by Brigit M. Morgan
SUBTEXT WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story implies a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
COPYRIGHT: Gabrielle, Xena and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
THANKS AND PRAISES: To my beta-readers: Alydar, BetaBarb, Cybernana and Xenasbardkeeping me grounded on poetic and grammatical Terra Firma. Thanks gals!
She had never liked the road out of that town. Flat and featureless it offered protection from neither blowing grit nor sweltering sun. She mopped her damp brow.
The road stretched on, shimmering into infinityseemingly endless. Just like life. She sighed. The metaphor was, of course, untrue. Roads always dead-ended somewhere and life had its own fateful terminus.
This flight of fancy led her to dwell upon the uncertain and mutable qualities of both subjects. Minds and hearts were as rootless as the bodies they inhabitedgiven to wandering and tracing paths down hazy roads of their own.
From the first timeespecially the first timeshe had walked upon this grimy path, she had been no stranger to these conjurations. That day, it had seemed like the first road she had ever strode upon. In so many ways, it was, and with her childish enthusiasm she had felt destiny and the infinite possibilities of the future spill from her like so many beads along the sun-parched earth.
Along the path to the woman on the golden horse...
Gabrielle sighed and stopped in the dirt. She adjusted her pack, the straps still not used to their lighter burden. Her shoulders were already beginning to chafe from the excess rub of the old leather. With a shrug, she slipped the soft cloth of her halter between. It seemed to work as she continued along.
That morning it had rained, scraping night from the world with its cat's tongue. She had found the downpour fitting, given the circumstancesthough would never have written it that way herself...
The air was now completely drythe sun burning away the clouds as it gained strength in the sky. The warrior pushed a sweaty strand of blonde hair from her eyes.
Several crows bickered off in one of the fields to her right, wings raised defiantly. They appeared to be in dispute over a dead animal. Eventually, the smallest of the three was chased off and floated toward the road. The loser squawked after the walking warrior. Gabrielle could see the victors begin their feastpink flesh glistening in the sharp grasp of black beaks.
Finally, she reached the crossroads. For a moment she stood at the hub of four directions, the in-betweenthe nowhere.
In the hazy distance a wagon approached. She decided to walk toward itit had come from somewhere, and that seemed better than where she was standing. Within minutes she could make out the driver of the cart, a typical Macedonian farmer with his typical load of Macedonian crops pulled by a team of typical Macedonian donkeys. She nodded as it passed.
"Excuse me, Miss?"
The cart had creaked to a halt just behind her. She turned wearily in its cloud of dust. The grizzled farmer looked down at her, squinting with curiosity. One of the donkeys wiggled his ears.
"Am I mistaken, or did you just turn off of the road to Amphipolis?"
Gabrielle ran a hand through her hair. "Umm, yes I did."
The older man rubbed at his beard and squinted up his gray eyes. "They say that place is haunted, y'know?"
The warrior smiled oddly. "It's not anymore actually..."
"Friend of mine...Tarsus...he thought he'd sell off some of his surplus up there...could've been...oh...eight harvests ago...came back half his size, he did! Skin n' bones, he was! They said he'd gone off his food!"
Gabrielle continued to squint up at the farmer.
"Strangest thing too...had a white streak in his hair...and him not a day over 28! He said the spirits did it when they got to him."
"Trust me," Gabrielle interrupted. "There aren't any more spirits. That was taken care of almost three years ago."
The farmer stared at her with a strange lookone that seemed to be equal parts disbelief, awe and disappointment at not completing his tale. After a second of looking her up and down and rubbing his beard, he nodded.
"A good thing too, then. It was a nice town, it was."
"Yes, it was," Gabrielle nodded.
The man gathered the reins in his calloused hands. Then met her eyes with a thoughtful look that the warrior figured he reserved for situations he felt required the imparting of his own unique wisdom.
"And thank the gods, too, for it's truly a shame when a spirit has no rest, it is," he said softly.
Gabrielle shifted her pack again on her shoulders. He nodded to her. She waved.
"Have a safe journey."
The wagon shuddered into motion and began its squeaky trip. The warrior squinted down the road. It disappeared into the obscurity of the horizon, lying languid as a snake upon a warm stone. Gabrielle bowed her head and began to walk into the cruel afternoon.
The intense swell of heat had begun to subside in the drowsy hours of the early evening. A light breeze tickled the blonde stubble of the barley fields, and caused soft murmurs among the ordered rows of olive trees. Birds chirped lazily from their hidden nests, throats lusty from sleep.
The warrior sat within the shade of a pine just off the road. One of the few she had seen all afternoon. She had her boots off and was wiggling her toes through the dry grass.
A sliver of cheese, a rasher of pork, some olives and hard bread were laid out on a dirty blanket before her. She took a deep swig from her waterskin, and then poured some over the bark-like crust of bread.
Children were playing with a ball in the field behind the pine. They had slowly and inconspicuously drifted toward the tree after noticing the warrior resting beneath it. Gabrielle smiled wistfully as she took a bite of salty cheese. She blinked into the dust of the afternoon as she chewed.
The children were closer now. She could hear their tiny voices over the lullaby of blowing grain. The warrior cut a slice of bacon for herself, sliding it off the flat of the knife and into her mouth. The ball rolled quietly in front of the blanket.
"Taemon!" a small voice whispered in anger.
Gabrielle covered her mouth with some of the softened bread, slipping it slowly between her slightly upturned lips.
"Uh...Miss?" A lanky black haired girl of about ten years approached the warrior, hands wrung awkwardly.
The warrior smiled. "Yes?"
"Can we have our ball back?"
Gabrielle gestured with her hand toward the small leather ball, lost in the grass like a stray pebble. The girl bounded toward the ball and stooped to pick it up. She failed miserably at her casual once-over of the warrior. Gabrielle grinned at the girl.
"What's your name?"
"Lycaea," the girl answered proudly.
"I'm Gabrielle." The warrior noticed the girl's preoccupation with something on the blanket. "What is it, Lycaea?"
"Are those...black olives?"
"Why yes they are," Gabrielle responded dryly.
Lycaea shifted. "Didn't know they made black ones..."
"Oh yes...there're red ones too, light green oneseven bigger black ones."
The girl seemed amazed. "Wow!" she stared intently at the olives. "Do they taste different than the green ones?"
Gabrielle nodded. "They do, actually."
"Hmm..." the girl rocked on her heels in the grass.
"Can I try one?" a small voice asked from behind the tree.
"Taemon!!" Lycaea shouted.
The warrior turned to meet the face of a young boy, probably about five. A girl of about the same age, maybe older shook her head at him from behind.
"Can never keep his mouth shut..."
Lycaea was flush with embarrassment. "I...we're...sorry..."
Gabrielle smiled. "That's alright, really. There's plenty to go around."
She scooped up an olive into her fist.
"You can have one, Taemon," she winked. "As long as you can...catch!"
She flicked the olive at the boy. He caught it with a happy grin and popped it into his mouth. He moved into the camp, sitting beside Gabrielle.
The younger girl rolled her eyes. "Catch and eat, that's about all he can do."
"Kal-la, don't be so mean..." Lycaea scolded.
"He talks too much, too..." Kalla offered.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. The children shared some of the olives, happily spitting pits into the grass. The warrior looked around at the countryside.
"Which farm is yours?" she asked absently.
Lycaea pointed to the small collection of buildings about a mile to the south. "That's our farm. We have sheep, chickens and olivesregular, green olives."
The children ate some more. Gabrielle leaned against the tree. Taemon blinked up at the warrior.
"We've never seen you around here before. Are you lost?"
"No," Gabrielle squinted. "Why?"
"You look lost..."
"Taemon! Stop being so rude!"
"It's okay," the warrior smiled. "I'm not lost. I was...visiting a friend."
The boy ate another olive. "Maybe you lost your friend?"
"No..." she smiled mirthlessly. "I...we had some unfinished business and then parted ways. I'm on my way back home for a bit and then I'm not sure where I'll go."
"Where's home?" Lycaea asked.
"Not too far from here. A village called Poteidaia, have you heard of it?"
They stared blankly at her.
"Well...it's not very big..."
"Why did you leave?" Kalla asked, scrunch-faced.
Gabrielle paused, smiling wistfully. "A woman on a horse made me..."
"I never want to leave here," Kalla blurted. "Daddy can't make me."
"Kal-la! We're not leaving," Lycaea crossed her arms. "That was just talk at the last harvest."
"You might have to move?" Gabrielle asked.
"If the next harvest is like the last one we'll have to pack up and move to Athens," Kalla pouted. "I don't wanna stay with Uncle Lanteus, he smells like onions!"
The warrior rubbed her jaw. "Well, it looks like this harvest is doing just fine. I'm sure you won't have to leave."
"I never want to leave here," Kalla repeated.
Lycaea scowled at her sister. Gabrielle smiled at them both.
"You know, traveling isn't such a bad thing. The world is a very exciting and wondrous place."
"Full of warlords and greedy people who want to hurt you," Lycaea finished. "Our dad told us."
The warrior shook her head. "It's not like that."
"There aren't any warlords or greedy people?"
"Well...there are, but that's simplifying things..."
"There's no one who will try to hurt us?" Kalla asked.
The warrior opened her mouth briefly, paused, and then approximated a smile. "This year's harvest looks like it will be a good one."
Taemon had stopped eating olives. He stared unwaveringly at Gabrielle's currently empty boots. Particularly, he was fascinated by her two sai, set in their scabbards.
"What are those?" he asked, pointing.
Gabrielle rose quickly, scooping up her boots and the sai with them.
"They're weapons. Very dangerous," she said. The warrior smiled up at the boy as she slipped into her boots. "You're still a little young to be a warrior, Taemon."
Lycaea blinked at Gabrielle. "Are you a warrior?"
"Um...yes I am."
The children exchanged glances. Taemon scrambled to his feet and hid behind the tree. Gabrielle raised an eyebrow.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
Lycaea kicked at the grass, uncomfortably. "Daddy told us about warriors, too."
Gabrielle sighed and began putting away the leftover food. "Whatever he said, it's probably true," she said, trying to hide her scowl.
The children stood unmoving. Taemon leaned against the tree.
"He told us they were strong and brave but always died alone," he said in a singsong manner.
Gabrielle nodded, rolling the blanket between her fingers.
"He was right about one thing..."
The creek was cloudy in the early dusk. Gabrielle splashed the warm water over her skin and hair. It would take a good soak to get the day's travel off of her body. She had pushed pretty hard down the road after the farm.
Cutting across land between two main roads, she had happened upon this quiet spot nestled near a small forest of elms. Looking to make camp anyway, she had taken it as a sign.
The warrior lathered up her hands. She ran the harsh smelling soap through her hair, over the skin of her neck, upper armsher breasts. Her fingers passed over her naked skin with empty utility.
Birds babbled loudly in the upper boughs of the elms. The branches seemed to shake with end-of-the-day anticipation. Gabrielle shivered slightly. She sank beneath the surface. The soap left her body like the soul might, an ashen nimbus fading into nothingness.
With a push, she was at the center of the creek. The water was more obscuring and milky at this depthas though she were peering uselessly from a dead eye. She floated somewhere between the reeds at the bottom and the skimming bugs at the surface. Gabrielle shut her eyes, the bubbles chattering incomprehensibly in her ears.
That morning it had rained, tear-sized drops falling between the houses, the flowers, the tombs. Falling without a sound through the leaves of trees, lighting upon the grass as soft as ghosts' feet. It all passed softly over her, as she slipped through it like a dreameven though her footsteps had left muddy impressions in her wake.
In the crypt, the sound of the downpour had been inescapablethe water streaming in heavy rivers upon the stones at the entrance. She had noted how unusual it was. Outside, immersed in the showers, all had been silentnow, nestled within the peace of a tomb, the rain was deafening. It was the first time she had realized how wrong everything had become...
She opened her eyes. The water or the intense white of it stung irritably. It was hard to feel, to find herself in all of itto decide whether she was surrounded by light or darkness. Her lungs did not achewere they empty or full?
She pushed toward the surfaceunsure if she had gone the right way.
The campfire was too smoky. Much of the kindling had been damp at the center, and popped rebelliously in the coming darkness. The fire was also being miserly about heat. An eel Gabrielle had scooped out of the creek hadn't even begun to sizzle at the bottom of the fry pan.
She sighed and rubbed her eyes, pushing fingers listlessly up into water-softened hair. She looked up into the sky. The stars had begun to appear high in the ether of night.
The warrior poked at the eel with a thin fork. It had only just started to make a faint crackle. She put the fork down and looked around her camp.
Outside of the fire, everything was in order. Her bedroll placed just where she liked it. Her belongings were hidden in a tree. Weapons nearby. She stood and folded her arms.
Her gaze went skyward once again. Night's bruised grin spanned over her head. She remembered hundreds of similar instants, her mind, her heart full of thoughts, feelingspompous, painful, true. She could recall just as many that she had squandered or taken for granted, in preoccupation, self-absorption, blinded by lust. Injured nights, wounded nights where those distant points of light stared upon her suffering, her misery passing overhead with the indifference of travelers through the dusty outskirts of a city whose name was lost to them...
The eel sputtered for attention in the old pan. Gabrielle knelt and had a look. It was beginning to brown on one side. She flipped it over. The smell drifted peacefully through the campsite.
Soon dinner was ready and she sat to eat on her bedroll. It wasn't her best effort, but it was edible. She chewed apathetically, blinking into the fire. Forkful followed forkful, bite followed bite, and all the while her eyes remained unfocused, lost in the flutter of firelight.
A twig snapped, broke apart in the scorch and tumult of the campfire. It belched a thick, white smoke from the gape in its side that rose with jagged twists into the air. The night absorbed it into its inky folds.
She dropped the fork, the eelit was too much to finish alone. Her cheeks were wet, full of half-chewed food. She leaned to the side, doubled over, retching. The taste made her gag hard. Her throat burned and she coughed violently.
When she was done, Gabrielle sat up. She wiped her eyes. The rest of the headless eel lay in the grass near the fire. Her stomach lurched again and expelled the rest of her dinner. She sighed.
She took a swig from her waterskin, swishing it around in her mouth. She spat into the fire, which sizzled in pain and protest. Her eyes burned and her throat was raw. She drew her knees up to her, bowing her head on them. Soon all she knew was the sound of the lonely forest night lost in her ears and the lingering taste of the eelflat and dead in her mouth.
She woke up on her bedroll somewhere around midnight. The sky was like a pounding wound in the broken canopy of the trees. Her throat was raw, swollen, and still tender.
The fire had begun to die. Shadows became stronger, more abstractclawing gaping holes into the forest. She closed her eyes.
Crickets chattered soothingly, but sleep did not return to Gabrielle. She lay on her back, eyes blinking up into the night. The sky, the forestexistence had been sublimated, honed into a simple, cruel strand which wrapped itself around her neck and proceeded to twist tighter and tighter.
That morning it had rained. She woke up with the taste of blood on her tongue. In dreams she had bit her lipan unconscious punishment for succumbing to sleep against her will, her desire. She jumped up, desperate and wild-eyed. Blinking frantically, she realized her panic was useless, unnecessary. There was no reason for upsetnothing could change what had happened, what would happen.
Rain kicked up a spray under the trees. She packed up the camplooking off into the mists occasionally, sadly. The fire still smoked and she kicked it out beneath her boots. She slung her pack over her shoulder. She stooped and picked up the urn.
Through the trees the ghost came to her. Gabrielle's mouth had opened dumbly, an apology lost in her chestgreen eyes filling with tears. The ghost smiled Her smile, placing a finger over the warrior's lips, but never touching them.
Gabrielle nodded solemnly. The village had lain beyond the forest, the cemetery beyond that.
The ghost had led her through the fog...
The campfire sputtered in the darkness. Bugs still danced about its dying light, hypnotized. Gabrielle shifted, trying to get comfortable.
The days weighed upon her, pressing upon her eyelids, temples, her chest. The days ahead, the days behindstampeding, rushing toward her rabid, out of controlempty days, lonely days. She wiped her eyes.
She turned on her side. The forest was dark, dormant, abandoned. She searched the night futilely, her eyes straining in the darkness.
Soon she passed into dreamless sleep, as simply and unaware as a ship becomes lost upon a stormy sea. The vacant forest quivered around her unmoving body. The vault of heaven spun above in shards of pulsing indigo, as restless and empty as her soul.
alt fic | xena
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