"Denis, I am begging you. If you love me, please don't go."
Denis was putting on his boots and began to lace them up with determination. Eyan stood by the door and watched him as he put on his own coat and cap. They had gotten up in the dark and were now dressing by firelight. The wind howled and random bangs startled them as loose limbs, boards, buckets and other miscellania hit the house, driven on an angry wind that seemed to be seeking greater chaos.
Denis finished lacing his boots and stood up, taking the coat Eyan brought to him. "Nellie, I know it looks bad, but the fish are right here. We won't even need to go past the mouth of the bay to bring home the greatest catch we've ever had. Then with a few weeks of smoking, we will have so many tradeboats squeezing into the pier, it might collapse from the strain." He held his hand against her cheek. She reached up to grab it and kissed his palm. "Take care then." He drew her into a strong embrace and she whispered in his ear. "Take care of our son."
Denis held her away at arms length and nodded. "We'll be fine. The gods are just testing us, making sure we are worthy of the bounty they have brought. Come on, Eyan."
Eyan kissed his mother on the cheek. "We'll be fine, Mother. He'll turn back if it gets too much."
"I'm not so sure, he will, son. Try to persuade him, if you can."
"I love you, brightboy."
Eyan screwed up the corner of his mouth in embarrassment at his mother’s petname. Well that was good. it momentarily loosened the big knot of fear in the middle of his stomach. He headed for the door and felt his mother’s touch leave his back. As he stepped out into the chaos of the wind, rain and lightning, fear filled his head with a pounding pain and his eyes were burning with tears. At least his fellow fisherman could not see his cowardice.
Were the gods really rewarding them and testing them at the same time? That would seem like madness. He wished the gods weren’t even interested in Hiratha. He wished that everyone could go back to their beds. He turned for a moment from the rain and wind beating against his face and looked back at his house. He could see his mother’s silhouette as she stood at the open door, watching into the darkness. He looked up the mountain behind the village and saw the smallest glow coming from the rocks where Gabrielle had escaped to. He could not believe that she had brought this upon them, but here it was. And his father had said.... Eyan turned back into the wind and headed for their boat.
Gabrielle sat in front of fading fire in the back of a small, drafty cave. Two days ago, she had surreptitiously slipped down the mountain to Dorothea’s and taken a couple of the lambing blankets from behind the shed, and she had found food laid out next to them. More food was there the next night, which Gabrielle numbly took. She could not risk visiting Dorothea. What if the villagers turned on her benefactor? There could be no more loss. She knew she would have to leave. She had seen Eyan and another young man moving the sheep up to the pasture, to the best of their ability, so at least that was taken care of. She just needed to decide what to do. But there was nothing to do. No reason to do. No reason to be.
A silhouette appeared against the moonlight at the mouth of the cave. The figure moved forward with deliberate steps until the small fire revealed Kuuksk standing, smiling down at the disheveled woman.
Gabrielle stiffly got to her feet, then knelt on one knee, bowing her head. “Honored One.”
“I’ve brought you some food, Learner.” He held out a parcel.
Gabrielle nodded shortly and stood up, taking the offered food and putting it down by her blankets. “How did you find me.”
“Is that something you do not know?”
“No, I, I understand.” She bowed her head again.
“Come here, Learner.” Gabrielle stepped around the fire to stand in front of him.
“Let us see how we are doing.” He lifted the patch away from Gabrielle’s eye and gazed at his handiwork.
Gabrielle had been restlessly pacing in her hut in Hiratha. She could not write, she could not eat. She had been dreaming every night that her Other, the one she had to be with now and forever ,was just out of her reach, just somewhere, maybe just out of sight.
Someone knocked at her door. Grateful for any diversion and hoping she was needed somewhere for something, she hurried to open the door. A medium-built man in a simple hooded robe stood calmly in her doorway. His head was shaved clean, which matched his smooth face and even features.
“I am looking for Gabrielle.”
“I am Gabrielle.”
The stranger didn’t speak. He just looked at her. “Have you come for help?” she asked.
“No, I do not... I do not need help at all.” Now he smiled. “I am from the temple in Traka. We have heard of your great work here in the village.
“Oh! You‘re kidding? That‘s really, well, thank you, but it isn’t really ‘great work‘.”
“Do not deny. It is good that which you do.”
The man spoke so formally. Gabrielle shook her head, trying to clear her mind.
“Well, I try to do good. I always try.”
“Yes of course.”
“Sometimes, you know.” She was really having trouble thinking. “It’s hard.”
“To know, to know what is good, to see what needs to be done.” She felt like her mind was becoming slippery and thoughts couldn’t hold on.
“These are noble considerations. "
Gabrielle said nothing, she stood blinking.
"There is a way.”
She closed her eyes and put her fists to her forehead. Was it morning? She needed help. This man was going to help her. He was going to help her find the way.
Kuuksk looked evenly at the face before him, so nakedly showing the struggle against his reach. He had to be careful. He could not hurt the Golden One, but he could help. He was helping. He was making it easy, easy for her to think, to decide, to do her greater good. The Greatpower was part of the flow and would not turn it.
“You need to be able to know what to do.” He walked around behind her and faced her back.
“Yes, I need to know what I should do.”
“You need to be able to find the wrong, to make it right. To ease the pain. All the pain.”
“You need to see.”
“I need to see.”
“You only need one eye to see, Gabrielle.”
“I need to see.” Gabrielle’s slippery thoughts were sliding farther and farther away from where she could catch them.
Kuuksk reached around and placed his hand over her right eye. “See with this one.”
Her eyes were still both closed. She felt the visitor’s hand. It felt cold on her cheek and pressed lightly on her eyelid. Her thoughts were drifting and unreachable. She was getting the strange sensation that her face was sticky, like wet clay, and the hand was sinking into it. It was almost embarrassing. What must this esteemed visitor think? Her face was sticking to his hand. If she could explain. But then the sensation was gone and the hand moved away.
Kuuksk stepped to the door and stopped with his hand on the latch. “Now you can see. Do not fail to look at what is most important.“ He opened the latch and slid out.
Gabrielle stood still for a few moments with her eyes shut. A few thoughts were now landing briefly, but she felt better when they flew away. They were troubling thoughts. She had done something wrong (oh no, not again) and she must be punished (oh no, not again). She felt her face. She knew the honored visitor had left. “Honored Visitor”? She considered these two words. They were sticking quite strongly, and didn’t seem to come from her own upturned mind. Oh well, if you spill a farm wagon, you never know what will roll out.
Oh, her eye. Something about seeing what she needed to see. Yes oh yes, she really did need to see. She needed to know. She opened her eyes. She looked around.
Everything looked the same.
In the cave, Kuuksk put back the patch. “It is very, very good. I think you are ready.”
Gabrielle stood up and took a step back. “Honored One, I…I am not sure, something isn’t…”
Kuuksk smiled benignly. This woman, this woman. She had been giving her pathetic obeisance in this tiny cave that she had been herded into by a pitiful clump of moronic townfolk who had been easier to manipulate than his own fingers, and now she questioned him? Questioned him. Why did the Greatpower flow around her, surround her, deflecting his sincere efforts in a way that was so, so unnecessary?
Gabrielle pressed back harder against the rock.
Kuuksk stepped closer. "Learner, do you ever look at the beauty of the world, a newborn child, look out at the stars and are filled with wonder, with awe. at these moments?"
"There! There! Of course you would. A fly stuck in the honey believes they are living in sweetness, when from an elevated perspective they are living in death, destruction, decay and perpetual meaninglessness." Kuuksk looked into the embers of the fire. "I am sorry Learner, that even you, in your incomprehensibly esteemed state in this putrefaction does not pine for, long for, the feast of perfection that could be. "
He looked back up to her. The reflection of the dying fire barely illuminated his dark eyes. "But I can see, Gabrielle, I can see. I see because I was meant to see. I was meant to bring that perfection."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't. really.."
"Oh yes, yes, the obstacles. The special challenges. Welcome! Welcome! I pull my adversaries into my bosom and they become part of my heart and my soul. I am stronger and they are nothing more than a than aid and succor."
A gust of wind swirled into the shelter and carried the last embers of the fire in a small whirlwind, and then scattered them outside. The two stood in silence and darkness.
"I hear you breathing, Learner." No answer. "I've come to take you with me."
After a few moments, she answered in a faint voice. "Why do you call me Learner?"
Kuuksk snorted in frustration. "Meaningless! Meaningless!" He took two steps and stood directly in front of her. "Why?! Why must you be..." He spoke slowly, spacing the words out, like spurts of venom. "All...I ...showed...you....every...time."
"You, you, confused me."
Kuuksk stopped. Something was wrong. His reach was not reaching. His meticulously aimed guidance was glancing off his pupil. The Greatpower could not be interfering. He was following the flow. There was strength...Oh by the sands of sustenance! Was it that wretched godskiller? Surely that Other was not advancing through this maelstrom. Aah! He must take the Golden One through the passage and begin the mission. The peasants were dutifully dooming themselves and would not interfere. He must go. He must go.
"We must go Learner."
"We don't have to go."
Kuuksk arched his fingers against his temple. He was going to have to risk the Greatpower's interference, but the time was so close. He reached toward Gabrielle's shoulder. She ducked but was quickly held in what seemed like an iron shackle. The grip didn't hurt, but it felt like she could lose her arm if the Honored One... the honored one, the honored? the honored killer? the monster? She was being pulled to the outside of the cave into a cyclone of wind, rain, lightning and thunder. Thunder boomed surrounding them with vibrations that went completely through her . Why had she not been able to hear this in the cave? The honored...the monster was leading her by her shoulder down the mountain. She looked toward the town. She knew there would be no rescue for the demon woman there. Every house had a light in it. The storm must have wakened them. But then she saw something beyond the village that made her stomach lurch toward her throat. Just one thing, a small light where no light should be, swaying wildly...in the bay. Then, oh gods, there were at least two more lights.
Gabrielle turned to her captor as they walked through the wind and shouted, "I have to go!"
"Well yes, Learner, as I said we must."
"You have to let me go!"
"Oh Learner, if there is...Powers!!" Gabrielle had reached up, moved his hand off her shoulder easily and was running through the storm down the mountain. Kuuksk looked at his hand and looked at the woman disappearing into the night before him. The storm he had made swallowed her up. The Greatpower had set her free. Of course, this will be as it should be. This will bring them all forward. The Learner was simply hurrying toward their destiny. He would meet her there.
"Denis!" Arranel screamed from the beach. "Eyan!" Oh gods, when would the sun come up so she could see? Or was it up? The storm was so dark. Sondra, her neighbor clung to her arm, unable to speak through gulping sobs. Sondra's husband was with Denis and Eyan on the one boat that had not turned immediately back to port when faced with the real hell of the storm. All those boats now stood battered and useless on the half-destroyed pier. And now the one working small oarboat was wallowing through chaotic waves toward the light of the lamp on her husband's foundering fishing boat. Looking at the light on the rescuers dinghy, Arranel felt a heavy despair. They did not seem to make any progress, as the light of Denis' boat swung wildly near the bottom of the cliffs of the outer bay.
A loud crack echoed off the cliff walls. Arranel stopped breathing. The light from the fishing boat seemed to shoot up into the sky several feet and then arced gracefully downward and disappeared. Sondra moaned and dropped to the sand. Arranel stood still as she looked into night for the light on the oarboat. There it was, bobbing madly. Oh hurry, hurry. Where did it go? Was that? No. A flash of lightning lit up the bay, and the immediate thunder seemed to echo louder across the water, empty of any vessel.
"Arranel." A voice came from behind her. Numbly she turned. She could see a figure, but she couldn't see who it was. "Arranel, who is out there?"
Then she recognized the voice. "Gabrielle? Why? You!" Arranel started to shake. "This was you! You killed them!" She jumped at the Wild Woman trying to find her neck. She was easily sidestepped and fell to the ground. Gabrielle quickly knelt by her to put a hand on her back. "I can help." Arranel crawled away from her, stood back up, and looked back out into the dark, scanning desperately.
Gabrielle stood and looked in the same direction. She could only see the outlines of the cliffs and faintly the water. The lightning had stopped, so there was no help there. This is why she had the Gift. Even if it was from the monster, she had it and she needed it now.
Gabrielle held the patch that had been over her eye in her hand. Now she threw it on the sand, pulled off her trousers and jumped into the water.
Kuuksk lips rolled back from his teeth in frustration. He stood on the cliff, looking down and the wearisome humans turmoiling below him. Now Learner was spoiling the little enjoyment he allowed himself during this critical time of preparation. Oh well. He shrugged his shoulders and eased the storm a little. Not too much! She must be taught. She must know. She must pay
Eyan lay his head back down on the fish barrel his father had pushed him onto and he was now clinging to it with every bit of his waning strength. Another wave washed over him. Was he getting any closer to the beach? Or was he about to be thrown into the rocks. He kicked with sagging effort. "Father!" no answer . "Father." a sob. He had been so afraid to come out here. Now he was not afraid. Now he just wanted to see his father. Another wave washed over his head and the barrel rolled under the water. He scrambled to keep it within reach as it slipped away from him. Ah, he could just feel it at the tip of his fingers, but wait, he was under water, he needed to go up. Where was up? Oh, no, it was gone. He should go. He needed to let go. He started to breathe in, but the choking salty brine gagged him, his chest recoiled and his arms began flailing with frantic energy, and he found himself on the surface coughing air out and gagging it in. And then his head banged against something heavy. A piece of the ship?
"Eyan!" He heard a splash very near him and someone grabbed him under his shoulders and was pulling him backward. "Hold this!" He felt a rope in his hand and held it with knuckles burning from the grip. "Come on!" The rope started to pull up. He held on. "Grab on!" He reached out, not knowing what he was supposed to grab onto and felt an edge. He grabbed. He pulled. Hands pulled him, then he rolled, fell and landed. He knew he was on a boat. He looked up. The dawn that was finally clearing the darkness showed him the face of an angel, with an eye of a demon. "Gabrielle?"
"Where's your father?"
"I...he didn't..." She didn't wait but jumped off the dinghy into the water. The light of dawn was starting to come through the clouds. Eyan hauled himself up to look over the side of the oarboat. He could see the pieces of their boat floating around on the choppy water. The storm had died down. He looked back to the beach. The whole village seemed to be there. Several men were lying or sitting on the sand with others hovered around them. He looked back to see Gabrielle swimming back toward him with his father on his back, her elbow locked around his head. His eyes were shut and his face was gray-white. "Father?" His voice sounded small. He felt small, like a child.
Gabrielle called up. "Help me, Eyan!" The young man jumped up to quickly reach over the side of the boat, he grabbed his father by his sodden overcoat and pulled with strength it seemed impossible for him to still have, until he fell backward into the boat with his father's unmoving weight on top of him. He was trapped. He couldn't see anything. He could hear scrambling on the side of the boat and then the weight was eased off of him and Gabrielle helped him sit up.
"Is there anyone else?!"
Eyan stared at his father.
"Eyan, is there anyone else?!"
"Our neighbor...he was..." another splash and she was gone. Eyan scooted himself to where he could see his father's face. Eyes closed. Mouth slightly open. The boat rocked and his father moved. Not with the rocking of the boat, but the rising of his chest. Eyan was hypnotized by it. The chest rose and fell. Eyan put his hand on it. It rose and fell. His father was alive. He lay down next to him and closed his own eyes. The boat rocked them.
"Eyan! Denis!" Eyan woke up confused and cold. He turned and looked up to see his mother looking down at him over the side of the boat. Their neighbors were all around pulling the boat, and he felt it hit sand. His mother wasted no time climbing in and threw herself on top of her husband and son. "Thank the gods."
"Unnff," Denis grunted. "Nellie, g'off."
"I will not get off you. I will not get off you. You will get yourself out of this boat and you will come home, and you will bring your son with you."
Eyan had worked up to a sitting position and now stood up with the help of the townfolk who had pulled the boat completely onto the beach. He looked back to the cliff. "How did we get here?"
"Boat drifted in, took forever," someone offered.
Arranel's head turned as she helped Denis to his feet. "Oh gods, where is she?
Denis stood shivering. "What do you care, Nellie? We're safe now. She can't hurt us anymore."
Arranel slapped him sharply. "Hurt us?" Then she patted her stunned husband's cheek. "She saved us. She saved Tomas and Alex and everyone else on the rescue boat. Then she went back"
"She saved you, Father. She saved me."
Denis had his hand up to his reddened cheek, and looked at his son with muddled eyes. "She saved you, son?"
Eyan nodded and looked back out to the cliff. "I was on that barrel, then I lost it, then she grabbed me."
Eyan could see nothing but floating wreckage on the bay. He looked back at the beach and saw Dorothea standing near the edge of the surf, leaning on her cane. She held a bundle in her free hand that looked like clothing, and an eyepatch dangled from her fingers. Eyan stepped out of the boat and walked hesitantly up to the older woman. "We did lose her, Dorothea, we did lose her. I'm sorry. I fell asleep."
Dorothea looked out at the bay, then at the cliffs. Then she pointed with her cane. At the bottom of northern cliff where the seawall disappeared into the water, two figures were moving in the water as it surged up against the rock. Someone screamed in the crowd and Sondra began running up the beach. The figures seemed to be making slow progress along the wall. Arranel began to run. The rest of the town followed.
Hands were pulling her, lifting her, prying her fingers away from the injured fisherman and taking him away from her care. Well, he was safe now. He was safe. Now she must get the others. But her legs were heavy. Her legs would not move She had to get the others. She pulled herself toward the water. One hand wasn't working at all for her. She pulled with the other one, clawing in the sand.
Arranel knelt beside her and held the struggling woman's hand in her own. "Gabrielle, you have them all. You saved them all."
Still she struggled. "Have to get them." More hands held her.
Dorothea gingerly lowered herself across from Arranel. She slipped the eyepatch on over the wet blonde hair, to cover the glowing eye. "Little one, you have them all. It's time to rest. "
No. No. No. they didn't know. Had to. She was being lifted by many hands away from the water and could hear voices "careful...careful" No, no, it wasn't done, it wasn't done, had to go, she had seen...and then her mind slipped from consciousness.
Xena, Verigon and Crom walked silently together. Xena was thinking of what might be ahead for her. She had not asked for this. This was a task that had DOOM written all over it, but she was starting to get a little angry. This Kuuksk guy, what a prick he was. Why did he hide like a coward among innocent mortals? Verigon had said the time had to be right and that made a certain amount of sense if he really had to sidestep, hornswoggle, or jerk around this "greatpower", but honestly, why didn't he just get it over with? That's what she would do if she was the most destructive god in the world, of all the worlds. But wait a minute; Oio said he had cultivated his power, which means he didn't start out with it. That he had to glean it here and there, find it for himself. The whole god power thing must be trickier than it appeared. Oh, she wished she could be rid of it. It made her head hurt. She wished she were just a fisherwoman. Out goes the net. In come the fish. Kind of lonely though, unless...
"Xena, there it is." They had just crossed over the top of a small ridge and below them they saw the clustered houses of Hiratha. Many of the sod roofs had chunks blown off. Xena looked out to the bay beyond, and saw boats with broken masts, upturned, or floating at odd angles. Broken pieces of wood and debris were washed up and the beach.
"Kuuksk's storm got 'em."
Crom grabbed Xena's forearm. She arched her eyebrow at him. "Yes?"
"Xena, are you? have you? um, I just wanted to, um..."
"You wanted to find out to find out if I could save the worlds."
His hand dropped away and he lowered his eyes. "Yes."
"Couldn't say, Crom. Have to give it a try, right buddy?"
Crom looked up at her. Was she mocking him again? She gave him a rueful but friendly smile. He smiled shyly back.
Verigon cleared his throat. "Let's get going." They began down the path that would take them to the village below.
Hiratha was deserted. Verigon cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted "Hello! Hey!" No answer.
"Has, has Kuuksk been here?" Crom asked, yanking at his fingers.
"Could be," Verigon answered thoughtfully. "Well the portal is supposed to be near the water, Let's find a way down and keep going. Xena!"
Xena was poking her head into windows and doors, but hadn't found any living or dead inhabitants. She acknowledged Verigon with a small wave, and walked back to join him and Crom on their way to the water.
They reached the other side of the village and found the path to the beach. As they started down they heard voices. When they rounded the first corner they met with a procession of the entire village coming up the hill. The man at the front of the group stopped to speak to Verigon as the others moved slowly past, not paying them any attention. "No trading today, sir, our ships are wrecked. We won't have anything for a long while."
Verigon nodded his head. "Not to worry, good sir. We hope to bring our trade here in a quarter year and wish to study the harbor for docking."
"Well it sure isn’t dockworthy now, man."
"No, it doesn't look to be. Looks like you good folk have much work. Well, we've come a long way. We'll just see what we can, and be heading off."
"Suit yourself." The man continued on with his fellow villagers.
In the middle of the group were two hand-drawn carts. The lead cart held a man, sitting propped up against a stack of blankets. His clothes were in shreds and his head was heavily bandaged and thick coats wrapped his legs. A woman gripped his hand, her eyes not moving from his face as she walked beside him.
The second cart had a scattering of hay covered with empty feed sacks. On top of this makeshift padding was a figure swaddled in blankets. The cart was being drawn by villagers on both sides, all with both hands on the pull bars, carefully lifting it over large ruts in the road.
Those who drew the cart didn't pay any attention to Xena as they passed. Xena looked at the bundled figure. She could only see part of a bruised face and a hand that had worked its way out of the blankets. Her forehead furrowed slightly and her lips pursed in sympathy. "Are they ok?" She asked one of the bearers? "Yep." was the terse reply.
Xena resisted an impulse to ask if she could help and kept walking, past more villagers who were murmuring together, holding each other, supporting each other. Suddenly her heart began pounding. All she could see was a picture in her mind of that hand outside the blankets. She felt like the earth was tipping and she was standing straight. Was she suddenly ill? She stopped in the path. Verigon and Crom had now gone well ahead of her on their way. She took a step toward them. But her heart was pounding and she was afraid. "Verigon!" she called out. Her voice sounded weak to her. Verigon didn't hear her, she turned back toward the villagers, not knowing where to turn for help.
The old woman at the back of the procession had turned at her cry and was leaning on her cane, watching her. Xena took a halting step toward the woman and looked at her, confused. "I...I...something..."
Dorothea turned around to look at those moving ahead of her. There seemed to be a commotion around the second cart.
"Stop!" Dorothea called as loud as she could. The procession stopped. More activity around the cart. Heads lowering, arms reaching out.
Dorothea limped up to Arranel who was attempting to quiet the injured passenger. "You have them all, dear. They're all safe." Gabrielle was trying to sit up out of the blankets and pull herself off the cart. As the well-meaning hands continued to hold her down, she started to cry and continued to struggle, but more weakly. "No, no, no. I have to go. please, please...have to...she's waiting." The hands pushed her back down and pulled the blankets back up to her chin. "nooo," Gabrielle moaned, "please no."
Dorothea put her hand on Arranel's arm. "Wait." Then she turned and motioned to Xena who was standing in the path looking up at them, eyes still wide in confusion. Dorothea smiled at her and gestured her forward.
Xena took one step after another. Her heart was beating so wildly, it seemed like it was trying to break free. She stepped up to the cart. Dorothea opened her arms to guide her forward. Arranel stepped away.
Gabrielle lay on her back with the blankets in disarray. Her hair was damp and her face bruised from the rocks and blotchy red from the cold. Her uncovered eye was bruised and squeezed shut as she whipped her head from side to side. "Please, please, please, let me go, please, oh please. Oh gods!" Quiet for a second then, "Aahhhhh!" The last was a cry of such misery.
Xena grabbed the handles of the cart to keep her collapsing knees from taking her to the ground. She couldn't move. She stared wide-eyed. So long, so long, and she thought, never, never, never. She must not touch. She must not hurt. She must not destroy. She must leave. She looked around for Verigon. “You didn’t tell me, you didn’t tell me.“ But he wasn’t to be seen. A hand was on her arm. Dorothea smiled up at her. "I'm so glad you're here, Xena. She needs you."
Xena looked at her, unbelieving. "How do you...I can’t...she needs?"
"As much as her life."
Gabrielle was becoming more and more agitated, trying to thrash out of her blankets again. Xena reached out instinctively to put a hand on her forehead, but stopped, her hand hovering, just above the damp golden hair. Instead she reached down to the blankets and slowly pulled them back up around the writhing woman. That movement seemed to calm. Xena studiously tucked the covering. She held her head low and only let herself look up when her hands had nothing more to do, she leaned in to whisper in the soft, delicate ear, that was caked with blood.
"Hush, Gabrielle,” she whispered, then drew back slightly.
The twitching muscles in Gabrielle's face stilled. She took a deep breath and smiled a trace of a smile, her eye still closed.
"Love," she said.
Xena nodded, and smiled a brief half-smile. "That’s right, love."
"Love." More of a mumble as Gabrielle slipped back into semi-consciousness. Xena looked at the open-jawed expressions around her. Verigon and Crom were still nowhere to be seen. Arranel stepped away from the cart. Xena took her place at one of the draw handles and nodded , almost apologetically , to the other carriers and they started again to pull the cart back to the village, lifting it carefully over the ruts to protect the woman they carried.
Dorothea's kitchen hadn't seen this many visitors since Omar's funeral. Arranel worked at the firepit, expertly preparing clean bandages, warm sweetbread and creamy soup. Dorothea sat with Eyan at the table. The older woman was patching Gabrielle‘s tunic. Eyan was watching the tall, beautiful woman pacing in front of the blanket temporarily serving as a curtain, shielding Dorothea's bed from the rest of the room.
Dorothea looked up. "Xena?"
Xena stopped pacing. "Yes."
"The healer from Traka is very gifted. She keeps us all well. I wouldn't have lived long enough for this silver hair if it wasn't for her."
The door banged open and Denis poked his head into the house. "Can I come in?"
"Dear, you are already in." Arranel said, not looking up from her cooking.
Dorothea looked up at the exhausted man. "Sit down by me, Denis. Tell us how Nor is doing."
Denis sat down heavily and gratefully at the table. "Doin' good. Sondra's not lettin' him move."
Arranel brushed her hands on her skirt and turned toward them. "Is he ok? His head looked pretty bad."
"Yeah, he's fine. Talkin' away.
Eyan finished swallowing a mouthful of sweetbread. "Did he say what happened? What happened to them?"
"Oh yeah." Denis scratched his head. "Well, I guess when Gabrielle got us in the boat, I guess the storm was slowing down."
"Yeah, it was," Eyan answered. "It was getting light."
"I guess so. Well, when our boat went over, Nor just started swimming. Dumb luck he found the rocks at the bottom of the cliff out there, but he..he found them with his head, cracked it royally, and he said everything started to seem really weird and he knew he just had to hang onto something and keep his head up out of the water. Well the damn tide was coming in so he just thought about keeping moving, and you know he was all confused and was having a hard time, anyway. He said he was getting sleepy and you know, I think it sounds like he was going to let it go."
"Oh gods." Arranel shook her head.
"Yeah, and then up popped Gabrielle. Said it scared him. Thought it was a sea creature. And her eye like it is."
Xena raised her eyebrow.
Denis went on, energized by the attention his story was getting. "Somehow she helped him get up the rocks a little, and then as they were climbing a wave came and lifted them just a little and scooted them right into one of those rock caves up there. Well you know how they fill up like buckets, and he said they were just bobbin’ around in there. Just a tiny little cave, but deep, couldn't touch the bottom. Well the water was bashing at 'em, they couldn't climb out the way they came in because it was just slippery and they were so deep down, and Nor said he just kept wanting to go sleep."
"Ok dear, we know this tale turns out for the good, just tell us how they got out."
"Well, here's the deal. How did he stay alive? that's a question. Gabrielle couldn't keep him afloat, her hand was really ragged cause I guess a big rock she grabbed rolled over on it when they were trying to get up the cliff out of the water, anyway, she really couldn't keep a grip on him, so Nor said she just got underneath him and braced her whole body with her legs against one side of the cave and her good hand and arm against the other and he just sort of floated above her, kind of bumping her. He said he knows he went to sleep a couple of times and woke up spluttering water, so she must have had to keep turning him over, too."
"Father, how did they get out?!"
"Well he doesn't recollect exactly, but you know how those caves fill up as the tide goes up." Nods of agreement. "He kinda remembered the water going up, anyway they seemed closer to the hole they came through, and that young woman..." Denis turned his head and took a breath. "Arranel you can hit me with that kettle if I ever say another evil thing about her. Anyway, that young woman had him by his shoulders and was jamming her bad hand in the opening between where two rocks came together, and she was shoving them both up an inch at a time. Nor said he could feel that her feet kept slipping, climbing below the water, and, well he woke up enough to help himself up and out of the hole. When they got out, they were able to kind of crawl along the rocks and hold themselves against the waves until they got to the seawall. He said Gabrielle always moved between him and the rocks when the big waves came, that‘s how she got so crushed up." Denis looked toward the curtain, then at his wife. "Is she okay?"
As if on cue, the healer, a middle-aged woman, stepped around the curtain and accepted a ready cup of water from Arranel. "Thanks. That was quite a story, Denis. Explains her condition."
Xena stepped in front of her. "Well?"
The healer looked up at the intimidating figure, "and you're her...?"
Xena gripped her hands together and shook them in front of the woman's face. "Please don't ask me that stupid fucking question. Please, just tell me if she is ok. Please tell me."
"Oh well. Rocks are not kind to skin and bone, I've learned that. Many bones in her hand are broken. She has bruises on her legs that are very deep, probably to the bones. Her body is so bruised, she may be bleeding inside. She needs much time to heal. She is also quite delirious, says she needs to save the others. But Arranel, you said that was typical."
Arranel looked guiltily at Dorothea. "Well, yes, she often doesn't really make sense. She doesn't finish what she's saying or talks about things you don't know what she's saying."
Xena shook her head and glanced sideways, trying to match any recollection with this description.
"Xena," Dorothea said softly. Xena focused on her face and relaxed in its kind regard. "It's been very much that way since she got the Gift."
"The Gift? What gift? Listen, I need to see her. I have to see her." Xena looked at Arranel in consternation. "Is she crazy?"
Dorothea picked the cane up that was leaning on her chair and stood up. The healer moved out of her way as she came around the table. "Xena, you don't need our permission to go in there, you need your own." The older woman put her arm around the younger one's waist and led her toward the curtain. "Come with me."
Gabrielle was sleeping, her head turned toward the wall. She had on soft bedclothes, borrowed from a neighbor. The healer had braced her in position on the bed with rolled up blankets on either side of her, one that also supported her right hand and forearm. These were covered with something that looked like hardened bread dough with bandages around it. This held her hand in an open curved position, fingers apart.
The woman who had traveled back from beyond life with no hope of this moment, stepped forward softly and sat on the side of the bed. She looked back at Dorothea, who nodded. Xena reached out tentatively and moved a lock of hair back from the bruised forehead. "Sweetheart."
Gabrielle turned toward her in her sleep. Her eye still closed.
"Can't I take this thing off her eye? She's asleep anyway." She reached for it.
"Dorothea, I don't care what she looks like. I just want her to be comfortable."
"Xena it isn't for you, it's for her. You can hurt her"
"I...what? How can I?"
"That is her Gift as we call it. A sorcerer gave her the power to see, to actually see, others' pain."
"She didn't need that. She, she could always do that."
"No, not the way we see it, in their face and their voice and their actions. But as a living part of them, she told me it kind of burns out of them, right at her and right into her. She has used it for many years to help us here. To find those in the most need, to do what she can for them and to help the next. But whatever she sees, it hurts her terribly. She is a human seeing with the eye of a god, and it has all but broken her mind. I made that patch for her so she could have some relief, some rest."
Xena kept stroking the blonde hair, reflexively. "A sorcerer did that? Does he live here?"
"Well, I don't know. Gabrielle said he was from Traka. I've never seen him. I guess he visited her several times."
"Kuuksk." Xena hacked out the name in disgust, then sighed. "Well, then, ok, I won't take it off, but, I mean, she has...she looked at you., she saw you with it...right?"
Dorothea stepped over to Xena and put her hand on her shoulder. "Xena, what would she see if she looked at you?"
The question made her stomach hurt. If Gabrielle could see her unhidden pain? Especially now. This was to be guarded against at any cost.
“Dorothea, do you think she’s crazy.”
“I think she is always struggling with her mind. She is the clearest when she can focus on helping. She seems to be able to see just one thing then and that’s easier.”
Xena stood up and walked around the curtain back to the kitchen.
"Eyan, did you see the men who were with me?"
"I didn't see any men with you."
Xena turned to the healer. "How long will she sleep?"
"Well, with what I gave her, I hope most of the day."
"Ok. Eyan, can you show me where Gabrielle lives? Arranel and Eyan had exchanged looks. "What?"
Eyan looked at his mother. "I'll show you. It's OK, Mother. I'll explain." He put his coat on and went with Xena quickly out the door.
Xena pushed opened the unlatched door to the hut. On the outside it had just looked abandoned, but on the inside the violence of four days ago was apparent. Burned bits of parchment swirled in the breeze coming through the door and windows. Ashes covered the floor. The wall where the scrolls had been stacked looked like an ill-tended hearth with mounds of ashes that had not been scattered by the storm winds. Xena, hoping to find any clue about Kuuksk, reached into one of the piles and sifted around, pulling out a rolled up stub of a parchment, burned on both ends. She unrolled it and read the scrap of prose " n league with" "t she carr" "there a sm"
The table and chair had not burned. Xena sat down in the chair looking at what was left of a life's passion. She held the burnt scrap in her open palm and looked out the window. She could feel tears. She could feel them falling. There had been no tears in Tartarus.
Eyan was looking around the hut, for anything that could be salvaged. That's what Xena had come for, but she seemed to be lost right now. He started sifting through the ashes himself. He was finding only partially burned scrolls when he felt something cold, and hard, and round. He pulled it out and walked over to the table. "Look, Xena."
She took it from him and turned it in her hands. "Yup, there it is."
"Do you need it?"
"Yeah, thanks." She gave him a half-smile. "Helps me think."
He went back to sifting and soon found something he did understand, a sword. He put it behind him and kept digging. Then he found one, and then two, long knives, a little odd, looked kind of like forks. He put them with the sword on the floor. After more sifting he determined there was no more to be found.
Xena was staring at the booty. She saw Eyan had stopped searching. "Isn't there anything else?"
"Nope, I'm pretty sure. What are you looking for?"
"Oh, I just wondered if there was an urn."
"No, yes, it is Gabrielle's, but it's my urn." Eyan shrugged and shook his head
"...forget it." Xena stood up and started looking under the bed mat and in and around the firepit. Nothing more to be found.
"What's that?" Eyan said pointing toward the table.
Underneath the table, where the hate-borne fire had not reached, a scroll lay partially unrolled. Xena took two steps over and scooped it up. She stood reading for several moments.
"What is it?"
"She must have written when those pigs you told me about were outside. She's talking about pigs."
"Oh gods. That's right before they chased her away."
Xena took a breath. No reason to let that blinding anger back in her life if she could help it. Time was short. Probably shorter than she or anyone thought. She kept reading.
At first she looked puzzled, then the puzzled look was suddenly replaced with a snarl and the blue eyes nearly disappeared into slits of contemplative anger. When she finished, she held the scroll out for Eyan to take. He took it and carefully rolled it back up, watching her.
She slammed her palm on the table and jumped up. "I have to find the portal." She headed for the door.
"The portal?" Eyan hurried to follow her. They stepped outside. Xena looked down toward the beach , then back up toward Dorothea's house. She headed up.
Arranel and Dorothea were sitting talking quietly at the table when Xena banged the door open and stepped over to the curtain, then turned to Arranel. "Has anything happened?"
"Happened?" Arranel was confused.
Xena pulled back the curtain. Arranel screamed and Dorothea gasped. Kuuksk was leaning over the bed, obscuring Gabrielle's face with his hands. Her back was arched and her injured hand was flailing at his head.
"Kuuksk," Xena said in a voice shaking with shock, anger and overwhelming fear.
He turned and looked over his shoulder at her, easily holding the woman on the bed in place. Gabrielle's feet were starting to shake and every muscle in her body seemed to be seized up against the god's grip.
"Dearest godskiller, my pleasure to meet you. But she is not for you, now that the time is here. She has learned" He smiled and was gone. Gabrielle was gone. The bed was empty.
"No!" Xena looked all around her , at the walls of the house, the petrified look on Arranel's face, Dorothea's look of fear and sympathy. "I...I...I have to find Verigon, I have to find the portal."
"Xena, can you tell us what the portal is?" asked Dorothea, "Maybe we can help you?"
"It's where Kuuksk, that...that man, is going to create a doorway, a passage, between worlds. He is going to...," she stopped herself. "I have to find him." She started for the door , but Arranel ran over and grabbed her arm.
"Why did he take her away? Is...is...he going to hurt her?"
"He...he is going to use her. I'm sorry, I have to go."
"But wait, Xena, didn't he just use the portal? They just disappeared, doesn't that mean the portal is right here?"
Xena looked toward the bed then turned back to Arranel and shook her head. "I don't think so. Any god can move people around, seen it before. Verigon said the portal was near the water and it's in Hiratha. Of course the whole thing could be another mountain of lies, but it is the only thing I have. I'll come back if I can." She was out the door and gone.
Arranel turned back to the older woman. "Dorothea, how did you know who she was before, on the road? You knew her name."
The older woman lowered herself back into her chair. "How could I not know?" She looked toward the empty bed. "Before she got the Gift, Gabrielle told me stories, really very ...quite startling stories. Very vivid. Xena was her whole world. I am sure that anyone who knew Gabrielle before she came here knew who Xena was."
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