This story continues where Friend In Need II ends. Xena is dead, finito, gone, hasta la vista. This was a classic of all classic love stories, from an awkward beginning to a tragic ending. I was left hanging. I wanted to know what Gabrielle was going to do with the rest of her life. I wanted to see her move from grief and sadness, to a renewal of some sort.

Yes, the finality of the last episode struck us where it hurt most, our hearts. We can derive some comfort in the fact that Xena and Gabrielle meet again in another lifetime. Hopefully these stories in the ‘Final Chapters’ series will do that. And hopefully we will all get the closure we so badly need.

Disclaimer: Xena: Warrior Princess belongs to Studio USA and Renaissance Pictures, and my heart. No infringement on these rights were intended.

Subtext Disclaimer: In case you haven’t noticed, subtext is maintext now. I tried to keep all the characters true to their depiction as in the show. However, I couldn’t help but insert a bit of sexual innuendo between women. It’s just a little bit, I’ve left much to the imagination. Hopefully there are still those of you out there with an imagination…it adds spice to you know what… And, yes, there is violence, just like in the show. Oh, and if you are under the age of 18, you might want to consult with a parent or legal guardian before reading this or maybe it’s best that you don’t read this at all.

 

A New Warrior Emerges, The Final Chapters, Part I

Written by: Allyson Heisey, aheisey760@aol.com

Many thanks to my Beta Readers, Erin/AKA Drumgrrl193 and Kim Linonis.

 

Chapter 1

Gabrielle sighed, took a slow, deep breath and closed her eyes. She felt Hero, her steed, stamp her hoof softly into the sod, felt the cool breeze lift tendrils of her cropped hair, and noticed the sweet fragrance of spring in the early morning air. Gabrielle closed her eyes and a memory of a time many years ago surfaced.

"Even in death Gabrielle, I will never leave you." Xena said. The dark warrior sat next to her soul mate who was pale with sickness on a makeshift cot. Her arm reached out, and Gabrielle, dizzy and weak with fever, lifted her arm to meet the warrior’s. Their hands touched, palm to palm and then their fingers intertwined.

Gabrielle opened her eyes slowly and gazed down at the village of Amphipolis. She tugged at the mare’s reins and coaxed her into a soft gallop down the gentle slope and onto the road to Xena’s place of birth. As she rode, the farmers working in the fields straightened bent backs and removed hats from their heads, farm maidens herding cattle turned and gazed at her with respect, and children assumed a hushed silence before running towards their parents. People traveling on the road to Amphipolis stopped to stare at the small, blonde haired woman with the strange sword on her back, riding on a large white mare.

Gabrielle rode on in somber silence, ignoring the stares, and entered the large village. Many villagers bowed their heads, while others gathered on the street and tossed flowers under Hero's hooves, creating a kind of billowing carpet. She tried to avoid looking at the people that had gathered by keeping her eyes focused straight ahead. But every now and then she would glance around and her gaze would fall on one of the villagers. The sadness that she saw struck her hard because she would have to force herself to look away and choke down her own feelings of intense sadness.

When she approached the distant edge of the village she urged Hero into a faster canter. As her mare bore down on the road before her to the woods just beyond, tears streamed down her face, her breathing became ragged, and the wind whipped her buff and white cloak back behind her. Before she reached the woods, the road forked and she rode off the main road where at the end was the mausoleum, the place where Xena’s mother and brother were entombed. Several months ago Xena had asked that the family mausoleum be moved to another piece of property that Xena had inherited after her mother’s death. The small cliff over looked the town of Amphipolis and the rolling green valleys that surrounded it.

Gabrielle ground Hero to a halt and stepped down from the saddle. She stumbled, but held on to the saddle horn and steadied herself. Gabrielle swallowed hard, released her hold on the saddle horn, and blinked in surprise. Standing tall and proud before the mausoleum was a monolith. Xena’s name as well as those of her mother and brother, and an image of her chakram had been engraved into the smooth marble. Gabrielle lifted her hand and with her fingertips slowly traced the lettering of Xena’s name and on down to the image of the chakram. Leaning forward, she rested her forehead on the cool stone. She turned her head sideways and glanced at the entrance to the mausoleum. Gabrielle swallowed hard to keep tears at bay and exhaled sharply before she heaved herself from the monolith and walked back to Hero. She opened a well worn but sturdy saddlebag, reached in, and pulled out a small ceramic container. She held it gently, cradling it with both hands.

"I miss you Xena." she whispered and her eyes misted from the deep sorrow that she felt within. She looked around and realized how alone she was, and suddenly the pain of her loss went through her like a burn. She was filled with the desire to wail or weep, and it would have done her good to cry out in her pain, but she held back her cry.

Her hand leapt to cover her mouth and she sank down to her knees. Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut so hard that bursts of light appeared behind them.

Circles of light weave in and out of each other and then fade out as they enter strange markings on a woman’s chest. Gabrielle watched, mesmerized.

"It is the beauty of the universe. Each line has its place. Each has a meaning, each drawing on the other to complete its totality." The woman called Naiyima said in an enchanting voice.

"That is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen." Gabrielle told her.

"There is a great evil in the future that is hunting Xena’s soul. It has found her. If it succeeds, Xena’s karmic circle will end, along with all the good of her future lives." Naiyima continued.

"Who is her enemy?" Gabrielle asked.

"I don’t know. I had to send her there quickly to defend herself. I was not able to tell her much before she left." Naiyima answered.

"Send me there." Gabrielle requested.

"I’m not sure that is wise." Naiyima responded.

"This karma that you’re talking about, can you see mine? Can you see how much Xena’s a part of that?" Gabrielle argued.

"Yes, in many lives, past and future. You are right. But if you are to go, I must give you the weapon I could not give her. You must learn the Mehndi." Naiyima said softly.

"Teach me." Gabrielle whispered.

Gabrielle wiped the tears from her face with the sleeve of her coat and stood up. She squared her shoulders, did one last sniffle, and walked back to her horse. She put the ceramic container back in the saddlebag and after a final tug on its straps she climbed up into the saddle. She grasped the reins and urged Hero into a fast and steady canter. As the sun dipped lower towards the horizon, dark shadows emerged and the darkness of night descended upon the land.

 

Chapter 2

The campfire glowed warmly, but Gabrielle felt anything but warm. She put her empty dinner bowl down beside her and hugged her knees up to her chest and stared into the glowing embers of the fire. There was a faint whicker from Hero, and suddenly she was alert, fully aware of her surroundings. At the sound of a faint snap she turned her head in the direction of the noise, her hands reached down and grasped the handles of her sais knives that were tucked snuggly to the outside of her boots. She held that position for several minutes, listening intently, but heard nothing more. Gabrielle brought her chin back down to rest on her knees and continued to gaze into the fire. After a few more minutes she released her hold on her sais and picked up a quill and some papyrus. She twirled the quill several times between her thumb and forefinger and chewed on her lower lip.

"How many times have I gone through this?" She wondered. "Picking up my quill but unable to write about Xena’s last battle."

"Xena!" Gabrielle shouted into the dense fog. She ran through the trees and stopped dead at the sight of Xena’s bloody chakram lying on the ground. All around it lay the bloodied and slain bodies of dozens of Samurai-’s.

"The last battle." Gabrielle said softly to herself. Oh, she remembered the last battle. She remembered everything, the colors, the sounds, and the smells.

A whip cracked loudly through the pounding rain and loud peals of thunder. Gabrielle stepped onto the road and neatly disarmed several Samurai-‘s that were standing guard over Xena’s dead body. She stepped up to Xena’s nude body which had been hung by the hands from one pole to the other. When the lightning flashed, Gabrielle saw that Xena’s head had been severed. Gabrielle fell to her knees, retching, the shock riveting through her. The intense feeling of anger, like a white hot fire, burst forth and she stood up. Gabrielle pulled from the scabbard on her back her sword and clenched her other hand, which was empty, into a fist.

"Give me her head!" She shouted angrily into the storm.

The quill in Gabrielle’s hand shook, her hands were wet with sweat and the papyrus clung to her palms, so she massaged the back of her neck and raised her face to the stars. With a sigh she resigned herself to defeat in her attempt to record the events of Xena’s last battle. She rolled up the papyrus and put it and the quill away. She adjusted her body so that she could pull the bearskin rug out from underneath her and pull it across her torso. She slid down to the ground and stared up again at the stars.

Her thoughts turned to the time she became an Amazon Princess. She had never met an amazon before, much less amazon royalty, like an amazon queen or an amazon princess. One day, many years ago, during one of their travels, Xena and Gabrielle needed safe passage through amazon lands. They were met by a group of amazons, among them an amazon princess, Terreis. The amazons were escorting them to their queen when they were suddenly attacked. Sadly, the amazon princess was mortally wounded during the attack and Gabrielle tried to protect her while arrows flew all around them. Because of her bravery and self-sacrifice, Terreis gave Gabrielle her right of caste, just before the royal amazon died. This gave Gabrielle the right to adopt the princess’s name and title. She was not immediately welcomed into the amazon tribe, since she was not born of amazon blood. Gabrielle did however, adjust to their way of life, and was given her first lesson with a weapon, the amazon staff. After a while the amazons came to respect her because of her fiery spirit, fierce determination, and worldly wisdom.

A smile tugged at the corners of Gabrielle’s mouth. It was just her and Xena, walking across a wheat field with Argo, Xena’s horse, in tow.

"You’re a Warrior Princess, and I’m and Amazon Princess. Wow…this is going to be a wonderful story…it starts out…" Gabrielle began in a bardly way and turned around, but Xena was no longer behind her. Xena had changed direction, and Gabrielle ran after her.

Gabrielle chuckled softly at the memory and pulled the bearskin up to her chin.

"I was so young…so naive… so in love with the notion of adventure. I didn’t understand the danger, nor of the sacrifices I would have to make along the way." Gabrielle paused and sighed. "But, you know, I wouldn’t have done this any differently if I had the chance to start all over again!" Gabrielle said out loud to herself.

Eventually her eyes closed and she drifted off to sleep and began to dream.

"Xena, what are you doing?" Gabrielle asked with a look of concern on her face.

The image of Xena slightly shrouded by a thin veil of fog appeared. Upon seeing Gabrielle, Xena’s smile widened.

"I’m waiting for you, Gabrielle." Xena answered.

Gabrielle’s sleeping form twitched slightly and a tear escaped from between long golden eyelashes and rolled slowly down her cheek.

 

Chapter 3

Gabrielle slowed Hero to a soft canter and entered a dense forest. Tall pine trees stood together in thick patches and the branches overhead formed a canopy, partially sheltering her from the cold rain that had been falling all morning. Brown pine needles covered the forest floor, and the thickness of it muffled the sound of Hero’s hooves. Just ahead were feathered battle axes that were mounted on a few of the trees, indicating that the area beyond was amazon land. A short ways in Gabrielle brought Hero to a halt and dismounted. There was a faint birdcall, a barely discernable rustle to which Gabrielle cocked her head. Gabrielle pulled back the hood of her cloak and then extended her arms above her head and clasped her hands together in a gesture that Amazons understood, peace.

Several women, their faces obscured by brightly feathered masks, slid smoothly down ropes from the trees above and stood before Gabrielle. Gabrielle saluted them, and was saluted in return. The amazon who stood directly in front of Gabrielle removed her mask first before the others followed.

"Varia!" Gabrielle said joyfully, and hugged the young amazon queen.

"Hello, Gabrielle, we’ve been expecting you." Varia hugged Gabrielle tightly.

They pulled apart, but Varia wrapped her arm around Gabrielle’s waist, and steered her in the direction of the amazon village.

"We’re glad to have you back." Varia said and ran a hand through her rain soaked hair, brushing it out of her eyes.

"I’m glad you got my message. I’m only staying for a while though." Gabrielle wiped away the water that was running down from her hair into her eyes.

"It’s been a long journey for you." Varia said. "Come, let’s get out of the rain."

"Good idea." Gabrielle wrapped her arm around Varia’s waist affectionately.

"Things have been quiet and peaceful here for several weeks. We’ve had plenty of time to prepare for the ceremony which I know you want to have in Xena’s honor. I am very sorry about Xena, I know you loved her very much Gabrielle." Varia said kindly.

Gabrielle smiled sadly and glanced over at Varia, "Thanks." She said, before looking away.

They entered a cleared area in which two amazons stood guard, their hair was slicked down by the rain and water ran down the wooden staffs that they held. The amazon guards moved aside to let Varia, Gabrielle, and the rest of the amazon party pass before following them from behind.

When they entered the village, there was much activity, despite the cold and the rain. She was amused at the sight of young amazon girls playing and running around in the village, stomping in puddles and splashing mud everywhere. Several of the older amazon girls were being taught how to weave, make bows, arrows, staffs, and one was an apprentice to the weapons smith. She was holding a pair of tongs in a hot forge that glowed through the clouds of steam and she held a heavy hammer in her other hand. Her face was flushed and sweaty, and smears of dirt criss-crossed her face. The tribe was much larger now than when Gabrielle saw it last a few months ago.

After they stabled Hero, Varia escorted Gabrielle to her hut and stepped inside with her. Gabrielle made her way to the small fireplace and Varia dropped some dry wood on the grate. She used a flint to send a spark to the timber and slowly a warm fire took hold on the wood. They stood up and Gabrielle hung her coat up on one of the wooden pegs in the wall. Gabrielle looked around and made her way to an overstuffed chair covered with brushed deerskin and plopped herself down wearily. Varia walked over to a table and poured liquid from a decanter into a tall glass which she gave to Gabrielle. Gabrielle drank the contents gratefully.

Varia then walked over to the chair next to Gabrielle and sat down. She waited until Gabrielle had swallowed before speaking.

"Gabrielle, I’m pregnant." She announced.

"What! That’s wonderful!" Gabrielle exclaimed and her face beamed brightly at the news.

"I’m happy about it." Varia replied. "I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, and now that it has happened, I’m really excited, but I’m scared too."

"Everything will be fine, Varia" Gabrielle replied and smiled at her encouragingly.

"The amazon nation must grow," Varia said seriously and leaned forward to look directly into Gabrielle’s eyes.

Gabrielle blinked at her boldness but then smiled and took Varia’s hands in her own. Varia looked down and watched as she caressed Gabrielle’s hands with her thumbs. Something had happened, they both sensed it, but neither were sure what to make of it.

"I noticed that there are more women in the tribe now." Gabrielle studied Varia and cocked her head to one side.

"Yes, women have been migrating here from Rome." At a quizzical look from Gabrielle she continued, "They spoke of the inequality and brutality against them in Rome. How they are forced into marriage early and must bear many children. They want to live in a society like ours where they can be free and live independently from men."

There was a knock at the door and both women swung their heads.

"Enter." Gabrielle replied.

As an amazon stepped inside, Varia gave Gabrielle’s hands a final squeeze before she released them and stood up.

"Varia, we have a visitor, and the matter is urgent." The amazon said stoically.

Gabrielle and Varia went outside to meet their visitor. It was still cold, but the rain had stopped and the sun was poking through the gaps in the thick wintry clouds providing some warmth to those who stood in its light.

Surrounded by amazon guards, the woman stood patiently, holding a young boy on her hip. She was slightly disheveled but stood strong and proud. She wasn’t tall, but had a firm body and was dressed in a full sleeved blouse and a long skirt that was belted at her slim waist. Her brown hair cascaded over her shoulders in waves and her blue eyes stood out from her deeply tanned face.

"I am Varia, Queen of the Amazons," Varia announced as she approached the visitor.

"My name is Shara, from the village of Docosta, just over that ridge there. I came to let you know that several villages in this valley have been attacked by a warlord with a hired band of mercenaries whom we have never heard of before. He is rumored to be headed this way and we need to talk, and perhaps help each other." She explained.

"Come, this way." Varia motioned towards a long table and everyone seated themselves.

"Okay. Do you think he will attack your village?" Varia asked and wiped the water off the table between her and Shara with a quick sweep of her hand.

"I don’t know. We are preparing just in case, but yes, I think he will." She said carefully. The woman pulled out a parchment, quill, and ink from her pouch at her side. She laid parchment down on the dry area on the table and started drawing out her village, smacking her son’s hand away from the ink bottle when he reached for it.

"Here’s the main road, the entrance… here are the battlements, and here is where we are currently building entrapments." She said as she made a note of each one on the parchment.

"There’s a weakness here." Gabrielle pointed out, "And more stationary battlements need to be built here." She added, again pointing out locations on the parchment.

The boldness in her voice seemed to have startled everyone, for they all swung their heads in her direction.

"Shara, this is Gabrielle. She is also an Amazon Queen." Varia indicated by putting her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder.

Turning to Gabrielle, Varia asked, "Gabrielle, will you go with Shara and help her and the villagers prepare for this attack?"

 

Chapter 4

Gabrielle noticed that the village was a prosperous one, she could tell by the elegant fountains and temples that dotted the wide median on the main road. The wooden gates of the village banged shut behind her as Hero plodded forward and followed Shara’s steed. The towers on either side of the gates were still under construction, and the walls were not yet complete. An army could easily clamber over the pile of stones in most places.

Arranged around them in an orderly fashion were nearly fifty houses made of well dressed stone. Some were three stories and roofed with tiles, rather than with thatch. Some of the streets were paved of smooth stone, and others were just packed dirt. They stopped before Shara’s home. It was on a corner where streets met in front of the house at an elegant fountain. Carts and horses traveled around this fountain to the other side to meet up with the streets again. There were workshops for weavers, foundries for ironworkers, gold and silversmiths, furniture makers, potters, seamstresses, and cutlers. Gabrielle guessed that there was usually heavy trade traffic in and out of the village due to the large number of inns.

Shara’s home was made of smooth stone, freshly painted white, and blue shutters framed each of the windows. Bright fall flowers overflowed from the flower boxes that hung underneath them and there was an ornate brass knocker on a blue wooden door. Iron furniture was arranged in a circular pattern on the patio to the side of the house and a trellis interwoven with white and purple morning glory vines framed its entrance.

They dismounted their horses and turned over the reins to a stable boy who stood by waiting patiently. As Shara sent her son inside the house, the sound of marching boots reached them. Gabrielle followed Shara across the street to what looked like a courthouse. As she crossed the street she saw in the distance an army regiment of about ten men marching towards them. Regardless of what color shirts they wore, they all wore black pants and black boots. Gabrielle shook her head and realized why they needed help from the amazons. This was a peaceful trading village and the villagers were trained in the art of their trade, not in the art of war.

Shara pushed open the large wooden doors to the building and they stepped inside. A hush fell over the crowd as Gabrielle stepped forward and Shara closed the doors behind them. She turned at a sound behind her. A member of the army regiment stood there, his eyes met hers and he nodded in acknowledgement. He moved forward to greet her, his boots tapping softly on the floor. His curly red hair cascaded across his shoulders that were covered by a black cape with gold trim. The cape billowed behind him as he walked. A long sleeved red shirt with a chain mail vest covered his large torso and was tied loosely at the throat by black lace. A heavy broadsword hung from a well worn, but finely tooled black leather belt around his waist. His long legs fit into a pair of black leather pants tucked into black leather boots.

"I am Captain Jaro." he said and extended his arm to her in greeting.

Gabrielle glanced at the old battle scars on his face before meeting his somber gaze. "I’m Gabrielle." She replied and grasped his arm in the military greeting.

One of the Captain’s red eyebrows quirked upwards. "The Gabrielle, as in the Battling Bard Gabrielle, companion of the late Xena?" He asked and regarded her seriously for a moment, not quite believing his eyes.

"Yes, the one and only." Gabrielle said quietly with a slow smile.

Captain Jaro smiled broadly and shook her arm vigorously before releasing it. He noticed the shadow of sadness that passed over Gabrielle’s eyes.

"I’m sorry about Xena, Gabrielle, I wish I could have met her. She was a true warrior. And it is my great honor to be fighting with you." He said solemnly.

"Thank you." Gabrielle said quietly and glanced away to avoid displaying any feelings in front of the war hardened Captain. The Captain was not oblivious, he nodded to himself, and admired the young woman’s courage and strength.

While Captain Jaro and Gabrielle were talking quietly at the rear of the room, Shara had made her way to the front of the room to stand before a podium. She picked up a wooden gavel and smacked it smartly against the podium to bring everyone’s attention to her, and then she spoke. Her voice was loud and strong and could be heard all the way to rear of the room.

"As you all have heard, there is a small army of mercenaries out marauding villages in the area. Our scouts informed us that this army is not too far away. I have asked Captain Jaro to prepare his men and get the village defenses ready. Since our small army is newly established and obviously outnumbered, I visited the Amazons and they have agreed to ally with us against this band of thugs. I’d like to introduce you all to Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons."

Shara nodded and Gabrielle strode forward towards the podium. As she walked up the aisle several people spoke in murmurs. Gabrielle had to smother a smile because she knew what all the fuss was about. Her Amazon attire did not hide the intricate dragon tattoo that covered her back nor the tattoos on her legs. She could almost feel the dragon come to life, the head rearing, the chest broadening, and the talons flexing. She shifted her shoulders and stepped up to the podium. She stood patiently, silently and the soft conversations trailed off. Like a wave, the silence descended on the room from front to back. Gabrielle decided to step away from the podium so that everyone could see her. Then she addressed the crowd in the crisp and clear voice of a bard and with the strong, commanding voice of an Amazon Queen.

"The Amazons will set a trap in the forest where we will flush out the mercenaries and manipulate them to move to the outskirts of your village. Those of you who will not be fighting, you will need to leave for the hills after sunset. For those of you who will join the fight, meet Captain Jaro outside after this meeting. Thank you."

Gabrielle stepped down and could feel heads turn her way as she walked back down the aisle. Her eyes met with a few women who not only looked at her boldly but with an openness that made their intentions clear. She could feel a light flush creep into her cheeks, but she returned their stares with a saucy look and a devilish smile. She couldn’t help feeling flattered by the attention.

"Should keep them wondering what that meant." Gabrielle chuckled to herself. When she approached Captain Jaro, she motioned him outside.

Gabrielle and Jaro stood outside and discussed their plan of attack. Captain Jaro looked over at his men and explained that most of them had fought in the roman army and therefore had battle experience. Sadly there were also a few who were no more than boys, and that this would be their first battle. Gabrielle nodded in understanding. The courthouse doors opened and most of the villagers headed home, but some stayed and milled around behind Gabrielle and Captain Jaro. Slowly the village went back to normal, women walked by carrying baskets to a storehouse, or water buckets to the nearest fountain, workmen rumbled by in their carts, and children ran up and down the streets, laughing, playing with balls or dogs.

When the stable boy brought her horse, Gabrielle clasped arms with Captain Jaro in farewell before she climbed up onto the saddle. As she rode out through the village gates, Captain Jaro began organizing the villagers into a support regiment for his troop that would be going into battle, and the sound of boot heels stamped on the cobbled street as his soldiers stiffened like pillars of stone.

 

Chapter 5

Gabrielle was crouched behind a stand of thick brush next to a group of pines and absently touched the chakram that hung at her side. She watched the amazons move through the forest and up into the trees. As dawn approached, Gabrielle could feel the tension as it moved down her back. The hairs on the back of her neck seemed to quiver and her instincts were telling her that something was out there, but she didn’t hear or see anything so she closed her eyes.

"Gabrielle, focus. Concentrate. Listen not to just the sounds, but what’s behind the sounds."

Gabrielle heard Xena’s whispering voice in her head and could almost feel the warrior’s presence beside her. Gabrielle opened her eyes and when she heard the sound of a soft ‘plink’ she instinctively crouched. An arrow narrowly missed her as she swiveled her body behind a tree. It was so close that she felt the feathers of the shaft brush her arm as it went by. Gabrielle’s eyes searched the forest for a safe haven to hide herself and began to panic. Her heart began to beat a little bit faster, and a little bit harder.

"Relax, Gabrielle, Relax." Xena spoke again. "Look up."

Gabrielle looked up into the tree.

"Xena, I don’t think I can do that." Gabrielle whispered apprehensively to her thoughts. "I couldn’t do it the last time I tried, even when you were right there, giving me instructions."

"Yes, you can." Xena replied. "Focus. "Visualize yourself there and then just go there. You can do it, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle looked back up into the tree and concentrated. She felt her field of vision narrow and when the feeling was right she leapt. She landed somewhat clumsily, but none the less solidly on a sturdy limb about a hundred feet from the ground.

From her vantage point she could see the layout of the forest floor for several hundred feet. Just beyond her field of vision was a bamboo patch where she was almost certain an army of mercenaries were waiting in ambush, it was a perfect spot. She looked up into the tree again, selected another spot higher up the trunk and leapt. She landed even more clumsily than before, since this limb was much smaller and even less stable. But, from here she could see the small band of mercenaries crouched in the bamboo, and then turning her attention outward, she scanned the area for the lone assassin. She didn’t see him but her instincts told her that he was out there somewhere. The mercenaries seemed to be waiting for orders and were probably going to be sent out to flank the first wave of mercenary fighters that were already approaching the village of Docosta.

When she turned her attention back to the mercenaries that were sill hiding in the bamboo, there was movement in the tree just across from her. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Varia and the other amazons positioning themselves. Gabrielle puckered her lips, and made a low sounding bird call which caught Varia’s attention. Varia swung her head in Gabrielle’s direction and surprise registered on Varia’s face when she saw Gabrielle crouched in the tree next to her, but it was quickly replaced by a grin. Varia pointed above Gabrielle’s head and then gave a signal. Gabrielle heard the sound of arrows being loosened from tightly strung bows. She looked up and saw a bow and a quiver full of arrows. She removed the items from their hooks and slung the quiver of arrows over her shoulder. She pulled an arrow from her quiver and settled it into the locking mechanism of the bow. With the tip of her fingers she pulled the bowstring towards her as she lifted the bow upright. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the assassin. He was stalking an amazon that had just entered the area. She settled the inside part of her thumb against her cheekbone and released the tension on the string. The arrow sprang forward, straight and true. She watched the arrow hit the assassin, knocking him backwards a few steps, and then he toppled backwards to the ground, his hands clutched around the shaft of the arrow that protruded from his chest.

The mercenaries were caught by surprise. A hail of arrows were flying all around them. The men that didn’t get hit scrambled out of the area on horseback, towards the village where the battle between the mercenaries and the small defending army of Docosta had just begun.

Without thinking about it, Gabrielle vaulted from one limb and down to the other and was back on the ground next to Hero. She jumped into the saddle and spurred the mare forward to join the other amazons racing towards the village.

As they approached the entrapments just outside the village of Docosta, they could hear fierce battle cries. When the amazons rode down the hills, the sound of their horses hooves pounding on the hard earth reached the ears of the fighting men. Their heads turned towards the amazons streaming down the mossy hills on horseback. The amazons never slowed, they crashed right into the group of mercenaries, startling and confusing a good many of them. For an instant, everything was in chaos.

Gabrielle navigated Hero through the throng of beasts. She saw Captain Jaro struggling to keep three mercenaries at bay, his arm was bleeding from a deep gash and his one eye was partially swollen shut. His red hair was flying and his huge broadsword was in his hand. Gabrielle lifted the chakram from its hook on her side and spun it towards Captain Jaro. As the chakram spun away it separated into two smaller chakrams. Gabrielle pulled her sword from the scabbard on her back just in time to deflect a blow aimed for her side. Lifting her leg she aimed for the face that belonged to her attacker and found it, kicked out and knocked the man senseless while still on his feet.

All around her were the cries of battle and she could feel the adrenaline as it surged through her body. She pulled and tugged at Hero, dancing the horse from left to right and back again. She thrust and her sword felled one mercenary after the other. She shuddered in revulsion as the vibration from the sword sliding between bones crawled up her arm. She sheathed the sword, extended her arm upwards and caught the chakram just as the two smaller ones joined. She glanced at Captain Jaro who gave her an appreciative nod before moving on to help one of his soldiers. The chakram had effectively removed the three mercenaries he was struggling against. Gabrielle slipped the chakram back on the hook on her belt and pulled her sais from her boots. She dismounted Hero in one bound, blocked a sword with one of her sais, did a crescent kick, and landed a disabling blow to the mercenary that appeared in front of her. Sensing danger from behind, she turned but missed warding off an attack from a sword and received a slicing blow to her arm. She winced and redoubled her efforts to avoid being careless again. Sweat matted her golden hair, ran down her body giving her skin a moist glow, and darkened her amazon leathers. She dropped down, did a spin kick, and two mercenaries were thrust off their feet and onto the hard earth. She spun again with a round house kick, a jab with the butt of one sais, and the other caught a plunging sword in what seemed, like one fluid motion.

The battle was almost over, there were more bodies on the ground than those that were still moving. Many mercenaries lay dead around her on the blood soaked soil. Gabrielle gazed around her with sorrowful eyes and her bloody sais rested by her side.

Behind her Ares appeared in a flash of blue light and clapped. Gabrielle spun around and raised her sais.

"Well done, my battling bard. You’ve got my attention. Let’s see, you’ve successfully organized, planned, executed and defeated your enemy. A job well done. I like your style." Ares opened his arms wide and sauntered towards her.

Gabrielle lowered her sais and looked around her numbly.

"You haven’t forgotten about my offer have you? Let me take you under my wing." Ares whispered in her ear.

"No. Never! I will not follow you Ares!" Gabrielle growled into his smiling face. She pointed her sais at the dead bodies laying on the ground around them. "Do you think I enjoy this, Ares?" She lashed out at him and her face registered the disgust that she felt. Ares scoffed. "Can you honestly stand there and tell me that you didn’t feel the excitement of the battle and the surge of adrenaline in your blood?"

Gabrielle turned away, ashamed to admit that he was right.

"I know you Gabrielle, I am the only person that knows you better than anyone else right now, especially after all we’ve been through. You have the strength of character, you have conviction, and despite what you say, you have determination. You have that fire that I look for in a warrior." Ares gave her a triumphant grin and turned her around to face him. He traced her fine jaw line with a finger.

Gabrielle snapped her head away from his touch and stepped back. "You want something, what is it?"

Ares slapped a hand on his chest. "Owww! I thought I was being nice."

Gabrielle cocked her head, rolled her eyes skyward, and tried not to grind her teeth.

"Look, all you have to do now is kill the leader and the rest of his.." Ares looked around him with disappointment "…mercenaries and you’re done."

"No. That is not what I plan to do. I only did here what I had to do. I had to save the village. I had to kill or be killed." Gabrielle argued.

"Ohh, using your discretion not to fight now, hmm." Ares nodded and disappeared with a flash.

Gabrielle swallowed hard and watched grimly as the last of the mercenaries scrambled to their feet and ran or galloped off in hasty retreat. As one ran past her she quickly snagged him by the collar and spun him back around in front of her. She calmly put her sais back in her boots and then in a blink of an eye jabbed him with her fingers on either side of his throat. He gagged and sank down to his knees in front of her. Gabrielle crouched down in front of him, grabbed him by the collar with both hands and pulled him close to her face. With as menacing a look as she could muster she said in a soft but threatening voice, "I’ve cut off the flow of blood to you brain. You have thirty seconds to tell me what I need to know." The mercenary gulped, and blood began to flow from his nose.

"Who hired you?" Gabrielle growled into his face.

"Strago hired us. He wants to control this entire valley." The man wheezed. "He also wants you. There is a reward for turning you in, alive." He continued between labored breaths.

"Whaaa.. Why does he want me?" Gabrielle asked, puzzled.

"He was disappointed that he didn’t get to defeat Xena. So, now he wants you. He thinks you will be easy."

"Oh, I’m not easy by any means!" Gabrielle retorted with a short laugh and released her hold on his collar. "By the way, tell Strago that the assassin that he sent out is dead."

The man began to gurgle blood, so Gabrielle jabbed him on either side of his neck again to release the first pinch. The man fell face first into the dirt, unconscious.

"Great. Strago. Some people just never learn." Gabrielle said in exasperation as she looked down at the unmoving form.

Gabrielle looked up and found Captain Jaro and Varia standing back to back where the skirmish was not quite over. She stepped over broken and bloody bodies to make her way to them just as the last of the mercenaries ran off in retreat. When she reached them she relayed what she had learned from the captured mercenary. Captain Jaro responded with mirth.

"He wants you!" He laughed. "This is too funny!"

Varia swung a scathing look his way and he immediately withered.

"No. I mean…Well, what I meant was… It was funny because.." He stammered and lifted his arms helplessly.

"It’s all right Jaro, I mean, how can anyone possibly see me as a threat compared to the mighty Xena?" Gabrielle pinned him with her gaze.

"Well I am, and I think it’s high time he found out." Gabrielle said with a touch of annoyance. "Xena taught me everything she knew."

"Now you know everything I know." Xena whispered to Gabrielle.

"What are you going to do Gabrielle, ride into his camp and demand that he surrender to you?" Varia asked bluntly.

After a brief pause Gabrielle responded, "Yes." She whistled for Hero and her mare emerged from the woods, trotted obligingly to Gabrielle’s side and tossed her white mane. After Gabrielle climbed up into the saddle, she turned to them and said, "Captain, have your men at that hill within a few candle marks, and we’ll meet you there."

Captain Jaro nodded in acknowledgement, mounted his horse and trotted off towards the village. Gabrielle looked down into Varia’s puzzled face and smiled.

"Varia, time to head back, we have work to do." Gabrielle said with a mischievous glint in her eyes.

 

Chapter 6

In Varia’s hut, Gabrielle was seated comfortably in a lounger. She winced when Varia tied the knot on the last suture in her arm. The gash in Gabrielle’s arm was an angry color of red, but the sutures had stopped the bleeding.

"So, that’s it, huh?" Varia asked as she bandaged Gabrielle’s arm.

"Yep, that’s the plan." Gabrielle answered.

"I wouldn’t want to be in their camp tonight." Varia said dryly.

Both women shared a grin before they stood up and exited the hut. Gabrielle and Varia walked over to their horses and joined four other amazons who volunteered for the mission. They rode out of the amazon village and into the deep forest.

When the foliage began to thin out, they slowed to a halt and dismounted quietly. Just beyond the trees, light from campfires could be seen. Gabrielle turned to two amazons and handed them each a pouch. They nodded and moved off quietly and disappeared into the shadows.

Gabrielle gave the other two Amazons the signal to stand guard as she and Varia moved off in the direction where Captain Jaro and his men were waiting.

Gabrielle and Varia slipped into Captain’s circle so quietly that they startled him and he reached for his sword. When he realized who they were he breathed a sigh of relief.

"Is everything going according to plan, Gabrielle?"

"So far. We just need to wait for the men to eat." Gabrielle answered with a smirk that was shared with Varia.

At Captain Jaro’s puzzled look, she relented and explained to him, "Two of my sisters have entered Strago’s camp. They will find the cooks tent and purposely ‘enrich’ tonight’s meal." Gabrielle grinned widely. The young Captain thought about this for a minute until it dawned on him what had been done.

"I got the recipe from a very good friend of mine." Gabrielle added with a small smile.

"Oh, man, that is really mean, Gabrielle." Captain Jaro said with a pained look on his face.

"I resent the fact that he considered me ‘easy’." Gabrielle said with a hint of sarcasm. "So, Captain, all you have to do is go in and take Strago. He’s all yours." Gabrielle stated.

Carefully they made their way to the edge of Strago’s camp. Varia indicated where the camp’s patrolling guards were so the Captain could send out his men to subdue them, before they entered the camp. So, they sat and waited for what seemed like hours. However, four amazons appeared and with a nod indicated that they had been successful in their mission. Soon moans could be heard and the mercenaries in the camp began crashing through the trees searching for their own private place of misery.

The Captain signaled for his men to advance into the camp and they followed. They wound their way between the scattered tents, horses, and campfires in search of a large tent. When they found it, they entered and found the warlord, Strago, on his knees groaning and clutching his stomach. Two of Captain Jaro’s men picked him up by the arms and dragged him out of the tent and was promptly tied up. Captain Jaro looked down at him with disgust. After they slung Strago across the saddle, Gabrielle and Varia clasped hands with Captain Jaro and bid him farewell.

As Gabrielle turned to follow Varia back into the forest and to their waiting horses, she did a double-take at what looked like an image of Xena leaning against one of the trees with her arms crossed and laughing her fool head off. But, when Gabrielle blinked her eyes the image was gone.

Varia turned when Gabrielle suddenly stopped and stared off at one of the trees nearby.

"Gabrielle, are you all right?" Varia asked with concern.

"Yeah…yeah, I’m right behind you." Gabrielle said quietly and followed her friend.

 

Chapter 7

It was time. The amazons began beating the drums at sunrise. As each candle mark passed, another beating drum was added to the symphony. It was a steady and rhythmic beat…boom…boom…boom. Gabrielle splashed water on her face in an attempt to refresh eyes that were slightly red rimmed from tears. Her sleep was restless, disturbed by dreams that awakened old memories, and vague thoughts chased themselves around in her head.

Gabrielle patted her face dry, sighed and picked up the small ceramic bowl that contained Xena’s ashes. Before she exited the hut, she looked down at the bowl that she cradled in her hands for a long moment and felt some comfort from the beating of the drums.

"The dead can hear the thoughts of the living."

She walked steadily through the throng of Amazons that had gathered outside her hut and together they walked to the cliffs on the edge of the amazon village. This was where she and Xena had declared their hatred for each other all those years ago. The hatred was so very real, caused by deception and deceit on both their parts. The rift they had created between themselves nearly terminated their friendship and their relationship. It was a very, very dark time.

Xena rode rapidly across the field, dragging Gabrielle behind her and stopped at the cliffs. At the cliff’s edge Xena picked up Gabrielle’s limp body and lifted it over her head.

"Vengeance!" Xena screamed into the roar of the falls.

Gabrielle regained consciousness at that moment and kicked Xena in the face and fell to the ground. When Gabrielle got up her face twisted in anger.

"I hate you!" Gabrielle screamed and rushed Xena. Both women fell over the cliff and into the water below.

Water flowed from a deep crevice in the rock and cascaded downwards to form a mesmerizing waterfall. Gabrielle stood almost at the very edge and gazed down at the flowing river below. In those waters their healing began, festering hurts were exposed, secrets were revealed, and their love for each other emerged anew.

Xena opened her eyes and found herself on a beach hugging Gabrielle. Gabrielle woke, looked around her, and then smiled at Xena.

"We’re home." Gabrielle said.

"At last." Xena answered.

The amazons gathered around in a semi-circle in front of Gabrielle. At the rear of the group the War God, Ares, and the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite, quietly shimmered into existence.

"Xena taught me many things, but the most valuable thing I learned was that love conquers all. Xena was my partner, my soul mate. She may be gone but she will always be with me." Gabrielle said to the crowd.

Gabrielle turned towards the cliffs and lifted the jar above her head and chanted, "In the time of ancient gods, warlords and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena, a mighty princess, forged in the heat of battle. The power, the passion, and the danger. Her courage will change the world."

She brought her arms down and gently unlatched the top of the jar. She removed the lid and tilted it. Xena’s ashes flowed forth and scattered into the wind. She replaced the lid and locked it back down. She stared at the little jar in her hand and then slowly lowered her arm to her side.

"Goodbye Xena. I will always love you. We will be together again soon." Gabrielle whispered into the wind.

Faint applause sounded from the back of the crowd. The amazons turned and quickly drew their swords when they saw Ares standing there. Ares scoffed and flicked their swords aside as he walked forward to where Gabrielle was standing. Gabrielle remained silent as Ares approached and gazed silently at her.

"May I?" Ares asked and motioned towards the cliff.

At Gabrielle’s nod he moved forward to her left and stood at the edge of the cliff next to her. He turned his hands so that his palms faced downward towards the earth and a bright yellow light blazed forth from underneath. When the light faded a marble monolith stood there and Gabrielle’s eyes widened in surprise. Light shimmered over his left arm, and Xena’s leathers and sword appeared. He placed these by the monolith and waved a hand over them. When the light faded, Xena’s leathers and sword were transformed to marble and joined as one with the monolith. Ares knelt down on the grass, took his finger and traced a circle on the white stone. A white streak arced from his finger as he etched the chakram into the marble. Ares turned, glanced somberly at Gabrielle and winked out of sight.

Gabrielle turned and glanced at Aphrodite who was still standing in silence. Aphrodite walked to the monolith and blew a kiss over the tall marble monument. Aphrodite turned towards Gabrielle, blew her a kiss as well, smiled sadly and shimmered away. With bowed heads the Amazons turned and walked back to the village, but Varia stayed behind with Gabrielle. Varia wrapped an arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders and comforted her as she sank gratefully into her embrace. Varia sank down into the grass on her knees with Gabrielle’s head on her shoulder. Gabrielle reached out and laid a hand on the cold stone of the battle dress.

 

Chapter 8

Much time passed. The brisk chill of fall became the white wonderland of winter. Every evening Gabrielle performed her ritual of walking Hero through the forest and lost herself in her thoughts. On this wintry night the air was very crisp and cold, with a bit of moisture in the air giving the hint of approaching snow. Tiny icicles hung from the branches of the trees. Her breath trailed opaque white mist when she exhaled. She wrapped her thick fur coat tighter about her to keep the cold from seeping in. She glanced up into the night and was startled by a flash of light. Directly in front of her stood Ares. He stood with his feet planted apart, his arms were crossed and a scowl darkened his face. Gabrielle got down from her horse and scowled back at him. Ares dropped his arms and approached her.

"Don’t you think you’ve grieved long enough, Gabrielle?" His lips were only inches from her ear and his voice dripped with sarcasm.

"Do you think you were the only one who was hurt by Xena’s passing? Huh?" Ares asked bitterly in her other ear. He walked around to face her.

He scoffed and said, "You’re not a warrior. You’re a typical simpering female."

Gabrielle clenched her fists, her eyes narrowed and her mouth tightened in anger.

"Ooh… well, well, well…looks like I pushed a few buttons." Ares laughed as he sauntered towards her steed. When he moved to lift the flap of the saddlebag, Gabrielle sprang into action. She leapt forward and drew her sword in one swift motion. Ares froze as the tip of Gabrielle’s sword rested on his shoulder. He glanced down at the sword and then at Gabrielle.

"Back away, Ares!" Gabrielle said through clenched teeth.

"Well, I figured that since you’re not interested in using the chakram, I’d go ahead and find someone who will." Ares replied nonchalantly.

"Back off!" Gabrielle warned again.

"Or what?" Ares prompted. "Am I supposed to be scared of your threats?" Ares said as he scrunched himself up in mock fright.

That did it. Gabrielle inhaled sharply and with a fierce yell swung her sword in a wide arc. Her blade was smartly stopped in mid air by Ares as he brought forth his own sword. Gabrielle snarled and kneed him in the groin. Ares buckled and fell down on his knees.

"Aw…Gabrielle…" he wheezed.

"What? You come down here and insult me, and then whine when I dish it back?" Gabrielle retorted and tried not to grind her teeth.

Ares laughed. "Boy, you are a feisty one. You remind me of a certain warrior princess."

Gabrielle slammed her fist in his face which knocked Ares onto his back. Gabrielle leaned over him menacingly, her knee on his chest, and pressed him down into the dirt.

"I am not a warrior princess, I am not Xena, Ares…. I’m an Amazon, a Bard, AND a Warrior." Gabrielle spat as she stood and backed away from him.

"Yeah, and fights like a harpy in a very, very, bad mood." Ares chuckled. "I remember when you used to hiss like a cute little kitten, but now…you snarl like a lioness protecting her cubs."

"Argh!" Gabrielle exclaimed, exasperated.

"So, what do we do with the chakram, hmm?" Ares asked. "I really think I should keep it until I can find a new owner." Before he could finish Gabrielle swung her sword again but it was thrust aside by Ares’ sword as he sprung to his feet. She spun and delivered a round house kick to his ribs. Ares staggered but then lunged forward and landed a fist against Gabrielle’s jaw which stunned her. He slammed the pommel of his sword down on the back of her skull. Gabrielle’s eyes closed and she slumped forward into unconsciousness.

Ares gazed down at her unconscious form. "You may be a pain in my ass but you definitely have potential." He remarked before winking out.

In the trees above, a form vaulted down to the ground and gently turned Gabrielle over onto her back and into her arms.

Gabrielle was carried to her hut and settled tenderly on her bed. Gentle hands removed her long coat, and bathed her wounds. The colorful dragon tattoo sprawled out on Gabrielle’s back fascinated Varia. She traced the outline of the dragon’s body to its elegant head with her finger and leaned forward. She smoothed away Gabrielle’s golden locks from her eyes and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. Gabrielle released a slight moan at the soft touch of the woman’s lips. Varia stood up and gazed at Gabrielle silently for a few moments before she turned, stoked the fire in the fireplace, and left Gabrielle to her dream.

Xena’s lips were like a trail of fire on her back. Her body responded by moving towards what was giving her such pleasure. Gabrielle felt hands on her shoulders, they kneaded, and they massaged, and it felt absolutely wonderful. Gabrielle rolled her head to the side and a hand slid up her neck to massage her scalp and smoothed her hair from her face. She felt Xena’s body settle next to her and felt long strong arms embrace her.

 

Chapter 9

Gabrielle opened her eyes slowly and blinked several times in an attempt to clear up the fogginess. A face loomed above her and the image came into focus.

"Varia.." Gabrielle whispered hoarsely.

Gabrielle attempted to sit up and winced as pain shot up and around her head. She brought her hands up quickly and cradled her head in them.

"Easy Gabrielle." Varia said and she quickly placed her hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders to steady her.

Gabrielle patted the sheets on either side of her and disappointment clouded her face when she realized that she was alone, Xena wasn’t there, and never was. Gabrielle sighed and glanced over to her chair and relief washed over her face when she saw her saddlebags. She stood up slowly, and leaned against Varia for support until the dizziness passed.

"Who found me?" Gabrielle asked, her voice still husky with sleep.

"I did." Varia answered.

Gabrielle walked over to the saddle bags and opened them. She sighed thankfully when she saw the chakram nestled inside. She flipped the flap down and tied it closed and then picked up both saddlebags and the rest of her belongings.

"Gabrielle, are you leaving?" Varia asked in surprise.

"Yes. I think it’s time for me to travel to the land of the Pharaohs. I hear they need a girl with a chakram." Gabrielle answered with a smile.

Varia walked Gabrielle to her steed and they hugged each other goodbye in the warmth of the early morning sun. After settling the saddlebags, tack and blankets on Hero Gabrielle climbed gingerly up into the saddle, wincing when her head pounded at the sudden movement upwards. Varia saluted her and Gabrielle returned it before she turned Hero about and galloped out of the village. Varia stood silently for long moments watching Gabrielle’s retreating form as it disappeared into the light mist that had rolled into the forest.

Gabrielle decided not to retrace her journey back to Athens, but instead travel to the port city of Troy where she could book a passage on a ship to Egypt. The weather was warming so, day after day she canvassed the deck, honing her skills with her sword and sais. Her short and compact form could move quickly and unerringly across the rolling deck of the ship, and the ocean’s spray cooled her perspiring warm skin. The sailors and deck hands watched her with awe and respect, and even volunteered to spar with her. Except for one night when a group of sailors wandered up to the deck after several rounds of drinks below. Gabrielle was standing at the bow of the ship looking over the water, relaxing in the sea’s ebb and flow. The pale light of the moon washed her blonde hair almost white and a gentle breeze touched her short hair. When the drunken sailors saw her standing there all alone they began taunting her.

"Ooh, what a pretty wench, that one, aye?" One sailor jeered and nudged his friend.

"For someone to tolerate such an ornate tattoo like that, one must be able to withstand a wee bit of roughness me lads!" his friend chimed in drunkenly.

"Do ya like it rough, there wench?" the third added with a sneer.

Gabrielle turned slowly and gave each of the drunken men a hard look in warning. When the men continued their laughing and taunting she slammed her fists into a face on the left and right, and then slammed her forehead into the man in the middle. All three men crumpled to the deck.

"Temper, temper, Gabrielle." Xena’s voice echoed in her head.

"To Hell with my temper, Xena!" Gabrielle mumbled to her thoughts. Gabrielle stepped over the drunken sailors and walked to the stern of the boat where she could be left alone.

 

Chapter 10

When the ship docked at Byblos to load goods, Gabrielle disembarked and wandered into the city market place. Byblos was a busy port used for trade. Ships from throughout the Mediterranean would come to Byblos in search of local materials, as well as those found in other further-distant lands like Chin. Egypt would send gold, papyrus, linen and alabaster, and exchange it all for oil and wood. The trunk and branches from cypress, oak, fir, and especially the famous, huge, and ancient Lebanese cedar trees that covered the Lebanese coast and nearby highlands, were extremely important materials in the barren and arid parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

Gabrielle wandered in and out of the multitude of shops and stands that lined the streets of the marketplace. She examined wares and swapped stories with the vendors. So far she had found everything she needed, soft linen, sandals, a headdress, and jewelry. She loved the jewelry and she knew she probably bought more than she needed. After making her last purchase of dried fruit she smiled and nodded at the vendor, then laughed at his attempt to sell her more. Waving her hands and laughing she stepped away and into the bustling crowd.

Making her way past the stands she went to a seamstress shop where the lightweight linen was tailored into loose-fitting trousers and robes, suitable for the heat of the desert, yet warm enough for the chilly nights. A turban was also fashioned to shelter her head from the heat of the sun and her face from the harsh sands. Gabrielle donned her newly made clothing over her amazon attire. The trousers were loose-fitting and gathered at her waist and ankles so that her boots fit over them. The shirt had a high white collar with short sleeves that were banded with silver. It was long, loose and slid smoothly down her torso. She tied a leather thong with a hook and green silk sash across her waist. The robes were long and just brushed the floor when she shrugged into them.

She slung her sword across her back, pulled the chakram from her saddle bag, and latched it to the hook at her waist. Her fingers lingered on the cold metal of chakram, still not quite used to seeing it by her side. She opened a satchel and sorted through the jewelry she had bought. She chose several wide silver bracelets and put them on her wrists. She then chose several rings, ear cuffs, and placed a pair of plain silver hoops in her ears. Glancing into the mirror she put the rest of the jewelry on and smiled at her reflection.

She packed up her belongings and headed back out into the street. She shaded her eyes from the glaring sun with her hand and scanned the crowded marketplace. The throng of people had intensified, so Gabrielle was anxious to leave the city and begin her trip to Alexandria. On the outskirts of the city she stopped by the stables and examined many of the horses available for purchase. She selected one that got her attention and seemed to like her. She put on the horse’s bit and led her out of the stables. After tightening the tack and saddle she climbed on and kept a tight grip on the reins. As soon as she sat down the horse took off and she leaned down into the horse’s mane and smiled. She let the horse run down the road and into a field of grain, her white linen robes trailing out behind her in the wind. Gradually the horse slowed and drifted down to a slow trot. Gabrielle sat up and patted the mare’s sleek neck. The mare shook her head and whinnied.

"Aah, that was a wonderful ride." Gabrielle chuckled, still rubbing the mare’s neck.

The mare had slowed down to a walk and as darkness descended, Gabrielle searched for a place to stop for the night.

A small marsh appeared to her right and was bordered by a small stand of short and tall trees. A solitary crane stood in the stagnant water and turned his head to stare at her. She turned her mare towards a clearing near the trees and dismounted. As she pulled her blanket and saddle bags from the horse, she saw a shadow flit by out of the corner of her eye. She paused but for a second and then dropped her armload at a spot nearby. She walked over to the trees and gathered dry wood for the fire and rocks to contain it in. Gabrielle set the rocks into a circular pattern in the sand and stacked the firewood inside it. By striking the stones together she was able to send a spark into the tinder where a curl of smoke rose. She fanned the tinder and the fire took hold and spread to the wood with a crackle.

Suddenly she became aware that the hairs on the back of her neck were standing up. Her instincts told her that someone was watching her from the trees behind her. Gabrielle stood and walked to her mare, removed the saddle, set it down by the campfire and removed the whip that was wrapped around the horn. She walked quietly into the trees for a few steps and then stopped, uncurled the whip in her hand, and listened. Through the layers of forest sounds she heard something that did not belong there, human breathing. She crept forward, watching where she put her feet so that she made no sound. With a snap of her wrist the whip snaked upwards, and with another snap of her wrist she pulled it back down. A startled yelp was heard as a figure came crashing down from the branches above.

"Varia!" Gabrielle gasped in surprise.

She grasped Varia by the arms to help her stand up and Varia pushed the hair out of her face and repositioned the sword on her back.

"What are you doing here?" Gabrielle asked, startled to see her friend standing there.

"Keeping an eye on you." Varia answered bluntly.

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed. "Exactly for how long have you been following me?"

"Since you left the village." Varia replied impishly.

"Why?" Gabrielle asked, her voice a sharp command. "Do the others know where you are?"

"Yes, and let’s just say I’ve delegated my responsibilities to another who is most capable." Varia answered slowly trying to diffuse the flash of anger that she saw in Gabrielle’s eyes.

"I want to go with you Gabrielle." Varia continued after a short pause.

"Why?" Gabrielle asked in puzzlement.

Varia shrugged and replied "I don’t know. I just…I just want to travel a little. I mean, I know that I have responsibilities as the Queen of the Amazons but, I just feel I’m missing something. I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it."

Gabrielle raised her hand to rub her temple, shook her head and walked back to the campfire and sat down. Varia waited a minute before she followed and sat down next to Gabrielle. Gabrielle glanced over at Varia and noticed the amazon attire that she wore.

"All right." Gabrielle finally relented. "But the first thing we need to do is get you proper clothes." Gabrielle said.

Varia frowned and as she went to open her mouth in protest, Gabrielle lifted a finger and said, "Not a word." Varia snapped her mouth shut and stared sullenly into the fire.

Gabrielle pulled out a rack, a skillet and some potatoes from one of her saddle bags. She set the rack over the campfire and sliced the potatoes into the skillet with a sharp knife. She scooped out a portion of lard from a skin and plopped it with a sizzle into the skillet and then she tore chunks of meat from a brisket and threw that in as well. Gabrielle stirred the contents vigorously for a minute and then let the food simmer. Varia sniffed the aroma from the skillet appreciatively and stoked the fire to keep it going strong. Gabrielle spooned a generous portion from the skillet onto a slab of wood and handed it to Varia. Varia drooled with hunger and took the slab of wood Gabrielle offered to her. They sat and ate in silence, but Varia sneaked a few glances at Gabrielle, trying to sense her mood, not sure why she was suddenly so quiet.

When Gabrielle finished eating she threw the slab of wood into the fire and stared moodily into it. Varia threw her slab in as well and wrapped her arms around her knees. Varia tilted her head and peered at Gabrielle’s face in the light of the campfire. Gabrielle appeared sunk in her thoughts and peered straight into the fire. Her skin was soft and smooth, her hair was as gold as the wheat in the fields she passed earlier. Her hands sported many small scars as well as beautifully hand wrought silver rings. And those eyes, they were a misty green and by staring into the depths of them, one could be lost forever, but since Xena’s death they had been more often as of late, pools of sadness and sorrow.

Gabrielle sensed Varia looking at her, but she didn’t feel offended or uncomfortable, as a matter of fact she rather liked it. It felt comforting and in a strange sense even nurturing.

"You know, I still don’t understand," Gabrielle began suddenly. "Why can’t I bring her back?" She asked. "Xena and I cheated death many times."

"Gabrielle, her death brought an end to her tortured soul. She died a hero, a brave warrior. She did what she had to do."

"Yes. It was the right thing to do. I taught her that. You should do in this world that which is right, not because of what you will gain or lose, but simply because it is the right thing to do. That was the key. To give up what she truly loved, so she committed a selfless act, and embraced the true meaning of the Greater Good."

"We learned from one another, and we completed each other." Her voice trailed away as she thought of that.

Varia dreaded looking into Gabrielle’s eyes, for she knew that there would be pain there.

Gabrielle’s head dropped and tears rolled down her face and Gabrielle’s hands came up to angrily wipe them away. Varia swallowed to keep her emotions in check and moved herself next to Gabrielle. Gabrielle leaned over and rested her body against Varia for the emotional support she so badly needed. Varia lifted her arms and encircled Gabrielle in them, held her close and rocked her softly.

"My mind keeps replaying the events surrounding Xena’s death, and I can’t help but wonder if I could have done something to change the outcome."

Varia sighed, "Gabrielle, please don’t torment yourself. It was Xena’s choice, not yours."

"I miss her so much. It hurts." Gabrielle’s voice spoke with so much pain that Varia couldn’t contain her own tears.

"Time will heal your pain, Gabrielle." Varia spoke softly. She couldn’t imagine what Gabrielle must be going through. All she could do was be there as her friend and give as her much support as she could.

"I miss her." Gabrielle said, her voice choking.

"I know." Varia responded and stroked Gabrielle’s hair. "As long as Xena is alive in you, she will never be dead, Gabrielle." Varia said soothingly and Gabrielle hugged her tightly as tears wound their way down her face.

 

Chapter 11

As dawn brightened on the horizon, both Gabrielle and Varia awoke with a start at the sound of a boot crunching on a branch and reached for the closest weapon at hand. Varia’s hand closed around the handle of the large frying pan and she swung it before she even opened her eyes. There was a dull ‘thunk’ as the skillet connected with the chin of a thug standing over her. She sprang out of her bed roll with a flip and into a fighting stance, skillet at the ready. Gabrielle, meanwhile, grasped the chakram and looked at it with a grimace. She ducked a sword blow as she hooked it onto her belt. She spun and kicked out delivering a stunning blow to another thug’s face. She glanced over at Varia and grimaced again when she saw the skillet in her hand.

"No! Not the frying pan!" She shouted over at Varia, while ducking yet another sword swing.

Varia looked at the dented frying pan, and then swung the skillet downward to smack the thug again when he tried to get up. She looked at the frying pan again and shrugged.

"We can get another one!" Varia yelled back.

Gabrielle angrily muttered something incomprehensible as she delivered solid hand to hand blows as another of the thugs tried to get back up. She kicked backwards and sent one thug behind her flying into the dense brush.

The two women continued to send several volleys of punches, kicks and swings until the thugs either lay on the ground unconscious or ran off in retreat.

Gabrielle stomped over to where Varia stood and snatched the now useless skillet from her hands. Holding it up in front of Varia she exclaimed, "Do you have any idea how hard it is to find one of these?"

Varia didn’t know how to respond to the angry outburst, she just simply looked dumbly at Gabrielle, and then stifled a sudden urge to laugh.

"You think this is funny, don’t you?" "Fine, then you fix breakfast." Gabrielle said as she threw down the skillet and stomped off into the trees.

Varia exhaled heavily and sighed looking around at the mess. Bending down she retrieved her sword from her bedroll and began poking at the thugs who stirred and staggered off in defeat.

It was so hard. There were so many things and so many situations that reminded her of Xena. She stopped, placed her hands on her hips and shook her head. She breathed deeply in an attempt to steady her nerves.

"Xena, this was our only frying pan. Why do you do that? You do have weapons, don’t you"? Gabrielle asked.

"I like to be creative in a fight. It gets my juices going." Xena said.

"Can we cook with your juices?" Gabrielle retorted.

"I messed with your scroll, so you…you traded my whip for a frying pan!" Xena hissed at Gabrielle.

Gabrielle sat down on a large twisted log. She absently scooped up a hand full of sand and watched the grains sift through her fingers. A slight dry breeze ruffled the folds in her robe and a lone seagull glided across the cloudless sky. She watched the seagull until it disappeared from view. She was calm again, so she stood up, returned to the camp and stopped short in surprise. Varia had found the dried meats in her saddle bag and was wrapping them into bark strips and setting them just inside the fire for baking. She also had bread and honey sitting out nearby. Gabrielle pursed her lips and stepped into the clearing. Varia looked up and studied Gabrielle’s face as she approached the campfire and sat down.

"Um, Varia, about what I said.." Gabrielle began.

"You don’t owe me an apology, Gabrielle." Varia interrupted. "Here, have some." She picked up one of the meats rolled in the warm bark from the fire and handed it over to Gabrielle.

"Thank you." Gabrielle said softly and took the food Varia offered her.

"So, where are we going?" Varia inquired as she chewed on a mouthful of bread.

"Alexandria." Gabrielle answered and her face took on a dreamy look. "It’s beautiful there."

"It’s dusty, it’s dry, and it’s hot. Not to mention the sand that gets into everything, even in places it shouldn’t." Varia countered.

"I know, don’t you just hate it when that happens?" Gabrielle’s nose wrinkled and she chuckled.

"You don’t have to come with me, you know." Gabrielle said after a beat of silence.

Varia shot her a dry look and Gabrielle hid a smile as she bit into her bread.

"Before Xena and I went to Japa, we heard that valuable artifacts were disappearing from the library and burial tombs in Alexandria. We were on our way there, to take a look around and try to figure out what was going on."

After they had finished eating, Varia went to retrieve her horse which she had tethered nearby and Gabrielle cleaned up. The two amazons rode side by side down the dry and dusty road that led back to the port city of Byblos. They led their horses down the busy streets and people turned to stare at the tall dark amazon that followed the short blond woman in native desert garb.

"Gabrielle, why are they staring at me like that?" Varia whispered in Gabrielle’s ear.

"Because they think you are my slave. And an amazon one at that." Gabrielle grinned over her shoulder at Varia’s confused look.

"Ha." Varia laughed weakly and stared darkly back into the crowd.

The sun arced overhead and sent down dry hot heat. The dust from the sandy streets made Varia’s eyes dry and itchy. Shells that hung from awnings made clinking sounds in the light breeze, and the smell of roasting meat and vegetables hung in the air. Varia trudged behind Gabrielle with the horses as she went from vendor to vendor. She peered over Gabrielle’s shoulder from time to time to observe as Gabrielle bargained with the vendors.

Gabrielle made purchases of soft linen, a pair of sandals, some jewelry, and a skillet. They returned to the same seamstress shop where Gabrielle had her clothes fashioned and the seamstress gladly tailored the same kind of outfit for Varia. When Varia stepped out of the changing room, Gabrielle hardly recognized her. She looked like a completely different person in the head to toe white linen and extravagant jewelry that adorned her forehead, ears, nose and wrists. Varia plucked unconsciously at her shirt and trousers, not used to the full head to toe garb. Gabrielle stood back, beaming, and gave Varia an admiring look. Varia felt a warmness creep across her cheeks and realized that she was blushing. She gave Gabrielle a quick smile then turned immediately to collect her belongings hoping that her crimson cheeks would pass for something other than a crush. Gabrielle noticed the blush and with eyebrows drawn together, she chewed the inside of her mouth and eyed her curiously.

They left the seamstress shop and navigated their way to the edge of the city and paused to climb up onto their horses. As Gabrielle seated herself in the saddle, she absently touched the chakram at her side, and felt a sense of comfort from it. When she glanced back, Varia had just given the straps of her saddlebags a final tug and was climbing up on to the saddle. At her nod, Gabrielle spurred her mare into a slow trot and Varia followed.

When camping for the night they would spend the early evenings sparring with each other just before dinner. Varia was astonished at how much Gabrielle’s skills had improved. Even though Varia had received training from both Ares and Xena, she often found herself back-peddling whenever Gabrielle found a weakness in her defenses. Gabrielle in turn learned new moves, adjusted old ones, and practiced her flips. A few times, it was Varia who would find a weakness and send Gabrielle sprawling into the dirt.

Sometimes without warning, Gabrielle would just walk away from their practice sessions to gaze at the sunsets in seclusion, leaving a very perplexed Varia behind wondering where she went off to. One evening when they had finished practicing, she followed Gabrielle up to a clearing on the mountain side. It was a long, rough climb and she was slightly breathless when she reached the top. When she looked over her shoulder, she could see the expansiveness of the desert. Off in the distance, many miles away, were another set of mountains, the thick green carpet of trees and their snowy white peaks were a stark contrast against the barren and dry desert. She moved carefully through dense cedar and fir trees, but stopped when she saw Gabrielle sitting on a large smooth boulder, absently twirling her sais. The light from the fading sun emphasized the wetness from tears on her cheeks.

During the day they rode and Gabrielle taught her word games, this made her laugh, no matter how hard she tried not to. She would also tell stories about her travels with Xena. Varia was fascinated by the stories Gabrielle told of far away lands.

That night as they lay around the campfire and looked up at the stars, Varia had to ask Gabrielle a question that had been on her mind all day.

"Gabrielle, do you plan to live by the sword for the rest of your life?"

There was a long silence and then a slow exhale.

"I don’t know. A part of me is a warrior that could help make this world a better place. I have paid dearly for the skills that I have learned." Gabrielle turned and faced Varia somberly. "I will probably face death everyday, but I’m not afraid. I’ve already experienced death. And in death I will find what I want most. Peace."

"I have come full circle and I have become what I wanted to be." Gabrielle’s eye’s filled with tears and her words were almost a whisper.

She realized as she spoke, that her desire for death was the same desire that Xena had. For only in death would she find peace. Because, up until then, Xena was tormented by tremendous guilt and by the haunting images of her cruel deeds. She would never have been be able to atone for her past for as long as she lived. Xena died as a warrior should, as a hero. Gabrielle survived to continue the fight for the greater good and she knew that she was the only one who was worthy enough to carry out this task.

"They don’t care whether they live or die. Is that what’s gonna happen?" Gabrielle asked.

"If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die as I am, a warrior with a sword in my hand." Xena said grimly.

Gabrielle gave a rueful chuckle. "I left home because I wanted to be like Xena."

"You ran away from home?" Varia said with astonishment and her mouth hung open.

"I guess you could say that." Gabrielle said dryly.

"You ran away from home to run around with a half-baked ex-warlord. You had guts!"

"It was either that or marry my betrothed, whom I didn’t love. I would have been miserable. I couldn’t see myself being relegated to being a farmer’s wife. I wanted adventure, and Xena was my way out."

Gabrielle paused and thought for a minute. "I wanted her to teach me what she knew, and I got what I wanted. I may have become a warrior, but, I have remained true to my own unique self. I realize that now."

"You’ve never really experienced independence before, have you Gabrielle?"

"No, not like this." Gabrielle stared at the fire dully.

"You do have friends, you know."

Gabrielle’s throat tightened and her voice became husky. "I know. But how can they help me with this loneliness that I feel?"

Gabrielle tilted her face and gazed sadly at Varia. "The bond that Xena and I had, transcended the physical. I don’t think I will ever find something like that again with anyone else."

Varia could only stare up at the stars in silence.

 

Chapter 12

The next morning they woke when the sun glared at them from behind sleepy eyes and the heat from the warming desert began seeping into their blankets. Blearily they got their belongings together and with dried jerky as their breakfast, they trotted on. Gabrielle wanted to get them to the mountain ridge in the distance by late morning so they could rest there out of the heat of the sun for the rest of the day, and then start traveling at night when it was much cooler.

They reached the mountain ridge and to Varia’s surprise, Gabrielle led them to a small oasis. They dismounted and let their horses drink water from a stone trough. Gabrielle led the way into a small open building. The walked up a short flight of steps and stepped inside. It was cooler, shaded by rocky outcroppings and palm trees, and water trickled down from the rocks above into an enclosed pool. Gabrielle plunked down the saddle bags and pulled off her turban. She ran her hands through her golden hair, smoothing out the tangles. She took off her robes and draped them over a large rock. She walked over to the edge of the pool and dipped her hands in the water. She sighed and glanced up at Varia.

"I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely getting in that water."

When Varia didn’t respond, she shrugged and proceeded to undress. She stepped down into the pool and cringed as the cold water shocked her hot skin. She ducked herself under the water and when she emerged, Varia had joined her. No sooner had they gotten themselves wet, when Gabrielle heard a faint sound. She narrowed her eyes and signaled for silence. She rolled her eyes and gave her head a little shake.

"What is it?" Varia asked.

"This happened the last time I was here." Gabrielle said with exasperation.

Gabrielle got out of the pool and Varia followed suit. They dressed quickly, walked back to their horses and trotted towards the sounds.

As they got closer, the rasp of metal and cries could be heard. Gabrielle and Varia paused to determine the direction of the noise and then spurred their mares into a fast gallop.

They reined their horses to a stop at the top of a sand dune. Gabrielle and Varia looked down and saw that a merchant caravan was being attacked by several nomadic mercenaries dressed in black on horseback. The attackers were circling the caravan and picking off the caravan’s guards. Gabrielle glanced over at Varia and they rode down the sand dune as fast as their mares could in the deep sand. Before they plunged into the fray Gabrielle took the chakram from her belt and flung it towards a mercenary who, in an attempt at kidnapping, had the woman in the driver’s seat of a wagon by the hair and was pulling her towards him. The chakram hit the back of his head and his arms went limp. Slowly he slumped forward, then sideways and slid off his saddle to the hot sand. The chakram arced neatly and returned to Gabrielle who snatched it smartly out of midair and returned it to her belt. She drew her sword and hit the nearest mercenary who turned in surprise. His surprise was only momentary. Her fist smacked him squarely in the jaw and his body rolled backwards off his saddle from the impact. She reined her mare to her right and sliced into another mercenary. As she was pulling the sword out, she caught a glimpse of Varia laying on her back in the sand struggling with a tail of a whip that was wrapped tightly around her neck. The owner of the whip was only a few feet away and advancing on Varia. Gabrielle reached for the chakram and deftly threw it in her direction. The Chakram turned itself vertically and sliced through the braided cord of the whip. Varia immediately jumped to her feet and pulled the cord loose from her neck. With a yell she lunged forward and tackled the mercenary to the ground. The blows to his face were vicious and blood ran from his mouth and nose. Varia stopped when she realized that the thug was unconscious, grasped her fallen sword and selected another mercenary to attack.

Gabrielle meanwhile, had her hands full. She was pulled from her horse after she threw the chakram. She jumped to her feet and battled three mercenaries that were intent on taking her down. She was no longer using her sword, but had a sais in each hand. As she parried sword thrusts, she delivered punishing blows to knees, ribs, and faces with the use of her sais and her strong powerful legs. At what sounded like a vibrating whine, Gabrielle reached up and snatched the chakram from the air and placed it back on her belt at her waist. One of her attackers took advantage of the moment by throwing a dagger at her. With her one sais, Gabrielle knocked it aside. For a brief moment, surprise registered on her face before it was replaced by a look of determination. She delivered a high side kick which sent him flying through the air. Without missing a beat she blocked a thrust by another mercenary, and shoved him aside. She knelt, swung her knives underneath him, and he spun down to the ground, head first.

When she turned around, the last of the mercenaries were riding off in retreat. Gabrielle and Varia sheathed their weapons and approached the woman who seemed to be the leader of the caravan.

"Are you all right?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yes!" The woman replied. "Those were Jasper’s men. They’ve been attacking caravans along this route for months. We have to hire our own guards until Rome sends in troops to fortify and guard this trade route between Alexandria and Rhakotis." She paused for a beat. "You know, I could use your help in keeping my caravan safe on the way back to Rhakotis."

Gabrielle exchanged looks with Varia. "All right." Gabrielle replied. "We’ll ride with you to Rhakotis, but we can’t stay, we have business elsewhere."

"Fair enough" she replied smiling. "By the way, may name is Alisa, I’m a spice trader."

"I’m Gabrielle, and this is my companion, Varia." Gabrielle said and looked sideways at Varia.

The woman quirked an eyebrow at Gabrielle and a mule protested nearby as a merchant tightened the straps around the cargo it was carrying.

"Gabrielle…Gabrielle. Hmm, sounds familiar. I’ve heard that name." She stared off into space with a thoughtful look.

"Gabrielle was the companion of Xena, the Warrior Princess." Varia offered.

Gabrielle sent her a glance and Hero whickered softly.

"Yes! Of course! The battling bard from Poteidia." The woman exclaimed and Gabrielle raised an eyebrow.

"You traveled with Xena. That must have been exciting! She was the best warrior that ever lived!" She said excitedly and Gabrielle smiled awkwardly.

"I’ve heard the readings from your scrolls. Absolutely wonderful!" She added and clapped her hands for emphasis.

"Thank you." Gabrielle replied shyly and smiled as she petted her mare’s neck.

After all of the mules and wagons were accounted for, the caravan continued on their journey with Gabrielle and Varia riding on opposite sides to keep a wary eye out for more attacks. The sun beat down on them mercilessly, and the air was dry and hot. They drank often from their water skins to quench their thirst. Their horses plowed through the thick sand without complaint, seemingly oblivious to the discomfort their human counterparts were experiencing. When a tall stone pillar appeared in the horizon, Alisa said, "Rhakotis isn’t far now. Look! There’s Pompey’s Pillar!" She said and pointed to a large marble obelisk in the distance framed by a scattering of palms. A short while later, they rode into the village and stopped before a large stuccoed building framed by tall palm trees and two large water troughs in front. They walked their horses to the troughs so they could drink and Gabrielle sighed when she dipped her hands in the cool water. Gabrielle cupped the water in her hands and splashed the cold liquid on her face. With a piece of linen from her belt, she blotted the excess water and sneaked a glance at Varia who decided to follow suit.

Alisa walked to the rear of one of the wagons and opened one of the brightly painted doors. Reaching inside she selected several large pouches, turned and walked over to Gabrielle. The woman handed Gabrielle the pouches and said, "I give you these, as a token of my gratitude." She handed the pouches up to Gabrielle who merely shook her head.

"I can’t take that. It was no trouble. Really." Gabrielle said.

"I insist that you take these. Besides, eating dried meat and snake meat without some kind of seasoning has got to taste really bland after a while."

"Snake meat?" Varia raised an eyebrow quizzically.

"Yes, it’s very good." Gabrielle replied simply.

When Gabrielle looked back down at her and hesitated, Alisa insisted, "Please, I want you take these. It’s the least I can do."

"All right." Gabrielle relented and took the offered pouches and set them on her lap.

She smiled when she opened the pouches. One pouch contained packets of spices and the other contained coins.

"Thank you. This was very generous of you." Gabrielle said sincerely.

The woman offered up her forearm, which Gabrielle clasped and they nodded at each other. Before releasing her grasp Gabrielle looked down at the bracer that covered the woman’s forearm. It was tooled in thick brown leather with a row of silver studs at the edges. What caught her attention was the tooled design in the center. It was circular and had a silver stud at each 45 degree angle in it, almost like the chakram she now carried.

"How will we recognize each other?" Gabrielle asked, looking over at her dark companion.

"Here," Xena said, and took a large marker from a pouch. Lifting her leg she drew a cross like design underneath the inked chakram on her foot.

Gabrielle smiled as they looked at each other in understanding.

"Gabrielle…Gabrielle…" Gabrielle blinked and the vision faded. When the woman noticed that Gabrielle had refocused she continued, "Farewell my friend."

Gabrielle smiled and said, "Farewell" in reply and rode out of the village with Varia right behind her.

 

Chapter 13

They made their way back to the oasis and Gabrielle guided them through the tiny stand of trees to a small cliff, past the building with the pool that they had bathed in the day before. The cliff was made of the same light colored rock that blended in with the surrounding desert. They stopped before a section of the rock face that was somewhat smooth. Gabrielle dismounted and Varia watched as she placed her hand on an impression in the rock and turned it. A dark opening appeared and she ducked inside. Varia dismounted and approached the entrance and examined the impression on the rock and at the stones that surrounded it. Gabrielle appeared at that moment with a lit torch and guided Varia inside and around various traps. The first was the stairs, Gabrielle stepped over the first step and said, "Never step on the first step, it triggers a mechanism which will make the stairs disappear." Varia looked down, way down, and swallowed. They followed a series of tunnels marked with an encircled ‘X’ and Gabrielle pointed out a number of areas Varia should avoid touching or passing through. They finally entered what appeared to be a room of sorts. Gabrielle placed the lit torch in a bracket on the wall and directed Varia to have a seat. When she did so, a shield on the wall turned and Varia’s eyes widened upon seeing row upon row of scrolls.

"Xena used this place when she was a warlord. When she had her vision that we would be crucified on the Ides of March, I had Joxer and Amarise bring my scrolls here for safekeeping." Gabrielle said

"It’s good that you know about this place, because if anything should happen to me I want you to know where I might keep my scrolls if I wasn’t able get them to the Library in Alexandria or to the Academy in Athens." Gabrielle continued.

Gabrielle took several scrolls from the wall and put them in her saddle bags. Varia stood up and the wall reversed itself back to a shield. Gabrielle walked over to the corner and pulled a lever. A small opening appeared and she dug around in her saddle bag. She pulled out the ceramic jar that still contained a trace of Xena’s ashes, an ivory backed brush and matching comb, and several of Xena’s barrettes. She placed all of the items gingerly into the opening and pushed the lever back up to close the opening. Gabrielle lifted the lit torch from the wall and guided them back to the cave’s opening. Gabrielle doused the torch before they stepped outside. She placed her hand on the impression in the rock and turned it. They watched the stone as it swiveled back to conceal the entrance and then walked back to their horses.

"Okay, let’s go to Alexandria." Gabrielle said and stepped into the stirrup of her saddle.

They spent the better part of the night traveling across the desert towards the city of Alexandria. The sands shifted under the horses hooves and an occasional gust of wind would stir the sands into a devilish whirl. They rode on through these storms, the linen of their turbans covered their noses and mouths so that they wouldn’t choke on the airborne sand.

Egypt had become a Roman province shortly after Cleopatra’s death and Antony’s defeat by Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar. Over the years Octavian became known as Augustus Caesar. Egypt grew into one of the largest metropolises in the world and became the world’s scientific and intellectual mecca.

By dawn the outlines of the large city could be seen in the distance. Cedar, fir and palm trees appeared in clusters as they rode down onto the road towards the city. As they approached the city gates of Alexandria, the road that they were travelling on became more and more congested, carts and wagons rumbled by and traders trotted past with cargo mules in tow.. Thousands of people used this road to travel between Djedu, Bubastis and Men-nefer. Small river boats also transported travelers on the Nile River, the river that ran from deep within Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea. The floods from the Nile River kept the land fertile and Egypt profited from the produce grown from the deep rich soil.

When Gabrielle and Varia entered the city of Alexandria, they walked down a bustling avenue with their horses in tow, the steel shod hooves of their horses rang on the smooth stones as they trotted into the city. Varia, new to the middle east culture took in the sights as only a tourist would, wide eyed with curiosity and her face shinning with anticipation.

They walked through the Forum which was the main marketplace and business center. There were potters, breweries, weavers, jewelers, juggler schools, temples, and an orator was loudly protesting something or other. Gabrielle led them to an area that provided housing to visitors, and stopped font of a large manor that was directly across from a Senet House which was bustling with activity, and handed the reins over to a stable hand. The manor was built of brick with a red tile roof and had green and white awnings above its windows and doorway. Pompass grasses adorned the small yard and a budding olive tree stood in the center.

Gabrielle and Varia walked inside. The main room was airy and cool and a few lone diners were seated at tables, enjoying their meals. Through an archway there was a central courtyard in which rooms, sporting intricately worked balconies and open windows, were arranged around it. A fountain in the center of the open courtyard splashed quietly and was shaded by palm trees scattered along a tiled pathway. In the dining area where they stood there were paintings on the walls, and beautiful mosaics on the floor. There was very little furniture, except for the few tables and chairs that they saw. They sat down at one of the empty tables for a few minutes before an woman approached them. She was deeply tanned and wore a white tunic that was gathered at her waist by a silk sash. Gabrielle asked for lunch and a room for the both of them. The woman nodded and smiled at them before returning to the kitchen. She returned several minutes later and set their lunch down before them, as well as vials of oil and vinegar. The plates overflowed with lettuce, olives, and cheeses. On a huge platter before them was bread with honey, fruit, nuts, and cold meats. Gabrielle leaned forward and poured a liberal amount of the olive oil and vinegar on her salad. There were no utensils so Gabrielle used her fingers to assemble a bite sized portion of the lettuce and cheeses. As she took her first bite she looked over at Varia who was looking at her plate suspiciously, turning the plate first one way and then the other. Gabrielle resisted the temptation to chuckle. Varia mimicked what Gabrielle did by sprinkling her salad with oil and vinegar as well. She brought the ingredients to her mouth carefully and chewed slowly. A look of satisfaction appeared on her face and acknowledged that the food was actually quite good.

Varia couldn’t help but notice that she was being openly stared at by a woman seated at a table in front of them.

Varia leaned towards Gabrielle and whispered from across the table. "Gabrielle, she’s staring at me."

Gabrielle turned and looked over her shoulder at the woman. The woman was eating figs with delicate fingers, sucking the juices from them and gazed at her with lidded eyes. Her hair was very dark, almost black and cropped short at the shoulders. A thin gold headband inlaid with small turquoise stones contrasted against her dark hair and skin. She wore a simple white tunic of sheer linen and several thin gold bracelets graced her slim wrists. Gabrielle bit down on her bottom lip to conceal a smile and then turned back to Varia and said dryly, "Yep, you’re being stared at." Gabrielle smiled around the next bite of her salad.

"Look, I’m not in amazon territory here. I’m not sure what that means." Varia said uncertainly.

"It probably means the same thing, Varia, she likes you." Gabrielle said, amusement twinkling in her eyes.

Varia looked past Gabrielle’s shoulder and smiled at the woman, who smiled back warmly.

"I’m going to…" Varia said to Gabrielle and nodded in the woman’s direction.

"By all means." Gabrielle replied with a mischievous smile.

When Varia got up Gabrielle noticed that a group of consuls had just entered the inn. They all sat down at the vacant table in front of her and spoke loudly enough that Gabrielle couldn’t help but listen in on their conversation.

"Two hundred scrolls, all taken from the Library." One of the consuls said and shook his head in disbelief.

Gabrielle tensed and her hand stopped midway between her plate and her mouth.

"What was taken were mostly the scrolls of the Pharaohs," another said as his chair scraped on the floor.

Gabrielle resumed eating but kept a sharp ear on the conversation going on in front of her.

"Someone stole them during the night, right under the guards noses!"

"This has been going on for several months." The first one added.

"Someone needs to catch who is behind this!" The first one said in outrage.

Varia returned to their table and sat down with a huge grin on her face.

"She wants to meet me at the Baths tonight." Varia told her.

"Really?" Gabrielle said in mock surprise and Varia gave her a sardonic smile. After a pause, Gabrielle leaned forward and told her what she heard from the men sitting at the table behind her.

Gabrielle munched on a slice of fruit before speaking. "We need to get those scrolls back."

"We are? How?" Varia asked curiously.

"I don’t have a plan yet and we need more information." After a pause Gabrielle continued, "I know someone we can talk to."

They finished up their lunch, left the inn, and Gabrielle led the way to the Library. The building was a massive marble structure and just beyond it were the silhouettes of the pyramids on the horizon. Tall marble pillars adorned the entrance and ornamental statues of the sphinx, and leopard sat regally at the bottom of the steps. They walked up the steps and into the building. They stood in a large hallway, the tile floors shone and busts of Pharaohs and Queens long past were displayed proudly on pedestals along the walls. Huge tapestries hung from the ceilings, and there were ornate paintings of Roman emperors on the walls as well as paintings that depicted the culture and customs of Egypt. It was quite impressive and Varia looked about her in awe. Gabrielle, having visited the Library during her first trip to Egypt with Xena, spent days reading scrolls written by bards, and philosophers. She remembered how thrilled she was.

Gabrielle spotted a librarian, walked briskly over to him and made her inquiry. The librarian pointed to one of the many rooms and they made their way towards it and stopped at the doorway. A middle-aged man was bent over a desk littered with scrolls. As he closed one and went to reach for another he glanced up and noticed the two women standing in the doorway.

"Gabrielle!" He said in surprise and made his way to her. He hugged her tightly and then releasing her, glanced over at Varia.

"This is my friend Varia." Gabrielle told him. " Varia, this is Arius, a great philosopher and a friend of Octavian."

"Welcome, Varia." He said as she took his proffered hand and shook it.

Arius ushered them into his cluttered study and made room for them to sit.

"It is really good to see you again, Gabrielle." He said. "And I am truly sorry about Xena." He added somberly.

Gabrielle gave him a quiet smile and asked him, "I heard some scrolls were stolen from the Library."

"You heard there were some?" He scoffed. "There were over two hundred scrolls taken, Gabrielle, and these were invaluable scrolls. They tell the story of Ramses and of Cleopatra. And several of them were yours as well."

"I would guess that they would fetch a hefty price in the undermarket." Gabrielle surmised.

"We’re almost positive that’s where they are. Since Egypt became a Roman province, Egyptian artifacts have become hot items. There is a man rumored to be the ‘King’ of this underworld, I have never seen him, but I know his name. His name is Jarod. He is a dealer in antiquities and lives in a stately manor due south near Dashur." Arius informed them.

"Well, hopefully we can get them back for you, Arius. Those scrolls belong in the Library for all to read. They are not to be owned by the privileged and rich." Gabrielle stated flatly.

 

Chapter 14

"We’re going to have to sneak into his villa, aren’t we, Gabrielle? So we can find out what he knows about those scrolls. Right?" Varia hazarded a guess as they walked down the busy street.

"Yes." Gabrielle answered, and chewed on one side of her bottom lip absently. "We need to get as close to him as we can." Gabrielle continued still deep in thought.

"Close to him?" Varia asked suspiciously, her eyebrows raised.

"Never mind, I’ll do it." Gabrielle replied and chewed on the other side of her bottom lip. An idea came to her and her face brightened. She turned to Varia and said slyly, "You do like to dance, don’t you, Varia?"

Warily, Varia answered, "Yes, why?"

"It works every time." Was Gabrielle’s only answer. "Come on." Gabrielle directed and Varia followed her to the Forum and where they found a weaver’s shop. There, they bought outfits that only a harem woman would wear. Varia held up the skimpy outfit by her fingertips and balked, but after Gabrielle convincingly told Varia her plan, she reluctantly gave in and they made a final stop to purchase extra saddle bags on their way back to the manor where they were staying.

After finishing their dinner at the manor, Gabrielle and Varia decided to pay a visit the baths. The baths were extremely popular. Hundreds of people would gather at the baths to meet and socialize with each other. The baths had hot and cold pools, towels, slaves that waited on the bathers with scented oils, steam rooms, saunas, exercise rooms, and even hair cutting salons. Outside on the patio there were reading rooms, libraries, and small stores.

Gabrielle, anxious to be rid of the dust and sand form the desert disrobed quickly and sank into the steaming water blissfully. Varia glanced around the room, her eyebrows lifted at the sight of nude and semi-nude women. Varia disrobed and sank into the water next to Gabrielle. The woman they had met at the inn was at the other end of the bath. When she saw Gabrielle and Varia, she swam slowly towards them.

"Hello Varia." She said in a soft voice when she reached them.

Varia nodded, turned towards Gabrielle and introduced her.

"Gabrielle, this is Serina, she’s a painter and a potter."

"Hello." Gabrielle said pleasantly.

The woman gave Gabrielle a wide smile and rested her hand on Gabrielle’s bare thigh under the water. Gabrielle started at the light touch on her leg but smiled bravely at Serina, hiding her astonishment at the woman’s boldness.

"I’ve heard a lot about you, the battling bard of Podiatia, and companion of Xena, the Warrior Princess. You’re famous in these parts, you know." She said softly. Her hand trailed up Gabrielle’s leg as she moved forward towards Varia. Gabrielle swallowed and discreetly moved away to reach for a sponge. After a thorough bathing, Gabrielle dunked herself under the water to rinse out her hair. When she emerged, Serina and Varia were watching her. Varia was smiling in the way friends do, but Serina, her azure eyes roamed appreciatively across Gabrielle’s naked body. She noticed the strong muscles in Gabrielle’s arms, the firmness of her breasts, and those eyes, they were very green and bright with the fullness of life. She watched as Gabrielle brought her arms up to smooth her blonde hair back from her face, squeezing the water from it. Gabrielle smiled at Serina awkwardly, flustered by the attention, then she turned and walked up the steps and out of the bath. Serina continued to watch Gabrielle’s lithe form as it rose from the water. Her eyes lingered on the dragon tattoo on Gabrielle’s back. Gabrielle selected a towel from a cart and wrapped herself in the soft linen. After drying herself off she dressed, turned and nodded at both Serina and Varia before she left.

Gabrielle walked back to the Manor relishing in the clean feeling from her bath. She entered the inn, walked through the courtyard and up a small flight of steps that led to her room. She opened the wooden door and stepped inside. Gabrielle took off her turban, scabbard, and robe and laid them down on the gilded divan at the foot of the bed. She walked over to the open balcony, slipped between the billowing silk curtains and looked out over the courtyard. The sun was setting and the sky was tinted a deep red. It was beautiful and sad at the same time. Gabrielle would never be able to look at a sunset without thinking of her final moments with Xena.

"How am I supposed to go on without you?" Gabrielle said, as tears formed in her eyes.

"I’ll always be with you, Gabrielle." Xena replied as she gathered Gabrielle into her arms for the last time.

Gabrielle turned away, walked back into the room, and sat down at a table. She pulled out the top sheet of papyrus, plucked the quill from the inkwell and began to write. After finishing several sheets she set the quill down and stretched. She stood up and walked over to the balcony again and parted the silk curtains. She looked over her right shoulder and on the balcony next to hers she saw Varia and another woman in an embrace. When they pulled apart, Varia took the woman’s hand and led her back into the room. Gabrielle smiled before she turned and went back to the table and continued writing her story. The light from the oil lamp that hung from the ceiling flickered across her face. Slowly she became overcome with drowsiness and had difficulty holding her head up and keeping her eyes open. She put the quill back in the ink, yawned and folded her arms on the desk in front of her. She closed her eyes, laid her head on her arms and dreamed.

She was floating effortlessly among the clouds. She wore crimson colored pantaloons, a gold silk vest and matching short coat. On her head she wore a gold silk turban from which long dark hair fell past her shoulders. Gold hoop earrings dangled from her ears, a gold necklace with a medallion hung around her neck and she wore gold bracers on her arms. On the front of her turban was a jewel encrusted gold brooch and a curved sword was in her hand. Her skin was deeply tanned and misty green eyes peered out from above a dark goatee. The image shifted and now she saw herself wearing a high necked silk green gown with gold embroidery across the bodice, emerald earrings in her ears, and smaller ones were strung in her auburn hair. On her head sat a jeweled encrusted crown. She turned as a tall figure with braided dark hair stepped into view. The image morphed again and metal glinted. Plated armor with a coat of arms painted on it covered her torso over a heavy chain mail shirt. She wore leather trousers underneath a chain mail skirt. A lightweight sword hung from a chain at her waist. Green eyes glinted through a slit in the metal helmet that covered her head and blue and white feathers sprayed over the top. She held upright a standard of a blue circle with cross-like symbol below it on the white fabric. Her head turned as a white war horse dressed in the same coat of arms galloped to her side. Sitting astride the saddle was a tall knight. Gloved hands reached up and removed an identical helmet as the one she wore. Curly dark tresses fell down to her shoulders and icy blue eyes stared forth.

 

Chapter 15

At a stately manor near the town of Djedu, the man called Jarod sat comfortably on plush cushions as he watched a group of dancers twist and turn seductively to music. They were a mirage of silk, oiled skin, jeweled headdresses, bracelets, necklaces, and rings of gold and ivory. His skin was burnt brown from the sun, his prominent cheekbones and light goatee lent a ruggedness to his face. A jeweled earring hung from his right ear, and a white turban only covered a portion of his curly black hair. He wore a bright blue silk shirt with gold trim and large gold bracers and bracelets adorned his muscular and hairless arms. Incense and curls of smoke from an opium pipe wafted through the air. Two slaves in simple white tunics knelt behind him and waved large fans made of ostrich feathers. Guards with tasseled spears stood at each of the open doorways.

Occasionally he would select fruits from a tray on the floor front of him. A dancer, small in stature, but with very well toned muscles, spun to the center of the floor. She selected flaming batons from a woman that danced along with her before she bowed down on the carpet. She expertly twirled the flaming batons while swaying her hips to the rhythm of the music. She bent herself backwards and her head just brushed the floor. She raised her arms and waved the batons over her torso. She pulled herself forward and knelt on her knees. She criss-crossed her arms, pulled her leg out from under her and swiveled on her foot. She bent backwards again and moved her shoulders in a circular pattern, her arms and the flaming batons followed fluidly. Jarod was mesmerized by this unusual dancer. Her face was partly obscured by a thin jeweled veil that covered the lower half of her face and her blond hair was slicked down behind her ears, and a jeweled headdress adorned the crown of her head. She wore a very small beaded top that barely covered her breasts and a small loin cloth type thong that did not cover much. Her brilliant green eyes were accented by dark eyeliner and a jaded jewel sparkled from her forehead. Her fingers sparkled from the many rings she wore. She continued to twirl the flaming batons as she neared him and then stopped a mere few feet from him. With a flourish the flaming batons were extinguished and she pulled out the chakram from within a pouch that hung in front at her waist. She held it up before her between the palms of both hands. She smiled to herself as Jarod nearly choked on a fruit. He leaned forward to examine the chakram. As he started to reach out to touch it, Gabrielle pulled it in close to her body, went back to her seductive dancing using the chakram as the object of her attentions. The chakram skimmed over her bare stomach and up over her chest. She brought it up to her face and peered at him through the circular opening as if it were a window. She spun a few times and slowly lifted the chakram over her head. When she brought her dance to a close she moved towards the cushions near Jarod, sat down, and tucked the chakram back into her pouch.

"I’m losing sight of your plan, Xena. Are you going to flirt him to death?" Gabrielle asked.

"I’m getting him to trust me so I can do what I want with him." Xena replied.

"Be careful, he’s your type." Gabrielle reminded her.

Jarod leaned towards her and she gave him what she hoped was a sexy and sultry look.

"How did you happen to have Xena’s chakram, hmm?" He asked as his arm snaked across her back.

"Does it matter?" Gabrielle whispered smoothly.

He laughed and his hands caressed her bare back. "Hmm, no, I suppose not, but I am interested in acquiring it."

"I’m sorry, but it’s not for sale." Gabrielle replied.

"I live for artifacts such as that one. Surely, there must be some kind of agreement that we could make?" He said and pulled Gabrielle onto his lap, his hands roamed down her back to rest on her buttocks.

Gabrielle licked her lips and leaned towards him.

Varia rose from her prone position on the floor and walked slowly towards the open doorway where she stopped and turned to look at Gabrielle.

"Perhaps. I heard that scrolls were taken from the great Library. So, I have a proposition to make." Gabrielle said as she plucked a cherry from the tray and popped it into her mouth. She glanced at Varia and gave her a short nod.

Varia quietly walked past the guards and walked down a long corridor, peeking into each room. She climbed a long flight of steps and found a bedroom that could only belong to the man lounging in the cushions with Gabrielle.

Varia slipped inside and pulled a pouch from her cleavage. She placed the pouch under a cushion in the open balcony. She flattened herself against the wall when she heard whispers and distant footsteps in the hallway. When they went past and faded away, she walked quickly to the door, down the steps, and out an open window.

Gabrielle’s fingers caressed the silk shirt that he wore, then she let them trail down to the inside of his legs. She resisted the impulse to back away and instead leaned even further towards him so that their lips almost touched.

"I…I don’t know what you are talking about.." he stammered as he stared at her moist lips.

She smiled inwardly as his eyes widened in surprise. She was in control, and she liked it. She was sure that eventually her charms would weaken him enough so that he would give in and tell her what she needed to know.

"Sure you do, I know you have them, and I want them." Gabrielle ground her hips against him and pushed him gently onto his back.

"All right, after you spend the night with me, meet me tomorrow evening at the base of the Tiberian cliffs, near the chariot maker." He said as his hands slid up and down the back of her bare legs, then under the thin square piece of linen that hung over her buttocks.

Jarod slithered out from under her and stood. He held out his hand to Gabrielle and she took it. He led her down a long hall and upstairs to his suite. Gabrielle glanced around and said with a teasing smile, "Wine, more wine." And twirled her empty wine goblet.

Jarod opened a tall chest and selected a wine jug. Gabrielle walked over, stood behind him, and took the jug from his hand.

"Why don’t you go and make yourself comfortable." Gabrielle said and pushed him gently on his chest in the direction of the balcony where a pile of cushions lay.

As he sat down on the cushions, Gabrielle reached behind it and grabbed the pouch that Varia had hidden there. Gabrielle stood up, walked over to the table where the wine jug sat. With her back turned to Jarod, Gabrielle opened the pouch. She took a pinch of the powder and dropped it into Jarod’s wine goblet.

She picked up both wine goblets and walked over to where Jarod was seated, lounging comfortably in the cushions. She leaned over and handed him the goblet. Jarod’s eyes wandered up to Gabrielle’s cleavage and his mouth opened in response. Gabrielle resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She seated herself next to him as they raised their goblets and drank. Jarod plucked a date from a fruit tray on a shelf next to him and fed it to her, slipping it between her moist lips. Gabrielle played along and offered him fruits as well. As he bit into the fifth morsel of fruit, his head began to bob up and down and then he slumped sideways onto her lap.

"It’s about time." Gabrielle said with relief.

She pushed his body off her lap and got up. She stripped him of his shirt and flung it haphazardly over a cushion. She untied his belt, turned him over onto his stomach and removed his sandals. Gabrielle sighed, took hold of his trousers by the pant legs and pulled. These too, she threw over a cushion next to his silk shirt. She pulled the silk sheet from the bed and covered him with it. As an afterthought, to make the scene more realistic, she left her scented silk scarf behind on the cushions next to his naked body.

Gabrielle plucked a few more fruity morsels from the tray, stood back, and looked down at Jarod’s sleeping form with satisfaction.

"Good fruit." She said and licked her fingers before she walked across the room to the door.

Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief when she closed the door of Jarod’s room. Gabrielle crept down the hallway, down the stairs, climbed out the window, and vaulted down to the ground. Silently she crept over to where Varia waited with their horses.

"Let’s head back, I need to take a bath." Gabrielle said blandly as she hoisted herself up into the saddle.

"Did you sleep with him?" Varia asked with a look of disgust on her face.

"No!" Gabrielle retorted. "He went out like a snuffed candle."

"Well, that’s a relief. There for a minute I thought you might have actually liked the guy."

Gabrielle shot her an annoyed look.

"What?" Varia shot back.

"For starters, not my type."

"Oh, you have a type? That’s interesting, because I know you like tall, dark, blue eyes, and drop dead gorgeous." Varia moved her mare closer to Hero.

"Drop it Varia." Gabrielle said in mock warning.

"Wait a minute…he wasn’t wearing leather."

Gabrielle just chuckled and spurred her mare into a fast gallop back to Alexandria and to a nice hot bath.

 

Chapter 16

The next evening Gabrielle and Varia rode to the Tiberian cliffs as Jarod had instructed and waited for him. When she heard his approach she turned her mare around and dismounted. Jarod rode up and a broad smile appeared on his face when he saw her. He dismounted and walked quickly to where Gabrielle stood. He wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her towards him. Their lips were only inches apart and she laughed, slipping easily into her role.

"I’m sorry about last night. Will you let me make it up to you?" he asked and brushed a finger through her hair.

As he leaned down to kiss her, Gabrielle shyly pushed him back and said, "Business before pleasure."

Jarod chuckled and walked over to a small stone building that was almost completely hidden by rubble from the decaying buildings all around it. Jarod pulled out a key from a pouch at his belt, inserted it in the lock and opened the door to the building. He went in and then came back out with a scroll and handed it over to Gabrielle to read so she could confirm its authenticity. When Gabrielle opened the scroll she immediately recognized the language and the writing. Smiling she nodded, pleased with herself.

"Well, I think we can make a deal." She said and looked up at Jarod with a satisfied smile. "The deal is that these scrolls are going back where they belong."

When the comment sunk in, Jarod realized that he’d been duped. Angrily he pulled out his saber and charged Gabrielle. Unbeknownst to Gabrielle, Jarod had men inside the building, and the sound of Jarod’s cry, they came swarming out. In the blink of an eye Gabrielle reached down and snatched her sais from her boots.

"How did you know we were going to be attacked? Gabrielle asked.

"I always assume that I will be." Xena answered.

She parried the attacks and Varia came out of hiding and appeared at her side to help. Varia picked off the men, one by one. She was no match for them. She had a sword in each hand, and was able to deftly disarm as well as disable her attackers. Jarod was still intent on defeating Gabrielle, who smartly deflected his attacks and landed some serious blows to his face and midsection. The final blow was a kick to his face that sent him flying into the trees and then he landed on the ground unconscious.

When Jarod fell, Gabrielle glanced over at Varia, who had just downed the last of Jarod’s men, and their gazes met. They smiled at each other, put their weapons away, and walked over to their horses. They removed the saddle bags, slung them over their shoulders and went into the building where the scrolls were. Staring at the pile of scrolls that lay haphazardly in a corner, Gabrielle and Varia gathered them up carefully and packed them into their saddle bags.

"Now I know why you bought the extra saddle bags." Varia commented.

As they finished packing the scrolls into the saddle bags, they looked around the room and saw many Egyptian artifacts sitting on shelves and wooden crates lined one section of the wall.

"I think we hit the jackpot." Varia said.

 

Chapter 17

Once the scrolls were safely back in the Library, Gabrielle, Varia, and Arius walked outside into the street. Arius shook each of their hands in gratitude, and to Gabrielle, he extended an invitation for her to come to the Library whenever she wished. Gabrielle’s face broke out in a bright smile and she accepted his offer.

As Gabrielle and Varia walked back to the manor where they were staying,, Gabrielle told Varia that she decided that she was going to stay in Alexandria for a while. Do some reading, some writing. Varia nodded in understanding.

Before leaving to return to the Amazons, Varia promised to return to Alexandria in a few months after the birth of her child.

Gabrielle spent those few months in Alexandria reading and writing. The view of the city from her balcony at the manor was breathtaking, especially at sunset. She still experienced sadness when watching the sunsets, but she felt a renewed sense of purpose. She could still feel her love for Xena within her and this would make her smile. Xena was still alive. She felt a sense of happiness in this and realized how full her life was and even with Xena’s death, still is.

"Whenever I feel lost, all I have to do is think of you, Gabrielle." Xena said.

She noticed everything around her, more so than she used to, the richness in the colors from woven tapestries, to the snow covered mountains in the distance. The emotions and feelings people expressed on their faces and in the way they moved. She became aware of the embodiment of life, and it seemed as if a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

"Gabrielle, every time I felt myself start to lose control, I just think of you. You lead me home." Xena’s voice whispered.

On occasion she experienced a sense of foreboding, as if something wasn’t quite right. Sometimes she felt that there were a pair of eyes watching her, but whenever she turned, she couldn’t locate them.

She was thrilled to be able to go to the famous Library again. She found a renewed sense of energy and learned as much as she could from the dozens of scrolls she read. She even found the courage and the strength to write the story of Xena’s final battle. The story took several days to write, and when she finished it, she was exhausted, emotionally and mentally. She knew that this would be the story that would be told over and over from one generation to the next, so she took her time and poured everything she had into it, her feelings, her thoughts, and her soul.

The first thing is the greater good, you taught me that. You taught me that there are things in life worth dying for, things that hold a higher meaning than our own existence." Gabrielle said passionately.

One morning while reading in the Library, Gabrielle looked up to find Varia standing in the doorway. Strapped to her chest was what looked like a ball of linen, but as Gabrielle approached her, she saw that it was a pouch for Varia’s new baby. Varia and Gabrielle clasped hands and Varia lifted her newborn out for Gabrielle to see. Gabrielle held the baby in her arms and her eyes misted.

"She’s beautiful, Varia." Gabrielle said as she looked lovingly down into the baby’s face. Gabrielle sat down in one of the chairs and Varia knelt down in front of her.

"I think I’m ready to go back to Athens. I want to give the Academy some of my scrolls. I wrote one on Xena’s last battle." Gabrielle said and looked into Varia’s eyes. Varia saw the sadness there, but her eyes were brighter and more alert. She sensed something different about Gabrielle, in the way she talked and in the way she walked. She sounded more certain about herself, for her voice carried more conviction, and she carried herself with the kind of pride only a warrior could understand. Gabrielle had the heart of a lover and poet, and the body of a dancer and warrior. Varia reached out and touched Gabrielle’s face. Gabrielle turned her head to look down at her and Varia saw the love that had been missing from those eyes since Xena’s death. For when Gabrielle smiled, the whole room seemed to light up.

Gabrielle and Varia headed back to Greece, but they didn’t know that Jarod wanted vengeance for the humiliation that Gabrielle had caused him. After the scrolls were returned to the library, the prefectures raided Jarod’s home and confiscated numerous stolen artifacts. Many lost or stolen items were also recovered from the same building in which the scrolls were hidden. Jarod was forced to flee his home and hide in the desert.

Jarod, in order to avoid suspicion, didn’t want Gabrielle killed in Alexandria, but somewhere out in the desert, where her body wouldn’t be found. An assassin had been watching Gabrielle for a few months and followed her as she rode out of the city with her friend.

The attack came one night while they were sleeping. Gabrielle and Varia sat up about the same time and reached for their weapons. Gabrielle heard the soft ‘ping’ of a bowstring as it released an arrow. She rolled away from her bedroll to a tree and then stood up behind it for cover. When she peeked around the tree she saw the assassin and watched him move across the campsite.

Suddenly Varia sprung from behind a shrub and swung her sword at him. He blocked her swing and they exchanged heavy blows. Suddenly he leapt and disappeared up into the trees, but Varia was right behind him.

"Gabrielle!" Varia shouted from the trees. Gabrielle turned quickly upon hearing her name. She heard the sound of a soft ‘ping’, but before she could react, something sharp pierced her. She gasped in pain, looked down and saw the shaft of an arrow protruding from her side. She sank down to her knees and slowly she slipped down to the ground.

Varia screamed in anguish, disbelief and shock flooded into her face. Gabrielle looked over when Varia and the assassin crashed down to the ground and watched Varia plunge her blade straight into the assassin’s heart, pinning him to the earth. The assassin twitched then lay still. Varia quickly withdrew her sword and ran to Gabrielle’s side.

"I have got to be more careful." Gabrielle breathed when Varia lifted her head and examined the damage to her side.

"Shhh. I’ve got you." Varia whispered.

Gabrielle slipped into unconsciousness and the deep gash on her side bled profusely. Varia attempted to stanch the flow with her hand. After removing the arrow, she took hold of the sleeve of her robe and pulled it from its seam. She placed the torn linen on the wound and gathered Gabrielle into her arms. Her hands groped to find a pulse and found one. It was faint and slow. She moved Gabrielle to a more comfortable spot by the fire and searched the forest for healing herbs and plants. Throughout the rest of the night she nursed Gabrielle and made a litter that could be pulled by one of the mares. In the morning after feeding her baby, she placed Gabrielle on the litter and guided their horses to the port city of Byblos. Varia took Gabrielle to a physician who redressed her wounds using fresh herbal medicines and clean bandages. Gabrielle’s body was very warm to the touch and a light sheen of perspiration covered her skin. The physician told Varia that Gabrielle will probably survive, but she needed to rest and that the wound needed cleansing often. She bought a passage on a ship to Troy and carried Gabrielle aboard. With Gabrielle tucked into a bunk in their cabin below, she left the ship and sold the horses so that she could buy medicine, bandages, and pay the remainder of what she owed for their passage back to Troy.

Varia returned to the ship with fresh bandages and medicine. During the two day trip to Troy, Varia cared for Gabrielle by bathing her, changing the dressings on her wound, and forcing her to drink water so that she would stay hydrated. Varia stayed below decks during most of the trip, her concern for Gabrielle’s health was her only priority. Only twice did she venture up onto the deck.

When they docked at Troy, she retrieved Hero from the stables and bought a litter. She went back to the ship and carried Gabrielle from their cabin to the litter that was attached to the mare. When Varia got up on the saddle, the mare did a nervous dance, but Varia was able to soothe the mare’s nerves, and they trotted off towards the amazon village.

Through the haze she could just make out a dark form walking towards her. As the form came closer, she gasped. It was Xena, and her naked form was striding purposefully towards her. She looked down at herself and realized that she was naked as well. A small smile crept onto her lips and she looked back up to the tall dark form of Xena. The warrior stopped directly in front of her and smiled. Gabrielle looked up into Xena’s eyes which were warm and full of love. The peaceful emotions in those blue eyes were clear and deep like the sea. Gabrielle reached out instinctively to cup Xena’s face in her hands. Xena covered Gabrielle’s hands with her own and leaned forward slowly. Their eyes remained focused on one another and Gabrielle’s lips parted in response. There was a flash of light and when she opened her eyes, she saw Eli standing before them. His eyes were closed and his brows were knitted in concentration. His one hand was raised to the heavens and his other rested on Xena’s shoulder. Eli lowered his head and then he lowered his arm to rest a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. She felt intense energy pass between Xena and herself, it was a pleasurable feeling. A feeling that only Xena could give her. She hadn’t felt that for so long. She closed her eyes and simply allowed her body to enjoy the pleasure. When she opened her eyes she saw that Xena was experiencing the same thing. She started to speak but a bright light enveloped her and she felt a tremendous warmth in her belly.

"Gabrielle….Gabrielle.." She heard her name and struggled to open her eyes.

Light blinded her momentarily, harsh and flickering. She blinked in the glare, disoriented and confused, fighting to get some sense of where she was and what was happening. The outlines of the amazon hut began to gather form and then she recognized the smell of oil lamps, damp earth and the smell of the forest. All that happened in the moments during her dream came back to her in a rush. Images flickered across her mind, the softness of Xena’s lips, the smoothness of her skin, the love that shone in her eyes, and the peace that radiated warmly from within the warrior. Gabrielle’s hands moved instinctively down to cover her belly. When her vision cleared, she recognized the familiar surroundings of her Amazon hut and the voice. It was Eve.

"Eve.." Gabrielle whispered thickly.

"Gabrielle, you have been given a gift." Eve said as she cradled Gabrielle’s face in her hands.

 

To be continued in Part II, A Braveheart Bard.


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