It was midday when Gabrielle rode into Amphipolis. Even though the day was cold, there was a bright sun shining and people were out taking care of the business of the day.
As Gabrielle entered Xena's family vault, she expected to find everything covered with at least some dust, after all it had been more than two months since she and Eve had placed the small, unadorned urn with Xena's ashes here. But instead everything was spotless, as if it were cleaned only yesterday.
As she neared the urn Gabrielle saw that someone had painted a Chakram on the side of it. She carefully picked it up and studied the painting. Whoever had done it obviously had an artistic talent. It was accurate down to the finest detail.
"Well, Xena," Gabrielle said, "It looks as if you've had someone watching over you while I've been gone." Even though she carried the small vial of Xena's ashes around her neck, Gabrielle softly kissed the urn and gently put it back in its place. "It's nice to know someone else cares."
Gabrielle's next stop was the inn, not only to find a buyer for her horse, but to eat and to rent a room for the night. "This is a good time of day, it should be easy to find someone to buy the horse."
As she entered the inn she realized the dining hall was mostly full, but saw a table near the back. After she had ordered something to eat, she asked the innkeeper if he knew of anyone who might be interested in buying a good horse. She had barely gotten the words out of her mouth when a large man walked over and then sat down at her table.
"You must need a horse pretty bad to step up so quickly." Gabrielle said to him.
The man just shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, she's a good horse. Sturdy for long distant travel, but fast, too. And good teeth."
"I'll give you 200 dinars."
Gabrielle's mouth fell open, then recovering she said, "I said I have one horse, not a full team and wagon."
The man took out a large leather pouch and tossed it on the table, which made loud clanging thump. Becoming suddenly suspicious, Gabrielle's eyes narrowed slightly as she asked, "Why such a generous offer? You haven't even seen my horse."
"You have a horse, I have 200 dinars. Where's the problem?"
"What's going on? 200 dinars for one horse? Did Ares send you?"
"Ares? Nobody cares about him anymore. His cult of followers died out years ago."
Seeing that Gabrielle was still waiting for an explanation, the man ordered ale as Gabrielle's meal was brought to her.
He took a long drink then began. "Once upon a time, when I was barely in my 16th year, a beautiful, tall, dark-haired woman came home to Amphipolis. Her mother owned this very inn. But no one wanted her here, and they told her to leave. But I didn't want her to. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She held herself like a queen, so confident, so fearless. I fell as soon as I laid eyes on her."
Gabrielle smiled, "She does that to a lot of men."
"When we got word her army was burning our fields, the men of our town confronted her and threatened to kill her on the spot. But she never wavered, never backed down, never showed the first sign of fear. She even threw down her weapons to make it easier for them. Just then her companion showed up, a mere slip of a girl with strawberry blond hair. And with an amazing bit of strange logic, convinced the men to let this woman go free, unharmed."
Smiling, Gabrielle replied "Yes, I've heard the story."
"But what you don't know is that as soon as this wonderful, brash young woman appeared my heart was captured. The Warrior woman was exciting and breathtaking, but her friend was the one I truly fell in love with. And for these many years, unbeknownst to her, she has carried a piece of my heart with her."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but didn't know what to say.
"So." The man said, "Do we have a deal? I suspect you have a long way to go yet, and 200 pieces of gold is nothing to turn your nose up at."
"Was it you who decorated the urn, and cleaned the vault?"
"Yes. I figured it was the least I could do."
The man pushed to pouch closer to Gabrielle. She hesitated, should she accept this overwhelmingly generous offer? Did this stranger have an ulterior motive? What was he going to expect in return?
"This is for Xena." Gabrielle thought to herself. "From now on everything is for Xena, and my quest to return her to life." She then pulled the heavy bag to her side of the table. "Thank you, and thank you for tending to Xena's remains. I won't forget this."
"I presume you'll be leaving tomorrow morning."
"At first light. I'll be heading south to the coast."
"If you don't mind, I'd like to go with you. I have a friend, someone I do business with, who owns a couple of sturdy ships. I'm sure we can arrange passage for the first leg of your journey to the east."
"You seem to know an awful lot about my business."
"Rumors, gossip, stories; they abound. So I will leave now and let you enjoy the rest of you meal, which is my treat, by the way. And I will see you at first light."
"Wait! What's your name?"
The man just smiled and said, "See you in the morning," as he left.
Gabrielle was awake before dawn. She lay in the bed, contemplating her forthcoming trip. She suspected it was going to be much harder than when she was coming home. There would be no accompanying soldiers to protect her from bandits. No one to share food and water with her. This time she would be on her own. But she had allies nonetheless -- the fabled Chakram, and her devotion to the mission. Nothing and no one would prevent her from reaching Japa. "And who knows," she thought, "Maybe Ares will be around, somewhere."
She didn't know if she was really comfortable with that thought. On the one hand, he could be a valuable protector and ally. But he always had his own agenda. Whatever was best for Ares wasn't always best for anyone else. And Archangel Michael. What was his role in this? He and Xena'd had their share of problems. His obligations and methods didn't always coincide with hers. In fact, they almost never did.
Even though it was barely light outside Gabrielle decided to get up anyway. The earlier she got started, the sooner she would get to the coast. When she left the inn, the stranger was waiting for her. He had gotten her horse, now his, from the stable, and was sitting on one of his own.
"Thought you'd sneak away from here, did you?" He asked with a smile. As she mounted up, he handed her a slab of cheese and smoked beef for breakfast.
For most of the morning neither spoke much. Gabrielle was still thinking about the trip ahead of her, while the stranger seemed content just to be in her company. They stopped at midday to let the horses rest and graze, and to eat more of the cheese and meat.
"Are you going to tell me your name?" Gabrielle asked.
"Why do you need to know?" He countered.
"You know who I am. It just seems like common courtesy for you to tell me who you are."
"Not that it will mean anything to you, but my name is Abrias."
Gabrielle reached across to shake forearm to forearm.
"Abrias, it's a pleasure to meet you."
As they broke the hand shake, Abrias momentarily clasped Gabrielle's fingers, not wanting to completely lose contact with her.
"You're certainly not that impulsive, naive young girl I fell in love with." He said.
"No I'm not. She disappeared years ago. Although sometimes I miss her."
"But you're still as beautiful and as charming as she ever was."
Gabrielle blushed slightly, not only from the compliment, but also from the obvious look of love in his eyes.
"I guess we ought to be going. We should make the coast by sundown." Abrias suddenly said, trying to cover the unplanned compliment.
By sunset they reached the sea. There was no real village here, only a small collection of huts used for storage and offices, several make-shift docks, and the ever-present tavern. Abrias made several inquiries as Gabrielle ordered supper for them.
"We should have some word by morning. My friend is away just now, but is expected back before daybreak."
"He travels at night? Isn't that kind of dangerous?"
"His business often requires him to take, umm - certain risks."
Becoming suspicious again, Gabrielle asked sharply, "He's not a slaver is he? Because if he is . . . ."
"Oh no. Nothing like that. He's an honest businessman and trader, mostly. But sometimes there is a need to keep the knowledge of certain select goods a secret, to protect against bandits, or pirates. I'm sure you understand."
Now not quite sure if either Abrias or his friend could be trusted, Gabrielle decided to wait until she met this friend to decide. After paying for two rooms for the night Gabrielle and Abrias walked down to the docks. The evening air was becoming chilled, but Gabrielle welcomed the clean, fresh smell of the sea.
"I never expected to be coming back here." She said to Abrias. "Especially so soon."
"Was it bad?" Abrias asked, "We've all heard the tales." Then he added. "You don't have to answer if you don't want to."
Looking out at the sea, now more like a black mirror in the fading light, Gabrielle recalled the events leading up to Xena's death, and the horrible nightmare of the days that followed.
"Yes." she replied. "Worse than you can imagine."
Nothing more was said until the chill turned into a biting cold. "Perhaps we should go in." Abrias suggested.
Gabrielle looked at Abrias with far-away, unfocused eyes, oblivious of the weather. Then she realized what he had said, and felt the sting of the cold wind. Without a word she left the docks and slowly walked to the tavern.
The next morning Abrias' friend, Koliss, was sitting in the tavern as Gabrielle and Abrias left their rooms. Abrias and Koliss embraced briefly, then Abrias introduced Gabrielle.
"I have heard of you." He said to Gabrielle. "You and Xena have become legends in some parts. We were all saddened to hear of her death. Sources tell me you are returning to this faraway land to liberate her soul."
Gabrielle shook her head in irritation and amazement. "Is there anyone in Greece who doesn't know where I'm going, and why?"
Koliss smiled and answered, "There is not much that goes on that one doesn't hear about if one keeps his ears open, and his sources well paid."
"Gabrielle is looking for passage to the desert lands south and east from here."
Koliss nodded his head, as if this was the first he had heard of it. "I, personally have no ships going in that direction, but I do know of a business acquaintance who may have a ship leaving for the Isle of Cyprus at midday. I'm sure from there you can find a ship to carry you the rest of the way."
"And what will this sea voyage cost me?" Gabrielle asked.
"That's hard to say. It depends on how much you have with you. It is my understanding that my acquaintance requires a fee of 50% of your assets."
"Fifty percent!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "That's pure piracy!"
"Perhaps. But nevertheless, that is his fee. You can take it or leave it."
"I think I'll just leave it. It cost me less than twenty dinars when I was coming from the deserts to Thrace."
"Yes, but now you are going in the opposite direction." Koliss said, as if that explained everything.
"Gabrielle," Abrias said, taking her aside. "Why don't you see about breakfast for us and let me speak to Koliss. Maybe he and I can come to some kind of uh -- arrangement."
"I don't want charity." Gabrielle said defiantly. "I'm willing to pay a fair price."
"Of course you are. Still, let me talk to him."
As Gabrielle ordered duck eggs, roast venison and black bread for their breakfast, she watched Abrias and Koliss talking together. She could hear their voices, but they were talking low enough that she couldn't make out what was being said. But it seemed to Gabrielle that Abrias was doing all the talking and Koliss was doing all the listening. Several times Koliss shook his head, and each time he did, Abrias' voice got a little louder and his tone was a little more insistent.
Then both men smiled and they shook hands, actually shook hands, not forearms. They walked to the table where breakfast was waiting for them, sat down and started eating. Gabrielle looked from one to the other, waiting for one of them to let her in on the results of their negotiating. Finally, she couldn't stand it any more.
"Well? Is anyone going to say anything?"
"Everything's been all arranged." Abrias said with a mouthful of soft-cooked eggs.
"And?" Gabrielle asked impatiently.
"It just so happens that I DO have a ship leaving this afternoon for the Isle of Cyprus." Koliss said.
"And how much is this going to cost me?" Gabrielle asked warily.
"Twenty-one dinars." Koliss replied. "But you will have to work along side the crew on the way. It is a cargo ship, not a pleasure ship. Everyone pulls his own weight."
"That sounds fair. I'm not afraid of work, in fact I welcome it. It will help pass the time."
"Don't get seasick do you?" Koliss asked.
"I used to, but Xena showed me some pressure point techniques that work quite well."
"Dig in!" Abrias said to Gabrielle, pointing to the diminishing pile of food. "Before it's all gone."
As Koliss went about whatever business he had, Gabrielle and Abrias spent the morning together, talking about Xena, about how little Amphipolis had changed, about the few memories he had of Cyrene. And before they realized it, the ship was ready to cast off.
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