THE HEART OF THE MATTER
It was over. The dream that had filled her days and nights for what seemed like forever had come to a screeching halt in a land as alien to Gabrielle as the moon.
The companion of her days, the consolation of her sorrows, her teacher, her friend, the love of her life, had ceased to be.
Ultimately, she had chosen to die, because that abstract concept they had built their lives around, the "greater good", had meant more to Xena than it did to Gabrielle.
For the bard, there was nothing more important than Xena. Nothing. Xena first, then everything else. She'd faced the truth of it on that frozen mountain when, grudgingly, she'd allowed Xena's words to penetrate the shroud of pain that bound her from the moment she'd seen her soulmate's lifeless body hanging like a hunting trophy in the courtyard of some cowardly warlord.
Her worst nightmare, and there had been many over the years, could not have prepared her for this.
The same body that on countless occasions had stood so fearlessly between her and certain death. The same dear hands that could hold an army at bay, and yet be infinitely, achingly tender when they touched her. The same strong arms that held her so safely, through passion or pain. All the same ... yet so unspeakably altered.
This was no abstract concept, no philosophical ideal that hung before her. It was her dearest love, who in death had been shamefully exposed to insolent stares and coarse utterings. The weight of the pain she felt threatened to crush the very breath from her body, and for a moment, she welcomed the thought.
Then she saw the blood and remembered Xena's words: Be careful, Gabrielle. Blood will have blood.
It had been a warning, then. Now, it became a quest. She would have blood. She would avenge Xena's murder.
But when the moment came, she refused to give the coward who had taken Xena's life the honorable death he craved. She had dishonored him before his men. Now she would let his shame kill him, a thousand times over. Much better this way. Xena would approve.
With trembling hands, she had oh-so-carefully wrapped a silken cloth around her love, anxious to keep unworthy eyes from seeing what belonged only to her. And grateful that the rain hid her tears, for warriors didn't cry, and she had now become the warrior she had set out to be, so long ago. But at what price?
She had given up her home, her family, her daughter, all for Xena and a dream. She'd put aside the dream of being peacemaker to the world, when she'd finally realized that sometimes, the only way to gain peace was through violence. And that realization had cost her a part of her soul. Would she do it again, knowing what she now knew? In a heartbeat. Without question. Because through it all, always, ALWAYS, there was Xena.
And there would be, again. There was never a doubt in her mind.
She would bring her back.
The crushing sense of loss had been mitigated for the moment by that welcome thought. They had cheated death before; they could do it again. And again. However many times it took to be together.
Their love was stronger than death. Xena had said so. It transcended Good and Evil. It was an end in itself. Gabrielle believed in that love as she believed in nothing else in her life ... except Xena.
Yes, she would bring Xena back.
And she'd done everything in her power to make that happen. Everything that needed to be done, she had done magnificently. The girl from Potadeia had dreamed of becoming a warrior worthy of her mentor. And so she had. It had all come together here, on this foreign soil, because it had to. The stakes were too great for her to fail now. She'd left nothing undone, even coming face to face with the woman who had once owned Xena's heart. That had been the hardest thing to do, but she' done it. No sacrifice was too great if it meant having Xena alive again.
But in the end, it had all been for naught.
Xena wouldn't have it. There were forty thousand souls that stood between her and Gabrielle. Forty thousand souls whose very salvation depended on Xena's staying dead.
Over the course of their life together, anchored by Gabrielle's constant example and her own shame over the inexcusable cruelty of her youth, a deep well of compassion had sprung up within her. And every time she'd been confronted by another ghost from her past, the well had deepened. And now it threatened to drown her unless she made the ultimate sacrifice and put things right.
It was simple, really. Her life with Gabrielle in exchange for forty thousand souls. The one against the many. Devastatingly simple. But how could she explain that to Gabrielle? And so, as she had so many times before, Xena opted for silence.
But when Yodoshi had been destroyed and the trapped souls had been set free, she had finally told Gabrielle the whole truth. And her answer had shocked them both: Gabrielle didn't care. For the first time in her life, the Greater Good had faded before the possibility of losing the other half of her soul.
That is not right, she had said, so sadly. I don't care. You're all that matters to me. I love you, Xena. How am I supposed to go on without you?
Xena realized that only Time and Gabrielle could answer that question, All she could offer was her most solemn vow, one she had made before, and just as heartfelt then, as now -
I will always be with you, Gabrielle.
* * *
Facing the lonely voyage home, and a life without her soulmate, Gabrielle stood sadly at the railing of the boat that had brought them to this land and would now take her back, alone. But take her back to what? Where would she go?
Suddenly, she wasn't alone anymore. There was Xena by her side again, smiling and asking her the very same question,
"So where to, now?"
She was surprised at how quickly her answer had come, echoing Xena's words of what now seemed a lifetime ago:
"I think we should go South, to the land of the Pharaohs. I hear they need a girl with a chakram."
"Where you go, I'm at your side."
"I knew you'd say that."
And so, to Egypt they would go. Together.
But first, there was one stop to be made.
* * *
And one quiet afternoon, some weeks later and alone by choice, she'd entered the crypt that held the remains of Xena's family.
It was something she felt she needed to do by herself. Just one look at the warrior, whose eyes had become the repository of all earthly compassion, assured her that Xena understood the pain that awaited her within those walls and would afford her the privacy she needed.
As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she became aware of two new stone caskets, flanking the one that she sought. On the newer of the two, chiseled in five inch letters, was this simple inscription:
That was a surprise, and her thoughts had rushed back to the time she'd first met Xena's older brother. So different from his sister! He hadn't made the greatest impression then, even on her kind heart. Living in Xena's shadow had never come easy to him. But she now found herself wishing fervently that he'd been able to come to terms with his own shortcomings, and had, at last, found peace.
She moved on to the second casket, already knowing what she'd find written there:
BELOVED MOTHER TO
XENA OF AMPHIPOLIS - DEFENDER OF THE WEAK
Seeing her partner's embellished name brought a little smile to her face, knowing full well that Xena had never commissioned the local stonemason to write that particular epithet.
I wonder what she'll say to him, when she sees him ... but that can never happen now, can it?
She was totally unprepared for the enormous wave of sadness that descended on her at the thought of Xena never again being a part of the physical world. The finality of it almost dragged her under. But she squeezed her eyes tightly shut and let it pass over her, grateful that Xena wasn't here to witness her distress.
I promise you, Xena, I will never let you see my sadness. I CAN spare you that, and I WILL.
Only one casket remained, and as she approached it, she let her hand come to rest on the cheek of the rudely carved stone face that adorned the lid. Then she began to speak -
"Hello, Ly. You don't mind if I call you that, do you? It's how she always refers to you and I guess I've gotten used to hearing it over the years and thinking of you as "Ly" too.
I'm Gabrielle. Has she ever told you about me, Ly? That I'm the daughter of a farmer? That she rescued me from a warlord and in the process, rendered me completely useless for farm life? That the first time we locked eyes, I knew that where she was, was where I wanted to be?
She dazzled me, Ly. I never really had a choice, it was always so clear to me. It took her a little longer, though. But somehow, I think we both always knew....
I love her, Ly, so very much. And I promised her, a long time ago, that if this day ever came I would bring her home ... and I have."
She carried a soft leather bag draped across one shoulder and she reached into it now, retrieving from it a small, round black box. Her hands trembled as she tightened them securely around this most precious object.
Slowly, she raised it to her lips, letting them linger there as her tears anointed the ebony surface.
And then the picture show began running in her head, several lifetimes worth of memories crammed impossibly into six short years.
Beginning ... and ending ... with Xena.
Her very first look at the Warrior Princess, followed closely by slavers, Draco, Titans, Hercules, Iolaus, giants, Callisto, Joxer, the whole pantheon of Olympian gods, amazons, Ephiny, Dahok, Hope, Eve, centaurs, kings. And warlords; a seemingly endless parade of them liberally interspersed among the memories, good and bad.
Always, always, warlords. And death.
It went on and on, relentless images and feelings that threatened to steal her breath away, because she knew where they would ultimately end - on the side of a mountain in some foreign land that meant nothing to her, except as the place where all her dreams had come to a shattering end.
She let herself cry then, as she had never cried before, for the death of that dream and the one who had inspired it.
The unthinkable had happened. Xena was gone. No more miraculous revivals. The one chance to bring her back had come and gone. No, Xena would not be coming back to her, in this lifetime.
What awaited her outside these walls was the essence of the woman she loved, and who loved her so completely that, even in death, she could not, would not leave her.
A stultifying grief enveloped her, and she let it take her over, allowed herself this moment of mourning, because she knew there could never be another.
She would keep the vow so newly made; Xena must never see her grieve.
And somehow, they would go on. But it would never, could never be the same. How could it be?
Gradually, the hard, wracking sobs subsided and Gabrielle again addressed the young boy whom she knew to be the only other person, besides herself, to have given Xena the most precious gift one heart can give another: unconditional love.
"I'm sorry, Ly, but I really needed to do that," she said, as the one hand that wasn't holding the little box tightly against her breast began wiping away the tears that stained her face.
"It's so peaceful here, Ly. Nothing bad can touch her here. It's where she wanted to be ... as close to you as possible.
And one day, some kind soul will bring me back here, because I belong here, too, with her. She is a part of me, Ly, and I want it to be that way, forever."
The floodgates threatened to reopen then, but the innate courage that had once brought her to the attention of a certain down-and-out ex-warlord, and had characterized every waking moment of her life, since, wouldn't permit it.
Instead, she'd taken hold of the heavy lid with her free hand and had heaved mightily until she had a clear view of the casket's interior.
The moment she had long dreaded was upon her at last.
But, wonder of wonders, she felt no pain or despair now, as a heady mix of hope mingled with purest love suffused her being and lightened her heart. Tears of joy coursed down her cheeks, washing away the dark veil of pain that had, until that moment, kept her from seeing the truth.
Her warrior was finally at peace.
She had fought the good fight and had paid the ultimate price. But in the process, she had truly redeemed herself. Sword and chakram could be set aside; they had served their purpose. All the battles for her soul had been fought.
And Xena had won the war.
The old crypt had never heard the sound of laughter before, but it fairly rang with it now, as peal after peal of the joyous sound that emanated straight from Gabrielle's soul echoed off its stony walls.
"Oh, Love, you did it! We did it! You've found your peace at last! How can I be unhappy, knowing that?
You've given me so much, Xena. Everything I am, I owe to you. And now I can give you something in return. It won't be easy, but I'm strong enough to do this now, thanks to you.
Xena, I release you from your vow. I'll never be alone, don't you see? You'll always be with me, because your love is alive in my heart, and always will be. Nothing can ever change that. Nothing ever will.
This is one journey where you get to go first. But I'll be right behind you, Xena. I'm going to keep you so busy, sending you my thoughts every day, that you won't get a chance to miss me. Wait for me, Love. I'm only a little way behind you."
She lifted the box to her lips one last time, and put every bit of love she possessed into that final kiss. She placed it gently in the casket, then, exactly where Lyceus' heart would have been.
"Go in peace, my Love, go in peace."
It happened so fast that Gabrielle never got a chance to doubt her own eyes. With a tiny sound that more than anything else resembled a heartfelt sigh, a small white cloud burst free of the little black box. And as it passed her, a fragile tendril separated itself from the rest and brushed softly against her cheek. And in that timeless moment, Gabrielle experienced Rapture.
It left her breathless, shaken, but supremely happy, for she recognized it for what it was: a promise of things to come.
The air around her seemed to resonate with a sound that was just beyond her hearing, coming closer and closer until, finallly, it had penetrated the deepest reaches of her soul.
And then ... silence.
* * *
The last person the stonemason had expected to see in his shop that day was the little Bard of Potadeia. It was early evening, and he was just about to close for the day, when she'd walked in.
The first thing that struck him was a sense of something missing. What could it.... Of course, the warrior! Those two were never far apart.
"Welcome, Gabrielle! How nice to see you back in Amphipolis! Have you just arrived? Where's Xena? Isn't she with you, this trip?"
"No ... not this trip."
Phineas had never been the sharpest tack in the box, but even he could hear the note of sadness in her voice, and something else that he couldn't quite identify. He didn't let that little detail keep him from speculating, though.
Must've had a lovers' quarrel. Poor little thing. Strange, though. Never saw two people more devoted to each other.
"And how may I help you today, lass? Have you come about Toris? No need, I assure you. Only too glad to help. Did it as a service to his mother. Wonderful woman, she was. And gods, how she could cook!"
"No, I'm not here about that, but thank you, Phineas. I'm sure Cyrene would thank you, too, if she could."
"Well, well, never mind that. Is there something you're needing, Gabrielle?"
"If you could spare me a bit of parchment, and a quill and some ink, I'll write down what I want."
The writing materials were quickly produced, and the bard spent a moment in thought before she began to write.
It was soon done and out of the corner of his eye, Phineas saw the young woman gently lay the palm of her hand on the words she had just written, then briefly close her eyes.
A moment later, she'd handed him the folded bit of parchment along with a few coins she'd taken from a small pouch she kept tucked in her belt.
"I want this added to the inscription on Lyceus' casket. Can you do that for me right away, Phineas? It's important."
"Of course, lass. I'll start bright and early tomorrow morning. Anything for you and the warrior, Gabrielle. Always at your service."
"Thank you, Phineas."
"Will you be staying long, lass?"
"No. I'm on my way back to the coast. I'm afraid I have one more sea voyage ahead of me."
"Ah! Wish I could join you. Always loved the sea. Give my best to Xena when you see her, won't you? And tell her not to be such a stranger."
There was that look again. What was it?
"I will. And thanks."
She turned then, and he watched her walk away. And as she did, he saw her square her shoulders and lift her head high, striding like someone with a purpose.
"Whatever the lass wrote surely made her feel better. I'm glad of it."
He remembered the piece of parchment still held in his hand and opened it now, curious as to what had produced the marked change in the girl's demeanor.
What he found there left him totally confused, wondering how such a lovely, healthy young woman in the prime of life could possibly find solace in such morbid thoughts
But ... his was not to reason why, and on the morrow, bright and early as promised, he'd begun his task. And before the day was was through, Gabrielle's written words had been as permanently etched in stone as they were in her heart.
XENA OF AMPHIPOLIS GABRIELLE OF POTADEIA
TOGETHER IN LIFE
NOT SEPARATED IN DEATH
* * *
She awoke to the pleasant sound of rushing water. So peaceful, at first. But as she surfaced from a fitful sleep, it only served to remind her of other voyages, and other times.
Aboard yet another ship, this one bound for Egypt and ... what? A life without Xena?
Quickly she shook her head, then shook it again, determined to quell the riot of thoughts that clamored to be heard. She would think about this later. Just not now.
It was dark and cramped in this little cubbyhole of a space she'd called home for the last few weeks. And being below deck only helped intensify that all-too-familiar queasy feeling in her stomach. Oddly enough, it brought with it a rather vivid recollection of her first bout of seasickness.
Gods! That acursed voyage to Ithaca aboard Ulysses' ship. What a nightmare that had been ... sick of body and spirit.
It had also been her first encounter with the green-eyed monster. Unfortunately for Gabrielle, it wouldn't be her last. Even Japa had brought its share of that.
But over the years, Gabrielle had come to understand that Xena might have had other loves before her, but none since. They belonged together; they shared a soul. Nothing could ever come between them ... except death. And even that obstacle would be conquered. They would be together again. It was just a matter of time....
But what about now? What would she do with the rest of her life?
She was very vulnerable, just then, and the old insecurities, long forgotten, now tried to reassert themselves. But she shook them off, certain that the little girl was gone forever and the woman who now stood in her place was very capable of taking care of herself. Xena had seen to that.
If Xena's mantle now fell to her, then so be it. She would wear it proudly and do it justice, however heavy it sat upon her slim shoulders.
I'll be a warrior. Isn't that what I've always wanted? Well, I've got my wish now. I just have to learn to do it without Xena.
Suddenly, the enclosed space became unbearable, and rising quickly, she she stumbled her way through the murky darkness, in her haste to leave that horrid thought behind.
Once outside, she filled her lungs with the clean, salty air, letting it revive her and clear her mind.
Apollo was just beginning hie daily journey across the heavens, bringing light and color back into the world. She watched as the Sun's fingers painted every delicate hue of the rainbow across the broad, empty canvas that was the sky.
How many times had they stood together at the railings of a hundred nameless ships, and watched this same miracle unfold before them? How many times had she taken for granted the warmth of Xena's strong arms around her, warding off the early morning chill?
And why hadn't she realized that this last time would be just that ... the last time they would see the Sun rise, together.
But those thoughts could only lead to madness. She needed to set her sights on the future, however bleak it loomed before her. They would reach Egypt this very day. Could she carry on without her Love, her soulmate? She was determined to try.
But only time would tell.
* * *
It hadn't taken long for Gabrielle to reestablish the ties they had made on their last trip here. Many still remembered them, gratefully, and she was made welcome by both Rome's legions and Pharaoh's court.
One day, she'd listened patiently as a group of Rome's military elite had expounded, loud and long, on Xena's military greatness. Gabrielle wisely understood that their generous praise, which rung hollow in her ears, was due solely to the fact that Xena no longer constituted a threat to them.
It brought a little smile to he face, as she imagined how quickly one look from Xena would have deflated the pompous windbag who was now singing her praises. She knew him to be the very same man who had once warned Octavius of the "inherent danger" of trusting the Warrior Princess.
But if the Roman generals had been predictable in their duplicity, the reception she received from the rank-and-file, was not.
One by one, they sought her out, eager to share with her their own memories of the woman they remembered as "the General."
Gabrielle was deeply touched by their words, for even the lowliest foot-soldier seemed to understand where Xena's true military greatness lay: every life had been precious to her and she had cared about them, to a man.
And while all too often, their own leaders had flung them at the enemy like so much cannon fodder, Xena had found a way to win the battle without decimating their ranks. And for those men, that was the true mark of greatness.
* * *
And so, the years had slipped by, and Gabrielle's life became a tapestry, a seamless mosaic of heroic deeds, one flowing smoothly into the next. The people had found a friend and a defender in this unlikeliest of warriors.
Gabrielle had soon learned that bullies were the same, the world over. They just had to be taught how to play nice. And she was especially good at doing that. Some of them just needed more "encouragement" than others. But eventually, they got the idea.
She never lingered long in one place, leaving many grateful friends in her wake, but never singling anyone out.
The odd weapon she carried tied to her belt soon had a reputation of its own. But it was noted among the people she helped that she used it sparingly, and only on the very wicked.
She was friendly and kind, and always had a ready smile for anyone who deserved it. She was a godsend to them and quietly, they worshipped her.
But if they could have seen into her heart, they would have been shocked to find it, not only empty but joyless.
What she had once considered her main goal in life, becoming a warrior like Xena, had turned to ashes in her mouth.
No longer a dream, the reality had proven to be hard work. And while she would always find satisfaction in helping those who needed her, the joy had long ago gone out of it for her.
Because the Joy, the Dream, had always been Xena. It was so clear to her now. She laughed when she realized that if Xena had been a blacksmith when they'd first met, she, Gabrielle, would now be happily turning out horseshoes by the bushel!
But Xena had been a warrior. And in order for Gabrielle to share her life, she'd had to share her dream, too. And so she had. Joyously. Until now.
It didn't come as some great revelation, accompanied by thunderclaps ans lightning bolts. No. One day, she woke up and knew that she could not continue to live this way. Her heart was dead and, unless she did something quickly, her soul would soon follow.
It wasn't long after this that she'd received word from home, from he niece Sara, that Lila was ailing and wanted to see her.
There had been no house to close up, no worldly goods to store ... she had neither. She'd just worked her way to the nearest port and had boarded the first ship headed North.
* * *
Greece was ... still Greece. Nothing much seemed to have changed. Perhaps there were fewer warlords roaming the countryside. Or maybe it just seemed that way to her.
She found a warm reception in Potadeia. Lila was indeed very ill, but overjoyed to see her sister again, after so many years.
"You look the same, Gabrielle. The years haven't touched you."
How fervently Gabrielle had wished that she could say the same of Lila! But though age and illness had caught up with her, she could still see traces of the little girl who had shared her youth and knew all her dreams.
Placing her hand gently on Lila's cheek, Gabrielle had smiled and said, "You'll always be beautiful to me, Lila."
The faded eyes closed for a moment, and when they opened, there was a hint of the old merriment that Gabrielle had always found so endearing.
"You never could lie worth a darn, Gab. I always knew when you did."
"Ah, now you tell me."
They looked into each other's eyes then, these two sisters who had lived such different lives and who'd been apart far longer than they'd been together. Yet, the bond between siblings can be just as strong as the bond between lovers; they just used different modes of expression. And no amount of time or distance could ever alter that.
It was certainly true for these two women, who exchanged, in that one look, a lifetime's worth of understanding and affection. There really was no need for words between them, it was all said in an instant.
Gabrielle could see that after Sara had returned home, Lila's life had been filled with a serene happiness, surrounded as she was by her daughter's love and the grandchildren that now played quietly outside he bedroom door.
And Lila ... how could she not see the sadness that clung to Gabrielle as tenaciously as a hungry wolf to its prey?
"You miss her ... still." It was a simple statement of fact.
Their eyes met again.
"Will you be going back to Egypt?"
"No. No, there's nothing for me, there. Do you know, Lila, as soon as the boat docked, I felt a sense of peace that's been missing from my life for a very long time. Almost as if I'd been welcomed home ... perhaps I was."
Lila's old heart rejoiced to see the beautiful smile return to her sister's face.
"You'll stay in Greece, then?" It was hard for her to ignore the hopeful look in Lila's eyes.
"Yes. Yes, I think I will. This is where I first met her, Lila, where I first loved her. There isn't a place here that doesn't hold a special memory for me. It's where I feel closest to her."
"Then stay with us, Gabrielle. We're your family and we love you."
"All right, Lila, I will ... for a while."
And so she had. But after Lila's passing, which had been as quiet and uneventful as her life, Gabrielle had again grown restless.and she moved on, always searching for that place she could finally call "home."
* * *
The sun was about to set as Gabrielle looked around her, wondering where she'd put her shawl. It had a way of disappearing on her, almost playfully, as if it liked hiding, so that she'd have to come find it.
A search of her bedroom failed to produce it and ahe wandered into the large, comfortable sitting room, wondering where it would turn up, this time. She passed the open window that looked out onto the gardens, and to the sea, beyond. Below it was an enormous wooden table, groaning under the weight it held. There were her writings, her works-in-progress, and scrolls. Scores and scores of scroll, arranged in what Gabrielle like to call "controlled chaos."
Many of the scrolls were from her admirers, who often felt the need to let her know how this play or that poem had changed their lives, or given them the courage to dare to be different.
She had just answered one, to a young girl who was struggling to find her way in life.
'Pick your path and then keep to it. Only you can decide what's right for you. And just remember, the word "can't" doesn't exist, unless you want it to.'
"Hey, it worked for me!" She smiled, remembering that after Xena was gone, she'd had to relearn that lesson. And now she cleaved to it, like a nun to her habit, because it had given her a sense of purpose and a reason to live, when she'd most needed both.
Lila's passing had severed the last ties to her old life. And after wandering through Greece, reacquainting herself with her homeland, Gabrielle had chanced upon this spot, situated halfway between Amphipolis and Potadeia.
It had been love at first sight, almost as if she'd lived there before, but of course, she hadn't.
It wassn't 'til years later, when her literary success had made it possible for her to buy the land and build her house, that Gabrielle had finally made the connection.
It was the same house, sitting in the same vineyard, overlooking the same expanse of sea, that she had inhabited in that other timeline that Caeser had created. A world where Xena had belonged to him, and Gabrielle had never known love.
At first, it shocked her to the marrow. But gradually, she came to understand what Xena had said, then ... that everything happens precisely as it should.
Here was that timeline again, but in reverse. For in this life, when Gabrielle wrote about love, it was through an intimate knowledge of the subject, not just some words on a parchment. And it made all the difference. And so, she'd lived her life here in relative happiness. With a small circle of friends who knew her goodness and her talent, but not her heart. That was always closely guarded.
And though her poems of love were celebrated and admired, far and wide, for their passion, the world would have marveled, had it known the wealth of that emotion she kept locked away within herself, waiting patiently for the one who held the only key.
"Ah, there you are!", she said, as the fringe of the shawl she sought peeked out at her from among a pile of cushions. "Took me long enough to find you. It's almost time."
She made her way down to the beach that lay at the foot of the cliff, carefully holding on to the rope which had been permanently afixed there, to aid her descent.
It was the highlight of her day, this little journey to watch the sunset. She'd done it on the very first day she'd happened upon this spot, and every day since, throughout the long years.
Someone had asked her, once, what it was she saw there, in the distance. And she had answered, " A pair of eyes."
There were those who thought her rude, as she had on several occasions, often in the middle of a conversation, excused herself and left the house. Only to return minutes later with the most beatific smile on her face, and seemingly aglow with happiness. And all was forgiven, then ... it didn't matter what she thought she'd seen, as long as it kept that radiant smile on her face.
She stepped off the last step and walked along the sandy beach, towards a stone bench that faced the sea. She was barefoot, as always, and wore her signature long white dress, with the little shawl wrapped around her shoulders.
As she watched the sun begin its slow descent into the sea, she felt a sudden chill, and wrapped the shawl a little tighter around herself.
"Autumn will be here soon. I can feel it in the air."
Apollo's firey disc had just touched the horizon; the moment was at hand. In a second, she would see her Love's beautiful eyes, shining through the last rays of the sun.
She waited, but no loving eyes appeared. It shocked her a little; this had never happened before.
What was happening? Was the sky glowing? Gabrielle had to shut her eyes agains the brilliance of the light.
And then, the world around her seemed to hold its breath, as if waiting for.... It was just a tiny speck in the distance, and though Gabrielle's eyes were no longer as keen as they'd once been, she could see it clearly.
It was coming towards her, moving at a great speed.
What was it? It sounded like....
But that was impossible! Wasn't it?
It sounded like hoofbeats. But what horse left no trail on a sandy beach?
She watched, breathless, as it came closer and closer.
And then, she saw it - the unmistakable white mane, setting off a coat that was the color of spun gold. And on its magnificent back rode....
Gabrielle let out a little scream, her last upon this earth, and took off running, calling to the rider who was fast approaching.
And then ... a strong arm was lowered to her waiting grasp, and she clung to it joyously as she was easily lifted onto the back of the noble steed.
Her arms tightly circled the rider's waist. And as she rested her cheek on the broad, familiar back, she whispered the words she had been longing to say for such a long time:
"I knew you'd come for me."
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