As she ran down the road to the beach, Xena could hear the activity before she saw it. Hammers pounding, saws singing through wood, some laughter and shouts, all blending in with the persistent cries of gulls. When Xena stepped out on onto the sandy flat, the only thing to see did not give her any help in her quest. Fishermen were at the pier, on the boats and on the beach, building, mending and patching.
"Xena!" Eyan was running out from the end of the trail, holding the chakram. He handed it toward Xena. "I thought you would...you might need this."
She took it from him, and then continued to look up and down the beach. "Hold this." She shoved the chakram back into Eyan's hands and put her hands in front of her, palms facing her chest. "Okay, imp, give me a break here." Nothing. "Come on, imp." Nothing still. "Damn it." She ran up to the nearest man sitting on the beach, stitching up a sail. "Did you see anything odd here? just now? just before I came?"
"Damn." She spun around in utter frustration. How could she get where she needed to be if she didn't know where the place she was needed to be was, or what it was? She walked back to Eyan. “Help me look.” She headed to one corner of the cove where the sea met the beach and both met the sea wall. Eyan followed her.
“What are we looking for?” He followed her as she started to look up and down the bluff.
“I don’t know, Eyan just look!” So Eyan looked and held the chakram, turning it in his hands. It certainly wasn’t helping him think and he looked up and down the bluff with a hopeless feeling.
What a refreshing day in Hell it was. Kuuksk looked down from his vantage point on a high plateau at the opening passage to the Valleys. He could see his work laid out before him. Throngs of milling Transiers directly below him, and off to his right, a patchwork of pits and fires with the masses of The Low. Then behind him up the steep-sided mountains on either side were The Valleys, locally known as the Heaven of Hell.
Kuuksk sat down on the flat rock. Gabrielle lay unconscious next to him. He reached over, pulled her eyepatch off over her head and flipped it over the side of the cliff. Then he grabbed her around the waist and effortlessly pulled her into a sitting position next to him. He tipped her head up by her chin. "Wake up, Learner." Then he went into her mind to do just that. Gabrielle's eyes opened, not of their own accord. Both eyes were now deeply dark, but lit by writhing gold strings, pulsing with their own light. She turned these eyes and looked at Kuuksk.
"Where are we?"
"This is Hell, Learner. This is where The Beginning is. I have told you."
"We're in Tartarus?" She swung her head back and forth, looking in confusion.
"Looking for someone, Learner?"
"I...just...if I could find..."
"Oh, I am sorry, you just missed her."
Gabrielle's head stopped moving and she mouthed the words silently, "just missed her".
"Anyway," Kuuksk says brusquely, "there is no more time for questions." He was beginning to feel the real thrill of Destiny on the doorstep. All was ready.
He reached in and turned Gabrielle's attention to focus on him. Then he began to look slowly across the panorama of the dead, and move his free hand casually back and forth, as if he were petting a cat, alternately with his palm and then the back of his hand. Below his moving hand, the flat rock began to sink down and become pocked with small holes. As he continued, the holes begin to ooze with a milky, silvery liquid. The milky substance started to fill up the hollow that was forming.
His sweeping scan of the surroundings caught a motion above them.
"Look, Learner. As I told you, all is inevitable."
Intercessors were swooping in. At first a few, then many from all directions, like harassing crows descending on an invading eagle.
"I'll just be a moment." He let go of Gabrielle who collapsed back to the ground, but made a weak attempt to crawl away. "Ah," Kuuksk said in a mildly warning tone, "there will be none of that." And she could not move.
Verigon and Crom flew with the rest toward Kuuksk, and what Verigon assumed was their certain end. Crom had been inconsolable since being yanked back out of the Flesh after Xena had found her Other. Verigon had tried to explain to him that they were no longer needed to help the mission when Xena had the Golden One, but Crom typically didn't care about the mission. He wanted to Be again.
And now, here was Kuuksk, he had the Golden One, and it was all coming down. Xena had failed after all. And now they flew obligingly obedient toward their end on this futile, forced mission.
But on he flew. Maybe he could at least make the evil one's job just a little bit miserable.
"Verigon!" Something yanked him backwards by the collar of his robe. Crom was also jerked to a stop in midair. Oio held them both.
"Verigon, we are sending you for Xena."
"Oio, you must be..."
"Stop!" Oio screamed. "No time!" He pulled up a Daygiver between them. "Put them in the right damn place this time." He turned back to Verigon. Tell Xena Kuuksk has the Golden One."
"But wait," Verigon hurried to speak as the Daygiver
reached for him. "We can't get back without..."
The Daygiver had grabbed an arm each and he felt the same filling sensation and suddenly they were on the cliff by Gabrielle's hut, overlooking the sea, under sun and blue skies. The Daygiver stood in Flesh beside them. Oh, Verigon, thought, I see, now he's a Nightbringer. OK fine. But where was Xena?
Crom was running back and forth on the cliff.
"Look, look, there! Verigon she's on the beach!" They took off running, down through the village and down the road to the beach." It seemed to take forever. There couldn't have been that much time left in Hell, and when Kuuksk was through there, he would be back to the Flesh, and then there would be no time, no time left for anyone.
"Xena!" Verigon had started shouting well before his voice could be heard about the surf. Finally Xena's head turned. She motioned the young man with her to stay where he was. Didn't look like that was popular. She ran up to meet him and Verigon grabbed her, "We have to go back to Hell." Xena drew back. She trusted Verigon, but those words...
"Come on Xena! Kuuksk has that woman, the Golden One." He pulled the Nightbringer forward. “Nightbringer,“ he introduced. The Nightbringer reached for Xena.
"Wait!" Xena grabbed his wrist. "Can we go back in Flesh?"
The Nightbringer shrugged and nodded mutely.
"Xena, that is not wise," Verigon warned. "Flesh does not do well in Hell."
"Got to keep my options open, Verigon.”
Verigon grabbed Crom by the hand and stepped forward to join Xena. The Nightbringer held his palm out for them to stop.
“What? No! We have to go with her.”
Xena smiled at her friend. “Try to help...up here.” She turned to the Nightbringer who reached out, touched her on the forehead and they were both gone.
Hot. Hot as Hades.
Xena looked around. She was at the edge of the Transiers. Intercessors, imps, dark angels and other creatures of the afterworld almost covered the orange sky and were heading toward the top of the cliff towering above her. She started climbing up.
Kuuksk eyed the flying mass of his adversaries as they closed in. He smiled in anticipation. He stopped his sweeping motion, lowered his hand and closed his eyes. The fliers began to pulse backward in waves. Arms were flailing, tails were curling, wings were flapping and legs were kicking. The backward pulses kept rippling outward in somewhat ragged circles. The clear space around Kuuksk grew larger and larger as fliers were pushed backward until the front group had become jammed into the back, piled on top of and mangled against each other, creating a giant writhing ring, far away from their quarry. Then the ring merged into one solid mass of indistinguishable forms and started to settle slowly down to the ground below.
"Wasn't that pretty?" Kuuksk asked without turning. "Just a little starter. This will get us going." He opened his eyes, and with one arm, he pulled Gabrielle back up to sit beside him. With that little extra effort he opened her eyes and turned her attention on him.
He resumed his methodical passing of hands across the growing milky puddle.
Shiro had watched the end of the Intercessors with dulled interest. He began to notice something stirring in him. Not the despair that all his existence was now, and not the solidness of his Life. But a diminishment, he seemed to be becoming less.
"Here's hoping," he thought.
The milky puddle was becoming a pond with motion and life of its own. Stealing the spark of existence from the prisoners of Hell. Everything was becoming very quiet.
The pond grew as the hand drew back and forth. The thousands and thousands of bodied souls began to become without form and disappear. There were no screams. There was very little movement.
Kuuksk's brow had a slight crease and his eyes were wide as he watched the pond growing and stirring. He turned and looked into the eyes of the Learner, eyes in a slack, uncomprehending face. "Almost done, Learner."
"Gab...ri...elle!" a gasping voice from just below them.
Muscles started to move across the slack features. The expression began to tighten. The mouth started to move and the glowing eyes began to track locations around her.
Kuuksk's head swiveled toward the voice, but the hand did not stop moving. He watched with interest as the godskiller's hand, then her other hand, and as her face appeared before she climbed over the lip of the plateau to stand wearily ten feet away from him, arms hanging, dripping sweat and gasping for air.
The hand kept sweeping back and forth, back and forth.
"So, do you like what I've done with the place?" he asked conversationally, indicating the surrounding environs, now almost completely still and already completely quiet.
"I'm just going to make sure you don't take your show on the road." Xena started to step forward and was not surprised to find a wall she couldn't see, stopping her from reaching the Destroyer of Hell.
"oh, oh, oh. 'make sure' is strong language for an ant under an elephant's foot. Ask Learner." He looked into Gabrielle's squirmglow eyes. "Isn't that right, Learner? You wouldn't want to be with the bad godskiller anymore, would you?"
"Why don't you stop with the puddle, Kuuksky?
"Well, godskiller, since you ask, I am not done with 'the puddle'."
"Then why don't you let Gabrielle go? Speed things up?"
""I know you don't expect me to believe that you are that ruthlessly transparent. I understand the gods you killed must have been half-witted--but really. Besides, you wouldn't want Learner now anyway. She sees you now, all of you. No hiding. She will never be with you again." He sighed and looked up in contemplation. "The Great Two are now just one minus one...zero"
"Is that why you did that to her, so if I came back she wouldn't have me? Why would you care?"
"Xena, you flatter yourself so strongly. It's the both of you, not you. There is that delicious side effect that the godskiller is rejected by her Other. Fun."
"I do flatter myself. I'm a selfish woman, Kuuksk." Xena had her breath back but continued to sweat. She felt like she was juggling knives balancing on a string strung between two monoliths. "I do think of myself and I am shallow. But Gabrielle isn't."
"True, Learner is now very deep. Far deeper than she ever was."
"Because you have sucked her in, Kuuksk? Did you know that she wrote a scroll after you sent the pigs?"
Kuuksk was surprised and just a little bit alarmed. “How did you know about the pigs?”
“Easy, Gabrielle wrote it out.” Gods, Xena hated to share anything with this creep. Tightrope. Knives. “Then she started to write about your “teaching”” The word curdled in Xena’s midsection. “And her handwriting changed completely. She was writing out what you had put inside her. She wrote about being chosen and why she was chosen. I don’t think you have the control over what you put in her mind that you think you do, Kuuksk.”
Kuuksk had stopped looking at Xena and was studying the growing pond. “Of course I have control. Those are all the things she learned. And here she is and here I am. It’s a happy, happy day. We all know that what I’m doing is for the good. All this unconscionable mess will be gone. And all will be created new. I have that power, Xena.” He could almost weep from the beauty. “I have the power to design it all. I have the wisdom and intelligence no one has had before. I have all that I need. Learner knows.”
“You need her, Kuuksk, the Greatpower is strong in her. She is the Golden One. You need her to pull you in with those damn eyes you gave her so you can meld with the Greatpower and get away with shit like this.”
Kuuksk’s hand stopped moving. “She wrote that?”
“She wrote that letting you out of her.”
“Hmm, I did not anticipate. Nevertheless...” The hand started moving again.
“Because...” Xena paused, Kuuksk didn’t stop. “... if you are not blended with the Greatpower, you go back to being completely part of the Otherworlds...” Kuuksk’s hand movements looked more forced, his muscles tense. “...that you are destroying.”
"I do not like this, Xena."
"I'm sure you don't." Xena took a breath and said firmly, "Gabrielle, wake up."
The blonde woman stirred restlessly. "Gabrielle, look at me."
"Oh, godskiller. Imbecilic! Your rejection will be painful."
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice.
"Look at me, Gabrielle, look at me."
Kuuksk said softly, looking into his pond. "I'll just have to kill you, Xena."
"Sure thing, Kuuksky, but now she's awake, I think it just might piss...her...off."
"Xena?" Gabrielle turned her dark and gold-glowing eyes to Xena, and she looked. The eyes grew wider. "No, Xena, don't make me!"
"Keep looking! Keep looking! Keep looking!"
"Stop it!" Kuuksk felt his control slipping quickly, and had started to speed up his hand motion and looked around as if trying to find an exit stage left.
"Xena, no." Gabrielle's voice was quiet. Her fists clenched.
"Keep looking, honey. You're doing great. I know it's hard."
"It's hard...don't want...to see."
"I'll bet. But keep looking, just a little more!".
What? What? What? Kuuksk’s reach into Gabrielle was…was…was. He did not understand. He was reaching in and then he was flying through. No purchase. No connection. Needed connection. He tried again. The connection… he was losing his way. What? Too fast. He couldn’t reach in. Learner! Nothing…Start over…easy just start…over…nothing. No way..in…he needed to…start…nothing…wait….wait….start…again…easy…all…easy…start…over…over…
Kuuksk slumped, his arm around Gabrielle loosened. He was all but lying down, his hand moved slower and slower over the milky pond that began to boil and bubble vigorously.
"Keep looking, Gabrielle! Look at me!"
"I am!" Anguish.
Kuuksk was taking on something of a silky whiteness of his own. Something of a liquid look. His arms were losing their definition...as arms. His legs were...well they weren't.
Gabrielle rolled to her side and edged toward Xena. The milky pond and the Kuuksk formlessness started to join, like to like, they coalesced and were one. The pond pitched and spit and bubbled even more.
Xena took two long strides and dropped by Gabrielle. She looked around them. There was no one and no thing. No Daygiver, no magic portal. She lay down next to her golden one and reached out tentatively to touch the head that was turned away from her.
And either they were shrinking or the pond was growing. It was filling everything around them, above and below.
"Close your eyes now, honey."
Head nodded and the shoulders lifted and lowered in a sigh. "Tired."
"Well, we're just going to rest here." Xena did not know if she was still welcome, but she lowered her face into Gabrielle's hair and breathed in. The whiteness was getting bigger.
"Here we go, buttercup," Xena said softly.
"Where are we going?" almost a whisper.
"Wherever you want to. Where would you like to go?"
Silence. "Oh, I know!" like a child pleased with herself.
"You do?" Xena breathed into her ear.
"Mmmhmm," protecting a secret.
"Well be sure to take me with you."
The white silence enfolded them.
Dorothea, Eyan, Verigon and Crom sat around Dorothea's table, playing their eighth game of Carpos. Lamps lit the room and it was growing late in the night, but no one wanted to sleep. Verigon had explained what was possibly happening in the other world. Eyan's jaw dropped, but Dorothea didn't even seem a little surprised. "Well isn't that something?"
A single bang came on the door. Eyan jumped up, then looked at his companions, uncertain. "Open the door, Eyan." Dorothea said calmly.
Eyan gingerly undid the latch, but before he could open it, the door was kicked open. Travus the innkeeper from Tarka stepped quickly inside. He had Gabrielle in his arms. Xena walked in behind him, looking like the other side of hell.
"In. In. In. Hurry." Dorothea had stood up and pointed Travus toward the bed. He gently laid Gabrielle down.
"Do you know where the healer is?"
"She's over at Nor's," Eyan answered. "He...he was having headaches." Eyan kept looking from Xena to Gabrielle to Xena.
"Eyan," Dorothea said.
Would you please go get the Healer?"
"Oh, yeah! Be right back!" He ran out without his coat or cap.
Travus had backed off and looked a little lost. Crom gestured to Eyan's chair and the innkeeper sat down gratefully.
Xena sat down at the foot of the bed. "I don't know what's wrong. She took the ride pretty well. Her hand's all messed up. I just can't get her to wake up."
Verigon had moved to stand behind her. "So that's the Golden One?"
It took a second for Xena to hear him. "Oh, yes, that's her." She looked up. "Her name's Gabrielle."
"Xena, I cannot believe you are alive."
"I know, I know. It's not typical."
"What happened to Kuuksk?"
"He...he..." Xena put her palms together. "He got rid of himself."
"I don't understand."
"Well he's gone, anyway."
"I think it's pretty much gone, too, Verigon. I couldn't stop him."
Verigon looked seriously at her. "Nor should you have."
"Well I'm sorry if you lost...anyone."
"Get serious, Xena."
"Hey," Crom shouted from the table. "I'm going to miss Numb Skull."
Verigon looked with consternation at his former subordinate, now equal oddling of the flesh world.
"Anyway, he was fun." Crom muttered.
"Crom, you really are quite a piece of work."
"Me and Numb, we had some good times."
Eyan had returned with the healer. Xena gave her an uncertain look as the woman started to use skilled hands and a practiced eye to do her work.
Verigon went back to the table and helped Dorothea sit down. then sat next to her. "So, Travus, would you care to join us in a game of Carpos? It's an informal way we have discovered to give dinars to Dorothea, but this time my dear woman, we will prevail."
Travus scratched his head. "Well, I really should get the wagon back to the inn...."
Verigon tapped the table in front of the innkeeper. "Oh no, you're sitting right there until we find out how you got here to begin with. We'll find somewhere for you to sleep Sit down."
"Well all right. I would like to know that she's okay." He looked over to the Healer working at the bed.
Dorothea picked up the cup of Carpos stones and shook it. "Come on, come on, Dorothea needs a new pair of boots." She poured them out. "Ah-ha!"
Verigon sighed. "Here we go, we'll have to learn a trade, Crom. So Travus, how did you get here?"
"Kind of bothers me. My brother and me were setting up when one of our regulars came in, said there were a couple of women layin' outside by the lake. Bothers me. They could have been there for hours." He looked over to Xena who was watching him.
"You couldn't have known Travus." she said.
"Just hard for me and my brother, we weren't there when she needed us."
"But you were." The blue eyes reflected gratitude.
"Your turn, Travus." Crom handed him the cup.
"Okay, here we go." The stones rolled. "Oooo." A quartet of sympathy.
Verigon, Travus and Crom had gone to Gabrielle's hut. Dorothea was sleeping on the small child's bed on the other side of the room. Xena sat at the table looking into the fire. She had time to think. She felt lost. The healer was just finishing with Gabrielle, mending what Kuuksk had undone . She also told Xena to get some sleep, but the thoughts that were coming to her were making it very hard for her to join the rest.
What had Gabrielle seen? Had Kuuksk shown her the pain of all hell's victims? Had she seen so much of Xena's darkness that she could never see beyond it? Could Xena walk away if it were for the best? Imagining that made her want to sink into the ground. What would there be left for her on earth?
The healer touched her shoulder. “She’s still asleep. I will be at Nor’s.” She put on her cloak and slipped quietly out the door.
Xena suddenly could feel the full weight of being of The Flesh. The sun was about to come up and she felt as heavy as solid rock and considered lying right down on the floor by the table. Instead she lay her head down on her arms. The next thing she knew, Dorothea's hand was on her back, giving her a little shake.
"Xena, what are you doing here?"
Dorothea stood in her nightdress. She smiled at the confusion in the striking blue eyes that turned to her.
"See that bed over there? I'm pretty sure it can hold two people, because it did for 40 years."
"Well she's...I can just..."
"Don't be a bad guest, Xena, please." She hobbled over to the chest at the foot of the bed, opened it and started digging through.. "You need to get those clothes off, they smell like a firepit."
Xena lifted her arm to smell her sleeve as Dorothea triumphantly pulled something out of the chest. "Here! You can wear these warmers I made for Omar. I could never get him to wear a thing to bed," she added reflectively, twisting a stray curl around her finger.
Xena took the offered bedclothes. "What will you do?"
"That is something you won't know, because you will be asleep."
"You...are going to bed. I know Gabrielle will sleep better if you're there. " Dorothea patted Xena's arm and winked.
Xena quickly started changing clothes to avoid revealing the
red flush covering her neck and face. Once she was in the warmers, she felt
she hardly had the energy to actually get in the bed. She stood looking down
at Gabrielle when Dorothea came up beside her and sighed.
"Honestly." The older woman reached down and turned back the covers. "Lie down, you'll fit." Xena lowered herself carefully onto the bed and before she knew what was happening, she was covered up, her head was settled into the pillow, she could hear soft, deep breaths next to her and then...
Xena woke up. She could see light from the sun through her closed eyes. She felt rested. She felt almost whole again. She knew she must have slept through the day and the night. She heard Dorothea’s voice. Then she heard Gabrielle’s voice.
She sat up. Dorothea and Gabrielle were at the table. Dorothea was helping Gabrielle eat a bowl of something that looked like lumpy pudding. The older woman was talking to the younger in low soothing tones. Gabrielle was watching her caretaker with unfocused and confused eyes. But those eyes showed trust and those eyes were beautiful ,familiar green eyes. Xena felt such a tug of joy, her heart skipped.
Even though Xena was in her direct line of sight, Gabrielle didn’t look at her at all. Xena got up out of bed and sat at the table across from them. Gabrielle continued to look at Dorothea, who was feeding her one slow spoonful at a time from the steaming bowl.
Gabrielle swallowed a bite. “She wouldn’t let me put her in the water.”
Dorothea looked over at Xena and back to Gabrielle. “You didn’t want her to go away, did you?”
A head shake no. “She promised. She left me.”
“I remember, you told me how angry you were.”
Nod of agreement.
“And you missed her.”
“I dreamed…I dreamed I saw her, last night.”
“You did? Were you happy?”
The blonde head shook no, as she grabbed the hand holding the spoon. “Don’t ask me. Scared. He was…it was the end of me. Too much.”
Dorothea patted the hand that gripped her. “Well, sounds like a very bad dream.”
Gabrielle nodded and let go her grip. Eating resumed.
“Gabrielle?” Dorothea said conversationally, glancing at Xena. “Would you be happy if the dream brought Xena back to you.”
“Can’t.” Xena felt a shock go through her as Gabrielle glanced at her, then away.
“Are you dreaming she’s here, honey?” Dorothea asked. She put down the spoon and set the bowl aside.
Gabrielle nodded, embarrassed. “I…I…see her.”
“You know what?”
“I do too.”
Gabrielle looked at Dorothea in surprise, then dismay. (oh no, I made her like me) then she looked at the Dream Xena sitting across from them. The Dream Xena raised her hand, palm forward, and wiggled her fingers.
Gabrielle looked at Dorothea, looked at Xena, looked at the table, looked toward the door then back at Xena. She didn’t say anything.
Xena slowly picked up her chair and carried it to the other side of the table to sit on the other side of Gabrielle, who did not stop watching her. Xena sat quietly as Dorothea watched them both.
Gabrielle turned and looked out the window. After a few moments she turned back and reached out and touched Xena’s hand. Xena held her hand still.
Gabrielle stared at the two hands. (all this time, all this time, ready now, had to tell her) “I was ending. You made me leave you.” She gripped the hand tightly. “You never came back. You made me leave you. You made me stop! You said you would be with me. I wanted to be with you.”
Xena left her hand in the painful grip. “Please, please Gabrielle.”
“Then I did something wrong. Or didn’t know, but I did, and you weren’t there, and I couldn’t fix it. I couldn’t make it right.” Finally she looked up into the blue eyes, “I tried and I tried and I tried and nothing…ever made it right. I tried to do whatever it was forever. I tried to…live…and be right…and everything was gone. I was gone, but I had to keep trying, you know, I had to be ready, to do what you needed, to bring you back. I knew you’d tell me, I knew you promised. And I never could. I never could.”
She let go of the hand and looked down.
The room was quiet. Both of Xena’s hands lay on the table. Her heart pounded and she could hear blood rushing in her ears. She stood up. She knelt down and wrapped Gabrielle’s now shaking hand in hers. “Sweetheart, I know I didn’t come back. I was gone. I cannot make that up to you. I have to tell you something. Will you please listen to me?”
A nod of yes.
“I have been gone. I’m back. I had nothing. Then I found you again. You are everything to me. That is all I know now. You are everything. I will do anything.”
Gabrielle didn’t respond. Dorothea worked her way up and took the bowl and spoon away from the table. Xena stayed on her knees.
“I’m tired.” Gabrielle said.
Xena sighed and stood up. Of course she couldn’t have expected an answer so quickly.
“Xena?” Dorothea turned toward her from the basin. “Could you help Gabrielle back into bed? It was quite a challenge for me getting us both up to the table this morning.”
“You should have woken me.”
“Xena, if any soul on the face of the earth needed to sleep, it was you.”
Xena nodded. Sounded about right. She bent to help the injured woman stand, and Gabrielle immediately wrapped her good arm securely around Xena’s neck. Ok, this she could do. Xena scooped her up from the chair and carried her over to the bed, laying her gently down. Gabrielle let go of her neck and settled in as Xena rearranged the covers and straightened up to leave. Gabrielle reached out and grabbed her by her top to pull her down again.
“Where are you going?” There was real fear in those green eyes.
Xena felt the oddness of hope. She stroked back the touseled blonde hair from Gabrielle’s forehead. “I…am going to have some breakfast. And then I am going to help Dorothea to wash your dirty dishes.” She smiled down. “I’ll see you later.”
She was rewarded with a sweet and shy smile. “I would like you to be here.”
“I will be here.”
Gabrielle let her go and settled into the pillow.
Xena felt like she had been unleashed from unknown bindings and was floating to the stars. She felt for the first time in all these years, as if there were possibilities--that there could be a way. Against every law of thought and reason, she could be whole.
"Fine." Another step. A pause. "Don't let go."
"Not letting go."
"OK." Gabrielle looked toward the west window to set her goal, then took three more slow deliberate steps, Xena was edging along with her, gripping her waist and watching her face.
Gabrielle grabbed the window sill. She made it! "Oh!"
"What is it?" Xena asked, turning to look.
"There's my house. Xena, can you see it? Have you seen my house?"
Xena smiled. "Yes, I've seen it."
"Oh, well." Gabrielle looked down to think, then looked back outside.
"They burned my scrolls."
"I know, honey. I'm so sorry."
"They were mad at me."
"Honey, I think they were scared. Kuuksk made them scared."
Silence. Then a quiet voice. "I don't think...I can write. When I couldn't find you...I wrote, you know, a lot."
"I can imagine." Xena didn't have to imagine. She remembered well Gabrielle pouring her pain into her scrolls.
Gabrielle's knee buckled, making her stagger and take a step back. She grabbed her ribs. "Xena!"
"Hang on!" Xena gripped tighter to brace her with one hand, and reached with the other to pull a chair over. She eased Gabrielle down onto it. "You ok?"
Gabrielle shook her head, trying to clear the confusion and get her thoughts riding on their right tracks.
She looked down and started fiddling with her bandaged hand. "I'm kind of all wrong, Xena. I ...can't. I don't know if you want me...like this."
Xena crouched down, put a finger under the lowered chin and lifted it, just a little. "Like what, buttercup?"
"Kind of...I'm not really ok yet, Xena.
"I think you're a lot better already." No response. "What do you think?"
"I...I am a little bit better. It's a little easier to...to...you know...when you try to say something or figure something...it's been hard." She looked imploringly at Dorothea who had been making herself busy at the table. "Did you tell her Dorothea?"
Dorothea put down the leather she had been stitching. "Dearheart, I told Xena what a brave and wonderful friend you have been, and you will always be. I told her that as far as I can tell, she is the luckiest woman on earth to love and be loved by you. You are an infinite treasure." She picked up the needle, leather and sinew and resumed stitching.
Gabrielle really had nothing to say to that and turned back to look out the window. Xena just stared at Dorothea. She didn't exactly remember being told that, but she thought she would never forget hearing it. Dorothea looked up at her and gave her a smile and another wink. Xena smiled, felt unbelievably shy, and nodded.
"Can I go down to the beach?" Gabrielle asked suddenly.
Xena looked back and forth between both women. "I don't know, we might need a little help."
Gabrielle looked at Xena. "Well..." she looked back out the window "...if we could...?"
No more needed to be said. The expedition was a go.
Eyan brought the small wheeled upright cart to the front of Dorothea's house. Omar had built it 30 years ago, and today Denis and Eyan had rigged it with a small platform for Gabrielle to sit supported, They had extended the handles, added armrests, some leather straps and padded it with blankets.
Xena and Arranel walked on either side of Gabrielle, carefully steadying, to the open door where Denis and Eyan waited outside, standing proudly with their invention.
Gabrielle stopped when she saw it. She looked up at Denis until he lowered his own gaze self-consciously. This woman had saved his life, his son's life twice, his neighbors' lives. He knew two hours' worth of sawing and hammering probably did not make up for what he had helped take from her.
"Denis?" he heard the serious voice. He looked back up at Gabrielle, who was swaying slightly between his wife and the dark, beautiful woman.
He started to stammer. "Gabrielle...I...my son..." he just didn't have the words.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Can you help me...um...get on that?"
Denis almost fell over forward, picking which foot to move first and fastest, to help the former wild woman onto his cart.
They got her situated. She was wearing her newly mended wool and leather woven tunic. Arranel got her (over)bundled in a blanket and a jacket. They fastened the leather bindings Eyan had rigged to hold her steady. Father and son took hold on either handle. The wheels turned, and they started to move together, away from Dorothea's house and through the village of Hiratha toward the ocean.
The cart jostled and pitched through the streets of the small village. On it, almost standing, was a well-bundled blonde woman, watching with the appearance of great amazement everything around her. The tall beautiful woman who walked directly behind her, seemed to have a similar expression, directed toward the woman on the cart.
The blonde woman took in the villagers' cautious faces, poking out of windows and doors. Some people started to step out hesitantly to join the entourage. Soon, a couple of dozen people were making their way down to the beach.
When they got to the sand, it was the morning's challenge to get the cart out across it. Gabrielle started giggling uncontrollably as four men, did their best to roll, lift and carry, until they reckoned they'd gone far enough. Xena thought that giggling was the single most miraculous sound she had heard in seven years, probably longer.
When everyone agreed the destination was reached,. Denis and Eyan propped the cart up with some driftwood, so Gabrielle would be reclining, but could still see everything. The men who had been working on the boats at the pier, started, one by one, to stop what they were doing, come over, mumble something, touch the cart, pat Gabrielle's good hand and turn back to their work, or to the join in the conversations that were building around them as the crowd on the beach became larger.
Xena stood behind the cart, leaning on the top with her hands folded. She watched the townspeople approach and leave in shy, apologetic deference. It was unfathomable to her how nothing about these strong, adult people showed how they could turn on someone as unthreatening a creature as could be imagined to begin with, just because she didn't look or act like anyone's wife. Oh well. It was all water into the viaduct.
She peered around to see how her charge was doing. Gabrielle was smiling at a man taking his infant son from his wife. The young mother had just come down to the beach with the little one to join the still-growing gathering. The man's muscled arms gently cradled the wriggly baby, and he smiled into the little face that babbled cheerfully back at him.
Xena touched her shoulder. "Gabrielle," she asked quietly, "why are you smiling?"
The green eyes turned to look into hers. They were half full of tears. "It's beautiful. The world. It's beautiful." She looked silently for a moment back into the blue sky eyes. "There was so much pain before. This is beautiful." The tears were falling now.
Xena kissed her lightly on top of her head. "You are beautiful."
"Please hold my hand."
"Oh baby." Xena's throat was tight. She didn't want to cry. She reached across and grabbed the outstretched hand with both of hers.
Almost everyone had moved away from them, talking enthusiastically in groups. Anticipating the launch of the repaired boats. Selling the new catches. Planning for the Spring Festival. Eyan had not moved away. He was having trouble moving his attention from the incredible women in front of him. Xena noticed him staring out of the corner of her eye.
"Eyan, what is it?"
He jumped clear off the sand. "I...I...I..."
The words fell out in a bunch. "IthinkGabrielleseyesarebeautiful."
Xena looked at Gabrielle, let go of her hand, walked over beside Eyan and put her arm around his shoulders. "Breathe."
"Eyan, you have beautiful eyes."
He nodded yes, shook his head no, shrugged, scratched his nose and tried hard not to faint.
Gabrielle was leaning on the arm of the cart, watching them. "Xena, Eyan looks kind of pale."
Arranel heard her son's name again and came over to assess the situation, which she did pretty quickly. She pulled Eyan by his arm away from Xena and toward the pier. Then she gave him an extra push. "Go help Nor with that winch." She gave him one more push and he seemed to remember how to walk on his own and headed out to do as told.
Arranel headed back to join her neighbors. "Gods help us when Gregor and Angela's twins get to womanhood," she said over her shoulder.
Xena looked out over the silvery ocean. Gabrielle was right. The world could be magnificently beautiful and rich. And here she was back in it. For one more time. No more tries. She didn't believe anything was left beyond. But she did think that the Greatpower was still running through, like Verigon said.
Flowing through everything, small changes and shifts coming naturally along its infinite course. She knew she couldn't see what these changes would be, and she didn't think anyone could. She turned back to Gabrielle, whose eyelids were starting to drift down. Xena watched in bemusement as they settled lower, until they closed, and Gabrielle slept as everyone around her enjoyed the day.
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