The Loom of Destiny
(Also known as: Friends in Need)
By ?) June 30, 2001
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction, and is offered for non-profit entertainment. It may not be sold, may be downloaded for personal use only, and must contain this statement. The characters and concepts from the TV series Xena: Warrior Princess, including Xena, Gabrielle, Akemi, Yodoshi/Eater of Souls, Harugata/Ghost Killer, Kenji, Ares, Aphrodite, Livia/Eve, Virgil, Lila, Sarah, etc., etc., etc., are the creations and property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No malice is intended towards these characters. I would like to express my thanks to the creators of this outstanding production for sharing them with us for six (mostly) good years.
This story contains violence, anguish, hope, and love. Sex between two eagerly consenting women is mentioned but it isn't graphic. If you were old enough to watch the TV show, you're probably old enough to read this story ask your parents if in doubt.
This story is intended to relate events following the series finale, "A Friend In Need", as imagined in my corner of the Xenaverse, and yes, it contains spoilers.
Complain to me at the e-mail address listed above.
Special Thanks: To ?? for her outstanding assistance as beta reader. This story and my writing have benefited from her corrections and suggestions. And her only compensation is the first read. What a bargain!
Now for the story .
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Vengeance noun: damage or harm done to another in retaliation for damage or harm done to oneself or an associate.
Redemption noun: a redeeming or being redeemed; making restitution, fulfilling a promise, releasing from captivity; or being ransomed, attaining salvation, regaining grace.
Sacrifice noun: an offering, an act of self-deprivation for the sake of attaining a goal or benefiting another person, purpose, or ideal.
Love verb: actions expressing a state of love. noun: for which no words can suffice.
Of all the chronicles I have penned, this story, "The Loom of Destiny", which some know as, "Friends in Need", was the most difficult and personal. It goes beyond a final adventure, forward into events woven from the destinies of the Warrior Princesses.
Just where did this story begin? Did it start with a monk's message and a sword? Did it start with the slaughter of three generations of a family half a world away, and a daughter's quest for vengeance? Or did it begin with another girl who led her townsfolk in the defense of their homes, causing the death of her brother? Was it born in the succession of heartbreaks that dogged her quest to avenge his death and assuage the guilt that grew from her mother's condemnation? I feel that all of these factors, like the warp and weft of a tapestry, are integrated into the fabric of the story I tell.
They were both fiercely determined young women, bending events to their wills, and yet they were so very different. Xena burned with the ferocity of fire, while Akemi's calm belied the strength of water. Xena's path blazed through darkness into light, following the way of enlightened warrior. Akemi's path washed down from the light into darkness, following the way of vengeance. And in the end it fell to Xena to redeem them both, for their differences outweighed their similarities.
When they met again, Xena had already spent years working to atone for her past. Years before she had taught Akemi the nerve pinch, allowing her to kill her father, who became Lord Yodoshi, the Eater of Souls. She felt that the sacrifice necessary to redeem Lord Yodoshi's captives was a debt she had to pay. In their redemption she attained her own as well.
I felt the heartbreak behind her stricken expression when Harugata told her the consequences of the fire she had started the fire that brought 40,000 souls under Yodoshi's dominion. It was an aspect of her honesty that she be truthful with herself concerning her actions and acknowledge responsibility for the deaths she had caused. Shin, their warrior's code calls it to be truthful at all times. Xena's devotion to the Greater Good allowed her no other choice. She had to make restitution, had to make things right.
But the events weren't really so clear cut. They almost never are. At least some of the 40,000 people who died in Higuchi shared responsibility for the fire. They had attacked Xena to keep her from delivering Akemi's ashes to her family shrine, all because they thought a girl who had killed her father had no place among their dead. Yet Akemi had acted according to their traditions, to avenge her murdered family, and her father was so evil that he was denied entrance to the underworld. The villagers should have rejoiced in Akemi's act. She had fulfilled the tragedy of conflicting obligations.
Now just imagine Xena having to behead a newfound friend who had offered the gentleness and beauty that had been missing in her life. After that she had to burn her body, and save her ashes in an urn, only to watch them blow away in the frigid wind during the villagers' assault. Xena, emotionally distraught and staggering drunk, had spit burning liquor on her attackers to repel the mob, and they had fled, setting the buildings aflame. The wind had done the rest, spreading the conflagration.
Even Xena's part in the fire wasn't the sole cause of the situation she found herself dying for. It encompassed Akemi's need for revenge and her seppuku. Xena teaching her the nerve pinch, her deceit, the villagers' misplaced sense of righteousness, and the evil of Yodoshi all contributed. Even the kami, who denied his soul entrance to the underworld, should share the blame for what happened. It seems to me that of all of them, only Yodoshi's death would have been demanded by the Greater Good. But then, without her own avarice and ambition, Xena never would have been tempted to ransom Akemi. She never would have gone to Japa. Though we make our fate now, each choice adds a fiber to the web of destiny, and with each added fiber the web tightens closer about us. In Japa, trapped between her destiny and the Greater Good, Xena ran out of choices.
The nerve pinch. How I had hoped that she would teach me that during all of our years together. I never fully understood her reluctance. I didn't know about Akemi's betrayal, and after I had betrayed her to Ming Tien . "Once burned, twice wary", so the saying goes. I knew she trusted me with her life, but old habits die hard, and for so many years she had lived by the wisdom, "trust no one".
Then too, Xena had a protective streak where I was concerned. I thought she was protecting my soul by keeping that deadly technique out of my hands. She had seen my rage, after Callisto had murdered Perdicus, defending her below Mt. Amorro, and again when Lila had told us of Gurkhan. Yes, she taught me how to remove the pinch, when she went to fight Mephistopheles in hell, but she didn't teach me how to apply it. When she finally did, I should have been far more suspicious, for she distracted me with sentimentality. I was such a sucker I knew she only got really mushy like that when things were serious.
I should have heard clearly what was behind the sound of her voice and the emotions she expressed. It was just like her to leave me behind when she faced dangers she had doubts of surviving. She had snuck off to face Grendil, thinking it a suicide mission. She'd left me behind when she went to kill Caesar and the Green Dragon. When she decided she had to die, she left me again. I was so angry with her. I would have died with her, but my death would have served no purpose in her plans.
Always her plans, her impulses, and her willingness to sacrifice herself. Once we could have shared heaven together. Instead she became a demon, to redeem Callisto, so shortly after Callisto had broken her back and gotten us both crucified. I guess we've had it both ways. We died together, and we each died separately, and I don't know which hurts more. And so I'd found myself alive without her. Again. Living and knowing I was the product of another of her plans I would resent her if it weren't for our love. And I guess I asked for this all those years ago, thinking she only offered me an escape from my boring life in Potidiae. "Be careful what you wish for " the saying goes.
When I asked her to, "Take me with you and teach me everything you know", I had no idea what I was really asking. Now I think I have some idea. By living them I've come to understand the Way of Love, the Way of Friendship, and at last, the Way of the Warrior. I have become proficient with the staff, sai, sword, and now the chakram. I have many skills, and I have learned so many lessons. I have become worldly, knowing heartbreak and love, blind anger and righteous wrath, strategy and healing, devotion and leadership. Even Ares has taken notice. I could feel Xena's spirit bristling beside me every time he made some offer, or tried to tempt me with a deal.
I remember that long ago day when I caught up with her in Amphipolis and what happened after I convinced a crowd not to stone her. She sought solace in her family's mausoleum, talking to the spirit of her brother. She knew how close the spirit world is to the world of the living. It's another lesson I've learned from her. Along with our memories, her spirit's presence made my solitude bearable, for mostly I traveled alone. It left less to explain.
I have seen many places in the years since Xena died. At first I went to Egypt, and she was with me, reassuring me, counseling me, supporting me her spirit still loving me. It was in the early years of the reign of Claudius Caesar, and Egypt was changing. Though it was still the granary of the Empire, everywhere travelers spoke the news of the Messiah of Jerusalem. While Xena and I were in Alexandria, a teacher of this new faith appeared in the city, and his words reminded us of the message of Eli. Mark of Cana was as earnest and devout as Eve had ever been. Eventually his preaching and converting earned him some powerful enemies. When we discovered he was in mortal danger I managed to escort him out of the city by night.
There followed years in Greece, Hispania, Italia, Gaul, and even Britannia. For ten long years I fought for the Greater Good, and she was beside every day of those ten years. And during all that time, though I had come to accept her death, I never gave up my private hope of bringing her back to me.
In Japa, Xena had faced an army of thousands of samurai warriors, and she killed thousands of her enemies, but it was just a tactic. Her strategy required her to die so she could destroy Lord Yodoshi in the world of spirits, setting free the 40,000 souls lost in the fire at Higuchi. Xena redeemed those souls and atoned for her own part in their suffering. Of all the things she hadn't told me about her plan, the most traumatic was that she had to remain dead to allow the 40,000 to be avenged. If she had allowed me to bring her back to life, those souls would have been lost forever. Instead we tearfully watched the sun set, and I lost that chance to return her to the living and return her to my side.
I tried so hard to accept the necessity of her decision, to respect her need to do the right thing, to face the situation and move on. I could see her, I could talk to her, and I could even feel her touch. In some ways it wasn't so bad because she wasn't completely gone. But she had almost no effect on the world, nor it on her. When she held me at night the familiar warmth of her body wasn't there. She had no scent. She couldn't share a good meal or a hot bath or a cool swim. She wasn't cranky, like I was, after a hard day on the road. And she never needed me to keep her from her dark side, or give her my endless wisdom. Sometimes I even fooled myself into accepting it. Then I'd remember sitting at the Fountain of Strength, heartbroken, miserably clutching the container of her ashes, feeling her body vanish, and knowing she was dead for good. So another part of me kept saying, "This is not right". And I began to ask myself, "What would Xena do?"
I remember a night in Gaul, nine years after she had died. I was lying by my fire, staring at the sky. I could feel her presence beside me, and I pointed to a star.
"Xena, I don't think that one was there last night."
"Which one Gabrielle?" she asked. She was humoring me, I'm sure.
"See the small star just above the archer's bow? I would swear it wasn't there before. Do you think maybe it's the soul of someone who has broken free of the cycle of rebirth?"
"I don't know maybe the sky is just clearer tonight." she replied, ever practical.
"Xena," I asked, "do you think the souls of the 40,000 from Higuchi have begun to reincarnate yet?"
"Oh yeah," she confirmed, "last time I heard from the Ghost Killer about 5,000 had been reborn."
"Really? You can keep tabs on their rebirths?"
"Sure." Then she must have suspected something because I could almost see her eyes narrow as she asked, "Why do you ask, Gabrielle?"
"Well, I guess I'm happy to know your sacrifice achieved its goal," I explained, looking away towards the fire, "and those souls have rejoined the path of their karma."
I didn't hear anything more from her the rest of the night, and I never asked about those souls again. I knew she was suspicious, but she had confirmed my guesses. Before I closed my eyes seeking sleep I made the decision to pursue my plan.
Another year passed, and I turned 35, plus 25 years on ice and another year asleep in a ring of fire. That year I led an army of volunteers against the horsemen of the steppes. They kept raiding us, killing men, women, and children, burning their captives alive. There were times when I wanted to kill them all. I saw enough deaths to last a lifetime, and I saw Celesta gathering souls by candlelight. Ares appeared often; giving advice I didn't need, proffering deals I wouldn't make, and still trying to persuade me to lead his army. I was the next best thing to Xena. Livia was lost to him, and in my strategy and tactics he could sense Xena's presence, though he never saw or spoke to her.
"Consider my offer, Gabrielle," he'd said for the dozenth time, "I know how well you've done with this little army of farmers and tradesmen. Just think of what you could do leading a real army, my army. You could bring peace to our country, crush the warlords who threaten the people. Maybe you could even expel the Romans. And after that "
I had to stifle a laugh as Xena rolled her eyes, standing next to me.
"Ares, you're still talking about conquest. Starting an empire." I chided. "Eventually the known world would suffer under the peace of your army, just as they do under Claudius' legions now."
"How much they suffer would be up to you, Gabrielle." he said, with a grin he couldn't suppress. "You could be the empress of an empire ruled according to your Greater Good. You and Xena could rule it together."
At this Xena crossed her eyes and made circles in the air next to her head with a finger.
"What's Xena got to do with this," I protested, "she's been dead for ten years. She's gone Ares, gone for good this time let her go."
"Oh be serious, Gabrielle," he spat with his habitual condescension, "she's never been dead for good. Yeah, I fell for that before with her, but she'll never fool me again. And you know why? Because you're still here, still here and winning wars the way she did and I can feel her. Oh yeah, I can feel her the way she used to be able to feel me. So you consider my offer, and consider this, "Little One", I'm a God with a vested interest. Maybe I can find a way to bring her back. We'll talk again."
And since he always needed to have the last word, there was a flash and he was gone. I sighed and looked up into Xena's eyes, shaking my head. He'd never give up. I could count on that. When I looked down at the ground I managed to hide the smile that played on my face.
Months passed and things were going pretty well, all considered. I had a dead lover, no home, and endless requests for help. Between fighting, mediating treaties, and stumbling onto trouble while on the road, I had a full life. Then I got pregnant.
Unlike Xena's pregnancy, no angel touched my stomach, no prophecies were made, and no Gods tried to kill me. I think I know what happened, but I guess I'll never be sure. I didn't have any tumbles in the hay, and there wasn't any time I couldn't account for. I didn't feel or see anything uhh, procreative, and neither did Xena and she never sleeps anymore. So all I can figure is that Eli's God pulled another fast one. (What is it with me and Gods anyway?) At least this time the pregnancy looked like it would take a normal nine months.
Around that time we learned that Eve was back in Greece, and we hadn't seen her since she'd left for Indus and Chin. She had returned to settle down after her travels. Her desire was to open a temple to Eli's God, outside of Amphipolis, in the same temple where Xena had thrown down Lucifer. It was symbolic of rebirth, and so appropriate since the building had once hosted the mouth of hell. Xena and I traveled the familiar roads through the countryside, but now I rode and she strode beside me at a ghostly pace. The irony wasn't lost on me.
After eight days we came to Amphipolis and I wasted no time in finding Eve. Predictably, she was in the temple, and she greeted us with shock, amazement, and then glee. It was as I had suspected. Other than myself, she was the only person who was ever able to see Xena's spirit. Eve had heard about her mother's death. Being able to see and talk with her now was something she considered a blessing from Eli's God. It triggered a mind numbing string of prayers and thanksgiving reminiscent of her early zealotry. I excused myself to go and take care of my horse. Xena stayed to reminisce.
I'd barely gotten out of the door when Ares appeared. I didn't even have to call him. He was seething, almost unable to create a sentence. A strong man would have trembled, I found it hard not to laugh.
"Eve's talking Xena's You lied to me!"
"I did no such thing," I declared, "she's dead for good this time."
"I don't believe that, Gabrielle. I can't believe either of you would give up."
"Well, she has her reasons for needing to stay dead, and she'll never be back because I won't live long enough for us to be able to be together." I said, dangling the lure.
"What are you saying, Gabrielle?" he demanded, staring at me and trying to figure out the clue I'd given him. "Are you saying she could come back if she could be with you?"
I gave him a sickeningly innocent look that made him all the more angry. He was almost ready to make a deal on my terms.
"Ares, I want her back, but it will take about 75 years, and since I'm mortal I don't have the time to wait," I said, letting a tear roll down my cheek, "so she'll remain a spirit until I die, and then someday we'll both be reborn, together. We're soulmates it's our destiny."
Now he was steaming. There's nothing like a God who can't have what he wants.
"Look, you're immortal," I said, "what's it matter to you?"
"When she's reborn, she won't be Xena!" he roared, turning away from me.
"Yeah," I said, taunting him with my resignation, "there's a down side to everything."
I saw a fireball appear in his hand, and he wound up, preparing to throw it at Eve's temple, and then he stopped. The fireball shrank, disappearing as he closed his hand, and he turned back towards me. He had a sly grin on his face; his expression was calculating, almost appreciative.
"You've gotten very good, Gabrielle. I keep forgetting you're the Warrior Princess now. So what's your plan?"
I took a deep breath and I put some of my cards on the table. For once we wanted the same thing, but I didn't let that blind me to the fact that we both wanted it on our own terms and I hadn't forgotten how he felt about people who asked for his help.
"Being the God of War, I guess you see a lot of Death, huh?"
So we negotiated. In the end I knew he would do what I needed him to do, and I knew he would betray me, while he thought he had a chance to finally get what he wanted. It was a perfect deal. Then I rode off to talk with a Goddess I knew.
I was four months into my pregnancy, according to the midwife in a little village near Messana, when Ares paid me a visit. As always, Xena stood by unseen, her usual irreverent expressions silently commenting on his presence.
"Well, Warrior Bard," he said, looking as smug as a farmer who had finally killed a chicken, "I succeeded in your little treasure hunt."
He handed me a bag. I felt the contents through the suede to confirm his words, and then opened the drawstring enough to peek. The vial and everything else I'd asked for were there.
"What is this Gabrielle?" Xena asked, looking more disturbed by the moment. I ignored her question, focusing on Ares.
"You have indeed," I said, happily, "when the time comes for the rest of our bargain, someone will contact you. Now meet me here at dawn tomorrow as we agreed."
He smiled the smile of the untrustworthy and vanished.
"Gabrieeeeeelle, you can't bargain with him!" Xena was beside herself. She was pacing now; finally stopping to stare at me like I'd lost my mind. "He never keeps his word, and you can count on him to double-cross you the first chance he gets."
"Of course he will," I told her, with a smile, "and I am counting on it."
She sighed and continued looking into my eyes. Finally a grin tugged at her lips.
"Ok, so what's the plan?" she asked, and I couldn't help but laugh.
That night we lay curled up together by the fire, face to face, and for a long time neither of us spoke. But finally the dawn drew near, and there was so much to say. Some of it seemed ironic, considering I was talking to a spirit.
"You don't have to do this."
"Xena, I do have to do this. I know what I'm doing, and I have to make this right."
"I still think it's too dangerous, Gabrielle "
"You know, Xena," I whispered, "if I only had one night left to live, this is how I'd want to live it looking into your eyes."
"You're my whole life, Gabrielle. How am I supposed to go on if I lose you?"
"You won't lose me. I'll always remain in your heart."
"I love you, Gabrielle."
"I'll always be with you, Xena."
I told her again that I would have died with her but that I'd rather live with her again. That I was willing to trade all that I had in this world for the chance of us being together, and that I thought I had found a way that it could be. After all those years I could finally understand how she had felt in Higuchi. I couldnt tell her everything about my deal, so I distracted her with sentimentality. The Greater Good had nothing to do with this. Only love, and hope, and destiny.
Ares came with the dawn, eager for the consummation of our deal. Xena stood behind me, her hands on my shoulders. I could feel her anger for him in the air. I reached up and squeezed her hand, and then I drank from the vial Ares had brought. It didn't take long for me to collapse in her arms. When I was dead, Ares took my body and vanished.
For me there was no time, and for Xena the years passed quickly. Being a spirit allowed her to slip through time, almost as if in a dream. She could enter and leave the mortal world, minimizing her years of loneliness. Her only strong connection to the world was Eve, who could see her, so she watched over her family. After two years Eve found herself being a foster mother to Virgil's son and daughter. Their mother had died of a pestilence. Having killed Joxer, she felt it was the least she could do, but she found joy in it as well. After five years Eve and Virgil had a daughter of their own, Xena's first grandchild. After twenty-two years my sister Lila was gone. After thirty-one years Xena was a great grandmother. After forty years both Eve and Virgil had passed away, and Xena spent less and less time in the world. After forty-seven years Lila's daughter Sarah died childless. My last living relative was gone. Another thirty years passed before the last soul from Higuchi was reincarnated, and befitting her role as the creator of Lord Yodoshi, Akemi's was the final soul to start a new life. It had taken a little longer than I had figured.
Sometime shortly afterwards a coin appeared among the offerings in the Temple of Aphrodite, a coin bearing the silhouette of a conical mountain and a tori gate. It had been struck 88 years before. Its weight would have been a trifle for a child, but it was almost too heavy for a ghost to lift. Far away, the Goddess of Love saw the coin in her mirror.
Aphrodite lifted a small round lidded bowl from a compartment in her mansion on Mt. Olympus. The temmoku glaze was such a deep brown it appeared almost black. On the lid was a brass ring. She opened the container and gazed at the contents. Powdered ashes of the palest gray, and small black flecks of carbon. A few puffs of the precious ash leaped up as her tears fell into the container before she replaced the lid.
"Oh Warrior Babe, she never gave up on you. My little friend would never let you go."
The Goddess of Love took the container of ashes she had been entrusted with the day the Bard had struck her deal, and she delivered them to her brother, the God of War.
At first Ares didn't understand what his sister had handed to him, and when he did a look of wonder crossed his face.
"All these years you had her ashes. You're the one Gabrielle said would contact me when the time was right."
"I was the only one she could trust," Aphrodite told him, "and the only one she knew who would live long enough to give you Xena's ashes."
"And now I have the power to bring her back. After all this time I will have Xena alive again, and without the little blond nosing around."
"I know what you're thinking, Bro, and it won't work," the Goddess of Love warned, "even you can't undo their destiny."
"Oh I'm not concerned about their destiny. They can have all the future lives they want." Ares couldn't keep from gloating, "All I want is Xena, and the Bard can stay on ice forever, or at least until my Warrior Princess is ready to die of old age."
Aphrodite shot him a scathing look, then tossed her head and walked out. This was one time she knew the strength of love would triumph over the deceits of war.
Ares held the container in his powerful hand, and his laughter shook the walls of Olympus as he vanished.
He reappeared on the slopes of Mt. Fujiyama and found the Fountain of Strength. He required no katana to turn the lock, allowing the enchanted waters to flow down to fill the basin. Once those waters alone could have restored life to Xena's ashes, but that chance had been lost decades ago. Such was its effect on mortals. Had anyone ever wondered what effect it would have on a god? Having seen it heal the Eater of Souls, one person had, and she had convinced him, knowing he had a "vested interest" in trying.
Ares drank deeply from the basin and he felt the strength grow within him. He had been the God of War for over 2,000 years, but he had never felt so alive. Never had he held such power. With a gesture of his hand he parted the clouds overhead, and he found his sight could reveal the movements of an army in the Kingdom of Koryu, on a peninsula across the sea. He knew he could do what the Bard had imagined so many years before. He filled a skin with the life giving waters and then he vanished.
The halls of Olympus shook with his return, and his footsteps echoed through their chambers. Ares entered his own mansion and stood before the altar of his godhood. Upon it lay the suede bag he had once given to Gabrielle. He tore it open and removed the leather fighting dress, the bronze breastplate, the scabbard, and the battered sword. He arranged them on the altar as if Xena had just vanished from within them, leaving them lying behind. Next he opened the container of ashes, sprinkling them over the warrior's clothing, creating the shadow of her figure. He hesitated for a moment, and then from a gilt box on the altar he removed a long held memento, a braided lock of black hair from a then young warlord princess. The keepsake stirred some of his fondest memories of a time when her heart had been his. He laid it on the altar where her head would have been.
"Oh yeah," he said smiling, "soon I'll have you back, Xena, and I have the little bard to thank for this chance. The best part of it is, she's dead, and this time I won't be bringing her back."
For a while he reveled in his coming triumph and his intended deceit. Gabrielle had been desperate to bring her lover back to life, and she had asked for his help. She'd thought she'd made a deal with him, and he smiled, for no mortal could truly barter with a God unless that God wished for the same end. After all those years with Xena she had never learned. Well, he had kept the part of the deal that he had wanted to keep the part that had benefited him. His smile turned to laughter that rocked the walls of Olympus.
Ares pulled the stopper from the skin that he'd filled with the waters from the Fountain of Strength. He poured it over the ashes on his altar, soaking them so their gray darkened. A puff of steam gently rose from them. The God of War put one hand over where Xena's heart would be, the other hand over her forehead, and then he concentrated his will and newfound strength. A blue light spread over the ashes, illuminating the altar and the surrounding hall. Its radiance was so much stronger than when he had healed Eve and Gabrielle, and this time he felt no weakness as the life giving power was transferred.
Within the blue glow the ashes began to seethe, and they roiled in an animated layer above the surface of the altar. The movement was like the billowing clouds of a thunderhead. Swirling particles filled the empty battle dress, lifting it into familiar contours. Watching the reconstitution of the body of his warrior princess set Ares' heart pounding, not from the exertion, but in anticipation of the achievement of his long held desire.
Now the spectral body on the Altar of War took on solidity. The first pallor of flesh was replaced by the familiar tan, and Xena's free spirit became constrained in her mortal form. The blue light's intensity rose and there was a momentary flash of pink. An eerie keening filled the air. With a gasp the first breath of life entered her reformed lungs. Her chest rose and fell, her heart beat strong again. As the blue light faded Xena's eyelids fluttered and finally opened in wonder, for she lived again.
Neither she nor the God of War noticed the voluptuous figure in swirling pink that silently left the hall. Aphrodite managed to get out of hearing before she broke down in a fit of giggles. Well now I guess I'm an artist, huh, Little One, she thought, even if you did supply the design.
"Welcome back, Xena," Ares said, as he slipped a hand under her back and lifted her so she sat upright, "You know I've missed you. It's been too long, and the world hasn't been the same without you."
Xena aimed an appraising glance at the God of War. Her back was sore and it itched, as if from too many mosquito bites, or landing in a thorn bush. Finally she asked the only question that mattered to her.
"You're welcome." Ares said, with an injured expression. "Xena, she's dead. You know that. She traded her life for my promise to restore yours after the last of the 40,000 souls was reincarnated. Congratulations you have outlived those souls' need for vengeance."
"Ares, I saw her drink Celesta's tears, and she would not make a deal that left us apart. It's our destiny to be together. Now where is she?"
"As I have said, Xena, she's dead, and that's all you have to know. At least for now."
"For now, huh?" Xena said, exasperation etched on her face. "But I suppose we might be able to come to an agreement?"
"Well, Xena, I can see you haven't lost your edge." Ares replied, grinning broadly. This was his Xena, and she never wasted time in a negotiation. He had anticipated having to cajole and coerce her until she returned to his side, waging war like no other mortal. But maybe he could gain his ends more quickly by making a deal. "Perhaps I could 'remember' where the bard's body is, if you were say willing to lead my army?"
"And I suppose I would have to fight a few wars? Conquer a country or two?"
"So it's the same old offer, Ares. Some things never change, do they?"
"What can I say," the God of War said, shrugging and smiling like a shark, "I'm a creature of habit."
"I want her back, Ares, but leading your army in conquest? I'll have to think about that. Gabrielle would never forgive me."
"Take your time, Xena, and call me when you've decided." And when you've finally decided to give up this obsession with the Bard and get on with your life, I'll be here waiting, he thought, because unlike you I'm immortal, and I can afford to wait.
The self-satisfied expression didn't leave his face as he vanished. He hadn't seen the design on her back behind her scabbard.
Xena walked out of his mansion and left Mt. Olympus, climbing down from its heights and back into the mortal world. Almost 90 years had passed while she'd been a spirit, and many of the towns and villages were unfamiliar. But the language was the same, and people hadn't changed so much. On her second day out from Olympus she fought off a small band of robbers who had waylaid the carriage of a rich trader, saving his family. In gratitude he gave her enough gold to buy a horse and a few supplies. Once a warrior, always a warrior, Xena thought with a wry grin, and someone still has to fight for the Greater Good. That same thought had given Gabrielle a purpose 87 years before.
Xena rode through Thessaly headed south, and her heart was light with hope. A week after leaving Olympus she arrived in Corinth, finding the city busier than ever. There she boarded a ship for a short voyage to Patrae, a small port city near the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth. Everywhere there were Roman traders, soldiers, and officials. The coins bore the likeness of the Emperor Hadrian. Xena learned he had come from Hispania, a Roman province far to the west that she had once visited with Gabrielle. The Empire was prosperous now and for the most part at peace. There were few restrictions on travel and this news was welcome, for in Patrae she found space aboard a ship crossing the Ionian Sea, bound for Sicilia.
The passage was uneventful. The fine weather held, and the sea was calm. The only thing that made Xena edgy was the people staring at her back when they thought she didn't notice. At times she daydreamed, watching the sunlight on the water, remembering another voyage long ago. She had been with Gabrielle, who had stopped being seasick, and though there was an undercurrent of sadness, they had felt themselves embarking on a new adventure. She had no longer been a living warrior. The Bard was no longer a warrior's sidekick. Rather she was an outstanding and tested fighter in her own right, possessing a blessed sword, a chakram, and a small container of ashes. Now Xena was again a living warrior. She sailed into adventure alone, but with an undercurrent of hope. She still possessed her sword, but the chakram was gone, and of the Bard she had only her memories.
On the third day sailing from Patrae, Xena watched as the ship docked at Catana, on the eastern coast of Sicilia. The town was ancient; Xena remembered it from her visits almost a hundred years before. The harbor was better now, the docks new, and there was a well constructed wall, courtesy of Rome, but otherwise it was much the same.
Although it had never been her favorite pastime, Xena needed to do some shopping. There were a few items she needed for her plan. In the market she found an alchemist's stall, and she had the chemist grind handfuls of crumbly granules into a fine white powder. Then she bought an equal volume of the yellow powder that could smell like rotten eggs. She stored both in her saddlebag. She added a strip of linen and a small amphora, a ceramic jar with a pointed bottom and two handles at the neck.
Xena wandered through the streets and found a familiar tavern, the building having outlived many sets of owners. She entered the common room and ordered an afternoon meal.
As she sat eating a grilled fish and fresh bread, accompanied by a respectable local wine, she reviewed her memories of her last trip to the area. She had been with Gabrielle and they'd been hurrying to find Octavius. They had stayed overnight in Catana before boarding a ship bound for Neapolis and then Ostia, the port serving Rome. That had been in the days of Augustus Caesar, and Rome's Champion, Livia. Xena cringed at her memories of that time. They were some of her darkest days.
Her thoughts moved forward until she recalled Athena's plot to use the Furies. In a moment of horror she had flung her chakram and struck down Gabrielle, who had just stabbed her daughter in the back. The memory still made her stomach clench. I almost lost her then and Eve, she thought, I almost lost them both. But I was the one that killed my soulmate that day, and there was no time to do anything else. If she had struck again Eve would have died right there. If not for Ares' life giving intervention it would have ended then. And now Gabrielle's sacrificed herself, making a deal with Ares to get me back, and feel like I've killed her again.
Xena stared into the grilled fish's eye, seeing nothing but her memories of Gabrielle's face, smiling up at her with trust and love. Her gentle green eyes so easily pierced the hard shell she'd built around her heart. She'd realized there was something special about her the first time she'd heard her speak, offering to go with Draco's men if they'd free her fellow villagers. Now she knew that "something" had become the most important thing. She was alive and alone, knowing what she missed and missing what she knew. No spirit's touch offered her solace. A tear slipped from her eye and traced a path down her cheek.
"I will get you back, I swear." Xena whispered to the face she saw with her mind's eye. "You have suffered too much for my redemption. I promise I will make this right, Gabrielle, and nothing, not death, Ares, or all the souls of the dead will stop me. I'm going to find you, and I'm going to bring you back."
She was melancholy yet grimly determined. The upwelling of emotions had left her feeling her old need for isolation, and her patience with others was short.
"Whadda you staring at?" she demanded of the man at the table behind her, pinning him with her glare. She'd felt his eyes on her back through the whole meal. He looked down, muttering an apology. This had never happened while she was a ghost and she wasn't used to it. Hell, I never liked being stared at while I was eating, she remembered. Xena finished her food quickly. She'd lost her appetite.
Xena left the tavern in the candle mark following noon, riding due north. By nightfall she had covered over twenty miles. A hundred yards above her lay the snow line on Mt. Aetna. She set up her camp in a small meadow near the ruins of a village. Later, as night descended, Xena watched the sparks of her fire jump into the sky. The air was clear, bracing from the glaciers on the mountain above, and she gazed at the stars.
"Gabrielle, I don't see any new ones," she said, letting her memory mingle with her imagination, "and I'm hoping you're not up there. Please, not yet."
She looked at the fallen roofs and toppled log walls. The village had been ragged even when people had lived here, driven to its remote location by their choice of faith. The Elisians were tolerated by Rome now, and they had abandoned this refuge decades ago.
"Remember, Gabrielle, that woman we questioned? She said, 'You're not from around here, are you?', well, she had no idea, did she? The only things we were sure of then was each other, and that I had to find Eve." Xena whispered, as she turned her gaze to the mountain, "well you're still the only thing I'm sure of, and I'll find you just like we found her. And by the Gods I will bring you back, just like we did with her."
In the dark Xena relived the memories of the mountain, calling up the images of everything she could remember. In the last of the night exhaustion claimed her and she dozed. In her dream she saw a tomb, hewn from a glacier by a god's hand, and a pair of coffins wrought of ice. Before one, a sword was stuck in the snow, with the chakram placed over the pommel; a bouquet withered flowers below. The dream shifted and she saw a chamber of ice, compacted blue by the years, and at its center a coffin of ice like the ones from that earlier time. At its foot stood the blessed katana, and on its lid lay the chakram. She could barely discern, through the hazy ice, a figure with pale hair.
In the morning she broke camp quickly, eating cold leftovers as she worked on her final preparations. Xena crushed and ground the charcoal from her fire with the pommel of her sword. She mixed the resulting black powder with the yellow and white powders, and packed the blend tightly into the amphora. Finally, she twisted the strip of linen around some of the mixture, jamming the fuse into the amphora's mouth.
In half a candle mark she was on the path climbing Mt. Aetna. Below, Xena could see the horse grazing free in the meadow by the abandoned village. She followed her memory as much as her eyes and she allowed her senses to reach out before her. Already she could feel a faint sensation warm her heart, and as she climbed it grew stronger, confirming her guesses and guiding her feet. She was ascending by the same route she and Gabrielle had descended so long ago. All through the morning the sensation grew, and Xena felt the hope in her heart grow with it. By noon it had become too strong to ignore, and she smiled, thankful that Ares was such a, "creature of habit".
In the fourth candle mark after the zenith of the sun, Xena came to a wall of ice, sheer and undercut, fifty feet high. The sensation in her heart was so strong she could almost hear it with her ears, for dragon called to dragon through the ether. She set down the saddlebag and drew her sword. Slowly she began to chip away at the hard blue ice, gradually enlarging a hole, deepening it so the amphora would fit snugly inside. She stopped to catch her breath, and the air chilled the sweat on her face, neck, and shoulders. She looked away from the ice wall and out over the lands below the mountain. In the distance she could see the sea, and reflected off it, the light of the lowering sun.
I didn't think this would take so long, Xena thought, it's but a candle mark before sunset, and it will be bitterly cold on this mountain when night falls.
She redoubled her efforts, hacking out chunks of ice almost as hard as marble. She checked the size. All but the neck of the amphora with its twisted linen fuse fit inside. A little deeper, Xena thought, and the black powder of Chin will blast this wall and open Gabrielle's tomb.
"Not if the sun sets first," Ares said, appearing with a flash behind her, "now that you have stood here, the sun times your chance to rescue your precious bard."
"Ares " Xena hissed, "what do you mean? I have to rescue her before the sun goes down?"
"That was part of her bargain," the God of War informed her with a grin, "you now have the same chance and limits she had to restore your life. When the sun falls below the sea her body will fail, and 77 years of decay will appear in a moment. Kinda poetic don't you think?"
Xena looked stricken. She turned to watch the sun. Its disc was almost touching the sea.
"I guess she didn't tell you everything about her deal, did she?" Ares laughed, knowing the reversal of roles would hurt Xena. It was something she'd been guilty of herself so many times. He saw her expression, and added, "No, I guess she left a couple things out."
"A couple things?" Xena asked, as if this could get any worse, "There's more I don't know about?"
"Only one more thing, I think." Ares said, drawing his sword. "She said you'd be willing to fight like she did for this chance to bring her back."
"Ares, I do not need this!" Xena yelled in frustration. She saw the sun had touched the sea and it's light was reddening.
Ares leapt forward to attack, forcing Xena to defend with her sword. She was furious and she repelled his strokes with the force of her emotions as well as her arm, but he pressed the attack, and she had to leap away, flipping over his blade to safety. He turned to face her, slipping on the ice, and his left leg shot out, stopping only when his foot struck her saddlebag, sending the contents flying.
Ares recovered his balance while Xena watched in horror as the amphora skittered across the ice and bounced on a rough spot in the path. It teetered at the sheer edge of the trail before slowly tilting up and falling into the abyss below. When she looked back, the grin on Ares' face was the last thing she saw before the blood haze of rage took her.
She came at him like nothing he'd ever fought, and even with his new strength he realized he was no match for her fury. In six swift strokes she had disarmed him, and she flipped over him to kick his blade out of the air and over the edge of the cliff. In the past she would have resheathed her weapon and fought him hand to hand. Not this time. She continued her attack with the broadsword, and had Ares been mortal he would have died many times. Again and again she kicked and punched him. He was forced back to the brink of the cliff when she slammed the pommel of her sword into his face. At last the God of War resorted to throwing fireballs, for he would not vanish until the sun had fully set and his victory was assured.
In his heart he had hoped it would never have come to this. All he had wanted was Xena, and without Gabrielle he had thought there was a chance. How had she found the tomb so quickly? Why did she have to be so obsessed? The Bard's deal had given him so many chances. But now he was forced to be the agent of Xena's failure, and afterwards, could there be any hope for them? The idea that Gabrielle had engineered their estrangement never crossed his mind. No mortal could ever have been so crafty.
In her blind rage Xena wanted nothing but to kill him. Her chance to save her love was gone. Deep inside she held a hope that she could goad the God of War into killing her. She would rejoin Gabrielle this day, whether in life or death. Even in death I will never leave you, she had promised. If he killed her they would both be avenged, leaving him with a legacy of anguish. And so when he started throwing the fireballs, a feral grin came to her lips, for now she had the chance she craved. She dodged them, leaping, rolling, and flipping as the disc of the sun sank into the waves, for she would die at sunset with her hopes. She found her back to the wall of ice, right next to the hole she had labored over for so long. The sun was almost down close enough. She saw the fireball bloom in his hand, and he let it fly. And Xena stood her ground. She didn't move.
The fireball struck Xena full in the chest, slamming her back against the wall of ice. There was a glow around her figure, and the fireball was deflected. It exploded into the hole in the wall, and the sounds of groaning, snapping, and finally falling blocks of ice filled their ears. Xena rolled to the side, her instincts and reflexes saving her as a block calved off the cliff face, smashing into fragments where she had been. The crashing seemed to go on forever, yet in truth it lasted only moments. When Xena lifted her head, she saw the failing rays of the sun falling through a jagged doorway in the wall of ice, and illuminating a coffin. They glinted off the chakram that rested on top. She didn't have time to wonder why she was still alive, and she couldn't see the design glowing on her back.
Ares saw the ragged gap in the ice wall and the tomb within. This was unbelievable. Ever the Warrior Princess had been able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. His plan, almost a gift from Gabrielle, had literally blown up in his face. He shook his head in amazement and frustration.
"Until next time, Xena," he whispered as he vanished. "This isn't over, for I will never give up either."
Xena leapt to her feet, ignoring the cuts, bruises, and pain of the battle. She bounded into the tomb, feeling she couldn't move fast enough. Reaching the coffin she first tried to lift the lid. It was fused shut, frozen solid after almost 80 years in place. Her sword was somewhere outside, so she grabbed the chakram. It took her only three blows before the lid cracked. She dropped the weapon and ripped away the shards of ice, and at last she gently lifted the figure inside. The last ray of light winked out as the sun sank below the sea.
"Oh Gabrielle," Xena choked out, letting her tears fall, "I've got you now. It's alright. You're going to be ok. I've got you, Gabrielle. I just have to warm you up a little and we can get out of here."
Gabrielle was cold as ice, Xena thought, still overcome with relief, looking at her and seeing the blue of her lips and the frost riming her golden hair. She hugged her close, wrapping her arms tightly around her soulmate, trying to wrap her whole body around her for warmth as the twilight's chill surrounded them.
Xena carried her beloved out of the tomb, and wrapped her in a blanket from her saddlebag. After what seemed like forever her partner's body lost its unnatural stiffness, and she lay limp in Xena's arms. Xena seated Gabrielle in her lap, placing the bard's back against her chest, and frantically began rubbing her limbs. Slowly the cold withdrew. She looked as if she were asleep except that she wasn't breathing. The peaceful beauty Xena saw reminded her of another time, one of many when she had awakened a sleepy bard. But that time Gabrielle had been asleep for a year.
Xena turned her soulmate, gently holding her sideways across her lap, supporting her back with one arm, and using her other hand to cradle her head. She tilted her head down, finding the bard's lips with a kiss, and letting her love flow, like enchanted water, filling the woman that held her heart. At first Gabrielle's lips were chilled, like the mountain air around them, but as Xena maintained the kiss they grew warm. Xena felt the change and she didn't break away, for the outpouring of feelings held her in thrall. She didn't notice the exact moment when the kiss was first returned, but she felt when the bard's arms wrapped around her neck, and her lips began moving and opening under her own.
When they finally parted for a moment, they looked into each other's eyes and saw their own love reflected back. It was returned with devotion and strength that would last beyond the world that is, to be reborn into many worlds to come.
"Hey," Gabrielle whispered, nuzzling her head under Xena's chin.
"Hi," Xena replied to her soulmate, clutching her tightly.
"You brought me back to the world." Gabrielle stated with a smile.
"I'm glad I like this world better with you in it." Xena told her, leaning down for another kiss.
"I love you, Xena."
"I love you too, Gabrielle."
"Promise you'll never leave me again?"
"I promise, Gabrielle, not for all the souls in heaven and hell."
Those first moments of reunion were the most joyous either had ever felt. To define the love that they renewed, no words can suffice. For love, two warriors had fought their longest battle, and through love, two warriors had won their greatest victory. And after Japa, their deaths and resurrections, and the loneliness of their time apart, they had no doubts about where their hearts lay. Never again would they be separated by life or death. When Death finally came they would go together by candlelight. No power could rend the tapestry of their lives, interwoven on the loom of destiny, and Death had become their ally.
They made their way slowly down the mountain. The darkness and cold reminded them both of another climb down a distant mountain long years before. But this time they felt a sense of peace and joy, rather than pain and sorrow. It made the trip seem shorter.
That night they camped in the meadow next to the abandoned village and they shared their first meal in almost ninety years. And afterwards they lay together, wrapped in a bedroll by the fire, and they made love. At first their bodies writhed in a blaze of long denied hunger. Later they moved with the rhythm of tenderness, reassuring themselves of the reality they had created. Finally they fell asleep staring at the sky. They had searched the heavens together and decided there were no new stars that night.
On Mt. Olympus the God of War raged. His Warrior Princess was back with her Bard and for now Xena probably hated him. Still, he had been the one who had brought her back to life. That meant he had made their reunion possible. And he had just been fulfilling his part of Gabrielle's deal. When he actually thought about it, he realized he didn't really hate Gabrielle either; she was a better warrior than most. So he would watch and wait; after all, he had eternity. And in the meantime he smiled and threw another fireball, toppling a wall, and lightning split the sky. The game he played with Xena was on again.
Above the thunder, the laughter of the Goddess of Love could be heard as she watched the rejoined lovers in her mirror.
"Little One, your plan succeeded down to the last detail, and I'm so very proud of you. But when are you going to tell Xena about the dragon you had me put on her back?" Aphrodite wondered. "It's another link between you. Now it's time for both of you to settle down for a while. Xena's already a great great grandmother, and in five months Gabrielle will have a family to start."
The End of The Beginning
For There will be Many Lives
And Many More Adventures
Gabrielle's daughter, Hope, was the spawn of the God Dahak, the ultimate evil. Now she and Xena are looking forward to the birth of her second child will it truly be a child of the God of Love?
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