena was not around to witness. She would have found a way to make Cecrops a dead man and would have teased Gabrielle mercilessly about her two godly protectors. Though in fairness, Xena had gradually been coming to terms with the fact that Gabrielle was a more than competent adult, capable of taking care of herself handily. She had always just tended to forget that little fact when it looked like someone was making a move on her bard.

Gabrielle chuckled silently, then it became a sad smile. Never thought I’d miss that possessive streak.

Cecrops didn’t know exactly what incident put the melancholy in Gabrielle’s expression, but he was fully cognizant of WHO was behind it. So he waited patiently for Gabrielle to return to the present, having learned the hard way not to push when she grew pensive like this.

Gabrielle shook herself from her reverie. “C’mon,” she said at last. “Let’s not keep him waiting.”

It took a bit of doing to begin with, but by the time they had reached the third set of guards, Gabrielle was being welcomed like an old friend. They waited patiently in front of the large command tent while their presence was announced, then they were being presented to the Universal ruler, Genghis Khan.

Khan rose as Gabrielle approached and Cecrops hung back just slightly, taking in the events unfolding as if he were simply an interested bystander. Cecrops stood straight, following Gabrielle’s lead and waited for Khan to walk forward to greet them. Cecrops was startled by the relative small size of the man who stood before him and he met the Chinese ruler’s appraising gaze evenly. Only when he saw Gabrielle bow did Cecrops observe the courtesy. Khan regarded him a moment longer before turning and bowing to Gabrielle with a flourish.

“Ah, my bardic warrior friend. Is good to see you again and so well. Introduce me to your glowering shadow and then we will talk, yes? And perhaps you favor me with a bit of sparring?”

“Khan, this is Ce….”

“My name is Semelo and Gabrielle has shared much about you. It is an honor to meet you.” Cecrops bowed then extended his hand in greeting.

Khan looked more than slightly bewildered at this sudden change of attitude on the part of the tall, dark Greek. Gabrielle felt the confusion wash over her features, but managed a completely stoic look by the time Khan turned to face her.

“You were right about many things, Gabrielle,” Khan commented as he seated her and motioned for refreshments to be served. “And the changes you advised me to make have helped my kingdom thrive.”

“May I ask what you advised?” Cecrops rumbled lowly.

Khan held up a hand. “Allow me, my friend.” He turned to face Cecrops squarely. “Gabrielle came in and after, ahem, much convincing on her part, persuaded me to see the value of reading. She taught many of my army the rudimentary skills enabling them to do so. I also have a message exchange system that lets me keep in touch with all areas of my kingdom regularly and not just at tribute time. Makes my rule immensely easier and surprisingly less bloody.”

“Really?”

Gabrielle sat quietly eating her snack watching the interplay between the two men and silently chuckling at their posturing. She was more than a little stunned by the fact that Khan had indeed taken many of her suggestions to heart and implemented them into his rule.

Some things she couldn’t change and the fact that he was a brutal warlord was one of them. But she could help make things better and that she had done. She blinked and came back to the present with a start when she realized both men were looking at her curiously.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized as she hastily swallowed her mouthful. “My mind had wandered back to my first visit. Did I miss something?”

“Yes,” Khan responded with a smile. “I was giving Semelo your views on our discussion on religion and he was asking you for confirmation.”

“Ah,” Gabrielle responded with a small blush. Ce… um, Semelo and I have never really talked about religion aside from ancient Greek mythology. It’s never really come up for discussion.”

Khan cast a curious eye between them, then shrugged his mental shoulders in an act of dismissal. What they did or did not talk about was really none of his concern, though it did tickle his curiosity.

“Well then,” he said without missing a beat. “I told Semelo here that you were the one who taught me respect for all religions. Ruling the world is not a holy war; it is simply my destiny. Making it into something it is not only causes it to become messy.”

Gabrielle gave an embarrassed chuckle. “Well, now… I didn’t say all that. I merely said that respecting everyone’s right to worship in their way wasn’t a bad idea.”

“And you were correct,” Khan affirmed. “It has saved countless lives.”

“One wonders, though, how history will remember Genghis Khan,” Cecrops spoke softly. “Will they remember the reforms? The advancements he made? Or will they only remember the killing and fighting? His ferocity and heartlessness in battle?”

“That depends on who does the writing,” Gabrielle said and both men turned to look at her directly before she continued.

“History belongs to the victor. Their storytellers and historians are the ones who decide what details are written and which ones are those best forgotten.”

“Sounds like you speak from experience, Gabrielle,” Khan commented as he refreshed his tea and hers.

“More than you know, Genghis. More than you know.” She added honey to her tea and took a sip before continuing. “And it’s amazing how some of the things that get left out can come back and bite you in the ass.”

“It’s happened to you?” Cecrops asked, intrigued. There were still so many things he didn’t know about Gabrielle or her life with Xena.

Gabrielle gave a rueful chuckle, her encounter with the nomad tribes of the desert far enough behind her to offer her a broader perspective of what had happened, though it didn’t change the sadness she felt at Korah’s death.

“Oh yes. Stories condition people to expect one thing. If they get something different, well, the results are not always happy ones.”

“Well, then I shall endeavor to make sure that people get what they expect,” Khan said. “Now, do you feel up to sparring, or would you like to rest a bit and start fresh tomorrow?”

Gabrielle rose and removed her outer jacket, leaving her in a silk sleeveless tunic and trousers. Wordlessly, she began stretching out and Khan took that as his cue to start his own warm-up routine. This went on for several minutes and Cecrops made himself comfortable as he watched in fascination.

Nothing was said, but by unspoken consent the two came together with blades drawn, engaging in moves that resembled a dance more than it did a fight. The lamplight wavered before the two changed from blades to staffs… Gabrielle wielded a full length staff while Khan used two shorter sticks joined by a thick chain.

Both opponents were sweating profusely and Khan was winded, but their attacks did not slow and occasionally, one would wince in pain as a hit landed. Khan was more marked than Gabrielle and as they switched to hand-to-hand combat, Cecrops wondered at the older man’s stamina.

Then he saw the change come over Gabrielle’s face and understood in that minute that she had been being polite to their host. It was a flurry of motion and even though his eyes never left the two competitors, Cecrops was never exactly sure what happened. All he knew was that one minute Khan and Gabrielle were facing off and the next minute, Gabrielle was kneeling on Khan’s chest, hands at shoulder level ready to administer the pinch.

Sweat rolled down her temple and dropped from her chin onto Khan’s chest and the man did not move. He signaled his surrender of her victory and waited for her to return to herself and slide from his body before he relaxed and dropped his head to the ground.

Gabrielle rose and took a towel from the young woman who offered them and patted her face and arms dry. That was the only sound in the room aside from the heavy breathing coming from Khan who remained on the floor where Gabrielle had left him.

Cecrops eyes were wide. It suddenly occurred to him exactly how merciful Gabrielle had been to him. Given what he had just witnessed, she could have easily done serious damage to even his immortal body and he was fairly certain that wasn’t something he wanted to live through. Cecrops got up and stood over Khan, extending his hand and offering him help up.

Khan noted the twinkle in the dark eyes regarding him and accepted the hand with a muffled chuckle.

“I have yet to come close to defeating her. I do not know who her teacher was, but he must have been incredible,” the Chinese leader mumbled almost under his breath. Cecrops opened his mouth to answer when he was cut off by Gabrielle’s voice.

“Actually, she was the greatest warrior Greece ever produced. The stuff legends are made of,” Gabrielle said before turning her back and walking out into the evening air.

Khan exchanged a glance with Cecrops.

“Semelo, did I say something wrong?”

“No, Khan. I think the exercise triggered some old memories. I’m sure the words did.”

Khan wiped the sweat from himself with the towel the girl had provided him with, then made a move to follow Gabrielle. “Perhaps I should….” A hand on his arm halted both his words and steps and he looked up to see the ebony head give a negative shake.

“Let her be.”

Khan pulled away from Cecrops’ grip with a bit of a snatch. “I think I know….”

When Cecrops resumed his grip on Khan’s arm, he did so with formidable strength and the smaller man found he could not break Cecrops’ hold. “I think you don’t. Leave her alone.”

Khan looked up at Cecrops with all the venom he could muster. “Release me, before I have you executed.”

Cecrops merely tightened his grip and pulled Khan closer to him until he towered over the Chinese man. He leaned over until their foreheads were nearly touching. “Let me make myself perfectly clear to you, little man. You may be the ruler of all you survey, but you are not my master and I will not be commanded like a dog. Better men than you have tried to kill me and yet here I stand.”

Khan stood stunned. No one had ever spoken to him with such disregard for his title and position of leadership since the coup attempt early in his career. With a hand motion he signaled the few honor guard who’d stepped forward and stopped at his first motion. Now they returned to their corners to carefully watch the drama before them play out.

“Now, I’m going to say this to you one more time.” Cecrops whisper was fierce but effective. “Leave. Gabrielle. Alone.”

Khan searched Cecrop eyes for a very long moment before discovering the truth. “You love her.”

“I care for her deeply. She is my oldest and dearest friend.”

“There is more to it than that, Semelo. I have seen the look before.”

Cecrops released Khan’s arm. “I care for her deeply. That is enough.”

Suddenly understanding far more than was being said with words, Khan clapped Cecrops on the shoulder. “Come, my friend. I believe we understand one another now. Let us have some wine and then we’ll see if we can find a bath and some lovely companionship for supper.”

Cecrops smiled and accepted the proffered cup. Then he followed Khan in search of a bath.

Gabrielle was already being attended to by the time the men made it to the bathing area as they could tell by the screen that had been set up to allow her some privacy. The two men continued their conversation in normal tones to let her know they had arrived.

She smiled at their consideration and continued to bathe herself, sliding beneath the water to rinse the soap from her hair. She had dismissed the attendant, so she rose and let the water drip for a long moment before stepping from the tub and grabbing the towel to dry herself with. Then Gabrielle combed out her hair as she listened to the nonsensical argument coming from the other side of the screen.

She laughed silently as she recognized the argument, then her ears picked a more intriguing conversation.

“I am telling you, Khan… not only is it a bear, but the earth really is round.”

“Semelo, even if I accept your argument that what is so obviously a dipper is a bear, which I don’t,” he added with a grin. Cecrops nodded his understanding. “That is still not a good basis for your round world theory.”

“Ah, but I have been around it.”

Complete silence greeted his words as though he had stunned his listener. Finally the tableau was broken by the rustle of fabric on the other side of the screen. Khan blinked and drew a deep breath.

“Very interesting,” he said at last. “How did you manage it?”

“Have you heard of an explorer from the Norselands known as Leif Erikson?”

“No. Where are these Norselands you speak of, Semelo?”

“Beyond your western borders and far to the north.” Cecrops waited for Khan to process the information and nod, motioning for him to continue. Cecrops took a deep breath.

“A few years ago, I was traveling in that area, when I came across a tribe that seemed to be preparing for a very long journey. I fell in with them, hunting, fishing,” he gestured with his hands. “You know.” Genghis Khan nodded again. “Anyway, we got to talking about different sea experiences we’d had and in the course of the discussion, they invited me to join their quest.”

“Which was?”

“New lands to conquer,” Cecrops answered dryly. “But my curiosity was great, so I joined them. And we found another land… many days journey to the west.”

“What was it like?” Gabrielle strained to hear because it was the question she’d wanted to ask.

“Beautiful… wild and untamed. The native peoples there live off the land and take only what the need.” Cecrops’ gaze went inward, thinking back to his relatively brief time in that place. “I could have settled there very easily.”

“So why didn’t you?” Khan asked reasonably.

“Curiosity,” Cecrops answered frankly. “I wanted to see where the road led… what was over the next hill.”

The two men had finished bathing and stepped from the water to dry of briskly. “And what did you find?” the Chinese leader asked as they started dressing.

“Many things, but mostly I found that the road led in a circle.”

“I do not understand. When you reach the eastern border of my land, you hit water and everyone knows that the world drops off out of sight there.”

“But it doesn’t, Khan. That’s what I’m telling you. I walked many days journey across this new land. I saw mountains, plains, a desert… animals and plants I have seen nowhere else and when I reached the end of the land, I was met by sand and ocean. That ocean brought me back to this land.”

“Is that possible, Semelo?” Khan asked, intrigued but skeptical.

“Not only is it possible, it’s the truth. It is a very long journey, but if you go far enough to the east, it is really there.”

“How very intriguing,” Khan said after a moment’s thought. Then he slapped Cecrops on the back. “Come, we can continue this discussion at dinner, but I am hungry and we do not want to keep Gabrielle or my wives waiting.”

“Wives?” Cecrops repeated under his breath as they left the bathing room. Who needed more than one for the gods’ sake?

Gabrielle stood from the bench where she’d seated herself to listen to Cecrops’ story. Suddenly, she felt she knew exactly where she would find Xena.

“Intriguing indeed,” she muttered before turning to make her way to dinner.

“So, Gabrielle, what plans do you have when you leave here?”

Gabrielle chewed and swallowed, glad she’d mastered the art of chopsticks hundreds of years before. The Chinese rarely offered her a knife or spoon and though she had managed to craft a utensil that allowed her to pick up food on several tines, she felt conspicuous bringing it out in front of others.

Now she paused, chopsticks empty and looked at Khan who regarded her with an expectant air. Then she realized that everyone at the table was waiting for her answer and blushed. She was trying not to call attention to herself, remembering both Ch’uang’s and Cecrops’ words to her on that very subject about discretion.

Not that she’d ever deliberately drawn attention to herself, but the fact was there were stories out there about her. And if she wasn’t careful, someone who took the time to listen and put the facts together would eventually come up with the truth. Even as unbelievable and improbable as it seemed, it was more risk than she was willing to accept. Gabrielle knew that was all too true and had since done her best to downplay her public activity, allowing and encouraging others to assume authority for her efforts. Having Ares discover her at this stage would be a bad thing, so it was easy for her to step into the shadows.

“I honestly don’t know. Maybe I will go visit some old friends off the coast,” thinking of the Amazons. “I haven’t really thought about it yet, but I haven’t seen them in a while.” She smiled. “Actually, I think I will. Thanks for the idea.” She resumed eating.

“Well,” Khan answered. “I’m glad I could help. Can you share a little more about them? Semelo was telling me the most interesting story of a land off the coast. Perhaps you have been there?”

“Um, I don’t think so.” Gabrielle turned her attention to Cecrops. “Where is this land?”

“A long journey to the east, past the land of the rising sun.”

The flinch was barely perceptible in her eyes, but Cecrops saw it and immediately regretted his words. Gabrielle gave a small smile and shook her head.

“I have never been there, though one day….” She left the thought unfinished. “My friends are to the south.”

“Tell us about them, please Gabrielle,” Khan’s head wife spoke. “You and Semelo are so well traveled. I remember the stories you shared with us the last time you were here.”

“Yes, please, Gabrielle. Unless you are hiding a long lost lover in there somewhere that you need to keep hidden,” Khan said with a bit of a tease, not expecting the response he got.

A flash of pain before a tremulous smile and Gabrielle looked at him fully with slightly twinkling eyes. “Khan, if I had a long lost lover, there’d be no need to keep them hidden, now would there? They would be lost. Why go to all the trouble of hiding them?”

Khan chortled, amused by the unexpectedly wry humor in her voice. “You make your point well, my bardic friend. So tell us about the people to the south.”

“Not much to tell, honestly. Just a place I stumbled across accidentally before my trip to China. Beautiful country and friendly people. I stayed for a bit and we traded stories and such. Then I came here.” Nothing like leaving out a few details, huh, Bard?

“Well, that sounds… interesting,” Khan commented, wondering what she was skirting around. The subject was obviously making her uncomfortable. He shrugged his mental shoulders. Gabrielle had been nothing but helpful and honest. She was entitled to a bit of privacy.

The next few weeks passed pleasantly. Genghis Khan was between campaigns and he and Gabrielle spent a bit of time sparring, though the conversation never returned to her teacher. Cecrops was content to watch and learn, though he was introduced to a young woman who had caught his fancy and he spent a bit of time with her as well.

As Gabrielle was packing up her things to leave, Cecrops finally found some time to speak with her privately. He dropped onto her bed and relaxed back, watching as she continued to sort through her belongings as she put them into her backpack.

“You’re really going to leave, then?”

Gabrielle nodded. “It’s for the best. I can’t really stay in one place extensively. And I really do want to go see the Amazons. It’s been too long.”

Cecrops nodded his understanding.

“You gonna stay here?” Gabrielle asked, knowing the answer, but feeling that Cecrops needed to say it aloud.

“Yes, for now at any rate. Zhao is… well, I like her company. I’d like to enjoy that feeling again, just for a little while.”

Gabrielle nodded, understanding the feeling all too well, even if she didn’t agree with what she perceived as selfishness on his part. “Is that why you took a different name?”

He rose and went to the doorway, standing silently and watching life continue to pass around him uninhibited. “Yes,” he said finally. “I am tired of being associated with immortality and people seem to enjoy that tale… at least enough to remember my name. Am I wrong to want to be like everyone else? To share in life like they do?”

Gabrielle finished her packing and set her bag to the side, taking a seat on the bed and looking sadly at the stiff back facing her.

“Wrong to want it? No, not really. I can understand that desire. Wrong to try it, though… to perpetuate the myth that you are just like everyone else?” She shrugged and though Cecrops couldn’t see the gesture, he felt it just the same. “I dunno. I don’t think I can decide that for you. You’re the one that has to live with whatever consequences come along.”

“What would you do?”

“Cecrops, we are two completely different people with two completely different goals.” She rose and walked to stand beside him. “But whatever you decide, I’m glad we had a chance to spend some time together again. Even with our ups and downs, it’s been nice to be with a friend who really does understand our, um… unique circumstances.”

Cecrops turned then and lifted Gabrielle into his arms for a bone crushing hug.

“I’m gonna miss you, Little One.”

Gabrielle returned the embrace fully. “I’m gonna miss you, too, my friend. Take care of yourself, okay?”

Cecrops smiled. “I will and you do the same.”

“You know it. Maybe we’ll run into each other again,” Gabrielle said, hefting her pack.

“Count on it.”

Gabrielle moved back from the window and resumed her place on the bed. She assumed a meditative pose and relaxed, reaching across time and space for her heart’s desire.

How long she remained focused in one position she couldn’t have said, but the sudden warmth that flooded her system had her in motion before her eyes were even opened. She stood at the window watching the comet move, relishing the connection she felt in the depths of her soul.

“Xena?”
Chapter XXII
“Gabrielle?”

The warmth that suddenly pervaded Xena’s soul was unmistakable and for the first time Xena felt an aching poignancy in the gentle familiarity of Gabrielle’s soul reaching out to touch her own.

Xena didn’t know how much time had passed. The interior of the hut was blue with smoky haze and the water skin had been refilled several times that she was conscious of. Now, however, her entire focus was on Gabrielle and the tentative bond she could feel between them once again. So lost was she in the emotions flowing through her that she never realized when she fell into a meditative trance.

Several items became clear to her mind, the last of them being a scroll. When the images stopped, Xena fell into a deep sleep. She slept all of one night and into the middle of the following day. When she woke up, it was to the accompaniment of Gabrielle’s heart beating in her chest and the feeling brought a smile to her face.

Xena rose on shaky legs and walked slowly to the portal of the hut, snapping her eyes closed as she moved aside the door and was immediately blinded by the bright sunshine. She stood still until she could blink her eyes open, then continued to blink furiously as she made her way to Keto’s and Hotassa’s fire. No one made a move to help her, but all watched in reverent silence until she reached her destination.

She stood wrapped in her buffalo robe, thankful for its warmth as a cold wind blew across the plain. Xena waited until Keto motioned for her to take a seat, then did so with alacrity. It was shaping up to be a long, cold winter and after days in the sweat hut, it was bone-chilling. She was happy to sit and let the warmth of the fire seep through her robe and soak into her body.

“So,” Keto intoned solemnly.

Silence fell again until Hotassa served them a meal of hot soup and a bit of hot tea. Then they ate in contemplative peace until Xena set aside her unfinished portion for her animal companions and leaned back to sip her tea while Keto ate the remainder of his meal. Only when he too sat back and pulled his pipe from his coat was the silence broken.

“I saw, Keto, but I do not understand the meaning of my vision.”

“Tell me.”

“There are six items. Things that are… familiar… to me, but not how I remember them. In each part of the vision, I see myself holding them, touching them, but I don’t know to what purpose.” She drew a deep breath and blew it out slowly.

“The first thing I saw was a staff… well crafted and balanced. Reminded me a little of Gab… well, it was very familiar. Then there was an Amazon war mask… looked like the mask of the Queen.” Xena cleared her throat slightly. “There was a bone fishhook, the Dagger of Helios and my chakram. The last thing I saw was a scroll. A very old scroll in a cave with markings.”

“I know not Hee-lee-oes or shock-rum.”

Xena extended her arm and drew pictures of the two items in question. She figured that was easier than trying to explain what they were with words.

Keto’s eyes had widened perceptibly with each item she named off and bulged when her drawings were completed. He offered up a brief prayer for his son, knowing Xena was likely to kill Kya when Keto instructed her on the meaning of her vision.

“Legend says that qualities of great warrior are alive in totems. Each totem is different trait warrior needed for greatness.” Keto cleared his throat and took a deep breath. He rarely had to do this much talking over the course of an entire day.

“Scroll is for knowledge. It tells of each totem and where to find. Other five represent strength, stealth, skill, cunning and balance.”

“What about courage?” Xena asked, thinking that was a key component to being a warrior.

“Whole ritual test of courage.”

They sat quietly for a time while Xena thought about this test. Finally she broke the silence. “So how do I find these things and what will they get me?”

Keto remained silent so long Xena thought he was refusing to answer her question. But she stilled herself to patience and waited.

“Scroll is first key. Must go to cave and find scroll. Will tell how to find other totems. What happens after that,” Keto shrugged. “Up to you.”

Xena nodded. “I’ll start out at first light. Do you know where this cave is, or will I need to find it on my own?”

“I can tell you of cave. Need to find scroll alone.”

Xena nodded again. It reminded her of the old days and she felt a burst of enthusiasm flow through her veins at the prospect not only a new adventure, but the possibility of it bringing her closer to Gabrielle.

Keto waited, knowing he had not answered all of her questions. He winced internally, knowing that some of them could be much more painful than others.

Xena brought her vision back from whatever distant point it had been focused on and looked back to Keto. “Has anyone ever succeeded in this quest?”

“Not as expected, no.”

Xena turned a piercing gaze on the shaman and crooked an eyebrow. “You wanna explain that, Keto?”

The shaman hesitated, then drew a deep breath. “Kya,” Keto hesitated again when Xena growled. “Kya tried. Something not right.”

Keto waited. Xena waited longer. Keto bowed to the inevitable as gracefully as he could.

“During time of my father’s father, traveler came to our tribe from east. He had staff that interested namêšeme. Hercules was willing to trade walking stick for bearskin coat and after vision quest, namêšeme agreed.”

Xena put a hand out to stop the flow of words. “Who??”

“My namêšeme? He was….”

“No. The traveler… you said his name was Hercules?”

“Yes. You know?”

Xena took a deep breath, knowing her reaction was unwarranted as far as Keto was concerned for someone who was a part of the past that neither of them had ever met. “His name… reminded me of someone I once knew.” Not mentioning the fact the Hercules she was acquainted with was an immortal and very likely one in the same with the Hercules that had passed through the tribe two generations before.

Keto nodded, seeing the truth of that statement clearly in her eyes. He cleared his throat. “Staff became part of shaman lore… said to channel warrior strength. Never lost battle with it.”

Xena said nothing, motioning for him to continue.

“Moons after Hercules, we got knife in bet with strange man….” Keto trailed off thoughtfully.

“Why strange?”

Keto motioned to his face. “Funny hair. Not like usual white man.”

Xena nodded. She’d noted that most white men had full facial hair, or in the case of a very few… none at all. She wondered what this man did to appear ‘strange’. She brought her attention back to Keto as he resumed speaking.

“Odd knife… not much use… unusual with crooked blade. Is why namêšeme kept. For many years, objects kept as part of shaman’s holdings. Considered good for tribe.”

Keto took a deep breath and lifted his mug, grimacing when the lukewarm tea hit his tongue. Hotassa noticed from her place near the doorway and moved to offer them both a bit more hot tea. Keto accepted; Xena didn’t. And when his cup was refilled, he cleared his throat and continued talking.

“When neho’eehe went through rite of passage, he found scroll and knowing of staff and knife, started search for other totems. For many years he hunted, shirking duties as shaman to find ultimate warrior.” Keto’s tone was bitter with remembrance. “I became shaman when my father’s father went to his fathers. My father failed in hunt and at his death, my heške put things away.”

Another sigh from the shaman and Xena could feel the frustration rolling of Keto in waves. “When Kya came of age,” he continued in a flat voice, “he found the scroll. And the four other totems my neho’eehe found.”

“Wait,” Xena finally interrupted. “He found all but one totem?”

“Yes,” Keto confirmed with a vigorous nod of his head. “All but one you called shock-rum.”

Xena’s eyes widened with the knowledge. She knew if she had to find the original chakram her search had just become infinitely more difficult. The last time she’d seen her chakram, Gabrielle had been wearing it. Her eyes closed in remembered pain and she focused her concentration on the warmth she still felt in her soul. Keto noted her distress and waited for her to return from whatever unpleasantness she was reliving.

“So what happened?” she asked calmly when she opened her eyes.

“Kya searched for many moons, finally deciding he found last totem. Right shape, but….” He shrugged. “Was not where scroll said.”

“So the scroll tells where to look as well as what to look for?”

“Gives clues,” Keto answered.

“So what happened?” Xena pressed, seeing Keto cringe at the asking.

“Scroll gives ritual for gaining power of ultimate warrior. Kya followed ritual, but failed.”

“Failed… how?” Xena asked slowly with sudden understanding.

Keto swallowed, knowing she needed the truth. “Ritual brought you to this place.”

“Excuse me?” she said low and dangerously. “Keto, I’m not from anywhere remotely near here, in any way, shape or form.” Never denying the part of being the ultimate warrior.

“I know. We are at loss to say how and why.”

Xena swallowed and breathed, content for the moment to simply focus on the basics. Anything beyond that and people would start dying. Her rage was overwhelming and it had been a long time since she’d had to exercise such self-control over it.

“Will the scroll give me directions, a ritual, for returning me home?”

“What has been done can be undone,” Keto said cryptically. “But first must retrieve totems.”

Xena nodded. “I’ll do that. Tell me of the cave. The sooner I get started, the sooner I can get home.”

Keto explained to Xena where the cave of rituals was, drawing a crude map in the dirt with his finger to give her a rough picture of the path she needed to follow.

“There are pictures on walls. They tell story of people; also give directions to scroll. Will take two or three days travel to reach cave. After that….” Keto shrugged again. “Up to you. We think totems return to origins.”

Xena shook her head. This just gets more and more complicated, she thought with a scowl. “All right,” she said as she looked around the compound, noting for the first time that the sun was beginning to set. “I’ll start out at first light.”

“But….”

“Keto, I appreciate the home and family the people have given me here. The welcome I’ve had means more to me than you can know. But if I can get home, to my ti… to my family… to Gabrielle, then I will do whatever it takes as fast as I can to get back there.”

The fierceness in her response and the fire in her eyes compelled him to ask. “You have regrets then?”

“Yes,” she replied without hesitation and he wondered what caused the tears that sat in her eyes while she refused to let them fall.

“Then go with haste and my blessing. I will meet you at rise of sun.”

“You don’t….”

He held up a hand. “Is my duty.”

She nodded her acceptance. “In the morning, then.” And she rose from her place at his fire and walked to her own, accompanied by both panther and fox.

Keto watched until she entered her dwelling, then turned his own attention to the fire, thinking.

The sun had not yet begun to color the sky when Xena stepped from her tepee. On either side of her walked her animal companions. Keto smiled at the picture they made. Somehow, their presence reassured him that she would be successful in her quest, not that he could explain his reasoning behind the thought. It was simply a gut instinct he had learned long ago to respect.

Without warning, Kya rushed to his side as Xena drew closer. It was easy to see his agitation and even easier to guess the meaning behind it.

“Neho’e! She cannot. This my quest!”

“Sit!”

Kya was surprised at his father’s harsh tone and sank to his knees beside the fire watching the warrior’s approach. He shivered when her blue eyes passed over him, certain that the flame of the fire before him could not warm the depth of his soul that had iced over at her cold look.

Keto stood, knowing well why Xena wore a look of disdain now and not blaming her. Kya had started out wrong with her and nothing the young shaman had done since bringing Xena to them had alleviated the impression of ineptitude she had of him. His proprietary manner had only served to make the situation worse and her humiliation of him had been the final straw in making them bitter enemies.

Well, it made Kya bitter. Xena had simply dismissed the young shaman as an idiot. At the moment however, her fury at his part in her present situation made her a threat to him and even the animals at her side easily picked up on her anger. Both looked at Kya with fangs slightly bared and growled. It was that that made Kya realize he was completely out of his league with her – in all aspects of life. And for some reason, that made him want to stake a claim even harder.

“Neho’e!” he began to protest again, but was cut off with a single word.

“Silence!” Keto roared and Xena bit her lip to prevent the smirk that wanted to form. “This no longer your quest, if ever was. You leave Zee-nah alone. Her search now.”

“But….”

“NO! I let you be fool long enough. Over now!”

Kya looked at his father defiantly for a long moment before turning his eyes away and stomping off.

“He’s gonna try again, you know,” Xena commented softly as Keto lit his pipe.

“Heehe’e,” the shaman nodded. “Yes, but you will fix. I have seen.”

Xena’s brow creased at the pronouncement and she wondered what was in store for her. Then she put it out of her mind as Keto began chanting around her, waving his pipe in a ritual cleansing motion. Finally it was over and he kissed her forehead as though she were a beloved daughter and pressed a map and a small sack of food into her hands.

“Go with blessing.”

Xena nodded solemnly. “Thank you, Keto.” Then she picked up her staff and she and the animals walked with purpose towards the hills that looked closer than they really were.

The day had been well-spent walking though it did seem to Xena that the caves retreated before her advance. They didn’t seem to be any nearer their goal than when they had left before daylight that morning. Worse, Kya was following them closely enough to keep both her and the animals on edge. She wondered if he was just naturally stupid, or if hers was a special case for him. The panther growled again, low in its throat.

“I know, Etor,” Xena said softly as the cat circled her legs. “He can’t think to sneak up on us out here. There’s nowhere to hide… for him or for us. C’mon, we need to find a place to make camp.”

Eventually, just before dark, Xena reached the small stream that Keto had told her would guide her to the mouth of the cave she was searching for. She was tempted to press forward but recognized the fact that the panther at least needed rest among them, even if she and the fox did not. So she settled next to the trickle of water that flowed sluggishly in the late fall weather, wondering if the winter snows and spring rains would swell it to become a raging flood.

She smiled, her musings reminding her so easily of Gabrielle and the numerous talks they would have on a myriad of subjects in the evenings as they settled into camp. One thing Gabrielle had never been was boring and Xena never quite knew what to expect the conversation to be about.

Xena went about her tasks almost by rote and in short order, a well-laid camp had been set. She moved to the stream, pleased to note the numerous fish available in its shallow water. She stepped in and waded to the middle, not surprised that the water didn’t even reach mid-thigh here or that is was bone chillingly cold. She forced that fact from her awareness and concentrated instead on the life flowing in the water around her. Almost immediately she held two good sized fish in her hands and was making her way back to the shore when it happened.

Kya had been furious that what had been his quest… his birthright… had not only been taken away from him, but blessed by his father for another. The fact that it was the woman warrior who thwarted his plans at every turn simply made it unbearable. Even though she had never done a thing to lord it over him, Xena’s evident disdain of him had made Kya a laughingstock among his tribesmen. Now it was time to fix it.

He ran screaming from the tall grasses, knife raised, hoping to catch her off guard. What he caught was a fox on his wrist, a cat at his neck and one very pissed of human being that snapped the bone of the leg that kicked out at her.

Kya’s screaming went from war-cry to pain in a matter of seconds. He dropped the knife under the fox’s bite and fell to the ground in one swift motion. The panther jumped on his chest and pushed Kya into a completely prostrate position, hovering dangerously close to the young shaman’s neck with an open mouth.

“I could’ve handled it alone, but thanks, guys.”

Kya began to shake, a combination of pain and nerves. He’d never expected this end. He was destined for great things. Xena just shook her head.

“Ya know, Kya,” she began conversationally, motioning the two animals away. They took up sentinel positions at Kya’s head to assure he remained a non-threat while Xena treated him.

“I never took you for stupid until now. Young, brash, naïve, but not stupid. Apparently,” she continued as she put the pressure points on his leg, watching him watch her warily as he started to relax from the pain, “I was mistaken. You are stupid.”

He lunged for her and immediately she released the nerve blocks she’d set for him. Kya shrieked in pain and fell back to the ground whimpering, clutching at his leg. Xena gave him a no nonsense look.

“Ready to behave now?”

He nodded furiously and she reset the blocks on his leg. She set his leg carefully, straightening the bone until it snapped back into place. She looked regretfully at the staff she carried. It was the only wood for miles and she really had no choice.

“Let me explain something to you, Kya,” she said calmly as she broke the thick stick in half with her bare hands. Kya’s eyes grew wide and he suddenly realized just how foolhardy he had been. “This is my quest… my hunt. I will do whatever is necessary to survive it and overcome any challenges that are put in front of me.”

She placed the sticks on either side of the break and took the supply of bandages from her kit and bound the leg tightly.

“However,” she continued conversationally. “If you get in my way again, I will break both your legs and I won’t stop to fix them. Ya got me?”

The words were said at a near whisper, but Kya’s head nodded rapidly at the truth that burned like fire in her eyes. He had no doubt she’d do just exactly like she said.

“Good. I’ve got to release the block but it won’t hurt as much now that the bone is in place.” Xena undid the pinch and Kya flinched then relaxed as the pain leveled off. He looked at her with a mixture of awe and unease. Xena just rolled her eyes and blew out a breath. “We’ll have to figure out how to get you home later. You may have to wait here a day or two until I get back from the caves.”

Kya’s eyes grew big. “You would leave me?”

“In a heartbeat,” came the short answer. It put a kibosh on any further conversation between them.

Xena retrieved the two fish she had already caught and stepped back into the cold water to catch one more. Kya watched in silence, amazed at her reflexes. Then in darkness, she lit the chip fire she’d laid when she set up camp and started preparing the fish for dinner.

Xena wasn’t surprised at the approach of a small party an hour or so later. She suspected Keto knew precisely what would happen and had let events play out to their logical conclusion before stepping in. The look in his eyes as he drew near her and Kya and his lack of surprise at his son’s condition only served to further confirm that idea in her mind.

Keto waited until she invited him to her fire with a nod, then he and his small band joined Xena.

“I don’t have anything….” she started, having just cleaned up the remains of their dinner.

“No need,” the shaman said with his hand upraised. “We have,” pulling trail rations from his pocket. The men with him did the same and all sat silently eating while cast covert glances in Kya’s direction. Keto had not explained anything to them; merely commanded them to join him on a hunt. They wondered what had happened and why it seemed like Kya was the prey.

“May we share fire tonight, Zee-nah? Will make new start tomorrow.”

Xena nodded. She hadn’t expected them to return to the compound in the dark, but she was glad Keto had done her the courtesy of asking. It would reinforce her position within the tribe and perhaps solve any linger doubts. If it prevented any more scenes like the one she’d had with Kya, she’d be happy.

Soon, quiet settled around the camp as everyone settled down to sleep. The morrow would bring new challenges.

Reassured by Keto words the previous evening and satisfied that Kya would indeed be taken care of by his people, Xena left before dawn. She couldn’t explain her anxiousness, though she knew it was due to her desire to reunite with Gabrielle… whether it was here in the future or together in their past. She considered part of it to be the unknown she was going into. As far as her logical mind went, it had been a very long time since she’d adventured alone and she wasn’t anticipating doing it this time. Especially not knowing anything going into it and expecting it to take several years of travel and hunting to accomplish the first part of her task.

Etor and Melo disappeared around midday. Xena wasn’t too concerned; they were mates and they’d had very little time alone just to be mates in a while. She turned to daydreaming, remembering the times she and Gabrielle had snuck off from the Amazons on their rare visits. Even if it was just to sit by the water and watch the sun sparkle off the surface, everyday they’d made sure to take a little time for themselves. It was something they found imperative.

Knowing how closely the two animals had come to losing one another recently made the need even more understandable. Every time she or Gabrielle had died, or come close, they had always taken a day or two to confirm the reality of their lives and love together. And considering how close Melo had come to losing Etor to Kya’s rage the previous evening….

Xena shivered in memory. She didn’t think the panther knew how close it had come to death, but the fox did. She had seen the near despair in the green eyes late into the night and was fairly certain she knew what the outcome of their time alone together would be.

Near dusk, the two returned to her, both looking drained but at peace. She looked at them carefully, then set a bowl of broth between them to share, not surprised to find the bowl empty and them asleep wrapped around one another scant minutes later.

“I sure hope you guys know what you’re doing,” Xena mumbled to herself as she settled into her own blankets for the night. “But gods know I’ll be glad to have you both around for the rest of my life.”

And Xena went to sleep feeling just a little bit better, knowing that they would have each other for eternity as well.

Just after daybreak on the third morning, Xena crossed the threshold of the cave and almost immediately was plunged into darkness. She found her flint and striker and lit a torch, glad Keto had told her where to find them just inside. She stood for a moment orienting herself, impressed with the number of pictographs on the walls and amazed by the story they told.

As she read the pictures, she realized that they told they story of the people and hidden in that story was the story of the scroll. It took some time and a bit of deciphering, but finally Xena was satisfied with her translation and moved through the cavern with swift, sure steps.

It took almost half an hour of climbing and maneuvering before she reached the place the wall story sent her and with a bit of searching, Xena found the scroll’s hiding place.

Reverently she slid it from the hole, its texture and feel bringing back some bittersweet memories. She tucked the scroll carefully in her bag and slowly made her way back to the main cave. Once she stepped outside, she was amazed to see how late it had grown. Although it had seemed like mere minutes, in actuality hours had passed and it was well into late afternoon.

Conscientiously Xena extinguished the torch and left it for the next traveler, then quickly made her way to the campsite she’d left only that morning.

Xena sat and carefully unrolled the aged parchment knowing it would be a necessary companion on her journey. She noted with faint surprise that the writing was unfamiliar. She had honestly expected to see Gabrielle’s firm, familiar script filling the page. The cadence and the wording, however, were as well-known to her as the reflection she faced in the streams and rivers of the area. Gabrielle may not have written it, but her style and form had definitely influenced whoever did put pen to paper.

Slowly Xena read through the items, noting the description as well as the clues that had been put in place to help find them. Well, they appear to be the genuine articles, noting that it was the Dagger of Helios as well as her chakram that were described so accurately on the page. Wonder who figured all this out?

Then she shrugged and began making plans to find the staff… which if she understood the riddle correctly, meant she would soon be running into an old friend.

Xena made her way back to the encampment, hoping to get a little information before traveling to the northeast. It looked as though she wouldn’t be spending the winter with the Nation after all. She was much too anxious to begin her pursuit.

She was a little surprised at the respect she was accorded when she returned from the cave. Xena learned from Hotassa that her sparing of Kya and subsequent treatment of one who could have been treated as an enemy was highly regarded.

“I couldn’t do less for him, Hotassa. He’s still young and has lots to learn.”

Hotassa nodded. “Yes. Thank you for giving him chance.”

Xena gave her a crooked smile. “I had too. People have given me chances.”

Hotassa nodded, not knowing that the people Xena referred to were not only the Cheyenne, but Gabrielle, Hercules and countless others she had known in her lifetime. Hotassa was helping Xena pack for her trip into the far north and Xena was reminded of something.

“Hotassa?”

The older woman looked at her in question, but continued her packing.

“Do you know someone named Ari?”

Xena saw the hesitation, though she could hardly have missed it when Hotassa stopped what she was doing and looked directly into her eyes.

“Yes,” she said succinctly. She took a deep breath. “Daughter. Left with trader many moons ago. Why?”

Xena shrugged, not realizing the trouble she’d stumbled on by asking the question. “She is the one who took me in. Taught me the white man’s language.”

“She is well?”

“Yes and happy,” Xena added, thinking to ease the strain so apparent on Hotassa’s face. “You don’t get to see her?”

Hotassa shook her head. “No. Keto say she choose white. She need live as white.”

“That’s wrong.”

“Yes, but is his way. He good father. Broke heart when she left.”

Xena shook her head and hoisted her pack. “I’ll never understand people,” she muttered, not surprised when Hotassa agreed with her pronouncement.

Hotassa gathered a sack from beside her fire and pressed it into Xena’s hands. “Some food to start journey. Last few days.”

“Thank you, Hotassa. I’ll be back to visit as soon as I can.”

Hotassa cradled Xena’s face in her hands and pulled her down to kiss her forehead. “Travel well,” she whispered, then patted Xena’s shoulder before releasing her. Each of the people of the tribe came forward and offered her a small token and a blessing and for a moment, Xena was overwhelmed with gratitude. She’d never expected a send-off, much less one like this. Finally, only Keto was left.

“Good journey,” he said before kissing her forehead like Hotassa had.

She looked into his eyes and saw success there and smiled at him. “I’ll return,” she said solemly. “Be well until I do.”

Keto nodded, then faced her towards the northeast and watched until she became a mere speck on the horizon.

Her first night out, her gaze returned to the heavens, looking for the star that seemed to be shooting across the sky in slow motion. Xena gazed on it, almost able to hear Gabrielle’s conversation about it – questioning, commenting, tickling Xena’s otherwise stoic sensibilities with her insights and thoughts.

“I miss you, Gabrielle, but I’m gonna find my way back to you. Somehow, I think this star may lead me to the home that is you for me.”

With that thought, she closed her eyes and slept.
Chapter XXIII
Gabrielle opened her eyes as dawn peeked in her window. She had long ago schooled herself to sleep when others did as a matter of course when she could. It reminded her of her humanity and made her continue to function somewhat normally.

She stretched slowly then hugged the pillow to her, remembering the warmth of Xena’s presence in her dreams.

“Good morning, Xena. I miss you, but every new day brings me closer to you again.”

She put a robe over her nakedness, knowing that the steward would be knocking shortly to bring in hot water for her bath. It was one of the luxuries she allowed herself and her mind went back to a time when it had still be a luxury that was rarely managed.

“Hey, Sweetcheeks! What’s shakin’?”

Gabrielle turned from where she was putting things away. The boat she had hired wasn’t long gone from the dock and though the Captain was somewhat skeptical of Gabrielle’s directions, she and her crew were being well-paid to go where they were told.

Gabrielle had hired all the staterooms and though she really didn’t need the space, she was happy with the privacy it afforded her. She fairly squealed when she heard the voice and rushed into Dite’s arms with a glad cry.

Dite returned the embrace fervently, concerned by the reaction, but enjoying the hug nonetheless. She kissed the top of the blonde head. “You okay there, Gab?”

Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah. I’ve just missed you… a lot. Seems like forever since we’ve had some girl talk.”

A knock at the door caused them to pull away from one another slightly. “Yes?” Gabrielle called out as she turned towards the door.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Mistress,” a female voice said through the closed door. “But I thought I heard you scream.” Gabrielle released her hold on Dite and fully faced the door.

“Everything’s fine,” Gabrielle answered, knowing without looking that Aphrodite was smirking at her back. “Thank you for your concern though.”

“You’re welcome, Mistress,” was the response, though the doubt could be clearly heard through the closed door. “Do you require anything?”

“No, thank you,” came the polite but firm reply.

“Very well, Mistress,” the voice said, though it took another full minute before footsteps sounded leading away from Gabrielle’s door.

Gabrielle turned around then and faced the full-fledged grin Aphrodite was sporting.

“Mistress, huh? Wow, babe, you’re totally moving up in this radical little world. I so didn’t know you were like, into that kinda thing.”

Even though Gabrielle was truly a woman of the world, having seen, done or heard about just about everything in her exceptionally long lifetime, she had managed to retain the kernel of who she had always been. And it was the shy sheepherder from Poteidaia that blushed thoroughly at the love goddess’s implication.

“Not that kind of mistress,” Gabrielle grumbled as she scrubbed her face from embarrassment and crossed back over to the bed to finish her unpacking. “The crew didn’t feel comfortable addressing me as Gabrielle. They chose ‘Mistress’ instead.”

“Even though you’re not comfortable with it?” Dite asked somewhat seriously.

“Yes. The Captain feels it’s bad for discipline for them to address me by name.”

Dite looked perplexed. “Why?”

Gabrielle shrugged. “Beats me, but she is the Captain. I’m gonna work on it though. I really don’t want them calling me Mistress when we reach the Amazons.”

Dite chuckled. “Oh yeah. Those rockin’ babes would have a totally bitchin’ time with that, wouldn’t they? You could just teach them to call you ‘My Queen’.”

The look Gabrielle cast Aphrodite then would have frozen hot butter on a summer day.

“Hmm… guess not. Though if they’re becoming Amazons, won’t they like call you that eventually anyway?”

“I hope not. I’m not an Amazon Queen anymore, Aphrodite.”

“Hon, haven’t you like, heard that old adage? Once a Queen….”

“Besides,” Gabrielle continued, overriding Dite’s words. “There is no guarantee these women will become Amazons.”

Aphrodite actually snorted. “C’mon, babe. Do you really think they *won’t*? That’s why they were chosen to go with you, isn’t it?”

Gabrielle shrugged. “I dunno. I feel so out of touch with things these days.”

A wave of sympathetic understanding washed over Aphrodite at those words and she took Gabrielle’s hand, leading her towards the small bed. “I can totally understand that. C’mon,” she added, sitting on the edge of the bed and tugging Gabrielle down beside her. “Let’s sit and have a little of that girl talk we’ve been missing.”

Gabrielle sat back on the smallish bed and wriggled around until she was comfortably reclined against the headboard. Dite took a clue from her and squirmed up beside her, both of them breaking out into giggles when Dite nearly fell off the bed when the ship suddenly lurched forward.

“So tell me what’s up with you, Cutie. Seems like I haven’t seen you in forever,” Aphrodite said as she settled herself more firmly in the bed. They were sitting almost close enough to touch. Dite took a clue from Gabrielle and tried to brace herself, forgetting that the bard was braced against a corner.

Finally she gave an exasperated sigh and popped a padded railing up beside the bed. “There!” she exclaimed with not a little satisfaction. Gabrielle chuckled silently then leaned in and gave Dite another solid hug.

“Thank you, Aphrodite.”

Confusion washed over the goddess’s face. “‘Kay… for…?”

“For being here.” Gabrielle sighed and loosened her hold. “I know I seem to be depressed every time you visit and I appreciate your coming anyway.”

“Babe, if *ANYONE* in the *entire world* TOTALLLY understands your depression and, you know, the reasons behind it, it’d be me. I mean, I’ve still got most of my family….” Dite paused in thought. “Although that in and of itself is sooo depressing some days. Anyway,” catching Gabrielle’s smile out of the corner of her eye and feeling inordinately pleased with herself for causing it.

“Like I was saying, even with the family around, I still get down. I miss the old days.”

Silence fell then, Dite having become unexpectedly solemn at the turn in the conversation.

“I miss Xena,” Gabrielle whispered, her eyes fixed on something Aphrodite could only guess at.

“Oh, babe,” the goddess consoled, gathering the bard into her arms and gently stroking her hair and arms. “I know you do. I cannot like, tell you how awesome it was to see the two of you together. And ya wanna know a secret?” Dite waited until the blonde head nodded against her chest. “The only person looking forward to this reunion more than me is you. I get chills just thinking about it. The really good kind.”

Gabrielle laughed softly. “Me too,” then blushed. “Thanks, Dite. I’m glad I don’t have to do this alone.”

Aphrodite didn’t answer immediately, just continued her gentle stroking for a few more minutes. Then she kissed the top of Gabrielle’s head. “So, do you like, wanna hear the latest on Cecrops? I talked to Ch’uang before I came here.”

It wasn’t long before the two of them were catching up on all the gossip.

The weeks on board ship passed pleasantly enough. Mornings Gabrielle continued to dedicate to physical exercise and she was trained in enough disciplines and weapons to make for interesting, varied workouts. Several of the women on board asked to learn and she agreed, as long as they dropped the title Mistress and simply stuck with Gabrielle. It was an arrangement they were all happy with.

Afternoons she spent meditating or reading, though again, her teaching skills were called upon. She found it inconceivable that even in the fourteenth century, literacy was such a struggle for the masses. And she was happy to eliminate illiteracy whenever the opportunity to do so arose.

Evenings she spent alone, or with Aphrodite when she could get away, which was more often than Gabrielle expected. Apparently her being away from the mainland made it harder for the gods to discover her.

Finally, though, they were within sight of their goal and Gabrielle sighed. She hadn’t been this nervous in centuries, to tell the truth. Not since she’d felt forced to leave the comfort of her Amazon home. She wondered many things, not the least of which was what the acceptance level of the Amazons would be towards her.

Now as they approached the dock, she could see many changes had taken place during her self-imposed exile. The small fleet was well-maintained and she could see an outpost cum shipyard. As the ship came to a stop, a contingent of armed, masked women waited with not-quite-hostile curiosity.

A gangplank was lowered and Gabrielle walked down first, holding her arms up in the ancient symbol of peace. The leader among the Amazons stepped forward with a hand upraised and spoke with a muffled voice from beneath her mask.

“Halt, stranger. You know of our signs, but you are not known to us. Who are you and what business do you have with the Amazons?”

“I am Gabrielle and I come home to my sisters in peace.”

A gasp was heard from beneath a mask. The leader gave a brief hand signal without removing her eyes from Gabrielle’s face.

“Impossible. Queen Gabrielle and her immortality are nothing but a legend… a fable for our children at night.”

Gabrielle sighed. She’d known this wouldn’t be easy, but she had hoped….

She removed the long Chinese robe she’d wrapped around herself. When it dropped, every Amazon present dropped to her knees.

Gone were the bard, the woman of the world and the traveler. In their place stood an Amazon Queen, easily recognized by her regalia, her signet ring and the tattoo she still bore. Gabrielle moved until she stood directly in front of the leader.

“I am no myth, no legend. I am a real flesh and blood human being.”

The head was already bowed and it seemed to shrink further within herself at Gabrielle’s soft words. Gabrielle placed gentle fingers under the woman’s chin.

“You did the right thing, though, in questioning. Not like immortality happens to that many people,” Gabrielle smiled, feeling the woman relax at her words. “Now, rise and walk with me. And please,” reaching for her robe and donning it again, “take off the mask and introduce yourself.”

“Yes, my Queen,” came the expected response as the woman removed the mask. Blonde curly hair was revealed first and Gabrielle found her knees weaken as a face from the past met her present. The Amazon dropped her mask just as Gabrielle’s knees unbuckled, catching the Queen before she hit the ground.

Gabrielle reached up a shaky hand to the woman’s familiar face.

“Ephiny?”

“Yes, my Queen?”

Then conversation stopped when Gabrielle lost her fight with conscious thought.

There comes a point when the mind simply cannot handle any more impossible, inconceivable ideas… especially a mind that has been exposed to new ideas for more than a millennium. It is a self-defense mechanism more than anything else. It gives the mind a chance to process the impossibilities without allowing conscious thought to interfere.

That is what happened to Gabrielle when the spitting image of a woman she knew to be long dead suddenly stood in front of her again, answering to the same name. Gabrielle had been surprised to see Eponin, but it was well within the realm of possibilities for her to imagine. Cecrops had been a surprise as well, but once again, well within the scope of imagined possibilities.

Ephiny though… Gabrielle had never thought to see her again as flesh and blood. And this new Amazon… this spitting image of the woman who had at first disdained her presence, whom she had finally won over and been proud to call friend, the sight of her had rocked Gabrielle to the core. She had been alone, without true friends for so very long and the harsh reminder standing very real and alive in front of her was overwhelming. She welcomed the darkness when it came, simply for the momentary respite it provided her.

She never knew the chaos her reaction caused in the Amazons around her.

“MY QUEEN!!” Ephiny yelled as Gabrielle crumpled. The Amazon caught her before she hit the dock. Ephiny sank to her knees with Gabrielle in her grasp, unable to lift the Queen into her arms. For her size, Gabrielle was quite a heavyweight, being nothing but pure muscle and Ephiny had been unprepared for the Queen’s reaction to her.

The ship’s Captain motioned for her own crew to retrieve a cot and without further ado, they quickly ran down the gangplank and made for Gabrielle. The amazons bristled and surrounded the two women. Ephiny sighed shakily. This wasn’t the way her day was supposed to go.

“Amazons, stand aside. They offer aid.”

The merest hesitation, then the Amazons formed a double line for the sailors to pass through. Two took the ends of the cot and held it steady, while the third and fourth woman reached out to help Ephiny lift Gabrielle onto it. Then everyone stopped and waited for Ephiny to speak.

“Well,” she said scratching her forehead. “Ask the Captain to join us. You were kind enough to bring our Queen home. The least we can do is show you some Amazon hospitality.”

One of the women scrambled away, to be followed back a moment later by not only the Captain, but the rest of the crew. The two groups of women took one another’s measure, each liking what they found. With a nod, they moved forward as one into the Amazon outpost village.

It wasn’t much as villages went. There was a mess hall, complete with a garden; a bathing hut; a blacksmith/armory, two barracks and a single hut that served as the healer’s hut as well as the village office. Aside from the shipyard, that was it. Enough to make it a functional workplace, but no frills.

Rotations took place in six month increments and everyone except the regent served on a regular basis. Usually every five years.

All activity within the village ceased as the procession made its way through the village, stopping only when they reached the single hut.

“Okay, there’s not room in here for everyone.” Ephiny pulled open the door to let the cot bearers inside. “Katrina, go find the healer. Captain if you and your crew would follow Tisha and Morrin to the mess hall, I will meet with you as soon as I speak to the healer. Janus, you and Lissa take up posts at the door.”

Women started moving as Ephiny spoke and the Captain nodded her acceptance of the directive. Gabrielle had spent some of their crossing explaining Amazon society as she remembered it and the Captain was willing to give it a go. It didn’t hurt that she found Ephiny cute.

“So you’re our immortal Queen Gabrielle, huh?” Ephiny commented to the still silent figure now resting comfortably on the lone bed. She brushed the hair back off Gabrielle’s forehead. “Funny, the scrolls don’t mention your beauty. Nor your strength.”

She might have said more, but at that moment, Nora crossed the threshold and cast a cursory glance in Ephiny’s direction before turning her full attention to the patient that now lay on the bed.

“So?”

Ephiny shrugged. “This is Queen Gabrielle… THE Queen Gabrielle.” Nora turned disbelieving eyes her way. Ephiny nodded. “That was my reaction, too. But it’s her. The tattoo is the clincher, though she still has her leathers and signet ring.”

“So what happened?”

“I dunno. She took a look at my face, whispered my name, then keeled over. Don’t laugh, Nora,” Ephiny scolded the smirking woman.

“Aw, c’mon Eph. How many women have you got falling at your feet? You oughta be used to it by now.”

“I’m gonna have to hurt you,” Ephiny growled. “Look, just keep an eye on her, all right? I need to go talk to the newcomers and get the full story. I’ll leave Janus and Lissa at the doors just in case you need something. I’ll be back when I get some answers.”

Nora waved her out. “Go on. I’ll send someone for you if she wakens, but if it’s what I think it is, you’ll be back before she opens her eyes again.”

Ephiny nodded, then left with a single backwards glance.

The time spent with the Captain and crew was beneficial to both sides and the Amazons realized that they would soon be welcoming new members into their Nation at the next induction ceremony. Ephiny smiled to herself. Gabrielle had taught them well and Ephiny for one was thankful. The Captain, Elizabeth, was… interesting, to say the least.

It was fully dark when she made her way back to the healer’s hut. Nora hadn’t sent for her, so she could only assume that Gabrielle was still not awake.

Just as she reached the door, Ephiny was nearly knocked flat by Nora who was coming out.

“Oh, Ephiny, good,” the healer said when they’d both recovered from their backward stumble. “Gab… Queen Gabrielle seems to be stirring. I expect her to come around very shortly.”

“Thanks, Nora. Why don’t you go get some dinner? I’ll sit with her a while.”

“Thanks, Eph. How’d things go with the visitors?” Nora asked as they both stepped inside the hut. Ephiny took a seat by the bed and Nora moved to wash-up for dinner.

“Very well,” Ephiny said thoughtfully. “We’ll be adding to the tribe soon.”

“Good! Now if you’ll excuse me….”

Ephiny nodded her head and Nora took her leave. Ephiny returned her attention to the figure reclined on the bed. She watched for many minutes, not consciously realizing when Nora came back from dinner to check on them both.

Gabrielle was slowly stirring and from her bits of conversation, she was relieving a time in her life long passed. Ephiny found herself growing anxious to talk to the Queen, curious to speak to the woman who had known her ancestors.

Without warning, Gabrielle shot upright in the bed. She uttered no sound, save for the heavy breathing caused by whatever disturbing dreams she’d been experiencing. Ephiny had stood at her very first motion and now remained silent while Gabrielle took in her surroundings.

Finally Gabrielle’s focus came to rest on Ephiny’s form and she took in every single detail very carefully. She recognized as she examined the young Amazon that there were indeed slight differences between herself and the ancestor she’d been named for.

It took Ephiny a moment to grasp the fact that the two of them had been staring at one another and she began to look away. Instead, Gabrielle reached out a shaky hand to her, which Ephiny readily accepted. Then Gabrielle tugged lightly and Ephiny assumed a position sitting on the edge of the bed.

Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, then cleared her throat. Ephiny reached for the small cup Nora had placed by the bedside and stuck the wooden straw between Gabrielle’s lips. “Suck,” she commanded softly, then added, “drink slowly. I think Nora may have added more than water to this,” said with a slight grin.

Nora had indeed and the concoction was cool and tingly and very refreshing. Gabrielle swallowed a few mouthfuls before turning her head away. Ephiny removed the cup and set it back down.

“My apologies, my Queen. I didn’t mean to….” Ephiny started, eyes still focused on the cup. The touch of Gabrielle’s hands on her own again brought her to a quick halt. Gabrielle raised one hand and cupped Ephiny’s face, urging her to meet Gabrielle’s eyes.

“My name is Gabrielle, Ephiny and you have nothing to apologize for, my young friend,” Gabrielle replied with a small smile. “I doubt you know just how much you look like the ancestor you were named for.”

Ephiny shook her curly head.

Gabrielle chuckled. “Have you ever heard the term spitting image?” Now the curls bounced affirmatively. “Good, because you are. So I apologize… for dropping out on you… like that. It’s just that….”

This time, it was Ephiny who halted the hesitant speech. “No apologies, my Queen. I doubt it is everyday that you come across a living part of a past that is long dead.”

Ephiny winced at the flash of pain her words caused, but Gabrielle spoke before she could draw breath.

“No, but once my mind got wrapped around the idea, it really was quite welcome.” Gabrielle gave a tremulous smile that became a genuine one when Ephiny returned it fully. “I’ll make a deal with you. You give me a history of the amazons since I was here last and I’ll share some tales of your ancestors with you.”

“You still tell stories?! You bet it’s a deal!” The scrolls Gabrielle had left were a favorite among the Amazons and to be able to hear fresh stories right from the source was an offer Ephiny wasn’t about to turn down. A closer look at her Queen though toned down her enthusiasm in a hurry.

“However, it will wait until tomorrow. You need to recover.” Ephiny rose from the bed and firmly tucked Gabrielle in. “Do you need anything? Something to eat perhaps?”

The mention of food reminded Gabrielle how long it had been since she’d fed and the thought stirred the burning in her blood. She shook her head.

“No thanks. I think I mostly need to rest tonight. Funny since I slept most of the day away, but I think all that processing my mind did just exhausted it.”

Ephiny nodded. “I can believe that, my Queen. I know how tired I used to get after school testing and I knew those were coming. Not like you can prepare for something like what happened this morning.”

Gabrielle smiled. “True, but it really was a nice surprise once my mind got wrapped around the idea.” She motioned to the door. “Go on, now. I’m sure you’d much rather be talking to the Captain and crew that came in today than hanging out with me. I’ll be fine. We’ll talk in the morning.”

“Actually, I’d rather talk to you right now, my Queen, but you need to recover. I’ll be by… or would you prefer to summon me when you are ready?”

“Ephiny, regardless of the title that you can’t seem to get by, I am just Gabrielle. Come by in the morning whenever you’re ready. I’ll be glad to have you here.”

“Thank you, my Queen,” Ephiny said, bowing her head and moving to the door. “Goodnight.”

Gabrielle watched the Amazon leave and shook her head.

Nora had come by a short while later and offered Gabrielle a sleeping draught which she politely refused. Then she set herself to wait.

It took a while, but Gabrielle had not lived so long without garnering an almost infinite amount of patience. At the very darkest part of the night, she slipped unseen into the shadows and went hunting for blood satisfaction.

Even after more than a thousand years, it was a hunger that she couldn’t completely control, though she managed it very well. Still, the need shamed her and she kept to the shadows until her task was done.

Just after dawn, Ephiny knocked lightly on the door of the hut. She knew it was still very early and hoped that Gabrielle had meant what she’d said the previous evening. She couldn’t contain her enthusiasm and it had made it difficult to sleep.

Ephiny had read the scrolls – both Gabrielle’s as well as those her own ancestors had penned and passed down through the years. Some of her very favorites were those her forebearer had transcribed of her own adventures with the youthful, naïve Gabrielle.

She watched them grow up together, going from unsure antagonists to friends and confidants. Ephiny suspected her many-times- removed grandmother had been half in love with the woman she called Queen, though she never said a word to Gabrielle. Anyone with half an eye could see she and Xena belonged together and had gone through heaven and hell to stay that way. Ephiny looked forward to getting to know the woman who had so enamored her predecessor.

Her musings were interrupted by the soft call, “Come in.”

Gabrielle sat at the small desk, looking over a thick journal. She was dressed in trousers and a tunic this morning and Ephiny wondered what had become of her Amazon leathers.

“Good morning, my Queen.”

“Please Ephiny… just Gabrielle. I’m not Queen of the Amazons anymore. I never really was.” The last was said softly and with a bit of sadness.

“I must disagree with you, my queen… Gabrielle. The Nation still looks to you as our queen. One of our greatest. However, I would be honored to call you Gabrielle, if you’ll explain it to Regent Narmia when we see her in the main village. I’m not sure she would appreciate the informality.”

“I’ll deal with the regent. Thank you, Ephiny. Now c’mon and show me where we can get some breakfast around here, then we can take a tour of the outpost before we head inland for the main village.”

Ephiny nodded and gestured towards the door. “Would you like me to arrange a guard for you…?” stopping when Gabrielle turned outraged green eyes in her direction. “Hey, just asking,” Ephiny said, holding up her hands. “I’m supposed to.”

Gabrielle sighed. “I know. I think Melosa charged Ephiny with looking out for me as much as she did telling her to make me an Amazon princess.”

Ephiny nodded, knowing it for the truth. She led the way into the mess hall that was sending out all kinds of interesting scents. Word had quickly gone round that the Queen had returned and the small kitchen staff had scrambled to find the old recipes she had shared with them so many centuries before.

They sat down and were immediately served something that made Ephiny hesitate, sniffing cautiously. Gabrielle on the other hand scooped up the fresh rolls and began devouring them.

“Ah, cinnamon rolls. I can’t tell you the last time I had them and so fresh.” She looked at Ephiny, who was still eyeing the suspiciously. “Ephiny? Don’t you like cinnamon rolls?”

“I dunno. I’ve never had them.” She looked at Gabrielle. “I’ve had oatmeal every morning of my life for as long as I can remember.”

“Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding me.”

Ephiny shook her head as she gingerly took a small bite. She chewed slowly and Gabrielle watched her face for a reaction. Ephiny put the roll down and continued to chew.

“My Queen, I’m afraid you will have to remain her indeterminately.”

“Ephiny? Is there a problem?”

“No, my Queen, but if this is the food we get when you visit, I’m not sure I can let you leave.” Ephiny grinned and picked up the roll, taking a big bite and closing her eyes in delighted ecstasy.

Gabrielle returned the grin and smacked Ephiny lightly on the arm. “I can see we’re gonna have a lot of fun together.”

Then they got down to the serious business of eating.
Chapter XXIV
Ephiny took Gabrielle around the outpost, introducing her to everyone in the village. Gabrielle had a word for each and every one of them, though many of them could not respond in kind. They were completely awestruck. Gabrielle handled the attention with good humor and grace however, and agreed to a storytelling session before her departure the following day.

Even though she herself was in no rush, protocol demanded that she get to the main village and the regent expediently. She was fairly certain a runner had been dispatched to the main village as soon as they knew who she was. But Gabrielle was going to take a bit of time with these women as well, especially as she didn’t know how long she would be with the Amazons. She’d learned long ago to keep her plans fluid.

“I think the Captain is a little jealous,” Gabrielle commented as Ephiny escorted her back to her hut after the festivities were over much later that evening.

Ephiny flushed, not meeting Gabrielle’s eyes. “What do you mean?”

Gabrielle stopped and put a hand on Ephiny’s arm, effectively stopping her as well. “C’mon, Eph,” not noticing the startled look the shortened moniker garnered her. “You don’t get to be my age without having seen everything at least once and the ability to recognize it almost immediately.”

She turned and started walking towards the healer’s hut once more. Ephiny rushed to catch up.

“Ephiny, I’m a big girl. I can get to the hut on my own. Why don’t you go spend some time with Elizabeth? We’ll have time on our journey to the main village to exchange stories. I promise.”

Ephiny nodded, understanding the politely worded order clearly. “Let me walk you to the door and then I’ll go. She understands I have responsibilities, she just….”

“She just knows what she wants and is anxious to pursue it.”

Ephiny chuckled. “Yeah, something like that.”

“Ephiny, can I give you a piece of advice without interfering too much?”

They stopped outside the door and it occurred to Gabrielle in passing to wonder if Nora had given up her own bed. She shook the thought free from her mind as Ephiny turned questioning eyes to her.

“You don’t know how long you’ve got… not for life and not for love.” She paused and drew a painful breath. Sometimes life cut a little too close for her liking, but Ephiny deserved the truth of her words… for the friendship Gabrielle had had with her ancestor, if not for her own sake. And Gabrielle had decided that she liked this Ephiny for herself. She reminded the bard so much of the Amazon she had once made her regent.

Gabrielle held her hands up and while collecting her thoughts. Ephiny waited patiently, not interrupting. “If the opportunity presents itself, Ephiny, seize it. Maybe you and Elizabeth will hit it off, maybe you won’t. But you won’t know if you don’t give it a chance and you don’t want to live with regrets.”

Ephiny recognized that the advice came from experience and nodded solemnly. “Thank you, my Queen… Gabrielle. Goodnight.”

Gabrielle waved and waited until Ephiny had passed back to the mess hall where activity was still taking place even at the late hour.

“Amazons still love to party,” she commented to herself with a shake of her head. “Guess some things really are born into the blood,” chuckling as she crossed the threshold and closed the door behind her.

It was quite the procession that gathered at dawn. Gabrielle took one look around and immediately sought out Ephiny.

“Hey, Ephiny… what gives?” Gabrielle asked, motioning around to the numerous people making preparations to head inland to the main village. “I know we need to get the ship’s crew back, but do we really need half the outpost to accompany us? Seems like those left behind are getting shafted pretty badly.”

Ephiny flushed lightly at the implied criticism. Gabrielle still resembled a twenty-five year old woman and it was sometimes hard to remember that she was an immortal with a more than a thousand years of experience behind her. Regardless, though, Ephiny had a duty to perform and so she would to the best of her ability. She took Gabrielle by the elbow and led her away from the gather women to a secluded spot to speak to her privately.

“Gabrielle… my Queen. It’s my responsibility to get you to the main village safely. Every woman here wanted the privilege of joining your entourage. I cut it down to fifteen by drawing lots. Everyone else is here to say goodbye.” Ephiny shrugged. “You made quite an impression last night.”

Gabrielle blushed slightly. “I’m sorry, Ephiny. I didn’t mean to undermine your authority. I’m just….”

“You were never real fond of the pomp and circumstance accorded you as Queen, were you?”

Gabrielle shook her head. “No, not really. I never truly understood the need for it. And I never had an honor guard… even… even after….”

Ephiny nodded her understanding. “Well, please let us give you one this once. You don’t know Regent Narmia. She is a stickler for rules and protocol. If I allow you to show up in the village without one….”

“Even by my command?”

“Even then. Until and unless you assume the mask again, she is still the ruler.”

Gabrielle frowned and muttered mostly to herself, “May just have to do something about that.” She missed Ephiny’s smile at her words. Then she turned and faced the large group of women patiently waiting.

“Thank you all so much for welcoming me home to the Amazons,” Gabrielle said to the crowd. The woman cheered and whistled, their calls ringing out in the still morning air. “It has been great to meet so many new friends and I hope to have the chance to visit with you all again in the future.”

The cheering rang out again and Gabrielle nodded an acknowledgement before stepping down and indicating to Ephiny that she was ready. Ephiny nodded and began leading the entourage out of the outpost and towards the main village.

Just as the troupe was exiting the gates, one of the cooks came running up to Gabrielle with a sack. She pressed it into Gabrielle’s hands and then turned and headed back the way she had come as fast as she could go. Gabrielle looked after the woman with a puzzled expression. Then she opened the sack and puzzlement turned to happiness.

Ephiny, noting that Gabrielle had not yet joined them, ran back to see what the hold-up was.

“Gabrielle? My Queen?”

Gabrielle held up the sack and Ephiny knew what it was from the scent before she even opened the bag.

“Good,” she said matter-of-factly as she took Gabrielle’s elbow. “Maybe we’ll start getting cinnamon rolls once in a while too,” she added in a loud voice, smiling when cheers and chuckles followed her pronouncement.

They had been traveling steadily for a few days making good time. For the most part, the women spent their time forging new friendships between them. Gabrielle and Ephiny spent much of their time exchanging stories, Gabrielle always careful to include Elizabeth when she could. Evenings were spent sharing tales between them, though Gabrielle by far was the most popular bard among them.

Midmorning of the sixth day gave them and unexpected and unwelcome surprise. Without warning, marauders swooped down on them, wreaking havoc among the traveling party. The Amazons crowded around their Queen and both they and the ship’s crew struggled to arm themselves for the skirmish.

The raiders were covered from head to toe in black cloth, only their eyes showing from the slit left for them. They came in swinging and the women were quick to fight back… except for Gabrielle. They wouldn’t move to allow her a chance to fight… or be killed.

“Ephiny, move. I can handle myself,” fighting to get out of the circle without getting anyone protecting her killed.

“Please, my Queen. It’s our duty,” Ephiny panted as she ducked a wild swing and thrust forward into her opponent.

“To protect an immortal?!? Ephiny, please. I have been doing this for hundreds of years.” Gabrielle easily felt the bloodlust rise and knew bad things were going to happen if she didn’t get the opportunity to bleed it out through fighting soon. Already she felt her fangs come to the fore and she was hard-pressed to keep them contained.

She slid the seldom used katana from its sheath and pushed her way to the forefront of the fighting. The fury she unleashed caused both Amazons and sailors to stand still and watch the pure beauty of her violence in motion.

When the attackers realized there was a samurai in their midst, they disappeared as rapidly as they had come. Gabrielle stood apart watching them, willing her blood to calm. She stood breathing hard until she felt a light touch on her back.

“Your majesty? Are you all right?” Ephiny asked softly. Truthfully, Gabrielle had stunned all of them. They knew the stories of the young bard who had traveled with Xena and even when she had chosen to bear arms, she had never been a ferocious warrior. She did what it took to get the job done and no more.

The stories they had of her during her three hundred year stay were a little more vague, but it was well known that Gabrielle never considered herself a warrior, though she did teach some of the warrior arts she had learned. They had, in fact, been incorporated into the regular warrior regimen and were now part of the curriculum.

Nothing, however, had prepared them for the raw fury, the pure grace or poetry of motion that dictated her fighting abilities. She was so far above them on so many levels and suddenly each one realized how futile their efforts to protect her had been.

“Gabrielle?”

The bard had stood silently so long that Ephiny had been compelled to address her again. Finally, she turned and looked at the many women accompanying her. She shook her head to clear it and looked at Ephiny, glad that the Amazon did not retreat before her gaze.

“I’m fine, Ephiny. Thank you. What about everyone else?”

Two women, both from the ship’s crew, were dead. Another half dozen or so were wounded. A dozen raiders lay dead around them.

“We’ll need to stop for the day. To take care of our wounded and bury our dead.”

“And then you can explain to me what exactly happened here. Though I imagine that is why we weren’t taking the direct route.”

“Yes, my Queen,” recognizing a royal decree easily and agreeing with Gabrielle’s assumption.

They divided themselves into different assignments, with Gabrielle being the healer. Through some twist of fate, she and Elizabeth, the ship’s captain, ended up setting up the camp together.

“You’re very different from what I’d come to expect, my Queen,” Elizabeth commented quietly. She has never relinquished her need for formal address of Gabrielle and was quite happy to switch to her royal title. Gabrielle had rolled her eyes and accepted the change. It was better than Mistress.

“I have learned to adapt myself to all sorts of situations, Captain. I use what I need and save the rest.”

Elizabeth nodded her head. “So are you really an immortal being?”

“Yep, but that’s not something I share around either. I would appreciate….”

The Captain held up a hand. “Not to worry, my Queen. I have waited too long to be an Amazon to jeopardize my chances to stay.”

“Oh? I didn’t know the world remembered the Amazons,” knowing full well they didn’t. But Gabrielle was interested in Elizabeth’s words.

The Captain shook her head. “The world doesn’t. But women in the know do. Those who can read the signs… those who know the tales.”

“So that is why you and your crew agreed to bring me here?”

“No, my Queen. Well, not exactly. We accepted your commission because it was intriguing and it paid well. The Amazons were an unexpected, but very welcome bonus. There are still many of us out there who would much prefer to come here… who dream of a place like this for us. I consider myself very lucky for the opportunity to be a part.”

Gabrielle nodded, but said nothing and their work continued in silence. That evening, they lit the fires and once again, Ephiny took up the funeral dirge that brought back aching memories to Gabrielle’s mind.

Even after centuries have passed, nothing makes that pain any easier. She closed her eyes, willing the images and the grief away. When it was over, she walked into the darkness alone.

Finally, they reached the main village and Gabrielle was welcomed with much fanfare by all with one obvious exception. The Regent Narmia felt Gabrielle to be an interloper… a pretender trying to claim her throne and the affection of the people.

“And what do you want from us, Gabrielle?” said with oozing sarcasm. “What do you expect?”

“I expect a bit of common courtesy, though if you can’t manage it, I’m sure I can teach you a few manners.”

Ephiny bit her lips to keep from laughing, as did the rest of the Amazons who had traveled with Gabrielle from the outpost. The ship’s crew, however, wasn’t quite so considerate and their laughter merely fueled the fire.

“How dare you!!” Narmia bellowed at Gabrielle. “Who do you think you are?!?”

Now Gabrielle called upon a persona she rarely had need of any longer and before the watching eyes of the Amazons, became THE Amazon Queen.

“I *KNOW* who I am, Narmia. *I* am the Amazon Queen and you need to get the bug out of your butt and get over yourself.”

“You can’t speak to me that way! Guards, remove her!”

But not a single guard moved to raise a hand to the Queen. Ephiny was well-liked among her peers and a simple hand signal from her had halted any perceived movement on the part of the guards. Narmia had become an increasingly disliked regent for her actions and attitude and Ephiny figured Gabrielle was just the person to fix that little problem.

“GUARDS!!”

Gabrielle looked around, noting the crowd watching with interest, but not one moving to help Narmia. The Regent also looked around, her lips curling with disdain when she realized she was alone. She stepped down from the dais she had been seated on.

“You will all end up in the eastern colony for your disobedience, but first I will show you who the true Amazon Queen is!”

She drew her sword and came at Gabrielle with fury in her eyes. Gabrielle rolled hers, suddenly remembering one reason she had stayed away so long. Too much estrogen was just as bad as too much testosterone and the Amazons definitely had more than their share of estrogen.

When Narmia swung, she fell to the ground and blinked. Her target hadn’t been where she’d expected her to be. Gabrielle accepted the katana from Ephiny and stood waiting for Narmia to recover herself.

Narmia stood and swung again and Gabrielle humored her for a while, trading blows back and forth and stretching muscles that rarely got used for that purpose except in sparring. Without warning, though, Gabrielle went on the offensive and in a matter of a few strokes, had disarmed the regent and had the blade at her throat.

“Consider yourself removed from office,” Gabrielle said quietly. “Ephiny, take Narmia to the jail until such time as the council has made a decision on her fate. Then please call the council together. Apparently I need to catch up on a few things.”

“Yes, my Queen,” Ephiny answered. She nodded to the guards, who now finally moved. Narmia stood and went with them quietly, unsure what had just happened, but well aware she had ultimately pushed too far.

“Elizabeth, if you and your crew will go with Janus, she will get you settled into the barracks until you can begin your Amazon training. Ephiny, do I still have….”

“Your home has been preserved just the way you left it, Gabrielle. We’ve always hoped you’d come home to us.” Gabrielle smiled weakly, knowing she wasn’t going to stay. But she said nothing and moved to the cave she had called home for three hundred years.

Everything really was the same, though the lack of dust showed it had been carefully tended in her absence. The down mattress had been freshly washed and restuffed and the furs that covered it were equally clean. The desk had a small pile of parchment on one corner and the shelves were overflowing with the scrolls she’d left in place.

Gabrielle crossed to the bed and laid down, obscenely glad for its soft comfort. She grown to like her little luxuries and was so looking forward to a soak in the hot spring. Hot baths were something she’d grown to appreciate even more as she’d gotten older and Gabrielle had loved them to begin with.

She got up and went to the spring, cleaning up before she went back to the council house to catch up on the rest of the news of the Amazon Nation.

Ephiny had been bringing her up-to-date, but they hadn’t reached the present. Gabrielle now had the distinct impression that Ephiny had been deliberately vague to allow Gabrielle to make her own judgments on the situation. Gabrielle approved heartily the young woman’s prudence and wondered about the possibility of making her the new regent. Another full circle completed, Gabrielle thought with a smile.

The council meeting was very informative. The raiders had turned up some two hundred years previously and their increasing attacks on the Amazon had caused them to split the Nation into several splinter tribes. The tribes had spread across the continent, each naming a regent and the regents had met on a yearly basis to share news and information. They still considered themselves to be a single Nation, united under one Queen.

Narmia was chosen to be regent because she had been an effective leader against the raiders, driving them out of the Amazonian lands. Making her regent had been a mistake, however because the power of ruling had made her harsh and stringent. She abided strictly by the law and gave no quarter for mercy.

“Why wasn’t she removed from office?” Gabrielle asked logically.

“By law, we can only remove a regent for treasonous offenses or if she continually breaks the laws of the Nation. Narmia didn’t break any laws,” replied one elder.

“No, she was simply suffocating us with them,” said another.

“Then I think we need to change the laws,” Gabrielle said. “If the system that’s in place isn’t working, we need to try something else.”

“Actually, your majesty,” Ephiny spoke. “The system works just fine. Perhaps we should mend the law, though, allowing for a little common sense.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “Common sense is always a good thing. Makes for a much easier way of life.”

“Agreed,” another of the members said. “And may I say we are happy to welcome you home, my Queen. It has been far too long.”

“Thank you,” Gabrielle replied. “I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but it is always nice to be back among my sisters. One thing, however.” She looked at each of them, allowing them to see the seriousness of her words. “My name is Gabrielle. I’d appreciate it if everyone would use that.”

“But….”

“Listen, part of the reason there was a problem with Narmia is because she wanted to be Queen. Maybe it’s time to let that tradition die and have a democratic society. One where a council is chosen by vote every few years.”

“NO.”

The oldest elder stood then and the room fell into silence. Gabrielle looked at her, waiting patiently for the old woman to continue.

“My Queen,” the woman said, bowing low and Gabrielle scrambled through her mind for the elder’s name.

“Speak, Halina. You’re among friends here.”

“My Queen, I agree with some of your reasoning. I do think we would do well with a democracy… an elected council *if* we could get coverage of a widespread demographic area. All ages and ways of life should be fairly represented.” She waited for Gabrielle to nod her understanding. “But I do not think we should give you up as our Queen, or the woman who stands in your stead while you are gone.”

Halina held up a hand when Gabrielle would have spoken.

“I know you’re not here much… certainly not nearly as often as we would like to have you. But there is so much history wrapped up in you and your title that I hate for us to lose that completely.”

Halina took a deep breath and Gabrielle waited for her to finish.

“I’m an old woman, relatively speaking,” she added with a chuckle. Gabrielle had to grin and the women in the room tittered. “And I’ve seen a lot in my years here. Narmia was an exception, not the rule. Most of the regents have served with pride and honor. If the reason you think we should be strictly democratic is because you really dislike being Queen that is one thing. Otherwise, I’d really like to see some sort of merging of the two, because you’re an important part of the Amazons, Queen Gabrielle. And I’d like to see you stay that way.”

Gabrielle sat silently, considering Halina’s words. “I’ll think about it,” she finally said quietly. The council accepted her words and filed out.

Time passed and the Amazons reached the compromise that Halina had been hoping for. Gabrielle remained as the Queen and a council was chosen in each village. Each guild had a representative on the council and they varied in age from young to old. The council then proposed three candidates for Regent that was then voted on by the populous of the village. A regent’s term was unlimited, but she could be removed from office if it was decided by either the council or a majority of the village that she was acting against the greater good of all.

“You really don’t like this, do you?” Ephiny asked as she helped Gabrielle dress for the ceremony. All the councils and regents had been chosen and Gabrielle as Queen was to preside over their swearing in. Gabrielle looked at herself critically, seeing so many differences from the feckless kid she had been the first time she’d worn the leathers.

“I’ve never felt like an Amazon Queen. It’s never been who I am and that’s all I’m allowed to be here. It just….”

“Would you believe me if I said I think I understand?” Ephiny said, tying off the vambraces. “It’s one of the reasons I turned down the regency.”

“I was curious about that.”

Ephiny shrugged. “I know we aren’t more than friends… can never be more than friends, Gabrielle. But we *are* friends and I think you need a friend with you, even if it’s only for a little while.”

Gabrielle bit her lip. “You know that I’m not coming back this way… at least not for a very long time. Are you sure you want to leave everything, everyone you know, just to go traipsing off with me for a little while? What about Elizabeth?”

Ephiny shrugged again. “We need some time apart.” Not mentioning the jealousy issues. “Maybe… I dunno. But I do know that I’m going on with you, at least for a little while.”

“Running away?”

“I prefer to think of it as running to.” Ephiny smiled. “Besides, the Queen has to have some sort of honor guard… even if it is only an honor guard of one.”

“Well, I’m glad to have you along, my friend. You really do remind me of your many times removed ancestor, Ephiny.”

“I take that as a compliment. I’m actually looking forward to visiting the rest of the tribes.”

Gabrielle smiled, the first real one Ephiny had seen since she’d put on her Queen’s leathers and she felt herself smile in reflex. “Me too,” Gabrielle confided. “I haven’t seen the rest of this land. We visit the Uluru tribe first, right?”

“Yes, my Queen. They’ve ask for a bit of a head start to insure everything is prepared for your arrival.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “I know. I’d rather travel with them, but it is probably for the best. Less complications.”

She didn’t say anything else, but Ephiny was pretty sure she got the inference. She’d seen more than her share of drama growing up in the main Amazon village. Gods knew she didn’t have the patience for it and she was fairly certain Gabrielle didn’t either.

“Besides, it’ll give us the chance to do a little exploring and meet the neighbors.”

“Yep. I’m looking forward to it,” Ephiny said.

“Good. Now let’s go get these women sworn in so we can kick off the party I’ve heard about for the last two weeks.” Gabrielle laughed. “You’d think the Amazons had discovered something new the way they’ve been carrying on.”

“Yeah, well, any excuse for a party….” Ephiny let the thought trail off.

“Absolutely. And the bigger the better.”

The Amazons wondered what the joke was when the two emerged from the dressing room laughing like they’d never stop.

The next morning, the coastal tribe headed back to the western outpost. They would sail their small fleet back around the island to the eastern side of the continent, arriving at their home in plenty of time to prepare for Gabrielle’s arrival.

The Uluru tribe headed immediately east, making their best speed to the center of the island that was now their home. They were anxious to welcome Gabrielle and hurried as fast as they dared.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle went to the glade she had not visited in a millennium. It was so much larger, now and filled with a vast number of graves. Though the Amazons still practiced cremation, a marker was left with names and dates of each sister when she died. Gabrielle looked for one in particular, dusting it off lightly before sitting down next to it. She never saw her friends step from the shadows and gather round to hear her words.

“Hello, Eponin. It’s been a long, long time… a lifetime and more. I still miss you and the others. I find myself wondering what it would have been like if I had been normal.” Gabrielle stilled the thought with a chuckle. “Okay, if I had been mortal. Happy now?”

The warriors surrounding her laughed as well and their laughter was like a whisper of wind. Gabrielle’s smile was melancholy as it caressed her gently.

“Anyway, I think you’d all be proud to see what the Amazon Nation has become. The women are vital, healthy and strong. They make a difference for each other. Even Narmia.” The former regent had been assigned to the training fields and had done an exceptional job teaching new recruits the fundamentals of battle planning.

“I don’t know when I’ll get back here again. Ephiny’s many times great-granddaughter and I are going to do a bit of exploring… a little bit like Xena and I did, once upon a time. You’d like Ephiny. She reminds me so much of our Ephiny and I’m every bit as glad for her friendship as I was for yours and hers. She’s the first real human friend I’ve had in… well, I’m not sure I want to think about how long it’s been. She doesn’t know about me yet. Well, I mean the immortal thing she does, yeah. All the Amazons know that. I haven’t figured out how or even if I should tell her about WHY I’m immortal. Guess we’ll worry about that when the time comes.”

Gabrielle took a deep breath and stood. “Enjoy your rest, my friend. And when you see the others, give them my love.” She bowed her head briefly.

“Goodbye, Eponin,” she whispered and left the glade without a backwards glance.

There wasn’t a warrior there who didn’t dry their eyes, before merging back into the shadows of the underworld.
Chapter XXV
The first stop on their trip was at the original native village. Gabrielle was amazed to see the changes and growth that had occurred during her lengthy absence. There were many men and even quite a few women, though they were considerably less in number. Ephiny and Gabrielle were welcomed warmly, then left to look around at their leisure.

The market area was large and Gabrielle spent a bit of time going through it, dickering back and forth with the merchants and bartering until both parties were satisfied with her purchases. Ephiny just stood back and watched, shaking her head at the whirlwind side of her friend she’d never thought to see. She thought back to the private scrolls of her ancestor she carried and wondered if she’d see anything else described in them.

They spent several days in the village, with Gabrielle talking to their ruling council among other things. The agreement she had drawn up between them and the Amazons so many years ago had worked out mutually beneficial to all involved and Gabrielle was gratified to know that it was still honored.

Several of the men of the village circled both she and Ephiny in interest, mating being the primary reason most Amazons visited them, but after several rejections and one rather abrupt dismissal, the men understood that neither of them were interested in producing children.

“Ephiny, did you really need to leave a mark?” No censure in the question… just honest curiosity.

“Considering where his hands were,” Ephiny growled, “he’s lucky I didn’t break them.” She motioned with her own just exactly where his had tried to be.

“Ooh. He’s lucky it was you and not me in that case.” Ephiny’s brow arched in inquiry. “I’d have put the pinch on him.”

“The pinch?” Ephiny’s face was awash in confusion as she went through her mental catalogue of fighting techniques. “OH!” she exclaimed as it dawned on her. “You mean THE pinch. Xena really taught you that?”

“Yep, she really did,” Gabrielle answered softly, remembering all too clearly kneeling on the floor in the room in Japa. Even now, she felt the roiling in her gut that she’d felt then and it was all she could do not to puke. Ephiny’s hand on her arm grounded her and after a moment of intense concentration, Gabrielle was able to put the fierce feeling aside.

“I’m sorry Gabrielle. I didn’t mean….”

Gabrielle waved off Ephiny’s apology. “Don’t be, Eph. You have no way of knowing what’s taboo and what isn’t. Just like I never know what exactly will set me off.” She smiled wanly. “Sometimes a mere scent will remind me of something…. Anyway, just bear with me, my friend. It doesn’t happen often, thankfully. And I always live through it.”

She patted the hand on her arm and Ephiny squeezed back lightly in return. “Besides,” Gabrielle commented wryly, “I brought it up, remember? Now c’mon. Let’s go visit the Uluru tribe.”

“It’s been a long time since I crossed a desert,” Gabrielle commented. “Now I remember why.”

“At least we haven’t run into any sandstorms,” Ephiny said with a chuckle.

“Don’t even joke about that,” Gabrielle warned with a smile. “It’s not pretty.”

“You’re kidding… you’ve really had to travel in a sandstorm?”

“No, I’m not and yeah, I really have. You think the sand you have all over now is bad?? Wait til it gets *blasted* into crevices it doesn’t belong in.”

“EW! Thanks, Gabrielle. Wasn’t like I was itchy before the little mental image.”

“Yeah, well, let me assure you the physical one is much worse. Been there, done that, don’t want a repeat.”

It had been nearly three weeks since they’d left the native village to make their way to the central Amazon village of Uluru. They had been given directions to the one or two small pools of water along their route, but it had been five days since they’d seen any and they were both getting pretty desperate to find some.

“Why exactly are there Amazons in the middle of nowhere?” Gabrielle asked, hoping to take her mind of the sand.

“After the plague was over,” looking at Gabrielle to see if she remembered that time. Gabrielle nodded and Ephiny took a deep breath. “After the plague was over, the council and regent decided that it would be prudent to the life of the nation for us to expand a little bit. Have a few separate tribes in the Nation instead of just the one.”

“And who got punished that they ended up in the middle of the desert?”

Ephiny chuckled. “No one. It was decided that the western outpost would become a permanent outpost, though we rotate people in and out of that one every six months. They the council decreed that a scouting party would travel until they found a good spot to start a second village.”

“The desert?”

“Hush!” Ephiny admonished. “I’m trying to tell the story here.” Then she clapped a hand over her mouth as she realized what she’d said to whom. Gabrielle simply chortled.

“Go, on, Ephiny,” she said as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “I’ll be quiet, I promise.”

“Ahem, yeah, well anyway, about halfway across the desert, several of the party were taken grievously ill. It was decided that they and a few of the well Amazons would stay while the remainder continued on their journey.”

“During the year it took the scouting party to reach the far coast and set up a small outpost, the Amazons that stopped here had been busy setting up a colony of their own. By the time the few from the original scouting party not already settled in the east had returned for them, they had managed to make themselves a comfortable home.”

“In the desert?”

“In the desert. When the scouts returned and gave the news, the council decided that it was all good… especially as it gave us not one, but two more villages. And it gave us a place to rest on the journey between coasts.”

“Well, for that reason alone, I am glad they found a home here. I am over the sand thing.”

Ephiny laughed. “You know, you sound a lot like the way you describe Aphrodite when you talk like that.”

Now it was Gabrielle’s turn to laugh. “What can I tell you? She rubs off on you after a while.”

Finally, they stood within sight of the big red rock that was the only thing that could be seen for miles.

“Wow! That’s pretty amazing,” Gabrielle said softly.

Ephiny glanced up, but she was more interested in scouting the area. The Uluru tribe was supposed to be located near the rock, but she could see no signs of life or habitation. And never having traveled this far, Ephiny was at a bit of loss on how to find them.

“Uh,” she grunted, before turning her attention back to the cleverly unmarked landscape. Gabrielle looked at her strangely.

“Um, Ephiny? What are you looking for?”

“The village,” came the distracted answer.

“There’s nothing here.”

“Yeah, there is. I just have to find it.”

Gabrielle sat on a rock and leaned back, squawking in startlement when the rock moved. A grinding noise and what felt like a miniature earthquake caused both of them to look around before noting the growing hole in the ground.

“Underground? They live underground?” Gabrielle questioned Ephiny.

“Yeah, though I’m not sure I’d have ever found the trigger if you hadn’t leaned against it. They’ve disguised it really well. Nice work, my Queen.”

Gabrielle swung at Ephiny lightly, who easily ducked the punch. “Smarty.” She looked down the darkened hole that showed the beginnings of a set of stairs. “Well, c’mon. Let’s go see this underground village.”

Gabrielle started down the steps before Ephiny had the chance to stop her. But she’d only gone down two stairs before she halted abruptly… so abruptly that Ephiny nearly plowed into her back.

“Gabrielle?”

Suddenly the two spears that were locked on her belly lowered slightly. “My Queen?” came a voice from the darkness.

“Yes,” Gabrielle answered succinctly.

The spears were lowered further and one guard came up the steps slowly, blinking in the bright sunlight. “Apologies, my Queen. We weren’t told to expect you so soon.”

“Well,” Gabrielle commented wryly. “I commend you for your diligence. May we enter?”

“Oh… oh, yes. Please. Dina, pass me a torch so the Queen and….” The guard looked beyond Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Ephiny, wasn’t it?” The curly head nodded. “Ephiny can see to get downstairs to the village.”

The village itself was an amazing piece of work. Tunnels had been carved from the rock that glittered with color where the light hit it and rooms were scattered throughout. In places, the ground above had been shaped to let sunlight through and an underground water supply created a vast pool in the center square.

“Welcome, my Queen,” the regent said with bowed head. “Welcome to Uluru.”

Gabrielle looked around in awed delight. “This is amazing, Pyrna. Simply stunning.”

“Thank you, my… Gabrielle,” changing her address when Gabrielle held up a hand and gave her a look. “We are very proud of our home here.”

“You should be,” Ephiny commented. “This is fantastic. Did you carve all this out yourself, or…?”

The regent laughed. “Gods, no. Our ancestors were very lucky to have found the main caverns when they first settled here. We’ve put in a lot of work to expand them and still are, actually. We continually need more room as the tribe grows.”

“Where do you find men? We haven’t seen anyone for nearly three weeks.”

“We travel to either of the other tribes. Both have agreements with the native villages near them.”

“And that works for you?” Gabrielle asked.

“Yes. We lose a few women to the other villages, but for the most part, everyone comes home… and usually they bring someone with them.”

“Well, this is all quite fascinating. Could we have a tour?” Gabrielle asked again, her eyes taking in everything with muted delight.

“Absolutely. Then we will have a banquet. This is a first for us, you know.”

Gabrielle looked stunned. “Your first banquet??”

The regent howled in laughter until she doubled over from it. “No, your majesty. This is the first time our Queen has visited. I assure you we know how to throw a good party.”

Ephiny snickered. Gabrielle chuckled. “Born in the blood,” they muttered to one another simultaneously. Then they followed the regent through the vast cavern network.

Both Ephiny and Gabrielle enjoyed their time with what they referred to as the cavern Amazons. Gabrielle had been amazed to see the many different ways they had adapted their underground life to be almost what even a topsider would consider normal. There was hot and cold running water, a grist mill, an elaborate system for removing wastes and a large area for games and tournaments.

Ephiny really liked that as it was home to all sorts of contrived means of exercise. “This makes so much sense,” she commented to Gabrielle as they used the facilities on morning. “Not like they can climb trees or run for long distances.”

Gabrielle looked to Ephiny who was climbing up the rock face beside her steadily. “Nope, but I tell ya, this has to be one of the hard things I’ve tried to do.”

The most ingenious thing to Gabrielle, though was the greenhouse and the deliberate management of heat and sunlight and water.

“This is… this could solve any number of famine problems,” she commented to the head grower. Gabrielle had seen famine and the devastating results firsthand.

“Yeah, but we haven’t figured out how to share our knowledge and we’re still testing in the other two villages to see if it will work aboveground.”

“This would be a way for the Amazons to leave their mark on the world,” Ephiny commented. Gabrielle nodded, but didn’t say anything.

When it came time for the duo to leave, they found themselves with something of an entourage.

“I’m sorry, Gabrielle,” Ephiny muttered. “If I’d known we were gonna be taking half the tribe with us, we would have snuck out in the middle of the night or something.”

Gabrielle rolled her shoulders. “We’ll cope,” she said, hoping it was the truth and not just wishful thinking on her part. It would make for an unbearably long trek otherwise.

As it turned out, it wasn’t nearly as bad as either Gabrielle or Ephiny expected it to be. A majority of the women only wanted to accompany them a short distance before returning home. The few who were left were determined to prove their worth and mostly left Gabrielle alone except to ask for the occasional story. That was one contribution Gabrielle was always happy to make.

They reached the coastal village in good time and the women who had traveled with them went on into the native village to see about finding a mate. Gabrielle shivered with the cool, detached precision the task was performed with. Even for children, she didn’t think she could copulate with a man she didn’t at least feel affection for.

“It’s not as bad as it seems, Gabrielle. Most of the women spend a few months finding someone that at least like and feel some compatibility to. Only a few approach it from a clinical point of view.”

Gabrielle shuddered. “I guess I’ve always thought sex and love should be a part of each other. I just couldn’t….”

Ephiny placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “I understand, Gabrielle. Some Amazons feel the way you do and never have children for that reason. But it is their choice and it is our way. Always has been.”

“I know and I wish them well.”

“Well enough to preside over the fertility rites tomorrow night?”

“Yes, I will preside at yet another Amazon party,” Gabrielle replied with a laugh. “I swear I party more during my relatively brief stays with the Amazons than I have the rest of my life put together.”

Ephiny chuckled. “Gotta make sure you wanna come back.”

The rites went well and the party was a lot of fun, but increasingly Gabrielle found herself growing edgy. Even her enjoyment at being introduced to the community and visiting a new village was muted. She wasn’t sure whether to put it down to the increasing need to feed again or the constant companionship she seemed to be surrounded by.

After a couple days of watching Gabrielle’s increasing frustration, Ephiny finally took Gabrielle aside. Gabrielle wasn’t totally surprised. She and Ephiny had become good friends and she figured it was apparent even to the most non-observant among them that she was out of sorts. What stunned her completely were Ephiny’s words.

“Gabrielle, how long has it been since you fed?”

“Ex… excuse me?” Wide green eyes looked at Ephiny with a mixture of fear, relief and despair.

Ephiny took Gabrielle’s arm and led her away from the village and down toward the beach. When it was obvious they were alone, Ephiny cleared her throat to speak.

“Let me tell you a story. Many years ago, there was a young Amazon Queen named Gabrielle whose chose her friend Ephiny to be her regent. Ephiny was very fond of the Queen and occasionally wrote about Gabrielle in the private journals she kept.”

“As time passed, Ephiny noticed subtle differences in both her Queen and the Queen’s unofficial consort, Xena. Nothing definite that she could put her finger on, but something changed between them, long after Ephiny knew they were lovers.”

“It was sometime after the…” she paused and chose her words carefully, “village incident. I don’t know how long afterwards though. It was the first time you had returned to the village since Xena had dragged you from the Nation and there were still some very hard feelings towards the warrior. It was after Xena had thanked Ephiny for the actions she had taken to protect her Queen and apologized for her own that Ephiny literally stumbled on their secret.”

“She had gone into the woods to get away and think, knowing that any punishment meted out to Xena was her responsibility alone. She went straight to her thinking tree, muttering and cursing as she struggled to climb up with a still weak arm. Finally, though, she was up and getting to her favorite spot didn’t take a lot more effort.”

“Ephiny sat unmoving for quite some time, letting her mind still and reviewing all the facts as she knew them. She was shocked when without warning Xena and Gabrielle stopped beneath her and began making love almost frantically. She opened her mouth to announce her presence when she saw Gabrielle open her mouth and sink fangs into Xena’s neck, drawing an unexpected response from both warrior and bard.”

“It didn’t last long and Xena returned the favor before their lovemaking became tender. Ephiny recognized the moment she was spotted by Xena’s senses and turned away to give her friends some privacy. They dressed one another slowly when it was over and headed back to the village. Xena pinned Ephiny with a stare and accepted the solemn nod as her agreement to remain silent. Ephiny stayed in the tree most of the night trying to understand just what she had seen.”

“She never mentioned it to anyone. But she did always wonder what had happened.”

Gabrielle sat very still, arms wrapped around her body as though for protection.

“I’m sorry I upset you Gabrielle,” Ephiny said softly. “I only asked out of concern and a little bit of confusion.”

“Did everyone in your family know?” Gabrielle asked hoarsely. “Has this been a secret passed from mother to daughter for thirteen hundred years?”

“No, Gabrielle. Not at all. At least if anyone else knew, no one ever talked about it. I discovered the journals by accident.” Gabrielle’s skeptical expression made her hurry on. “When we left Greece, everyone was allowed to bring a small box of their possessions.” Gabrielle nodded, remembering far too well the anguish that had caused some.

“My ancestors brought a chest that Ephiny had made herself, full of intricate designs and delicate carvings. At first, it was used because it was all we had and then it was put away as the only reminder we had of our old homeland and the things left behind there.”

“My mother died when I was thirteen, but I was in warrior training and considered an adult. So I was allowed to keep my home.” Ephiny drew a breath. “The night that we graduated from basic warrior training we were able to spend the night at home. It was the first time I had been there alone and it was a little scary.” She chuckled self-consciously.

“I spent a lot of time just wandering around the empty hut until the chest caught my eye. For a long time I just studied it, wondering. Finally, I saw a pattern in the grain and I realized it was a puzzle. It took me nearly two months before I figured out the secret, but when I did, I found the hidden crevice the journal was in. It was… I thought it was the greatest thing that would ever happen to me.”

She smiled at Gabrielle. “And for the longest time, it was. I was the keeper of an undiscovered bit of Amazon history… my own little secret. Then I met you.”

Ephiny looked at the still figure whose tense back was facing her. “Gabrielle, will you explain something to me?”

For the longest time there was nothing but silence and Ephiny had about given up hope of an answer when a whispered voice was heard in the stillness. “If I can.”

“You’re not a regular bacchae. You eat and sleep like anyone else, you go out in the sunshine and you seem to be able to control the need to feed.” Ephiny hesitated, wondering how to voice her question, but Gabrielle understood.

“I am not a full bacchae and I have a goddess that looks out for me.” She paused. “I drank the first time Bacchaus offered the chalice and that gave me the immortality and the blood need. Xena stopped me before I could drink the second time and complete the ritual.”

“I eat because I enjoy it and occasionally, I am even hungry, though that usually only happens after great exertion or stress. I sleep because it helps pass the time and reminds me that I was completely human once upon a time. Of course, sometimes I actually get tired enough to sleep, but not often.”

Her voice, already quiet, dropped to a whisper. “The blood need isn’t something I can control… I still have to feed as long as Xena and I are apart. Aphrodite just gave me a talisman that makes it more manageable for me; I don’t have to feed very often.”

Ephiny walked up to Gabrielle then, close enough to touch but still separate from her. “Thank you,” she said softly. “I appreciate your trust.” She drew a deep breath. “Now go. I’ll tell the Amazons you needed a bit of peace.”

Ephiny started to move away when she was stopped by Gabrielle’s voice. “Thank you for understanding.”

Ephiny chuckled. “There is still so much I don’t understand, but I do understand that I’m your friend and friends stick together.”

Gabrielle smiled through tears the younger woman couldn’t see. “They sure do, Eph. They sure do.”

They became more comfortable with one another after that and their time in the coastal village was marked with a lot of laughter. The tribe was very sorry to see them go.

“My Queen, your boat is stocked and ready for travel.”

“Thank you, Kima. Are you sure this won’t create a hardship for your village? It’s not like I am coming back anytime soon. Several years at the very least,” Gabrielle commented to the regent as they walked towards the docks.

“Gabrielle, the boat is one we confiscated from raiders who tried to overrun us. We refitted it to make it a more comfortable pleasure vessel on occasions we get the opportunity to use it. As for the crew… every woman here understands it may be a while before they get to come home. You were very forthcoming about that. We still had to have a tournament to determine who got to go with you.” Kima chuckled softly at the embarrassed consternation so apparent on Gabrielle’s face.

“I’m sorry, my Queen. I don’t think you really understand the effect you have on people… especially Amazons.” They stopped at the bottom of the gangplank. “Safe journey to you, Gabrielle. May you soon find the one your heart most desires.”

Without giving the Queen an opportunity to respond, the Regent turned and walked back to the end of the dock where most of the village had gathered. A commotion from the back of the group caused them to part and Ephiny pushed her way through.

“Apologies, my Queen.”

Gabrielle held up a hand to forestall her words. “Glad you could join us. Now let’s get started. If I understood correctly, this journey is gonna take us several months.”

Ephiny groaned silently, then jogged up the gangplank, stopping short when she noticed their captain.

“Elizabeth?”

“Hello, Ephiny,” the low voice rumbled. “I thought it was time I was honest about my feelings for you,” were the words she spoke, but Ephiny clearly read the intent in the dark eyes facing her. Suddenly, several months at sea together didn’t seem a bad prospect.

They had been at sea ten days when the call of “Land Ho!” echoed down from the crow’s nest. Since it was completely unexpected, most of the women on the ship ran topside to see. Sure enough, there was a small bit of land visible and with a nod from Gabrielle, the navigator made for it.

The land was beautiful, green and lush in a way Gabrielle had not seen in years. The beach was black sand, fine and smooth as silk and Gabrielle wondered for a long moment if she really needed to see the world Cecrops had told her of. This one was simply astounding.

Then she decided they had time to do a little exploring. Hopefully, their enjoyment of this place would not cause her to lose her entire crew.

Days and weeks turned to months before Gabrielle decided she needed to press on to the other world she sought. Their explorations had shown them mountains and valleys, green hills and snow covered peaks. The lakes were clear and the volcanoes… well, they would have been just as happy without them. But then again, as the saying goes, too much of a good thing can be boring. A little bad now and then in your life makes things so much more interesting.

As it was, about a third of the crew decided to remain behind, including Ephiny and Elizabeth. Gabrielle wasn’t surprised, though she would miss Ephiny greatly. She was flattered to be asked to marry them before the ship left for open water.

When the ceremony was over, Ephiny found a private moment to say goodbye.

She gave Gabrielle a strong hug, which the Queen returned in full measure. “I’m gonna miss you, ya know. Traveling with you was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life and I’ll never forget it… or you.”

“I’ll miss you too,” Gabrielle said quietly. “I can’t tell you how nice it was for me to have your company for just a little while. Be happy, my friend. And love one another long and well.”

Elizabeth stepped up beside Ephiny then and extended a hand towards Gabrielle, who accepted it with a firm squeeze.

“Thank you, my Queen. You brought me to my future and I will always be in your debt for that.”

“I’m glad I didn’t interfere with that.”

“No, that was my own stubborn foolishness. I’m glad Ephiny has you for a friend.”

Now Gabrielle gave a genuine smile. “So am I. And I hope I can count you in that number?” tentatively.

“I would be honored, my… Gabrielle.”

“Thank you, Elizabeth. Now I’m sure the two of you have better places to be than here talking to me.” She made shooing motions with her hands. “Go on, now.”

The two of them were out bright and early the following morning with the rest who were remaining behind to give the ship a proper send off. Then the long voyage for the New World began.

It was a long, monotonous trip, broken only by the days they would stop to swim and refresh themselves. They ran into several small islands along their route, more by accident than design, though everyone was grateful for small blessings. Those stops made the voyage much more tolerable and provided them with precious fresh water and food.

After two months at sea, Gabrielle’s boredom drove her to try something that reminded her of Xena.

She dove from the stern of the ship carrying a long rope that was looped around an iron ring attached to the very outermost piece. With a yell, she gave a directive to the captain and Marta began tacking the ship to catch the breeze. Soon the boat was racing along and Gabrielle was standing up in the water, racing along behind it.

The color in her face and the sparkle in her eyes was a welcome sight to all and they laughed with her in her joy. It would be an experience she would repeat several times before they reached the coast.

Gabrielle shuddered in remembrance. What she had found when she reached the New World was not what Cecrops had told her to expect. Though she did manage to find what he spoke of after a bit of foot travel on her part.

“Xena, I don’t know exactly where you are, but I hope with all my heart you’re in a safe place… not where we ended up on my first visit. America is a wild, beautiful country,” here Gabrielle chuckled. “A lot like you, my love.”

A knock on her door interrupted her internal dialogue. Gabrielle admitted the steward with her hot water and then closed the door behind him.

“I wonder if you have the luxury of taking a hot bath. Those were always more fun together.”

With a wistful smile, Gabrielle dropped her robe and stepped into the small tub to clean up for the day.

“Ahhhhh….”
Chapter XXVI
“Brrr,” Xena murmured softly as she shook the water from her arms and squeezed the excess from her hair before snatching up the towel and drying herself off briskly. Even being out of the wind didn’t help warm the almost frozen water she was bathing in and she glanced down at herself wryly, double checking to be sure her fingers and toes were still attached.

The weather had turned violent somewhat unexpectedly, since Xena was still learning the signs and patterns of a land still pretty new to her experience. She knew enough, though to gather wood and find a dry cave to hole up in until the worst was over.

Besides being dry, the cave had provided her with a new bearskin coat and enough bear meat to sustain her entire journey east, as well as a feeding that should last a while. It had also made the bath a necessity.

“Oh Gabrielle,” she muttered as she returned to the welcome warmth of the cave. “What I wouldn’t give for a hot bath with you right about now.” Then she added a bit more wood to the blaze and set out to cure both the meat and the hide. If her weather senses interpreted the indications correctly, she was going to need the coat for a while.

The scroll had been somewhat vague in its clues, but it told enough to send her traveling to the northeast. She had to find the trees it was made from and from there she would find the staff. Keto had told her to look for the blue trees and a few well-placed questions had put her on the path she now walked.

She questioned the wisdom of being out in the weather, but knew her heart wouldn’t allow her to let up, even if her head knew better. For now, the weather dictated her actions and it decided she was staying put.

With the hide stretched out and the meat slowly curing over several small fires, Xena found herself at a loss. Her supplies were few and those not currently in used had already been well tended to. That left Xena with more time to think than she was comfortable with, knowing her thoughts would turned to Gabrielle and what she had lost.

So she rose from the bedroll and began going through a series of motions – arts she had learned in the eastern lands that allowed for both offensive and defensive movements designed to maim or kill without the use of any weapon.

Round and round she went doing forms slowly and precisely, then brought the movements together faster and faster til they flowed like a waterfall… fast, beautiful and deadly.

Finally, dripping sweat and exhausted, Xena fell on her back into her bedroll. She lay there for a moment, breathing heavily, before adding more green wood to the smoke fire and banking her cooking one.

Just before she closed her eyes in sleep, Xena’s mind turned to the warmth she’d long ago come to associate with Gabrielle. A smile crossed her lips.

The next several days were spent in much the same routine, much to Xena’s dismay. Sleep hadn’t been a friend to her in a very long time and now she found she had to work harder than ever to be able to do so.

On the one hand it was nice. She hadn’t been in such great shape since before Solon was conceived. She felt as though years had simply dropped from her body like they’d never happened.

On the other hand, however, Xena was bored. It wasn’t like Gabrielle was around to appreciate the hard work and there was no one else Xena wanted or needed to impress. Besides, repetition of this kind made her a little stir crazy. It was one thing to repeat an exercise to learn a new move or build up certain muscles. It was something entirely different to be forced by circumstance to do the same thing over and over and over again.

After four days, the storm abated and Xena stepped out into… bare prairie. The wind had blown so hard that it had swept the snow clean away in its fury. Xena was amazed. In her experience, snow tended to fall and stick to whatever it hit and stay there until the spring thaw.

The sight of sunshine made her smile and she hurriedly packed up her small camp, doused her fires and began her northwest trek again, thankful beyond words for the bearskin coat. It might have looked warm with the sun shining, but the temperature was frigid and the wind pierced everything around it with a bone-chilling numbness.

Winter seemed to last forever and the fact that she was slowly and steadily moving north did not change Xena’s perception. Finally though, winter gave way to the inevitable and spring. And spring found Xena in the mountains.

Months passed as Xena walk up and down every hill and valley, growing more frustrated every day. She figured it was a good lesson in patience; she just wasn’t sure she had the patience to learn it.

“A tree is a tree is a tree,” she muttered to herself. “How am I supposed to find a staff in the middle of a forest? Better yet, how do I know if I have the right forest?”

Xena rubbed her hand on the back of her neck, feeling the stress of almost a year of fruitless searching. A look at the sky showed the approach of the first winter storms and she decided to find a place to wait for spring.

Spring came again and Xena was even more determined to find the staff. She’d spent a majority of the winter studying everything she could to try to best ascertain where she would find it. She packed her bags and headed northeast once more.

Without warning, an odd little man stepped in front of Xena and instinctually she reached for a sword that was no longer there. She stopped, realizing her mistake almost immediately and giving the man a second look. Her jaw nearly dropped in recognition.

“Joxer?” she whispered.

The man cocked his head, the pot that he wore as a hat slipping to one side before he reached up a hand to stop its motion. He resettled it, then extended a hand towards her.

“Name’s John Chapman, but folks ’round here all call me Johnny Appleseed. You like an apple?”

“Not from you, buddy,” Xena muttered. “You don’t know the power of an apple seed.”

He looked a bit startled at her answer, but swallowed and bravely continued on. “Oh, but I do. I’ve made it my job to spread them all over the country,” he said, not understanding the strange look Xena was giving him. “Please, take one,” trying to press an apple into her hands.

“No, thanks,” she answered adamantly. “I don’t share that kind of thing with anyone but Gabrielle.”

He held up his hands. “All right. If you change your mind, I’m planting orchards all over. You’re welcome to help yourself.”

“Thanks,” Xena said as she moved away from him.

“Hey,” he called just before she was out of sight. “What’s your name?”

“They call me Xena.”

He opened his mouth to speak again, then shrugged his shoulders. She was nowhere to be seen. He turned his steps westward again and walked away… whistling.

The city was crowded, noisy and full of sights she’d never imagined to see in her lifetime. And the smell… it was indescribable. It reminded her… Xena’s lips twitched in memory. It reminded her of the first time she’d decided to cook for Gabrielle. She’d never known hot cooking oil would burn like Greek fire and smell even worse.

Then she smiled, remembering how Gabrielle had pitched right in to not only clean the mess, but had the grace not to tease her about it afterwards. And the night itself had been… wonderful. A beautiful memory she still treasured.

Xena sighed, wanting more than memories and she turned unwavering footsteps to find the answers she sought.

The first place she tried was an inn and they refused to let her inside, citing a policy against allowing “Injuns” in the door. The second mocked her clothes, stating that no respectable woman would be seen dressed as a man. She considered starting a fight, but remembered Keto’s final words of caution.

“White men different from us, Zee-nah. Look for reason to do harm to those not them. Some good, but hard to tell who.”

She agreed, but she felt that way about most people. It was impossible to tell good or bad by appearance alone.

Xena thought for a while, then decided to find a lawman. That might give her a start on finding Hercules.

“Hey!”

The two men at the desk turned to face her, then raised an eyebrow at her appearance. The older one beckoned her forward, though and she closed the door behind her as she stepped into the room.

“Can I help you… uh, ma’am?” the older man asked. It was clear she was a woman, but he’d never seen one dressed so.

“I hope so. I’m looking for somebody.”

Silence.

The younger man spoke up. “This someone got a name?”

Xena shrugged. “I’m sure he does, but he didn’t give it to me.”

The two men exchanged glances. “Okay, so whaddya want from us?” said the older man. Obviously he was in charge and Xena felt it equally obvious that neither of them had any intention of helping her.

“Look, just forget it, all right? I’ll find him on my own.”

“Now, hold on, little lady. Hold on.” He saw her eyes narrow and stepped back instinctively. “I’m sorry, Miss… Miss…. What’s your name, anyway?”

“You can call me Xena. Just Xena. And I’m no lady.”

“I’m sorry Mi….” He hesitated at the glare. “I’m sorry, Xena. We didn’t mean to make you think we wouldn’t help. It’s just usually when we’re looking for someone, we at least know *who* the someone is.”

“Well, he’s my height, a little taller… blue eyes, light brown hair, muscular,” gesturing to the width of her shoulders. “Kind of reminds you of a hero from legend.”

“Hey, boss, that sounds like….”

“Yeah.” The older man turned back to who was looking at him with a raised brow. “Oh ‘scuse us again, Mi… Xena. A fella who mostly fits your description is actually a fellow lawman. He’s the Marshall in these parts.”

Xena nodded, though she really didn’t understand what a Marshall was. She still didn’t know exactly who these two were or what their titles were. She only knew the kind woman at the mission had pointed her in this direction when she’d asked for a lawman. She tended to dismiss the rest of the woman’s diatribe.

“Can you tell me where to find him?”

“Well, he’s out of town on business, but he should be back directly… a week at the outside.”

Xena’s eyes widened. She didn’t want to be in the odd town a week. It was loud and it stank and the people… well, she’d about reached the end of her rope with rude and obnoxious. And there was no bloody way she was going to put on those ridiculous costumes she saw the women here wearing. There was no sense and little practical purpose to them. They reminded her vaguely of the outfit Gabrielle had worn the first time they’d met.

“Tell ya what,” the older man said, seeing the uncomfortable look in her eyes. “My name’s Jake and this here’s Billy.” They exchanged head nods. “Miss Lucille owns the boarding house where we both live. Why don’t one of us take ya over and you can stay there and wait for Hank?”

Xena studied them both for long moments. So many times she’d trusted, only to have it come back and bite her badly. But she was at a loss to find Hercules and this was the best chance she’d had in the months since she’d started her quest. What was one more week?

“All right,” she finally drawled, realizing that she could easily take both of them if they were lying to her, but hoping that, for a change, someone was being honest with her right up front.

Jake nodded and snatched his hat from the rack. “I’ll be back in a minute, Billy,” stopping the younger man’s protest with a look before it could be voiced. “I’ll ask Miss Lucille ’bout some of her special muffins for ya, all right?”

Billy grinned and nodded. Unlike Jake, he always felt a little shy around Miss Lucille, though she’d never been anything but nice to him.

Jake reached for Xena’s elbow, then stopped when he heard a growl emanate from deep in her chest. Instead, he opened the door and gestured her to go in front of him. She rolled her eyes and stepped back out into the dirty, smelly, crowded outdoors.

There were times and this was one of them, when adding the heightened awareness of her bacchae senses to the already very aware warrior senses pushed her to overload. It made her wish for way to turn them off.

Jake led them down the road until Xena realized they were moving to the outskirts of town. She kept a careful eye on where they were going. She wanted to be able to get back to town if things didn’t work out.

Xena was able to breathe a little better here and Jake smile slightly to see her relax. He placed a friendly hand on her arm, removing it when she flinched. “Don’t worry, Xena. Miss Lucille will take good care of you.”

Miss Lucille reminded Xena a lot of her mother Cyrene. And since Xena would not tolerate charity, she spent her days doing chores around the place to earn her keep while she waited for the mysterious Hank.

Four days after her introduction to Miss Lucille’s boarding house, a large roan horse ambled up the path. Lucille came out onto the front porch, smiling when she caught sight of the big man climbing down from the horse’s back.

“Howdy there, Hank!”

“Hey, Miss Lucille! How is everything?”

“Good, good! Got somebody here been waiting for ya. Did Jake tell ya?”

“Nope, I came straight here first. I need a bath. It’s been a long road.”

“You want me to send ’em up after you get done?”

“Yeah. I won’t be too long, but I gotta get rid of the trail dust. It’s making me itch.”

Lucille laughed. “Git along with you then. I got water heating for the wash… I’ll give you that and heat more for the laundry.” She held up a hand before he could speak. “Tell me a hot bath don’t sound real good to you ’bout now.”

“No fair, Miss Lucille. I’m trying to be selfless.”

“Why? I made the offer. Oughtta enjoy it while you can.”

Hank chuckled. “All right, Miss Lucille. All right. Thank you. I’ll take the water up when I go.”

“Thanks, Hank.”

He waved a hand to her as he entered the house. The door slammed behind him and Lucille stood on the porch listening to both indoor and outdoor sounds. She nearly jumped from her skin when Xena came around the corner noiselessly.

“Land sakes, child. How do you do that? I’ve never known anyone to be so silent in my entire life.”

Xena smirked to herself, but merely shrugged her shoulders at Lucille. She’d given up trying to get the middle-aged redhead from calling her child. Not like she’ll understand I’m nearly two thousand years old.

Lucille shook her head. “Look, Hank’s home and he needed the hot water I had on for the laundry for his bath. You wanna fetch me a couple more buckets of well water?”

“Sure,” Xena answered, glad for the chore to fill her time til Hank got done. She was ready for this part of her quest to be over. She smiled to herself. And if she was very lucky, it would be nice to see an old friend as well.

Lucille watched Xena for a moment before she returned to her kitchen. She’d have to fix a substantially larger dinner than she’d been planning. But she was glad to have Hank back. She was more than a little curious as to why Xena was searching for him.

“Never met a more closed-mouthed woman than she is,” Lucille muttered to herself, before pulling out her big skillet.

Xena brought the two buckets of water into the kitchen and set them by the stove since the pot Lucille had put on there that morning for laundry wasn’t there. Then she went back to the barn to curry the horses and let them out to pasture.

Hank hurried with his bath, though he surely did enjoy his hot water. He was curious about the person waiting to speak to him. Funny Miss Lucille didn’t mention a name. Don’t even rightly know if it’s a man or a woman, though he figured it to be a man. Given his line of work, it was the most logical conclusion.

Besides all that, he needed to get into town to check with Jake and Billy. The rustlers he’d captured were part of a bigger group he suspected and he wanted to see if they’d heard anything new.

So Hank rushed through his bath, though he made sure to scrub every bit of dirt and trail dust from his skin. He sighed. He missed the plumbing he had once known and looked forward to the time when mankind caught up to where progress had been many civilizations ago.

Sometimes being an immortal among mortals just sucked wind.

The dinner bell rang just as that thought crossed his mind and he climbed from the tub and dried off. He pinned on his badge when he finished dressing, knowing he would need to spend the afternoon in town catching up on work.

He walked into the dining room, noticing right away the long, dark hair and broad shoulders. It reminded him…. And then the figure turned around and he was met by familiar blue eyes. It was only his god’s blood that kept him on his feet.

“Hello, Hercules,” said in a low voice she knew only he would hear.

“Hank! HANK!” Lucille waited until his eyes tracked to hers. “You all right? You look like you’ve done seen a ghost.”

“I’m fine, Miss Lucille. Just never expected to see Xena again.” Certainly not in this time and place. How…? He reached out to take her hands, pulling Xena from her chair and wrapping his arms gingerly around her body lest she disappear like a dream. She returned the hug fully and he smiled.

“It’s been too long, my friend,” he said when they separated. “I can’t tell you how amazing it is to see you again.”

“Her… Hank,” Xena answered with a smile, though Hercules could see so many other things in her eyes. He raised his eyebrow in question and she nodded ever so slightly. Herc blew out a breath. He couldn’t wait to hear this story.

Lucille beamed. “Well, now. Ain’t this nice? She’s been waiting to see ya, Hank. I’m glad you’re the one she was looking for. Now let me get dinner on the table. I’m sure ya both have lots to catch up on.”

She direly wanted to stay around and listen, but she knew Xena wouldn’t speak if folks were hanging round. Even after only four days Lucille had learned that much about her mysterious boarder.

Hercules waited until he knew Lucille had left them alone before asking in a sibilant whisper, “What…? How? Why? When?”

Xena held up a hand to stem the flood tide of questions her was sending her direction. “Later. Suffice it to say that I’m trying to get home… to my time and to Gabrielle.”

Now both eyebrows went up and Hercules was becoming more intrigued by the minute. At that moment, however, Lucille came back out of the kitchen and set two bowls full of vegetables in front of them, then swept back out of sight to retrieve the meat platter.

“We’ll talk?” he asked.

“Yes,” was the only answer she gave before Lucille was seating herself and the topic of conversation became more general.

“Miss Lucille, if Jake or Billy come looking for me, tell them we’ll talk business tomorrow. I’ve got some personal stuff to take care of this afternoon.”

Lucille looked between him and Xena and nodded. She wasn’t sure if she was jealous or not. It was obvious the two had a history between them, but if she was reading her signals right, they were nothing more than good friends.

“They don’t know you’re back yet, Hank, so they shouldn’t be asking any questions til they get back from town.”

“Well, Marty and Ruford took the prisoners into custody, so they know I’m here. They just can’t drop everything to come out here.” He grinned and Lucille laughed.

“You two go on. I’ll hold down the fort if they git back ‘fore you do.”

“Thanks, Miss Lucille.” Hercules turned to Xena. “Walk or ride?”

“I don’t have a horse.”

Herc smiled. “I think we can fix that problem if you wanna ride.”

The sparkle in her eyes was answer enough and in a very few minutes, the two were galloping across open field. They slowed as they reached the small creek near the back property line and dismounted easily. They let the horses free to graze and they walked to the bank of the trickling water.

Hercules sat against a tree trunk, watching the woman he’d known so many lifetimes ago. A lot had changed since he’d seen her last, but so much more had stayed the same. He waited patiently, knowing eventually, she’d be ready to talk to him. It didn’t take nearly as long as he expected it to.

“How much of my story do you know?” she asked softly, never turning from her contemplation of the water.

He shrugged. “Not nearly enough,” he responded, “given my shock at seeing you here.” He paused. “I know what happened in Japan.”

She laughed derisively. “No comments? No mention of how stupid I was? How selfish?”

“What would you like me to say that you haven’t already told yourself a thousand times?” he countered as he stood up.

She clenched her fists and waited, needing him to say it out loud.

“All right….” he relented. “You made the wrong choice, the wrong decision and it was for nothing! Gabrielle was left to suffer alone! Is that what you wanted me to say??”

Even knowing it for the truth, hearing it come from his lips made Xena’s shoulders slump. “Is that what you really believe?” in a bare whisper.

“It’s what I know. I saw what happened there… how you were manipulated. How you let yourself be manipulated so you could ignore the truth in your heart and then justify it to yourself.” Hercules drew a deep breath. There was no point in railing at her for things long past. He was sure she indulged in enough self-castigation as it was.

He walked up behind her, close but not touching. “It doesn’t matter now. It’s in the past and you can’t change it. All you can do is hope to make the life you have now better.”

“No! NO!” she said again, fiercely. “I have a way to go home… home to my time, to Gabrielle. And by the gods, I’m going to get there!”

He looked at her and the conviction in her voice and the fire in her eyes made him believe she really could. “All right,” he said slowly. “Is there a way I can help?”

Xena nodded and turned away from him again. Then slowly, she poured her story out to him… starting with the surprise of finding herself naked in an unknown land, glossing over her bacchae tendencies and immortality and finishing with the scroll and its totems that she was now on a quest to find.

“So you think finding all the totems will give you a way to go home… back to our time?”

“Yes. Keto has assured me the results are mine to choose if the ritual is done right. And that’s what I want.” She closed her eyes. “I need to go home to Gabrielle.”

“Why?”

The single word fell into silence and Xena froze with the chill it sent skittering over her skin. She waited, mouth open, trying to come up with a response that wouldn’t sound selfish and found to her dismay she couldn’t. When Hercules realized she had no ready answer, he pushed a little harder.

“Why would you put her through all the turmoil she has already suffered at your gruesome death again?”

“You’ve seen her? She’s still alive?”

He hated to dash the hope he could see in those blue orbs, but he’d promised Aphrodite to keep Gabrielle’s secret.

“Xena, I saw her in the scrying bowl not long after your death. She was devastated.” Truth. “I haven’t seen her since.” Also truth, as far as it went. Dite kept him informed of things, though. They had an arrangement.

“You couldn’t at least go check on her?” furious now at his neglect of Gabrielle.

“For a while there, we couldn’t even find her. And once we did, Dite asked me not to seek her out.”

“So you just let her be alone??”

“No, Xena. YOU did that.” And even though they were true, Xena felt the words slash her heart and soul to ribbons and she sucked in a breath at the pain of it.

“You’re a real bastard, Hercules,” she managed to whisper through clenched lips. “I don’t know why I thought you’d bother to help me.” She stalked away from the creek, headed back towards the boarding house at a ground eating pace.

Hercules sighed and shook his head. That hadn’t gone well, he thought sourly. Then he whistled for his horse, mounting his and gathering up the reins for Xena’s. It didn’t take him long to catch up to her.

“Leave. Me. Alone.” The words were hissed at him very distinctly and he felt his nape hair rise as it hadn’t in nearly two thousand years. He deliberately moved his horse in front of her and jumped down mere inches from her face. Plenty close enough for her to take a swing.

Which she did. Hercules was the only person who not only knew and understood what she was feeling, but was honest enough to push her on it and strong enough to handle her reaction.

She swung at him repeatedly and he let her, only protecting his face from the onslaught. She didn’t say a word or shed a tear, but finally she dropped to the ground exhausted.

“Feel better?” as he fell down beside her, wincing at the bruise he could feel forming on his ribs. “Ready to listen to me now?”

Xena didn’t answer, but she didn’t move either.

He cupped his fingers under her chin and raised her eyes to meet his. The pain and turmoil swirling in their midst made him catch his breath and he swallowed hard, remembering the desolation he’d felt when he’d lost Deianeira and the children and again when Serena had been killed. And knowing through Aphrodite what Xena and Gabrielle had shared….

“Xena, I have the staff. I can’t tell you how surprised I was to find it in my possession again. I’ll give it to you, but you have to promise me something first.”

She nodded, her eyes never leaving his face.

“I want you to promise me that if the ritual works, if it gives you what you ask for… you have to promise me not to waste the chance you get.” He held her face still when she would have nodded her agreement. “Whatever it takes, Xena. You make Gabrielle your greater good from now on and let the future take care of itself.”

“But….” Confusion as those words fell from his lips. He moved his finger up to cover hers and she trailed off. Then he sat back on his haunches and looked up towards the late afternoon sky.

“Let me explain something to you, Xena… something I know from experience. Eternity is a very long time to have to live with regrets. To regret not being there when you should have, or as often as you wanted to. To regret putting things in front of those you cared the most for instead of putting them first. To be alone….” He broke off unwilling or unable to finish his thought. It didn’t matter though. Xena knew just what he meant.

“So you have to promise me, if I help you on your first step back to Gabrielle, that you will put your responsibility to her first from now on. You’re an immortal now, Xena. Do you really want to live with eternal regrets?”

He waited in silence for a very long time, just watching the sun slowly slip beneath the horizon. Twilight was upon them before Xena spoke.

“I promise.”

Hercules took a few days off and he and Xena spent it renewing their friendship and reminiscing about times long gone. The night before Xena was ready to leave, they sat out on Lucille’s front porch with the scroll on a small table between them.

“I’m telling you, Xena. This clue is sending you into Mexico… somewhere near the ancient civilization ruins.”

“He… Hank, why would there be an Amazon mask in the Aztec ruins?”

“I don’t know, but that’s were you’ll find it.” He paused. “Do you want me to come with you?”

Xena hesitated, then shook her head no. “You have a life here and this is my quest.”

He nodded, accepting her answer because he’d known what it would be. But he felt better having offered.

“Maybe I’ll see you again then?”

“Maybe,” Xena said. “But I won’t forget,” she added in a whisper.

“Good. I’d hate to have to hunt you down and remind you again.”

They chuckled together easily like the old friends they were. Then Hercules turned serious once more.

“Be careful, my friend. The Aztecs were dangerous when they were a thriving civilization.”

Xena gave him a feral smile. “I’m still dangerous. I’ll find that mask and it will lead me to Gabrielle.” She turned to the stars and whispered fiercely. “You hear me, Gabrielle? I’m gonna find you.”
Chapter XXVII
Oh, Xena… I wish I could find you now. Or you could find me. Several of my Amazon crew died and the new mask Ephiny made for me is gone. This is one nightmare experience that will always haunt me.

Gabrielle looked up from her diary, remembering still all too clearly the incident involving the Aztecs had been one of the most gruesome she had lived through.

After almost three full months at sea, they had finally reached land and they were all very happy to see it. The scouts went first, though Gabrielle insisted that as an immortal, she was the better choice. The Amazons insisted and Gabrielle had good-naturedly let them override her, knowing it was a matter of honor for them. It was a decision she came to rue very rapidly.

The four women moved silently, swiftly and cautiously. They had no idea what to expect and didn’t want to be taken by surprise. Unfortunately for them, their watchers had seen them as the ship came over the horizon much earlier in the day and were laying in wait for them.

The men moved silently, just as they had been directed by their priest. He stood on a high hillock away from the shore dressed as a representative of the war god. The blue and green plumage of his mask was disconcerting and it hid him well in the lush jungle just off the beach. He watched with impassive eyes as the warriors readied themselves to capture the encroacher they would sacrifice to their god.

The Amazon dropped without a sound, though she was seen and instantly the guards formed up near her to defend her against the threat. Unfortunately for them, they were ill prepared for the darts that flew from the foliage unseen until it was too late. The women were gathered up and disappeared into the jungle as the alarm went up and the rest of the crew readied themselves for rescue.

Armed to the teeth and wearing their ceremonial masks, the Amazons followed their fallen sisters. The trail wasn’t hard to see, but caution slowed them somewhat. There were already four of them in trouble; no one wanted to add to that burden.

When the reached an opening in the brush, they stopped in horror at the sight before them.

The priest, dressed in feather robes and mask stood on the far side of an altar, knife raised high in the air. Even as they watched, the knife came down into the still living chest of the man strapped to the altar before him. The man screamed in pain before the shout ended abruptly. The priest raised bloody hands high above his head, the man’s heart clenched in one of them.

Several of the Amazons turned away to be sick. The next person forced down onto the altar was an Amazon and Gabrielle felt the fury in her rise. She let it. The red wash of familiarity reminded her of her experience at the Library and then she let the blood lust take her.

The coppery scent in the air caused her fangs to protrude rapidly and she became a blur as she cut through men and women who went from chants of worship to cries of terror in the moments it took for her wrath to reach them.

Gabrielle felt her mask ripped from her face and laughed at the look of terror that met her glowing red and yellow eyes. She didn’t hesitate, but dug her claws into the man, watching dispassionately as the man sank to the ground dead.

She was fortunate, this time, in that the Amazons around her were much too busy with their own battles to notice her transformation. She reached the altar and didn’t even slow down, but simply sank her teeth into the priest’s neck and drained him dry before tossing his withered body aside. Then she turned to the altar and nearly wept.

The Amazon was still sluggishly bleeding, but it was the look of horror frozen on her face that was the most telling. Gabrielle closed her eyes, willing herself to calmness, not wanting to desecrate her Amazon sister’s death by exposing the most violent part of herself.

When she opened her eyes again, Gabrielle noticed that the sounds of fighting had faded away. The Amazons stood waiting for her orders and the natives, if any had remained alive, had simply faded back into the jungle.

Gabrielle shrugged. She had no way of knowing that they had seen her fury and had scattered in fear. She only knew that even her hyper-aware senses could find no trace of them nearby and she was satisfied with that. Her Amazon sisters deserved whatever respected in death could be afforded them and that was her primary concern… that and taking care of her wounded.

“Is everyone okay?” Several of them had minor wounds, but they understood what her question meant and they all nodded in assent. Gabrielle looked at them in satisfaction. “Tish, Lorrin… divide the sisters up. Tish, you take your half and head back to the beach to collect firewood. Lorrin, bring your group up here and let’s find a way to get our fallen to their pyres.”

The Amazons moved quickly to do Gabrielle’s bidding and in minutes they had located four dead. A few among them were wounded, but nothing that couldn’t be taken care of once the pyres were built.

It took a while, but finally they had travois built for the bodies and they began the slow journey back to the beach. With great care, each woman was lifted to her final resting place and at Gabrielle’s signal the pyres were lit. For a long while the Amazons stood in respectful silence before Gabrielle spoke again.

“Those of you who are wounded need to tend to your wounds immediately. Misha, set short guard rotations tonight. No more than two hours each. Tomorrow, I want all of you back on that boat and headed away from here.”

“What of you, my Queen? We can’t simply leave you alone here… not after this.”

“They won’t bother me, not for a while,” Gabrielle answered with a feral glint in her eyes that made each of them flinch. “Especially not after what happened here.”

“Are you, sure, Gabrielle? I mean….”

“Trust me, Tish. I haven’t lived as long as I have without knowing how to take care of myself. Besides, they can’t kill me, remember? And I’ll not have anyone else risking themselves on my behalf.” Gabrielle waited half a beat before lowering her voice and delivering the look. “Understood?”

Every Amazon nodded her agreement rapidly and Gabrielle smiled sadly. She’d enjoyed her time with these women, but she would not risk their lives for the sake of alleviating her loneliness. With a bit of luck, Aphrodite would pop around soon.

She completely forgot about her mask, until quite some time later.

Gabrielle watched the Amazon ship safely out of sight. She felt the eyes of the natives watching her and smiled grimly to herself when she felt intuitively they were going to keep their distance from her.

They followed her at a distance, but not so far away that her senses couldn’t detect them both by hearing and by scent. Gabrielle shied away from returning to the place that held so much death and destruction and by instinct, her footsteps turned northeast.

For days Gabrielle walked, enjoying the solitude and more than happy to put the memories of the recent past behind her. They brought more painful, far older memories to mind and Gabrielle had no desire to revisit them again. She was so far beyond it, her mind felt it shouldn’t hurt anymore. Her heart knew better.

“That’s because you have a totally radical heart, babe! It knows.”

Gabrielle smiled at the voice in her ear and turned to find Aphrodite standing next to her. She laid a friendly hand in concern on Dite’s arm.

“Aphrodite, are you all right?”

The goddess looked a little run down and tired to Gabrielle… something she hadn’t seen since Gabrielle had made her a mortal, once upon a scroll.

Dite nodded and shrugged lightly. “A little tired I guess. I’m not getting the power like I used to and there is still so much work for me to do….” She trailed off and shrugged again. “I’m sorry. I came here to check on you, not bitch and moan about my stuff.”

Gabrielle took Dite’s hands and drew her to sit down beside the small fire she’d built. The land she was traveling through was very hot during the day, but the temperatures became quite chilly when the sun went down. Aphrodite reached towards the fire appreciatively, Gabrielle noted in concern and she offered her friend a cup of hot tea that was gratefully accepted.

They sat in silence for awhile, taking comfort from one another’s presence and the tea they shared. Finally Dite gave in to Gabrielle’s questioning look, knowing she deserved an explanation.

She set down the cup and opened her arms wide, gesturing to Gabrielle with her head. “C’mere, cutie and give me a hug. I could use a little bard lovin’,” said jokingly, but Gabrielle easily picked up the tension behind the words.

Instead of accepting Dite’s invitation, Gabrielle opened her arms and smiled warmly. Dite didn’t hesitate, but fell right into Gabrielle’s embrace.

They sat together for the longest time while Gabrielle held Aphrodite, gently rubbing her back and murmuring nonsensical words in her ear. Aphrodite drew strength from the actions and when she sat up and drew away, Gabrielle could see a distinct difference in her.

“Wow, babe! I so cannot tell you just how totally amazing that feels. I just got more bitchin’ love vibes from you than I’ve felt from anyone in like, ages. This totally rocks.”

Gabrielle sat back, astounded by the transformation a bit of caring had given the goddess. Realization suddenly dawned.

“You’re getting weaker aren’t you… losing your powers?”

Dite’s euphoria vanished and she nodded her head sadly. “I’m not gonna, you know, fade out of existence or anything, but it’s becoming radically hard for me to like, do much. Most of the others never leave anymore. Ares and I can, but….”

“But it’s such a drain you have to pick and choose when and where you go.” Dite nodded. “And you spend most of your time between visits with me saving energy to come see me again.” Another nod, a little slower this time.

Gabrielle looked down at her fingers, then raised her eyes to Aphrodite’s with a look of profound sadness. “I’m sorry, Aphrodite. I didn’t mean to be so selfish.”

Dite’s jaw dropped open. “SELFISH?!? Where’d you get a totally bogus idea like that?”

Gabrielle started to answer when a soft touch on her lips halted any words she might have said.

“I want you to listen to me carefully, Gab. ‘kay?” Dite said seriously. Gabrielle nodded her agreement, knowing by Aphrodite’s speech and look that she was being completely serious. “I’m here because I want to be here. I need your friendship as much as you need mine and I wouldn’t trade it for all the followers in the world.”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened at that sentiment, but she remained silent. Dite caught the look.

“I know, I know… it sounds like so much tripe, but it’s really the truth. I’ve had a lot of years to think and I’ve come to understand a thing or two. Not the least of which is the importance of friendship. I’m never lonely when we’re together, Gab and I’ve rarely NOT been lonely… even at the height of my power.”

“Now, I will tell you it takes a little more effort to see you these days,” Dite reached out and caressed Gabrielle’s face gently. “But it is totally worth it to me. So unless it’s become a problem for you, I’d like to keep it up as long as I can.”

Gabrielle clasped the fingers lingering on her face. “You’re welcome any time you can make it.”

“Cool,” Dite said, reverting back to her valley girl speech patterns. “Maybe we can like, figure out a way to get your bodacious self to Olympus without Ares, you know, finding out… although… I’m not totally sure that’s such a radical idea.” She nibbled a perfect nail. “I’m not sure how….” Dite looked at Gabrielle apologetically.

“Yeah,” Gabrielle agreed. “I’m not sure how they’d feel about me being there either.” She shrugged. “We can play it by ear… maybe set up some sort of signal if it’s safe.”

“Oooh, what a fab idea! I’ll work on it. Now, ya wanna know why I’m like, here? I mean besides missing ya, I mean.” She blinked as she rethought that statement then shrugged her shoulders. She knew what she meant and so did Gabrielle.

“Sure,” Gabrielle answered with a laugh. “I’d wondered, but figured you’d get around to sharing eventually. We can always find stuff to talk about.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Dite snorted. “But this trip has a specific purpose. I found out a few things you need to know and take care of before you… are you leaving or staying here?”

Gabrielle thought about the question. “Leaving,” she finally said. “It’s gonna be a while before Xena is here and I want to get back to what passes for civilization these days for a little while. I feel like I’ve been out of touch forever.”

“Well, depending on how you like, look at things, you have. Now, we gotta get down to business. You have way lots to do before you take another long sea voyage.” Aphrodite grinned at Gabrielle’s groan.

They stretched out together, one on either side of the fire. Dite concentrated really hard and after a moment had a bedroll and blanket similar to Gabrielle’s and some thicker clothing. She shrugged at Gabrielle’s questioning look.

“I can, you know, feel the cold a little bit. This is gonna like, take a while, so I figured I might as well be, well, comfortable.”

“Good,” was all Gabrielle said, but she smiled warmly.

Aphrodite pulled her glasses out of her pocket and set them on the bridge of her nose. Then she pulled out her notes and looked them over carefully before returning her attention to Gabrielle once more.

“Now, be patient with me, Gab and I’ll try to make this make sense. I’ve been working on this for a while, so my notes are a little scattered.”

Gabrielle nodded. Dite had reverted to all business again and Gabrielle knew when Dite was serious, it was time to simply sit and listen.

“I got to surfing on the world wide god web, looking to see if I could find a few things out… namely how Xena got transported across time two thousand years without benefit of the Cronos stone. What I found was almost a paradox.”

She passed Gabrielle a sheaf of papers and Gabrielle slowly looked through them. Finally she turned verdant eyes back to Aphrodite’s.

“How did you find all this stuff… the ritual, the totems?”

“Research,” Dite groaned. “Lots and lots of research.”

Gabrielle giggles at the expression on Dite’s face.

“Yeah, you laugh. I have read more war stuff than I EVER wanted to know about looking for this. Actually, Ares put all this into place… something he’s been working on for a while.”

Gabrielle paused in her review of Aphrodite’s notes. “Waitaminute… Xena’s chakram is part of this ritual?”

“Yep. Kinda makes you wonder what he was like, thinking, but he’s been a little bit off since she, you know, disappeared too. Oh and that reminds me… he can really feel your fury. He so doesn’t understand it and he sure doesn’t know its source, but he can totally feel when you unleash the bacchae side of you like you did the other day. So be careful, huh?”

“I will.” Gabrielle sighed deeply. “I try not to let it go, but sometimes….”

Aphrodite sat up and scooted closer to Gabrielle, laying a hand on the blonde hair and stroking it tenderly.

“I know, hon. I wasn’t criticizing… just giving you a heads-up.”

“Thanks, Aphrodite. I appreciate it.” She sighed as the long fingers continued to gently massage her scalp. “I get so tired sometimes,” she mumbled before her breathing deepened in sleep. Dite caught the tear sliding down her own face.

“I know you do, Sweet Pea.”

It was the sun in her eyes that woke Gabrielle and she looked across the banked campfire to find Aphrodite laying on her bedroll sound asleep. Gabrielle sat up with a yawn and stretched, her almost silent efforts still waking the love goddess from her repose.

“Good morning,” Dite whispered. Gabrielle whipped her head around.

“Sorry,” she murmured. “I thought I was being quiet.” She cleared her throat. “Good morning, by the way.”

Aphrodite struggled to sit up, moaning as a night in the rough caught up with her immortal body. “Gods, Gab! How do you stand this? Ugh… When did the ground get so hard?”

Gabrielle chuckled. “Aphrodite, the ground has ALWAYS been hard. You just never stick around long enough to find out.”

Dite groaned as she stretched, feeling all kinds of popping along her spine. “Ew! That is so grody. Ick! Remind me to order the majorly deluxe outdoor package next time.”

Gabrielle laughed. “I’m gonna go clean up,” motioning towards the river she’d been following north. She grabbed her towel and soap and slipped through the brush.

Aphrodite considered following her, then decided against it. Nothing was worth risking the friendship she had with Gabrielle, though the temptation was greater than she expected it to be after fifteen hundred years. Then she rolled her eyes at herself.

“C’mon, love goddess. You better than anybody know how eternal some things really are.” Then she got up and walked around, hoping to work out some of the kinks she could still feel in a body that had lived a hundred lifetimes.

She endeavored to start a fire the old fashioned way, then realized it was more futile than fruitful. Besides, with the surge of true affection that Gabrielle held for her, Aphrodite felt renewed, better than she had in more than a century. So she snapped her fingers, giving a satisfied sigh when a small blaze popped up.

“That’s cheating, you know,” Gabrielle commented as she came back in the clearing towel drying her hair. “Most of us can’t make fire at the snap of a finger.”

Aphrodite looked Gabrielle up and down closely before giving her a sensual grin. “Oh, I dunno, babe… I’m betting you don’t have any problems lighting all kinds of fires with just a touch.”

Even after fifteen hundred years exposure to flirting with the goddess of love, Gabrielle still managed an enviable blush. Of course, she’d also learned to give as good as she got.

“Startin’ ’em’s easily, Dite… it’s putting ’em out that takes the most… care and effort.”

Gabrielle cast Aphrodite a sultry look over her shoulder, causing Aphrodite to fan herself furiously. “Ooh, Sweet Cheeks. You sure do know how to totally turn a girl’s head. No wonder you wrapped up that radical warrior babe of yours so tight.”

“Yeah and I’m liable to hog tie her to the bed for a while when I finally catch up with her too,” Gabrielle muttered sotto voce, but Aphrodite managed to hear every single word.

“Whoo, girlfriend! Don’t go making promises you don’t intend to keep!” Dite said in a soft voice.

Gabrielle’s head whipped around from where she was heating water for tea. “Excuse me?!?”

“Hmm?” Aphrodite asked with an innocent batting of eyelashes. “Oh, sorry. I was just thinking how forward you must be looking to your reunion with Xena.”

Gabrielle looked hard at Aphrodite, but the love goddess returned the look benignly. The bard didn’t buy the innocence for a second, but Dite didn’t look away and finally Gabrielle turned back to preparing the tea. Dite just cheered silently, looking forward to that experience with relish.

Gabrielle found it odd that Aphrodite wanted to accompany her for a while, but she accepted her company with grace and good humor. In truth, she was glad to have Dite along. It meant someone else the natives could look at funny because of the odd colored hair and strange colored eyes. The few she’d met, aside from the very first, of course, were very polite and kind, but they were also very curious. Curiosity she could handle… it was the touching that went along with it that made her uncomfortable.

She thought about that and figured it was because there was no intimacy in her life. It made every touch feel invasive. So she welcomed Dite’s presence of only so there would be a place to direct their interest.

Dite on the other hand was glad to be along not only for Gabrielle’s sake, but also to insure that the scroll she had carefully copied out into a story like she’d heard her friend deliver time and again would be where it needed to be when the time came for it to be found.

They traveled slowly, following the river and finding that they had many things to talk about. Gabrielle knew that Dite’s flighty personality covered a vast intelligence and the discussions they had between them in their travels only reinforced that belief.

“But why?” Gabrielle finally asked her. “Why let everyone underestimate you?”

Dite shrugged. “It wasn’t, you know, intentional. It just sorta like, happened. It made things easier for me though… no one expected anything from me and I was able to get my love gig done without a lot of interference from anyone. It was kinda nice.”

“You didn’t mind everyone thinking you were….”

“Flighty, ditzy, a dumb blonde?” Dite shrugged. “I dunno… I mean… yeah, sometimes. But it just got easier to let it go than to fight it. And everybody left me alone to do my thing. I totally hate the whole politics thing, ya know? It just so wasn’t worth it to me.”

“What about now?” Gabrielle asked.

“Now?” Dite chuckled mirthlessly. “Now, they still totally leave me alone… because I am about the most rockin’ goddess among them. And I stay way busier than they do. Their little schemes are just so much radical horse puckey to occupy them because they have, you know, like nothing else. I just so don’t have the time for their petty little games and intrigues… I never did have.”

Gabrielle started at the vehement harshness of Aphrodite’s words, easily feeling the unease that was rolling off Aphrodite in waves. She realized that the only times Dite had stood up to her family had been for Gabrielle and Xena and always at great cost to herself. She smiled sadly and patted Dite’s arm.

“Well, I like you just the way you are, my friend. Ditzy blonde and all.”

Aphrodite laughed. “From one blonde to another, huh?”

Gabrielle chuckled. “You betcha.”

The duo crossed into land so flat Gabrielle felt as though she could see to the other side of the world. For days they walked and Gabrielle wondered at Aphrodite’s fortitude. She didn’t conjure anything up and she didn’t complain about the hardship of the trail. It was so different from anything Gabrielle had ever experienced with Aphrodite and she found the effort the goddess was making endearing.

They’d found a cave out of the wind and weather that had sprung up suddenly out of nowhere and Gabrielle had gone about her ritual of setting up the camp. It was one thing Dite never interfered with and Gabrielle didn’t notice the scroll that Dite took with her as she explored the cave.

A bit later Dite came back flushed with success and excitement. The scroll had been hidden and the cave….

“This place is totally amazing. The pictures are so fabulous. I’d love to know what rockin’ stories are told in these stones.”

Gabrielle smiled. “I’ll bet they are pretty interesting. The few people we have met in this place seem to have such different ways. I’ve enjoyed my time in this place.”

“So have I,” Dite agreed, not seeing the look she was getting from Gabrielle.

“Why?” The question was unexpected.

“Huh?”

“C’mon, Dite. Much as I have enjoyed your company over the last few weeks, it’s not like this is your normal gig. You’ve never been fond of doing things the hard way and let’s face it, living like a mortal has never been easy… even for those of us with lots of practice.”

Aphrodite smiled sadly. “You’re right. But I dunno if I’ll ever have the chance to spend time with you like this again.”

Gabrielle turned to face Aphrodite fully. “Why? Is there…?”

“You know my power is fading and even being here with you isn’t enough to change it. I don’t know if I’ll have the power to do this again. And I just wanna enjoy it as much as I can.” Never mentioning the scroll or the part it would play in both Xena’s and Gabrielle’s futures.

Gabrielle thought about that, then she patted Aphrodite’s arm. “Well, I’m glad you did. I’ve enjoyed it too. How long…?”

“I should be going soon. I’ve been gone long enough for even Ares to notice. And we don’t want him to get curious enough to come looking, do we?”

“No, but I’m sure gonna miss you.”

“Me too, babe. It’s been totally bitchin’ to have this time just to hang together.”

“Well, you let me know when it’s safe and I’ll stop by and see you.”

“You got yourself a deal, Sweet Cheeks.”

Aphrodite was gone when Gabrielle woke up. “Goodbye, my friend. I’m gonna miss you.”

Gabrielle took her time crossing the rest of the wild and untamed land. Like Cecrops, she was amazed by the beauty of the place and the friendliness of its natives. The land had a freshness she had long missed in the old countries she’d spent most of her life traveling in. Only the two places where the Amazons now resided were similar in newness and fresh beauty.

Eventually, Gabrielle reached the coast and realized she was gonna have to find a way to cross the great water that would take her back to the old countries and Greece.

She walked north, hoping she would run into the Viking’s descendents. She remembered well the stories both Dite and Ch’uang had shared with her about the trips the Vikings had made to this new land. So she walked, enjoying the fresh air, even when it was laden with snow. The memories it inspired were happy ones and she had faith she would find the Vikings and be headed home again soon. She had things to do.
Chapter XXVIII
Gabrielle was both happy and sad to see land again. It had been a long journey and any excuse to be off a boat, even with the talisman she wore was excuse enough for her. There were a lot of things to be said for stable earth and after months at sea Gabrielle was pretty sure most of them were good.

On the other hand, most of her life for the past few years had been lived in a pristine frontier environment, exploring places that few had seen and fewer still actually believed existed. Coming back to civilization was a shock to her system. There were crowds and noise and a smell that made her eyes water.

And the clothes…. Gabrielle couldn’t understand why mankind’s supposed advancements put women in harsher and more restrictive clothing than before. What the women wore now made her peasant skirt and blouse look positively liberating.

However, Gabrielle continued to wear her trousers and tunics. It was comfortable and no man, or woman for that matter, was going to dictate to her. Not at this stage of her life. She was able to take on any challenge of male authority and it was this that brought her to the attention of a pair of Spanish rulers.

The messenger halted in front of the tiny inn. It had taken him nearly a month of frantic travel, chasing clues and whispers before finally stumbling across this place. He hoped his information was correct this time. He did not want to have to go back to his Queen and King and tell them he had failed.

The year of our Lord was fourteen hundred and ninety-one and Spain wanted to be a world leader in exploration. Word had reached King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that there was a woman with great courage and skill, who stood for herself and those who could not stand for themselves. And they had decided they wanted to meet this crusader. She was just the sort of brave soul Spain needed to lead its explorations into far away lands.

Finding this woman had been a daunting task, however. She rarely remained in one place longer than a day and she moved like the wind – felt and appreciated, but always unseen. The messenger couldn’t even get an accurate description of her. She was short; she was tall. She was blonde; she was red-headed. She would kill with a look; she could slay with words; her talent with weapons was unmatched.

The man shook his head. He sincerely doubted the reality of such an apparition, but it was not his place to make that decision. It was his duty to find her and bring her back with him. Then his rulers would decide if the paragon truly existed, or if she was simply the figment of some peasants’ overworked imaginations.

He never stopped to consider the different sources of his information and realize that their perceptions could all be correct. It simply depended on interpretation.

He stepped into the darkened room, standing in the doorway a moment to let his eyes adjust. The late afternoon sunlight highlighted him nicely and the room grew silent when they realized there was a royal messenger in their midst.

Lucius closed the door behind himself and strode to the bar. “Good day, good sir,” he said to the barkeeper who carefully tended to his business while giving the stranger the once over.

He nodded politely. “Greetings, sir. What can I get for you?”

“Wine and a little information,” Luciua said, laying a gold piece on the bar. The ‘keep eyed it a long moment before reaching for a fresh glass and filling it from the keg behind him.

“What sort of information?” asked with hesitation, knowing that some things couldn’t be bought and paid for so easily.

“I’m looking for a woman,” the messenger said, draining half his drink in a single gulp.

The barkeep snorted. “‘Fraid you’re in the wrong place for that sort of thing, friend. This here is nothing more than an inn and tavern. The brothel is down the way and over one street.”

“What?? Oh, no. Not that kind of woman! Holy Mary… my wife would kill me if she…. Um, no. I am on official business. I’ve been sent to find a particular woman and she was last seen in this area. I’m hoping she’s still here.”

“This woman got a name?”

“I’m sure she does, though it’s never been told to me. All I have is a somewhat unreliable description.”

The barkeep scratched his head, then he reached over and refilled Lucius’ mug. “Sounds like you’ve got a problem then, friend. I don’t see how you can find anyone without a name or reliable description.”

Lucius hung his head. “I know. But I really don’t want to go back to the King and Queen a failure.” He scrubbed at his tired eyes and finished the rest of his ale. “Will that get me a bed and bath tonight?” motioning to the coin that still lay on the bar between them.

“Bed, bath, dinner, breakfast and food for the road if you wish.”

Lucius nodded tiredly. “I wish. I am so tired right now….”

“Come,” the barkeep gestured, putting the coin in his pocket. “This is the bathing room,” opening a door next to the kitchen. “Once you’re done here, it’ll be dinner time. Then I’ll have a room ready for you to sleep in.”

“Thanks,” Lucius replied, not bothering to dissimilate. He was just thankful for the chance to sleep in a real bed. Then he filled the tub with water, stripping and sinking into the warm depths with a feeling of complete relief.

Lucius felt like a new man when he emerged from the bathing room. He crossed back into the tavern area with a slight wave at the barkeep and took a seat near the back of the room. Night had fallen and Lucius quickly realized that the inn was extraordinarily busy. The girl brought him a plate of dinner and another wine and Lucius sat back, giving thanks for his change of luck. It had been a long time since he’d been this comfortable and he was thoroughly looking forward to getting back to the palace… even if he returned without the mysterious woman. He had already come to the conclusion that he’d been sent of a fool’s errand and couldn’t wait to find out who it was that started the ridiculous rumors about this woman.

He pushed his plate back and pulled his ale forward, determined to enjoy his drink before he went upstairs to sleep. To his surprise, the barkeep stepped up onto the makeshift stage in the front of the room and the crowd grew expectantly silent. Lucius turned his attention there as well, curiosity overcoming his natural reserve.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Gabrielle.”

Lucius watched as a short, blondish red headed woman crossed the stage and took a seat on the stool the barkeep had placed there for her. He watched mesmerized as she held the audience in the palm of her hand, capturing them with her looks and her words and her hands. And he suddenly realized why the descriptions of the woman he was looking for changed from person to person. It was all in perception… and he had finally found the woman of rumor.

When she was finished, Gabrielle came down into the audience to accept their compliments. Lucius deliberately made sure he was the last to greet her and when she stopped at his table, the messenger dropped to one knee in front of Gabrielle.

The bard looked at him, startled. “Um, sir, I should tell you that not only will I not marry you because I am quite taken, I have real issues with proposals before a first date.”

Lucius laughed heartily, caught completely off guard by Gabrielle’s distinct sense of humor. He sat down on the floor cross legged and let his arms rest on his knees. Gabrielle watched him amused as she sat down in the chair he had recently vacated and waited for him to come to his senses.

Finally Lucius laughed himself out and wiped the tears from his eyes. “You speak the language like a native, though it is very clear you’re not.”

“LOTS of practice.”

Lucius chuckled again. “I can see the King and Queen are going to adore you. No wonder they’re so anxious to meet you.”

“Excuse me?” Gabrielle wondered if her face showed the disbelief she felt.

“Beg pardon, mi’lady,” Lucius said as he rose and bowed, assuming the formality of his role. “I bring greetings from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. And a humble request for your presence at court.”

“Why?”

Now it was Lucius’ turn to be dumbfounded. “Excuse me?”

“Why is my presence requested at court? I don’t know anyone there.” Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest and waited patiently.

Lucius rubbed his eyes. “I don’t know, Mi’lady. I was just told to find you and extend the invitation.”

Gabrielle nodded her understanding. “Do you have a room here?” She waited for his affirmation. “I’ll give you my answer in the morning. Good night.”

Before Lucius could answer, Gabrielle was up the stairs and out of sight.

Well, that explains a lot, he thought with a shake of his head. Then he moved to find the barkeep and get a key to his room.

Morning found Lucius waiting in the tavern for Gabrielle. He was anxious to succeed in his mission and had been up with the dawn to be sure he didn’t miss her. He had no way of knowing she had long been gone on her hunt before he arose and he watched with surprise as she emerged from the bathing room. He wondered how long she’d been in there that he’d missed her going in, then he shrugged.

He couldn’t blame her for wanting to soak, especially if she was going to travel back with him. The road was harsh and dirty and he understood well the need to get rid of the dirt.

He watched as she surveyed the room and only when she was satisfied that things were to her standard did she cross to his table.

“I’ll be sitting over there,” motioning to a back corner, “if you’d like to join me.”

Lucius picked up his plate and moved swiftly to set it on the table in order to seat her. Gabrielle rolled her eyes, but allowed the courtesy. She nodded at the table wench, who brought her a trencher and some ale. Then Gabrielle waited until she was nearly halfway done with her food before she spoke again.

“Lucius, do you have a written invitation for me?”

The messenger nodded furiously, wiping his hands and digging through his small carry sack on his belt. He pulled out the missive that was still sealed with the royal signet and passed it across the table to her. Gabrielle popped the seal and read the note, then set it aside.

“Thank you Lucius. You can return to the King and Queen and tell them I will be there within a month. I have a few things to take care of first, but I will be there.”

“But…I thought….”

“I travel alone, Lucius. I prefer it that way. But I’ll be there. I give you my word and I’ll give you a note to carry back with you, all right?” realizing the man was afraid of being punished for failure if she did not return with him.

Lucius nodded, glad Gabrielle understood where his fear was coming from. He went to offer her paper and quill, astounded when she pulled out some of her own from what appeared to be a beautiful, custom-made leather case. He wondered at the sad expression that crossed her face as she took a moment to caress it, then she quickly got down to business, writing a note and sealing it with an unknown sigil.

Lucius accepted the note, tucking it carefully into his belt pouch. Then he finished his breakfast and without further adieu bid Gabrielle goodbye. Lucius crossed himself as he crossed the threshold, hoping beyond hope that Gabrielle was true to her word.

Lucius arrived back at the palace in less than a fortnight and delivered the message Gabrielle had given him to the King and Queen. They granted him mercy, dependant on Gabrielle’s appearance and he spent the remainder of the month doing menial chores around the palace.

As the end of the month rapidly approached, Lucius grew more and more nervous. But he recognized the sound of redemption as a voice asking for admittance to the palace was heard in the forecourt of the castle.

Lucius dashed down the steps and escorted Gabrielle into the main audience chamber and performed the introductions with nary a quiver in his voice. But he spent the rest of the day alternating between being sick and giving thanks.

“Come in. Come in, Gabrielle,” Isabella beckoned. “We’ve heard so much about you. Please, welcome. Come in and be comfortable.”

Gabrielle was a little overwhelmed. She didn’t really understand the invitation and it had been a long time since she’d had to do the royal thing. Still, she called upon her years of experience and her Amazon training, letting them serve her now in this unknown.

“Thank you, Queen Isabella,” she nodded graciously. “I was caught somewhat unaware by the invitation. I’m still not sure why I’m here.”

“We really have heard a lot about you, Gabrielle….” King Ferdinand broke off a little confused. “It is all right to call you Gabrielle, yes? It was the only name Lucius gave us for you. You can’t imagine the time the man had searching for someone with no name and the most varied descriptions and….”

Gabrielle interrupted him with a wave of her hand. “Gabrielle is fine.”

“Good. So we wanted to find out what all the talk was about… WHO all the talk was about. And then well, we’ll just have to see how things go. We might have a proposition or two.”

“I’m not sure I like the sound of that, quite frankly.”

Queen Isabella spoke. “I promise you, Gabrielle. You won’t have to do anything you don’t want to. You are free to leave at any time. Though we do hope you will at least stay and break bread with us.”

Gabrielle agreed. “I think I can do that much. After that….” She shrugged. “We’ll see.”

Dinner was an interesting and enjoyable affair for Gabrielle. The talk back and forth was of world affairs and she found that Ferdinand and Isabella would take opposite sides of an issue just to argue the logic points, then turn to her and ask for her opinion. On several things she was able to bring out obscure facts to back up her position on a subject that would cause both monarchs to stop and think.

By mutual consent, Gabrielle remained with Ferdinand and Isabella. It took several weeks before they broached the idea of her leading an expedition to found more Spanish colonies. Gabrielle was quick to refuse.

“But why, Gabrielle?” Isabella asked honestly. “You’re a perfect candidate.”

“There are several reasons, Isabella; some of them very personal to me. Suffice it to say that it’s not my destiny.”

“You’re so sure?” Ferdinand questioned.

“Yep. I sure am. But I have heard a few rumors.”

Isabella leaned forward. “Oh? Do tell.”

“Well, it seems as though an Italian explorer named Columbus is looking for backing to go west to find a sea route to China and India.”

“Yes? And?”

“And my sources tell me that he’s been turned down by the Italian king. It would be very easy to let him know his petition would be welcome here.”

“And do you think we should… welcome his petition, I mean?”

Gabrielle appeared thoughtful, pursing her lips slightly and stroking her chin. Finally she signaled her tacit agreement. “Yes, I do. He seems to have the drive and the initiative and he has a firm theory in place. I think he could be very successful.”

Ferdinand nodded sagely. “This could be a very good thing for us, Bella. Perhaps we should ask Gabrielle to put a bug in his ear, eh?”

“I think it’s a good idea, Andy.” The Queen turned to Gabrielle. “Would you mind?”

Gabrielle smiled. “You leave everything to me. I’ll bring him here myself personally.”

Italy was much changed in the centuries since Gabrielle had last set foot on Roman soil. Instead of the death and decay she remembered from the Roman Empire, there was a sense of renewal.

So many things were different. On street corners, vendors hawked books and pamphlets and everyone was reading. It was so different from what had been that Gabrielle was able to ignore the stench of the city. New ideas and philosophies ran rampant through the streets and Gabrielle breathed in the scent of renaissance with happiness.

It took a little time, but eventually someone was able to point Gabrielle in the direction of Christopher Columbus.

Columbus was nothing like Gabrielle expected, though she’d tried not to build up expectations. She knew how misleading impressions could be, but she’d been given enough descriptions that she fully believed Columbus to be a giant of a man with a brash personality.

What she found was a man of middling stature who was soft-spoken and well-thought. While she was somewhat amazed at his processes and conclusions, he was a thinking man and very ambitious.

He looked at her somewhat dubiously when she first approached him. After all, she was a woman… and a woman who refused to bow to convention. Still, what she had to say was interesting to the explorer, especially since she carried with her a royal missive inviting him to the court of the Spanish monarchs.

“Tell me, Gabrielle. How did you hear of me?” Columbus asked as they walked towards his family villa. The family was having a celebration in his honor and Mama had commanded that he bring the woman who had brought such opportunity to their doorstep to the party. Gabrielle had tried to decline, but she knew better than most how hard it was to refuse Mama sometimes, remembering well Cyrene’s tenacity.

“It really wasn’t hard, Chris. I have an interest in the scientific community and your theories are well espoused there.”

Columbus nodded. He knew it to be true. They were silent as they walked together a ways, then he cleared his throat to speak again.

“Do you find them to be valid theories?”

Gabrielle thought about the question for a few moments to formulate her answer. “I do believe the earth is round,” she finally said, honestly. “I’m not sure traveling west to get to the east will necessarily get you there, but I do think there are things out there waiting to be discovered.”

He watched her face carefully and realized that she truly did believe. It made him smile. So many didn’t, even in his own family. It was nice to hear something positive for a change.

“Well, I hope King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella agree with your outlook, Gabrielle. It’ll be nice to be able to prove my theories once and for all.”

“I think I can fairly say they will give you every opportunity to prove yourself, Chris. What you do with the chance is strictly up to you.”

They were welcomed heartily by Columbus’ many family members. Gabrielle soon found out that everyone who had any claim at all towards being counted as family had been invited and attended the gathering. More times than she could count, she was introduced to this cousin or that in-law until she was sure her head would fall off from overload.

Finally, late in the evening, she found a quiet corner in the garden and simply sat absorbing the peace.

“Excuse me?”

Gabrielle let her eyes flutter open in the darkness. She had sensed no malevolence, only a bit of curiosity, though she’d vainly hoped to be left alone. She sighed quietly.

“Excuse me, miss?” came the soft voice again and this time she turned her head to see who it was.

“Can I help you?”

“Don’t think me too forward, but do you think I could possibly paint you?”

Gabrielle blinked, not sure she wanted to understand just what the man in front of her was asking. Before she could open her mouth to answer, though, Columbus came into the garden looking for her.

“Oh, here you are. Mama sent me to fetch you. It is time for our final toast and you simply must be there.” He noticed the man still standing patiently to one side. “Leo! How’ve you been? I haven’t seen you in forever!”

Columbus turned back to Gabrielle. “This is Leo, my second cousin, twice-removed on my mother’s side. Leo, this is Gabrielle.” He turned back to the bard. “He’s a bit of an artist, something of a genius really.”

Gabrielle looked at the shy young man who was now blushing visibly in the moonlight. “Really? Well, once I get Columbus squared away with the King and Queen of Spain, perhaps you’d welcome me back to see your work?”

Leo nodded and Gabrielle smiled. “Good. I’ll look forward to it.” Then they all went inside to toast Columbus’ proposed voyage.

Convincing Ferdinand and Isabella to back him wasn’t nearly as hard as Columbus presumed it would be. Though they did want specific details involving his theories and plans, they were more than willing to mentor him once they were satisfied that he had indeed done his research.

“Why were you so willing to hear me?” Columbus asked frankly when the negotiations were complete. “The Italian monarch barely gave me the time of day before refusing to back me.”

Isabella shrugged gracefully. “Gabrielle. She convinced us you were the man we were looking for.”

“But she didn’t even know me,” he said perplexed. “Have you known her so long that you trust her judgment implicitly?”

“Not really. But she has given us every reason to trust her and like you, she did her homework.” Isabella paused. “She was actually our first choice.”

“She turned you down?” A nod. “Why? This is a great honor.”

“It was not something she desired to do. So she recommended you. Count yourself lucky.”

“Guess this means she won’t captain a ship then, huh?”

“I’d say that was a good guess, Captain. Go with God.”

“I will, your majesty. And will come back with new trade for Spain.”

Gabrielle stayed in Spain near Isabella and Ferdinand during the months that Columbus was gone on his voyage. She wasn’t comfortable remaining with them constantly, but she did keep in touch with them regularly.

She went through the countryside much as she had with Xena in their early travels together. She met people and continued to reconnect with the bard side of her that had been dormant for too long. Her skill at arms was seldom tested, once word of her defeat of Ferdinand and his best weapons master at court began to circulate throughout the countryside.

There were always incidents of course… people who did not believe the reputation that preceded her. And always Gabrielle tried talking first and only then would she resort to violence. And afterward she went off by herself for a bit to satisfy the bloodlust that burned so easily given the opportunity.

But for the most part, Gabrielle had a peaceful repose and she welcomed the chance to talk to common people again.

Finally, months after Columbus had set sail for what he hoped was China and India, Lucius came searching for Gabrielle again. This time, though, he knew whom he sought and he found her with all due haste.

At the sight of him, Gabrielle finished up her conversation with the merchants and moved to his side. He smiled and bowed his head.

“Greetings, Gabrielle. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella have requested your presence will all expediency. Columbus has returned and has had much to report.”

She accepted the horse he offered her and mounted with graceful ease. “The report is good then, Lucius?”

“I believe so, yes. He did not find India, but he found a new land that has been claimed in the name of Spain. Looks like the King and Queen will have the new colony they sought after all.”

“Very interesting.” Then they pushed the horses to a gallop and raced towards the castle.

Columbus was unhappy with his discovery, though it brought him some wealth and fame. It had not been what he had sought and he felt compelled to return to sea again to continue to search for the route he was sure existed.

For their part, the Spanish monarchs were pleased with his find, as this would give them new territories to conquer and explore. Gabrielle grew weary of the politics and soon made preparations to return to Italy.

“But why, Gabrielle?” Ferdinand asked. “You’ve been so valuable to us.”

Gabrielle accepted the words with a nod. “Perhaps,” she allowed. “But there are other places I need to be now and I have to return to Italy to see Leo’s art. I promised.”

“Leo?”

“A relative of Chris’s. I met him when I went to find Chris to bring him here for you.”

Now the monarchs nodded in tandem, thinking they understood something they did not. “Of course, Gabrielle. Our apologies. We never meant to keep you from your lover so long. Go now, with our blessing.”

Gabrielle’s mouth hung open in shock from the assumption the king and queen had erroneously jumped to. Then she shook her head in disbelief, not bothering to correct them. It just wasn’t worth the argument or the justification.

“I don’t think Tony would appreciate having to share Leo that way,” she muttered to herself, remembering the big man’s protective fierceness of the artist and knowing the source of that protectiveness intimately. The familiarity had made her heart ache all over again, even as it did now just remembering.

The trip to Italy was long and arduous as it was winter when she set out. Gabrielle took her time though, appreciating the fury of nature as a beauty unto itself. Still she was happy to see the spring rains take the place of the winter snows and even the stench of too much long unwashed humanity couldn’t remove the smile that the sunshine put on her face.

Gabrielle took the time to see what a difference a little knowledge made for so many people. Again people were reading and discussing philosophy. Painters were set up along the broad boulevard and it the distance, Gabrielle could clearly hear chamber music… both vocal and instrumental.

She found her way through the maze of streets and finally knocked on the door of the number she’d been given. She’d only met him once, but he remembered her and with a smiling flourish, Tony opened the door widely and bowed.

“Welcome to our humble abode, Gabrielle. We are delighted to have you here at last.”
Chapter XXIX
Tony had taken her bag and dropped it in a spare room before guiding her out to where Leo was busy working. The workshop was completely different from what Gabrielle expected. All over were plans and sketches… ideas she and Xena had discussed brought to life on paper.

Hanging from the ceiling were several models – a couple she recognized, but the rest…. A large glass box held water and in the water were other models… working models that moved and functioned as she suspected their life sized counterparts were supposed to do.

On the walls were sketches and pencil drawings so detailed, Gabrielle nearly cried at the beauty of them. She stood still in the middle of the room for a long time simply absorbing the magnitude of creative genius and the two men watched in silence, appreciating her wonder.

After a few minutes, Gabrielle took a deep breath and looked squarely at the artist she’d come to see. “Leonardo da Vinci! You’re a fraud!”

Two sets of dark eyes bulged from their sockets at both her words and tone. Da Vinci took a step in her direction and was outmaneuvered by Tony. Leo saw the twinkle in Gabrielle’s green eyes, though and he held Tony back.

Tony turned to look at Leo’s face and he caught the sparkle in Leo’s eyes. He twisted around to catch a grin of sheer delight on Gabrielle’s face. He cocked an inquisitive brow in her direction.”

“‘A bit of an artist’, Chris said. ‘Something of a genius’. *Something*?? Leo, this stuff is fantastic,” walking around a model of a flying machine and reaching out delicately, stopping before her hands actually touched.

“Does it fly?”

She didn’t give him a chance to answer before she bent down to observe the underwater ship and was reminded of the time she and Xena had found themselves caught in that situation.

“Is this intentional? Did you really mean to put the boat underwater?”

“Oh yes! I think boats could be made to travel underwater. See….” He motioned to the water turbines he had running in one corner of the tank. “I think these could be made to push a boat beneath the water.”

“Okay,” Gabrielle said slowly. “But why would you *want* to?”

“Well, I have this theory,” Leo started saying, taking Gabrielle’s hands and pulling her with him to his work table. Tony shook his head and went back to the house to start some dinner for them all.

For hours Leonardo shared his ideas and theories with Gabrielle and her eyes sparkled and shone at the thoughts that circulated through the conversation. So many of the things were ideas she and Xena had discussed all those years ago in the many fireside chats they’d shared in their travels. To know that others had finally come to the same beliefs and conclusions was gratifying.

For his part, da Vinci loved having someone new to talk to. He loved Tony, but Tony didn’t talk much. He listened really well, but he rarely felt the need to contribute ideas to any conversation. Gabrielle, on the other hand, was happy to discuss, argue and converse on all sorts of points and ideas.

Days this went on from morning til night, though they spent a majority of their time in the house to include Tony, until he would run them out for a bit of peace and quiet. Leo would bring up an idea and Gabrielle would listen. Then she would formulate her own opinions and the discussion would be off and running. Many were the times when she would bring up a salient point, only to have him halt the talk so he could add it to his notes. Then they would pick up the thread and begin again.

After almost a week of discussion on every subject under the sun and some of the sun itself, Leo finally broached his initial reason for inviting Gabrielle to his villa.

“So, have you decided to let me paint you?”

Gabrielle shook her head. She had seen some of Leo’s other paintings and felt fairly sure it was an easy way to become immortalized. She had enough immortality issues without putting a face to them.

“Um, no,” she said at last. “I was wondering if instead you might be willing to apprentice me for a while… let me learn from you.”

Leo thought about this for a time, then shrugged. “I can try. I can teach you technique, color mixing, brushstrokes, but the art itself….” He tapped her on the chest. “That has to come from inside. I cannot teach you heart.”

She nodded. “That I understand, Leo. All my best stories come from here,” patting her own chest. “And it’s not something I can explain. It’s something I have to feel to be able to relate to others.”

Da Vinci nodded sagely. “You understand the most important part then already. The rest is simple mechanics and any good teacher can instruct an eager student.”

So the following morning Leo set Gabrielle up at an easel in the corner of his workshop. He took several hours explaining perception and shading and showed her several of his sketches.

“I do a preliminary sketch of my ideas before I actually get the paints out. It helps me to picture what I want to show people with my art… shows me all the possibilities within the piece that I can convey.” He paused. “Can you sketch?”

Gabrielle turned her gaze inward. “I’ve never tried, but….” She trailed off. “I think I could.”

Leo looked at her a long moment, waiting for her gaze to track back to him. When she finally saw him staring, she smiled nervously at him and rubbed the back of her neck.

“What?”

He walked to his desk, shuffling things around and pulling out drawers. Without a word, Tony came into the room and neatly moved Leo out of the way before reaching into the pile of papers on the desk and grasping a neatly bound sheaf of paper. He handed it to Leonardo.

“Dinner is ready,” Tony announced without preamble, knowing they would follow him back into the villa.

“How did he….” Gabrielle asked, gesturing to the pad Leo now held in his hands. Da Vinci smiled as he looked at the bundle and shrugged.

“I dunno. He’s always known when I’ve needed something and can pretty much put his hands right on it.” He paused when all the implications of that statement sank in and blushed faintly. Gabrielle was kind enough to keep her reaction to a look of devilish merriment in her eyes. Leo cleared his throat and continued.

“Anyway, I made up a few of these. I’ve been tinkering on improving the printing press and found that the binding plays a huge role in book quality. So I put a few of these together and use them for sketch pads now.” He handed the paper to Gabrielle, who accepted it delicately. “Enjoy it in good health, my dear.”

“Thank you, Leo. I look forward to seeing if this is one of my many skills.”

He wondered at the sadness of her tone, but the distant look in her eyes kept him from asking questions. Instead, they went inside to share the lovely meal that Tony had prepared for them.

Over the course of the next few days, Gabrielle spent hours outdoors. Leonardo found he missed Gabrielle’s companionship, but he turned his attention back to his scientific studies, incorporating some of the ideas that he and she had discussed. Tony missed her as well because she had added something to his kitchen.

Every time either of them checked on her, she seemed to be staring out into space accomplishing very little. Only occasionally did they see the charcoal move across the paper at all.

Finally, after nearly a week of this, Gabrielle came back in quietly late one afternoon. She put the sketch pad down carefully and sank into da Vinci’s padded thinking chair near the workroom’s vast window.

She turned her attention out across the vista, not even realizing when Leo set his own work aside and approached her.

“Problem?”

Gabrielle looked at him and gave a brief smile before shrugging and returning her focus back to the view outside the window.

Leo rubbed his hands over his beard, trying to figure out how to ask without being too nosey or condescending. Finally, he just spoke.

“You shouldn’t be too disappointed, Gabrielle. Not everyone can draw, you know. Perhaps you should try simply painting instead.”

Now she smiled at him again and he could see the sadness lurking behind the slight mischief her saw in those green depths. She reached for the sketch pad and shook her head.

“Drawing wasn’t the problem, Leo. I seem to have a knack for it. But I can’t paint these. The images are just too personal for me.”

“May I see?” Leo asked hesitantly. “I know they aren’t for public consumption,” he said holding up a hand. “Believe me when I say I can totally understand that. I have some of those myself. I have several sketches that will never see the light of day because of… well, here… see for yourself.”

He moved to a small box tucked in a corner of the room. Lifting the lid, he removed several sheets, the topmost one bringing a smile to his face.

“I always wanted to paint Tony. He has such a beautiful face and body. I thought it would make an incredible picture.” Leo passed the sheaf to Gabrielle. “I was right.”

Gabrielle accepted the papers hesitantly, feeling like she was prying even though Leo was offering them to her for her perusal. She looked in his eyes a minute longer and he nodded. Gabrielle turned her attention to the pages and felt her eyes widen.

The love the artist had for his subject was apparent in every stroke of the pencil. Gabrielle felt as though she stumbled into the privacy of someone’s bedroom and she turned back to Leonardo.

“These are… so personal.”

“Yes, so you see, I do understand. But I would also like to see your work if you feel you can share… one artist to another. No one else will see them… not even Tony, without your permission.”

Gabrielle stared at him for a long moment, weighing his words and his honesty against the need she felt for privacy. And found, surprisingly, that she wanted his honest opinion… knowing he understood at least part of her dilemma.

She hesitated, then handed him the sketch pad and turned her attention back to the window while he studied them. For a while, the only sound in the room was the occasional turn of pages and the breathing of two people. Then only the breathing could be heard as the rustle of paper ceased. The sharp silence went on interminably, until Gabrielle looked at Leo’s face to try and gauge his reaction.

The tears in his eyes surprised her and she moved to kneel beside him. Leonardo gazed at the picture, not acknowledging her presence. She laid her hand on his arm and asked softly, “Are they that bad?”

He shook his head, then asked in a whispered voice, “They’re incredible. Who is she?”

“Someone who is everything to me… someone that has been gone from my life for a very long time.”

The pictures were all memories of Xena she most cherished, but the one Leo was focused on was particularly precious. It was Xena as she had appeared to Gabrielle when their souls had left the cross before they had ascended into heaven. The look of sheer love and joy on Xena’s face was so intense, it was palpable even on paper.

“She loved you.” A statement.

“Yes and I love her.”

“Still?”

A nod. “Always.”

“I see your problem, Gabrielle,” matter-of-factly. “Perhaps you would do better to simply paint… something you can see instead of something you remember.”

Gabrielle nodded slowly. “I can try,” she said at last.

Leo nodded. “You are very gifted. The skill is there. Just let it work for you.” He motioned to the easel he’d set up in the corner for her a week prior. “It’s here and set up, ready to go when you are ready to start. Just let the art lead you.”

Everyday after that, for a least a little while, Gabrielle stood in front of the wood. She added a little at a time… sometimes no more than a single brushstroke and other times she would stand there for hours working on tiny details.

Leo and Tony neither one got to see the work before it was completed. They could have peeked, of course, but Gabrielle kept a cloth over it when she was not working and they respected her need for privacy.

Finally, the day came when she was finished and Gabrielle left the cloth covering off the painting and went for a walk. She was fairly certain neither man would resist the temptation to look given the opportunity and she wanted a chance to prepare for whatever reaction they might have.

When she returned to the villa, the house was silent. She was glad for that little fact. It gave her time to take a bath and she relished the experience to the fullest. Leonardo had contrived to produce a bathroom complete with indoor plumbing and Gabrielle loved the efficiency.

The house was still empty when she finished and she figured she’d stalled as long as she could. Gathering up her courage, she walked to the workshop and poked her head in the door.

Leo and Tony sat in front of the painting, studying it silently. They merely turned to look at her a moment when Gabrielle crossed the threshold, then they resumed they contemplation of the portrait before them.

“Who is she?” Tony asked when the silence grew heavy.

Gabrielle shrugged. “She is many people. She has your eyes, Tony and Lisa’s hands. Her facial shape is Leo’s and the clothes belong to the bishop’s wife. Her hair is part of a memory for me and the body shape belongs to the baker.”

“She’s remarkable,” Leo commented finally. “What is she called?”

Gabrielle shrugged. “I dunno. You can call her whatever you want. I’m giving her to you.”

Leonardo gave a slight gasp. “Gabrielle… that is… she is…. Thank you. She is simply amazing.”

“One condition, Leo.” He tilted his head and waited for her to elaborate. “She is YOURS. Your work, your art, your name.”

“But… why?” This from Tony with a perplexed look on his face.

“It’s the best thing for me, Tony and everyone already knows Leo is ‘something of a genius’ when it comes to art,” Gabrielle said with a sly snicker. Leonardo gave her the appropriate adult response and stuck out his tongue.

“But….”

“Tony,” Leo cut in quietly. “Let it go. I understand.” And the look he shared with Gabrielle assured her that his understanding went deeper than she imagined it could.

“So what are you gonna call her?”

“I don’t know. Mona maybe? For Many Odd, Nefarious Assets… Lifted In Sacrilegious Accord From All Things Surrounding….”

Gabrielle burst into laughter. “Mona Lisa Fats?!?” She paused, still chuckling. “Although Mona Lisa has a nice ring to it.” She shrugged again. “You can name it whatever you want, Leo. It’s yours.” He voice softened and she reached around to give him a firm hug, gratified when it was returned in full measure.

“Thanks, Leo.”

“For what, my friend?” brushing the blonde locks back out of her eyes.

“For teaching me. For talking and listening. For allowing me to stay here and for just being my friend. You’ll never know the difference you have made in my life.”

Leonardo kissed the top of Gabrielle’s head. “And you’ll never know the difference you have made in mine.”

“Hey!” Tony’s voice suddenly cut in. “Is this a private hug, or can anyone here get in on the action?”

Gabrielle and Leo stepped back a pace from one another to allow the big man to participate and Tony promptly scooped them into an all-encompassing hug. It lasted for several minutes before Tony pulled back.

“Now, let me go see what I can throw together for supper.”

They waited until he was gone back into the villa before turning to one another again. “How much longer can you stay?” Leo asked after a moment’s silence.

“A little while. I just take it one day at a time.”

Leo chuckled. “We should all do that. The world would be a better place.” He paused. “You know you’re welcome here as long as you’re comfortable.”

“I know. Thanks, Leo.”

As it was, Gabrielle stayed longer than she’d planned. Within just a few months, Leo’s father passed away, then a beloved uncle. And then without warning, Tony died in the darkness of night. No sickness than anyone was aware of, no pain that he ever spoke about – he simply drew his last breath in his sleep.

Leo was devastated and Gabrielle stayed with him for a while as he recovered. They spent many hours talking and finally the day came when Leo smiled again.

“I’m sorry to have changed your plans so drastically,” da Vinci said the night before Gabrielle was leaving. “I hope you didn’t miss something important.”

Gabrielle took his hands in hers. “Nothing was more important than this. Tony was good people and I consider myself lucky to have known him.”

Leo released her hold and turned to the window. “I still miss him,” he said simply.

Gabrielle smiled sadly. “You always will, but the fact that you loved and remember him is important. It allows him to live still.”

“You live with this everyday, don’t you?” asked without turning from the view.

“And have for longer than I remember,” Gabrielle replied softly.

Now, finally, Leonardo turned from the window. “You are a woman of great strength and courage, Gabrielle. Thank you for coming here. Thank you for sharing with me. I wish you much success on your journey… and your search.”

Though they had never spoken of it, Gabrielle could see that Leo understood… far more than she’d explained to him. She looked questioningly at him and he smiled.

“It shows… in your words and your actions… and your art. Good luck, my friend.”

“You too, Leo.”

For reasons she could only later put down to a macabre curiosity, Gabrielle headed to Rome. She had heard some comments about the art that could be found there and wanted to see for herself how it compared to Leo’s work. Besides, she and Rome had a long history and she was interested in seeing how the old city was holding up under the weight of years that had passed.

What she found was both surprising and disheartening. Much of what she had known was crumbling around her and it reminded her just how old she really was. On the other hand, she didn’t mind the fact that the Coliseum that had brought her and Xena such repeated misery was becoming a heap of rubble.

She walked the streets of the city slowly, her bright eyes taking in the many new sights that graced the walkways and boulevards of the capital city. As in other parts of Italy, the arts abounded in Rome. Everywhere Gabrielle looked, philosophers and scholars thrived and she caught bits and pieces of conversation that reminded her of her talks with Xena so many years before.

“Looks like the world may finally be catching up with us, love,” she whispered under her breath, before beginning her search for a comfortable lodging.

She spent several days just looking around the sights of the city, impressed again by the quality of workmanship in so much of the artwork now flowing all around her. The sculptures, in wood, brass and marble, had such exquisite detail that Gabrielle could only marvel at its intricacy. She had rolled her eyes when she realized that most of it was devoted to some aspect of religion or another, then set that fact aside and simply enjoyed the work for the beauty of the art itself.

As she crossed into yet another cathedral, she came across a piece simply labeled ‘David.’ She started laughing so hard it brought tears to her eyes and a man to her side in concern.

“Is there a problem, Miss?”

Gabrielle calmed her chuckles and wiped her eyes, trying not to look at the sculpture for fear it would bring the laughter all over again. “No… no. I’m fine, thank you.”

“Can I ask what was so funny?”

Gabrielle gestured to the statue. “David didn’t look like that. And he certainly never left himself flapping in the wind that way.” She chuckled again and headed out the door, the man following rapidly behind her.

“You speak as though you knew him.”

Gabrielle answered him absently as she gazed out across the boulevard. “I did.”

The man did a double take at her matter-of-fact response. He caught her eyes and noted they were the eyes of a dreamer, an artist like himself. He smiled at her and extended his hand in greeting.

“People call me Mike. That’s my sculpture,” pointing back to the church.

Gabrielle blushed lightly. “Well, it’s very well done.” She rubbed her nose. “It’s just not very, um… realistic.”

Mike laughed. “No, but it is good art. Come. Have some lunch with me and I’ll take you to my latest project, so you can critique it as well.”

Gabrielle looked at him for a long moment. “You sure your boyfriend won’t mind?” she asked impishly, watching for the shocked reaction she knew was coming.

“I don’t…. How did…? Never mind. You wanna come, or am I eating alone?”

She took his arm and Mike led her down the boulevard towards the chapel where he was working.

“So what brought you to the cathedral in the middle of a work day if you’re working way down here?” Gabrielle asked as they entered the chapel. It was large as far as chapels went, Gabrielle thought, then stopped abruptly as she realized the interior was completely covered in scaffolding. “Wha…?” She turned and looked at Mike’s face.

“I’ve been commissioned to repaint the ceiling in Bible stories. Sometimes, it gets a little overwhelming. So I take some time and go look at David. Sorta puts things in perspective for me. Reminds me I can do this, even if it takes me years.”

Gabrielle glanced at the ceiling and noted a small portion of it was covered in murals. But with her lack of height and the imposing scaffolding, all she could see were bright colors occasionally. She looked back at Michelangelo who was watching her face with an amused expression.

“Do you think we could get a little closer? All I can see from here is a lot of pretty color.” Now it was Mike’s turn to laugh.

“Sure. Um, you don’t have a problem with heights, do you?”

“Not for years,” Gabrielle said drolly, thinking back to her first experiences with the Amazons and learning to walk in the trees. Mike didn’t notice her distant expression.

“Good,” he mumbled, “because it’s a long way up.”

It was a long way up, but well worth the climb, Gabrielle decided when she reached the top of the ladder. The little bit that had been completed was so rich in detail, it brought tears to her eyes.

“This is fabulous!” she said breathlessly, after taking a long time to look around at each panel. “The storytelling involved here is just incredible.”

Mike smiled. Though he and Leo were rivals and had been for years, it was almost a friendly rivalry and something both men secretly enjoyed. When he’d received the missive from Leo detailing Gabrielle’s arrival in Rome and the subtle favor asking Mike to look out for the bard, it had piqued the artist’s curiosity enough to make him go looking for Gabrielle.

So what he’d told Gabrielle about David was the truth, just not the entire truth. He’d spent the last seven days waiting for her arrival there, knowing that if what Leo had said about her was true, she’d be there sooner or later. Personally, he was glad it was sooner. The Pope and his archbishops were getting a little perturbed at his continued absence.

“Thanks,” he said with a blush. He wasn’t much for the girls, but there was just something about Gabrielle…. “Say, I got a note from a mutual friend the other day.”

Gabrielle cocked her brow in question.

“Leo told me there was a beautiful artist headed my way and that….” He cleared his throat self-consciously before affecting a nasally voice. “It would behoove me to make your acquaintance.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “That sounds like Leo.” She paused. “So it wasn’t just dumb luck running into you?”

“Not exactly, but I’m glad I took the chance to find you. I haven’t laughed like I did at your critique of David in a while,” motioning to the ceiling. “This is such tedious, exacting work.” He went on before she could answer. “Not that I don’t love it, but still.” He hesitated. “I don’t suppose you’d like to do some, would you?”

“How do you know I have the talent?”

“Because for all the grief Leo and I give one another, we never lie about artistic talent,” he said without delay. “There’s no room for fakers in this business.”

“You don’t know me or anything about me. How do you know I won’t take you for a ride or screw things up for you?”

“I know Leo. He’d never get taken in by that and I know you spent a while with him and Tony. He trusts you.”

Gabrielle watched his face, gauging the sincerity of his words and voice. Finally she nodded, satisfied with what she found. “I’ll help, on two conditions,” she said at last.

“Yes?” Michelangelo was curious now. Given what Leonardo had shared, he had a fairly good idea what was coming.

“You keep my name out of it and you feed me.”

“I can do that,” Mike said with a smile and an extended arm.

Gabrielle accepted his handshake. “Then you’ve got yourself a deal.”

Gabrielle came back to the present with a start. It had been a while since she’d either sketched or painted and now she carefully withdrew the pad Leonardo had given her those centuries ago. The feel of the thick paper brought a smile to her face and the pictures still brought a teary twinkle to her eyes.

“I’ll have to take you to Rome again, Xena and show you what I painted. You can’t tell the difference, but I remember. It was an amazing work of art… still is. That time made me appreciate so many things.”

She put the sketch book away and pulled the feather out of her diary that marked her place and twirled it in her fingers, remembering the time long ago when she’d watched Xena repair her Queen’s mask before a festival.

“One day, when we have time, you’re gonna have to teach me how to make an Amazon mask, Xena. I know you’ve got the skills and though I have no use for one now, I’d like to have my Queen’s mask again. I’ll never get the one Ephiny made for me back.” She shuddered. “Not that I’d want it with the memories attached to it now.”

Then she picked up her diary, closed the door and headed for the sunlight.

 

Chapter XXX

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s