The coastal regions of the Aegean were nothing short of beautiful during mid-spring. The air was light and comfortable, the temperature was relatively warm during the day, adequately cool at night, and the ample vegetation provided food for animals and venturing warriors alike. The night sky was especially enchanting, clear and bright, and the moon even reflected enough light to travel by. But when one has been traveling for several days straight with minimal supplies and even less then minimal rest, even a place as beautiful as a evening meadow looks like a vast desert. Gabrielle lifted her shoulder pack as though it were pulling her to the ground and patted Argo's flank sympathetically. Neither had slept long enough to be concerned with the blooming of flowers or the gentle sounds of the creek flowing just beyond their sight. Gabrielle had stopped riding Argo off and on since they'd reached the outskirts of Thessaly and her own legs were worse for the wear. They had gone on for some time like that, Gabrielle marching solemnly at Argo's side, and they were making little progress. The trees of intermittent forest did nothing to help their vision or their speed, so Gabrielle soon succumbed to the siren song of sleep and the sweet meadow they were in had begun to look just like a camp site.
"Let's stop, Argo. I think we both deserve a good night's rest." She unhooked Argo's reigns and laid them on the ground in the center of the site. She hurriedly grabbed a few, long sticks and rushed through the process that she normally found so soothing. Setting up camp was liking making a new place home for herself and Xena but, at that moment, it was nothing short of bothersome. All she wanted was to do was lie down on the soft grass and let her body recharge on its own. But she knew she couldn't do that. She knew she would wake with the sun and they would be on their way again. This was the life she had grown so accustomed to. Why did it feel so strange?
Her hands grew dirty and her eyes more heavy as she went through the motions of making a small pit and lighting the fire. Argo didn't wander far. She could sense something was amiss. Gabrielle glanced at her from time to time as she stocked the meager fire, wondering if Argo's soul weren't somehow connected to Xena's, because she always seemed to know what was happening to her partner before Gabrielle did. Her hooves wore away at the ground until she seemed satisfied and she slowly lowered herself to the bed of grass.
"Of course, you go to sleep. I'll take care of the fire." Gabrielle laughed to herself, realizing how alike Argo and Xena were. Both stubborn, strong, and confident. Both beautiful. She stared at the horse just as the flame was beginning to rise, shedding light on her worn boots and dusty hands. Normally, she would have washed up before going to sleep but, that night, the call of warm skins and a soft bunch of fabric was much stronger than the need for hygiene. Gabrielle rolled out her bedding near the fire and wrapped herself up loosely, turning her face from the fire so as not to grow too hot to sleep. She shut her eyes and the hazy feel of sleep began to lull her into the darkness of dreams. And though she was reluctant to go for fear of another vision, there was nothing she could do then to ward off sleep. In fact, she hadn't wanted to go to sleep so badly since the day she thought Xena had crossed over.
She was hearing Xena's voice again. She tried not to think about it, tried to remember that, if she ever wanted to see Xena again, she had to sleep. "Gabrielle, is that you?" She could see Xena in the distance, looking at her through weary and sad eyes. Gabrielle squeezed her eyes tightly, knowing that she was already dreaming. "No," she said, resolutely, "Xena is not here. She's in another life. Xena is not here, she is in another life." She repeated the line over and over again, but could still hear the voice over the sad mantra. Tears were stinging her eyes, but she kept them resolutely shut against the hallucination before her. She could hear Xena coming forward from the distance but still she shut her eyes. "Xena is dead. She'd gone. I have to save her." Her words grew less and less convincing as Xena came nearer and when Gabrielle could no longer hear her move, she shivered fearfully, knowing that she was standing right next to her.
"Gabrielle, I don't have much time, so listen carefully." Whatever she was, this Xena wasn't about to let Gabrielle go to sleep peacefully until she listened to her. Hoping to get her to go away, Gabrielle nodded her head in understanding and waited, eyes still shut tight. "Okay." Xena crouched next to Gabrielle and laid her hand over the top furs. Gabrielle bit her lip so fiercely she feared she would make herself bleed. She could feel the touch, but she was sure it wasn't real. It couldn't be.
"Gabrielle, I know you think you're dreaming but you have to listen to me. I'm not sure yet, but I think that I know where I am. I'm in the body of a woman from the future. Her name is Amy and..." Her voice stopped abruptly and Gabrielle could not help but look up to see if she had vanished. But there, above her, was a spectral form of her soul mate. She wasn't dreaming.
She threw her arms up to embrace her but they just fell through her like she was smoke and air. Bright blue eyes grew tearful as Xena tried to speak, to get out what she needed to say. But she was quickly vanishing and she had to decide what was most important for her to tell Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, I think... dying. She's dying..." Her image flickered like a small candle about to go out and Gabrielle tried her best to piece together what she was saying. As much as she wanted to hold her, to have Xena embrace her, she knew that she had to concentrate now. "Jim... Gabri...." Her voice was beginning to fade entirely and her image was just as rapidly dissipating. Xena looked frantic and was openly crying, obviously aware that it might be the last time she ever saw Gabrielle as well as her last chance to save herself. She kept repeating what little she knew over and over again until she could see Gabrielle repeating some of it back to her. If nothing else, Gabrielle then knew everything that Xena did. As she disappeared, both were dubious as to what was real and what was a trick of the gods or their imaginations, but somehow they knew that something important had just happened. Gabrielle sat up and ran her fingers through her hair, rocking endlessly like a scared child.
Despite her exhaustion, she was wide awake. She had seen all the proof she needed that Ares was telling the truth and that scared her more than seeing Xena again. If everything he had said was true, then she had little time for sleep. She placed her head on the pillow and held her hand over her pumping heart as if trying to hold it in. So there was hope. If not alive, Xena was still out there. She could save her. She could bring her back. She could save her.
These thoughts raced through her head at a dramatic rate, intensely enough to interfere with her plans of sleep. She tossed and wished for another person beside her; anything to make her feel like the weight of the world weren't on her shoulders. Anything to make her able to sleep. Anything to make her feel like Fate itself did not rest in her dirty hands. Had Argo not already found her way of falling asleep, Gabrielle would have rolled up her bed, stamped out the fire, and they'd have been on their way again. She consoled herself in that fact that she was only a day or two away from her goal according to the map. Argo snorted as though agreeing with her and telling her to go to sleep. She wiped her eyes and held the image of Xena flickering in the fire light against her chest to protect herself from dreaming. She consoled herself with the knowledge that Argo wouldn't not let her sleep long. In a few hours, there would be a long face rubbing against Gabrielle's tear-stained cheek, summoning her to her duty. Her eyes shut more gently then they had in a long time, closed with hope rather than shut in fear of the truth.
The sun had yet to rise when Gabrielle tossed onto her stomach, knowing that she was awake. When she looked around her through bleary slits, she momentarily lied to herself, telling her body that she had merely blinked and was about to fall asleep. But Argo, true to her silent word, had roused and was picking at the bag that held her apples. "Oh, alright..." Gabrielle faked reluctance and rose, doing a better job of fooling herself then she would have thought possible. The fire had gone out while she had slept; she hadn't expected it to last long. She had done it more for familiarity then for warmth. It was the little details like the scent of river water dried from the blankets, certain seasonings in her food that she over used to mimic the 'helpfulness' of her companion, and the particular way to lay around the fire that made it possible to live without losing herself completely to the thoughts that plagued her. When she rubbed her back that morning, though, she was not trying to convince herself that everything was going to be alright. That day, she actually believed it.
"Okay, Argo. I see you're all ready to go." Indeed, Argo seemed to be waiting impatiently for Gabrielle to re-attach the saddle bags and fix her bridle. To temper her, Gabrielle opened the apple sack and threw it to the grass in front of Argo. With her demanding traveling partner's attention diverted from her slowness, Gabrielle finished packing, saving the skins for last as she would put those over Argo's back rather than take the time to roll each one up and attach these to the saddle. Argo had just gotten through the second half of the bitter apple when Gabrielle tossed the furs over her wide back and threw herself into the saddle.
"Well?" She pulled the reins tentatively, mocking Argo with an almost sad playfulness. The horse bobbed her head and dropped the fruit core. With a single movement, the ashes and that apple became the only sign that the meadow had been anything other than a beautiful sight.
The cold ground was unforgiving on Argo's hooves, especially when they entered the forest where the branches offered unnecessary shade. Gabrielle kept a slow pace, allowing herself time to duck beneath low limbs and avoid the scratch of thin branches. Argo displayed impressive control in not allowing herself to speed up. She was anxious, her body tense beneath the saddle. Gabrielle could feel every twitch with her uncovered thighs; her face showed her sympathy for only a moment. And despite knowledge to the contrary, Gabrielle was sure that Argo had to have known that Xena had come that night. The twitch in Argo's back and the rhythmic flick of her ears somehow meant something more as she watched her movements. It didn't matter if she was just looking for someone to understand. That just made it appear all the more true.
Ignoring the pain in her chest and the ache in her legs, Gabrielle led Argo through the thick but brief patch of trees, out into the openness of the valley. The low hills below them hid the pass that would lead her to the people Ares had told her would be there.
"When you reach the low hills, there will be a few signs that will tell you where to go. Look for the red flowers with white leaves. Once you find those, you'll know. There's nothing else like those anywhere in the world. The only problem is finding them."
Gabrielle knew that she remembered ever word that Ares had said, but she was rightfully not ready to trust him. Even with Xena confirming what Gabrielle about what happened in the land of the rising sun, there would always be a reason for her to hold what Ares said in a bright, unforgiving light. She slowed Argo to a stop and searched her neck for the pendant.
"When you find them, show them this." He took his pendant off and ceremoniously lowered it over Gabrielle's head. "They were very loyal to Demeter, but many of the men were extremely devoted to me." He lowered his arms and touched the pendant, dropping it with a thud to Gabrielle's chest. "They will help you if they think you have my favor."
She had taken the heavy necklace off as soon as she had left the inn and placed it in one of the empty feed bags. As she looked on from above the hills, she felt the need to make certain that she was prepared. Her fingers found the metal and she did not feel the need to confirm her findings visually. She pulled her hand from the bag, laid her fingers back on the reins, and Argo began to move toward something neither she nor Gabrielle would understand before it was too late.
Her eyes immediately began to take notice of the lack of light and the meshing of color, like a blanket turning the valley into a monochromatic sea of greyish blue. The sun was just barely waking and Gabrielle wasn't sure if a flower here or there was green or blue, if that bush was bare or had berries, and she was certain that she would not be able to notice a red flower with white leaves, no matter how many of those happened to be growing together. She sighed and flicked the reins in disinterest.
"Argo." She stopped immediately, something more than Gabrielle's voice pricking her ears upward. "Argo, I don't think we're going to have much luck until the sun comes up." But Argo was not listening to her. Instead, her hearing was focused on something she hadn't anticipated. The clang of metal she was so familiar with. And water. Lots of water. She turned towards the sound and moved her head from side to side, trying to hear it just a little better. When she was sure she knew where the sounds were coming from, she began to trot out of the valley and into the cleft of the hills.
Gabrielle yanked the reins less than roughly, assuming that Argo would stop whatever she was doing once she realized Gabrielle was still atop her. But the horse pulled back on the reins harder then Gabrielle had, making her slide forward in the saddle. "Argo, stop. Argo. Argo!" She whistled, kicked Argo's flanks, and even thought about jumping, but there was nowhere to go. Argo had led them into the thicket that seemed to cover every part of the hill and, if she jumped, she would land right in the thorns. So she continued to pull at the reins and yell at the horse, not realizing anything about her surroundings other than the menacing thorn bushes.
Ignoring the tugs on her bit, Argo went forward steadily, unaware of the prickling thorns scrapping her ankles as she went. The metal bounding off of metal drove her forward despite the pain and her rider's discomfort. Gabrielle was high enough that she was oblivious to the blood trickling down her horses feet and was too distracted by her apparent lack of control over the horse to think about the leaves and flowers attached to those thorns. The sun was getting higher with every step Argo took, illuminating the formally dismal surroundings but, even then, Gabrielle took no notice to where she was. As Argo continued on, Gabrielle did observe that they were getting closer to the hill's peak. In fact, the crest of the path could not have been more than three hundred paces away.
"Argo, stop, please!" Gabrielle pleaded with the animal in a last effort, her voice almost laughably exasperated. "Argo, come on..." She rested her chin against her fist as she bounced uncomfortably in the saddle, looking off to the sides in an attempt to enjoy the lacking scenery instead of trying, in vein, to coax Argo into stopping. A soft orange light was pouring over the hilltop even before they had come within one hundred paces and the strange brush was beginning to show deep greens and bright yellows that only moments ago had been a blur of color. Small red flowers seemed to pop up from the thorns as Argo passed, her unwilling passenger in tow. Gabrielle watched the spontaneous generation of these flowers with mild interest.
"Looks like Ares was wrong, Argo. I see red flowers, but no white leaves." She sat up and pushed against the saddle. Everywhere she turned, there were the red flowers amongst the mass of green, but not so much as a flicker of white appeared between the flood of green and yellow. Gabrielle sighed, thinking that Argo had caught the scent of some wandering warrior she thought to be Xena. And there was nothing she could do but sit back and stare as the light from the still unseen sun grew over the horizon. The light was pleasant enough; it at least made them feel warmer. Gabrielle rubbed her arms, enjoying the tingling heat, and closed her eyes for one of her rare moments of serenity. She opened her eyes and saw that the sun was right in front of her and they were seconds from the hill top. She closed her eyes again and, when she opened them, she realized that the amount of light was not the only thing that had changed.
"By the gods..."
Gabrielle sat straight up, suddenly unaware of the wandering horse and the vast seas of thorns surrounding her. The sun had just climbed over the top of the hills and the apparently green foliage seemed a lot less green and a lot more...
She brushed the hair from her eyes, rubbed them in disbelief, and stared as the green ocean appeared to change to a vast expanse of white foam. The parts that she had thought to be yellow were actually a very pale red-pink. Even the thorns seemed different, less abundant, from what she had remembered from only seconds ago. Argo climbed on, undisturbed by the glow coming from the instantly evolving plants, and Gabrielle did not see them go over the edge of the hill. When she turned her head to look toward the sun, perhaps find the next part of the path, she was pleasantly surprised. Just beyond them, bathed in the newly risen sun, was a high stone wall, draped in the white leaves and a delicate pattern of the tiny flowers. It was so covered that Gabrielle could not even have known it was made of stone had there not been a patch at the top cleared off, she assumed, for unhindered access to the door at the center of the wall. This, too, was remarkably clear for what she thought looked like an abandoned wall in the middle of the circle of hills.
But Argo, stumbling over the clear ground, broke Gabrielle's thoughts about the wall. The loss of blood had gotten to her and she eased to the ground less than gently; Gabrielle pulled her feet up and hung to the saddle to keep from rolling off as Argo hit the ground. "Oh, gods, Argo..." She jumped off and realized just how badly the thorns had torn at Argo's ankles. Blood was flowing freely from the flesh, the skin around her ankles and parts of her lower calves all but entirely gone. Gabrielle wretched at the sight, but controlled her stomach long enough to gather an idea of how much damage had been done. "We're going to have to stop here, Argo. You're hurt pretty bad... but it'll be okay." She looked up to the looming wall in the distance and turned back to Argo. "I'm going to go and get help." she assured her. Though not quite trusting it herself, Gabrielle reached into one of the sacks and brought out of it what was left of her medical salve and some long pieces of bandaging. "This is the best I can do, for now." She rubbed the salve where ever she could reach on each of Argo's legs and then wrapped the wounds loosely with the bandaging. The parchment colored fabric was immediately saturated with the excess blood; Gabrielle grimaced and picked up one of her sais to cut the extra lengths of fabric. Tying these over the blood-soaked bandages, she had done all she could. She stood, patted Argo on the head, and touched the chakram at her side like a luck charm. She turned to go, but the realized something she'd missed.
"If I'm lucky, they might be able to help both of us." She looked to Argo and reached into the saddle bags until she found what she was looking for. She looped the pendant around her neck and stood a bit too straight, looking at Argo from beneath a wrinkled brow. "I'll be right back." she said, confident to the ear but wavering in strength to the heart. Argo laid her head on the ground across her forelegs.
The ground was soft under Gabrielle's worn boots and she was glad for it. The walk would be refreshing, if anything, after being a prisoner on Argo for nearly twenty minutes. She threw her arms back and forth over-energetically. Her heart began to pump. She skipped a bit, going into a jog, then into a slow run. Eventually, she was running full out. It would take her only a few minutes to reach the wall at that pace. She felt the chakram shake and hit her side in a similar manner to the symbol below her neck, which was swinging against her chest at steady intervals. For a minute, all she heard was her heart in her throat.
Her hair, grown a bit longer over the past view weeks, was flicking in front of her eyes and hitting her ears as she bounded toward the wall. She was suddenly very conscious of her badly-need-of-repair boots; her ankles hurt a little each time her foot hit the ground. But this only reminded her of Argo's bleeding ankles which led her mind to the people she was trying to find. Even the chakram, rhythmically hitting her side, directed her thoughts to the pendant she was supposed to use to get the help she needed. This, in turn, made her think about the heavy weight on her shoulders. Shifting that weight to her feet, she again started the cycle of thought.
Just as she was getting into it for a third time, she realized that she was facing the wall, just twenty paces in front of her, and would have hit it had she not been momentarily distracted by the flowers. These previously small flora suddenly seemed much bigger to her. But she dismissed this to her eyes playing tricks on her as before when she had thought the leaves to be green. She stopped , planted her feet, and put her hands to her hips. As far as she could tell, there was no one on top of the wall and no one near the door. She tapped her foot; she was at a loss. But she wouldn't have to wait long.
As she was thinking, examining the door in the hopes of finding a handle or some sort of clue as to how to get in, some one was examining her. From the high wall, two people were motioning for three others to move onto the other side of the wall. The group crept silently until they lined the wall evenly, two on each side of the door and one right above it. This person above the door looked over the edge of the stone and watched Gabrielle in silence. His face was obscured by the full black garment which covered from head to toe, leaving only a strip for the eyes. These eyes peered out from light eyes and watched as Gabrielle found the nails that were connected to the handle on the reverse side.
"Smart," the hidden leader said, "Too smart." A cloaked hand motioned to one of the people to the left. He and the person next to him disappeared almost instantly down the side of the wall. Gabrielle pulled at the block of wood, trying to open the door, but was unable to move it at all. She thought for a moment that there as no handle, that this place had been abandoned, and, even, that Ares had lied after all. She set her hands to her hips and blew her lengthening bangs out of her face.
"Hello?" She called over the wall. No one answered, but the three hidden people listened to her as their companions moved closer to Gabrielle, hidden by the thorn-less flowers that covered the stone. "HELLO?" She cupped her mouth with her hands and shouted louder. Perhaps someone was on watch and had fallen asleep; Gabrielle felt it to be her place to wake this person up. But in reality, that person was very much awake and was doing their job quite well for, as Gabrielle went to call for the third time, one of the cloaked figures pulled a small blow-gun from his tunic and aimed it at Gabrielle. His partner stood at the ready, should the dart not hit it's mark, with another blow gun held in his mouth. The primary attacker looked up to the center of the wall for some sort of sign. He waited.
"HEL--" The dart flew just a centimeter off mark, caught not in Gabrielle's neck, but squarely in her right hand. She looked at it for only a second before she reacted, throwing the dart to the ground and rolling to get out of range based on the angle at which she'd caught the dart. The second in charge of hitting Gabrielle gave up on his objective and returned the blow gun to his sleeve, uttering one barely audible word. With that, the two on the leaders right leapt from their positions and dropped to the ground with the aid of the ample vines. Gabrielle had already drawn one of her sais and had her other hand rested on the chakram. She could see the two who were coming to get her, but the others were still hidden. The leader squinted and cursed beneath the dark fabric.
"Stop!" Gabrielle grabbed the pendant, letting go of the chakram but holding her sai defensively, and showed Are's symbol to them, knowing it was more than large enough to be seen adequately from that distance. "I've come under the protection of Ares, God of War" She emphasized his godliness more than she ever would have wanted to and waited for the attackers to stop their advance. The second, hidden attacker looked up to his nearly hidden leader and nodded towards Gabrielle. She saw none of this and grew nervous as neither of the two warriors in front of her moved.
The leader looked at Gabrielle, then motioned downward to the hidden man. He let go of his blow gun and tapped his partner twice, indicating for him to do the same. The leader sighed and rubbed the sweat away that had collected beneath the head covering. The ivy rustled and where there once was two, there was three.
"Where did you come from?"
Gabrielle pointed the sai at the new comer, not quite sure of what to make of the situation. The leader drew nearer and Gabrielle instinctively dropped the pendant in favor of the chakram. She drew it up quickly and gave her warning. "You take one more step, and I'll take you down. I'm not here to hurt..you..." Gabrielle's face waned in its intensity as she realized that all three of the people, as well as the two hidden one's, were mesmerized by her hand. It was not her hand, though, that kept their collective gaze. It was the weapon so many feared and so many more held in awe that they were concerned with.
The leader tore off the head cover and long brown hair tore from the black fabric. "I'm sorry," a long face and bold teeth also exposed themselves as the leader rushed towards Gabrielle, "I had to be sure." She embraced Gabrielle hurriedly and stood back, realizing her place. "Everyone, this is Gabrielle." There were several gasps among the others and Gabrielle was then aware of the other two people. "Eve," she said, inclining her head to the wall and the hiding place, "What's going on here?"
Eve waved her hand as though to wave it over the situation and called to her subordinates.
"Caleb, Inaus, come out."
They slowly moved their way from their hiding place, pulling their masks away reluctantly.
"This," she said, pointing to Gabrielle and shaking her head in pleased disbelief, "Is Gabrielle. The partner, and soul mate, to my mother, Xena."
The others were shedding their covers quickly to get a better look at the fabled Gabrielle. They took in the red leather, white blonde hair, and especially the glimmering chakram with both awe and a sort of respectful fear.
"Gabrielle," Eve said, not realizing that the others were completely enchanted, "What brings you here? And why are you coming under the banner of Ares?" She grabber the pendant and shook her head in disgust. "These people do not follow his way anymore." She yanked the pendant, throwing Gabrielle forward a bit, and snapping the thick rope with one motion. She threw it to the ground.
"But Ares stopped coming around, so he wouldn't even know that." She opened her arms wide and her expression changed entirely to one of warmth and welcome. "But I'm glad that you're here, whatever the reason."
Now aware of the gaze of each man and woman, Gabrielle became a little uncomfortable as Eve embraced her more firmly. "Uh, Eve, who are these...people?" She laughed, motioning to the group clustered around her adoptive daughter.
"Oh, this is Inaus, Caleb, Trea, and Onus. They are all Sumerian."
The three boys and lone girl smiled sheepishly at Gabrielle. "Hello," Trea ventured, more bravely then the others. Gabrielle waved at the dark skinned, curly-haired girl and returned her attention to Eve.
"What was with the warm welcome?"
Eve blushed and shook her head.
"I apologize for that, but we had no way of knowing who you were. It was a good thing you had the chakram on you or I couldn't have been sure you weren't an imposter. Very few people find there way here unless by accident." She reached down and picked up the discarded dart. "And this is what keeps them from coming back." Gabrielle seemed appalled and Eve hurried to put her thoughts to rest. "It won't kill them, Gabrielle. It's just a sedative." She broke it in half and a transparent green liquid poured out onto the earth. "We knock them out and carried them to the other side of the hills. They never remember being here at all because the drug causes a gap in their memory from about fifteen hours before they wake up, sitting in the grass just outside the village over the hill." Gabrielle nodded and brushed her bangs away. Eve laughed and touched Gabrielle's face tenderly. "Your hair is getting long." Trea took forward, her hands still behind her back, "I could take care of that for you, if you like." She stepped back, not wanting to interrupt her leader and, apparently, a being of mythical proportions. Gabrielle smiled at Trea, but Eve was already moving on without a thought to Trea's comment.
"So, Gabrielle, what brings you here? Not that I'm not happy just to see you." Gabrielle bit her lip and reached up, taking Eve's right bicep in her hand firmly. "Eve," she said, grimly, "I think that we should talk in private."
The others gave exchanged worried glances. Eve looked taken off guard, but she reassured her companions with a grin.
"Of course, Gabrielle. I'll take you to my quarters."
"Quarters?" Gabrielle repeated involuntarily. "Eve, this isn't some sort of military base, is it?"
"No, Gabrielle." The eyes of her companions followed her, but the could no longer hear her. "I think we both have much to discuss."
Eve led Gabrielle to the door and extended her hand to it.
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