Not for the first time in these many weeks Gabrielle tries to make sense of the situation into which she has put herself. Sitting on the edge of the bed in her new residence she ponders not only the events proceeding her arrival but also this most recent altercation. None of what has happened after that day on the beach with Xena seems real. None of it. Especially when she looks at her reflection.
That in mind she walks over to a small table on which rests a basin of water. Looking into the still surface of the water she gazes into the face of a stranger. In the reflection is a woman some years younger than herself. Hair that is long, red and tightly braided instead of short and blonde. Grey eyes instead of green. High cheek bones. A smaller nose. Thin lips that at first made speaking a bit difficult. Several times a day she gazes into the face of Sotira to remind herself that she isn't Gabrielle anymore. At least not in body. Thanks to Aphrodite.
The world around her becomes a golden brilliance then she finds herself kneeling not on a beach but in a dense forest. A deer which was most likely grazing nearby dashes away at her sudden appearance. A soft wind kisses her bare flesh and she shivers. The warm, dry heat of the beach has given way to the cool, brisk winds of this land. Wherever it is. She's no idea where the goddess of love has sent her. She wraps her arms around herself and ponders her next course of action. Truly she had given that no thought when she had begged Aphrodite to send her away from Xena.
The thought of the warrior princess causes Gabrielle to tremble more. Though not with cold. But with rage and fear. Rage at what she had done and fear that she may have ostracized herself from her soul mate forever. Without realizing it her hand reached back to rub her head where it had been cracked open so recently. There is no wound. Not even a scar. Thanks to Ares. To have been saved by him! By the very bastard that had murdered Eli! The hatred she feels for the god of war courses through with a vigor she has never thought possible. Of all the misery he has brought into her life it is strange that her hate of him is now multiplied not by any act of violence but by his sacrifice. Perhaps it is because it is a sacrifice that should not have had to be made had Xena not killed her! Absentmindedly her hand leaves her head to trail down her spine and rub at the small of her back. The flesh there feels irritated for some reason.
A shower of golden light announces the arrival of Aphrodite. The goddess stands before her looking down into her eyes.
“Thank you,” Gabrielle says feeling the anger and hate subsiding. Being in the presence of her friend seems to have something of a calming effect on her and she forgets the sensations in her head and back.
Aphrodite kneels down to be at eye level with Gabrielle. “You are welcome. But Xena is right. There is something wrong.” She reaches out and places one of her black gloved hands over Gabrielle's heart. Despite the intimacy of the contact Gabrielle does nothing to stop her. For one instant the goddess of love is terrified when she feels no heartbeat beneath her hand. Then there is a hard thump in the mortal's chest. It is another few seconds before she feels another one. “Your heart…”
Gabrielle cuts her off by seizing her wrist and pulling it away from her chest. “The only thing wrong with my heart is that it's been shattered by betrayal!” She shoots to her feet and starts looking around. “Where are we?”
Still kneeling Aphrodite looks up into the pained countenance of her only true friend in all the world. She wishes with all her heart that she could erase the horrors visited upon her by Athena and the Furies. It appalled her that Athena had been capable of using the bard as she did against Xena and Eve. She remembers a time in the past when such actions would have been as abhorrent to the goddess of war and wisdom as they are to her. But over the years she had seen a change in her sister. A leaning more towards war than wisdom. It had begun decades ago with the emergence of Dahak. That dark, malevolent god had crawled its way of out the nether abyss and with his foul spawn had sought to end not just the Olympians dominance but their very existence. Never before had anyone or anything dared to challenge them so. Even Hercules with all his defiance had never sought them harm despite all that Hera and Ares had done to him. It was the first hint that Olympus was vulnerable. From that time on Athena seemed to become more and more like Ares. Her heart hardened and her attitude cynical. And with the fall of Zeus she had assumed the throne. From then on she had done whatever was necessary to halt the Twilight. No matter the cost to anyone else.
And it has cost Gabrielle a great deal. She stands and answers the bard's question. “The Steppes.”
“The Amazons. Cyane's tribe.” Gabrielle looks around her half expected leather clad women to drop from the trees. “It was decades ago that I was last here but some of them will recognize me. I don't think this will work.”
That Gabrielle used the singular “I” instead of “we” shows just how deeply her resentment of Xena now runs. “It will little one.” Aphrodite steps forward placing her hands on Gabrielle's shoulder.
Instantly Gabrielle feels herself suffused with a lightness of physical being as well as a deep burning sensation coursing under her skin. The goddess places her right hand on the top of Gabrielle's head then runs it back along the length of her hair. She can feel her hair tingling as the hand moves down the back of her head. Then she stares in shock when Aphrodite's hand comes back over her left shoulder holding long, tightly braided red hair. The goddess lets go and the braided tress falls onto her chest. Then Aphrodite places her left hand over her eyes and passes it over her face. The same tingling sensation she felt in her hair flows over her face. When the hand no longer covers her eyes, Gabrielle is certain her vision is slightly off somehow. Her face feels slightly numb for a second or so. Aphrodite steps away and holds her hands out level with her chest and proceeds to lower the slowly. The tingling and subsequent numbness cascades over her from neck to feet.
“There,” Aphrodite remarks crossing her arms and looking over her handiwork. “That should do it.”
Still confused Gabrielle looks down and finds herself substantially altered. She is certain she is looking down at the ground from a slightly greater height than she ever has before. In an uncharacteristically self conscious moment she is mortified to find her breasts reduced in size. Her clothes are no longer the warrior's garb she has worn these past years. Instead she wears a travelling cloak wrapped at her waist with a weaved leather belt from which hangs a pouch of provisions. And in her hand is a staff not so dissimilar to the one given to her by Ephiny so long ago. The shock of her transformation is so complete that not even the thought of her decades dead Amazon sister pains her.
Aphrodite holds up her hand in which materializes a mirror. Gabrielle stares into it to find a face not her own staring back.
“What have you done to me?” she finally manages to ask.
The mirror vanishes with a movement of the goddess's hand. “You want to hide. To not be known or found. This is the best way. To be someone else. The form was my choice. The name will have to be yours.”
At first shocked and mildly angry, Gabrielle now sees Aphrodite's actions for the gift they are. “Thank you.” She starts to move forward to hug the goddess but balks at the idea. Is it appropriate to hug her?
Aphrodite answers the question by stepping forward to hold the girl in a sisterly embrace. “Take care little one.” She plants a kiss on the bard's cheek before vanishing from sight in a shower of golden light.
Alone Gabrielle takes in her surroundings and tries to determine where she is in order to make her way to the village.
She cups her hands into the water and splashes some briskly on her face. She leans heavily on the table trying to focus her mind back to the here and now. Her time with the Amazons has proven Aphrodite correct. She is well hidden. Xena has not come here seeking her. Most likely she has gone either to Potidaea or to the Greek Amazon tribe. Not that it truly matters. Were Xena to walk right up to her she would never recognize Sotira .
That she has remained hidden is good. But what seems to be happening around her is not. Since the moment she walked into the village she has been met with hostility, either subdued or outright. Today's challenge is yet another example of it. And while she is sure Cyane's edict will be obeyed she is not under the illusion that the others will suddenly becomes her best friends. And it is not just the Amazons. Just last week when she had traveled to a nearby settlement to buy herself some supplies she was attacked twice by complete strangers. The anger in the settlement culminated in her being confronted by a crowd of a dozen villagers. And rather than start a riot she had run from them and the settlement. Several of the people had actually pursued her for a time but gave up when she outdistanced them. What about her is causing this? Unconsciously she reaches behind her to knuckle the small of her back.
Then there is her heart. She puts a hand on her chest and holds it there. She feels the thump of her heartbeat then the seconds of nothing followed by another beat. So much has happened to her recently. The decades of entombment. The death of Joxer. The Furies. Her death at Xena's hands and her resurrection at Ares'. She cannot help but think it's all culminated into something terrible. Something that has fundamentally transformed her heart and soul the same way Aphrodite transformed her body. She was not wrong to ask the shamaness what is wrong with her.
Which brings to mind the recent memory of Iolanthe's touch. She reaches up to lay her fingertips against the cheek the other woman touched with such tenderness. She is not so naïve about her own people, the Amazons, to believe that all intimacy only occurs with men from outside their culture. Just as men cloistered away for years in Sparta or Rome for military training with only other men for companionship will seek intimacy with their peers, so is it among the Amazons.
It is also not lost to her that she has not been intimate with anyone since Perdicas. And while in their travels Xena never once suggested she seek out a lover she is certain the warrior princess wished her some kind of happiness in that regard. After her husband's murder it became difficult for her to even consider becoming close in a romantic fashion with anyone. And she was certainly tempted for that very ideal every so often. While learning from him there were occasions she wished Eli could become more than her teacher. Even Brutus, before his turn to murder and deceit, appealed to her with his honesty and diplomatic nature. But always in the back of her mind was the fear that anyone she became intimate with would suffer Perdicas's fate.
And while the attraction to another of her own gender has clearly never been foremost in her mind , she has throughout her travels met many beautiful women. Xena , of course. It was no surprise that during that first encounter with the Amazons in Greece some of them seemed anxious to spend time with the dark warrior princess. Callisto and Najara , for all their madness, were beautiful in their own rights. The Greek Amazons were certainly paragons of beauty and strength. Her thoughts stray to Ephiny. Dead these many decades. Dead at the hands of Brutus. The thought of the Roman's death at her hands brought no small amount of satisfaction to her. Her sister had been avenged. It is the mark of her evolution from that farm girl she once was that she took fulfillment in his demise when she could not slay Callisto for the death of Perdicas. She is still unsure now whether that is a good thing or not. Whereas Xena had been the epitome of the warrior she sought to be , Ephiny had been her ideal of womanhood. Strong. Courageous. Independent. And loyal. “Ephiny would never have betrayed me,” she says aloud once more rubbing the back of her head.
Iolanthe shares many of the same traits as her deceased sister. Many if not all. Perhaps that is why she tried to open up to the shamaness. And would have opened up more had the other woman's actions not surprised her so utterly.
She leans over the table looking into the still water in the bowl again. Hr eyes widen in horror at what she sees. Staring back at her is not the countenance of Sotira. But Gabrielle! She brings her hand to her face in shock but in the next instant the reflection is once again the grey eyed, red haired Sotira. Gabrielle shakes her head trying to comprehend what she just saw. Clearly she is pondering the past too much and it is causing her to see things. Or it may be another symptom of her “condition.” Whatever it may be.
Perhaps she should seek out Iolanthe and apologize. The woman's actions were not malicious in any way after all. Quite the opposite if her supposition is correct. She knows the shamaness could be of help to her. She walks back to sit on the bed. This brief soul searching has left her a bit more drained than she thought. Swinging her legs up she lays out on the bed. She looks to her left noticing how much room there still is beside her. More than enough room for someone else. Unbidden memories of sharing a bed with Perdicas leap to mind. She remembers how he had grown sick of war. Sick of death. How he had sought solace with her. How she had freely given it. How that intimate companionship had helped heal the scars in his heart and soul. Similar scars run deeply in her now. Perhaps deeper than his. Maybe she has been alone too long in that aspect. Could such an intimate companionship grant her solace as well. She closes her eyes pondering the possibilities. And drifts off to sleep contemplating the notion of what it would feel like with Iolanthe pressing against her in this bed.